Sunday, April 24, 2011

The Cross of Christ: Embarassment or Reason to Boast?

The Cross of Christ: Embarrassment or Reason to Boast?

Here begins the first a several blogs posts for the Easter season on the Resurrection. This is simply some brief reflections on a favorite John Updike poem.

Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

—John Updike, “Seven Stanzas At Easter,” 1964

In Galatians 6:14, St. Paul said, “may I boast in nothing but the cross of Christ.” For a Christian the cross is a tremendous source of pride and cause for awe, as we boast in a God who took on human flesh and became man, thereby committing the greatest act of humility the world had ever seen. Similarly, He took the full force of all the world’s evil onto himself, defeating sin and death in the greatest act of love the world had ever seen.

Though St. Paul boasted in the cross, for much of modern society and many people, even some claiming the name of Christian, the cross is not a source of pride, but a source of embarrassment. It was of those that John Updike wrote warning lest they be embarrassed by the miracle.

Modern embarrassment with the idea of a God who took on flesh, died, and then rose in glorified flesh essentially dates to the so-called Enlightenment and rise of materialism toward the end of the eighteenth century. Modern people “knew” that dead men did not rise as their silly unenlightened ancestors, bless their fruit of the looms, had believed. This change affected even theology as 20th century theologians began to reject the reality of the Resurrection. Rudolph Bultmann, (I think) remarked that no one who had seen the heavens through Galileo’s telescope could be expected to believe in the literal Resurrection. Consequently, he turned the Resurrection into a metaphor, a sign of the call to authentic existence in the face of death.

A modern material mind cannot believe in the Resurrection, it believes that dead men do not rise. Yet, the modern mind, still does not become wholly irreligious. Like Bultmann, it may try to retain some “spiritual” (though the belief is really very unspiritual) metaphorical meaning, thereby “mocking God with metaphor.” The modern mind, like the pagan antique mind, cannot accept a literal, physical Resurrection. God as matter is repellent to it.

It is a strange thing that the more materialist the word becomes, the more disgusted with matter it becomes. A literal resurrection is foolishness to the gentiles, but a “spiritual” religion such as Buddhism or the eastern paganisms are perfectly acceptable. This disgust with matter may come from the fact that in a material universe, the universe is simply, as one writer put it, the random product of time plus chance. There is nothing to give it purpose or meaning, and hence nothing to dignify it. And so matter and the material world becomes a prison.

This embarrassment with the crucifixion, however, is nothing new; rather it goes back to the beginning. Paul in Corinthians wrote that ‘we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles.” Peter himself confessed Our Lord as Messiah, but then objected to the Crucifixion and was denounced as Satan. Indeed, disgust with a God become man who suffered, died, and rose, goes back further still. One of the speculations about Satan’s fall, was that God revealed to him the episode of the cross and Satan objected. Satan refused to adore a God who would so humble himself and become man. He was too enlightened.

To the Christian, however, the cross is not an embarrassment. Rather, the love and humility of God become man, the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and the Resurrection are not a cause for embarrassment, but a source of pride, and indeed, the only real source of pride in the whole universe. Children boast on the playground that “my daddy can beat your daddy.” The Christian can similarly boast, with St. Paul, that Our Father, the God become man in Jesus, has fought and beaten the entire forces of evil, sin, and death, and Resurrexit.

Happy Easter

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Disposable Goods, Disposable People

In 1901, King Gillette, building an idea of the latter half of the nineteenth century, invented a safety razor with disposable blades (1). A host of disposable products followed including, cameras, tissues, paper cups, and diapers, until today, the disposable good is a common, and almost indispensable feature of society (2). Disposable goods offer a certain convenience, but have three aspects that, when considered, say something about the society that uses them with such abandon.

First, one has no obligation or responsibility to a disposable good; second, disposable goods are replaceable. One disposable razor or cup is as good as another. Finally, disposable goods are cheap, both in cost to obtain them and in the value people place on them. Even non disposable goods can become disposable. One recent writer, for instance, has remarked that people do not typically dispose of their computer because it has failed, but because a new one that seemed more desirable appeared on the market (3).

