Sunday, July 19, 2009

On delays, morality, and other ponderables...

Okay, this time I truly do have a few excuses for waiting so long to update this blog (yet again):

1) The following events happened, in order:
a) phone service went out for 1.5 days
b) computer #1 (of 2) crashed (still picking up the pieces)
c) computer #2 (of 2) crashed (through my own bone-headedness--it's not fixed)
d) 3 day silent retreat with the Cistercians (excellent, and badly needed!)
e) currently immersed in a "Calculus refresher course" online (long story)

2) I'm trying to be better at helping my wife around the house, and not putting things off until she gets disgusted enough to do it for me. (For moral relativists out there: this is a *bad* thing to do, and I've since repented... though it took a Cistercian monk to kick me in the back-end [graciously and charitably] and get me to repent of it! Lesson: you don't have to be perfect to be a Christian; you just have to refuse to be stupid enough to persist in a sin when it's conclusively pointed out to you.) As such, my oft-neglected blog has been bumped even further down the priority list. :) Them's the breaks.

3) As a general rule, I'm just naturally bad at updating my blog on a regular basis.

Now, that confession time is out of the way... back to the (long-delayed) topic at hand: discerning good from evil. How, exactly, is that done reliably and correctly? How can we separate true "good" or "evil" from our mere opinions, feelings, sentiments, or other such will-o-wisps? I can feel horrid about going in to get a tooth drilled, though I know it's a good thing to do; and someone else can feel quite fine about using someone else as a sexual "object", though that's gravely evil. (Other examples abound.) So an objective standard is rather important. How does one find it? When faced with a choice to do [x] or not to do [x], how is one to decide the moral gradient of that choice (and to discern which of the two choices, if any, are in harmony with "goodness")?

There are several candidates for the "discernment assistant" job:

1) If your feelings are correctly calibrated to reality, they're one of the fastest and most energetic ways to discern good from evil; but again, that requires a correct calibration of those feelings, and that sort of calibration is hard to acquire... especially in this day and age, where we're conditioned (by advertisements and other social pressures) to calibrate our feelings toward the gratification of our bodily and emotional passions.

2) If you belong to an organization whose laws are unanimous in their derivation from reality (i.e. the objective moral law), then following and studying such laws is a good way to discern whether particular cases are good or evil; but that would also require that the laws' "derivation from truth" is verifiable--which can be a challenge, even if you find a candidate for an "all-good laws" group.

3) If you're under the authority of someone whose character is unimpeachable (and itself calibrated to the objective moral law), then you can follow the directions of that person--but this has the same caveat as does #2 (i.e. how do you know that your spiritual guide's character is unimpeachable?).

You may notice that all of the above (three) candidates share the same weakness: they all beg the question of, "How can we know that this 'guide' is a true and sure guide toward goodness?" Feelings can be askew, corrupt laws can be enacted, and vicious people can ascend to positions of [ersatz] moral authority. How can we diagnose such "diseases" in our potential leaders?

The answer, though wearying to many (especially nowadays), is one I've mentioned many times: our first resort must be right (or "sane") reason. We know the following:

  • No true thing will contain a true contradiction within itself.

  • No real thing will be completely vacuous and useless (i.e. a tautology, like "x = x").

Beyond this, there are several good "rules of thumb" which, though not infallible, can be used as good day-to-day guides:

1) If a moral principle is self-defeating by its very nature, it cannot be good.

Example: "Sex without producing children is more desirable than sex that produces children." (a.k.a. the "contraceptive mentality") This idea, if allowed to progress without bound, will tend to destroy the very population which seeks to enact it--"I'll have sex without having kids; let the *other* people have the kids, and pay the bills, change the diapers, etc.". Any tendency toward pervasive selfishness must necessarily be corrosive to any civilization (which must have laws restricting the selfishness of its members, in order to survive).

2) If a moral principle is designed to work only under artificial restrictions (e.g. only a privileged few are exempt from it), it cannot be good.

Example: "Let the government manage the details of all families, and make the decisions about how many children to have, how they are to be schooled, what religions are good to adopt, etc." Perhaps modern times have forgotten Huxley's "Brave New World", but it's obvious (to anyone with sense) that the ones doing the managing will get to choose the rules of management... and the question of "How/where did the managers get their formation, and from where/whom did they claim to get the god-like authority by which they micromanage the lives of countless people who are no less human than they?" really get lost in the shuffle. Appeals to expediency (e.g. "Well, *somebody* has to run their lives, because they're doing things we find abhorrent!") are horribly ill-suited as a defense, since nothing could stop such an oligarchy from ruling the people on the basis of their personal tastes (e.g. "we need to euthanize the handicapped, since I find them troublesome to behold!", "we need to mandate abortion for poverty-stricken families, since I find the idea of low-income children repugnant", etc.), rather than by right principles.

N.B. If someone raises a defense of, "But we can be sure that the ruling class will abide by their own rules, too!", I will reply with:

a) "Oh really? And how would you enforce that, save but through the agreement of the ruling class?" What if the ruling class decides that it's in 'the country's best interests' for the "privileged caste" to be free of the "restraints of the common folk"? Look to the former Soviet Union, to China, to North Korea, to Cuba, and to any totalitarian regime which claimed to "bring about equality and prosperity to all, by governmental fiat", if you'd like real-life results of that idea.

b) the very idea (of the "ruling class") being bound by its own governance is self-contradictory; if you try to imagine "a ruling class making rules--quite apart from its own opinions and preferences--to govern itself", I think you'll find that you're imagining nothing at all. It's a bit like asking someone to choose to disobey every choice they themselves make; in disobeying, they're also obeying!

3) If a moral principle does not acknowledge that the individual person is of greater value than any organization, governmental structure, or civil institution, then it cannot be good.

My father is very fond of deriding the oft-repeated saying, "Our [county, town, city, etc.] and our people have paid enough; let the state [of Illinois, etc.] and the federal governments pay their fair share!" He usually replies with something like: "Let the state pay its share? Are you talking about some other state? Because if you're talking about our state, then you're talking about US! The "state" doesn't have one thin dime; the *people* of the state have all the money!" This is just one problem with the "promote the state over the individual" idea; since the only possible reason to promote the "state" is in ORDER to promote the welfare of the individuals WITHIN that state, yes? What other abstract "state" could possibly benefit? Will the hills of Missouri smile with appreciation with each tax increase? Will the sands of Nevada shed a tear of gratitude with each revenue increase? Perhaps the map-border of Massachusetts will re-sculpt itself into a grin when its governor signs another tax increase into law? Come, now. Strip away all the titles and the artificial structures, and you have people, under the God Who created them... and that's it.

Given the above, perhaps you can see how many of the principles advanced by our current regim... ahm... "administration"... cannot be good. Mandatory taxpayer support of abortion (in D.C. and/or elsewhere), a legal system which can mandate the deaths (by dehydration, so as to allow cover for the executioners who can disingenuously say, "We didn't kill her! No bullets or knives or injections here, thank you! We just 'let her die', you see!") of the disabled when they're judged to be too burdensome, and other person-denigrating policies and actions are immoral at their core, and the only right choice is to flee from them with all speed.

As for personal discernments about right and wrong--well--next time, I think. :) (Browse the earlier articles on "cooperation in evil", for tid-bits about it, if you're anxious until then.)

Friday, June 19, 2009

Discerning Good from Evil, Part I

This is actually a "spinoff" from a discussion which I'm having with a commenter on Paul's Masterful Blog; see here for the original comment thread. For now, enjoy... and I'll set my brain a-stirring for the next installment, especially re: practical discernment of good and evil in our world.

If I understand Oliver's question/objection at all, it seems to involve this:

"In all this talk about [x] being good because God willed it, or that God willed [x] because it was good, or that God's will of [x] and the goodness of [x] flow from the Divine Nature of God, which is Goodness itself: what, exactly, IS goodness? We've talked about it and about its origins, but what is it? What does it look like, and how can we use it to identify the good from the evil?"

The problem is not that there are so few ways to go about this, but that there are so many! Here's only one of them:

A. A supremely perfect God exists.

Summary (and this leaves out *scores* of details! Ask about them individually, if you must...):

1) No object can be its own cause.
2) Causation implies change, and vice versa.
3) Any uncaused object is necessarily eternal.
4) Any uncaused cause is equivalent to existence per se.
5) Any uncaused cause must be unlimited and unique.
6) Our universe contains examples of changeable, non-eternal objects.
7) Ergo, an uncaused cause is required, as per #3-5.

