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, September 23, 2018

Christianity Against Inequity

There are a lot of things that folks who are part of the Progressive political movement get wrong about Christianity.  But there's one very important area where they often understand Christianity better than their political opponents: how powerful its theology is for motivating social change.

That's why the Progressive movement has been so long engaged in an attempt to colonize Christianity, seeking to conquer it and use its theological resources for their political project of expanding and rendering more just the Imperium of Western Liberalism (called Conservatism in some places where Liberalism has become traditional).

They see that the teachings of Christianity are a goldmine for those who are greedy to rid the world of inequity.

The resources of Christian theology are profound and expansive for those who are seeking to address inequities in our societies, from the Old Testament Biblical witness regarding the way we should treat the orphan, the widow, the foreigner, and the oppressed to the Apostolic and Patristic witness regarding the way we should treat the poor, the children, the prisoner, and the elderly.

The Christian Tradition subverts the disorder of inequities resulting from our sinful attachments to wealth and clinging stingily to our own gifts.  This tradition of a radical call to give up what we have been given to help those who have so little continued in the practice and preaching of St. John Chrysostom on helping the poor and abandoning the love of wealth, and hundreds of years later in St. Dominic's act of selling his books to feed the poor (inspiring many others to help in the process).

It continues to this day, 800 years after the time of St. Dominic, in Pope Francis' exhortations to reduce our unnecessary activities because of the impacts of our global economic systems and environmental practices on the poor as well as touching their hearts and filling their hands.  From the beginning until now, Christian teaching has inspired many people to dedicate their lives to giving of themselves to help those considered the least among us.

The Sacred Tradition begins, of course, with Christ's teachings in the Gospels.  Christ commands those who are deemed the greatest to focus on addressing the needs of those who are deemed to be the least.  He enjoins the young rich man to sell all that he has and give it to the poor.  He proclaims that those who seek the first place of honor shall be given the last.

He served those who were outcasts because of their affliction of leprosy or blindness or hemorrhages, those who were prostitutes, and even those who were cooperating with the Roman Imperium that was oppressing His people in Israel.  He died on a Roman cross for the sake of loving those who despised Him among the people of Israel.

He, the Son of God, washed the feet of the one who would deny Him in public, those who would abandon Him in the hour of death, and even of the one who would betray Him to those seeking to put Him to death.

Christ is our moral exemplar, and He showed us that the moral obligation of the person gifted with great strength is to lift up those who were not gifted with such great strength.  He taught us that the moral obligation of the person gifted with great wealth is to give it sacrificially to those who do not have great wealth.

In the same way, those who were gifted with mental health must care for those afflicted by mental illness.  Those who were gifted with physical health must care for those afflicted by physical illness.  Those gifted with healthy emotional dispositions must care for those afflicted by unhealthy emotional dispositions.  Et cetera and so on.

As we read in the Gospel of Luke, "From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked."  From the Son of God who was given everything, everything was asked, and He gave it to us.

This is the quintessential response of Christ to inequity: He offers everything that He is so that we may be raised up in glory to be like Him.  To accept this, we too must take up our cross and follow Him to lay down our short lives of toil and worry so that we can then take up the new and eternal life of Love alone.

Christ's response to inequity is not the response of Western Liberalism which seeks to level the playing field so that it's a fair game.  Fair in this case means that the outcomes vary based on the strengths and resources of the individual, which means that the sleek and the strong often still rule the weak.  Under the reign of Western Liberalism, they have all the freedom necessary to dominate and manipulate their least brothers and sisters.

Christ's response to inequity is also not the response of the Progressive movement which seeks to cultivate a radical solidarity amongst us all without the necessary corresponding radical self-denial on the part of all; the Progressive Christ is a Christ for all without the Cross for all.  Only the sleek and the strong need the Cross, according to the Progressive Christ, for they are the unjust.

By contrast, the Christian response to inequity is to pour generously from the cup of our gifts into the cups of those who lack those gifts; the rain of love upon the just and the unjust alike.  We do this in imitation of Christ who poured out His saving blood for us, we poor and unjust sinners who cannot buy salvation and have not the strength to reach it ourselves.

