Saturday, May 29, 2010

"so that you may belong to another..."

One of the most perennial and difficult philosophical questions is the nature of morality. I have no intent to try to resolve this is in a blog post. For me, as a Catholic, morality for the most part is objective, which renders it no less complex. Like everything else, morality has to have content, these amount to prescriptions and proscriptions (i.e., things I must do and things I must avoid doing). For example, there are actions that are always and everywhere wrong, regardless of circumstances or intent, like murder, like engaging in sexual relations with someone other than my wife, etc. But I recognize that there is a difference between sin and wrong-doing.

Intention and circumstance cannot turn something that is intrinsically evil into something good, but they can mitigate culpability and be the difference between sin and mere wrong-doing. Something can only be truly sinful if I know it to be wrong and freely choose to engage in it anyway. So, truth and freedom are the most important components in living a moral life. Because it is necessary not only to know what is good and what is evil, but to know why, formation and education are necessary. It is important to know why something is required or forbidden so that I understand that morality is not arbitrary or capricious. All of the above can be summarized in the injunction to do good and avoid evil.

Another important moral axiom, one that is frequently ignored under the guise of pragmatism, is that I may never do evil that good may come of it, which is just an opaque way of saying that ends do not justify means. To believe and to act otherwise is simply dangerous. If I am to live with any integrity at all I must try to live in this way. Yet, it can never be a matter of mere rule-keeping. Why can morality never be a matter a rule-keeping? Because my experience has shown time and again that I am incapable of keeping the rules!

St. Paul writes powerfully about this, especially in his Letter to the Romans: "For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good" (7:15-16). We see that for Paul there is a standard of holiness, the Law given through Moses; "the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good" (7:12).

Carravaggio, Christ showing His wounds

So, what is the remedy, you might well ask? The what is a who and the who is Jesus Christ. In the same chapter of Romans, St. Paul gives a brilliant analogy of what it means to live in Christ, which requires death and resurrection (i.e., baptism):

"Or do you not know, brothers and sisters—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress.

"Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code"
It is kind of a complicated analogy, one that can be reasonably understood in more than one way. The understanding I prefer because I think it most accurately captures what Paul is trying to communicate, is that we are not the widowed wife, with the law being the dead husband. Rather, we are ones who die in order to "belong to another"!

Photograph of Nietzsche, taken the last year of his life- 1899

In the previous chapter, Paul is more explicit about this:
"For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus." (Rom. 6:5-11)
Nietzsche, in The Antichrist, called for the "transvaluation of values." In his mind, the revaluation of all values had to occur first, which meant overcoming Christianity:

"I call Christianity the one great curse, the one great intrinsic depravity, the one great instinct for revenge for which no expedient is sufficiently poisonous, secret, subterranean, petty -- I call it the one immortal blemish of mankind… And one calculates time from the dies nefastus on which this fatality arose -- from the first day of Christianity! Why not rather from its last? From today? Revaluation of all values!"
I can't help but think that Paul is suggesting something similar here with regards to the law. At the end of the day, what Nietzsche proposes isn't much different from Freud's pain/pleasure principal: what brings pleasure is good and what brings pain is bad. This is a big reason why purveyors of porn frequently allude to Nietzsche, though they rarely quote him. At least in the Antichrist, where he counter-poses Buddhism, Nietzsche puts the premium on pain avoidance and overcoming suffering. As another great musico-philosopher, Gram Parsons, put it "love hurts, love scars, it wounds, and mars." How else could love overcome death? Love, which, if true, always seeks the good of the other and requires sacrifice given freely and without complaint, is what makes any act truly good, that is, moral.

Of course, it all comes to down how one views the human person, whether you see the purpose of existence as striving for autonomy and independence, choosing for yourself what is right and wrong in god-like fashion, which was the original sin, or whether you see that you belong to Another, who loves you and wants you to be happy, not just in eternity, but right now. It also turns on the question, in what does happiness consist, living for yourself, or living for Another? You belong to Another because you were made by Another and begotten as a child through your baptism.

To allude to the overused and often misused line by St. Augustine, our hearts are restless until they rest in the One who made us because He made us for Himself and we are not complete until this is fully realized, that is, made real, objective. Christ is not the Alpha and Omega only in some cosmic sense, He is your origin and your destiny, too! In my opinion, hell is nothing other than the full realization of living for yourself, striving for independence and autonomy. Was it not Jesus who said, "where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matt. 6:21)?

I have a holy card with a big color picture of Don Gius on it, which Holly insists we keep on our fridge door, underneath his picture is this quote from St. Gregory Nazianzen, one of the three great Cappadocian fathers: "Were I not yours, my Christ, I would feel a finite creature."


  1. This comes as a gift today. Thank you.

  2. I'm glad, Fran. While it is discursive, it arises very much from what I am living these days.

  3. I appreciate your comment about how it comes down to a correct understanding of the human person. Pope JPII was so clear about this in Veritatis Splendor (VS). Morality isn't just about rule keeping, as you have said. "The morality of acts is defined by the relationship of man's freedom with the authentic good." (VS, 72) JPII points out that if the object of our actions are not in harmony with the true good of the person, that act is makes our wills and ourselves morally evil. This of course presupposes a correct understanding of the human person, i.e., an individual free to act/decide in conformity with objective good -- which is union with God or divinization.


God's love for us is tireless

Readings: Jer 23:1-6; Ps 23:1-6; Eph 2:13-18; Mark 6:30-34 No doubt you've heard the saying, "There's no rest for the wicked...