Today, however, it is not only goods that are disposable; rather, over the course of the 20th century, people too have become disposable. A divorce rate of approximately 50%, the commonness of extramarital sex and multiple partners, the high rate of abortion, and the various genocides over the course of the century make it impossible to deny that people today have become disposable. Why? Among several reasons, two stand out. One that I do not have space to fully discuss is the divorce between what Fulton Sheen calls, “freedom from” and “freedom for.” The former concerns freedom from external constraint, the latter concerns the purpose of that freedom (4). The other is the “God is dead” materialism that pervades modern society. Man is only random collections of particles in a random universe. He is only matter, and because he is only matter, he does not matter. One cannot believe in a purpose for freedom, because there is no purpose to anything, and so liberty becomes license. Neither can one believe in a person’s objective moral value; on materialism, persons have none. And so in a materialist society (whether ancient Roman or modern Western), people become disposable.

One area in which Man’s disposability is clear is sex. Here, one disposable good, the condom, helps to make people disposable. The connection between the increasing use of birth control, materialism, and Man’s disposability over the twentieth century is no coincidence.

The condom allows rejection of responsibility associated with sex and hence causes a divorce between the persons involved. Fertile sex entails significant responsibility. If a woman becomes pregnant, her ability to work may be limited, she will need to be supported, and so will the child. The condom allows “safe sex,” the rejection of this responsibility, and when responsibility is rejected, love is rejected. The two always go together, when one goes, so goes the other. “Safe sex” is absurd, but “safe love” does not even exist. Real love always burns bridges behind it. When love and responsibility are rejected, then the woman (or man), becomes replaceable. One woman (or man), is just as good as another, and when one is just as good as another, then one is just as worthless as another. So people become cheap. Sex now is simply a matter of scratching an itch and one’s partner becomes a mere scratching post. The commonness of premarital and promiscuous sex today testify to the truth of this. With responsibility rejected, people become replaceable, and they become cheap.

Children too have been disposable. Once a necessary part of a marital relationship, they are now a part of the responsibility that modernity rejects. Now they are only an optional (and often undesirable) side effect, a side effect that if not avoided, can be destroyed.

Historians once thought that people in the Middle Ages loved their children less because of high child mortality rates. There is no evidence for this. There is, however, substantial evidence that parents and people today do love children less. They are less willing to have them, and more willing to destroy them. Children are cheap. In a material cosmos a person’s value is purely subjective, that is to say, dependant on what people think. Thus, in Pagan Antiquity, a child was not a person until the father picked him up. Similarly, in Pagan Modernity, a child is not a person until the mother decides to keep him. 4,000 abortions every day testify to how cheap human life has become.

Other examples might be given, but these suffice to show the trend. To a society fond of disposable goods, one more disposable good has been added, the person. Rejecting responsibility in the name of liberty, human life has become replaceable, and it has become cheap. This it ought never to have been, and it must not be if humanity is to remain human. Otherwise, we will find that we are increasingly living in a world of disposable goods, and disposable people.


(2) While writing this, I came across this book Made to Break, studying the growing use of and practical problems associated with use of disposable items.

(3) Giles Slade, Made to Break, 2007.

(4) From his talk “On Freedom” Available on You tube. I would like to write a future blog post on this talk. “Freedom from” would describe how a person must not be externally contrained, while “freedom for” would describe the purpose, such as being free to choose a spouse. Today, however, the two are divided and people insist on “freedom from” while denying the purpose of that freedom. Hence the commonness of pre-marital and promiscuous sex.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Pride and Humility

Lenten reflections drawing on C.S. Lewis and Fulton Sheen

            I have a booklet of daily Lenten reflections that include excerpts from various works by C.S. Lewis.  A recent reflection was on pride and humility, taken from the "The Great Sin" chapter in Mere Christianity.  I wanted to think more about these two concepts, and I find the things that both Lewis and Fulton Sheen say about them (Sheen in "The Infinity of Littleness," one of the chapters in Life is Worth Living) pretty interesting.  Just thinking and comparing is basically what I'm doing here.  I'm not being very original.

