In the young adult Bible study at my parish (conducted on Zoom during the current crisis) we have been reading through the Book of Genesis. Most recently, we’ve been studying the story of Joseph the Patriarch. Genesis 41 features the memorable story of how Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dream of the seven cows and the seven sheaves of grain. God’s word always seems to be right on time: this story gave us an opportunity to discuss the anxiety brought about by the pandemic, with a particular focus on the fact that most of us were caught unprepared.
Let’s ponder a very simple yet often-forgotten principle taught in Chapter 41 of Genesis.
The basic story is that Pharaoh is having troubling dreams that his advisors cannot explain. In the dream, Pharaoh sees seven fat cows near the banks of the Nile. These cows are devoured by seven skinny cows, who nonetheless remain skinny. He also sees seven sheaves of plump, ripe wheat devoured by seven withered sheaves (cf Gen 41:17-24). Pharaoh is told that a gifted man named Joseph, currently in jail, is able to interpret dreams.
Joseph interprets Pharaoh’s dream as follows (as poetically rendered in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat):
Seven years of bumper crops are on their way Years of plenty, endless wheat and tons of hay Your farms will boom, there won’t be room To store the surplus food you grow
After that, the future doesn’t look so bright Egypt’s luck will change completely overnight And famine’s hand will stalk the land With food an all-time low
Noble king, there is no doubt What your dreams are all about All these things you saw in your pajamas Are a long-range forecast for your farmers
And I’m sure it’s crossed your mind What it is you have to find Find a man to lead you through the famine With a flair for economic planning
But who this man could be I just don’t know Who this man could be I just don’t know Who this man could be I just don’t know!
Joseph advises Pharaoh to decree that one-fifth of the harvest be set aside during the seven years of plenty to prepare for seven years of famine. All other excess should also be stored rather than squandered. In this, then, are some lessons for us:
First, famines, economic crises, and other disasters will inevitably come for us who live in this Paradise Lost. It is important to expect them and to plan for them. It’s been quite some time since something this serious has befallen us in the United States. Even September 11, 2001, a tragedy to be sure, didn’t keep us down for long; we recovered rather quickly. In retrospect, this quiet period made us a bit complacent; we stopped storing provisions “for a rainy day.”
My grandparents’ generation (“The Greatest Generation”) endured numerous hardships and disasters: two world wars, the Great Depression, and the Spanish Flu epidemic, which alone killed 675,000 Americans. They were more accustomed to the vicissitudes of life than we seem to be, and it affected them in many ways. One thing that I especially recall of that generation was that most of them were frugal; they were relentless savers. Even when I was very young, my grandparents made sure I had a savings account. My maternal grandmother opened an account on my behalf and seeded it with a modest sum. My siblings and I were encouraged to learn the discipline of saving money for the future.
And all of this is well rooted in the biblical teaching of Joseph, who admonished Egypt to save in plentiful times because difficult days were inevitable.
More recent generations, including mine, have fallen short in this. We tend to spend whatever we have, and the only saving we do is for retirement. But unexpected events often come before retirement. Many of us spend more than we earn and use credit foolishly. In doing this, we fail to respect the biblical wisdom taught by Joseph.
With the heavy restrictions imposed (rightly or wrongly, properly or excessively) by civil authorities, too many people have found that they have little to nothing set aside to get them through business declines or temporary unemployment. Government payments/loans may be justly offered because the economic downturn was driven by an external event. But the current situation still illustrates a problem: most of us are unprepared for even a few months of reduced or no income.
Perhaps we can learn the lesson our ancestors lived: we must save for the proverbial rainy day. With Joseph the patriarch to encourage us, we need to rediscover the merits of saving. This is perhaps a small and obvious lesson, but apparently it hasn’t been obvious enough.
In the Gospel of Matthew (Mat 12:1-8), Jesus is rebuked for violating the Sabbath. This reminded me of the video below, which illustrates how we sometimes follow smaller rules while overlooking more important ones in the process.
The Lord Jesus was often scorned by the people of His day, who claimed that He overlooked certain details of the law (often Sabbath observances). But those who rebuked Him for this were guilty of far greater violations. For example,
[Jesus] went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.” Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent. He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus (Mk 3:1-6).
Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone (Luke 11:42).
Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue ruler said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.” The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” (Lk 13:14-16)
You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean (Matt 23:24-25).
Yes, they are straining out gnats but swallowing camels, maximizing the minimum but minimizing the maximum. Note that in the first passage above they are actually planning to kill Jesus for healing on the Sabbath!
Perhaps my all-time favorite illustration of this awful human tendency is in the Gospel of John:
Then the Jews led Jesus from Caiaphas to the palace of the Roman governor. By now it was early morning, and to avoid ceremonial uncleanness the Jews did not enter the palace; they wanted to be able to eat the Passover. So Pilate came out … (John 18:28-29).
