Saturday, March 31, 2012

Worth Dying For

I have mused before that one of the most difficult thing about being a Christian today (an uncompromised one; at least relatively uncompromised, as who isn't to some degree?) is that we are living in a world where society no longer buffers one's beliefs with a mass social structure of credulity, but also without the persecution offered to sustain the early Christians.

Today, simple ridicule, contempt, or dismissiveness has replaced active persecution, and it often comes from the people closest to Christians, even from other "Christians" who have sold out to the secular narrative. At least martyrdom in some sense confirms that beliefs are worth dying for. The patronizing attitude taken by the secularists today, however, is much more undermining of Christian belief, as it basically invalidates this idea of the worth-dying-for by "proving" how little Christians even threaten their views. Christianity must "evolve," and Christians must "grow up" to be given a seat in public discourse. "Everybody knows" Christian morality is wrong. And Christians who do hold to the absolute truth are "clearly" repressed traumatized fundamentalists dealing with their own sense of inadequacy or something like that.

But, of course, none of this is bigotry. None of these attitudes are harmful. No one can blame them for the "test" they put Christians through by this mass social pressure to conform to their regime of hedonism. Of course, some of the Christians don't care and do become true fundamentalists; in its most extreme form, of the "God Hates the World" variety. For these people, enacting an elaborate script and energized by the thrill of transgression, what others think really doesn't matter (and, of course, they only confirm the infantalizing narrative of the secularists).

For others who are more self-aware, however (although I think most use some sense of righteous anger as a shield to some degree) and who do understand the importance (or, at least, the expectations of the standards of "normalcy" and "maturity" of seeing oneself in society's collective eye), holding to our beliefs through the sheer "absurd" leap of faith (that, say, Christian Existentialism would recommend) can nevertheless become a constant drain on self-esteem and lead to periodic crises of authenticity. Without a community, or friends, or a friend, to join one in this task, it can be as isolating as the radical individualism it seeks to resist.

I read some quotes recently by Dag Hammarskjöld, the Swedish economist and diplomat who served as the second Secretary-General of the United Nations from 1953 until his death in a plane crash in the Congo in 1961. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and after his death, his private journal was translated into English and published as Markings,
with a preface by W. H. Auden. Hammarskjöld was also a Christian who remained single all his life. He seemed to know himself the burden of being caught between the demeaning voices of a world out to convince orthodox Christians that they are an anachronism and neurotic and unfulfilled (almost always, it is implied, sexually), on the one hand, and the inability of the Christian to conform to the secular vision of the "good" life on the other, for knowing there is no fulfillment there either. Some quotes of his:

My friend, the Popular Psychologist, is certain of his diagnosis. And has understood nothing, nothing. (73)

How easy psychology has made it for us to dismiss the perplexing mystery with a label which assigns it a place in the list of common aberrations. (78)

You cannot play with the animal in you without becoming wholly animal, play with falsehood without forfeiting your right to truth, play with cruelty without losing your sensitivity of mind. He who wants to keep his garden tidy doesn’t reserve a plot for weeds. (15)

Perhaps a great love is never returned. Had it been given warmth and shelter by its counterpart in the Other, perhaps it would have been hindered from ever growing to maturity. It ‘gives’ us nothing. But in its world of loneliness it leads us up to summits with wide vistas—of insight. (42)

To be ‘sociable’—to talk merely because convention forbids silence, to rub against one another in order to create the illusion of intimacy and contact: what an example of la condition humaine. Exhausting, naturally, like any improper use of our spiritual resources. In miniature, one of the many ways in which mankind successfully acts as its own scourge—in the hell of spiritual death. (63)

The opening bars in the great hymn of extinction. Not a hymn to extinction or because of it. Not a hymn in spite of extinction. But a dying which is the hymn. (80)

The hardest thing of all—to die rightly.—An exam nobody is spared—and how many pass it? And you? You pray for strength to meet the test—but also for leniency on the part of the Examiner. (82)

What he says about how one cannot play with the animal in oneself without becoming wholly animal is true. Of course, this is just what the secularists ask us to do. "We are not asking you to become a monster, to go off murdering or becoming cruel or a crazed addict." Instead, what they demand for themselves (and, by extension, for everyone who would live under their model, their meta-values) is just a little bit of "breathing room," just a little space for "exploration" (sexual or intellectual; the same thing really). Just a little freedom or autonomy for true "adult" selfhood. They don't even want to get rid of the masturbatory comforts of "God" or "spirituality" or religious symbolism or narratives, necessarily, as long as one, with Mephistopheles, withholds a little bit from Him so as to prevent even Goodness from becoming totalizing. But, of course, as Hammarskjöld points out, one cannot play with the animal without becoming fully animal. One cannot cede an inch to the devil without him taking a mile. One does not "negotiate" with God, one surrenders unconditionally.

Indeed, at this point, Christians are rather trapped by our own teaching against suicide. After all, the society that is telling one constantly to "be oneself" is also telling the Christian that his self is pathological, infantile, and the product of repression or sense of powerlessness. And yet even if this is the case, I could no more escape it than any of the deterministic "selves" whose "actualization" and "expression" (usually, sexually; the message one gets is "loosen up") the "modern subject" (as if there is any such thing) is "supposed to" idealize and valorize and seek to liberate from within. One is damned if one does, and damned if one doesn't, as neither option shows itself terribly bearable; one is forced with a choice of physical death (that is condemned as mortal sin) or spiritual death (which likewise ends ultimately in the physical grave).
Nicolás Gómez Dávila once said, "The most ominous of modern perversions is the shame of appearing naïve if we do not flirt with evil" but this shame indeed exists, and this shaming can be crushing.

