Many of my close friends are irreligious, and sometimes have a hard time completely comprehending why I decided to become religious, much less Christian, much less a Roman Catholic. Unfortunately, it is often difficult for me to answer them. It might be easier to list the reasons that don’t influence me into Christianity than the ones that do. “Why wouldn’t I be Catholic?” would be perhaps a better question than “Why would I be?”
I hope, though, through this blog and these sorts of posts, at least begin to explain why I have found myself irrevocably drawn to Rome, to that faith derived from a First Century Nazarene who claimed to be the Son of God, and God besides.
G K Chesterton, one of my favourite authors, summarizes, in Orthodoxy a brief summary of modern philosophical and religious thought. Two figures he refers to are the German atheist, anti-theist philosopher Nietzsche and the Russian philosopher and writer Lev Tolstoy, who was decidedly Christian, though a more liberal and anarchic one. He might be made akin to say, the Anabaptists or Anglicans of our times.
Chesterton compares these two men to St. Jean D’Arc, Joan of Arc. He writes that:
“Joan of Arc was not stuck at the cross-roads, either by rejecting all the paths like Tolstoy, or by accepting them all like Nietzsche. She chose a path, and went down it like a thunderbolt. Yet Joan, when I came to think of her, had in her all that was true either in Tolstoy or Nietzsche, all that was even tolerable in either of them.
I thought of all that is noble in Tolstoy, the pleasure in plain things, especially in plain pity, the actualities of the earth, the reverence for the poor, the dignity of the bowed back. Joan of Arc had all that and with this great addition, that she endured poverty as well as admiring it; whereas Tolstoy is only a typical aristocrat trying to find out its secret.
And then I thought of all that was brave and proud and pathetic in poor Nietzsche, and his mutiny against the emptiness and timidity of our time. I thought of his cry for the ecstatic equilibrium of danger, his hunger for the rush of great horses, his cry to arms. Well, Joan of Arc had all that, and again with this difference, that she did not praise fighting, but fought. We know that she was not afraid of an army, while Nietzsche, for all we know, was afraid of a cow.
Tolstoy only praised the peasant; she was the peasant. Nietzsche only praised the warrior; she was the warrior. She beat them both at their own antagonistic ideals; she was more gentle than the one, more violent than the other. Yet she was a perfectly practical person who did something, while they are wild speculators who do nothing.
It was impossible that the thought should not cross my mind that she and her faith had perhaps some secret of moral unity and utility that has been lost.”
A meaty passage, and much could be said about it. But for now, I’d like to focus on how Chesterton notes that Joan walks between the philosophies of Tolstoy and those of Nietzsche. She embodies all of what is useful in both of them, and none of what is not useful. ”She was more gentle than the one [Tolstoy] and more violent than the other [Nietzsche].”
Indeed, it is that “middleness,” noted by Chesterton and embodied by St. Joan, that draws me strongly to Christianity on an intellectual level. Most of the philosophies of the world view man as either inherently evil or inherently good. Only Christianity is at once both aware of the Imago Dei, and the Fall; man bears the image of God, so is capable of great goodness, but is also fallen, and so is capable of great evil. Other philosophies and individuals have most assuredly noted this duality of man, but only Christianity fully explains a rational basis for it.
The Marxist spits venomously that the rich are evil and greedy, while the Randian says that it is the poor who are. The Christian, however, if he is doing it right, recognizes sloth and envy in both of them, and, even moreso, in himself.
This is just one example of Christianity walking the middle path. There are fragments of truth on either side; most assuredly there are robber barons just as there are slovenly welfare recipients. But either side overemphasises one aspect of the truth, and, in doing so, loses the whole thing.
Indeed, that is how much heresy begins.
Also, consider, specifically, Catholicism. From the Reformation to about the 1920s, the Catholic Church was considered by many to be lax, pagan, and lawless. However, when the world became more lax, pagan, and lawless, the Church then fell under accusations of being puritanical and tyrannical. The Puritan world spurned the Church for being Pagan; the Pagan world spurns it for being too Puritan.
Many of the ancient gnostic sects once saw matter as inherently evil, and believed that there were two gods; one who created spirit and the heavens; a Good God. And one who created flesh and matter, an evil god.
