Thursday, 24 April 2014

We Live in Full-Time Ministry

I have been under an immense amount of pressure lately from several angles, a pressure under which I often thrive, but certain family conflicts have meant that I simply do not have the time, the energy or the disposition to do all the things I have to. I have made reference before to how I have something of a reputation for doing a lot, including a notable six university courses, which is twice the minimum for a full time load. These family troubles though, whose nature I would rather not disclose for privacy's sake, have caused several mishaps academically recently, and I am at the point where I think I will drop two of those courses (leaving me at still a full-time load, amusingly enough). This means I will not be able to cram my four year degree into three years, it will take me three years and a half (since I already crammed half a year into my degree thus far). This bothers me more than it should.

To see why, let me do some rough calculations, and disclose my life plan of sorts. I warn that this plan is, of course, exceedingly contingent on all manner of things, but I will sketch regardless. If I drop those two courses, then I will finish my degree in three and a half years, which when added to an Honours degree year, makes 4.5. That would finish halfway through 2017. There's some uncertainty at this point over what  I will do next. Tentatively, my plan is to apply to the top universities to pursue doctoral studies, and if I cannot get into a good university for that, then I will hope to directly enter into the novitiate of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). If I do get to complete a PhD, it will probably last about 4-5 years, so that would take me to the beginning of 2022. Here I am even more uncertain, though I imagine I would enter the Society here, and if whoever is in charge permits, do post-doctoral work afterwards. It would be up to whoever is my Provincial Superior (at least, I think that's roughly how it works). If that's how it works, then assuming about 15 years until ordination, I would be ordained probably sometime at the end of 2037. That means I would be ordained at age 43.

For a 19-year-old like myself, being 43 sounds rather old. Now, that's about 24 years of life away, so of course I would be considerably older then, but I think it sounds more than just old, it sounds too old. Why? Because I think I harbour the perception that, since my vocation is to that life, I will not actually have gotten there until my life is half done. Note that this is not saying that the only form of service is as a priest - what I am saying is that, if my service is meant to be as a Jesuit priest, then it stands to reason that I should get to being a Jesuit priest as fast as possible.

This is absolutely wrong. When one does calculations like the one above, where years are added until one gets to a certain stage or event in life, one is going about the issue of life in a misguided way. I do not start my ministry when I get ordained, I start it the moment I get baptised. All Christians, whether ordained or not, whether working explicitly in Christian things or not, are in full time ministry, because our lives are our ministry.

In the Church's calendar, we are now in the Easter season, which stretches from Easter Sunday through to the day of Pentecost, for fifty days. It is a very interesting time liturgically: at the Easter Vigil, we baptise the new converts, and celebrate the Resurrection. This celebration lasts for fifty days until Pentecost, which has sometimes been described as the birthday of the Church, because it is when the Church received her commissioning. This period is hence the transitional period between baptism and mission, the time of preparation for our task to begin.

Everyone who passed through the waters of baptism, the womb of Mother Church, is now preparing for their lives of ministry. It is their whole life they have given, they can no longer live for themselves, as the reading from that same Easter Vigil reminds us:

"Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life." (Romans 6)

In other words, Christians' lives are, because of their calling by Jesus and their baptism into his death, now dedicated solely to God, and that means that the life of a Christian, whatever their job, marital status, etc., is full time ministry. It is full time because our newness of life is full time. Unless, of course, you are a part-time Christian - in that case, no sweat, you are also only a part time minister.

This has profound implications for how I view that long time until ordination, even removing the five years of doctoral studies. I cannot count it as a "this and that, then I start ministry." Ministry starts now. Right now my ministry is going to involve such exciting things as reading what Brian Barry has to say and calculating Hermitians of quantum mechanics operators, whilst I serve the Newman Society here at UQ in whatever role it is (I am currently the Secretary). If I just refer to what I do as an official capacity, if my answer to "what do you do?" is "I study Science and Arts at UQ" then I have lost from the start. If I was being accurate, I would have to say "I live out my vocation as a Christian in the context of studying Science and Arts at UQ."

One of the reasons that the impoverished answer I usually give is on the completely wrong track, even though I know that is what the asker wants to hear, is that it ignores one of the core components of Christian ministry: people, and our relationships with them. As I once remarked to someone: "You know what's wrong with to-do lists and timetables? It's hard to put people on to-do lists and timetables." Because I did not once mention people or relationships in the planner I gave above, that discomfort at "getting there" when I am middle-aged has been produced. If instead of thinking "2015 is my third year of university, I will be doing Statistical Mechanics, third year Quantum Mechanics and third year Fields, as well as Complex Analysis, Advanced Topics in Metaphysics..." I thought "I will be doing my third year of university in 2015, where I'll be studying a bunch of exciting things, as well as making sure I always have time to build caring relationships with my close family, who I will be moving away from in the upcoming years, making sure to be kind to strangers, being loving towards my friends, and always going out of my ways to serve the poor", then I would be on the ball!

