Saturday, May 18, 2013
Last summer I devoted a blog post to the Aurora Illinois shooting, and in particular to the gunman James Holmes. The focus of that post was not on the shooting per se, but on the strange fact that we as a society go out of our way to safely detain someone who carefully went out of his way to annihilate everyone. My aim was not to laud this position so much as to point out how odd it is that we ourselves do not see it as odd. A more reasonable position actually would be to mete out the same justice that the gunman himself meted out when he opened fire on those defenseless moviegoers. Yet that is not what we did. The authorities went to great lengths to give this man the justice and mercy that he clearly denied others.
Whatever you think about this kind of justice/mercy, it is undeniable that without Christ such a remarkable approach to law and justice would be inconceivable. The only thing comparable to this unconscionable approach to law enforcement is the equally unconscionable suggestion that one should show restraint in wartime. In fact, there is even a criteria that the Church has developed over the last two thousand years as a means to determine whether a military action is considered "just" or not. And in the event that one does engage in war, there are even certain rules that if broken constitute "war crimes". But think about it this way: how strange is it to suggest that amidst all of the blood and chaos that surrounds war, that two enemies might actually regard certain behavior as "out of bounds?" Once again, such restraint can only be envisioned in a Christian ethos, though that very same Christian instinct also has a rather practical element to it as well. If two nations are going to fight, so be it, but God forbid that they preserve nothing of their humanity in the process, God forbid that they simply turn into mindless animals who fight for no other reason than the desire to maim and destroy a fellow human being.
Which brings me to the primary purpose for my writing this particular post. In another stunning example of the "ungodliness of Christian mercy", I present the "star" of the Pennsylvania "House of Horrors", the man who played judge and executioner for countless born and unborn babies (not to mention several women whose death he was responsible for). Indeed, the same man who mercilessly decapitated babies born alive as a result of botched abortions is now the beneficiary of the mercy he so callously denied others. He himself (through his lawyers) appealed to the judge for a stay of execution and because our justice system values mercy it was granted. Yet the very man who now demands mercy from the court, never once, it seems, let the cry of any baby move his heart to offer the same. So he is alive as a result of a set of values which he himself rejects- a remarkable conclusion wrought by the mercy of heaven and the pitiful irony of hell. If we were in a country like Saudi Arabia, Mr. Gosnell (I call him that because he is no doctor) would doubtless be decapitated, and perhaps since he killed so many, such a decapitation might be performed with the dullest of blades. Now that sounds more like good old fashioned justice to me.
However, just as Abraham's hand was stayed from slaughtering his son, so Christ has stayed our own hands from imposing on the criminal the same cruel and unusual punishment that he himself has administered. On the surface, this seems like madness, and in many ways it is a miscarriage of justice. But there is a method to God's "ungodliness". A society that simply returns horror for horror is not exactly above what it claims to abhor. Indeed, it is one thing for evil to befall the man who has done evil, and quite another to condemn wicked behavior by behaving in the same wicked manner yourself. How can a just man torture a wicked man and not in some sense become what he detests? Surely the man who seeks justice is better than the criminal, but how much better; especially when he attempts to carefully devise ways to drive another human man mad by inflicting excruciating psychological and/or physical pain upon him?
Another rationale for such punitive restraint is less for the sake of the criminal and more for the general welfare of society. Far from endorsing such behavior, the legal system at its best seeks to make a clear distinction between the behavior of the one who has utterly abandoned the highest morals ideals, and the one whose aim it is to uphold them. To witness sanity in the face of insanity is not only comforting (seeing as insanity is never described as such), but it re-enforces the notion that it is better to be above the horror than to become as small and detestable as what you are condemning. Let us also not forgot how hypocritical it would be for a society that permits abortion on demand to then claim false outrage at the man who simply carried out our twisted logic to its natural conclusion.
Lastly, such legal restraint makes sense, especially when you consider the longview of civilization. If retributive justice is the only way a society guarantees its citizens behave well, then you are not exactly creating a society that is founded upon real Christian freedom. In other words, people may avoid crimes as a result of the government's Draconian methods, but they are certainly not doing so based on a genuine desire for goodness. If fear is the only motivation for goodness, then you are creating a slavish people who are good, not "for goodness sake", but because their master threatens them with lashes. Moreover, in such a society, what chance would/could there be for genuine conversion and redemption. An eye for an eye can go on ad infinitum like some infernal game of Pong if you let it, but a justice system with real mercy built into it, lays the groundwork for the possibility of genuine healing. Whether on the battlefield or in the courtroom, there is no end to the potential "back and forth" unless there is some opportunity for magnanimity on the part of the court, and some room for rehabilitation on the part of the criminal. Mere retributive justice may prevent crimes in a superficial sense, but it certainly does not alter the mentality of the criminal. Indeed, such a society is founded on legalism and not virtue.
So even while we continue to detest and loathe the behavior of someone like Kermit Gosnell, and even while we might want to dismember him in the same fashion that he dismembered all of those little ones, our faith requires us to show remarkable restraint. However "ungodly" such restraint may seem, it is far less ungodly than the alternative. Do we wish to live in a society that is less barbaric than its criminals, or do we prefer a justice system like the one in Saudi Arabia that still crucifies its criminals for things like armed robbery (see below)? Do we wish to live in Rome or Riyadh? Do we want Sharia law, or the Constitution? Or to put it another way, how much blood, torture, and death, would be required in order to offer full atonement for all of the crimes and wickedness that we see in the world today? Such a display would indeed look something like hell on earth. Thus, while justice is necessary, there is, thankfully, a tiny window of escape out of the asylum of pure justice, a trap door of redemption for a criminal and a world that seems only capable of seeing red.
Wednesday, May 8, 2013
When people think about judgment day images of fire, destruction, and worst of all, the wrath of God appear in their mind. On judgment day, they imagine, the "divine gloves" will be taken off completely, and thus no one will be able escape the dreadful fury of God. I do not deny that any of these things will happen, nor do I deny that I am terrified by the justice that is coming upon the world. Nevertheless, there is another kind of fear that overwhelms me when I consider judgment day, one that involves a very different order of trepidation. The event about which I speak is far from terrifying in the traditional sense, and yet has hell backpedaling for all of eternity. Indeed, it is in this same spirit that the Gadarene demoniac once cried out; "What have I to do with you, Jesus Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me!" If ever there were a man that existed for the purpose of taking away torment, it was Jesus. So why would the demon make such an outrageous claim? The answer to this question is at the core of what makes God and His judgment such a remarkably paradoxical event.
During every Catholic Mass, one prayer that is always recited [no matter what the occasion] is what is referred to as the "Sanctus" prayer. What is most interesting about this prayer, at least for our purposes, is that it combines two passages in Scripture that would seem on the surface to be utterly opposed. The first part is taken from the beginning of Isaiah Chapter 6. In this passage Isaiah finds himself caught up to the throne of God. When confronted with the glory of God he says; "Woe is me! I am a doomed man. For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips..." Amidst this terrifying vision, he hears the six-winged seraphs crying out "Holy Holy Holy... heaven and earth are full of your glory... Lord God of hosts (armies)". Bottom line: if one of the great prophets of the Old Testament is terrified to stand in the presence of God, then common sense dictates that we too should be afraid of this moment.