Nowadays, the modern world seems to abhor anything that cannot be empirically proven (IE, anything that isn’t matter), and elevates “matter” to too high of a state. We eliminate unborn children on the grounds that we can’t “give them what they need”, erroneously forgetting that even the poorest Westerner lives greater than 90% of the human population ever has. Our material concerns outweigh our spiritual ones. We think it better to destroy the poor and the sick and the injured than see them suffer any discomfort. Our society is terrified of material discomfort.
(It’s actually really frightening from a geopolitical perspective. Consider how quickly Americans gave up many of their freedoms after 3 000 people were killed in a terrorist attack. I would not discount the tragedy and the loss of life, but the likelihood that 9/11 would happen again was low, and, indeed, the deaths themselves, on a purely mathematical level, were negligible.)
Only Christianity walks the threadbare line between gnosticism and materialism. It at simultaneously proclaims the sanctity of the body as a temple of the Holy Spirit and the eternal truth of the immortal soul. Catholicism acknowledges that Jesus is at the right hand of God, but that He is also present in the Eucharist.
These are just a few examples that I thought of today while working. I’m sure I will think of more, though.
This article from Salon’s Cary Tennis broke my heart. A young woman, younger than even I am, actually, writes about her boyfriend’s addiction to pornography, and how it is hurting their relationship, not to mention breaking her heart, understandably so. Perhaps it’s my ability to relate to the not-negligible male sexual impulse, or my own (albeit not as pronounced) struggles with pornography and lust, but, despite “Porn Widow’s” tone of desperation and betrayal, I felt more for the boyfriend as I read this. His constant promises to get better, his struggle and shame when he failed. I don’t discount her pain at the situation, but his must be astronomical, too.
It’s frightening to hear about addictions, whether it be pornography, booze, caffeine, laziness, whatever. It is frightening to think about being so enslaved by something that, even though your God-given logic and reason cries out against it, and your very natural impulses pull away in horror, you are unable to quit. I don’t know if I’ve ever gone down that road on anything, yet, but I know those who have.
Simply put, slavery is frightening.
Yet, it seems, that the more freedom we have, the more we are enslaved. Automobiles liberated us from the doldrums of our neighbours and communities, yet enslaved us to traffic jams and commutes and road rage, never mind isolation and fragmentation and Balkanization. The sexual revolution was made to free women, and men, but especially women from the old sexual mores of the past. Yet, peruse the covers of Cosmopolitan or other women’s magazines next time you’re in line at the grocery check-out. “How to please your man,” “Give him an O he will never forget,” “5 new moves that will let you keep him.” Sexy sexy sex sex. For being “liberated,” women sure seem to have a lot of work to do, in and out of the sack, to keep us guys grinning. Pornography is enshrined as free speech and expression, but it has lead to, as in this case, some very un-free men.
IF the sexual mores and traditionalism of the past were immorally or excessively restrictive (I’m not sure if I am ready to cede that point entirely; it’s something I’m still thinking about), then we have simply jumped out of the pot and into the fire. There is nothing free about a love or relationship has as many conditions as the ones blazed across the headlines of Cosmopolitan or Maxim. And, indeed, the men’s mags are just as guilty here.
Indeed, the whole situation, of porn addiction and learning “5 hot new tricks that will blow his mind” every month reminds me of a scene from Marvel’s ‘The Avengers.” As Loki, the central villain and Norse/Asgardian God of Mischief, forces a crowd of people to kneel, he remarks:
Kneel before me. I said, KNEEL!… Is not this simpler? Is this not your natural state? It’s the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power. For identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.
I think most people, myself included, would at first blush, brush of Loki’s statement as the ramblings of a mad god/alien who lusts for power and, really, adoration. Yet, if we are honest, we will admit the kernel of truth in Loki’s ramblings. We love to kneel, whether it is to kings or to our own genitalia – or stomachs – and pursuit of pleasure and comfort.
We long for celebrities to idolize (and, then, like the neopagans in The Wickerman, we enjoy watching them burn sacrificially when they shave their heads or get divorced.) We crave to make certain statesmen into idols, and into Saviours, who will sweep away our economic and personal woes, if only the crazies on the other side of the aisle will shut up for a few moments. Some people kneel to an abusive significant other, and chain themselves to pain. Some will enslave themselves to some sort of tribe and tribal affiliation, be it an angry Westboro Baptist parishoner or a mild-mannered hipster who derives his identity from his tribe. It is a hard thing to think about, to admit, and to acquiesce to, but there is a degree of truth in Loki’s spiel.
