Tuesday, September 04, 2007

A Catholic Personality?

Yesterday I mentioned that contemporary visions of the human person are typically drawn from the findings of the social, human and natural sciences. Sociology, psychology, as well as biology, genetics, neurology and physiology, are the contemporary anthropological touchstones. While I would certainly argue for the invaluable contribution of the empirical sciences to our understanding of what it means to be human, it is important that we avoid what Pope Benedict XVI has referred to as the tyranny of relativism that is often justified by appealing to empirical science.

The moral relativism that often accompanies empirical science is not intrinsic to its work. Relativism enters into the conversation when we assume the scientific method as a sufficient mean of knowing reality.

But empirical sciences works fundamentally by excluding those aspects of reality that do not lend themselves to quantification. In other words, scientists are concerned with reality insofar as it can be represented in numbers—scientists study those aspects of reality that can be measured.

In a rare sense we are all of us better off for the willingness of scientists to narrow their focus. By intentionally not looking at some aspects of reality in favor of concentrating on others, humanity has made extraordinary advances in almost all areas of life. Even the fact of this blog is the result of the methodological blindness of science. And speaking for myself, I certainly do not wish to return to premodern methods of farming or health care.

When we turn from natural phenomenon to the human person however, we discover that much of what is most distinctive and valuable about the human is precisely those aspects that cannot be measured and which cannot be excluded without sacrificing the very humanity of the subject. No where is this seen more clearly then in psychology.

There is a fairly well delineated body of research in the philosophy of science as well as from critical & theoretical psychology (where I tend to hang my hat) that argues that psychological diagnostics are inherently concerned with making moral distinctions. So, for example, we treat depression because, well, we ought not to be depressed or (if you prefer) we ought to be happy. Beyond that though, when a clinician makes a diagnosis he is also making an ethical decision that the person’s symptoms or complaints (or the complaints of others about the client) are more important than his other behaviors or thoughts about himself.

In other words, clinical work tends to see some behaviors/thought as a truer expression of the person than others—in effect, I am my symptoms.

The problem with this is many sided—not least among these is that modern psychological diagnosis is differential. Dependent as it is upon an empirical method that is both quantitative and reductionistic, psychology proceeds by looking at smaller and smaller aspects of the person. For this reason, psychology/psychiatry tends not to look at the person holistically (i.e., in a catholic manner).

To see how this might be a problem, let's look at the example of substance abuse and recovery.

One of my professors, Adrian van Kaam, argued that substance abuse or addicition is a form of pseudo-spirituality or pseudo-religion—basically the substance or behavior is a false god. While abstaining from the substance or behavior is certainly a good thing, it is not the best thing. Not worshiping a false god is not the same as worshiping rightly the One True God.

If as Christians our concern is developing a catholic personality, of coming to wholeness of being, then addictive behavior is only one aspect of the personality that must in someway be integrated into an ever larger vision of ourself and the world in which we live, work and love.

This integration, it seems to me, is in part what we are striving for in our ascetical life—how can we purify our passions, our desires, so that they serve the person rather than define the person. The temptation in the recovery movement is that it reduces the question of the passions (and in particular addictive passions) to either merely a concern for physical or social or moral health. But, while not wishing to minimize these concerns, these dimension don’t exhaust the meaning of the person.

Up until fairly recently, there was still some appreciation that human life moved naturally toward wholeness of being. So for example, up until very recently, substance abuse was understood under the rubrics of morality; what today we call addiction was simply drunkenness. The objection to drunkenness was not an objection to the consumption of alcohol itself, but its consumption to the point of at which the person was deprived of the use of reason and freedom. The moral prohibition against intoxication was not a rejection of pleasure, but represented an application of a general moral principle: We ought not do those things that make us less then we are (in the present case, the lose of reason and reason means we have deprived ourselves of what is distinctly human).

