Sunday, November 22, 2009

Celebrating Goodness

Thanksgiving will be here in just a few days and many of us will find ourselves sharing with family and friends those things for which we are thankful. I have noticed that, from time to time, people will formulate their thanks in a negative way. That is, instead of saying, "I am thankful for my health," they will say, "I am thankful for not getting sick this year." This is rarely intended and I probably ought not read too much into it, but it seems to be illustrative of a problem we sometimes have.

St. Augustine, when confronting the problem of evil, argues that evil does not exist. Literally. He contends that being is itself good. All things that are are good. If something seems to be evil, it is deficient in being; it does not as fully exist as a proper, good thing. If I have not yet entirely bastardized Augustine, we might put his concept into colloquial terms by saying that goodness is like heat: there is no such thing as evil (or cold), only the absence of good (or heat).

However, being thankful for "not getting sick" represents a kind of anti-Augustinianism. It places the emphasis on evil (in this case, sickness), and suggests that goodness is only the absence of evil, and not a thing in itself. This is a very dreary form of thanks, since it implicitly says, "The world is full of evil, but I have been lucky to avoid most of it." Such a statement says nothing about goodness, implicitly denying that one is thankful for it.

Last month I was in Dallas for the wedding of two of my classmates. After the reception a gaggle of alumni went out for drinks together at the Gingerman. One classmate suggested that we play a drinking game. I think mine were not the only eyebrows raised just a little. Drinking games, really...? But as our colleague explained, this "game" was different. The concept was simple enough: taking turns round the table, each person would sharing something they enjoy. The speaker, along with any others who enjoy the same thing, would take a swig of beer. Most drinking games are built on coercion: if you fail to do X, you must drink. This, it was explained to us, is a mistake. Drinking should be a joy, and should be associated with joyful things. It should be a celebration, not a punishment.

And a celebration it was. We shared joys from our undergraduate days together and from our more recent adventures in various places. Stories quickly came to the fore, stories about classes and pranks and epic road trips. We toasted academic nerdery and cute children, beloved friends and favorite places. It was more than mere thankfulness for the absence of ill in our lives: it was a celebration of real, active, vibrant goodness in our lives.

Photo credit: Today's picture comes from jypsygen's Flickr account. It is, admittedly, not from our trip to the Gingerman. But it is an authentic Dallas Gingerman photo, which counts for something, I think.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Bavarian Baroque

I recently read an interesting poem, entitled "Bavarian Baroque," by Gail White:

At first it's like a painted teacup
inverted, this gold-scalloped dome
containing an apotheosis
of saints triumphant heading home

to God—a Beatific Vision
made relevant to mortal eyes
Then we discover in each cornice
angels, grotesque in shape and size,

in imminent danger of descending
onto our heads, their Sunday-best
huge wings precariously suspended,
hoping the tourists are impressed.

Faith is not like this, needs no laser
sculpture, no cheat-the-eye designs.
Baroque device is insufficient
to baffle unbelieving minds.

Faith was a gift that died with Gothic.
Only the rich medieval heart
(dazzled by love and drunk with logic)
could train the wild stone rose of Chartres.
First of all, here are a few pictures to give you an idea of the Baroque churches the poem is criticizing. These pictures comes from the church of St. John Nepomucene in Munich, often known as the Asamkirche, after the Asam brothers, two Baroque architects who built this chapel next to their house for their private use.

Since the church was originally intended as "just" a private chapel, the church is not set off from the surrounding buildings. In fact, the average pedestrian comes upon it like upon a store-front church. But, a Baroque store-front church is a little different from what we normally imagine in modern America.

The interior is even more impressive. The small size adds to the effect. Upon entering the church, a visitor is immediately confronted with this view:

If we look at some of the details, we see some of what the poet means when she speaks of "angels, grotesque in shape and size." This next picture features a saint surrounded by angels, and it certainly gives an idea of late Baroque style:

And now, the big question: Is the poem right when it says that "Faith was a gift that died with Gothic"? And, how does the supposed death of faith manifest itself in the Baroque?

