The Ghosts of Easters Past, Present and Future

As I write this reflection, it’s late morning on April 15. A fresh pour of coffee sits to my left — as does Queen Fiona, comfortably napping on her pillow — and to my right, an open window admits the hums and chirps of a serene spring Saturday on a quiet side street in the heart of Grand Rapids, Michigan. As if by the product of elven magic, the trees have budded seemingly overnight; in fact, several trees across the street already appear to be mostly leafed. It’s peaceful, which means it’s a good time to write.
Last night was not peaceful. I just couldn’t get comfortable, so I kept waking up and at one point, I even decamped to the couch. Right around 4 a.m., when the thunderstorm rolled past. During the stretches of wakefulness last night, a few thoughts about life, Easter and everything bubbled within the soft grey goo betwixt my earholes.
Allow me to share.

Easter Past

At some point, the “Easter” of my childhood transformed from a family-themed chocolate festival into a religious duty. This ghost of memory asserted itself for the first time about a week ago, after I had mentioned to my friend Patrick that I had written a short essay that will be included in the forthcoming book provisionally titled Staying Catholic When You’ve Been Hurt in the Church, edited by Eve Tushnet and published through Wipf+Stock’s Cascade Press. A central motif in that essay, which addressed my experience in the diocesan vocations program in the early 2000s, focused on one central event: A brief moment of spiritual clarity obtained, interestingly, around noon on Good Friday, 2000, at the Legion of Christ novitiate in Cheshire, Connecticut.
That experience proved to be a pivot point of sorts. Before it, Easter was more of a family event: There’d be a luscious feast and chocolate bunnies and happy memories. And, yes, Easter Mass — but a church service was a small price to pay for all the fun and food.
After Cheshire, and as I got more deeply involved in the religious discipline of the Church, the “family stuff” yielded to spiritual renewal. I actually looked forward to Lent and its period of reflection and rejuvenation. I did retreats. I went to penance services. I prayed the Stations of the Cross. The Triduum presented a busy yet fulfilling experience: Although as chief sacristan and parochial master of ceremonies for my parish I was constantly on the go, I found my centering moments in the little places. Like the period of Eucharistic adoration on Thursday night, or the chance to take a pew with my breviary while the decorators planned where they were going to place the lilies. Or just sitting by the tabernacle after the 11:30 Mass on Easter Sunday, the church empty and everyone gone, to just be.

Easter Present

Yet it barely registered that this week was Holy Week.
The ghost of Easter Present whispers — barely audibly — that a lot of stuff changed in 2008, and over that year, religious discipline took a mighty fall. The nine-year anniversary of that transition draws nigh.
Divide 2008 into thirds. Late winter and early spring saw me twitchy. I wanted a change. That’s the period when I first started thinking about long-term life goals, and even achieved some by earning my open-water dive certification. But it wasn’t enough, so I began to think more actively about my social network. The late-spring-to-late-summer period witnessed a veritable explosion of new friends, new experiences and a wildly chaotic summer-long encounter with love, sex and dating.
The allure of hedonism, the restlessness of my early 30s and a changing portfolio of habits and goals pulled me away from the Church and toward a radically different lifestyle. By the end of the year, I had stopped regular religious observation. It wasn’t deliberate, and it wasn’t even so much a loss of faith — more like a paradigm shifting without a clutch. I drew more and more comfort from the (admittedly misguided) belief that I could have my cake and eat it, too, by simply invoking St. Augustine’s logic of “Lord, make me holy … but not yet.”
So this is the world I currently inhabit: Not faithless, not anti-Church, but largely absent from the public celebrations of the Church. Untethered, perhaps.

Easter Future

The ghost of Easter Future asks: What path may a person take to remain faithful, if that path isn’t perfectly consistent with the disciplinary norms of the Church? I suspect I’m being presented with a trick question, because the orthodox answer is delightfully concise.
It’s partially the Augustine factor, and partially a function of asserting a quasi-gnostic, quasi-individualistic ethos to justify one’s disengagement from the ordinary discipline of the Church. You know the drill: “I’m smarter than the average bear, therefore the rituals that guide the rubes are beneath me; after all, I have access to a higher understanding of Truth.”
The funny thing is, I love ritual. Yet in all of my travels across the diocese, I have yet to find a priest who (a) does ritual well, and (b) offers homilies that aren’t either solipsistic or trite or both. So an essential part of the Mass is missing, and I must supply it for myself. The temptation is to say that I can supply it on my own time.
So the ghost challenges me to think about Easter Future:

  • By putting aside a smarmy over-reliance on Augustinian thinking.
  • By putting aside the arrogance that cleaves a person from the daily life of the Church.
  • By re-orienting life’s burdens to ensure adequate time for spiritual growth.