It is in my nature to make lists, timetables, schedules and the like. Even though I am undisciplined, I am quite organised, in that sense. However, it is the intangibles, the things that cannot be easily placed on my schedule, that are really the meaningful things that I should think of as occupying those two-dozen years between now and my projected ordination date. They cannot be placed on any to-do list because they should be on every such list. For the same reason, full-time ministry cannot be placed on a schedule, because it fills the whole thing. When I really internalise the fact that the important things, the people, the relationships, cannot be timetabled, then I will stop thinking of half my life having disappeared by the time that most exciting Veni Creator Spiritus is sung.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

In Defence of Christian Vegetarianism? Introduction

For a very long time in human history, there have been people who did not eat animal flesh. The ancient Greeks referred to vegetarianism as "ἀποχὴ ἐμψύχων", or "abstinence from beings with a soul", and one of the more famous Greeks, Pythagoras, was a vegetarian. In the East, both the Hindu and Buddhist traditions have strong vegetarian tendencies. Among the Christian saints, St John Chrysostom and St Basil the Great seem to have been vegetarians. More generally among Christians, St Augustine of Hippo (certainly not a vegetarian himself) notes that Christians who abstain from meat are "without number" (cf. On the Morals of the Catholic Church).

Still, neither humanity nor Christianity have by any means been traditionally vegetarian. Even the many other Christians who abstained from meat have typically not done so for ethical reasons, but as part of some form of asceticism. Nonetheless, it is necessary to examine our practices, even those which have been practised for thousands of years, and ask: is this ethical?

Having thought about this issue on occasion for about a month now, I think there are about twelve arguments of varying strength for being a vegetarian, and about a dozen objections to Christians being vegetarians, each of which is worthy of note, but none of which are, in the end, successful. Not all the arguments for Christian vegetarianism are explicitly Christian, and I would not consider them all to be entirely convincing - for instance, I do not believe in human rights, so I am far from accepting the "extension" of these to animals. However, since talk of human rights is frequently found in Christian parlance, I have included it in the list. On the other side, I doubt most Christians will readily accept explicitly utilitarian arguments, even though I tend to find these more convincing than the rights-based ones.

Allow me to briefly summarize my position: the ideal for human life is to live in a world without death, both of animals and humans, where we live at peace with each other, creation, and God. However, whilst the coming kingdom of Heaven is like that, this is not the world we live in yet. Right now, there is death, pain and suffering, and the way we live our lives must recognize this fact. However, where possible, we should try and minimize unnecessary death and pain. Hence, we should avoid eating meat. More generally, however, our food (and other) choices should take into consideration the amount of suffering that is required to produce that food, and the meat industry, in general, produces more suffering than can be justified. It is therefore not right to eat meat, since this constitutes formal cooperation with the evil of that suffering. This is a position taken in light of current meat-rearing practices, and cannot necessarily be projected onto the past.

John Rawls and Grace

I have recently had to attend several lectures on social and economic justice focusing on the thought of John Rawls, out of which I spun an essay on what a just distribution of income and wealth is. It struck me as I read his landmark work how much Rawls, though he stopped being a Christian as a young man, understood what Catholics think of as grace. John Rawls was an American political philosopher who really broke through a lull in Anglo-phone political (and moral) philosophy with his monumental A Theory of Justice (1971), attacking the reigning utilitarian approach to political philosophy in addition to the pervasiveness of moral non-cognitivism. When he died, aged 81, the world lost a truly immense philosopher.

The central issue I tackled in his work was this: what justifies, morally speaking, a distribution of income and wealth in a society? What makes it just? Rawls' argument begins by noting that we should not think that morally arbitrary things (whatever the person did not choose or earn for themselves) justly determine a distribution; we should not believe that being born into the right family means one should be wealthy, for instance, or the wrong family, and one should be poor. To put it more starkly, we do not believe a feudal system or a caste system is justified morally, at least not simply from the being-born-into point of view. It could, in principle, be advantageous for other reasons.

This would include, of course, not only what family one is born into, but also one's sex, race, religion, etc. There may be times these are morally relevant, but for the most part, these do not constitute a justification for one distribution of goods in a society: it is not right for the men in a society to earn more simply because they are men, for example. We think maleness and femaleness morally arbitrary, because one cannot pick one's sex or earn it.

However, there is something else that one was simply born with, that one neither chose nor earned: our talents. If Joe is intelligent, it is because he was born that way, or was nurtured that way. Even things we do consider to be morally relevant, like effort due to a hard working spirit, are no doubt largely due to natural and nurtured factors outside the control of the person. If what is not earned is morally arbitrary, then one cannot justify the distribution based on merit. For instance, the person born with a mental illness does not deserve to be dirty poor, since we do not think that the person deserved to be born that way.

Hence, whilst the distribution of goods cannot be made legitimate by naturally acquired privileges like being born into the right caste, it also cannot be made legitimate by other aspects of the natural lottery, like natural talents or propensities to work hard, study hard, etc. From these one can derive no merit, produce nothing that would count as desert (a fancy term for something deserved). To cut briefly to the chase, his second principle deals with this issue, combining equality of opportunity that is fair (similarly gifted individuals have the same chance of getting some opportunity, despite irrelevant differences) and the so-called difference principle, which says that social and economic inequalities are justified only if they are arranged in such a way so as to benefit the least advantaged group in society. So, as an example I have used a fair bit recently, it might be a good idea to pay doctors more (an inequality), since everyone benefits from having good doctors.

