The Problem of Guilt

This post is the promised and I’m sure impatiently awaited sequel to Spiders Don’t Eat Steak.

If you recall that particular post laid out a series of questions which I promised to address the following week:

If you’ve managed to agree with me thus far you might find yourself thinking okay so pornography might be rooted in pleasure which isn’t part of the natural order per say but which is part of the universal human experience and shouldn’t we have the right to seek pleasure at our pleasure?  Does it really do any harm to eat peanut butter m&ms and/or view pornography? Are you really so Catholic that you regard eating peanut m&ms as a sin on par with pornography, as in one that could send you to HELL? Wouldn’t you really be better off “freeing” yourself from your oppressive religion which seeks to do nothing but ruin your pleasure and leave you wracked with guilt?”

I think the best way to answer these questions is to address them one at a time because each of them highlight a peculiar problem millennials and moral relativists alike have with Christian morality, namely the “problem” of guilt.

What is the problem of guilt? It is the idea that the author of “the Stigma of Pornography” tried and failed to make as he argued that porn is natural and should not be considered a sin or disgrace. It is the notion that if we removed religion or the idea of sin then there would be no more guilt and we would have greater freedom to do as we pleased. In other words, you won’t have guilt if the law says there is nothing you are guilty of.

We can examine this idea in greater depth as I answer the questions posed above, below.

1) Shouldn’t we have the right to seek pleasure at our pleasure?

Seeking pleasure is a slippery slope because there are two different types of pleasures that tug at the human soul. The simplest way to differentiate between them is that there are pleasures that lead us closer to God (ancient pagan philosophies also deal with these as the “higher” pleasures) things like friendship, the pursuit of wisdom etc. Conversely, there are pleasures that lead us away from God usually marked by a degree of self-indulgence or excess. The second group is where the things that usually cause guilt can be found, sexual sins like pornography and masturbation, eating or drinking to the point of gluttony, or the sin of pride (when knowledge leads not to wisdom but to ego).

The idea that we have the right to seek our pleasure at our pleasure is difficult to argue against because regardless of where you stand in considering some of the pleasures I mentioned above as sinful, society always presents them as harmless. To go back to pornography as an example, viewing porn is always portrayed in society at large as an innocent/natural/harmless thing. No one dies in the process, no one even has to know you did it, it’s just an innocent personal pleasure. Anyone with a shred of intellect ought to be able to come to this conclusion by himself, the only thing standing in his way might be some outdated moral code. Therefore if it is considered a sin in your religion the only thing stopping you is not your own logic, feeling, or desire but only an antiquated desire not to sin. If you gave up the religion and gave up the moral code you wouldn’t violate any personal conscience of yourself or your peers and therefore it would be a sin no more.

This is the argument for moral relativism where you (not God) become the one who decides what is and isn’t a sin.

The only problem with this argument is not that it lacks logic, but that it is a destructive and dangerous temptation to abuse your free will and choice. The reason it is dangerous is because unlike animals bound to their nature who are not free to choose or be tempted and can therefore do no good or evil,  you do have free will. You will make choices in your life and those choices will have consequences. This is not an attempt to fear monger or make you view all your actions in fear and trembling under a microscope, it is a mere reality of being alive. That is why the Church attempts to foster morality and conscience in the first place. Free will is often directed by the conscience which brings us to the next question.

2)  a. Does it really do any harm to eat peanut butter m&ms and/or view pornography?

b. Are you really so Catholic that you regard eating peanut m&ms as a sin on par with pornography, as in one that could send you to HELL?

Guilt, increasingly unpopular in a largely relativistic society like ours dedicated to the pursuit of wealth and pleasure, is triggered by a violation of conscience. I’ve always believed conscience is something that everyone has to a degree, but which also has to be formed through nurturing instruction. To illustrate the point better, St. Francis felt called to live in total poverty and it was so engrained in his spirituality that to him living in a mansion would feel like a great sin, one that his conscience would convict him for. Living in a mansion is not a sin expressly prohibited in the Bible and there are those who would not consider it a sin at all, but the Bible does warn repeatedly against having a strong attachment to worldly riches. This is an example of an area where your conscience would literally be your guide.

While some may devalue the importance of developing a conscience, seeing it as a hindrance to their own “fun” and freedom I would point again to the overly simplistic view of nature found in modern times. If my nature is all good then maybe I could argue that I could be trusted to go my own way and set my own rules, but this is pride and pride is deadly to the soul because it blinds to faults. It is the nature of humanity to love what is good and despise what is bad, on a moral or purely agnostic and materialistic scale, and this pride where I insist on loving what is good in me while turning a blind eye to what is bad in me is a deceptive and ultimately very sad way to live because it will keep me from truly experiencing the unconditional love and eternal mercy of God, who is able to love me in the depths of my weakness in a way humans cannot, all because I would not humble myself for long enough to admit I need that.

