Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Twisted Words? On Presenting the Faith Whole-Heartedly

“As far as theological views of this sort are concerned, finally, quite a number of people have the abiding impression that the church’s faith is like a jellyfish: no one can get a grip on it and it has no firm center. It is on the many halfhearted interpretations of the biblical Word that can be found everywhere that a sickly Christianity takes its stand—a Christianity that is no longer true to itself and that consequently cannot radiate encouragement and enthusiasm. It gives, instead, the impression of being an organization that keeps on talking although it has nothing else to say, because twisted words are not convincing and are only concerned to hide their emptiness.” 
—Joseph Ratzinger, In the Beginning: A Catholic Understanding of the Story of the Creation and Fall (1981), p. 8.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in a homily given when he was Archbishop of Munich and Friesing, hit the proverbial nail on the proverbial head here in describing the typically modern approach to theology and faith. The sense you get from some folks is that it's all a mystery, there are various schools of thought, it's all so hard to sort out, and who can really say? And anyway, what with all the modern advances in something or other, and our superior knowledge and insight—I mean, it's 2016!—we surely have progressed beyond the conclusions of Bronze Age tribes and medieval monks, haven't we? So instead, let's re-cast our faith in the mold of whatever the prevailing opinion of the day is, always ready to cast it aside when it too becomes, gasp, outdated.

This seems the default position among many, and no wonder it's been a less than attractive option on the spiritual menu. Who wants lukewarm soup? Who wants half-cooked potatoes? Who wants kale... at all? A watered down wine will be spat out by anyone with any taste for the stuff, and a watered down faith will not satisfy anyone in any lasting way. It is a fact easily established by sociological data that parishes and dioceses that preach sound doctrine and celebrate beautiful liturgies have high Mass attendance, attract high numbers of converts, and produce high numbers of vocations, while parishes and dioceses that bend over backward to accommodate the direction the winds are blowing this week are sparsely populated and quickly dying out.

This is due to the simple fact that the truth fulfills us and makes us free to live our lives in accordance with our God-given nature, to live in friendship with God and fulfill the call to goodness, and that the truth of beauty and the beauty of truth are more attractive than any amount of ear tickling. Truth satisfies, beauty satisfies, goodness satisfies, because these are of God, and God alone satisfies.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Changing of the Guard and the Sacred Liturgy

The summer after my 8th grade year, my class took a week-long trip to Washington, D.C. We did fundraisers all through the previous year to gather up the money to go, and as a little history buff, someone who had been able to name all the presidents since age 6, I was just a wee bit excited. The Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, copies of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence--I was in Nerd-vana!

We moved at a break-neck pace, stopping barely long enough at any place to snap a few pictures and hear a few paragraphs from a tour guide. But one of the sights that sticks most clearly in my mind, almost 20 years later, is the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns. If you've never seen it, here's a clip.

This is quite simply beautiful. The precision of their movements is almost mechanical. Every step and gesture is crisp with solemnity and respect. And this is a perfect example of an oft-forgotten truth: solemn does not mean somber, even at a tomb. C.S. Lewis says it well in his Preface to Paradise Lost regarding the Old English word solempne:
Like solemn it implies the opposite of what is familiar, free and easy, or ordinary. But unlike solemn it does not suggest gloom, oppression, or austerity. The ball in the first act of Romeo and Juliet was a ‘solemnity’. The feast at the beginning of Gawain and the Green Knight is very much a solemnity. A great mass by Mozart or Beethoven is as much a solemnity in its hilarious gloria as in its poignant crucifixus est. Feasts are, in this sense, more solemn than fasts. Easter is solempne, Good Friday is not. The Solempne is the festal which is also the stately and the ceremonial, the proper occasion for a pomp–and the very fact that pompous is now used only in a bad sense measures the degree to which we have lost the old idea of a 'solemnity’. To recover it you must think of a court ball, or a coronation, or a victory march, as these things appear to people to enjoy them; in an age when every one puts on his oldest clothes to be happy in, you must re-awake the simpler state of mind in which people put on gold and scarlet to be happy in. Above all, you must be rid of the hideous idea, fruit of a widespread inferiority complex, that pomp, on the proper occasions, has any connextion with vanity or self-conceit. A celebrant approaching the altar, a princess led out by a king to dance a minuet, a general officer on a ceremonial parade, a major-domo preceding the boar’s head at a Christmas feast–all these wear unusual clothes and move with calculated dignity. This does not mean that they are vain, but that they are obedient; they are obeying the hoc age which presides over every solemnity. The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for every one else the proper pleasure of ritual… . You are to expect pomp. You are to 'assist’, as the French say, at a great festal action.
When I read this, I immediately think of the Mass (as Lewis does, when he mentions the celebrant approaching the altar). The Sacred Liturgy is intended to have just this kind of solemnity: an air of being set apart (which is the root meaning of holy). It is meant to take us outside of ourselves and into the presence of God and the communion of saints. When I run across people who complain that the Mass is "stiff" or even call it "empty ritual," I think of this passage from Lewis, and I wonder that these very same people would most likely witness the Changing of the Guard and think it beautiful for the very reasons they think the Mass not beautiful! Why is that? Why the double standard? An interesting question to consider. Thoughts?