They are plotting to kill a just and innocent man; indeed, they are plotting to kill God. They are acting out of wickedness, envy, jealousy, hatred, and murderous anger, but their primary concern is avoiding ritual uncleanliness! Yes, they are straining out gnats but swallowing camels.
We who are pious and observant need to be wary of this tendency. Sometimes in congratulating ourselves over adherence in lesser matters, we can either offend or neglect in weightier ones. Perhaps I attend Mass each Sunday (a grave obligation); perhaps I pray the rosary (a highly commendable practice); perhaps I tithe (a commendable precept). These are all things that ought to be done (one is commanded, one is commended, and one is a precept). But what if at the same time I am hateful toward someone at the office, unforgiving to a family member, and/or insensitive to the poor?
The danger could be that I let my observance of certain things allow me to think that I can “check off the God box” and figure that because I went to Mass, prayed the rosary, and gave an offering, I’ve “got this righteousness thing down.” Too often, very significant and serious things like love, mercy, forgiveness, and charity are set aside or neglected as I am busy congratulating myself over my adherence to other, sometimes lesser, things.
This oversight can happen in the other direction as well. Someone may congratulate himself for spending the day working in a soup kitchen, and think that he therefore has no need to look at the fact that he is living unchastely (shacked up, for example) or not attending Mass.
We cannot “buy God off,” doing certain things (usually things that we like) while ignoring others we’d rather not. In the end, the whole counsel of God is important.
We must avoid the sinful tendency to try to substitute or swap, to observe a few things while overlooking others.
We see a lot of examples of this in our culture as well. We obsess over people smoking because it might be bad for their health while ignoring the health consequences of promiscuous behavior, which spreads AIDS and countless venereal diseases and leads to abortion. We campaign to save the baby seals while over a thousand baby humans are killed each day in the United States. We deplore (rightfully) the death of thousands each year in gun homicides while calling the murder of hundreds of thousands of babies each year a constitutional right. The school nurse is required to obtain parental permission to dispense aspirin to students but not to provide the dangerous abortifacient “morning after pill.” We talk about the dignity of women and yet pornography flourishes. We fret endlessly about our weight and the physical appearance of our bodies, which will die, and care little for our souls, which will live. We obsess over carbon footprints while flying on jets to global warming conferences at luxurious convention center complexes.
Yes, we are straining gnats but swallowing camels. As the Lord says, we ought not to neglect smaller things wholly, but simply observing lesser things doesn’t give us the right to ignore greater ones.
Salus animarum suprema lex. (The salvation of souls is the highest law.) While little things mean a lot, we must always remember not to allow them to eclipse greater things.
The ideal for which to aim is an integrated state in which the lesser serves the greater and is subsumed into it. St. Augustine rightly observed,
Quod Minimum, minimum est, Sed in minimo fidelem esse, magnum est (St. Augustine – De Doctrina Christiana, IV,35).
(What is a little thing, is (just) a little thing, but to be faithful in a little thing is a great thing.)
Notice that the lesser things are in service of the greater thing—in this case fidelity. And thus we should rightly ask whether some of the lesser things we do are really in service of the greater things like justice, love, mercy, fidelity, kindness, and generosity. Otherwise we run the risk of straining out gnats but swallowing camels.
Enjoy this commercial, which illustrates how one rule (no loud voices in the library) is observed while violating nearly every other.
I enjoy listening to the “Fireside Chats” of Dennis Prager. They’re relaxed, informative, and full of practical wisdom. Recently (in episode 112) he chose to ponder why the rate of depression among college students is the highest ever recorded. Prager provided the following insight:
… just about everything that can give you joy and meaning—and they are related—is gone.
In large part I think he’s right, at least when you look at college kids as a group. He lists four things that give joy and meaning to life, and he notes that they are mostly lacking in the lives of college students today. I would like to take each of the four and add my own thoughts.
They don’t date. I remember that as early as the 7thgrade, and certainly in high school, I noticed how attractive girls were. It was a thrilling discovery. I remember the combined excitement and fear in trying to get to know some of them. Prager rightly points out that a big part of human life throughout history has been the excitement of the opposite sex. Being loved or being in love adds joy and meaning to life. It is beautifully captured in a famous song from West Side Story, in which a smitten Maria sings of the joy of being loved: “I Feel Pretty.”
The guys who were part of the group of close friends I had would often challenge me to “ask her out” when I would talk about being attracted to a particular girl. In high school, one of the most important events was the prom. In those days, you had to have a date; you couldn’t just go as part of a group. The pressure built all year long. This exciting high-stakes opportunity meant that even guys and girls who hadn’t started to date yet began to give it a try. Yes, there were some rejections, but we guys knew that this just came with the territory.
