Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Why We Should Not Get With The Times, or Why Platitudinous Discussions Suck, Part 1

A platitude is defined as:

"a remark or statement, especially one with a moral content, that has been used too often to be interesting or thoughtful"

As the definition indicates, platitudes are statements that, though the vice of sheer thoughtless, inconsiderate repetition, are devoid of any real meaning; their power comes not through the bold proclamation of the truth, but through the soft oppressiveness of their reiteration.

I believe most of our society's moral dialogue takes place through the meaningless and incessant exchange of platitudes.  Rather than crafting intelligent and respectable arguments to examine and explain a moral stance, and thus bring the conversation before the seat of logic for adjudication, the social norm is to craft witty one-liners full of poetic charm and simplistic brevity, which brings the conversation out of any discernible logic and into the intellectual equivalent of a bar fight, to where there is no adjudication and the winner is the one who resists the urge to break down in a tantrum of spouting off slippery-slope scenarios and analogous comparisons to Hitler.

As such, I have come to hate the moral platitude. Statements like "A person is a person, no matter how small" and "Its my body, I can do what I want to" have hijacked a massively crucial moral debate and turned it into the battle of the bumper sticker slogans, while chants like "Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" and "Marriage equality for all" rob us of having a deeper conversation about what marriage really is.  I truly believe our society deserves a better way to have a moral conversation.  As such, I want to take the chance to examine and dismantle moral platitudes; I want to knock them off their pedestals and dissect them for examination.  I hope that, by shattering these slogans of stupidity and battering these bastions of banality, we can all come to appreciate a better way to engage in moral discussion.

The platitude I want to undo in this post is a classic: "Get with the times". I hate this saying primarily because it is a cop-out, an outlet, a negligent dismissal that suffocates moral conversation before it can ever get off the ground.  Like most platitudes, this one is often a poorly disguised excuse for an unwillingness to think.

More often than not, the line "Get with the times" is invoked when a position is proposed that is unpopular or "old-fashioned".  For example, should a person suggest that women ought to aspire to lead domestic lives rather than professional lives, that person ought to be prepared to hear someone else telling them to "get with the times".  Or when someone proposes the use of incense and organ in Catholic Liturgy rather than liturgical dance and a jazz ensemble, they shouldn't be surprised to be told to "Get with the times."  The foundational premise behind this statement is that the opponent's position is not with the times, and it should work to become more with the times.  But here is the big problem:  What, on God's green earth, does it mean to be "with the times"?

The simple answer to this question is this: to be "with the times" is to reflect within your beliefs, practices, prerogatives, etc. that which is the contemporary norm for those beliefs, practices, prerogatives, etc.  But this complicates things, because it assumes that the contemporary norm is what is supposed to shape people's thoughts and practices, instead of the other way around.  It becomes a "chicken or the egg" paradox, in which we ask whether the contemporary norm shapes individuals, or whether individuals shape contemporary norms?  If the former option is true, then there should never be any change in the norm, meaning "the times" are static, and "getting with the times" is merely conforming to a static norm.  However, if the latter of the two options is true, then we really can't say we ought to "get with the times," as any proposal could facilitate a necessary shift in the norm.  In either scenario, we see its hard to really support a claim that the norms of "the times" are a truthful measure of a position.

"But Joe!" cries a prophet of the modern mentality, "what about progress?!"  Ah yes, I suppose I would not be speaking fairly if I did not address progress, because the virtually unanimous approach to bypassing the weird "chicken vs. egg" scenario described above is by clinging to the notion that society progresses.  Now, what is typically meant when we mean progress?  If we examine how we've learned history and anthropology, we quickly see divide the history of our species by the complexity of our technology and we divide our civilization base on the complexity of our socio-economic structures.  Hence, we have time periods like the "Stone Age", the "Bronze Age" and the "Iron Age", as well as categorizations for society such as "Hunter-Gatherer", "Agrarian", "Industrial", and "Post-Industrial".  We like to describe ourselves and our history by marking achievements of technological and social achievement.  And, for the most part, there's really nothing wrong with this.  Humans have achieved a substantial amount in our relatively brief history. However, there is a dangerous temptation in reveling in our prestige: Perfectionism.