However, the second part of the prayer is the polar opposite of the former. "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in Highest." This particular verse is taken from the beginning of the passion narrative in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Yet what makes this part of the prayer particularly incommensurate with the previous lines is the fact that at this moment in Scripture God is anything but imposing. He comes not on the back of a giant warhorse, but meekly and humbly on a preposterous animal known as a donkey. If he had ridden into Jerusalem on the back of a duck-billed platypus it could hardly have been more at odds with the Isaiah passage.
This is the God from which the demons run, and the one that I fear most on judgment day. For it is not God's "muscles" that will have us retreating back into the dark of night, but rather his towering tenderness. And it is not his unwillingness to forgive us that will provoke a certain sense of despair within. To the contrary, it will be our unwillingness to forgive ourselves for all the things that we will never again have the opportunity to do (on His behalf). One might wonder how this all works and/or looks in practical terms. And perhaps were it not for a most exquisite scene taken from the film Schindler's List, such a phenomenon might seem incomprehensible. But thanks to the movie, along with an exceptional performance by Liam Neeson, we can catch a glimpse of what it might look like. Yes, there are some who hate God because they hate goodness itself. Yet there are others, I think, who when faced with his incomparable beauty will be tempted to despair for a different reason altogether. These individuals will be tempted to cast themselves down, not because of their hatred of God, but because they will be unable to justify standing in His presence for even one moment longer. They will see all the ways they could have and should have served Him, and find themselves utterly crushed when they realize that they can never go back and change those things. Hence, on that terrible day, it will not be God's vengeance that will provoke us to run from His beneficent arms, but rather a moment of divine self-recrimination, a moment wherein we, alongside Oscar Schindler, cry out from the depths of our being; "I could have done more!" May this sentiment and scene haunt us in such a way that we are inspired to avoid (in as much as it is possible) a similar fate.
Thursday, May 2, 2013
As a teacher, whenever I ask my students why premarital sex is, not only immoral, but a bad idea on a practical level, they generally tell me that sex before marriage makes the wedding night seem "anti-climactic." The fact that this is a double entendre is probably lost on most of them, but for those who are aware of its double meaning, a deeper significance can be gleaned. Whether in movies, sports, songs, or sex, in order for there to be a satisfying conclusion, there must be a necessary build-up. The best things in life require some level of patience and preparation in order to reach a desirable end. The diabolical opposite of this is the demon of immediacy, which seeks to front load pleasure, while simultaneously stealing it on the back end. Without the appropriate build-up/denouement, life would be a series of Christmases without Advent, "straight As" without studying, choruses without verses, a championship without a season, a punchline without any context, and a wedding night for a couple who has never experienced anything even approaching chastity.
Being more cynical than my students, I have never really found this argument to be a particularly compelling, at least as a means of convincing others. But after watching this SNL clip one cannot help but to see how tragic and pitiful the man is who attempts to find romance and intimacy after such a sordid history. Ironically, by presenting Jagger and Richards in such an innocent way the lie of premarital sex becomes even more pronounced. We are constantly informed by our culture that living chastity is at its best useless and naive and at worst dangerous. But how naive, and perhaps even dangerous, is it to think that there are no consequences for deferring the wedding vows, while maintaining the wedding night (I would argue that such a "deferral" quite often leads to a permanent one)? Furthermore, how difficult would it be to have a romantic spirit on your wedding night if you had already been living with someone for thirteen years and had two children with them? I am not saying that there is no possibility that good could come out of this situation- only that it is much more difficult to envision anything resembling a "romantic night of bliss" after the history they had already shared together. If ever there were an anti-climax this would be it. One might even wonder if on a night such as this there were any climax at all. Not surprisingly his marriage to Ms. Hall did end in divorce in 1999 when it was discovered (surprise surprise) that he had fathered a child with a Brazilian model. Indeed, it does not strain credulity to suggest that if a man doesn't learn chastity before marriage, it is certainly less likely that he will learn it afterwards.
Tuesday, April 30, 2013
Two events in particular have incited me to write this blog post. The first occurred while watching several pundits on the various cable news networks argue that Christians seemingly have no satisfying rationale for opposing "gay marriage". In one particular case, the host, who himself is a professed Catholic, contrasted "Bible-thumping" Christians with the far more sympathetic gay rights advocates, who, according to him, seem to have the argument on their side (I agree by the way, they do seem to have the argument on their side). The second incident occurred during Holy-Week, wherein a dispute broke out between those who subscribe to what has been called "marriage equality", and those who oppose it. I was content to stay out of the fray, until it went from advocacy to accusation and insult. Indeed, Christians aren't the only ones who can be insulting. Yes, even those beacons of tolerance and understanding who support same-sex marriage can be offensive as well. To make a long story short, someone posted an insulting video on Facebook, not only deriding Christianity, but mocking the Judeo-Christian God in general. The double standard became quite clear to me; it's OK to be offensive and intolerant as long as it's in the name of gay marriage; so I made a comment to this effect. I was then quickly greeted with the words "irrational" and "bigoted", along with other accusations about my character and the T.V. shows I apparently watch. At any rate, what both of these events had in common was the very clear suggestion that; a) Christians have done a dismal job explaining their position on gay marriage (I agree); and b) Christians can't seem to offer any rational justification for their claims. The examples listed below come from the various conversations that I have had/heard on this matter. I have done my best to offer a rational response for each. Ironically, what you will find when you read these is that it is not the Christian position which is decidedly irrational and emotional, but rather it is "marriage equality" advocates in the end that are more inclined to make a sentimental appeal. What I am attempting to do here is to engage in a reasonable and respectful debate of the issue itself rather than engage in ad hominem attacks on people, many of whom I have never met. By doing this my hope is to elevate the debate and avoid the suggestion that I am merely mocking the sincerely held views of others. I hope those who disagree with me are willing to offer me the same indulgence.
Response: Yes, there is some vague connection between the mistreatment of black Americans, and the ill-treatment of homosexual persons, but the only thing really connecting the two ideas is the co-incidence of ill-treatment. The problem with carrying the analogy any further is the fact that condemning a moral action, which is voluntary, can never be regarded as equivalent to something like skin color, which is involuntary, and utterly irrelevant as it relates to the moral life. Rejecting a man for something so incidental and inconsequential as his skin color is both arbitrary and patently reprehensible. Having some trepidation about how we define (or un-define) love, marriage, and family seems like a pretty reasonable concern, one that looks remarkably dissimilar to the former. The injustice that black Americans have endured is a denial of their humanity. No one is denying homosexuals are human, nor that they have a right to live as they choose. What has been denied in the past is the right to invent one's own version of marriage and then have that imposed on the rest of society. By conflating the two issues, civil rights becomes less about protecting racial minorities from oppression, and more about canonizing anyone who looks different or practices a different lifestyle. Content of character? Not so important. A potential candidate for insults? Now that's someone that needs to be celebrated regardless of their behavior. Notice the difference between defending the dignity of individuals and lionizing them because they are potential victims of indignity. This is not the sort of equality that Dr. King lost his life for. The civil rights movement was not seeking to overturn the laws of nature ( i.e. invent a new form of marriage)- it sought to uphold nature by compelling individuals to acknowledge what was already fundamentally the case, namely that black Americans should not (for example) be forced to sit at the back of the bus. The last time I checked, that wasn't the case for homosexuals. Homosexuals aren’t kept on farms as slaves, or made to sit at a separate counter. It is true that in former times those who acted on their homosexual inclinations were in some instances treated brutally (men more than women), but being treated brutally does not then mean that you are free to invent a new form of marriage which heretofore never existed, and then demand that others agree... or else. One may consider "gay marriage" a good thing, but to compare it to the civil rights movement is what is called a false analogy.
