The Mission is Always Outwards

July 8th, 2015

In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s redefinition of marriage, there has been much introspection among the faithful about the way forward on marriage, religious liberty, and the role of faith in the public square.  Perhaps because we’ve been fighting this battle in New York for so long, these are familiar discussions to us, and I’ve written about them before.

From what I’ve seen so far, there are many calls to civil disobedience, although very few people have actually engaged the question of how that will be done and how extensive it will have to be (which will be the subject of a future post here).  Others have called for what some are terming a “Benedict Option”, modeled after the founder of the great monastic order, in which a groups of the faithful draw away from the general society in hopes of laying the seeds of reforming it.   Others emphasize the inward path of conversion of our own hearts, so that in our private lives, we are good witnesses to our faith.  Some have even advocated for shaking the dust of the world from our feet and leaving it on the path to its own destruction.

None of these is an adequate answer to the situation we find ourselves in.  Surely, we need to come together with like-minded people, to strengthen our faith communities and provide mutual support.  Our lives are always in need of conversion, and the best teachers of the truth are always those who witness to it in their everyday lives.  We undoubtedly will have to resist unjust laws, and bear the consequences.  All of that has merit, and each of us will have to find the path that the Holy Spirit is calling them to.

But in searching for our plan of action, we have to make sure that we don’t keep our focus only on ourselves.  If we do that, we will lose sight of a crucial point. In the Great Commission (Mt. 28:19-20), Our Lord gave the Church a very clear mission to the world:

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.

The mission of the Church is never to pull away from humanity and turn inward, nor is it meant to be in a state of defensive warfare with the forces of power in the world.  We are not meant to practice our faith only in our private lives, indifferent to the state of society.  Pope Francis said it very well in The Joy of the Gospel (Evangelii Gaudium):

… no one can demand that religion should be relegated to the inner sanctum of personal life, without influence on societal and national life, without concern for the soundness of civil institutions, without a right to offer an opinion on events affecting society. Who would claim to lock up in a church and silence the message of Saint Francis of Assisi or Blessed Teresa of Calcutta? They themselves would have found this unacceptable. An authentic faith – which is never comfortable or completely personal – always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better that we found it. We love this magnificent planet on which God has put us, and we love the human family which dwells here, with all its tragedies and struggles, its hopes and aspirations, its strengths and weaknesses. The earth is our common home and all of us are brothers and sisters. If indeed “the just ordering of society and of the state is a central responsibility of politics”, the Church “cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice”. All Christians, their pastors included, are called to show concern for the building of a better world. This is essential, for the Church’s social thought is primarily positive: it offers proposals, it works for change and in this sense it constantly points to the hope born of the loving heart of Jesus Christ.  (183)

These are difficult times, similar to those experienced by the Church in many prior ages, and in many places in our own time.  But we should always remember that the mission of the Church — and each one of us — is always to change the world, to transform it in light of the joy of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Our mission is outside.

The Despotism of an Irrational Oligarchy

June 26th, 2015

In 1820, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to a prosperous merchant, in which he discussed his views about the proper role of the judiciary in the American constitutional system.  In his letter, Jefferson made a famous observation:

You seem … to consider the judges as the ultimate arbiters of all constitutional questions;  a very dangerous doctrine indeed, and one which would place us under the despotism of an oligarchy.

In his first inaugural address in 1861, Abraham Lincoln echoed these sentiments, in reference to the Supreme Court’s infamous decision in the Dred Scott case:

… the candid citizen must confess that if the policy of the Government upon vital questions affecting the whole people is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court… the people will have ceased to be their own rulers, having to that extent practically resigned their Government into the hands of that eminent tribunal.

In 2015, it is now more clear than ever, that Jefferson’s and Lincoln’s predictions have been fulfilled, most recently with the latest ruling on the redefinition of marriage.

