Human dignity’s roots

Josh Herring writes that the notion of human dignity is a uniquely defining characteristic of Western culture:

I teach in a secular classical school, where we uphold transcendence and human dignity as educational principles, but without the doctrinal apparatus of theology to support our claims. Instead of the direct claims of theology, we follow the winding paths of wisdom derived from the humanities. Grounded in the Western tradition, we study literature, history, and philosophy, with an eye towards building a sound anthropology. By the time they leave Thales Academy, students should hold firm convictions about the value of the human person and live in light of those convictions. The study of history is complex, allowing students to see the different ways humans have lived, believed, and thought, and weigh which patterns lead to flourishing. …

Later studies in Greek thought reveal another vital dialectic that contributed to human freedom. Hesiod’s poetry shows humanity as puny creatures in the Greek cosmos, echoing Homer’s portrayal of the Trojan War as a game for the entertainment of bored gods and goddesses. With the flowering of Greek philosophy in classical Athens came the teaching of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle (alongside their contemporaries), who asserted that man, the “rational animal,” is capable of comprehending the world around him. This rational impulse allowed true sciences to develop through the centuries (although it gave rise to theories like Thales of Miletus’ conviction that all things are composed of water).

Having moved through historical, literary, and philosophical studies in antiquity and the classical era, students recognize the value Christianity bestows on the human person. Within the context of a Roman pursuit of universal justice and law, they study the birth of Christianity. Suddenly, the pieces fit together: this image-bearing yet fallen creature capable of rational thought contains such worth in the eyes his Creator that Christ came to redeem mankind from the rule of sin and death. This perspective makes sense of C.S. Lewis’ claim in The Weight of Glory when he writes:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are in some degree helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”…

The West has long celebrated freedom, but that freedom did not develop in a vacuum. The ability of human beings from around the world to act freely in economic, religious, social, and political spheres grows out of key convictions that contribute to the rich tapestry of the Western tradition. It is not enough to celebrate freedoms without understanding how they developed. If we cut off the roots that nourish our concept of freedom, the tree of liberty will collapse under the rot of licentiousness. Cultivating an historical consciousness and a sense of gratitude to those men and women of the past reminds us that we are the heirs of many blessings. It is our responsibility to know our inheritance, act as good stewards of it, and pass it on to the next generation.

Catholicism and the arts

I’ve shared some of Dana Gioia’s poetry before, and I just recently discovered his Napa Institute talk from a few years ago:

He speaks about “the problem of beauty’s absence from modern thought and daily life. He makes the bold assertion that this absence is the biggest issue facing our culture today. A fantastic meditation on the idea of beauty and its importance in our lives, and how to begin to put it back.”

Christ’s burial cloth

Ross Douthat was tweeting about the Shroud of Turin the other day, and that pointed me to this piece from Fr. Dwight Longenecker on various evidence for the authenticity of the shroud as Jesus Christ’s true burial cloth:

A verse in the epistle to the Hebrews asserts that faith is “the substance of things hoped for – the evidence of things not seen.” The resurrection of Jesus Christ is an event forever hoped for, but it is also an event unseen.

Believers in the Shroud of Turin, however, insist that the Shroud is the substance of this hope and the evidence of this unseen event. It is, they believe, the burial cloth of Jesus Christ. It has been venerated as such for centuries, and since the 17th century, when it came to Turin, has been the cathedral’s best-known treasures. Popes have come to gaze on the Shroud; Benedict XVI said when he visited in 2010 that “we see, as in a mirror, our suffering in the suffering of Christ”. …

We are not obliged to believe in the Shroud; it is undeniably mysterious. Having said that, it is also mysterious how dismissive most sceptics are. They cry out for scientific evidence, but when evidence is produced few really examine it closely. They simply shrug and say, “Well, we just don’t know. Nothing has been proven. All we have is an old cloth for which there is no explanation as yet.”

One of the principles of creative scepticism is that the obvious answer is usually the right one. The obvious answer, to my mind, is that the Shroud of Turin is the burial cloth of Jesus Christ.

I believe the Shroud is authentic, but if sceptics come up with a convincing answer to the questions the Shroud presents I am open-minded. My faith is rooted in the Resurrection, not the Shroud itself. The fact that the Shroud remains a mystery is a reminder of that other verse from the New Testament that “we walk by faith and not by sight.”

