Monday, March 26, 2007

The garden of forking paths

At First Things, Robert T. Miller parses the concept of ethical relativism. A useful map of the dead ends of modern ethical thought, but a warning too: we should take even error as we find it, and not as we hope or think it might be…

Faced with a bewildering assortment of moral systems all different from the Catholic one, Catholic thinkers cannot throw up their hands and condemn all the competitors as forms of relativism. For one thing, knowledgeable people will realize that the charge is clearly false and will thus conclude that the Catholic thinker doesn’t really know what he’s talking about. For another, the people the Catholic thinker is accusing of relativism are in fact producing arguments—often very sophisticated ones. Religious believers who are committed to participating in the public square need to understand these arguments and be prepared to answer them. They cannot escape this hard work by invoking the bogeyman of ethical relativism.

[Update] I have one reservation with Miller's analysis. Academe may parse concepts ad absurdum, but what happens in academe is not the same as what happens in the wider culture. It is a truism that apparently practical men implement the thoughts of long-dead scribblers. The emotivism of the 20th century, discredited amongst serious thinkers, is nonetheless potent. We all encounter this, every time we hear someone say, in defiance of facts, "I'm still entitled to my opinion...".

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

War is peace

"In His will is our peace; it is the sea into which all things are drawn by Him who created all the works of nature." (Dante's Paradiso 3: 85-87)

In a recent post, Dreadnought speaks of what same sex attraction demands of the Christian..."the radical humility, the ego-kill, the sometimes literally bloody discipline that Christianity demands of its adherents, even her intellectuals, certainly her same sex attracted children".

I haven't a thing in common with Dreadnought in his SSA. My lusts are all too conventional. But his story (well worth reading on his site) is very much like mine, and every human being's. The divine prescription is the same for all of us.

But isn't this God at war with us? Doesn't he want to take away the very things that we love most? This is the old, false image of the God whose favourite words are "can't", "shouldn't" and "stop it", a false image that we feel tugging at our coat fringe whenever temptation rears its ugly head.

God is not at war with us, but with the sins that cripple us. The loveless, brutal world of the daily newspapers is the consequence of that sin. But God's love is an astounding, limitless and dangerous love. The radical humility we need is matched by His radical determination to save us, by surgical means if necessary.

And if we let Him, we will ultimately become everything he created us to be. Contemplate this description of C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce, which says it better than I ever could:

Readers of C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce will remember the myth in which the dreamer encounters various souls at the point of choosing heaven or hell: choosing, that is, to abide with their besetting sin -- and so be damned -- or to throw it off by accepting the offer of salvation. One of the figures is an oily, dark man "parasitized" by a lizard-like creature perched on his shoulder and continually whispering into his ear. After much pathetic reluctance, the man permits his parasite to be ripped away from him and killed, whereupon the man -- almost killed himself by the pain -- stands erect and whole; and the slain lizard (in one of Lewis's better imaginative thrusts) comes back from death to life, no longer as a reptile but as a great stallion, which the man mounts and controls with perfect mastery.

Lewis's lizard is an allegory of any high-energy habitual sin -- i.e., any besetting lust, whether the lust be lust for power, or acclaim, or the satisfactions of the flesh. It's not a question of dividing "good" lizards from bad; any sin that a man ultimately refuses to do without will damn him. And any man, when he is in the grip of his pet obsession, convinces himself that he can't survive apart from it: his parasitism tries to be accepted as symbiosis, or even to claim identity with the host organism ("I am who I am"). Yet, in this scheme, every parasite is a perversion of a desire originally wholesome. When the perversion is put to death -- mortified, in traditional language -- the underlying wholesome desire becomes free to take on its proper life, sub ordinated to the rationally governed human will. The bloodsucking reptile becomes an obedient warhorse. "

Why do I blog?

It's a good question, with a simple answer. Flannery O'Connor used to say she didn't know what she thought until she wrote it down. Neither do I.

Speaking out makes an idea, a belief, a conviction suddenly more real. It demands a clarity and commitment that fleeting thought can never have.

A few years ago, the Australian bishops cracked down on the excessive use of the Third Rite of reconciliation, which required no personal confession of sins, only mere attendance. The decision generated angst at the time. There's no doubt that the Third Rite was attractive to many, but for all the wrong reasons. The human heart is a slippery thing, and we squirm and weave in our efforts to deny responsibility for our sins.

We are thinking animals, and when we get off the rails our rationalisations are never far away. The act of speaking out our sins breaks that bondage, and that is exactly what the Third Rite could never achieve. Hence its popularity.

So when I make my confession here, I challenge things in me that I'd rather were not there. I give myself something to live up to, and commit myself to what I believe. And there is something sacramental in that. It's an act that changes that actor. And I hope that you get something out of it too.