On Robin Williams, Tragedy, and Thumper’s Mommy’s Rule

Since the actor and comedian Robin Williams died two days ago, there have been a multitude of tributes aired on television networks and posted online. Mostly they extol his quick wit, his devastatingly satirical humor, and his dramatic presence onscreen. As of this writing, his death has been attributed to suicide resulting from depression, so others have used this opportunity to focus on that mental disease. Also, given that his death occurred during a time of violent conflict in the Middle East and heightened tensions with Russia, not to mention anticipation of an ideologically charged election a few months hence, other less complimentary media has blown off Mr. Williams’ suicide as insignificant compared to larger events, or characterized it as cowardly, selfish, and particularly reprehensible considering his immense wealth and prestige. This latter vein of commentary is disturbing.

I understand the motivation to pay tribute to a popular figure. Through his movies and other public appearance, Mr. Williams has influenced a lot of people–chiefly by making them laugh. Many of his jokes and one-liners have entered into our common lexicon. People admired him, I guess, because his comedy uplifted their spirits. We sympathized with his confusedly righteous entertainer in Good Morning, Vietnam, we laughed at his comically entertaining everyman in Mrs. Doubtfire, and we drew wisdom from his portrayal as a counselor in Good Will Hunting. It’s no surprise that we should be shocked by his death, at his own hands, and apparently because of the omnipresent sadness, hurt, and anger of depression. The very nature of the event–popular and widely-reported–gives us the opportunity to reflect on the role laughter, sadness, and death play in our own perception of our lives. I confess that his comedy seemed a little wacky to me, so I am (unfortunately) not as affected by his death as others. But why spit on those who do, in fact, grieve?

Demeaning his death, or the attention lavished on it, sends a clear message that any grief felt for it is worthless. That is manifestly not true. Grief is the product of tragedy; any event which shocks us and provokes us to contemplate our own mortality, even vicariously, is tragedy. Mr. Williams’ death is one of many which happen every day, and perhaps one of the least gruesome. Certainly he did not die due to indiscriminate rocket fire, or beheading for being something other than a Muslim. The fate of nation-states does not hang in the balance because of his suicide. But his death is no less tragic for seeming lack of context. Christian doctrine, to which I subscribe, teaches that every person has inherent dignity because they are intimately created, loved, and valued by God, and therefore Mr. Williams’ death, even at his own hands, and even if he is rich and famous, is objectively a diminution of all of us–equally so as the death of a non-Christian in Iraq, or a Palestinian in Gaza, or a Ukrainian Soldier. The loss of a life is certainly much worse than a disliked piece of legislation or an unfavorable election result. As to his depression, I’ll be the first to agree that there are more immediately threatening issues than depression before us–but the relative importance, for whatever reason, of other issues does not diminish the cause of eradicating or mitigating depression (or any other mental illness). I personally grieve for Mr. Williams, more so because I have known his contributions to our culture and laughed with him. That makes the tragedy of his death more present to me than the death of others, and so it has a greater impact on me. There’s no question that Mr. Williams’ death is a tragedy, and he–along with those who loved him, which include his family and his fans–deserves our pity and compassion by virtue of the humanity he shares with us.

The negative reactions to this event raises the question of why we sometimes disbelieve people when they tell us about themselves. I don’t mean when people boast, or curry sympathy, or otherwise seek attention–I mean when they tell us their experiences. Many people who suffer from depression have written about it, and psychologists and psychiatrists alike have documented a pattern of symptoms and results leading of this clearly defined mental disease. Apparently Mr. Williams suffered from it. It is ludicrous to contradict that diagnosis on the barest speculation, as some have done by pointing out that he was a comic, or that he was wealthy, or that he was influential. Those things, nice as they are to be, do not have relevance on mental illness any more than they do on cancer or the common cold. I won’t conjecture whether there’s a connection between comedians and depression, but I do question why some angrily reject that such mental illness can occur in certain people. Can’t they imagine anyone being depressed if they’re rich?

