Wednesday, January 3, 2007

A little reality for the first Wednesday of the New Year

One reality that is easy to overlook is that, as human beings, we are utterly incapable of perfecting ourselves. Even if we are open to and cooperating with God's grace, which is efficaciously done through the Sacraments, especially Penance and worthy reception of the Eucharist, perfection and sanctification are often slow and usually not completed during our lifetime. This seems a simple enough point, but it has been frequently dismissed and, without exception, has led to disastrous results. As Roger Kimball writes in the Introduction (which you can read free with no registration) to January's New Criterion, which takes as its theme Utopia vs. Nationhood:

"In a memorable passage at the beginning of The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant evokes a soaring dove that, 'cleaving the air in her free flight,' feels the resistance of the wind and imagines that its flight 'would be easier still in empty space.' A fond thought, of course, since absent that aeolian pressure the dove would simply plummet to the ground.

"How regularly the friction of reality works that way: making possible our endeavors even as it circumscribes and limits their extent. And how often, like Kant’s dove, we are tempted to imagine that our freedoms would be grander and more extravagant absent the countervailing forces that make them possible.

"Such fantasies are as perennial as they are vain. They insinuate themselves everywhere in the economy of human desire, not least in our political arrangements. Noticing the imperfection of our societies, we may be tempted into thinking that the problem is with the limiting structures we have inherited. If only we could dispense with them, we might imagine, beating our wings, how much better things might be."


Much the same point is made, if in a bit more curmudgeonly manner, by Fr. Peter Mullin, Rector of St. Michael's in London, when he writes about a former priest, who now works as a shelf- stocker, coming out with a book of "new commandments". Apparently, this author drew the attention of the BBC's Today program. According to Mullin, while being interviewed by the host, the sacerdotal shelf-stocker was asked "whether the original Ten Commandments are still 'relevant'." Mullin's questions for the interviewer are far better than the vapid question asked to this new, self-proclaimed Moses: "What could have happened over the intervening millennia to render them irrelevant? Are we so morally progressed today that we no longer need their profound moral guidance?"

His queries prove rhetorical as a mere "glance at domestic, local, national and global events would suggest there has been no change in the fundamentally flawed character of mankind."

This just shows that we need limiting structures, not merely for coldly positivistic reasons. The kind of creatures we are require such institutions. At a minimum, on an anthropological level, this need and the institutions we create as a result show, lest anyone doubt,the truth of Aristotle's insight that human beings are social and/or political creatures. Put simply, as human we are inherently relational beings. Theologically, this flows from the reality that we are relational because God, who is Father, Son, and Spirit, is relational and we are created in the divine image and bear the divine likeness. Eliminating these structures, or even denying their necessity leads to horrible consequences. Also from a theological perspective, we view the cosmos as hierarchical. Hierarchy means a sacred ordering. In other words, heaven itself is not a utopia, a nowhere, it is a kingdom, it is the Kingdom of God.

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