He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Fair Questions: How Did Religion Help Us Survive?

For some who take an evolutionary perspective on humanity while at the same time taking a rather dim view of religion, it can seem strange that religion would persist with the strength with which it has persisted in human social groups.  After all, the fact that our brains appear to be "wired" to believe in strange agencies external to ourselves doesn't get us to religion, though it might get us to various conspiracy theories.

So our biology would certainly appear to explain our tendency toward conspiracy theories about lizard people, evil spirits, or the Illuminati and so on.  But what explains, from an evolutionary standpoint, the social institution of religion, whether at a tribal level or the level of an international empire?  We could appeal to the notion that religion provides shared values which can unite otherwise disparate social groups and thereby shore up the sorts of bonds that allow these groups to maintain the shared identity necessary for seeing themselves as part of the same group and functioning as such to maintain the integrity of the group against outside forces competing for their resources.  This might explain emperor worship in various places throughout history.

And that's really not a bad explanation, as far as it goes.  But what explains the complex eschatological theology and assigning all sorts of superlative attributes to deities?  Those don't seem necessary to social coherence.  We might suggest that it is a comfort to people who are suffering and grieving to think that a superlatively important being cares about their problems and is looking out for them in some fashion, perhaps sending them to a pleasant afterlife.  This too, has its limits, quite aside from the fact that far from all religions have deities with superlative attributes. 

If it were merely a matter of psychological comfort that allows us to continue to function under pressure, then why would we have horrifying hell dimensions as a standard part of religious eschatology?  It might make sense as a psychological comfort if it were exclusively used as a tool to tell ourselves that those evil people will get what was coming to them, but we often find that people are afraid of going to those hell dimensions themselves.  Doesn't that put them under more psychological pressure and potentially impair their chances at survival?  Wouldn't we expect that such a damaging thing would have been naturally selected out of human religious belief long ago?

It seems to me that if we are going to account for the existence of religion as an evolutionary phenomenon in all its variety, then we need to find another piece of the puzzle.  I would like to propose a possible candidate for that piece, keeping in mind that I am not an expert in the fields of evolutionary psychology, anthropology, et cetera.

Altruistic behavior is key to the survival of human social groups, particularly altruistic behavior in which an individual makes a sacrifice which is costly to themselves for the benefit of the group.  We might think that this in-group altruism would be fostered by religion and thereby support the survival of the group.  There are a couple of problems with applying this idea in a simplistic, straightforward manner. 

First, not all religions are altruistic in their moral outlook, and some are far from it.  But these religions (or aspects of a religion that is only somewhat altruistic) might be explained by reference to social coherence and psychological comfort, so this is not necessarily a large problem.  Second, not all religious moral outlooks are limited to altruism with regard to the in-group.  Many of us are probably familiar with the prescription of Jesus of Nazareth that we love our enemies, and this extends an altruistic moral outlook beyond the in-group, making it difficult to completely limit the effect of religion to the obvious in-group survival imperative (though we might argue that it merely broadens it to the survival of the species). 

The ability of religion to foster altruism might be helpful for survival in some cases, but it does not seem that it is an inherent function of religion across the board.  So what could be an inherent function of religion which is plausible as an aid to survival and not idiosyncratic to a subset of religions?  I would suggest that under harsh survival pressure, the most valuable way in which religion would contribute to survival in addition to previously discussed factors is by providing an extraordinary motivation.

This extraordinary motivation could be a number of things within the religion.  Perhaps some would be driven by a fear of a terrible, torturous afterlife to act in the perceived interest of the group.  Perhaps others with a somewhat more positive moral outlook would be driven to act in the perceived interest in the group because they wanted a pleasant afterlife.  Perhaps the more mature individuals would find themselves in possession of a genuine regard for their fellow group members because of their acceptance of religious values and that would provide their extraordinary motivation for acting in the perceived interest of the group.  Perhaps their extraordinary motivation would be grounded in something more like a mystical relationship with the divine or philosophical truth.

Regardless of the quality of their moral development, people can find an extraordinary motivation in a religion, something that can drive them to act when it is difficult to act or to lay down their lives when it is difficult to lay down and die.  The survival value of an extraordinary motivation is fairly clear from the human experience and from history; motivation has helped to turn the course of personal and communal history many times.  When under high survival pressure, it is incredibly useful for a human being to have an extraordinary motivation to keep them from crumbling into debilitating depression or fatalistic battle weariness.  An extraordinary motivation can keep us fighting for our survival long after our reason has told us that the cause is lost, that we should give up and die.  An extraordinary motivation can keep someone like Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. going against overwhelming odds and constant stress.