Dating itself involved a lot of awkward moments, but there was also the thrill of beginning a process that might one day end in marriage. (Young people got married a lot earlier in the 1960s and 1970s, usually when in their early twenties.) Even if marriage wasn’t the final result, guys and girls learned a lot about one another and human relationships through dating. It was a combination of excitement, fear, and romance all wrapped up in a mystery. Although unchastity was a risk, there were also more safeguards in those days. A young man was expected to present himself at a young lady’s house and meet her parents before taking her out on a date, and he was expected to return her home by a decent hour. Dances and other youth-oriented functions were more heavily chaperoned. Double dating was also common. When we went to parties, we were expected to have a date. Sometimes a friend would set you up with a date. All of these rituals were fun, but they also performed the serious function of getting young people ready for marriage. Even if there were no immediate prospects, the point was that you had begun looking for “the one.” This added a lot of meaning and excitement to life.
I have been surprised to see over the years how dating and courting have diminished. Many attractive young women tell me they are seldom asked to go out. Social events are just group events where “the gang” shows up; you might interact with members of the opposite sex, but there is little motivation to “ask her for a date” Marriage today is often delayed into the early thirties. Endless schooling, paying down college debt, and the desire to establish a career are contributors to this, but, frankly, there is little encouragement or social pressure to be about the thrilling and important work of finding a spouse, getting married, and having a family. This used to be what life was all about. Young men acquired a trade or career so that they could have a family. Now the career seems more an end in itself for both men and women.
Human beings are wired for family. The individualism, isolation, and idiosyncrasy of the “virtual world” is no substitute for real relationships that both challenge us and help to complete and enrich us.
They don’t have religion. Prior to the social revolution of the late 1960s, nearly everyone went to church. I’m not so sure we were all that pious or devoted, but “decent people” went to church, and so we went even if only from cultural inertia. Nevertheless, even if devotion was sometimes lacking, religious teaching and sensibilities did wear off on us. We got the sense that our lives were caught up in a bigger plan, the plan of God that stretched back in time. Biblical stories explained life and told of a Lord who loved us despite our sinfulness.
First Confession, First Communion, and Confirmation were milestones. There were various processions, public Rosaries, and the celebration of patron saints. Many who attended Catholic school were even more deeply rooted in the life of the Church. All of this was meant to help us to know, love, and serve God in this life, and to be happy with him forever in the next. Life was full of meaning; the choices we made mattered. God was watching but also providing.
I can’t imagine growing up and living without a deeply rooted faith, without the doctrine and tradition that provides stability in a changing world. Very few young adults attend Mass regularly or even have a clear faith. Some surveys have indicated that fewer than 15% of adults under thirty regularly attend any sort of church services or consider faith an important part of their lives. Yet faith, even when adhered to in a perfunctory manner, was an important source of happiness and stability in the past. In fact, historically and anthropologically, religion has been the primary vehicle for instilling meaning and purpose. As Prager points out, getting rid of it is a big deal.
They don’t have a community.Virtual friends are not the same as real friends. I remember how important it was to have close friends and communal ties during my youth and I still value that today. When I was growing up there were many opportunities for communal activity. There was scouting, after-school clubs, and sports teams. I ran track in high school and sang in our church choir. I also belonged to a square dance club and the Key Club (a service organization). I worked at the local drug store and had other jobs from high school through college. All of these different activities established life-long friendships and connections; they were enriching in many ways.
While these sorts of things are not unknown today, I sense that young people partake less in them. The emergence of personal computers, smart phones, and the Internet, has reduced the social activities of most of our youth. In those days we didn’t have video games or movies at our fingertips. We had to go out and interact with other people to have fun.
Many people today spend hours absorbed in a virtual and rather self-defined universe of ideas, activities, and entertainment. Screen time doesn’t provide the same sort of community we experienced as youngsters. You can’t just click away from real people in real interactions the way you can on a computer. There are difficulties and tedium with direct human interaction, but it is ultimately more enriching and expanding than living in a self-selected, virtual world. Living in a solipsistic world robs one of the experiencing the simple joys of friendship and real human interaction; it also does little to expand one’s sense of meaning.
They don’t have a country to believe in. I grew up at the end of one era and the beginning of another. Before the social revolution of the late 1960s, suburban America was a bastion of patriotism. There was an almost religious devotion to the American flag; if perchance a flag grew tattered, it was burned out of respect. I remember decorating my bike each year and riding in the Fourth of July parade. In school we studied American History with an angle that emphasized our unique greatness. We viewed the idea of dying for our country as something brave and noble.
O beautiful for heroes proved In liberating strife, Who more than self their country loved And mercy more than life! America! America! May God thy gold refine, Till all success be nobleness, And every gain divine!
I still can’t sing this without tears coming to my eyes.
Yes, we loved our country and believed in its basic tenets. We were not perfect, but we had a way of rectifying our worse faults when they were held before us.
Through the 1970s, this fervent love of country gave way to the political controversies of the Vietnam War and social revolution. There are far fewer today who are stirred by love for this country. Patriotism (to be distinguished from excessive nationalism) is connected to the 4thCommandment (Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you)and helps give meaning and joy to life. To love our country is to love our families and our neighbors. Patriotism connects us to something bigger than ourselves; it is enriching and ennobling.
