Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Fasting in a McWorld

Given that we live in a McDonald’s culture, fasting may seem at odds with the quick and indulgent gratification complex that characterizes the moral landscape of our society. This is exactly why fasting is probably more relevant now than at any other moment in time. The privilege of being Catholic has provided us with a season set aside for specifically this purpose. I write about this now, even though we are not in the season of Lent, in order to bring attention to an oft ignored aspect of our faith that can and should be practiced at times even outside of Lent. If we are going to overcome the self-indulgent McWorld in which we live, we must be imitators of Christ our Light even in His example of fasting.

While fasting and abstaining during Lent and other personally chosen times of the year are a given for most Catholics, these same Catholics have little to no idea as to why we fast, which nearly defeats the purpose. For many, it is simply a cultural practice devoid of any spiritual motivation.

Olivier Clement writes in The Roots of Christian Mysticism of the nature and purpose of fasting and other forms of ascesis:

"[Its purpose] is to transform the vital energy that has gone astray and been ‘blocked’ in idolatrous ‘passions’. Praxis gives birth to the virtues, which love will then synthesize."

To move from the blessings of this life, which are fundamentally good, to a radical demand to go beyond them, we must first have become aware of a higher perfection, and have received a pledge of God’s ‘sweetness’ (even if later he has to withdraw it and ask us to go through the desert places).

Diadochus, a fifth century bishop of Photike, writes in much the same language:

"But voluntarily to abstain from what is agreeable and abundant is a sign of great discernment and higher knowledge. We do not readily despise the delights of this life if we do not taste with complete satisfaction the sweetness of God.”

The motivation for fasting must be a recognition of the higher things of God, those things that sustain our humanity in ways that mere food does not. The hunger felt during fasting is a physical expression of the desire to be filled with God’s Word, for to be filled with the blessings of the material world is to leave no room for the greater blessings of the spiritual. Christ assures us that our human nature demands much more than the nature of animals when He teaches, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every Word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” This line of thought is in harmony with Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body in which we learn that the body serves to express the soul. If in our souls we desire detachment from the things of the world in order to attach ourselves to God, then we must express this through the body. Fasting serves as such an expression. On the other hand, to fast without true spiritual motivation is to express a spiritual desire that does not exist. It serves as a lie, and is, therefore, an unacceptable sacrifice.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Rupture between Sexuality and Procreation

“The libido of the individual becomes the only possible point of reference of sex. No longer having an objective reason to justify it, sex seeks the subjective reason in the gratification of the desire, in the most ‘satisfying’ answer for the individual, to the instincts no longer subject to rational restraints. Everyone is free to give to his personal libido the content considered suitable for himself” (Ratzinger, 85).

These words of Pope Benedict from his book The Ratzinger Report constitute his analysis of the implications of the modern mentality on human sexuality, which is at the core of the debate over homosexuality today – a mentality in which the objective reason for the sexual act is no longer rooted in the absolute for which it was created, that is, unity and procreation. Rather it is reduced to an act that is perceived and touted as one that is the least absolute in all of nature, thus losing a sense of intelligibility about the act. And if this act, which in reality represents man as an image of God in nearly its fullest sense, is without intelligibility, then man loses intelligibility.

The defense of homosexuality represents an implicit denial of the intelligibility of man in that it makes the false assumption that there is nothing in the nature of man that should convince him that certain acts betray his nature. Stemming from an exaggerated personalist philosophy, the rupture between sexuality and procreation naturally leads to a rejection of objectivity in the sexual act and devolution into pure subjectivism where sexual gratification becomes the greatest good. Without intelligibility, there can be no guiding principle to act according to man’s nature, thus making it perfectly acceptable to use the body in any way one desires. If this is truly the case, then there is no basis for laws against pedophilia, rape, incest, etc. If there is no natural law guiding that which is most fundamental to the existence of man, that is, the sexual union between a husband and wife, then one would be hard-pressed to make a case for the existence of natural law at all with regard to man. This leads to a rejection of the entire concept of natural law, and thus, the nature of man. In other words, man has neither nature nor intelligibility. If man has no nature, then man is not man. If man has no nature, then man is nothing, for all existing things have a nature. If man has no intelligibility, then he is created by an unintelligible god, which is no god at all. Therefore, the defense of homosexuality is not only the implicit denial of man’s intelligibility, but also the denial of an existing man and an existing God.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Purification of Culture through Faith

A couple of years ago, Hugo Chavez was outraged by a comment made by Pope Benedict in which he stated that Christianity was an agent of purification for the Central and South American cultures that it converted. The fact that Chavez would see this as an insult rather than a completely rational observation is disturbing. I wonder what part of human sacrifice Chavez sees as worthy of retention. Was Pope Benedict stating his utter distaste for the heritage of the Central and South American people, or was he simply acknowledging the awesome power of Christianity to bring already existing cultures out of the ghetto of potentiality and into the actuality for which they were meant – an actuality characterized by adherence to natural law and the one, true God?

This incident provides an opportunity to ask important questions: What role does and should Christianity play in the development of those cultures in which it finds itself? Does Christianity seek to impose itself at the detriment of already existing cultures or does it seek to build up that culture while leading it away from those traditional practices that do not benefit the nature of man as an image of God?