2. The Argument From History
Argument: Why should society be bound to an idea of marriage that comes from a religious book written 2000 years ago?
Response: I'm a little torn on this one, for I can see both sides of this debate. Many Christians want to simply quote Scripture in defense of "traditional marriage". One might as well say to an atheist that they should believe in God because the Bible says that he exists. This is what we call circular logic and it must be avoided completely in this discussion. The problem stems from the fact that many fundamentalists base their belief in Scripture on circular reasoning, namely "the Bible is the Word of God because it says so in the Bible". On the other hand, the "equality of marriage crowd" sees the weakness in this argument and tends to point it out ad nauseam- even when the discussion has moved beyond that point; "Just because Christianity (based on their holy book) has endorsed marriage between a man and a woman for two thousand years, what does that have to do with me?" And indeed, if we as Catholics thought that- I would have to agree with their argument. But there is a larger historical argument to be made here, not one based on religion, but rather one based on plain observation and every major civilization the world has ever known. Up until recent years (about ten to be exact), just about everyone in every society would have thought it highly rational to define marriage as only existing between a man and a woman (they could hardly have conceived of it in any other way). Now, all of sudden, by the force of some miraculous cultural shift, we are to assume that 99.9 percent of everyone that has ever existed in the history of the world is some kind of troglodyte, Hitler, or just plain bigoted. This would seem to me to be the height of arrogance. Is it we who are the geniuses, and they who are all idiots, or is something else going on here?
3. The Argument from Scripture
Argument: Did you know that Jesus never said a word about homosexuality in Scripture. In fact, it is only when you get to Paul that the subject is even broached.
Response: Gay rights advocates often bring up the fact that nowhere in Scripture does Jesus Christ address the sinfulness of homosexual activity. On the surface this may seem like a compelling argument- after all, who cares what that misogynistic homophobe Paul thought? Yet there is something in Christ's omission that is very telling as it relates to this debate. On both sides of the divide there is a kind of unhealthy emphasis on the morality or immorality of homosexual behavior. The fact is Jesus doesn't talk about homosexual behavior for the same reason he doesn't specifically address premarital sex, polygamy, polyamory, incest, cross-dressing, cohabitation, sex with animals, sex with aliens, or even sex with centaurs. Instead he chooses to focus on the ideal. To reject one specific immoral behavior in connection with marriage would be, in a certain sense, to elevate it as somehow better or worse than the rest. This is in general the problem I have with the way the whole discussion is framed. For all the flack that St. Paul gets for being a "homophobe", he really does not focus too much on the issue. In point of fact, when he mentions it- it is generally accompanied by other behaviors that he argues imperil the soul (i.e. fornicators, adulterers, idolaters, etc.) 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. Therefore, it is not the Bible that obsesses over this one issue too much, but rather we who do so. You would think that based upon the intensity of the discussion that at least a quarter of Scripture was dedicated to some kind of puritanical rant about gay sex. It is not. The Church does not say, nor has she ever: "Do what you will as long as you avoid sodomy". Rather the Church says: "God created the sexual act for a purpose. This code or purpose is inscribed into our hearts and our bodies, and to whatever end you abuse it, it is wrong. Period." I would argue that if Catholics and other Christians were more true to the standard, we would be having a very different kind of discussion today. Alas, the mess we have made of marriage and family no doubt makes any alternative seem promising by comparison.
Argument: It is patently unjust (not to mention heterosexist) to claim that homosexual couples do not deserve the same rights as heterosexuals when it comes to expressing their lifelong commitment to one another.
Response: The magical "=" symbol that we have seen on Facebook over the past month has sparked a tremendous feud between those who agree with so called "marriage equality" and those who disagree. On the surface the "marriage equality" argument is difficult to refute because it is one that appeals to the pathos of every human being. But in spite of all this, the "marriage equality" argument is at once self-contradictory and self-negating. The basis of the argument is that gay marriage is marriage because it is able to mimic in a certain sense "real marriage". Yet is this not blatant hypocrisy? For if same-sex marriage advocates are trying to diminish the exalted status of "traditional" marriage (i.e. the fact that it is set apart), then on what basis can they demand that their relationship receive its own exalted status. In other words, they are at once saying that the Biblical notion of marriage is antiquated and wrong, while at the same time looking to exalt it for their own purposes. But there's an even bigger problem here. If one is repudiating natural marriage in favor of a different understanding, would it not then also be close-minded and bigoted to do what one accused Christians of doing (i.e. reducing marriage to your own narrow category)? If marriage is simply based on a contract made between two people with a deep and abiding affection for one another, who are gay rights advocates to reduce that affection to themselves and heterosexual couples? If the old standard is wrong, then what makes this new standard right? Indeed, the only reason the aforementioned "one to one ratio" is there in the first place is because of the New Testament. And we of course reject the inerrancy of the New Testament, right? Thus, by rejecting Biblical marriage you in essence destroy "gay marriage" along with it. For in order to be logically consistent you would have to be willing to allow any kind of marriage that people wish to enter into. If gay rights advocates do not allow for this, then they are just as close-minded and bigoted as Christians, no? You cannot both dismantle the standard and try to maintain it all at once.
5. The Argument from a Legal Standpoint
Response: Some people argue that if we as a society legalize same-sex marriage it will in no way impinge upon the rights of the Church. Before I get into the ramifications of its legalization on the Church (of which there are many) I would like to address the issue from a purely practical standpoint. The existence of a just government must defend natural marriage because it has a vested interest in its success. If the family is depleted, then the cultural, economic, and political system will surely break down with it (like in the case of poverty ravaged ghettos). Any society that replaces this deeply rooted psychological and biological bond with the confused hodgepodge of loosely affiliated parties referred to as "alternative families," will surely fall prey to the powers of the State. It is through the solidarity of the family, and the values therein, that a healthy counterbalance is created to the prerogatives of the State. Thus, the reason the State should defend marriage is not based on religion at all, but rather the very rational goal of creating a happy and healthy society that is not enslaved by that self-same government. But what about those who live on the margins of society? A society with strong communities and good families is far better equipped to help those on the margins, than a society where everyone is in essence on the margins. At the very heart of Christian charity is the notion that anyone in real need is to be helped regardless. Without this natural sense of solidarity, the state would find itself more and more inclined to answer every need, not as a last resort, but in the name of the worst kind of surrogate of all, namely Big Brother. As for those who believe that Christians can preserve their religious liberty while acquiescing to this "compromise", forgive me if I'm a little bit skeptical. As alluded to before, some have compared this matter (viz. same-sex marriage) to the evils of slavery and/or segregation. If that is the case, wouldn't the Church be subject to lawsuits and government censure if she were to deny these "equal rights" to citizens? Oh come on... that would never happen! In Oregon a private Christian baker was recently investigated because he wouldn't bake a cake for a same-sex wedding. Catholic adoption agencies have been forced to close their facilities or act against their conscience as it relates to gay couples who wish to adopt. Catholic hospitals are forced to provide abortifacients to whomever requests it or pay exorbitant fines (which is by the way the present dilemma for the school that I teach at). In Massachusetts, where gay marriage has been legalized, parents are being threatened with arrest if they try and "opt-out" of kindergarten orientation education for their children. In Canada, Catholic schools are being told that they cannot teach that homosexuality is a sin because it's a form of "hate speech". On and on and on. Clearly this Utopian society that is envisioned by gay rights advocates is beginning to look more like 1984 than a form of peaceful co-existence. Ultimately, if you declare that something is of equal value (in this case same-sex marriage and traditional marriage), then it obviously stands to reason that to not teach it as such is to teach "hate" and/or inequality. This falls under the category of the law of unintended consequences, though I suppose that for some these consequences are very much intended. For more evidence of the disintegrating rights of Christians, not to mention the disintegrating rights of conscience in general (remember it cuts both ways) see this link:
6. The Argument From Bigotry
7. The Argument from Definition
Argument: Who are you to say that the definition of marriage should be confined to one man and one woman?