Yes, all these things (and others) added meaning, purpose, and joy to life. Yet these are greatly diminished, even missing, from the lives of many of our young people. Add to this the depressing negativity that is the daily fare on most college campuses. Students are told what a terrible country we live in, how evil our past was, and that an existential climate disaster is looming for which we are to blame. Many are also encouraged to feel that they are victims of some societal construct or some particular group, to be on the lookout for grievances, and to demand to be kept “safe” from opposing views. Fearmongering and ad hominem attacks have replaced the debate of ideas. If someone does not agree with my views, that person is wrong—maybe even dangerous—and must be silenced. Fear begets anger, and anger begets depression. College campuses are tense and depressing places for too many students.
These are just some of my thoughts, building on Prager’s observations. Essays such as this one invite additions and rebuttals and I welcome your comments.
I am reposting this article since we are discussing it on EWTN’s Morning Glory radio show.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday we commemorate today, is best known as a civil rights leader who worked to end racial injustice, but he had other things to say as he preached each Sunday, first in his own assembly and later as he spoke around the country.
Among his recorded sermons is one in which Dr. King addressed the problem of unbelief, of materialism and atheism. His reflections are well worth pondering today because the problem is even more widespread now than it was when he made these remarks in 1957. A complete transcript of the sermon is available here: The Man Who Was a Fool.
In this sermon, Dr. King commented on Jesus’ parable of the wealthy man who had a huge harvest and, instead of sharing it, just built bigger barns to hold the excess. The Lord called him a fool for thinking that his material wealth could provide security.
Following are excerpts from this sermon, with Dr. King’s words shown in bold, black italics and my comments displayed in plain red text. After discussing several reason why the man was a fool, Dr. King said,
Jesus [also] called the rich man a fool because he failed to realize his dependence on God. He talked as though he unfolded the seasons and provided the fertility of the soil, controlled the rising and the setting of the sun, and regulated the natural processes that produce the rain and the dew. He had an unconscious feeling that he was the Creator, not a creature.
Having discovered the inner realities of many processes, the materialistic atheist fails to ask more fundamental questions such as “Where does the cosmos ultimately come from?” and “What is the ultimate destiny of all things?” Having found some answers, he mistakes them for the ultimate answers; they are not.
There is no problem with a scientist saying that these sorts of questions lie beyond science, that science is only focused on material and efficient causality. Each discipline does have its area of focus. The error of scientism is in its claims that science alone explains all reality; it does not.
The usual response of those who ascribe to scientism (not all scientists do) to questions that science cannot answer is to dismiss them or to say that one day science will find an answer. When we, who are obviously creatures and contingent beings, dismiss our Creator, we are displaying either hardness of heart or a form of madness. Such a dismissal is neither rational nor reasonable.
This man-centered foolishness has had a long and oftentimes disastrous reign in the history of mankind. Sometimes it is theoretically expressed in the doctrine of materialism, which contends that reality may be explained in terms of matter in motion, that life is “a physiological process with a physiological meaning,” that man is a transient accident of protons and electrons traveling blind, that thought is a temporary product of gray matter, and that the events of history are an interaction of matter and motion operating by the principle of necessity.
Dr. King describes here the problem of reductionism, in which things are reduced to matter alone and attributed entirely to material causes. This view holds that even concepts such as justice, meaning, and beauty must somehow be explained materially in terms of their cause. The human soul that knows immaterial things does mediate its thoughts through the brain and the central nervous system, but it does not follow that the medium is the cause. It does not pertain to matter to be the cause of what is spiritual.
Having no place for God or for eternal ideas, materialism is opposed to both theism and idealism. This materialistic philosophy leads inevitably into a dead-end street in an intellectually senseless world. To believe that human personality is the result of the fortuitous interplay of atoms and electrons is as absurd as to believe that a monkey by hitting typewriter keys at random will eventually produce a Shakespearean play. Sheer magic!
Many atheists think they have solved this conundrum, but I think that they “solve” it with a set of assumptions so outlandish and unproven that it requires far more “faith” to accept them than to believe in an intelligent designer and creator.
The statistical possibility that things could come together “by chance” to form complex life—let alone intelligent life—and not just once but at least twice (for reproduction’s sake) is minuscule! (As Dr. King says, “Sheer magic!”) Those who demand we accept this explanation are far more credulous than are believers, who observe the intricate design of creation and conclude (reasonably) that there is an intelligent creator.
It is much more sensible to say with Sir James Jeans, the physicist, that “the universe seems to be nearer to a great thought than to a great machine,” or with Arthur Balfour, the philosopher, that “we now know too much about matter to be materialists.” Materialism is a weak flame that is blown out by the breath of mature thinking. Exactly! The universe shouts its design and intelligence.
