Sunday, June 28, 2015

Living the Joy of the Gospel in Our Marriages & Families


Every single Christian couple has an opportunity to be a culture-maker, a culture-builder, insofar as they live vibrant, joy-filled, attractive marriages and family lives.

Friday’s Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v Hodges, which legalized marriage between two people of the same sex across the country provides an opportunity for me to unpack the second facet of Cruciform’s exploration of the intersection of Christianity & culture, namely, culture-building.

In several previous posts I’ve noting the importance of engaging culture by analyzing and assessing cultural “artifacts”: movies, music, books, etc. (See my two posts on Avengers: Age of Ultron as examples.) This is what I’ve referred to as being a “movie critic” in the broad sense of cultural engagement.

But I’ve also noted that cultural engagement isn’t only about assessment and analysis; it’s not just about being a movie critic: it’s also about being a movie maker. And again, that’s meant in the broad sense of forming and shaping culture in all sorts of ways.

One of the most overlooked yet most important ways in which Christians can be “movie makers” in this sense is in our marriages and in our families. The fact of the matter is, most of us have a relatively limited “sphere of control”: beyond the (also underestimated) power of prayer, there is little that most of us can do to make a visible difference in the lives of people with whom we don’t have a relationship: unless we wield significant political, economic or cultural power, our sphere of influence (let alone control) is relatively limited (again, with the power of prayer as an eminently notable exception).

But with those with whom we do have a relationship, and particularly those in our immediate family, our ability to make a difference and to build up a Christian culture significantly increases.

This isn’t something to be neglected. As the old saying goes, the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world: future generations of Americans receive a fundamental formation and understanding of life as they grow and mature in their homes. This means that parents play an incalculable role in setting the course of our society.

But it’s not just as parents of children that men and women are “movie makers”: it’s also simply as husbands and wives. And it’s in both of these roles -- simply as Christian spouses as well as as Christian parents -- that we are called to make a particular difference in this time and in this country.

On Friday the Supreme Court ruled that two people of the same sex can legally marry in any state in this country. As numerous commentators have noted, in so doing they fundamentally changed the definition of marriage, in that hereto for marriage had been understood not only as a deep bond of love between two people, but as a specific kind of bond that was fundamentally ordered towards childbirth and childrearing.

Now, I don’t want to get into the specifics of this argument, although I’m sure that the discussion over same sex “marriage” will continue, just as the debate over legalized abortion goes on more than forty years after the Supreme Court ”decided” that issue as well. I just want to make one point here: while I am writing this post primarily with fellow Christians in mind, remember that the case for traditional marriage can be made in a completely secular fashion, meaning, without any reference to any religious belief, teaching or practice. But that’s a conversation for another post. (In the meantime, read anything by Ryan T. Anderson, like this article from 2013.)

For the purposes of this post, I want to speak to my fellow Christians about what we can do to make a difference, what we can do to build a Christian culture of marriage, about what we can do to bear witness to our faith on this particular issue.

Here’s the answer:

Live a happy, healthy, holy marriage, a marriage that is joyful and joy-filled, a marriage that endures every storm it encounters with a rock-solid confidence and trust that Christ will rebuke the wind and still the seas.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="482"] Rembrandt, The Storm on the Sea of Galilee, 1633[/caption]


For while marriage as a legal construct in this country is now open to more, marriage as as societal reality has been suffering in this country for decades, and it’s high time that we start to live in a way that reflects what we believe, about life in general and marriage in particular.

Pope Blessed Paul VI said that for the people of our time the best teachers are witnesses. So if we want to teach our culture about the true meaning of marriage, it’s absolutely essential that we start to live the true meaning of marriage.

For Catholics in particular, we need to live the teaching that marriage is a sacrament, a visible sign by which God communicates his loving, life-giving, healing, saving and amazing grace.

For all of us, do we really believe that what we believe about marriage & grace is really real? Do we really believe that having Christ at the center of our marriages really matters, really makes a difference? How easily could we bear witness to the difference that Christ has made in our marriages?

On Friday Denver’s archdiocesan newspaper, the Denver Catholic, invited Christians to respond to this cultural moment not with despair, but with hopeful excitement:
Jesus Christ is real. We Christians have experienced the sweetness of a personal relationship with Him. Our mission is not to punish or coerce those who have not experienced this—instead, we must invite them into relationship. What better way to do this than to show the joy of living the Catholic faith?

