Thursday, February 11, 2010

"Orientations" versus Sin: Fr. Carroll and Merton Agree

I begin by publicly stating my love and appreciation for Thomas Merton and his Seven Storey Mountain. I will be picking apart things I learned through it over the next few years – maybe longer. It has also given me the impetus to learn about the “later Merton:” the Merton who was interested in inter-religious dialogue. If his Wikipedia page is true (ha!), his interest in Zen Buddhism and such was always informed by a faith in the Truth of the Catholic Church, something that annoyed other “spiritual” people. Wikipedia aside, I need to do some secondary, and primary, text searching, instead of just parroting other people’s words on Merton’s dubious “progress."

One of the things I was led to ponder through Seven Storey Mountain was my own incomplete, and sometimes erroneous, idea of sin and the spiritual life. Now, sin is a breaking of our relationship with God, so I don’t mean to discount it or make light of it: however, I think I often focus too much on the sin and not enough on the causes of my sin; I will refer to these as inclinations – or perhaps more appropriately, orientations.

Before I delve into the meaning of this, let me set the stage by recalling something Fr. Carroll says: in his simple and matter-of-fact sort of way he says that we need to clear away sin and be done with it before we can really progress in the spiritual life. When I was very young, I thought this was naivety or super-spirituality; when I was a little more mature, I thought it was more an hyperbole with purpose, meaning that when we get rid of the “big” sins, we have time to deal with the “small” sins, which are still sins; then we can be really perfect. But I think Fr. Carroll meant his words to be taken at “face value.” I now interpret his words in light of what I learned from Merton.

It’s not as if sin isn’t important or damaging – for it most definitely is – but the real roots of the problem lie in our fallen nature’s inclination toward a way of life, an orientation to things not of God. For example, in my personal life, a deep-seated desire to care for myself before anyone else – we may call this selfishness – is more at the root of my “sinfulness” that the sins that occur because of this orientation. But the irony of this is that we often cannot get at the root of these orientations while in the bondage of sin, for sin blinds us. “Ignorance is bliss;” but Christ calls us to Knowledge of Him and ourselves.

When I go to confession, I reflect on the actions and omissions that are considered sinful, and this is correct. However, what I really need to confess and change is how I orient my life, job, and relationships. Way too often I am motivated by a powerful selfishness and pride; and even if I’m not “sinning” all of the time, these tendencies keep me from the Face of God. It seems like an obvious thing to say, but I need to go below the surface of my actions and omissions and seek to know why I do or don’t do these things. If my car is leaking oil, filling it up every week will make the car run – but it won’t fix the problem. Until the leak is patched, the car will remain damaged.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Practicality and Subjectivity of Language: (why Derrida was right, and why I’m happy about it)

Over the past few years, I’ve taught a lesson, slightly varied, on the subjective nature of language. Before the rambunctious youth enter the classroom, I write on the whiteboard: “I told you I didn’t take your money.” As the children file in, they notice the sentence; some ask questions, which I don’t answer. As the bell rings, I tell the students to look at the sentence on the board, and answer this question: What was the sentence/question, stated by a different second person, that spurred this response? In other words, why did our speaker say, “I told you I didn’t take your money”?

The students tend to stare at me blankly, not really understanding the point of the exercise. I prompt them to take out a pen and answer the questions in writing. They are confused because they find the statement innocuously clear. What they don’t understand is that their reading of the statement is actually only a single interpretation of at least five; but their minds take the first interpretation as the sole version.

The first few answers are usually like this: “Did you take the money?” or “Did you say you didn’t take the money?” These seem like obvious answers. Both of these could very well be proceeded by: “I told you I didn’t take your money.” I then inform these students that they unconsciously emphasized a word in the original sentence. They read the sentence as follows: a) “I told you I didn’t take your money,” as if the speaker is annoyed at having to repeat himself. I then proceed to underline a different word in the sentence, so it reads now: b) “I told you I didn’t take your money.” This reading of the sentence has a different meaning altogether, as if the speaker is implying that he took a different person’s money: the implication is that money was taken.