Another attempt to make God irrelevant is found in non-theistic humanism, a philosophy that deifies man by affirming that humanity is God. Man is the measure of all things. Many modern men who have embraced this philosophy contend, as did Rousseau, that human nature is essentially good. Evil is to be found only in institutions, and if poverty and ignorance were to be removed everything would be all right. The twentieth century opened with such a glowing optimism. Men believed that civilization was evolving toward an earthly paradise.
The Catholic faith defines this error as utopianism and pseudo-messianism.
Before Christ’s second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers. The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the “mystery of iniquity” in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme religious deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh. The Antichrist’s deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the “intrinsically perverse” political form of a secular messianism (Catechism of the Catholic Church #675-676).
We all know what a bloodbath the 20th century became—so much for man being his own measure!
Herbert Spencer skillfully molded the Darwinian theory of evolution into the heady idea of automatic progress. Men became convinced that there is a sociological law of progress which is as valid as the physical law of gravitation. Possessed of this spirit of optimism, modern man broke into the storehouse of nature and emerged with many scientific insights and technological developments that completely revolutionized the earth. The achievements of science have been marvelous, tangible and concrete. …
[But] Man’s aspirations no longer turned Godward and heavenward. Rather, man’s thoughts were confined to man and earth. And man offered a strange parody on the Lord’s Prayer:
“Our brethren which art upon the earth, Hallowed be our name. Our kingdom come. Our will be done on earth, for there is no heaven.”
Those who formerly turned to God to find solutions for their problems turned to science and technology, convinced that they now possessed the instruments needed to usher in the new society.
Scripture says, Claiming to be wise they became fools and their senseless minds were darkened (Rom 1:22).
Then came the explosion of this myth. It climaxed in the horrors of Nagasaki and Hiroshima and in the fierce fury of fifty-megaton bombs. Now we have come to see that science can give us only physical power, which, if not controlled by spiritual power, will lead inevitably to cosmic doom.
Atheists are forever pointing out how many lives were lost in the name of religion. However, those numbers are not even close to those claimed in the bloodbath ushered in by atheistic materialists.
The words of Alfred the Great are still true: “Power is never a good unless he be good that has it.” We need something more spiritually sustaining and morally controlling than science. It is an instrument that, under the power of God’s spirit, may lead man to greater heights of physical security, but apart from God’s spirit, science is a deadly weapon that will lead only to deeper chaos.Make it plain, Dr. King!
Why fool ourselves about automatic progress and the ability of man to save himself? We must lift up our minds and eyes unto the hills from whence comes our true help. Then, and only then, will the advances of modern science be a blessing rather than a curse. Without dependence on God our efforts turn to ashes and our sunrises into darkest night. Unless his spirit pervades our lives, we find only what G.K. Chesterton called “cures that don’t cure, blessings that don’t bless, and solutions that don’t solve.” “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”
Notice that Dr. King called upon two Catholic intellectuals (St. Alfred the Great and G.K. Chesterton) to be his witnesses.
Unfortunately, the rich man [in the parable] did not realize this. He, like many men of the twentieth century, became so involved in big affairs and small trivialities that he forgot God. He gave the finite infinite significance and elevated a preliminary concern to ultimate standing. After the rich man had accumulated his vast resources of wealth—at the moment when his stocks were accruing the greatest interest and his palatial home was the talk of the town—he came to that experience which is the irreducible common denominator of all men, death.
At every funeral I say to the mourners, “You are going to die.” Then I tell them that we must get ready, not with more things but with more God.
The fact that he died at this particular time adds verve and drama to the story, but the essential truth of the parable would have remained the same had he lived to be as old as Methuselah. Even if he had not died physically, he was already dead spiritually. The cessation of breathing was a belated announcement of an earlier death. He died when he failed to keep a line of distinction between the means by which he lived and the ends for which he lived and when he failed to recognize his dependence on others and on God.
May it not be that the “certain rich man” is Western civilization? Rich in goods and material resources, our standards of success are almost inextricably bound to the lust for acquisition.
The means by which we live are marvelous indeed. And yet something is missing. We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers. Our abundance has brought us neither peace of mind nor serenity of spirit.
An Oriental writer has portrayed our dilemma in candid terms:
“You call your thousand material devices ‘labor-saving machinery,’ yet you are forever ‘busy.’ With the multiplying of your machinery you grow increasingly fatigued, anxious, nervous, dissatisfied. Whatever you have, you want more; and wherever you are you want to go somewhere else. You have a machine to dig the raw material for you, a machine to manufacture [it], a machine to transport [it], a machine to sweep and dust, one to carry messages, one to write, one to talk, one to sing, one to play at the theater, one to vote, one to sew, and a hundred others to do a hundred other things for you, and still you are the most nervously busy man in the world. Your devices are neither time-saving nor soul-saving machinery. They are so many sharp spurs which urge you on to invent more machinery and to do more business.”So true!
…The means by which we live have outdistanced the ends for which we live. Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power. We have guided missiles and misguided man. Like the rich man of old, we have foolishly minimized the internal of our lives and maximized the external. We have absorbed life in livelihood.
Yes, we have maximized the minimum and minimized the maximum.
We will not find peace in our generation until we learn anew that “a man’s life consists not in the abundance of the things which he possesses,” but in those inner treasuries of the spirit which “no thief approaches, neither moth corrupts.” Our hope for creative living lies in our ability to re-establish the spiritual ends of our lives in personal character and social justice. Without this spiritual and moral reawakening we shall destroy ourselves in the misuse of our own instruments. Our generation cannot escape the question of our Lord: What shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world of externals—airplanes, electric lights, automobiles, and color television—and lose the internal—his own soul?Amen!
The following commercial inadvertently highlights some interesting moral and spiritual issues. It is an advertisement for some sort of virtual reality (VR) game and encourages us to “defy reality.” The protagonist is a young man engulfed in the VR world of Star Wars, where he valiantly slays dangerous enemies attacking from all directions. He is then jolted back to reality and confronted by an older man who chides him with “You used to be such a nice boy; now look at you!” The young man responds to the confrontation with reality by retreating back into his VR world.
In the largely adolescent culture that seems to have taken over, norms and limits are seen as undesirable and unreasonable. Those who summon us to reality are viewed merely as hopelessly out-of-touch scolds.
To be sure, games, movies, fantasy, and other diversions have their place, but there isa real word that must be accepted for what it is. Real life can be incredibly beautiful, but it also can be hard; we don’t have light sabers at hand to solve our problems. Indulging in too much fantasy can make us resentful of the real world and its legitimate demands.
Fantasy also reinforces the flawed notions of existentialism and solipsism, namely, that we can just make things up and declare our own meaning. Our culture is currently suffering from these ideas; the most extreme example is so-called “transgenderism,” in which individuals indulge the fantasy that they are something other than the males and females they are. Ideologues who promote this fantasy then demand that the rest of us go along with it, threatening punishment if we refuse. More widely, our culture is also marked by its inordinate focus on the individual at the expense of the common good. Virtual reality games are certainly not the sole cause of this, but they do help to reinforce it.
Finally, engaging in too much retreat into fantasy tends to make reality seem boring by comparison. Most video games are fast paced, requiring split-second decisions and rapid-fire responses. Many require violence in order to “win.” Too much of this can make ordinary human interactions seem dull and slow. A college student going from playing a VR game one moment to taking notes in a lecture hall the next must cross a wide gulf.
Much more could be said on this topic, but Friday posts are meant to offer brief insights taken from the current culture world. Ponder the following advertisement and ask yourself, “Is it really healthy to defy reality?”
I’ve seen many animations of life in ancient cities. Most of them show rather pristine, antiseptic scenes. (Here is an example of one: Ancient Corinth.) Such animations don’t show the noisy, cluttered open markets or the garbage and human waste in the streets.
The video below, however, does a fairly good job of depicting the less-seemly aspects of ancient Athens. Watch it and see Athens the way it likely was in St. Paul’s day. While the animations were developed for a video game, many scholars have been impressed by the archaeological and sociological authenticity.
Inyesterday’s post, I wrote about my experience serving on a grand jury, describing in particular the darkness we jurors had to face each day as we listened to testimony about and video of some horrible crimes. In today’s piece, I’d like to point out some light I saw in the midst of that darkness, some positive elements of my experience.
For much of my life I have looked somewhat askance at lawyers, despite the fact that my father was a lawyer, and a good one at that. (I also enjoy lawyer jokes – all in good fun, of course.) I had this vague impression that lawyers just make everything difficult. The lawyers with whom I come into contact in the Church warn us about so many things that I sometimes cynically remark that if we took every one of their precautions, we’d never open our doors. However, their cautions are usually well-founded given our litigious society. Then, too, there are the ambulance chasers whose advertisements seem to be everywhere. There are also lawyers who file frivolous lawsuits knowing that it’s easier for companies to settle out of court than to fight back. Such things give the profession a bad reputation even though most attorneys do not engage in such practices. Those were some of the biases I harbored when I was summoned.
There I was at the beginning of grand jury duty, unsure of what to expect, when in walked the first of many Assistant U.S. Attorneys I would meet over the next several weeks. I must say that I was impressed by every one of them; they were consummate professionals who had obviously done a lot of meticulous work assembling the cases. In the initial stages of an investigation, these attorneys work closely with the police to examine evidence. They interview many witnesses in their office before ever setting foot in the grand jury room. Witnesses are not always cooperative and some even fail to appear. Their testimony is not always clear and must be disambiguated. Further, witnesses sometimes contradict one another as they recall a traumatic event. Even the victims themselves can be uncooperative due to the fear of repercussions from testifying or supplying information. I can only imagine how difficult and painstaking the attorneys’ work is. Surely it requires great dedication, patience, and perseverance. I was also impressed with their command of the facts in each case, especially considering that they work on numerous cases simultaneously.