Rawls' conclusion aside, the point I want to highlight is his defence of the idea that everything is in the unearned basket. In part, this amounts to the saying that "it rains on the just and the unjust," but it goes further than that. Not only are the conditions the same for everyone, no matter the circumstances, which amounts to saying that anyone can get lucky, but everything is ultimately in the luck basket. Except, Christians do not ultimately believe in luck, either. We think that good things are a matter of grace - that is to say, they are gifts which are unearned, and hence we are not able to boast about them. When the rich little boy laughs at the poor little boy on the street for being poor, the child is doing something very silly: he is making his parents wealth into something that he earned himself, and therefore that places him above the poor kid. But we realize that, whether we concede that the parents earned the money or not, the child is not more deserving than the poor parents' child.

Why God produces a non-homogeneous distribution of talents and natural virtues is not something I am going to discuss at present, and I am far from sure I know the answer at all. What I will note is the relevance of this to the area Christians speak of grace the most, and that is in salvation. If Rawls is right and our talents, natural propensities to work and so forth, really are a result of a natural lottery, then the same can be said for our moral goodness. This is quite a radical idea, but it is essentially what Catholics have always said: that humans are not naturally capable of merit, because the capacity to do goods naturally is unearned. If they are good, then they became good by some means outside of their control. Good is clearly still better than bad, but it is clear that our natural virtue is outside our direct control. In short, with regard to God, there is no right to merit, because we receive everything from God (cf. CCC 2007). However, Catholics do believe in merit. I think the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it best, when it says:

"The merit of man before God in the Christian life arises from the fact that God has freely chosen to associate man with the work of his grace. The fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man's free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful. Man's merit, moreover, itself is due to God, for his good actions proceed in Christ, from the predispositions and assistance given by the Holy Spirit.
" (CCC 2008)

Like Rawls conclusion, this more theological line of thought's conclusion also has political consequences, no doubt, but the discussion of those is not my aim here. I want to draw two conclusions: first, that Rawls' argument about the natural lottery and its inefficacy of legitimating a particular distribution of goods can be similarly applied to the case of meritorious actions, and it hence has soteriological consequences. Secondly, and more generally, this view of goods as being entirely unearned should colour our daily lives, as we digest that great truth implicit in the assertion of John, when he says:

"No one can receive anything except what is given him from heaven." (John 3:27)

Whilst Rawls may have lived most of his life as a non-Christian, but his former student was correct in noting that Rawls had "an unusually strong sense of ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’"

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Who Goes to Hell?

Whilst Hell is not talked about that often in contemporary Catholic circles, it is important to the Church because it was important to Jesus. In fact, Jesus speaks more about Hell in the New Testament than anyone else. The usual blame-carrier for anything unpopular, Paul the apostle, never uses the term and rarely refers to the concept. And lest one think that that "dreadful" Old Testament must go on and on about Hell, I remind that Hell is not even really in the OT. Prior to Jesus, there was no properly developed understanding of what the justice of God entailed for the unrighteous. This does not entail that they did not believe in something that has now been developed into what we call Hell, but nonetheless, the Old Testament rarely speaks about the afterlife in any notable detail.

Hell is, however, a rather uncomfortable topic for a lot of people. Many have even objected that the existence of Hell would constitute evil on behalf of God, and that if God is good, Hell must be empty. This is rejection outright of the concept of Hell is not within the realm of possibilities for Catholics. Even so, embedded within the Christian tradition there is the hope that everyone would be saved, that no humans would be in Hell.* Until the 20th century, that view was peripheral, and the dominant view (championed by St Thomas Aquinas, among others) is that the saved are actually not that great in number.

I will not make any estimates about numbers. Simply as an aside, I note that I do not believe, as has become popular since Hans Urs von Balthasar and Karl Rahner, that we have reasonable hope that everyone will be saved. I do not deny that there may be hope, but I do not think such a hope is reasonable. I am particularly cautious of that idea because it leads easily to an assumption of universalism, it may contribute to an understanding of Christ that leaves him deficient of any redemptive or salvific message, and in turn that the Gospel and its missionary corollary be corrupted. These are not by any means necessary outcomes of the inculturation of this "reasonable hope" of universalism, but they seem likely.

In practice, any discussion of that sort must come after one answers another question: Who goes to Hell?  Or its complementary: Who goes to Heaven? The answer is, I think, remarkably simple. There are two sorts of person that go to Heaven: anybody who has lived a perfect life, and anyone who has been forgiven for the imperfections in their lives. Or in other words, you either do nothing wrong, or you get forgiven for what you did do wrong. Both sorts of people are, in principle, possible, but the former does not obtain in reality. So everyone else is in the category of having done something wrong, and so needing forgiveness for it. Forgiveness from where, though? Here things can be complicated, because wrongdoings affect at minimum two people, and involve the wrong-doer, a third.

