Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Path of Humility

Those who ponder the significance of Christmas quickly come to realize that once you get beyond the presents and carols, the Feast of the Incarnation is a celebration of humility. The Son of God, the second person of the Trinity, came to be born into obscurity and poverty - even, as Chesterton observed, in a cave beneath the earth. This is the far deeper and more profound meaning of the Feast that invokes worship long after the crèche is packed away.

If this is true of Christmas, it is far more true of today, the Feast of the Annunciation. This is when the Church celebrates the visit of the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary as recorded in Luke 1, when she gave her fiat to the Lord's wish that she bear His Son. When she assented to be used in God's plan of salvation and the Holy Spirit overshadowed her, the Divine Son was incarnated in her womb first as an embryo.

That's an abasement so deep that some were literally scandalized. God Himself dwelling within the sexual organs of a human woman? The concept was so outrageous that the Greek philosophers just scoffed, and the Gnostics were offended. It was even too much for certain Christians, such as Bishop Nestorious, who taught that it was the human Jesus who dwelt in the Virgin's womb, not the divine Christ. It was in condemning this heresy that the Church brought into common usage the term Theotokos, Mother of God, to affirm that both Jesus human and divine natures were present prenatally.

That's what strikes me: the humiliation which the Son of God voluntarily endured for our sake. As Scripture says, "Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men." (Phil 2:5-7) When I was younger and my blood ran hotter, I relished the martial imagery of Christ triumphing over evil with a mighty victory, His enemies scattered on the ground at His feet. But the older I get, the more I appreciate the manner of that victory: it was gotten through humility and weakness, by Christ not only deigning to come as a man (which would have been humiliation enough), but to put Himself into our hands to be cruelly and unjustly mistreated and executed.

It's that humility that's the surprise. We men think in terms of mighty conquerors because that's how we like to rule: the strong overcoming the weak by force of arms, the greater will overcoming the lesser ones by strong and persuasive words. But here was the greatest Will of all choosing not to conquer and rule like that. His arms were the ones He stretched out to be nailed to the wood, and His words were those of forgiveness. No wonder the people of the day couldn't understand this manner of conquest - it didn't look at all familiar.

This ideal of strength in humility, of conquering through weakness, is a hidden truth, but it is found in the most obscure and mystical of wisdom through human history. For example, the Chinese sage Lao Tzu recognized it, and used the image of water to illustrate the power of humility ("The highest goodness, water-like, does good to everything and goes unmurmuring to places men despise; but so, it is close in nature to Tao" - Chapter 8, Tao Te Ching.) In another place he recognizes that lowliness and humility is usually the lot of those who love wisdom ("But honor comes to me when least I'm known: The Wise Man, with a jewel in his breast, goes clad in garments made of shoddy stuff." - Chapter 70, Tao Te Ching.) These cryptic images hint at the ultimate humility of the Incarnation and the Passion.

The lesson I'm coming to learn in my old(er) age is that the Path of Humility that Jesus walked is not only something He did to make my salvation possible, but the model for my own growth in Christ-likeness. When I was younger I got excited about mastering demons - now I understand that it's a struggle for me just to master my own weaknesses and disordered appetites. Decades of trying to overpower them through main strength has only proven that they'll pin me every time. If I'm going to be a blessing to the world like I want to be - heck, if I'm even going to make myself a proper disciple - the Path is clear. My Master has already walked it, and He calls me to follow. It leads down, down, down to the depths of humility and self-abnegation. I don't like it - in fact, I hate it, and the Old Man within me screams in protest for he knows that his tomb lies that way. But if I'm going to reflect Christ to a world that needs it, I'm going to have to walk the trail He blazed.

Maybe that's something that can mark the Feast of the Annunciation. If Christmas is marked by gratitude, and Good Friday by sorrow and repentance, and Easter by joy, then maybe the Annunciation is the true feast of humility. The Blessed Mother models perfect human humility in her assent to God's plan – a plan that brought her no end of difficulty and pain. Jesus Himself demonstrates infinite humility in coming into her womb as an insensate embryo, there to grow in the same manner as the humans He came to save. I need to take that mission just as seriously, and embrace the humility Christ has for me.

Monday, March 23, 2009

The Fritzls of California

The trial of Josef Fritzl in Austria, with all its sordid detail and dramatic developments, has captured the imagination of the world. It has all the necessary components to rivet our attention: brutality, imprisonment, deviant sexual behaviour, murder, enslavement. Surely, we think, this is true evil in our midst, and it isn't a good thing we're not like that.


