1. My friend Joseph has a really great new post, written in the dialectic style of Thomas Aquinas. He asks “Should one read the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas?”
It might seem that one should not put a work by Thomas Aquinas on one’s Fundamentals list. For many philosophers might be considered more fundamental than Thomas, for example, Descartes, Kant, or Hegel. For Bertrand Russell writes, “I cannot, therefore, feel that he deserves to be put on a level with the best philosophers either of Greece or of modern times. (Simmons)
Okay, before you freak out, remember how Thomas always structures his arguments in the Summa.
Okay, for the most part this movie seems to be controversial because it doesn’t strictly “follow the Bible”… which seems a rather naive thing to complain about. The story of Noah has been told by (an amazing!) number of cultures with a lot of different variations throughout history.
Anyway, Mattson argues that people are getting all wired up about the wrong thing. They are actually missing the underlying philosophy that informs the movie: Gnosticism. (Which, by the way, nearly tore the Church apart in the 2nd century. It’s the heresy that never dies.) I love it when people write about Gnosticism and really see it’s pervasive influence in modern society, because I reassures me that there are people who aren’t fooled by it. If you don’t know what Gnosticism is, you should definitely go read this article.
Except that when Gnostics speak about “The Creator” they are not talking about God. Oh, here in an affluent world living off the fruits of Christendom the term “Creator” generally denotes the true and living God. But here’s a little “Gnosticism 101” for you: the Creator of the material world is an ignorant, arrogant, jealous, exclusive, violent, low-level, bastard son of a low level deity. He’s responsible for creating the “unspiritual” world of flesh and matter, and he himself is so ignorant of the spiritual world he fancies himself the “only God” and demands absolute obedience. They generally call him “Yahweh.” (Mattson, “Sympathy for the Devil”)
3. Okay, contra #2, here’s a really good reply to Mattson’s argument. Since I haven’t seen the movie myself, I am not sure what side I’m on– but you can read and decide for yourself.
So while I am convinced that Kabbalistic texts and ideas had some influence on Noah, I am considerably less convinced of the Mattson’s central thesis, which is that a specifically Gnostic ideology undergirds Aronofsky’s Noah. Mattson makes a significant error in conflating Kabbalah—Jewish mysticism—and Gnosticism, which are separate belief structures and have divergent attitudes towards creation. The Demiurge of Gnosticism, the evil deity who creates the world, is not a central tenet of Kabbalistic belief, and so Kabbalah does not view creation as intrinsically evil, even if it understands that it is broken.
Although I agree it is unwise to “conflate” philosophies/religions, I think it’s pretty clear that Kabbalah is a (devoted) child of Gnosticism. The fact that the Demiurge “is not a central tenet” of Kabbalah seems more due to the fact that Kabbalah (especially in it’s modern manifestations) is not very interested in God or the gods period. It’s more of a self-improvement, self-enlightenment belief system than anything else, which is probably why the atheist Aronofsky seems so favorably disposed toward it in the first place.
4. April Fools Day is always fun at the University of Dallas, especially with our yearly University News April Fools Edition.
So good, although maybe only people who went to small Catholic liberal arts colleges will appreciate it.
When approached about their decision to bring “Ring by Spring” to UD, TV producers stated that they were drawn by UD’s unnaturally high marriage rate.
“With 32 engaged couples in the senior class alone, we can see that the environment encourages true love as much as we do,” said one producer. “We were also impressed by the scenery UD offers. The new bridge over Madonna Pond could be the location of a beautiful first date, and the Cap Bar patio, overlooking Carpenter, is an especially romantic site.”
5. Cardinal Sean O’Malley, leader of my home Archdiocese of Boston, recently celebrated a very beautiful Mass on the U. S. / Mexico border.
I think the actions of the USCCB really reflect the heart of Christ here.
Please go look at the beautiful pictures and read more about it over at America’s Voice. Immigration is a complex issue, and I do not mean to oversimplify it.
Exodus 22:21 “Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt.”
I would be remiss if I did not blog on Flannery O’Connor’s birthday.
I have always liked the fact that March 25th is also the Feast of the Annunciation – the day that God became “incarnate of the Virgin Mary,” according to the Creed.
It seems very fitting that Mary Flannery (yep, Mary is her first name, Flannery her second and later her published name) should have been born on this feast day. The Incarnation seems to be the central concern of all of her works. She says:
The writer operates at a peculiar crossroads where time and place and eternity somehow meet. His problem is to find that location.
Well, in some sense, that location is the Virgin Mary. That’s where “time and place and eternity” met for the first time.
In Flannery’s fiction, that location is usually a bizarrely violent moment of grace: like the murder of the grandmother and her whole family, the drowning / baptism of the little boy, the woman gored in the heart by a runaway bull… the list goes on.
Some pious Catholics are scandalized by Flannery’s writing, and they often cite the absurdity and violence in her works as their reasons.
Maybe they’re forgetting that, in the original Incarnation, when God first entered temporality, there were all sorts of violence afoot. Herod’s slaughter of hundreds of little baby boys comes to mind.
And even Simeon’s prophecy to Mary– as he held her beloved child in his arms — is predominantly concerned with violence: “A sword will piece your own soul too” (Lk 2:25).
And I don’t think we need to cite the crucifixion.
Flannery’s response is that the earthly response to grace is usually a violent one, and that “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”
As beautiful as the Feast of the Annunciation is, it’s important to remember Who was being Announced. The Incarnation of God was something wholly unexpected and ridiculous. And when people finally began to understand what He was saying, they killed Him, because in a way it was the typical human response to divine grace.
Flannery O’Connor shows the Incarnation over and over in her stories.
And like Mary brought grace into the world, Flannery brings grace into her fiction.
(She would probably scoff at that last sentence and censure me for impiety and exaggeration.)