And so one may well question whether a prohibition on ending ones own life really makes sense today, or whether it was the product of a historical contingency, an economic product of a world that needed more laborers (or soldiers) to die the long slow death of a peasant life (after all, similar "sociological" explanations are used to "explain away" teachings on chastity, for example). Indeed, in a world where even the ability for our most deeply cherished beliefs to be "worth dying for" is denied by forces which get an extremely smug sense of self-satisfaction watching even committed Christians buy consumerist junk food and watch reality TV like everyone else, one is forced to wonder whether something along the lines of the self-immolation of, say, certain Buddhist monks in political protest (if not the violence of Muslim suicide bombers who kill, wickedly, along with their perhaps more sympathetic dying) is not the best approach for Christians to expose the true spiritual trauma that secularism inflicts (if millions upon millions of slaughtered infants are not proof enough for people...)

Christians, then, either in our suicide or self-destruction (or, unfortunately, often in our selling out, our giving in, our compromising of our values), become the sacrifice which the secularists offer in their worship of themselves, to prove their own self-righteousness. To these people, reinforcing this godless self-image they have, denying the existence of love, and proving that Christianity is just as nihilist as they their ultimate value, and they will stop at no betrayal of friend or stranger to accomplish it. They want our blood, but they want us to give it to them. Like Big Brother in 1984, they want our deaths, yes, but only after they have received our submission. And at a certain point, who are we to deny it to them?

Perhaps a "negotiation" of our morality on this point (and who could deny our "rights of conscience" here, after abusing "conscience" so indulgently for themselves?) is required to accommodate the historical reality of our society in which a true Christian can only be "martyred" by allowing his enemies (by which I mean, his friends, his family) to drive him into destroying himself by their contempt. And if he does it at his own hand, is this really any different than those virgin Saints which threw themselves from the rooftop to escape their lustful pursuers, or those who willingly jumped into the fire being prepared for them by their captors? If we live in a world where "God is dead," then perhaps the last homage a Christian can give Him is, like the martyrs imitating their crucified Christ, to follow Him into the void of self-extinction.

Perhaps, today, the leap of faith takes the form of a leap off a balcony.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

All Hats Are Silly Redux

All hats are silly. There is no such thing as a serious hat. I've pointed this out before. So one has to wonder:

...why this, but then absolutely no tiara or galeros??

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Why There Can Be No "Potential" Human Beings

The abortion question, of course, boils down to whether the embryo or fetus is a human being or not, though almost everyone will admit that it is a "potential" human being, with the analogy being a seed to a tree or something like that. Obviously, from a purely scientific perspective it is an independent life-form of the species homo sapiens, but those of the pro-choice camp question whether this is enough to render it a subject of moral value, a person. That recent article that caused an uproar because it advocated infanticide (saying that killing a born child is really no different than killing one unborn, which is true) said that, “We take ‘person’ to mean an individual who is capable of attributing to her own existence some (at least) basic value such that being deprived of this existence represents a loss to her.”

Catholic tradition actually might be closer to agreeing with this than some might think. Not with advocating infanticide, but in seeing the definition of person in the moral rather than purely material biological sphere, although it is the reflexive Individualist turn in the infanticidal defition (that she has to be "capable of attributing to her own existence...") that seems to be the problem.

Scholasticism (which for a long time argued that the rational soul was not infused for 40 days, mind you) defines a human being as a "rational animal," that is to say a being with a body and a spiritual soul. In more post-modernist terms, we might say that a human being is a "meaning-making animal" (or meaning perceiving) as only persons, only spirits, can be subjects of meaning (rather than objects of it), because "meaning" is necessarily a non-material and eternal concept/phenomenon.

This should remind us of the "dictionary paradox" of postmodernism regarding Meaning: that it is always deferred as we define each word as simply a string of other words, each of which can only be defined as a string of other words, and the meaning in some sense can thus only be the infinite relational structure of the semantic web as a whole.

However, can a clump of 4 cells really be said to make meaning? In itself, in a purely self-aware way, I think the answer is obviously no. This is the danger in the "individualist" turn I mentioned above regarding humanity. But does this mean it isn't a human person? I would argue not at all, for this would be to misunderstand the idea of a subject as both signifier and signified in a community of significance.

In some ways, we might say, the body is the signifier of the soul. The soul is the "meaning" of the body, and the body is the physical "expression of" the human person (as I recently saw it described on a poster for Catholic cemetaries). The human body is like the word, the material letters written on paper, which transmits the meaning. (It should be noted, there is a profound connection here to being a sacramental and iconographic people; even the physical signs themselves should not be considered irrelevant or interchangeable as if they are separate from the meaning in some sort of dualism.)

But what is the meaning? Various objects in the material world signify various ideas various essences, but a human subject is not an object. Our meaning is, by nature, a meta-meaning, and thus of infinite value, because the human being signifies significance-making itself! In fact, we can see this infinity in the "recursive" definition of a human being that emerges when we push the logic.

A human being, based on what we've said, can be defined something like: "A human person is a signifier capable of signifying being a human person," and to this circularity we might add "to other human persons" although that would be redundant given that the notion of "signifying" already implies that there is some rational subject to receive the significance (conceptually, even if not actually; a word is intelligible with reference to readers, even if a word is not being actually read at any given moment, or even if it is never read, because it is the significant sort of thing).

