Br. Chris Brannan, O.P.'s picture

On the Apparent Arbitrariness of Christian Morality

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Dan Savage, the founder of the "It Gets Better" Project, recently made some very pointed comments about Christianity and the Bible. I wish not to comment on his tone or strategy, nor on the very real problem of bullying which his talk was supposed to be about, but on one of his arguments. This particular argument is a very common one raised in the public sphere, often by well-known figures (once by our current president himself): very frequently it is claimed that Christians are arbitrarily selective in picking and choosing moral teachings from Scripture. In debates about the moral status of homosexual acts, for example, proponents of the behavior will sometimes argue that it is inconsistent, or at least arbitrary, to pick moral prohibitions about sexual matters from Leviticus, while not holding to others such as those about ritual purity, dietary laws, or slavery. Is there anything to this argument? Is Christian morality, at bottom, nothing but one rather arbitrary set of very peculiar, antiquarian, rules? Why does, for example, traditional Christian morality uphold the Old Testament’s moral prohibitions against homosexuality, but not eating pork? Why do Christians today allow intermarriage, which the Torah forbids, while opposing slavery, which the bible – so the argument goes – supports?

This is not simply about specific moral norms, but about the underlying theological and epistemological principles behind them: what is the basis of right and wrong in the Christian tradition, and what determines which Old Testament precepts are binding, and which are not? Among other things, this is a hermeneutical question at two different levels: How did the New Testament writers interpret the Hebrew Scriptures? And how are Christians, today, to interpret them, and how are we to interpret the New Testament itself in relation to morality?

All of these are rather large questions, but I wish to propose one fairly simplified version of an answer to them as it relates to sexual morality, an answer loosely inspired by my introductory knowledge of Thomistic thought and moral theology, and on Scripture: authentic Christian morality, both in the New Testament and in the Church, is rooted in the "telos" – the goal, the purpose – of the human being. That is, what determines whether or not some action is right or wrong is not that the Bible says so; rather, the determining factor is the ultimate answer to the question: “does this lead to the fulfillment of the human being?” Or, more personally, “does it lead me to, or away from, the supernatural destiny for which God created me?” Christianity, in turn, makes a remarkable claim about this supernatural destiny: we were created for eternal life. And what is eternal life? “To know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent” (Jn 17:3).

And so Christian morality, by its very nature – even if this is not always made explicit in either Scripture or in the formulas of Tradition – has this supernatural goal – knowing the Triune God – as its foundation, its source, and its summit. And those behaviors which the New Testament and the Christian tradition condemn, are wrong precisely in virtue of their being incompatible with this supernatural destiny: they prevent us from knowing God.

For example, merely eating pork, in itself, does nothing to take one away from God; that this was prohibited for the Israelites, and modern Orthodox Jews, is not because human bodies which have incorporated swine flesh into themselves are unfit for resurrection or heaven, but such laws were made for some temporary instructive purpose (precisely what this lesson is is another discussion). In the Christian perspective, this was a limited law (not intended for all people, nor for all time), and one which is not absolutely binding because the act itself (eating pork) is not opposed to eternal life (the gospels describe Jesus teaching that food cannot make someone unclean – see Mark 7:19). Certain sexual acts, however, are in a different situation, not simply because of where we find them in Scripture, but precisely because of their intrinsic relation to our supernatural human fulfillment. Let me, very briefly, unpack that...