Response: The reason that same-sex marriage was never before defined as we are attempting to do today is that it never occurred to anyone to equate amorous feelings (however strong they may be) with what constitutes marriage and family. The very existence of the word "marriage" is predicated upon the fact that there is already a reality/phenomenon in the world that corresponds to the concept. The word is simply an affirmation of what the eyes and intellect already confirm. Words come into existence to distinguish one clear concept or idea from another. The goal of words is not to muddle everything, but to clarify and make important intellectual distinctions. Does anyone in their right mind not think that the family as constituted by nature should not have its own distinguishing moniker? If this is not the case, why not just use any word for anything that is even remotely connected? Shakespeare said a rose by any other name is still a rose- perhaps- but imagine if he were to say instead "a rose is still a rose even if it is a daffodil..." This is in essence what same-sex marriage advocates are saying. Imagine what would happen if we were to do this with all vocabulary. It would lead to the virtual destruction of the English language. Words like "marriage" would either come to mean any kind of bonding relationship, or be banned altogether for their blatant divisiveness.
8. The Argument from "Love"
Argument: What kind of heartless bastard do you have to be to deny marriage to two people who simply want to give themselves to one another in marriage? So what if they happen to be members of the same gender (love = love, no)?
Response: This argument it would seem is one of the most challenging to refute, for who would be so cruel as to deny one's fellow human beings the opportunity to marry the one that they love? Debating this point is a little like debating a red velvet pillow, it is both absurd and impossible to do. It is absurd for the same reason it is absurd to debate any inanimate object. It is impossible because the argument from "love" is not really an argument at all. The argument is a lot like saying that I believe that everyone should have the right to "do whatever floats their boat," or "whatever gets them through the night." This is the level of depth at which we are dealing with here. No one doubts that each human being requires a certain modicum of love in order to live a happy existence. The problem comes down to what is meant by "love". Are we defining it down to refer to any strong bond that includes some sort of sexual contact (it should be mentioned, incidentally, that there are also profound expressions of love that do not begin and/or end in the bedroom). Obviously there is some element of freedom among the citizens of the United States to pursue and define love and happiness in whatever way they choose, but if you begin to declare that "whatever floats your boat" is equivalent to the very Ark that has enabled the human race to navigate all of the storms of history, then it would seem that you are using some very strange logic. Indeed, if we are only defining love as a strong and amorous bond between persons, where might we draw the line legally or otherwise? After all, since marriage is merely the act of sex along with a desire for bonding, how can the state refuse anyone who may wish to fit into such a broad category? Once you begin to define love and marriage on purely sentimental grounds, any restrictions that you impose on it will appear to be quite arbitrary, not to mention reminiscent of the "old morality."
Argument: Somebody in my family just recently "came out out of closet" and I've met their partner. They are just as happy as any heterosexual couple I know.
Response: "Someone in my family is gay..." "I have a good friend of mine that just came out of the closet, and you know we support her..." "I know this really cute gay couple and they seem so happy together..." The fact that you found out that someone you love is "gay", or that you discovered that gay people eat with a knife and fork just like everyone else, may put your mind at ease about the issue, but it does not suffice as a real intellectual argument in favor of gay marriage. Anybody can tell any story they want in order to justify their position. Private experience, like private revelation, may be convincing to the individual, but it fails as an argument which is accessible to everyone via reason. You tell a story about happy gays. I tell a story about unhappy gays. So what? The fact that you are friends with a gay couple that seems to be happy does not mean that everyone in society is bound to declare it an open and shut case. Whatever side you take on this issue, it is a good and holy thing to try to empathize/sympathize with the struggles of one who suffers with same-sex attraction. However, trying to understand what someone is going through is not an argument for justifying it. Feeling sorry for someone's difficult situation is a very powerful emotional argument, but intellectually, it offers nothing. I understand that you just found out that your sister is gay and that you love her and that you want everyone to know that you support her, but why should empathizing with her struggles necessarily mean that whatever she does in the name of love is something the rest of the world must endorse? One could use a similar line of reasoning to say that euthanasia should be allowed as long as someone is suffering enough to warrant it. One exception justifies every exception. When it comes to the suffering of others compassion and understanding is indispensable, but commiserating should not in all cases lead to condoning. Who can't sympathize with the temptation to suspend our moral judgment when it comes to the suffering of loved ones? Nevertheless, if this were the only criterion for allowing certain kinds of behavior, we would in essence be endorsing moral anarchy. Anecdotes might be used to help buttress a point of view, but as the basis of an argument it is purely an emotional one. I feel therefore it is true!
10. The Argument from Rapid Fire
Argument: Did you know that studies show that homosexuals are no less likely to have fulfilling long term relationships than heterosexuals. Did I mention that children who are adopted by homosexual couples prove to be better adapted to society than the children of heterosexual couples. And what about what experts say about the dangers of repressing sexual desires? You know you can cause tremendous psychological damage by telling homosexuals that their behavior is sinful. And also Hitler sent homosexuals to concentration camps during World War II for what he deemed to be their immoral behavior.
Response: When one feels that they are losing an argument, they might be inclined to throw a lot of unrelated facts about gay marriage, bigotry, and everything else under the sun at you. This also is not to be regarded as a real argument, rather it is an attempt to confuse the issue by implying that all the articles and information one has gathered on the issue can be thrown at you in one diarrheic act in an attempt to completely confound and confuse you. This is more of a tactic than anything else. Indeed, it may very well be regarded as the "shock and awe" of debate techniques. After all, who can really answer ten different questions at one time? Obtaining information from various articles and news sources which are loosely related to the point that you are debating does not an argument make. To the contrary, it would seems to be a sign that one feels vulnerable and that their argument is weak. Do not be daunted by such a person, nor by their attempts to run circles around you with a litany of data. Simply return the argument to the original point of the debate (Occam's Razor applies here). You do not need to be an avid reader of all of the intellectual journals out there to speak on this issue, nor do you need to pretend to be some deep thinking philosopher in order to have a reasoned conversation. Employ the fundamentals of logic and watch as the individual flees into the weeds of the aforementioned studies, experts, and anything else which sounds intelligent. This is not to suggest that those "studies" or "experts" are wrong, only that those mediums are fallible and subject to bias, and therefore they should only serve as a validation for an argument, not as a replacement for one.