The Supreme Court’s impatience with the democratic process is well-established, and it has long arrogated to itself the presumed authority to substitute its political judgement for that of the people or Congress.  One need only recall the astonishingly arrogant passage from the Casey abortion decision, in which the Court claimed almost sacred significance to its own lawless decisions:

Where, in the performance of its judicial duties, the Court decides a case in such a way as to resolve the sort of intensely divisive controversy reflected in Roe and those rare, comparable cases, its decision has a dimension that the resolution of the normal case does not carry. It is the dimension present whenever the Court’s interpretation of the Constitution calls the contending sides of a national controversy to end their national division by accepting a common mandate rooted in the Constitution.

Of course, the Court’s rulings in its abortion cases have no basis whatsoever in the actual Constitution, or the tradition of American law, much like their bizarre rulings that essentially re-write acts of Congress to better suit their preferred result (e.g., the Affordable Care Act cases, NFIB v. Sibellius and  King v. Burwell).  Just so with the series of Supreme Court decisions relating to the radical redefinition of marriage — first in United States v. Windsor, and now with Obergefell v. Hodges.

Little needs to be said about this latest decision by the Court. This Court has a propensity to make things up as they go along, to satisfy their policy preferences or to follow public opinion.  Reasoned legal argumentation really has no great sway over the Court on these issues, so there’s no reason to treat their decision as if it had anything to do with law at all.

There is no question that over the past few years, public opinion has shifted strongly in favor of redefining marriage.  But the resolution of such a weighty policy argument should not be left to the least democratic branch of the government.  It should be hashed out in the rough and tumble of politics.  That is what was happening, prior to the Supreme Court’s first usurpation, in the Windsor case.  But democracy is apparently no longer an option, when the post-modern Zeitgeist of sexual liberationism demands its way.

And so, we should really stop pretending.  When it comes to certain important issues about the nature of the human person and our society, we really no longer have a rule of law or of reason, but a rule of lawyers — a majority of five, to be precise, all of whom attended a few elite Eastern law schools.  Jefferson’s fear of the despotism of an oligarchy has fully come true.

A Return to the Original Plan for Creation

June 20th, 2015

“From the beginning, it was not so” (Matthew 19:8).  With those words in response to a question about marriage and divorce, Jesus recalled to our attention that the world has not turned out as God originally intended.  But he also held out the possibility that, with the help of grace, we could return to the original plan and live as God created us.

These words immediately came to my mind as I read the Holy Father’s new encyclical, Laudato Si.  The secular media has generally portrayed it as the Pope’s “climate change encyclical”, or more accurately as his “environmental encyclical”.  But this misses the most significant point in the Holy Father’s contribution to the Church’s rich social teaching.

More than any prior Church document, Laudato Si calls us to a personal and social conversion of heart, so that we can return to God’s original plan for humanity and all creation.

This central purpose of the encyclical is evident right at the beginning, when the Holy Father points out that the harms to our material world come from the sin in our hearts.  And he notes that we have forgotten the fundamental truth that we are an intrinsic part of creation, formed from the “dust of the ground” (Gen 2:7), and that our lives depend on the material bounty of the Earth.  This is evident to us, not just from divine revelation, but by a reasoned contemplation of nature itself.

The theme of returning to God’s original plan is then woven throughout the encyclical.  Again and again, Pope Francis comes back to the idea that the troubles of our world are the result of our sinfulness, particularly our loss of a sense of the universal moral law and the abuse of our freedom.  We see this in the underlying causes of environmental and economic exploitation and degradation —  a utilitarian and technocratic way of treating each other and the absence of solidarity between people.

All these problems rest on a faulty understanding of the nature of the human person, which the Holy Father analyzes with great care and detail.  Although he does not use this phrase, Pope Francis sees clearly that our modern world considers humanity to be “homo economicus” — a being whose entire existence is determined by self-interested material needs and pursuits, centered only upon themselves.   In fact, much of the criticism of the encyclical that we have seen from conservatives rests on this very assumption.  The Holy Father calls this an “excessive anthropocentrism”, a failure to understand our true place in this world, particularly our interlocking relationships with creation, or fellow beings, and our Creator.