God created us as sexual beings, and therefore, sex is good. But sex is also purposeful, and rich with meaning as seen in Scripture itself. To deliberately distort the act of sex in such a way that its purpose or meaning is intrinsically thwarted, amounts to turning towards our creator and saying, “Thanks for making us sexual beings, but we don’t like the purpose you gave to it; so we’ll do it our own way.” The result is not that this makes God angry, and that since he’s so insecure and cannot take criticism he decides to punish us in his rage; rather, it is that this ends up hurting us, because we are not cooperating with our own sexuality’s purpose. If we deliberately frustrate our purpose in the arena of sexuality, we begin removing ourselves from the purpose of our whole life.  We cannot neatly separate one aspect of our life from another, nor can we separate one individual act from the whole.  Each individual sexual act is a microcosm of our entire sexuality, which – in turn – is a microcosm of our whole life. We can thus divert ourselves from the path of eternal life by misguided sexual activity. Since grace builds on nature, the purpose of our sexuality is of a piece with our supernatural purpose: to love another deeply, faithfully, and permanently in a way that opens up the two of us to the life of yet another.

This is worth reiterating, for this often gets lost in the whole discussion of sexual morality: we are, indeed, as human beings, and as sexual beings, created to love deeply, faithfully, and permanently in a way that opens us up to yet another person – “The greatest commandment is this: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. … And the second is like it: love your neighbor as yourself" (Mt. 22:36-37). Sexual love is supposed to mirror, and be a lesson in, this supernatural calling, in the finite context of human relations: unceasingly loving the Other, and allowing that love to flow into the life of another. Thus, it is the purposefulness and integrity of our sexuality that forms the basis of Christian sexual morality, not the fact that sexual rules are included in a book with all sorts of ancient laws of ritual purity that seem strange to us. Thus, the discussion needs to be about the purposefulness and integrity of human sexuality – and the human being as a whole – rather than simply about commands listed in the Bible. Otherwise, both sides miss the real significance of the debate.

May God grant us all a greater realization of our great supernatural purpose, and enable us to live out and embody this in every aspect of our lives, especially in our sexuality.

Br. Bradley Thomas Elliott, O.P.'s picture

The Good, the Bad, and... the Best

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Br. Brad's preaching from Vespers on April 28, 2012.

Br. Michael James Rivera, O.P.'s picture

To Be A Neighbor is to Practice Mercy

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There was a scholar of the law who stood up to test Jesus and said, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus said to him, “What is written in the law? How do you read it?” The man said in reply, “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said to him, “You have answered well; do this and you will live.” But because the man wished to justify himself, he said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied… (Luke 10:25-37)

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is a story we’ve heard many times before, and yet like all of Jesus’ parables, it is not just a story. In this case it is Jesus’ mysterious response to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” Now Jesus could have been very direct and said, “Brother, sister, friend and enemy…all of these are your neighbor,” but instead he leads the scholar to the realization that the one who acts as a neighbor is the one who shows mercy. In other words, Jesus helps the young man to see that the real question he should be asking is: “Am I treating others with mercy?”

Mercy, or the lack thereof, is one of the themes addressed in the documentary Bully, which I recently watched for one of my classes at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology. The film features five families whose children have been the victims of bullying, but the primary focus is a boy from Sioux City named Alex. At 13-years-old, Alex doesn’t like going to school. In addition to being taunted on the playground and called “fishface,” his bus ride to and from school is a nightmare. While one boy stabs him with a pencil, strangles him, and repeatedly slams his head into the back of a seat, another threatens, “I will end you.” 

Over the years there have been many responses to the question of bullying, why it happens, and how to stop it. Some have suggested that it’s just a phase, that “boys will be boys” and will eventually grow out of it. Others have taught that the only way to stop a bully is to stand up to him, or to ignore him entirely. Finally, there are those who believe that the only way to get a bully to stop being a bully is to teach him about compassion. Anyone who has been a victim of bullying or cyberbullying* would probably agree that this last option is the best one, for no one wants to wait for their bully to "grow out of it," and often standing up to a bully or ignoring him can make things even worse.