Now, this is not psychological perfectionism ("I'm going to clean this house until it sparkles!"), but philosophical.  Don't confuse the two.  When I say perfectionism, I mean this: the belief that human effort alone has, can, and will advance the essence of humanity towards a state of greater perfection.  Its the idea that our achievements mark a substantial change in humanity.  This idea is a sort of philosophical analogue to Darwinian evolution, in which the mechanisms of the evolutionary process yield superior creatures.  Like evolution, perfectionism believes that the mechanisms of time and society yield superior humans.  This idea paints human history as the story of getting better as a species, meaning things that are in the past are not as good as what is in the present, and certainly not as good as what is future.  Its the idea that, by and large, we're better now, as a generation of a species, than our ancestors.  Most discussions of "progress" operate with an implicit dimension of perfectionism.  Because of this, we can now see the deeper meaning  behind most uses of the phrase "Get with the times".  When someone says "Get with the times", they are (probably) saying something more along the lines of this:  "Your position is out of line with the master trend of human progress, and as such, it works to hinder/undo our progress towards greater human perfection.  Reject your backwards, regressive ideas, and adopt contemporary ideas and cooperate with human progress!"  Sure, its a bit more wordy, but its direct and explicit.  Most of all, it makes the phrase's fundamental problem clear: It is based upon a lie.

Human beings do not progress; there is no such thing as perfectionism.  This is, perhaps, one of the greatest lies of our generation, and it hoodwinks far too many people, especially the elite and educated.  Allow me to explain.  Though the myth of perfectionism makes sense upon first glance, the real question behind perfectionism is: "Are human imperfections beyond our capacity to fix?"  Or, more simply, "Is Original Sin a reality?"  The answer, resoundingly, is yes.  These questions shape the two basic positions in this debate.  In the one corner, orthodox Christians see original sin as the fundamental problem; human nature is distorted in a way that only God can repair.  If original sin is real, there can be no such thing as human progress, for the only progress is through repentance and grace.  In another corner, progressive-minded people see ignorance as the fundamental problem; human nature suffers only from a lack of knowledge, and the more we learn and educate each other, the better we will become as people.

The reason why Original Sin is real and perfectionism is a very optimistically-foolish heresy is simple: no matter how smart or advanced people are, they have to choose, and as often as ever, we choose poorly.  Look to the 20th century as an example: we made such brilliant advancements like basic accounting computers, durable air frames, precision machinery, and, among the greatest discoveries, nuclear fission and fusion.  However, presented with all of these advances, we had to choose what to do with them, and two world wars, multiple genocides, and 50 years of being a button's push away from nuclear annihilation seem to show that we did choose any better than we ever have.  We haven't become better human beings, we've become more efficient human beings; we've streamlined the processes of both production and destruction rather than making ourselves more productive and less destructive.

All the advancements and progress human beings have made throughout history have given people more choices, and even better choices, but what never changes is the act of choice itself, and it is importance to make clear the distinction between the two.  In every choice, there is the object of choice (That which is chosen), the chooser (That which is making the choice), and the act of choice (The actualization of a possibility into an actuality). That which can be called “human progress” is an advancement of the range and sophistication of the objects of choice; it typically indicates that we now have more choices to choose from and better options in those choices.  What hasn’t improved is our ability to choose and choose correctly.  It doesn’t matter how much we learn, make, or accomplish: people, at all levels of knowledge and sophistication, make bad choices.  Human beings, in and of themselves, do not progress.  Original Sin prevents us from doing so.Original Sin damaged our relationship with God, and in doing so, prevents humanity from repairing the relationship through our own efforts.  We are a people in need of (and, to be more hopeful, surrounded by) grace, and grace is what shall save us.

We do not need to “get with the times.”  Any progress, any movement in humanity towards something better comes first and foremost through the grace of God, given freely and received gratefully.  When told to “get with the times”, we ought to (besides thoroughly explaining the erroneousness of such an idea, preferably using the arguments elaborated in the previous paragraphs) respond “No, get with grace.”  Modern trends and contemporary patterns to not determine what we ought to do and not do, God does.   We shouldn’t be seeking to conform ourselves to that which is current and progressive, but to God: He, who is timeless and true.  We ought to think about “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, any excellence and anything worthy of praise” (Philippians, 4:8) and know that these things come, not from human achievements, but from the grace of God, working through man and in cooperation with man.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Against A Domesticated God

