On Tricking Yourself

JMJ

EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE A whole lot of things will click together and I have to write them down lest I forget them. This is more of a ramble than anything else, but maybe it will point us towards some conversations.

This semester’s class on Church History is reading James Hitchcock’s History of the Catholic Church from the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium. While the text is a survey rather than an in-depth examination, more like a dictionary than a textbook, many of the short articles highlight something important I’d missed previously. I’ve greatly enjoyed, for example, reading how the heresies of Arianism and Iconoclasm are not “one and done” moments but rather very extended arguments in the Church’s history.

The blurb on Aquinas (about three pages worth of text) really only cruised at a very high altitude over St Thomas’ thinking, but it highlighted the importance of the intellect.

It may seem very surface-y but something about the way all the words are strung together helped me to grasp some important elements in Aquinas which I’m happy to string together for you here. This will be equally surface-only. I’m still meditating on all of this.

  1. Evil does not exist. It is a deficiency of good. Just as cold is only a lack of heat, and darkness is only an absence of light, so also evil is only an absence of good.
  2. We misunderstand what is good. We do not have differing ideas of what is good but rather a failure of the intellect to grasp the Good and to understand what is the Highest Good.
  3. Notice that it is our intellect that fails first. We’re not thinking rightly, we don’t grasp all the points correctly so when the intellect passes the information on to the conscience, the latter is not properly informed. It makes the wrong call.
  4. No one loves evil for evil’s sake. Humans love what is good for the sake of good. Something is loved because it is perceived as good. The intellect has convinced us – using the wrong information – that something is good when, in fact, it is not or when it’s only not good enough. Even those who love what is clearly evil (from the outside) do so because they think it is the best thing for them or for others.
  5. Those who are loving something that’s not the best for them have made choices and – as St Paul says – their conscience has been seared. It’s sacrificed the freedom of future choice by making the same choice so many times. It’s no longer looking to make another decision and, if it wanted to, it would be incapable of doing so without Grace.
  6. Acting on Evil, then, becomes of failure of intellect, of conscience, and of love. But it is only a failure in that one does not go far enough: one stops short in “the race set before us” and does not “strain for the prize”. One gets distracted. On this last item, CS Lewis’ Screwtape Letters make the point very well. “But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

Having all of the above sort of hit me at once as a result of reading that one paragraph in Hitchcock’s History, I drew two conclusions:

This, firstly, is an argument for why we cannot judge someone: they are loving as best they can. We cannot judge love, in fact, to do so would be to damn the virtue we would hope to grow. Reading the books of the New Testament we see this in action: only “insiders” get the strong words. Jesus, Paul, and the other voices in the text, woo and flirt with folks outside of the covenant, outside of the Church, to draw them forward. Strong words of condemnation are reserved for those who ought to know better or those who claim to. Only after you have learned what love actually is can you be accused of failing to love properly.

Secondly, this is a description of how we fail in other areas as well, areas beyond questions of morality, as such. We see the Church as an institution, or as “my parish” or as a political force – each of which is true – and we love it. But we fail to see the Church as the Bride of Christ present in all eternity as Saints and souls in purgatory, the Body of Christ active as his hands and in the world, as the minister of mercy, and as the sacrament of salvation (and so much more). We love only a little and are satisfied – or angry – when that little bit lives up or fails to live up to our personal desires. We see the human person as only XYZ without realizing the whole icon of God present not only in each individual, but in all of humanity together, as one of the Fathers pointed out, many human persons, but one human nature. We trick ourselves into a sort of theological synecdochery where we not only confuse the part for the whole, but we accept the part as good enough and get satisfied – without ever digging deeper. We love not as best as we can but rather we fail to realize there’s so much more to love, so much more to the Church, so much more to the Holy Mysteries, so much more to the Human Person. We love the surface, but not the heart. Then, if someone else also loves “only a little part” but happens to love a “different little part”, we fight with them.

We trick ourselves into hell.

Suicide and Reincarnation

JMJ

LOCKDOWN HAS LEFT ME Dealing with a mild depression. A medical evaluation has indicated this is not so bad as to require medication, but rather a bit of self-management. I need to get out more, albeit safely, and take steps to mitigate the issues that might arise. A mild depression, indeed! If this is mild I’m thankful that God is merciful to me: there are those greatly in need of prayers and grace! Even in a mild depression, the first question every professional asks (and a few lay folks) is “Are you having thoughts of suicide?” I’m not. But why? I mean, apart from God’s mercy, why am I not experiencing what seems to be a very common symptom? Lockdown has left me dealing with a mild introspection as well. To be frank, this mild depression is something I identify, having told my therapist just a couple of weeks ago that in the past such an episode might result in an outpouring of poetry. I recognize the symptoms. What did I do in the past? Did I have such thoughts then? I know I did once (in the Spring of 1985) but only once?

