Christianity, Islam, Marriage, Parenting, regligious education, Uncategorized

End of the series/back to work

I have to get back focused on other things now, so no more posts from me.  If anyone found the prior posts useful and would like to see the rest, you can read it for free in the kindle library , or if you like paper I published at the minimum allowed price. Especially in these times, when so many people seem to be citing God as the sponsor of hatred and violence, I think it is important to counter the nonsense that confuses people into accepting that sort of thing, and bring all of what Mohammed called “the People of the Book”, his approving term for anyone who followed an uncorrupted version of  Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, back to an understanding of God as a loving being who gives us all what we need generously and freely if we will only take the time and focus to find it, asking nothing in return, but who cannot force us to be good. We must each work to learn to feel pleasure in doing the right thing, which is to do good for all God’s creatures and to participate in the love that is God. The message is simple. It only needs a book full of explanations because people have been so determined to complicate it and distort it to serve their own ends.

Love and peace to all.

 

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Christianity, Parenting, regligious education, Uncategorized

Loving Your Neighbor – Love Works No Ill to His Neighbor, Therefore Love is the Fulfillment of the Law

The great commandment to love your neighbor as yourself should be understood in the light of the above discussion of virtue and the concept of connectedness. The words of Jesus at Mark 12:31 were carefully chosen.  He did not say to love your neighbor as your child, or spouse, or brother, but as yourself. Most of us, at least, do not feel particular affection for ourselves, but we tend to be highly concerned for our well being, and seek to avoid harm to ourselves. We should view our neighbors in the same light, not necessarily with any feeling of warm affection, but at least with concern and caring. We must realize that we are all connected in the community of God’s creatures, and that we should seek to guide, comfort, and protect one another.  Following this principle will go a long way towards leading us to virtue.  Since God loves all of his creatures, treating his creatures with love will bring us into alignment with him.

It is important to make this distinction between affection and concern, for it is not possible for at least most of us to feel affection for our neighbors.  Out of the over 7,400,000,000 people on Earth, a great many are unpleasant or irritating individuals, and some are evil beyond imagining.[1] Faced with a command to love these beings, one is inclined to just ignore it as an unreasonable proposition. Yet, we do not have to like them to treat them with love in the sense of the commandment. If they do harm we may try to stop them. If they are irritating we may try to guide them towards better behavior, for their own sake as well as ours. If they are selfish and imposing we need not allow them to take advantage of us, but rather we should try to help them to see the error of their ways. We must not ignore the commandment out of misunderstanding.

As I write this, there is a man who can be found sitting in a wheelchair every morning on the Wabash Avenue bridge over the Chicago River. He holds a cup which he shakes a bit as people pass buy, hoping they will drop in some small change. He never asks for money, but simply says “good morning” as each stranger passes.[2] I don’t know why this neighbor finds it necessary to make or supplement his living this way. He is up bright and early and is a man of regular habits, so one would suppose that either private enterprise or society’s social service mechanisms would provide for him. Be that as it may, I am somewhat glad to see him out there, for by his presence he provides a social service to those of his neighbors willing to avail themselves of the opportunity. He does not stand reeking of alcohol and ask passersby for money for a “cup of coffee”. He does not defraud people by asking for the fare for a bus trip he never intends to take. He does not try to intimidate anyone into giving, or curse them if they pass him by. Sitting quietly, saying his “good mornings”, he lets those so inclined give him a small contribution just because they want to. No contributor will be featured on the society page in an article celebrating their benevolence. No one will be pressured by her employer to boost the office contribution rate to 100 percent by giving him a check. Any contribution is a strictly private matter, just between this neighbor, the donor, and God. This is the way that charity should be.

It is unfortunate that in our society the charitable impulse has suffered greatly both at the hands of fraudulent practitioners and institutionalized extractions. The noxious beggars who claim to have been caught without bus fare perform a great disservice, replacing the good feeling of giving with the self-accusatory regret of having been defrauded, and eventually teach people who would be happy to help out someone who really had been caught short to ignore every plea. The United Way campaigns, while admittedly providing a great deal of money for good works, likewise tend to replace the joy of giving with the same emotions that surround a tax. As discussed previously, pressure at work makes the donation less than voluntary, and people come to resent it.  State welfare, while providing a more comprehensive safety net than traditional charities, forces the “donor” to provide the funds on penalty of imprisonment, and encourages recipients to view state-sponsored benevolence as a “right” to be enforced rather than as a nice act producing warm feelings of gratitude and faith in one’s fellow humans. Even the somewhat abstract good feeling that taxpayers may get from knowing that they support a society that tries to let no one go hungry fades if the welfare system comes to support work-capable people who prefer to claim the entitlement. Thus, we become increasingly unpracticed at caring for our neighbors. We grow in solitude, aloof from everyone outside of our little circle of family and friends, as the remainder of humanity fades under a cold frost of indifference.

It might be a step in the right direction to recall that for most of us, loving ourselves depends upon feeling that we have done our best to demonstrate responsibility, to do what we can to solve our own problems and help ourselves. Indeed, we are reminded that the Lord helps those who help themselves. America has been tending to drift towards the responsibility-free society. In the early 60s, serious student activists spoke of “student rights and responsibilities”, viewing the two things as inextricably intertwined. One could not claim any right, save perhaps the right to be left alone, unless one exercised certain related responsibilities. The responsibilities part of that phrase soon fell away. Now people claim that all kinds of things are rights, and that the possessors of those supposed rights have no responsibility to do anything to earn them. For example, we are told that everyone should have a right to infinite medical care of the very best sort, but that nobody should be required to do anything to look out for his own health in exchange.