Fr. Longenecker cites the shroud’s more convicting/perplexing aspects. The image isn’t stained or painted, but seared into the cloth. The image can be read by 3D imaging tech, which is unusual. The image’s wounds are consistent not only with crucifixtion, but with the specifics of the details of Christ’s crucixition, and the bloodstains are human blood whose lasting hue indicates torture. The shroud carries pollen from near Jerusalem, and is consistent with first-century Jewish burial customs. The cloth itself is consistent from that period, too.

Douthat’s position is basically mine; paraphrasing/combining from Twitter: “I’m skeptical of the Shroud because as evidence of the resurrection it seems almost too dispositive to be real. It would be a tricky God who left behind hard evidence of the resurrection that only the scientists of 2000 years hence would recognize. He’s not a tame God, as Lewis says, so He can do as He likes. And it’s certainly one of the strangest objects in the world. If I were a skeptic its strangeness would unsettle me. But as a believer its directness seems unlikely.”

He later shared a memory from his last encounter with Christopher Hitchens, infamously atheistic: “Suppose Jesus did rise from the dead—what would that prove, anyway?”

Whether the Turin shroud is really Jesus’s burial cloth, Christians know Christ lived, died, was buried, and rose again. How difficult it is to believe in Christ—whether you’re Thomas who should have recognized him, or a Thomas living 2,000 or 10,000 years later in chronological time—is a testament to our basic inability to easily answer the question, “What is truth?”

Future belongs to those with children

Archbishop Chaput addressed the Napa Institute. I was present for it, and it has been covered in a number of outlets. The full text of his speech is available here. I’ll highlight a bit of it here:

In a world that can sometimes seem disheartening, Christians have a path to the future in lives of joy and love, Archbishop Charles Chaput told those gathered Thursday at the annual Napa Institute conference.

While Christians need to see the world’s problems as they are, “we can’t let the weight of the world crush the joy that’s our birthright by our rebirth in Jesus Christ through baptism,” he said.

“If we cling to that joy, if we cling to God, then all things are possible,” he added. “The only way to create new life in a culture is to live our lives joyfully and fruitfully, as individuals ruled by convictions greater than ourselves and shared with people we know and love. It’s a path that’s very simple and very hard at the same time. But it’s the only way to make a revolution that matters.”

The Napa Institute, founded in 2010, aims to help Catholic leaders face the challenges of contemporary America.

“When young people ask me how to change the world,” Archbishop Chaput said, “I tell them to love each other, get married, stay faithful to one another, have lots of children, and raise those children to be men and women of Christian character. Faith is a seed. It doesn’t flower overnight. It takes time and love and effort.”

“The future belongs to people with children, not with things. Things rust and break,” the archbishop continued. “But every child is a universe of possibility that reaches into eternity, connecting our memories and our hopes in a sign of God’s love across the generations. That’s what matters. The soul of a child is forever.

In the face of the many challenges of today, he pointed to an idea from St. Augustine: “It’s no use whining about the times because we are the times.

“It’s through us that God acts in society and the Gospel of Jesus Christ is carried forward. So we need to own that mission. And only when we do will anything change for the better,” the archbishop said.

… Archbishop Chaput suggested that the modern world is not much different from the Athens that St. Paul visited. The city was “full of idols,” where everyone “spent their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.” There, St. Paul disputed with Jews, devout persons, philosophers and other residents. …

The Acts of the Apostles show “the perpetual newness of the Gospel,” the archbishop said.

“They’re also a portrait of courage as St. Paul, Christianity’s greatest missionary, preaches the Gospel in the sophisticated heart of Athens,” he continued. Despite mockery and condemnation, St. Paul persists and “understands that his audience has a fundamental hunger for the Godly that hasn’t been fed, and he refuses to be quiet or afraid.”

“Things rust and break, but every child is a universe of possibility.”

Ethics of sexual relationships

Nathan Smith conveys the classical understanding of sex:

Men are tempted to exploit women for pleasure and prestige, and need to be on their guard against this temptation. Exploitation is worst when the woman is underage or drunk or emotionally unstable, or when the man uses a position of power to intimidate her, tells lies to impress her, promises to marry her, conceals his marriage to someone else, gets her pregnant, or exposes her to a sexually transmitted disease. But the bottom line is that if he serves his own pleasure at the expense of her welfare, that’s exploitation. If he knew, or could have known if he thought about it, that she’d regret it the morning after, that’s exploitation. And if he knew, or could have known, that she’d regret it one year, or five years, or fifteen years later, when she’s wasted some or most or all of her remaining reproductive years on a guy who wouldn’t marry her, that’s exploitation, too. “He used me” is a standard—and just, and accurate—complaint made by women against men they’ve had sex with. … The only ethically safe course is either to marry a woman or else to leave her chastity intact. …

Humans are intensely ambivalent about sex, regarding it by turns as vulgar, gross, and unseemly, or as sublime and beautiful. We place rape among the worst of crimes, while romantic love is one of life’s crowning glories, the theme of half the novels and songs the human race has written. The deceit and damage involved in so much premarital sex—cool dude bangs insecure girl and turns her into a single mom on welfare for life—fully justifies the repugnance that is one side of this ambivalence.