I am not inclined to argue that extraordinary motivations can only come out of religious conviction, but I would suggest that successful religions are structured in such a way that it is easy for most people to find an extraordinary motivation in them, and that having a set of extraordinary motivations readily available to people would be and has been quite valuable to human survival.  People do often need some great sense of motivation upon which they can hang firmly to carry on under difficult circumstances.

There are of course times when this extraordinary motivation can be a problem for human survival, and not just because it might be a motivation that leads then to commit terrible acts of violence against other human social groups.  Sometimes an individual or subset of a group will have pathologies which lead them to turn against members of the larger group and commit terrible acts of violence against people they might be expected to see as part of their in-group. 

As with many other strategies for survival, there are times when it can become counter-productive.  We see the same phenomenon with other traits such as aggressiveness; it is a trait that is incredibly useful in saving the group in some circumstances and can get them all killed under other circumstances.  This does not mean that it is not valuable to our survival on the whole, but it does mean that it is a survival strategy that comes with attendant risks, as they all do.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Love it to Death: The Rules of Love

In the ongoing dispute between Catholics who want to follow all of the documented liturgical norms to the letter and those who think that the best liturgical tradition is the one they fabricated out of their own preferences, it is often difficult to find the love.  It often seems to be a battle between those who want to stodgily remain faithful to the liturgical traditions of their forebears and those who want to stodgily remain faithful to the liturgical traditions of their contemporaries.  

Their love often appears to be a love of rules, an adherence to those structures they genuinely believe are best at providing a healthy spirituality, whatever they believe healthy spirituality to be.  Instead of being an expression of divine love, liturgy is reduced to a mechanism which manufactures a spiritual experience of the kind seen by its purveyors as ideal.  Sadly, it is generally not seen as ideal because it is in fact ideal (though it may be), but because it suits the pathologies of the persons proposing it as a mechanism for the effective delivery of spirituality.

This is of course precisely what liturgy is to help remove us from; it is intended to pull us out of our daily exercise of our pathologies and into real intimacy with the divine.  It should help us overcome those very pathologies which we often seek to impose on it by tweaking the liturgical forms to fit our juvenile anthropology or returning to an ancient practice which we idealize out of an amnesiac sort of nostalgia.

That said, I do not propose that we dispense with rules in the liturgy; liturgy could not serve its purpose without the rules and the formality that tend to be associated heavily with traditional liturgical practice in Christianity.  Some propose that, "It's about relationship, not about rules."  Or they object to the formality of liturgy as a blockade to a feeling of family or intimacy; they would prefer the casual atmosphere of their family gatherings which reflects contemporary culture's preference for casualness.

Despite our cultural intuitions to the contrary, formality of expression is actually a great way to help people build relationships. It reminds us that the other person is not our possession or a product to be modified to our liking. A diligent practice of formality keeps us in the mindset that they are special and require us to take care in how we approach them and communicate with them. It provides a set of shared expectations that reduce the stress of communication and companionship.  

Formality is a way of structuring the language of love in our relationships so that it is ordered toward our mutual benefit.  Ancient cultures often understood this better than we do today in the West, and they would probably be appalled at how our lack of formality produces more selfish and less respectful relationships.  Just as adherence to formality forces us to consider something beyond our own immediate preferences, a lack of formality allows our whims to come to the fore and dominate our expressions, gently pulling us into a narcissistic way of approaching our relationships.

It may initially seem strange that rules would be so valuable to relationships, but we all know it to be true on a quite visceral level.  All of us have been upset with the way another person has treated us at some point and desired to set rules that would prevent that treatment in the future.  Maybe their behavior left us feeling unloved.  Maybe we felt devalued as a person.  Maybe we felt disrespected by their behavior.  Whatever the behavior, we have an intuition that we need to have boundaries in our relationships so that we feel loved, valued, and respected by others.

