Whosoever Desires...

Blogging Jesuits! Nathan O’Halloran, SJ of Under a Chindolea has brought together a number of Jesuit writers to form a promising new group blog called Whosoever Desires, which kicks off today on the Feast of St. Ignatius. Posts thus far contemplate such topics as Human Ecology, Pope Benedict and Darwin, and prophylactic soda.

Avoiding a Bath: Catholic Home Edition

While some creative people use Christian imagery to develop a story or build a church, my son uses it to delay taking a bath. He's three years old and very imaginative. Throughout the day, he fancies himself Prince Philip from Sleeping Beauty, Tarzan, a garbage truck, and Bob the Builder. Sometimes his narratives converge. He assigns me the roles of the dragon, horse, leopard, and trash. Sometimes I'm a Balrog, which is, I admit, better than being a pile of waste. Anyhow, my son loves taking a bath, but he seems to forget this love during those few minutes before it's time to get in the tub. Yesterday, following his standard, screamed complaints about bath-time, he said to me, while standing on the couch with his back pressed against the cushion: "I can't take a bath, Daddy. I'm Jesus, and I'm stuck to the cross."

Consumer Spirituality

In their book Radical Hospitality, Father Daniel Homan, O.S.B. and Lonni Collins Pratt say the following about American spirituality:
American spirituality is basically consumer spirituality. God is a product with incredible benefits. God helps us live well, live healthfully, be prosperous and emotionally strong. God is like a great motivational speaker or talk show host who offers a banquet of options for successful spirituality. You look over the banquet and select what appeals to you.

[…]

It is tragically and poignantly adolescent, with the deep emotion and angst that goes with adolescence. It is a spirituality that seeks improvement for life—a better me, a better relationship—but it does not seek God and it does not move us toward others. It just keeps us running on the treadmill of our little egocentric worlds.
Reading this reminded me of a telling scene in Woody Allen’s movie, Hannah and Her Sisters. In the movie, Allen’s character, after learning that he doesn’t have brain cancer, begins a short-lived search for deeper meaning by exploring various religious faiths. He encounters Christianity – Catholicism in particular – as nothing more than a well-marketed product for consumption. We see him standing outside a Christian bookstore, looking through a window at a picture of Jesus. When Allen sways to the left, Jesus’ eyes open; when he sways to the right, his eyes close. Next we see Allen return home with a paper grocery bag. He sets in on the counter and pulls out a crucifix, a framed picture of St. Jude, and a loaf of Wonder Bread.

To Allen’s character, and probably Allen himself, Christianity is just a brand-name hyperbolically promising something it cannot realistically deliver. Like Wonder Bread. It may give comfort, but it doesn’t deliver real wonders. I can’t really blame Allen’s character for moving on to another religion. True, his chosen exposure to Christianity was too brief and way too superficial, yet this superficial consumerism is too often the mark of how Christians practice and market their religion.

If spirituality is nothing more than a product that delivers comfort, then it’s an easily replaceable product. A feel-good movie, a bar of chocolate, a cold beer, or a pill can do the same. It’s with these things that consumer spirituality competes in the market place. Genuine spirituality, Homan and Pratt remind us, “is not cozy, and seldom makes you comfortable. It challenges, disturbs, unsettles, and leaves you feeling like someone is at the center of your existence on a major remodeling mission.” Genuine spirituality involves risk and hospitality, opening one’s heart and one’s space to the stranger. The writings of the saints and mystics attest to this deeper, harsher, but more rewarding reality of spirituality. Spirituality takes us outside of our comfort zone and opens us to others, to what is foreign, alien, alternative, dangerous, and even to what is infinite. (MC)

The Perishers. Pills

The Silver Calabash

A curious and easily overlooked detail in Melville’s Moby-Dick might say much about the character of Captain Ahab, but the ambiguity of the detail makes interpretation difficult. Before boarding the Pequod, Ahab’s ship, in pursuit of the white whale, the narrator, Ishmael, encounters a strange man on the docks named Elijah. The stranger warns Ishmael about Ahab, showing him how little he knows about the captain. Ishmael, despite his claiming to know all about Captain Ahab, can only speak of him in vague generalities. Elijah, on the other hand, speaks of Ahab in more detail, but his statements seem no less ambiguous. Elijah asks Ishmael if he knows about the “deadly skrimmage with the Spaniard afore the altar in Santa” and “the silver calabash he spat into.” He hasn’t, but dismisses Elijah’s ominous hints as gibberish.