Lewis said, when his wife died: “I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it’ or not. I hate if they do, and if they don’t.”
I’ve found that suffering of this magnitude often is best respected with silence — the silence of Mary watching her Son on the cross, perhaps even the mysterious silence of God the Father that drives all of us–His Son included–into anguish and loneliness and fear.
Some people conclude that this silence reveals absence. They ask “why” and of course receive no answer.
Others discover in the silence the gaze from Jesus on his cross.
C. S. Lewis describes grief better than most people–but only because, in this book, he was describing it from the inside:
“You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth of falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it?” (Lewis, A Grief Observed)
“Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.” (Ibid)
“It is hard to have patience with people who say, ‘There is no death’ or ‘Death doesn’t matter.’ There is death. And whatever is matters. And whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible. You might as well say that birth doesn’t matter.” (Ibid)
Also, I’m not going to apologize for being a “downer” in a (normally lighthearted) Quick Takes post. It is okay to be sad. And it is good to grieve for others. I don’t know whether it helps in any practical way, but it seems to me rather a matter of justice that we give up our own happiness sometimes to grieve for the pain of others, even those we do not know.
The Pope (as usual) has challenging things to say that we ought to listen to. (Yes I’m okay with ending some of my sentences with a preposition.)
He says (as others have said) that when we rely on other things or people besides God, we become pagans, because we turn these other things or people into idols.
But then he makes a really interesting point about being a pagan and how it affects our identity.
When we cease to trust in God, when we cease to call God “Father,” we begin to see ourselves differently too:
“Do I still have a name or have I begun to lose my name and … call myself ‘I’? I, me, with me, for me, only ‘I’? For me, for me . . . always that self-centeredness: ‘I.’”
Without God, or with God pushed to the periphery, we think of ourselves only as an “I”. And spite Martin Buber’s beautiful reflections on the “I-Thou” relationship, which Pope Benedict mentioned quite a lot in his writings, Pope Francis here suggests that all of this “I” and “me” is actually deceptive. We are thinking about ourselves all wrong.
Only in God do we receive our true name, which is not “I” or “me,” but “Son,” he said, according to Vatican Radio. But when we place our trust in others, our accomplishments, or even ourselves, we lose sight of our true worth as a child of God. (Catholic News Agency)
My true name is not among the names I (!) use all the time: I, me, my etc.
It is “Son” or “Daughter.”
We recognize our true identity with that name.
And this is beautiful:
“If one of us in life, having so much trust in man and in ourselves, we end up losing the name, losing this dignity, there is still a chance to say this word that is more than magic, it is more, it is strong: ‘Father.’”
“He always waits for us to open a door that we do not see and says to us: ‘Son.’”
I will be returning to Louisiana at the end of the year to see some of my former students graduate! They were sophomores during my first year in ACE, and now they’re all grown up.
I can’t tell you how excited I am to see them!
And MORE good news:
Although for a while there was some serious doubt that ACE teachers would be returning to the Diocese of Baton Rouge…….
Some miracle happened and so they are!
I am so happy that my former school and the other schools ACE serves in that diocese will continue to receive support from new teachers. We’re not perfect, and we don’t know everything, but ACE teachers bring a lot of love to the table.
Speaking of ACE…
The ACE Bus, on it’s national tour, came to Colorado last week and I was able to reconnect with some amazing people and meet former ACE teachers who live out here.
I am a recent alum of the University of Notre Dame. Although I have not developed the same love for the school that I probably would have if I had attended as an undergraduate, I do love her a lot. Notre Dame is a wonderful place. It’s one of the few Catholic universities that still cares about being Catholic.
Moreover, I remember being surprised and pleased when Notre Dame lead the charge on the HHS Mandate back in 2012…
“Today, the university advised employees — myself included — that its third-party administrator (Meritain Health) would be in touch about the ‘free’ services — which include abortifacient drugs and devices,” noted Gerard Bradley, a professor at the Notre Dame School of Law, in a post on National Review’sBench Memos.
“[T]he university could refuse to ‘certify’ its conscientious objection to the TPA, thus holding back on the trigger necessary for Meritain to initiate coverage,” said Bradley, who expressed regret with the university’s apparent decision to sign the self-certification form authorizing a third-party administrator (TPA) to provide the mandated services.
“The reasons for doing so would be, as Notre Dame asserted in its formal complaint in the local federal court, that so ‘triggering’ the coverage would be tantamount to facilitating abortions in violation of the university’s Catholic beliefs,” added Bradley, who noted that the Jan. 2 announcement “implies that the university has indeed pulled that trigger.” (Joan Desmond, National Catholic Register)
The South Bend Tribune has even more sad news, that several ND students have sought to fight the University’s lawsuit because they are “very much in need of contraception” and “hopeful that they would finally be able access it,” according to Ayesha Khan of the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.
Shearer points out, with an incisive response:
They [the students] are privileged to attend a university with a distinctive Catholic identity, and one would assume that, given their admission and the effort expended seeking legal counsel from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, they have both the intellect and resources to locate one of the two local Planned Parenthood clinics, either of which would be happy to help them with their contraceptive needs. Should they not wish to avail themselves of that organization’s services, a visit to any public health clinic or a general practitioner will likely result in a prescription for “the pill” which may then be procured at a quite reasonable cost at any given Walmart or Walgreens. Any notion that they “would finally be able to obtain access to it” (contraception) only in the event of university provision of it is absurd.
Birth control of all sorts is readily available in this area, from multiple venues at a cost, in general, which imposes little to no burden upon the user, thus not requiring denigration of the values of the institution to which they are supposedly committed in intellectual, if not spiritual, harmony. (Shearer, “Student’s Role in Notre Dame Lawsuit Utter Nonsense”)
You should read the entirety of Shearer’s excellent response here.