As to whether it does harm to eat peanut butter m&m’s in healthy moderation it wouldn’t and my conscience does not convict me as being in danger of gluttony when I do. The guilt I feel when I eat a peanut butter m&ms comes not from my knowledge of good and evil but my knowledge of nutrition where I know that eating peanut butter M&Ms is bad for me but do it anyway and feel bad for choosing the lesser good. The rationalization of the bad choice was the reason I made the connection to viewing pornography because rationalization of bad behavior is universal. So no I don’t believe I would go to hell for eating a peanut butter M&M, sorry to break the dominant Christian stereotype, because it breaks no moral law or commandment in the instance I described, and also when it comes to getting into heaven I am going to rely not on my own merits but on the mercy of God (but that’s literally a separate article.)

4) Wouldn’t you really be better off “freeing” yourself from your oppressive religion which seeks to do nothing but ruin your pleasure and leave you wracked with guilt?

Many people view morality with an incomplete knowledge of its purpose. They denounce it as a set of hard rules that places unfair and/or unnecessary limits on a person (hence the “oppression”). I blame part of this incomplete picture on the fact that most people live only for the world without any thought to an afterlife and see heaven as something everyone sort of gets (if anything even happens at all after we die) and fail to see that the laws handed down through Christian moral code are not a mere checklist but the path to learning how to give and receive love through a new life in Christ (who is the fulfillment of the law).

I admit that as I’ve grown in my relationship with God things that did not use to bother me (like talking bad about someone when they get on my nerves) bother me now because the closer I’ve come to love itself the more I realize how often I sin against perfect love. Sort of like St. Francis in the poverty example, when it comes to God’s commandment to love my neighbor my conscience is really influenced by mercy and convicts me when I have not been merciful in a way that yours might not.

The world might tell me I’m fine, tell me I should not feel guilty over things so small. But “Catholic guilt” is different because it is not at all akin to the condemnation of the world where my self-worth and reputation are on the line. God already knows me perfectly and loves me not in spite of my sin and shortcomings but in them and through them. It is the experience of this perfect love which is true charity that deepens my knowledge of love and keeps me living by God’s commandments, not as something I have to do to “earn” or “deserve” God’s love but which my whole soul and intellect tell me I ought to do because the deepest desire of my being is both to be loved and to love others. I would argue the mysterious nature of love is that there is always a lover and a beloved, you can’t only be one of those things. Being loved makes me want to share this love and loving is satisfying in its own way that is hard to explain but which also takes strength, a strength that would be impossible to attain without being first loved by God.

More to the point pursuing your own pleasure, the temptation to be your own God with your own rules, will keep you from attaining that very desire, which I believe is in every human heart, to live a life of giving and receiving love. Many people purport that the idea of pleasure is harmless so long as no harm is done to others. But this ultimately ignores the harm you do to yourself when you seek to satiate your desire for eternal things with things that are temporal, when your reason becomes tainted by selfishness (the antithesis of love), and when you discover the paradox that while seeking to become your own master your desires have instead mastered you.

Many a person I have spoken to tells me they feel they are “not good enough” to be religious or that they don’t like feeling judged/guilty all the time, and often that it gets in the way of some component of their lifestyle that they are not ready to give up. But the solution to guilt is not to seek to eliminate your conscience or to be comforted by the approval of others which is the lie of relativism. You cannot repent if you believe you have done nothing worthy of repentance, and to truly repent is to experience the mercy of God, not to hate and judge yourself. However, I do sympathize with the attitude because the temptation when one feels guilty or judged is often to despair of ever being able to be the person you want to be, one that is worthy of love, and this I understand completely. Yet this is the temptation that should not be appeased but fought with everything you have. This is the ultimate lie that moral relativism seeks to bandage with another lie, but sadly two lies do not make a truth.

The truth I believe, the truth of the love behind Christian gospel and the ten commandments, is that God loves you as you are. And while there is temptation to justify yourself know that you don’t have to because God already knows you and I believe that His heart is so loving that if you sincerely asked Him to forgive you and to give you the love and the strength to be a little bit better than you were the day before He would do so without hesitation. It is this humility that is the path to love the kind of love that satisfies and the kind of love I would wish for every human being and every soul.

And that is why relativism and the cult of guilt-free living drive me crazy because they invite you to find happiness, love, and fulfillment on your own terms and outside of God and this simply can’t be done. It tempts you to pick up your pride in “liberation” and walk away from the humility that opens the door to a life of giving and receiving love, and I would implore you to avoid the tragedy of where that path leads because it is never too late to turn around and come back. Heaven is your true home and perfect love is your true inheritance not because you deserve it but because God is love and this is His faithful promise to His children. It is your eternal destiny that no sin and no one can take away from you unless you yourself reject it. So practice receiving and giving love here in time that you may receive and give love forever. This is my fervent prayer for you.