Wrestling through the introspection, the answer came to me that – quite possibly – here is the answer to why I’ve never lived in the same place for a very long time.

Certainly, it is easy to move around the corner as I did recently. But most of my movements have been across the continent whether east to west or north to south. I moved between New York and Georgia multiple times as a child with my family, but I continued this pattern as an adult in the 80s. I also moved from NYC to SF, then to Asheville, then to Buffalo, back to SF, to the Monastery, to Alabama, to SF. What if each of these moves – and some shorter moves as well – was a species of suicide? Frankly, I think they were.

Although I have a real rich resume, I have a somewhat shallow network of friends. Each move resulted in a loss of emotional networks – yes – but also a loss of emotional baggage. I used moves to get away from jobs, relationships, and situations that I didn’t feel like dealing with (or continuing to deal with). I used moves to escape dysfunctional imbalances that I did not want to address. I used moves to escape bullies that I did not want to challenge. This is called, in Twelve-Step work, “the geographical solution”. As is discussed in such programs, it never actually works: wherever you move you’re still there. Sure, moving across the country can extract you from the present struggles, making it possible to start over. The thing is it’s less a new beginning than a reincarnation: one is still the same person, with the same baggage, perhaps painted differently and with a new set of tags, but all still the same. I used moves to, essentially kill myself. But when I came back I was always still me.

Part of this conversation is coming into focus with recent events in my vocational journey – a psych eval, beginning to meet with a therapist, and continuing work on my book on SSA in the Church. It goes further back though. My monastic journey was in the Benedictine tradition. In the Rule of St Benedict, to the traditional monastic vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience is added a fourth: stability. In that journey, I discerned that Canon City, CO, was not where I was going to make that vow, “Make my stability” as the Benedictine line goes. In fact, it was to San Francisco that I made such a vow: here is my spiritual home. When I moved back to SF in 2016, I committed to not leaving, to actually being here (absent some huge and clear sign to the contrary), and to being local, here and now.

At the top of the year in 2019 at a meeting with my Spiritual Director, I spoke of desiring to actually finish things I’d started – to follow through on projects or relationships to the end, good or bad, and to see what happens, finally, when I make promises and keep them. Yes, it’s always today, but one needs roots to have a future. So the only way to keep promises has proven to be in the same place long enough to keep them. The only way to grow healthy relationships is to stay in the same place long enough to have fights. The only way to have an enjoyable job is to stay in the same place long enough to be challenged.

I have mentioned some of the problems that caused me to move. Those problems always seemed to follow me. The relationships that I tried to flee were always the same, somehow. They were recreated with new people – but they were the same. The dead end jobs that I wanted out of were always the same, somehow. I’d find a new company, yes, or work in a new field, but it was the same. It comes to me now but perhaps the problems that caused the relationships and dead-end jobs were internal rather than external. While these internal issues were easily smoothed over in the chaos of a transcontinental migration, after three or four years of stability these problems surfaced again requiring yet another move to escape.

A vow of stability requires dealing with these problems in other ways besides movement. Stability requires a commitment to life, to actually living in a place, with people, relating, taking a stake, even pushing sometimes. It requires happening rather than being happened to. It requires a bit more of what one therapist has called a “sense of being real”. The guy who can kill himself by a yard sale and a job application sent to another state, or enter a dysfunctional (but very fun) relationship in another country via the internet, does not have a sense of being real in the here and now. There’s a reason my fraternity brothers say they can still recognize my bedroom 35 years after college. Stability requires growing up.

Lockdown, therefore, seems to be the spiritual continuation of this process of stability. Diagnostically I think it’s possible my mild depression might be only the sudden onset of normalcy and stability. This is only the fever resulting from a low-grade infection that my mental and spiritual immune system is finally dealing with after decades of running away. Rather than depression, this might just be life: adulting as the cool kids call it. At least in my current Incarnation I have finally decided to grow up.

Paper

JMJ

For our class in Fundamental Theology we were to do a short paper on one of seven theses regarding theology and evangelism. Our primary text was Cardinal Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity. I relied heavily on our secondary text, Theology Today: Perspectives, Principles, and Criteria. I went a little long and as always I need an editor for my typos, but I got a decent grade so here’s my paper.

Thesis #6 Reading the signs of the times and in dialogue with the world, Catholic Theology upholds the unity of all truth, maintains the relationship between faith and reason, and rejects both fideism and rationalism.