However, an obvious "recursion" emerges here with reference to significance, obviously, as "human person" is used in the definition itself, and so an infinite nested structure emerges: "A human being is a signifier capable of signifying being a signifier capable of signifying being a signifier capable of signifying being a signifier...etc etc ad infinitum." (This should remind us of the dictionary paradox too).

This should cause us to realize that there can be no "potential" human being who is not an actual human being. Neither a sperm nor an egg alone is a potential human being (and though I suppose you could trivially posit the two of them sitting right next to each other as a potential, until they join they are not one substance, are merely juxtaposed). However, once there is a fertilization, it seems that we cannot but have an actual human being.

Why not? Didn't I just say above that a zygote itself probably is not conscious of any even basic value or meaning until its quite far along in the process? (And isn't that what the ethicists of infanticide use to justify their position?) Ah, but I also just explained the crucial difference. A seed only signifies a tree potentially, because it is not yet what a tree is. We can extrapolate to a tendency towards that, but the fact that we can read that significance into it as a potential does not actually give it the defining characteristics of the Idea "tree" yet.

However, if we tried think of the significance of a fetal human body as "meaning-making" only as a potential to which it tends towards but does not yet have, you will notice that this contradicts itself, as it implies that it cannot be considered merely "potential" but truly actual, for the very fact that a significance of meaning-making can be read into it at all (even "in potential")...means that it is already, in the present moment, actually making its meaning, already has its actual proper significance!

It may not be self-aware of its significance in this regard, but the human significance is clearly there by the very fact that other people (humans are relational beings, after all, because meaning is necessarily
inter-subjective, and so our value as such cannot be judged in a simply self-contained way, in terms of whether we are significant to ourselves) can read that meaning into it at all. Even if they think, at first, they are reading it merely by way of potential, a moment's thought should make them realize that since the significance they are reading is a meta-significance, is nothing other than the significance of being capable of signifying being capable of signifying being capable of signifying(...etc, ad infinitum), the very fact that they can read it "in potential" means that it is already there in actuality!

It is this meta-significance of human subjects as the source of significance that means there can be no merely potential signifier of humanity, because the essence is nothing other than significance itself, and a "potential" signifier of significance already has significance and thus is already actual (this same sort of logic has epistemological implications for the necessity of the existence of God that I'm also working through in my head). It may not yet be aware of meaning itself, and certainly not of its own meta-meaning as a meaning-making being, but the very fact that the signifier of an embryonic body can signify this "potential" to others, means that it's meaning-making-ness is not in fact potential at all, but is already actual, is already signifying the significance that it would if it were self-aware. And thus it is already a human person, a subject of significance.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Meat-Eating Vegans

I think one thing people generally agree with is that people should be consistent to their own values. Even in a world where The Good has been deconstructed and the only common standard people are given is to pursue maximal private personal fulfillment (as long as you don't hurt anyone else)...I think people still have this sort of existentialist meta-value that (by the very nature of what "values" are) people should live by their own.

This is true even if we disagree with people's values. For example, I think even a pro-choicer would think it monstrous for a pro-life person who did believe the unborn were human participate in an abortion. The pro-choicer may not believe this himself, and may think absolutely speaking abortion is fine, but I think they'd still find it evil seeming for someone who believed otherwise to nevertheless participate in one.

We might also use the example of a vegan who believes animals are persons. I am not a vegan and eat meat myself just fine. But if someone who claimed to be a vegan or big animal rights person was caught eating meat, I would think subjectively that they were morally as bad as a murderer, because by their own stated values they should conclude that what they did was participate in murder.

However, some people in these situations use tricky mental gymnastics to justify themselves. For example, I could imagine this meat-eating vegan making an argument something along the lines of: "I personally value animal life as equivalent to human life. However, other people in our pluralistic society do not. As such, I cannot call them murderers for eating meat. But if they aren't murderers for eating meat...that must mean that meat-eating is not intrinsically murder, and if it's not intrinsically murder then ultimately I can do it too!!"

Of course, the hypocrisy and self-justifying delusion here is incredible, and this vegan would rightly be held in contempt by both other vegans who did try to live up to their own standards, but also by meat-eaters who saw the attempt to "have the cake" (of whatever mental or emotional utility claiming to value animal life gives) but also "eat it too" (by also getting the enjoyment of eating meat without the guilt of "murder" by using the non-culpability of meat-eaters based on their values as and excuse for the violation of his own.)

I bring up this hypothetical, because I think this is the form that many moral arguments in pluralism end up taking. Pluralism claims to allow for multiple notions of the good, but in the end by this sort of logic everything gets reduced to lowest common denominators, because most people still instinctively understand that morality really does have to be conceived of as universal, at least objectively, to be considered binding at all.

We might take the example of different sorts of people commit objective sins. The first person, following their natural good instincts, buys into the standard of private self-fulfillment which is the only sort of common unitary standard of the good that our society offers (as I discussed in my last post, the common standard is the lack of a common standard). This person then follows their private maximalization of desire-fulfillment to some sort of objective sin. While misguided, I am not terribly "worried" about this person spiritually, because the "conclusion" they reach is ultimately founded on a fundamentally good orientation. They are doing what they think The Good is, because modern society has "confused" them (and many others) into thinking that The Good = the [private] good, and so in pursuing this thing as a private good, they think they are pursuing The Good, which is at least a good intent, and so subjectively they are probably not culpable.

