Saturday, December 22, 2007

"The Church is the conscience of the state." says Jim Wallis.

Not really. My conscience is a part or a dimension of my person. The Church is not bound to the state by any such analogy. At least I think that's what a good Hauerwasian would say. I note that Wallis is still thinking about Christian politics in terms of "values" and a "values agenda." Yawn.

Huckabee vs. Paul

Good to see alarm bells of more and more Catholics going off over the Huckster. When Ron Paul first mentioned the saying about the Anti-Christ, that he will come draped in a flag and toting a cross, I thought he was just making an oblique but suggestive statement in response to Huckabee's Xmas ad. But the more I think about it, I'm coming to see it as prescient about Huck. Here are some others who have raised their Catholic eyebrows with the rise of the latest evangelical aspirant to national power.

Catholic News Agency
The Bride and the Dragon
Bonfire of the Vanities
Mark Stricherz
Peggy Noonan
Robert Novak

Some of them link to each other, such is the blogosphere.

I don't think I've ever been as excited about a presidential candidate till Ron Paul. I never thought I could like a libertarian. Maybe the label needs to be redefined after Paul. I do remember feeling my pulse rise a little over Ralph Nader, but he was uncritically pro-choice and eventually got ensnared in personality politics, which I've learned recently was mostly the fault of Democratic Party operatives who brutally stonewalled and trashed Nader. The Nader treatment isn't too different what Bob Casey Sr. got previously. The GOP hasn't shown much more humanity in their machinations either apparently, which is why it should be a little more grateful to have a man like Ron Paul running on their ticket.

My only wish right now is that RP would do or say something to scare off all those anarcho-nihilist-conspiracy-theory nutjobs who keep jumping all over his platform.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Weak dollar, weak evies

I didn't think there was much good in a weak dollar other than increased exports...till I read this in Christianity Today:
Campus Crusade for Christ missionaries to France Dan and May Workman ended their October newsletter with a prayer request for a strengthened U.S. dollar. But in November, the dollar hit an all-time low. It traded at $1.4641 to the euro. (emphasis added)
Of course, I don't celebrate the fact that well-intentioned evangelical missionaries are feeling a few more rumblings in their bellies. But evangelical models of missions are repugnant, once you get past the glossy pictures of plump white people surrounded by the poor brown/yellow folk. Without a vow of stability and/or poverty, they're glorified spiritual vacations for naive denominational entrepreneurs. Without much respect for the missionary traditions that predate Protestantism, they have little respect for the cultures and communities they invade. Without a finely honed sense of the complexity of religion and politics in different countries, they end up being mostly distribution agents for wealthy churches back home to feel good about themselves with fancy presentations and displays of their poor little rice Christians. And to demonstrate the depth of their faith, they pray to the God of the Currency Market. If that's not a sign of a "bankrupt" missions model...

Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Purg

The Anastasis Dialogue has some great reflections on the vibrant discussion over at the Reformed Catholicism blog on Purgatory. Usually I steer clear of Purgatorial theology, mainly cuz it's a mystery that polemcists don't fear treading upon enough. But Hieromonk Maximos noted that Fr. Al Kimel, who I miss, has posted some good stuff in the comboxes so I had to check it out. HM sets up a common Catholic attitude for a good paddling:
"Of course we Catholics don't believe that our salvation is automatically assured just because we make a single act of faith in 'Jesus my personal Lord and Savior.' But that doesn't mean we are left in complete and utter anxiety about our future. Right now I am not conscious that I have committed any mortal sins since I went to Confession last week. That means I'm in a state of grace, which means I can be morally certain that if I died right now I'd go to heaven. Of course, I may have a few venial sins or some other imperfections that need to be purified. I can't rule out some time in Purgatory! But even that could be eliminated if God gives me the extra grace of receiving the Sacrament of Anointing before I die, or of receiving a Plenary Indulgence. So yes, I don't think my assurance of salvation is any less real than any Protestant's."

I hope I have been fair in reproducing this monologue. At any rate it contains nothing that is not strictly in accord with what I understand to be Roman Catholic teaching.

Yet it's horrifying.
If a large number of Catholics previously believed that the state of one's soul can be mapped out on an accountant's ledger, then Vatican II indeed was necessary and a true work of the Spirit. Read the rest of HM's careful critique.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Naivety in the Nativity

Philosopher Paul Ricoeur spoke of a "second naivete" necessary for the mature adult mind. It's not romanticism or nostalgia, both of which have bitter axes to grind with some objectified thing or person as symbol of all they hate about the world. But I think Garrison Keillor's got the real deal:
This magical story is a cornerstone of the Christian faith and I am sorry if it's a big hurdle for the skeptical young. It is to the Church what his Kryptonian heritage was to Clark Kent -- it enables us to stop speeding locomotives and leap tall buildings at a single bound, and also to love our neighbors as ourselves. Without the Nativity, we become a sort of lecture series and coffee club, with not very good coffee and sort of aimless lectures.

