Thursday, November 22, 2012

Black Friday: The High Holy Day of Stuffism

G.K. Chesterton once remarked in several passages some idea to the effect that when a man will no longer believe in God, it is not so much that be believes nothing, rather, it is more the case that he will believe in anything.  As was so often the case, Chesterton’s words were not only descriptive, but prophetic, for a modern world that proclaims the death of God has not replaced its belief in God with belief in nothing, but belief in all sorts of things.  Man today has not rejected religion, but has simply chosen new religions, among them: Materialism, Secularism, Individualism, Liberalism, worship of celebrity, and Stuffism.  They have their own rituals, own houses of worship, own set of beliefs, high priests, and high holy days.  On the day after Thanksgiving, falls the holiest day of the Stuffist calendar, Black Friday.  

In his important, if challenging book, The Unintended Reformation, Professor Brad Gregory of the University of Notre Dame has remarked on the increasing secularization of Western Society that had been an unintended consequence of the Protestant Reformation.  As a result of hyper-pluralism--a proliferation of religious (and non-religious) beliefs-- society has reached the point where it can no longer agree on anything.   Like Chesterton’s unbeliever who would believe, not in nothing, but in anything, a society that can longer organize itself around shared religious beliefs must organize around something.  That something, is Stuffism.  

Society today may be able to agree on little, but most people can agree that they want stuff and they want alot of it.  Gregory calls this the religion of Stuffism.   Its followers are as devoted as followers any religion have been.  Its main doctrines involve the pursuit of material goods as the highest principle of life; meaning in life is comes from pursuit and attainment of new stuff.  Man’s appetite for the infinite (for what  save the infinite could satisfy man’s endless longing), once met by an infinite God, is now to be met  by an infinite amount and quality of stuff.  Man must own the newest I-pad, Tablet, car, or fad.  Salvation comes not from a personal relationship with God, but from having the latest and best stuff.  

Stuffism has its own houses of worship, more ornate and decorated than any Church.  A popular and rather shallow attack on Christianity has sometimes dwelt on its ornate Churches while many starve—as if the poor do not  need beauty as well as food!  Stuffist houses of worship, though, are more ornate than nearly any Church.  The young and old gather devotedly at Macy’s, Abercrombie and Fitch, the Mall.  Cardinal Dolan once observed sadly that when he saw young people lined up at a house of worship on Sunday morning, they were lined up, not outside a Church, but outside an Abercrombie and Fitch store.   

Stuffism has its own rituals, sacraments, and holy days.  Its Confirmation/Bar Mitzvah/coming of age ritual is receiving one’s first credit card when one becomes a fully initiated Stuffist.  Its rituals include waiting in line to purchase the newest I-pad.  The Holiest day of the Stuffist calendar falls on Black Friday.  Early Black Friday morning, devout Stuffists gather outside their houses of worship for the newest deals, intent on acquiring the newest stuff at the best price (the better to get even more stuff).  They can even worship from the comfort of their houses thanks to the ease of online purchasing.  

Such is the religion of Stuffism in brief.  There is, though, something unsatisfying about the Stuffist creed, the idea that man’s greatest purpose lies in gaining more stuff, that this can be the organizing principle of society, and that enough stuff might satisfy the human heart, for it never does.  Those who follow the Stuffist religion most devoutly are the least satisfied.  They must always have the newest thing and more stuff and so can never be more than briefly satisfied by what they have.  The Stuffist creed leaves one wanting where it most claims to satisfy, a poor religion for the human heart.  

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Icons, images, Church history, and churches

Icon of Our Lady of Czestowa
I just want to share a pretty neat coincidence of Church history and real life.

Over the weekend I went on a pilgrimage with a group from my diocese to a few notable churches in a nearby city.  One of them was a big, gorgeous, French Gothic Cathedral Basilica that looks like it was transplanted from Europe.  Another was a (ethinically) Polish Church with very ornate paintings inside, a beautiful icon of our Lady of Czestowa above the tabernacle (which was behind the altar), and a relic of Blessed Pope John Paul II.  We were lucky enough to have our bishop along with us, and he was our tour guide, being very familiar with both churches (he actually had been baptized at the Polish church, and he served at the Cathedral Basilica before becoming the Bishop of our diocese).

