Posts Tagged ‘tolle lege’

Run-of-the-Mill Hedonism

Tuesday, December 17th, 2013

After our youngest child went to college, we cut down to one car, and I began to take Chicago’s public transportation system, the CTA, more often. This led me back to some late nights on the bus and train, and has found me also schlepping my library books back and forth in canvas bags like the student I was years ago.

In these canvas bags are books culled from among some seventy libraries in Illinois. I order books electronically during the week, and pick them up at the university library before the weekend. The books rest beside me on the floor “on the CTA.” Also riding beside me may be the quietly desperate, the drunken, the pierced, the kindly, the overworked, or the preoccupied, many of whom are indeed busy with their phones. For part of my ride, I try to pray, despite the Blue Line’s urine scent. Sometimes in my reverie I try to imagine what relationship might exist between the books that I read and the people whom I meet.

The books I schlep are sometimes about high philosophical topics, the latest debates between believers and high-brow atheists. I suspect, however, that few, if any, of my fellow riders–say, the woman with the cursive cliche inscribed above her breast loudly discussing with her friend on the phone her desire to have her tattoos removed–pay much attention to the high-brow atheists in my canvas bag.

My public commutes have led me to reflect that the greatest impediments to religion are thus not so much outright rejection, but distraction, not so much disbelief, but forgetfulness, not so much disavowal, but abandonment.

Philosophers have sometimes asked, “What should we be doing?” and Peter Drucker decades ago queried, “What business are we in?” A very useful alternative question with the potential to “back us in” to a similar set of truths is: “What are we doing instead of what we should be doing?”

What are nominally Christian parents doing instead of taking their children to church on Sunday? Oftentimes, they are going to sporting and educational events. Having served on a number of Catholic school boards, I learned that even the board members with children were in some cases choosing sports over Mass.

It somehow still surprises policymakers that college students find other things to do besides studying. According to federal statistics, about a quarter of college students abuse alcohol often enough to hurt their academic progress.

What are many young urban adults doing instead of forming traditional male-female, two parent families? My answer may surprise you: They are not, except in the rarest of instances, forming same-sex parenting couples, who represent but a tiny statistical fragment in American society. Many young people instead join for a time the largest claimant families of all: street gangs, whose members number in the tens of thousands in many major American urban areas, and whose scope overshadows all other non-traditional aspirants to family standing. The street gang, with its false pose as “family,” is far and away the greatest physical threat to authentic family and religious life, and should be a national ministry priority.

Thousands more people get intoxicated and miss worship events than do miss them because they are reading Nietzsche. Alcohol and drug abuse aside, many people think they have something more fun and satisfying to do other than praying and serving others: watching or playing weekend sports, or simply going shopping.

All this leads me to propose that run-of-the-mill hedonism poses a graver threat to religion than does high-brow atheism.

Hedonism is not “all Animal House all the time” as it is life by the pleasure principle. Simple pleasures will do. To update Camus’ adage from The Fall, we can sum up our age: Modern men and women fornicated (often alone) and went on the Internet.

Despite the fact that many of today’s young adults went to sports, school, or gang activities most weekends instead of worship, drank their way through their college-age years (elite students confining their hedonism mostly to the weekends), live in a “boozetown” young adult entertainment district, engage in virtual violence, fornicate on the Internet, and rarely practice formal religion, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins had almost nothing to do with this result, and Nietzsche didn’t give them the idea except maybe by wafting words through the Zeitgeist by way of the arts, letters, and film, some of which are indeed produced by Nietzsche aficionados.

Run-of-the-mill hedonism, predating just about every atheist who anticipated his or her own eternal non-existence, appears to take its own course, amplified and extended by profiting media, now targeted and consumed individually. “Sexperts” and cultural provocateurs like Dan Savage ride this turbulent tide, which nevertheless would flow without them.

Does the believer take arms against this sea of troubles? There is little point for religion to argue with run-of-the-mill hedonism, since hedonism is about enjoyment—like Pinocchio on Fun Island—only while it lasts. Jiminy Cricket could not talk sense into Pinocchio, who had to find out for himself–after the cruel metamorphosis of a boy into a donkey–the consequences of the simple decisions that kept him a puppet.

The alternative to run-of-the-mill hedonism ever is God’s unfolding love, but where beyond the choir is that Gospel heard? Believers continue to refute both atheism and hedonism, but their messages are jammed by the crackling static of hedonism, through which only random sound bites and tweets appear to penetrate. The faith, hope, and love encyclicals of the recent popes contain inspiration, but who knows it? Benedict XVI overturned Nietzsche and reclaimed Eros for the Christian in Deus Caritas Est (extending John Paul II’s Theology of the Body), but who has heard? Pope Francis has said that, contra hedonism, no one person is disposable:

The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor.
Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 1, accessed 12/17/13.

Sometimes, Pope Francis’s words do break through the hedonic noise, drawing significant bandwidth and brain-width. How? Is it simply that, like St. Francis de Sales, Pope Francis offers beads of honey instead of barrels of vinegar?