And here’s the thing: it works. Check out the examples in this post, including that of the Catholic author Eve Tushnet, who is attracted to women and yet lives a life of celibacy and embraces Catholic teaching on sexuality. It was the joyful witness of Catholics that lead her from a life of irreligious gay activism to committed Catholicism.

So, start praying as a couple, as a family, for the grace of a joyful marriage, that you might bear witness to the difference Jesus Christ makes in your own home. That’s a prayer that God will surely answer, and when He gives that grace we cooperate with it… fruit will be born, thirty, sixty… even one hundredfold.

How will you answer this call? What are the steps that you will take to live a marriage of joy that bears witness to your faith?

Monday, June 22, 2015

Let Not Your Hearts Be Troubled


Among the many gifts of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, one which is it greatest need in our world today this this: the gift of peace. For despite the great power we possess, power which allows us to order and control so much of our life, we still recognize that that power has limits, and with that recognition comes worry, fear and anxiety.

Into that world comes Jesus Christ, Who says to us what He said to His Apostles one week after the Resurrection: "Peace be with you."

In this post I’d like to briefly sketch the anxiety of our age and its antidote: the Peace of Jesus Christ that surpasses all understanding.

A few years back I came across a short-lived cable show devoted to the incredibly-extensive underground shelters which some people (“preppers”) were having built to protect them from whatever apocalypse they thought was on its way. I was struck by the elaborate nature of these shelters… many of them were as well furnished as my own home! And given the fact that they were buried underground and were built to survive extreme climate & environmental changes, they were also incredibly expensive.

Then just a few months ago I came across something which topped those shelters: the Survival Condo: luxury condominiums built in a repurposed missile silo to allow their owners to survive the collapse of civilization as we know it.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="462"] The Survival Condo[/caption]

Here’s a summary:
The Survival Condo is an engineering marvel designed for comfortable long-term survival in a former Atlas missile silo. It offers spacious condos with many amenities including luxury living space and a community swimming pool, dog walking park, rock climbing wall, theater, general store and an aquaponic farm, among other features, all of which are underground and encompassed by walls that are 2.5 – 9 feet thick. A half-floor unit is ~900 square feet and runs $1.5 million. The full floor version costs $3 million for 1820 square feet.

As the official website for this project indicates, the first silo is sold out, and units in a second silo are going fast.

Meaning, tens of millions of dollars are being spent by people looking to survive the end of the world as we know it.

Meaning, there are multimillionaires who are truly putting their money in a (huge) hole in the ground.

The Survival Condo and other efforts like it are a dramatic sign of something widespread in our culture: our desire to control every aspect of our lives that we possibly can, to anticipate and even avoid every bad thing that might happen. The Survival Condo is a very real, very large and very expensive manifestation of the great anxiety of our age.

The scope of our cultural anxiety really is astounding. Consider, after all, the incredible material wealth that even the average middle-class American enjoys and then consider how much we worry and fret about it! Or think about our health: while millions of people in the world struggle to get enough to eat, our problem is just the opposite: we eat too much! Despite that, however, our medical technologies still give us lifespans into the eighth decade on average, and yet we worry and fret about our health, we seek to manage and control it so that we can live just a few more years.

In all of this, we see an extraordinary lack of the thing which was heralded by the angels at the birth of Christ, the thing which He gave the Apostles after the Resurrection: His Peace, Peace on Earth, Peace in our hearts, and the calm and trust that it entails.

As our experience indicates all too well, we cannot achieve, accomplish or manufacture that deep peace that we long and yearn for. But that’s okay… we don’t need to: Christ desires to give it to us, freely.

All we have to do is accept it, all we have to do is trust Him, all we have to do is know that everything that might happen to us has been accounted for by our Heavenly Father, and that whatever pain & suffering we experience -- including death -- is not the last word, that despite it, He will (and already does!) envelop us in His loving embrace.

No, we cannot achieve peace. But we can receive it. And here's the thing: many of us have.

So why is it still so hard to do so?

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Goal of Christian Morality: Our Happiness!


