The Strange A-theology of ‘Sola Ratione’

A very popular but mistaken meme in the general consciousness is that “religion” is an old belief system that spawned in the dark, ignorant dawn of history, and is now fading into extinction due to the inexorable progress of “science”. Those who have kept abreast of the march of science are leading and riding the crest of the enlightened wave we call atheism. Historically speaking of course, that position is utter bunk. As CS Lewis said back in the 1940’s, “Please do not think that one of these views was held a long time ago and that the other has gradually taken its place. Wherever there have been thinking men both views turn up.”

blackThat being said, there is no denying that in recent years, there has been an ascendency of sorts of the “New Atheists” and their arguments in the popular consciousness.

Their arguments against the existence of God seem to fall into two main categories:

  • Materialist – there is no evidence for His existence (“evidence” being understood as strictly “physical evidence” of course)
  • Evil – the existence of evil and suffering is proof for His non-existence.

They add to these a mix of pseudo-historical, anecdotal arguments about the ‘evil unleashed on the world in the name of religion’ and the ‘progress and blessedly rational benefits conveyed upon the world by secular atheists’.

There are many clever and powerful counter-arguments to these “New Atheist” stances, and one can engage in some entertaining and spirited discussions with their adherents, starting from any one of their favorite lines.   What is most ironic however is that they have no basis for their main positions, and in fact they inherently contradict each other.

If all of reality is solely comprised of visible, measurable matter, acting in pre-determined, fixed fashions, there can be no basis to speak of mere concepts like “good” or “evil”. They have no place in the materialist universe.

Neither is there any sense in discussing or arguing over the “evil done by religion” or the “good done by secularism”. Besides there being no evidence for the existence of those mere concepts (good and evil), there is no basis to speak of “will” or the choices influenced by religion / secularism. The religious people doing things, and the secularists doing other things, being mere matter themselves, were only acting in predetermined fixed fashions, and could have done nothing different.

the-first-gulp-from-the-glass-ofAt bottom, they don’t even have a basis to speak of the existence of “reason”, for sadly there is no material evidence for its existence either. As Chesterton said, “A madman is not someone who has lost his reason but someone who has lost everything but his reason”.

These are just some of the fun contradictions inherent in the atheist materialist belief system, and it is why I believe sincere atheists searching for truth don’t usually remain such for long.

Werner Heisenberg, the Father of Quantum Physics is quoted as saying “The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you”.   The documentary “A Voice from Deep Space”, an Anteroom Productions project, will explore this two-stage journey of the sincere atheist, and look at the journey “down” to the empty and dissatisfactory answers of atheism, as well as the “twitch upon the thread”, that leads to the mysterious journey toward Faith.

Advertisements

Resolutions and a roll of toilet paper

“Life is like a roll of toilet paper….. ”

Surely not words one hears from the pulpit very often, but disturbingly true.  Life IS like a roll of toilet paper; the closer you are to the end the faster it goes.  The very important difference of course, is that with a roll of toilet paper one can guess fairly accurately how much of the roll is left, whereas with life, it is a complete mystery.  This knowledge, that the Toilet_Paper-200x300quantity of time one has on this earth is absolutely finite but entirely unknown, should engender a good bit of focus as to what we give our time to.  More often than not though, it doesn’t.  There are so many things to do and get done and pursue, and so many good reasons to pursue them, its not very surprising that we often use our time like a 3 yr old boy uses a roll of toilet paper.

Every so often, toward the end of the calendar year, we attempt to fix this penchant of ours.  It begins with Thanksgiving, where we think of and give thanks for the blessings we’ve received.  This flows into Advent, the time we try to use to prepare for the coming of Christ at Christmas, but which is more frequently swallowed whole by “the Holiday Season”, and then before we know it, another year is over, and one second later another year has begun.  As the holiday season spins down, and the joy of family and friends gives way to the straightaway of life, our emotional high subsides, and our thoughts naturally turn toward more eternal things.  We’re simultaneously full of regrets for time wasted, and deep desires to “do better”, dreams about the future, and even if we’re only slightly Christian, the meaning of the Incarnation has also been stirred up in our souls to some degree.

