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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He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands

So I spend a fair amount of time on social media partially for myself and partially to promote this blog and I follow a lot of Catholic media personalities and groups.

And while I am all for some awesome Catholic culture brimming with youth on fire with the New Evangelization, I confess I think there are some places where it looks a little too much like the mainstream culture. Shiny graphics, websites, talented speakers, large followings… This is a primarily good thing and a lot of work and talent goes into these pages, events, conferences, etc. However, it has one bad thing in common with the culture and that is that it’s hands off. While a post, a Tweet, or a link to a thought-provoking reflection could all have positive benefits, in my opinion it is missing the clincher, the thing that I really think would solidify its efforts to truly evangelize the common man: ordinary Catholic people.

I understand that the goal of evangelization is to have a broad reach but it should be more than a marketing campaign attempting to sell you an enthusiastic cultural Catholicism complete with people you can follow, pages you can like, and (most likely) a rosary of some kind. Marketing has its place, I do a lot of it at my job and in my personal life, but I’ve always viewed it with a healthy dose of skepticism when it comes to religion because it leaves you in danger of building a brand instead of a kingdom.

In fact, the most effective evangelization I’ve ever participated in was a downtown area with a large group of ordinary Catholic people of all different ages. There was some singing with basic instrumental accompaniment, some conversation, lots of laughter, and yes, some people were passing out rosaries. But there was something special that made us attractive to passersby and that was our camaraderie. Ordinary friendship infused with the love of God. And it was effective because people actually started opening up to us and wanted to be a part of what was happening.

It actually surprised me. I had braced myself for hostility and the very real possibility that we might be asked to leave because the area I was living in at the time was highly intellectual and extremely agnostic/atheistic. I honestly thought people might even protest our presence because the event was sponsored by the visiting Dominican brothers from their House of Studies in Washington D.C. and they were there in full habit. However, the longer I was there the more I realized that people are more hungry for love than they admit. Nothing fancy, not a cause, just simple, genuine love that expresses itself not in grand gestures but by listening, caring, and most of all just being there for the other person.

And I tell you what I met a lot of people that night. I invited one guy to sing with me and he actually accepted the invitation. Another guy had just lost his mother who had apparently prayed the rosary devoutly and he took one to help him with the grieving process because he had not been practicing his faith without her. It absolutely astounded me how much people wanted to share, and it struck me how few outlets there are for that in our modern world where life is so undervalued and lived in pieces instead of in full.

But before you think the night was quiet and solemn, I should confess that for our final song my sassy Dominican friend chose “He’s got the world in His Hands” and for each verse of, “He’s got _____, in His Hands”  he had us fill in the blank with a name of a person either in our group or that we had met, and eventually it extended to strangers, and then one guy called his girlfriend so we sang to his raised cell phone (I can’t imagine being on the receiving end of that call).

But those words the world throws around like “good vibes”, “togetherness”, and “peace” are a secularization of what is not secular. It is an incomplete imitation of a deeper reality that transcends the purely material world they operate in and it stems from a desire to experience what I experienced that night: a profound moment of discovering God in one’s neighbors, a recognition of their humanity that comes paradoxically because the stranger is not merely human but has the spark of the Divine. And once you catch that spark it becomes a flame and before you know it the Holy Spirit is alive in everyone present and hearts start to change as everyone remembers who they really are and where they really came from even if they can’t quite articulate it yet.

And it kills me that sometimes Christians get so overloaded with causes and movements and the stress of trying to make people cultural Christians that we forget the simplicity and power of Jesus, the One who had all the power of the world at His feet and chose to be a servant, to be there for people wherever they happened to be in life because He loved them. This happy servitude really rocks the very foundations of the world because it defies the worldly hallmarks of power, politics, domination, progress and everything that revolves around the self and instead chooses a life of love which revolves around others.

And when we saw this mystery unfold downtown that night and watched everything come together we believed like little children that He’s Got the Whole World in His hands because we saw the world transform into a playground and strangers transform into a family and the only thing that matched our awe was our joy.

And I can hardly imagine what the world would be like if this began to extend beyond my tiny downtown area. All I know is I’d very much like to see it.

 

The Imperfect Match

With several friends and a sibling graduating college this year, I’m left rather blown away by how fast the time goes. This May marks my three year anniversary of receiving my Bachelor’s degree and that sentence makes me feel even older than I actually am.

I’d actually known the college I wanted to go to since my sophomore year of high school and I was so excited when I got my acceptance letter. My decision was semi-controversial because a lot of people wondered why I didn’t attend the prestigious college nestled in the heart of my hometown and almost felt it an act of disloyalty.

The answer was because my now alma mater was a basically perfect fit for my personality as well as my academic needs. However, part of the answer was also because many of the elitist people I went to high school with would be attending the hometown college, and I was tired of having classes with them. I bear them no ill will, I just found everything they did remarkably homogenous and it exhausted me. They dressed the same, talked the same, thought the same, had the same political views, attended the same country club (literally), had the same hobbies, played the same sports, and no one was brave enough to break the mold because they were so proud of fitting into it in the first place.

And when I visited the campus, which is classically beautiful and full of southern charm, I stopped inside the bookstore and before my eyes was a giant Clinique counter like the kind that is usually reserved for the mall. And in that moment, I knew I’d made the right decision not to attend because while their academics are impressive and they take care of their own, ultimately their core values and mine do not match up. This was abundantly clear to me as I saw that giant make-up counter next to a sea of Vera Bradley everything. Because while Vera Bradley might be universal in campus bookstores, why prominently feature a giant make-up counter?

Granted, most people let these types of things go, but I’m not most people. To me it just cemented the unspoken ideals of the school, and unspoken values are just as important as the spoken values outlined by any organization because I would argue they play a greater role in determining the environment in which you will be participating. And the unspoken values of this school was the pursuit of worldly perfection. A school for the elite, not simply those who want to become that way but those who were born that way and have been bred to perpetuate it. The girls at that school would need their expensive, high-quality make-up because they are expected to play their part of the genteel lady who is educated and groomed for the ivy leagues and who never has so much as a hair out of place. Not everyone at the school fits that mold obviously but they as a university greatly prefer those who do.

And I am certain I don’t fit this mold. I was certainly not raised to, because my parents were not interested in whether or not I was a perfect and elite person who only spent time with other perfect and elite people. Their primary concern was that I should always strive to be a good person, especially good to other people no matter their circumstances. And I had no interest in stepping on the assembly line of this university so that I could walk out impressive and perfect in the sight of the world, because I was worried I would lose my center. That I would get so caught up in being the type of person they wanted I would forget who I was or worse start to believe that I truly was perfect and elite like them. It was a risk I was not willing to take. As I said, I went to high school with this type of person and in my opinion as they live in their refinement they lose the one of the finest gifts life has to offer: gratitude. Because the trap of that sort of pride is that every gift becomes an expectation, something that you grow accustomed to or feel you deserve and you lose the joy of receiving it. You become like those people who can go on a weeklong, five-star vacation and opt to make fun of the one bad meal they had rather than discuss the amazing views of the ocean they saw every day. I think that’s why Americans are so agnostic/atheistic, because when there is nothing to be thankful for it is more difficult to believe that there is someone to thank.

And with these observations in mind, I attended my alma mater and enjoyed most every day with my imperfect match.