Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Hypocrisy

Caller: I don't go to Mass anymore because I don't want to be surrounded by all those hypocrites
Mother Angelica: Don't worry; there's always room for one more


One of the most common charges leveled against Christians in our society is that they are hypocrites, because they do not always live up to their own standards. Now it is undeniable that such is true of Christians. That is fairly obvious and something to be regretted (as well as eliminated as much as possible). But granting that, one cannot help but wonder why that is regarded as a damning charge against Christians specifically, or if as it proved anything other than that Christians still struggle with the effects of original sin, which is fairly obvious. (There's a reason why one of the seven sacraments is that of confession, after all, which demands the humility to recognize our own sinfulness and need for continual conversion). In fact, is that even the best definition of hypocrisy, for that matter?  I wonder....

After all, the difficulty with maintaining that somebody who doesn't always live up to their own standards is thereby shown to be a hypocrite is this: that to do so implies a corollary that is, at best, paradoxical, and indeed many people would instinctively believe to be erroneous. For, by that definition of hypocrisy, then there is one way, and one way only, to avoid regarding oneself as a hypocrite (barring the uncomplimentary implication one has no standards whatsoever, which is even worse, and difficult to even realistically conceive of actually existing in a person, even were they to claim such to be the case). That way is by maintaining that one is utterly and absolutely perfect, and not "even like this tax collector." (Luke 18:11). In other words, in the latter case, the only way to avoid regarding yourself as a hypocrite is to embrace to the fullest extent what is commonly associated as the other chief feature of the Pharisees, pride, a smug self-satisfaction which is far more offensive than any human failing which other "hypocrites" may fall victim to.. And if one can only regard oneself as not being a hypocrite (hypocrisy being the most damning of charges in our society's eyes) by imitating the conduct of those most notorious hypocrites, the Pharisees, then I think such a definition of hypocrisy (or at least the level of condemnation associated with it by our society) is highly paradoxical, to say the least

Once you admit that you have flaws (assuming you have any humility whatsoever), then by the previous definition of hypocrisy, you are a hypocrite, because you fail to live up to your own standard. (The very fact that you admit to having flaws means you both have a standard whereby you can recognize them to be flaws, and that you also recognize you fail to live up to such a standard, resulting in such flaws). But if that makes you a hypocrite, then why is hypocrisy regarded as perhaps the chief sin of our society, committed by the most offensive of people,  since anyone who is not a Pharisee is a hypocrite? (though some of us are so paradoxical as to suggest that the charge of hypocrisy is better applied to the Pharisees than people who, being human, struggle to live up to their own standards, especially when the standards they set for themselves are extremely high in the first place, not wanting to simply earn cheap ribbons, so to speak.)

Or perhaps I have just answered my own question. Perhaps because our society is filled with Pharisees. And they do not even see it. They are blind to their own "hypocricy" (as they define the term when applying it to Christians).Well, Jesus did call the original Pharisees blind...I suppose some things never change. After all, Christians who are admittedly hypocrites in the sense discussed above are hardly unique in being so, to put it mildly. But many of them do, however, seem to be unique in admitting to it. At least, they are honest about their own failings, much more so than their critics. 

In short, he who is without hypocrisy in the sense discussed above, let him cast the first stone. There is indeed a sense in which the above definition of hypocrisy is legitimate, but only in the sense in which it would apply to every single one of us.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Counter-cultural or Independent

One of the things that I have a hard time comprehending is how many people wish to be "counter-cultural" as an end in and of itself. That one should be counter-cultural insofar as the culture is messed up goes without saying, of course. As a Catholic, for instance, I am in that sense very counter-cultural obviously. But in that case, my being counter-cultural is a result of the ends I am pursuing, and not an end in and of itself. I am pursuing what I believe to be the good, and as a consequence, I will be counter-cultural to a very large degree (certainly in matters of morality). But I don't start by aiming to be counter-cultural; I have a different end in view. Which brings me back to my original point. What is the point of being "counter-cultural" for its own sake?