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Links to My Recent Writings Elsewhere

Howdy All!

The times have been a-changin' 'round these parts of late.

(Note to self: stop talking like an extra in a John Wayne film.)

(Start again.)


Sorry I've been away from this space for a time. Allow me to catch you up:

June 1 I started a full-time position as the Director of Religious Education at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church in Mill Valley, CA. I'm in charge of overseeing the faith formation programs for the kindergartners through 9th graders. It's a beautiful and friendly parish, and I'm very excited to be working there! You can find our Facebook page here and our parish blog here.

I've had a few things published/posted/promulgated here and there in the last few months.

Over at Crisis Magazine, I asked, “Are We Still A Nation Of Laws?”, and shared some thoughts “On Converting for the Wrong Reasons.”

My first piece ever at Catholic Lane looked at one possible etymology of the word reconciliation to talk about how we can be “Eyelash to Eyelash with God.”

At Catholic Exchange I tried to give an explanation of the Church's philosophically-based understanding of the Eucharist in “Transubstantation for the Rest of Us.”

The Homiletic and Pastoral Review shared my thoughts on how the Church's art can communicate the truths of the faith in “Worth a Thousand Words: Iconography as Language.”

And Now... An Exciting Announcement!

I'm very pleased to share that my first-ever article will appear in print next month, as the St. Austin Review publishes my piece on how the evangelical counsels of poverty, celibacy, and obedience are present in The Lord of the Rings. Don't worry, I'll be posting a link so you can buy a copy!

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Links and Things: April 27, 2016

Greetings and salutations! Let's go around the horn on a few notable interests and interesting notes:

My obscenely talented brother, Paul Senz, had two diaconal-themed articles up at Our Sunday Visitor this week: one on deacons doing prison ministry, and another on deacons doing hospital ministry. (I have other ridiculously talented siblings, too, but their talents are not linkable, unfortunately.)

Here's an excellent piece over at The Catholic Thing by Fr. Jerry Pokorsky on the proper understanding of the word "judgmental," and why, when rightly understood, you want your priest to be judgmental after all.

Over at Catholic Stand, here's a moving piece by John McNichol that discusses his relationship with his father to illustrate the place of relics in our faith.

Check 'em out!

Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Philosophy of Sports Debates

I was listening to local sports talk radio the other day on my way home from work, as is my wont. One of the hosts introduced a quodlibet: "Who is the greatest basketball player of all time?" The other host stepped into the fray, and promulgated his judgment, not only of the question, but on the means by which it should be answered. And I think he was dead wrong. On both counts.

Our esteemed sportscaster said, "Everyone will say that Michael Jordan was the best player ever. Well, let me tell you. That's a belief. I have facts. And the facts say, when you add up all the accolades, all the championships, all the records, that Kareem-Abdul Jabbar is the greatest basketball player ever, hands down, no question, end of discussion." Or words to that effect. (Not to go all Richard Rich on you.)

Now, to decide any question, we first have to determine upon what grounds the question will be decided--that is, what is a fitting measurement or adequate method of evaluation. This is easier in some cases than in others. If the question is something simple and numeric, like "Who has the most home runs in baseball history?" then all we need do is count the totals of each player. (PED-related asterisks aside, for the moment.) The question at hand, though, is that of "greatness." How do we evaluate the greatness of a basketball player, or compare the greatness of one to another? This is where the sportscaster's distinction comes in, and in it we can see a deep philosophical bias--and, I would say, error.

There is a certain habit of thinking that attempts to make all of reality quantifiable--that is, this way of thinking assumes that there is a way to assign a number value to anything so that it can be measured. This is clearly the case with measurements of dimension and mass: length, width, height, weight, molar mass, and so on. We can divide these aspects of reality into discrete units and count them. My height can be divided into inches and added up. Simple enough. But some would apply this far beyond what we might usually expect.