If for example in therapy we don’t talk about all the moral implications of substance abuse, or if we focus only on lesser, more narrowly and pragmatically oriented values, this is only a matter of compassionate prudence. The concrete needs and limits of the alcoholic or drug addiction are often such that he can’t have that broader conversation AND focus on his own maladaptive behavior.

BUT this doesn’t mean he should have that conversation with someone. There is good empirical evidence suggests that therapy, and this includes recovery, is most successful with those clients who have access to a broader context of social and moral meaning within which to integrate the insights they obtain from therapy or their recovery program. The success of Alcoholics Anonymous reflects just this need for human beings to acknowledge that their behavior is never merely private but is rather part of a larger arena of moral and social concern.

I think we go wrong when we fail to realize that human life is always embedded within a world of moral values. In other words, the question of drunkenness, or if one prefers substance abuse (and for that matter recovery) is one needs to be framed in terms of the development/formation of a catholic (whole) personality.

When we fail to keep in mind our question to develop a catholic personality aspects of our personality are taken as if they where the whole of who we are. And so, for example a person’s addictive behavior becomes to be determinative of how they (and others) understand themselves (“I’m an addict in recovery”) rather than as only one aspect of the person ("I struggle with the sin of drunkenness").

Again, it is important to bear in the distinction between what is practically necessary for a short period of time with a person in relative crisis, with what is a necessary and sufficient foundation of the whole of human life. St Gregory Nyssa tells us

The path, that leads human nature to heaven, is nothing more than separation from the evils of this world. … Becoming like God means becoming just, holy and good. … If therefore, according to Ecclesiastes (5:1), 'God is in heaven' and if, according to the prophet (Psalm 72:28) you 'belong to God,' it necessarily follows that you must be there where God is, from the moment that you are united to him. Because he has commanded that, when you pray, you call God Father, he tells you to become like your heavenly Father, with a life worthy of God, as the Lord commands us more explicitly in other passages, saying: "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect!" (Matthew 5:48) ("De oratione dominica" 2: PG 44,1145ac).

To be human to ascend, to always move towards heaven and, in so doing, live a life that is every more able to embrace all that human. As part of this, there is the ability to integrate, to heal and forgive, even those aspects of the human personality that have become pathological because of their dis-location within from their proper place in human life.

With this life of increasing transcendence and integration is precisely what we are striving for in our ascetical disciplines. The ascetical life, grounded in the sacraments, is the work of gradually helping us integrate the disparate elements of our life so that the image of God is evermore clearly revealed in our own life. This integration in turn makes it possible for us recognize evermore clearly the face of Christ in our neighbor.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory

Sunday before Holy Cross: John 3:13-17

Sunday before Holy Cross

The Lord said, "No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him." (Jn 3:13-17)
People (and not simply non-Christians, but even many Christians) will point out that it is wrong for Christians to judge, because, "Jesus didn't judge anyone." The proponents of this position find something of an ally in St John Chrysostom. In one of his homilies of the Gospel of St John, Chrysostom reflects on the "two advents of Christ, one past, the other to come." The first coming of Jesus Christ he says "was not to judge but to pardon us." It is for this reason that Jesus says of Himself, "I have not come to judge the world but to save it" (John 12:47) as Chrysostom points out. Jesus comes to pardon us our sins "because He is merciful" and this mercy reflects what St John describes as "the unspeakable surplus" of God's "loving kindness" toward humanity.

But if Jesus first advent is for pardon not judgment, it is good to remember that his second coming "will not be to pardon but to judge us" in Chrysostom's view. It is only when I am "careless" and inclined toward "using the loving kindness of God to increase the magnitude" of my sin that I neglect this second coming with the excuse that well, "God forgives all our sins."