We continue the process, and by this time the students themselves start emphasizing different words out loud. They usually get boisterously excited, as if they are discovering their own intellectual prowess. Here are other ways of viewing the sentence: c) “I told you I didn’t take your money.” This sentence implies that the speaker has taken something of the second person, just not his money. d) “I told you I didn’t take your money.” This implies that the speaker may have told someone else a different story. e) “I told you I didn’t take your money.” This implies that the speaker hasn’t taken the money, but that he probably knows the person who has.

The moral of the lesson: The same sentence can mean five (at least) very different things. Some of the readings contradict one another, while others simply emphasize different things. I’ve used this lesson for two different purposes: 1) To show the importance of tone in reading. We need to recognize the general tone of a writer or character, as well as the context of the words, if we want to truly understand the meaning of a text. 2) To show how performance can and does affect the written word: a Shakespeare actor can play the character Iago different ways, perhaps contradicting a different interpretation, by simply choosing a specific tone of voice.

As I completed this lesson a few weeks ago, and my students paraded out of my room (already forgetting anything I ever taught) my mind drifted to the ideas of Derrida. The infamous linguist deconstructionist explored and explained the meaningless of language. I thought of my sentence, still in blue marker on my board. Here was what seemed to be a simple eight-word sentence: it’s clarity seemed obvious. However, it could mean at least five different things; and without anything but the words themselves, how is one to know to prefer one interpretation to another? I imagined Derrida in his legendary public debate, who approached the podium after his opponent presented his argument, and simply crowed like a bird. He said something to the effect of: “My words have as much meaning as my crowing, so what’s the point?” Then he stepped down from the podium, and left the room.

I thought of Derrida, the legend, and my sentence: How poor of a conduit of meaning is language! Even without shades of meaning, variations of connotations, and obscure grammar issues, I cannot write an eight-word sentence that really means one thing! But then I thought of Derrida’s words after the crowing. I understand them. I know how they apply to the situation.

As much as linguistic deconstructionists want to show the meaningless of language, it still retains its practical use. True, language is not objectively true, for it is not objective. Truth does not reside in language; instead, language does its best to act as a mouthpiece for truth. It is a means by which we can come to and learn truth – to communicate and debate truth. But like every tool, it has its limits. Not all truth can be expressed linguistically; and even the truth that we can express linguistically is not expressed in its fullness or entirety in words.

Far from making me depressed, this realization gives me peace. There are a few reasons for this. First, I think a certain amount of philosophic problems we deal with are simply linguistic problems, for reality and Truth necessarily cannot be broken down into the same categories as language is. For example, the Trinity. To simply say the God is three in one – that He is three Persons in one God – doesn’t make much linguistic sense. A secularist without Faith may validly call this nonsense. But Christians recognize that the reality and Truth of the Trinity resides outside of the statement “three in one.” The statement, while subjective and limited, points us to an important Truth: God does not exist alone. Even this linguistic construction does not capture the reality of it, for that is impossible.

Second, as much as I love language, I am glad that reality, truth, and beauty cannot be captured by it. I tell my students that poetry uses indirect language – metaphors, similes, imagery, etc. – because certain things and experiences, and often the greatest and most powerful of these, cannot be captured by language; and the closest we can come to capturing the reality of these things is through indirect language. For example, the simple metaphor “my anger is a volcano” is more apt to convey my experiential reality than a direct explanation of what is occurring in my brain when I am very angry. But the point is that even the metaphor can’t truly explain the experience of being extremely angry. And although this may have made me sad in the past, I am somehow very pleased that the reality of my experience, and the reality of God and the world around me, cannot be fully explained by the finite words of the English language – or any language for that matter.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Is True Demoncracy Open to the Duty of the True Catholic? (a study in the present homosexual-marriage debate)

This post is bound to be extremely and haphazardly unscientific, illogical, and just plain confusing. Bear with me, and do your best trying to decipher the important and meaning sentences or questions. Then, please, let me know what they are, for I’ve forgotten.

On a few occasions, I have voiced my concern that it is potentially impossible to be a good Catholic AND a good, democratic American simultaneously. When articulating this problem, I have been met with solid answers – answers that don’t make the two categories seem distinct. Therefore, I have recently been wracking my brain, trying to get at the root of my insistence on seeing Catholicism and democracy as, at least, complicated bedfellows.

For a while, I supposed my feelings were just that: feelings, and not based on any sort of objective argument. But I had a minor epiphany the other day. My problem arises from a very specific way of viewing democracy. I don’t know if my view of the sociopolitical system is correct or incorrect, but I am sure other people maintain it; and perhaps this is one of the reasons why a lot of secularists dislike anyone appealing to specific religious beliefs when considering our countries policies.