And this is what gives rise to the annual ritual of “resolution making”.  This is, as we all know, quickly followed by the twin ritual of “resolution breaking”.  So quickly in fact that there’s good reason to believe that ALL mankind suffers from acute ADHD.  And while I am a firm believer in man’s incurable recidivism, unlike some who believe our failure rate makes resolutions meaningless, I believe it is actually important enough to be improved upon.  We don’t need to stop making resolutions; we need to make better ones, and get better at making them.

First of all, we should eliminate things unworthy of our resolve.  It’s clear we have little enough of it to spread around to begin with, so we should probably concentrate it on only the most needful.  If we still want to lower our golf handicap, read 4 books a month, and lose 20 lbs,  let’s do that, but let’s call them “goals” or “aspirations”, not resolutions.

Second, we should be specific.  Even in less serious pursuits, vagueness leads to nothing or at least nothing good, while specificity sharpens the mind, focuses the attention, and promotes accountability. “Be a better person” isn’t a resolution, or even a goal. It’s waffling.

So, what is worthy of our resolve?  It turns out, not much, at least from an eternal perspective.  In fact, “only one thing is needful”.  We need to “seek first the Kingdom of Heaven”, and we need to seek God while He might be found, i.e. the time I have.  That implies not only a radical reprioritization, but a singularity of focus that is far beyond what I currently exert.

But how to be specific about this pursuit?  Obviously, I wouldn’t dare presume to be specific about what other people should do in their quest for Heaven.  Nor do I think it possible to guess, even in my own case, precisely what the Holy Spirit might ask of me in the language of circumstances and opportunities, from moment to moment.   But I do think we can get a decent idea of what the specifics will look like in general. First though, we should remember what precisely it is that we’re “seeking”.  Strictly speaking, the Kingdom of Heaven is something we can’t attain, not on our own.  So what I need in order to find what I seek is nothing short of a miracle,  a miracle of grace to make good an infinite insufficiency in me.

But how do miracles occur, how can we possibly hope to draw them down?  How do ordinary people participate in miracles, other than receiving them?  The picture we get from the gospels is both comforting and terrifying, as you’d expect.  The actions taken by those who participate in Christ’s miracles are very ordinary, very small, very simple.  But they are radically faith-filled.  Professional fishermen, casting their nets again after a day of failure, on the advice of a carpenter … Waiters filling stone jars with water, and then bringing a glass of it to the head sommelier to taste …. A boy giving some Rabbi’s disciples his entire lunch….  All simple, every day acts, but costing in a personal sense, “not less than everything”.  The widow’s mite is a tiny sum of money, but it is the last of her money.  The merchant who found the pearl of great price, “sold ALL that he had” to possess it.  So it seems clear that whatever specific acts I will be called upon to perform in order to find what I seek, will be well within my powers to complete, but far beyond my comfort zone.

If I’m honest with myself, more often that not I act like a merchant who has found the pearl of great price, but is trying to put it on layaway.  Time is short; there is only one thing that is needful; and I need to resolve to get after it, ready to do the simple, radical things, required to partake in the miracle I seek.  And that’s plenty for my New Year’s resolutions.

Well, that and get down to a 5 handicap.

“A eulogy to die for”

In honor of Mama’s 5th ‘Birthday into Eternity’, I am posting below the eulogy I wrote for her on the occasion of her passing.

Eulogy for Marjorie Barrett Garvey
November 5th, 2009

First of all, thank you all for coming. It is a source of great comfort and consolation for me and my family to know that our mother and her family were, and are, so well loved.