I will consider this challenge.

Sundry Updates

Enough about Easter. Here are other things of note:

  1. Next weekend I’ll speak at the Get Published! conference in Holland. Attendance is free; the event is coordinated by MiFiWriters. Should be a ton of fun; I’m sitting on one panel and leading another (on query letters). Last year’s event was great.
  2. I’m also privileged to speak at the UntitledTown Book and Author Festival in Green Bay, Wisconsin in a few weeks. I’ll be leading a discussion about how aspiring authors should get started with small presses and literary journals. Lots of fabulous speakers lined up for the three-day event, including Margaret Atwood.
  3. And twice in the next month I’ll be off to the Chicagoland area, once for our quarterly NAHQ board meetings and once to speak about health data analytics to the Illinois Association for Healthcare Quality at that group’s annual educational conference.
  4. Lots going on at the Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters, not least of which is a massive renovation to our website. As board treasurer, I’ve been focused on that piece of the adjustment, although many more exciting changes will be announced very soon.
  5. I’ve been plugging away at Caffeinated Press. Working through a handful of manuscripts, which is great, but sweet mother of potatoes it’s been a slog. Partially because my attention has been divided a thousand ways from Sunday.
  6. Looks like another Vegas trip is on the horizon.
  7. I’m pleased to report that Ziggy the Cat — one of the two neighborhood felines who frequent Jason’s outdoor Café de Meowmix — appears to be doing much better. She’s gaining weight and her fur loss has reversed. I think she was abandoned last summer. I’ve been looking out for her. Sweet kitty, although a bit of a bully to the other café patrons.
  8. Got to enjoy a wonderful “day off” a few weeks ago. My friend AmyJo hosted an all-day marathon of the extended edition of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. After 11.5 hours, several cocktails and a revolving-door of guests … it was great.

All for now.

Wisdom and The Law

Many moons ago, I half-justified to a friend a particular deviation from Catholic moral theology by arguing that as long as he understood the rationale behind the Church’s prohibition, he could live according to the real moral truth (imperfectly encapsulated by a behavioral norm) despite his superficial non-conformance with the letter of the law. The subtext of that somewhat Gnostic argument? That much of the thou-shalt-not discipline of Scripture and Tradition was intended to provide concrete guidance to the great unwashed masses who lack the intellectual wherewithal to properly adjudicate complex ethical problems.

We, the wise, however, ought not to labor under such crude restrictions, better suited to toddlers than adults. Ergo, as long as we could tease out a logical superstructure of principle beneath those crusty old rubrics, we could live as enlightened souls who didn’t obsess over compliance with rules intended to shepherd the children around us.

Interesting, then, to read Aaron Rothstein’s review of Steven Weitzman’s Solomon: The Lure of Wisdom published in the current issue of The Weekly Standard. Rothstein — a medical student at Wake Forest — offers a refreshing insight into the interplay of wisdom and spiritual humility:

The rabbis conceived of gezeirah, alternatively known as building a fence around the Torah. One places certain restrictions on lifestyle in order to (in Rabban Gamliel’s words) “keep a man far from transgression.” … In other words, if we understand the secrets of why we do certain things or why certain laws exist, we remove the barriers that prevent us from breaking more serious laws. Solomon’s downfall, then, demonstrates the danger of too much understanding — a biblical version of the Faustian tale.

Put differently: Laws, both secular and religious, serve as markers that delimit acceptable behavior. In many cases, those markers sit very far away from grey zones, in order to protect people from the confusion reigning at morality’s twilight. When we, the wise, treat those markers as rules for the unenlightened — when we decide that our own wisdom is sufficient to light our way through that twilight — we risk missing the next set of markers, hidden in the darkness, roping off the point of no return. Ethics becomes tautology: A given act is acceptable because I believe it’s acceptable. QED. And the wisdom inherent in the original placement of those universal markers fades from public consciousness.

Having decided that I have ascertained the real lesson of the rules that govern everyone else, I can then presume to know when those rules may safely be broken. And what’s true of one’s private life — e.g., out-thinking biblical dietary norms — works in one’s public life, too. Anyone want to wager whether all the best and brightest at the National Security Agency will always elect to follow domestic-surveillance laws, enacted in messy and haphazard fashion by a dysfunctional Congress, when the intelligence analysts think they’ve got a compelling case to skirt them in service to their version of the public good?

