A Catholic-themed opinion blog about various topics, including theology, philosophy, politics and culture, from a Thomistic perspective.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Sacramental Imagination

Although some Protestant denominations, especially Anglicans and Lutherans, have liturgies that resemble Catholic Mass, there is one aspect of Catholic liturgical and theological thought that Protestantism specifically rejected: sacramental imagination. Here the Church does not use imagination in its modern sense as "artificial dreams" created for personal amusement or fancy, but in its technical sense as mentally conceiving of and manipulating images. However, it also has a broader sense: due to the human capacity for abstract thought, material things can have special adjective qualities that are not physically evident.

God is written in the heart of every person, at their deepest core. We long for God and Heaven - the Kingdom where His will is made real, where our longings, doubts, fears and sins are cleansed and fulfilled. In human society outside God's personal Revelation to the Jews (and later, Christians), God did not abandon or ignore His beloved creatures but rather communicated to them through their heart's desires, using images familiar to them. This was the belief of J.R.R. Tolkien, prolific mythopoet and scholar of philology and mythology. While many, especially the Frankfurt school, adhere to the belief that ancient man created myth, and religion, due to scientific ignorance, using anthropomorphic representations of physical phenomena in a sort of banal oral narrative, Tolkien denied this for good reason, mostly deriving from his superior wisdom about human creativity (or sub-creativity, as he called it) and myth.

Whereas God used imaginative fantasy to communicate indirectly with ancient peoples, He revealed Himself directly to the Jews, communicating through His Creation, angels, and direct contact, eventually culminating in Christ, God Incarnate. However, God did not reject the longings and imagination He put into man, but rather fulfilled them. Taking our adjective experience of the world, our propensity to interpret our experiences of life through a lense of qualities - "gray", "vivid", "beautiful", "cleansing", "life-giving", etc. - He gave these senses real meaning and a foundation in the true myth of His Revelation and the deeper spiritual realm just underneath the surface of reality.

A sacrament is an object or event that is "set apart", made holy, by God Himself in order to communicate Himself in some way, whether literally or as wisdom. The Catholic Sacraments, instituted by Christ, are fulfillments of the most fundamental human senses of the world. Water, which people around the world recognize as life-giving, death-giving, cleansing and healing, acquired these senses truly, healing and cleansing us of sin through a drowning death, images of the Flood and Christ's burial, and leading to new life in His Body. Bread and wine, our sustenance and drink, not only given from Earth but cultivated by man, adjectively representing for humanity life, fulfillment, community through meal, human cultivation of the Earth, and many others things, become God's direct sustenance of man by His Son, the sacrificial lamb, whose body and blood were shed for our redemption and became omnipresent, yet still physical at His Resurrection. The sacraments do not simply represent these senses - they give them reality. God's presence in the sacraments, especially Christ's real, physical substance in the Eucharist, is real and literal, while still implying deep spiritual and philosophical meaning.

This view not only of the primary sacraments but of all the universe as a work of art made by God to communicate with us, His most beloved creation, is a specifically Catholic idea. As elucidated by the scholastics and Christian humanists, God's creations have intrinsic, inalienable goodness and dignity; sin only taints it on the surface, a smudge on an unblemished pearl. God loves His world and His human creatures, made in His image and given the beautiful capacity to see God everywhere - through the world, our heart, and His personal Revelation. Life is an art museum, and we have the chance of a lifetime (no pun intended) to not only adore its infinite beauty, but personally know its Artist.

The American Myth of Superhero

Our European ancestors have a wonderful heritage of myths - not lies or makebelieve, as many now use the word "myth", but rather an imaginative, adjective fantasy representation of people and experiences through the unique mind of the author. In myth, the artistic author uses images and stories familiar to him, maybe even from his own experience, and through imagination creates a fantasty version of them that alters certain aspects in order to emphasize them. This often involves faerie - the sub-creative representation of the deepest desires, spiritual and mundane, of the human heart, giving myths a deep spiritual quality.

America lacks this heritage. Even though our tales of the Old West and our earlier Revolutionary origins have some legendary stories and characters, including embellished versions of historical people, legend is not myth or faerie. The American mind, though occasionally creative with its history, is too practical and precise to create myths. We do not view the world mythically; we view it factually. This is not to say that myths are lies - actually, they are the best medium for communicating higher spiritual truths of nature and humanity. But because the human mind is capable of abstract, rational thought, we can see a higher level to existence which all but nihilists recognize. Myth helps us communicate these abstractions through imagery and story that, while fictitious, is far from dishonest.

However, I find the existence of superheroes in American literature interesting. While most American superhero stories lack a real supernatural element, they are highly fantastical and faerie. They give a voice to the deeply American longing for justice which so characterizes our society, even among people who strongly disagree. The idea of a normal person rising to prominence, overcoming obstacles around and within them, and using their power for good is very much American. Superheroes are invincible (though vulnerable), incorruptible (though not without weaknesses), and mythic, battling villains of epic importance, in highly implausible situations. They explore both the spiritual desires and fears of the American mind, and they illustrate our intrinsically American love of adventure. While superheroes may not qualify as myths per se, I think they certainly qualify as epic faerie tales that capitvate the American mind and encourage bravery, goodness and justice within an exciting, imaginative context.