When I was faced with eulogizing my father, I found myself unable to do so without referring often to his wife and their union. It was really the only way to adequately capture 10363800_643203462434042_8867859438862235919_nwho the man was. Now, I am faced with having to eulogize “the muse herself”, who let me know in no uncertain terms, that she had high expectations for her own tribute. Shortly after my father passed my mother told me, “Oh Sean, that was a eulogy to die for”. And I must admit, to eulogize a woman such as my mother at all adequately is a daunting task.

On the surface my mother was simple; the archtype of a nice, little old granny; small (5’3” on her tippy toes), sweet, (always a kind word) and prayerful. However, those that got to know my mother even a little soon learned she was much more complex; the dead-on mimic, the stinging wit, the steal- trap memory, the unwavering desire for perfection in all things (grammar, clean hands, dry lettuce, etc..). I learned during my time of privilege (when mama lived with me over the last 5 years) that beneath that first layer of complexity, she was even more complex, indeed a bundle of paradoxes. However, it is precisely these paradoxes that I believe made my mother who she was, both fascinating and admirable in the truest senses of the words.

On the one hand, my mother was a notorious pack-rat. In the course of her life, she was almost single-handedly able to fill three homes with extremely precious clutter. She clung to plastic rosaries and dime-store bracelets that she’d received from dear ones as if they were third class relics. In a strange way, “things” meant a great deal to my mother; to her they represented people and the honor they were due, and the prayers they needed. And yet at the same time she was detached from possessions, fame and money to an almost radical degree.

Throughout her life, my mother was painfully fastidious about health, cleanliness, perfect pitch and proper grammar, amongst a few other things. Wonderfully gifted in many ways, she undertook everything in her life with the full expectation of achieving perfection. The number of vitamins and health supplements she consumed daily (and made her reluctant children consume) defied counting. Her dependence on Grapefruit Seed Extract and Bounty Select-a- size paper towels (not to mention Viva brand paper towels, recommended by her dear friend Helen Kelly) bordered on the legendary. To describe her voice as heavenly would be no exaggeration in my humble opinion, and to her dying day she carried a pitch fork in her walker, with which she would hit herself on the noggin at random intervals to see how on pitch she was (by the way, she was never more off than a quarter tone). Her penmanship looked like calligraphers typeface, and her editor’s pen showed very little mercy for needless adjectives or run on sentences (one can only imagine what she must be thinking about this eulogy so far). And yet, the inevitable mistakes in her letters and notes were not thrown away in disgust as you’d think they might have been, but turned into decorative flowers and characters, lovingly hand-drawn and more often than not the only evidence that the impeccably worded and written note had not come from a computer. That forgiveness, that patience, extended from the perfectionist to herself, was infinitely more generously extended to the rest of us who were less gifted.

My mother was also well known for her kindness. She was a gift-giver in the classic mold, and mainly in bulk. 80-count pen packs from BJs, and a dozen statutes of the Transfigured Christ were the norm. She had an amazing way of becoming intimate with relative strangers, and in a very short time; the staff at a local Starbuck’s, the managers and staff of her many favorite restaurants, to say nothing of the friends and loved ones of her children. And yet, just beneath the surface there was an adamant will, fiercely protective of truth and justice, a fearless witness to the Truth and His folly, and a rapier wit and sharp tongue that could slice you in two with half as many words, should you end up for a moment, on her ‘bad side’.

Strange as it seems, this ‘cutey granny’ had enemies, some very real, some imagined. Her keen sense of justice coupled with her long memory, made it almost impossible for her to let something go. But at the same time, her OCD and understanding of what was required of her by Christ, to pray for and love her enemies no matter what her sentiments, ended up giving her enemies the benefit of her constant prayers long after a ‘normal’ person would have moved on. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that Mama had an inordinate amount to do with the recent canonization of a certain saint.

