Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Pragmatism or Idealism...

I can't resist reading the student paper from a local university that will remain anonymous. Normally I just glance at the headlines, because I can get a better balance of real news from other places (just a preference, not a criticism), but it's difficult to stay away from the opinions page and funnies for more than a few days. I'm not sure why I bother with the former--maybe I just expose myself to yellow journalism to get myself riled up--but I probably bother with the latter, despite not being funny anymore, because they're on the same page as the crossword. Suffice it to say I hope there aren't too many journalism majors on hand; the New York Times doesn't have room for all of them.

The story about the American Girl dolls seems to have trickled about all the way down by now. "Conservatives have this habit of attempting to twist the truth to make it more controversial and make people riled up." Funny, the GOP was pretty stern about advancing the war on terror, but I don't remember them being the ones who were so shrill about how badly it was going, or how badly things were going at home, or how badly the rest of the world thinks of us. Well, if there weren't drama queens on both sides, politics wouldn't be interesting enough for us to bother with, I suppose.

I was going to comment on the presumption of the writer that not only is her position necessarily and obviously correct, but that it's shared by most people; but I suppose I do it myself. I think it would do me well to remain circumspect about such things. Kindly remind me if I let myself forget, would you please?

Nevertheless, I'm curious how many pundits and wannabes think they're really firmly ensconced in the persecuted majority. Until recently, I had the impression, being countercultural, being the underdog was the cool thing to be. I guess being the unjustly persecuted majority is the new hotness. I'm not making any comments about what proportion of America self-identifies as conservative, liberal, or something else; I'm just wondering how representative the people with polar views really think they are.

So, when they act suprised that we're still not keen on abortion or gay marriage, I'm a little surprised myself. When they express disgust that we should draw a line in the moral sand, especially with such care, and when they express shock that we do so promptly in the face of something we take very seriously, I'm surprised again. Do they not think we believe what we say we believe, do they think we're only trying to concentrate power at the expense of various demographics? Do they not see that while we may agree that girls should grow up to be well-informed and thoughtful women, it's possible to be such without assuming that the entire issue of the humanity of the unborn must take a back seat to the self-determination of women as indistinguishible from or superior to men? If men aren't obsolete by now. Am I going too far yet? Yeah, probably.

"Conservatives have taken it too far this time." Oh, yes. God forbid that we stand up for anything, like other people can do, and express our displeasure of certain business arrangements, even going so far as to boycott them, for moral reasons. I guess we should only be allowed to protest the business as usual of large corporations, and then only if the reasons are based on race or class.

Oh, we also went too far boycotting stores that prohibit their employees from saying "Merry Christmas." I guess trying to specify every winter holiday like "Happy Hannukah, merry Christmas, happy Kwanzaa" is just unreasonably difficult. God forbid something not be easy in this world. I think "Happy holidays" should be adequately inclusive, but most people around here are celebrating Christmas, specifically, so it strikes me as more than a little silly to specifically excluse Christmas in order not to offend a few people who think, I don't know, maybe that no one should have fun if they can't be in on it. I'm not entirely sure what their motivation is.

Elsewhere on the page, abstinence-only education was decried as being ineffective. Admittedly, with sex in our culture reaching children at lower and lower ages, simply trying to shield children may no longer be the most prudent solution, but it doesn't seem to me that the only two options are "teach nothing but waiting until marriage" and "teach how to have sex consensually and safely with whomever." Oh, does it seem like a non sequitur to you? It should, because I haven't given you the punchline yet:

I've met some good men who have looked back on their early sexual experiences and recognized instances when they wrongly believed they were having sex--although what was really happening was sexual assault. While they still should be held completely accountable for their decision to go through with the assults, I can't help but think that if they had open and honest information about what is and isn't sex--the kind of information offered in comprehensive sexual education programs--they would have been able to make much better decisions about how to act. A lot of trauma could have been averted.

Buh? On the contrary, knowing what assault is can and should be something taught before someone is physically capable of committing assault, or before someone is likely to be having sex. Condoms are a prophylactic against pregnancy, not against rape. If there are parents out there who aren't teaching respect for other people and the boundaries of good behavior while they're teaching them not to sleep around, then we are dealing with two seperate issues. Some sex education program that explains how rape is bad isn't well rounded, it's killing two birds with one stone, one of which the parents really should have tried to flush out, shoot, and dress in a previous episode. Teaching respect and cultivating morals avert trauma, not teaching how libertine sex can seem like a good idea if you really want to believe it.