Whatever the reality, second-guessing the experience of others is odious. To use a well-documented issue as an example, some question whether homosexuals really experience same-sex attraction as part of their nature. Why wouldn’t we believe someone who says that about him- or herself? Unless we have a similar frame of reference–i.e. we’ve experienced same-sex attraction ourselves–then we literally cannot understand what that’s like, and cannot judge the truth or falsehood of it. Any glib, ideologically-aligned causes we propose for homosexuality are mere speculation. In rejecting that aspect about another person, we are essentially demeaning them and all who share that experience by denying them personal agency and self-knowledge. Similarly, if one does not suffer depression, then rejecting Mr. William’s mental illness or that it could cause suicide is demeaning to him and all who suffer the same disease. That’s especially true for the self-styled academics who comfortably theorize that suicide is a selfish act and (if they’re religious) a sin. While the experiences of those afflicted with depression attest to both a physical aspect (i.e. a physical defect in the brain, or the operation of the brain) and a mental/spiritual element, scientists and theologians both admit they are very far from understanding the human mind. Therefore commentary on whether Mr. Williams’ suicide was a poor choice or an inevitable result of the disease is only more speculation. On top of that, who among us could say he or she knew Mr. Williams’ conscience, which seems more the point? God alone knows that. And finally, anecdotal evidence about someone falsely claiming depression–or any other sort of identity–in order to get attention is absolutely not sufficient reason to lack compassion. Any number of people who play the martyr by claiming depression, or who whine about the pressures of a life of fame, do not diminish the real thing. The only creditable source about Mr. Williams’ depression is Mr. Williams himself, and those who were close to him. It seems logical we would trust them.

No doubt those profess themselves offended by this suicide, or by all the attention spent on it, will respond to this post (if they read it) by asserting their right to believe and whatever they want. I don’t contradict that right. For my part, I’m certainly aware that I’m a poor source for information: I have no first-hand knowledge of Mr. Williams, nor could I improve upon the tributes written about him by better writers than I. I only remind the participants in this discussion that Mr. Williams had humanity and therefore dignity, as do all those saddened by his death. For that alone he and they are worthy of consideration and compassion. So please remember the rule of Thumper’s Mommy in Disney’s Bambi: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all–and leave those who grieve Mr. Williams’ death and reflect on their own mortality in respectful peace.

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Some thoughts on the words “Faith” and “Religion”

I recently saw an article that claimed Islam wasn’t a religion. There have been high-profile debates between religious leaders and scientists about which perspective contains more truth. There have even been debates within faith communities, as between Christian sects who acknowledge gay marriage, and those who don’t. It seems that somewhere in the diatribes we’ve collectively lost an understanding of what it means to have “faith” or how to define a “religion.”

Religion indeed seems a difficult thing to define. Christians, by and large, regard it as a free exercise of will to believe. No matter where you come from, if you believe what’s written in the Gospels regarding Jesus Christ, you are a Christian. Certain more conservative groupings, however, treat Christianity as a sort of ‘social contract,’ binding those within the group to act and value certain things. My extremely limited experience with Judaism indicates that certain conservative Jews have exclusionary believes about their religion–namely, that it accrues only to the children of Jewish mothers. Less conservative Jewish sects appear to regard Judaism as more of an ethnic identity than a belief system, happily accepting agnosticism or downright atheism among their peers as long as the overarching identity remains.

If my understanding of Judaism is “extremely limited,” then my understanding of Islam is not even worth mentioning. The so-called “fundamentalists” (a charged word, in that it implies that the fundamental tenets of a religion are bad, instead of perhaps a tangential tenet of the religion) treat Islam as a socio-political system, in which laws protecting the status quo are given legitimacy by (it is believed) divine approbation. The status quo in many Islamic countries in the Middle East is, at least regarding the dignity and attendant rights of women and children, oppressive and even barbaric in light of our liberal ideals. Opposition to that system strikes me as more akin to opposing Communism or Fascism insofar as it’s a political system. Islam in that sense is very different than Christianity and Judaism, and rightly condemned.