We will always kneel.
Interestingly, the minds behind “The Avengers” seem to agree with me – consciously or not. One elderly German man rises to his feet at the end of Loki’s speech. ”Not to men like you,” he replies to Loki’s assertion.
I think I agree with the old man, who isn’t named in the film and doesn’t appear again throughout it. He doesn’t, as you might think would occur in a 21st century American movie, say that men won’t kneel. He doesn’t make some claim of men being free or independent. He, indeed, agrees with Loki. He does not say, “We will not always kneel.” He merely says, “Not to men like you.”
And I think that is the key. We will always be enslaved to something, or even someone. I don’t think we can choose that. All we can choose is the what we will kneel to, and whether we will freely out of love, or out of a desire more sinister – fear, self-preservation, the pursuit of worldly pleasure, etc.
I am going to wax nerdily a bit more. Even the titular characters in the movie, The Avengers, have knelt down and subjugated themselves to something. At the end of the movie, when the day is won, the heroes go their separate ways. One government official named Maria Hill, played by How I Met Your Mother’s Cobie Smulders, wonders what will happen if the world has need of the Avengers again. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) simply says that they will come. ”How do you know?” asks Hill. “Because we’ll need them to,” replies Fury. The Avengers have knelt, have subjugated themselves – to the ideals of self-sacrifice, service, camaraderie, and protection of those who cannot protect themselves.
If we are to kneel, if we are to be enslaved, let us be enslaved to that.
But no, really. Why? The profit margins on textbooks are ridiculous.
Beautiful song and video. Watch it all if you’ve got the time.
And while this isn’t a song, it does go well with the Tune of the Week.
The title of this post comes from a recent piece in Foreign Policy Magazine, “Think Again: War” wherein Dr. Joshua Goldstein notes that current American wars have seen less servicemen and -women killed than previous wars. “America’s decade of war since 2001 has killed about 6,000 U.S. service members,” writes Dr. Goldstein, “compared with 58,000 in Vietnam and 300,000 in World War II. Every life lost to war is one too many, but these deaths have to be seen in context: Last year more Americans died from falling out of bed than in all U.S. wars combined.”
This is, as far as I can gather from a quick gander at the Google, an accurate statement. But there is a niggling flaw in Dr. Golstein’s premise, and that is the simple fact that war, by it’s very definition, requires at least two different sides engaging in hostilities.
It does no good to only look at American deaths in that nation’s current military operations. That would be akin to examining Cortez’s landings in Mexico, looking at Spanish deaths alone, and coming to the assumption that the colonization of the America’s wasn’t that deadly or violent. Or like taking stock of the Storm Troopers blown up in the Death Star without nary batting an eyelash at Alderaan.
That Americans are less likely to die in armed combat should be taken prima facie. As Goldstein himself notes in his article, the United States outspends every other nation in the world, and it’s closest competitor, China, spends just 1/7th of the amount on their armed forces, at ~$100bn/year. That a technologically-advanced nation’s soldiers don’t often get killed by AK-wielding guerrillas isn’t any sort of shocking revelation, and nor is it acceptable evidence to obfuscate the issue of America’s multi-front state of perpetual war.
Indeed, factor in the deaths of America’s opponents, and we begin to see the numbers change. 102,344 – 111,861 is the number of total deaths estimated by http://www.iraqbodycount.org in the Iraq War and occupation alone. Apart from that, for the purposes of his point, Dr. Goldstein omits not only the deaths of opposing soldiers and civilians caught in the crossfire, but American allies, as well. ~1300 American soldiers have died in Afghanistan, yes, but another ~1000 have died from coalition countries there, as well, with the UK and my own Canada making up the bulk of these other deaths.
I’m not opposed to the extending longevity of American soldiers’ lives, of course. But I am troubled by Dr. Goldstein’s “Yes and No” non-answer to the statement, “America Is Fighting More Wars Than Ever.”
With all due respect to Dr. Goldstein, there is no “and No.” The answer is simply “Yes.”