Does this juxtaposition/forced association even make sense to people? Guys rape because chastity is an unreasonable goal? Is there a more charitable way to frame this assertion?

Finally, finally...I was originally not going to comment on this last topic, since it was presented by a young man who likes to mix "Of course I'm right, truth is democratically determined and I'm sure most people worth counting agree with me!" with things that are only more trivial than they are silly, yet still seems interested in being taken seriously (or maybe he thinks he's Dave Barry), but since it does seem a little psychotic, I'll just truss up a question or three and leave them for you to consider. Forgive me for being reluctant to give him the benefit of the doubt, but at least Dave Barry is funny.

Bah, you know I have brevity issues.

He was writing about the Document, which appears to have been studied carefully through various second-degree sources that have already digested its contents. There was the now-common claim that there are too many gay priests who will get drummed out for the Church to survive, the suggestion that promoting gay rights somehow does not fall under Rome's allegedly provincial definition of "supporting gay culture." (If you're equivocating gay rights with human rights, then I suppose Rome would be a bit narrow about it.) Then there was the claim that Benedict XVI's use of Prada shoes will undermine his attempts to keep the Hierarchy all straight and...whatever.

This style of argument hurts my teeth just looking at it, but methinks the lady doth protest too much! Why is a non-Catholic so concerned about how the Catholic Church administrates itself? Why the surprise that a backwards institution would perpetuate its errors in this enlightened postmodern world? Sure, it's sad that many Catholics follow the "spirit" of Vatican II to spite its texts, whether you think would-be faithful Catholics should be faithful or rebellious, but if the Church is on the verge of a much-needed collapse, why this sudden benificence? If you had so many problems with Rome, would just changing a tiny fraction of the most newsworthy dogmas or policies really make it palatable enough for you to join? If not, what would justify gay seminarians? This impression I get of what people think the Church should be is so different from what it is--even, to be fair, from what it seems to be to others--that I wonder why anybody who seems not to care really can't leave well enough alone. The Church is unique in many ways; is it supposed to resemble some other denomination? Which one? Is it supposed to be something else?

Maybe I'll bloviate on it in the future--the orthodox answer should be obvious already--but these posts tend to be too long as it is. I'm not sure even divvying things up will help....

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Resisting the cultural normalization of sin

You've probably seen the commercials by now. They show some attractive twentysomethings pursuing multiple sports and outdoor hobbies and whatnot, with a voiceover talking about how busy they are living their
lives to the hilt, but then (and we cut to the person cuddling with an equally attractive member of the opposite sex) lament that their lives are so full that they don't have time to take their herpes medication. Basically they're advertising a new medication where people trying to control their outbreaks will only have to take one pill a day, instead of half a dozen or a dozen per day, or something equally strange.

Now, I admit, having to take that many pills that frequently does seem rather strange. Could they not have developed some sort of time-release delivery for this drug before now, like they'd done with so many other drugs already? I'm no pharmacist, so I don't know any of the details, but it would have made me raise one eyebrow in curiosity, if I could move my eyebrows independently.

I also want to emphasize up front that I don't wish herpes, another STD, or any disease on anyone. I will not presume to judge that any person would deserve it more or less than another.

However, I'm a little less sympathetic to people who play with fire and then get burned. I might not be in a position to recognize the degree or lack of justice in the consequences for someone's behavior, but as a rational being I am not entirely unable to recognize that there is an order between cause and effect. It would be dishonest for me or anyone else to deny that for a given behavior, certain outcomes can be expected. There is such a thing a personal responsibility.

So, one of these new herpes medication ads came on the TV the other night, and I started making fun of it, since the irony was palpable. "Like wow! I don't have time to take care of my health! There are too many other things for me to do to take care of my health! Sure, I exercise, but exericse is FUN! Just like all the sex I have! We all know sex isn't bad! We got over those puritanical and meaningless taboos a long time ago! Pills, though? I'm too cool and busy to take three or four pills with every meal! I can't even be bothered with condoms! Why should I have to cramp my own style with all these pills? It's hard enough trying to remember the condom, let alone hiding the lesions! Like, for sure!"