For better or worse, Notre Dame is in many ways the flagship of Catholic universities. She is wealthy and influential. When Notre Dame speaks, people listen. She carries a huge responsibility to be faithful to her mission, “the pursuit and sharing of truth for its own sake,” and to the “basic inspiration from Jesus Christ as the source of wisdom and [to] the conviction that in him all things can be brought to their completion.” (ND Mission Statement)
I hope that the leaders of Notre Dame will be faithful to that mission, and to encouraging all members of the university to be faithful as well.
Over at Cosmos in the Lost, Mr. Rosman says, “Writing really is a process of discovery, a form of thinking. You don’t know what you’ll end up writing until you actually sit down and write it.”
I love this – and I repeat this idea all the time to my students. Flannery O’Connor put it this way: “I write to discover what I know.”
If you know me, then you know that Hans Urs von Balthasar is one of my favorite theologians. I wrote my theology thesis about his work in Theo-Logic.
Go read Rosman’s post to find out what those God metaphors are.
Richard Wilbur notes that metaphor is the grounding of human language and thought–which is partially why metaphor is so essential to poetry. If you think about it, many of the everyday phrases we use to describe reality are, in fact, metaphors. We don’t notice this anymore because some metaphors have become so common they don’t even seem figurative or poetic:
“I need a minute to digest what you’ve said.” Thinking:Eating
“Keep your eyes peeled!” Eyes: Fruit? Potato?
“That’s music to my ears!” Some statement: music
“That assignment was a breeze!” Assignment: breeze
“She broke his heart.” Heart: Something delicate and breakable, like china.
“They didn’t want to acknowledge the elephant in the room.” Elephant: awkward truth
Stephen Colbert has figured out how to reach people, and Catholic educators should take notice. […] Fans of the show do not just tune in for a laugh, turn off the TV set at show’s end and forget about it. They take action based on what they hear, and our culture has been changed as a result. (Patrick Manning)
Really great article that even brings in Saint Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine.
As a very imperfect teacher, what Manning says really resonates (uncomfortably) with me. I’m not Stephen Colbert–but it is the Stephen Colberts of the world who reach their audiences and effect change. They entertain, instruct and persuade.
All good teachers do this. You can’t really get around the entertaining part, either.
Especially in a high school classroom.
Speaking of high school classrooms, my classroom is going to be transformed into a coffee shop next week! Complete with coffee. And donuts. And tea. And yes, you may bring in muffins. Yes, breakfast burritos are okay, too. No, you may not come in dressed as a beat poet with a black beret. You have to stay in uniform. Yes, as I said before, coffee is okay. Yes, Starbucks too.
My students will be reciting their poems on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. So if you could spare a prayer for them, it would mean a lot to me.
We […] forget that in the Book of Job at the end of the drama God declares Job to be righteous–Job, who has hurled the most outrageous accusations at God–while he rejects Job’s friends as speakers of falsehood, those friends who had defended God and had found some kind of good sense and answer for everything. […]
Observing Advent simply means talking with God the way Job did. It means just seeing the whole reality and burden of our Christian life without fear and bringing it before the face of God, as judge and savior, even if, like Job, we have no answer to give about it at all, and the only thing left is to leave it to God himself to answer and to tell him how we are standing here in our darkness with no answers. (Pope Benedict, What It Means to Be a Christian)
Advent, this powerful liturgical season that we are beginning, invites us to pause in silence to understand a presence. It is an invitation to understand that the individual events of the day are hints that God is giving us, signs of the attention he has for each one of us. (Pope Benedict, Homily at First Vespers of Advent, November 28, 2009)
The priest’s homily yesterday for the First Sunday of Advent was very simple but very good. He told this story–which I am retelling as closely as my memory allows:
There was a monk who had been praying for a very long time, perhaps for years, to see the Lord face to face. Finally, in prayer, the Lord informed him that He would come and visit him the very next day.
Thrilled, the monk finished his prayers and went to bed, but it took him a long time to fall asleep because he was so excited. Morning came and he looked out the window at the beautiful sunrise and thought to himself, “Today is the day I will see the face of God!”
The bells rang for morning prayer and for Mass. The monk had gone every day for the last thirty years, but today he decided to stay in his room because he did not want to miss God when he came to visit him.
A long while later, about mid-morning, there was a knock on the door. The monk, trembling, opened it– only to find the concerned face of his brother monk, who was worried about him because he had not come to Mass that day. “Are you all right?” The monk assured his friend that all was well, and he hastily closed the door to continue waiting for God.
About an hour later there was another knock at the door. Again, however, the monk was disappointed– it was only another brother reminding him of his duties to care for the sick friars, to change their bedsheets, to give them their medicine. “Would you mind covering for me today?” pleaded the monk. “I am waiting for a very important Visitor!”
His friend agreed, and the monk continued to wait for God to arrive.
The day went on. Evening came. It was time for the monk to shut the gate to the monastery. He bustled out of his room to do this quickly, but before he could shut it some travelers called out to him not to shut the door. They begged him to let them in.
“I am sorry – can you please come back tomorrow?” the monk said. “I am very busy this evening. I am waiting for an important Visitor!”
The monk closed the gate and rushed back to his room.
The hours crept by. The monk was feeling more and more discouraged and upset. He watched in dismay as the clock struck midnight.
The day was over – and the Lord had not come as He said He would.
The monk knelt down to pray again. “Why didn’t you come?” he asked. “I waited for you all day long, and you never came.”
The Lord answered him, “I did come. In the morning when you woke, I was in the sunrise, but you did not see me there. I was there at morning prayer and in the Mass, but you were not there to meet Me. I was there in your brother monk who came to check on you, but you did not recognize me. I was there again in your sick and dying brethren, but you did not come to minister to Me. I was there in the travelers seeking food and shelter, but you did not let Me in. I did come.”