 

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Under Construction

So in my job for the past month or so I’ve had to interact with a utility company whose customer service probably made it into the rough draft of Dante’s Inferno. Anyway, I’ve had quite a time working with this company to make a certain structural repair and I was more than a little annoyed by the end of everything with the fairly polite but completely ineffective service calls I spent hours of my life making.

So when I got a report that a similar repair needed to be done at a different property you can bet I whined internally at even the thought of starting the whole song and dance all over again. However, this time I placed one call to request a repair and my call was returned (a first) by the manager who was extremely polite and gave me both a repair time estimate and his contact information (another first). He was one of those good old fashioned guys who takes pride in his work and does his best to keep the promises he makes to his customers.

Afterward, I found myself having a moment of genuine appreciation, but also one of genuine humility, because earlier in the day I had completely roasted that company to a coworker in a way that was scathingly hilarious and at the time felt completely justifiable. Yet I never like when I go down that path because such an unsavory talent makes it socially allowable to say extremely mean things without qualifying yourself as a mean person because you veiled it in humor.

I mean I suppose it’s one thing to vent, I think few are truly literal when they are speaking in the heat of the moment, and it is also true that venting invites exaggeration by it’s very nature. But this is a slippery slope for me because I don’t want to fall back into saying things that are sharp and rather merciless and get away with it because it was funny and full of the snark that the world loves so much. Because in my experience when the world loves something that they know is wrong or mean they start to rationalize the behavior to make it acceptable.

As comforting as it can be to hear these lies, the truth is I always feel bad when I speak candidly without thinking and I always regret when I allow myself to be judgmental because I am annoyed at the person or corporation in question. It may be a very human flaw, but I never want to hide behind my human weaknesses by softening them as something justifiable or twisting them so I can remain in a virtuous light.

I’m Catholic which means I prefer facing my many, many weaknesses head on with the patient faith that God will help me overcome them and the joy that I am loved tremendously in spite of them.

And that merciful love is certainly what keeps me going because this process takes a while and I know I’ve still got a long way to go…

 

Unorthodox Orthodoxy

As many of you know, several of my best posts are based on my responses to things people say to me, either in person or in some online forum. This is one such instance.

As usual, it began innocently enough with a woman commenting that many people who use the Catholic handle (like this blog for example) do not deserve the title because they are not truly worthy of all the title entails. The definition of orthodox, just to put us all on the same page, is: “conforming to what is generally or traditionally accepted as right or true; established and approved.” So for Catholics this is primarily Church approved Canon and Doctrine.

I’m open to critique, because if I were perfect I’d be ready for heaven and since that day is not yet here I’m sure there’s still much room for improvement. Perhaps one such imperfection is my sass because this woman struck a particular nerve with me through her condescension and I just gave in to my urge to say something. It just really bothers me when people tell others they are not worthy of something because it subtly implies that they are worthy of it (or at least in their “humble” efforts to be worthy they are better than those who don’t try at all/fail in their eyes). So I responded to this woman, “on the other hand many are too proud of their orthodoxy.” This woman proceeded to correct my response by replying, “orthodoxy precludes pride” which, unfortunately for her, completely proved my point (perhaps unintentionally, but still).

I honestly wish that her claim were more true. Because doctrinally, what she said is sound. Practicing Catholics do accept an orthodoxy that rejects pride in all forms, but I have met so many who practice orthodoxy, it seems, not for the love of God but for the love of men, for status in their Catholic and/or intellectual circles.  And this is a tragedy.

Because I’ve met two types of orthodox people in my day. The first kind is usually the model of humility that is fostered by a deep prayer life. They would be the last to mention their holiness and there is usually no need to because it goes without saying. The second is the type that is always eager to showcase their knowledge of their faith and quick to judge others who do not meet their standards of what a good, orthodox faith entails. Call it Club Pharisee, because these people tend to move in groups and be somewhat proud of their exclusivity. 

And this is an extremely sore point  for me with my faith, not just with Catholicism but with Christians in general, and it played no small role in prompting me to write both The Religion Crisis and The Finest Thing I’ve Ever Known. Because true Christianity, true orthodoxy, is not an exclusive club, it is a way of life and judging others has no place in it. If you must judge anything let it be the action, not the person, because if you walked a mile in their shoes you might have done the same, if not more. The grace of God to walk the difficult path of heavenly perfection and keep true to orthodox doctrine is a generous gift, not an accomplishment. And when you presume to judge others based on your opinions of whether or not they are as orthodox or well informed as your own self you take credit for God’s work in you in a most abominable way. And I honestly think that if you kept this up you would lose God’s grace just as much as if you were caught in sin,  because you become, as Jesus said, a “whitewashed sepulcher” a good looking grave, because while it may seem like you uphold the law there is no love in your heart, because nothing drives out love faster than pride. I know this from experience.