Then, this morning, a person who was there confronted me on my lack of charity. Okay, perhaps my reaction was on the strong side, but at the time I was mainly making light of the irony, and dramatic humor seemed more effective than subtle humor at the time. I admit, it wasn't my kindest hour. Apparently someone close to this person picked up herpes somewhere, probably from his work in the medical field, since there was never any infidelity (at least, not on the part of the agents we know). I thought I had made it clear that I was joking about the people who seemed to feel put out by the fact that they gambled on microbe roulette and lost, and that the people who get infected despite a lack of risky behavior are in the minority. Everyone was certainly laughing at the time. I suppose I could have been kinder, but I'm not ready to give up all humor in the interest of never hurting anyone's feelings (especially in this oversensitive day and age). I also thought the imagery in the commercial was obvious. It wasn't about generously helping unfortunate victims of an unpreventable ailment. It was about enabling people who assign self-entertainment a higher priority than just about anything else to continue cavalierly sidestepping the quality of life (if you'll permit me) issues that, themselves, should be indicative of something amiss.

This conceptual blindness shows up elsewhere too, especially with other pelvic issues. I shall endeavor to belabor them just a little.

My current favorite example is a commercial for a new birth control device. Apparently it's great because it effuses lower levels of hormones than older methods. Nevertheless, side effects include blood clots, heart attacks, and strokes (or something else equally debilitating). Why fewer people aren't saying "Blood clots, heart attacks, and strokes? Hallelujah, I'm finally free of the tyrrany of childbearing!" I can't understand. They're pretty serious side effects to write off as acceptable risks for a medication that basically is supposed to become a way of life, if you ask me. If I had to take a few injections of something that increased my risk of heart attack or stroke in order to cure pancreatic cancer, I'd do it. If I had to take several injections a month for years at a time, with the same risks, just to make my sexual experience appear a little more natural, I'd be looking for other options. After the first time I burned myself with hot water, I learned not to mess with hot water; I didn't write it off as an acceptable risk for just walking into the kitchen. Am I in the minority?

This advocate for the honest herpes victim also chided me for trivializing the the means by which people get infected in the first place. Sure, a number of them get it because they're gambling three or four nights a week, but "more than you probably think get it in a committed relationship from someone they really love."

Indeed? You mean one of those transitory committed relationships that comprise what they're calling "serial monogamy" these days? Oh, wonderful! It's just the same as marriage, which isn't likely to last more than five years beyond the point that a cohabitating couple decides to legally ratify what they've been doing for several months or a few years, anyway, right?

No, it's not.

I'm glad that some people take relationships seriously, that most people do at least some of the time. It's better than sexual predators intoxicating and then raping someone new every Friday and Saturday night. It's still a sin against chastity, though. Morally settling for lots of adultery with fewer people because of a lower turnover rate isn't morally acceptable at all. Sleeping with only one person who isn't your spouse for a couple months at a time is not different in kind from sleeping with only one person who isn't your spouse for a night or an hour.

I'm reminded of a sketch on Saturday Night Live from...the early 1990s, I think it was. Paul Reiser was playing himself on a talk show, and for some reason the host saw fit to ask him how many women he'd slept with. He gave some number that was in the high single digits, the joke being that a real stud of an actor would have slept with ten or twenty times as many women by that time in his career, so Mr. Reiser was getting defensive, since who doesn't want to be thought of as a sexual
Tyrannosaurus? At one point, Chris Farley stood up, claiming to represent a group called Virgins For Virtue, and praised him for having only slept with half a dozen or so women, since in today's Hollywood, it's just about the same as being a real virgin.

Sure, it was funny, but such is the nature of satire: to make us laugh at something that is serious. I'm not sure that they were trying to make a point of showing how silly it is to equate chastity with slow adultery; it was funny enough to see Paul Reiser's studliness challenged by everyone willing to overlook the difference.

Still, I wasn't expecting people like this one, with whom I grew up, went to church with for twenty years, and learned a lot from during my formative years, to fail to make the distinction as surely as someone who actively believed any such distinction was meaningless--I may discuss it more someday. As I wouldn't wish herpes on anyone, I also wouldn't deny any of them humane treatment; caring for the sick is a work of mercy. Overlooking sin, however, is not. Others better than I
have said it more clearly than I. Admonishing sinners (Gently, but unequivocally!) is a work of mercy. Whitewashing their behavior is playing accomplice to the sin and at best is a sign of lack of conviction.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Why does God make it hard for us to understand?