As a second type, you might have a Marxist or Existentialist academic who understands that The Good and the good are different, and that when our society suggests the private good in place of The Good, when it replaces a standard with the very lack of a standard, when the only rule is "there are no rules" (at least as long as you're not limiting anyone else), it is really only offering a void. This radical academic, however, thinks this is a good thing. They think that The Good was long used to oppress the individual and self-fulfillment and actualization tyrannically, caused alienation or whatever, and therefore embraces the void, embraces the deconstruction of The Good in favor of private goods, and so promotes or pursues things that would be sins according to the standard of The Good on these very grounds. The state of this person's soul worries me more by the fact of their philosophy being subversive and "revolutionary" in a self-aware way, but nevertheless by thinking deconstruction of "The Good" (which they are likely to believe was not objective or natural, anyway, but just an illusion that the powers-that-be created) is a good thing, they are (perhaps ironically) appealing to a meta-value (of Freedom or whatever) that still betrays the basic human instinct to uphold some type of transcendent Good in that form.

However, there is a third type of person who knows that the ideas of the transcendent unitary Good, on the one hand, and the void which only advocates the non-standard of individual private good, on the other, are different...and who, in fact, claims to love The Good (even if in our society it is only possible to do so privately as one good on the idea-market among others)...but who then uses the same sort of logic as our meat-eating vegan from above to justify not living up to that standard. Who says, "Yes, The Good means that I value Reason and meaning and virtue. However, The Good has been reduced to simply one possibility among many in our society, as the only common standard our society offers is the void of having no common standard, the good is now privatized and individualistic. Therefore all those people acting against The Good that I hold cannot be said to be actually sinning, because by the standard of their private good, which they think is the Good...they aren't. However, if this thing isn't a sin for them for that reason, then that means it can't be said to be intrinsically a sin, and if it isn't intrinsically a sin, then it can't really be one for me either, and so therefore I can love The Good while living against it."

Of course, this involves a huge self-justifying leap in the form of assuming that the fact that other people, living consistently within their own value systems, cannot be held culpable for a type of action (because it doesn't contradict those value systems) means that no one can be held culpable for that type of action (even when it is a contradiction by the logic of your own value system). As if the fact that people's own (wrong or misguided) values makes them subjectively unculpable means that we cannot judge the type of action objectively according to our own values. As if pluralism means we can't hold that our Truth is the real one, just because it happens to currently be just one idea among many in a marketplace full of false "truths."

In truth, there is a moral "double standard," inasmuch as even a Relativism that allows a variety of value systems, and thus won't condemn any action absolutely, still is supposed to condemn acting out of accord with the logical implications of ones own value system. Saying that "Society is relativistic, therefore these things can't be condemned absolutely, therefore I can't be condemned at all" is to misunderstand that notion of even just private values. Even a private and relativistic notion of "values" assumes that the person who holds them is supposed to follow them consistently (even if that person doesn't have to hold those particular values).

This leads us to the "lowest common denominator" of consensus in pluralist societies, however, as the law, for example, will only criminalize things that everyone agrees are bad. In a Muslim country pork might be illegal, and the very illegality would help uphold the value system of opposing it. In a pluralist country, however, the idea is that the Muslim might personally oppose pork, but can't impose this value on people who don't, so pork won't be illegal. However, someone who bought into the philosophical implications of pluralism, who understood that under pluralism Islam is only one notion of the good among many, would then see that the fact that pork was not condemned for everyone (ie, those who had different value systems or notions of the good), but only relative to Islam as a value system (but an ultimately "optional" value system)...implies that it is not absolutely or intrinsically wrong.

And the implication of that is that it isn't "really" wrong at all, because most people, even operating in this relativist/pluralist framework, instinctively have an absolute notion of the Good, and so if they are exposed to the attitude that something is only wrong relative to one system of values (but a system of values that is optional in the sense of being one among many possibilities, since society offers no unifying value other than this diversity itself)...soon enough they'll come to conclude that it isn't even wrong relative to that system of values either because, heck, how can something be truly wrong if it isn't absolutely or intrinsically wrong (ie, for everyone)? But without a unitary notion of The Good that one does believe applies "to everyone," very few things will be considered wrong for everyone, and because many people can't make the objective/subjective distinction, soon enough very few things will be considered wrong for anyone.

The Good: A Paradox

There have been some related ideas floating around in my thoughts and conversations lately.

Some of it was spurred by this Vox Nova post on the Natural Law and common "externalistic" misunderstandings of it. I tried to clarify in that thread that the natural law is actually about what we can know about the nature of The Good and ordering our wills towards it without Revelation.

However, as I eventually discussed in the comments of that thread, one of the issues that we face in a world of Secular Pluralism is that there is a different paradigm now about the very nature of the good and human fulfillment in general, let alone just disagreements about what individual things constitute part of genuine human fulfillment.

So I can demonstrate with masterful rationality that certain things are not in accordance with the Good, but such arguments are perhaps largely irrelevant (except when "preaching to the choir") in a world where "The Good" is no long even accepted, where it has been replaced by "the good." Perhaps I have for too long been just assuming that I was appealing to common values with people, when in reality our basic paradigms were different (the real problem with "apologetics" these days).

This article (which I may reply to in its own post later) lays out the problem well:
the 'nature' and the 'reason' considered by secular people, on the one hand, and religious people, on the other, are not likely to coincide. Christians are likely to frame the debate [...] in terms of the true human good, the proper goals that human beings should aim for. Secular people, on the other hand, are likely to reject the idea that such goals can be objectively shared in common, and to frame the debate in terms of rights and private utility.
Today, most people do not understand The Good as something transcendent and unitary, do not think there is one Meaning of Life for human beings which, in our manifold states of life, we can all fulfill by following Reason. Rather, The Good is conceived of as something private and individual; desire is arbitrary, a product of evolution and circumstances, and "happiness" is simply its maximal fulfillment as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else (hence the paradigm of "rights" being so important now.) Rather than a notion that The Good is something external and absolute that is the last end of all desire, where The Good comes first and is what informs desire...instead "the good" is conceived of simply as the construct of the various desires people have arbitrarily, desire comes first and the good is derived from that.

