Analysis by Oswald Sobrino, J.D., M.A., who has published in New Blackfriars (U.K.), Homiletic & Pastoral Review, The Catholic Answer, New Oxford Review, CatholicExchange.com, and the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly. He is a lay graduate student at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. © 2002-06 Oswald Sobrino.
"There is much in Christianity which can be subjected to exact analysis. But the ultimate things are shrouded in the silent mysteries of God." --Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988)
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Saturday, October 28, 2006Claiming the Answers
I wonder sometimes if many of us Christians, as the old saying goes, "look a gift horse in the mouth." My sense of that adage is that we begin to look for defects in a genuine gift when common sense would say: take it and run. Of course, if something may not be a genuine gift but rather a fraud, then it's imperative to take a close, careful look. That prudence is especially necessary when evaluating those who wish to become one's friends or one's date or one's spouse. But I am more concerned here with the gifts we get from God.
We pray for something to happen; and, yes, it happens! But do we then go forward and appropriate God's work? Since I am now reading the book of Joshua (as part of a long-term project to read the entire Old Testament), the question comes to mind: do we claim the promised land as Joshua did, or do we still inexplicably shrink back as the fearful, distrusting pessimists among the children of Israel did? The pessimists died in the wilderness and never entered the Promised Land. It took a new generation to march, enter, and conquer as God directed.
We need to look around and see where God has opened the way, where God has indeed blessed us and answered our prayers. We need to ask God, as the song says, to "open the eyes of our heart." Then, we need to march in and take what God has given us. We need to renounce the spirit of fear and pessimism. People complain that their prayers have not been answered. I wonder if, in not a few cases, the prayers have indeed been answered; but that lack of faith and trust, deep-seated skeptical pessimism, cynicism, envy, and self-pity are rejecting the affirmative answer given by God. We need to ask to see, as Bartimaeus the blind man asked Jesus, so that we may see the avenues that God has already graciously and generously opened to us. And then we must rise, get on the road, and be on the Way, instead of hankering for something else that may not be for us, that may not be our calling.
Friday, October 27, 2006I Like Wal Mart
The Chicago city council tries to block Wal Mart from building in Chicago: the mayor wisely vetoes the move. I recall a liberal city council member in a liberal Cleveland suburb mourning that a Wal-Mart store would open in a depressed shopping area--she preferred Target because it was, in her view, more "upscale." Others complain that Wal-Mar is not unionized. To my knowledge, neither is Toyota unionized (or mostly unionized). If your main draw is low prices for consumers, then big, greedy unions will destroy your distinctive appeal with a constant, insatiable push to increase labor costs, regardless of the market effect--just ask GM. In addition, a Wal Mart job is certainly better than no job. By the way, according to my information, Wal Mart employees commonly own stock in Wal Mart: they are part owners.
Success breeds criticism. Wal Mart comes in for a lot of unfair criticism, in my view, even when it does something so clearly good for everyone. Here is a link to today's Washington Post on Wal-Mart's expansion of its new low price prescription drug program: $ 4 for a 30-day supply of "314 commonly prescribed generic drugs." Poor and retired people are "beaming" as the article describes one customer. Yet, certain pharmacist trade groups are grasping at straws to gripe about an obvious social benefit which is sparking Wal-Mart's competitors to cut drug costs. In Michigan, a major grocery chain just announced that certain antibiotics for children would be given away free in response to the Wal Mart move.
The absurd criticism of Wal-Mart's low drug prices is another example of how self-interest masquerades as a social conscience. Teachers' unions oppose the obvious good of school vouchers for inner city kids because of their misguided self-interest as a distorted union focused only on its narrow aggrandizement. In Catholic social teaching, unions, like every other institution, must focus on the common good, not on the professional good of the guild members only. Unrepentant liberals who have ruined their lives with abortion or promiscuity want to make sure the young have the same chance to ruin their own lives with Planned Parenthood propaganda: misery loves company. We cannot take at face value the social conscience of those who parade themselves as, well, the social conscience of the nation. Scratch the surface of so much liberal "social conscience," and you will find narrow self-interest, from teachers' unions who don't care about the true affirmative action of school vouchers to anti-Wal Mart groups that don't care when poor people get a "Wal Mart pay raise"--a pay raise that happens when Wal Mart lowers prices, a pay raise that happens when a Wal Mart store opens in your neighborhood.
Thursday, October 26, 2006True Wealth
On university campuses, you see them: older buildings from another era with bold, large inscriptions chiseled on the facade. In fact, at the very secular Univerisy of Michigan, you can find a prominent, old building with an inscription naming religion as essential to education and social welfare. In cities, you see them: older buildings with their own bold, large inscriptions proclaiming perennial wisdom to the citizenry. I don't see such certainty, such boldness, in trumpeting wisdom in modern buildings, whether on or off campus. The empty space for wisdom in our modern buildings reminds me of those grand, beautiful gothic Protestant churches where the outside niches are empty: no statues of saints. In the architecture, we see that something previously conventional is now long gone.
