Monday, February 24, 2014

How To Look At The World

How should we look at the world as Christians? A problem immediately presents itself: what is the “world”? St. John taught, “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world” (1 Jn 2:15-16). St. James wrote, “Unfaithful creatures! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God” (Jas 4:4). Finally, our Lord Himself declared, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (Mt 6:24). Seems straightforward enough so far. But then we read this, from St. John’s Gospel: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him” (Jn 3:16-17). And there are these words that the Church has long applied to Christ and His love for the world: “I was daily [the Father’s] delight ... rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the sons of men” (Prv 8:30-31). 

St. Thomas Aquinas in his commentary on the Gospel of St. John gives us light: 
We should know that “world” is taken in three ways in Scripture. Sometimes, from the point of view of its creation, as when the Evangelist says here, “through him the world was made” (v 10). Sometimes, from the point of view of its perfection, which it reaches through Christ, as in “God was, in Christ, reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19). And sometimes it is taken from the point of view of its perversity, as in “The whole world lies under the power of the evil one” (1 Jn 5:19). (Commentary on the Gospel of John, 1.5.128, trans. Weisheipl)
Sts. John and James warn us against loving the world “from the point of view of its perversity,” being titillated and seduced by its illusory qualities and false joys. The world’s fulfillment, “new heaven and a new earth” (Rev 21:1), is viewing the world in terms of its final perfection in Christ as St. Paul described: 
Creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the glorious liberty of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning with labor pains together until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. (Rom 8:21-23)
The world as creation was prepared by the Father for His Son and His Son’s Bride, the Church, as the quotation from Proverbs above indicates. St. John of the Cross, the Spanish mystic, very beautifully described the world as “a palace for the bride” (“Romances,” stanza 4, trans. K. Kavanaugh and O. Rodriguez) divided into two rooms, one above (heaven) and one below (earth). Earth was “furnished / with infinite variety,” and those who occupied earth would live in the hope that “one day / [God] would exalt them, / and that he would lift them / up from their lowness / so that no one / could mock it any more.” Outside of Scripture, this poem contains perhaps one of the loveliest descriptions of the mystical transformation of creation into Christ’s kingdom at the end of time. Nevertheless, St. John warns us sternly of the tempting allure of created beauty. It truly is beautiful, and that’s why it can be dangerous. 

We know from the creation accounts in Genesis that God created the world good, very good in fact. Yet there also exists the kingdom of this world, ruled by Satan as Christ told us (cf. Luke 4:5-7; John 12:31). Fr. Jordan Aumann, a great Thomistic theologian, notes, “Without denying that created things can be occasions of sin for those who use them evilly, the challenge to Christians today is to ‘have the Gospel spirit permeate and improve the temporal order’ (Apostolicam Actuositatem 2)” (On the Front Lines 167). It remains for me to discuss briefly how creation can be used for sin, as “weapons for wickedness” (Rom 6:13).

When he created man, God gave us the power to name things, and “whatever the man called each living creature was then its name” (Gen 2:19). This passage describes the closed system of language to which humans are bound, a box that can be used for manipulation or for honest self-communication. Regarding manipulation, Jacques Lacan, the French psychoanalyst, said, “There is no Other of the Other” (Écrits: A Selection, trans. Sheridan, 311), meaning that the social demands placed on us by others (the Other) and the values attributed to human constructs end with its own enunciation. That is, if we play out what society tells us is valuable by constantly asking it “why is that valuable? And why is that valuable?”—ultimately, the only thing society can respond with is: “Because I say it is.” Of course, this “I” of society is the “we” of the crowd that accepts its own word as gospel, that drops its own collective preferences as law, that secures its personal tastes by means of secular and civil fatwas. Why must you like these shoes, these TV shows, these songs, and hate (or at least find annoying) those brands, those artists, those actors? “Because we say so.” Why must you look this way, eat that way, spend your time this way, speak that way? “Because we say so,” and you want to fit in, don’t you?

The point of Genesis and Lacan’s insight is that human creation does not have absolute value but is like a game, a process of interaction constructed and maintained by unspoken rules; when the rules of social dynamics are broken, the game ends because any guarantee of contextual significance ends, a potential source of both humor and frustrating miscommunication. An example of this potential source of humorous but frustrating communication would be from a fictional skit where George W. Bush and Tony Blair are discussing their plans for invading Iraq, and Blair mentions as an aside that something President Bush said reminded him of the British rock band The Who. Bush questions, “Who?” To which Blair replies, “The Who.” Bush then asks again, “Yeah, who?” To which Blair answers, “It’s a band.” Bush: “Who is?” Blair: “The Who.” The pun (and any pun) played on the ambiguity of the word “who,” and the skit then toyed with the “rules” of communication in order to create humor. This toying with the rules of communication forms the core of wit.

But ultimately, self-created meaning is illusory. By illusory, I mean something that unconsciously disguises another, more important truth, whatever the truth is in a particular situation. Thus, for example, a “supermarket” is illusory insofar as it presents the image of immediately-purchasable abundance within a well-maintained façade. The customer, by looking at the store itself, will have no way of knowing the truth of global poverty and the extremely unfair distribution of goods in the world, perhaps even among the farmers who produced the food in the market. Yet a supermarket is necessary to survive. Or growing up in a upper-middle-class suburb all one’s life may give the impression that the rest of the world is relatively quiet, safe, and uniform, which it isn’t, but still suburbs are an apparent necessity for modern urban living. Thus, by saying that something is illusory in this psychological sense, I am not a priori ascribing a moral judgment to that thing (by condeming it as bad or praising it as good) but am simply pointing out its psychological function, a necessity due to human rationality and language. Any use of human constructs not in line with the values of creation (i.e. natural law) or redemption (revealed morality) is morally wrong. Thus, for example, social etiquette can either foster comfortable relations (the virtue of affability) or pridefully display one’s social superiority.