The above picture is one that I took of an icon I purchased from the Holy Transfiguration monastery via bostonmonks.com.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

In Denial: Dionysian Christianity

I recently read an article from Leah Rosenzweig about her feeling of betrayal after learning that prominent members of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church had committed horrifying sexual crimes.  Including one who had created the program in which she was a youth leader.

I understand the sense of betrayal.

Historically, because I entered the Catholic Church shortly before the sex abuse scandals in Boston were made public, I can almost feel her anger.  I shared it.

The first revelations of the sex abuse crisis left me quite angry, an anger I really didn't know how to process as a teenager.

Presently, it's a good thing that I've since learned how to process anger, because the recent investigation into sexual abuse and cover-ups in Pennsylvania have resulted in that profound anger and I becoming re-acquainted.

Like Leah Rosenzweig, the mercy of the Church toward Maciel looks to me like cowardice on this matter.  Not because the hierarchy was lenient with Maciel alone, but because it has been so lenient with so many child abusers, with those who groom teenage boys to be their paramours, and with those who violated their vows of chastity, whether with grown women or grown men.

Instead of dealing decisively to remove the wolves from the sheepfold, the shepherds in many cases simply re-located the wolves to happier hunting grounds where they could prey upon more of the sheep.

This isn't just a callous response.  It's a weak response, and it's this weak response that she rightly rejects.  Ultimately, it prompts her to leave the Church altogether, despite her sympathies for the Church and its members even during her college years when she left the Catholic faith behind.

She mentions that the sort of Catholicism she encountered was rather weak and seemed a bit un-Dionysian after her exposure to Nietzsche, and I wish that she had made this point a bit more strongly.  In perhaps a bit less of an Apollonian fashion, so to speak.

The practice of many Catholics here in the U.S. and other places in the West has indeed become rather weak.  Nietzsche would be appropriately appalled by it, as he was by the bourgeois Christianity of Germany in his day.

This bourgeois Christianity is resurgent now, but it's not always been the default way of being a Catholic Christian.  Catholic Christianity as practiced by the Saints (whether canonized or not) has been and continues to be the radical answer to the question, "Master, what must I do to have eternal life?"

This bourgeois Christianity of many Catholics today is not the Catholic Christianity of St. Francis of Assisi's radical commitment to poverty for the sake of loving God and neighbor.  Nor is it the Catholic Christianity of St. Dominic, the Canon of Osma who preached the Gospel as a barefoot itinerant priest who actually practiced what he preached.

This bourgeois Christianity is disconnected from the witness of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, those wild desert-dwellers whose spiritual advice is filled with boldness and strength.  It's disconnected from the passion for Christ and the deep knowledge of one's own sin that St. Augustine showed in his Confessions.

This bourgeois Christianity would barely recognize the boldly mystical and visceral theology of St. Dionysius the Areopagite, who laid down his life for the faith.  It's a sort of un-Dionysian Christianity not only in the Nietzschean sense of what it means to be Dionysian.

It is also un-Dionysian in the sense that it rejects the bold theology and martyrdom of St. Dionysius as unnecessary and perhaps a bit unnerving.  This weak, simpering "so secular they were almost cool" Christianity is not a Christianity worth having.

Indeed, it is barely any kind of Christianity at all.

Like Leah, I was formed in the tradition of this un-Dionysian and weak Catholic Christianity that is resurgent today.  I was very tempted to leave the Church to become a Buddhist, to do something more radical with my life.

To do something, interestingly, that she might see as more Dionysian, more life-affirming and exciting, to venture into an Eastern tradition so different from one's own and delight in it.  I decided not to do that, for reasons I've explained before.

I still feel somewhat drawn to that weakened Catholic Christianity.  There's an appeal in the kumbaya sensibility of that tradition, in the feelings of acceptance and community, a community that does not require much beyond being agreeable and...lukewarm.

But being lukewarm and comfortable in a community that easily accepts me isn't what I want to be.  It won't radically transform me in light of the Gospel message.  It won't bring me closer to the divine life of Love Himself.  There's no theosis in it.

I am glad that I found out that Christianity too is Dionysian as well as Apollonian, that to be Christian is indeed to be zealous in faith, to be radically committed to living a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience to the commandments of the one who loved us unto death.