[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="365"] Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Saint Teresa in Ecastasy, 1647-52[/caption]


One of my favorite topics in moral theology is the the place of happiness in Catholic moral thought, and in this post I want to dive a little more deeply than normal into some theology, but bear with me...

There is an unfortunate tendency today among many -- even among some committed Christians -- to believe that Christian moral norms are apparently arbitrary whims imposed on us by God and/or by our Church leadership.

There is actually a good deal of truth to this belief, in that there has been a long history in moral theology of focusing on the "willed" aspect of moral norms, i.e. that things like the Ten Commandments are willed by God, and therefore we ought to obey them for that reason. This perspective began primarily with John Duns Scotus in the High Middle Ages and continued through William of Ockham in the Late Middle Ages. It was via Ockham and his circle that this voluntaristic emphasis, focusing on the will, spread during the Reformation, and in the Counter-Reformation and succeeding centuries many Catholic moral theologians continued to hold to this emphasis, as seen in what’s called the "manual tradition" of moral theology in the first half of the twentieth century.

Now, I would certainly agree that we ought to follow God's will; I definitely have no issue with obedience. The problem comes in when God's will is made to appear arbitrary, i.e. there is no attempt to discover the divine rationality behind His moral precepts. In fact, some would posit that we even shouldn't make such an attempt, that it is wrong to do so.

What this leads to among too many believers is a Christian "moral spirituality" which undertakes Christian moral precepts as if they were a great weight which must simply be carried: ours is not to wonder why, ours is but to do and die. I am a Christian, and therefore I have to "put up" with these precepts. For the non-Christian looking in, there is little to find which is attractive in this atmosphere. It appears laden with legalistic norms which lead only to misery in this life, with the promise for (eventual) happiness in the next.

Such a picture is not only depressing, but need not -- nay, should not -- be the portrait painted by Christian moral theology and practice. Furthermore, it is a perspective which is relatively new -- as noted above, it was only in the High Middle Ages that this understanding of morality really began. Before that -- and ever since, among a school which was in the minority of moral theologians for far too long -- Catholic moral theology saw another divine purpose in living a moral lifestyle: authentic, real happiness.

St. Augustine opened his treatise on Christian ethics ("The Standards of the Catholic Church") with the following words: "There is no doubt about it. We all want to be happy. Everyone will agree with me, before the words are even out of my mouth. [...] So let us see if we can find the best way to achieve it." As the noted Dominican moral theologian, Servais Pinckaers, commented, "For Augustine, morality begins with the question of happiness -- authentic happiness -- and consists entirely in finding an answer to this spontaneous, universal question. Morality is a search for happiness" (emphasis added).

As Pinckaers goes on to note, this perspective was obvious to Augustine, but is very foreign to most of us (Christian or not) today. As he says, "we are used to thinking of morality from the viewpoint of obligations and prohibitions. We equate it with a body of teaching about commandments and sins, and do not readily perceive how it connects with our desire for happiness. In fact, the two things seem contradictory” (emphasis added).

Isn't this true? Don't most of us see morality and happiness as opposites, or at least understand them so in an unconscious manner?

As we see above, though, this was not how St. Augustine understood happiness, and his perspective was held by most theologians into the High Middle Ages, including his most famous disciple, St. Thomas Aquinas, who was described by one of my Angelicum professors as being "more Augustinian than Augustine was."

For St. Thomas, like Augustine, a moral life is the path to authentic happiness. Yes, there may be initial "pain" as we begin to live the life of virtue rather than vice, but in the end, the happiness we will have through the grace of God and the life of virtue will far outweigh whatever pseudo-happiness we may experience otherwise.

This "take" on morality is once again taking its rightful place, through the work of men like Servais Pinckaers (I would recommend his reflections on the Beatitudes, The Pursuit of Happiness -- God's Way, from which the above quotes were taken, and his more scholarly work, The Sources of Christian Ethics). Yes, we must follow God's will, but we must remember and emphasize to others that God wills our happiness, and therefore that living the moral life will lead us to that end of real happiness, in this life and the next.

Living the Christian life should not be a burden to us; as Jesus said, "my yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Mt 11:30). When we realize that God desires our happiness, and that living the life He sets before us will lead us there, Christian morality is transformed for us and for others.

What about you? Have you seen Christian morality as the path to happiness, or as a heavy burden, or as something else?