So how does one teach a bully about compassion? Surprisingly, the process begins with the victim showing mercy. Now this doesn't mean condoning the bully's behavior. A bully still needs to be shown that his/her actions are harmful; it would be unjust to do otherwise, and mercy never undermines justice. Mercy, as St. Thomas Aquinas points out, is a certain kind of fulfillment of justice (ST, I, 21, 4 ad 2). In this case then, showing mercy means not returning like for like, not responding to physical and verbal abuse with further violence. For Alex, the young man in the film, this is extremely difficult. At one point he notes that, he "wants to become the bully." Yet to do so would only result in a further perpetuation of the problem. The young boys who bully Alex might learn about suffering, but it's high unlikely that they would learn anything about compassion and empathy. 

Mercy, justice, and compassion...these are virtues one must practice in order to be a neighbor, and in order to love one's neighbor. Without them, the possibility of inheriting eternal life is a long way off.

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*Cyberbullying involves the use of e-mail, text messages, and various forms of social media to harass and humiliate other individuals, and may include the spreading of rumors by way of a blog or website, the posting of embarrassing photos, and/or the use of hate speech in online conversations or posts.

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Br. Peter Junipero Hannah, O.P.'s picture

"Vocation Boom" Interview

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I was interviewed recently by Jerry Usher, host of the radio program “VocationBoom!,” which airs on various Catholic radio stations throughout the country.  As a Dominican friar now in my fifth year of student formation, I have begun to lose track of the number of times I have “told my vocation story.”  Yet if someone asks, I never tire of it.  I have given longer talks of half-hour or more.  I have given shorter ten minute versions.  And then of course there is the person you meet at a party or reception of some sort who wants to know “how you became a Dominican,” and you need to come up with something to capture your vocation in about 2 or 3 minutes!

 

The truth is no amount of time is enough, since God’s ways are infinitely mysterious and intricately woven into the very details of our lives – each one of our lives is more than we can possibly begin to understand; but, on the other hand, any amount of time works since the only explanation for any vocation is grace, and that grace can become apparent even in the most humble and simple events in our lives.  I ran out of time on the show here to share more of my journey into the Catholic Church specifically, which was a simultaneous intellectual and spiritual journey while in graduate school.  Intellectually I came more and more to be persuaded by the depth, beauty, coherence, and truth of Catholic theology; spiritually I was drawn more and more deeply into the mystery of the Mass, and the way Jesus Christ is truly present in his sacred body, blood, soul, and divinity, in the Eucharist.  In any case, I was glad to give some time to Jerry Usher and his show, and hope what I did have time to share can in some small way give encouragement to all interested souls.

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Br. Christopher Wetzel, O.P.'s picture

Of One Heart and Mind

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Br. Christopher's preaching on Acts 4:32-35, for Vespers on April 15, 2012.

Br. Chris Brannan, O.P.'s picture

The One and the Many: A Royal Priesthood, a Chosen People

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The preaching of Br. Chris on 1 Peter 2:9-10, for Vespers on Saturday, April 14, 2012.

Br. Bradley Thomas Elliott, O.P.'s picture

Give Thanks and Rejoice

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Rejoice always.

Pray without ceasing.

In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for

you in Christ Jesus. (1 Corinthians)


As human beings we must desire our own happiness, we cannot NOT desire our own human flourishing. But there is a connection between achieving happiness and knowing the truth about ourselves. We cannot have one without the other. If we do not embrace the truth about ourselves, and act according to that truth, human flourishing will be impossible. Likewise, if we do not embrace the truth of the world around us, and act according to that truth, our happiness will be spurious at best. The simplest truths about reality that every human person must learn: Who made me?... God made me. Why did God make me? To know, love, and serve Him in this life and be eternally happy with Him in the next. These are the fundamental truths about our existence. Human happiness cannot be achieved without embracing these truths. We have been given the gift of existence, called out of the backdrop of nothingness, out of the sheer gratuity of God. Everything we have is first a gift. Everything. 

 

But do we live as if we know this truth? What would it look like if we were to live in and from this reality?

 

I believe that St. Paul has a clue. He tells us to rejoice always. To pray without ceasing. And in all circumstances give thanks. 