There are many reasons for this. Some are philosophical; one cannot but see the influence of Marx or Nietzsche in this Killing of God (killing in the sense of deconstructing any idea of a transcendent and unitary Good, a single Meaning of Life). Darwinism certainly opened up the possibility of thinking that the universe and life are ultimately accidental, that various desires may just be vestigial biological glitches that ultimately cannot necessarily be reconciled with each other, that might be incoherent and require compromise, or admit of different interpretations. And Existentialism has provided a way for people to "rescue" the idea of meaning or value of the good from all this, from the threat of nihilism, by demonstrating that human choice and agency, subjectivity itself, is what confers values on whatever individualistic "project" of the good an individual person wants to pursue in life.

Of course (to use ones of Marx's own insights) many of these philosophical turns were likely just responses to socio-economic and political changes in the world. Industrialism and capitalism (at least in the usurious, materialistic, consumerist forms they've taken; though these forms may have been a necessary "stage" of "progress") seemingly "require" the privatization of the good, and the notion of common pursuit being deconstructed.

This however, leaves Christians with quite a conundrum or paradox, in which Faith or orthodoxy today cannot be the same phenomenon as it was in, say, the Catholic Middle Ages. Don't get me wrong, I believe true faith is a supernatural gift that is not merely some sociological phenomenon, and as such the cultural context wouldn't have to matter for the individual for whom God chooses to give it. But on the experiential level, on the level of that is going to be a very different thing today, the means of the grace of faith are going to be very different (and necessarily probably not as widespread).

The paradox is this. Even though people today can (like me or other orthodox Catholics) choose to pursue the transcendent and unitary Good, and hold that concept of it...nevertheless, this choice or outlook is essentially still private and individual! Without the organic process of the community socializing a common notion of the Good...we can no longer hold a notion of a transcendent Good in the same way. We can hold it, but only in the context or form of being, ironically, a private individual conception of the good. That the private individual notion of the good held by some individuals happens to correspond to the traditional transcendent and unitary almost just accidental under this system. That conception of the Good as common is rendered not a counter-point contradicting the notion of relativism and pluralism and the private good...but is simply rendered one more private notion of the good among many private notions of the good.

The irony or paradox works in the reverse too, of course. People who pursue other private notions of the good, who happen to have and pursue other desires in the quest of individual self-fulfillment...are actually, in the broad or general sense, pursuing this conception of the Good (or good) exactly because it is the one society at large has promoted! Because pluralism has become the new "common" notion of the good (or Good.) It isn't exactly transcendent or unitary (except perhaps in the form of a "void") but "be yourself!" is nevertheless a common narrative, even if a narrative of individualism and potentially competing or conflicting interests.

This leaves the Church in quite a pickle. If there is no communally socialized common Good (except the private good) and if the transcendent Good has been reduced to just one private account of the good among becomes rather more unrealistic to just expect everyone to "coincidentally" embrace nevertheless that account of the good as their own privately. The whole point of the transcendent Good was that it was to be pursued "instead of" private individual desire. Therefore, expecting everyone to internalize it as their own private individual rather naive, to say the least!

Perhaps "instead of" I should say, rather, the transcendent Good was to organize and prioritize them all in the same way. But if the decision regarding the "organizing" meta-value itself of a common Meaning has been transferred to the internal individual as well, if the "externally imposed" standard has been gotten rid of in favor of a narrative of Freedom or Liberty, then expecting everyone to coincidentally adopt the same internal rather counter-intuitive and sort of misses the whole point of what the standard being internal means or is supposed to accomplish; it's sort of like saying "Freedom's great! long as you all use your freedom to choose the same thing..."

In fact, I think we should probably be giving the benefit of the doubt to most people out there who are pursuing their own private accounts of the good, even when they are not the account which we know should be the external standard...because in doing so they are, in fact, pursuing the current external standard (which is the very lack of one; I'm reminded of a line in Brave New World where Mustapha Mond says that God now "manifests himself as an absence") and thus in some very real sense these people are not reprobates filled with pride and hubris, but are truly following the proper "instinct" regarding where to get their notions of the Good (the community or society itself, which currently answers them only with the void). In that sense these people are victims, having been deprived of the external standard that human nature craves, in favor of a sort of anti-standard.

What this means for the Church in our pastoral approach or evangelization is a very tricky question, and one the current approach clearly does not adequately address. Yes, for the individual as a private individual, the only advice I personally can give is to embrace orthodoxy...but I can only do so as one idea competing in a market of other ideas. As such, one can only do so by convincing people that the unitary transcendent Good is actually equivalent to the maximal fulfillment of their own private values or desires, that it in fact concides with their private good...and so involves basically "convincing people that they are miserable without it" or, even, trying to make them feel miserable without it. This is, of course, very troubling.

However, I find equally bizarre the approach of certain liberal or heterodox Catholics who try to argue that various things (usually its unchastity) that people pursue are actually part of The Good. To me this is silly, because the people doing these things usually never claim that their actions are part of "The Good," because their very paradigm is the good as private and individualistic. As far as I can tell, there's no reason to think these people (if they truly understood the philosophical distinction) would even want their goods artificially boxed into The Good (which is fitting a square peg into a round hole anyway), so trying to "save the appearances" by making such arguments for loosening our moral code strikes me as absurd.