Do you feel good about yourself if you ask a friend for financial help when you have not made any real effort to avoid or address the problem yourself? We should assume that our neighbors are the same. Asking them to exercise responsibility is not an insult. It is not arrogant or dictatorial. It is recognition that people who properly recognize the principle of connectedness do not want to impose on the goodwill of others. I do not advocate having an advanced society rely exclusively on private charity to avoid poverty or disease. However, a return to the notion of intertwined rights and responsibilities can help the recipients of government help to feel better about themselves at the same time that it helps the taxpayers to feel better about supporting a generous society. Do your neighbors the honor of assuming that they want to do their part. Do not contribute to their corruption by undermining the sense of connection we have to each other. Support a system that you, as a generous, hardworking person, would want to have in place for your protection, that asks the same of others (to the best of their abilities) that you would ask of yourself. A society of infinite “rights” is not the same thing as a loving society. If we clear up that confusion and focus on what connectedness means, we can help love to prosper.

[1] See my book for considerations regarding prisoners and the death penalty.

[2] I note that he is quite different from most of the younger beggers in Boston, for example, who aggressively demand money as their right and are fond of insulting the passers by. They make it difficult to feel good about giving them anything, and they make it hard to believe that any contribution would be used for good purposes. I know for a fact that on of them lives with his parents in a well-to-do household. He either does not think of the effect of his fraud upon persons with real needs or he simply does not care.

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Christianity, Marriage, Parenting, regligious education, Uncategorized

Virtue – The Good and the Misguided

If we are to pursue virtue, we need to have some idea of what it looks like. A man may believe himself to be virtuous, while another person thinks him to be a monster. Is virtue in the eye of the beholder, or is one person right and the other wrong? It does not make sense that we could not determine whether or not an action truly is virtuous, or that the virtuousness or evil of an act is just a matter of opinion. God would not leave us that exposed. The task of determining virtue is not always easy, but we do have a basis for discovering the answer.

To do so, again we must look to the principle of connectedness. We are in a world with other creatures beloved by God. God wants what is best for all of his creatures, collectively. Therefore, if a given action helps one or more of his creatures without harming another, it must be good. If another action harms a creature without helping another, it must be bad. If an action does some good and some harm, then it must be judged in light of the relative degree of harm and good and, most importantly, in light of the available alternatives. You cannot claim to have acted virtuously just because your action did more good than harm if you could have instead acted in a way that produced just the good without the harm. This is simply the Golden Rule, do unto others as you would have them do unto you, with the important qualifier that they are not you, and that therefore you must be considerate of their situations in determining how best to act.

This is not complex or difficult in theory. There are few who would argue with the proposition that acting in a way that makes people happier and avoiding acting in a way that makes people unhappy, all things considered, is a good thing to do. The difficulty comes from the complexity of the workings of the world and its creatures. If a child hits her playmate it is generally good to scold her, despite the fact that it makes her unhappy at the time, in order to try to prevent her from making her playmates unhappy and also in order to try to keep her from being unhappy later when her former playmates avoid her. If a child wants something it may sometimes be best to say “no”, even if you can afford to buy the thing for the child, because it is important to teach children that getting material things is not the road to true happiness.  Arresting a degraded drug addict and putting her in a non-punitive work camp of some sort where she can dry out and learn basic life skills may be a good thing, even it is entirely against her will and she insists that she wants to go back to the vile life she was leading, although there are people who will vehemently argue that this is wrong. If a country is having a civil war, with horrible slaughter by both sides, perhaps it is good for a country like America to send troops who will do enough violence to persuade both sides to stop, even if that means the Americans will necessarily kill innocent civilians along with the guilty combatants, or then again perhaps it is best to let the combatants kill each other until they discover it is a bad idea (though, sadly, usually both sides find it more amusing and safer to kill civilians and avoid contacting the armed troops of the other side). Once a war has started, alternative interventions, such as offers to arbitrate and the like, seem to have limited success in dissuading armies that have not yet tired of war. The objective is clear, but the best means of getting there may often be very difficult to determine.

To some extent this is why advanced societies have chosen to separate political authority from religious authority. If the most virtuous course of action was clear in every complex situation, we could simply seek to find a very good person and make her supreme dictator. In reality, however, any one person will make mistakes; no ordinary human is qualified to be the supreme oracle of virtue. So, we look to the collective wisdom and virtue of the population to keep political leaders in check and let them know when they have made mistakes. When political leaders are forced to explain their actions in simple terms of right and wrong, of harms and benefits and alternative choices, rather than claiming to act under divine guidance or through some other form of special knowledge, the chances of choosing a course of action that is pretty close to the right one are increased.[1] The greatest benefit of separating Church from State lies not so much in preventing the State from imposing religious rituals on unwilling participants, but rather in preventing the State from wrapping itself in the mantle of the Church in order to claim that its actions are beyond question.[2]  Virtue grows and blooms under questioning; sin shrivels.

Virtue does not consist of pious enforcement of a book of rules. This is illustrated by the story of the woman taken in adultery. While she had broken the moral rules, the virtuous member of the crowd was not one of the ones who sought to punish her under the law, but rather the one who protected her and sought to lead her lovingly to a better life. Virtue lies in examining the world about you and looking for opportunities to help others to achieve happiness. In one case that may be through helping a delinquent youth to reform. In another it may be through catching a more vicious young criminal and locking him up so that the children of the neighborhood may play together in peace. In either case, all of the consequences of the action must be considered to the best of your ability, and a course chosen that will best serve all of God’s creatures.

