Monday, July 30, 2012

MEDITATION ON THE HUMAN CONDITION

Eternal Optimist writes his children periodic emails, short meditations on the daily scriptures read in the Catholic Church.  This one was from July 28, 2012, Saturday.  It turned into a meditation on the human condition. 

Today's readings are drawn from Jeremiah 7, Psalm 84, and Matthew 13.  You may read them here.

Jeremiah receives a message from the Lord, directing him to stand at the gate of the temple and tell the people "Reform your ways and your deeds. . . Only if you thoroughly reform your ways and your deeds; if each of you deals justly with his neighbor . . . will I remain with you in this place."

Jeremiah warns the people against putting their trust in "the temple of the Lord! the temple of the Lord! the temple of the Lord!"

This is a warning to us, as well.  Religious practice is a good thing, but not enough.  The Lord wants our lives.  He wants us to deal with our neighbors justly.  Our "religion" is worthless unless it changes us for the good.  It is of no use unless it results in love toward our families, friends and neighbors.  It is quite disgusting to be a "religious" person who mocks God by mistreating the people around him.  Jeremiah asks if we think God's temple is a "den of thieves?"  Do we think God does not see us for who we are? 

But here's the tough part.  It is easy to see the hypocrisy in others.  Seeing our own blind spots is much more difficult.  Our eyes look outward, not inward.  How do we invert our eyes so that we can see our own souls as Christ sees them?

All humanity is subject to the truth of the parable in today's gospel.  Jesus tells of the farmer who sows good seed in the field, goes to sleep, and wakes up to find that an enemy has sown weeds among the good seed.  The servants ask the farmer if they should pull up the weeds, but he tells them not to, because they may destroy the wheat in so doing.  He promises that at the harvest he will have the harvesters separate the weeds and burn them, and then gather in the wheat.

The truth of this parable applies in each individual heart, as well.  There weeds grow along with the wheat.  The roots of the weeds circle around our hearts, and are intermingled with the roots of the wheat, so that God refuses to act in his power to "pull up the weeds," lest he crush the life out of us. 

Yet in the person of Jesus the Lord asks us to let him disentangle the weeds and the wheat gently, so that he can claim our hearts. 

How do we do this?

Today's Psalm provides an answer:

How lovely is your dwelling place, Lord, mighty God!
My soul yearns and pines
for the courts of the LORD.
My heart and my flesh
cry out for the living God.

Blessed they who dwell in your house!
continually they praise you.
Blessed the men whose strength you are!
They go from strength to strength.

I had rather one day in your courts
than a thousand elsewhere;
I had rather lie at the threshold of the house of my God
than dwell in the tents of the wicked.

Our time in the Lord's dwelling place is time when our hearts grow toward the light of his love.  We are "blessed" there.  We go from "strength to strength" - His strength becomes our strength.  And however you are situated in God's house - whether you merely lie at the threshold, like the beggar Lazarus in one of Jesus' stories - you will receive life.  And however briefly you are in the Lord's house, you will receive life: "I had rather one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere."

It is so difficult to see inwardly.  God our Father loves us with all his heart, in all his truth and justice.  In truth, none of us is satisfied with love that is blind to our weaknesses.  That is a perilous love, sure to be shattered when it awakens from its dullness and sees us for what we are. 

Neither do any of us truly want a "love" that justifies our injustice, that coddles our selfishness.  Because we know in our deepest beings that this is not love.  A "love" that tolerates selfishness and injustice is no love at all, but a temporary alliance, like a "den of thieves." It exists so long as our selfishness and injustice are directed elsewhere.  We know in our hearts that in the end our selfishness and injustice will turn on our den-mates, and theirs on us.  And that is the day they will not be our "friends" any longer.

The Lord gives us a place we can go and see ourselves for what we are, without dying of shame.  It is a place where we are loved unconditionally, but not blindly, given true hope, not false pride, and given strength to change, not rationalizations for our sins.  It is the place where the weeds get disentangled from the wheat.

That is why the Lord lived and died for us.  That is why he instituted the Eucharist, appointed the Apostles, gave us Confession, and gave us the Holy Scriptures.  He gives us the means to change, to gently pull out the weeds and to nurture the wheat in our lives.

I tell you to go to Church because I love you.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

HEALTH CARE INJUNCTION

A district court in Colorado issued a preliminary injunction yesterday forbidding the federal government from enforcing its abortion and birth control insurance mandates against a private employer.  You can read the opinion itself here, and the briefs of the parties here.

The issues in the religious exemption cases are entirely different from the recent Supreme Court decision on the Commerce Clause and Tax justifications for the law.  The religious exemption cases do not attack Congress' power to pass the law, generally.  These cases attack the application of the law to people who have religious beliefs that would be violated by complying with the law.

