On Freedom and Predestination

When Christians talk of freedom, they often phrase it as freedom from sin or death–sometimes more poetically as freedom from the slavery of sin or death. This is not an open freedom; it implies no license. In other words, Christians are not, in fact, free to do as they wish. St. Paul cautions, “Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery…do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh…you may not do what you want” (Gal 5). Christians are offered personal freedom only in the sense of making a choice between a “yoke of slavery” to “the flesh,” and something else. That “something else” is a release. It is the freedom Christians believe Christ won for humanity: the freedom from death and their own sinfulness. It is the freedom to be, each individually, as God created us.

Because the freedom we are used to talking about — the freedom to do as we wish — is much broader, it is perhaps difficult to understand why Christianity would narrow the possible choices of action down to a simple duality: Christ (and the freedom He offers), and death. But in this distinction Christianity is consistent, because Christianity teaches that God created us in His image and likeness to be His free lovers and servants. To do anything else is to reject God. There are only two choices — God or not. Every action we commit is by the Grace and to the Glory of God (i.e. selfless, loving, and joyful) or else is selfish and destructive.

Understanding such a stark choice brings up, inescapably, the issue of predestination. Of course we are destined for God; He created us for Himself. His plan for us since the very beginning is that we find our way to Him of our own free wills. It would be then correct to say of a man who goes to heaven, “he was predestined for it.” All humanity is. But the criteria for getting there in the first place is the exercise of our free will–we are each responsible for choosing God ourselves. C.S. Lewis captures this idea very well in his book Perelandra, whose protagonist Dr. Ransom has decided to do “the right thing” in a critical moment despite his fearful (and selfish) protests:

“You might say, if you liked, that the power of choice had been simply set aside and an inflexible destiny substituted for it. On the other hand, you might say that he had [been] delivered from the rhetoric of his passions and had emerged into unassailable freedom. Ransom could not, for the life of him, see any difference between these two statements. Predestination and freedom were apparently identical.”

I believe that we cannot be predestined to hell. That would infringe on our freedom of choice. It is, rather, our path to heaven that is predestined. When we do what is right–defined, perhaps, as what is both good and necessary, according to our best intention and reflection–we are doing no more than that which God predestined us to do when he “called us by name” (to quote Isaiah). Though we may choose “not God” by doing something selfish and easy, or hurtful — an inherited tendency ours explained in the narrative of the expulsion from the Garden of Eden — God has made each of us only one path to Him, for He created us. One person’s calling is not another, and though they may be guilty of the same sins, their redemptions are going to be as individual as they are. Perhaps this is what scripture refers to when it speaks of “the Elect:” those who succumbed to their destiny or enacted their freedom to choose God (take your pick). Those who don’t are exiled from heaven.

A clue to what they have lost is found in Lewis’ pregnant phrase, “the rhetoric of [Ransom’s] passions.” The word “rhetoric” means “manufactured nobility or grandeur,” and the classic art of Rhetoric was taught to politicians so they could inspire others to their cause. We all have a tendency to think of ourselves with ‘nobility’ and ‘grandeur,’ imagining our needs, wants, and opinions to be so important that we forget to love and enjoy what is around us. This is the sin of Adam: wanting to elevate himself and doing so by seeking what was proper to God, or the knowledge of good and evil. The serpent deceived Eve in this using rhetoric, inspiring her to believe she could be like God if she ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (incidentally, St. Augustine was once a teacher of Rhetoric, and his Confessions are filled with contempt for that art which teaches men seduce others with good-seeming words). In this phrase Lewis alludes to the human tendency to to let their passions run away with them in a way that is actually harmful, something that is a result of Original Sin. For example, it is natural to find a member of the opposite sex attractive, but following that passion into adultery is clearly wrong.