Yes, liberals will get offended by the teaching that such-and-such is a sin, but if they really understood what "Sin" was in the internal logic of the Catholic understanding (an offense against The Good)...I'm pretty sure most would not
care, or even would celebrate that fact, as The Good is already no longer their standard, they already do not share that paradigm. At best The Good (and what violates it) is irrelevant to them, at worst it is something oppressive and tyrannical that has been used throughout history to stifle individual "self expression and actualization" and all that. Trying to entice them back into accepting The Good through a laxism that would admit that many of their private goods were actually part of The an accomodationism that misses the point that the underlying phenomenon is that The Good itself has been deconstructed. Trying to loosen it up so as to make it more appealing to their private goods is a category error similar to people trying to make obedient Christianity "cool" through Rock music, when the whole coolness of Rock consists in rebellion in the first place.

Different societies throughout history, of course, have gotten The Good wrong. Aquinas lists many ends that various people have identified as the Good: wealth, honor, fame and glory, power, health of the body, pleasure, knowledge and virtue, other created goods. We might be tempted to say "Yes, virtue is the correct answer," but even it is not. If virtue doesn't point to God in the Catholic conception, even it is not truly fulfilling. And the Church has indeed evangelized various societies and gotten them to impose the correct understanding of the Good. However, the approach when a given community already has some notion of a unitary Good that is merely incorrect is one thing, but what do we do when the very notion of the Good as something common, transcendent, or unitary...has been deconstructed. When we are faced with the void which is antichrist?

As laid out above, clearly trying to get each individual (or even just a certain "critical mass" of individuals) to individually embrace the correct notion of the Good as their own good by coercive pressure until it can be re-established externally as something more than just likely naive, especially today. However, trying to convince people that they are miserable without it, or make them miserable without it, is just as unworthy an approach because it actually attacks a basic instinct in these people which really is good (the instinct to conform to the external social standard of the good; even if in our society the standard is the absence of one). So what do we do?

I don't know exactly. The Church obviously shouldn't abandon orthodoxy as its own internal communal standard, and individuals who are able to make their own private good and this transcendent notion of the good coincide...certainly should do so and will be held culpable if they don't. But when it comes to the culture at large, fundamentalism or antagonizing those who are merely trying to fulfill the account of the good they've been given (the individualistic private one) are clearly bad approaches, wrong approaches. Condemning people all to Hell is a pretty poor way to save them from Hell! But then what do we do? What stance can we take in a world where God has been taken away as a social reality and, at best, can exist only in the individual heart as a private good, or at most a small community of freely associated people of like-mind on the matter?

I don't know. It is very troubling to me. However, this recent Vox Nova post shed some light on perhaps the proper response for me. The idea was that, taking the post-exile Jews as our model, the proper stance can only be one of Penance for each individual for whom God does still exist, for whom the transcendent Good is still alive in their heart (even if, under the current system, only in the form of their private good):

The question remains, however, how can a Church whose credibility has been destroyed through its own most grievous faults possibly hope to bear witness to the city of God? How can its being a “people set apart” be seen as anything but hypocrisy? If Pope Benedict’s claim is true, that “History shows that, when the Church becomes less worldly, her missionary witness shines more brightly… [and she] can reach out more effectively and in a truly Christian way to the whole world,” then how might this becoming less worldly witness to anything more than a sort of triumphalism in which you are either with us or against us, on the ark or drowning? Here, the key is found not in Jonah’s expression of the mission of the Jews to the world, but in that of Isaiah’s suffering servant. After all, nearly the entire history of Israel as the chosen people of God is told in a penitential key, a key which, according to William Cavanaugh, is vital for the proper life of the church. “The recognition of our sinfulness becomes not recognition of our tragic fate but a humble acknowledgment that we are not in charge of making history come out right by violent means…The city of God is not the shape of our triumph, but of our repentance.”

Within the life of the Church, this is most frequently and powerfully expressed in the liturgy, as it was for those suffering under Seleucid terror. For example, in Daniel’s prayer of penitence, he confesses sins to God and begs for mercy and deliverance (Daniel 9:4-19). Smith-Christopher shows that such acknowledgment of shame in penitential prayers, like the one in Daniel, serves as a “break with the past, to be an alternative people of God…To remind oneself constantly of the failure of power (in the ancestors and kings), to advocate an alternative mode of living.” Accordingly, by placing the blame for the exile and persecution at their own feet, that is, as a result of their sin, the Jews who prayed Daniel’s prayer stripped Antiochus’ claim to be in control and re-situated him as an implement of punishment used by God, who remains in control.

Similarly, in order to be an effective witness as a people set apart, the Church must acknowledge her own past sins and be a reminder to the world of humanity’s utter dependence on God’s mercy. “What the church makes visible to the world is the whole dynamic drama of sin and salvation, no only the end result of humanity purified and unified." Of course, this repentance mustn’t be a utilitarian strategy but a cry to God, a cry motivated by the experience of sin and a simultaneous witness to the world that even now God has not abandoned his people. “It is in this repentance that the church may make Christ and the drama of sin and redemption possible," and fulfill its role as the universal sacrament of salvation.

This approach seems correct to me. We can't make war against "them" as if "they" are the ones who killed God by pursuing some private good other than Him. They're only doing so because "they know not what they do," because they are (as is human nature) following the only standard society has given them (which in this case is the void). No, if God is "manifesting Himself as an absence" it is our fault. If He has withdrawn, it is the fault of the sinfulness of those of us who do keep God alive in our hearts and yet nevertheless betray Him by our own selfishness and sin.