11. The Argument from "Hate"
Response: A few years ago, in California, those who voted in a democratic process to enshrine and uphold traditional marriage as existing between one man and one woman were told that to do so was the equivalent of voting for "hate". Are we serious here? The only thing that protesters didn't call them were "big meanies". OK, so you think that two gay people should be able to regard their relationship as marriage, fine. But is your argument so weak that your chief rebuttal is to call those who disagree with you hate mongers. What does that even mean, and how can you possibly legislate based on something as undefinable as "hate". Yes, I suppose there are some out there who not only disapprove of the homosexual lifestyle, but actually hate the homosexual. And I will stand with those who condemn such despicable behavior. But what about homosexuals who hate? Are they somehow exempt? Are we to regard them as saints simply because they happen to be attracted to their own sex? This is why such a claim is so ridiculous and why such accusations should never be the basis of any legislation whatsoever. The law should be based on what is measurable, not on the tyranny of emotional wants. As for me, I do not defend so called "traditional marriage" because my friends are all "straight" (they are not), nor because everyone in my family identifies themselves as heterosexual (which they do not). I don't even defend marriage as it is constituted in nature because I myself am married (that would be even more self-serving). I defend it for the same reason that I defend my Faith; not because I hate Muslims, or Jews, or anyone else for that matter, but because I believe that it is true. I defend the Church's teaching on marriage because I am the psychological, emotional, and spiritual benefactor of a family, and I would have to be some kind of traitor or turncoat to fail to say that belonging to a natural mother and father has made all the difference in the world. The argument here is not that we don't have people in our lives who have difficult struggles, the question is why are we idealizing these struggles and helping to proliferate them. Individuals will always want a particular arrangement that is suited to their own preferences (and that includes heterosexuals who justify cohabitation). But there is a profound difference between permitting such arrangements in society and helping to perpetuate them.
12. The Argument from Civil Unions
Argument: Civil unions are a good compromise. Religion is responsible for marriage, and the state handles the legal matter of two individuals who wish to enter into a lifelong legal commitment. Christians and other religious groups should not feel threatened by such legal arrangements so long as these two concepts are kept separate.
Response: This is another argument that seems quite potent on the surface. What it appears to be is a compromise between giving a title to same-sex relationships which stops short of marriage, and one that still affords these types of relationships the same legal rights and/or benefits as someone who is a spouse or a family member. Legally speaking, one should not need to enter into a legal partnership to visit a loved one in the hospital, and for my part, I believe that the law should reflect this concern. I bring this up only because this is a popular example that is used whenever anyone wishes to lament the lack of rights for gay couples. That aside, there is a much bigger problem with buying into the legal partnership compromise. First of all, there is no denying that fewer and fewer gay couples seem interested in this compromise title. The common meme that is out there today goes something like this; "So we get all of the legal recognition of a married couple, but not the title? This sounds like separate but equal to me..." This is a fair point. If as a society you wish to regard these types of relationships as tantamount to marriage, but only in a very limited way, what is your rationale? So it is good enough to be given the same rights as marriage, but not good enough to be called by the exalted name of marriage. That sounds like a rather insulting double standard, doesn't it? Ironically, to elevate "same-sex marriage" to the same level as "traditional marriage", while avoiding the same title, does appear to make the distinction seem arbitrary and unjust. Either call it marriage, or call it nothing under the law and let individuals define it as they will. The second problem is an even bigger one and would seem to expose in a very fundamental way the fraudulent nature of the civil partnership. What is it that defines this civil partnership; is it love, sex, tax benefits, what? If civil marriage is defined so loosely as this (which it is hard to deny that it is), then what is the basis by which you deny anyone for any of these reasons the benefits of marriage? Why couldn't it be two sisters who are not sexually involved (or who are sexually involved)? What about two gay men who are no longer lovers but want the government's support? What about a group of three or four individuals who wish to define love and commitment in their own special way? This could go on and on and on. To repeat, there is only one reason that the government has ever involved itself in the family in the first place, and it is not because the government is some kind of bureaucratic cupid, it is rather because it has/had a clear and plain vested interest in the success and perpetuation of the family (without which the state would either collapse or becomes the all-powerful nanny state). By legally endorsing and embracing homosexual civil unions, the state not only has no logical basis for denying these couples marriage (at least by the definition that they are using), but perhaps even more significantly, they have laid the groundwork for just about any kind of union under the sun to be endorsed.
13. The Argument from Despair
Argument: If you look at the failure rate of marriage today, on what basis do heterosexuals have any right to claim such exclusivity (or superiority) on this matter?
Response: Comedian Chris Rock once quipped that heterosexuals have made such a mess of marriage that gays should be free to be equally miserable. Marriage as it was formerly understood has failed, and so the best we can do is to manage the catastrophe by regulating it and lowering our expectations for what it means. One can see this mentality in just about every aspect of the moral life. Just recently a federal judge demanded that the morning after pill be available over the counter to everyone regardless of their age. Why? "Because look, you and I both know their gonna do it anyway, so you might just as well protect them from the inevitable. Sure, it would be nice if they waited for marriage, but lets face it, we're not in Kansas anymore Toto." In other words, we're all falling together into the abyss, so let's at least have a parachute so our demise takes a little bit longer than it would otherwise.
14. The Argument from "That Would Never Happen"
Response: Whenever someone says that such and such will never happen, one should respond by inquiring that if "such and such" does happen, will that individual change their opinion on the matter? I cannot count the number of times I have been told that the normalization of homosexuality is an utterly innocuous thing and that any number of things will never happen. First I was told that gays would never demand "marriage equality", then I was told the state would never force anyone to embrace their lifestyle. Then I was told that children would never have a curriculum forced upon them of which their parents did not first approve. Next I was told that Catholic institutions would never be forced to act against their consciences. After that I was told that Christian schools would never be prohibited from teaching that homosexual acts are wrong. Now I am told that the Church would never be legally coerced into hosting same-sex marriage on their property, though as we speak several states have already put forth bills which would compel churches and other private organizations to rent out their facilities for precisely that. So forgive me if I am not completely convinced when people tell me that the state would never force church institutions to host and/or endorse events that run contrary to their consciences. Explain to me why I am to believe that it is impossible or even improbable for such events to happen. I would be glad and most happy to believe this fairytale, but I require something called a logical basis for such a belief, and on this front there seems to be little evidence for believing that as homosexual marriage gains wider and wider acceptance, the Church will not find herself under tremendous legal and social pressure to bow to it.
15. The Argument from Infertility
Argument: Many religious people argue that the purpose of sex is procreation, but doesn't that argument fall apart, especially when you consider those couples who are (for whatever reason) incapable of bearing children?