Before we get too smug about how righteous we seem by comparison to a lustful, dictatorial sadist who enslaves and murders his own offspring, let's consider the root of this evil. Essentially, Fritzl disregarded any authority that would restrain his appetites. He decided that his own judgment overruled religious teaching, moral law, civil law, social custom, family tradition – anything that would stay his hand. Of course, this brought about what it always brings about: the Law of the Fist – might makes right. Those within the small scope of his power were ruled by brutal force and exploited for his gratification.

Despite what we'd prefer to think, the root of this wickedness is not lust, or greed, or desire for power. It is pride. The pivotal movement, the essential choice that led to all those other horrors, was Fritzl's exultation of his own will as the ultimate authority in his life. From the moment he discarded the Law of God – or even of human law, which reflects God's Law – as having any authority over him, those terrible results were predictable. It all began with his pride.

This is what should disturb us. While not many of us will have the opportunity to lock our daughters in a dungeon to be raped at our leisure, we are all faced with the temptation to set aside moral laws and exult our wills as the ultimate authority. Every morning when we put our feet out of bed, we risk putting them on the first steps of the path that leads to that kind of perverted depravity.

Which brings us to the subject of California. Amidst the media-stirred frenzy following the passage of Proposal 8 last autumn, one of the responses has been a ballot initiative that would eliminate state recognition of marriage and replace it with “domestic partnerships”, which could be between any two people for any reason. This initiative will certainly be surrounded by a flurry of commentary from all sides, but I doubt that any of it will attend to the foundational premise of the effort: the idea that society has the authority to redefine what marriage is. The parties circulating these petitions are assuming without question the principle that marriage was created by society, instead of the other way around.

That's pride. Though it is expressed in a different manner and in a different venue, that's the same sort of pride that Josef Fritzl exhibited when he decided to discard morals and customs in order to remake his “family” in the form that pleased him. It is dethroning any authority that would tell them they couldn't do something they wanted to do, and enthroning their own egos in its place.

I've little doubt that this initiative will make it to the ballot in California. It may lose, but it will be there, and will be debated and discussed ad nauseum. Through it all, the subtle message will spread that customs, morals, and laws that are inconvenient can be set aside. A certain number of people will come to realize, as Fritzl did, that they don't have to wait for any laws to change. If they can set up their own little kingdoms, they can define their own laws and impose them on people within their power.

That's why I fear that we've only seen the beginning of the Josef Fritzls of the world. May God help the innocent.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Truly fighting evil

Our culture loves comic book heroes. For many years now, one of the surest ways to make big money on a movie has been to base it on some superhero. Not only do we like the idea of someone having some kind of special edge such as the ability to climb walls or a super-capable suit of armour, but we like the idea that these advantages can be used for "good". We get a visceral kick out of seeing the mob bosses or the cruel warlords or the sadistic psychopaths get their comeuppance at the hands of the the hero. It's nice to see the scales tipped toward good for a change, given how often they're tipped the other way.

This is hardly a new idea - it's just the latest incarnation of a theme as old as mankind. The image of The Hero kicking the stuffing out of the Bad Guys and rescuing the victims is a thread that runs from Beowulf to Iron Man and will presumably continue as long as men tell stories. The Evil is always over the top: excessive, egregious, and crying out for action. The response is inevitably force in some form, be it sophisticated intelligence or technology or simply superior strength. The Evil is vanquished and life can return to normal.

The drawback of this view is how it treats Good, Evil, and the conflict between them. For one thing, something as blatant as warlords terrorizing villages or psychopaths blowing up hospitals is but an extreme manifestation of evil. It is like a big, bright dandelion flower in the middle of a green lawn. It's obvious, and for that reason the most offensive, but it's only the most visible aspect of the problem. The Superhero Solution is the equivalent of firing up the John Deere and mowing off all the dandelion flowers. Swift, decisive action with dramatic results - there you go, all green again, problem solved.

Any groundskeeper knows that mowing off the flowers doesn't solve the dandelion problem - you have to dig them out by the roots. Similarly, the problem of evil cannot truly be dealt with by simply blasting away the most obvious manifestations. To eradicate evil, you have to dig it out by the root. But that simply moves the question: what is the root of evil?