I think there are several ways in which we can find this story very unsatisfying.
1) Our consciences are troubled. We recognize this story as being another version of the Last Judgment described in Matthew 25:31-46 – “For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you did not take me in…” We, with the monk in the story, reply, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?” (cf. Mt 25:44). And we know that we do this all of the time, through our inattentiveness.
As a teacher I am bombarded by students for seven hours a day, sometimes nonstop, during class but also outside of class. It’s funny because during my off-hour or after school, I am sometimes sitting at my desk, reading a book by the Pope or a blog about the Gospel readings, and I find myself annoyed when students come in – “Hey Ms. Shea, I lost my copy of that homework.” “Hey Ms. Shea, I know I said I would come tomorrow to take that quiz, but can I take it now instead?” “Uh, Ms. Shea, do we have any homework for tonight?” And I swallow my annoyance and think to myself, ugh, I’m trying to read about God here–completely forgetting that God is knocking at my door at that moment through the needs of my kids.
2) Another reason we might find this monk story unsatisfactory in some way is a lot more subtle, and I noticed the temptation in myself as soon as the priest ended his homily. It was a kind of disappointment — that God had promised to show that monk His face but really only meant showing it in ordinary and mundane ways. Huh. Typical. If that’s all He meant, when why didn’t He say so? And why does it always have to be this way? Couldn’t You show Your real Face just once?
We then feel a sort of fake sympathy for the poor monk in the story (who is, of course, ourselves). We think, I bet that poor guy always praised God for the sunrise, always went to prayers and Mass, always helped his sick brothers and took in the travelers. He messed up this one time because of an obvious misunderstanding, and now he’s going to be judged? How is that fair?
And, while we’re at it, why doesn’t God ever mean what He says? He gives so many extravagant promises (read the Old Testament) and they are never fulfilled in the ways we want them to be. Israel was waiting for a Messiah–and what they got was a poor carpenter, a weird rabbi, who was eventually killed by Rome anyway.
But if we step back a little, we can see how wrongheaded these complaints are. The monk was wrong to stay waiting in his room, just as we are wrong to stay waiting in our humdrum lives until some “sign” forces us out of our drab complacency into sudden holiness.
And the Israelites knew what a fearsome thing it would be to behold the Face of God. Moses was afraid he would die, and he covered his face with his robe when the Spirit of the Lord walked by his mountain. To ask to “see” God is really no small matter – and I wonder if perhaps we really know what we’re asking for when we make such a demand.
3.) The third reason for feeling this story is somewhat unsatisfactory is very similar to the second. We (or maybe just I, as the case may be) go back to all those supposed “appearances” of God’s face — God’s version of keeping His promise to the monk. Well, how are we supposed to believe that God comes if we only ever see Him in these ordinary things? Doesn’t the core of our faith rest upon Miracles, after all — the Incarnation and Resurrection? But that was 2,000 years ago. Can’t there be a miracle for us, today?
It’s a tough question. Why does God — if He exists — choose to remain so hidden from everybody. Why does He make it so difficult for us to see Him? If He wants everyone to be saved, then why doesn’t He do something about our blindness, our deafness?
The Church replies that He did do something about it. He became a human being. He died to save us. Read your Bible.
But even so we are unsatisfied. That was so long ago! I wasn’t there! How can I be expected to trust the (strangely) ordinary writings in the Gospels that I cannot verify for accuracy, by people I never met, in a language and culture so different from mine, and composed in a time when accuracy maybe even meant something different than it does now?
But that’s how He is, I realized as I sat back in my pew with a sigh yesterday. That’s Who He is.
The Mass itself went on, and He came–as He always does–in ordinary bread and wine. Nothing spectacular. No show. No obvious suspension of the laws of nature forcing us to believe that He was there at all. Just ordinary bread and wine. Just the miserable faces of the poor. Just the annoying faces of your coworkers or family members. Just the stable and the manger.
God is humble — and perhaps even shy. He does not force us to see Him, or to love Him, or even to look for Him. He leaves that up to us and our freedom. And if we don’t really want to see Him, then we won’t.
Advent is all about our waiting, but it is also about His Coming.
And Christmas, we pray, is when those two movements meet each other.
This beautiful poem comes to mind:
He was born in an obscure village
The child of a peasant woman
He grew up in another obscure village
Where he worked in a carpenter shop
Until he was thirty
He never wrote a book
He never held an office
He never went to college
He never visited a big city
He never travelled more than two hundred miles
From the place where he was born
He did none of the things
Usually associated with greatness
He had no credentials but himself
He was only thirty three
His friends ran away
One of them denied him
He was turned over to his enemies
And went through the mockery of a trial
He was nailed to a cross between two thieves
While dying, his executioners gambled for his clothing
The only property he had on earth
When he was dead
He was laid in a borrowed grave
Through the pity of a friend
Nineteen centuries have come and gone
And today Jesus is the central figure of the human race
And the leader of mankind’s progress
All the armies that have ever marched
All the navies that have ever sailed
All the parliaments that have ever sat
All the kings that ever reigned put together
Have not affected the life of mankind on earth
As powerfully as that one solitary life.
If you think about it, Charlie Brown is always confronting the problem of Job.
He always suffers, and it is almost never his fault. Lucy and the football is probably the most obvious example.
At different points in our lives, however, all of us are Charlie Brown.
(And Lucy – but we may not be as willing to admit that.)
We all have bad things, sometimes really horrible things, happen to us — either through the agency of another person or through the inexplicable course of natural events.
And so we ask the question: “why?”
And usually, we are not referring to efficient causes here but to formal ones, to use Aristotle’s language.
