"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Resisting the Gnostic impulse

Gnosticism is a perennial impulse. I don't mean all the mythic confabulations that the bewildering variety of Gnostic sects spun during the first three centuries C.E.  I mean a tendency they all had in common. Like the Devil himself, it is deadliest when unrecognized.

To expose that for what it is, however, we need to excavate the two notions that the ancient Gnostics all shared. The first was that the universe as we observe and experience it is evil. It is a prison from which only a few inmates, able to recognize and accept enlightenment about their true situation, have any chance of escape. Second, and on most of the ancient accounts, the world was created by an errant demiurge of some sort who keeps sparks of the divine, our true selves, imprisoned in our bodies. Accordingly, the task of those who want salvation is to escape the clutches of matter altogether and rejoin that ineffable, purely spiritual Pleroma ("fullness") from which the Demiurge had the ill grace to devolve. It all sounds like an elaborate fantasy to most of us today who have heard it at all. And ultimately, that's just what it is. But it actually sprang, and in some forms continues to spring, from a perennial tendency I recognize even in myself: cosmic cynicism.

By 'cosmic cynicism' I mean the attitude which naturally springs up when we disbelieve that the "cosmos," that vast, more-or-less ordered whole we experience, is the product of a Love and a Reason that are one. The cosmos or "universe," in the scientific sense of the term, doesn't care about what we tend to care about most—such as love, goodness, and beauty. Nowadays, of course, many of those who find the universe morally or spiritually wanting tend to be atheists or agnostics. Like most of us, they see much apparently pointless suffering and lament how "the innocent" suffer at least as much, if not more, than the villainous. That fortune and deserts do not seem to coincide is the hard truth motivating believer and unbeliever alike to raise "the problem of evil" as an objection to classical theism. And those who find that objection decisive conclude that, if the universe is created at all, its creator must be immoral, foolish, or both--certainly not the all-perfect God of classical theism. That's what the Gnostics concluded; yet, thanks to the historic monotheistic religions, most moderns don't buy the sort of metaphysics that allows for and requires an errant demiurge. So today's cosmic cynics generally conclude there is no creator in any sense at all. The universe is just a brute fact, brutal in its indifference to our most cherished, sentimental pieties. Humanity is just an evolutionary experiment, probably doomed, and certainly not worthwhile in any objective terms save those of Dawkins' "selfish gene." That is now considered the "enlightened" point of view by most of the culture's clerisies. It's the new Gnosis, sans the old myths and metaphysics.

Yet how much success would a man have if he tried to induce a woman to marry him by pointing out that their genes, together, have a real good shot at beating out many others in the struggle for survival? Not much; and we can't even imagine a woman proposing to a man in such terms. We need our sentimental pieties, if that's what they are, in order to find life worth affirming. But the Gnostic naturalists urge us not to imagine that Reality cares a whit, or is even capable of doing so. And even those of us, the majority, who aren't really naturalist in our philosophy can't help worrying that some version of naturalism might be true. After all, most scientists are naturalists, and science is the most successful form of intellectual inquiry we've ever come up with. Scientists are today's bearers of "enlightenment." So as we go on being human, indulging our sentimental pieties, many of us can't help being at least a tad cynical about it as we take our cues from the enlightened.

That kind of cosmic cynicism, which we might call "tough-minded despair," isn't just modern. In fact, it has always been with us. One finds it in such ancient philosophers as Democritus and Lucretius, and I suspect that their attitude was more widespread than the written record indicates. But the Gnostics had much larger followings than such thinkers. That's because most people have never been able to believe that the universe is just a brute fact which neither requires nor admits explanation in terms of something beyond it. There must be some sort of story behind it, even if the self-styled experts tell us otherwise. Or so most people have always thought. So we might see Gnosticism properly so-called as cosmic cynicism combined with a metaphysics that at least purports to explain why such an ultimately futile setup as the universe came to be.