On the other side is the glory of marriage, and while there’s more to that glory than the selfish genes can explain, they shed an important light on it. For when two people marry, “leaving father and mother” as the Bible says and committing to lifelong monogamy, their genetic interests are united, at least approximately, creating a harmony of instincts. Ordinarily, our instincts put us in competition with our fellow human beings. In marriage, instinct is on the side of love.

Children are the large, obvious reason why marriage is good for society and why premarital sex isn’t. Sexual relationships always absorb a lot of people’s energy and attention, so they impoverish society unless they give something back. Marriage makes the next generation, under the most favorable conditions. Premarital sex is usually not intended for procreation, and if it does result in children, they enter life at a disadvantage because they lack stable parental commitments to raising them.

But even compared to childless marriage, premarital sex has an unwholesome character because, by failing to address genetic conflicts of interest through marriage, it allows competition, exploitation, and fear of betrayal to penetrate into the heart of the most intimate human relationships, not stealthily, but openly and as if by right. There is no way to make premarital sex promote the good of society or of the individuals involved. The world would be a better place if it never happened at all.

If this perspective seems outrageous or even just incredibly distant to you, that’s an example of how revolutionary the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s really turned out to be. The ethics of human sexuality can be far richer than our present “consent” culture allows for.

Damascus

Madeleine F. Stebbins writes on St. Paul’s conversion:

At first it may seem odd to see Saul from this perspective, turned away from us, on his back. Also, why the prominence of the horse, which seems somewhat bewildered by what has happened? In the Psalms, the horse is symbolic of strength and power (c.f. 33:17;147:10). We say “riding on a high horse,” meaning in an attitude of pride. Jesus is never pictured on a horse, only on a donkey. But the young Saul, here in rich clothing, was in a state of complete self-assurance in his own righteousness, as well as of blind arrogance and fanatic zeal. So he had to be struck down from his horse.

Why this upside-down perspective of Saul? Because in an instant his world had been turned upside down. All he had lived for and was zealous for turned not only to ashes, but was seen in its truth as wicked. Conversion is depicted here as a total inversion, as a reverse, at antipodes with one’s perspective worldview.

A miracle of grace happens here, one of vast consequence for the history of Christianity. A shaft of “light from heaven” (Acts 9:3) causes instant blindness. Caravaggio gives this powerful sense of light in darkness, a glowing light that is mysterious, unfathomable and beautiful, like the light of eternity. He focuses with intense concentration on this intimate moment to the exclusion of all else. Saul is not reclining, as in other paintings on the subject, but utterly prostrate, shattered, humbled to the very ground, all his strength gone, his sword thrown down. Struck blind, he needed to undergo the death of the senses in order to see the new supernatural light. On the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul, Pope Benedict said conversion is “always letting ourselves be formed by Christ; it is death and resurrection.”

I think that one of the strange-sounding consolations that being a Christian offers is the possibility of meeting death with a smile. Riffing off the last line above from Pope Benedict XVI, anyone who’s truly in relationship with Jesus Christ has at least one conversation moment. In my experience I have many, and somewhat often. (We convert because we naturally stray from goodness, because we’re creatures who sin.) It’s in undergoing many “little deaths” and resurrections of our souls that it seems possible actually to die with the Christian joy that so many great men and women have spoken of across time.

St.-Paul-on-the-way-to-Damascus-Caravaggio.jpg

Chris Stefanick in Philadelphia

I hadn’t heard of Chris Stefanick’s EWTN program “Real Life Catholic” until I saw the episode below with Archbishop Charles J. Chaput in Philadelphia. It’s a great episode for understanding +Chaput’s distinctive pastoral spirit as much as it is for encountering “real life” Catholics and some of Philadelphia’s culture.

Chris Stefanick’s in the City of Brotherly Love to talk about freedom of religion with Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, serve a mean cheesesteak at The Original Pat’s King of Steaks, hear the amazing story of Father Chung Nguyen, and hang out with two young Vietnamese Catholics who are living their Catholic faith to the max.