Is it simply to be "different"? But why does one wish to be "different" for its own sake? To be honest, that strikes of a snobbish and elitist attitude. For instance, take one aspect of being counter-cultural: scorning conventions. While convention is not necessarily virtuous in itself, of course (since there are some "conventions" one should reject in any given society for independent reasons), at least convention in the abstract  has this one great merit: it is democratic. One who has respect for conventions as a general rule is, in that sense at least, not taking a snobbish attitude towards fellow human beings, making himself greater than he really is. ("Hey, look at me! I'm different from all those other common people!") Again, I am far from denying there can be legitimate reasons in which one would resist conventions, reasons that do not partake of this attitude in the least respect. If the conventions are in error in some respect, for instance. But far too often that is not the reason for scorning conventions. Or, again, to take another example, in matters of taste, if you simply naturally have an independent taste (say in music), then there is no reason to to try to artificially like something just because it's popular. If you simply happen to like something better that may not be as popular and also less well-known, then that is perfectly legitimate. But the reverse is also true, which seems to be forgotten by many. You shouldn't artificially dislike something because it's popular and trying to be "counter-cultural". Paradoxical as it may seem to some, being counter-cultural in that sense eliminates your individuality, because it eliminates your independence.

Which brings me to another problem I have with being "counter-cultural" for its own sake. To do so is to exchange independence for slavery. After all, it matters little whether your slavery is determined by forcing yourself to like something because it is popular, or forcing yourself to dislike something because it is popular. It's still slavery, because it does not allow room for independent taste (in those areas that are matters of taste, of course). To give an example from my own life, I dislike a lot of popular music today simply because I do not like it naturally. But it's not a result of my trying to be "different". And, indeed, a lot of music that I do like tends to be popular as well. (With one exception, I don't know the music of a lot of more obscure artists, for instance). That's because I'm not trying to be different for its own sake, but judging the music I listen to whether or not I like it naturally. If I like it, I like it. If I don't, I don't. Fairly simple principle. I retain my independence, and hence have my own individuality (albeit without losing my democratic sympathies) But one who aims at being counter-cultural as an end in itself does not enjoy such independence, or, to the extent they do, it is only because they are in that respect ceasing to be counter-cultural as an end in itself.

In any case, those are my thoughts I've had rambling around in my head for a while, and which I wanted to finally get written down. No doubt I didn't explain myself all that well (especially as I was in a hurry), so I might have expressed myself in an inadequate manner, but....

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Our Identity

"I think; therefore I am." So said Descartes, in a famous epigram. Perhaps a better topic to ponder, however, is *what* am I?  That is, what is my identity? It is instructive, I believe, to listen to people these days on how they identify themselves. Some do so by political labels, others by their tastes, and still others by their accomplishments. And yet, these descriptions are not, after all, the most fundamental fact about them. They are, at the best, descriptions of certain features they have, and not the substance of who they truly are. Yet the consequences of giving such undue prominence to such (relatively small) characteristics, such as happens rampantly in our society, are troubling. For not only do we miss the big picture if we fall for such a heresy (and I use that word deliberately), but it undermines the very basis for human equality. After all, in the same proportion as we define our identity primarily by details such as these, we inevitably build the foundation for inequality. That is so *precisely* because such details are where inequality undeniably flourishes. If my identity is dependent on my income, then one with a bigger income will be more valuable than I. If it is dependent on my looks, then someone with better looks becomes more important. If it is dependent on my political views, then one who disagrees with them would be fully justified (from their perspective) in depriving me of any rights I have (much less common courtesy) for my having embraced "political heresy", so to speak. When we look at the state of our society, then it becomes obvious why that, for all our talk about "equality", we display so little regard for the human dignity of large portions of our society. By identifying not only ourselves, but also others, not with the substance of who they truly are, but with their characteristics (such as, among others, those described above), the logical consequence is that we do not really believe in human equality, since it is evident we are not all equal in those respects. All our talk in favor of equality becomes a sham.