If Scriptures is to be believed, then the answer is as simple as it is intractable. The root of evil is the unsubmitted will - a will that chooses its own way over God's way. This is a problem we all share, great and small, superheroes and supervillans. The solution is conceptually simple but practically impossible: perfect submission of our will to God's. There's only One Man who has pulled that off, and He's the true superhero.

This is where our superhero paradigm breaks down. We envision the Good Guy showing up and imposing his will on the Bad Guy, usually by exercise of extreme force. There's no submission - it's all subjection. It's human will against human will, and the one with the most strength wins. We hope it'll be the guy with the good intentions, but sometimes that's where our knuckles get white gripping the theater seat. The idea is that one human will overcoming another human will is sufficient to address the problem.

But that's never sufficient. I'm not saying that there aren't men with good and noble wills as well as men with corrupt and depraved wills. What I am saying is that someone with a good and noble will recognizes that it takes all the effort he can muster to submit that will. Truly conquering evil within another will is beyond his ability. Efforts to subdue other wills may be necessary to prevent complete chaos in human society, but in the long haul they can only bind evil for a time - it's just like mowing the heads off dandelions.

As long as we're enamored of the Superhero Model, we won't truly conquer evil in ourselves or anyone else. It perpetuates the myth that evil is something obvious, dramatic, and (most of all) Out There. The true path for conquering evil has been modeled for us: perfect submission of will. That's the only real example we've been given, and our only way of truly battling evil, because our own will is the only one we can really conquer. The problem is that submitting our will is far less excitement - and far less entertainment - than watching the Bad Guys get thrown around or blown away or outsmarted by the Good Guy. But we have to decide whether we want illusion or reality.

Part of the impact of the recent movie Gran Torino lies in this very tension. The gruff, profane hero Walt has to deal with some real evil threatening those he cares for. He tries the Superhero approach, directly confronting the evil mano a mano. It backfires horribly, and he realizes that direct confrontation is useless. The young lad he befriends wants to respond with more superhero tactics, but Walt takes another path that involves submitting his will - and that ultimately conquers. (I won't spoil it - but be sure to see the movie.)

We love the idea of fighting evil. Are we willing to do what it takes to really do so?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Rev. Walter Barnes

Last night the world lost another light. His name was Rev. Walter Barnes, and he was a seemingly obscure Anglican priest who lived and ministered in southeastern Ontario and southeastern Michigan. I only knew him briefly through my association with the Cursillo movement in Sarnia, and because he was interim pastor of the small Episcopal church in a neighboring town. I know he served as a WWII chaplain, and pastored churches in Sarnia, Stratford, and I believe London as well.

By the time I first met him he was either approaching or just past 80 years of age, and though his mind was still sharp, his hearing was going. But that didn't dampen his commitment to Christ, his enthusiasm for the Gospel, or his love of everyone that he met. Walter treated everyone with courtesy and charity, and always listened completely to whoever he was conversing with (though by the time I knew him, he had a tendency to cock his head slightly to get the best advantage from his hearing aid!) My only regret was that I knew that circumstances would prevent me from truly getting to know this unique and precious saint. I made a couple of Cursillos with him, and attended his church a few times, but was never truly in his flock. I do not begrudge those to whom he was able to truly minister! I have a friend who considers Walter to have been his spiritual father, and I'm sure there are many who share that opinion. He was that kind of man and that kind of minister.

He had retired from the pastorate well before I met him, but was still plenty active (including coming out of retirement to act as an interim for the neighboring church. When he finally had to leave, the church sputtered for a while then closed completely.) Once he "really" retired, I didn't have a chance to speak to him except when he ran into a computer problem. I gather he was just quietly declining at his home, but around the turn of the year he suffered a stroke. I just heard today that he died sometime last night.

I have no fear for Walter. He presents before the Throne of Christ a set of credentials that no man would be ashamed of. If I can be half the minister he was, if I could touch a quarter of the lives he did, if I could reflect Christ's light to a darkened world with a fraction of the brilliance he did, I would consider myself a success. But we who where illuminated through his sacrifice and ministry now live in a world rendered darker by his absence.

But I know what Walter would say. He'd tell us to work harder to scrub away the sin in our own lives, so that we could better reflect Christ's glory ourselves. He'd tell us that if we thought things were dark, we had only to step closer to Jesus, where it was brighter. I'll try, Walter. For your sake, I'll try. I know you'll be praying for me, for all of us who considered ourselves your sons.