But when we look at Gnosticism that way, it becomes clear almost at once that the impulse behind it isn't limited to either Gnosticism properly so-called or to secular, metaphysical naturalism. The largest Eastern religions—Hinduism and Buddhism—don't seem to value this life all that much either. For them, the goal is to attain nirvana by escaping the universe, understood as an endlessly cycling wheel of death and rebirth—and we do that, roughly, by accumulating good karma. "We gotta be good here so we can get outta here." That's the same impulse as the one behind Gnosticism. The Christian notion that creation is a positive good, freely created in love by a personal God, whose aim is to unite it to himself through the divinization of his rational creatures, is not really what we get in Hinduism, Buddhism, or in most other religions originating East of Iraq and west of Hawaii. The largest of them incorporate a cosmic cynicism. The Universe is something to be left behind, not elevated and transformed, when we reach whatever our goal is supposed to be. It's just maya, illusion: the Self's hiding from itself.

One even finds cosmic cynicism in the Bible, from the mouth of Qoheleth. Ecclesiastes got included in the canon largely because it's a kind of reverse preparatio evangelica for the Messiah. But it only works that way when messianism becomes apocalyptic and universal—which is just what we find in Judaism as it approached the time of Jesus of Nazareth. Ultimately, the only antidote to cosmic cynicism is the belief that the Universe is both rational and good, because the Reason that created it has a reason based in Love for doing so. That belief was the engine behind the development of modern science, which began in the Christian Middle Ages.

For most of us, though, belief in the goodness and rationality of the cosmos comes only by faith through an authority that transcends human reason. We're pretty cynical about authority these days. And that's the other main reason it's so hard to resist cosmic cynicism. We accept the authority of scientists, more or less, because science works, more or less, in a way that observation and common sense enable us to appreciate. But the things of the spirit? If there is such a thing as "spirit" at all, we seem to face only competing authorities about what it is and what, if anything, it's for.

That is why, I believe, Newman was right to argue that in the end, the only choices are Catholicism and atheism. That choice is not logically exhaustive, but I am convinced the future will show it to be existentially so. Among human beings, only the bishops of the Catholic Church, united with the pope as their chief, claim to be given authority by a God who can neither deceive nor be deceived to say what God has revealed. If there is no such authority, then we cannot know what God has specially revealed, and hence we can maintain no lively sense that God, even if he is Reason in some sense, is Love. We can have only opinions about what various people have said, written, and done about God, assuming there is one. And in the era of postmodernism, we are as cynical about opinions as we are about everything else.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Where's the joy?

Almost every American past puberty knows the old Wendy's hamburger slogan: "Where's the beef?" Used as a metaphor, it summarizes part of why I majored in philosophy and came to be still more interested in theology. The other half is summed up by "Where's the joy?" I started asking myself that question about life as a teenager after I had read as much Lewis, Tolkien, and Chesterton as I could. It's the question more people need to be asking themselves. We all want both, but fewer can articulate the longings expressed by the former than those expressed by the latter.

What I mean is illustrated by a contrasting pair of items from the blogosphere. Such items at least have the advantage of being easy to retrieve.

Consider theologian Rusty Reno's First Things "On the Square" piece Homosexuality and the Moral Failure of Higher Education.  Discussing why the affirmation of homosexuality has become a key benchmark of the rigorous orthodoxy enforced on secular campuses, he concludes:
Thus the need to use a kind of intellectual Agent Orange to destroy even the slightest judgments of immorality, because they reinforce what the voice of conscience keeps telling us, and what we would like to avoid hearing. Those who say that homosexual acts are immoral are oppressors, because their words—however dispassionate, however well-reasoned, however subtly expressed, however concerned for others—agitate consciences and block the free flow of desire.

Indeed, even those who are diffident are under suspicion, because that voice of conscience needs complete support to be suppressed. In the cause of sexual liberation nothing is acceptable short of full affirmation, or at least a scrupulous silence that expresses no reservations.

Sexual liberation is a Gucci freedom. Upper middle class Americans possess the resources to get a great deal of what they want, and part of what they want is sexual liberation. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the modern institution most closely associated with elite culture—higher education—should devote a great deal of energy to removing those who believe in moral limitations.
The well-known phenomenon Reno describes instances a larger phenomenon that philosopher J. Budziszewski calls "the revenge of conscience." Read both pieces in full. Now I am not primarily concerned to argue that peoples' consciences ought to tell them that sodomy, whether practiced by gays or straights, is immoral. I'm not even primarily concerned with the question how to tell the difference between the moral and the immoral. What I'm struck by today is the deep-seated joylessness of the new secular orthodoxy in general, and by that of complete sexual autonomy in particular. I've known plenty of people who live by that ideology. Such autonomy, when lived as though it can really be had, leads to many things—most of them bad. Yet even those who defend it passionately do not argue that it leads, in the long run, to what Lewis called "joy." Even old queens living together in a distant parody of marriage wouldn't tell you it does—at least not the ones I've known. Yet that joy, deep down, is what we all want—even though the self-styled best and brightest are ideologically committed to viewing it as "nothing but" one of the brain's evolutionary adaptations. Nothing-buttery is not tasty.