A THEOLOGIAN IS ONE who prays.”  This is a loose paraphrase of Evagrius Ponticus’ line from ¶61 of his 153 Chapters on Prayer, “If you are a theologian, you pray truly; and if you pray truly, you are a theologian.” (Retrieved on 17 Dec 2020) I often heard this when I was in the Orthodox Church. Using ideas such as this Orthodox – especially converts – often build a rejection of the “scientific thought” of “The Latins”. This rejection seems to deny both God’s gift of human reason and intellect, on the one hand, and the very idea that prayer can affect the intellect at all. It seems to set humans up for failure: we are given very powerful tools in our intellect and reason yet they are considered suspect. We should not use these tools to relate to God. Sed Contra, St Thomas Aquinas and the Catholic tradition of Theology as a science arising from God’s self-revelation as providing first principles which fully engage our human reason to explore, more deeply, our relationship with God. In parallel with this, a thinking man – by secular lights – has no reason for prayer, no need for this relationship. 

Thesis 6 on the signs of the times, the unity of all truth, and the relationship of faith and reason resonated with me not only because of my convert experience in the Orthodox Church, where “faith” was seemingly idealized into a sort of prophylaxis against thinking too much but also because of my professional experience in the tech industry where everything is reducible to data points. If there is no data there is nothing to talk about. This fixation on the data and hyper-spiritualism of the faith seem to be the signs of the times – a fideism from “the religious” and a rationalism from the “secular”. 

Since much of modern tech is a web-based experience, there is no interaction between the people who make and run the technology and the people who use it. All development is based on research data. We spend our days at work looking for the “levers” to pull that will “drive clicks” towards a certain goal. I cannot make a suggestion at work for improvement unless there is an obvious metric to which I can point. Numbers are everything. Charts must move “up and to the right”. Data (without any judgment implied) must be provided for everything or it’s – literally – not real. Anecdotes about actual real-person interactions are only anecdotes. They need numbers to back them up. This is an extreme form of rationalism: the claim that only in our reason can we grasp reality. We cannot know anything here by relationship, by communion with other persons.  On the other extreme this is the idea of fideism, that as far as truth goes, we must rely on faith alone. We cannot know by communion with God, but must only trust or believe. Further, the intellect or reason cannot be brought to bear here or, if it is used at all, it is only to comment on the truths revealed and accepted by faith. Both of these extremes place an insufferable divide between God and man: the God who cannot reach us without data, the man who cannot think of God but only blindly trust. In this division we act from these two polls: sexual morality (physical communion of persons) is discussed in isolated ways of “what I want” or “what I feel” or in terms of what is legal or not instead of what is moral. Issues of medicine and the common good are discussed as individual choices and personal autonomy. Truth is parsed out into isolated pockets of “my truth” and “your truth”. 

Catholicism offers a God who is Logos – meaning – engaged fully in the order of the cosmos, and with the mind of man. Man can apply his mind to the understanding (as far as he is able) of that meaning.  Yet that God is also a person, existing in communion within the Trinity, and desiring communion with man, not only as “man” meaning all humans but on a personal, one-to-one, and intimate level. “If Christian belief in God is first of all an option in favor of the primacy of the logos, faith in the pre-existing, world supporting reality of the creative meaning, it is at the same time, as belief in the personal nature of that meaning, the belief that the original thought, whose being-thought is represented by the world, is not an anonymous, neutral consciousness us but rather freedom, creative love, a person.” (Razinger, p 158 ) But our human understanding tends to read from the top down: God is so great and yet he wants intimacy. But the personal reality of the infinite reverses this. “The highest is not the most universal, but, precisely, the particular, and the Christian faith is thus above all also the option for man as the irreducible, infinity-oriented being.” (ibid.) Tech’s Data and Eastern Orthodoxy’s spiritual focus highlight important aspects of our faith: truth can be understood – and communicated to others – through rational thought, but the truth is revealed to us in the self-disclosure of God to us. It requires prayer – a relationship with God (Catechism ¶2565)to engage fully. This is the unity of truth spoken of in our thesis: All truth has a common source in the God who says, “I am the Truth”. This relationship is, first of all, personal. 

Catholic theology offers the meaning of all things as revealed in God and unfolding in his communion with the human intellect, the personal as intimately a part of the infinite. This is prayer, as Evagrius taught: a communion, a deeply loving engagement of God with the human soul. For the Theologian in conversations drawing people to God, “my truth” cannot be other than The Truth – or else it is a lie. It arises from the prayer of the theologian, his relationship to God, and this must be explained to others as a relationship of the Divine Logos with their human logos. And it reveals a discussion of the logoi of the created order. God is disclosing Himself to us and, at the same moment, disclosing the cosmos and ourselves – the actual truth about who we are – to each of us, as particular individuals. God is showing me who I am in communion with himself. Issues of sex and medicine, as mentioned earlier, become issues of the individual’s communion with God as revealed Truth and with other persons as icons of that truth.

The world is, as Ratzinger wrote,  “in the last analysis, not mathematics but love” (p. 160). Our intellect cannot engage as a “data scientist” but must end in a relationship.  But that relationship is one of knowing and being known. It can be communicated with others in order to invite them in.