And the whole point of orthodoxy for me is not to have it as a checklist that I measure my worth by. It is instead a key to figuring out how to have more of God in my soul because having God in my soul is the only thing that has ever satisfied my annoyingly restless heart. Because my God is love, perfect love. And if you manage to have perfect orthodoxy without also having love what is the point? It’s just a barren branch without any fruit on it because it’s still just you, and the point of religion is to have God in you. 

And it frustrates me when I see this in the Christian ranks. I moved to Pittsburgh from a lovable but extremely elitist town in Virginia where I saw people being seduced by this temptation everywhere. The temptation to strive for knowledge and the accolades that come from having it while forgetting that the purpose of all knowledge is to enlighten us to the truth, a truth that came to life through love Himself.

Because the truth of the gospel, the rich mysteries of the Church, were not made as a merely mental exercise, a truth to be discovered by and shared among only the worthy. The truth of the gospel was meant to be lived and shared indiscriminately due to the very nature of what it is you’re receiving. The gospel is a tremendous gift meant to give us true joy and lasting love, a life with deeper roots, higher thoughts, wider hearts, and bigger smiles because through it we encounter God in our lives, and there is nothing more we need.

And I get tired of churches looking the same as the world. The same cliques, the same judgments, the same excuses, the same buffet tables. I want churches to look different. Because saints always look different from their times and we are all called to be saints.(After all, saints are just born sinners with the audacity to declare that they will not die that way.) I’m not saying that we should abandon all doctrine and declare free love. I’m a firm believer in absolute truth which I believe is revealed through the Catholic Church and its doctrine. We don’t have to agree on that, in fact a fair amount of people who read this blog probably don’t. But in a world where everyone likes to sit comfortably and discuss what’s wrong with other people, I wish they would focus instead on doing two simple things: 1) receiving the love of God 2) sharing the love of God. Because while these things are straightforward they are not always easy. And by letting God love us, we become the change we wish to see in the world, because heaven comes alive in us and, hopefully, when others see it they remember who they are and want to have it too. 

Because a friend of mine who happened to catch my exchange with this woman told me “she (the commentator) wouldn’t like me very much” because he also uses a Catholic handle and figured that he too would not be orthodox or worthy enough. And this almost perfectly sums up how many millennials feel about the Christian religion. Just a meeting of Club Pharisee with a lot of boring doctrines that exclude people and can’t compete with the exciting modern world of today with the falsely welcoming embrace of the hazy universalism that is non-judgmental spirituality. And this is a shame because from my own study (which I admittedly wish I had more time for) I can confirm that God does not feel that way about a single one of His children. God is love and love is never about being worthy. Love is a gift, a free gift from a free choice, and Club Pharisee is a bad representation of what I believe is in God’s heart. But how would you know that if you weren’t raised in faith like me? And how would you know that if your only experiences with the Church went like that?… But try and be better than me and have patience with members of Club Pharisee, because it’s a very human fault and they’re learning as they go just as you are.

But I guess if I could change one thing it would be a counter to all the perfectionism of the world and the haughtiness of Club Pharisee. And my way of doing that would be to admit to you that I chose the Catholic handle not because this blog is about Catholicism, has millions of footnotes leading you to Catholic doctrine, or even because I’m worthy of the title. I choose this handle because I am Catholic, it is so much a part of me that it colors how I experience the world, and I am as Catholic listening to my new Pentatonix album (amazing) as I am when I’m sitting at mass (also amazing). To admit that I think the love of God is so profoundly beautiful that you can experience whether you are a champ at kneeling or whether you slouch like I do. To admit that truly following Christ is hard and that it won’t always win you friends or a big fancy house in the suburbs (no matter what Joel Osteen says) but that you can do it anyway by His grace and the people He places in your life at just the right time. To admit even that I am far from a perfect person and that often I find myself in awe of God’s patience with me as I struggle to overcome the same flaws over and over again.

But most of all to admit that, while I hope you’ve enjoyed my blog, there is only one thing I ever wanted it to be: honest. And part of that truth is that I love you tremendously, even if we’ve never met. Because I know God loves you tremendously too in both your strengths and in your weaknesses. And if you believe nothing else I ever write believe that, because reflecting on that simple truth can change your life. It certainly changed mine.

So here’s to love and humility, even if it means a slightly unorthodox orthodoxy.