Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Fact Made Obvious in Aurora, Colorado: Moral Goodness Not Indelibly Linked to Intelligence

In the aftermath of the horrible evil committed by a single shooter in an Aurora, CO, movie theater last Friday against innocent people gathered on the film's opening night to see, Dark Knight Rises, the erroneous nature of an all-to-common mistake of media pundits and social commentators has been made more clear. This is the mistake of presuming that certain people must be morally virtuous and admirable simply because they have a high level of intelligence and formal education.

It is indeed a serious error about human nature to fail to distinguish the very significant difference between the intelligence of a person (indicated by their level of formal education) on the one hand, and his moral character (and thus moral authority), on the other.

In my observation, many media personalities who comment about current affairs in whatever medium seem to presume that intelligence is somehow automatically linked with moral goodness. The more intelligent a person (especially if they have a PhD or MD), the more good they must be (so the presumption goes). And especially, this presumed moral integrity is seen as giving such persons the role of moral standard-makers, judging right from wrong on behalf of the rest of society.

I am not attempting to prove what I am saying here, but simply to point out what I think is rather an obvious fact of life if we simply reflect seriously upon our own experience. The truth is, moral virtue (and any moral authority therefore acceded), is not directly linked to intelligence. In other words, simply because a person has received a high level of education does not at all guarantee that he has also attained an admirable degree of moral rectitude. There is no direct link between them. The formation of a person's intellect and the formation of the core of his moral goodness do not advance by the same causes. It is a very serious and potentially dangerous mistake to assume such a link.

I mention this because TV reporters and other media talkers often seem to assign to highly educated guests to whom they may be speaking a level of moral authority roughly equatable to their level of expertise according to a scale of intellectual accomplishment. So, an expert in cardiology is asked a question that deals with morality and his answer is treated with the same deference and respect as his responses to questions about the physical heart. This is not wise.

The murderer who inhumanly snuffed out the lives of 12 and injured dozens more in that Colorado theater is a highly intelligent person. He had been in a Ph.D. program for neuroscience. And yet, obviously, the fact of his high scientific reasoning ability does not translate to his level of moral integrity.

A really smart person can be a brutal and soulless killer. I wish that reporters, journalists, and other media figures would keep this in mind and stop looking to everyone with a PhD in whatever field as worthy of being being given the status of a moral guide for society just because they are smart. They simply aren't. We must look to different criteria than intelligence and formal education if we are to discover a person's genuine moral character.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Chaste Spousal Love: Key to Western Civilization

Chaste love between a husband and wife is truly a beautiful thing to behold! It wants to call forth from us an aspiration to become our truest, highest, noblest selves. It has a hidden radiance within it, and when it shines into the hearts of others who are able to notice its beauty it can truly transform a culture for the better. This is not automatic. I am speaking of a spousal love that has its source in the pierced heart of Christ. It's at the very center of all that was and is best and most transcendent in Western civilization. Lord, may it not be too late for this now largely hidden, pure flame to be kindled again.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

God's Authority and Human freedom. Do These Contradict Each Other?

Authority, freedom, grace, prayer.

All of these are essential for a properly and fully human life.

How is it that authority and freedom, especially, are both essential? They would seem at first to be incompatible. They are, in fact, very compatible. Authority is necessary for us to be able to live our freedom most fully.

Think of the family. It is so important as we try to understand Christian discipleship to think of the family--that is, the family as it should be, not as it sadly sometimes exists in a deformed and unhealthy reality.

In a healthy family where the mom and dad both love their children dearly and would do anything for them, there is a lot to give us clues as to how authority and freedom need each other in human life.

When children are very young, parental authority is absolutely necessary to keep children from harm. It helps children learn about the world and how to live safely in it without coming to harm. A toddler does not know that an electrical outlet can harm him if he sticks an object into it. Now, does a good parent sit back waiting for his child to stick something into an electrical outlet so he can learn from experience and let the pain and trauma be a lesson for the future? Or, does a good parent stop the child before he sticks that object in?

Of course, a good parent stops the child before he gets hurt. Here is the key question: Does this make the child less free--of more free???