The Theft of Dignity

It is usually pretty easy to distinguish right actions from wrong actions. Even if the culpability of the person internally is outside our capacity to discern, when someone is murdered, stolen from, raped, we naturally say "that's wrong". We can justify it, of course, especially if we're the ones doing it. If anything, the human mind is clever, whether for truth or deceit. But while these actions are more obviously right or wrong, there is a more fundamental sin that often goes unnoticed, and is inextricably linked to our natural human sense of justice: the theft of dignity.

It is a universal Christian belief that God, as Divine Sovereign, cannot create anything bad. All His works are good. Because of this, all God's creations have an innate, inalienable dignity, and as humans created "in the image and likeness" of God (Genesis 1), we have an even higher dignity, a spirit which destines us to the Beatitude, the Resurrection previewed to us by Christ Himself. This dignity confers on all people basic human rights, as well as deeper attributes, residue of the mind and heart of our Maker - love, reason, conscience, a thirst for justice. These things come from God, and are carved into our very soul (Romans 1); though our sense of justice, truth and morality can be confused or maligned by evil intent, we retain those senses and continue to evidence throughout our lives the destiny for which we were made - to love, serve and glorify God.

Intellectual rejection of the inalienability of human dignity is rarely expressed in practice - on the other hand, the attitude of mutable human dignity is lived by most people throughout the world, acting as a fundamental form of sin. Each time we dehumanize our fellow man through greed and lust; judge him as if we are God through hatred and violence; and inflict injustice upon him by offering him no help, no charity, and restricting him from all work and livelihood, we steal his dignity. By treating someone as anything other than a wondrous, beautiful creation of God, His highest work of art, we sin against the plan of God, against our fellow man, and against ourselves, polluting our very hearts with sin and evil purposes.

While the dignity of the human person is inherent, evident to any wise enough to perceive it, only within the context of God's loving plan and holy creativity can it be fully understood, appreciated and given its inalienable quality, and only by a honest, compassionate adherence to conscience and God's revealed morality can we treat others as they deserve to be treated. This does not mean being nice and polite; God is not Victorian. It means treating one another with the deepest love, doing what is best for them always, while remaining within the obligatory limits our simultaneous love for God demands, as St. Paul delineated (1 Corinthians 13:3-7)

When we sin against the dignity of a person, acting towards them without the love they deserve, we are not simply trespassing a moral code or offending someone. When we do this, we steal their heart and soul - their very life, their worth and value as a person and creation of God. The world is full of this injustice, this dehumanization and theft of dignity. The poverty, rape and abuse, murder, theft - but also the hatred, mocking, ridicule, neglect, indifference, not giving people a chance. Thousands of homeless people are stuck on the streets, whether from their mistakes or the abuses of others is irrelevant to the love they deserve - and they are treated like human refuse, not merely ignored, but viewed as a disgrace to their neighbors. People are disgusted to walk down the street and see a man with no property, no home, no food, no water, living off our trash and treated lower than it. Most are so far in the pit of self-deprecation and abuse, accepting people's attitude towards them as true, that they don't even try to have a life. But once a person has been unemployed for some time, especially homeless, it is nearly impossible. Businesses view you as "unreliable", and so wash their hands of you.

It is a travesty, a tragedy and a deep injustice, a scar and taint on our society and on humanity in general, especially when everyday a few select are graced with millions upon millions and lust for more, while people are dying in the streets and contemplating suicide in their despair, preferring to die than to live a living death in the burning gaze of their brethren. But there is only one reason why this is wrong: inalienable human dignity. If human dignity can be changed by our mistakes, our sins and our original sin, the homeless deserve what's coming to them - and that's how most treat them.

Shining Through the Clouds

One of the most common questions I have heard from atheists is, how can a God who doesn't control everything and determine everything directly also be providential? If, as Christians believe, every event in the universe is not personally caused by God, but rather controlled by His natural order and subject to the chaos of sin, how can He also have Providence, and how is it fair that He apparently ignores human evil and suffering? This reaches to two of the deepest issues atheists have with theism, especially Christianity, and reflects two of the deepest concepts within Christianity and indeed all theism: why does God permit suffering, and how can an invisible God work providentially through nature.

Throughout history, two predominant forms of belief have existed: the sacramental, providential view of theism, and the Gnostic-type belief in a secret, hidden knowledge, separate from nature, accessible only be special techniques and complicated logic, but in and of itself impersonal. Both of these have taken hundreds of expressions over time, as branches splintered into branches of branches, but they are an accurate umbrella description.

The hallmark of theism, in all its forms, is belief in a supernatural (meaning, beyond physical nature) entity with personality of some kind, directly involved in the world with intent and sentience, as personal and distinct as ourselves. Exactly what sort of entity this is, how many there are, and in what way they are involved with the universe depends on the specific type of theism - but all share that same fundamental belief. Even in its simplest or most remote forms, theism has powerful implications for human life and other beliefs which stem from it, often taking of incredible complexity, breadth and cultural identity over the centuries and millennia of its people's devotion. A theistic worldview calls us to not merely acknowledge our deity but to have a personal relationship with it, in some way - to contemplate it, follow it, worship it, and sacrifice to it, to love and obey it. And a universe ruled by theism, especially in its most ancient forms, involves two essential ideas: sacrament and providence.