I'm borrowing a lot of this material from ISCA BBS. Sometimes there's so much postchristian mutual back-patting it spills over from good-humored to nauseatingly smug, but sometimes there's gold.

Quoth one user, "If the Bible is God's word, would He want to make it easy to understand?" Riposteth another, "'Easy' has never been something that Christians have recognized as a characteristic of God, or as a particularly important aspect of anything related to the Divine." I might remind the reader that Christ's yoke is light, but I would be missing the point.

Yeah, some things are clearly stated and require only the simplest act of interpretation to understand, without relying heavily on textual and cultural context. A lot of other stuff...not so much. I'm not going to pretend to speak authoritatively, but I read something some time ago that helps me to deal with the more troubling passages, or will help me deal with them when I finally turn my attention to them, which is better than avoiding them entirely (which, in turn, should be better than diving in ungirded and losing faith).

Consider the passage in II Kings where Elisha, taunted by children, summons bears to maul the children, or the end of the 137th Psalm, that seems to exult the slaughter of an enemy's children. Even acknowledging that God is far above and beyond us, how can we reconcile these instances with what we do seem to know about God?

I'm not sure we can. I certainly can't blame the people who don't want to. Maybe, for now at least, though, we don't need to grasp the passages themselves. Maybe what we need to do is take them as object lessons of discipline and faith. Don't worry about what the passages are directly saying, but think about what it means to struggle with and continue to trust a God you know to be good who nevertheless preserves such disturbing events for us to ponder in our Scripture. Maybe it's like the fixed Perelandran island, upon which sleeping is forbidden strictly to allow for an act of willful obedience, untempered by any need for self-preservation. There may or may not be a specific lesson we should take from texts like these (and I'm refraining from committing for the sake of my argument), but they're canon for a reason, and if we cannot bring ourselves to relish in the stories of infanticide (perish the thought), we can at least meditate on what makes it necessary to practice, to test, our faith and obedience in such uncomfortable ways.

So, if God does want to communicate something to us lowly creatures, why does He sometimes make it hard for us to recognize and accept the lesson? It may be because sometimes "simple" communication is inadequate. A poem isn't just a conveyance of purely academic, cerebral ideas; it's supposed to convey a feeling, to be an event on paper or in the ears that leaves the reader as changed as any event that takes place off the paper, in the space between people. If scientists want to communicate something to technically disinclined people, and it would require calculus to do so, then why don't the scientists just make calculus easy? Calculus, like poetry, just doesn't work that way. We're incapable of removing the struggle of learning, of evading the need to invest ourselves in the effort to grok something, and in His infinite Wisdom, God has seen fit to (mostly) work within this limitation of ours, even for things as urgent as our faith.

Maybe it's not urgent, which is the point; instead, it's important, and we will appreciate it better if we have to extend some effort. Sure, God could just pry open our minds and dump in sufficient understanding, but obviously it's not His usual M.O., so insisting on holding the position that all this stuff should be easy for us to digest is not going to be particularly fruitful.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The nature of the act of creation

I couldn't figure out at first why so many Catholics, who knew they shouldn't be afraid of science, seemed to take umbrage at things Darwinian. Eventually I was able to glean that the problem was in using evidence for the Big Bang and macroevolution to promote an atheistic philosophical stance. Perhaps like creating a "God of the gaps" argument and then proving *ahem* the gaps to be negligibly small.

(Personally, I don't mind a "God of the gaps" model, because the more we try to fill in the gaps, the more we should realize how vast they truly are; the more Christlike we become and the more work we try to do for our own salvation, however successful we may be, the more we realize how inadequate we are for the task without Help.)

It's the same argument the scientists are making against proponents of intelligent design. The proponents play with scientific tools, trump up some evidence that suggests we must have had a creator, and then insist we teach this version of "science" that explains the First Thing fairly well (or barely well at all, which I'll get to in a minute), at the expense of being able to explain anything else coherently.

Good science is not entirely dissimilar to Catholic theology: it's a seamless garment. You can't add or subtract anything, or change the rules-horses midstream, without endangering the whole item to unravelment. Is unravelment a word? It should be.