This is not quite the same as the utilitarian formula of choosing the course that does the greatest good for the greatest number. Philosophers have been fond of attacking that formula by suggesting that it can be used to justify slavery or other wrongs that inflict an injustice on a minority for the benefit of the majority. The Christian formula for virtue, in contrast, is rooted in the notion that the greatest good for anyone is the achievement of divine bliss, not material well-being. Viewed in that light, the “beneficiaries” of slave labor receive a harm, not a real benefit, because they will be unable to reconcile the duty to love their fellow creatures with a system that harms any set of those creatures. Under the Christian formula, a harm may be inflicted only when there is no other way to prevent a greater harm from being suffered. A child should only be punished when reasoning and explanation fail, and then only because it is necessary to help the child to learn to avoid behavior that will harm it (physically or socially or spiritually) or harm others. A sin should only be punished as a crime when it harms others. A nation should go to war only to stop the army of another nation from inflicting great harm (more on this later). The Christian has a duty, whenever possible, to seek a loving, helping solution to problems, for that is the solution that will best help all involved to achieve alignment with God. When one assumes that all of the parties love and want the best for the others (while keeping in mind that really they may not), it substantially changes the math in determining which course does the greatest good.

The above discussion should not cause the reader to believe that finding a virtuous course of action is too difficult for the average person in our complex world. While coming up with the clear right answer in a given situation may be difficult, the process of reasoning through the problem is based on just the three simple principles outlined above. The chapters of my book illustrate how these principles may be used to address some very difficult problems. Most importantly, though, the key to success in the pursuit of virtue lies not in always finding the “right” answer, but rather in making the effort to try with love in your heart. Indeed, as the discussions in my book  illustrate, in the most difficult problems the solution may not lie so much in the action as in the spirit in which the action is performed. You cannot ask yourself to do more than your capabilities permit, and you may feel the divine joy of virtue so long as you do your best. In this respect, think of a young child who “helps” his mother with the housework. The fact that the child is likely to be more hindrance than help does not alter the fact that he is trying to help to the best of his abilities, and so he will justly feel good about it and his mother will love him for it just as much as if he was really able to assist her. God is no less generous than that mother. To God, the sincere desire to act in a virtuous way, so long as it is in fact attempted in a loving manner, is the only important thing.

[1] This model of democracy assumes that the political leaders are making a good faith effort to find and do the right thing in the spirit of cooperation. Sadly, politicians increasingly are just focused on trying to make the other party look bad, which makes harvesting the collective wisdom impossible.

[2] Many will disagree with me about this, but it makes me gag when a politician invokes the name of God. Politicians should speak in terms of good and evil actions and be forced to explain why a proposed action is good in terms of its specific effects on people and the world. They should not be permitted to speak as though they are God’s chosen and act as though that gives their (usually corrupt) actions, without real explanation, God’s approval.

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Christianity, Marriage, Parenting, regligious education, Uncategorized

Sin and Repentance – The Deadly Desires and Their Cure

Greed, envy, lust, wrath, gluttony, vanity – all are sins of Wanting, of non-virtuous desire.  Sloth is a sin of a somewhat different sort, one of lack of virtuous desire. By examining these we may understand more complex varieties of sin.

To understand sin we need only recall the above discussion of the nature of heaven and hell. Those who allow themselves to be preoccupied with material desires become incapable of experiencing the bliss of heaven, and instead fall into the self-feeding torment of insatiable Wanting. They actively follow a path to hell. Those who simply are too lazy to develop virtue, who waste their lives merely earning a living and finding amusements to fill the dreary hours of their lives, also fail to develop the ability to experience the bliss of heaven. They may not be punished by the gnawing hunger of Want that the more active sins involve, but still they do not achieve the bliss of virtue. Both types of sin, if engaged in to excess without repentance and reform, involve a choice on the sinner’s part not to follow the only path that leads to divine bliss, the path of developing alignment with God. It is for this reason that they are sins. Thus, sins are not arbitrary rules that God has set up just for fun. Rather, sin is something that inherently, in the nature of things, prevents the mind and soul from focusing on virtue.

It is important to understand that sin is not a matter of making God angry by breaking the rules. God does not look down upon a rich and greedy man and think “he must be punished for that after he dies”, any more than a good parent would decide to punish their child for something years after the fact, when the punishment couldn’t any longer be expected to help the child to improve her behavior and avoid future mistakes. God does not have the angels taking names of teenage boys who see an attractive girl and think about having sex with her. Sin is a disappointment to God, not an offense.  It is a disappointment because it is a distraction from the process of alignment with God. If the rich man remains so concerned with earning his next million that he cannot learn to find joy in taking time and wealth to help others, then he will fail to develop the habit of mind that leads to eternal bliss, and God will not be able to help him. If the teenager, after he grows up and his hormones calm down, still spends his days and nights looking for new and more extreme sexual gratification rather than finding true love and learning to regard sex as a way of giving pleasure and affection to his wife, then he will become increasingly obsessed with desires that cannot satisfy the soul. If a woman spends her whole life watching videos and staring at a computer screen to stave off boredom, she will never develop the ability to feel the joy and excitement that flows from love and virtue. God does not banish these people from heaven as a punishment for breaking the rules. They keep themselves from heaven by choosing paths that can only lead elsewhere.

This fact, that God does not become angry with us for sinning, but rather that we lead ourselves to unhappiness through sinning, makes it easier to understand the process of repentance and “forgiveness”. I have often heard people express puzzlement over the Catholic rite of confession. Their statements go something like: “Boy, Catholics have it good. You can be the worst person in the world, but if you confess it to the priest before you die and say a few Hail Marys it’s all okay.” In reality, confession and repentance are not that easy. Confession, for those who practice it, is not about revealing your sins to the priest. Rather, it is designed to force you to think about your actions and reveal your sins to yourself. Once you have reviewed your behavior and found your errors, the next step is to repent of the sins.