Response: This argument is used as a kind of rebuttal against those who use infertility and the natural law as an argument against gay marriage. The individual who employs this argument usually points out that gay couples are not the only ones who are infertile; "What about those that try to have children but can't, or what about couples that are past the age of fertility. Does this not negate the whole fertility argument altogether?" I'm not exactly sure how you get from the fact that heterosexuals do not make babies every time they have sex, to the idea that this makes homosexual and heterosexual relationships the same. Such an argument would seem to open the door for arguing in defense of just about every sexual act that is intrinsically infertile. The Church is not arguing that one should get pregnant every time a man and woman have sex, for clearly no one does, the point is that heterosexual sex is orientated towards generating life, while homosexual sex is not. Yet it is not just an matter of pregnancy which is at issue here (for that would be too utilitarian), but the fruitfulness which is implied when a man and a woman become unite in this way. Nature herself has given her endorsement of this action by making it fruitful (notice the "bad fruits" of sex when exercised outside the confines of Christian norms), and just because that "fruitfulness" does not always result in a child, does not then mean that her endorsement is therefore rescinded. The action itself still implies what it has always implied. Conversely, when it comes to homosexual acts, it is not just that they are incapable of generating life that is at issue here. There is a much deeper problem. Whatever one thinks of the validity of homosexual acts, they can never be regarded, at least from a natural standpoint, as behavior that in any way implies the generation of new life. Moreover, even were one to take away the pleasure of the sexual act altogether, marriage in this sense would still have a profound purpose. What purpose would homosexual marriage serve? This is by the way why the Church rejects the idea of heterosexual couples who, through the use of contraception, purposely thwart the life giving process.
16. The Argument from Defining Homosexuals as a Group
Argument: Sexual orientation is to be categorized in the same way as any racial group, gender, or ethnic minority. This is especially important as it relates to the marriage debate because otherwise it would be all too easy to discriminate against homosexual couples, much in the same that interracial couples were once discriminated against.
Response: First of all it should be said that this is not an argument in the sense that it involves someone formally objecting or proposing something. It is rather an attempt to redefine the terms of the issue in such a way so as to re-shape how society perceives the issue. For example, when once you begin to frame the abortion issue as a matter of "choice" rather than a matter of life or death for a child, you have reshaped the psychological framework of the discussion. In the same way, when once you declare that there is a group, a community, or a culture which is homosexual, then you can begin to frame the issue in the same way that you might shape a racial issue. There is one major problem however with arguing the issue in this way, the so called "homosexuals" are not a race of people. Yes, there is an island known as Lesbos from whence the term "lesbian" derives its name. But it is not as if you can go to that island and be assured of meeting a lesbian every time you see a human being. In point of fact, the island itself recently filed a lawsuit in order to prevent the term lesbian from being used in this context. Far from regarding this as an honor, many citizens on the island of Lesbos felt that it brought infamy to the name of their homeland. Historically speaking, the name of the island preceded the individual (Sappho) whose writings from this location inspired the association. The term "lesbian" really wasn't even employed in this way until the turn of the last century. Consequently, the reason for the association comes not from the people of that culture itself, but as a result of a critique of the behavior of that culture. Ironically, it is those who seek to broaden the concept of homosexuality with the title "LGBTQ" that expose this classification as a fraud. In other words, if homosexuality is so clearly defined as a people that are thoroughly attracted to their own sex, then why the need to broaden it? By simply referring to this "community" as the LGBTQ one demonstrates just how imprecise defining people based on their attractions are. Indeed, one might be tempted to ask why we are so restrictive in this regard? Why not expand the letters beyond that? What this reveals is not that there is a distinct race of people known as "the gays", but that there are people all over the spectrum of desire and if we were to go about defining them based on this criterion we would probably have as many categories as there are people on the planet. It is for this reason that the acronym is continually growing. Therefore, it makes far more sense to categorize people first as human beings, second by their sex, and third by their nationality or ethnic group. What we should never do is create a whole category of persons whose entire definition is rooted in something so nebulous and elusive, and in some cases dangerous, as their own personal sexual preferences. I am aware that there are people who struggle with their "gender identity", and those people should never be ill-treated, but neither should we set out, because of them, to re-define what it means to be human based on their unique personal psychological struggle.
17. The Argument from "God Made Me This Way"
Argument: If you object to same-sex marriage you are basically fighting God and biology. This is the way I was made. Why would God (or biology) make me this way if what I feel is totally wrong and immoral?
Response: Straight from the music sheet of Lady Gaga comes this interesting argument, which implies that all attraction is inborn, or as the great Woody Allen put it; "the heart wants what it wants". I will leave aside the debate about whether same sex attraction is inborn, learned, or both, for there is still much we do not know about what genetic factors may play into one's personal attractions. What can be gleaned, however, thanks to Mr. Allen, is just how dangerous such an argument may be in practice. For there are many things that the heart wants which are illegal, and for good reason. Moreover, there are numerous tendencies (call them genetic if you like) which are also tendencies that we ought not encourage. Whatever your view on gay marriage, one hopes we can at least agree that we all, on some level, have desires that cannot be acted upon nor should be acted upon. This is not merely a religious argument, nor simply a legal one, but a practical one. If you wish to live in a decent and safe society, there must be some real moral boundaries. Therefore, one might be inclined to ask just how many terrible things one might justify under that hapless banner known as "I couldn't help it, I was born this way." Just ask those who advocate for organizations like NAMBLA (North American Man-Boy Love Association), the same people who argue, and are not ashamed to admit it, that they too were "born this way".
18. The Argument from "What Are You Afraid Of..."
Argument: Why do you feel threatened by homosexual marriage?
Response: The above accusation is generally employed when one wishes to shame or embarrass another into softening or changing their position on same-sex relationships. One of the reasons it is so challenging to refute is because it is in truth more of a taunt than an argument; "Why are you scared of two people who happen to be the same sex having sex?" The brain finds itself confounded, not because there is no answer to this accusation, but because fear really has nothing to do with why you are arguing against same-sex marriage/relationships. It is a lot like asking someone why they are afraid of abortion, immoral movies, or sex outside of marriage. The question may be a valid one, but there is something slightly dishonest and purposely confounding about it. I can tell you why I think something is morally "wrong", but to speak to the question of fear is to offer a response which requires some sort of psychological diagnosis. Moreover, "fear" may be some kind of secondary motivation for my position, but it is not the primary one. If I "fear" homosexual relationships, abortion, or whatever else you can think of, it is not because I am likely to have panic attacks whenever I consider it. I fear it quite rationally because of all the intended and unintended consequences that may result. The question is purposely too broad and too abstract to answer concisely. For this reason, rhetorically speaking, it is an excellent question to ask if you are simply looking to create the appearance that you have won the argument before it has begun. It is almost like asking someone if they are afraid of the sky. What do you say to that? It is an attempt to get a speedy answer from a question that defies a quick sound bite. Hence, if it is ever framed in this way to you, you can try to answer it pithily, though I think it would be better to reframe the question in such a way so as to prevent you from having to provide some sort of brilliant Shakespearean soliloquy. Instead, you could try to reframe the question in this way; "Are you asking me why I believe that homosexual acts are wrong? Because I am not a psychologist, so I cannot speak to my "psychological motivations." What I can speak to is my intellectual objections to the behavior." One might wonder why this individual supposes that fear is the underlying motivation for all of our objections, or why those who accuse Christians are always imposing psychological categories to their positions. Perhaps a psychological category should be imputed to those who are constantly imputing those to others.