Which brings me to the most striking paradox in my mother’s life; her faith. Of course, she was well known as a very devout woman, in almost constant prayer, and a person who, more than most, took advantage of the invitation to invoke the saints, indeed “. . . all the saints, on whose constant intercession we rely for help.” Suffice it to say mama took the words “constant” and “help” to a completely new level. Whether it was misplaced homeopathic remedies,431845_457870664300657_1942239243_n left hand turns, vague concerns, being on time to Mass or the availability of parking spaces, all of the saints were constantly on call. Street corners where children had bumped their heads became shrines, Marian shrines were home, and her entire life was a pilgrimage. Always willing to believe in extraordinary miracles, mama never lost sight of the fact that life itself was a miracle, and that the main two-fold miracle that shaped her daily life was, as she was known to say “we are created, and we are redeemed”. Looking at her childhood and upbringing though, it is almost impossible to see where she herself got this faith, that she lived so completely, and passed on so successfully.

Mama was aware of these paradoxes in herself, and knew that, as she said, ‘they weren’t deliberate, they were just dumb’. She was always willing to laugh at them and herself. But most importantly she knew that, although they were hers to work on, they were God’s to resolve. And as she came to the end of her life, she repeatedly gave them over to Christ as the only raw material she had to offer, with a simple but constant, “Yes Jesus”.

There was one thing in mama’s life where there was no paradox, where there was only an absolute singularity of purpose, and that was getting herself, her spouse, her children, her grandchildren, indeed everyone she came into contact with, to heaven.

I mentioned when my father died, that my parents understood themselves to be artists working in close collaboration with the Artist, and that in his death, that Great Artist’s hand was recognizable. I believe the same to be true in my mother’s case.

She too died a death to be envied; fully in possession of her mental faculties, at home, surrounded by family with her eldest daughter, close to the Sacraments and in prayer. She died the death she and we all, pray for.

And at the end, as I heard that my mother, the great soprano, became too short of breath to respond to the Hail Mary, I couldn’t help but hear the swelling descant that the Great Artist had made of her life, not out of her strength, but out of her weakness.

My Pop, Tom Bombadil

My pop passed on nine years ago today, and his “birthday into eternity” as I like to call it, has become for me an annual time of reflection upon him and his life, as well as an examination of me and my life.

What I’ve come to find, if you won’t think it irreverent, is that reflecting on a deceased parent is very much like the development of doctrine.  He doesn’t change, and my insights into who he was and how he impacted my life (first considered immediately after his death for his eulogy)  don’t either, but I do gain new and richer insights into who he was and how that has shaped me.  In a sense, in eternity my father has become a much more complex and multi-faceted person to me than he ever was in life.

Today’s morning prayer, and the readings at Mass, seemed to be custom made for Pop’s mini-feastday. Almost every hymn, reflection and reading brought to mind one of Pop’s most distinguishing characteristics; his almost preternatural detachment from worldly concerns.  Pop lived his life very much like Tom Bombadil, the strangest character in Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’; the concerns of this life just didn’t seem10371957_643202555767466_6050522735380294611_n to effect him the way they do other people.  Any money that did, by some strange accident, find its way into his hands was held up to the light and chuckled at, tossed around in a cavalier manner, and then made to disappear (to the great consternation of any on-lookers), much like Tom did with the Ring. He was like Tom in other respects as well (his legendary devotion to his bride, his delight in non-sensical lyrics and silliness, his constant expression through song), but this Bombadil-esque quality of being “exempt” from worldliness was what jumped out at me today.

The hymn began with a first verse, “O God of mercy, by whose hand your people still are fed; Who through this weary pilgrimage have all our fathers led”.  The psalm reflection was from the gospel of Mark, “Jesus instructed his disciples to take nothing for the journey but a walking stick – no food, no sack, no money in their belts.”  The responsorial psalm was one Pop had set to music, “Sing joyfully to the Lord all you lands; serve the Lord with gladness, come before him with joyful song.”  And of course, the gospel was the parable of the rich man with the bountiful harvest, who is caught building larger barns when his life is demanded of him; “But God said, ‘You fool. . . . the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?'”.