The same One whom Peter denied three times, just as we often deny Him by our lives.

Lots of Catholic Christians are in denial.  Some in the hierarchy are in denial about the depth of their complicity in the sexual abuse crisis.  Others are in denial about the problems they have caused with their weak, simpering version of Christianity that is barely worth the name.

All of us are probably in denial about something that is holding us back from fully imitating Christ.

This is why we all need a Dionysian Christianity, a Christianity of radical witness to the Gospel to pull us out of our selfishness, a Christianity that reflects the insight gleaned from the wild asceticism of the Desert Fathers and Mothers, a Christianity that by our lives shows all the passion and humility of St. Augustine of Hippo.

We need the bold Dionysian Christianity of St. Francis and St. Dominic, who renewed the Church during dissolute times by living the Evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience.

We need a Christianity that shows the extravagance of Love, a Christianity that will not settle for anything less than full communion with the beloved, one that rushes in like a fool to find the eternal wellspring of Love.

We need the Christianity of St. Dionysius, who lived for mystical union with Christ and laid down his life for Christ so that he might find that mystical union.

Note:  The above image is part of the cover of my copy of Nietzsche's collected works.  See my Sources page for more information about which translation I used.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

The Apocalyptic Sciences

Today I was talking to a Dominican novice, newly vested and with his first month of Novitiate life behind him.  We talked about many things: learning chant, praying with the Psalms, Lectio Divina, and the Thomistic understanding of predestination.

Probably the most interesting thing we talked about was mystery.  Both of us had the experience of coming to accept the Thomistic view of predestination despite that being uncomfortably close to Calvin's view for our liking.

I suspect that our reluctance to embrace a stronger view of predestination is due to our Western upbringing.  In the West, the assumption we hold is generally that we have not only free will, but strong wills capable of over-powering almost anything else.  In reality, our wills are generally pretty weak, which we find out very quickly when we try to give up our small comforts.

The newly-vested Dominican novice explained that it is (not to cast aspersions on all the excellent reasoning done by Dominicans like Garrigou-Lagrange who convinced him that the Thomistic view was correct) ultimately a mystery as to how exactly free will and God's sovereignty intersect in each moment of our lives.

This prompted me to think that theology is fundamentally an apocalyptic exercise.  An apocalypse is, literally speaking, an uncovering.  It is an unveiling of Truth.

When a bridegroom unveils his bride, he is not providing himself or the witnesses to the wedding with all the answers about who his bride is and all that she has done.  Instead, he is revealing the mystery to whom he has committed himself for life.

Even if he is an unusually good husband, he will spend his entire life learning more about his bride, and at the end of his life, she will still be a bit of a mystery.  No matter how intimate they become, the bridegroom who becomes the husband will never quite know everything there is to know about her, the bride who became the wife.  And vice versa.

In the same way, when we Christians unveil the truth very haltingly and with frequent missteps as we do our humble theological work (or even when Doctors of the Church like St. Thomas Aquinas do that work exceptionally well), we are not providing ourselves with all the answers about who God is and all that He has wrought.

Even an unusually good theologian who investigates thoroughly the things of God will never quite know everything there is to know about God.  Indeed, they may feel, like St. Thomas Aquinas did at the end of his life, that all their great theological treatises and syntheses are like mere humble straw compared to the immensity of the mystery of God which has been revealed to them.

As with the physical and social sciences, our theological investigations, no matter how many questions we have have reasoned through, leave us with yet more questions.  The scientific work we do uncovers some important answers, and it also leaves us with more mysteries.  Science is apocalyptic in the sense that it unveils, yes, but what it unveils is that there is a still deeper mystery.

Theology, the Queen of the Sciences which St. Thomas Aquinas served so faithfully and well, is likewise an apocalyptic science.  It is not the writing down of all the answers, but rather the work of unveiling the divine mystery.

And just as with the bride and her bridegroom, the beauty of the mystery is indeed all the greater for the unveiling.

Related:  Is Thomas Aquinas a substance dualist?

The above is a picture I took of a statue of St. Thomas Aquinas at the Dominican House of Studies.