He'll be coming and going" he had said. "One day you'll see him and another you won't. He doesn't like being tied down--and of course he has other countries to attend to. It's quite all right. He'll often drop in. Only you mustn't press him. He's wild, you know. Not like a tame lion.”  -C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

Humans domesticate things.  Name another species that intentionally tames other species, solely because they can.  And we don't just domesticate animals.  We domesticate everything.  We bulldoze mountains and build skyscrapers because skyscrapers are far more advantageous and incredibly more domestic than a mountain.  We domesticate our society with social norm.  We domesticate our children, sometimes with rules, other times with Ritalin.  First and finally, we domesticate ourselves; we silently comfort ourselves by saying "Your ambitions are just too ambitious, your dreams aren't all that important.  Cubicles are safe and suburbia does not threaten you.  You don't have to be a Saint, just being a good person should be well enough for you."  Domestication is, by definition, making thing controllable, removing the wilderness from it so that we might manage it, and in order to do so, we must first manage ourselves.

But this post isn't about railing against domesticating ourselves.  I'm not advocating for us to go au naturale.  I enjoy the benefits of domestic life as much as anyone else.  However, it comes with great risks, because not everything is meant to be domesticated.  Not everything can be domesticated, and when we try to domesticate that which cannot be domesticated, that is, when we try to control something that ought to be controlling us, we stray into the realm of the problematic.  All too often, in our attempts to be religious persons, we commit the sin of domesticating God.  What do I mean about domesticating God?  Allow me to explain:

Too often, we like to think of God as a cosmic Barney the Purple Dinosaur.  He drifts daintily along above the cosmos comforting us and coddling us in his arms, ever sweet and tender and cuddly.  This view is utter baloney.  Don't get me wrong, God loves you and seeks to comfort and console you, but to think of God as an all-powerful Care Bear is nonsense.  God will destroy you.  Period.  Ladies and Gentlemen, unless you confront this reality, you are deceiving yourself.  Religion is not about making our existence more comfortable, more reassuring, or more peaceful.  These may be side-effects, but religion that only succeeds in making you comfortable, reassured, peaceful sinner has failed to be a religion.  

Just ask the Egyptians about how docile and non-
threatening God is.
God is Love, (cf. 1 John 4:8) but when you hear those words, there shouldn't be soft and fluffies associated with it.  When you hear about the God who relentlessly loves you, the first thing on your mind should be "I am going to die."  Why?  Because God loves his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, and sent him to be crucified.  Love destroys.  Love is not safe and tame, it is reckless, it is wild and ferocious.  Why?  Because love always strives for the better, for the higher, for the good, true, and beautiful, and in order for this to happen, all that is not good, true, and beautiful must die.  Love destroys to create, it crucifies to resurrect.  

Our religion ought to reflect this.  Perhaps the leading contributor to the decline of religion, especially Christianity, is that we find it boring.  We whine and moan when Mass goes over and hour, but we sit on the edge of our seats when a football game goes into overtime.  Our God has become a boring, non-threatening God, a God whose mercy has been seen less as the spilled blood of a savior and more as a cosmic get-out-of-jail-free card (why would we follow such a God with irrepressible zeal and fervor anyways?).  We don't see God in His wild and reckless Love for us, nor do we see our great need for a wild and reckless lover, and therefore, we don't see our faith as much more than a mildly beneficial social activity or a nice practice in personal discipline. 

We need God.  We do not need God because God improves our quality of life.  We do not need God because God is useful for social cohesion.  We need God, because our very existence is a poverty, accountable only to God's charity.  Any other explanation for why we need God simply reduces Him to a means to our ends, a tool in our goals.  Anything but our absolute dependence on God effectively domesticates He Who Cannot, Must Not, and Will Not Be Domesticated.  We may need food to stave off hunger; we might need drink to keep thirst at bay.  These needs are means to sustaining our existence; they ensure we continue to exist.  However, our lives exist in the first place precisely because of God and are capable of being sustained because of God.  We need God, because without God, there is no we, no you, or no me.

In the end, God is not ours to domesticate and control;  He is ours to love.  When a man loves a woman, he does not think of control.  He does not seek for ways to tame her for his own purposes, rather, he will allow himself to be controlled by her.  He will allow himself to be mastered for her sake and will bend his will to ensure the freedom of hers.  He longs for ways to serve the one he loves and craves ways to make her happy.  So it must be with us when we love God.  To love God is to seek to be controlled, bending our wills to the Will of God which will not be bent.  We freely choose not to be free, we choose to be destroyed and recreated in love by a God who is love, wild, undomesticated love.

“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion." "Ooh" said Susan. "I'd thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion"..."Safe?" said Mr Beaver ..."Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good. He's the King, I tell you.” -C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe  


Wednesday, August 28, 2013

How to Renew Your Parish (Or Why I Do Not Like Corporate America)

I don't know if any of you reading this are frequent flyers at a Catholic parish.  I'm going to assume you are, seeing as how you are taking your time to read a rather mediocre Catholic blog.  Unless you are part of a wonderful exception, many of you are looking at your parishes and you find something... lacking.  Many, if not most, Catholic parishes need a sort of renewal, a revival, a re-inspiration (the root of that word being Spirit...as in the Holy Spirit).  Unless you are rather fortunate enough to live in a parish which exemplifies all that is a one, holy, catholic, and apostolic community, you and I and many, many other Catholic agree:  The average, everyday Catholic parish needs revitalizing.

However, most approaches I've seen towards parish revitalization have been less-than-great, ranging from the sorta successful to the miserable failure.  There are tons of different parish revival programs, classes, and regimens, and the one thing most of them have in common is that they don't really seem to work.  Now, I may be totally missing the mark, and you may be reading this thinking "My parish did such and such program and implemented such and such changes, and *poof* it saw staggering increases in parish life", and if that is the case, God bless you and God bless whatever person or group of persons who created such and such program.  However, if you, like me, have no experience of that sort, you must surely be asking "Why?  Why don't these parish revitalization plans work?

This subject was first brought to my mind when I saw a series of articles floating around the social mediasphere, articles like "MegaChurch or Catholic Church?" and "10 Ways to Put Megachurches Out of Business".  Read them, by all means.  They are bringing to light a real problem: the exodus of Catholics towards so-called "mega-churches".  More often than ever, Catholics are finding themselves in the pews (excuse me, I meant to say the cushioned, comfortable seats) of "relevant" houses of worship, and less than ever, praying on the old rickety wooden kneelers of their Grammy's parish church.  Unfortunately, as I read these articles, I found them laughably missing the point.  Allow me to explain why:

If fixing the problem of the average parish's slow decay were as simple as a 10 step, clearly outlined process, it wouldn't be much of a problem.  It'd be 10 separate, easily identifiable problems that correspond to 10 direct, identifiable solutions that, with some trial and error and fine-tuning, would be quickly and effectively implemented.  But its not.  The author's articles, which glimmer with the most golden of intentions, do not and will not solve the problem at hand, even if every single parish implemented it as best as they possibly could.  "Why?" you ask?  Because the author, like virtually every parishioner and everyone who sets out to fix the problem of parish decay, no matter how intelligent, looks at the problem through a corporate lens.

Let me step back here for a minute and give exposition.  The United States of America, home to most (if not all) of my readership, is absolutely inundated by the trend of corporatization:  the process of uniting different people to work cooperatively to achieve a common goal, namely, growing the corporation.  Corporations dominate the economical landscape; they have so inundated our lifestyles that we have a hard time realizing just how odd they really are.  Think about it:  Corporations, that is, business corporations, exist to be successful.  The moment corporations fail to be successful, they fail to exist anymore.  They are unconcerned with making humankind better, apart from the direct economic benefits of doing so.  The ultimate law of corporations is not towards humanity authenticity, but a relentless drive to gain and grow.  The corporation utilizes those within it to feed this goal, it promises them that, by making the corporation grow and succeed, that those individuals who comprise the corporation will also grow and succeed as well (insomuch as we define human success as economic gain).

Don't get me wrong, I don't find corporations to be the icy cold grip of the devil upon the throat of humankind.  I too enjoy the benefits and gains of corporate society as much as the next guy (special shout out to Dell Corporation, Microsoft Corporation, Google Inc., and Facebook Inc. for making my blogging possible).  But its not all hard to see that the corporation, despite its being comprised of humans, is eerily inhuman.  It is mechanical and artificial.  Corporations do not care about goodness, truth, or beauty any more than the extent to which they can be used to become more successful.  Corporations, despite being declared as "persons" in legal settings, do not feel, do not think, and do not love.  They just want to be more successful.  Period.

Decades of corporatization has not gone without its effect on our society.  When you ask someone on the street "What do you want most for yourself?", they usually say something along the lines of success.  People use corporate strategies to improve themselves and make themselves more competitive, so that they can be more successful, because, to them, the meaning of life resides in some re-iteration of achieving success.  For example, when you discuss your college education with relatives, they invariably ask "What are you going to do with that?"  Why?  Because education itself is but a means towards success.  Very few people are asking "What does it mean to be human being?  What does it mean to be me?"  "Me" is about succeeding.  Period.

Now, back to the parish.  Our parishes, along with most other Christian groups, are continuing to see themselves corporately.  This is probably unintentional, but the signs of it are rather clear.  Parishes are looking at their "problems" and asking "How can we be a more successful parish?  How can we have more successful ministry? How do we get more people present and engaged in Mass?"  These are decent questions, but any strategy to address these is going to be precisely that: strategic, designed to manipulate the situation and those in it to be more favorable to the strategist.  Parishes do not exist to be successful, they aren't meant to create strategies on how to grow their "business".  And yet, that is what they are doing.  By orienting themselves towards evoking an effect, no matter how noble that effect may be, parishes have utterly failed at religion and reduced themselves into spiritual businesses, peddling appeasement to whatever it may be that our souls may desire for the price of making the parish seem "successful".  This is why the mega-church is successful:  its the Wal-Mart of spirituality, it appeases spiritual desires and does so in a way we are oh-so-much-more comfortable with.

Ten step plans for parish renewal, no matter how well thought out they are, will never compete with these spiritual shopping centers, because the Catholic Church is not a business corporation.   There is no drive for success, there is no business plan, and there is no strategic plan for future expansion.  There is just Jesus Christ, and the profound call to authentic holiness he has for each and everyone of us.  So you want to make your parish better?  You want to make your parish life more vivacious and beautiful?  Good.  Live your life in profound and authentic holiness, and beckon others to do the same.  That's it.  When you stand before eternity, God will inquire of you about how you loved Him and about how you loved others.  There will be no questions about success, or about how you boosted parish participation, or about any plan for future improvement.  There will simply be God gazing into your soul, searching for the love of his Son radiating forth from you.

Don't believe me yet?  Look to Christ.  Jesus had no strategic vision.  He never uttered the word "success", at least not in the context that any of us would be comfortable with.  There was nothing corporate about Jesus Christ, no plan to achieve anything except the will of the Father who sent Him.  I don't think I really need to argue the point that Jesus was not a businessman in any sense of the word.  Yet, there has never been anything as successful as Christianity.  Christ made no attempt to be liked in the way our corporations attempt to be liked, so much to the extent that he was crucified, yet there has never been anyone so widely or passionately followed as Jesus Christ.  Why?  Because Jesus Christ was first and foremost concerned with doing the the Will of His Father.  All the rest was secondary; every bit of real success about Christianity came to be because success was never the primary goal in the first place.

Revitalizing your parish is a noble goal, and it is dearly needed.  But its not "the goal."  There are plenty of ways you can make people like Jesus and Christianity more.  Study mega-churches if you want you know them.  The parish's goal is not to beat the mega-church at its own game (That is, to be more widely appreciated, full, and well attended), because it is a false game.  Parishes are not organizations with goals, they are not corporations whose purpose is to succeed.  Parishes are families.  The family is a community with no goal other than to be family.  The family is "successful" to the extent that it is a family and nothing else.  You want to make your family better?  Be who you are, a member of the family, and do so the best you can.  You don't implement a vision statement for your family, you don't measure your family's success in achieving your family's goal, because your family doesn't exist to serve a goal.   It exists to be a family.

You want to build your parish better?  You have to do the same thing to make your family better: be better.  Your parish is your family of faith, it is those people God brought you together with, typically without much say on your behalf, because "Its not good for man to be alone" (Genesis 2:18).  Your parish isn't supposed to do anything except be a family of faith together, to grow in holiness together.  You have to strive to be holy if you want to make your Church better.  Its certainly a much more difficult and occluded process than any 10 step plan, but it is the only real way to revitalize your parish.  In fact, its the only way for you to do anything worthwhile.  Period.  Deo Gratias.