Saturday, November 22, 2014

Notes on Fundamental Anxiety, the Divine Presence, and the Mission of Christ

[Delivered in a Christology class for high school seniors this past week.]

1.  Material prosperity, entertainment, comfort, medicine and distraction remove the necessity of God from the ordinary person’s life.  This is the Death of God.  Not a literal death, but the Death of the necessity of God in ordinary people’s daily experience.

2.  Suffering forces us to confront the question of the meaning of our existence.  Any time we are forced out of our secure bubble of distractions and worries and start to realize how contingent and impermanent the things we value are, the problem of the Death of God becomes present to us.

3.  Fundamental anxiety is the experience of the absence of a ground for the meaning of our daily existence.  Once you have this experience of fundamental anxiety, you are forced with a choice: (1) accept the utter meaninglessness of life as presented to you in your anxiety, (2) throw yourself back into distraction and forget the groundlessness of your existence, (3) search for something that would ground the meaning of your life and make sense of existence.

4.  Dostoevsky, the Russian novelist, captures the different responses to Anxiety in his novels The Brothers Karamazov and especially Crime and Punishment.  Blessed Henry Suso, a 14th century Dominican Mystic captures the experience of anxiety and the Catholic response to it in his Little Book of Eternal Wisdom

5.  God offers us a solution to the problem of anxiety and the meaninglessness we encounter in our ordinary daily existence.

6.  The presence of meaning in ordinary life is based on a few factors: (1) the extent to which a particular context or set of activities is directed toward some value that you already hold (2) the extent to which the activity or circumstance holds out the possibility of some unknown hope that you hold.

7.  Meaninglessness comes when an activity or circumstance holds no clear relation to any value you hold, and does not suggest any hope of some future good, or when the circumstance is not directed to anything at all.

8.  Fundamental Anxiety is an encounter with the large-scale question of the direction and value of your life.  In anxiety we are confronted with ultimate questions about what values and hopes our entire lives are directed toward.

9.  If, then, there is any answer to the question raised by fundamental anxiety, we have to discover an object which grounds the values and meaningfulness of human life as whole, without itself raising further problems about its own direction or meaningfulness.

10.  What attributes would an adequate answer to the meaningfulness of human life be? 
It would have to be the underlying source of all value.  It would have to have value not because of someone’s choice or judgment, but in itself, absolutely.

11.  It would have to exist, as a real entity, and not just as an idea present in the human mind, and its existence would have to somehow be decisive for the existence of everything else.

12.  It would have to be one, radically singular, in order to prevent the possibility of a new set of dichotomies or choices which would undercut it decisiveness as a solution to the problem of meaning.

13.  These characteristics (intrinsic and absolute goodness, oneness, and an essential relationship to all of existence) are sufficient to identify this thing as God.

14.  As Catholics, we believe not only that God is the ultimate answer to the question humans naturally have about the meaning of life and the source and purpose of all existence—we also believe that God is radically present in everything that he has created, and that his nature can be discovered indirectly through his works.

15.  Fundamental to Catholicism is the idea that God’s presence is discoverable in the world to those who look beyond the contingency and limitations of ordinary things and seek out their ultimate value and meaning, beyond their finitude.

16.  We will used the word "sacramentality" (borrowed from the Rahnerians) to refer to the fact that we can find transcendent meaning and value through all things because all things reflect God’s nature and are created by God, and refer to God as their perfection. (The goodness of God is what makes the goodness of every other thing good.)

17.  Sacramentality leaves open the question of how we can encounter or reach God directly when the ordinary things in life only approximate or indirectly point toward his goodness.  God is infinite; creatures are finite.  God is utterly perfect; creatures are imperfect.  God is eternal; creatures change.

18.  As Catholics, we believe that God himself has made himself present in Creation in a radically personal way, so that we don’t just know him indirectly by what he has made, but directly as a person with whom we are in a relationship.

19.  Jesus Christ is the ultimate or primary expression of God in the created world.  Jesus, by his life, teachings, and works, shows us who God is personally, because he himself is God.

20.  The purpose of Jesus Christ’s mission wasn't just to heal a few people in 1st century Palestine, or to have some really profound conversations with people, or even to express love.  Jesus’s Mission was to open up a path by which humans can approach God and become children of God, i.e. participants in that ultimate goodness and purpose for which and by which the universe was created.

21.  Jesus perpetuates his ministry by establishing a Church.  The Church is a visible institution made up of the followers of Christ, founded on the grace merited by Christ on the Cross, and united by one common faith, by the same sacraments, by the same prayer and liturgy, and by the same authorities.