In this way at least, I don’t think Pop need worry about being named “fool” by the Almighty; He bought his first house via a “first-time home buyer loan” at the ripe old age of 69 (the bank didn’t believe him for a loooong time). Throughout his life, he lived in a fashion you’re not supposed to be able to afford as an unknown composer / private school teacher.  He lived most of his life and raised his family in NYC, one of the most expensive places on earth; he moved his entire family of 7 to Europe for a few years in the late 60’s without a job just . . . . because; all of his children received the finest educations money could have bought had he had any; he and Mom went on innumerable pilgrimages to France, Portugal, Yugoslavia, Ireland, and more, seemingly whenever they wanted; and when he and Mom finally left this vale of tears, they passed onto their children a library, a house in reverse mortgage and the princely sum of $5,000 (most of which went to defray funeral costs).  Not a lot of barn building going on in the Garvey household.

When Pop was still with us, he and Mom moved in with me just after his cancer diagnosis.  I was a moderately successful CEO at the time, with a young family and way too much house. I was very happy and humbled to have the chance to take care of my parents in this way, and not a little bit proud that I was in a position to do so.  One day, I returned home from yet another business trip, and Pop asked me what it was that I did for a living.  He seemed to really want to know, so instead of giving my typical brief and surfacey answer, I gave him a more detailed answer.  He asked about the company, and how large it was, and why do companies need to pay you for that, and the like.  I don’t remember exactly the words I used in my answer, but I remember the feeling of pride swelling within me as I told of all I had achieved, and was on the cusp of achieving.  I finished my explanation, and then there was a pause.  Pop10361562_643202942434094_5760831368606049774_n shook his head a little, sighed, and looking at me sidelong with a twinkle in his eye said, “Geeze . . . . I thought I’d raised you better than that.”

It was a classic “half-in-jest, all-in-earnest” Pop line; I laughed as did he, and even though I knew he was proud of me, it stung a little.  He of course, was very proud of his only son’s accomplishments, and one part of him was in awe of them, finding them completely inexplicable.  But another part of him was sage enough to deflate them, to be worried about what they might lead to.  Where might I end up putting my heart? Which master might I end up serving, God or mammon?

He died not long after that, and time has continued to flow on.  I recall that talk with Pop (and many others), and look back on his Bombadil-esque life, frequently and with great fondness.  And funnily enough, I find that indeed, he did raise me better than that.  It’s just taking me a long time to let that fruit bloom.

Happy birthday into eternity, Pop, and thank you for everything.

The incredibly hard work of relaxing . . .

“If a man saw the world upside down, with all the trees and flowers hanging head downwards as in a pool, one effect would be to emphasize the idea of dependence. . . . This sense of the great gratitude and the sublime dependence was not a phrase or even a sentiment; it is the whole point that this was the very rock of reality… That we all depend in every detail, at every instant… upon God… is not an illusion of imagination; on the contrary, it is the fundamental fact which we cover up, as with curtains, with the illusion of ordinary life… He who has seen the whole world hanging on a hair of the mercy of God has seen the truth.”

– GKC, St. Francis of Assisi

For most of my life, I’ve treated “God’s will” and “Divine Providence” and other such concepts mainly as carrots dangled in eternity, an inheritance promised, but to be attained in the future, and it was my job to fret sufficiently in this life to earn them. Christ had promised complete joy, (His “joy, so that their joy might be complete”), and “the peace that surpasses all understanding”, and I was a believer, ergo I at least intellectually believed that the gifts would be mine, provided I didn’t write myself out of His will.  But they were certainly not things I had already been given, and definitely not things I already possessed. Looking at my life, it seemed to be best described as a series of catastrophes narrowly missed, with whatever calm was enjoyed simply being a pause before the next deluge.  The things I needed to worry about were innumerable; making a living, getting ahead, the state of the country, the state of the world, the state of the Church, all the mistakes you were making and how best to correct you, being perceived as a person who mattered, being thought of well, ensuring everyone appreciated my humor as well above average, having fun (but not too much fun), etc. etc..  And that was on good days. On the “bad” days, the list increased and the required amount of worry spiked exponentially.  At bottom, what I thought was occurring, was that if I struggled and worried enough, I’d be able to get things just so, minimizing the “bad” days, and eking out some fleeting happiness on the rest.