The faculty by which we regulate our passions is our reason. We have the ability to rationally decide if any given passion is Good or Bad–whether a particular passion is bringing us closer to God (love for a family member, perhaps, or charity for a stranger) or separating us from him (excessive ambition or a desire to hurt another). The ancient definition of Man (from Aristotle) was a rational animal, a creature subject to physical instincts and passions yet endowed with reason for free will. The essence of humanity, then–what it is that separates us from other physical creatures–is our reason, and our unique place in God’s creation as the creatures of His image. To abdicate reason in favor of passions is to reject God’s call, and therefore one’s humanity. Lewis speculates on this again through the thoughts of Ransom:

“Up till that moment, whenever he had thought of Hell, he had pictured the lost souls as being still human; now, as the frightful abyss which parts ghosthood from manhood yawned before him, pity was almost swallowed up in horror–in the unconquerable revulsion of the life within him from positive and self-consuming Death… The forces which had begun, perhaps years ago, to eat away his [enemy’s] humanity had now completed their work… Only a ghost was left–an everlasting unrest, a crumbling, a ruin, an odour of decay.”

Understanding this relationship between passions and reason sheds light on the Christian definition of freedom as freedom from the slavery of sin and death. To be free is to choose God’s path, as best as our reason allows us. Following one’s passions into choosing anything else is leads to error and sin.

Our only hope for everlasting life is to assume the mantle of full humanity: not an indulgent understanding of “human weakness,” not a claim to an unrestricted lifestyle, but a responsibility to choose God–and His specific and individual destiny for us–over every other option, and thereby be free.

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God Bless Midwest Catholics

Over the weekend of June 8-10, I traveled to Washington DC for a wedding. It was held in St. Veronica’s church in Fairfax County. The ceremony was not particularly sentimental. The vows were traditional. The readings were appropriate and mildly unexpected: no 1 Corinthians chapter 13.* The homily was neither moving nor eloquent but was down-to-earth and accessible. The consecration was professional rather than grave or solemn. Nobody exclaimed in penetrating whispers after the mass, “What a beautiful ceremony!” The best accolade I heard while exiting the church was a simple, “that was very nice.” And it was nice. It was simply nice.

For me, the simple niceness of the ceremony had a lasting effect and rare value. The clumsy analogies in the homily referenced the groom’s profession as an artist and the bride’s profession as a doctor to point out that a successful relationship requires both creativity and imagination from the artist’s side, and discipline and precision from the doctor’s side. He pointed out that the practical foundation of a good marriage is, in essence, good business sense (the organized hospital); while the personal or spiritual element foundation requires quiet, comfortable, inspired interaction (found in the studio). The entire content of the homily, in fact, was plain advice on how to make a permanent, close relationship between two people work.

In essence, the priest made the wedding ceremony one of commitment. He invited us, the family and friends of the new couple, to witness their bond. The advice he gave, not preachy, was a resonant blueprint for a good marriage. Sentimentality is pretty, but steadiness is more lasting. Steadiness is made of loyalty and care–and while it springs from the more erotic love of two young people who have “fallen for each other,” it is in a sense more romantic. It is the source of contentment and happiness over a long life, instead of over a short period.

Then, before distributing Communion, the priest reminded his congregation that the Catholic Church refuses the Eucharist to those who aren’t Catholic themselves, because the sacrament is not only the body and blood of Christ, but also represents the recipient’s full accord with the teachings and laws of the Church. Since about a quarter of those present did not appear Catholic, I thought this was an awkward thing to say. It seems rude and demeaning, probably, to them, who consider themselves as much a Christian than any Catholic. But, as a priest, he is bound to respect and uphold the laws of the Church, even when it is unpleasant. And I admired him for it.

During my trip back on Sunday, I had a two and a half hour layover in Chicago’s Midway airport. As I walked through the terminal to my next gate, so I could find a place to settle down and read, I heard over the intercom an announcement for Mass. Though I had planned to go to Mass that evening (my church offers a 5:30 PM Mass), I was intrigued. I changed course for the chapel and took my place in one of the seats.