In the grand jury room, I was taken by the great respect the attorneys showed for the law while at the same time treating the victims and their families compassionately. Their presentations were well-organized and focused on the evidence. They carefully led the witnesses through what was often gut-wrenching testimony with gentleness, empathy, and understanding. At no time did I see any of them being overzealous. These attorneys have earned my respect and I am grateful to them for all that they do.
Another thing I appreciated during my service was becoming deeply immersed in one of the last bastions of reason and order in our society. In recent years, our culture has experienced an almost complete loss of reason and clear meaning. We are currently in a desert of existentialism, in which individuals define their own meaning because they believe there is no intrinsic purpose or meaning to human existence. This has led to the current bizarre idea that a man can declare himself to be a woman or a woman can declare herself to be a man – and that the rest of society must accept such declarations as fact. It’s hard to have a good argument, let alone a conversation, when basic terms and realities are no longer a given.
The legal world, however, is still steeped in reason and careful, precise definitions. For example, what it means to “possess” a weapon and what is meant by “intent to kill” are precisely defined. The conditions under which charges can be enhanced due to prior convictions must meet strict, definitive criteria. The specifics of a firearm, down to the length of the barrel and the capacity of the ammunition clip, play an important role in applying the law. Jurors and judges in trials are expected to evaluate the evidence and testimony with respect to the law and then draw a well-reasoned conclusion.
In legal proceedings there is the careful assessment of what is meant by a particular crime and what the law provides in terms of adjudication and outcomes. I am not making a case for legal positivism (i.e., whatever the law says is good or right) but merely remarking that we grand jurors were provided with clear definitions and instructions on how to evaluate the evidence and testimony before us.
Hearing the word “reason” used again and witnessing the precision of language and meaning was refreshing. It was almost like stepping back in time a few decades, to a time when words still had clear meanings and basic moral norms were accepted. Even if we didn’t live perfectly moral lives, we knew when the moral law was broken and did not commonly call good or no big deal what God calls sinful.
St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that law is an ordinance of reason for the common good (Summa Theologica I IIae 90.1). As an ordinance of reason, the law binds people to the reasonable limits it sets forth. The very word “law” comes from the Latin word ligere, which means “to bind.” Law, properly understood, concerns reason, order, and limits we must all accept to enjoy the greatest freedom. The only true freedom is limited freedom. Consider the dangerous chaos that would ensue if we did not limit our freedom to drive by following agreed upon traffic laws.
While we on the jury were looking into a world of chaos and disorder, our attention was always drawn back to the world of reason and order. Lawyers are agents of stability in this milieu, where the rule of law is still important, and words and reality still matter.
I was not born yesterday; I realize that the courts have also been infected with existentialism and the political correctness that is its offspring. This is especially evident at the higher levels of the judicial system, where unelected activist judges “legislate from the bench” and find new rights in the “penumbras” and “emanations” of the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy once ignominiously wrote, “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life” (Planned Parenthood v. Casey). There you have it – pure existentialism. The right of people to define their own meaning and their own concept of existence is not a path to liberty but to chaos and anarchy. This is increasingly the case in our society today.
At the lower levels of the judicial system, reason, law, and objectivity are still the meat and potatoes of the daily work. At its best, our legal system is one of the last sectors of our society in which reason and the application of clear definitions are still evident. My grand jury experience made me deeply aware of this. It was uplifting and encouraging and was not a light I expected to see within the darkness.
I have new respect for the criminal justice system. In this antinomian and politicized age, it is a popular whipping boy. Though no system is perfect, I came away impressed with its thoroughness and fairness. Prosecutors don’t just prosecute criminals; they also work to secure justice for victims and their families and to protect the common good. Defense attorneys play a critical role as well. The attorneys do all this within the careful confines of the law, which seeks to protect the rights of both the accused and the victims.
Thank You, Lord, for the good and hard work of those in our criminal justice system, many of whom labor behind the scenes. Often, they must deal with the worst of crimes and endure frustrating setbacks, yet they persevere in their work. Thank you too, Lord, for the rule of law that You have given us over the centuries. May we protect it from the erosion by existentialism and relativism. May our law be just and in perfect accord with Your eternal law. May the rights and dignity of every person, accused and victim, be upheld and honored. True justice can only be Your work. May all of us, especially those who are lawyers, judges, and jurors be instruments in Your hand.
This song speaks of the sadness of existentialism and relativism. While it idealizes the past, it does point out that we have lost something important.
I was recently in Burgos, Spain and saw the splendid cathedral there. My first view of it came at night and I took the photo above. What a magnificent building; such proportion and symmetry! It reminds me of tall trees in a forest, majestically reaching up to the heavens. The flying buttresses supporting the soaring walls and towers showcase a great advance in building technique.