22.  The Church exists to perpetuate the mission of Jesus Christ: to hand on the teachings which he gave to the Apostles; to administer the sacraments he instituted to give us grace; and to gather and govern the community of Christian faithful on earth.

23.  The Seven Sacraments were instituted by Christ as means by which God can draw humanity into a direct bond with him.  Each sacrament works to establish or deepen the relationship we have spiritually with God.  The Sacraments redirect our way of understanding and willing, beyond the ordinary, toward God.


Sunday, November 2, 2014

Note on The Josias

Somehow I ended up starting a website devoted to Catholic Politics.  Given my general lack of familiarity with political philosophy and so on, this is mysterious.  However, there are several learned people who have joined up and it's looking promising.  You can visit it here.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Two Kinds of Triumphalism

Ordinarily one hears the word "triumphalism" applied to historical narratives about the Church.  The triumphalist version of Church History treats the past centuries as an inevitable march of the Ecclesia Militans onward to eschatological victory.  I would like to identify two new kinds of Triumphalism, related not to reflections on the Church's past, but to assessments of the present state of things.

The first triumphalism is an eschatological triumphalism, based on Christ's assurance that "I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).  This triumphalism is informed by the theological virtue of hope, which looks at worldly distress, doubt and tribulation and sees past it to the victory already won by our Lord, who is enthroned at the right hand of the Father.  Yes, in the world we will have suffering.  Yes, there is strife and confusion, there are false teachers and antichrists, but in the midst of the grim struggle, we need not despair, because the victory is already ours.  This eschatological triumphalism ends up looking a lot like grim realism.  It expects things to go awry frequently, it sees the present world as a vale of tears which is passing away, but when things go wrong it sees this as an occasion of fortitude befitting a miles Christi.  The light set upon a hill shines brightest at night.

The second triumphalism is an ultramontane triumphalism, based on Christ's assurance that "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18).  Or rather, based on a particular reading of this promise.  The ultramontane triumphalist focuses on the immanent signs of Christ's triumph, in the integrity of the Church and especially in the Vicar of Christ.  The ultramontane triumphalist does not need to worry about persecution or fear any confusion, because he sees the promised triumph of Christ as already continuously accomplished in the prudence and perfection of the papal reign.  Everything the shepherds of the Church do is interpreted as a work of the Good Shepherd, and every act and allocution of the Roman Pontiff is interpreted through the promise of infallibility.  To stay faithful to Christ is to believe in his reign, which is made present through the reign of the Pope and the fidelity of the bishops.  To doubt the perfection of the latter is to deny the triumph of the former, and is therefore an act of despair and loss of faith.

The second kind of triumphalism is based on something correct: the Vicar of Christ is the Vicar of Christ, and his reign is an earthly sign of the triumph of our Lord, and his voice as Supreme Pontiff is the voice of the whole Church, speaking truths given to her by her Bridegroom.  And yet, like all heresies, it takes this noble truth, and warps it so as to obscure part of the faith and remove (at the cost of blindness) some of the difficulties of the present life.  Ultramontane triumphalism neglects those famous passages in Scripture, in which St. Luke tells us of divisions among the apostles, when St. Paul recalls rebuking Peter for his hypocrisy, when St. Peter warns the faithful against false teachers who will arise among them.  We follow the Pope, because he has the words of everlasting life.  We obey our Bishops because they teach us the truth and nourish us with the sacraments.  But, as St. Jerome writes,
"Not all bishops are bishops indeed. You consider Peter; mark Judas as well. You notice Stephen; look also on Nicolas, sentenced in the Apocalypse by the Lord's own lips, whose shameful imaginations gave rise to the heresy of the Nicolaitans... It is not ecclesiastical rank that makes a man a Christian. The centurion Cornelius was still a heathen when he was cleansed by the gift of the Holy Spirit. Daniel was but a child when he judged the elders."  
Ultramontane triumphalism often ends in despair, because when the imperfection and profound weakness of our shepherds is revealed to us, this kind of triumphalist sees what is a lamentable fact of the corruption and corruptibility of wayward men, as a contradiction at the very heart of the faith, and as a failure of Christ, who promised to sustain his Vicar and protect him from the forces of hell.

Perhaps worse still, though, is the reaction of triumphalists who refuse to admit the imperfections and errors of the shepherds when they arise, who would insist on not just ignoring the fault, but on praising Peter for his hypocrisy, or honoring Nicolas for his heretical notions, because their fideistic confidence in the integrity of the papal reign so overwhelms reason that they must embrace everything that is done by the steward as if it were done by the king himself.  This perversion of faith leads to a perversion of hope, and it manifests itself with disturbing frequency among English-language commentators on ecclesiastical affairs.