How are we then to get out of such a rut? That, I believe, comes back to the question of altering our perspective on how we answer the question of what constitues our identity. And that, I believe, is where Christianity (especially as displayed in the lives of the saints) holds the key. For from a Christian perspective, our identity is not to be identified (no pun intended) with certain aspects of our lives, but what makes us human in the first place. Christians believe in human equality because we are all of us, every single one, exactly that: *human*. And what is a human being? One who is made in the image of God. "Let us make man in our own image" is a line that becomes more and more important for us to contemplate, I believe, if we are ever to reverse the trend of our society. If we worship God as our Creator, then we will venerate His image, even if it displays flaws (including moral), because what makes the image most valuable is precisely He whose image a person is.  Or, as Chesterton remarked,  "For religion all men are equal, as all pennies are equal, because the only value in any of them is that they bear the image of the King." If we realize, truly in our hearts and not simply as a matter of words, that any human being we meet (no matter what we may dislike about them) is in fact an image of the Almighty, even if unfortunately gravely distorted, then out of love for the King, we will greatly cherish the person for that reason, if for no others. That is how, through the grace of God, saints are able to love even their enemies, including those who persecute them. They see the image of God in that person, and consequently wish the image not to be destroyed through hate, but restored through love. I speak this, by the way, as a person fully conscious as having many times failed to keep such a perspective in mind himself. While I am unaware of ever having actually hated anybody, it is also true that many times in my anger I myself have also focused too much on a person's flaws rather than the substance of who they are as the image of God. And so, in consequence, I have at times given into the temptation of not giving them the regard due to equals. Only when I remember their true identity can I get out of such an error.

In short, if anyone really wishes to work for the cause of human equality, then let him follow the example of the saints in remembering that every person he meets is an image of Almighty, and that is his true identity. Such is the only sure foundation for the recognition of human equality, and how it is that "all men are created equal."

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Humility

One virtue that is often misunderstood today is the virtue of humility. For a lot of people, they think of humility as thinking little of their own gifts and talents, as distinct from pride, which they think consists of thinking too much of one's gifts and talents. As a matter of fact, however, I do not think either of those definitions are correct. Rather, humility (in contrast to pride) consists in a sort of forgetfulness of self. It is the ultimate form of realism. To the extent that one has been blessed by God with great talents, it is not "humble"  (not to mention it is not honest) to pretend that such gifts are "nothing". Indeed, if anything, that approaches more to ungratefulness to God for His great gifts, rather than humility (speaking only from an objective standpoint, and not taking into account personal factors). To be fair, I believe that this false form of "humility", when it displays itself in many people, is not really due to ungratefulness, though, but rather from the fear of committing pride. Such people are so concerned of being guilty of the latter, that they fall into the opposite error. As such, it is an extremely pardonable error, but it is an error nonetheless. Instead of falling for the opposite error, however, they need to strive for the opposite virtue. For what does this false form of humility have in common with pride, being two sides of the same coin? They both concentrate on the self. True humility, however, consists of forgetfulness of self, insofar as it does not deny the talents that one may possess. But it focuses its attention on the source of those gifts, God, rather than on the self. The person realizes that, in and of himself, he is indeed nothing. But through the power of God,  he has been given gifts and talents. He does not deny the talents, but gives glory to their divine Author, and in the process forgets himself. While the proud person may be quite accurate in his appraisal of the value of the talents and qualities that he has, his error consists in regarding himself as the source of such things, or, in other words, he does not recognize that they are gifts. Those who are humble are under no such delusions, since they are able to seeing everything clearly through the true Light.

Friday, April 6, 2012

A Plea for Skepticism

Many people lament (while others rejoice) in this age as one of skepticism. For my part, however, I am of the opposite view. I think the world today suffers to a rather alarming extent from a lack of skepticism. It is my wish there were far more than currently exists. For one of the greatest dangers we face today is that of a widespread credulity. If, indeed, this really were an age of skepticism, there would be no cause for concern. As a Catholic, I think the Church could well bear any scrutiny such an age would bring to bear on its teaching.

The problem, however, is that too many people today (whatever other wonderful qualities they may possess) are only too ready to accept the claims they hear, and fail to test them at all so as to discover whether they do have any basis in reality. That is where the danger is especially profound. For it is precisely those who have the power and money in order to command our attention (especially in the mass media and entertainment industry) who are at the same time not particularly interested in accuracy, but rather pushing their own agenda or selling sensationalism or whatnot. Yet such are the very sources so many rely on (especially those who consider themselves “independent” thinkers and “challenging the status quo”, ironically enough) when forming their views.  Hence, the presence of so much pseudo-knowledge in the world today. It is how so many people can, say, take The Da Vinci Code seriously, or the idea that the Church is opposed to science, and so forth, in the face of all the actual evidence. They do not critically examine the “information” they take in. They are not skeptical in the least. If they were, then the Church could use such skepticism as an opportunity of defending herself from the false charges leveled against her. But due to the overwhelming credulity of the modern world, the Church faces an uphill battle.