19. The Argument from Psychological Trauma
Argument: If you teach young people that there is something wrong with homosexual marriage, you risk doing irreparable harm, especially to those who identify as homosexual. By telling them they are disordered you may lead them to self-hatred, or worse, suicide.
Response: Another emotional argument which holds a great deal of weight in our emotionally driven culture is the appeal to "psychological trauma". I am pleased that society has recognized more acutely this aspect of the human person. One can only imagine how people in ages past suffered quietly without anyone to understand them in the least. For this reason, I do not regard this aspect of the human person as inconsequential, nor is it one that should be beyond the bounds of our concern here. What I object to is the way that psychology is being used to create a new victim class that is to be arbitrarily protected at all costs because of their apparent psychological fragility. Are homosexuals more fragile than others who are ill-treated? If so, why? If not, then why do we regard this kind of bullying and ill-treatment as somehow superior to the others. This is by the way the argument behind "hate crimes." Most recently Goths in England have been added to the list of those legally protected against "acts of hate." Apparently as long as your hate is directed towards those who are not a specially protected group it is less evil. At issue here is whether or not opposing the homosexual lifestyle or homosexual marriage is particularly traumatic for those who are in favor of it. As for myself, I think abortion and euthanasia are wrong. When people tell me that I am wrong for holding those positions, I may find myself saddened by their disapproval, but I do not feel suicidal or profoundly traumatized if they disagree. I have a conviction, and so I must live with the consequences of that conviction. I am at peace with my position, but others are not. That's life. In the same way, if homosexuality and everything that goes along with it is fine, then what does it matter that others object? If people physically or verbally abuse you (this does not include mere disagreement, by the way), then that abuse should be handled in the appropriate way. On the other hand, if one is traumatized by someone saying that a particular lifestyle is wrong, then perhaps one should avoid that individual altogether, or perhaps they should consider the possibility that they themselves are conflicted over the issue. As to the question of whether fully embracing everything homosexual in society is a viable option for solving the whole dilemma, I will leave that to the final argument for discussion.
20. The Argument from "Normalization"
Argument: Once homosexual marriage is legalized everyone will realize that their concerns regarding same-sex marriage were little more than a form of manufactured hysteria. Homosexual marriage is not a threat to institutional marriage. To the contrary, it may even help stabilize it.
Response: The final popular argument that is used to defend gay marriage is rooted in a very understandable, but risky, proposition. If we normalize homosexuality (which includes sanctifying gay marriage) then subsequently everyone will see that all of the fear-mongering and Bible-thumping surrounding the homosexual lifestyle is nothing more than an illusion. On top of that, they say, the high rates of suicide, depression, drug addiction and alcohol dependency that are associated with the homosexual lifestyle will dwindle as a result. Obviously one cannot prove or disprove this until such a plan is fully implemented. However, the problem with the "trust me" approach is that once it is implemented (as was the case with Roe v. Wade), you can't just go back and undo the law. Thus, even were people to admit that normalizing the homosexual lifestyle really was not a good idea after all, you would still need a tremendous amount of collective will to even begin to reverse the policies. If alternative lifestyles are in fact the "new normal", then what would prevent them from being incorporated into every aspect of our lives from beginning to end? Look at how unpopular abortion is as a general rule today, nevertheless Planned Parenthood still thrives with limited interruption. As to whether this normalization will make for a happier and healthier society (both psychologically and otherwise) that certainly remains to be seen. Yet if this doesn't convince anyone of the dangers of this kind of "sexual liberation"; simply observe one indisputable fact. Gay marriage has been legal in the Netherlands for over ten years now. And on just about every major front those who objected have been vindicated. Suicide rates have remained unchanged, marriage as a whole has not only decreased among heterosexuals, but only 20% of homosexuals at the present time want any part of it. Civil partnerships have replaced marriage altogether as the preferred living arrangement, for, not surprisingly, individuals seem more interested in the benefits of marriage rather than the vows. Furthermore, the so called "father" of gay marriage in the Netherlands, Boris Dittrich, recently admitted that "group marriage" is to be the next stop on the marriage de-evolution train. Mind you, throughout this whole discussion, we haven't even begun to mention the effect that this will/has had on children. The alarming rate of children born out of wedlock only further highlights the virtual hemorrhaging of the very idea of marriage and family; though once again our preference is to look the other way rather than acknowledge the consequences that our behavior will have on our children. Who can really say at this stage what damage this sort of institutional rootlessness will impose on future generations (whatever "generation" even means in light of this discussion)? Sure, history may teach us nothing about the potential consequences of gay marriage, but even if I can't guarantee that all of these things will come to fruition, neither can the opposing side prove to the contrary. Still, whatever your position on these difficult matters, it is historically irrefutable to say that a society given over to its basest instincts can hardly remain a society for long. By contrast, wishful thinking seems to be the characteristic feature of those who defend gay marriage. Instead of arguments from reason, they provide ad hominum attacks, and instead of logic, they offer a sort of bullying sentimentalism. May the future of this debate be one founded upon a deep sense of respect for the opposing side, as well as an abiding desire to come to the knoweldge of the truth, whatever that may be.
Saturday, April 20, 2013
There is something that can only be described as thick about the laughter of God. And in this ghost-world where so much is thin with superficiality, it is quite rare to experience anything approaching what one might call true joy. In the movie The Mission, however, we do get a glimpse. The main character, Rodrigo, played by Robert De Niro, is a conquistador in the New World in the mid 1700s. He is a slave trader and becomes quite wealthy at the expense of the natives.
One day he discovers that his younger brother is having an affair with his beloved mistress. Out of jealousy he ultimately winds up killing him. Inconsolable and unwilling to eat, he is ministered to in prison by a missionary priest named father Gabriel. At first, he will not accept the possibility of forgiveness. In fact, he even says to the priest that redemption is impossible for him because no penance would be severe enough. The priest responds, "You chose your crime- do you dare to choose your penance." Rodrigo responds; "Do you dare to see it fail?" After much coaxing on the part of father Gabriel, Rodrigo finally accepts the challenge and devises a profoundly onerous, not to mention harrowing, penance for himself. Accompanied by the priest, he must now attempt to carry his former weapons of war up the side of a steep mountain where, at the conclusion of his journey, he must await the final verdict of those whom he had formerly enslaved, those who live "above the falls."
During this arduous journey, he falls numerous times, and there are questions about whether he will complete his penance. Nevertheless, with the aid of father Gabriel, and a few other missionary priests, he is eventually able to scale the mountain. Yet upon arriving at the place where the natives are encamped, he is uncertain about whether or not they will kill him. The chief of the tribe approaches the mud-covered conquistador. He barks out an order in a language that is indiscernible, and one of his comrades draws a knife and places at the base of Rodrigo’s throat. After a moment of uncomfortable silence, he makes a swift cutting motion, though not into the conquistador’s neck. Instead, quite unexpectedly, he cuts into the thick cord that bears the burden of his penance. Everyone is stunned, and for a brief moment there is some confusion. Just then the audio in the film cuts out and all that can be seen is the vision of the former slave trader weeping as the native tribe bellows with jubilant laughter of disbelief. Who could have ever envisioned a slave trader falling prostrate before those he enslaved with tears of compunction running down his face? The scene ends with the De Niro character oscillating between tears of sorrow and tears of joy. And because there is no audio in the scene, the audience is unable to discern where one emotion ends and the other begins.