In the sense of religion, on the other hand, the issue is murky precisely because we use the word “religion” to describe different things. There are Muslims who practice Islam as a free exercise of the will to believe in Allah and the teachings of the Koran. I’ve never read the Koran, so I don’t know if it is filled to the brim with hateful writings, loving writings, or (as is the case with the Jewish and Christian scriptures) a mixture of both. There are other Muslims who probably practice Islam as a social contract, a way of distinguishing their group from others. But using religion to describe the entire practice of Islam, Judaism, or Christianity confuses things, and probably lets unlawful behavior proceed under the First Amendment while simultaneously restricting legitimate religious practice.

By and large, the test for “freedom of religion” ought be simple. If a behavior is lawful in a non-religious context, then it should be permitted as a religious practice. If I may display statues on my lawn, then I may display a Nativity scene at Christmas. If I may wear as much clothing as I’d like, as long as I’m not indecent, then I may wear a hijab or burkha. As a side note, Middle Eastern Christian (some of which who subordinate themselves to either the Pope or the Patriarch) and Jewish sects direct that female adherents wear hijabs. If assaulting someone is illegal, then I should not be able to stone or otherwise injure a person for engaging in lawful sexual behavior. It’s more difficult when trying to decide whether a person should be forced into religious participation, even tangentially. But that sort of question is why we have legislatures and courts.

The word “faith” seems misused as well. The dictionary defines faith as, “1) confidence or trust in a person or thing; 2) belief that is not based on truth; 3) belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion; 4) belief in anything, as a code of ethics, standards, or merit.” I think the first definition hits closest to the mark on the intent of the word. A religious person, you might say, has confidence and trust in the tenets of his/her religion. The thing is, that attitude seems to apply to a lot of non-religious people too.

There are many voices trying to put faith and/or religion in the same category as ignorance and barbarism. That saddens me because I happen to be religious, of course, but it also strikes me as disingenuous and dishonest. As a Catholic I believe that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and that He emptied Himself to become like us and share in our struggles on this earth, and that as He was killed He offered Himself as reparation for all our sins (past, present, and future), and that His offer was worthy because of His own perfection, and so I believe that if I follow Him I will be free of this earth and with Him in paradise. In analyzing that long narrative sentence it is immediately obvious that I could offer no empirical evidence of this. Even if I had a time machine and could record video of Jesus becoming incarnate in the womb of the Virgin Mary, then record all of His miracles, then record His crucifixion and leave the camera in the tomb recording the moment of His resurrection, there is still no way to see and record the thoughts of God, nor attach the camera to Jesus during His ascension into heaven and remotely view the video. My senses are unable to even gather that ‘behind the scenes’ evidence, even if I could prove by two chemical tests on controlled samples of water (for example) that it turned into wine. Therefore I must either have confidence that the narrative is true, or not.

This is not all that different, say, than belief in the Theory of Evolution. Nobody has a time machine that would enable them to bring back irrefutable evidence of evolution, perhaps by filming the birth and maturation of the first Cro-Magnon person with two Neanderthal parents (complete with genetic testing to compare to the remains of both species already cataloged). All we do have is snapshots of evidence, which we believe to be of a certain age, based on the belief that we can tell the age by extrapolating chemical deterioration, which only a few of us have ever observed with our eyes in a microscope (and I’m not sure it’s even possible to observe radiation decay). There is a narrative suggested by these snapshots of evidence–the oldest remains being more ape-like, the newer ones more human-like–but it is the invention of scientists and authors. Therefore I must either have confidence that the narrative is true, or not.

We’ve so far ignored the question of the chicken or the egg. Certain scientists, for example, claim that emotion is merely the work of certain hormones in a human brain. Feelings of arousal are due to release of sex hormones, which (it is theorized) are triggered when presented with a set of conditions, like say a procreatively attractive human of the gender which the subject of arousal finds attractive. Feelings of affection are due to the hormone Oxytocin, which is triggered in certain situations as a hardwired social response, which our genes have developed to increase our rate of survival by causing us to work together. But that is a hypothesis. It is plausible, too. But it is also unprovable. It’s equally plausible (and possible) that such hormone activity is the result of emotions–the mechanism or vehicle by which feelings manifest themselves physically (as arousal or tears). None of us can go inside our brains to determine the exact causal order of whether the emotion is received first, or whether the hormones are released first. Therefore I must have confidence that either one narrative is true, or the other.