Of course, skepticism, as with anything else, can present its own problems through misuse. But given its comparative lack today, that is not a danger we need worry about anytime soon. Instead, our necessity is to learn how to (in the words of one wise teacher)
"test everything; hold fast what is good." 

Friday, March 23, 2012

Modern Bigotry

[Warning: I should state that the following is somewhat of a "rant" admittedly, compared to what I usually write, so the tone could perhaps stand to be adjusted somewhat. Still...]

One of the most manifest marks of bigotry and narrowness in the modern world appears to me to be this: that so many people today cannot distinguish between real bigotry on the one hand and someone merely disagreeing with their viewpoint on the other. If someone disagrees with them, such people are not content with acknowledging the possibility that their opponent is mistaken (which may very well be the case). Rather, they go further and automatically accuse their opponent of "bigotry", and that solely based on the fact of such disagreement. Indeed, such people are so dogmatic (in the negative sense of that word) that they do not even realize that their own far from self-evident principles can be disputed in good faith by other intelligent people. As a result, if someone does disagree with them, they with unthinking hostility accuse their opponents of unthinking hostility. Instead of recognizing any possibility that there could be a case (even granted for the sake of argument it ultimately turns out to be erroneous) for a different viewpoint from their own, such modern bigots are so narrow as not to even conceive how someone could honestly (even if mistakenly) come to a different conclusion from their own. If someone does dispute the modern bigot's conclusion (even assuming it is right), he assumes they are themselves bigoted instead of simply in error. The modern bigot is not broadminded enough to think his opponent mistaken. This is because he holds to a type of dogma which indeed is very dangerous: an unconscious dogma. And, as Chesterton noted, an unconscious dogma is the definition of a prejudice.

This has nothing to do with the essential truth or falsity of the dogma in question. The particular dogma may in fact be true, corresponding to reality. But it is still dogmatic in the sense that it is not a self-evident truth. It is something that, even if one comes to it as the conclusion of an argument, is not something that would instantly be recognized as obvious by anyone and everyone at the start. It is not something that the mere fact that someone disputes it shows them thereby to be either a fool or a person of ill will, blinded by prejudice. Yet the modern bigot who accuses others of bigotry will treat his dogmas as self-evident truths (and that even when such supposedly "self-evident truths" have been denied by the overwhelming majority of people throughout history!). It is the narrowness of his mind that prevents him from recognizing how other intelligent people could in good faith come to different conclusions from his own.

Of course, if he simply stated that his opponents were mistaken, that would be a different matter altogether. Obviously, anyone who reaches a particular conclusion as true would thereby think that any conclusion which was in opposition to the one he reached to be false. That is not bigotry; it is the law of non-contradiction. But if he was truly "broadminded" (as so many such people claim themselves to be), he would be broad enough to understand that his opponents could still have a case. Of course, he would think them to be wrong insofar as they contradicted what he held to be the truth. He may observe errors in their arguments. But he would not instantly and unthinkingly identify such mistakes with mere bigotry, since, after all, everybody makes mistakes.

I do not deny, of course, that sometimes accusations of bigotry against others are warranted. Given the contents of this very post itself I have written, to state otherwise would be, shall we say, paradoxical. But I think it remains true that far too often accusations of bigotry today are themselves marks of bigotry. Not always, but enough to give sufficient demonstration to me that such accusations of narrowness are themselves many times only examples of projection, and thereby to be taken with a grain of salt.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Recovering Our Sight

Life. It is a beautiful experience, one that I have spent a little time over the last couple of weeks thinking about more closely, as my niece has recently had a baby. This child, a precious little girl, is at the start of a journey that will last all of eternity. She is just now starting to see the marvels of God's creation. Looking at a world, full of opportunities for exploring, which a thousand lifetimes would never be able to exhaust, she beholds a multitude of wonders. For at this stage, though she is only an infant, she has a power that most of us lose quite early in life. I refer, of course, to the power of sight. She sees (or at least will see) more of the world from her crib every day than most of us see in our widest travels. For most of us see nothing.