On Christmas Eve, the snow on the ground, the stars in the sky, the spruce tree glittering with beloved ornaments, we stand in the dimness and sing about the silent holy night and tears come to our eyes and the vast invisible forces of Christmas stir in the world. Skeptics, stand back. Hush. Hark. There is much in this world that doubt cannot explain.
HT: Mark Shea

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Ringwreaths

I've always felt this a little, but now I'm convicted enough to say it: Advent candle wreaths are kinda lame. I'm not opposed to them. I just think they're nothing to feel much of anything for, so why has it become THE Catholic visual for Advent? They all have this pastel mass-produced flatness to them, even with (or because of?) the Martha Stewart flourish. We light a candle every week at one Sunday Mass. And then who knows how it works between the 8am and 10am Masses? Someone puts one out after every Mass; they light it again, put it out once everyone's scurrying off to Sunday brunch. Like it's a show, a party favor. Yes, the candle symbolizes the coming Light of Christ which we bless with this holy water, etc, etc. But it's a one-fingered "Mary Had A Little Lamb" on the piano when the Church should be jamming to something with a little more groove.

Somehow this brainfart was inspired by a Fr. Stephen Freeman post on the Romney speech:
Thus to say merely, “Jesus wishes you to be saved from your sins,” is true. But stated so flatly it quickly becomes banal and of little significance. It is Mary Had a Little Lamb, repeated until you come to hate the tune. Such banality among Christians makes them easy prey for those who would say, “Mormonism is Christianity.” It also makes them easy prey for those who would exploit their simplicity in far more sinister manners.

Orthodox Christianity is not just the fullness of the faith tossed about like a slogan (”Look at us! We have the fullness and you don’t!”). Such fullness is not fullness but stupidity. It is fullness that is found only in relationship to Christ who draws us towards a freedom with regard to nature that we become Rubensteins of the spiritual life - or whatever calling it is God sets before us. We become not merely human beings who are individual instances of a general thing we can call human nature. We become persons, birthed in freedom which is the gift of the Spirit. In that freedom we are not determined by the limitations of our nature, but persons determined by their freedom as we turn to Christ.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Consistent Ethics

The term "consistent ethic of life" has been seeing bear market days. But for all the wrong-headed political conclusions it has spawned, the idea itself is correct, at least from an apophatic reading. To me it wisely commends that our ethically-inspired political agendas, however righteous, have an intrinsic limitation according to the degree to which we actually live consistently with that ethic.

Environmentalists demand political and legal solutions to problems that are intrinsically ethical and personal. To oppose those legislative proposals is not necessarily an opposition to the ethic, but a suspicion that ethics from above have counterintuitive and contradictory consequences. We want governments to force change upon polluters when we the lay public are doing everything to encourage, even require, the polluters to behave the way they do. So long as environmentalism absolves the people of their cult of consumerism, convenience, and gluttony, there's a natural limit to what Kyoto-style agreements can really accomplish.

That limitation must be recognized if we are going to be sane and dispassionate about this issue. Without such a recognition, we're liable to fetishize and moralize the environment, and play political games to browbeat and step on others who disagree with us. Without it, our polis is just a breeding ground for more ideological manipulation.

Similarly, the pro-life movement has made precise, correct attacks on the constitutionality of Roe v. Wade, but has done scant little to even acknowledge that abortion is much bigger than Supreme Court opinions. We've come to hate the pro-choice ideology so much that we've divorced the pro-life issue from the reality of human choices altogether. How does the cult of individual private Choice in all matters limit what we can expect out of our legal victories against Roe et al? Beyond legal battles, what kinds of choices do I need to be making to help inaugurate a pro-life universe?

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Protest & Moral Sentimentality

The rhetorical pose of protest today is indeed moral sentimentality. There are videos all over youtube in which street interviews of pro-life and pro-choice protesters demonstrate how ridiculously mindless and shallow their positions are. And it's not their views themselves, it's the form of protest that's to blame. In my past life as a social justice dude, I ran the whole protest gauntlet several times and learned the Seeger protest hymnal. I don't care how much MLK loved it - "We Shall Overcome" is as limpy whimpy tune as I've ever heard. But after a while I felt the two sides just feed off each other. It's dualistic, dialectical, demonizing morality politics at its goofiest. Protest today does seem to make you stupid.