It is in his discussion of these relationships that we see most clearly the Holy Father’s true Christian anthropology, and his perception that God’s original plan is the antidote to our modern world’s problems.  In Chapter Two of the encyclical, Pope Francis sets forth an extended exegesis of the Scriptural passages that reveal God’s intentions for creation.  The key passage, paragraph 66, is so important that it needs to be quoted in its entirety:

The creation accounts in the book of Genesis contain, in their own symbolic and narrative language, profound teachings about human existence and its historical reality. They suggest that human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbour and with the earth itself.  According to the Bible, these three vital relationships have been broken, both outwardly and within us. This rupture is sin. The harmony between the Creator, humanity and creation as a whole was disrupted by our presuming to take the place of God and refusing to acknowledge our creaturely limitations. This in turn distorted our mandate to “have dominion” over the earth (cf. Gen 1:28), to “till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). As a result, the originally harmonious relationship between human beings and nature became conflictual (cf. Gen 3:17-19). It is significant that the harmony which Saint Francis of Assisi experienced with all creatures was seen as a healing of that rupture. Saint Bonaventure held that, through universal reconciliation with every creature, Saint Francis in some way returned to the state of original innocence.[40] This is a far cry from our situation today, where sin is manifest in all its destructive power in wars, the various forms of violence and abuse, the abandonment of the most vulnerable, and attacks on nature.

Later, in a very profound passage, Pope Francis explores how the nature of creation reflects the image of the Trinity itself.  He cites St. Bonaventure, one of St. Francis of Assisi’s greatest followers, saying:

The Franciscan saint teaches us that each creature bears in itself a specifically Trinitarian structure, so real that it could be readily contemplated if only the human gaze were not so partial, dark and fragile. In this way, he points out to us the challenge of trying to read reality in a Trinitarian key….  The human person grows more, matures more and is sanctified more to the extent that he or she enters into relationships, going out from themselves to live in communion with God, with others and with all creatures. In this way, they make their own that trinitarian dynamism which God imprinted in them when they were created. Everything is interconnected, and this invites us to develop a spirituality of that global solidarity which flows from the mystery of the Trinity.

It is certainly important to view Laudato Si as a document intended to address the environmental and social problems of our day.  But I believe that its true significance will only be known when we begin to absorb the Holy Father’s extraordinary treatment of Christian anthropology.  This encyclical is a call to all of us to try to recapture the remnants of God’s original plan for humanity, so that we can live as God intended, in peace and harmony with all creation.

“From the beginning, it was not so”.

Men and Women Without Chests

June 1st, 2015

If one wishes to understand the predicament our society currently is in, I would recommend reading C.S. Lewis’s classic work, The Abolition of Man.  The book is a collection of lectures Lewis gave on the problems he saw in modern education.  He was particularly alarmed about the ways in which it was undermining belief in objective moral truths, and the danger this posed to society.

The first chapter of the book has the strange title, “Men Without Chests”.  Lewis saw that modern education was subtly teaching people to view moral questions as being mere statements of feelings that are entirely subjective, with no connection to truth.  It was also leading people to deny that human feelings can be true or false, depending on whether they conformed to objective values.  These two trends would have the inevitable effect of producing “men without chests”, unable to have genuine feelings that connected them with trancendent realities.  To Lewis, this reductive subjectivism was very dangerous for individuals and society.  He said that “Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism”, and we would become little more than “trousered apes”.  Even worse, “The practical result of [this] education… must be the destruction of the society which accepts it.”

All this came to my mind when reading an article from the Washington Post, entitled “How to break free from monogamy without destroying marriage”.  This morally corrosive piece depicts a married couple who, because the wife was feeling “faintly bored”, have decided to have open adulterous affairs, while still considering themselves to be happily married.  It features a repellent person who has founded a website to facilitate such sins.  And it contains a plethora of half-truths and outright falsehoods about the state of marriage and even Biblical teachings on adultery.

But what really struck me were two quotations in the article that carried much deeper meanings than, no doubt, the speakers intended.  After somehow convincing her husband to consent to what she called “ethical non-monogamy”, the adulterous wife put the following in her online profile to entice other adulterers:

“I’m into building deep and loving relationships that add to the joy and aliveness of being human.”

You couldn’t ask for a better example of a self-delusive statement by a person who unfortunately has been taught that there are no objective moral truths that have meaning beyond her momentary subjective feelings.   Without that essential connection, there are no boundaries, no limits, and both words and feelings lose their real meaning.  “Being human” is equated with, in essence, the worship of self.

The second is from an anthropologist who works, not coincidentally, at the Kinsey Institute (yes, an institute dedicated to the study of sex, founded by the bizarre and evil Alfred Kinsey).  Speaking about modern rejection of the notions of monogamy and chastity, she said:

“That’s all sliding away from us.  We’re… returning to the way we were millions of years ago.”

Yet further evidence that “progressive” morality actually means reversion to pre-moral, primitive, animalistic behavior — “trousered apes” with an internet connection.  Our society has now destroyed sexual complementarity, fidelity, permanence, and fertility, leaving only selfish pursuit of pleasure — yet they still dare call their arrangement “marriage”.

This very sad article truly shows what happens when society brings up men and women “without chests”.  And yet, there is a very interesting point alluded to in the article.  The adulterous couple declined to identify themselves by their real names, and they don’t intend to tell their children about their arrangement.  Somewhere, deeply buried beneath the narcissism and hedonism, is a truth that refuses to be silenced, that calls these poor people back to the truth that they are unwilling, or unready, to face.  The truth about human nature and human love can never be extinguished.  There is always hope.

A Holy Warrior for Our Time

May 30th, 2015

Today is the feast day of my favorite saint — she called herself Jeanne the Maid (“Jehanne la Pucelle”), but we know her better as Joan of Arc.  She was a beautiful person, simple, devout and strong.  She rose from utter obscurity to accomplish one of the most remarkable feats in human history.  Just consider it — a seventeen-year-old girl, with no military experience whatsoever, leading the army of a defeated and demoralized nation to impossible victories.  Biographers to this day — even cynics like like Mark Twain — find her to be one of the most remarkable people who has ever lived.

But her military and political accomplishments aren’t the most important thing about her, even though they remain astonishing and unmatched in history.  Her entire mission was not intended to glorify herself, but in humble obedience to the will of God, communicated to her through visions of Sts. Michael, Catherine, and Margaret.  She never wanted anything more than to return to her humble home, yet she obeyed God and set aside her own desires to wage war to bring peace and justice to her homeland.

The price she paid for this devotion was appalling.  After all her triumphs, she was betrayed by the same king whom she raised to the throne, abandoned by her comrades in arms, persecuted by hard-hearted enemies and corrupt Churchmen, and cruelly put to death in one of the most painful ways imaginable.

Jeanne’s beauty of soul and her sterling faith shone through, even in battle and even in the darkest days of her cruelly unfair trial.  Here is what she said at the trial, when asked about who carried her standard (i.e., her flag): “It was I who carried the aforementioned sign when I charged the enemy. I did so to avoid killing any one. I have never killed a man.”  She wept over the loss of life in battle, strove to minimize it, insisted on sparing prisoners, and comforted dying enemy soldiers.

Jeanne rejected worldly honors, and refused to accept titles for herself.  She never lost sight that serving God was the entire purpose of her mission and her life.   As a sign of this, she wore only one piece of jewelry, a simple gold ring, a gift from her mother, with the plain engraving “+Jhesus+Maria+”. As she was suffering at the stake, she had a cross before her eyes and she died with the name of Jesus on her lips.

She is, in my humble opinion, the most outstanding example of a brave and Christian warrior, whose love of God inspired all that she did, whose nobility of character inspired deep love and devotion among the hardened soldiers who followed her, and whose courage under persecution is a shining beacon of purity and virtue.

Back in 2011, Pope Benedict was presenting reflections on the great female saints at his regular Wednesday address.  One of those he spoke about was Jeanne, and he said this: “Her holiness is a beautiful example for lay people engaged in politics, especially in the most difficult situations. Faith is the light that guides every decision”.

She is a saint for the ages, and she is particularly important for this age.  The Church and people of faith need holy warriors now more than ever.  I feel the strength of Jeanne’s patronage, and if I ever make it to heaven, she will be one of the first saints I seek out.

Jeanne la Pucelle, priez pour nous.

 

Hatred — No. Defiance — Yes!

May 16th, 2015

Those were the powerful words spoken by Bishop Gregory John Mansour of the Eparchy of St. Maron of Brooklyn, at a conference held last week on the persecution of Christians in Iraq and Syria by the so-called “Islamic State” (also known as ISIS).  The conference, hosted by the Hudson Institute, was full of grim news about the sufferings of Christians in communities that have their roots in the Apostolic Age — Chaldeans, Armenians, Assyrians, and Syriacs.

Bishop Mansour knows very well what he was speaking about — his flock has its roots in Lebanon, and he has made numerous trips to the region.  Statistics cannot fully tell the story of the misery caused by ISIS, but they can help us understand the scope:

  1. Hundreds of thousands of Christians languish in poorly-supplied refugee camps in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, and Kurdish areas of Iraq.  Most will never return to their ancestral homes.
  2. Over 100,000 Christians forced to flee the city of Qaraqosh on a moment’s notice, under threat of death by ISIS if they refused to convert to Islam.
  3. Over 25,000 Christians fled Mosul under the same threat.
  4. Countless Christians have been killed by ISIS fighters, including the 20 Copts who were publicly beheaded in Libya by ISIS because they would not reject their faith.
  5. Over 450,000 Melkite Christians have fled Syria because of its civil war.
  6. Churches and other religious sites have been specifically targeted by ISIS for destruction, thus robbing Christians of their heritage and history.

The evidence is all there before us — we are witnessing genocide in our times.  Christians face extinction in the region that is the birthplace of our faith.

What has been the West’s response?  To our shame, the West is doing virtually nothing to aid the persecuted Christians. Our American government leaders — including our President and Secretary of State — have said and done virtually nothing.

How can this be?  Cardinal Dolan, who also spoke at the conference, gave the very simple answer — they’re silent because we are.  He’s absolutely right.  Aside from strong statements of condemnation by the Holy Father, and letters written by the U.S. Bishops’ Conference to Congress and the President, our Church has not done enough to put this crisis on the political and public radar screen. Catholics and all Christians need to step up and start making noise.

At the conference, the Cardinal outlined our agenda to respond to our brethren in need:

  1. We need a sense of urgency — This is not something that can wait for a change in political administration.  Action is needed now.
  2. We need to give this constant publicity — We can’t be embarrassed to stress this issue over and over again.
  3. We need to identify the problem, “fanatical Islamic Christophobic terrorism” — This is no time for political correctness.  We have to speak the truth.
  4. We need to affirm and support moderate Muslim voices — Without our support, the voices of reason within Islam will continue to be afraid to come forward and oppose the radicals.
  5. We need to do advocacy — We have to press our government for real, effective action.  We also need to contact representatives of the governments where the atrocities are taking place, and demand that they take action.  Laypeople must take the lead here.
  6. We need to engage in interreligious action — Our Jewish friends are eager to help us, because of all people, they know genocide when they see it, and they know that you have to fight back.  We have to enlist an “ecumenism of the martyrs”  among all people of faith, especially our fellow Christians.
  7. We need to act through “the optic of faith” — While the pragmatic responses are crucial, we also have to remember the power of prayer and spiritual solidarity, including prayer for the conversion of heart for the men of ISIS.