Repentance is not a matter of telling God that you are sorry. It is a matter of being sorry. Many parents will at some point have been through the following little drama. Brother hits sister, making her cry. Parent tells brother to say he is sorry, which he does. One minute later, brother hits sister again.  Upon seeing parent’s look of displeasure, brother voluntarily says “I’m sorry!”  Parent then explains to brother that just saying he is sorry isn’t enough, when obviously he wasn’t really sorry or he wouldn’t have done it again.  This same simple understanding of the true nature of repentance applies to all sin. True repentance involves thinking about the nature of the action, realizing that it is wrong, and developing an intention to avoid doing it again.  It is a process of moving away from sin and towards alignment with God.  Without this sort of repentance, no amount of confessing or apologizing will do any good. Likewise, if the sinner truly does repent of his action, if he truly is sorry for what he has done and has resolved to improve, then no particular act of repentance or granting of forgiveness by a priest or anyone else is required to heal the soul of the sinner. The rite of confession is merely an aid to true repentance.[1] Likewise, the acts of penance prescribed by the priest are not a form of reparations to God, but rather are a way to help lead the repentant sinner to further contemplate his error and strengthen his resolve to avoid repeating the sin. Unfortunately, too many people regard them as a form of payment for the sin, to be gotten out of the way before going and sinning some more, rather than taking the opportunity of the prayers to improve their resolve and make real progress in their alignment with God.

Can major sinners be redeemed? Yes, but it isn’t easy. It is hard to change a habit of mind. A person immersed in greed, lust, or vanity will have a very hard time getting away from those desires and finding pleasure in virtue. It is, however, possible, in the rare case that something happens to cause the sinner to make a real about face and realize the error of his ways.  Is it fair that such a person, if he successfully repents and reforms, should be able to achieve heaven, just as a person who has been good all her life can do? Yes, for two reasons. First, again the main reason why sins are sins is not because they involve breaking rules, but rather because they involve a distraction from virtue. A person can be immersed in greed or lust his whole life without necessarily ever harming anyone except himself, so if he then succeeds in seeing the error of his ways and turns around to pursue active virtue, why shouldn’t he achieve bliss? Secondly, to the extent that the sinner has harmed others in his career of sin, if he truly repents and reforms he will suffer in his own mind in proportion to the amount of harm he has caused.  If a wrathful person has gone about beating people up for years and does not greatly regret those actions, feeling real pain of heart for it, then he has not really repented and reformed. Thus, we should not think of the reformed sinner as going unpunished, for he will be punished in and through his own repentance. Indeed, if a formerly grievous sinner claims to have seen the light and adopts a serene and peaceful attitude, one may guess that his reform is far from thorough. Have you ever kicked yourself for days over some fairly minor insensitive or ill-conceived action of yours? Imagine how you would feel, as a normal good person, if you had committed the offenses of the grievous sinner; the truly reformed person will suffer at least that much from the arrows of his own conscience. Indeed, Dante envisioned purgatory, the afterlife waystation where some sects believe reformed sinners go before being admitted to heaven, as a place where the sinners rather gleefully jumped into searing fires of purification. Having truly repented, they are so aghast at their own sins that the pain of burning away the taint is a relative comfort. Don’t try this at home, of course, but Dante’s vision helps us to visualize how true repentance inherently pains the sinner in direct proportion to the degree to which others have suffered from his sins, which should satisfy our sense of fairness. Further, we can be assured that there is no way to get around this. Anyone who truly repents will feel that pain, and anyone who does not truly repent will not be saved.[2]

This brings us to the distinction between sin and crime. People have often been tempted to make all sins crimes, but the two things are different.  If a man steals a loaf of bread because it is the only way that he can feed his child, he has technically committed a crime but he has not committed a sin.  His action does not lead him away from the path of virtue, for he is risking punishment out of love and concern for his child. If consenting adults choose to spend their evenings in a sex club pursuing their sexual desires, they are committing a sin but not a crime. By feeding their wants they lead themselves away from the path of virtue, but they are not hurting other innocent people. If a person, on a sudden whim, shoots someone dead just to see what it feels like to kill someone, then he commits a terrible crime but not – by the act – such a terrible sin. Since the action itself was short and impulsive, it was not a great distraction. The terrible sin came earlier, in developing the depravity of mind that made the murderer so concerned with feeding his own desires that he considers the satisfaction of a whim of his own more important than the very life of another person. Sin is internal, a process of inflicting harm on one’s own mind and soul. Crime is external, a process of inflicting harm on others. Crime can be controlled by governments through punishing and locking up offenders, though they should bear in mind that virtuous people rarely intentionally hurt others, and that investments in stimulating virtue may thus be very effective in lessening crime. Sin, on the other hand, cannot be effectively controlled by putting offenders in prison, for such punishment is unlikely to cause the misguided sinner to reform his mind and soul. The concept of prison as a penitentiary was never notably successful.

Understanding that sin is, in essence, distraction from virtue can also help in understanding a class of actions that are, for want of a better term, “sin-like” without being in themselves something we would think of as bad.  Even the finest of emotions, such as the love of a parent for a child, can go wrong. The infamous Texas cheerleader mother is an example. She was obsessed with wanting her daughter to do well and get whatever she wanted.  This obsession grew to the point where she tried to hire someone to kill the mother of her daughter’s rival for a position on the high school cheerleading squad, in the hopes that the death of the mother would cause the rival to be depressed and drop out of contention. Clearly, trying to have someone murdered is a crime. The more interesting fact here, though, is that the normally good impulse of loving and wanting to help one’s daughter had been warped into a sin-like obsession that was itself a bad thing. As far as the press reports revealed, she had no hatred for the intended victim of the crime, but her obsessive devotion to her child’s wants had the same poisonous effects as sinful, seething hatred.