The scientist Neil deGrasse Tyson famously noted, “the good thing about science is that it’s true whether you believe in it or not.” With respect, I beg to differ. There were a great many scientists who believed in Eugenics between 1880 and 1945 (including Margaret Sanger) along with luminaries like H.G. Wells, Theodore Roosevelt, and George Bernard Shaw. Eugenic research was funded by the Carnegie Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.* By “believe in Eugenics,” I mean its proponents believed that there was a genetic cause which disposed certain people toward poverty, retardation, sexual deviance (i.e. homosexuality), and antisocial behavior. Science was not true in that case, and we shouldn’t be so quick to conveniently compartmentalize that into the “the funny old days when we had silly theories” and “the evil things Nazis did, from which we saved the world.” Science is only as true as the ethics and character of the people who do it, much like religion. One commonality between the two ‘sides’ is that authority figures in both realms–scientists and priests–are only human, and subject to the same propensity to self-deceive and enjoy attention as the worst Hollywood celebrities or politicians.

Ultimately, faith comes down to what inspires confidence. My experience has taught me confidence both in the religious salvation narrative and in the scientific narrative of the world. As another author pointed out, there is not much difference between the big bang theory and the Christian explanation that God said, “Let there be light.” In both cases, our fantastically complicated universe exploded into something without warning or apparent material cause. What does it matter whether one believes it happened randomly or at the will of an entity too big to imagine?

Understanding and meaningful engagement with others demands a certain rigor of thought. Proponents of rational explanations fall into hypocrisy when they succumb to the “blind faith” that others who disagree with their perspective are somehow less important because they are “religious,” and proponents of religious-faith-based explanations fall into hypocrisy when they fail to acknowledge the faith that rationalists have in science-based narratives. It might advance both sides of this odd little culture struggle if we all recognized our own “religious” and “faith” tendencies, including those with no affinity towards and/or opposition to an established religion.

Faith, Reason, and Debating the Existential “Big Questions”

I’m past college, and with those years has passed the incidence of earnest debate about things like religion and the meaning of life. That I attended a Catholic university and majored in a “Great Books” meant that I fielded my share of challenges from those who believed something different than I did, and one of the most pressing questions that came up at that time was why.

Why do you believe?

There is something fantastic and mythological, certainly, about the story of a God coming to earth in order to offer Himself up as a perfect, spotless sacrifice in order to atone for every human sin, past and future, and reconcile the human race to Himself as God. The particulars of the story are indeed quaint and uncomfortably sentimental: a sweet young woman chosen to miraculously conceive God’s child; archetypal authority figures hatching dastardly plots and darkly scheming to stop this bright young hero; a set of bumbling accomplices; an impossibly evil death; and the most mythical and unbelievable thing of all: that he was killed and then came back to life.

To my friends, well-educated and mostly liberal humanists, the tale of Christ bears too many similarities to the quaint myths of many other cultures, and is only the biggest myth in a child-like narrative of the world with a stylized creation story and a lot of horrible barbarities. Compared to sophisticated promise of modern disciplines like sociology, psychology, and specialized sciences, a primitive culture’s myth seems plainly archaic. How could anyone believe this, much less someone college-educated?

The challenge about answering this question is that it is ideological rather than academic. Those who ask it have a certain perspective which I don’t understand, but which seems to preclude the idea of a supernatural. Some profess to be humanists, who believe that continued enlightenment in sciences will eventually conquer our social and personal afflictions. Others profess to be rationalists, believing only in those things that science has proved or theorized.

Such alternative belief systems are not, in and of themselves, ideological. They fall more truly into the existential category, defining who we are and why we exist. But they seem to come with a lot of ideological baggage these days. After all, elements of our society today are unabashed and even aggressive apologists for faith (professing the Christian doctrine of sola scriptura) and many of them speak in terms of condemnation, specifically condemnation of those who disagree with them, to hell. They often stand for uncomfortably traditional values as well, like maintaining traditional gender and socio-economic roles. Now all of a sudden we aren’t talking about a different moral and existential perspective, we’re talking about an ideological opponent. And, to be fair, there are fundamentalist Christians who are offensive and judgmental in proselytizing their beliefs.