Whether the rule is that we greet those we love with a kiss, a hug, or a handshake, the fundamental truth remains the same; the rules of our relationships are what help us to effectively communicate to one another our deep love and respect for each person.  A lack of rules does precisely the opposite; it communicates to others that our personal predilections of the moment are more valuable to us than the relationship we share with others, that our needs come before theirs rather than being in balance with them.  When we choose to follow the rules of love, we choose in each instance, over and over, to move gradually beyond valuing our mere passing desires toward valuing the relationship which fulfills our deep and lasting desires of the heart.

 The rules and formalities of the liturgy are important precisely because they pull us out of our narcissism by helping us to choose to do what demonstrates how strongly we value the relationship we have with the divine.  The rules of the liturgy are the rules of love which help us to transcend a relationship that seeks our benefit by providing us with a path to seeking the benefit of a loving relationship with the Lord in which all of us benefit from His grace and mercy.

When we follow the rules of love, we love to death our egotistical desires which would deprive us of a life worth living by making hollow and empty those substantial relationships which fill our lives with lasting joy and peace, the relationships which help us to let go of our pathologies that keep us from growing in true intimacy with one another and especially with the God who loved us unto death.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Love it to Death: The Love of Rules

In the cold war over liturgical praxis and theology in the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church, there tend to be battles between those who wish to assiduously follow all the documented liturgical norms and those who think that those norms can be changed as it suits their personal pathologies and preferences.  I have already explained the problems with taking the latter view, and now I would like to address the former view.

There is a parish in a nearby city that is known for their excellent liturgical practice, and they offer a variety of liturgies within the Roman Rite, including the Mass of Paul VI, the Tridentine Mass, and the Anglican Use of the rite.  These are all very well done in form and reverent in spirit.  I remember being there a few years ago attending the Tridentine Mass, and the priest giving a homily on Pharisaism after reading the Gospel, which features Jesus pointing out the willingness of the Pharisees to hold themselves up as the righteous ones because they follow the rules while disregarding the righteousness of those who sacrifice truly and understand their own weakness before God.

The priest pointed out that pharisaical behavior was always something to be guarded against in traditional communities such as theirs, that it was the behavior contrary to the Gospel that was mostly likely to be fallen into by those who like to make very sure that they follow the liturgical norms and the many other rules of the faith.  In traditional communities, people are more likely to be vocal about Church teaching and discipline and keen to hold others accountable to that teaching and discipline.  This can be a very good and healthy thing for those communities so long as they understand the risk of slipping into the pharisaical mindset.

After all, the rules of our religion exist to help foster a healthy relationship with our Lord, so there is much good to be found in following the rules.  We just have to make sure that when we love, we look beyond the rules to the Lord, loving Him rather than fixating on the rules themselves.  And this fixation on the rules is indeed a serious pathology and a problem among Traditionalists, particularly among sedevacantists and schismatics.  They let the modernist tendency to chafe at the rules and dispense with the rules when convenient push them into taking a position of defending the standard application of the rules even where there are legitimate pastoral reasons to apply them in a non-standard way.

Where the progressives with regard to the liturgy are often reactionaries against what is ancient and venerable, traditionalists are often reactionaries against the progressive tendency to relax the rules for their convenience, thereby defeating the very purpose of the rules.  Traditionalists correctly identify the grave problem with the progressive praxis and pathology, and in opposing it allow their fear for the Church to push them into the waiting arms of Pharisaism, that ancient enemy of Christ.  They stand behind the rules, holding them up as firmly as they can, afraid that any relaxation of those rules will lead to a furthering of the destructive tendencies that rampaged through the Church in the Vatican II era.

I understand their desire to hold fast to tradition and I sympathize with their fears, but I recognize that their strategy of reiterating the rules firmly at those who feel free to dispense with them for their own convenience is a strategy doomed to failure.  Informing those who are skeptical of rules about those rules will have precisely the opposite effect from what is needed; they will not be persuaded of the value of rules by an appeal to the rules or an appeal to the rules of reason.  They have rejected those things out of hand under the contemporary intuition that rules are oppressive.

They will only be persuaded by our love of Christ, shown in our devotion to the Lord and our love of the poor.  The only strategy that will work to bring them to understand the value of the rules is to show them what following those rules has done for us, that the rules help keep us centered on the love of God who loved us unto death.  They will begin to value the rules when we show them by our lives that those rules help separate us from the unhealthy desires that stand between us and living the Gospel.