Elijah doesn’t give Ishmael much of an image, but the picture he paints should have clued Ishmael into the person from whom he would soon take orders—at least, had Ishmael’s ears been more attentive, he should have inquired further into the meaning of the strange prophet. Consider the image: Ahab was before an altar in Santa, he kills a Spaniard, and he spits into a silver calabash. Given the names, it’s pretty clear that Ahab killed a man before an altar in Catholic country. He was in a church or a chapel, holy ground in any case. It is here, apparently, that he spits into a silver calabash. A calabash is a type of gourd, one that looks like a bowl. In fact, calabashes are sometimes dried and made into bowls. So Ahab spits into a bowl while before an altar in a Catholic holy setting. Could this silver calabash have held the Eucharist?

It requires no stretch of the imagination to see Captain Ahab spitting into a bowl that holds the Eucharist. When Starbuck, Ahab’s first-mate, describes the captain’s obsession with the white whale as madness and blasphemous, Ahab responds, “Talk to me not of blasphemy, man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.” “Who’s over me?” Ahab asks. “Truth hath no confines.” The white whale injured Ahab, and he seeks vengeance: “That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreck that hate upon him.” If the sun (Son?) itself were to insult him, he would strike it in return, with the same blasphemous obsession with which he hunts Moby Dick. Do we see the tragic tale of man’s rebellion against God in Ahab’s self-destructive and hate-filled quest to destroy the white whale?

Ahab initiates the hunt and establishes communion and common purpose on his ship with a ritual of shared drink, a false and perverse liturgy of the Eucharist. “Drink and pass!” Ahab cries. “Round with it, round! Short draughts—long swallows, men; ‘tis hot as Satan’s hoof.” Then, after implying he’s something like the Pope, Ahab has the harpooneers, “my sweet cardinals,” detach the iron part of the harpoons and angle them so they can be filled with drink. In the ritual, the harpooneers are made cup-bearers to “commend the murderous chalices.” He has them drink and swear: “Death to Moby Dick! God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death!” Ahab himself admits his quest comes from hell. Among his final declarations before the white whale destroys him, his crew, and the Pequod are the words “…to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” Ishmael really should have heeded Elijah’s warning. (EC)

My Son's Potty Humor

I wouldn’t mind my son’s newfound potty humor so much if it were a bit more imaginative, but the stuff he’s produced (excreted?) so far merits the amount of applause given to the bottom-of-the-barrel comic lines written by third-rate Hollywood screenwriters. Then, again, he’s only three. So changing the “Bob the Builder” song to “Bob the Pooper” might be more meritorious than I give it credit for. I do wish he wouldn’t sing the song when he’s with me at the office, at the store, or in the hallway at church.

The boy is really into potties these days. He identifies and compares various places predominantly with reference to their toilets: The toilet at Half-Price Books is like the potty at mommy’s work. The library has an automated toilet. I can go with mom into mommy’s potty, but you can’t go into mommy’s potty, Daddy. Taking the boy shopping tends to slow the process, as he insists in visiting the restroom, both to take care of business and to examine the toilet for future reference and discussion.

There’s an old saying that we create from what we know. That seems to be true for my son.

The Wrestler

The other evening my wife and I took a break from our marathon through the Buffy the Vampire Slayer series to watch Darren Aronofsky’s film, The Wrestler. The movie stars Mickey Rourke as a professional wrestler 20 years removed from his glory days and Marisa Tomei as a stripper struggling to compete with the younger employees. Randy “The Ram” Robinson and Cassidy sell their bodies for people’s carnal appetites, but age and other things have taken their toll on business and their happiness. Randy has an action figure of himself on his dashboard, but he frequently has to sleep in his van because the trailer park manager has locked him out of his home.