The role of Christianity within already existing cultures has historically proven itself to operate in such a way as to preserve those positive aspects and traditions of that culture, even to the point of assimilating them into their expression of Catholicism. What else would explain for the great success in the Church’s missionary work and the continued adherence to the faith of these converted peoples? A clear example of this would be the many traditions that exist within Latino Catholicism distinct from the traditions of European and American Catholicism. These traditions that characterize the culture of Latino Catholicism were obviously not forced upon them by a foreign influence. If so, they would be clearly seen in that foreign culture with which it came into contact.

To claim that the missionary activity of the Church is an infringement on the individuality of another culture is to profoundly underestimate that culture. In fact, such a stance reveals a sense of superiority on the part of the one holding that stance over the culture it is claiming to protect. To hold this position is to show little to no confidence in a culture’s ability to determine its own future. If an event of interculturality, as opposed to inculturation, takes place, then the culture that is approached by Christianity and, thus, opens itself to the transformative influence of Truth, will without doubt lose nothing of its own that is objectively positive. Rather, those elements of truth that already existed within it will naturally be brought to a greater degree of perfection while shedding off those elements that were both contrary to Truth and even destructive to the culture in which they were spawned. It would be foolish to assume that every tradition and element of cultural identity is absolutely necessary and even positive for that culture, so when that culture encounters challenges to its established ways that allow it to respond with openness and even change within itself, then such a move must be seen as a legitimate expression of that culture. It is not the loss of culture but rather its evolution. When a culture opens itself to ideas outside of itself and recognizes the need to adopt as its own those positive elements it sees in others, we not only see the upward movement of that culture, but also the reaching of the goal of that culture which is ultimately the goal of all cultures – the attainment of Truth. Truth cannot destroy. By its very nature, Truth is creative and life-giving. It is safe to assume, then, that the failure of that culture to open itself to a positive transformation in an encounter with Christianity would be to deny itself the opportunity of self-actualization and the rebirth of itself in newness of life. Pope Benedict makes this very point in his book Truth and Tolerance:

“That may lead to a profound reshaping of that culture’s previous form, yet this does not necessarily involve any kind of violation or alienation. In a positive case, it may be explained by the potentially universal nature of all cultures, which is concretized in the acceptance of what is other and the change of what is its own. A process of this kind can in fact lead to a breaking open of the silent alienation of man from the truth and from himself that exists within that culture.”

This concept of the purification of culture through faith is not exclusive to those third-world countries that tend to be the more obvious examples. It is, indeed, as absolutely necessary to our own ‘civilized’ and ‘stable’ cultures here in the New World and Europe as it is in those parts of the world that are still being evangelized. We have yet to reach a cultural point at which we can say with surety that we have attained Truth. In fact, it seems that the very opposite can be said: “We have lost the Truth that we once had.” Therefore, a new evangelization is necessary. A new purification through faith must be established. Only then will this culture in which we live experience the rebirth that it so badly needs. Without rebirth, it will drown in the stagnant waters that it has drawn for itself.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Word of God Conference

I'll be in New Orleans for the weekend attending the Word of God Conference. Among the speakers will be Dr. Peter Kreeft, so I'm particularly looking forward to this. To top it off, we'll be staying at the Center for Jesus the Lord, a retreat center that was once a Carmelite monastery:

I'll be impressed if anyone can identify the setting of the picture at the top of this post.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Education and Play: Seeking the Proper Order (Part II)

In Part I of this topic, I wrote of the transcendent nature of play as that which is an expression of our nature as images of God. Developing this idea a bit further, speaking of the proper place of play within academia should be taken up.

Part I ended with the conclusion that play exists as a sort of signpost, and it is merely that. It reminds us of our ultimate end at which point we will exist in a state of timelessness, order, and perfect unity and justice. It also reveals our own sort of impatience. We want that higher existence now, not later. We even train our bodies to become better athletes and musicians in order to perfect performance with the hope that greater performance results in greater play. Greater play means greater anticipation and clarity of that world that we are seeking to imitate even if done so unknowingly. Play is our creative expression as images of God and is, thus, a gift from God that should reveal to us our true nature. But it is still just a signpost. It cannot and should not be the final destination.

As heaven is that final destination about which I write, then it is incumbent upon us to put every tool and gift God has given us to reaching that destination. This is not to say that we can somehow earn our salvation, rather it is an acknowledgement that God has placed us upon this earth to reach greater heights of holiness and love before He calls us to judgment. The most obvious gifts God has given us to reach greater knowledge of love of Him are our intellects and wills. Without them, we can neither know Him nor love Him, and this knowledge and love is expressed through the body. This reveals to us the role of education as that which forms the intellect to accept not only the truths of God’s creation which we call the sciences, but also that which the sciences were created to reveal – the wisdom and beauty of God Himself. Because the intellect informs the will, a well-formed intellect should lead to well-informed decisions, and thus a greater display of proper character. This is where play, especially the form seen in sports, is insufficient.