But I’m not going to try to attempt to explain the problem of suffering here, though. It’s been attempted many times and by people far more learned and holy than me:
In order to perceive the true answer to the “why” of suffering, we must look to the revelation of divine love, the ultimate source of the meaning of everything that exists. Love is also the richest source of the meaning of suffering, which always remains a mystery: We are conscious of the insufficiency and inadequacy of our explanations. (Pope John Paul II, Salvifici Doloris 13)
If you want something like that, though, check out Lewis’ The Problem of Pain for an accessible treatment from a (laymen’s) philosophical perspective, or his A Grief Observed for a much more personal approach.
Or if these do not satisfy you, or if you are rather skeptical about reading Lewis, read “The Grand Inquisitor” chapter from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamozov. Although, of course, it would be better for you to read the chapter in context (and therefore the whole book). Yet this chapter is very beautiful and very haunting. It does not really address the question in a “here’s the answer” kind of way, but it confronts the real question head-on, as Dostoevsky always does.
“No signs from heaven come to-day / To add to what the heart doth say.”
Dost Thou know that the ages will pass, and humanity will proclaim by the lips of their sages that there is no crime, and therefore no sin; there is only hunger? “Feed men, and then ask of them virtue!”
And we alone shall feed them in Thy name, declaring falsely that it is in Thy name. […] They will understand themselves, at last, that freedom and bread enough for all are inconceivable together, for never, never will they be able to share between them! They will be convinced, too, that they can never be free, for they are weak, vicious, worthless, and rebellious. Thou didst promise them the bread of Heaven, but, I repeat again, can it compare with earthly bread in the eyes of the weak, ever sinful and ignoble race of man? And if for the sake of the bread of Heaven thousands shall follow Thee, what is to become of the millions and tens of thousands of millions of creatures who will not have the strength to forego the earthly bread for the sake of the heavenly? (“The Grand Inquisitor” Chapter Five, The Brothers Karamozov)
Read here, I suppose, Liberation Theology. This was the sort of thing taught at my high school, and this is why I bothered to begin reading Church theology in the first place, to see what she actually had to say in response. Acts of charity seem cheap in comparison to “real” social change, in this view.
The problem the liberation theologians and Dostoevsky’s Inquisitor present, however, is very real. What’s the use of talking about heaven if you don’t address the hells present on earth? Or, put more simply, you must give people ordinary bread before you can offer them the bread of heaven.
Of course, this is what Jesus actually did. You see this especially clearly in the Gospel of John, where He multiplies the loaves and the fishes right before offering the Eucharistic Bread of Life discourse (John 7-6).
But therefore, the temptation to make Jesus some kind of political liberator is really quite understandable. The kingdom, in this interpretation, means bringing justice to the poor and oppressed (which is true, as far as it goes). But this interpretation also pushes the question of heaven aside, because it does not seem very relevant except as an “opiate of the people” or a rather shabby hope of future consolation. This liberation theology a la Guiterrez is yet another effort to explain the “problem of pain” or the question of Job..
But I would venture to say that this is the answer some people give who cannot quite bring themselves to encounter the mystery of Jesus’ own poverty and suffering. They would prefer to see in him some kind of political liberator, an overthrower of Roman or Pharisaical oppression. Such an image is easier to swallow than the Suffering Servant – the One who does not come to end or solve our suffering, but instead to suffer it with us.
The Inquisitor continues his cross-examination of Christ:
And behold, instead of giving a firm foundation for setting the conscience of man at rest for ever, Thou didst choose all that is exceptional, vague and enigmatic; Thou didst choose what was utterly beyond the strength of men, acting as though Thou didst not love them at all- Thou who didst come to give Thy life for them! Instead of taking possession of men’s freedom, Thou didst increase it, and burdened the spiritual kingdom of mankind with its sufferings for ever. Thou didst desire man’s free love, that he should follow Thee freely, enticed and taken captive by Thee. In place of the rigid ancient law, man must hereafter with free heart decide for himself what is good and what is evil, having only Thy image before him as his guide. But didst Thou not know that he would at last reject even Thy image and Thy truth, if he is weighed down with the fearful burden of free choice? They will cry aloud at last that the truth is not in Thee, for they could not have been left in greater confusion and suffering than Thou hast caused, laying upon them so many cares and unanswerable problems. (Ibid)
You see the problem?
Dostoevsky begins to push the question disturbingly far. Not only does Christ not give his people (especially the poor) bread, he also does not give them any explanation for His negligence. Rather, He chooses to leave things “exceptional, vague and enigmatic” — you cannot believe in Him without making some kind of radical, sacrificial choice or reason-bending submission. You must give yourself up.
“With a free heart [man must] decide for himself what is good and what is evil,” yet He has caused us an unbearable burden by “laying upon [us] so many cares and unanswerable problems” that most people, even those who outwardly profess to be Christians, cannot bring themselves to really embrace the offer fully.
Anyway, you should go read Dostoevsky’s chapter, and then go read the whole novel to see how Dostoevsky’s Christian character Alyosha deals with it.
Charlie Brown’s answer to suffering, of course, usually comes in the form of Linus — the resident Peanuts theologian. Yet he, too, is often mocked for his sometimes ridiculously “blind” faith. Witness The Great Pumpkin:
But in his most famous role, in the Christmas episode, Linus explains the mystery far better than usual. Charlie Brown, as usual, is upset. He is suffering. Nobody likes his Christmas tree, and everybody ridicules him for choosing it. Nobody understands the meaning of Christmas–and, as he discovers, he doesn’t quite get it, either.
And so Linus addresses Charlie Brown’s suffering by telling an old story:
Job, after hearing the conventional wisdom of his three friends, also hears another, perhaps more reasonable and plausible explanation of suffering, from Elihu (whose name means “He is my God”). From a theological perspective, Elihu’s answers are pretty darn good.
