Friday, August 29, 2014

"Ride around the lamb to all the little towns"

Yesterday the Roman Catholic Church observed the liturgical memorial of St Augustine, the greatest of the Latin, or Western, Church Fathers. In honor of that day, a friend of mine posted a recipe for Pear Crisp on Facebook. This is a humorous reference to the event about which the Bishop of Hippo Regius wrote in Book II, Chapter 4 of his magnificent work, Confessions, which remains a classic of world literature:
There was a pear tree close to our own vineyard, heavily laden with fruit, which was not tempting either for its color or for its flavor. Late one night--having prolonged our games in the streets until then, as our bad habit was--a group of young scoundrels, and I among them, went to shake and rob this tree. We carried off a huge load of pears, not to eat ourselves, but to dump out to the hogs, after barely tasting some of them ourselves
Reflecting on this years later as he composed his Confessions, Augustine observed, "It was foul, and I loved it." He went on to write, "I loved my own undoing. I loved my error--not that for which I erred but the error itself." In light of this, perhaps it would be more alluring to bake a stolen pear crisp, only eat half and throw other piece away, or feed it to the dog.

Today the Roman Catholic Church observes the Feast of the Passion of St John the Baptist, who, the Gospels (Mark 6:17-29 and parallel passages) tell us, was beheaded by Herod for denouncing the tin-pot king's unlawful marriage to his sister-in-law Herodias, who had been the wife of his brother Philip. The same friend I mentioned above, who happens to be a theology professor (she was one of my theology professors, which is how I know her), wrote something briefly about a short homily she heard on today's feast: "The priest at daily mass today reminded us that on this feast of the passion of John the Baptist, we have too many new images of people of God being beheaded for their faith and caught in the wrong political web. I have to say, it makes the story even more vivid for me. Pray for us, holy martyrs." Amen.

Decollation of the St John the Baptist, by Caravaggio, 1608 in the Co-Cathedral of Malta at Valetta

In a short section of a book I just started, Who Is a Christian, by Hans Urs Von Balthasar, entitled "Ethics via Statistics," Balthasar which he meditated in a rather straightforward manner about the modern notion of ethics, which are very derived from statistics:
This is most easily ascertained by means of surveys, reports, statistics. The average, derived presumably on the broadest statistical basis, simply shows that most people do not merely belong to the massa damnata but that, in their own way, they are quite well-behaved and even possess something like a "hierarchy of values"... (14)
Remember Judge Robert Bork's contention that we are defining deviancy down?

Just prior to this observation, Von Balthasar wrote about the foundation of ethics in the ancient world, which carried over, at least to some extent, into the Christian conception. Given the fact that the "lofty moral demands" of Christianity, which bids the Christian to "strive to be thankful and selfless" (13), "are [so] alien to the world" (13), he asks contemporary Christians to consider if the lofty demands of following Jesus Christ are not best reserved for heroes (a term from classical literature, used to describe figures like Odysseus, who possess the aristocratic, or heroic, virtue often referred to as arête) and are not for everyone, like those not possessed of arête, or, to use Christian terms, clearly possessed of the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and love. It occurred to me as I wrote this that perhaps Calvinism, with its double-predestination, seeks to make this correction, at least to some extent, or does so unintentionally.

At the beginning of this brief chapter, Von Balthasar rejected the goodness of behavior "based on reward or punishment" (13). By calling such a schema "morally questionable" and "not pure," I think Balthasar might be said to hold that such behavior cannot be truly good because it is neither true (because it is performed for an ulterior motive) nor beautiful (it is not "from the heart," that is, not really creative, but highly conformal). As to the proposal to limit the demands of Christian morality to heroes, known in the Church as saints, most especially martyrs, and linking this to today's feast (even by a thin thread), he pointed to Greek theater and noted that the proper subjects are only heroes and gods. In a parenthetical statement, he notes that for a long time "in the Christian theatre, [only] martyrs or other heroic saints, or at least angels and the like" appear (13-14). Of course, the death of the martyrs in the arena was theater for citizens of ancient Rome in many places throughout the empire.

Given the speculative and incomplete nature of this post, I can think of no better song for our Friday traditio than The Devil Makes Three singing "Do Wrong Right." While I would not claim either St Augustine's or Von Balthasar's imprimatur for this assertion, I believe it has some validity as it certainly trumps- to quote Eliot from "Murder In the Cathedral"- "The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason."

I ain't crazy or a nut just to give you people some
Quiet in the head ain't no way to get it done

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