There are some steps that people can take right away, like supporting groups like the Catholic Near East Welfare Society, which is providing humanitarian aid to the displaced Christians.  We can also start writing our public officials, from the President and the Secretary of State, as well as our Senators and Congressional representatives.

I’ll give the last words to Bishop Mansour.  He remarked that the main difference between ISIS and us is very simple — “we love, they hate”.  He added that we cannot be passive in the face of evil, but we must stand up and oppose it with all our might.

And he gave us what should be our motto: “Hatred — No.  Defiance — Yes.”

Our Misguided and Dangerous Platonic Guardian Ruler

April 29th, 2015

The Supreme Court has now heard oral arguments on the marriage redefinition cases.  I was already pessimistic about the eventual outcome of this case but, based on the arguments, I am even more concerned about what it will mean.

Conventional wisdom holds that Justice Anthony Kennedy will be the crucial “swing” vote in this case, as he has been in many others.  In fact, his role as the ultimate, sole decider of momentous constitutional questions makes me wonder about the notion of “one man, one vote”, on which our nation has relied for so long.  What kind of democracy are we, if one Supreme Court justice is the “one man” and his vote is the only “one vote” that matters?  That is why I often refer to the Supreme Court, and particularly Justice Kennedy, as “our Black-Robed Platonic Guardian Rulers on the Court”.

If the oral argument revealed anything, it certainly showed how deeply confused Justice Kennedy is about the role of government in our society.  In many of Justice Kennedy’s decisions on moral issues, he places a great deal of emphasis on the notion of “dignity” as a principle of constitutional law.  Needless to say, the Constitution contains no mention of the word “dignity” — it speaks of equal protection, due process, many specific rights, but not “dignity”.  Nor can anyone determine how it became grafted onto the basic law of our polity.

That doesn’t stop the fertile imagination of Justice Kennedy.  In Windsor v. United States, the first Supreme Court marriage redefinition fiasco, Justice Kennedy had this to say about state laws surrounding marriage: “The State’s decision to give this class of persons [i.e., men and women] the right to marry conferred upon them a dignity and status of immense import.”  He went on to describe these laws as an  “interference with the equal dignity of same-sex marriages”.

Note the use of that one key word — “conferred”.  This is crucial to understand the real significance of Justice Kennedy’s muddled Constitutional theories, which become clear in the oral arguments yesterday, in this strange exchange between Justice Kennedy and the attorney for Michigan, who was defending the traditional understanding of marriage:

Mr. Bursch (Counsel for Michigan): … what they are asking you to do is to take an institution, which was never intended to be dignitary bestowing, and make it dignitary bestowing.

Justice Kennedy:  I don’t understand this not dignity bestowing.  I thought that was the whole purpose of marriage.  It bestows dignity on both man and woman in a traditional marriage… It’s dignity bestowing, and these parties say they want to have that same ennoblement…  I think many states would be surprised, with reference to traditional marriages, they are not enhancing the dignity of both the parties.

One can only wonder where he got this idea from.  The “whole purpose of marriage” is to bestow dignity or to grant “ennoblement”?  Who ever heard of such an idea?  These concepts have absolutely no foundation in the Constitution or in rationality.

What is truly breath-taking is the assumption the government has the authority and mandate to bestow dignity or “ennoblement” upon a person.  A government that can do that, is truly unlimited in its power — it is indeed Hobbes’ Leviathan, absolute and without any final restraint.

This is dangerous nonsense — our dignity comes from our Creator, and is intrinsic to us as human beings.  No government can add or detract from it, and it is not conditional upon any principle of law, decision of a court, or the desires of others.  The government has nothing to do with dignity, and even less to do with nobility.  If we grant that kind of power to a government, then we have ceased to be free people, and we are all in trouble.