Is it, then, wrongheaded to believe that sports should play no role within academic institutions? I believe that it is. Because of the unifying effect of sports, it plays a role that cannot be filled by education alone, but it must be acknowledged that the role of sports within academia is only that of unification and, therefore, representation of the entire student body. Sports and other forms of play within schools are at the service of the greater good of education and the entire student body, not the other way around. They are meant to enhance education by fostering unity. Sports must be seen as the handmaiden of the gentle master that is education. This is the proper order that exists between play and education, and to stray from this is to inject within this system a principle of chaos. One begins to see the tail wagging the dog. Sports begins to demand service from education and sets itself up as an entity independent of the greater student body, seeking recognition beyond its calling. Rather than being a force for unity, it establishes itself as a source of divisiveness and even belligerence towards that which it must serve. This naturally becomes the mindset of those engaged in such play, and a culture which sees sports as the greatest good to the detriment of education is now at work. But the divisiveness doesn’t end there. If this is what the athletic world then begins to offer, then it must necessarily turn on itself, eating its own children. If its children are fed the same bitter food, then the children become divisive amongst each other, separating themselves from the good of team unity, seeking personal aggrandizement and grossly high pay for something that by its nature should neither demand nor deserve such things. This should also raise questions about the forms of play on which a school focuses. As mentioned before, there are forms of play such as music that seem to better reflect our human natures and that to which God has called us. Is it, therefore, intellectually consistent to uplift the lower forms of play while degrading the higher forms?

It is for the benefit of both academics and sports that the proper order be sought and eagerly embraced. To do otherwise would be to destroy both.

Education and Play: Seeking the Proper Order (Part I)

Peter Kreeft has written of those ways in which Heaven haunts earth. Such things as the effect of timelessness experienced when engrossed in a beautiful piece of music are things that reveal to us the other-worldly nature of many of our worldly experiences. They serve as reminders that we are not purely natural but also supernatural, that is, not only corporeal but also spiritual.

Another interesting phenomenon of human experience is that of play. In fact, it is such an important element in the human experience, Pope Benedict saw fit to mention it in relation to liturgy in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy. He makes the point that play is much like liturgy in that it is characterized by its own set of laws and time independent of the laws and time of the world in which play is done. It becomes an independent world within a world.

It is safe to say that this sort of organized play is a particularly and peculiarly human activity. But why is this so? What is it about being human that drives us toward forsaking the world in which we are bound for a game-world even if only for a few hours? As Christians, we believe that we are images of God, a God who creates out of nothing, is bound by nothing, and has brought order to chaos. Is it any wonder that the image reflects that of which it is an image? Let us entertain the example of our beloved football game. Time begins and stops, implying an existence not bound by time’s onward march. A set of rules peculiar to that game is enforced. To stray from those rules is to invite punishment; it contains within itself its own sense of justice. It mimics a battle against good and evil in its physical aggression between opposing teams which has proven to be something of which the human mind and imagination never seem to tire. There is also the coach, the one who establishes and demands order and unity among those whom he directs. It is a sort of universe within a universe with all the necessary elements present. Not only does it become this sort of universe to those engaged in the actual play, but also to those entering into it as spectators. In the opening paragraph, I mentioned the medium of music and the role that it plays in lifting us out of time and space. What may be less obvious is that it functions in much the same way as a typical game of football. The fundamental elements that constitute them as play are nearly identical in both. In music, specifically orchestral or choral performances, there is the presence of a unifying principle, that of the musical piece itself. Within the piece, time begins, accelerates, decelerates, and stops. There are certain rules set down within the piece in order to play it effectively such as dynamics and key. To stray from this is to produce bad music, noise instead of beauty; thus there are consequences for not following the rules. The dynamics produce the effect of tension and release, elements present in a life that is not stagnant, that is, a full life. There is also the conductor upon whom are all the eyes of the musicians looking to him for guidance and following his every movement. He is the one who ultimately determines the movements of all the musicians, but they must exercise free will to follow him. One would be hard pressed to find a clearer example of the spiritual life.

Even more profound about musical play is its presence in all cultures of the world. Music has proven itself to not only be present within all cultures, but to even be a defining expression of that culture, and music also serves as a reflection of a culture’s height. A culture that embraces high standards of education typically embraces high standards of musicianship. There is an irrefutable connection between education and music within cultures. Conversely, cultures that embrace low forms of music tend to be lacking on the educational side of things. In this, we can see that some forms of play even inform and nourish our ideas about education, something that is not readily apparent as an effect of sports. In fact, the exact opposite seems to be true in that a greater emphasis on sports leads to a general de-emphasis on education. The conclusion that can be drawn is that in some way, music reflects and nourishes the entire human intellectual person in ways that sports cannot. The reason for this is the greater connection between music and human nature than between sports and human nature. As human nature includes intellect, will, and body, there are some things that appeal to all three to greater degrees than others. Music uplifts all three due to its inherent requirements of a trained intellect, a focused will, and a body trained to perform. While sports certainly requires fitness of the body, strong intellects have not proven to be key elements within athletics.

In my next post on this subject I will look at the proper relationship between the academic institution and the sports that it sponsors.