Certainly God forgives me. The problem isn't whether or not God forgives, but whether or not I will accept forgiveness, whether or not I will accept reconciliation with God. St Augustine in his Tractates (Lectures) on the Gospel of John reminds us that, yes, Christ is the Physician of our souls and that "He has come to heal the sick." But at the same time, grace requires from us our cooperation and "Whoever does not observe" the Physician's "orders destroys himself." He puts the point sharply:
Thou wilt not be saved by Him; thou shalt be judged of thyself. And why do I say, "shall be judged"? See what He says: "He that believeth on Him is not judged, but he that believeth not." What dost thou expect He is going to say, but "is judged"? "Already," saith He, "has been judged." The judgment has not yet appeared, but already it has taken place. For the Lord knoweth them that are His: He knows who are persevering for the crown, and who for the flame; knows the wheat on His threshing-floor, and knows the chaff; knows the good corn, and knows the tares. He that believeth not is already judged. Why judged? "Because he has not believed in the name of the only-begotten Son of God."
Chrysostom reflecting on this point says that by this promised judgment Jesus means one of two things.
He either means that disbelief itself is a punishment of the impenitent [since], . . . is to be without [the divine] light [necessary to live happily]. . . . Or he is announcing beforehand what is to be. Even if a murderer is not yet sentenced by the judge, still his crime has already condemned him. In the same way, he who does not believe is dead, even as Adam, on the day he ate of the tree died.
The very curious thing about being a sinner, is that I seem to prefer the misery of my making to the God's gift of happiness. A the beginning of Paradise Lost, John Milton summarized the psychology of sin in the words he puts in Satan's mouth after his rebellion against God:

Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang'd by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then hee
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th' Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav'n (Book I:250-263).
It is on the Cross Jesus unites in His own flesh pardon and judgment and, by so doing, undoes our knotted freedom that has twisted back on itself over and over again until we no longer recognize happiness.

By suffering the Cross, Jesus pardons us, but at the cost of bearing the penalty of our sinfulness. He does this willingly suffering the fruit of our malice toward God and our subsequent self-hatred. Like the victim of drunk drive or a murder victim, Jesus accepts the effect of our sinfulness.

And by doing this, He also passes judgment on us--He demonstrates the depth to which sinful human beings, you, me and those we love, will sink given half a chance. In Genesis, when God brings to light Adam's transgression, Adam turns to God and says, "The woman you gave me, gave me to eat." When confronted with his sinfulness, Adam shifts the blame first to the Woman and then to God. Adam holds God responsible for his sinfulness and the Cross is simply the final result of humanity refusing responsibility for our own moral failings.

The judgment of the Cross, like the pardon that also comes by way of the Cross, is not such much the passing of a sentence or a judicial writ, as it is a revelation. On the Cross it is the light of God's love and mercy, His never ending willingness to forgive that illumines the dark terror of human sinfulness. Pardon and judgment will always travel together, even if in our experience they seem be different moments in salvation history.

When we resist judging their neighbors we do well, but not so much because we ought not judge, but because we are incapable of holding together in our own flesh judgment with pardon. But, if we cannot hold pardon and judgment together, then we have taken from ourselves the ability to forgive as well since pardon and judgment always travel together.

Pardon and judgment, forgiveness and moral evaluation, can never be purely formal matters--the Cross has made that clear. We cannot forgive unless we judge, but we cannot judge unless we also extend forgiveness. And neither can be done except that we are willing, in imitation of Christ, we are willing to sacrifice our own good for the good of the other.

It is St Ireneaus I think who said it was fitting for Christ to die on a Cross since it is only that way that a man dies with arms out stretched suspended between heaven and earth. With one hand, and here I am re-working Ireneaus some what, Jesus offers us pardon, and with the other judgment, so that heaven and earth can be re-united in His flesh. And this flesh is beaten and broken, scared and pierced, not because we are sinful (though we are), but because God's love for us is always personal, always sacrificial. To borrow from St Paul God's

Love is patient, love . . . kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. [God's] Love never fails (1 Cor 13. 4-8, NIV).
And when God's judgment comes

prophecies, . . . will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. ( vv. 8-12)
We oppose pardon and judgment because we know only in part, and so pardon and judgment seem in conflict to us because we are in our spiritual infancy, we are still children who need to grow up, we are still imperfect waiting (hopefully anyway) for perfection to come.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory