Wait for it?

So my brother and I fell into an interesting conversation this morning as we were commuting into the city of Pittsburgh. The song “Wait for It” from Hamilton came on his Itunes shuffle and my brother asked me, seeing as were both young adult professionals at the start of our respective careers, whether it’s better to be more like the relentlessly ambitious Alexander Hamilton who seizes every opportunity or more like the soloist of the song, the character Aaron Burr, who wonders “if there is a reason [he’s] still alive when so many have died” and is willing to wait to find out what that reason might be.

The answer to that question is tricky.

It’s tricky because it hinges on what you believe to be truth. As a Christian, I believe not only that God “formed my inmost being… [and] knit me in my mother’s womb.” (Psalm 139: 13-14) but also that when He made me He had a specific and eternal plan for my existence that He reveals to me little by little in time and will be revealed in full in Heaven.

It can be hard to cling to that truth in what Fr. Michael Gaitley aptly calls the “darkness of the ordinary” or those days that feel so average they seem insignificant as you go to and from work, interact with your family, run errands etc. Nevertheless, in spite of the easy temptations to doubt that spring up in the midst of ordinary living, I still believe in God’s plan for my life and for yours.    

So, with this truth in mind, I see no problem in waiting to discover what you were born for but it does beg the question what does that look like for the every day?

Our more worldly counterparts usually chime in that this view is the enemy to “progress” and that the only catalyst to change is ACTION, championing causes, writing the congressman, running 5ks, getting lots of followers on social media, etc. The might throw a lot of secular quotes in your face from successful (read: wealthy) people encouraging you to become more like them.

However, I have always had a problem with the “utopia now” set because even if they achieved every social and political cause they took upon themselves to champion, even if the world was overrun with the wealthy, science-minded, culturally-elite, atheistic, innovative collaborators public schools seem to be aimed at creating, even if poverty was eliminated, wars ended, and perfect knowledge achieved still everyone in this dreamy existence would cease to exist. Every single person in utopia would eventually die simply because no one lives forever.

So all these attempts at creating heaven on earth rather than pursuing eternal life in heaven to me seem short-sighted at best. The Hamiltonian idea that greatness consists only in great actions that result in an impressive earthly legacy is one which I reject. I’ve never thought that Alexander Hamilton or George Washington gain any eternal happiness by knowing that they are featured in many statues, town names, and American currency and (as much as I admittedly studied a lot of history and really like George Washington). I believe that as time passes even they will fade into obscurity like the Roman emperors of old who sat on the thrones of empires and were likened to Gods but who myself or the majority of people living today probably couldn’t name.

Living with an eternal perspective lends not only a patience and calm to thinks that might seem otherwise devastating but as a Christian my hope stems from not just a vague idea of paradise or idealistic reflections of justice, but a firm belief that a life of union with God will satisfy my every desire for justice, peace, happiness, love, and mercy. It takes the anxiety, the “now or never,” out of the equation because I do believe I will see this in my lifetime it’s just that I don’t confine that lifetime to include only my temporal life on earth. So until that day, I found my ultimate answer to my brother’s question is that I too am willing to wait for it.

 

 

Hamilton

So a few months ago I made the mistake of taking my brother’s advice and listening to the soundtrack for Hamilton, a broadway show about the life of Alexander Hamilton in case there’s anyone left on this earth that hasn’t heard of it by now.

It’s extremely catchy and I’ve had it stuck in my head ever since. I was listening to it at work so I’ve absorbed more of the tunes than the plot points, but as someone who’s all too nerdy and loves musicals I really should have known this would happen and forfeit the opportunity to complain any further.

That said, I saw an interesting piece of news back in November regarding the Hamilton “controversy” with Vice President-elect Mike Pence attending a Broadway performance, getting booed and being told by one of the actors to remember minorities when he heads to Washington.