To begin, I don't believe it's entirely fair to say that faith died with the Gothic. For instance, some of the Church's greatest mystics (e.g., St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila) lived during the Baroque period. Or, more a propos of this post, the Asam brothers built this church as their own private chapel out of their own private funds. Was their faith not a living faith? Moreover, the Gothic was not as free of some of the problems of the Baroque as the poet seems to think. Gothic church towers, for example, were often built to impress medieval "tourists." Just take a look here at the tower on St. Martin's church in Landshut, Germany (the tallest brick tower in the world). On the other hand, the early modern period of European history certainly did witness the spread of some anti-religious feeling, especially in the wake of the Thirty Years' War, and even saw the origins of modern atheism (e.g., Spinoza). Do Baroque art and architecture reflect this decline of faith in some way?

The poem does give some clues as to how the Baroque might reflect the death of Europe's faith. The poet's main complaint about the Baroque seems to be that it relies too heavily on cheap tricks to make us believe in God--"cheat-the-eye designs" and "Baroque device." The Baroque tries but cannot even "baffle unbelieving minds." In other words, the Baroque tries unsuccessfully to confuse us and then tries unsuccessfully to persaude us that our state of confusion is really faith. Mere confusion would seem to be a rather weak foundation for our faith.

In response to this danger of conflating confusion and faith, the poet points in the last verse to the Gothic's passion for logic. Though she does not elaborate much on this statement, White seems to be asserting that clear thought and faith are not incompatible, and are indeed indispensable to each other.

Another possible problem with the Baroque--hinted at in the phrase "hoping the tourists are impressed"--is that the Baroque also relies heavily on "shock and awe" tactics. The sheer size of the statues, the many-colored marbles, the extravagant use of gold plating, are all designed to overwhelm us, make us feel small, and thereby induce us to worship the all-powerful God. Shock and awe was certainly my initial reaction the first time I stepped inside, or even into the colonnade at, St. Peter's in Rome. But again, White seems to be asserting that merely feeling small is not a solid foundation for our faith.

This poem, then, leaves us with the question whether the feelings of bafflement and shock and awe which the Baroque sought to produce are inimical to genuine faith. I am still not entirely sure that White's historical analysis--the contrast between Gothic and Baroque--is true in every detail, but I do believe that she has hit upon two important points. First, she at least partially explains why so many people criticize and are left cold by "Baroque excess." People see through the tricks and the impression of power. Second, she gives two valid warnings about certain weak foundations of faith. Faith is more than just confusion or feeling small.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Fleet Foxes

This past summer, while living at Quincy and doing research at the National Archives, I had a chance to see the Fleet Foxes at the 9:30 Club. Who are the Fleet Foxes, you ask. A fair question. I described them to my family thus:

They're a high-energy alternative folk band featuring lots of harmonizing. (Four of the five guys in the band do vocals.) Imagine the Beech Boys had a folk conversion, grew beards and moved to West Virginia for a couple years. That would give you something of an approximation.

Let's be honest: concerts are loud. Too loud, in my opinion. But while the 9:30 Club's audio engineer kept the volume at its usual level, the effect was something different. The concert felt like being hit by a solid wall of harmony. Loud, yes, but far more than just noise. Aja Pecknold, sister of the band's front man, describes a similar experience:

The first time I heard “Boots of Spanish Leather,” it was as if all of the oxygen had been drained from the room, suddenly replaced with the wavering golden longing of this one song.

I've included a few YouTube videos, for your viewing pleasure. Above is "He Doesn't Know Why," from their self-titled album. Below is "Blue Ridge Mountains" from the same.

And then there's this one, "White Winter Hymnal," with some slightly scary claymation, but a really awesome song:

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


I take the war list and I run down it,
name after name, which I cannot read,
and which we who are older than you
cannot hear without emotion;
names which will be only names to you, the new College,
but which to us summon up face after face,
full of honesty and goodness,
zeal and vigor,
and intellectual promise;
the flower of a generation,
the glory of England;
and they died for England
and all that England stands for.

And now by tragic necessity
their dreams have become yours.
Let me exhort you: examine yourselves.
Let each of you discover
where your true chance of greatness lies.

For their sakes,
for the sake of your College and your country,
seize this chance,
rejoice in it,
and let no power or persuasion
deter you in your task.