But to turn the tables, many so-called rationalists and/or humanists can be just as aggressive, and I am skeptical that their explanations of the world are actually more ‘rational’ than a faith-based one. It’s easy to talk about gravity or astronomical relations and say that we can “prove” real science empirically, but I doubt that many of us have empirically viewed the behavior of a virus, or the release of certain brain hormones causing affection or depression. We accept that viruses and brain hormones work a certain way because we have studied the effect of those things and measured them in actual humans, so we know they exist and they affect, somehow, our health or mental state. We also believe people called “scientists” when those people tell us about viruses and brain hormones (and the behavior of chemical elements, and many other things), because we have faith that their education and certification makes them intrinsically trustworthy on certain issues.

Whether or not you trust a scientist or a theologian (or a priest) is really the question, unless on. An Op-Ed in the Washington Post recently pointed out very thoroughly that the two sides are not mutually exclusive. I have little to add to the writer’s argument because I agree with him — I believe in the story of the Christ and yet also pursue understanding of scientific matters, because I want to know more about us and this world we inhabit. He ends with a marvelous paragraph worth quoting in full:

The problem comes when materialism, claiming the authority of science, denies the possibility of all other types of knowledge — reducing human beings to a bag of chemicals and all their hopes and loves to the firing of neurons. Or when religion exceeds its bounds and declares the Earth to be 6,000 years old. In both cases, the besetting sin is the same: the arrogant exclusive claim to know reality.

The answer to the question of why I believe the entirety of the Christian story, with it’s quaint mythological narratives about paradisiacal gardens and apples of knowledge of good and evil and floods and prophets and whales and the Son of God is that I find it more plausible than any of the alternatives. It really makes more sense to me. Not necessarily in they physical particulars (“do you really believe that some prophet actually parted water to create a passage?”), but in the tale it tells of how humanity became prone to doing bad things and how God then came Himself to redeem humanity from its sinful nature.

The Christian tale is plausible to me mostly because of my own experiences in sin and redemption. The vast majority of these experiences are with my own sins and redemptions in my life so far, and a few of them are observations of other peoples’ sins and redemptions. On a precious few occasions I recall witnessing a miracle, or experiencing a beatific presence I attribute to the Christian God. These things are open to interpretation in an academic sense, of course. Rationalists might argue that my experiences of good and bad in myself and others are filtered through a strong inculcated Catholic belief system. They might doubt that I, in fact, saw or experienced so-called “supernatural” things, and point to the demonstrated phenomenon of humans to manufacture memories that suit their subconscious perspectives. And as far as that goes, they may be right. I can’t transmit my experiences to others, so therefore I can’t expect anyone else to believe my conclusions. And yet I can no more forget them than an astronaut could forget his view of a round earth from space, or an astronomer could forget the sightings and calculations that the earth and nearer bodies revolved around the sun in elliptical trajectories.

My point here is not to convince anyone in my beliefs. I don’t think that’s possible — neither a rationalist nor a faith-based belief system can be truly transmitted via dialectic. Any belief system has to be experienced to be believed, personally and deeply experienced. And for a human, that means engaging both the intellect and whatever part of the brain controls belief.

Someone who believes that human emotions like love and depression are a combination of neuron activity and chemical activity in the brain has probably actively engaged the subject: he or she likely wondered why people experience love and other emotions, and pursued the answer until they found an explanation. That’s the activity of his or her intellect. He or she also had to exclude other explanations for emotions (presuming they found others), such as activity of a metaphysical soul, or instinctual behavior bred in by evolution, which is primarily a decision of faith. Does he or she trust neurologists who measure neuron activity and brain chemicals? Priests, philosophers, and/or wise men and women, who have reached a supernatural explanation due to their long experience in considering and/or observing human behavior? What about sociologists and/or biologists who study behavioral patterns and instinct activity?