A complete philosophy of forgiveness would be too long at this point, so I am going to simplify things somewhat by talking only about sin, and not wrongdoing in a larger sense. At the end of the day, all wrongdoing is sin, but the term sin singles out that it is an offence against God. This is why when King David kills Uriah after committing adultery with his wife, Bathsheba, he can still write that line in the psalm "against you alone have I sinned." The word sin singles out God as the party wronged.

Only sinless people enter Heaven. One can be sinless because one has committed no wrongs, or sinless because one has been forgiven. Since the wronged party when considering sin is God, it is God who must grant that forgiveness. Neither the forgiveness of some third party, nor a conscience that is clear, is sufficient. God must forgive, and God alone.

Now, it is central to Christian thought that God has done what is required to combine justice and mercy, to be both completely fair and still forgiving. Whilst it may seem simple at first, there are complicating factors in combining the two: for instance, in many cases, to forgive appears to mean that one no longer holds the forgiven party as guilty. On the other hand, to be just appears to mean that people must get their due for their wrongdoings. One would not consider a judge just if they forgave a murderer in a courtroom - the judge's job is to pass the sentence the murderer deserves. Nonetheless, if momentarily we skip over the brilliant solution God gives in Christ, the point remains: despite the necessity for justice, God offers forgiveness to everyone.

Forgiveness is, however, a transaction between two parties. It is a gift, and hence forgiveness has only truly been gifted once it has been received. Therefore, until the sinner has accepted forgiveness, they remain in their sins. As seems fairly obvious, the condition for forgiveness to be accepted is contrition, being sorry for one's wrongdoing. Exactly how much of that needs to be something felt and how much needs to be something acknowledged mentally is an interesting question (one that Catholic penitents often seem to ponder), but not important for the point I am making. Finally, it is important that the wrong-doer accept forgiveness as it comes from the wronged party. While this seems like a minor point, in real life situations, issues such as stubbornness or pride might push someone to, despite being sorry, not want to accept forgiveness. When one accepts forgiveness, one has to recognise the wronged party as exercising a certain power over oneself. Originally, this was the power of justice, and in forgiveness, it is the power of absolution. Both must be recognised: receiving forgiveness entails that one acknowledges that one has done wrong and is hence sorry, and acknowledges that the wronged party had the power of justice, the right to give what is deserved - and yet that, in forgiving, one exercises instead an act of absolution. In short, for the gifting of forgiveness to happen, the wronged party must offer it, and the wrong-doer must receive it, particularly admitting to their fault and acknowledging the forgiveness as it is, coming from the wronged party.

Ignoring the difficulties (philosophical, theological and practical) posed by mercy and justice combining, this is fairly analogous to how we forgive in our daily lives. I want to draw attention to one point about being sorry for something: not only is it the recognition that one ought not have done (or should have actually done) that thing, but it must be clear to the sorry person that their action was wrong. They cannot simply be sorry "that you feel that way."

If what I have said so far is broadly correct, then we know what the second class of people who enter Heaven is: sinners who have accepted forgiveness. Moreover, we know what forgiveness means from the point of view of the wrong-doer. We hence know what it means for someone to go to Hell: they are a sinner who has not accepted forgiveness. That is the crucial point: forgiveness is open to all, and anyone who goes to Hell has not accepted it.

What sort of person would not accept forgiveness, free as it is? There are many reasons that one would not accept forgiveness, or grace, as it is often called by Christians. They might not be sorry for what they have done, they might prefer to excuse themselves and hence not consider themselves as wrongdoers at all, they might not see an action as wrong anyway, they might not want to accept forgiveness from God. There are countless others.

God allows us the free choice of accepting or rejecting forgiveness. Precisely because the decision is now in the hands of the sinner, of people like myself, we are the ones that decide whether we go to Heaven or Hell.** So ultimately, the person who goes to Hell is the person that wants to go to Hell, that prefers Hell to Heaven.

I recommend The Great Divorce, by C.S. Lewis, a novel that describes some of the different ways one might prefer Hell to Heaven. Novels that describe theological points really are much more of a strong point for Lewis than his apologetic material, and this is one of his better ones. I think he is right when he depicts Hell as a gloomy place where nobody likes, much less loves, each other. Everyone is just a miserable individual, and the particularly bad people get as far away as possible from everyone else. A few people get to visit the outskirts of Heaven, where the reader gets a glimpse of why they ended up in Hell. Lewis is masterful at creating the characters, and I do him disservice if I try and summarise them, but he has the same sort of people in Hell as I have explained would be there: people who will not accept forgiveness, for instance, because others who are "worse" are also forgiven, like the man annoyed that there is a murderer in Heaven, but his "lesser" wrongdoings got him in Hell.