We break laws with impunity when we think we understand the law’s purpose and decide that some other, higher, purpose ought to trump.

Therein lies the risk. Humility — a trait that often comes easier to men of intellectually modest means — helps us to acknowledge that the law’s markers serve a valuable purpose and were erected with foresight. When we lack that humility, we treat those markers as speed bumps, yet we rarely acknowledge that some wisdom superior to our own may have played a part in setting them.

Solomon fell because he out-thought the Torah and God decided to remind him that mere wisdom isn’t a license to disobedience. Today, we see case after case after case of men out-thinking both statutory and natural law, and we must ask: Are we really that wise, after all?

Divine-Command Ethics in a Secular World

A quick review from Moral Philosophy 101: The divine-command theory of ethics holds that morally laudatory behavior is that which conforms to the will of God or a canonical text; morally blameworthy behavior is that which contradicts divine teaching.

For an ethical theory, divine command is hard to beat in its simplicity. The tough questions about the source of morality or the proper content of a praiseworthy life don’t need to be determined, they merely need to be consulted through a religious text or spiritual leader. Unlike the sophisticated mental gyrations that deontologists or utilitarians must make to obtain some degree of logical coherence for their moral system, people who get their ethics from God have an easy go of it. As they say: RTFM.

Assuming, of course, that you actually believe in God and accept as binding the principles of whatever holy scripture you profess. A problematic assessment, insofar as the patterns of modern religious belief shift religious conviction for more and more people from a deep-seated, unquestioning faith toward a cultural or familial artifact to be observed but not necessarily internalized.

It’s ironic, then, that in the Western world, there’s a resurgence in divine-command ethics — fueled not by organized religion, but within those belief systems that substitute as a quasi-religious alternative for a mostly atheist or agnostic worldview.

The most obvious expression of the “new” divine-command ethics derives from the unshackling of ideology as a first-order motivator, particularly but not exclusively with folks from the Left. Their decline in respect for institutional authority means that neither religious nor political leaders can inspire unquestioned loyalty that helps to impose an externally locused belief system on them. Freed from religious norms and disdainful of mass culture, these souls “deify” their ideological predispositions and use internally derived principles (made absolute) as the yardstick of morality.

Cultural anthropologists argue that humans are hard-wired socially to adopt belief systems that help differentiate friend-from-foe in larger social contexts while providing a reservoir of meaning about one’s purpose and destiny. The reasons for this are vast and deep — E. O. Wilson presents a good high-level overview of the concept in his recent book,The Social Conquest of Earth. Long story short, we need beliefs that situate us within the whole. Religion has played this role for millennia; more recently, religion has been augmented by ideology or nationalism, but the underlying tendency remains unchanged and in some places “augmenting” is giving way to “supplanting.”

As fewer Westerners profess unwavering support for any specific modern faith tradition, the tendency for social belonging — with all of the moral norms attendant to membership — transfers from religion and large-scale politics into increasingly granular social structures with local leaders and deeper passions and less of an intellectual superstructure to keep these local belief systems from falling into solipsism.

Radical environmentalism serves as an excellent case in point. Forget the stereotype of granola-eating, pot-smoking, Birkenstock-wearing long-haired hippies banging drums and communing with Gaia. There are plenty of respectable folks who fit nicely into polite society who nevertheless no longer have a private belief in God and subscribe to radical environmentalist theory. There’s a reason, after all, that Greenpeace types or urban anarchists often hail from upper-middle-class backgrounds: They had a conversion experience, and have traded the boring, empty churches of their parents for the hip, authentic religion of struggle on behalf of the Earth. Anyone who’s read about Saul on the road to Damascus understands the archetype; anyone who’s ever spoken to a radical environmentalist understands their need for social inclusion.

Thus we see increasingly blind obedience to canonical norms:

  • Humans are causing global warming that will destroy the Earth.
  • People who don’t agree that “climate science is settled” are heretics who deserve to be ostracized.
  • Corporate greed must be rejected if the environment is to improve.
  • Humans have all sorts of socioeconomic rights to income security and access to organic/local foods and any opposition to this must be overcome by any means necessary.
  • &c, &c.