Throughout showing us around the churches, in addition to telling us about the history of the building, he told us a lot about the architecture, statues, stained glass, and paintings.  He kept on stressing how the images serve, in addition to creating a religious ambiance, to instruct viewers without words, especially back in a time when not everyone was literate.  That was the perfect thing for him to point out, since, coincidentally my reading assignment for my Church History class was  On The Divine Images by St. John of Damascus.  This was great!  The bishop was talking about the importance of images in our churches and that same weekend I was reading St. John's defense of using divine images!  (Mind blown by this coincidence.)

Icon of John of Damascus. And he's holding an icon!
 St. John of Damascus lived ca. 650 to ca. 749, and resigned from a post in the Muslim Caliph's court to join a monastery.  He was ordained a priest and wrote about theology, philosophy and liturgy.  During the period of 725 to 774, there was a period of iconoclasm, brought about by the imperial policy of Emperor Leo III, who wanted to forbid "worshiping" statues.  John of Damascus was conveniently located outside of the Byzantine empire, so he could write rather freely in contradiction of the emperor's policies.  This was his reason for writing his treatise, which is seen as "one of the most important reflections on the theological issues at stake in the iconoclastic controversies" (1).  Here is a link to Part I of the Apology against Those who Attack the Divine Images (not the translation I read, but probably close enough). This one may be easier on the eyes.

One of the ways St. John explains that images are not worshiped instead of God is by describing the nature of worship itself.  While worship is the way that we revere or honor something, there are different levels in which it is applied.  He explains that Adoration, or in Latin, latria, is the highest worship, which is due only to God.  This is probably why we use the phrase "Eucharistic Adoration" rather than a more general term.  On the other hand, we can also honor something that is not as high as God, but still deserves some degree of reverence.  This honor is in Latin called dulia.  I think these terms are also used to explain how we don't "worship" Mary as God, and how we pray to her and to saints.  St. John says some other interesting things, so I recommending reading some if this treatise (I only had to read Part I for class, not the whole thing).

1. Coakley and Sterk, Readings in World Christian History, Vol.I, 289.

Friday, November 9, 2012

7 Quick Takes #5 Snapshots

Thank you Jen for hosting at Conversion Diary

1. Here I will be sharing some photos that represent some recent(ish) happenings. We enjoy taking pictures of things we do, or food we cook, but then we don't do much with the pictures. So here are some entertaining shots.

2. My husband's birthday was early in October, and I made him a birthday pie (we tend to enjoy pie more than cake). Here's his birthday pecan pie with the candles. The blue candles each stand for 10, the pink one 5, and the white ones are one each. (I thought that was pretty clever.)
3. In early October we also decided to go "pescatarian" together.  I have been vegetarian since I was 18, and my husband is not a vegetarian. He suggested this (at first jokingly) as an experiment. So, I am now eating fish (which I grew up eating), and he now eats fish, but no other meat. It has been interesting so far. Here is a dinner that we thought came out pretty nice. I made the sweet potato (covered with rosemary and garlic) and the mushrooms in syrup over polenta, and he made the fish (I think this is a whiting fillet).

4. Remember the science fairs they used to have in elementary school, and there was always a kid who put celery stalks in colored water? Well, I randomly decided to try that myself when I cut off the bottom of a celery bunch and noticed it looked like a flower. So I tried this experiment. I was really surprised to see the little stalks in the center actually start growing. Check this out. It's Bonsai celery!

5. So last week we had hurricane Sandy, and we were pretty lucky only to lose power for one night.  My husband finished grading a couple of papers by candlelight. No joke, he really did. A few days later, the power was turned off for repair work. It was still out by dinner time, but we have a gas stove, so we were able to cook dinner. My husband thought it would be fun to do this:

6. I bought something recently that confuses me. Here is a picture of their packaging. It looks like they are trying to make the product look sexy.  I should probably have something intellectual to say about our culture sexualizing everything.  This is just looks really corny though.

They're socks! Fuzzy socks!
I mean, packaging like this could make sense on, say, hosiery, maybe, but fuzzy socks??