There's the man who is unwilling to let go of some character trait that is no longer acceptable in Heaven. There is the artist who would not accept that she is not held in glory and fame if she goes to Heaven, who denies she should be subject to God, given she is so talented an artist. There are some more eye-brow raising characters: there is the woman who will not accept forgiveness because she thinks she has been wronged by God in allowing her son to die, and will not enter Heaven even though her child is there. There is the "liberal" bishop, who could not accept that he ended up being wrong, who lives in self-denial about Heaven and Hell actually being "literal." Lewis' characters are richer than I have presented them, and I really do recommend reading The Great Divorce.

The preceding has hopefully given some clarity as to why I am not a universalist, someone who believes that Hell is empty. I hope that it does turn out to be empty, but I think I hope in vain, because there seems to be a wealth of people who are unrepentant, who would rather anything but communion with God, anything before actually accepting forgiveness. Those are the people, in summary, who I think go to Hell.

* It is a set doctrine that the devil goes to Hell, and all Satan's demons. So whilst I may slip into the language of saying "Hell is empty", I really mean that Hell is empty of humans.

 ** Alarm bells should be ringing in the ears of Christians with that sort of statement, and someone like St Augustine of Hippo is glaring at me from on high. I think that statement is, in a general sense, quite misleading. It reeks of semi-Pelagianism. I contend that who decides what is entirely a matter of grace, as would St Augustine. I can still make that sort of statement because I think that, despite it being entirely in the hands of God, it is God who causes us to freely choose to accept or reject forgiveness. The end result is what I have said, though: the person who goes to Heaven is the one who decides to accept it, and that decision is free. All the complication arises because we have no experience whatsoever of any agent being caused to freely choose something. We normally presume that if it is caused, it is less free, and that if it is free, then it is not caused. This is simply not correct in this case. Predestination and free will remain difficult to combine.

Monday, 7 April 2014

A Note on Phenomenology and the Bible

I doubt anyone is surprised that, philosophically, I fall squarely in the analytic tradition. Analytic philosophy just seems better at all the areas I am interested in: epistemology, logic, metaphysics, philosophy of science, philosophy of religion, etc. There is, however, one area where the continental tradition is, quite frankly, vastly superior: phenomenology. Analytics are always trying to be objected, abstracted and factual about things. Analytic philosophy is modelled, to some extent, on the natural sciences. However, this means that phenomenology, which is the study of how we experience things, finds its true abode on the continental side of things.

Some analytic philosophers might not care, thinking phenomenology is a non-field anyway, which should be reduced to psychology and neuroscience, or put into the literature department as poetry or something of the sort. That is misguided, I think. Understanding how we experience the world is crucial to many things, one hugely important one being human interactions. Even if one can theoretically build up to explaining pretty much all the mechanisms, reactions and so forth that allow us to experience relationships, it would not and could not change the point Thomas Nagel made: there's something special about experiencing things, so much so that even complete knowledge about their systems would not allow us to answer "what is it like to be a bat?"

Edith Stein, or St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, 
was a phenomenologist under Edmund Husserl,
who was essentially the founder of modern phenomenology.
Her work, and the work of Max Scheler, powerfully
influenced the work of another Catholic saint and
theologian, the phenomenologist and Pope, St John Paul II.
So phenomenology is a legitimate field of its own because it studies something which cannot be studied other than by being a subject, instead of an object, and for precisely that reason, analytic philosophy is deficient in resources at this point. Very well. There is another reason, however, that phenomenology deserves attention, which is explicitly theological: the incarnation of God in Jesus means that the world, in all its physicality, is of the same stuff as Jesus. So our experiences of it matter. Furthermore, God revealed in Christ can now be encountered and understood by these experiences, these phenomena. In fact, encountering Christ is at bottom the only way of understanding God, insofar as God can be understood. Christ is "the image of the invisible God", so seeing that image is the best we can do.

St Ignatius of Loyola was extremely important in developing phenomenological prayer. By phenomenological prayer I mean prayer which explicitly relies on the senses, a sort of contemplative (sometimes referred to as "Ignatian") prayer where ones utilises the senses and imagination to pray. One way of doing this is to insert oneself in a passage from the Scriptures: for instance, one can take a passage close to me personally, that of Peter asking Jesus to bid him come and walk on water, and place oneself within the boat. What are the smells, the sounds? Does the air have that slightly salty taste, on that sea? What does it feel like to be there? What can you see? How does Peter feel? All these questions are questions about experience, about the phenomenological quality of the events that are happening. This distinctively Ignatian style of prayer is, obviously, at the heart of Jesuit spirituality, and as such, close to my own.

Even more than just a distinctive brand of spirituality, phenomenology is key to understanding the Bible. You cannot, and I mean it, you cannot understand the Gospel accounts, or even many of the more human-interaction based books of the Old Testament, without at least some understanding of phenomenology. One does not, of course, need to know fancy long words like "phenomenology" - in some sense, phenomenology is the only branch of philosophy we do from birth, since all newborns seem to do is process sense data and react to such stimuli. It is crucial to understanding the Gospel accounts because human interactions are crucial to them. I think Bonhoeffer is right, for instance, in arguing that the immediate response of the disciples to Jesus' call to follow him cannot be explained in terms of some quick calculation of self-interest or a prior relationship with Jesus. It must be understood that the call of Jesus carries with it a phenomenal quality which is completely unlike an encounter with any other human person.