But I’ve begun to see that that understanding is an almost perfect inversion of the truth.  The truth of the matter is that I have Christ’s joy, I have the peace that surpasses all understanding; I just squander it. I fritter it away.  Even more ironically, I worry it away, which is precisely the stupidest thing I can do.

Even the secular sciences and psuedo-sciences have discovered that worry is just about the least useful and most harmful thing a person can do.  Read any sports psychology study, and you’ll see that top athletes successfully put aside worries about technique and outcomes when performing at their best.  Read any half-decent book about success in business or career, and the constant refrain will be that worrying about outcomes paralyzes, decreasing performance in even the most rudimentary tasks involving cognitive function.  Worried about heart disease, the #1 killer in America?  Well stop immediately, because worry is the #1 cause of heart disease related deaths (read Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” for an interesting example of the correlation).

And for the believer like myself, the Gospel couldn’t be any clearer on what God thinks about anxiety, “can any one of you by worrying add even one hour to your life”; “be anxious about nothing”; “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on”; and the mysterious, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful . . . .”.  One thing.  He doesn’t mention what that “one thing” is in that particular passage, but in other places He is fairly explicit; “Abide in me”. To abide; (verb) to remain, to stay; to continue.  So let me get this straight; I am already in Christ, and all I need do is NOT leave, and STOP worrying. You’d think that would be simple.

But of course it is not.  Based on my track record, and lest I be accused of advocating quietism, let me be clear; it seems that “abiding” is backbreaking work.  How exactly does one “not worry”, especially when there’s so much to worry about?

The only way I’ve found is to constantly remind myself of, or re-orient myself to the reality of my situation:  I am awash in God’s grace at every moment. He is “in whom I live and breath and have my being”. My very existence is an on-going miracle in which I am partaking, to say nothing of my Redemption, His presence in the Blessed Sacrament, and all the other freely-given, infinitely valuable blessings that I enjoy through no merit of my own.  Just by opening my eyes this morning, I am already like Peter walking on the stormy waves toward Christ.  And like Peter, even though I am already experiencing a miracle, I can’t help but start worrying.  “Hey, I’m walking on water!  Wow.  Those are big, choppy waves that I’m already walking on.  I bet worrying about it will help!”

When put like that of course, it seems idiotic.  And it is.  But that is what I do almost everyday, and that is precisely how I fritter away the joy and peace that I should be abiding in.  There’s a hard but very true spiritual axiom that Fr. Emmerich Vogt quotes often; if something, anything, disturbs my peace, there is something wrong inside me.  That is difficult to believe, and harder to live, but isn’t that exactly what “the peace that surpasses all understanding” means?

I find that CS Lewis captures very succinctly how difficult “abiding” is, and how different it is from lazing about, when he says,

“That is why the real problem of the Christian life comes where people do not usually look for it. It comes the very moment you wake up each morning. All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind.”

That’s what it takes; seeing the world as it is, upside down.  It means, as he puts it, that I need to “submit with every fibre of [my] being”.  I like that image.  Active acceptance.  Submission as fierce exertion, to preserve the Peace I’ve been given.

My Funny Valentine

Funny “strange”.  Not funny “ha ha”.