The Wrestler is an existential film, one I’d likely show if I were teaching a class on Existentialism. It’s a harsh look at a man who may be running from or embracing who he is—we’re not sure. At least, I wasn’t sure. Despite the loss of prestige, Randy continues to wrestle in less than glorious settings, subjecting himself to punches, staple-guns, barbed wire, self-inflicted razor wounds, and whatever else pleases the audience—the people he considers his only family. He works part-time at a grocery store to help pay the bills, but while he shows up for work, he’s never really there. A heart attack midway through the film pushes him away from wrestling into retirement, at least for a while. Continuing his violent passion will probably kill him. So says a doctor. And when meager exercise takes a huge toll on Randy, a man used to being smacked around with ladders, he knows and we know the doctor is right.

Aronofsky shows us Randy’s decisive return to the ring, but not whether Randy’s return kills him. Whether Randy lives or dies isn’t really the question. The question that most interested me was whether Randy’s return to wrestling signified despair or hope, a flight or an embrace of his identity. He’s willing to die doing what he loves and being with the people he believes love him, but he’s, well, willing to die, to give up on life, a possible life with Cassidy. He makes a decision at the film’s end to forsake a potentially real relationship for a moment’s stardom. He seems happy with his decision, but I couldn’t help but think he could have been much happier. I wonder if Randy could have been someone other than the wrestler. I’m not sure. He didn’t think so. (VN)

In Defense of Pluralism

Katerina rightly rejects a pluralism that leaves “everybody to believe in whatever they believe is true,” that levels all beliefs and erases any real difference between truth and falsehood. Such a pluralism reduces every belief to the same, closes the door on difference, and makes persuasive dialogue rather pointless. There’s nothing really plural about this pluralism. It’s quite boring, actually.

The pluralism I would defend might be defined as the acknowledgement and celebration that while truth may ultimately be one, the pursuit of it in this life never reaches the possession of it in a unified, totalizing whole. Therefore, there may be many true philosophies, true histories, true interpretations, true paradigms, true scientific theories, true ethics or true theologies. According to this pluralism, the sum of our collective knowledge cannot be made into a coherent body in which all the pieces perfectly fit.

Why is it that our various expressions of truth cannot be made into one whole and coherent body? Is truth not the correspondence of our ideas to reality? And isn’t reality one thing? It would seem that the truth is one, not many. The reality is not quite that simple.

We are subjects situated in time and place. Our pursuit of truth cannot escape that situation. We construct all of our philosophies, histories, interpretations, ethics, and other bodies of knowledge in a particular time and place; these multiple constructs of ours are comprised of temporal building blocks. We use language to express the truth, for example, and language is wedded to time and place, to culture and history. We may use language to express timeless truths, but no language of ours is timeless. We may speak of universals, but our statements are particular things. We might walk upon the road to truth, but we also build the road on which we walk, selecting and incorporating earthly materials into our construction.

We can no more harmoniously synthesize the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle than we can neatly combine the worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling. I may be informed by both the spiritualities of St. Francis of Assisi and St. Teresa of Avila, but each one’s spiritual literature guides me in unique ways, using different images. The history of Thucydides doesn’t stack nicely on the history of Herodotus, as if each were like my son’s Lego blocks. Every speaker and writer has a unique voice, a voice that is her own, that composes words in ways unlike any other. Many may speak the truth, but each speaks it in a special way. What each says cannot, in the end, be divorced from the person who says it. What each person says comes from who he is and is informed by his experiences.

I defend this pluralism because I want there to be many roads, made of many different materials, coming from and going in many different directions. I want there to be many travelers, many voices, each with a new story to tell. Not all roads lead to where they seek, of course, and some may lead to false destinations. Not all travelers seek the same place. Not all of them even seek a good place. Some roads may lead to ruin, a fact which should motivate debate, and sometimes the use of corrective tools. What I oppose is taking the sledgehammer to every road that differs from one’s own, or worse, taking a sledgehammer to other travelers who speak differently or of different things. The plurality of roads and wayfarers calls for hospitality. We may have something to contribute to another’s journey, and she may have much to contribute to ours. (EC)

The Illusionists

Mark Shea, making sense:
Back in the day, "conservative Catholics" were (I thought) all about standing with the teaching of the Church against the Progressive Dissenters who wanted to trim out all that stuff that interfered with their sex lives and their politics.