This phenomenal quality of encountering Jesus, particularly his call, but also his conversations, must be understood the understand Jesus, and the responses people have to Jesus. If only for that reason, phenomenology is an area worth considering, and for precisely that, I will dedicate some non-negligible thought and writing to discussing that issue.

Friday, 4 April 2014

They are not the Fundamentalists - I am

When you listen in on a lot of conversations on religion, or heck, even politics, you hear it often: "s/he is just a fundamentalist!" You hear it about the young earth creationists being fundamentalists. You hear about the people who want to obey this or that old law as being fundamentalists. Outside Christianity, you might hear about suicide bombers being fundamentalists. But that is wrong. Those groups of people are not fundamentalists; I am.

Prof. Shankar - what a legend!
Fundamentalism is about staying grounded in, or returning to, the fundamentals of an area. When I watched Shankar's video taped course "Fundamentals of Physics II" offered at Yale University originally, the title was fairly self-explanatory: here are the fundamental principles underlying physics as it exists today. Here's your classical mechanics, your thermal physics, your waves, your optics, your relativity, your quantum mechanics. These areas form the fundamentals of physics as it exists today. Amusingly, it does not cover my own area of condensed matter physics, which is no small area, but that's irrelevant to the point: these areas are at the core of physics, so the course was titled "fundamentals."

However, young earth creationism is not a fundamental component of Christianity. It is not fundamental to the Bible. Reviving some old law is not keeping the fundamentals, because that law is almost certainly not a fundamentl part of Christianity. No, no, those sometimes labelled fundamentalists should be re-thought of as peripheralists: they set aside the fundamentals to concentrate on things that are actually peripheral (if at all existant in) Christianity. You think the Scriptures dictate young earth creationism? I think you are mistaken. But if we concentrate only on that issue, we are being peripheralists, because of the seventy seven books which make up the Sacred Scriptures, such a position is insinuated in at most a handful, if at all. It is a sideline issue.

When Jesus confronted the Pharisees for emphasising the Torah's minor laws, or for invalidating the law for the sake of human traditions, Jesus was being a fundamentalist. The Pharisees were being peripheralists. This is something which Israel rich prophetic tradition had tried to tell the Israelites again and again: sure, there's a sacrificial system in place, but God desires mercy, not sacrifice, as the prophet Hosea said. Sure, there are important civic duties, but what does God demand of us? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God, says the prophet Micah. The problem with the Pharisees, at least in part, was that they could not discern the fundamental from the peripheral. They were peripheralists, not fundamentalists.

I try my best to be a fundamentalist. The fundamentals of Christianity from an ethical perspetive are the three theological virtues (faith, hope and charity, or love), of which the greatest of these is love. (cf. 1 Cor. 13) There is core principles of Catholic Social Teaching: the promotion of the dignity of the human person, the common good, subsidiarity and participation, solidarity, the preferential option for the poor, social and economic justice, the stwardship of the environment and the promotion of peace.

Of course, being a Catholic fundamentalist is not just about the radical call to love others. There are doctrines involved. Much of the fundamental doctrine of the Church is in the ancient creeds: the Nicene-Constantinople creed, for instance, which is said each Sunday at Mass. There is the Eucharist, and other sacraments.

There is Jesus. Jesus who is human and divine, "true God and true man," who was incarnate in the womb of his mother Mary. There is his teachings and preachings, his ministry, his good news. That Gospel, for which St Paul gave the first anathema if anyone dared change it, is revealed only in Jesus, the Word incarante, the Lord and Redeemer. This Gospel is that of which Pope Francis wrote:

"The Joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness." (EG 1)

These are some of the core things, these are the fundamentals of Christianity, they are core to the Church. Complaining about this word usage may sound like just a simple whine, but it has important consequences about how we think about the issue. We are lulled into the thought that, when Christians concentrte on peripheral things, but are called fundamentalists, that they are the ones taking Christianity seriously. If that is true, and what is now thought of as Christian fundamentalism really is just taking the same line as the Pharisees, then one can only be a "good Christian" by deviating from Christianity. One is only good insofar as one is not actually Christian. This is a dangerous state of affairs when the matter should be exactly the other way around: the fundamentals of Christianity are not young earth creationism or following some arcane old covenant law, so following them or not has nothing to do with fundamentalism.

All this goes to say something very simple: that Christian fundamentalism is, I think, good. It is a problem, however, when one confuses the fundamental for the peripheral. That which was meant to be at best a tiny corner, became the centerpiece. No wonder the whole lot was ruined.

That Deadly Vice of Pride

That I am a vicefully proud person is no secret to anyone who knows me well. I am absolutely horrible at this. If "big headed" were a literal expression, instead of being figurative, my head would have moons orbiting, it would have that much gravitational pull.