We who are likely to be on the losing side of the marriage definition case need to consider this — what the government can bestow, it can also revoke or withhold.  If we are branded as “bigots” for holding to the true meaning of marriage, what will the government do to our legal rights, under the rubric of upholding the dignity of others?

There is indeed much at stake here, and the confused and dangerous ideas of Justice Kennedy give no cause for optimism about the results of this case, and the future of ordered liberty in America.

What We Need Most on Our Moral Bucket List

April 14th, 2015

Several friends contacted me to call to my attention an article in the Times Magazine by the well-known pundit, David Brooks, entitled “The Moral Bucket List”.  It’s an adaptation and summary of a new book by Mr. Brooks called The Road to Character.

In it, Mr. Brooks describes his dissatisfaction with his own character, and his desire to be more like a person who “radiates an inner light”, who is “deeply good”.  He clearly has thought a great deal about this, and has done considerable introspection. He came to the conclusion that to become more like those admirable people, he would have to “work harder to save his own soul”.  He had to grow in virtue by working on some specific “moral and spiritual accomplishments”.  In short, he came up with a prescription for several character-building projects that would become “a moral bucket list”:

  • The Humility Shift — There is no doubt that we live in a narcissistic and meritocratic culture that focuses only on the “Big Me”.   To develop that antidote of humility, we have to be honest about our true weaknesses, and then identify the “core sin” that has created them (e.g., selfishness, cowardice, hard-heartedness).
  • Self-Defeat — The way to build true character is not through competition with others, but by confronting our own weaknesses, and turning them into our strengths.
  • The Dependency Leap — Our culture encourages us to be self-absorbed atomistic individuals, but the foundation of good character actually is cultivating deep, committed relationships that recognize how dependent we all are on each other.
  • Energizing Love — We can overcome our self-centeredness by experiencing love for another.
  • The Call Within the Call — Instead of concentrating on status, money, and security, we need to find some way to convert our career into a calling to work for an ideal.

These suggestions are actually quite good.  But they left me cold, because I realized that they were missing something essential.

They were missing God.

When I was reading Mr. Brooks’ article, I couldn’t help but recall a key passage from St. Augustine’s Confessions.  For years, Augustine had sought truth and virtue through a variety of means — secular learning and success, sensuality, and esoteric religious cults.  He filled his bucket list with many “adventures”, but he was still deeply unsatisfied.

In the end, he came to realize that what he was seeking was within him all along, but was not just himself — it was the presence of God who loved him passionately and totally.  And when he embraced that truth, he finally found the peace and joy he longed for.  This realization led him to pen these immortal and moving words:

Late have I loved you, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you!

You were within me, but I was outside, and it was there that I searched for you.

In my unloveliness I plunged into the lovely things which you created. You were with me, but I was not with you.

Created things kept me from you; yet if they had not been in you they would not have been at all.

You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness.

You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness.

You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in breath and now I pant for you.

I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more.

You touched me, and I burned for your peace.

I deeply sympathize with Mr. Brooks’ search for goodness and meaning in his life, but I think he’s not reaching for the ultimate answer to his yearning.  Like him, I have spent my life in that quest. I have filled my bucket with many experiences and accomplishments, and all too often I have relied on them to give my life meaning.  But every time I have grasped at those distractions, I have been left empty and dissatisfied.

What I have come to realize, is the same thing that Augustine finally understood.  All the other things that I have searched for, all the things that I thought would give me meaning, didn’t provide a true solution.  The secret to finding real happiness and real character, and to saving my soul, was there all along, in the love of God that dwells within me and that draws me into communion with Him.

There are lots of things that I need to put on my “moral bucket list”, and Mr. Brooks’ suggestions are a pretty good start.  But I can’t be satisfied with that — the thing I need most on my “moral bucket list” is nothing less than God himself.