We killed Him, we nailed Him to the Cross (Christianity, in this way, anticipated Nietzsche by 1900 years), and the proper response can only be weeping and mourning on our part, each individually. There are things the Church could do to facilitate this penitential stance. Certainly, the Church itself needs to provide more genuine community in order to support the individual (because bearing the weight of God privately in contradiction to the surrounding culture can be exhausting for many, and can sour into bitterness inside them), but ultimately there may be no large-scale "fix" at this stage if we are at "that point" in the macrocosm of history playing out the microcosm (of the individual spiritual life, or the life of Christ, etc).

So will this ever "restore" the external standard of a transcendent Good? I don't know; the emergence of Antichrist is itself implicit in the Christ event, and our own narrative has always known that, has always predicted things unfolding this way (so it's not like we should have been blindsided). But, certainly, for the individual, if God is in the tomb, if the soul of Christ is sojourning in Hell, if that's what our Modernity or Postmodernity has become, then we can only mourn, do penance, and keep Him alive in our own hearts, witness Him with love (not fear) to others, and await the Easter morn we know will come.

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Truth and Happiness

This is just a small thought I had.

I have sometimes encountered in conversations I've had the attitude that, basically, the Truth (about religion, philosophy, the meaning of life, etc) might be somehow in conflict with happiness.

Of course, there are those who prefer delusion to despair. But, on the whole, I think asking yourself "is this making me happy?" can be a pretty good evaluation of the truth of a matter. What good is it to believe something or to make some choice or to worry over some issue if it isn't making you happy? Some people might appeal to some value like "the Truth," but I say, "The Truth is what works, the Truth is whatever gets you through the day."

Again, people who see some potential conflict in values between the Truth and happiness might find this to be advocating delusion or false consciousness. But this notion only makes sense in a universe where there is ultimately no unified coherent form of The Good, where the ends of desire are finally manifold, fragmented, disparate, and disintegrated.

But we believe, of course, in a Good which is transcendent, and in the existence of a single Last End for all human kind and all of Being. And in this case, there can never be any real conflict between the Truth and true happiness (properly understood; we can't just mean a subjective emotional buzz in the present). In an ordered universe, there is nothing delusional or cynically pragmatic about saying "The Truth is what works" because what works is, in fact, the Truth!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Boiling Frog

Hell sneaks up on you. That's what I've come to realize.

Salvation, now that can be the subject of dramatic instantaneous conversions, last minute turnabouts, death-bed repentance, and eleventh hour deus ex machina heroism. But damnation...probably not so. Compared to the surprising spontaneity of grace, our free will on its own is simply tediously boring.

It's a well known fact that a frog (or cold-blooded animals in general) will jump away from boiling water just as we would. However, if you put them in lukewarm water, and then slowly raise the heat, they will sit there, adjusting their body temperature to the surroundings, until they are finally boiled to death. At no point do they notice that it has gotten "too" hot.

This is how we are damned. It isn't through monumental acts of evil; those are rare, and those who commit them are often times not entirely sane anyway, which raises questions of culpability. These people are "monsters," but can a monster really sin? And besides, no one sane randomly commits monstrous uncharacteristic acts (once again: grace surprises, evil never does). If someone gets to that point, it's as the climax of a long descent into evil in which they surely crossed Hell's thresh-hold long before.

No, Hell creeps. The lost soul who is fortunate enough to catch himself asks, "How did I get here? How did my life get to this point?" and looking back there are only a thousand little selfish choices, "Oh, I'll indulge this urge, I'll accept this satisfaction, I'll play with this heart, I'll use this person a little bit, I'll tell just a small lie, I'll entertain this doubt" and ten thousand cowardly sins of omission, "Oh, I'll put that off till tomorrow, I'll postpone doing what needs to be done, I won't control my own thoughts, I'll procrastinate on improving myself, on getting help, on saving my soul."

And suddenly you wake up one morning and realize that so many venial sins have become mortal. So many drinks, and you're an alcoholic. So many little things saved, and you're a hoarder. So many days spent putting off facing the music, that you're the grasshopper begging at the door of the ant. Suddenly you wake up, and you're life is a mess, in disarray, but it all happened so gradually! Maybe finally all the evil that has been accumulating slowly under the surface comes home to roost, maybe the consequences you were avoiding come to a head in some explicit crisis, and make you realize that you have, at an imperceptible glacial pace, become a horrible person, become a reprobate.

This is why space agencies have to be so precise: at a million miles out, a tiny fraction of an angle difference upon launch...becomes a huge difference in trajectory. The frog doesn't notice it's being boiled, and the souls in Hell, alive and dead, probably don't notice either.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Promising and Enlightening Little Chant Conversation

There was a little exchange during a break at my schola practice last weekend that I found promising.

I don't know much about liturgical music, though I am coming to understand more and more just how integral the chant is to the liturgy, even given my own past reservations about it and personal preference for other styles (I'm certainly not listening to chant during my free time!)

But, this is perhaps why I do have such an aversion to anything but chant in liturgy (especially things like orchestral Masses, etc) and why the Church only ever really allowed varied settings for the Ordinary, not the Propers: the music is not something just added to the text, as if Low Mass came first and Sung Mass was just jazzing it up. No, the music is really the life behind the text, and just as much a part of the experience of the "tradition" of the liturgy as the words. When people pass down a song, the melody is integral to that experience! It's not as if they're passing down merely a text and the melody is just an accidental vehicle. And the whole liturgy is song.