How can you tell when this line has been crossed? To find the answer, we should recall the principle of connectedness. All actions must be viewed in the context of our place in a world filled with other humans and animals.  Our devotion to ourselves, our families, and our friends must be evaluated in light of its effects on others. Charity begins at home, and it is right to spend extra effort looking after the people who, by virtue of being family or close friends, are your special responsibility. However, when serving the apparent interests of family and friends results in harm to others, the interests of everyone must be considered. God does not play favorites, and those who wish to align themselves with God must be willing to take that broader perspective. A mother who finds that she has great devotion to her child but no sympathy at all for other children has gone astray. A parent who fights for the unrestrained liberty of a child who has proven himself to be an incorrigible danger to other children has also gone astray; the parent should continue to love the child and try to help him reform, but should not fight for the child’s freedom to continue to harm others. We are all creatures of the world, and we must try to be good citizens of the world, promoting the web of good behavior that will help all of God’s children to have the best life possible.

If an act, viewed in isolation on the basis of its individual facts, would normally be seen as evil, then chances are that it is not any less so just because it is performed from a misguided surplus of family loyalty, patriotism, or religious fervor. Using a bomb to blow up a person on the street who has committed no particular offense is evil, even if that person happens to be a member of a religious group that has tended to treat the perpetrator’s religious group unfairly. The religious tribalism that underlies the act is sinful, and has taken the place of real religious devotion. A soldier who intentionally injures a noncombatant citizen of the enemy country acts, at best, out of a sinful excess of anti-foreign hatred that has dispossessed the type of good patriotic pride that causes other soldiers to be careful always to act with honor, even at danger to themselves. People who act as an accomplice to a criminal boyfriend or girlfriend act out of a sinful obsession that masquerades as love. All such obsessions are just as harmful as conventional sin in preventing alignment with God.

[1] For avoidance of doubt, I am not suggesting that Catholics not bother with confession. To the contrary, my point is that they should take the process seriously, and that persons of other faiths without this rite should seek an equivalent means of repenting and steering away from their sins. Also, in fairness, Catholic doctrine would dispute that the rite is not strictly necessary, noting that Peter was delegated power to forgive or not forgive sins. However, I believe this is a matter of how one views the nature of the delegation. One cannot think that God intended to give Peter arbitrary power to deny forgiveness to a good and truly repentant person on a whim, so one must suppose that Christ’s meaning was “Peter, you understand how true repentance works – if you and your followers say someone’s sins are forgiven, it means that they have done what is needed to repent and cure the sin.” Similarly, though the church may not say this, I think most Catholics would be convinced that if a man dies alone after confessing and repenting of his sins in the presence of only God, it will still work. Priests are intended to be a help, not an impediment

[2] In my own unsupported opinion, I think this is the reason why Catholic doctrine really puts a strong emphasis on having a priest perform the Last Rites and grant forgiveness. Even a mundane sinner, upon having her mind focused by impending death, may feel such anguish over her relatively minor sins that her soul will be heavily disturbed not only despite but because of her true repentance. The priest may calm this disturbance and help the soul to depart in peace.

 

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Christianity, Parenting, regligious education, Uncategorized

Good Works – Doing the Right Thing for the Wrong Reason

Different Christian sects differ on the importance of doing good works in the process of salvation, but I believe this is due to a lack of common understanding as to the nature and purpose of good works. Can a person do good and charitable things throughout their life and still not achieve heavenly bliss? Yes. Can a person achieve heavenly bliss without doing good and charitable things? No. Good works are a symptom of faith, so that any person who has faith and virtue will do them, but good works are not in themselves virtue. It is possible, and indeed common, to do the right thing for the wrong reason.

How can there be a wrong reason for doing a good act? Again, one must recall the nature of heavenly bliss and of faith. To achieve bliss you must have enough faith to do the right thing simply because it is the right thing, not because you expect any kind of reward. If I give hours each day and much of my earnings to charity because I will be fussed over and admired by other people, then I am acting like Contracting Connie. I will not be enjoying the acts themselves, but rather will be suffering through them in order to get an external reward from other people. The character of Mrs. Jellyby in Dickens’s Bleak House, who devotes herself to prominent charitable causes while seriously neglecting her own children, is a notable example of this breed. If I give ten percent of my earnings to the church because a minister has told me that unless I do I will be cast into a lake of fire, then I am just trying to avoid punishment rather than receiving enjoyment from the knowledge that I have done a good thing. Doing the right thing for the wrong reason is better than doing the wrong thing, but it will not lead to the ability to feel heavenly bliss. We must learn to feel enjoyment just because we have done a good thing, even if we receive no gratitude or admiration at all.

Should you encourage your children to do good works even if they don’t (at least at first) want to? Helping someone just to avoid being scolded by your parents is doing the right thing for the wrong reason, so a child cannot necessarily be expected to achieve virtue this way. However, being persuaded to do a good act can help the child to achieve real virtue by giving them a chance to experience the good feelings that flow from good actions, so that at some future opportunity they may be more inclined to do the good thing simply because it is good. The task for a parent, then, is to try to help the child to enjoy performing the good action. The child must understand why it is good, and should be helped to see the beneficial effects of the action on the person or animal that they are helping. The act should not be referred to as a “sacrifice”, but should be celebrated as an enjoyable activity (“wasn’t it nice to see how she cheered up when you helped her?”). Such little steps, though they may be initiated by the parent rather than by the child’s own desire to do good, can help to lead a child to the point where she no longer needs the parental prodding. Of course, if the parent performs good works and discusses the good feeling that they produce, the lesson will likely be more convincing than if the parent simply sends the child off to help a neighbor while the parent watches a football game.