A whole industry of "advanced metrics" has crept into sports in recent years and taken front offices by the cold calculating coup of number-crunching. These new measurements claim to be able to evaluate qualities that where heretofore considered "intangible." Whereas before we might debate amongst our friends how much better Player X is than other players at his position, now we have WAR (Wins Above Replacement) that makes this comparison numerical. Whereas before we might simply wax at how "smooth" or "effortless" a player makes the game look, now we have PER (Player Efficiency Rating) measuring the ease with which a player plays. Though the purists prefer combination of the classical statistics and their own "eye test," increasing numbers of fans, scouts, coaches, and executives are coming around to the idea that the intangibles were thought to be such merely because we hadn't yet devised the way to tangere (touch) them.

This belief has its roots in the philosophies of a host of Enlightenment thinkers, both empiricists and rationalists, who thought that reality, if nothing else, was measurable. And many of these, and their intellectual progeny, reversed the polarity of their thought and concluded that only what is measurable was real--that if I could not measure it, it did not exist. Only "facts" are real, and only measurable things are "facts." One sees this basic attitude in the writings of many a combox atheist today.

But, back to our sportscaster: do you see the connection? His primary assumption, the major premise of his argument, is that the greatness of a player can be calculated by a combination of countable things: championships, individual awards, performance records. So, if Kareem-Abdul Jabbar won six MVPs and six NBA titles, and Michael Jordan won only 5 MVPs and six NBA titles (just to truncate things a bit), then Kareem must be the greater player.

This, of course, is absurd. If we rely solely on adding these countable accomplishments, then clearly Robert Horry, who won seven NBA titles but no MVPs, is a greater player than Charles Barkley, who won no NBA titles and one MVP. In fact, such a measurement would populate the top of the "Greatest Players" list with the rosters of the Boston Celtics teams that won 11 championships in the 1950s and 60s. Would anyone say that?

No doubt, if confronted with this argument, our sportscaster would say, "Well, I mean, that's not all you'd take into account, obviously." Yes, agreed. And at that point we have exited the land of quantity and entered the realm of quality, where we can ask interesting questions like, "What does it mean to be 'great' at any endeavor or in any enterprise? What all must we consider?" Here such characteristics as competitiveness, determination, skills of various kinds, and the ability to inspire and connect with fans might come into play--all less susceptible to measurement. (While someone's shooting ability could be measured by a percentage, their ball-handling skills or defensive capabilities could not be.)

This is not a retreat to "belief," which the sportscaster apparently used to mean "sentimentality" or "unsupported feeling." No, now we're actually thinking about the myriad aspects of the matter, and not simply feeding the question into the supercomputer and awaiting an answer.

Let's ask the deeper questions and consider the larger picture. Because no one thinks Big Shot Bob is greater than Sir Charles.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Recent Hits

I know there's some stiff competition out there, but I may well be the worst blogger to ever put finger to keyboard. I have all the consistency of a watery tomato soup, with none of the flavor. But I have a renewed firm purpose of amendment. I will give y'all something to chew on, at the very least weekly. I think I can manage that.

Your entree this evening is... me! Here are a few of my recent postings from around the web....

An episode of The Twilight Zone addresses how it is we could have everything we want and still not be happy. St. Thomas Aquinas beat Rod Serling to the punch by 700 years, but the two mesh nicely together. I introduce them in Hell and Happiness in The Twilight Zone. (The piece was recommended by famed science fiction author John C. Wright. The fact that I emailed him about it is purely coincidental.)

Very often when we speak of the afterlife, we depict it as a state of disembodied souls blissfully floating around. How could we forget the great joy that awaits us, when we come to imitate Christ and rise from the dead? See more on this in The Resurrection: The Forgotten Tenet of Christian Faith.

I promise, I'll share again soon, and it won't be a detour to another site. Promise!

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Against Heresy Hunters

There is A Certain Kind of Catholic out there that I would designate a “Heresy Hunter.” I think once you read the description, you'll know the sort. My purpose in describing the Heresy Hunters is to help bring them to self-knowledge, that they might amend their ways.

The Heresy Hunter operates with the intention of preserving the orthodox faith of the Church. A noble cause, to be sure, but while an admirable intention is the beginning of a virtuous act, virtue can easily slide into vice when the method used and the circumstances in which the act takes place are not fitting. How does this happen? What does it look like?