I like to joke, in a way my father would describe as “half in jest, all in earnest”, that I live a charmed life.   When things seem to be falling apart, it’s said wryly, and I chuckle grimly.  That’s the “half in jest” part.  In those moments, when I’m most frustrated or annoyed, it’s a wonderful reminder that in comparison to the innumerable, incredible blessings in my life, my temporary discomfort is laughably miniscule.

In my better moments, I’m fearfully aware of the truly awesome gifts I’ve been showered with, and the absolute impossibility of my ever being grateful enough, let alone repay any of them.  I’m reminded of a talk I heard Dr. Thierfelder (President of Belmont Abbey College) give a while back.  He asked everyone to close their eyes, and think of the five things for which they were most grateful.  We were all silent for a Frank+Sinatra+-+My+Funny+Valentine+-+LP+RECORD-408872solid two minutes.  Then he asked, “OK.  So who had ‘cerebral cortex’ in their list?  How about ‘eyes’?”  The point being of course, that even those of us who work on gratitude, routinely walk past hundreds and thousands of jaw-dropping blessings we can’t seem to help but take for granted.  But the practice of gratitude is still worth it, however bad I may be at listing my blessings, because it reminds me of my debt, my literally infinite debt, and gives me the chance to respond as well as I can.  As Chesterton said in ‘St. Francis of Assisi, “It may seem a paradox to say that a man may be transported with joy to discover that he is in debt. . . .[but] . . the man who really knows he cannot pay his debt will be for ever paying it. He will be for ever giving back what he cannot give back, and cannot be expected to give back. He will be always throwing things away into a bottomless pit of unfathomable thanks.”

And how else can one adequately respond to his existence; to this day; health; soundness of mind; each of these in themselves are infinite and worthy of ‘bottomless unfathomable thanks’.  And that’s to say nothing of the blessings that are more visible; my livelihood, my children, my wife, my rapier wit and devilish good looks, etc..

All these gifts are from God, and in a sense I’ve gotten to be at home with my infinite debt to the Infinite Creditor.  I do all I can which isn’t very much, to remember them, remember the Giver, and to thank Him by making the best gift I can of them back to Him, a day at a time, a moment at a time.  But there’s one blessing in that list that gives me pause, makes me uneasy, scares me, and puts me in awe.  And that is my wife, my “funny” valentine.

Yes, God gave my wife to me, just as He’s given me everything I am and have.  But unique among all my other blessings, she freely made a gift of herself to me, and does so everyday. And that is a terrifying, awe inspiring, and humbling thought.   It’s a debt I don’t like to think about, that I don’t rest easy in.  Maybe because she’s here, right in front of me, frail and vulnerable.  Maybe because, unlike God, she can be hurt by a failure to respond on my part.  Maybe because any expressions of my love and gratitude for her (flowers and chocolates and a thoughtful card?) can seem silly in their insufficiency.  Maybe because more than my eyes, or health, or anything else, I feel I need her and can not imagine life without her.  And I know, that I am capable of losing her, or driving her away, or missing her all my life right next to me.

In the end, she brings home to me, in human and earthly form, the urgency I need to have, every day and in each moment, to love well, and to love fully.  Or as Chesterton put it, to discover “the great and good debt that cannot be paid. He will feel at once the desire to have done infinitely more and the futility of having done anything.”

Happy valentine’s day, honey.

How goes the war?

So, how does one fight a “culture war” exactly, and should it be “fought” at all?

I don’t think there’s any question that our culture is under attack.   For decades, forces hostile to Western, Judeo-Christian culture have been hard at work bringing about their vision; education and academia were their beachhead and remain firmly in their control; the media as well, has long been under the control of the progressives; and now the state, far from reinforcing and supporting the great cultural norms, or at worst being a neutral force, has started enforcing the hostile culture by law.

And not surprisingly, there is much talk about a “culture war”, and “fighting it” or “winning” it; an understandable and natural response.  But I’ve come to believe that language of that sort orients us to the wrong tasks, encourages us to waste time and effo200px-Omaha_Beach_wounded_soldiers,_1944-06-06rt in fruitless endeavors, and tricks us into giving up our most powerful “weapon”.