So, the director of my choir and several of the members seem to be quite knowledgeable about the scholarship regarding chant, the manuscript traditions, the various evolutions of pieces in different traditions (say, of different religious orders); from what I can glean from them talking, it almost seems to happen in Darwinian fashion, with little mutations and minor variations accruing in different pieces over time in different localities or traditions, with some cross-pollination, etc.

Another interesting fact: the chant books are probably the one place where newer is better, liturgically. Even if you use the pieces in the context of the old rite textual cycle, the music itself is probably a better restoration now (thanks to improved scholarship with the manuscripts and all that) than if you were to simplistically insist on sticking to mid-20th-century Graduales, etc.

Anyway, last weekend they started discussing the Tract, because of how the First Sunday of Lent has the longest (took us about 15 minute) piece in the whole Gregorian repertoire, really. The theory is that this may be a preserved "full" (or almost full) Tract.

In the liturgy of Late Antiquity and the Dark Ages, things were a lot less "vestigial" than they are under the Tridentine regime. Indeed, I've argued for restoring fuller forms on this blog before. For example, it is well-known that the Introit, the Offertory, and the Communion were actually used as antiphons between verses of psalms during the corresponding liturgical processions; our choir uses the Offertory verses found restored in the Offertoriale, and verses for the Communion too (though we've never yet had occasion to use additional Introit verses, though they are available in the same volume with the Communion verses).

This concept is general straight-forward enough, though the liturgy preserves a few idiosyncrasies suggesting that at some places there may have been variant practices. For example, at Requiems the Communion is in the format of a Responsory (otherwise confined to the Office in the Roman Liturgy; though my choir often sings a Matins/Prolix Responsory after the Communion to fill more time). This is taken by some scholars to suggest that at some locale in the early Middle Ages
(a given cathedral, monastery, etc) whence the Requiem Propers (or at least the Requiem Communion) descended to us, all Communions may have been Responsories instead of a psalm/antiphon format at that locale.

The Alleluia has a bit more complicated a history, but it may have been used during something like a Gospel Procession at one point (it also seems that Sequences evolved from drawing out the melisma of the "jubilus" of the Alleluia, in a manner somewhat similar to how the Kyrie used to be "troped" as well.)

However, the Gradual (and the Tracts) were known to not have been used in processions. The Gradual was essentially like the modern "Responsorial Psalm," and was sung for it's own sake after every lesson before the Epistle, with the ministers having nothing else to do but sit and listen as with readings, with a soloist cantor (or, perhaps later, even a group of cantors or choir) alternating verses with the congregation singing the antiphonal refrain. As now preserved, the Gradual in the books has a first section that is essentially an "R" (though the R is not always included), and then a section marked "V" probably indicating the original antiphon and the first verse sung with it.

The Tract, on the other hand, sung after the Epistle, was always a Psalm sung by a soloist or group of cantors or choir straight-through, not in a call-and-response format like the Gradual (in fact, it is suggested that this is what the name "Tract" means: sung straight through). As Tracts are preserved today, this is why they are marked at every verse with "V" indicating verses of a Psalm, but don't have any "R" or equivalent. It used to be a whole psalm, but what we have preserved are abridged verses except a few days a year. Probably, at one point, they were all as lengthy as the First Sunday of Lent.

Additionally, there used to always be a Tract even when there was an Alleluia also; the principle of a Psalm after every reading originally held even when the Alleluia started being proclaimed before the Gospel or during the Gospel Procession. Eventually, the Tract came to drop out on days the Alleluia was used (some days, especially in Lent, Eastertide, and on Ember Days still have strange combinations of Gradual, Tract, and Alleluia, or one "missing" where it might be expected, for historical reasons).

Anyway, learning all this helped me understand the liturgy better. It also made me question my own "restorationist" urges a bit, as I'm not sure how possible it actually would be to, say, restore full Tracts for all the days of the year. I'm not sure the manuscripts exist to do that, for example (as, by the High Middle Ages, must of the abridgement we're familiar with had already taken place). And there is something neat about having these vestigial "remnants" whose origins are sort of a mystery, whose ancient use we can speculate on, still preserved even if in an abridged form.

However, the most promising part of this conversation came at the end. Someone was talking about the cantor soloists for the psalms, and someone brought up how at this stage, everywhere was still improvising their liturgy, both in text but probably especially in music. There was an ancient (even Apostolic) structure to the liturgy, but in terms of the actual cycle of texts it was all still organically evolving, and different in many different locales, and not fixed by force of legislation or anything like that.

And then I was very glad to hear a lot of support expressed among the choir members (traditionalist Catholics mind you, including some seminarians and religious) for the old organic growth and local diversity. A real regret was expressed for the Carolingian standardization of the Liturgy and Trent further quashing local diversity and ossifying the liturgy as if in amber.

Of course, as one rather more reactionary member said, "Well, that's all well and good when the whole world is Catholic, you can trust people to improvise in a thoroughly Catholic way. With the rise of Protestantism, can we really trust people to?" And, of course, he has a point; I certainly don't want priests today making up their own liturgy, it would almost certainly be dreadful and often heretical, or at least tinged with Protestant aesthetics, not thoroughly Catholic (or Catholic in an inappropriately private devotional as opposed to liturgical sort of way). I even then pointed out that the Novus Ordo basically was what happened when you let moderns start making liturgy again.

And yet still, the choir director himself then said, "Yeah, it's tragic though, because you can't go on defining yourself as against things forever. That becomes just reactionary. When the Church really is something in itself, then the liturgy can bloom." Coming from a traditionalist choir, I thought hearing positions like that (rather than unnuanced support for the Tridentine rubricism and ossification and top-down standardization of liturgy)...was very promising.