What I reflected on whilst on the bus trip home today is that one's pride is always about some good one has. This seems obvious enough, but I had never considered it in depth. I had always thought one is proud in general, not proud in particulars. See, I can fool myself into thinking I am humbler than I am by thinking about the areas I am humble in: I am dreadful at music, dance and art, I have a fairly poor memory, and dreadful eye sight. I suppose one can also say that I am humble in the areas where I am not easily insulted: it would be hard to care less for being told I am ugly, uncultured or ill-informed.

There are, however, two areas where I am incredibly proud, in such a way so as to be deadly. These are, in a sense, my only two virtues, but because they are my virtues, when mixed with vices they are capable of killing me spiritually: I am quite intelligent, and I am an extremely productive person. Compliments in these areas make me soar. Insinuations that these are places I have an elevated view of myself tear me down. To be quite honest, I think both of these are true qualities of myself: I am no idiot, and I get a lot done. The problem is, I like everyone to know about it, something which a good friend and priest rightly rebuked me for it today, in private. It sort of stung at the time, but it was exactly what I needed. I ended up thinking about it all the way home.

Just from a practical point of view, because I have such a pedastal view of myself, I cannot improve either of them. Precisely because people say I manage to do so much, I cannot disciple myself to do more, even though I waste an enormous amount of time daily on games or trivialities. Precisely because I view my intelligence as enormous, I am incapable of studying effectively - for the true genius does not need to study, right? I end up doing quite well at university regardless, because I really do love the things I study, so learning about them becomes part of my daily life. But man, if could get past my inflated ego, I'd do so much better.

Come on though, I know what that says, heck, I derived it -
I really am a genius, right? Amusingly, as painful as that looks
 if you're unfamiliar with it, it's actually not that complicated.
This obvious insight of pride being about particulars in my life, and not about generalities, has led me to a new resolve: I am going to avoid making myself out to be intelligent or productive. In fact, I am going to try and create the opposite image: that I am a little dim-witted and spend a lot of time on my Playstation 3 (which is now predominantly used by my brother, actually, since I have almost no real spare time - or at least, booting up the PS3 seems like a commitment to time wasting, whereas what I end up doing is always that "last check" or the "quick sesh"). In a quiet way, I will still try and be intelligent, because being smart is a good thing. It is when my desire is for other people to know that I actually do know what those long fancy words mean in philosophy or theology, or can actually understand those nasty looking strings of symbols that make up the maths involved in my research project, or, like today, actually do know that the Liturgy of the Hours has the Ave Regina Caelorum and not the Salve Regina this time of the year - it is when others knowing is the actual goal that this becomes problematic. It is the difference between my (real) excitement about my research project in a really cool area, and my excitement that people know I have a research project in a really cool area. One is good, the other...not so much.

This might seem trivial to some, but it will no doubt be a challenge far greater than mastering Fourier transforms for me (which was surprisingly painless). From now on, I do not study "physics, mathematics and philosophy", I study Science and Arts - which is a decidedly less impressive way of putting it. It is my way, I think, of doing what Jesus said in the sermon on the mount, to the crowd which lived in a culture that gave glory based on piety:

"When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." (Mt. 6:15-18) [cf. comment]

The point is not to stop fasting - or in my case, not to stop being intelligent or getting things done - but to do so in secret. Hopefully, forcing myself to make small changes like that will precipitate me fulfilling those petitions of the Litany of Humility:

O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.

From the desire of being esteemed,

Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being loved...
From the desire of being extolled ...
From the desire of being honoured ...
From the desire of being praised ...
From the desire of being preferred to others...
From the desire of being consulted ...
From the desire of being approved ...
From the fear of being humiliated ...
From the fear of being despised...
From the fear of suffering rebukes ...
From the fear of being calumniated ...
From the fear of being forgotten ...
From the fear of being ridiculed ...
From the fear of being wronged ...
From the fear of being suspected ...

That others may be loved more than I,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be esteemed more than I ...
That, in the opinion of the world,
others may increase and I may decrease ...
That others may be chosen and I set aside ...
That others may be praised and I unnoticed ...
That others may be preferred to me in everything...
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should… 


Thursday, 3 April 2014

Cheap Grace and Catholics

"Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of the Church," Bonhoeffer opens. "Our struggle today is for costly grace."

In reading that famous opening line from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's now-classic Discipleship, I knew I was in for a book that would not let me remain unchanged. It is the nature of the hearing of the Gospel, that once the essential content of the kerygma has been heard, there comes about  an eschatological event, where one can heed the call to "drop our nets", or leave as the young rich man does - sad, though still in full possession of his riches. The call of Jesus - announced through the proclamation that Jesus has conquered death for the forgiveness of sins, and is Lord of all, inaugurating his kingdom through the ministry of the Church - precipitates a moment of decision. Precisely because the call requires an answer, it cannot leave the person unchanged.

This is standard Christian theology, clear in practice from even a fairly superficial reading of the gospel accounts and the Acts of the Apostles. The Gospel polarises people because it confronts with a decision. What I have learnt from Bonhoeffer is not that discipleship demands change, but that it is precisely grace that demands change. We Catholics have a wealthy tradition of avoiding polarisations of things which must, even paradoxically, unite - faith and reason, faith and works, free will and predestination, Christ being human and divine.