B. Theism, by its recognition of this necessity (described in (A)), is the most reasonable paradigm by which the world and its dynamics can be explained. Since the "uncaused cause" conclusion is in harmony with theism, and not with atheism (which denies the uncaused cause) and agnosticism (which denies the knowability of the uncaused cause), it is reasonable to adopt a theistic paradigm until more compelling evidence/reasoning suggests otherwise.

C. Christianity is the most self-consistent paradigm which is also in harmony with theism and with the facts available to us in the natural world; thus, it is reasonable to assume Christianity as our paradigm until more compelling evidence/reasoning suggests otherwise.

D. Catholicism is the most self-consistent paradigm which is also in harmony with Christianity and with the facts available to us both in the natural world and within the contents of Divine Revelation (see (E), below); thus, it is reasonable to assume Catholicism as our paradigm until more compelling evidence/reasoning suggests otherwise.

E. Catholicism has confirmed that various facts have been communicated by God to us (i.e. Divine Revelation, or "The Sacred Deposit of Faith")--among which are guidelines for discerning the good from the evil.

F. Catholicism has confirmed that our human nature, though wounded by Original Sin, is still capable of recognizing truth (a.k.a. "the good") through the use of human reason, and of "tasting" truth through the use of human instincts and emotions--though these faculties (especially the latter) are clouded and fallible. Thus, it is possible (to a limited extent) to have an awareness of that which is good (or evil), even without explicit help from Divine Revelation.

G. Given all of the above, the most reliable way to discern the good from the evil is through examination of (and implementation of guiding principles given by) the Divine Revelation entrusted to man through Christ's Church; personal "awareness" might well be useful, but the fallen nature of man has rendered it weakened and less than strongly reliable.

I'm well aware of the fact that this schema leaves "grey areas" of morality; but given our fallen human condition, there's little hope of reprieve from that, this side of eternity. But you did ask.

So... go to it. Tear it apart at your leisure. :) My feelings won't be hurt by thorough examination (or even complete demolition) of my presented schema; just be logical about it, and do be polite, please. Life is too short to debate those who insist on being irritable and obnoxious.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

God's Way of Saying: "Slow Down!"

Yeah, I know... I'm not exactly a speed demon in updating this blog, anyway... but I really do have an excuse, this time. I seem to be laid flat with a case of tonsillitis, of all things! I'll try to be back up, coherent, and restored to my verbose self ASAP! For now, bedrest, I think...

Monday, June 1, 2009

Easter Technically Ended Yesterday, Y'know...

I'm the beneficiary of a whopping technicality.

In my last post (before Lent began), I mentioned that I might post at--or right after--Easter; well... since Easter is 50 days long, and it ends at Pentecost, I'm not very late, at least! :)

Anyway... I wish it were a more uplifting time to start writing again. Dr. George Tiller, a notorious abortionist, was shot and killed by a severely misguided person who thought that a series of bullets would win this particular battle which Satan is waging against our innocent children. Many sincere, devout Christians find themselves torn: between rejoicing at the idea that Dr. Tiller won't kill anymore children, and cringing at the evil means by which that end was achieved.

Here's my take on what we should remember, and what we should do at this time:

1) Pray for the soul of Dr. George Tiller, that he may escape eternal damnation.

One note, on that point: don't listen to what your "heart" says--our hearts are deceitful and confused (see Jeremiah 17:9), and they're not likely to lead us to God's righteousness, in this instance. Love is a choice--an act of the will--and this is one of the occasions where your will needs to grab the reins of your heart and hold them so tightly that your heart can't run wild like it wants to do! Choose to pray. Don't worry about not "feeling" like it; don't even worry about feeling like you'd rather die than pray for him; do it anyway, and let your "foolish heart" whimper itself into docility.