In a theistic worldview where all the universe is purposed, intended, nothing left out or uncontrollable by its Sovereign, everything takes on a greater, deeper significance. Nothing is random or meaningless. In Christianity, this takes on a special form: not only does every single object and event bear spiritual meaning and symbolic importance, God has acted through the world with revelation and personal Incarnation. He has both told us His purposes, and lived them Himself as example and redeemer.

But the Christian God, while being King of the Universe, is not a tyrant, and while His purposes involve goodness and truth, they are primarily concerned with freedom and the unity expected of it. With freedom comes responsibility for humanity; but freedom is also in the world. Within the context of the laws of nature which God has established from the beginning, nature is free to behave as it will. However, there is also another factor in freedom, without which it cannot exist: sin. Nature is free to exist and function as it will, but because sin was burned onto the universe, it now involves injustices, death, chaos and confusion, but within itself and in relation to man. The cycles of nature, though tainted with sin, continue to function by the order God has established, which is supreme over any additives, even sin; but because of freedom, God allows sin to affect the world, even to affect humanity. Without freedom, there can be no justice; morality without freedom is irrelevant, sin without freedom is cruelty, truth without freedom is detached from human life as the lies and deceit derived from a lack of truth cannot lead to any wrong choices on our part, as without freedom, there can be no real guilt or blame. We become animals and instruments of God, who Himself becomes a tyrant.

This is not the true Christian view of God and His Providence, however. While God is personal, He is not human - He is Divine. This confers both higher authority, and a completely different state of existence than we experience as physical, mortal, limited bodies and souls. If God was directly visible to each of us, we would care about nothing else but adoring Him. We would ignore one another, nature, life, ourselves, and all else. Since God created everything, He obviously did not intend this to happen, so He must necessarily remain remote, interacting with us through a veil, a cloud, indirectly, never showing us His face but only giving a glimpse sufficient for faith, but insufficient for the tyranny of certainty. Even Christ kept His God nature secret, revealing it only by the Spirit who confers wisdom (Matthew 16:17); without faith, it would not have been revealed. Christ's apostles followed Him even before His divinity was directly revealed, and this was not enough for all, such as St. Thomas and Judas Iscariot. God not only intends freedom, but the unity, responsibility, and charity derived from it and its counterpart, sin. Further, with man being limited in power and victim to the sin of the world and himself, he is given stewardship of the world, gifted with the powers of reason and knowledge, as well as a conscience to use them properly, giving the ability to use nature for the betterment of mankind, ordering it according to God's own orderliness. As medieval scholars believed, order is the language of God.

The Gnostic approach, on the other hand, has its own implications. By denying a personal, theistic divinity, atheism naturally leads to the belief that knowledge itself, invisible yet verifiable and very powerful, to be the highest thing, even spiritual, and the methods of acquiring knowledge to be the secret tools of the elite by which we attain enlightenment. Now, there are many different expressions of atheism, just as there are of theism. But as I said, this Gnostic umbrella seems to apply generally. More specifically, I have seen a common trait in its view of enlightenment which even the most nihilistic atheists, such as Nietzsche, espouse: through knowledge, we can conquer and control nature, fulfilling our evolutionary purpose. By liberating ourselves of the delusions of theistic religion and morality, of traditional gender roles and free charity, of the ideas of redemption, grace and redemptive suffering, we can use the tools of science which the philosopher Francis Bacon designated as the tools of human salvation to overcome the limitations, consequences and errors within nature. We can make things the way we want them to be, and avoid the repercussions of the means we use to attain those ends. As J. R. R. Tolkien said, in his essay "On Fairy-Stories", it is an "improved means to deteriorated ends". And in this utilitarianism, where the worth of something is determined by its usefulness towards the attainment of enlightenment for oneself and the human species, morality is power and charity is a wasteful residue of a more primitive age when human life was universally sacred and helping the poor sinners was an act of good mercy, rather than an "opium of the people" as Karl Marx, one of the most influential proponents of this philosophy whose effect was deeper than many believe, said (Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right).

While the Christian God does not directly control every event or any human choice, His purposes, intentions and attributes are revealed through the sacramental universe as symbolism and transubstantiation, through God's personal communications, prophecies, laws and miracles of the Word, infallible guidance of Tradition and realization of His Incarnation. But His Providence is not a momentary miracle or a symbolic message. It is the personal relationship He has within the heart of every person. God's highest goal for His Creation is the salvation of every single human person, so that we may attain the destined Beatitude for which we were made. In our temptations, trials, loves, hopes, fears and sorrow, He is there with us, conferring grace, offering solace in His warm light, and encouraging us to take comfort in the loving, peaceful unity we can have with one another. For "wherever two or three are gathered in My name, there I AM in the midst of them." (Matthew 18:20 Amplified Bible (text in parentheses omitted)