-Master of Caius, Chariots of Fire

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Life in the Spirit, Part III: First Things Last

Continuing from Parts I and II...

One of the best ways of discerning the workings of the Holy Spirit is in conjunction with others. This is part of the reason why Rome supports the Charismatic Renewal through the Catholic Fraternity of Charismatic Covenant Communities and Fellowships, an organization under the auspices of the Pontifical Council for the Laity. I mentioned the Catholic Fraternity in my first post, but did not elaborate on its significance. This is not just an organizational matter. Discerning the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives is not something one learns overnight. Some people attend a single prayer meeting, are told they have received the baptism of the Holy Spirit and are then released out into the world, without explanation, without formation and without the support of a community. This is at odds with natural common sense and with God's revelation in the Church, which unites its many members in a single body. Thus, charismatic prayer ought not be separated from community life and the guidance of holy and mature leaders.

Like all aspects of our faith, we should remember that the charismatic life does not happen in a vacuum. As mentioned above, we must be faithful to reading the Scriptures and listening to God's voice there if we also want to hear Him in our hearts. We must be striving to grow in virtue: in patience, generosity, humility, self-control. These and the other virtues orient us to truth and goodness, disposing us to the Lord's will and giving us the continence to act upon it. Moreover, if we are to grow and flourish in the charismatic life we need to be receiving the sacraments, sources of grace and mercy.

I shall conclude this discussion with a point which I probably ought to have made explicit from the beginning. The Holy Spirit is not a force or an idea or a feeling. The Holy Spirit is a person, the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, one in being with the Father and Son, but also distinct from them. Thus, we should not think about charismatic prayer as a mechanistic process, whereby we can expect experiences X, Y and Z if we engage in actions A, B and C. No, charismatic prayer is primarily a relationship, a personal relationship with the Holy Spirit, Whom Christ sent to us after His ascension. If we recall that the Holy Spirit is a person and our prayer is a relationship, many things fall into their proper place. Of course we cannot "master" charismatic prayer in a day; relationships take time to grow and develop. Moreover, just as I relate to some friends differently than others, so different people will have different relationships with the Spirit. This is not a deficiency in anyone's prayer, but a sign of intimacy, that the Spirit knows and loves us in unique ways.

These are but a few thoughts that came to me over the course of a couple evenings. I hope they have elucidated a few dimensions of the charismatic life. But if you really want to meet the Holy Spirit, it will not on a blog. Rich Mullins once explained, "If you really want spiritual nourishment, read your Bible, go to church." And if you want to encounter the Holy Spirit, it will be in prayer. So go meet Him there.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Life in the Spirit, Part II: Discerning Words

Continuing from yesterday's Part I: Emotionalism?...

I can only speak from my own experience, but I think my experience is is broadly similar to that of most other Catholic charismatics. Listening to the promptings of the Spirit is a bit like listening to one's conscience. It is, in many ways, simply a gut feeling. However, just as a child must learn to distinguish tears of sorrow from tears of joy, so a mature Christian learns to distinguish mere passing emotions from the tuggings of conscience. I cannot fully explain how this happens, though a large part of it consists in what the Church calls having a well-formed conscience. By studying in an intellectual way the the law of God, we begin to internalize it. By thinking about its application we form our consciences, training our gut emotions, if you will. Listening to the promptings of the Spirit can be similar. If I know the Scriptures, the teachings of the Church, the lives of the saints, my emotions are far more likely to be synchronized with the work of the Spirit. I did not mention it in the tripartite division of the person, but another aspect of who we are is the imagination. By filling our minds with thoughts of God, we conform our imagination to Him. As a result, if only on a strictly natural level, we make it far more likely that our imaginative wanderings will reflect His will. Moreover, in so doing we also increase the docility of our imagination to God, making it easier for Him to use it as a source of supernatural inspiration.

Let us assume that we have received some sort of word or prompting from the Spirit. An idea has crossed our mind, a certain gut feeling has welled up, a phrase has caught our fancy. How do we know if it is from the Lord? Discerning such words is a key part of the charismatic life (and an important check on the dangers of unfettered emotionalism). So how do we do it? One of the most potent tools is the intellect, which - remember - is made by God and is good. The first and most important function of the intellect in this regard is to consider whether or not the received word coheres with the faith. If I received a prompting to encourage someone to persevere in prayer, or an admonition for myself to let go of my pride, these are things which the Holy Spirit might plausibly be telling me. If, on the other hand, I think I am receiving a word that there is a Forth Person of the Godhead or that the Spirit wants me to murder my neighbor, clearly these things are wrong.

But even after rejecting a possible interpretation of a word, the intellect has an important role to play. Why did that idea cross my mind? Is this spiritual warfare, a temptation from demonic forces? If that is the case, calling upon the intercession of St. Michael may be in order. Also note, by the way, that if this transpires, the initial inspiration - wrong in itself - may nevertheless have been a working of the Spirit, drawing your attention to this problem. Thus, discerning a word, rather than simply accepting it at first glace, may be the difference between listening to the Lord's voice and exposing oneself to grave danger. Even if demonic forces are not directly at play, incorrect ideas - which I can know by reason are incompatible with the Christian faith - may be coming from within me. Again, acknowledgment of this fact may be the work of the Spirit. Why am I thinking this way? What is it that has led me to this place? We may rejoice that the Spirit has provided such self-awareness. Finally, a third possibility exists for why we felt or heard a word whose contents we intellectually know to be at odds with the truth: we may have misread it. A fuzzy feeling or a vague notion may easily be misconstrued. If I am feeling a deep revulsion towards another person, I know the Spirit is not calling on me to do violence to them. And if I have discerned that this dislike is not simply something of my own doing or of demonic forces, perhaps there is another interpretation which makes more sense. Perhaps the person in question is a very unholy and harmful person, whose influence should be avoided like a spiritual plague.

More often, however, one will not be confronted with highly problematic words. Instead, one will be faced with a word which is clearly plausible, even permissible. But is it for me or for someone else? What exactly is the Holy Spirit saying? And is this the Holy Spirit or just me? Sometimes we are asked to do something in total faith: share a word of exhortation that means nothing to us, and which we cannot imagine applying to anyone present. But, lo and behold, if we are faithful, we might discover that someone present has a very deep wound that the Lord wanted to address. However, more often than not, we can know by natural reason a thing or two about why a certain prompting has come. We have been struggling with a certain issue which we are prompted to address in a particular way. A friend is anxious and we receive a word of consolation. Considering circumstances can help us make sense of sometimes vague impressions, making sure we get it right.

If this search for a plausible interpretation sounds a bit like doing literary criticism, that is not entirely off the mark. Just as literary criticism is the application of the intellect to understand literature, so too the discernment of words is the application of the intellect to understanding the promptings of the Spirit. On the other hand, we must remember that this is a work of the Spirit. We do not simply wait for the tiniest minutia and then hyper-analyze it to detect the Holy Spirit's movement. Instead, the Holy Spirit should guide the entire activity, through our emotions, our imagination and our intellect, all working in concert.

But how do I know a prompting is from the Spirit and not just from me? This is a question that does not particularly bother me. On most occasions, I suspect that the big prophetic words I receive from the Lord, the sort of thing that comes only once every year or two, are 90% me and 10% the Holy Spirit. This sounds like a fairly poor ratio, so why my optimism? Put simply, I trust the Spirit's ability to transform and fill anything He touches. Moreover, as we have been discussing, if my imagination and intellect and emotions are good things, created by God, and if I have been working to mold and form them according to His ways and purposes, they are already a kind of revelation. Adding just a dash of uncut Holy Spirit can make that potent. I do not need to hear voices from the clouds to believe God is at work.

Tomorrow: Part III: First Things Last

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Life in the Spirit, Part I: Emotionalism?

The Charismatic Renewal is often accused of emotionalism. This is an interesting claim. It is frequently true in practice, but masks a far more interesting understanding of the human person and of the work of the Holy Spirit found in proper charismatic life. Moreover, in addressing the question of emotionalism, I discovered that a lot of other important issues are addressed as well.

By way of introduction, it is worth pointing out that the Catholic Church has endorsed the Charismatic Renewal, particularly in the form of the Catholic Fraternity of Charismatic Covenant Communities and Fellowships. So if one accepts the Church's authority - and I realize not all do - then the question is not whether charismatic spirituality is legitimate, but how or why.

In the first instance, I think it important to remember the integrity of the human person. Loosely following Plato's tripartite division of the soul, we might describe ourselves as physical, emotional and intellectual. Since God made all three, He has declared them all good. Thus, use of reason is of God, and a good thing. (More on that below.) Only slightly less obviously, the body is a good thing and should be used for good purposes. One can take this in a Theology of the Body direction, but even more prosaically, one can look at something like liturgical gestures. Unlike the Gnostics, who contended that the body was at best irrelevant and at worst evil, we respect the body and the physical things we do with it. Thus, it matters if you stand or sit. Waving our hands about in the sign of the cross is meaningful, even good. Through our physical actions we can glorify God. Thus, it should come as little surprise that people may experience a physical response to the presence of the Holy Spirit: tears, laughter, speaking in strange languages.

And here it is worth a brief digression to clarify a point. C. S. Lewis, hardly a tongues-speaking charismatic - so far as I can tell - wrote an interesting little essay titled "Transposition". In it he makes the argument that there are more interior states or experiences than there are physical sensations for them. Thus, your stomach may leap when you hear bad news or when you hear a brilliant musical crescendo, but even if the two feel the same, they are manifestations of different things. (The same might be said for tears of sorrow and tears of joy.) Following this line, Lewis says that we should not be scandalized if speaking in tongues sounds like the kind of gibberish that results from mass psychology and hysteria. They may in fact sound exactly alike. That need not mean they are the same things (even if some people claiming to exhibit the one are actually suffering from the other). But more on tongues to follow...

Returning to the tripartite division of the soul. If God can work through and be glorified in the intellectual and the physical, so too in the emotional. This is not to say that one should give himself totally over to his emotions. But it should come as little surprise that the Holy Spirit might operate at times through our emotions. On a related note: if we sometimes utilize intellectual arguments to convince people of the truth, and we sometimes create beautiful works of physical art to attract them to it, is it so wrong to utilize the emotions to draw people to the truth? As Plato notes, the emotions should not run rampant on their own but should be harnessed to a higher purpose. But if that higher purpose is rightly understood, is a little mood lighting and music to place worshipers in a proper emotional disposition impermissible?

If, then, we conclude that the inclusion of the emotions in one's spirituality is plausible, even desirable, one might ask more specifically about receiving a "word" of insight from the Holy Spirit. Is this anything more than listening to one's own emotions? Here we can note several things: Prophesy happens in Scripture, both for revelation of doctrine (now closed with the perfect revelation of Christ) and for specific exhortations and admonitions for specific people. In some instances we see the prophet actually hearing a message, but as often as not, "the word of the Lord came unto..." How that word came is left ambiguous. But if one receives a word from the Holy Spirit, how do we know that is what it is?

We shall take up that question tomorrow.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Meritocracy & Losers

Some time ago now, I posted here a quotation from Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, in which Tocqueville points out the mental strain common in an egalitarian, meritocratic society like America. The reason for the mental strain, according to Tocqueville, is "the constant strife between the desires inspired by equality and the means it supplies to satisfy them." In other words, equality makes the average person in society think that the only limitation on what he can achieve is his own ambition. When this person eventually realizes that he simply cannot achieve everything he might desire, he will most likely scale back his ambitions somewhat, but will secretly still end up frustrated because he has not come out on top. High expectations inevitably get dashed--and disillusionment and depression result. This was the mental strain of which Tocqueville spoke.

Here's a much pithier way to express all this:
Frustration is the distinctive psychological characteristic of democratic society. Where all may legitimately aspire to the summit, the entire pyramid is an accumulation of frustrated individuals.
(Nicolás Gómez Dávila, Escolios a un texto implícito: Selección, p. 196)
For Tocqueville--and I would agree with him--the representative American believes in the virtue of ambition and meritocracy. Indeed, from an early age we are all taught to believe in our dreams in school, to pursue our ambitions. Moreover, we are taught to be proud of everything we achieve. If we reach the top, it is because of our merit.

But what about all those people without ambition? Are they just a bunch of losers? And, what about all those who simply have a hard time with life? There are a lot of them out there, perhaps more than we would like to admit. Are they just a bunch of losers too? Christian charity, I believe, dictates that we answer with a resounding "No."