To understand this Francis Effect upon hedonistic attention, we can consider in layers our responses to hedonism, from the high-brow on down. The high-brow response includes journals like First Things, which nobly strives to prevent Nietzsche aficionados from sowing more weeds. The middle-brow response, set at the level of the old Great Books discussions and of Venerable Fulton J. Sheen, now dwells on the plateau of the PBS series–like Fr. Robert Barron’s numerous New Evangelization and new media efforts–and continually plows new ground. The low-brow response–wrestling in the mud with the hedonists–merely spreads around the mud.

But Christians have a fourth option. For this they must be willing to go “lower” than the hedonists, to go “no-brow.” In Pope Francis, Catholicism is once again reemphasizing this “no-brow” “rhetoric of the heart” (my son Mike’s phrase) that bypasses disputation through concrete personal acts of love and solidarity. Catholicism partially diverted from this approach after Vatican II when clergy became webbed within a pestilence of useless internal meetings during the era of “collegiality gone wild.”

The “no-brow” strategy includes the direct, personal living out of the Works of Mercy, both corporal (Matthew 25) and spiritual (I Thessalonians 5), and practices those good works (Romans 12) which take us directly beside another, and keep us there: to the hungry person who needs to eat, the sick person who needs care, the prisoner who needs a visit, the pregnant teen considering abortion, the student who needs to learn, the warrior regretting a war. Modernity has bureaucratized the work of the physician, the nurse, the teacher, the cleric, and the parent beyond recognition. But the “no-brow” stand of Christian personalism takes works of charity and justice back to immediate, direct human companionship, to “get beside” and “stay beside” another in joy. Hedonism has no answer, save slander and persecution, for the Beatitudes. That is in part how the message of Pope Francis continues to break through.

Believers hold that there is a truer joy in parting from hedonism. Happily one point of “finding out for ourselves” remains both divinely and naturally ordained: Because youth is ever fleeting, the same words that thirty-something Augustine was urged to tolle, lege, ever speak to us:

“Do this because you know the time; it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand. Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves properly as in the day, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in promiscuity and licentiousness, not in rivalry and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh. (Romans 13:11-14 [from NAB])”

At the bottom of my canvas bag, each week I put several meal bars, in case I should encounter one of the “brothers Christopher”–a lovely old phrase indeed.

© Copyright 2013, Albert J. Schorsch, III
All Rights Reserved

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On Finally Finishing a Book from My Father Twenty-Five Years Later

Sunday, April 28th, 2013

Our family has an established tradition of passing books around as loaners or gifts, and a related running joke about not reading them. Then dangerously, we sometimes do read them!

My late father had a saying that “If you learned one thing” from reading a certain book or attending a course or a certain workshop, it was probably worth it.

I remember, on my father’s side of the family, both my grandfather’s and my father’s enthusiasm about certain classic self-help books in positive mental attitude tradition that I eventually dutifully and substantially read. My grandfather especially liked stories in the Horatio Alger spirit of success after adversity, and also relished various guaranteed cures for arthritis (these I read in my pre-teen years, and have served me in good stead).

Grandpa used the expression, “Go Getter,” to express his approval of a person who took initiative, then with great ceremony, gave his grandchildren a quarter (because we had not as yet learned the proverbial “Value of a Dollar”). If one remained at Grandpa’s side long enough, he would tell his life story, while also explaining the Gold Standard. I recently found what I think was the book by Peter Bernard Kyne from the early 1920s that popularized this expression, Go Getter.

On my mother’s side, my Canadian great-grandmother gave me a book, The Incredible Journey, that she absolutely loved, and I never absolutely finished. Our kids did love the movie, which I watched over and again with them through various Disney movie remakes over several decades. Their great-great grandmother would be very pleased. I suspect our grandchildren will soon watch one of these movies, thereby honoring the memory of their great-great-great grandmother.

In fact, so many were the books passed on to me in my youth that my father presented me the summer gift when I was fourteen of attending an Evelyn Wood Reading Dynamics course. During this course, I completed Albert Camus’ novel The Stranger in five minutes. (It’s about a man who killed an Arab on a beach, and who thought a lot about the meaning of life, right?) At my peak I was blazing along at thousands of words a minute, although this capacity has faded with the years and with the eyes. But I do recall how sad it was to read an entire comic book in a few seconds. . .

I must admit I used this speed-reading technique from time to time on books my Dad gave to me. In doing so, I performed two “Dad” acts at the same time. Our family does try to kill several birds with one stone whenever possible.

(I’m also reminded that my high school students over thirty years ago referred to Albert Camus as Famous Camus, to rhyme with a notable maker of chocolate chip cookies.)

A few weeks ago, while still recuperating from surgery, I more closely studied a book that my Dad gave to me twenty-five years ago, and to which I gave a quick skim then. This book is the Ratzinger Report (1985), based upon a series of interviews of then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger with journalist Vittorio Messori, the first in the now genre of Joseph Ratzinger interview books in English, which continued to currently number four, the latter three–Salt of the Earth (1997), God and the World (2000), and Light of the World (2010)–being with journalist Peter Seewald. A similar kind of record, although comprised of addresses and correspondence, can be found in Without Roots: The West, Relativism, Christianity, and Islam (2006), by Joseph Ratzinger and Marcello Pera.