In fact, it makes the child more free. Free, meaning, free to continue on in life and to become what a human person is meant to be. Preventing the child from being badly hurt gives the child the freedom to continue to live life without having experienced that particular pain.

But this is a very easy example. Think of parental authority in the context of moral issues and relating to other people.

A child wants to kick and yell at another child because he wants to steal a certain toy for himself to play with. A good parent would, in an authoritative way, tell his child not to kick other people. Would this exercise of parental authority make the child more or less free? More free.

How? A person can become a more fully alive and flourishing human being in this life only if he respects the life and basic rights of other people. If I become the sort of person who kicks another person to get what I think I want at that moment, I am less free because I do not have the ability to relate to other people in a way that would foster the healthy relationships that are so important to human flourishing and happiness. I need mutual respect, I need friendship and companionship and love. These things are less likely to be real in my life if I am in the habit of harming others for selfish reasons.

Parents know this. And they use their natural authority as parents to instill this in their children. When a child develops the virtues of respect and justice toward others with the necessary help of his parents' guidance (sometimes firm), he becomes a free man. Free to be all that he can be.

So, without parental authority when we are younger in life, we cannot develop properly as human persons--we cannot develop the many virtues that are irreplaceable for a healthy, sane, joyful human life.

It is exactly like this with God and us. He is our father. He exercises authority through the Catholic Church so that we can know what our father wants to teach us about life in a way that is clear and unambiguous.
And in turn, when we have the clear teaching and guidance of our father, following it makes us truly more free--free to grow into fully alive, vibrant, flourishing human persons. God has authority and speaks with authority through the Church because He loves us and wants to guide us in life. When we listen to Him and embrace this guidance, we can experience life to its fullest potential. And this makes us more free.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Unfailingly Soothing Presentations of Christianity: What's Missing Therein?

There is a certain approach taken by some Catholics who are engaged in the work of evangelization that is very puzzling. And this can apply to priests or laymen. I've seen it in regard to both.

It's puzzling not so much for it's content--what it says--but for what it doesn't say, what it leaves out.

What is left out in such an approach as I have in mind? Simply, the cross.

There are good people, both lay and clergy, engaged in Catholic evangelization of a sort that focuses without exception always on the nice things, the warm-and-fuzzy aspects of Christian discipleship. In this approach, Jesus is always the tender one who soothes us and says soothing things to our heats. We are always the good ones, trying our best, messing up at times, but nonetheless basically striving in most respects to be like Jesus.

What's wrong with this? After all, Jesus, indeed, is full of mercy and compassion. He loves every one of us with a power and intensity we can't imagine. He is tender and merciful. It's true. But, if this is the only aspect ever mentioned about our Lord's relationship to us as we navigate life trying to serve Him, something huge is missing. The cross.

There is suffering in human life. It's a reality we cannot escape. The question I am concerned with here, is whether we will invite grace to inform and transform all aspects of our life--including our sufferings--or if we only see being a Christian as something unrelated, detached, set apart, from the deepest sorrows of life.

Jesus does indeed look tenderly upon us in our sorrows. But we forget from where He is gazing--He sees us (or, saw, in one great event both time-bound and eternal in the shock wave it sent through creation) from the cross. His passion--His free embrace of undeserved suffering for the sake of loving us so demonstrably, of pouring Himself out for us, of opening His heart for our benefit in a way that we cannot take lightly--was not a closed event meant only for Him to know in secret. Jesus' loving gaze upon the world from the wood of the cross was an open event. From that one place in time, He looked out upon the entire world, gazing into all human history past, present, and future, and invited us in to His open heart. He tenderly shares with us the grace to permit our hearts as well to join Him in giving ourselves in love for the sake of others.

It is a great absence and a great deficiency to share an enthusiasm for a relationship with Jesus Christ without also consciously seeking to help people freely accept Jesus' invitation to unite our sufferings to His Passion. In this way, our sorrows and pains become folded in to the greatest spiritual event in the history of the cosmos--the Redemption of mankind.