We have to approach these questions on two levels. First, there is no doubt that we must start on the individual level. Every individual must realize that he does not have to live the rat race, and then make a deliberate choice to live out this insight. Nobody else can make that decision for him.

Second, even though the individual must make the decision himself, he probably cannot persevere all by himself. It is a conceit to imagine that the individual must become some kind of superman and achieve virtue all on his own. It's a Pelagian, perhaps even Promethean, view of virtue. In other words, individuals are generally weak by themselves, and therefore need the support of society at large in their pursuit of virtue and happiness.

But, is there any way to solve this problem? The only societal solution to this problem might be to do away with meritocracy, and the egalitarian ideology propping up the meritocracy.
In societies where everybody believes they are equal, the inevitable superiority of a few makes the rest feel like failures. Inversely, in societies where inequality is the norm, each person settles into his own distinct place, without feeling the urge to compare himself with other, nor even conceiving the possibility. Only a hierarchical structure is compassionate towards the mediocre and the meek.
(Ibid., p. 138)
The mediocre and the meek are the losers of today. They are the "least of these" whom Christ teaches us to care for.

So, here's my question: Is advocating a radical meritocracy just one way of saying that we really shouldn't have to care about others less talented and weaker in faith than ourselves?

I'm not sure exactly where I come out on this question. However, I would like to end by suggesting that any adequate answer to this question has to acknowledge two principles that are in tension with each other. On the one hand, somebody has to govern society, and it is not necessarily a bad idea to let the talented rise to the top. That's the meritocratic approach. On the other hand, it also seems likely that the meritocratic approach induces those few who do rise to the top to become excessively proud of their own accomplishments, and to neglect the mediocre and the meek. What do we do?

Note: Some of the language about it being a "conceit" to imagine we can be virtuous on our own I found on the Internet recently, but I can't remember where now. Somebody else deserves credit, but I don't know who.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Fear of the Abnormal

I recently saw this little promo clip for a new show on ABC, FlashForward:

What struck me is just how frightening the clip is. Or, rather, how frightening it is considering the contents.

The premise, quite honestly, is hokey. Everyone on the planet falls down, unconscious, at the same time. They're all out for 2 minutes 17 seconds. The settings of the clip are not particularly striking: a gal at a computer, surveillance camera footage of people doing ordinary things, like attending a baseball game. Even our villain - if he is indeed such - is not particularly interesting; he's a nondescript man in a coat. Big deal. We've all seen those before.

But juxtapose all these together and the result is fairly unnerving. Who is this man? Why is he walking about? Did he have a hand in this world-wide phenomenon? What makes him different? There is something profoundly sinister about this man whose only real crime is being different. (Ok, the creepy music helps too.)

Is there something in human nature that makes us fear difference? Some people would say there is. They would point to racism, for example, as proof that we instinctively fear those who are not like us. There may be something to that, but let me offer a second explanation: we fear the unknown. There are, of course, lots of things we do not know. But most of our unknowns fit well within our everyday parameters. Who is that man in the car next to me? I don't know, but I probably don't care either. He seems to follow basic traffic laws, thus endangering me in no way. Moreover, I'll wager that he's from our town, or visiting from a neighboring town. One way or another, he probably fits in a category I know.

But what the creators of FlashForward have done is create a situation we do not know, a situation where nothing can be taken for granted. Here every unknown becomes sinister, threatening. There are no categories for thinking about this sort of thing. And that puts a wrench in everything...

PS Did anyone else think of Dark City when they first saw this?

PPS Since watching this clip and writing the above comments, I've taken to watching the first few episodes on Hulu. I'm rather enjoying them. There's the usual FBI investigative drama, but with a strong dose of the abnormal (supernatural? We're not sure). And since the "blackout" covered the whole planet, the show's creators have plenty of material with which to work, something they generally do to good effect. Thus far, at least, they've managed to play out the mystery at a decent pace, always providing more clues and new twists, without giving away too much too quickly. And the situation raises a number of questions about fate and faith in the lives of our characters, questions which are usually treated with a degree of seriousness and intelligence typically lacking in television (but without being over the top).