Slowly, the place filled up. There were several families with children, many couples of all ages, and many solitary travelers (like me) in the room before Mass started. Eventually it was standing room only. The priest entered quietly, we all stood, then he started by admonishing that we all should stay after communion for the completion of the Mass. He also offered confession afterward to anyone who was interested. Again, I found this admirable — admonishment discussing others’ sins are not something one does gracefully, if at all, in our culture. The prevailing attitude of “who are you to judge ME?” makes such religious matters awkward, like stating the Catholic Church’s position on communion. Too often, then, are these subjects ignored. It is easier to talk about other aspects of the faith. But this priest–frail, old and a stranger to all of us–invoked his ecclesiastic authority.

I should point out here that I don’t think many of the “parishioners” at the airport Mass needed the priest’s reminders. We were a motley collection, consisting mostly of private, sometimes ugly people quietly going about our business. There was nothing exceptionally social in our demeanor, nor particularly inspired about our worship (though we did sing at times). I felt, though, a strong and solid faith among us; everyone there seemed to be enjoying their duty to God in a quiet, satisfied, and lasting way. It reminded me of Notre Dame, where I saw the same thing — students and professors who rarely spoke about religions went to Mass quietly every weekend and led essentially good lives of kindness and generosity.

Was the priest at the wedding from the Midwest? I don’t know, but I heard the trace of a flat “a” sound while he spoke that reminded me strongly of the Midwestern accents. His homily was a study in the plain, practical common sense that Midwesterners bring to their religion and religious duties, which characterized the short Sunday travelers Mass at Midway airport. And though I go to a church now that is much more charismatic, I recognize a lot of value in good sense and practical discipline in my own life, spiritual or otherwise.

I certainly don’t think the Notre Dame Mass experience lacked inspiration or that my current Mass experience lacks values–neither is true. But like a relationship between two people, a relationship with God also requires both inspiration and work. And since I have become so used to the inspiration side, it was good to be reminded of the “work” side.

Tactical Flight, and life in San Diego

It has been four long months since I last wrote about my continuing military adventure. This is partially due to the time commitment of my job, partially due to the other activities I have taken on, but mostly due to the fact that my job is no longer so easy to explain. As I get more specialized in my profession, the knowledge I acquire is more technical and thus of diminished interest to the world at large. But I will try to adequately describe the excitement of operating a real military jet, which is much more than the experience of flying.

As a refresher, I am currently assigned to the Fleet Replacement Squadron VMFAT-101. The purpose of this unit is to train new pilots and flight officers how to specifically operate the F/A-18 Hornet. The program consists of several phases. The first I wrote about in my last post about flying. The next is air-to-ground training: how to bomb and deliver advanced weapons — the ones you hear about on the news. Much of knowledge required is technical specifications about the ordnance itself, or the delivery systems organic to the aircraft, and much of that stuff is secret (no, it’s really classified…I’m not kidding). But the flights themselves are rewarding, because we generally “roll in” on a target, a fancy way to say we dive-bomb it. It has a few advantages: you can look at your target and thereby attack more accurately, and you can deliver the weapon on a moving target (something harder from high altitude). There is little in the world as exciting as flying toward the ground at 500 mph, trying to put a steel bomb on target without actually impacting the ground yourself. Naturally, we are very careful–and we certainly don’t hesitate to pull out of the dive if a dangerous situation develops. But it requires a lot of concentration.

Some of you may be inquiring why we dive-bomb when we have all these fancy GPS weapons. Others might be thinking that we’re crazy to dive-bomb at all, what with the threat of turning ourselves into a kamikaze jet. A single answer suffices for both: dumb bombs are cheaper than smart bombs, and the most effective way to deliver them is by a dive delivery. And since the whole purpose of Marine Aviation is to put bombs on bad guys, we do that as best we can…even if it’s dangerous. And we train to it. Hence the many practice flights. You’d think it gets repetitive, but it doesn’t. It’s a lot of fun, partially because it’s such a challenge. There are few things in life as satisfying as doing a demanding job well.