Personally, I don’t believe that a scientist is intrinsically a better person than a priest or a philosopher. All three are human, which means they are subject to the same ideological myopia and vices, as well as the same inspiration and virtue, as the rest of us. No single person knows everything, and experience teaches that even if a person did, he or she would forget part of it, or hide part of it, or even use it to his/her advantage. Positing that it’s possible to know everything, and use that knowledge correctly, is coming dangerously close to positing God. Whether we follow to that conclusion, or stop short — and who/what we decide to trust and therefore believe — well, that’s just our obligation as rational beings. We each must individually decide what to believe.

It’s natural that each of us would seek like-minded friends in the world, and so it’s easy to see how we would gravitate towards those who believe the same things. So begins ideology, or the pursuit of actualizing an ideal, which carried to the extreme ends up forgetting that ideas are not more important than people — or so I argue as a Christian: that individuals have the highest intrinsic value; ideas may be valuable but they’re not worth more than life itself.

I plead that we don’t let this social instinct push us into prejudice. I and many people I know believe in the teachings of Christianity and yet also follow the progress of scientific knowledge. Many of these people are scientists or doctors themselves. And likewise, I know that people who religious faith (Christian or other) is irrational do not reduce the human experience to the peculiar behavior of a peculiar animal, enslaved to instinct and evolutionary imperative.

So let’s not discuss these existential issues of faith, science, reason, and belief with a desire to win, especially to win by painting other belief systems in pejorative colors. Rather let’s do it to better understand ourselves and each other.

On Proselytizing

A recurring discussion in our democratic world is the role of religion in society. The issue is divisive and applied to all manner of tangential issues–immigration and abortion are the first that come to mind.

Historically, Christianity was the dominant religion. By the numbers, it still is, though at one point there was a sizeable Jewish minority and there are growing Islamic and atheist communities. The percentages have changed with immigration and secularization, which is the process by which a growing number of Americans who were raised in a religious tradition leave it behind as adults.

Theoretically, none of this matters. The First Amendment ought to make the United States a nation in which all religions can be practiced freely, as well as a nation which does not endorse one religion over another (or, perhaps, any religion at all). But historical oppression of Jews, Catholics, Evangelicals, and Muslims by a majority has illustrated the fragility of the First Amendment in the face of the mob. I say a “mob,” because the United States is not meant to be governed by ‘majority rule,’ it is a country which purports to protect minorities–whether they be racial, religious, intellectual, sex, or sexual orientation–from the tyranny of the majority.

But of course it matters. Research in psychiatry and psychology has noted that humans, as social creatures, respond most positively when they are a part of something larger than themselves–little wonder, then, that religion is so dominant a perspective in our lives. I use the word “religion,” but I mean any articulated belief system (and yes, a rationalist perspective advancing the supremacy of science is an example of an articulated belief system, and may be described in this manner as a religion). After all, we can understand and have complete faith in the efficacy of gravity (it has literally never been disproven, as far as humanity knows) without knowing the why; postulating that the why is irrelevant–or, for that matter, speculating on the why at all–is literally an act or statement of faith. In any case, what matters to a discussion on these belief systems is the uncomfortable fact that each of us tends to have beliefs that we regard as truth, such as: that Christ died for our sins; that there is one God and Jews are His chosen people; that good people are rewarded in heaven, and bad ones condemned to hell; that God is the ‘opiate of the masses’ and humanity is steadily progressing toward a socialist communal lifestyle of rational equality; or even that there is no God at all, and He was invented as a panacea for the terrible greatness and apparent unpredictability of our world, and that we have developed so far as to understand that, and may eventually understand all things. Such beliefs are examples, of course. They are probably facile and archetypal. I don’t pretend to speak for any person, though I suspect that some kind of core belief lies at the bottom of every human’s value system.

