Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Good, the Bad, and the Heavenly

I reckon most people in the cities and in the streets today do not desire Heaven.  Actually, let me rephrase that:  most people do not realize that what they have been desiring for so long is Heaven.  Men and women walk about their lives desiring things, finding those things, and promptly repeating the cycle in desiring more things, different things, better things.  We are creatures of desire, perhaps infinite desire, and yet, few of us take this to mean we should desire the Infinite, the Heavenly.  Now, there could be many different reasons or combinations of reasons attributing to this amnesia of the Beatific, but I want to speak to one very simple factor: what it means to be Good.

When most people think of the requisites of Heaven, they think in terms of "good enough".  People who meet or surpass a certain standard of good behavior get into heaven, people who don't go to Hell, or at least a long stay in Purgatory.  Heaven, by the popular account, is life's Dean's List, a Who's Who of humanity's goody two-shoes, and requires us all to be, at least, "good enough".  This is not true.  Ladies and Gentlemen, you can never be "good enough" for heaven.  No matter how heroic, compassionate, generous, or virtuous you are, you will never impress God, let alone impress him enough to gain a spot on the Heavenly roster.  If Blessed Mother Teresa, in all of her radiating awesomeness, approached the Pearly Gates and said "Let me in, I've been a good girl my whole life!"  St. Peter would cast her out.  If Blessed John Paul II knocked on the Heavenly Doors and demanded access by merit of being an awesome Pope, which he was, He'd be left on the outside.  Now, I hold in the highest faith that both Blessed Teresa and Blessed John Paul are denizens of the Beatific Vision, so don't mistake me.  However, neither of them entered Heaven on the basis of being goody two-shoes.

Again, do not mistake me.  I don't mean to say that we shouldn't strive to be good, nor am I excusing bad behavior.  However, if you are hoping to get into heaven the same way you got into college, by meeting a certain standard of adequacy, you are sorely misguided my friend.  You see, while humans are certainly diverse, we do share one simple thing in common:  we are, each and every one of us, sinners.  Sin is more than bad behavior, sin is bad reality.  When Adam and Eve bit the apple, it was more than a no-no, it fractured the very reality we live in.  "Good enough" is never good enough, nor does one get in heaven by being acceptable or adequate.  Heaven is not for the well-behaved, the moral elite.  It serves God no purpose to have a select posse, a Divine clique of the acceptable.

So what is the mark of the heavenly citizen, and why should we be good if not for heavenly admittance?  Heaven, not merely being the reward of the moral all-stars, belongs to the beloved.  God, in his supreme sovereignty and Divine Awesomeness, finds we simple human beings to be absolutely useless.  God did not create us because he needed us or because we did something for him that he could not do for himself.  God created us in love, by love, through love, to love, and to be loved.  In Eden, it was not mankind's purpose to be adequate, because we were created perfectly.  In Eden, we loved and were loved, and our Fall was when we chose to love our self rather then our Father.  Heaven then, like Eden, is not moral economics, but Divine Romance.

Cue the Christ. Jesus Christ was without sin, not because he was fulfilling obligations, but because he fully and completely loved the Father.  In his life, death, and Resurrection, Jesus Christ inundated the world in the loving bond of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, an invitation for creation to join in participation of the Divine Relation. Christ gave us the ability to love God again, his Passion a stark testimony to God's unwavering love for us.  In Christ, we're enabled and invited to approach God, as debtors come to pay, but as sons and daughters embracing their loving Father.

Christianity is, at its purest, not a moral how-to, but a romance with the Divine, and from that romance flows moral excellence.  As a lover only desires to do good for their beloved, so do Christians desire only goodness for God.  Christians strive to do good, not because we hope to earn something, but because we love.  Love is the perfection merit can never be, the most sublime expression of our being.  Heaven is for those who, at the core of their being, are caught up in the relationship of Divine Love.  This is Heavenly: life lived in love, not obligation; a life not of achievement but of charity.  The souls in Heaven are there, not because they paid their price, but because they made themselves familiar with Heaven's loving reality long ago.

C.S. Lewis once said "When you arrive in Heaven, it will look like it was made for you, because you were made for it."  In all our desires, in our life of pursuits both successful and failed, we truly crave only one thing: Eden Reborn, the most sublime life of loving and being loved.  If, as I suspected, Heaven has fallen out of fashion, its because people have separated heaven from the notion of Love and, like all things, have connected it to the notion achievement, merit, and competition.  Ladies and Gentlemen, you cannot compete your way into Heaven.  The Pearly Gates do not open to the winner, but to the Lover.  What is most Heavenly, what is the highest good, is not the greatest moral achievement, but the greatest act of Love.  Love, and you will be saved.  Love, and Heaven will be yours.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Why Individualism Poses A Problem

I need to come up with more creative titles for my posts...

My last post touched on the rise of individualism in our culture and its distaste for organized religion (or for any ideological institution that kindly asserts that we don't get to be the center of our worlds, no matter how badly we want to be).  However, there's a much more practical (and hopefully less elaborate) way of showing how ridiculous individualism is.

"Ja, ubermensche!"
To review briefly, Individualism is the assertion of the individual's authority over his life. Simply put, its the idea that we are in charge of our own lives and free from anything or one who thinks otherwise.  Its not just a freedom from institutions and oppression, but a freedom against institutions and oppression.  The Individualist denies institutions and hierarchies any purpose or authority apart from that purpose/authority which individuals give to them.  To the individualist, the heart of my life ultimately boils down to me, my freedom, and how I express it upon the world around me.  This is the ideology that gave us modern democracy and the free market.  This is the mindset that lead to phenomenology and existentialism, philosophies that focused on and examined the human experience and the fantastic (and horrifying) abilities of human freedom.  However, this is also the frame of mind that also lead to bloody revolution, ubermensche, and relativism.

Do not mistake me, individualism has its merits.  There is a fantastic quality in the self, in the mystery of one's own existence and experience of themselves and the world around them.  However, the radical individualism that pervades modern society poses significant problems.  We live in a world of sports cars and sex, of decadence and depression, and of wealth and weariness.  The prowess of empowered individuals is everywhere in our world, so obvious that we take it for granted, yet we find it overwhelmingly insufficient.  We've never been so empowered or so enabled as individuals, nor have we been so profoundly lonely and miserable.  As we set out into the universe and seek to delight in our own individual-ness, we often shun anything that can limit or bind us.  We desire personal freedom and autonomy, even more than life itself at times, and in that desire, we forget one paradoxical truth:  Never is man so free as when he is totally captivated.  Though it sounds absurd, it is when we give ourselves over completely that we are at our most free.  Case in point, true love.  True love is captivating.  When a person truly loves another, they desire the good of the other more than they desire anything else, even life itself.

Love, by definition, is selfless.  Most human interactions are useful, typically mutually beneficial, business transactions that vary in purpose and degrees of formality.  Love, on the other hand, is purposeless.  Love, true love, is entirely without regard for one's self, the acts of a lover are for the sake of the beloved, and often require him to disregard his own will for the sake of his beloved.  This flies in the face of individualism.  Where the individualist asserts his freedom and will upon the world around him, the lover surrenders his freedom and will to his beloved, and it sets him truly free.  He does not act for his sake, but for hers, and in that selflessness, that utter rejection of his own desires, that he experiences absolute liberation.

This is why individualism fails.  Man's greatest ability and highest aspiration is not to be free, but to love and be loved.  He does not fulfill himself in pervasive self-obsession, but in self-gift, in willful captivation.  Modern man asserts himself as much as he can, he stakes a place for himself in the universe, only to find himself alone there, lost in the cosmos.  It is only when he releases himself to truly love and truly be loved by God and fellow man that he finds himself.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Why People Do Not Like Organized Religion

I knew that behind all the make-up, sex, and domestic
violence, there was a (crappy) philosopher deep in there.
If the modern discussion on rights (be it gun rights, contraceptive rights, abortion rights, or gay rights) has anything to teach us, its this simple lesson: our world loves individual freedom.  Take a stroll down the street and you will see, in such obvious fashion that almost none of us are aware of it, that the most treasured thing in our society is our personal freedom.  When we buy something, or state an opinion, or cast a vote, or craft an idea, we express a very fundamental freedom, the freedom to determine and to live the lives we live.  At the most fundamental level, we hold the freedom to, as Rihanna  put it, "live your life."  This is, for the most part, a fantastic thing.  As an individual, I love the ability to create and pursue whatever course of life I wish, whether it be something as simple as running for some Starbucks or grandiose as running for President.

However, we've let this ideology run amok in the modern day.  What used to be man's ability to choose his path in life has become man's ability to despotically determine and rule over his own worldview, defining for himself each and every aspect of the world around him.  Take this snippet from decision of the Casey v. Planned Parenthood case, which was settled in the United States Supreme Court in 1992: 

"At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life."

Sounds nice, I'll admit, but with its radical freedom comes a very cold and terrifying shadow: it is utterly and absolutely irresponsible.  There is nothing, apart from perhaps the opinions of others (almost all who are as equally stupid as oneself), to keep me from conjuring up the most ridiculously preposterous worldview  that I can possibly concoct.  This idea of freedom (lets call it Individualism), while pleasing to the ego, has absolutely nothing to do with reality.  Quite frankly, when you have the freedom to be the architect of your own world, it doesn't have to be even the slightest bit real, it can consist of whatever sort of self-deceiving malarchy one pleases.  This radical individualism of the present age has, to put it mildly, flown off to la-la land.

Please correct me if I'm wrong, but I feel there are
more adequate ways to summarize 2000 years of
Church teaching.
And what better way to see this than to examine the modern reaction to organized religion, say... Roman Catholicism.  (Yeah I'm biased, what of it?)  Whether it be the "Why I Love Jesus But Hate Religion" video, or whole HHS mandate mess, or the equally nuanced LCWR mess, or even this most recent gem of a video,  its increasingly clear that the voices of the wrinkly old men that populate the College of Bishops and the Chair of St. Peter are out of fashion.  The number of voices raised in protest of the so-called "oppressive male hierarchy" continues to rise for all sorts of various reasons, and almost all of them come back to the simple problem of individualism.  We, the people, the collection of individuals, like to be in charge of life, specifically, our own life, and that is precisely why we scowl at the Catholic Church:  because its the most glaring force of opposition to individualism.  Ask your average pew-sitter how much control they have in the Catholic Church, and they'll inform you they have almost absolutely no control.  At most, they may get to vote on parish councils, which have no authority apart from saying "Yes Father, we like that idea" or "No Father, we don't like that idea".  The "common people" of the Church, who are so used to having a controlling say in each and every other aspect of their life, have no authority when it comes to Catholicism, and this bothers many people.  

Now, I know this certainly isn't the most progressive of views to take, and its certainly not going to win me any awards for being modern or ideologically fashionable, but I say thank God for an anti-individualist Catholic Church.  Thank God that every Tom, Dick, and Harry don't get a hand in the Catholic Church, because if they would, the Catholic Church would neither be Catholic nor would it be Church.

I'm glad that, in the course of my day, I can wake up, walk to a coffee shop and get my coffee just the way I like it (Black as sin, hot as hell, and without cream or sugar).  I'm glad that I can choose what I will wear, where I will go, what I will do, who I will do it with.  However, I'm overjoyed that, at the end of the day, I can stumble into a Catholic Church, kneel down in submission, and breathe a breath of reality.  Thank God for the Catholic Church.  When we are lost in the cosmos, clutching to whatever excuse we have conjured and use to give our lives meaning, the Catholic Church stands on foundations of Rock (Petrine reference intended).  The Catholic Church exists, not because of a vote, or a committee, or a group consensus, but because at a certain time, and certain place on this very Earth, God became Man and built the Church in his own Body and Blood, set not upon imaginary foundations but upon foundations of Truth.  He did not instruct men to craft for themselves a spiritual home and religious tradition based upon whatever cockamamie schema they felt most inclined towards.  Rather, He endowed Divine Authority upon 12 simple men and their successors, so that they Church might not stand alone on the human capability, but on the Truth of the Holy Spirit.  

Perhaps its un-American of me, but I'm perfectly fine with being humbly subservient to old, wrinkly bishops, because they build the Church upon foundations they themselves did not set, following a plan they themselves did not create.  They are not delegates of the people to God, but servants of God for the people.  Against the dominant paradigm of radical individualism, where the individual must have the final say in all things, I am Catholic, because I cannot create Truth.  I may be able to choose which pair of pants I'm wearing, but I cannot choose what is and is not true, so I must kneel before that which is True and Real:  Jesus Christ, the Son of God, manifest in the presence and authority of his Church.  Christ is not my president, I do not get to to decide what I think is best for the Church through ballot or referendum.  Jesus Christ is my Lord and my King; I can but only and humbly kneel before him, safely nestled in the bosom of the God who loves me. 

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

When A Christian Meets The Culture

I remember it very well.  I had worked at the retreat center for a few months, mostly doing odds and ends and taking care of the various retreat groups.  This particular group was a rather large, a very traditional and very passionate Catholic group, and their speakers redefined the term "fire and brimstone."  My job was merely to alert them when their meals were served and ensure they were well accommodated for, not to monitor their content. However, the talk I walk in on caught my attention and made me rather alarmed.  It was titled along the lines of "Our Wicked Evil Culture" or something like that, and the presenter was a very passionate man.  "How many of you watch pornography?" he howled to the audience. (On a side note, great question to ask a group of 60 yr old ultra-conservative Catholics.)  No one answered of course.  "How many of you watch television?" he asked again.  This time every hand went up.  "Then you are watching pornography!  Everything on the television is pornography!"  Needless to say, this startled me.  The moral quality of TV is certainly deteriorating, but for me, there seemed to be a far cry between Duck Dynasty and blatant pornography.  The speaker's talk continued on and on, laying into the "evils" that envelope our society.

We know these folks certainly do.
The speaker is not alone in his sentiment however, especially amongst much of the Church.  More and more often, we hear deploring calls against the evils of our culture, ranging from mournful cries for a lost society to nostalgic eulogies for times past to electrified calls for repentance.  People, especially of the Christian bent, are increasingly and (at least to me) alarmingly fixated with the presence of evil in our culture.  We love to drone on and on about how wretched a culture we have, how corrupt the system is, how our society is devastated by sin and evil.  We yearn for an opportunity to remark on how hard it is to be a Christian in today's culture, or to talk about how Catholics have to heroically face off against the evil in this world which seeks to suppress them.  At face value, you'd almost conclude that the Church takes a sort of morbid pleasure in gazing upon the wickedness of our society.

Now, before I am misunderstood, I don't mean to apologize for society, or to suggest that society isn't all that bad once you get to know it.  Far from it, I wholeheartedly agree that we have a huge problem.  Our society generally sucks at being human, this I profess.  However, such a fact seems self-evident enough to us that it doesn't need professing.  Go to a passerby on the street.  Ask them if they think there's something wrong in the world today, and I'll bet my lunch money they'll say yes.  They might vary on what that exactly is, but there's a pretty universal consensus that we've got a problem.  If we're all in agreement that human society is flawed, why do we seem so content to reiterate that point?

The Christian, when faced with a messy and disordered world, is not asked to gaze upon it and remark about how twisted and broken it is, just like a paramedic, when faced with a tangled car wreck, is not summoned to gaze upon it and remark about how mangled the wreckage is.  Nor is it the job of the Christian  (or paramedic) to smirk lithely about how foolish those trapped in the wreckage are.  No, the Christian is called to do as Christ did.  Christ gazed upon a messy and broken world full of messy and broken world and rather than separating himself from it, entered into the midst of it.  From the moment of conception, Christ surrounded himself with the world of brokenness and wickedness, they were tighter to him than the swaddling clothes he was wrapped in.  From the beginning  of his ministry, Christ designated for himself a course into the heart of the dystopic world, culminating in his own destruction at the hands of the powers that be.  He did not avoid the brokenness, nor did he partake of them, and he certainly didn't stand in the temple and say "Oh my Dad  (  <---- its a joke.  ) this world is absolutely hopeless!"  Facing off against a broken world, Christ took the radical option:  he undermined it by self-sacrificial love.

We love to draw a bold line between the Church and the culture, tracing in the dusty earth neat and clear battle lines on which we can wage war against a world full of sin and suffering.  We love to picket abortion clinics and March for Live and imagine we're a vast army against evil.  But Christians aren't soldiers against culture, and the line of battle isn't drawn between Church and the culture, but down our own hearts.  If we come to question how our world got to be such a mess, I should hope we look in our mirrors.  Sin starts and ends in the hearts of human beings, and even the best intentioned of today's Christian must confess to their part in our world's condition.  If we seek to stare deeply into the evils of our society, we will only end up staring into the brokenness of our own hearts.  This solves nothing.

Christians in the face of a shattered world are called to one simple, yet revolutionary, duty:  Love.  It sounds so obvious, but do not disregard its profundity.  Love, true love, is the only acceptable response a Christian can give to a world so lacking.  Not violence, not fury, not indignation, not disgust, but radical love.  Christian love does not obsess over what is evil, but delights in goodness.  "Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." Phil. 4:8  The Christian, if he wishes to close abortion clinics and slow teenage pregnancies, would be wiser to love life and treasure his daughter rather than complain about a sexually dysfunctional world.  If he wishes to end loneliness and poverty, let him delight in the company of others and tend to the poor rather than scoff with the latest statistics about depression and homelessness.  

The Christian must never be a spectator, nor must he or she be a polemicist.  The Christian has to be active in the world, an agent through which Christ's love continues to save the world.  It's easy to cringe at how bad the problem is.  Its much harder to laugh with joy at how good our God is.  We must take this hard road.  In a dry and dusty time, we must plant the seeds of eternal life.  We must constantly show the world the God who loves them.  This is how we slay dragons and fell giants, not in anger, but in charity.  Let no one who suffers be mistaken, make it irrefutable that our God is a God who loves absolutely.  This is our only task, and may it be done by all.