First, there is such a thing as the Anthropic Principle. Things are configured in a way that permits us to observe them; if they were not, we would not be here to be making the observation. Someone else might, though. The universe might have been anything, but it had to be something.

Being a man of faith, I am in a sense a believer in intelligent design, but I will not sign on with the likes of the Discovery Institute. I am unable to reconcile an assertion that, while it should be impossible for me to see a piece of bread and a cup of wine turn into the Body and Blood of my Lord because He wants me to have faith in the matter, it's perfectly legitimate to assume I can find empirical evidence that God made things if only I had clever enough technology.

There is also a question of who the Designer is. Some ID proponents say "Aw no, we don't mean 'God' like you used to hear from those Young Earthers! I'm just talking about...aliens! Yeah, panspermia! Exogenesis!" It's a fascinating concept, but I'll stick with the Young Earthers (which is not to say I'm a Young Earther myself, in light of the current body of evidence), because I know they, at least, are being honest with themselves. If life was too complex to have developed here, such that it had to have come from somewhere else, how could it have been simpler somewhere else in the first place? Were the aliens who seeded Earth seeded by aliens before them? Are we going to have to assert it's turtles all the way down, or come clean and admit that God tipped the first domino somewhere along the line?

Either way, it's good to recognize that science and faith have different bailiwicks, but if we're going to impose on one with the other, we should recognize we're not doing anyone any favors. Touting science's inability to gauge God as proof that there is no God to gauge might be an amusing philosophical parlor trick but it's not science, nor is it faith (I might even argue it's not even honest atheism, but I don't want to open that can tonight). Dressing up some preconceptions with statistics and claiming veracity on the grounds that their interpretation can be theistically ambiguous is not science, or faith, either.

Why isn't the Eucharistic miracle good enough? If you're not even willing to admit to the sacraments, shouldn't your faith already be too strong to need such crutches, or too weak to accept the problem in the first place?

Sweet Jesus

When we eat something starchy, the ptyalin in our saliva begins converting some of the carbohydrates in our mouth into sugars. The effect can be detected whether we are eating profane bread or consuming a consecrated host; the enzymes in our mouth cannot register the transubstantiation any better than our eyes can. How wonderful a miracle it is, that the last tangible sign of our Communion is a subtle, lingering sweetness!

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

I hate being sick.

Fortunately for me, I don't get sick very often, but this Friday will mark the end of the second week I've been under the weather, which is quite unusual for me. I think it's mainly just my body taking its sweet time clearing itself out, so don't worry. Normally if I start feeling ill, I'll go to bed early, sleep a lot, and wake up the next morning back at 100%. The few times it doesn't work that way, whether I'm sick for a weekend or a whole week, it always takes several days for the symptoms to wear off.

Having been hardly sick at all for so long, I'd almost forgotten how to take care of myself, to the point of getting dehydrated and waking up with a frighteningly intense headache one night, which lingered for hours, until I took a guess and forced down seven glasses of water in a row, at which point it promptly disappeared.

While I was walking around holding my head, I remembered some of the many admonitions I've received to add my suffering to Christ's, and whatnot. I wasn't sure what to do beyond offering a simple dedication to God, so I just repeated "For You, Jesus" when it seemed suitable and hoped He'd take my meaning and my offer, such that it was.

I gotta say, though, that I am developing much greater respect for people who really have to suffer. As a boy who grew up camping in all four seasons, and as an undergraduate martial artist, I'm no stranger to discomfort. I might think to myself "Yeah, I'm willing to endure more pain for the glory of God and the help of others." When I was young I used to hear about stigmatics and somehow couldn't grasp that their wounds were as painful as natural wounds, and I thought it'd be great to be such an obvious sign. Eventually I recognized how much I was motivated by vanity, but sometimes I still have to remind myself to be content with what I'm given. Other times....I get sick like I have been these past few days, and it's all I can hope for to get back to my usual pretend-to-be-invulnerable self. Then I read about some saint who is bedridden for years with an abscess, or who can hardly walk--sometimes even someone who can stand to kneel in prayer longer than I can (let me stand or lay down and I'll pray all day, but...)--and I get a glimpse of how soft I really am. Oh, I suppose it's easier in a sense if someone's come down from On High to tell you specifically that you've been chosen to share a little of His Passion in some way, but there's a rare privilege. Some things I can handle better than others, too. I'd rather get a foot in the gut or a chemical burn than some of these headaches, even if it would mean enduring a greater absolute amount of pain.