2) Our justifiable anger at the murderous deaths of hundreds of children at Dr. Tiller's hands is all too likely to cloud our minds and poison our hearts into thinking that George Tiller is the real enemy "who deserved everything he got." With all my being, I urge you: THAT IS NOT SO. I deserved far worse than Dr. Tiller received, today. So do you. So did he. Praise be to God, we're not dealing with a God Who gives us what we deserve; we're able to come to the Divine Mercy and beg, like the paupers we are, for mercy and salvation that we don't deserve, and that we could never earn. Pray for Dr. Tiller. Prove that you're a child of your Father (cf. Matthew 5:45). Praying for an enemy--even so wretched a man as Dr. Tiller--will be a jewel in your eternal crown that, if your soul is saved at the end, no one can ever take away. When you see the look of joy in Jesus' face as He says, "Well done. I know how hard it was to pray for him. You have made Me so happy, by that!", do you honestly think that the anger you feel now will be even a ghost of a memory? For the joy that's before us, can we push past the shame, and past our own selfish feelings?

3) The best thing you can do for the cause of Christ is to purify yourself. Put your own house in order, so that you don't start fighting on behalf of the Adversary, despite your best intentions. No one can defeat the devil by using the devil's own weapons; they always turn on their wielders, in the end.

4) Step up your prayers, fasting (within reason, without harming yourself or your ability to do what God calls you to do), and sacrifices. Seriously: what excuse can you possible offer for refusing to sacrifice that TV show, or that candy bar, or that reluctance to be friendly to the grumpy person in the cubicle next to you? This is a war which will not ultimately be won with earthly weapons (no, not even laws and political struggles--necessary though those might sometimes be); it will be won by Grace. Remember Who's in control, always. It isn't you, and it isn't me, and it isn't any member deceived into embracing the culture of death. It's God, and God alone; our only job is to be faithful, and to do whatever tasks He gives us--no matter how unimpressive, non-glorious or insignificant those tasks might seem. God doesn't call you to be impressive; He calls you to be faithful.

5) Take a lesson from driving lessons: if you keep your eyes on something, you'll tend to steer toward it. The same is true for the spiritual life: if you keep your eyes fixated on the culture of death, you'll start to steer yourself into it, and into its darkness. Keep your eyes on the Father, on the Son, and on the Holy Spirit. Keep your eyes on the light; God will show you what you need to know about everything else, if only you heed His voice and obey. Don't let all of your time be consumed with debating the ins-and-outs of this-or-that horror; once the facts are reasonably known, stop researching, drop to your knees, and pray. A good warrior knows when to watch the battleground, and when to act.

God protect you in your efforts.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

A Time to Blog, and a Time to Be Still

This may be something of an ironic post, given that I've only managed to update this poor blog every 7-10 days(!), but: at least for now, I think God is calling me to put this blog "to sleep" for a bit, during Lent... not only to give me some much-needed time to get other things done, but to spend extra time with my beloved wife (who's had far too little time with/from me, recently) and to take some "quieter time" (yeah, I know... aside from high school math teaching and RCIA teaching?!?) to grow in my own spiritual journey. God willing, I'll have quite a bit to share when the blessed feast of Easter comes; it might be one last post, or it might be the beginning of a whole new vista (no reference to Microsoft meant!). We'll see; all things in God's time.

Thank you all, you who've read so many posts which varied wildly in verbosity and relevance! Never fear, I won't drop off the scene entirely; I'll still haunt Paul's Masterful Blog and some of my other usual places, and I may even contribute a post or two, over there (especially if Paul needs another blog-sitter... though this time, I'm raiding the refrigerator! ;) ). Again, we'll see.

May God bless and keep you, in the holy season of Lent, and always; may you grow nearer to Him, every day (whether you want it or not!).

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Spiritual Warfare, Part III: Choosing Your Weapons

(Okay, so it looks as if I'm destined to update this poor blog about once every week; so be it! Sorry for the delay!)

This topic can be rather touchy... so I apologize in advance if I ruffle some feathers; take it as my insight, based on what I know of the subject (which may legitimately be debated), and see what you think.

So far, we've discussed two key steps in spiritual warfare: get your own house in order (i.e. grow in holiness, and detach yourself from sin), and establish reliable supply lines (i.e. access as many channels of God's grace as you can, by means of prayer, fasting, spiritual reading, etc.). The next one is, if possible, more critical--since a bad choice in this regard can not only destroy the good done in the first two steps, but it can lead you to do immeasurable damage to *our* side of the war:


Let me be very clear about what this means.