When we accept the grace to unite our trials big and small to the cross of our Savior, our pains take on a powerful meaning. They become little points of heat that help us to play a real role in welding the souls of those we love more strongly to the heart of Jesus. Our self-giving perhaps, with grace may become more meaningful and free when chosen in the midst of pain. It's not the suffering here that is good, but the personal act of welcoming the invitation to make it an offering of love for others.

The cross changes everything. Every single moment of pain, sorrow, trial, suffering, is potentially through grace a gathering point of spiritual power bringing our souls into Christ's salvation of the world.

Now, in heaven, Jesus no longer suffers. He is risen from the dead! But that monumental event of His suffering on the cross still looks out to us from that point; this spiritual lightening bolt began a re-creation of mankind that continues to reach out from the cross through all of time to today, tomorrow, and every day until Christ comes in glory.

It's a re-creation that He, because He loves us, wants us to freely participate in with Him. He has made available the grace we need to be able to join with Him in the greatest act (the salvation and sanctification of souls) that has ever happened.

When well-meaning evangelists speak to other Christian souls only about soothing things, they are missing an essential aspect of Christian life. They fail to invite us to allow Jesus to bring us into His heart poured out for the world on the cross. Such an overly safe approach runs the danger of reducing followers of Christ to mere passive recipients of salvation, rather than calling us to live according to the immense and unbelievable dignity of being welcomed to take a place in Christ's heart even as this great Heart suffered in love for the world.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Is There Any Purpose for the Male Urge to Fight? Violent Anarchy or Heroic Virtue--Which Shall We Choose?

I got to thinking about this topic because of a very good February, 2011 article by Dan Lord at the Crisis Magazine web site, "What Is Fight Club?" I recommend reading it.

I saw the movie (it was released in 1999) perhaps two years ago and was quite intrigued by it. It is violent, and definitely not a family-friendly type of film. I would only recommend it to someone on an individual basis depending on the person. As Lord says, it is "a dark film about existentially desperate young men struggling to create meaning by way of consensual fistfights and controlled anarchy." Lord further tells us that the characters, "are reacting against a contemporary society that lacks a soul. . . . For a male audience, the film is an exhilarating reminder that there is something vital missing in their lives. It reminds them that they have suffered emasculation at the hands of a soft and lazy culture."

I agree. While the film is disturbing and rather nihilistic, nonetheless, I have to admit as a man that there is indeed something mysteriously attractive about it as a man.

While I do think there is truth to Lord's remark about a certain disgust at least in some men--perhaps hidden even to themselves--for suffering emasculation, "at the hands of a soft and lazy culture," there is more to the picture. Near the end, he concludes, "Sheer suppression was never the answer to man’s violent impulse. Letting God purify it and direct it toward its proper end is the only answer. It isn’t a chaotic fight club men need: It’s the Catholic Church." He is on to something here.

I very much agree. Contemporary Western society (and, forgive me, especially some women in Western society, perhaps especially urban professional women with degrees) seems to have largely lost the ability to place the male urge for a fight into its proper and healthy context--the fight against evil.

It's hard to even write this today, the fight against evil, without feeling a little silly. I'm actually very serious. But this indicates how far away from a traditional Christian perspective we have slipped as a culture.

There is truly real evil in the world. It is just as dark and destructive as it has ever been. It wants to destroy society, destroy human life, destroy peace, destroy God's image in the world--which is the human person transformed by grace.

There really is an interior, natural urge in men--especially evident in young boys!--to fight. But--and this is very important for women to understand--this urge is NOT simply a general urge to fight anything, for any reason. Boys (especially young boys where this urge is closest to its naturally more innocent state before being pulled in a dark direction by the world) do not, generally speaking, want to fight simply for the sake of fighting. The urge in young boys is not to fight for no reason at all. They want to fight--for the sake of what is good! They want to fight against evil, against the forces of darkness!