Should a grownup force herself to go out and do good works? Perhaps, but just as with a child it should be done with a view to learning to do the right thing for the right reason. If you think back over the past year and discover that you have made very little effort to help others, then you should use your prayer time to examine your priorities and to seek the degree of faith that will enable you to want to spend time helping others. Then, forcing yourself to overcome your inertia by simply making up your mind that you are going to go and do some good deed will help you to put that faith into action. In this way, you will be doing the right thing for something pretty close to the right reason, and you will likely find that you rapidly begin to take real pleasure in doing good deeds. On the other hand, if you simply feel embarrassed because you feel that people expect you to be doing some good deeds, and so you look around for some easy ones to satisfy the obligation, you will be unlikely to progress in virtue. The key is to keep in mind the goal of doing virtuous actions for virtue’s sake, and of learning to draw pleasure from the act of doing good itself.[1]

Should adults be pressured by others to do good works? We need to be very careful here. Consider the effects of the typical American United Way campaign. Most Americans are generous, and unless they are desperately poor (and often even if they are desperately poor) they will seek to donate to worthy causes without prodding. Employers and organizations, though, like to boost their reputation in the community by harnessing the giving of their employees or members into a campaign in the organization’s name. If the company or organization does that the right way, it’s a great thing. They can make it easy for employees to give by payroll deduction, they can increase the power of giving by providing matching gifts, and they can make it easier to spend time on charitable works or provide funds for charitable endeavors. The problem comes when they have “100% participation” campaigns where employees are pressured to give. This taints the charitable impulses. Gifts that were freely and anonymously given just for the pleasure of giving now become an obligation where one’s name is checked off on a list. Similarly, celebrating givers, rather than celebrating gifts, can shift a selfless impulse into a selfish one, replacing simple joy in giving with pleasure in being recognized and admired for giving. Corruption is a subtle thing, and we must be ever-vigilant to keep it from undermining virtue.

[1] It is interesting to see, as I write this, that Word’s grammar check thinks that I am unlikely to mean “doing good”, but does not raise any question on the phrase “doing well”. Apparently we spend much more time discussing our competitive performance than we do discussing doing good works. That should not be true.

Conversations starters in the media – In addition to Bleak House, an episode of WKRP in Cincinnati called Jennifer and Johnny’s Charity does a nice job on this one. More generally, Buffy the Vampire Slayer does a great job of illustrating doing the right thing for the right reasons; our heroes get no thanks or respect from their peers and get in trouble with the adults, but do the right thing simply because it needs doing.

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Christianity, Marriage, Parenting, regligious education, Uncategorized

Difficult Concepts 9 – The Enjoyment of Goodness

While the general good feeling that comes from having done a good thing is not normally thought of as a grace, since it lacks a corresponding sacrament, this earthly version of divine bliss may in fact be the most important form of grace of all. If I find a spider drowning in the sink and put her safely outside, I know that the spider will feel no gratitude, and nobody else will know what I have done. I don’t think that this small act will get me into heaven, or earn me any other kind of reward. Yet, I am rewarded for the act by feeling good about it. This is not the earned reward of a laborer, a thing expected as payment for a task performed. It is a grace, a gift freely given to anyone with faith enough to believe in the virtue of doing a good thing just because it is good. Like the other forms of grace, it is a gift that can only be received by a person who is prepared to receive it. If I do the good deed because I am forced to, or to avoid embarrassment, or to impress someone, I will not receive the feeling of bliss. To receive the gift, I must see the chance to do the good deed as an opportunity, a thing to be enjoyed, not as a task. It is only by seeing the opportunity to help as being in itself a gift, rather than as a job to be gotten through in order to receive the reward of feeling good, that the good feeling may be received. By recognizing and accepting this gift, then, we help to bring ourselves into alignment with God, and prepare ourselves to receive the gift of heavenly bliss.

The nature of free will prevents God from forcing us to learn to align ourselves with Him, but He freely gives us every chance to find that path ourselves. All that we need to do to receive these gifts is to open our hearts and minds to the grace that is offered to us. We do not earn them, for they are truly gifts, but we must prepare ourselves to receive them. The joy that flows from these gifts is not the fleeting pleasure of material recreations, but participation in a divine joy that builds upon itself, leading us upward towards the perpetual joy of heaven.

Conversation starters in the media:  A scene that springs to mind is the Tuppence a Bag sequence in Mary Poppins. Using your tuppence to feed the ungrateful pigeons rather than  putting them in the bank has no obvious utility, but the movie helps us to feel that it is a superior choice in terms of embracing giving for its own sake.  Charlotte’s Web likewise show’s that Fern’s kindness is proper, even if others don’t immediately understand it.

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Christianity, Marriage, Parenting, regligious education, Uncategorized

Difficult Concepts Made Simple 6 – Grace and Marriage

Grace – The Reward to Him That Works is Not Reckoned of Grace, But of Debt

My previous explanation of prayer may help to illustrate the concept of grace. We say that we receive God’s grace in prayer, in the sacraments, or in our daily lives. What does this mean? What does grace do for us, and how do we obtain it? Why is it important for us to recognize our opportunities to receive grace?

Grace by definition is not a thing that we earn. It is something that we receive, or at least have available to us, by virtue of the generosity of the giver, not the merit of the receiver. As has already been noted, God should not be confused with a petty human monarch, who dispenses favors to those that please him and punishments to those who go against his will. God loves everyone and gives everyone a chance to use their free will to find their way to divine bliss. God’s grace is offered freely to all who will take it. It is not denied because a person has sinned, or held back until the proper ritual is performed using the right magic words. A loving parent would not deprive her child of helpful advice just because the child had been irritating, nor would she withhold it until the child said “pretty please”, but rather gives it as a grace simply because she loves her child, and will continue to give it even if her child turns away from her for a time. If the child will receive the advice, it will be freely given, whatever the circumstances. God is no less generous or loving. If a person is willing to receive grace, it will be given.

However, as any parent who has offered advice to a child well knows, merely offering a grace is no guarantee that it will be accepted, no matter how valuable it may be. While God can offer grace, if a person’s mind and heart are closed to the gift it will do them no good. We must recognize and desire grace or we cannot receive it.