So, I try to be grateful for the little insight, accept what I receive, and pray for a little more courage and maturity along the way.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

"Oh, that's a young man's dream."

One more case of a woman sexually assaulting a boy. Allegedly the mother of the eight year old boy's playmate stopped short of actual intercourse, which is some small blessing, at least. Over the past few years we've been seeing more cases like this one show up in the news, and I don't know that anyone ever determined that such crimes happen to be on the rise, or are simply getting reported more widely now.

Needless to say, I'm appalled at such incidents, but not just because of the crimes themselves. What also appalls me are the defenses that amount to "It's impossible to rape a man" and "a boy is just a short man." When did we decide that treating children like small adults was a good thing, after all? Maybe the folks promoting the ratification of gay marriages aren't actually interested in "rolling back" the prohibitions against incest and statutory rape, but with attitudes like this one being expressed, I will not be surprised if all these movements conveniently converge somewhere down the line.

Now, in the defense of the Associated Press, the "young man's dream" quote actually came from someone acknowledging that such a response is not natural, not healthy, but that fact doesn't seem to bother some people. I don't have the time or inclination now to discuss the idea that natural law might actually exist, but I do want to ask these guys what they're smoking.

We are not talking about junior high or high school students, where the hypothetical victims are nearly mature enough to deal with sex and relationships appropriately. We are talking about an eight year old boy. Eight. Hardly old enough to know or care what sex even is. He's not a "young man," no matter how many adults address boys of that age as such.

Oh, I've known guys who said they wished they were in the shoes of boys like this one, like with that young Florida teacher who ended up getting together with her former student after she got out of the pokey. Generally, though, they weren't that young, or they were projecting some more mature version of themselves into their memories of attractive teachers. Thing is, with that Florida kid, he was already an adolescent, and the age difference would not have been incredible if they were both adults (although we still sometimes raise an eyebrow at May-December romances, don't we?) whereas this boy's attacker was 30.

Maybe it's a symptom of the sexualization of our children. They're exposed to borderline erotic material all over the place, as if it were the same thing as living in a modest but minimally clothed culture like we can often find in the hotter climes. I wonder if perhaps things like that sexually explicit survey that went out to all the students in a California district (I'll post a concise reference if I can find one) is just a sort of "reasonable" attempt at reconnaissance before mounting some kind of management campaign, the same way abortion manages the problems that arise from the use of contraception.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

A few disconnected thoughts

When I was a wee college student, I spent a year or two as part of a
rogue IVCF small group. Okay, I'm being dramatic. I hope you don't
mind. As these groups are wont to do, we studied a few books of the
Bible, mainly a few Pauline letters, Luke, and Acts. I'd read parts of
the Bible before, but other than Revelation (which was interesting
because it was so strange) and Tobit (which was interesting because it
was so short), I'd never read any book in Scripture all the way

It was quite the experience. Some of Paul's themes or the narratives
featuring Jesus took on broader meaning, even more depth, when the
pieces that were slowly doled out at mass were presented together. I
was fortunate to have been invited into a group teeming with mature
college students who were already quite familiar with all the material.
I'm not sure what motivation the group leader had for bringing me into
the mix, outside of friendship and an interest I once expressed in
studying the Bible more, but I'm not looking a gift horse in the mouth.

Almost as interesting was the fact that I as a Catholic was in the
minority. I don't think even mainline Protestants were in the
majority. Most of my colleagues appeared to be Evangelical to some
degree, and claimed to be some flavor of nondenominational. I'm not
sure what it has to do with anything, but if I did, I wouldn't be
writing about it right now.

(I think I need to work on making my introductions more concise.)

Oh, occasionally the Rapture would come up, but other than contributing
what little I knew about it at the time, I didn't have much to say. If
someone wanted to make allusions to the prophetic books in explaining
the Gospel, good for them, I figured, and since I couldn't say anything
more constructive than "I disagree," I didn't say anything.