Ending the modern abuse of the liturgy becomes possible only when we love it to death.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Protestant Intuition: Scripture & Reason

In this follow-up to a previous post on some basic intuitions of Protestant thought, I will be examining some additional intuitions with which I was brought up and have now rejected.

There are many questions related to Scripture which Protestants are very good at addressing.  I know that because I grew up in a Bible-believing family.  I know because I read the entire Bible from cover to cover in 3rd grade and again as a teenager.  I know because I attended many Bible studies and Sunday school Bible challenges both as a child and as an adult.

There is, however, a question related to Scripture that Protestants tend not to be very good at addressing:  How did we get it?

The answer to that question is lengthy and involved.  We get what we call the Old Testament from the Tanakh, a collection of different kinds of books that were eventually written down after being passed down (sometimes for centuries) as oral tradition among the Jews.  This is what Jesus and his disciples would have recognized as Scripture.  This is what Paul of epistolary fame was trained by Rabbinic scholars to understand thoroughly.

The New Testament currently accepted by most Protestant and other post-Reformation Christian communities came about very gradually.  There were written mentions of collections of scriptures within the first few hundred years after the death of Christ.  Ancient Christian traditions often have slightly different canons, meaning that there are slightly different books included in their Bible.  General consensus did not come about until the 4th and 5th centuries regarding the books to be included in the New Testament.  The canon in Western Christianity remained largely settled until Martin Luther and the eve of the Reformation.

After the Reformation, the Council of Trent finally set out very explicitly what was included in the canon of Scripture as a reaction to the disputes about Scripture at the time, disputes which had assumed critical importance as Sola Scriptura became the popular teaching of the Reformers.

Sola Scriptura was the default assumption of most of my family I got to visit regularly as a child.  This was an assumption that was never questioned or discussed.  Everyone just had the intuition that Scripture was authoritative and that we would look to it alone for answers to questions about living the Christian life.

Having studied enough history to know that the Christian life was well established before Sacred Scripture was written (much less compiled), I have since rejected that intuition.  After all, without the personal encounter with the Risen Lord transmitted to us via the oral tradition of the Apostles and their successors, we would not have Sacred Scripture.  The Church could and did survive without Scripture; it could not have survived without the living tradition that developed Scripture.

So when we interpret Scripture, what shall we use as a hermeneutic to ascertain its meaning?  The Protestant intuition (to which I used to hold unexamined) is that we can use the light of human reason given to us by God to find the truth in Scripture.

This seems odd in light of the historical reality that Scripture developed out of Christian tradition.  It would be more natural to look at the tradition that gave birth to Scripture as a means of understanding it.  If you want to understand the meaning of a text, then you consult its author(s) if at all possible.  You consult their descendants and the institutions dedicated to the author if directly contacting the author(s) is not possible.

Human reason is not enough by itself to ascertain the intent of the author and never has been.  We humans have known this for millennia, though it has at times been conveniently forgotten.  As a student of literature, I now find it baffling that any serious scholar would attempt to find the intended meaning of a text based solely on its grammar and some rough historical context.  I know from extensive practice that it is not reliable at all as a method and often produces highly inaccurate conclusions.

I can't help but reject a view that divorces the intent of the author(s) from the meaning of the text so that we can then supplant that intended meaning with whatever strikes us as sensible.  As this is the starting point of Martin Luther's Protestant project, I am only left with the choice to abandon it and search for an authentic and ancient hermeneutic that retains the intent of the author(s) as determinative of its meaning.

For more on Protestant Intuitions and why I have given them up, see part 4 of this series here.

Note:  Above is a picture of Martin Luther's edited Bible translated into German.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Dark Night of the Soul: Bread from Heaven

As I continue to ruminate upon the wisdom of St. John of the Cross in Dark Night of the Soul, I find that my understanding of the Eucharist and my relationship to Christ in the Eucharistic feast grows.  The following passage is one I have come back to several times in the past few months.

"These souls whom God is beginning to lead through these solitary places of wilderness are like to the children of Israel, to whom in the wilderness God began to give food from Heaven, containing within itself all sweetness, and, as is there said, it turned to the savour which each one of them desired.  But withal the children of Israel felt the lack of the pleasures and delights of the flesh and the onions which they had eaten aforetime in Egypt., the more so because their palate was accustomed to these and took delight in them, rather than in the delicate sweetness of the angelic manna; and they wept and sighed for the fleshpots even in the midst of the food of Heaven. To such depths does the vileness of our desires descend that it makes us to long for our own wretched food and to be nauseated by the indescribable blessings of Heaven."