Here is the constructed version of a healthy democratic nation at work – the version I often uphold, right or wrong: If we could amicably discuss issues with one another, and lay out arguments as objectively and dispassionately as possible, we would come to similar conclusions about most issues, especially the moral ones. The problems and arguments arise from impassioned ignorance or illogical bigotry. Implied in this premise is the idea that we don’t need to appeal to specific religious beliefs.

Example, Abortion: If everyone understood the basic facts about abortion, we would agree that abortion should be illegal. And I stand by this: I think most pro-choice Americans, if they conceded the fact that abortion is actually killing a living human life, would be against it. There is no need to appeal to religious conviction or theological dogma. I’m sure you can apply this one argument to many others, and come to similar conclusions: When we lay out arguments side-by-side, with a disimpassioned desire to seek the most right decision, we would agree. Importantly, with abortion and other moral decisions, there is no need to appeal to religion.

As a man who structures his life on his faith, I often take this sort of sociopolitical stance because I believe in the ultimate truth of Christian-Catholicism; and I (naively?) think that sustained, honest thought and searching for truth will eventually lead to Truth, as expressed in the Person of Jesus Christ – even if it isn’t expressed as such.

But this line of thought falls apart with the gay-marriage issue. When I empathetically take the stance of a secular non-Christian man who is genuinely attracted to other men, I find the “natural law” reasons to sound empty and shallow. I couldn’t imagine seeing these reasons as anything but ignorant or bigoted. To truly understand why same-sex marriage is ultimately flawed, the foundational theology of the human person, as found in the Catholic Church, needs to be understood and believed. Perhaps it’s a lack of faith, but I don’t find that this foundational theology is easily accessible outside of true Faith. And I think the political scene backs up my point.

I think that most people that are against gay-marriage fall in 2 categories: 1) those, like me, who base their beliefs on theological grounds; and 2) truly bigoted people, who find the idea repulsive – but repulsive in the same way that they would have, 50 years ago, found interracial marriage repulsive. I’m not sure how many people are truth-seeking non-Christians, who simply find the idea of homosexuality, or homosexual marriage, intrinsically wrong, apart from pure emotional, sexual responses.

I know one problem with my reasoning is the fact that all moral issues need foundational theologies, including murder. So a person can say, “Yes, you need to understand Catholicism in order to understand the true backwardness of homosexuality; but you also need to understand Catholicism in order to understand the true backwardness of murder.” However, I guess my point is that murder is recognized by the majority (democracy is rule by the majority) as revolting, while homosexuality is not.

Of course, this entire argument is based on the presumption that we should not have important political positions based on specific religious beliefs; and I have, in the past, been OK with this idea, simply because I felt we should arrive at the important political positions that are semi-Christian because a search for truth is always a search for the Truth.

If I discard this presumption, I am met with eerily suggestion conclusions. For example, should I be fine with a Muslim basing all of his political decisions on his faith? Isn’t this what a lot of Christians are up-in-arms about in Europe and elsewhere? What if a good, well-meaning Muslim makes a political decision to try and remove certain rights of women, basing his decision on his faith? I think a lot of people would be upset about this. However, in many secularists’ viewpoints, that is exactly what Christians are doing by trying to deny homosexuals the right to marry. The Christian may say to the Muslim, “I’m fine with you using your faith in the ballot box, but not when your opinions take away rights from others.” Well, the secularist can say right back, “Your faith-based reasons against homosexual marriage also take away people’s rights.”

This deconstructive mess is giving me a headache. Let me end with two conclusions (even though they aren’t “conclusive”). 1) Should I not care at all that it seems impossible to convince a homosexual secular man that America, as a country, should be against his getting married to a man? If so, 2) doesn’t this take us places we don’t want to go? Example: a Muslim man voting against giving women the right to vote because he doesn’t see it as an intrinsic right, like we don’t see marriage to someone of the same sex as an intrinsic right? Or: A secular man voting for something he simply “believes,” such as voting against inter-racial marriage? Aren’t their foundations, according to American law, as solid as the Christian man’s appeal to theology to argue against homosexuality?

The mess ends here.