7.  I have a very high appreciation for fuzzy socks, though. I have a few different pairs, and would like some more. My feet always get really cold in winter, and it is hard for me to keep them warm. I often need to layer socks, and fuzzy socks definitely help.

Hope you enjoyed the snapshots!

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Three Divorces III: Body and Soul

In two previous posts, I observed that what is true of a husband and wife—what God has joined man must not put asunder—holds to for others important ideas and unions in the modern world.  It was not only the marriage of a man and his wife that was to be permanent, but the marriage of other things as well.  Yet, all often, man does break asunder those things that God joined.  He puts apart what should never have been separated and breaks to pieces what ought to be united.  For this reason, not only the divorce of husband and wife is common in the modern world, but also the divorce between love and responsibility, between faith and reason, and between the body and soul. 

Like the divorce between love and responsibility and faith and reason, the divorce between body and soul is not unique to the modern world.  The ancient Greek philosophers professed the uselessness of religion, while the Christian Tertullian asked "what accord has Athens with Jerusalem or Christ with Baliol."   Likewise, others in history separated the body soul, some by giving primacy to one over the other and some by denying one all together.  This was not necessarily divided along purely religious lines.  Plato, student of Socrates and teacher of Aristotle, taught that the body was the prison of the soul, which lay captive in its dark dungeon until freed by death (1). 

Others in the ancient word went the other way, denying the soul and giving primacy to the body.  Such was the case with the Lucretius who, in The Nature of Things, ridiculed the idea of any sort of soul or afterlife and the Epicureans who denying the soul, decided the best man could hope for was to orient his life around pursuit of pleasure (2).  It is to this attitude that St. Paul seems to have referred when he wrote to the Corinthians that if Christ has not been raised, "let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die."   

The modern world is the same way.  Some give primacy to the soul denying the body.  N.T. Wright refers to some of these in his important book, Surprised by Hope (3).  These include even the modern Christian who thinks that the final Christian hope is nothing more than leaving the body behind and going to heaven or the Eastern religion where the soul tries to escape from the cycle of this world. 

More common, though, is the materialism of a modern world that denies man a soul.  In this world without God man is only matter, an animal, who though perhaps cleverer than other animals has the same fate.  The author of Ecclesiastes depressingly put it, "the fate of men and beasts is the same."  Lacking a soul, moderns believe, man has no soul to feed, it is enough to feed his body.  It is the error of the Marxist's heir, the modern secular liberal who thinks it enough to feed man's body, but do no more.   It is the error of those who claim the Church should sell its art and Church decorations to feed the poor.  As if the poor do not need  beauty and spiritual food as much as physical!  It is the error of the West when they think that supplying corn and condoms to Africa will solve its problems.  It suffices, so the West thinks, to provide for man's two main appetites, food and sex.  It is the error of a pagan West when thy ridicule the Pope for calling on Africa to experience a renewal of faith, friendship, and spiritual awakening.  Nonsense, says the West, Enlightened persons know that Africans, like all modern man, are only animals.  Feed their bellies and leave the souls, which they do not possess, alone.  

One need not be a Christian to recognize the absurdity of this view.  Matthew Paris, in his article, "As an Atheist, I Truly Believe Africa Needs God"(4), showed that Christian aid organizations do good that purely secular ones cannot.  When two such different people as the Twentieth century atheist Matthew Paris and the medieval Dominican Thomas Aquinas agree, the world should pay attention.  For Aquinas, man was not his body, nor did he "have" a soul.  Instead, he was body and soul.  C.S. Lewis, I think, wrote that a corpse is not a man, but then neither is a ghost.  Another writer observed that a body without a soul is a zombie; a soul without a body is a ghost, but neither of these is a man. 

Just as when love and responsibility or faith and reason are divorced, they lose all meaning, so too the body and the soul.  God has joined them for a reason, for when one side of a coin is separated from another, the coin loses all value, so the body and soul when divided are the same.  God has joined them, but man puts them asunder only at his own peril. 

(1) The Manicheans too, who counted St. Augustine among their adherents for a time, professed the body, along with the whole physical world, to be the work of the devil.  The body was not a necessary part of man; it was not a part of man at all. 
(2) By pleasure, they largely meant not a gross hedonism, but the absence of pain, a somewhat depressing view.
(3). N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven and the Resurrection.