Satan uses weapons that are evil in some way--either intrinsically evil weapons (i.e. evil by their very nature), or else neutral or (even) good weapons put to a perverse task (I'll give examples, below). Those who choose to fight Satan (which includes all Christians, and all who wish to avoid eternal damnation!) cannot do so. Here are a few examples:

1) Violence is any action (or possibly omission of a required act) which causes damage to something or someone else; and it is only allowed under very strict circumstances (e.g. defense of self or others, etc.) which resemble those by which war may justly be waged, and the conditions by which an evil (in general) may be tolerated (see my post about double-effect). We can't, for example, fight abortion by taking a high-powered rifle and blowing the head off of an abortionist--since willing the death of a person (even a murderer) is always evil. We can chain ourselves to the door of the abortion mill; we can trespass in order to give the next Terri Schiavo a drink of water. But we cannot choose evil, no matter what the potential "payoff".

2) Hatred is a free choice to will evil on another; and hatred is NEVER morally permissible against another human being. In fact, the only permissible "target" for hatred is evil/sin itself (and perhaps the fallen angels--though that's dangerous ground). If we pick up hatred as a weapon against an enemy (save for evil itself), it will eventually turn on us.

3) Denigration is the practice of exposing an enemy to such criticism and/or ridicule as to degrade his reputation and worth in the eyes of others. While direct (and even severe) criticism--and even sharp irony--can possibly be used against an *argument*, they are not properly used against other persons.

I don't mean to say that we won't slip up, on occasion--lose our tempers when sorely provoked (internet trolls are sometimes rather good at such provocation!), and such--but that can't be the norm, and we can't settle for that, and we really do need to turn away from such things as soon as possible.

I also don't mean to say that ironic or strident criticism of an opponent's argument--or even an opponent's present character--is always wrong; even Christ seemed to use it, as a rhetorical device to shake his opponents out of their complacency (cf. virtually all of Matthew, Chapter 23). But I do mean to say that such tools are specialized, and are not easily used properly; we who are sinners can so easily confuse the sinner for the sin (or for the state of the sinner's soul)... especially if their sin resembles the sin that most attracts and tempts us! Christ Our Lord could use those specialized weapons with perfect accuracy; we are usually not nearly so skilled... and it is only through true charity--selfless love for our enemy, and a soul-deep desire to see them freed from the bondage of error and sin--that God can empower us to use such weapons on the occasions where they are truly necessary.

God bless us as we seek to fight by His side!

[Updated note: sorry about the temporary lack of formatting; I'm working through a bug with Firefox that doesn't like Blogger's editor, for some reason...]

Friday, February 6, 2009

Spiritual Warfare, Part II: Supply Lines

(*sputter* You'd think I'd have at least a few extra minutes to update this poor blog, every week! I'll try to feed it a bit more often...)

Anyway... when last we talked, we spoke of the highest priority of Spiritual Warfare: namely, getting your own spiritual house in order, so as to remove any "footholds" that the enemy (i.e. Satan and the other fallen angels, as per Ephesians 6) might have in your soul. This time, we address the second priority:


In physical warfare, a military unit can't long survive without a supply of the basic necessities for life (food, water, medical supplies, etc.), and a supply of adequate weaponry and the "power" to use them (e.g. bullets, gasoline, gunpowder, various high-tech parts, etc.). These have direct analogues in the spiritual realm... but a few definitions are needed, in order to make sense of them:

  • Grace: "free gift" from our merciful God, given for our benefit
  • Actual Grace: grace designed to help with specific good "actions" we perform
  • Sanctifying Grace: the very life of God, poured into our souls, which "sanctifies" us (i.e. makes us "holy") and changes us (slowly or quickly) to conform to the Spirit of Christ. Baptism opens this "pipeline" of grace (cf. 1 Peter 3:21), venial sin clogs it, and mortal sin shuts it down completely (cf. 1 John 5:15-17)
...and now, for the concrete instructions.