These were the skyscrapers of the Middle Ages. Such angular, geometric, and vertical beauty; a fair flower of the 13th century echoing God’s creation and pointing to Him in a great work of human praise.
Two medieval phrases come to mind in the beauty of this building:
Beauty is id quod visum placet – Beauty is that which pleases when seen.
Pulchra dicuntur quae visa placent – Things that give pleasure when seen are called beautiful.
A mere thirty yards from this beautiful cathedral in the town square is something that is not beautiful in any traditional sense. I took the photo of it that is on the left. It was not uplifting and seemed to correspond to nothing in creation (unless one were to imagine a dinosaur dropping or a huge stumbling block). Like most modern abstract art, it looks more to me like someone’s nightmare. It seems to have little to say other than “Try to figure me out, you ignoramus.” Indeed, that is what I am usually called by art critics when I express dismay at these sorts of ugly blobs that clutter too many of our public squares and “art” museums.
Some disparagingly refer to the Middle Ages as the “dark ages” while referring to the current age as “enlightened.” Certainly, no age is perfect, but compare and contrast the two items in the photos here: uplifting, soaring, and inspiring; the other is dark and brooding, and its meaning is opaque. One is an uplifting building from the 13th century, the other a dark “who knows what” from the 20th century. Based on representational art, which age seems more inspiring? Which seems more enlightened? Decide for yourself, but I’ll take the 13th century!
St. Thomas Aquinas (also from the 13th century) spoke of beauty as consisting of integritas, consonantia, and claritas. He writes,
For beauty includes three conditions: “integrity” or “perfection,” since those things which are impaired are by the very fact ugly; due “proportion” or “harmony”; and lastly, “brightness” or “clarity,” whence things are called beautiful which have a bright color [Summa Theologica I, 38, art 8].
In applying these criteria to human art and architecture, we might consider the following:
Integritas (Integrity) – This speaks to the manner in which something echoes the beauty of what God has done. Thomas says that every created being is beautiful because God gives beauty to all created beings by a certain participation in the divine beauty. Therefore, human art and architecture are said to have integrity insofar as they participate in and point to the divine beauty of things. This need not mean an exact mimicry, but it does require at least a respectful glance to creation, holding forth some aspect of it so as to edify us with better and higher things. The cathedral pictured above points to a majestic forest as its form, its soaring stone to the mountains. Its colored glass allows the natural light to dazzle the eye and tell the stories of the Gospels. It is a sermon in glass and stone. As such, it has integrity, because it puts forth God’s glory. I’m not sure what the dark metal blob says. To what does it point? I have no idea. Because it is not integrated into the glory of creation (in any way that I can discern, at least) it does not have integrity. Rather, it seems to mock creation. If you think it is beautiful and has integrity, I invite you to explain why and how; I am at a loss to see any meaning at all in it.
Consonantia (Proportion) – This refers to the order and unity within a given thing. What God creates has a unity and purpose in its parts, which work together in an orderly fashion to direct something to its proper function or end. Thus, art and architecture intrinsically bespeak a unity and functionality, or they point to it extrinsically. They make sense of the world and respect what is given, reflecting the beauty of order, purpose, and design that God has set forth. The cathedral is beautiful because its parts act together in an orderly and harmonious way. There is balance, proportion, and symmetry. There is a recta ratio factibilium (something made according to right reason). As such, the building participates in God’s good order, and that is a beautiful thing. As for the dark metal “blob” (I don’t know what else to call it), it doesn’t seem to me to have any proportion. It is roundish, but not really. Does it have parts? Do they work together for some end? If so, what end? I cannot tell. Rather than pointing to order, it makes me think of chaos. I see no beauty echoed or pointed to.
Claritas (Clarity) – It is through clarity that we can answer the question “What is it?” with some degree of precision and understanding. Claritas also refers to the brightness or radiance of a thing. Something of God’s glory shines through; something about it gives light; something teaches us and reminds us of God—and God and light are beautiful. The gorgeous cathedral reflects the light shining on it, even at night. During the day it proclaims the glory of God by its soaring majesty, its sculptures, its windows, its order, its proportionality. It is a bright light showing forth the brightness of God and participating in it. As for the metal thing, it seems more to suck the light out of the room; it broods. I see no clarity, no brightness. I still cannot answer the question that clarity demands: “What is it?” There is no clear message. As such, it lacks beauty.
The criteria of beauty discussed here cannot be used for labeling things “beautiful” with absolute certainty, as if by applying a formula. They are more like guidelines to help us pin down some notion of beauty that is not purely subjective. Not all these criteria must be met for an object to be considered beautiful, and the presence of one does not guarantee beauty.
So again, you decide for yourself. Each of the two structures pictured above is representative of its age. Were the Dark Ages really so dark? Is ours really so enlightened? Compare and contrast!