One reason that political debate about climate change is so bitter is that it’s taken on the trappings of religious warfare. True believers fight against those who cast a more skeptical eye on some environmental nostrums. The evidence of the phenomenon is vast and deep: Just look, for example, at how the prophets at East Anglia conspired to reject from peer-reviewed journals any suggestion that the (made-up) numbers supporting climate change were, in fact, problematic. Fair-minded people don’t act like this. People caught in the grip of divine-command ethics, do.

I’m picking on the environmentalists because they’re an obvious target, but the shift I’ve outlined covers many newer “faith traditions,” including those who continue to protest against Darwinism or struggle against abortion. Although it seems that this phenomenon is rooted in the Left, the Right isn’t immune to it, either.

The most fascinating aspect of all of this is that the one ethical system that’s so often derided as being the simplistic holdout for the unenlightened seems to naturally attract those who wear their sense of sophisticated upon their sleeves.

Divine-command theory, in a classic sense, proves philosophically interesting because it’s inherently unfalsifiable at its core. This “rock” that anchors religious morality, if unchained by texts and priests and centuries of practical experience, can lead to curious inversions of generally accepted ethics. Like, for example, radical environmentalists who deliberately spike trees in such a way that loggers could be seriously injured or even killed.

Put differently: If any particular implementation of divine-command ethics is unconstrained by institutional or cultural norms, the risk that “anything is permissible” in service to the ideological point at its core increases the relative gridlock and fragility of the political process.

Ethics without God is possible. God-based ethics without God, however, increases the risk of radical absolutism that poisons the well for everyone.

God +20

On the 26th day of April, A.D. 1990, I stood before His Grace, the Most Rev. Robert J. Rose, bishop of Grand Rapids, and was Confirmed into the Catholic Church, at a special Mass held at St. Anthony of Padua church.

That was 20 years ago, tomorrow.

The Catholic sacrament of Confirmation is the final sacrament of initiation: It is the spiritual acceptance of a Catholic into full adulthood within the community of believers.

Much has happened to me, spiritually, over the last two decades:

  • I went to a Catholic high school and was lukewarm in faith, bordering on the agnostic;
  • I went to a secular university, discovered philosophy, and became a radical and committed atheist;
  • I made a series of bad judgements, rooted in youthful arrogance, that brought me a considerable amount of legal and financial trouble;
  • in desperation, I turned to God and (for reasons I never really did fully understand) went back to church, despite thinking it was a silly and superstitious waste of time;
  • I eventually re-embraced the Church fully, serving in my parish as a lector, extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, and sacristan — and eventually becoming the chief sacristan and long-running chairman of the parish liturgy committee;
  • I spent a few years in pre-seminary study and took a week-long retreat with the Legion of Christ in Connecticut to explore a priestly vocation (at which, I was blessed by a special encounter with the Divine);
  • I started volunteering through the diocese, eventually serving as a lay chaplain at a hospital and at a state prison, and contributing to the diocesan Office for Worship as a master of ceremonies to the bishop and lay coordinator for major diocesan liturgies;
  • and then,
  • acedia struck.

So I’ve pretty much moved full circle, from “cultural Catholic” to atheist to practicing Catholic to potential priest to non-practicing Catholic.

The spiritual journey has been curious.  I am not abandoning the Church; I don’t disagree with major teachings or think it’s silly superstition.  I will return to active practice.  Part of the issue may be burn-out — I was doing so much, so frequently, that I’d actually sit down to Mass with no “extra” obligation maybe only once per year.  That’s a lot; a person can spend so much time serving others that he loses the ability to service himself.

I am heartened by the path of the Church over the last two decades. I am a committed “Benedict XVI Catholic” — one who favors authentic liturgy, an inquisitive mind, and a charitable heart. I identify much more strongly with the academic/contemplative forms of prayer life than the evangelical/charismatic model, and I find some hope in the way the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Congregation for Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments have taken a firm but gentle hand in correcting some of the liturgical abuses arising in the post-Vatican II chaos.

Like many Catholics, I regret the sexual abuse of some priests, even as I notice (in away the New York Times editorial board apparently cannot) that the worst of the crisis occurred in the generation immediately after Vatican II and that the abuse rate among Catholic clergy is still significantly below that of, say, Southern Baptist clergy, prison guards, or public-school teachers.

That said, I am presently in a spiritual rut that has lasted for nearly two years.  I am confident, however, that in due time, the rut will have run its course and I will once again be spiritually joined to the Church Universal.