But they do not satisfy Job — just as they do not satisfy anyone who has really experienced suffering and loss. God seems so far away in our suffering. The strange thing is, for many people, intense suffering does not necessarily cause them to doubt God’s existence, but rather His goodness. Their pain cries out for justice and healing, things they know they cannot experience here. But God does not respond.
Many people think that the biggest obstacle to believing in God is human suffering. Yet, from an intellectual point of view, suffering, even the suffering of the innocent, isn’t really inconsistent with what we know about a loving God. When in the last century, people said things like “after the Holocaust, it is no longer possible to believe in God,” I think their pain and horror witness to the fact that the real problem is not intellectual, but personal.
I can see how, theoretically, the Uncaused Cause may allow unspeakable suffering to occur and still be “good” in some real way. Or that, because of human free will and the corruption of all creation by sin, suffering does (and perhaps must) occur.
What is much harder to see is this: how can my Father, this God of Jesus Christ, who (they say) loves me, stand back at a distance and watch me suffer like this, right now, in this moment? Or how can He just simply watch as thousands of people in the Philippines beg and pray for His help–and then not receive it?
You see, once you have some kind of relationship with God, the problem becomes not theoretical, but personal. Just as one can imagine that a family member may (in theory) seem betray you or ignore you, although perhaps for a good reason–but when it actually happens, you are mystified and ask yourself, “why?”
The only response that really helps at all, I believe, is that God did not exempt Himself from our suffering. He becomes one of us and embraces our pain. Jesus did not offer us a philosophy that explained everything in the universe. Rather He chose to experience everything we experience in this universe–even abandonment by God.
Eventually, of course, Charlie Brown and his friends need to stop talking and just play the rest of the game.
And we, too, after reflecting and questioning and doubting, must eventually go back to the business of living. Because when suffering actually occurs, it looks very different from the inside than from the safe theoretical “outside” of the Grand Inquisitor. Those who actually suffer real horror often know God better than we, in our comfortable armchairs, do– because they are on the cross with Jesus Christ.
(And then after that I was at the Hofbrahaus. Ahem.)
It was the very end of the famous (in the UD world) “10 day”–that fabled time during our Rome semester in which the campus was closed to us and we were told to go have some adventures. And boy, did we have some adventures!
Sidenote: By the way, this is one of the many reasons I love UD. They push us to go beyond our comfort zones and to not be afraid. We can read Nietzche (and even like him, and some of the things he says) and still be Catholic. As St. Paul says, “Examine everything carefully; hold fast to what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
I was in Munich, this day, five years ago, after having spent three days in Paris and a day before that in Lourdes and the days before that in Barcelona, Spain.
On my third day in Paris, the eve of All Saints’ Day, I had gone to Notre Dame Cathedral for the Vigil Mass. Actually, we barely made it to Mass on time because we had spent the day exploring Versailles. I remembering running from the metro stop to the cathedral, and being astounded that, although the choir was singing, no one had begun to proceed down the main aisle. For some strange reason, the Mass had started late and we were therefore on time.
It was one of the many little things on that memorable trip that added up to grace.
My grandfather had died earlier that year, and I had been struggling for months trying to really accept it. For the first time, death had become real to me. And yet, during Holy Communion that evening, with the choir’s voices swelling behind me and lifting up my grief to the highest parts of the cathedral, I felt very close to him, and very aware that in the Communion of Saints, he was with me. I remember walking down the aisle of Notre Dame for Holy Communion and asking him to help me.
I love All Saints’ Day. I don’t think we really think about it enough, or what it really means. Or at least, not until someone whom we love dies. Then, I think, we begin to see it.
C. S. Lewis, for many years already an apologist for Christianity, became far more convincing when his wife died. In his amazing book, A Grief Observed, he shares his pain and brings some real clarity to what is at stake when we talk about death, and the saints, and heaven. He gets to the heart of the matter – of the fear we all feel when we encounter death. Is it The End? Is there really a Heaven? Or do we simply just stop existing? Were the saints wrong after all? Is there Nothing?
What about the people we love who die?
These questions only start to really matter to us when we face death for real:
If H. ‘is not,’ then she never was. I mistook a cloud of atoms for a person. There aren’t, and never were, any people. Death only reveals the vacuity that was always there. What we call the living are simply those who have not yet been unmasked. All equally bankrupt, but some not yet declared.
But this must be nonsense; vacuity revealed to whom? Bankruptcy declared to whom? To other boxes of fireworks or clouds of atoms. I will never believe — more strictly I can’t believe — that one set of physical events could be, or make, a mistake about other sets. (Lewis, A Grief Observed)
All Saints’ Day is about this frightening experience. In it, the Church affirms that, not only the somewhat distant halo-bearing statues and stained-glass images, but also the living and breathing people we knew and loved for years, are still real. More real, in fact, than we are now — even as we struggle to remember them as clearly as we would like – that face, that laugh, that way of saving something just so, that odd habit, that wink.
This solemnity is about all the uncanonized saints. This solemnity tells me that yes, in fact, I may meet C. S. Lewis himself someday — and Flannery O’Connor, and my great-grandparents, and all the people whose words I have read or whose stories others have told me or whose faces I have seen in photographs and icons, but who have remained for me silent witnesses.
Two of my friends who I was traveling with, Rachel and Teresa, had to bolt out of the cathedral after Mass to catch their overnight train to Munich. They were late. Far too late.
But so was the train.
I remember thinking, rather stubbornly, that my grandfather had to exist still, because I knew I was still his “sweetheart”–as he used to call my sister and me. Not even death could change that.
I’m not saying it was (or is) easy for me to believe this. I think atheists and agnostics have the wrong idea if they think that believing in heaven or in God is easier than not. As O’Connor says,
I think there is no suffering greater than what is caused by the doubts of those who want to believe. I know what torment this is, but I can only see it, in myself anyway, as the process by which faith is deepened. A faith that just accepts is a child’s faith and all right for children, but eventually you have to grow religiously as every other way, though some never do.
