Monday, February 15, 2016

God, religion, freedom n' stuff

Last summer, I let myself become overwhelmed and weighed down by everything happening in the world. In response, I wrote what I called an "on-the-fly" post: "Being overwhelmed and stultified." My post was about the necessity of living my own life because I don't have another one available to me- as vexing as the purveyors of fantasy might find such an observation. More importantly, I wrote about true freedom, focusing on how important it is to experience it for yourself. If you don't, paraphrasing Seinfeld's "Soup Nazi," then there is no freedom for you.

Yesterday between Masses I spent time reading Lapsed Agnostic, John Waters' account of how he (re-)discovered faith as an adult. In the final chapter of the book, entitled "After Don't," Waters observed: "Religions generally teach us to think in terms of our duties towards God." Hence, for many people, especially in the West, our experience of religion, of church, is simply about adhering to a set of proscriptions (don'ts) and prescriptions (dos). Even though, apart from approximately 2 years in my early 20s, I have been a religious person virtually all my life, this is my experience too, both as a layman and now as a cleric.

Taking his cue from Msgr Luigi Giussani, founder of Communion & Liberation, Waters went on to point out that in conceiving of religion as a set of rules, or reducing "being religious" to adherence to such rules, we forget "that what defines our relationship with [God] is the knowledge of what He can do for us that we cannot do for ourselves." It is only this realization, which comes through experience, that religion ceases to be either fire insurance against the day of wrath, or a depressingly pragmatic existential move. I must note that Waters, wisely in my view, endorses faith as a pragmatic move at least in the beginning, advising his readers "fake it until you make it." C.S. Lewis advised much the same thing when it came the difficulties involved with loving one's neighbor.

Waters went on to insist that God's "most vital role" in our lives is to relieve us "of the responsibility" of taking His role upon ourselves. As a result, one can reach the liberating conclusion that what truly matters is not whether "I am sufficiently devout," let alone whether "God is pleased with my piety, but my awareness of the fact that I myself am not God." More than adherence to moral injunctions "or anxiety concerning the afterlife," the most persuasive argument for God, according to Waters, is "if God does not exist, I have an urgent need, in my own interest, to substitute for Him."

While Waters' observation may sound like a variation of Feuerbach's theme that if God did not exist we would need to invent him, it isn't really. I think Waters takes the temperature of the contemporary Western person more accurately. In my view, the difference is a matter of experience. Either I take the heavy burden of existence upon my shoulders, or I recognize the impossibility of so doing, even if only by being crushed under its weight. The experience of being crushed forces a question upon me. To be experienced, as it were, at least in the sense that Giussani meant it, requires me to attune myself more to reality as it presents itself to me and engaging it according to all the factors that together make it up. Stated in a simpler way, reality reaches out to me and so I must cultivate my awareness of it by paying attention, even if this reaching out sometimes consists of a slap to my face.

Giussani insisted that, when functioning properly, religion "proposes to man a question regarding everything he does, and thus becomes a much broader view than any other." The problem with people like the everything-old-is-new-again-atheists and those of a reductively empiricist bent of mind is that their view of reality is badly constrained, it's way too narrow, it simply ignores obvious aspects of reality.

Reading Lapsed Agnostic yesterday reminded me of a book, which contrasts with Waters as much as it coheres with him. The book is Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, by Francis Spufford, which I read about a year ago. The part of the book of which I was reminded is the second chapter, entitled "The Crack in Everything." One of the major points Spufford made in this chapter was, unlike it's parent and sibling (i.e., Judaism and Islam respectively), which bear more resemblance to each other than to being Christian, Christianity "isn't interested in coming up with a set of sustainable rules for living by." According to Spufford, Christianity "makes frankly impossible demands." Rather than insisting on specific repeatable actions, Christianity, he continued, "offers general but lunatic principles." Among other things, this is why there is a three volume set of conferences Luigi Giusanni delivered to aspiring members of Memores Domini entitled Is It Possible to Live This Way? Nonetheless, Christianity is taught and, therefore, understood by many Catholics and other Christians, as well as semi-Christian sectarians, as living by a set of sustainable, repeatable rules by which one gains merits, or de-merits, with the Almighty. It seems to me that it's a short trip from there to the nonsense of Joel Osteen or The Secret.

Having been raised LDS and still residing in Utah, I have met Catholics with a Mormon background who want to live Catholicism in what I can only describe as a Mormon manner, which is highly rule-bound. In one of the three books, apart from the Bible, Mormons revere as scripture, the Doctrine and Covenants, which consists largely of revelations Mormon founder Joseph Smith, Jr. claimed to receive directly from God, one can read - "There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated— And when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated" (130:20-21- emboldening and italicizing emphasis mine). The next verse states that God the Father "has a body of flesh and bones as tangible as man’s" (130:22), which lends credence to the so-called "Lorenzo Snow couplet" (i.e., "As man is, God once was, as God is, man may become" - see "Becoming 'like' God, or becoming Gods?").

According to this irrevocably decreed law, God only blesses us when we're obedient. So, while "God helps those who help themselves" is not in the Bible, it's certainly in the Doctrine and Covenants. So, Mormonism, like unbelief, insists that we must take on the role of God because, on a Mormon view, God is only a god. This constitutes but one reason why I am so happy that the only LDS convert to the Catholic faith being considered for sainthood, at least of whom I am aware, the Servant of God Cora Louise Evans, was a mystic. Since I am mining this vein, it bears noting that Giussani's sainthood cause is also under way.

In her forward to Giussani's book The Religious Sense, which I am re-reading as the result of reading Lapsed Agnostic, the late University of Chicago political philosopher, Jean Bethke Elshtain, wrote: "How sad it is that our quest for self-mastery and a widespread sense of emptiness and loss-of-meaning go hand-in-hand, yet we often fail to see the connection." More relevant to the point I am trying to make here, she noted, "Giusanni helps us to fit the broken pieces together by refusing seductive schemes and manipulations, including a quest for perfection that can only end in ashes and misery" (italicized and emboldening emphasis mine).

I come by my tendency towards rule-bound perfectionism quite honestly, but reality has a way of steering me back around. I am very glad that Pope Francis, on whom Giussani made an impact (see "Pope Francis moved by Msgr Giussani") has made a practice of calling out Catholics who want to live faith in such a constraining way. Many don't much like it and sometimes the many includes me. As a result, some don't much like him. Apparently it's easier to say the Pope is in error and keep on keepin' on. When it comes to living it's not so much the "what," but the method, the "how" to so live that leaves much to be desired. As Bl. Pope Paul VI noted, "Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses" (Evangelii nuntiandi, par. 41).

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