First of all, wars bring destruction.  Always.  Even just ones.  Wars are about submission, dominance, elimination of the “enemy”, conquest, and all of those things are directly contrary to the type of culture we desire to establish and promote.  Wars also cost.  They take a heavy toll, even on the victors, requiring of them their innocence, their ability to live at peace during peace time.  

Wars require enemies.  They create enemies.  War dehumanizes (even the victors), turning them from people into warriors and the enemy into “cannon fodder”.  There’s a reason why the bad guys in movies (think Star Wars and GI Joe) always have masks; it makes them much easier to slaughter by the thousands (it may also account for their deplorable aim when shooting at “good guys”).  That’s what war requires, and that isn’t available to us, nor would it help us achieve our ends.  We do not get the luxury of simplistic “good guy/bad guy” paradigms, we cannot view our “enemy” as “enemy”, and even if we do, we are commanded to love him.  

War also requires massive organization, mobilization of a huge amounts of assets and personnel, tactical maneuvers, strict discipline and almost blind obedience.  But again, that is not the nature of culture, it is an organic thing, not a machine, and to try to treat it as such is to kill it.

A war-like posture also requires an “arms race”, a kind of violent keeping-up-with-the-Joneses”.  If the enemy is controlling the media, WE need to control the media.  If they are controlling the education system, WE must control the education system.  If they have a mega-phone, WE need a bigger mega-phone!  But that is all a distraction, diverting our efforts and attentions to the wrong place.  It encourages us to forget that culture can’t be “imposed” anyway, and tempts us with small, temporary victories along the line, to forget that “unless God builds the house the builders labor in vain.”

Lastly, approaching our cultural crisis as if it is a war disarms us, or rather encourages us to put down the one “weapon” that can guarantee victory and to arm ourselves with silly tactics and false hopes, or worse, hatred and enmity and anger.  And when we do that, not only can we never win, but we’ve already lost.  In fact we’ve become a part of the very culture of death we so despise.

So, if our culture is under attack, but “war” is the wrong response, what is to be done?  Some believe we need to “engage” with the culture, and “reclaim” the culture, a slightly more civilized variation on the “war” theme.  This language, while less combative, still seems to say that if we were ever able to force NBC to broadcast “The Bells of Saint Mary’s” during primetime, we’ll have won.  Others believe we need to “defend” or “preserve” our culture, which is still “war” talk, but it’s a war of siege, and all we need is higher walls and deeper bunkers.  Some hope for a cure from politics, if we could just get the right leaders elected, “our” guy, then the culture will come right.  None of these are completely wrong, each is wrong in its own way, and each of them is partially true, but all of them ignore what culture is and where it comes from, and how it is transmitted.

If culture isn’t “fought” into existence or imposed, what is it?  Where does if come from?  Quit simply, it is built (which you’ll notice is the exact opposite activity of “war”).  It is lived into existence, by people simply lMonks-Drinking-Beer-620x320iving their lives, and all the innumerable choices that that implies are what determine the content of that culture.  And therein lies the seed of a proper and effective response.

Build your culture, don’t fight theirs.  The culture of death, of consumerism, of radical individualism, of relativism, is bankrupt and self-defeating.  We know this, that is its nature.  It depends on participation to exist and to grow, so don’t participate.  Even to fight it, is to feed it.  It will absorb our puny kicks and and punches, stealing our peace, feeding our anger, and all the while it will grow in strength.  Withdrawing our participation simultaneously renders its powerless, cuts off its energy supply and restores to us precious time to do something meaningful; living lives and building culture.

It doesn’t take grand schemes, or plots, or take-overs, or infiltration of power structures; it takes the discipline to opt out of the life-sapping circus, and the energy to create culture through the living of a full life.  But what is a “full life”?

That will be part two . . . .