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Why Do You Persecute Me?


[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="434"] Caravaggio, Conversion on the Way to Damascus, 1601[/caption]

One of the most compelling Scripture passages is found in chapter 9 of the Acts of the Apostles: the conversion of St. Paul on the road to Damascus. Among the many fascinating aspects of this narrative is the connection Jesus makes between Himself and His Church. His first words to Paul are, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” and when Paul asks who He is, Jesus replies, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.”

Obviously, Paul was not literally persecuting Jesus, in that He had already ascended into Heaven. However, he was persecuting Jesus’ community of disciples, and so from Jesus’ words to Paul, we find a certain kind of identity between Jesus Himself and His Church, to such a degree that to attack the one (the community of disciples) is to attack the other (Jesus Himself).

This “secondary” aspect of St. Paul’s conversion clearly had a deep effect on his understanding of the Church, in that he is the primary Scripture writer who refers to the Church as the “Body of Christ”. We can rightly infer that this understanding of the Church derived from his conversion experience.

What this means for us is important: we cannot view the Church as some sort of “third thing” that comes between the disciple of Jesus and Jesus Himself. Rather, the Church is the very place wherein we encounter our Risen Lord, in that the Church is in some mysterious yet real sense the Body of Christ. We can no more be an authentic disciple of Jesus and exist outside the Church than an arm can continue to exist after it has been cut off from the body.

Furthermore, this also shows us that the Church is more than a “coming together” of disciples, that the Church does not come to be only when disciples gather. Rather, the Church – as the Body of Christ – in a certain sense “pre-exists” individual believers. So when someone is converted to Our Lord, they are “grafted into” His Body and become a living member thereof by joining the already-existing Church.

To me, this sort of thing shows the depth underlying Sacred Scripture. What seems fairly innocuous at first reveals great depth on closer inspection. As Pope St. Gregory the Great once said, Scripture is shallow enough for babes to swim in and deep enough for an elephant to drown in.

What about you? How do Jesus' words to Saul on the road to Damascus -- and what that means about the Church -- strike you?

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner and What It Means to Be Human


[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="716"] Michelangelo, The Creation of Adam, 1511-1512[/caption]


If one of the central purposes of Cruciform is to offer a Christian perspective on (American) culture, I suppose it’s time I wade into the cultural issue of the day: Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner.

Actually, I’m not going to comment directly on Jenner himself. Instead, I want to look a bit deeper at what his attempted change in sex from man to woman and the discussion it’s generated means about how we answer this question today: what does it mean to be human?

Like others who identify as transgendered, Jenner has stated that he has always felt like he was really a woman, that whatever the state of his body, on the inside he wasn’t a man.

Implicit within this perspective is an understanding of what it means to be human, and specifically, of what the essence of the human being is, which is thousands of years old and which has cropped up in numerous religious and philosophical systems, from versions of ancient greek philosophy to today’s New Age spiritualities. This perspective is technically referred to as body-self dualism, and essentially it sees the “self” -- the person, the source of worth and dignity in the human being -- as distinct from the body.

In other words, body-self dualism understands the body not to be truly personal; instead, the body is merely a means, a tool which the person dwells (or is entrapped) in. The human body, in this understanding, is merely sub-personal.

For a variety of reasons, body-self dualism is ultimately a false understanding of the human person. But my purpose in this post isn’t to engage in a deep study of the philosphical arguments against body-self dualism (for that purpose, I’ll refer you to this article by Patrick Lee and Robert George). Instead, I want to focus on the theological issues which it raises.

Now, most people -- probably even most Christians -- might initially think that Christianity holds to a body-self dualism. After all, Christians believe that the human being is composed of both body and soul, and that while the body will die, the soul will exist forever.

In fact, however, any similarities between traditional Christianity and body-self dualism are only superficial, and beneath those similarities lie profound and ultimately irreconcilable differences. Let me explain.

Yes, it’s true that Christianity holds a form of dualism: the human person consists of both body and soul. But there is a key distinction: Christian dualism is body-soul dualism, not body-self dualism. And those three letters -- -oul vs. -elf -- make all the difference.