In the days that followed the news was all over it, Trump was tweeting, there were #boycottHamilton hastags everywhere. Yet all I could think of is how I live in an age of manufactured drama. It was really not a newsworthy issue but it was written of repetitively, commented on endlessly, used as an example of the deep divides plaguing this country and no one wanted to be left out of the know so that they could provide an opinion when called upon.

The haste and sensationalism of the 24-hour news cycle combined with the interconnectivity to news sites and social media from Smartphones (which go everywhere with you) has done an interesting thing to our society, it has blurred the line between news and gossip and created a colossal venue to manufacture meaningless drama as it churns crisis after crisis.  It turns molehills into mountains, it favors speed over accuracy, and perhaps most importantly it decides what gets talked about and what does not.

I point this out not to discuss the trend, which you have more than likely noticed, I point it out to discuss the far more interesting question that I got to wondering about this morning as I stumbled across yet another Hamilton article which is: why?

Why manufacture drama?

Well for one because it’s intensely profitable and people buy it. But why is it so especially lucrative in the United States? The answer that strikes me as closest to the truth is the decline of organized religion and I’m happy to make my case because I’m sure there are many of you who think that’s a serious stretch.

There are many secular “peace” lovers in this world who critique religion because in their minds it leads to nothing but violence and vehement disagreements between people of different religions. However, there is a huge gap in worldview between those who are purely secular and those who are religious that goes even beyond their belief/disbelief in God, and that is their view of the afterlife. In other words, whether or not you believe in God and the type of God you believe in shapes how you view what happens to you after you die. For example, one of the best things about being a Catholic is not my hazy belief in some vague paradise but my eager anticipation of being perfectly united with God Who is Love and this anticipation frames the way I view the world, the purpose of my existence, and plays a huge role in determining my actions (or at least how I desire to act!)

In the past different religions would differ on some of these questions (in no particular order):

  1. Who is the true God?
  2. What is the nature of the true God?
  3. What happens after death?
  4. What is the purpose of life?
  5. What should humans do with their lives/how should they act?

These questions matter and that is why disagreements on these questions were passionate because they carried with them eternal consequences. There is a lot of great theology from the eras of which I am speaking about.

The modern phenomenon is interesting because I don’t meet terribly many true atheists but I meet a lot of people who simply never ask themselves the above questions because they have been taught from an early age that the above questions don’t matter. They don’t matter either because they are explicitly told there is no afterlife or told that because nothing about the afterlife can be concretely proven using the scientific method it should not be believed in at all. It’s a clever component of the new atheism, the argument that avoids saying that God does not exist but instead purports that it does not matter whether God exists or not because the things in life that matter most are the concrete; what you can see, feel, touch, smell, and hear, what can be analyzed and proven “impartially” etc. In short, it confines existence to the purely material and since God is not purely material He is rendered inconsequential.

And while John Lennon may have dreamed of the day this would come I find I would rather die the death of a martyr to be with God than live in the prison of the material such a world creates. While you probably find that sentence more than a little dramatic (especially knowing as you do now of my penchant for musical theater) I am completely sincere. The world with no more religion is the world I was raised to live in. A world where you prepare as a child not to be a morally good person but for college in order to have a lucrative career to buy material goods, a world where your legacy and worth is tied to achievement alone rather than the inherent gift of existence granted by God, and a world especially of manufactured drama. A dull and idle existence that is rootless and tied to nothing and feels the need to create problems where there are none in order to foster the sense of purpose it lacks. A life of empty distractions, gossip and scandal, entertainment and material luxuries, lust over love, all designed to keep you from ever asking yourself the above questions or even wondering about them at all, because those questions are designed to lead you from the material to the eternal, to everlasting joy, true peace, and a love that satisfies beyond anything your material senses could ever comprehend.

And I confess that sometimes in this world of sleepy and comfortable materialism I find myself wanting to shout “wake up!” because these are the questions you were born to pursue, not the passing and idle gossip of the “news,” not the merely scientific and material. We each will only get so much time, why waste it on what does not last?

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.