This is such an apt description of us weary sinners aware of our sinfulness in the self-indulgent world of contemporary Cyrenaic hedonism; we are sudden pilgrims who have long been fed upon the immediate gratification of our fleshly desires.  We often long for the cheap and easy pleasures while the greater food awaits.  We accept the endorphin release of sex as a substitute for the real intimacy that takes a lifetime to cultivate.  We accept the quick pleasures of drug-induced highs as a substitute for the deep, steady happiness of a life in which we become the best version of ourselves.  We accept celebrity worship and gossip as a substitute for the deity we rightly worship and the true story of the Gospel.

We long for those pleasures because we know them and we have come to expect them as our due.  We often look upon the Bread of Heaven as just another food in a long list of nutrients and treats with which we shower our stomachs; we can easily see it as a Sunday nothing, a mere bit of crust that does not have the sweet taste of the sugar-saturated food we enjoy so much of our days.

But if we begin to turn away from the flimsy, insubstantial substitutes that always fail to bring deep and lasting joy, then we can begin to appreciate the simplicity of the Bread of Heaven in our profound poverty, our spectacular lack of love for the one who loved us unto death.  If we begin to see the vision of Heaven given to us in the ancient liturgy, we can learn to love that substantial simplicity of the Bread that comes down from Heaven, forgoing the sickly sweet morsel of the flesh here in this temporal life for the feast of love in the eternal life of the divine in the House of the Lord.

If we let the ancient liturgy in its strangeness and wonder take us out of our everyday experience of satisfying our flesh and then receive us into the sacred timeless space of the Holiest of Holies, then we have the chance to embrace Him before the table He has prepared for us with His own life, gratefully accepting the Bread of Heaven from the hands of the one who allowed those hands to be nailed to a cross so that we could share it with Him.

The Fall of Pride - Death to the Ego - Bread from Heaven

Note:  The above is a picture of part of the cover of the translation of St. John of the Cross's work I'm using.  For more information about it, you can see my Sources page.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Living on the Mountain: Poor Man's Supper

When visiting my grandparents, we would sometimes have what they called a poor man's supper, which consisted of a little cornbread to eat and milk to drink.

It is good to have frequent reminders of how the poor live and how fortunate we are who are not poor.  My grandfather knew intimately what poverty meant from a very young age and considered himself a poor man in a material sense until the end of his life on this earth.

His family was a large and loving one living on the mountain and working hard to survive the Great Depression.  The Great Depression profoundly shaped their mentality about money and material things, and they passed that mentality on to him, and he and my grandmother on to my mother, and my mother on to me and my siblings.  My grandmother and grandfather were strongly opposed to wasting anything, and long before contemporary environmentalism was obsessed with reusing and recycling and reducing waste, they were impressively efficient in how they used their possessions.  To this day, their household has such a small carbon footprint that many environmental activists should be envious.

They understood that poverty is the natural state of affairs and that prosperity was something to be grateful for, a gift that could never quite be earned because no matter how hard we work, it first comes from the earth we did not create.  They understand that to live is to embrace an immensely valuable gift which we cannot possibly have earned and which we cannot possibly pay back, though we can pay it forward.  And pay it forward they did, begetting many who would be able to enjoy the gift of life as well.

They brought the same gratitude and reverence with them to the small house church they attended every Sunday, showing true sincerity in singing the penitential hymns, in their reverent silence at communion time, and in their donations of money to the church that they didn't want other people to see. Their example prepared me to understand the Christian practice of Holy Communion, what those of us in the Roman Rite of the Catholic Church call the reception of the Eucharist, the body and blood of our crucified Lord.

We always approach the Eucharistic feast in our poverty, unable to earn the gift we are about to receive, unable to pay Him back for his sacrifice, and only able to pay it forward with our own loving sacrifices for others.  The Eucharist is a poor man's supper, inaugurated by a man born into a poor family, raised in poverty, and living in poverty until he died for us. It is the wondrous mystery of the God reaching out to us and becoming one of us in our poverty so that we can find the true richness of life that lies beyond this world.