Approaching a Dangerous Threshold

April 1st, 2015

Many years ago, the Supreme Court of the United States took up a case involving people who did not wish to conform to a law that they considered to be an imposition on their religious beliefs.  The government, backed by strong public opinion sought to enforce the law, and to compel this religious group to comply.

But they persisted in defending their civil rights, particularly their freedom of religion.  It was a time when it was widely understood that freedom of religion was actually a civil right, essential to well-ordered liberty.   People recalled that the freedom of religion was so important that it was explicitly enshrined in the United States Constitution in two separate places — in the Free Exercise and Establishment clauses of the First Amendment, and in the ban on religious tests for public office.  It was a time when freedom of religion was under attack around the world, with people of some faiths being openly and brutally persecuted.

But it was also a time when unpopular religions still faced legal obstacles in the United States.  Some faiths were considered to be out of step with American values, out of the mainstream of acceptable opinion, and were widely criticized and even derided in the popular media.

The group in that case was the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the law required their children to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.  They took the issue all the way to the Supreme Court, in hopes that the highest court of our land would defend their right to live in keeping with their faith, and would grant them an exemption from the law.  The Supreme Court agreed with them, and reversed an earlier decision that gave their religious interests little respect.  In doing so, the Supreme Court, in the words of Justice Jackson, said something very significant about the nature of our government, and the importance of respecting dissent:

[F]reedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.  If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.  (West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, 1943)

We are now at a point in American history where this foundational principle is under direct attack, and it is not clear whether it will survive.  The long-standing conflict between the Christian faith and the forces of sexual liberation and radical egalitarianism is approaching a threshold that will be very dangerous to cross.

The battle right now is being conducted over religious freedom restoration statutes (“RFRA’s”) that have been enacted in twenty states (and which are the law by judicial decision in eleven others).  Those laws reflect the values expressed by the Supreme Court in the Jehovah’s Witness case.  RFRA laws recognize the civil rights of religious people to an exemption from certain general laws.  They would only get an exemption if they can prove that the law imposes a substantial burden on their religious beliefs.  However, they would still have to obey the law if the government has a compelling interest in enforcing it and there are no reasonable alternatives.  A RFRA law essentially creates a balancing test that courts would have to apply to a fact-based situation.  It does not grant a  blanket or automatic exemption to religious people.

The real dispute is, of course, whether Christians can be compelled to recognize same-sex “marriages” and to provide direct services to ceremonies that purport to create such unions.  A reasonable argument can be held about this question.  But that’s not what’s happening, and that’s precisely why we are in such a dangerous moment.

There has been an amazing amount of hysterical, ill-informed opposition to these RFRA laws that fail to take into account their true, limited nature.  But what really concerns me is the dismissive attitude that’s being displayed about religious freedom and the freedom to dissent.  People are speaking as if the category of “civil rights” didn’t even include freedom of religion, and that it must always be suppressed in favor of the supposed right to same-sex “marriage”.  One of our major political parties, most of the mainstream media, many of our courts, and a number of large corporations have already crossed the line into official intolerance towards religious liberty.   Public opinion polls show a shrinking number of people (albeit still a majority) who respect the right to dissent based on religion.  Gone are the days when dissent was considered a legitimate form of patriotism.

Basic respect for the right to dissent from official orthodoxy is under threat, and may not survive much longer.  When, as I expect, the Supreme Court invents the imaginary “right” to a same-sex “marriage”, this conflict will grow even more intense, and the danger to dissent based on religious beliefs will be even more acute.

On the other side of this threshold is real persecution, like that shown to the Jehovah’s Witnesses in the old days.  People are already being forced to recognize same-sex “marriages”, or face crippling fines and loss of businesses.  Institutions that resist will be punished by loss of public funding, access to public programs, and tax exemptions.  Individuals who dissent will be shunned and excluded from certain professions, and even from public office.

The right to dissent is essential to American liberty.  The Supreme Court saw that in the Jehovah’s Witness case.  Will our nation continue to see that now?