Sometimes things would come up, though, that I wouldn't be able to
trace back to any particular strand of theology or history; things that
would linger in the back of my mind for a long time. We never read
James, but the parable of the sheep and the goats did come up, so works
and faith did sort of come up as a corollary. We generally agreed that
we can't work off the price for heaven by our own efforts, and that
someone who truly had a living and healthy faith would also be overtly
practicing it. I say "generally" because a few people still seemed to
be uncomfortable with acknowledging a creeping works-based theology.
Given the legacy of the faith-works debate, I can understand caution,
but I couldn't understand where one of my friends was coming from when
I asked him to explain his apparent distaste of the obligation to do
good in the world, and he barely stopped short of equating salvation by
faith as a pure and simple intellectual affirmation of Jesus' saving
grace, as simply an act of will. He even asserted that our will is
only free to choose or reject Christ. The rest of our behavior,
everything we do and say from day to day, is dictated by God, or by our
fallen nature. Simply put, we're either God puppets or sin puppets,
and we can do nothing but decide which it will be.

Concerns about Pascal and destiny aside, where does this kind of
minimalization come from? It's not even a philosophical reductionism;
it's nearly as distasteful as predestination. If everything but the
choice of Christ is out of our hands, why are we weekly (or more)
admonished to be Christlike, to do His will, in addition? If it were
all determined by outside factors, then what's the point? Certainly,
God moves in mysterious ways, but He is not wasteful. Why would God
appoint people to recruit for Him, but not allow these people's
presence in the world make a difference? Why not just appoint everyone
to simply praise and worship Him? At least that kind of arrangement
would be a good thing.

Remind me to talk about something more upbeat in the future.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

What we can learn from others

I am a frequent lurker on ISCABBS, out of the University of Iowa. It's an old-school bulletin board system that predates the World Wide Web, and it once served sixty thousand users (heh, I almost typed "years"), although with the advent of IM and such, the user base has shrunk and now appears to be stable at approximately 5% of its peak size.

I read one forum (amongst others), as it's called in ISCA parlance, titled Bible and Christianity. It is not a Christianity safe space, so in the past there have been many heated and sometimes interesting debates between Christians and non-Christian faithful, between atheists and theists, and between people from different broad denominational categories (e.g., Evangelicals and mainline Protestants). With the lack of new blood, those users who remain are by now quite familiar with each others' opinions and arguments, so a lot of the current discussion focuses on contemporary Christian issues, and people rarely get upset anymore.

A lot of it's news and commentary that I now get in a more timely fashion from other sources, so I often end up just scanning the messages posted there, but now and then some stand up and grab the attention of the other users or, more to the point, of me.

A number of the attention-grabbing posts come from a single person. She doesn't post very often anymore, choosing to lurk rather than ruffle feathers, but when she's not bringing up Anglo-Catholic internal politics, she's simultaneously raising the ire and respect of different factions of users who read B&C.

I, for one, would like to see her post on her disruptive topic more (I could try to engage her more myself, but it's beside the point). It's not because I agree with her; I rarely do. It's because I find some of her philosophy challenging.

So, what's the big deal?
She's an absolute pacifist.

Before you ask, no, it doesn't mean I'm some warmonger, and no, I don't find her ideas scandalous. I think it's rather gauche, to put it mildly, to treat the military as just another diplomatic tool. I don't like to throw down with someone just for the thrill of it, or because I think I validate myself by demonstrating superior brutality. When I had to take PE in college and ended up in a martial arts course, I didn't even enjoy sparring, and the fighting there, at least, was respectful and controlled, although to be fair I wasn't very good at it.

What challenges me is the same thing that sparks the debates over the moral and practical value of pacifism. Everyone agrees that violence by itself isn't a good thing, in fact is never actually a good thing. So far I agree completely. However, some of us get off the train before denying that overt violence in defense of people unable to protect themselves could possibly constitute a necessary but merely disordered act. If someone came into my home with intent to harm my family, I wouldn't shoot first and skip the questions entirely (maybe there isn't intent to harm), but ultimately I couldn't justify stopping at anything to protect my loved ones.

Now, this pacifist is not preaching absolute passivity, either. If she happened upon a rape in progress, she would not stand idly by and merely refrain from violating the rapist's dignity, but she would try to obstruct him in ways short of direct engagement. Part of me says this kind of strategy is fatally ineffective, but another part wants to know how offensive I would really need to be, in the same situation, in order to be effective. Should I grab something heavy, sneak up, and just beat him until he stops moving? No, I'd be going too far. How far is far enough, though?