Of what, then, does God’s grace consist? It is assistance in achieving alignment with God. In the discussion of prayer I explained that the things we properly pray for are things that God has already made available to us; prayer is the vehicle by which we receive and use the gift that has already been given. That gift, in its various forms, is part of the grace of God.  Through it we find bliss in virtue. To understand how this works, or fails to work, it may be helpful to walk through a number of the common opportunities to receive grace, and clarify how the grace is transmitted to a willing recipient.

Marriage

Let’s begin with marriage. In the sacrament of marriage we commit ourselves to lifelong, unselfish love of another person. A person who takes the marriage vows is promising to attend to the happiness and well-being of his new spouse, come thick or thin. In practice, however, brides and bridegrooms can generally be sorted into two categories with regard to the significance that they attach to this vow. To one group, it means: “This person has a lot of attractive features, and so I promise to stick with her in a monogamous relationship for so long as I continue to find her attractive and find marriage to be compatible with the things that I want out of life. However, if I ever feel that my marriage is constraining me and keeping me from doing things that I think would make me happier, then I can always get divorced.” To the other group (which, unfortunately, no longer appears to be a majority) it means: “I vow to do whatever I can to help my spouse to be happy, and I have faith that my own path to happiness lies in keeping true to this vow and understanding that happiness does not lie on the other side of the fence, but rather here in our home, together. I have faith that I can never increase my own happiness by chasing ambition, freedom from duties, or a younger and prettier face, but must find happiness in my own heart and the heart of the person who loves me. I have faith that I cannot improve my happiness in marriage by asking my spouse to give me more, but that I may continue to increase my wedded bliss if I offer to give her more every day, for her happiness will be my happiness, and her sorrows my sorrows, tomorrow as today, forever.”

A bridegroom in the second category participates in the sacrament with full understanding, faith and love. In so doing, he achieves, with respect to one other person, the state of divine bliss in which he will receive pleasure from the very act of trying to please and help his bride. That gift of marital bliss, which most are offered but many fail to accept, is part of the grace of God, a chance to participate in a significant way in the full glory of the love that is God. It is not a self-maintaining gift. The bridegroom will need faith in the importance and value of the grace in order to resist the temptation to chase other, inferior goals that would interfere with marital bliss. He will also need some luck in his choice of a bride, for it takes two to make a marriage.  If the spouse becomes extremely selfish and abusive, or is led astray by some worldly ambition that cannot coexist with the continuation of the marriage, or becomes so preoccupied that the love offered by her spouse no longer produces joy, then the sacrament will fail despite the faith and efforts of the bridegroom. Where a marriage begins in love and faith, though, the power of worldly temptations will be weak, for each partner will know the height of joy that love brings. The gilding on the worldly distraction would need to be very shiny indeed to unfasten the gaze of a true lover from the joy that he possesses in his spouse.

Couples living together without the benefit of marriage often ask “what difference can a ceremony and a piece of paper make to two people who love each other?” The sacrament of marriage is not just a ceremony. It is a vow, the heartfelt vow of the bride and bridegroom in the second category.  Without that heartfelt vow a marriage ceremony does not make much difference – there is no sacrament, just a hollow ritual followed by a nice party. Where the vow is truly present, on the other hand, the sacrament exists no matter how it is administered or what form of words is used, or even with no ceremony at all, but it is difficult to imagine that such a couple would not want to celebrate their joy with a marriage ceremony attended by the people they care about, the people who will help them through any difficult times ahead.[1]

A bridegroom in the first category, in contrast, will not receive grace through the sacrament of marriage, no matter how elaborate the ceremony.  He views marriage as a bargain, “I’ll love you if you’ll love me, but I can break the contract and pay money damages if a new opportunity comes along that makes it seem worth it.” He sees value in being loved, but fails to understand the value of giving love. He lacks faith that loving his wife is more important than anything else in his life, and by lacking that faith he fails to feel the unassailable bliss that such a conviction would give. He feels he must weigh his options, pay attention to other opportunities, wonder if he has done the right thing. If his wife has a bad day and is crabby, he will wonder “why do I have to put up with this?” instead of thinking “the poor dear, what can I do to cheer her up?” If he finds himself without time to pursue the recreations of his idle youth he will wonder “why don’t I get a chance to have fun anymore?” instead of thinking “I love just being with her – when we were dating I would have dropped anything for a chance to be with her, and that feeling just keeps growing stronger.” If the demands of parenthood cause her to slip a bit in maintaining her appearance, he will think “gee, why doesn’t my wife look like that film star?” instead of “gee, I’m glad I’m not married to someone whose whole shallow life is her looks, like that film star – my wife is far more beautiful to me than a plastic doll like that could ever be.” In thinking such thoughts he plants the seeds of his own suffering. He loses his chance for bliss, a chance offered but not taken. We would pity the lottery winner who, misreading his ticket, throws it away thinking it is worthless and loses his fortune. Far more pitiful is the person who wins the greater prize of love, and lets it slip away because he fails to recognize the significance of the gift.

How can a person fail to accept this grace? Why would he be so blind that he fails to see the value of giving love? When mankind has devoted so much of its art, literature and music to expressing the joys of love, how can people be so lacking in faith that they demand constant tangible rewards of marriage, at the cost of losing its true value? In part it is a matter of ignorance. How often have you heard a sermon in church that really pointed out the joys of loving your spouse? Did you ever have a Sunday school class where the topic was “some day, you may be lucky enough to have the chance to devote yourself to loving someone with all your heart, to pouring yourself into their happiness, and the joy that it will bring you will be heaven on earth, for you will then feel the joyous love that is God, and it will transport you above all the petty concerns of daily life. It is wonderful to be loved, but when you find that chance to love in return seize it, for it is a prize without equal in the world”? Despite the art and the poetry, the plays and the songs all celebrating the joys of love, we are not well schooled to recognize the grace when it is offered. This ignorance leaves us unnecessarily vulnerable to distractions that may blind us to God’s grace.