 

What could ever be a more reasonable response to the fundamental truth of our being than this... Giving Thanks for all things in all circumstances? This attitude of thanksgiving is the only reasonable response to the truth that all we have is a gift. This means that showing gratitude in all things is living in reality; it is the only right way to live. The contemporary spiritual writer Henri Nouwen remarked:

 

"In the past I always thought of gratitude as a spontaneous response to the awareness of gifts received, but now I realize that gratitude can also be lived as a discipline. The discipline of gratitude is the explicit effort to acknowledge that all I am and have is given to me as a gift of love, a gift to be celebrated with joy."

 

Gratitude consists in being more aware of all those things that we DO have, ingratitude is more aware of what we do not have. Gratitude is conscious of things as they are; ingratitude is conscious of things the way they are not. In this sense, gratitude is always an embracing of the truth of our reality, it is stepping out of the fog of our minds projection of the world the way we want it to be and a stepping into the light of the way things are.

 

G.K. Chesterton famously said, in his very Chestertonian way, "I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder."

 

I think Chesterton is on to something here. There is a deep connection between our fundamental desire for happiness, our mind's desire to see the truth and the attitude of thanksgiving for all things. 

 

As we approach the celebration of Easter, and as we work through the final week of the academic term, let us strive to cultivate a deeper awareness of the sheer gratuity and love of God as it is reflected in even the smallest things in our lives. Let us especially strive to recognize this gratuity and love as it is reflected in the people around us. In other words, let us enter into reality. For it is precisely in this recognition that a secret to happiness may be found.

Br. Emmanuel Taylor, O.P.'s picture

Return to the Lord your God

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"Return to the Lord" is the call in morning prayer for the next three days. On Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday the Scripture for the Morning Office comes from Lamentations. The poetic text lends itself well to liturgical use. The liturgy proclaims Lamentations with a hauntingly powerful call to repentance. The refrain is repeated: “Return to the Lord your God.” 

It is good to learn repentance through the liturgical proclamation of the Lamentations. When I first heard the Lamentations sung while in graduate school at the University of Washington at the Dominican Church in Seattle, Blessed Sacrament, I was moved to conversion. I mourned my sins and I wanted to cling to the Lord. This is conversion: return to the Lord. There is power in conversion. It moves us from mourning our own sins to clinging to Christ. St. Gregory of Nyssa says in the midst of our mourning Christ becomes our intercessor. We want to cling to Jesus.

We want to seek this conversion not only for ourself, but for our church. The church, St. Ambrose says, commenting on this Scripture, should not forget repentance. However, we must be confident that Christ offers compassion to the Church. St. Gregory the Great points out that leaders in the Church who have fallen also need compassion, but there is often little to be found. We need to mourn for the sins of the Church, but also trust Christ intercedes for Her, offering compassion and, ultimately, salvation. It is time to return to Jesus, our Lord and God.

The Sounds of Lent

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Lent musicIf you regularly attend our prayers at St. Albert's, then you probably have noticed some musical changes each time we enter a new liturgical season. Each season has its own "flavor", so to speak, and this is true especially of Lent. Below are recent recordings of some of our prayers whose music or text is unique to the season of Lent.

"O God, Come to my assistance...":

Media Vita:

O Rex & Nunc Dimittis:
I Peter Canticle:
In Pace:


Ave Regina Caelorum:


 

 

 

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Br. Chris Brannan, O.P.'s picture

A Little Lower than the Angels

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"What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him little less than a god, crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him rule over the works of your hands, put all things at his feet: All sheep and oxen, even the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea, and whatever swims the paths of the seas. O LORD, our Lord, how awesome is your name through all the earth!" – Psalm 8:5-10