That almost all of us are blind, I suppose, is something that goes without saying. It is one of the most obvious things in the world. For the pedantic out there who insist that, in fact, they see quite well, I should perhaps clarify that I am not referring to physical sight, but rather a vision of things as they really are. That we are so blinded is obvious from the fact that we are so often "bored". For why should we be bored? Why must we have a thousand amusements produced by others in order to keep us occupied? We have, in fact, practically been trained to believe that if we do not have these amusements, that we are doomed to be "bored". But it is an illusion. For if we simply could *see* what is already in front of us, we have enough material for contemplation to last us for an entire lifetime. There is nothing that is not a starting point for admiring the fact of existence itself. At the least we can always be satisfied with the materials right in front of us, and use them to keep us entertained. And this is proven by the fact that little children are able to do so. Give a little child a cardboard box, and see how much enjoyment he can get out of it. Surely if he can get so much immense enjoyment out of a cardboard box, we should at the least be able to get immense enjoyment out of what we already have, no matter what situation we find ourselves in. We have no excuse for boredom. When we are bored, we are experiencing a (hopefully temporary) blindness to the marvel of life. For life is indeed a marvel, even on the natural level.

What is true on the natural level is also true on the supernatural level. Just as we have all been born into this natural life with the power of sight, and perhaps have lost it over the years, so we all have a spiritual sight when we are spiritually reborn in the sacrament of Baptism that we must be on our guard against losing. Some of us receive the sacrament of baptism when infants (just as the niece of a good friend of mine was only a couple of days ago); some of us when we are older if we are converts. But whenever we are "born again", we are granted a vision of supernatural realities that are inspiring enough to make whatever tribulations we experience in this life pale in comparison. We are granted the grace to make a journey, the end of which (if we stay on the path) is eternal Beatitude with Him who is our Supreme Good. What could be a greater goal than that? We have a supernatural family, the Saints, "so great a cloud of witnesses" (cf. Hebrews 12:1), already united with God, and always ready to intercede for us whenever we ask, as well as fellow Christians on earth who we can turn to as we make our journey. We are not left alone to attempt to discern God's will, but the Holy Spirit, operating through the Church as well as through our own hearts, guides us. God has written us a letter as well, in Holy Scripture, and its interpretation which is the heart of Tradition. We as well are able to commune with Him in prayer, going "with confidence to the throne of grace" (Hebrews 4:16). Is there a marvel in creation that can parallel that? And we can do that at any time! Finally, we are given strength through the holy sacraments, and none so tremendously as the Holy Eucharist, consecrated in the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, in which our Lord is really present to us, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, under the appearances of bread and wine. What greater union can we have with Christ?

And yet..how often many of us do not truly *see* these things. We acknowledge them; we profess our belief in them to others. And indeed, we do truly believe in them in our hearts. We have supernatural life within us. But do we have supernatural sight so as to acknowledge the above in our daily lives; *constantly* seeing them, that is, as realities, and not forgetting them? If we did so, would not our lives be much different than they are now? I speak of myself most of all; I cannot comment as to the state of others. But I know that *I* do not think of those things nearly as often as I should. It should be something constantly before my eyes. But it is not. Most of the time, I struggle to view those gifts from God, distracted as I am by the concerns of this natural life. I have, in fact, to the degree I am so distracted, developed a spiritual sort of blindness, in that I do not see what is really there, which causes me problems. But just because I do not direct my attention to these supernatural realities, they do not cease to exist. I need to redirect my attention obviously.

A person when they are bored does not see what is right in front of them, not to its full extent, and that is (speaking purely on the natural level) a sort of blindness. In order to recover their sight, they must become as a little child again. Then they well have an abundance of gifts, first granted to them simply through the gift of being alive, of having been born to natural life. That is the reward of appreciation. A Christian who does not see all the gifts they have received from God must likewise become as a little child again in order to receive the fulness of their spiritual sight again, which has become impaired. They must become as they were when first born to supernatural life through baptism. Then they, too, will be able to appreciate the abundance of gifts that they have received, which, in turn, will help them recover their "first charity" (Apocalypse 2:4). And is not that a gift to be desired by all? It leads them more surely to the greatest Gift, God Himself, which is our ultimate Goal.