In downtown Detroit, you can come across an architectural gem from another era, an old, distinguished library, of course, on Library St. The aged, stone library has this headline in giant letters chiseled on its facade: "The Wealth of the Mind is the Only True Wealth." We, Christians, would agree with that train of thought, as far as it goes, at least in its rejection of crass materialism, but would wonder about the word "only." Christians would go further with some minor editing: "The Wealth of the Heart is the Only True Wealth."
We recall how Jesus rejoiced that the Father had revealed wisdom to the simple, not to the wise of this world (Lk 10:21). We recall how St. Paul likewise rejoiced that the Gospel was foolishness to the wisdom of the Gentiles (1 Cor. 1:17-25). Overemphasis on intellect, just like crass materialism, is a dead end. We see this dead end on prestigious campuses all over the country: the despair of the so-called super-intelligent in the most affluent and diverse system of higher education in the world. We certainly see the dead end in research laboratories and medical schools where the lunacy leads many to dictate, with smug but outrageous certainty, the beginning and end of human life. We see a similar phenomenon in the troubles besetting the formerly glorious Jesuit order.
"The Wealth of the Heart is the Only True Wealth." That's the Christian alternative that integrates intelligence and technical skill with love in the heart, the essential center of the human person. In the love of the heart, reason or logos finds its true vocation. We have too many people without "hearts." There are too many who in compulsive behavior exhibited in academic arrogance, scientific hubris, substance abuse, materialism, status-seeking, and immersion in sexual encounters and fantasies, have lost their "hearts." Now, more than ever, we can see the providential significance of that Catholic devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus and the Immaculate Heart of Mary. If we look again at these devotions that, unfortunately, because of so much sugary piety have lost their resonance for many of us, we get a clue about what the modern world really needs to cure its vast confusion.
Wednesday, October 25, 2006Barone on House Elections
Here is the link to the Michael Barone Blog. Barone, as regular readers know, is my favorite political analyst (he also has a Michigan connection since he grew up in the Detroit suburbs). Barone sees a close House election with ultimate control resting on turn-out and possibly--quite interestingly--on some conservative Democrats refusing to vote for a Speaker Pelosi. I wouldn't be surprised to see some conservative Democrats switching to Republican if the results are very close. So two practical things to consider: first, go out and vote Republican and remind other pro-life voters to make sure they vote Republican on November 7th, and, second, don't believe the liberal media hype about a Democrat "wave" election. Most important of all: pray that the pro-life party retains control of all of Congress.
Tuesday, October 24, 2006The "Pornography" of Wealth
It's a shocking headline, but meant to make this point: pursuing material wealth and possessions as the way to be happy is as foolish as seeking happiness in pornography. Just as pornography is dangerously addictive and self-destructive, so is the pursuit of material possessions and large bank accounts. Just as Christians should flee pornography, so should they also flee the addictive allure of piling up more and more material possessions. The Gospel makes the dangers of materialistic pursuit quite clear. The Gospel sayings are famous (it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God, Mt 19:24, Mk 10:25, Lk 18:25; the rich young man turned away sad for he was "very rich," Lk 18:23), but are seldom, at least in my personal experience, preached upon vigorously and forcefully. The Epistle of James is even more explosive on the issue of material wealth. Why the lack of emphasis about something so dangerous? Is it because parishes (and Catholic schools and colleges) are too concerned with not alienating rich donors? Is it because the Gospel theme is so contrary to accepted, conventional attitudes? (The same questions can be asked about the rare preaching on contraception or fornication or on the gay lifestyle--and remember preaching can occur outside of Mass and thus need not be limited to the theme of the Scripture readings.)
I saw the recent headline of the fourth diocese in the U.S. filing for bankruptcy because of the terrible and heinous sex abuse scandals. Maybe, it's not so bad for more dioceses to file for bankruptcy. Maybe, a poor, humbled diocese is a better diocese, closer to the "poor in spirit" celebrated by our Founder. More humble, more open to the Gospel. It seems today that the faith is flourishing more in the poor dioceses of the world than in the rich dioceses of the world. In fact, a good argument can be made that such has always been the case.
I recently heard a speaker say what I and others have said before in different ways: virtually all of us in the U.S. are materially rich compared to most of the people in the rest of the world. As the speaker put it, if you own a car (any car) or are able to turn on a faucet and get drinkable water, you are rich in the eyes of most of the rest of the world. So the Gospel sayings are a special warning to us who are privileged to live in the United States.