There is perhaps nothing quite as perplexing, or important, in our contemporary age as the question, "Who am I?" This can be seen, if only implicitly, in the often existential, if not openly nihilistic, lyrics in popular music; in the various sub-cultures among teenagers searching for their identity; or behind heated political debates about freedom and rights in our own country. Yet not often, in public, is the question asked directly: What does it mean to be a human being? What is man? The psalmist asks this very question, noticing both man's humble stature and his glorious destiny. He is a little lower than the angels, yet crowned with glory and honor. Yet even in pointing out his humble stature, we can see an insight into human nature's dignity: the human being is, indeed, "a little lower than the angels" or "less than gods,"1 but this very comparison is itself telling: the Psalmist does not say, "He is a little greater than the beasts;" rather, the comparison is made with angels or gods. The comparison itself speaks of our rather high stature. St. Thomas Aquinas, in his commentary on this Psalm, notes how it is that angels and human beings are both similar and different:

"The image of God is found in the angels by the simple intuition of truth, without any inquiry; but in humans discursively: and therefore in man only in a certain small degree. This is why humans are called angels [in Malachi 2]... And, man is corruptible, but in a certain way; since, at a certain time, man will know all things without discursive thought in his homeland (heaven); and he will be incorruptible in the way of his body."2

So we are comparable to the angels in bearing in ourselves the image of God via our intellectual powers, although we differ in the limited, temporal way that reason works, and – of course – by our 'natural' corruptibility.

In a similar vein, in my metaphysics class I recently read an article by James Lehrberger commenting on Thomas Aquinas' account of human nature as seen in one of his earlier writings, De Ente et Essentia.3 Lehrberger argues that Thomas does not see the traditional Aristotelian definition of the human being – a "rational animal" as the final word or the most complete description of the human being. Instead, he argues that this physical definition (pertaining to the natural philosophy of Aristotle), stands alongside a more complete metaphysical account of the human being which holds that man is an incarnate spirit. That is, while the soul of man can be logically or physically categorized, on the one hand, with the souls of living things (and, more generally, with the forms of material bodies), it can also be (metaphysically) categorized with "separate intelligences" (i.e., angelic beings). In the first case, we see man as another being in the material world; in the second, he lives in the realm of spiritual beings. Yet we can see that neither account alone suffices; man does not belong only to the earth; nor, simply, to heaven. He dwells between heaven and earth, with a foot, so to speak, planted firmly in each realm.

We are, in fact, incarnate spirits, "links" or "bridges" between the merely physical realm and the purely spiritual realm. We live among rivers, rocks, trees, and cattle; yet we also live among – and have powers comparable to – angels. We are a little less than gods. If only we might recognize this unique role we fill, and try neither to be simply angels, or beasts, but rather incarnate spirits, embodied intelligences, displaying the image and glory of God in a bodily form, connecting heaven and earth. If we live as such, and recognize our place in the created order, we can look both at the earth as our natural mother, and heaven as our intended home.

And then we can see Christ, "crowned with glory and honor", having been given "all authority in heaven and earth" (Matt 28:18), as the one who has has brought about that most marvelous union between heaven and earth which is proper to man, but had been hindered by sin; the one who has done even more than this – for in heaven this glorified man is no longer "a little lower than the angels", but now is "far superior" to them (Heb 1:4). It is to this exalted state that our Lord has raised our nature; and it is to this exalted state that we are invited, if only we humbly accept our lot, and His mercy.


Notes:

1. The Hebrew could be translated as "less than gods"; the Greek Old Testament and the Latin have "a little less than the angels."

2. Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Psalm 8. Available online in Latin and English at http://dhspriory.org/thomas/PsalmsAquinas/ThoPs8.htm. 

3. James Lehrberger,  'The Anthropology of Aquinas's "De Ente et Essentia,"' The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 51, No. 4 (Jun., 1998), pp. 829-847 (available on JSTOR for those who have access to that resource); Thomas Aquinas, De Ente et Essentia ("On Being and Essence"), available online at http://dhspriory.org/thomas/DeEnte&Essentia.htm.

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