Modern cultural life rests on the projection of an illusory image—and with and through that image, a self-constructed identity. The postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard noted, “This is a society that is endlessly concerned to vindicate itself, perpetually seeking to justify its own existence. Everything has to be made public [….] The society’s ‘look’ is a self-publicizing one” (America 93). Interestingly, modernity’s self-projection fits well with St. John’s description of what’s in the world: lust of the eyes, of the flesh, pride of life.

So how is a Christian to react to the world, to look at it? St. John of Avila, following the Gospel teaching, said quite simply, 
The Christian should see that, since the world dishonored the blessed Son of God [by crucifying Him...,] it makes no sense to esteem or believe it in anything. Since the world was deceived in not recognizing such a brilliant light and in not honoring the one who is the truest and most perfect honor, Christians should condemn what the world approves and prize and love what the world hates and despises. With great care they should flee from being prized by that world which despised their Lord. [...] Just as those who belong to the world do not have ears to listen to the truth and the teaching of God, but rather they despise it, so anyone who belongs to the company of Christ has no ears to listen to or believe the lies of the world. For at one time it flatters and at another time persecutes; at one time it promises and at another time threatens; at one time it terrifies and at another appears gentle. But in everything it deceives and intends to deceive. With such eyes we must look upon it.” (Audi, Filia, trans. Gormley, 1.3, 46)
How hard is this saying for modern day Christians! Just look at women, for example, who regardless of their religious beliefs, universally struggle with the problem of self-image, deeply ingrained by the beauty industry. The world tells women that they must look this way and not that way, and everything around us confirms the message, so we believe it to be true: we must look this way. A Christian woman must not only see through the whole lie of society but then consciously reject it, a task that seems absolutely unfathomable to most modern women. 

The world says that abortion is part of proper medical care for independent women who are assumed and even expected to be sexually active outside of marriage. But even from the 1st century, Christians have explicitly condemned abortion as evil: “Do not murder a child by abortion or kill a newborn infant” (Didache). Regardless, what does it matter when the Christian identity itself has vanished? 

The inner sense of hostility towards the fallen world that existed in early Christians­—necessarily so because they were being either threatened to give up their faith or, if they refused, murdered by the Roman Empire—has disappeared since the world “became Christian.” Only in hindsight can we see that the world became Christian in name. We cannot change the course of “Christian” society by stepping in front of it now because it was a battle lost nearly 1700 years ago with the final nail on the head hammered by the year 744, when under the direction of the man who was to become Pope Leo III (r. 795-816), a forged document called the “Donation of Constantine” secured the Church’s political power over the Holy Roman Empire and planted the seed of the Church’s applied political theory for the next milennium, characterized from the beginning by fraud and manipulation (cf. John Deely, Medieval Philosophy Redefined, 38-41). Perhaps we see now the fruit of this seed, all guided providentially: the real division between the holy and the not-yet-holy, between those who accept Christ as their Lord and those who, although they still belong to Him, resist His rule as the theologian Coleman O’Neill put it in his 1968 essay “The Pilgrim Church.”

What can we do? We ourselves must be converted. We cannot tell others (the Other) what to do­­—that’s the Other’s function. We must follow the model of Christ, who “began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1), Who first did and then preached, teaching as a good father does his children: “Watch me and imitate.” We must start living a genuine Christian life and only then can we witness our faith to others. What is being witnessed but one’s life, and if that life is not Christ’s, then what can be witnessed other than one’s projected illusions?

Imagine today if all Christians followed the teachings even contained in the Didache, if all Christians were public models of: chastity; respect for the permanence and faithfulness due to marriage (i.e. not divorcing and remarrying like everyone else); respect for life; respect for their bodies through modesty, careful treatment, and good personal grooming; prayer; sober living—not partying, not smoking, using illegal drugs, or becoming intoxicated; true independence by their resistance and rejection of cultural lies, not concerning themselves with competition, glamor, lust, greed, entertainment. What if all Christians refused to buy into the lies of the beauty industry, the entertainment industry, the sports industry? What if all Christians refused to pay for or support in any way TV channels, stations, or programs that depicted anti-Christian behavior? What if all Christians refused to waste their lives playing video games to the destruction of their interior lives for the sole purpose of avoiding a boredom that they don’t really know how to alleviate anyway? What if all Christians refused to waste time chatting, texting, posting all the intimate and useless details of their lives through social networking? What if Christian money actually had any real power, even political power, rather than wallowing in the filth that everyone else indulges? In fact, abortion will not end so long as there is a single baptized woman anywhere in the world who aborts her own children.

No, it’s quite useless to expect anything else from the world. And it’s equally as useless to make demands of a world that simply doesn’t care how you feel or how you’re being mistreated and victimized. Yes, it preys on your pain, your anger. It whispers into your ear, urging you to become upset, to drive yourself insane at the injustice of it all, to protest, to rebel against authority, to “take control,” to be “independent,” “free-thinking,” “self-determined.” You will never get anywhere with that.

The Saints—the real Christians—were the ones who by the grace of God decided to stop playing the game of manipulations and lies, and that’s how they looked at the fallen world: a game of lies.

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