The torture debates cured me of that illusion once and for all. A great deal of what passes for "conservative Catholic" stuff in the public square is really an attempt to co-opt and even contradict the Church (while still selling itself as the "voice of truly true Catholicism" over against those awful leftist dissenters that you should, by all means, go on condemning (and pay no attention to "conservative Catholic" dissent).

A Brief Note on Government-Run Healthcare

The expression, that is. Whether we try to remedy our healthcare woes with a government program, a market solution, or a combination of the two, our healthcare system will be run by people. We will have people-run healthcare. Granted, people in different organizations may have different incentives and motivations, but it’s still people who run the show. Yes, bureaucracies bring us frustrating limitations, but the bureaucrats are still people. I am not competent to speak on the most prudent way to improve our healthcare system, so my primary concern in whatever system we choose is that the people running that system have a good sense of economics, moral principles, medicine and health and are motivated by a love for life and a desire to care for others.

Conditions Geeks Get

I mainly play role-playing games like Final Fantasy and Vagrant Story, so I probably don't have to worry about developing this condition, but I might get something similar if I continue to avoid growing up.



H/T: Donald R. McClarey

Three-Years-Old Today

A happy birthday to my little dragon slayer!

A Hallucination? I think not!

As I left work yesterday, I began to rethink the wisdom of bicycling to and from work in the 105 degree summer heat of North Texas. The temperature was beyond uncomfortable; it was strangely nice, like being in front of a large open oven where something yummy is cooking. About halfway home, though, a really strange thing happened. The ground vanished. In its place, an ocean of water rose and splashed all around me. Then came the sharks, a variety of sizes and colors, swimming this way and that way. Some honked at me. One had a Florida license plate. I avoided that one. Dangerous sharks in Florida. My peddling turned into swimming, and I did all I could to maintain my sense of direction. I texted a co-worker who had kindly offered me a ride, warning her about the hungry beasts. Even when I'm in grave danger, I think of others first, you see. Fortunately, I made it home in one piece. My wife seemed doubtful of my story, but I knew the experience was real because I was dripping gallons of salty water. What other explanation could there have been?

Time of Debate, Discernment, and Patience

Paul Ricoeur rejected as an illusion the idea that all the various levels of truth can be harmoniously situated into a singular philosophical system. In History and Truth, he wrote, “The ultimate meaning of man’s perilous adventures and the values which they unfold is condemned to remain ambiguous: time remains the time of debate, discernment, and patience.” John Paul II said something similar in Fides et Ratio: “No historical form of philosophy can legitimately claim to embrace the totality of truth, nor to be the complete explanation of the human being, of the world and of the human being’s relationship to God.”

Time is the time of the other, of fragments, and of hope for the unity of truth. Time will not see the construction of the final, totalizing philosophy nor the fragments of truth neatly fitted together. It will not see the end of inquiry and debate. Time will not see the pursuit of truth turn into a possession. Time, then, is a time for hospitality, a time to welcome the other, to listen to her stories and to share her perilous adventures.

Our time is becoming more and more pluralistic. Postmodern, it is sometimes called. This pluralistic character of our society and culture presents certain ordeals in the pursuit of truth. We hear more and more voices, more and more disagreements, and, with the Internet, more and more “talk.” Hospitality has become more pressing virtue for us to practice. Of course, not all those who “talk” or debate are interested in pursuing the truth. Not all who engage us deserve a warm welcome. Without the virtue of hospitality, though, we won’t have the opportunity to discern those who seek the truth from those who could care less for it, and so without hospitality we may miss hearing words that would call us closer to our goal.

Cross-posted: VN

Are We Catholics Mindless Robots?

Do we unquestioningly and without a moment's thought repeat what Church Authorities claim is Truth? Do we happily attribute to fallible men a frightful power to think for us in all matters of metaphysics and morals? Do we march to a pre-programmed beat, leaving logic, reasoning, and inquiry in our wake? Well, obviously. Just look at how seriously we take papal encyclicals.