It'll just be a little harder without you here.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Policy By Mythology

Well, as expected, Barack Obama signed an executive order today lifting Bush's executive order banning federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. Spouting the media fueled hype about all the medical miracles that can be expected, hope for the future, blah, blah, blah, the president did as he was told and signed the paper authorizing our taxes to be used to kill human beings in hopes of using their tissue for medical treatment.

There are several frightening things about this, but to me the greatest seems to be that this guy, who is supposedly steering an effort to mend a collapsing economy, can't see the plainest economic fact about this whole matter. If killing embryonic humans to harvest their tissue hold such promise, then why aren't private investors lining up to fund it? That way they'd own the patents and have a corner on the wonder cures, and would make a killing as they are rolled out. Not only should federal funding not be needed, it wouldn't be wanted, since that would cloud the issues of ownership and royalties.

Yet, strangely, the private investors are nowhere to be found, so the hue and cry from the universities and research firms is that federal funds are necessary to unlock this fountain of youth. Nobody, least of all this supposed wunderkind of a president, seems to question this mysterious lack of investors. The answer is right there to see: the private investors did line up to fund it. They have already flushed their billions to no avail. For over a decade, heavily funded ESC research has been going on in venues like Singapore and Korea, which have no restrictive laws. This research has failed to turn up even a single laboratory success, much less a reproducible cure. In fact, the only success in research has been the discovery of more and more roadblocks to progress, causing some ESC researchers to speculate that workable ESC therapies will never be found. Investors are out billions, and are forcing firms like ESC International to back off their ESC research and pursue other paths.

You'd think the president and his advisors would have done a little research before making this policy change - but no. They're beholden to the cultural mythology regarding stem cells. I've written elsewhere about the counter-rational faith in embryonic stem cells, and how impervious it is to facts and logic (we won't even mention moral considerations). So we end up with policy guided by mythology, excused by press releases, and (of course) not missing a chance to take a shot at the despised, reviled prior president.

We humans excel at telling ourselves stories to insulate ourselves from realities we'd rather not face. But as my father liked to point out, there will come a day when the those stories will be stripped away, and we face the unvarnished reality of what we did, why we did it, and how we deceived ourselves about it. On that day, I think I'd rather be the president who put into place a policy protecting embryonic humans, rather than the one who removed that policy.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

The Second Last Thing

When raising me, one of the kindest things that my father did was to repeatedly remind me that one day I would stand before the Throne of Judgment and answer for everything I had done in my life. This was something he kept constantly before his own eyes, and I remember him recounting more than once how he'd faced some occasion for sin, and the knowlege of his ultimate judgment deflected him from sinning.

The concept of final judgment is so unpopular these days that it's barely mentioned. Were it not for the enforced cycle of Scriptural readings for the Liturgy, I suspect that passages pertaining to judgment would barely be heard. The image of a God who judges doesn't fit well with the preferred modern image. (This is predictable, given that "judgmentalism" is one of the few mortal sins in the modern consciousness.) Since we see ourselves as all basically good people with good intentions, what's to judge? We far prefer the image of a friendly, welcoming God who awaits us on the other side of death with a pair of spiritual slippers, a big hug, and a hearty welcome. As far as all those passages in the Old and New Testament regarding a glorious Throne, and having to answer for every casual word, and being judged according to what we have done - well, we can just interpret those away as applying to others, or maybe just avoid reading them.

This tacit avoidance speaks louder than we imagine. If we are truly so noble and guiltless - "good person" being the popular term, as in "I'm not a bad person - I'm a good person, aren't I?" - then what have we to fear from judgment? The fact that it's not an image that we find comfortable looking at or pondering makes clear that deep down we suspect that maybe we aren't such "good people" after all.

That's why one of the classic Christian meditations has been on the Four Last Things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Thinking about judgment forces us to face the gritty reality that maybe we aren't as good as we'd like to think. My father's consistent injunction to remember the judgment had to be a fruit of this habit, and it's been helpful to me through my life. I wish I could say it had kept me nearly sinless, but that isn't true. However, when I've struggled with sin, the knowledge that I would someday answer for my actions has strengthened my resolve to fight it. I'm sure that was part of my father's intention in teaching me as he did, and I hope I did as well with my children.