For Christianity, the “self” -- the person -- is not the soul by itself, in or out of the body. Rather, for Christianity, the human person, the “self”, is actually the union of the body and soul, the composite of the body and soul. Contrary to one popular opinion, Christianity doesn’t denigrate the body, but just the opposite: it elevates it, given it the status and dignity of human personhood. While body-self dualism sees the body as merely an instrument of that which has real and intrinsic value (the self), Christianity sees the body as having inherent and intrinsic value, precisely because it is one part of the union that together makes up the human person.

For me as a Christian, then, it’s technically imprecise for me to say that I have a body… it would be more accurate to say that I am a body, or even more precisely, to say that I am a body-soul composite.

The difference here with body-self dualism is substantial, for while body-self dualism says that the person is some immaterial, non-physical (presumably spiritual) reality, Christianity instead says that the person is the unity of the body and soul together.

This actually manifests itself out in everyday life. Think about our ordinary language; we say things like “Did you see that sunrise this morning?” or “I heard the most amazing song today!”. Note what we don’t say: we don’t say, “Did your eyes see that sunrise this morning?” or “My ears heard the most amazing song today!” Our ordinary way of speaking itself implies an understanding of the human person as one of a profound unity between the matter and spirit, not of a strong dualism between them.

This is why it is is deeply problematic from a Christian perspective to argue that my “real self,” the “real ‘I’” is one sex and my body is another, because it presumes that my person, my self, is something other than my body, while for Christianity, my person, my self essentially includes my body. For Christianity, there is no “I’ that is “inside” my body… the “I” is my body, united as it is with my soul.

Ironically, the extremely high value which Christianity places on the body is the source of many of the doctrines which many  Americans are uncomfortable with. Abortion… contraception… man-woman marriage… euthanasia and yes… transgender issues… it is precisely because Christianity so highly values the body that it teaches what it does on these issues (for more on this, I’d recommend another Robert George article).

It’s essential that we walk with, pray for, support and love those who struggle with their sexual identity. And in doing so, we can be confident in assuring them that not only we, but God Himself is with them as they carry their cross, and that the ultimate end of their personal Way of the Cross is not Calvary, but the Resurrection.

Thoughts? In what ways does this post confirm your understanding of the human person and/or of the Christian understanding of the human person?

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Communicating in an Age of Distraction

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="575"] The Light Phone[/caption]


We’ve now come to a place where what we once called “dumb phones” are heralded as a technological advance and novelty.

A few weeks back I came across this article about a new phone called “The Light Phone,” a cell phone that is lasts for an incredible 20 days on one charge. But that’s not what’s most notable about the Light Phone; what is most notable about the Light Phone is that you can do one thing and one thing only on it: have a phone conversation.

The Light Phone, in other words, is a dumb phone, and frankly, it’s even dumber than dumb phones, because you can’t even text with it! No apps, no mobile web browser, no music… just. a. phone.

Yet despite its dumbness, this phone has raised over $360,000 in its Kickstarter campaign, with 18 days still to go.

Apparently there’s at least something of a market for dumb phones.

I’m deeply intrigued by the Light Phone and the positive response it’s received over a year before it’s even available. It reflects an interesting dichotomy in our society: one the one hand, we love our gadgets and all they can do. Stop and think about our smartphones for a minute; they truly are an amazing feat of technology that allows us to do things “on the go” that were impossible just ten, fifteen years ago.

But on the other hand… we dislike -- even hate? -- our gadgets and all they can do, or at least some aspects of them. In particular, we hate their ability to distract us. As my family friends and colleagues can tell you, I check my phone almost compulsively now… looking to see if I’ve received any emails, text messages, Facebook notifications or comments here on Cruciform.

And I hate it.

I hate the fact that I cannot just be present to those I’m with, that I can’t set my phone aside -- or even turn if off! (gasp!) -- for an hour to talk with someone.

Hence, things like the Light Phone: advances in technology that purposely have fewer capabilities than their predecessors.

What does that say about our culture, that we need to turn to technology to solve problems that technology itself has created? Or more, what does it say about me that I can’t leave my phone alone while in the middle of a conversation?

I’m not sure how to answer those questions myself, other than to say… I don’t like it.

Oh: and that I need to pray for the virtue of temperance! (Yes, temperance, specifically its daughter, studiousness.)

What do you think? Is there really anything wrong with our technology-enhanced propensity to distraction? If so… what?