Speaking of putting bombs on bad guys, the culmination of the air-to-ground phase is CAS, or Close Air Support — supporting ground troops actually in contact with the enemy, as opposed to pre-planned deep strikes against solitary (and presumably high-value) targets. This is also very dangerous, because the explosive effects of our weapons can cover a lot of ground, and the worst thing we could do is hurt our own troops. To add to the possibility of error is the fact that oftentimes we cannot plan our targets in advance, since a battle is always fluid and we have to respond to developing situations. We instead rely on external controllers (airborne or on the ground) to direct us to targets as they appear. So we have strict procedures to follow in the airplane to deliver our weapons accurately. There is a specific brief over the radio (the 9-line) and standardized radio comms to keep everybody informed and allow ground personnel to check our attack parameters and target location. I can’t really describe the excitement of this kind of mission: it is exciting, challenging, and intense. It is, in fact, exactly what I wanted to do when I signed up for Marine Aviation. It’s worth noting that as a backseater, I will eventually train as one of the (airborne) external controllers, and my job then will be to fly above the battlespace and direct other aircraft (including helicopters) in Close Air Support. I can’t wait.

In my civilian life, I have found a church here with a very strong Young Adult program (they tend to get offended if referred to as “youth,” though I still think of myself as such). This facet of their ministry is appropriate considering their location in Pacific Beach , a neighborhood of small shops, tattoo parlors, bars, and small apartments whose chief residents are college students. But the ministry offers everything from a Memorial Day barbecue to in-depth conferences and bible studies oriented toward (and led by) young adults. It’s a fun group—we often go out to dinner after Mass, or simply go out drinking if the mood strikes us. Recently I began leading a bible study with a friend of mine, and the chance to do the “great books” thing again–by immersing myself in the text and trying to understand it with other people and perspectives–has been very rewarding. In fact, spending time with these young Catholics constitutes my largest extra-military activity.

As my parents found out when they visited over Mother’s day, life is good in California. The weather is nice more often than not, and (at least around the city) the landscape is beautiful. It is definitely desert, though–I find it amazing that the entire coastal landscape becomes distinctly greener after a day of rain, and becomes gradually browner during good weather. The real desert is evident when flying over the mountains east of the city to the bombing ranges. It is a bleak, magnificent landscape; never easier to appreciate than when raging around at 300 feet above the desert floor, rolling over dramatic ridges and diving through valleys. Though it’s fun to see that kind of landscape, I prefer the comparatively lush coastline.

On one flight out over the ocean, I chanced to look down as we went “feet wet” and noticed what appeared to be a solitary beach immediately below me. That afternoon I went to check it out as a possible location to go for a run. There were only a few people there, but oddly enough half of them appeared to be naked. It took a minute for this to sink in (since it was so unexpected), but I discovered later that I had found Black’s Beach, which is apparently a de facto nude beach. Given the several-hundred-foot cliffs that separate it from the headland, authorities rarely (read: never) come to enforce the San Diego ordinance prohibiting nudity. Despite that, it is a largely solitary and clean beach, nestled between the surf and the cliffs–a beautiful place to run. In fact, there are many beautiful places around here, and I am happy to be able to enjoy them.

Southern California has not disappointed me.

A Defense of Real Cork

I am very interested in wine. This is partly my parents’ fault, since they are also very interested in wine, and I grew up with it at the dinner table every night. But they weren’t just interested in drinking it: my father especially is fairly knowledgeable about how wines are made and labeled (no small subject of inquiry). Following in his footsteps, I myself have recently begun to investigate the ancient art of fermenting grapes into a drinkable beverage. And I have found it very intriguing.

I should be very clear here. I find that knowing about wine is almost as fun as drinking wine. I don’t mean the pretentious knowledge about, say, which wine labels are better than others, or which wines can be correctly paired with what kinds of foods–that sort of “knowledge” is, in my experience, largely a result of one person trying to appear better than others. It is, essentially, condescension. I am not interested in that. I am interested in discovering where certain wines come from and how they (hopefully) reflect their origins. I am interested in attempts, both old and new, to make a better wine by combining various grapes. I am interested in the fermenting process, the aging process, and most of all in the finished product. I am interested because I think it truly is a craft, just like making fine furniture or painting pictures.