The siren songs of the material world can be a very powerful distraction.  In a “winning is everything” culture, nothing is seen as having intrinsic value.  Everything is just a counter keeping score in the game of life. Is your spouse as good looking, as rich, as smart, as famous as someone else’s? If not, can you trade in for a higher-status spouse? In an advertising-centered culture of manufactured desires, we are constantly assaulted by commercial demons luring us towards dissatisfaction. They tell us that we cannot possibly be happy if we are not spending our time earning enough money to buy an ever-growing list of amazing objects that we never knew we desperately needed, or if we are not spending any leftover time pursuing extreme sports or other new recreations. They use beautiful models to convince us that we should want some beer or cola, and in the process sell us on the idea that we should want the beautiful models. We would find it pleasant to look at beautiful models without any help from the advertising agencies, of course, but would the mindset of the average person be different if products were sold with ordinary-looking models made beautiful by the warm smile of a loving disposition? There are in fact actresses who are very attractive despite having less than ideal anatomical features, so it’s not such a ridiculous idea. The great power of advertising is that it can induce us not only to believe that we can get what we want by buying their product, but to urgently want something that would otherwise have been of minor interest. In practice, advertising convinces us to covet the kind of beauty that is immediately apparent in a ten-second shot in a television ad or in a billboard photograph.[2]

In a society where traditions are swept away by dramatic change, we learn of life and love through television rather than from the happily married couples in our village. Television teaches us the rules of a world that has been transformed since the days when our parents were our age; it is the mirror and the propagator of an ever-shifting culture that derives its unity and substance from mass communication. A stable and happy marriage does not make for exciting television, and so we tend to grow up with role models who love for a season and then move on. We see proof on the screen that the people who bail out of a relationship and bounce right on to the next one succeed and are happy. When people stay stubbornly married, one of them is bound to be shot dead in the last episode of the season, the inevitable result of a placid lifestyle. Confused by these images, unprotected by significant efforts by parents or church to point out the importance of a relationship in which one has the privilege of giving love, it is easy to be blind to grace. We see love as in a mirror, pale reflections of the brilliant substance. Now it requires a degree of luck to be one of those who turn around by chance and become transfixed by the beauty of the real thing. Helping a child to turn and behold this grace, to recognize and pursue it when it the chance appears, is one of the great services that a parent can do. Helping Johnny to understand trigonometry so that he can get admitted to a good college will have far less effect on Johnny’s future happiness than would helping him to understand the value of loving.

I said above that marital bliss is a gift that most are offered. Sadly, it is not offered to all. There are those who fully understand the value of loving, yet who never find love, or love hopelessly. This does not mean that they are not offered the grace that flows from the sacrament, for the grace at its core consists of having the power to love. They have this power, and may exercise it, but under circumstances that bring the pain of longing together with the pleasure of loving. Why is fate so cruel to them? How can they bear such a precious gift, yet fail to find someone to receive it?

It is not that the human heart is unduly particular about specific criteria for its target. We are not all waiting for Mr. or Miss Perfection to come along. Indeed, while many of us find a true soul mate who thinks and reacts to the world as we do, it is interesting to note that a study of identical twins – who tend to have very similar personalities – found that their chosen spouses are not significantly more similar in personality than are the spouses of randomly selected unrelated people. Further, for the most part the twins did not find their co-twin’s spouse to be notably attractive. Even in the case of conjoined (“Siamese”) twins, one of the pair will find a partner who loves her alone, not the co-twin. Cupid aims his arrows by his own rules, not by a matchmaking service checklist of compatibility factors, and love may be found in unexpected places. It is not thwarted by superficial matters.

I would suggest instead that forlorn love is a product of the general failure of society to teach the value of love. One who knows the value of love and wishes to give his or her heart completely will not be drawn by someone who is obviously superficial and self-centered (or if he is, then the love may end in sadness anyway). When society does not foster true love, the task of sifting through the shallow sands of ego and materialism for the gem of affection becomes more difficult. Thus the deserving are thwarted by the multiplication of the undeserving, and love’s labor is made more difficult by the scarcity of lovers. Because of this, by teaching one person the value of loving it may be possible to bring joy to two souls, the newly wise and his previously unmatched loving companion. This two-for-one offer on the multiplication of grace gives special value to educating one’s children on the merit of giving love, beginning with providing them with an instructive example of parents who show their love for each other every day, in every word.

[1] True friends or the bride or groom will be deeply supportive of the marriage, checking to see if there are indicia of a bad and abusive relationship, but if there are no such indicia then providing support to find a way forward.

[2] Okay, this has nothing to do with religion, but the new habit of altering models’ photos to enlarge their eyes and so forth seems to be creating a sense of beauty that only space aliens could meet, which seems very strange to me, and rather disturbing.

Summary:

God offers his grace to all, not just to the most outwardly churchy or those who say the right words.

Grace is an opportunity to advance your  alignment with God.

The grace of marriage lies in having someone that you can focus on loving unselfishly, and experience the joy that such divine-expired love brings. Those who view marriage as a contract do not experience this grace.

Conversation starters in popular culture:

As discussed above, this is one where movies tend not to provide great examples, because pure mutual love in itself is not very dramatic. While there are plenty of romances, the movie tends to focus on the drama that the lovers overcome rather than on their ongoing relationship. In my humble opinion, one of the best screen romances is that of Castle and Beckett on Castle. The series takes time to make it clear not only that  these two  would die for each other, but that they take real and enduring pleasure in making each other happy. Beckett cures Castle of his worst habits because he knows he has found what makes his life truly worthwhile, and Castle cures Beckett of her psychological wounds and leads her back to joy. Screen representations of bad, selfish and ineffective marriages are too common to mention.

 

 

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