From the standpoint of meaning, there is no connection between recognizing the importance of belief in human cognition and self-regard, and the truth or fiction of the beliefs themselves. I am a Catholic, and I believe Jesus Christ was a real person who was also really God, who suffered a horrible death made worse by my sins, and who in doing so redeemed humanity. That belief has informed my entire perspective on the world, and mostly unconsciously–I bet it’s engrained upon my soul in ways I will never, ever comprehend (even after a lifetime of reflection). It is almost certainly the primary source of my values and therefore of my interaction with the world. So, from a psychological standpoint I actually need that belief, because without it there is no foundation for my perspective. I need that belief the way a Jew, a rational humanist, a principled atheist, or really anyone else needs their own core beliefs.  Yet the need for such a belief does not–cannot–imply that such beliefs are either true or false. Just because something is necessary does not mean it is manufactured. Truth or falsehood is another matter entirely, and one for the theologians and philosophers.

Truth and falsehood are also very touchy subjects. I know many an atheist who would brindle at the very suggestion that his or her rational world-view is in fact a sort of faith (religion) with its own doctrine and structure. By making that faith-based critique, I am quite literally attacking the foundation of his/her self, the place of his/her most deeply held beliefs. It’s important to remember that. When encountering a news story about a legal decision favoring a religious group, or perhaps an email or social media anecdote about one person getting the better of another, or even lamenting or lauding a decision regarding Christmas Nativity scenes or the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, most people will react strongly because the perceived ‘victory’ or ‘defeat’ is either very self-affirming or very threatening.

On that note, I’ll remind my fellow Christians that “proselytize” is a negatively connoted word, implying that the proselytizer is representing or practicing their beliefs in a way that intrudes upon the victim. Comments like “God is watching!” and “God would be so happy!” on a story, picture, or other piece of internet media are proselytizing comments. They actually condemn (though indirectly) those who don’t share the commenter’s particular perspective. In the New Testament, Jesus pretty explicitly forbids condemnation, as does the Apostle Paul. I think the Christian community (and the world) would be much better served with comments like “I disagree with…” or “I think this is wonderful…,” mostly because such comments establish a perspective based on values, and therefore acknowledge the dignity of other people’s values, without intruding upon them.

Traditional Catholics may point out that one of the seven Corporal Acts of Mercy is to ‘admonish the sinner.’ I agree, though I would add that admonishing the sinner does not excuse one from respecting their essential dignity as a free, rational human being, and would beg to recall Jesus’ own comment about the mite in one’s neighbor’s eye with respect to the beam in one’s own. Besides, disagreeing with someone out of conviction does not condemnation of their world-view. And for those who find value in the act of asserting themselves (the “I won’t apologize if someone else is offended!” set), then I would reiterate Jesus’ call to Charity and turning the other cheek, and remind that causing offense, even if it’s unwarranted, is a sure way to cause further division.

Finally, I’ll say that no-one should have to tiptoe around their beliefs. I certainly don’t. But if the First Amendment’s promise is to come true in our society regarding religion, then we all need to practice our own belief system–rational or faith-based (or both)–with courtesy and respect for others. A good first step for this is to stop proselytizing and to engage others’ values instead of their beliefs, and by extension their essential personhood.

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.

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.

The Power of Imagination

On a recent flight from Washington, DC to San Diego I had the fortune of watching the movie Bridge to Terabithia. It didn’t seem like fortune at the time, though. I was frankly disappointed that a more exciting movie wasn’t playing. Crammed into a small airline seat, forced to sit still for four hours or so, I wanted to watch something with action and drama and even romance, not some fantasy movie for children. But I didn’t feel like reading, so I plugged in my headphones and decided to give it a chance.

As a part of the programming, the airline included a review before the movie actually started. Interestingly, one reviewer remarked that he had the same misgivings as I did about the movie before he saw it, but ended up pleasantly surprised. He also mentioned that there were some significant dramatic themes, including a death. At the time, his comments didn’t really make me more excited to watch the movie myself, but I remembered them later.

I will probably spoil the movie for those of you who haven’t watched it, so if you really want to see it, move on to the next post. The main character, Jesse, is a young boy with four sisters. His family is struggling to get by, and his parents have too much on their mind to pay much attention to him. The movie is chiefly about his pre-adolescent struggles, and how he learns to deal with difficulties in life, which for him take the form of school bullies, a demanding and rigid father, and an annoying little sister (she actually loves him very much and because of that seems clingy to him).