Yes, we men I would claim without apology, have a natural drive to fight. But despite the claims of contemporary culture to the contrary, this drive is NOT generic. It's an urge with a purpose--a reason--a desired destiny. We want (just as small boys) to fight against evil. We want to defend what we know is good and true and beautiful. We want, if and when appropriate, to be able to defend our families--to keep our wives and children safe. We want to be the mythical prince slaying the dragon who is trying to eat the princess. It is a very primal and deep instinct. It is very connected to simply being a man at a very root level. This is why, I believe, it is one of the earliest and most commonly and easily observed differences between boys and girls at a young age. The young boys (for the most part) are the ones running around with pretend swords raucously engaging in mock battles. There is a natural attraction to this in boys that is largely lacking in girls (at least to the same intensity). The attraction of boys to superheros is the very same desire in action. Superheros have a purpose. They fight against evil, they protect others from being harmed by evil forces that will harm and destroy if they are not aggressively and forcefully opposed.

But we live in a culture, more and more, that takes this healthy urge to fight for what is right and good and true, and calls it bad without qualification. It no longer knows what it is for. It squelches it, stuffs it away and is embarrassed about it. The only barely acceptable place for it to still be on display is in organized sports. But even there, with more and more restriction.

So, what happens? How does the culture respond to the denigration of men's proper desire to fight? Fight Club, for all its brutality and nihilism, is a powerful symbol of the deep inner drive to fight in the hearts of men. And it also shows in a fantastical way just how twisted things can become among men when our drive to fight is no longer embraced and valued by the larger culture in an ordered and healthy way.

Indeed, it is specifically Christianity which is able more than any other force of life on earth, to place fighting in a good context. Without the Christian understanding of standing up, with God's grace, for what is right and true according to Jesus Christ and His Church, this primal urge cannot help but to become itself easily twisted and deformed, becoming a source of harm rather than a force for preservation and protection.

But to realize and to live this in a healthy and balanced way, under God's grace, we first must not abandon the ancient awareness that there is indeed a force for great evil ever active in the world, at war with mankind, trying to enlist men to its cause against other men. When we first remember this, we can then realize that fighting on behalf of the good--in defense against an attacking evil, or even attacking evil first--is itself a good thing. A noble thing. A manly thing.

Update:  Might a Fight Club sort of ennui have had anything to do with the recent riots in London? Of course this is only part of a complex picture. The rise in fatherless homes, increasingly welfare-state policies that require little contribution to society from the young, and the decline in the sincere practice of Christian faith all play a major role.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Human Relationships, Love, Not Fully Embraceable Without Jesus' Grace

One of the tragic things about the life and death of Amy Winehouse is that in some ways she was probably closer to the deepest meaning of human life than many people who appear less troubled on the surface.

How so? By way of contrast, there are some (hopefully a small number) whose self-absorption permits them to be so occupied with themselves and so impressed with themselves that they are not attentive to, even seem to become unaware of, the fact that the real space within which human life becomes fully alive is in the midst of relationships with other people. And when I say relationships, I mean those that involve love, friendship, and self-sacrifice.

It seems to me, for all her self-destructiveness and troubles, Amy Winehouse and other artists like her, did not have this sort of ignorance. In part, I think her sufferings and harmful behavior were possible because she knew--very powerfully--that relationships of love and friendship are the arena in which human persons can really experience and live life to its greatest and most beautiful potential.

But, this awareness--remaining in touch with this passion in one's soul for the irreplaceability of meaningful relationships--inevitably must produce great suffering in this fallen world. Why? Sin--the fallenness and prideful selfishness--that has damaged (though not destroyed) every human soul makes the arena of love and friendship a place in which our hearts are guaranteed to be hurt. So, suffer we do, if we don't turn our backs on relationships altogether as a place of irreplaceable meaning in life.

But, the more we sense keenly the importance of love and friendship to life, the more we will suffer as a result of the sin in ourselves and in others. The broken heart, the disappointed expectation, is more painful to one who wants to love most deeply. To the Amy Winehouses of the world, this pain can become unbearable. And yet, the option of giving up altogether on love and friendship to try to reduce this suffering is an option more awful than death itself. What does one do in such a situation? (Please note that I am speculating here in regard to Amy Winehouse since I only know what the general public knows and did not have the opportunity to know her personally.)