One thing that does stand out about The Judgment, if you think about accounts like Matthew 25: damnation was pronounced on the basis of what wasn't done. The sins of the condemned are sins of omission - not feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, comforting the sick, and so forth. This flies in the face of our cultural fixation on being "good people" - which is defined as not doing overtly evil actions. Apparently avoiding evil isn't good enough for a holy God - the practice of charity is what's important. The sins of the rejected in Matthew 25 - as well as the rich man who let Lazarus die at his door and earned punishment for it - was the not doing the acts which charity demanded. That really makes me think. Just when I'm patting myself on the back because I think I'm disobeying less than I was last month, the reality of judgment smacks me in the face. How well am I doing in what really counts?

That's what pondering judgment does for us, or at least for me: it helps me to judge myself, so I might make necessary changes before it's too late. That seems to be the intent of the meditation - not to create fear-paralyzed peons trembling at the imminent prospect of standing before the Throne, but to help us consider our state soberly, and adjust our lives accordingly. That's what my father did. He didn't go about each day trembling in his boots at the prospect of facing the Throne of Christ. He trusted in God's love and forgiveness. But he never forgot what he'd have to answer for, and tried to live so as to have to answer for as little as possible.

I'm trying to do the same.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Something at which I never wish to excel

There is someone close to me with whom I have a cordial, if not affectionate, relationship. We exchange notes and other pleasantries, but there's one thing she does that keeps the relationship on edge, at least from my vantage point. Despite her friendly and generally optimistic nature, she has a habit that keeps me at a distance.

She sneers.

Not usually at me, though there have been a couple of instances. But when discussing anyone who doesn't think like her, or whose outlook she cannot understand, you can almost hear her lip start to curl. The comments take on a sarcastic, condescending edge which is a sharp dissonance with what should be a charitable and sympathetic personality. The effect is grating - after even the briefest exchange with her I feel like I have to go scrape something off myself.

The tragedy is that she was not always this way. I remember when she was a bubbly, joyous girl who refreshed all she met. I don't know what happened - perhaps it was her college years at a prominent liberal university, or her graduate studies, or her self-identification with the coastal liberal culture. I'm of the opinion that it has something to do with her deep and uncritical acceptance of the output of the mainstream media, for in that environment the supercilious sneer is the universal response to anyone who deviates from their rigid orthodoxy. But whatever the cause, this unfortunate tendency mars an otherwise delightful personality.

Pondering this got me wondering about the sneer, and what is repulsive about it. There's no question that it is almost a mark of our culture. The media of all stripes practice it and train their disciples to do likewise. It expresses an attitude of superiority, of condescension toward others. At its heart lies a separation, a dissociation. The party at which the sneer is directed is no longer a fellow human, worthy of dignity and respect, but an object – and furthermore, an object of scorn and derision. One who sneers sees the other as beneath him in some manner – socially, intellectually, culturally, or whatever. To be sneered at is to be told that you are deficient, lacking something of worth and despised for that. A sneer says, “How could anyone think (or believe, or admire, or act like) that?” At least an overt challenge recognizes the other position as having some validity; a sneer implies that the other is beneath consideration, unworthy of any response beyond scorn.

To any who might think this nothing more than an unpleasant personal habit, I ask you to consider what kind of person usually doesn't sneer: children. A sneering child is one of those discordant images that seems to violate the basic order of the universe. Children may laugh, cry, wail, plead, and connive, but if a child is sneering, something is badly wrong. And yet – didn't Jesus tell us to be like children? Whatever that injunction meant, and how childlikeness differs from childishness, one thing should be obvious: the children of the Kingdom should not be sneering. No human should ever treat another as an object, and certainly not an object of contempt and ridicule. The sneer is the antithesis of sympathy and compassion.

Throughout the Wisdom Literature are warnings for the young to keep clear of the “mocker” - the one who sneers and holds others in contempt. One reason for this is that sneering is contagious. If you hang around with those who sneer, you learn to sneer. This is why it's all the more disturbing that sneering has become almost the language of the reporting media in our culture. Reporters sneer, hosts sneer, guests sneer. As we immerse ourselves in their world, we find ourselves sneering as well. Of course, we don't call it that – we call it being in the know, or becoming more sophisticated in our outlook, or whatever. The effect is the same: when we hear something that contradicts what we think we know, our eyebrow arches, our lip curls, and without knowing it, we've separated ourselves from some person or group of people. That's one reason I try to avoid much exposure to the news media of any type. Whatever response I might give another, I hope it is never a sneer.