This is the true face of Easter; a scene that in a most profound way captures what St. Paul called, "the eternal weight of glory". True joy is not simply the phenomenon of feeling happy, or a sense of peace about things, it possesses a certain "weight" to it, something so priceless and beautiful that when one begins to understand its value it is difficult not to feel stunned by the good fortune that has befallen you. It is like winning the lottery without knowing that you entered it. It is a profound sorrow that by some miracle of the resurrection is transfigured into an equal sense of jubilation. By contrast, sin completely robs us of our spiritual integrity, consigning everyone to an eternal state of superficiality and disintegration. Indeed, the only way to regain this lost sense of spiritual "thickness" is through the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Yet as the scene in the movie demonstrates, the grace and forgiveness of Jesus Christ does not merely consist in God letting us off the hook. For our part, we must place ourselves in a position where we are able, so to speak, to be "let off the hook." This does not simply mean that we say to God "OK you can forgive me now", for that is what is known as "cheap grace." Forgiving one's self involves the paradoxical notion that you are made "worthy to be unworthy." God has infused in us a deep sense of justice, and in a certain way, it is we who demand restitution for our sins, not only God. Hence, reconciliation is as much about us being made right with ourselves as it is about being made right with God. This also doesn't mean that God is not more powerful than our hearts, but it does mean that in order for us to receive the benefits of forgiveness, there has to be someone there to receive them. Without genuine contrition (which is easier said than done), we are little more than wraiths unable to receive the solid food of His forgiveness.
Rodrigo's ascent up the mountain of God is in many ways the perfect metaphor for the spiritual life. Yes, it is by God's grace that we are forgiven and receive redemption, but it is equally true that our soul demands an act of gratitude for so generous a gift. That is not to say that God would not be justified (like the Guarani) if he were to kill us in spite of our sacrifice, but rather to say that love compels us to offer some kind of return regardless of whether or not the debt can be repaid. That is the point in the end. Our debt cannot be repaid even were we to give everything to God. However, it is precisely in this attempt to give him everything that we open ourselves to understanding just how much he's given us. Like a true champion who weeps after winning the finals, he understands the price that came with the victory, he knows just how close he came to losing everything, but even more importantly, he knows that even with all of his efforts, he would be nothing without the ones who made the victory possible.
Saturday, April 13, 2013
Have you ever read the lyrics to your favorite song only to realize that what it sounded like they said was far more interesting than what they actually said? The music, coupled with the singers vocal stylings, can impute a depth to the lyrics that the lyrics don't actually have. At any rate, I am the type of music lover who is interested in the story behind the music, so whenever I like a song I naturally gravitate towards the lyric sheet. However, over the years I have come to realize that some things are better left misunderstood, or at least untranslated. To give an obvious example of this, how might one for instance translate "Alleluia"? Would you say that "Yay!" is acceptable, or what about "Woo-hoo!" The truth is when it comes to our everyday language we use any number of songs, phrases, aphorisms, and prayers that are not translated from their original tongue, not because we understand the exact meaning of the words, but because, more importantly, we understand their substance. This is not a post about alliteration and the texture of how words sound in their original form, but can anyone deny the pleasure of saying or singing certain phrases in their original tongue? "Salve Regina" or "Je ne sais quoi" immediately come to mind. Indeed, the flow of certain phrases, a certain mystery of language, the power of wise sayings sound as if they are from distant lands... because they are. Which brings me to two of the most exquisitely beautiful scenes that one will find in cinema, both of which possess, how shall we say it, that certain linguistic "Je ne sais quoi" I have been getting at this whole time.
The first scene comes from The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring. After Gandalf the Grey presumably dies in Khazad-dum, the other members of the fellowship flee, and soon find themselves in realm of the elves. Gandalf was apparently quite dear to the elves, so they are profoundly saddened at the news of his "falling into shadow". Consequently, they begin to chant in the most haunting and beautiful of tones in order to lament his passing. When one of the members of the fellowship hears this he asks Legolas (an elf that is with the company) what they are singing about. He tells them, in essence, that it is too painful to reveal, especially with all of the events being so fresh in their memory. Soon after, one of the Hobbits (Sam-wise) gets up and tries to offer his own poetic lament, but against the background of their celestial chant, it sounds clunky and awkward, provoking him to abruptly sit back down. This is not to say that Sam's attempt was not adorable and appropriate in its own way, but by comparison there is clearly something more haunting and beautiful about this elvish hymn, something that might be betrayed were it to be translated into the common tongue.
The second scene which I would point to comes from the Shawshank Redemption, and is for my money, even more beautiful than the previous scene. The movie itself is about a man who is falsely accused of murder and must serve twenty years in a state penitentiary. His name is Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) and he quickly shows himself to be a rather resourceful inmate. Generally speaking, the other inmates respect him. And perhaps more importantly (at least for the purpose of the scene) the warden finds his talents quite useful for his own designs. More to the point, Andy used to be a banker and so is able to help the warden (and others) get around paying some of their taxes. As a result, he is given special privileges, which he generally uses to benefit his fellow inmates and bring a little humanity inside those prison walls. In one instance he continually petitions the state for books in order to start a prison library. After failing on numerous occasions to have his request granted, he apparently annoys them so much that they finally send him books just to shut him up. He writes them twice as much after that.
Yet something else was included with the books that was in some ways even more exciting. As Andy opens the boxes he sees that there are vinyl records inside along with the books. He is told rather pointedly by the Warden to get those things out of his office immediately (or by the time he gets back). The warden then leaves and Andy is left with one of the prison guards who apparently trusts him enough to leave him alone as he uses the bathroom. However, while in the bathroom, Andy decides to play one of the albums which happens to be the "Marriage of Figaro". At first the officer simply asks Andy what's going on, but soon Andy gets another idea. He decides to lock the bathroom door as well as the door to the Warden's office. He then proceeds to play the music over the intercom for everyone in the entire prison to hear. Morgan Freeman, who plays the narrator in the film, and who is also one of Andy's fellow inmates and friends, describes it this way; "I don't know what those two Italian ladies were saying, and the truth is I don't want to know. I like to think that it was something so beautiful that it can't be expressed in words and makes your heart ache because of it." If ever there was a scene that epitomizes what movie-making should be, this is it.
However, as a consequence of Andy's "mischief", he receives two weeks in the hole, which must seem like an eternity. Yet when he comes out again and joins his fellow prisoners for dinner, he surprises them by saying that it wasn't that bad because he had "Mr. Mozart" to keep him company the whole time. When they ask him what he means by that, he simply explains that there are some things (inside themselves) that the warden can't take, and that music (among other things) is a necessary reminder that there are places beyond these walls that are not made of stone. Truly, these scenes communicate what all cinema and art should seek to communicate. They remind us that amidst our earthly strife, we must never forget that there is a beauty beyond the prison walls of daily life, lyrics to a song so beautiful that they cannot be transcribed in this life, and "make your heart ache because of it."