The judge ruled that the freedom of religion “questions going to the merits . . .[are] so serious, substantial, difficult, and doubtful as to make the issue ripe for litigation and deserving of more deliberate investigation[.]”  The judge held that, given the alternative means for providing birth control and abortion coverage for women (such as free government abortion and birth control benefits), the government failed to meet its burden of demonstrating that its mandate was the least restrictive means of furthering its purposes. 

The judge also held that given the numerous exemptions and grandfathered provisions in the health care mandate, the government had not proven that it had a compelling interest in uniform application of the mandate.  In plain words, the judge said that given the number of exemptions already in place, allowing one more employer to avoid providing birth control or abortion coverage was not going to result in a system crash.

The opinion deals with one employer in one federal district.  Nevertheless, the opinion has momentous implications, because the logic of the opinion applies to other people who want to run their businesses without violating their church's teachings on abortion and birth control.  The opinion is a lucid explanation of why the preliminary injunction should issue.  Because it was written by a Carter appointee, political hatchet men will have a tougher time slandering the judge as a conservative bigot. 

Once again, a court holds that Nancy Pelosi's "are you kidding?" mockery of the notion that Obamacare might be unconstitutional was misguided.  As the court said, the issues are "serious, substantial, difficult and doubtful."

We live in interesting times.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

CRIGLER'S FORK

Eternal Optimist recently read an engrossing short novel, titled "Crigler's Fork," which is available on Kindle.  You can order it here.  Kyle Blevins, the protagonist, is a small town sheriff's deputy in the mountains of Appalachia, deep in southwest Virginia.  His investigation of a routine traffic death leads him into a mystifying and increasingly nightmarish world of guns, drugs, and murder, as he tries to pick up the pieces of his own life, battered by divorce and an idiotic boss.  The story is at the same time laugh-out-loud funny and unnerving, as Kyle struggles through a bizarre crowd of humanity and events in a desperate effort to get to the truth before his world falls apart.  Set against the brooding and exquisite beauty of the southern Appalachian mountains, the book is fast moving, entertaining, and satisfying.  A great summer read!

Note: Eternal Optimist has been acquainted with the author and his family for many years, and is obviously interested in the success of "Crigler's Fork."  Notwithstanding the caveat, you will enjoy the book!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

STOP JEERING FOR A MINUTE

The flap about the HHS mandate has not only made clear the Administration's antipathy toward orthodox Christianity, but has also brought to the fore a long-simmering problem within the Catholic Church: birth control.

The Church teaches that artificial - as opposed to natural - methods of contraception are morally wrong.  The majority of American Catholics do not adhere to the Church's teaching, although a substantial minority of American Catholics follow the Church's teachings. 

As a convert to Catholicism, I continue to be mystified at the efforts of  people born into the Catholic Church to redefine Catholicism in their own image.  As centuries of Protestantism have demonstrated, if you don't believe what the Catholic Church teaches, you may either find a denomination that agrees with you, or invent one of your own.

Better yet, why not actually study what the Church teaches?  A recent study in Big Cold Town, where I live, revealed that more than 50% of those who call themselves Catholic think that Jesus sinned.  Since the Church has been clear about this particular issue for 2000 years or so, it is hard to understand how Catholics get this so wrong.  It appears many Catholics do not have the foggiest notion about what the Catholic Church believes.

If you want to study what the Church believes about human sexuality, Pope John Paul II wrote a terrific book called "Theology of the Body." The book considers the philosophical and theological underpinnings of the Church's teaching on human sexuality.   If you want "Theology of the Body for Beginners," a very readable and concise overview of the Pope's book, it is $7 online.  Check it out.

One reason Catholics don't actually know what the Church teaches is that many priests don't actually teach them.  Here's an article on a priest who actually preaches about what the Church teaches.

No one argues that artificial birth control must be a categorical moral good, without which the whole idea of morality crumbles. The arguments in favor of artificial birth control are varied, but basically boil down to two:

  • it's what people want to do, and we shouldn't tell them otherwise, since it has to do with sex
  • it helps keep the population under control, and that's a good thing
As for the first, there are lots of sexual behaviors that we prohibit or disapprove of as disordered.  Rape, incest, child abuse and adultery all come to mind.  So the fact that a behavior has something to do with sex does not mean that the Church (or society) cannot point out that it is wrong and harmful.   

As for the second, it both assumes that population control is a good thing, and that there are no countervailing moral considerations.  Yet murder and forced sterilization might be thrifty ways to control the population - and have been advocated by population control enthusiasts -  but we don't approve of either one.  So the idea is at least out there that there might be some moral limits on what we do to keep from having more people around.  We cannot use every means available to control the population.

And as for the assumption that "population control" is a good thing, maybe not so much.  It hasn't worked out the way everyone seemed to think it would, as demographic studies over the last 10 years have begun to demonstrate. 