Now consider, by contrast, this story from Rod Dreher about how God gave him the woman he fell in love with and married. It's almost four years old now, and I wish I had seen it sooner. When I finished it today, I was in tears. What an affirmation of prayer in true faith, and the joy that it leads to!  The story of the Drehers' meeting, love, and marriage is an instance of how God wants things to be, at least for those called to Christian marriage. Whatever is natural, as opposed to what is anti-natural, can be a fit occasion for joy.

But the thing about joy is that you can't get it by striving for it directly. Doing that, in fact, loses it. You get it unbidden, and it leaves one with Sehnsucht, a poignant longing for the Reality toward which even the greatest of earthly beauty and joy only points. It is a law of spiritual nature that one only gains what joy is about by leaving joy aside to do what one must, while offering the resulting abnegation to God and remembering the joy. That's what Jesus did. That's what the ideologues of radical autonomism, sexual or otherwise, cannot do. If they remember joy at all, they think it can be had, or at least preserved, by doing what feels best. Sometimes, that is true—when what feels best coincides, like a husband and wife making love, with what we ought by nature to be doing. But only then. If we seek joy on our terms, we end up with ennui: the intimation of the nihil of evil, not of that Reality which is the source and goal of all.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Yes! A devotions meme...

The Anchoress has tagged me to follow her example and name my five favorite devotions. I am honored. They are:
  • The Jesus Prayer
  • Meditating on the Bible readings for the day
  • The Memorare
  • The Sacred Heart Novena
  • Meditating on the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary
I won't provide you with links. Those of you who don't know some or all of those devotions may Google them with profit.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Organizing apologetics

Perhaps I'm weird, but I must admit that, even when I was alienated from the Catholic Church in youth, I never had any principled difficulty with the faith/reason relation. I always took for granted that the two are compatible, even before I learned that the Church teaches as much. Of course, and like most other thoughtful people, I did have difficulties with certain specific issues. But the Catholic Church has shown, at least to me, that she has means to address such issues reasonably without compromising what she says is de fide.

As we all know, though, more than half the Christian world disagrees. I say "more than half" because, even though about half of all Christians were baptized in the Catholic Church, many educated Catholics reject what I've just said the Church has shown me. The two most common objections to Catholicism one hears from educated Christians, including some who are nominally Catholic, are: (1) Distinctively Catholic doctrines are not rationally necessitated by the early sources, and so shouldn't be thought to belong to divine revelation as distinct from human tradition, and (2) The course of Catholic doctrinal development yields internal inconsistency at the highest level, so that the Church's claim to infallibility--even under limited conditions--is not credible. It might be useful to others for me to state here, in baldest outline, what I offer as answers to such objections. Such a way of organizing the arguments, if sound and taken to heart, would save a lot of people a lot of wheel-spinning.

(1) misconceives the nature of divine revelation and the assent of faith thereto. Divine revelation does not consist primarily in a set of propositions to be inferred from writings and other evidence from the past. Such things, to be sure, are indispensable for preserving the Church's collective memory of what's been handed on by the Spirit through Sacred Tradition. Yet at bottom, what's handed on is the reality of the decisive encounter between God and man in Christ Jesus. Forms of words, archeological evidence, comparative religion, and so on merely help express that. Now if Christianity is true, then by God's design, the ongoing encounter between God and man takes place through something called "the Church" even though, as is the case with many who hear the call to faith in Christ, it needn't start in the Church. Yet without being in any way limited to the authority of the Church, said encounter always and necessarily depends on a visible, clearly identifiable ecclesial authority which exercises God's own authority as revealer and sanctifier. For without such an authority, the content and power of divine revelation would end up appearing only as a matter of opinion. That, for us, would be no revelation at all, and assent to it, such as it is, would be no faith at all. Despite how different they are in many respects, Aquinas and Newman made essentially that argument. Following them, it's one that I've long made myself.