I think this has been one of the downsides of evangelicals joining the Catholic pro-life dance - they brought an Urbana/megachurch rah-rah attitude to a complex moral-political-cultural-religious-social issue. It's not just a megachurch thing. I can't watch the presidential debates or the Daily Show anymore because of the self-bovinizing ways American audiences cheer and jeer. Listen to Prime Minister's Questions for an example of cheering-jeering that's raucous but intelligent and attentive, almost choral. There's something so utterly vacuous in the American "woo-hoo," which unfortunately has made its way into every public venue, including our churches along with applause as if liturgy were just a type of townhall meeting.

For apostolic Christianity, liturgy is the primary weapon in our battle with the demons of this world and though protest may have liturgical resonances, it's ultimately anti-liturgical. There's infinitely more power in a Eucharistic procession or Stations of the Cross or even May Day processions than in any protest.

But what about the Civil Rights marches? That which brought a racist empire to its knees was far more specific and clear-headed in its goals and methodology. Today we have annual rallies which have the goal of allowing political co-religionists the comfort of feeling like they're doing something or standing up for something. Posturing becomes a substitute for substance. Look underneath and they're expressions of impotency. In Liturgy, the posturing is theological symbol, and thus heavily stylized and iconic.

This interview with Eugene McCarraher, always the historian/writer provocateur of the Hauerwasian-Catholic mold, reinforces my thinking on this. I strongly disagree with some of his positions, but I appreciate his way of thinking which is rarely given any voice in the Catholic pro-life movement. A good test for me is the reflexive moralistic tone with which pro-lifers will automatically pounce on him for being "soft" on abortion. He may very well be soft on abortion, but the reflexive response of the herd is equally telling.

He has some insightful points on the ties that bind capitalism and American pro-life movement culture. He doesn't draw nearly fine enough of a distinction between pro-life culture and pro-life ethical reasoning as I'd like and he collapses capitalism with "the world" more than I'd like, but he's not trying to skin those cats.
Some of the other advice I'd offer probably won't go down as easily. First, I think that Christians should stop yakking about "consumerism." "Consumerism" is not the problem—capitalism is. Consumerism is the work ethic of consumption, the transformation of leisure and pleasure into duties. Talking about consumerism is a way of not talking about capitalism, and I've come to think that that's the reason why so many people, including Christians, whine about it so much. It's just too easy a target. There's a long history behind this, but the creation of consumer culture is very much about compensating workers for loss of control and creativity at work, and those things were stolen because capital needed to subject workers to industrial discipline. (I don't, by the way, believe that we inhabit a "post-industrial" society. Our current regimes of work are, indeed, super-industrial.) Telling people that they're materialistic is both tiresome and wrong-headed: tiresome, because it clearly doesn't work, and wrong-headed, because it gives people the impression that matter and spirit are antithetical. As Christians, we should be reminding everyone that material reality is sacramental, and that therefore material production, exchange, and consumption can be ways of mediating the divine.

As for abortion, I think we have to stop seeing it as the primary culprit in a "culture of death." Abortion becomes conceivable as a moral practice once we take individual autonomy as the beau ideal of the self; but to recognize that is, if we're logical, to indict not only abortion but also our cherished idyll of "choice" or "freedom." But that, then, is to indict capitalism, which employs a similar language of sovereignty both to legitimate itself and to obscure the remarkable lack of creative freedom at work. I know that I'll catch a lot of hell for saying this, but I think that a lot of opposition to abortion is sheer moral sentimentality which turns the fetus into a fetish. (You'll notice that I think fetishism of some sort or other is a pretty salient feature of the contemporary American moral imagination.) Many of the same people who oppose abortion are champions of laissez-faire capitalism, and they either don't see or don't care to see the linguistic and cultural affinities between themselves and the pro-choice advocates they fight. They'll retort that capitalism doesn't kill anyone in its normal operations, but, first, that's just not true—capitalism has never been instituted or maintained anywhere, not even in the North Atlantic, without considerable coercion and violence—and second, it doesn't matter, because the exercise of market "autonomy" has devastating effects on individuals and communities regardless of whether or not they wind up dead. ("Yeah, the company cut your medical benefits or cut your job or left your town a mess, but hey, you're still alive!") When I say this, a lot of people retort that I'm "changing the subject." In one way, yes I am, but for a reason—because I want them to see that it is the same subject, in a different guise. Talking about abortion is a way of not talking about the "autonomous individual," the latest ideological guise of libido dominandi, discussion of which would topple quite a few idols, and not just "reproductive choice."