The Church's teaching is founded on a perfectly rational view of the value of human life and our duty to preserve and honor it.  

The Church views human life as a profound good, worthy of protection and honor at every stage of development, no matter how weak, and no matter how wounded.  This view informs the Church's views on caring for the sick, the poor, the elderly, and even criminals, and is responsible for much that is good in this feckless and uncaring world.

It is very difficult to argue against the Church's view of the dignity of human life.  This should at least give pause to people who want to dismiss the Church's position on artificial birth control as illogical or unreasonable.

The Church's teaching is also founded on a perfectly rational scientific view of when life begins, a view that is adopted by every standard text on embryology and human development: human life begins at conception.  Coherent arguments that human life does not begin at conception are difficult to make and more difficult to defend.  This should at least give pause to people who want to abuse the Church's position without engaging in a serious discussion about it.

This is all to say that perhaps we could turn down the volume on the shouting, and stop jeering at the Church long enough to actually think seriously about what it is saying.  Is the Church's position so obviously ludicrous that it deserves to be laughed at?  Are sterility and promiscuity so obviously universal moral goods that we should never be permitted to breathe a word of criticism about either one, on pain of being tarred and feathered in the public forum?

Perhaps we could stop the carousel for just a few minutes and think about this.  We might conclude, after some serious reflection, that the Church is right, and - heavens! - its critics are wrong.

I'm just saying.  It could happen.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

ETERNALLY OPTIMISTIC

People wonder why I call myself optimistic.

Here's why.

I don't think God is in heaven trying to figure out what is going to happen in November, or upset with himself because he didn't foresee the wildfires in Colorado, or worried sick about the Euro and Greece.   I try to remember this when people want me to panic, or worry, or get upset.  If God is not in a 5-alarm frenzy, why should I be?


I don't think people redefining marriage is anything new.  Civilizations have come and gone again and again, but traditional marriage remains, because it works.  It remains the best shot that small humans have at becoming good big people. A society can "redefine" marriage any way it wants, but it is a self-correcting problem.  A society that messes with the basics of marriage eventually either stops having children or breaks the children so badly that the society cannot continue.  Hence, marriage survives, societies fail.


People who insist that there is no such thing as "truth" engage in a self-contradiction, since such a statement begs the question "so, it is true that there is no truth?"  Of course there is truth, and of course there is falsehood.

People who insist that we cannot know the truth commit the same self-contradiction, once removed, which can be summed up this way:  "so, you know that we cannot know?"

So there is truth, and we can know it, because to think otherwise is incoherent.  Now, if someone is positing a universe of complete gibberish, well, okay, but why should that concern me?  They are free to posit such a place, and talk gibberish to themselves and others, but I feel no need to take them seriously or worry about what they have to say.

I mean, am I supposed to base my life on this?  Carl Spackler's quote from the Dalai Lama - "Gunga galunga . . .  gunga, gunga-lagunga" - was funny at the time, but when you string whole paragraphs of that together it loses its charm.


There is such a thing as causation, and if there is causation, there was a first cause.  And a first cause begins to look an awful lot like God.  BTW, so does infinity.  So does quantum mechanics.  So does math.  But I digress.  It is difficult to describe a first cause that does not at least make you think of God.

And it is difficult to see how someone can argue that there is no such thing as causation (many have argued it), since language itself is one long, extraordinary chain of causation.  The fact that one is able to communicate the idea that "there is no causation" is possible only through a breathtakingly intricate chain of causation that starts with a conception that stimulates brain cells, nerves, breath, tongue, vocal chords, lips, the air between the speaker and hearer, the ear of the listener, nerves, and brains again.



If there is no causation, there is no statement "there is no causation."  Which  makes me suspect that the notion is fraught with difficulties.

Love is a good thing.  This doesn't change, and it is difficult to argue against.  Love requires self-sacrifice, courage, faithfulness, humility, devotion, thoughtfulness - the list goes on, and it is a good one.  Love spawns intelligence, but not arrogance, diligence, but not impatience, creativity, but not self-absorption.  Love, in fact, is endlessly creative, endlessly giving of itself.  Self-absorption is eternally sterile.  It does not give of itself to make more; it takes from the store created by others to feed its own maw, and gives nothing in return.

A society that does not love will not care for its children, and eventually will stop having children. That society will die.  Again, a self-correcting problem.  Societies come and go, but love survives.


There is a God and he loves this world, loves it enough to have made it and sustained it and saved it.  He loves the world because it is incoherent to think of him otherwise.  There is no creation without love; the two are inseparable.   Because of this God and his love I am eternally optimistic.  What's not to like about heaven?

Oh, and one more thing.  "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among them are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."


Happy Fourth of July!