            What exactly is pride?  What exactly is humility?  Just as importantly, what are they not?  I think sometimes it does help to understand what something is by also understanding what it isn't.  One example is that pride is not taking pleasure in being praised, as long as the pleasure is from the fact that you have pleased someone else, and not about yourself (Lewis 106).  Lewis states, "The trouble begins when you pass from thinking, 'I have pleased him; all is well,' to thinking, 'What a fine person I must be to have done it.' The more you delight in yourself and the less you delight in the praise, the worse you are becoming" (p 106).  In contrast, humility is not refusing praise, and is not denying that statements of praise are false.  In fact, these acts of false humility are actually pride.  Sheen gives an example that if after being complimented on his telecast, he replied that "it was nothing" and he only prepared three minutes for it, that would be pride, because it implies "Just think how of what the show would be if I spent four minutes preparing for it" (42). 

            Lewis states that pride is "competitive by its very nature" (p 104) in that it comes not only from having something, but having more of it than someone else, or doing something better than something else.  Sheen seems to agree, stating, "Pride is an admission of weakness; it secretly fears all competition and dreads all rivals" (p 44).  Lewis also states, "Pride is enmity. And not only enmity between man and man, but enmity to God" (p 105).  He explains that a prideful person refuses to acknowledge something superior to himself, and therefore cannot know God without being able to acknowledge him as superior.  Similarly, Sheen states, "If we are filled with our own importance, then we can never be filled with anything outside ourselves" (p 40).  For this reason, humility is necessary for getting to know God: "Humility is the condition of discovering the Infinite Truth and Love...
No man discovers anything big unless he makes himself small.  If he magnifies his ego to infinity, he will learn nothing, for there is nothing bigger than the infinite.  If he reduces his ego to zero and is no longer proud and conceited, then   he will discover everything big, even bigger than himself.  His world begins to be infinite.  In order to discover truth, goodness and justice, and God, one must be very humble" (p 40).

            Lewis mentions how pride is different from self respect.  I think he means that it comes out of an excessive perversion of self-respect.  Sheen states, "Pride is inordinate self-love" (p 43).  Many evils are perversions of good things.  So it could also be inordinate self-respect, or maybe an improper recognition of it.  Lewis mentions that sometimes a person might use pride disguised as self-respect to conquer other vices by the fact that they are beneath his dignity.  "The devil laughs," he says:
 He is perfectly content to see you becoming chaste and brave and self-controlled provided, all the time, he is setting up in you the Dictatorship of Pride—just as he would  be content to see your chilblains cured if he was allowed, in return, to give you cancer.  For pride is spiritual cancer: it eats up the very possibility of love, contentment, or even common sense (p 106).
While (I think) I understand his point, I am caught on what seems to be a complete prohibition against using the concept of self respect or dignity to avoid a vice or a sin.  What confuses me is that numerous sins are things that we should avoid because they truly are contrary to our dignity as persons created in the image and likeness of God.  I do not think that any recognition of this fact is automatically and inherently an act of pride.  It probably would depend on whether the motive is obedience or competition.  Thinking back to where Lewis says that pride is competitive, if the motive is simply to be better than others, then that would be pride.  On the other hand, if the motive is obedience to God's laws, then that would be humility, "the virtue that tells us the truth about ourselves, that is, how we stand, not in the eyes of men, but before God" (Sheen 41). 

            Toward the end of Lewis's chapter comes the part that my reflection booklet quoted.  He explains that God does not forbid pride and demand our humility for his own good, but for ours.  Humility is necessary for us to get to know God, and that pride hinders our ability to be open to Him.  "He is trying to make you humble in order to make this moment possible: trying to take off a lot of silly, ugly, fancy-dress in which we have got ourselves up and are strutting about like the little idiots we are" (Lewis 107) [I had to quote that.  I found the ending hilarious].

            Sheen ends his chapter by talking about the "greatest act of humility this world ever knew" (p 44).  It's obvious to us what he means, but he begins with an interesting analogy of a person becoming a dog, "that gives a faint idea of something that actually happened.  Think of God becoming man... He would not forgo the companionship of men, but would become a victim to their abuse, their misunderstanding, their scorn, and their cruelties." I really like how he doesn't stop at what pride is and what humility is and tell us why we need to be humble.  He reminds us just how humble God was willing to be for our sake.  

Here's a link to Fulton Sheen's talk, "The Infinity of Littleness"
You can listen for free, the website just wants you to register.

The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics. C.S. Lewis
Life is Worth Living. Fulton J. Sheen.
(Yea, I know those aren't proper citations. I'm being lazy.)