What about (2)? As an argument, it begs the question either at the outset or in the end. In some formulations it premises, as the only reasonable ones to adopt, interpretations of Catholic doctrine that yield contradictions. But if the Magisterium's claims for itself are true, said premise is false. There must be other reasonable interpretations of Catholic doctrine that are collectively self-consistent, and those turn out to be just the ones the Magisterium itself, the author of the doctrines in dispute, has come to adopt. Given as much, the objector needs to show that interpretations yielding contradictions are ones that the Magisterium itself once adopted, and did so in such a way that its own criteria for infallibility were thereby satisfied. But those who press (2) usually don't try to show that. When they do, they end up begging the question all over again—by assuming a way of applying the criteria for infallibility that the Magisterium itself would reject.

Now it should go without saying, but often needs to be said, that successfully rebutting (1) and (2) does not prove Catholicism to be true. Indeed, given the Catholic understanding of how reason and faith are interrelated, nothing could "prove" Catholicism to be true. Faith is a divine gift that can only be accepted freely. If there were compelling arguments for Catholicism, then those who recognize as much would be compelled to believe, which is not faith. The role of reason in coming to faith is to show that faith is fully compatible with reason, not that reasoning compels it. That, of course, does not rule out the possibility that there are compelling arguments against Catholicism. But it is precisely the task of apologetics to show that there are no such arguments. In this post I've sketched two examples of how to carry out that task. I've elaborated those examples elsewhere, especially on this blog.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

A Rosary Meditation for Job-Seekers

A repost from The Anchoress.

Prayer has power. When everything is falling apart, prayer holds. Any one of us can suddenly find ourselves out of work, and looking at the job opportunities with failing hope and a growing sense of powerlessness that can truly affect both ego and spirit. Once again, we find that the Mysteries of the Rosary help us to identify with Christ, and join our sufferings to His, that all may be One.

Gallarus Oratory, Dingle Peninsula, Eire

A Rosary Meditation for Job-Seekers

First Mystery: Jesus in Gethsemane

Prayer: Lord, I feel stranded and abandoned. Although I am surrounded by well-wishers, there is a sense of isolation. Friends who had pledged support are falling away. No one can know precisely what I am feeling right now; I cannot show them how frightened I am of this uncertain path that lays before me. I know only that it is a path I would not choose for myself. Only you, Christ, understand how I vacillate between trust and heart-gripping fear, between “let this cup pass from me” and “Thy will be done.”

Meditation: As you pray the decade ponder Jesus’ desolation and fear; his humanity here eclipses his own divinity; fear is brought to the fore, acknowledged and lived through, before trust and surrender are able to take hold. Although you may be more frightened right now than you have ever been, you can bring this to Christ. He has been this frightened. He is the knowing companion who understands before you say a word.

Second Mystery: The Scourging

Prayer: When Pilate ordered your unjust scourging he was the authority figure who had no answers; to him you seemed like the minor, bothersome character in a larger drama of governance, bureaucracy and political expediency. From his perspective, your fate was tied to the zeitgeist. I too am perceived to be the minor cog in someone else’s great wheel; my humanity goes unconsidered as I endure a very public humiliation. Each day brings another reminder that I am not able to meet expenses, or to answer the needs of those around me. I fall into doubt and despair, and these tear into my spirit as the Roman’s terrible instruments tore into your flesh. I feel shredded, anonymous. Those watching my ordeal are silent; they contemplate my circumstance, and imagine themselves in my place, as they simply watch.

Meditation: The scourging of Christ was public knowledge; the crowd understood that Jesus was undergoing torture. The people who loved him were powerless to change anything for him; they could only be present. Informing others that you have lost your job and applying for assistance through various agencies are painful exposures. These can be moments of exquisite interior agony that feel like bleeding in public. Knowing your family is also watching, worried and helpless only adds to the sense of hopelessness. Mary had to watch and wait during Jesus’ ordeal, too, suffering for him. In a desperate moment, though neither of them could speak to the other of their grief and pain, each knew they were loved by the other. Though you feel unlovable right now, and there is tension and anxiety, trust that you are loved and being loved, even beyond all barriers.