The movie begins on the first day of sixth grade. Jesse has been practicing all summer so he can be the fastest kid in his class in the opening field day race. Unfortunately, he his mother insists that he wear his sister’s hand-me-down pink sneakers, for which classmates will tease him–but that’s pretty normal for Jesse, since his family can’t afford to buy many new things. During the race, he beats everybody in his class except a new girl named Leslie. What makes it worse for him is that she seems extremely interested in being his friend. He puts her off initially, partially bitter from the race he lost but also partially because she is new and different. Like him, she is an outcast–and the two eventually become friends.

Leslie discovers that Jesse has a passion for drawing. He keeps a notebook filled with drawings of imaginary creatures and events, though he is very shy about it. And with her encouragement, they begin to visit the woods behind their houses every day after school, developing in their imagination a fantasy world which they protect and rule. It is Leslie that instigates the imaginative part; Jesse is at first skeptical, reluctant, and derisive. Their world, Terabithia, is sophisticated: the children bring in the problems they face at school and at home and re-create them as evils threatening Terabithia, and likewise project their role and king and queen into their everyday lives, teaming up to get the better of bullies and help other students. Terabithia is a visible manifestation of the childrens’ friendship and a means by which they can romanticize their sufferings and make them meaningful. And while their sufferings might be considered trivial compared with adult problems, as children at the very beginning of puberty they feel disappointment, regret, and frustration with all the clarity of innocence. The movie clearly presents the childrens’ problems as a microcosm of our (the viewers’) own.

Later in the movie, Jesse is been invited to visit an art gallery with a teacher on whom he has a crush. For that reason, he doesn’t invite Leslie. When Jesse returns from the gallery he finds his parents sick with worry and senses something wrong: they tell him that Leslie went to the woods (Terabithia) by herself, and when crossing a swollen stream fell in and drowned. It is a terrible scene. Jesse can’t believe it at first and runs to her house, only to find ambulances and police cars and sympathizers already in attendance–including the teacher he was with that day. Wracked with guilt, he tells the teacher that they should have invited Leslie.

At this point in the story, I realized I had read the book before. It had been when I was very young, and I chiefly remember that I cried. It is a tragic story: Jesse senselessly loses his best friend; he blames himself because he didn’t invite her to the museum; he watches the exciting world they dreamed together and its positive effect on real life come crashing down about his ears. It was perhaps my first real encounter with grief. I sympathized with Jesse through the medium of the story–when he loses his temper with his little sister and pushes her to the ground, when he runs from his father into the woods, when he gets into a fight in school. I felt keenly the unlooked-for compassion of his parents (who struggle tell him that Leslie’s death wasn’t his fault) and his teachers, who tell him how lucky he was to have befriended Leslie and how special they thought she was. And, most importantly, I discovered that the gifts of others — in Jesse’s case, Terabithia — are the things that preserve their memory the best.

Bridge to Terabithia is far more than a simple children’s story. It is about dealing with suffering, death, and maturity. It reminds us that holding ideals with childlike clarity and abandonment is worthwhile. Jesse’s father, careworn as he is, recognizes this: “That girl gave you something very special, and to remember that is to keep her alive,” he tells Jesse. The value of a story like this recalls the great literary value of other “children’s stories,” such as the fables of Aesop and Hans Christian Anderson and the Chronicles of Narnia, which (like Bridge to Terabithia) continue to escape a more “mature” reading audience who decide they no time for childrens’ tales. And yet if joy, contentment, sorrow, pain, and frustration are the simplest emotions we feel, surely we feel them most keenly in our simplest frame of mind – when we are as little children. Even Jesus taught that we each should believe in Him and his message “as a little child.”

For if Terabithia is an ideal, so is the promise of Christianity. They are both firmly in the province of faith. And they both provide meaning to our daily trials and a goal to work toward in our daily labor. Keeping such an ideal before us despite the intrusion of dull or demanding tasks and obligations requires imagination–more specifically, it requires a simple, uncomplicated, unfettered imagination. It requires the imagination of a child. Such an imagination is the means by which we discern hope even amid our current suffering. That is what Bridge to Terabithia celebrates.