Once I open the door to violence, how do I close it? How far can I safely let it swing open? If a house invader is about to start cutting people I care for and I'm reasonably confident I can't stop him, I'm putting two bullets at center of mass after all and praying the good surgeons downtown can do more for him than I could. In the heat of the moment, I don't have the luxury of indecision, but here and now, I do, and it would behoove me to consider how I could be more likely to defuse the situation before it gets that far. When I tell myself I'd only shoot if necessary, am I now the one who's being cavalier about jumping from "brandish and threaten" to "aim and squeeze?"

Maybe the homicidal home invader example isn't a good one. Things could go down either way and I'd never know for sure if I could have achieved a solution that was not either/or in terms of survival. My point is that although this pacifist's definition of violence is so broad as to appear unworkable to the uninitiated--I'll spare you the details--instead of looking for excuses to blow off working for what really is one of the greatest goals, peace, maybe I should be asking myself instead if my definition of violence is actually too narrow.

Do I hurt people in cold blood? No. Do I make an effort not to let my bad mood keep me from treating respectfully with other people? Well, I try. If someone wrongs me, do I take offense? I suppose it's natural, whether or not it's right. Am I prone to dwelling on the offense and thinking less of the person, based solely on the one infraction? Okay, now it's definitely not natural or right. Do I enjoy it? Ahh...well, I shouldn't....

Okay, these questions weren't too hard to answer, but if that pacifist weren't around to ruffle my feathers a little bit now and then, I might never be asking them. Maybe, if I never did ask myself these questions, I'd still do the right thing in such situations. Finding the right answers wasn't too difficult, so maybe I could expect to do the right thing when the situation is a little grayer, too
But if not, I wouldn't like being surprised.

Currently reading...

Spiritual Combat Revisited, by Jonathan Robinson/Lorenzo Scupoli. Okay, I'm not so much reading it as putting off reading it. It's a good book, but it's hard for me to go more than half an hour or so without succumbing to a rather dry stretch and dozing off, which I think speaks more to my reading habits than to the writing. Almost every time I pick it up, I find some nugget of wisdom, but I just haven't been able to maintain enough momentum to plow through the whole thing and reap the benefits of taking the book as a whole (or at least larger chunks) instead of piecemeal.
You can find a review of it here.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Glory to God in the Highest...

...and other rarely asked questions, or not

I got back from All Saints' Day mass a little while ago. While we were speaking "Glory to God..." I thought back to how the liturgy was when I was young. Back in the day, we sang this part of the mass. Now, no mass I attend has it sung, and I can't remember how long ago things seemed to change. Was there a memo or synod that I missed growing up? In fact, we used to sing a few other things, as I recall, but not so much anymore. I was a little disappointed--the church, while surrounded by many people, is one of the few places my singing voice sounds pleasant to me--but then we went and chanted the Our Father, which while common now, was a rarity in my childhood parish, and I rather enjoy it.

When the pope goes to confession, does he keep the anonymity screen (there must be a Latin term for this thing) in place if he's feeling particularly modest--or rather, immodest--or does he not bother, since everyone already knows who he is?

My parents taught me the standard Catholic Sign of the Cross, forehead breastbone left shoulder right shoulder, and everyone I ever saw (outside of the occasional Eastern Orthodox) did it the same way. When I got to college, I started meeting people who would kiss their thumb afterwards. Then, I started seeing that practice everywhere, even where I didn't used to. What's up with that?

For those of you playing at home, I'm currently struggling through the back half of an advanced degree. When I say "struggling" I merely mean it's arduous, not that I anticipate washing out before reaching an acceptable stopping point. I'm torn between completing my Masters and heading back out to work, which is the path I'm currently on, and coming back in the near future to put a few more letters behind my name so I can teach and put my creds toward making up for the dearth of comprehensive yet comprehensible textbooks in my field. If'n you are so inclined, I would ask that you please pray for me, for discernment and for better understanding. Some of it's like knowing baseball intimately and suddenly being expected to just pick up cricket.

What is it about female dogs that makes them cost or worth more than male dogs at the pet shop?