Joseph Ratzinger’s (Benedict XVI’s) interview books, while formal and not aphoristic in structure, provide something of a historic, theological, and cultural counterweight to Martin Luther’s informal and aphoristic Tischreden, or Table Talk, and now outnumber the corpus of Luther’s Tischreden by a page factor of almost four to one.

(Speaking of Luther, I chanced upon a bon mot quoted by the great Luther scholar Jaroslav Pelikan in his book, Whose Bible Is It?: A Short History of the Scriptures, in which he quotes the saying, “The Reformation began, so the saying went, when there was a pope on the seven hills of Rome, but now there were seven popes on every dunghill in Germany.”)

I have spent many hours reading (not speed-reading) the writings of Joseph Ratzinger over the past several decades, and can definitely number many more than “one thing” I learned from him. His gentle demeanor belies the prayerful depth and clarity of his insights and summations.

One key insight contained in the Ratzinger Report is an interpretation of the Vatican II concept of “People of God,” which has been popular since the Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World, Gaudium et Spes, and which seems to have dominated the theology of the Church after the Council.

“That’s true [said then Cardinal Ratzinger]. There was and there still is this emphasis, which in the Council texts, however, is balanced with others that complete it, a balance that has been lost with many theologians. Yet, contrary to what the latter think, in this way there is a risk of moving backward rather than forward. Here indeed is even the danger of abandoning the New Testament in order to return to the Old.

‘People of God’ in Scripture, in fact, is a reference to Israel in its relationship of prayer and fidelity to the Lord. But to limit the definition of the Church to that expression [People of God] means not to give understanding to the New Testament understanding of the Church in its fullness. Here ‘People of God’ actually refers always to the Old Testament element of the Church, to her continuity with Israel.

But the Church receives her New Testament character more distinctively in the concept of the ‘Body of Christ’. One is Church and one is a member thereof, not through sociological adherence, but precisely through incorporation in this Body of the Lord through baptism and the Eucharist.

Behind the concept of the Church as the People of God, which has been so exclusively thrust into the foreground today, hide influences of ecclesiologies which de facto revert to the Old Testament; and perhaps also political, partisan, and collectivist influences. In reality, there is no truly New Testament, Catholic concept of Church without a direct and vital relation not only with sociology but first of all with christology. The Church does not exhaust herself in the ‘collective’ of believers: being the ‘Body of Christ’ she is much more than the simple sum of her members.”

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger with Vittorio Messori, The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church, 1985, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, pp. 46-47. Paragraphing above mine.

Then Cardinal Ratzinger’s words on the limitations of the expression “People of God,” and his preference for the simultaneous use of the expression “Body of Christ” along with “People of God,” sum up the fundamental difference between those with a mere political interpretation of Vatican II, as opposed to an integration of the social and the sacramental. I agree with Joseph Ratzinger that the Church is definitely more than the sum of her members, and that using the phrase People of God exclusively without also invoking the Body of Christ is to rely substantially upon pre-Gospel traditions. The People of God and the Body of Christ belong together not only when describing the Church, but when witnessing to Christ as part of His Church. This theology of combining the social with the sacramental is very similar to that of Msgr. Reynold Hillenbrand, of whom I’ve written previously.

On a different note, one of the theological questions that has returned to me throughout my life is the question of the Fall and of the necessity for Redemption, in other words, What happened after Creation that was so bad that it required Christ to have to suffer, die, and rise to save us?

The question of the Fall is one that Joseph Ratzinger has expressed the wish to write about in retirement because of its critical importance. Here is his answer to a question about the Fall from 1985:

“The biblical narrative of the origins does not relate events in the sense of modern historiography, but rather, it speaks through images. It is a narrative that reveals and hides at the same time. But the underpinning elements are reasonable, and the reality of the dogma must at all events be safeguarded. The Christian would be remiss toward his brethren if he did not proclaim the Christ who first and foremost brings redemption from sin; if he did not proclaim the reality of the alienation (the ‘Fall’) and, at the same time, he did not proclaim that, in order to effect a restoration of our original nature, a help from outside is necessary; if he did not proclaim that the insistence upon self-realization, upon self-salvation does not lead to redemption, but to destruction; finally, if he did not proclaim that, in order to be saved, it is necessary to abandon oneself to Love.”

Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger with Vittorio Messori, The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church, 1985, San Francisco, Ignatius Press, pg 81.

The questions of the Fall (What was it?) and of Redemption (Why was Christ’s Death and Resurrection necessary?) remain challenging indeed. But I very much like Cardinal Ratzinger’s point that we must realize that we cannot save ourselves, and that to be saved we must abandon ourselves to Love.

So, although, it’s twenty-five years too late, I thank my late father again for the book (I did thank him back then as well). Had he not given it to me, I would not have encountered the holy wisdom imparted by Pope Emeritus Joseph Ratzinger.

That’s the nice thing about a book as a gift. It patiently waits for one to tolle, lege, to take and to read.

© Copyright 2013, Albert J. Schorsch, III
All Rights Reserved

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