Now I'm sure one would not have to spend much time in the Catholic blogosphere before encountering a Catholic who seems to adhere unthinkingly to whatever the Pope says, but then one wouldn't have to spend much time browsing the Internet to find people who, without reflection, trust other authorities, such as philosophers, talk-radio hosts, or celebrities. I, for example, have to remind myself that while Paul Ricoeur was beyond genius, he could have been wrong about stuff. (Please don't tell me what that stuff was. You'll bring my fragile philosophical world crashing down, and that's more than I can bear).

It's true that Catholics submit to the teaching authority of the Church. However, our submission and obedience here is not unthinking, but rather the logical consequence of what we believe about the nature of the Church. We believe that God himself founded the Catholic Church and that he guides and protects it in its mission. Our thinking about matters of faith and morals doesn't take place in a vacuum — no one's thinking does, actually. Our thinking about faith and morals starts from the premise that God has spoken to humanity about these things and that he continues to speak to us through his Church.

Whether or not this premise is true is something every Catholic ought to have thought over a great deal. I said above that we start our thinking about faith and morals from this premise, but we ought to have arrived at this premise after much intellectual effort. If we have reflected on its truth and, after much questioning, come to the conclusion that it is true, then we are not unthinking in our obedience to the Church's teaching authority. We are not mindless robots. Rather, we are true to the consequences of holding a particular premise.

On Christian Conception and Responsibility

In her book The Humility of God, Franciscan sister Ilia Delio writes that “it is the task of Christians to help personalize the universe in the love of Christ” and “to discover Christ at the heart of the universe.” As a Christian, I am called to give birth to the love of Christ in the world.

This vocation establishes a foundational framework for how I conceive and respond to the other. If I truly believe in the Incarnation and am truly motivated by the Resurrection, then I will conceive the other as a child of God, a beloved of God, a brother or sister made for Christ, as one meant to share in the love of Christ. Moreover, I will see and follow through on the obligation to love the other. My most fundamental response to the other will be a response of love. I will desire that I and the other share in the love life of the Trinity.

This Christian conception and responsibility should inform every encounter we have with others – even those encounters marked by enmity and hostility. Christ’s command to love our enemies presupposes that we will have enemies. Jesus didn’t magically rid the world of evil; we’re certainly not going to. The call to love our enemies is not a call to pretend that others never really mean us harm. It is a call to see others and respond to them in love and in truth, to see our enemies first and foremost as those to whom divine love obligates us.

Regrettably, I don’t always see the other this way. The conflicts I have with others establish their own images of the other. Too often I imagine another first and foremost as an enemy to be defeated. He is sometimes to me nothing more than a villain, a terrorist, a competitor, a tyrant, a threat, or a danger. I cheer his downfall and celebrate his defeat. Mindful of my temporal good, I forget his eternal good and forsake the law of love.

As Sister Delio rightly observes, this world is messy, but that is no excuse to abandon the world. God is involved in the mess, “humbly bent down in love for a fragile and finite creation,” and his command of love demands that we also be lovingly involved in the mess. That poses some risk. Jesus understood that risk. The Christian martyrs knew that risk as well, yet their love for those who brought about their deaths prevailed. In dying for Christ and in dying for their enemies, Christians gave birth to Christ’s love. If I call myself a Christian, then I am called to brave the risks of a messy and dangerous world. If I ignore that call, then I do not know Christ.

__________

Delio, Ilia. The Humility of God: A Franciscan Perspective. (Cincinnati: St. Antony Messenger Press, 2005), 130-1.

Cross Posted: EC

Evangelical Catholicism

M.J. Andrew and Katerina have revived their blog Evangelical Catholicism and brought in new contributors Joe Hargrave, Joshua B, Ashley Marie, and me. The writers at EC will strive to give expression to a lived faith "informed and shaped by contingent factors such as geography, education, politics, social constructs–in a word, experience." Topics will include theology, philosophy, ministry, culture, spirituality, and socio-political life–pretty much anything that touches on the Catholic faith.