What people don’t realize is how much religion costs. They think faith is a big electric blanket, when of course it is the cross. It is much harder to believe than not to believe. If you feel you can’t believe, you must at least do this: keep an open mind. Keep it open toward faith, keep wanting it, keep asking for it, and leave the rest to God. (O’Connor, The Habit of Being, my emphasis).
One of my friends on our ten day journey was struggling a lot with faith, and with believing in particular providence (the idea that God actively intervenes in our day-to-day lives, rather than in a more general way). Yet I think those ten days gallivanting around Europe did more to lead her to convert to Catholicism than anything I ever could have said or done. Throughout our Rome semester, I prayed for her at the tombs of many saints — in particular, the tomb of Saint Monica (Saint Augustine’s mother), in Rome.
We probably have no idea how many saints are paying attention to us right now, and how God gives us grace through them.
My favorite image from Narnia is the scene in The Last Battle where Tirian stumbles through the stable door and finds himself in the “Real Narnia,” and sees for the first time all the old heroes he had only heard of in stories – and his own father, and all those whom he had ever loved. One of the other characters says,
I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now. The reason why we loved the old Narnia so much is because it sometimes looked a little like this. Bree-hee-hee! Come further up, come further in! (Lewis, The Last Battle)
And to any of you who are grieving the loss of someone dear to you, and are confronting death face to face, I think ending with Lewis’ words is best. Here, he describes an experience that happens to him many months after the most harrowing stages of his grief. Excuse the very long quote, but it is worth it:
… Something quite unexpected has happened. It came this morning early. For various reasons, not in themselves at all mysterious, my heart was lighter than it had been for many weeks. For one thing, I suppose I am recovering physically from a good deal of mere exhaustion. … And suddenly, at the very moment when, so far, I mourned H. least, I remembered her best. Indeed, it was something (almost) better than memory; an instantaneous, unanswerable impression. To say it was like a meeting would be going too far. Yet there was that in it which tempts one to use those words. It was as if the lifting of the sorrow removed a barrier.
Why has no one told me these things? How easily I might have misjudged another man in the same situation? I might have said, ‘He’s got over it. He’s forgotten his wife,’ when the truth was, ‘He remembers her better because he has partly got over it.’
Such was the fact. And I believe I can make sense of it. You can’t see anything properly while your eyes are blurred with tears. You can’t, in most things, get what you want if you want it too desperately: anyway, you can’t get the best out of it. ‘Now! Let’s have a real good talk’ reduces everyone to silence. ‘I must get a good sleep tonight’ ushers in hours of wakefulness. Delicious drinks are wasted on a really ravenous thirst. Is it similarly the very intensity of the longing that draws the iron curtain, that makes us feel we are staring into a vacuum when we think about our dead? ‘Them as asks’ (at any rate ‘as asks too importunately’) don’t get. Perhaps can’t.
And so, perhaps, with God. I have gradually come to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted. Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face? The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs. Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to hear. (Lewis, A Grief Observed)
For years now, I have noticed that one of my greatest pet peeves, one of the things that ALWAYS makes me frustrated, are “the conversation police.”
I think you might know them.
Whenever a conversation (usually among at least 3 people) starts to become serious — or someone mentions something sad on the news, or someone else mentions politics or (worse) religion, or the general tenor of the talk shifts from superficial to profound — the conversation police intervene. And they say something like,
“Wow, Anne, way to be a downer.”
“Well… this is awkward. ANYWAY – I was shopping the other day and…”
“Man, this conversation got really SERIOUS all of a sudden!”
“Okay… MOVING ON!”
Or, sometimes, they even police themselves, and say,
“Ah, sorry to ruin the conversation guys. We can talk about something else.”
“Ruin” the conversation?? When you actually said something significant, and everyone was listening to you??
That’s when the frustration starts to boil up inside of me and I encounter (the increasingly frequent) temptation to despair of humanity’s ability to communicate at all.
Have you experienced this phenomena too?
Why is it that when people start talking about something that really MATTERS, a lot of people feel awkward enough to change the topic to something that DOESN’T matter? Why are we so afraid to really speak to one another? Why do our conversation topics always have to be “happy” (but not truly happy)? Why do we shy away from what is serious… from what is true?
Okay – a caveat is in order:
I do understand that there are times when certain types of conversations are appropriate, and there are other times when they just aren’t. Setting matters, context matters, timing matters – the people involved also matter. You can’t talk about gay marriage or abortion or God or death or the poor just any time you want, without considering the situation you are in. Yes, I get that.
I also understand that some people don’t like talking about controversial issues in public–although I vehemently wish they would try to get over this, because I think the public square (whether that’s in a high school hallway, on the street, or in the news) NEEDS people who have the courage to talk about what matters. I am (according to Myers-Briggs) an INFJ, and therefore a very private person. But as an INFJ I also get really sick of superficial conversation that starts nowhere and ends nowhere, just because it is “safe” and “easy.”
As a high school English teacher, I am surrounded by young people who are either 1) scared to talk about stuff that matters or 2) ignorant of how to do this charitably and reasonably. I think they see older people who are unwilling to talk about what matters, or who talk about it in a very unkind way, and so they are turned off and never really learn how.
In my honors class the other day (we’re still studying mythology), I was so proud of my kids because we actually DID have a good conversation. They handled it really well. Having read Dr. Mark Lowery’s article on C. S. Lewis’ idea “Myth Become Fact,” one of my students asked a really good question about whether or not we were dishonoring other religions by claiming that Christianity fulfills all of them and is the ONE “myth” that actually became a historical fact.
A plethora of hands shot up in the air (I could see the “oh no! moral relativism!” gleam in their eyes) as they tried (rather unsuccessfully) to communicate to this student their versions of an answer.