The most frequent way in which the Heresy Hunter slips into sin while on his quest is in his method, specifically his neglect of his most effective and most necessary tool: charity. When I appeal to charity, I do not mean simple “niceness,” meaning a bland desire to not offend another’s sensibilities—so please, refrain from jeremiads against “the Church of Nice” and appeals to Jesus flipping over the money changers’ tables in the Temple. When I speak of charity, I mean it in its deepest sense: the love of the other, willing the good of the other, for the sake of the love of God; so, to speak to another charitably means to speak with them out of a desire for their good and salvation. St. Peter reminds us of this: while we are always to be ready with a defense for the hope that is in us, we must offer that defense "with gentleness and reverence" (1 Peter 3:16). Niceness may not be a Christian virtue, but kindness is a fruit of the Holy Spirit.

When you speak to another about the orthodox faith with charity, your goal is to open their mind to see the truth and persuade them to put aside any biases they may have against it. Your goal is not to berate them for having an incorrect opinion and to put them into a verbal armbar until they tap out and admit that you were right. When you do this, you put the person off and erect a new barrier in their minds against the truth of the faith. Even if your argument is persuasive and your evidence incontrovertible, your interlocutor may still refuse to acknowledge it and may still balk at the notion of entering the Church, because you’re a jerk, and they’d rather not associate with a jerk. This person has been driven away from the faith, not because “they can’t take the truth,” not because “this is a hard saying, who can do it,” not because they have found Catholicism difficult and left it untried, not because they are stupid or wicked or lazy, but because of you and your cold, harsh, joyless presentation of the faith.

There are also many occasions upon which the Heresy Hunter’s hyper-sensitivity causes him to see heresy where none exists. In my experience, this happens because the Hunter is overly familiar with one era of Church teaching but ignorant of others—one further proof of Alexander Pope’s maxim that “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” The Heresy Hunter may have memorized the canons of the Council of Trent but be less versed in Scripture (pun intended). To give an example, I knew of a priest who publicly excoriated his choir for singing a hymn that contained the line “this bread that we share is the Body of Christ,” denouncing the verse as an example of the Lutheran doctrine of consubstantiation, in which the bread and wine remain really present along with the presence of Christ (like a eucharistic version of Nestorianism, for you nerds playing at home). However, this phrase comes directly from 1 Corinthians 10:16: “The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” It is an understatement to say that one should probably refrain from calling a verse of Scripture heretical. This is the mirror image of the tendency of some of our Protestant brethren to reject any extra-Scriptural term as “unbiblical.” Though its texts are inspired, the words of Scripture do not exhaust the concepts they describe, nor do the quaestiones of the Summa Theologiae, nor the anathemas of Trent.

These two tendencies, the lack of charity and the hypersensitivity to language (and over-emphasis on certain expressions), often come together in that greatest of discussion spaces: Facebook. A prime example often occurs when people write paeans to their lost loved ones. Someone might write, "Grandma's gone, but that just means we have another angel watching over us." This is an expression of their belief in the communion of saints, in their grandmother's continued charitable concern and intercession for them. And most people will take this in the spirit in which it is offered. But the Heresy Hunter does not. Rather than offering condolences to the family member or prayers for the departed person, the Heresy Hunter believes it most pressing to point out that people do not become angels when they die, that angels are pure intellectual forms as opposed to substantial relations of matter and form as humans are, and that It's a Wonderful Life is a terrible movie for spreading such fallacious ideas. The Heresy Hunter here has missed the point, and in his zeal to technically correct a sentimental statement, he has no doubt made that person ill-disposed toward anything further he has to say. (I would like to see someone respond to that by noting that the Greek word angelos simply means "messenger," so that it is appropriate in an analogical sense to refer to any intercessor as an angel.)

The nub of my gist here is that the Heresy Hunter treats a means as an end: the purpose of our seeking to refine our theological language is not to end up with a fine set of spiritual encyclopedias all perfectly accurate and up to date; rather, the purpose of such precision is to aid us in our contemplation of God, and our growing in friendship with Him. We write theological books not to bash others over the head with them, but, in a sense, as love letters to the Lord. The great saints and the great theologians are marked by a joy and serenity. The Heresy Hunter is marked by anger and sourness. I would encourage the Heresy Hunter to keep his eyes fixed on the Lord. Contemplating His face brings us peace, a peace that compels us to draw others in to enter into their Master's joy.