Yet I wonder whether our modern Catholic has not fallen into precisely the trap of seeing grace as sharply distinct from obedience to the call of Christ. Perhaps this is because we have taken grace to mean cheap grace, which really is antithetical to discipleship. Bonhoeffer writes lucidly about what distinguishes cheap and costly grace:

"Cheap grace is that grace we bestow upon ourselves...It means forgiveness of sins as a general truth; it means God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God. Those who affirm it have already had their sins forgiven. The church that indulges in this doctrine of grace hereby confers such grace upon itself. [...] Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate."

On the other hand: 

"Costly grace is the hidden treasure in the field, for the sake of which people go and sell with joy everything they have. It is the costly pearl, for whose price the merchant sells all that he has; it is Christ’s sovereignty, for the sake of which you tear out an eye if it causes you to stumble. It is the call of Jesus Christ which causes a disciple to leave his nets and follow him. [...]

It is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly, because it cost people their lives; it is grace, because it gives them their lives. It is costly, because it condemns sins; it is grace, because it justifies the sinner. Above all, grace is costly, because it was costly to God, because it costs God the life of God’s son – “you were bought with a price” – and because the life of God’s son was not too costly for God to give for our lives. God did, indeed, give him up for us. Costly grace is the incarnation of God."

We Catholics know this, so much do we understand (it is said) that grace is costly, that we fall off the other side and require more than just belief, adding works to "faith alone". That is the claim made against us by some Protestant groups. "True," they might say, "we recognize that this is not official Church teaching, that Catholics do believe in grace alone" - but, they hasten to add, "the average Catholic believes in works-righteousness." I disagree. I see the average Catholic - the "practicing" one, that is - as having accepted grace, but not costly grace, only the cheap variety. The average Catholic who goes to Mass seems to have "forgiveness of sins as a general truth [...] God’s love as merely a Christian idea of God." This is not to say that they are all like that - far from it!

This proclamation of cheap grace seems like the only thing that might attract the masses, the only way to effectively evangelise. Precisely because it denies the centrality of the call to discipleship, because it ignores the cost of responding to the call of Jesus Christ that is intrinsically linked to the Gospel, it is not the true Gospel. Cheap grace replaces Jesus with an idol, a god made in our image, who justifies all our wrongdoings because this idol is really our own self-forgiveness. It underlies the Catholic denial of the sacrament of reconciliation with the line that "God forgives me anyway", it is that absolution without personal confession. The Catholic who is scared of a fellow sinner in the confessional, and so chooses to go "to God himself" has denied the complete otherness of the true God, the holy God, and has replaced God with the grace that they bestow upon themselves.

These "good news" of cheap grace is not only the mortal enemy, as Bonhoeffer says, of the true Church, that community of true Christians, it also sickens that sociological group we also call "the Church." What Bonhoeffer writes of the Lutherans in his own time is true of Catholics now:

"But do we also know that this cheap grace has been utterly unmerciful against us? Is the price that we are paying today with the collapse of the organised churches anything else but an inevitable consequence of grace acquiered too cheaply? We have away preaching and sacraments cheaply; we performed baptisms and confirmations, we absolved an entire people, unquestioned and unconditionally; out of human love we handed over what was holy to the scornful and unbelievers. We poured out rivers of grace without end, but the call to rigorously follow Christ was seldom heard. What happened to the insights of the ancient church, which in the baptismal teaching watched so carefully over the boundaries between the church and the world, over costly grace?"

I had the opportunity a few months ago, and also just last week, to participate in that ancient liturgy, which still conserves that line reflecting the Church as distinct from the worldly. Before the Liturgy of the Eucharist, the call is heard "The doors, the doors!" Those who were not baptised into the People of God must have left, and the doors shut, for they could not even participate from afar in that holy treasure the Church has, her only treasure: Christ incarnate. Those who wished to participate in that greatest of gifts must first renounce Satan and receive Baptism, be born anew into the People of God. This was how the early Christians responded to their Master's command that they not give what is holy to those who are not fitting to receive it. (Mt. 7:6) But we do not now consider that grace to be something for which we must renounce that which is antithetical to God.  We have cheap sacraments - all welcome! We have cheap grace, and it rots us from within.

Worst of all is that, if the average Catholic has only cheap grace, that most addictive of substances, we have lost sight of Jesus. Set aside that, from a sociological perspective, the good news of cheap grace gains few converts because it does not allow for the working of the Holy Spirit which necessarily changes a person, and so the official numbers dwindle. Cheap grace separates us from Jesus, not only because it is not the grace bestowed by Jesus, but because when that cheap grace justifies our sin, we are hardened into disobedience. That cheap grace which does not challenge our actions merely blesses them, and so we are estranged from the call of Christ to follow him.

If we are to become disciples of the Risen Lord, we are to become disciples of costly grace. For it is only when we find the pearl of great price that we are willing to sell everything we have to obtain it.