So I had them write down their answers for homework and we talked about it again the next day, with more success I think.
I tried to bring in Pope Benedict’s Caritatis in Veritate a little bit: people tend often to either value truth without love (the uberconservatives, for lack of a better term), or love without truth (the uberliberals, for lack of a better term). When really, truth without love isn’t truth at all – it’s a lie. And love without truth isn’t love at all – it’s a well-disguised cruelty.
Benedict says, “To defend the truth, to articulate it with humility and conviction, and to bear witness to it in life are therefore exacting and indispensable forms of charity” (CIV 1).
And I think herein lies the real point:
If you want to have a real conversation, you have to strive for the marriage of truth and love in whatever you say. And that takes courage.
So, as the wonderful Daily Dose from Verily Magazine suggests:
“Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters.”
I just started a new unit with my students on Mythology AND Short Stories. Usually these genres are studied separately, but I thought it would be cool to discover what is most essential about human storytelling by looking at the chronological extremes — the most ancient human stories and the most recent ones. Why do we tell stories, anyway?
Before diving into our first myth as a class — the story of Prometheus — we did a “fishbowl discussion” in which we explored four main ideas. For bell work, my kids had to respond to these ideas (“I agree / disagree and this is why…”) and so they were able to gather their thoughts before the conversation began.
1. The best way to learn is through experience.
2. In the end, virtue is always rewarded.
3. To understand good, one must understand evil.
4. The purpose of the story is to entertain.
Here are the results:
1. Most of my students (unsurprisingly) agreed with this statement.
2. We actually skipped over this one, but I’m hoping we will talk about it later.
3. Again, unsurprisingly, most of my students agreed with this one too. Some of them went even so far as to claim, “Without good, there can be no evil; and without evil, there can be no good. Good and evil need each other.” (I was slowly dying inside, but I guess they are just in high school).
4. They were more divided on this one. Apparently they learned last year that stories/written works generally have three possible purposes: 1) to entertain 2) to inform and 3) to persuade. Their responses to this statement were therefore more nuanced, for the most part.
I think #1 and #3 really go together. Even when I proffered a more extreme example in my honors class – “Well, if you need to understand evil in order to understand good, does that mean that a sinner knows more about goodness than a saint does? Like, for example, Hitler knows more about good and evil than St. Therese does?”
Surprisingly (and somewhat disturbingly), a lot of my kids said yes. Because to them, knowledge = experience. If you haven’t experienced something yourself, how can you possibly know what it is?
For my honors class I paraphrased this statement by C. S. Lewis in response:
No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good. A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness — they have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means — the only complete realist. (Lewis, Mere Christianity)
Well, the “lie” may be “obvious” to Lewis, but it is certainly not obvious to most of the students I teach. I think a few of them saw what I (or rather, Lewis) was getting at, but not all of them.
What’s rather disturbing is that the idea that experience is the best teacher is so ingrained in all of us. There is, of course, a lot of truth to it — that’s why we have all these cliches about learning from your mistakes and walking a mile in someone else’s shoes. But it’s also the source of some big problems.
The cult of experience as knowledge, when taken to its extreme (as it usually is these days), ends up ignoring all other types of knowing or disregarding them.
“You’re not me! You don’t know what it’s like to be me!”
Although that is true, that does not necessarily mean another person cannot have some insight into your condition. Experience as knowledge often disregards sympathy. No, I do not know exactly how you feel, but I can put myself in your place imaginatively – without actually having to do what you are doing.
How many times did I experience this (see what I did there?) as a high school student? So many of my friends/acquaintances did not want to take me seriously because I hadn’t “experienced” enough things. I did not drink or smoke or have sex, therefore (they concluded) I could not possibly understand what they were going through.
And although in some sense that is true, in another way it is a lie –
The same lie that the snake told Adam and Eve in the garden.
For so many of us, mere “witness” or “sympathy” or “word” is not enough. The only thing (we say) we will listen to is Experience.
“Ah, but did God say ye may not eat of that tree? It’s only because He doesn’t want you to be as powerful as He is, and to know (i.e. experience) good and evil! Come on… taste and see for yourself…”
And so, because Eve became enamored of Experience – the Knowledge of Good and Evil – she hate the fruit and gave it to her husband.
Genesis tells us that indeed they learned something – “their eyes were opened” and “they saw that they were naked.”
But they also lost something – knowledge of a profound intimacy with God.
Which is why faith is so difficult for us now – whether it’s having faith in another person or in God. We think we need to EXPERIENCE God before we will believe in Him.
Even certain (more modern) branches of Christianity fall into this trap. Faith itself becomes so much of an “experience” that they can even tell you the time and place it first happened. I know God is real because I have experienced Him.
But does that mean that those who *have not experienced* God, in the popular sense, are therefore off the hook?
One last thought:
God seems to get our whole need for experience thing. After all, He decided the best way to save us would be to *experience* being human for Himself – even though, being God and omniscient, He already knew what it was like. And furthermore, Jesus was able to reveal the Father to us because He Himself had *experienced* the Father from all eternity:
“No one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him” (Matthew 11:27).
“No one has ever seen God; only the Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known” (John 1:18).
But the problem is, we do not trust Jesus’ experience. Nor do we trust the experience of the apostles who experienced Him. Nor the disciples of the apostles who experienced them. Nor the experience of the ones who came after that… and so on. Because experience, at this point, has turned into witness. And witness means believing what someone else says, whether or not you have directly experienced what they are telling you for yourself.
Like Thomas, we won’t believe our friends when they tell us, “He is Risen!” Nope, we have to put our fingers in His hands and side in order to believe.
Or we think we have to taste the fruit in order to have “knowledge of good and evil.”
But “bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness — they have lived a sheltered life by always giving in” (Lewis).