In spiritual warfare, you cannot possibly win on your own strength; "human vs. fallen angel" is a losing set-up for the human, every time. The fallen angels have depraved natures, to be sure, but their natural abilities outstrip yours and mine to an almost ridiculous extent. (If you doubt, consider matching yourself up against a creature who hates God and hates you with an untiring, laser-like focus, who never needs to eat or sleep or rest, who has no bodily chemistry to distract its focus while it plans to destroy you, whose movements are completely unlimited by space and time, and who likely knows your weaknesses--through careful, sleepless observation over many years--better than you know them yourself. Not promising.) As such, you need a source of strength greater than your own, and greater than that of the fallen angels. That source is God, Himself, Who has already described (in His written and unwritten Word) how much He wants to give us that strength.

If my suspicions are correct (and if you, while reading this, are anything like me), I may need to offer a reminder, here: the battles of the spiritual realm do not look much like physical battles, at all, and though the principles used in both battle types are similar, they most certainly don't operate by the same specific rules! Here's the reminder:

Why did God make us? Why are we here? What's our purpose?

The classic answer still gets the point across most clearly: God created us to know Him, to Love Him, to serve Him, and to be forever happy with Him in Heaven. In short: our "job" on earth is to get to Heaven, and to take as many other people with us as possible! That's what spiritual warfare looks like... and every other concern is secondary to that, at best. "But seek ye first the kingdom of God and His justice, and all these things shall be added unto you." (Luke 12:31)

Now, back to the list:

How do we fulfill this step, and establish our "supply lines" of grace (i.e. life and strength from God)? Aside from Baptism (which is a prerequisite for all the rest), here are only a few of the many ways:
  • Pray! ASK for that grace! "If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father from heaven give the Holy Spirit to them that ask Him? (Luke 11:13)"

  • Get others to pray for you! The holier these "others" are, the better... but I strongly suggest consecrated religious (ministers, nuns, priests, monks, etc.--and can someone remind me to write a post about the prayers of the Saints in Heaven for us, someday?), children (their prayers are often far more pure and undiluted than ours!), and--in a class by themselves, no joke--praying grandmothers!

  • Get close to the sources of grace! The Sacraments are the seven most powerful (most especially Confession, by which strangled or broken "pipelines" of grace are reconnected and cleaned out; Holy Communion, by which Christ comes to dwell in us--Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity; and Confirmation, by which we receive the full equipment of a warrior), but get close to any source of grace that you can find. Immerse yourself in solid Christian spiritual reading (or music, or audio books, or whatever). Practice saying "no" to sin, even when the sin seems "minor and easy to hide or excuse". Fast (from unnecessary food, from certain "treats", from TV, etc.), and offer that sacrifice to God. Give alms (i.e. give of your substance to those who are more in need than you), whether it be monetary, donation of your talents (e.g. Habitat for Humanity, mission trips, etc.), or giving your time (to an elderly neighbour who has no visitors, to a homeless shelter or crisis pregnancy center, to a pro-life cause, etc.).

The list goes on, but you get the idea. Anything which gets us further away from sin and closer to God is a source of grace. Anything we can do to train and discipline ourselves toward protecting (with our physical lives, if necessary!) our access to those "sources of grace" will keep our supply of grace steady and secure. Anything we can do to train ourselves to avoid "near occasions of sin" (see earlier post) will keep those "supply lines" from being seriously threatened.

One last piece of advice, from one who's fallen in battle more times than he'd like to admit: threats to your supply lines will almost never be flamboyant and obvious. Threats to your state of grace will almost always start gradually, by subtle compromises--especially when you're feeling angry, tired, depressed, or some other "emotional low". If you're in a state of grace, the devil (almost always disguised as something subtle and innocuous) will offer *amazingly* good-looking "payoffs" for what seems to be a trivially small sin. One tiny lie might protect your good reputation and career from damage. One small bit of gossip might secure the affection and devotion of a new and advantageous acquaintance. One tiny prayer neglected (which you'd previously promised/resolved to pray) might feel *so-ooo* good when you're feeling sleepy and ready for an earlier nap. Don't be caught spiritually "napping".

"Be sober and watch: because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, goeth about seeking whom he may devour. (1 Peter 5:8)"

God love you all, and protect you as you resolve to fight for Him.

P.S. As a reminder: the holy season of Lent is coming up (3 weeks from this past Wednesday), which has proved to be one of the best possible times for "spiritual training"... and which offers extraordinary graces for spiritual warriors which aren't as accessible at other times. You might consider starting a new and serious "personal spiritual boot camp" during that blessed time.