In a new book (which I have only skimmed), psychologist Daniel Goleman, who a few years ago wrote the well-known book Emotional Intelligence, notes this research about the mania for bigger bank accounts:
[Daniel Kahneman, a Princeton University psychologist] uses the image of a treadmill to explain why enhanced life circumstances, like greater wealth, correlate poorly with life satisfaction. In explaining why the wealthiest people are not the happiest, Kahneman argues that as we get more money, we adapt our expectations upward, and so we aspire to every more lofty and expensive pleasures--a treadmill that never ends, even for billionaires. As he puts it, "The rich may experience more pleasure than the poor, but they also require more pleasures to be equally satisfied."
Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence (Bantam Books, 2006), pp. 311-12.
The researcher called this treadmill the "hedonic treadmill." You can find other manifestations of the "hedonic treadmill" in substance abuse and in the fornication lifestyle. Of course, what the Princeton psychologist says is true; and we have known it for centuries. Sometimes, I think the intelligentsia is like an adolescent who must discover on his own what his parents already know to be true. We reinvent the wheel, when it has all been said before, usually in a better and more enlightening way. But it is good that the adolescent eventually confirms for himself perennial truth and hopefully acquires a new humility when viewing his predecessors.
When we begin to see the allure of wealth as self-destructive as the allure of pornography, we will be in closer touch with reality. Yet so many still find both poisonous attractions irresistible. And even many so-called experts encourage and soothe people into pursuing both poisons as harmless. We know better and should not keep our knowledge a secret.
Monday, October 23, 2006"DisEvangelists" & the Real Beauty Checklist
I don't know if anyone has ever used the word before, but here is my neologism: "disevangelists." I define "disevangelists" as those Christians whose warped personalities actually dissuade people from becoming Christians. Of course, the distorted personalities run the gamut: arrogance, bullying, bombast, anger, etc. I am sure you can add to the list. Yet, these same people purport to preach religion to others. It won't work.
We see the problem as Catholics among some clergy. Would you give a nickel for advice from some of the stranger personalities among the clergy? And, yes, in this day and age of lay people holding diocesan and parish posts, you also see lay people in ministry who shouldn't be there at all.
Grace builds upon nature. So if you're lucky to have a healthy, sensible personality as a God-given base for grace, you're way ahead of the game. But the reality is that such a basic gift is not always the case, and that many people turn to religion because of deep emotional problems and frustrations. On the one hand, that is what Jesus came for: to heal the sick, not the healthy. But the issue is to get the healing, not just to get a label or a job. Getting the healing means that the troubled or immature gets some knowledge about his "disevangelical" persona. The problem is that few want to bother with confronting or challenging someone like that. Better to ignore the issue and move on. But the Bible is not afraid to challenge any of us.
In a famous passage in Galatians 5, St. Paul gives us the concrete personality and psychology of the Christian who has opened up to the indwelling of the Holy Spirt. Paul's list is quite specific. Each of us should start measuring ourselves by this standard (I certainly include myself as one in great need of this self-evaluation). We impose very specific standards on ourselves all of the time: are we the right weight, how is our hair trimmed, how do our clothes look, etc. So we are fully capable of getting specific about ourselves on an on-going basis.
Here is one translation of what I call the Christian personality checklist:
But the fruit of the [Holy] Spirit [the work which His presence within accomplishes] is love, joy (gladness), peace, patience (an even temper, forbearance), kindness, goodness (benevolence), faithfulness,
Gentleness (meekness, humility), self-control (self-restraint, continence). Against such things there is no law [that can bring a charge].
Galatians 5:22-23 (Amplified Bible translation; emphasis added).
The Amplified Bible translation uses words in parentheses and brackets to attempt to bring out more the original meaning of the biblical text. (The words in parentheses represent shades of meaning in the original text of the Bible; the words in brackets represent comments not in the original biblical text.) The value of this type of translation is to wake us up again as many of us glide over very familiar passages that no longer shock us. But go ahead and read the other translations and compare. No translation is perfect.
Many "disevangelists" do not commit heinous or dramatic violations of the Ten Commandments. A superficial examination of conscience will leave them feeling pretty self-satisfied. But Paul gives us an additional examination of conscience in the quoted passage from Galatians 5. Once we get past the Ten Commandments, maybe we should turn to a Galatians 5 self-inventory.
We evaluate ourselves in America unceasingly about our looks, finances, possessions, and physical health. We try to be "beautiful" in accordance with a culture that defines "beauty" as a lot of money, possessions, a youthful look, even as flat abs. Well, for us as Christians, the slogan is this: "Good is Beautiful." The Galatians checklist is a recipe for authentic beauty beginning with me and with you, an authentic beauty that actually makes us happy.