The only way--truly--to fully and most humanly embrace the dangerous seas of love and friendship without sentencing oneself to hopelessness and despair because of the hurt one will suffer is to know and love Jesus Christ. He makes everything possible in love and friendship--everything good--healing, forgiveness, friendship and love even in the midst of sin and imperfection become realities when transformed by the precious grace of Jesus. He strengthens and heals and renews our hearts to live human lives of profoundly meaningful relationships of friendship and love, even though this also means pain. First of all, He heals and makes whole what before was broken in our relationships. Love and friendship are much better under the loving guidance of Christ. But these things, though better, nonetheless are still fallen and are sources of pain even with Christ's grace. But even the pain that we still must endure because of love and friendship becomes bearable because it can be woven into the astonishing meaning and power of Jesus' self-sacrificial suffering and death on the cross, in love, for the salvation and sanctification of the world.

If we turn to Jesus on the cross, draw near to the wound in His side, we have no need to turn away from love and friendship out of fear and to protect our hearts. And when we do experience the suffering that inevitably comes our way because we choose to embrace our humanity with gusto and thus to pursue love and friendship, we need not be wholly crushed. Jesus is here to bear our hurts with us and to transform even these most interior, close-to-ourselves sufferings into something spiritually powerful for ourselves and those we love.

But if all the above be true, this indeed has a great consequence: Relationships of love and friendship are not possible for us to embrace and live at their most powerful, most meaningful human depths without the grace of Jesus Christ in our souls. Only with Him can we be confidently and most vibrantly alive and passionate in love and friendship without going off the rails into despair or self-destruction.

Amy Winehouse's Sad, Untimely Passing: A Parallel to Western society?

I am very saddened by the death of the very talented and troubled British singer Amy Winehouse. I am praying for her soul. May she rest in peace.

While she was obviously haunted by self-destructive patterns of behavior, I don't assume she was trying to destroy her life. Like so many, she needed help, and never seemed to have the right people in her life who could give her the help she needed most. Perhaps she rejected the help she most needed. I don't know.

Something about Amy's very sad end makes me think that she was a sort of symbolic microcosm in one person of some segments of Europe's young--desiring to live a passionate life, wanting to contribute something notable, meaningful and beautiful to society, wanting to lift other souls to the potentially rapturous heights of human artistry that can become a reality in music, taking the pains and sorrows of human relationships in a fallen world and somehow redeeming them a little bit by letting the scars seep into the music and become something soulful. And yet, at the same time, experiencing a state of hopelessness, watching one's own life spiral out of control and not knowing how to stop it or what to do about it, perhaps even being somewhat indifferent about trying to arrest the descent. This, it seems to me from a distance, is what some of the youth of Europe are living. It's a very dangerous place to be. And it can be lethal.

In saying this, I do not mean to treat Amy's life only as having value to me as a mere parallel to the troubled young of Europe. She was her own, unique, unrepeatable, irreplaceable, beautiful person. As is true of every human being, there is no one else like her--she was her own particular universe of value and meaning within herself and ought not be reduced by the shallow pundits of society to simply an occasion to try to say something that gets a few seconds of attention.

So, please say a prayer for Amy Winehouse, for the repose of her soul. And say a prayer as well, for the many troubled youth of today who struggle between the tension of wanting to live in the throes of passion, meaning, and love, and can't catch hold of how to do this, becoming trapped instead in an increasingly harmful life which they know on some level is pointed toward death, yet they stay there for lack of hope of finding a path which could take them toward that deeper passion, meaning and love which their hearts yearn to possess. And since they have lost hope for finding this path, they prefer the passions of a destructive life pointed toward death--at least it seems to be a life that is human in the sense of not being banal, even if hope of something fully worthy of the dignity of the human person has been lost.

In some way, this earlier post of mine seems relevant. When we try to encourage someone we love to alter a destructive pattern in his life, can we also truly be a wellspring of real compassion, can we truly suffer with him (or her) as he calls upon the grace he needs, without which he will be unable to shift the course of his life from aiming at death to aiming at life?