I am, for example, fascinated that champagne was developed as a desperate bid to make marketable wine from the Champagne region of France, which apparently has very poor natural conditions and soil (from a winemaking perspective). The medieval monk Dom Perignon was one of the chief engineers of sparkling wine, and his name is immortalized now as the label of a very famous champagne. Likewise interesting is the fact that Riesling winemakers will leave a portion of their grapes on the vine past the first harvest so they will ripen further. This is a risk in Germany, when autumn frosts come early and hard. But the longer the grapes are left on the vine, the sweeter, more ageworthy, and more flavorful are the wines made from them. And even if the grapes freeze, they can be made into a very sweet wine called Eiswine (“Icewine”).

Such examples of winemaking illustrate the painstaking care and ingenuity that goes into producing the bottle of wine that I choose to drink. And that makes drinking the wine a Romantic experience–not romantic in the sense of being appropriate to two people who are in love, but rather in the sense of being “marked by the imaginative or emotional appeal of what is heroic, adventurous, remote, mysterious, or idealized.” A bottle of wine made with care should represent both the place it came from and the intent of the winemaker who created it. It can produce an astounding variety of flavors and even enhance the flavor of the food we eat while drinking it. Above all, like any great endeavor of human ingenuity, it should inspire us.

The English author Evelyn Waugh recognized this, and in the novel Brideshead Revisited, during a darkly amusing and depressing dinner with an excessively practical, grasping, manipulative man named Rex Mottram, the main character muses:

Those were the kind of things he [Rex] heard, mortal illness and debt, I thought. [But] I rejoiced in the Burgundy. How can I describe it? The Pathetic Fallacy resounds in all our praise of wine. For centuries every language has been strained to define its beauty, and has produced only wild conceits or the stock epithets of the trade. This Burgundy seemed to me, then, serene and triumphant, a reminder that the world was an older and better place than Rex knew, that mankind in its long passion had learned another wisdom than his. By chance I met this same wine again…in the first autumn of the war; it had softened and faded in the intervening years, but it still spoke in the pure, authentic accent of its prime and, that day, as…with Rex Mottram years before, it whispered faintly, but in the same lapidary phrase, the same words of hope.

So perhaps it is easy to see why I have been sorry to see the intrusion of wax synthetic corks and plastic screwtops into the world of wine. It isn’t that I refuse to recognize the benefits of these technological advancements: cork taint, or the intrusion of molds and bad flavor into the wine from the cork, is one of the oldest and most consistent problems with wine bottling. In fact, when the waiter at a restaurant pours a little wine into the glass for you to taste before the wine is served, it isn’t so the you can decide if you like the wine. It’s so you can be satisfied you are getting a wine untainted by the cork. Without question, synthetic corks and screwtops largely eliminate this problem. Furthermore, as both substitutes are less porous than cork, they help wines age better. Nevertheless, the quality of the cork is one among many unknowns that make wine drinking such a romantic experience.

When holding a bottle of wine in my hand, I feel great anticipation. The bottle, cork and all, holds the promise of new flavors and experiences. The fact that it may turn out either very good or simply mediocre (or even unpalatable) heightens the anticipation. The particular ceremony required to open the wine–peeling the foil, inserting the corkscrew, and extracting the cork (hopefully without leaving bits of cork in the wine) all further contribute to that anticipation. And synthetic corks (especially screwtops), while they may eliminate the possibility of cork taint and bad extractions, also kill some of this anticipation.

I am sad, then, to hear more and more winemakers are switching over from real cork. I will miss the satisfying pop! that heralds the opening of a wine bottle, and examining the stamped and stained cork itself as a prelude to tasting the wine. Hopefully a few winemakers, at least, will retain the risk and the reward of using real cork — and the soul-satisfying act of opening (and tasting!) a new bottle of wine will retain its magic for old-fashioned romantics like me.