Third Mystery: the Crown of Thorns:

Prayer: Jesus, we know that all crowns have metaphorical thorns, but upon your head was placed a crown of mockery, meant to further debase you in the cruel manner of bullies. For me, the mockery is not public; it is an interior jeering and snarling at myself. As I seek out jobs that do not exist, or will not be offered to me, my ego is taking a beating; my confidence in my abilities is being shaken. All of my skills, all of my knowledge and experience–these aspects of myself by which I have been defined for so long–are being weighed by strangers who find them unremarkable. The indifference of others is painful, and in that pain I find my own excesses of pride; I see that I have built my life around what I do, rather than who I am. Now, faced with less doing and more being, I feel like a stranger to myself, a false monarch in a castle built on sand. Help me to recollect that I am more than my Curriculum Vitae, that I was loved into be-ing. Remembering this, I beg you to help me see what I was born to be, and to pursue my be-ing, in you for whom there are no strangers.

Meditation: Confidence and pride, ego and attitude are all manifest themselves in how we present ourselves to the world, and how we understand ourselves in response to lifelong feedback. A painful stripping off of these protective psychological layers reveals our shared vulnerability. No matter how successful one is in the eyes of the world, or how humble, when stripped of our self-trappings, we are each of us exactly alike in our need to be loved, protected and valued. Pope Benedict has written, “If an individual is to accept himself, someone must say to him: “It is good that you exist” – must say it, not with words, but with that act of the entire being that we call love.” A prolonged experience of unemployment and refusal can make one feel unloved and irrelevant. But it is good that you exist. Others believe this. Christ knows this. You are meant to know it, too.

Fourth Mystery: Carrying the Cross

Prayer: Christ, when you carried the wood to which you would be nailed, it was a long walk no one else could make. Beaten, exhausted, hungry and thirsty, you trudged along, each step heavy with fatigue. In the heat and dust, your destination seemed to waver, its location uncertain. Weakened, you must have been tempted to give up and let them kill you where you dropped. When Simon of Cyrene was called upon to help you, your burden was lessened, but that only allowed the torturous walk to go on; it was a bittersweet assist. I know something of that. As I find myself depleting reserves I may never be able to rebuild, or having to accept help I would prefer not to need, it is bitter; it feels like a downcasting humiliation. Help me carry my cross as you carried yours, with humble dignity.

Meditation: Humility is a scorned virtue – a cultivated garden our society disdains. Humility is misunderstood as weakness when, in fact, is it the strong foundation upon which dignity and blessings are built. The Messiah washed the feet of his own disciples; he accepted unjust abuse when he could have unleashed retribution. His eventual victory began with acquiescence, with a willingness to become the most vulnerable of all creatures, a human infant. Humility embraced with dignity is a perspective-changer; it brings gratitude, without which there is no room for even the smallest of joys to penetrate, and eventually heal.

Fifth Mystery: Dying on the Cross

Prayer: To be honest, Jesus, remembering your death does not immediately fill me with hope. You died! Planted amid jeering onlookers and gamblers and weeping women, all of your energy spent, you died. That seems hopeless, but because you always invite me to look more closely, I will look at you, crucified, and here I comprehend that everything I am feeling, all of my experiences in this ordeal, have been nailed with you, to the cross. You too were terrified and anxious; you too were abandoned by your friends. You too were publicly shamed, and left to the mercies of weak authority, indifferent bureaucrats and bullies. You too groaned under the weight of your trouble; you were conscious of familial grief; you were stripped and exposed, and humiliated, too. In your crucifixion, you are with me. I join my suffering to yours. Help me to die to my fear, die to my doubt, die to my own narrow demands, so that through you, with you, in you, I may yet arise, again.

Meditation: Dying to self, to one’s own plans, to a worldly ambition, takes great trust. Trust now. Laying your cross upon the cross of Christ, empty your hands; allow your fearful heart to pour itself out before him. Be emptied that you may receive what Christ has for you. In this sort of death, there is only consummation, and therefore a promise of future glory; “I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord, “plans of fullness, not of harm, to give you a future, and a hope.” From Christ’s death on that awful Friday came, finally, the sweetest of Sundays. Time ended with the tearing of the veil, and the rolling back of the stone. The rest is illusion and catching up. There is nothing to be afraid of.