Friday, October 21, 2016

Improvements Or Defilements? An Impromptu Rumination

     Every now and then, I experience a sudden realization that I’ve been inconsistent about my own premises. Such a moment can deliver a Missouri-mule-sized kick in the ego. It’s a reminder that it’s the man who prides himself on his humility is “doing it wrong.”

     Consider the doctrine of the Catholic Church to the effect that it can authoritatively promulgate moral prescriptions and proscriptions – new “Thou shalts” and “Thou shalt nots” – on the basis of Natural Law. This is a dubious assertion of power for several reasons, but the one that’s on my mind at the moment is this: Our knowledge of Natural Law is tentative and incomplete.

     The problem goes all the way to the bedrock. We “know” that the universe is a lawful place. Do we really? What if the “laws” we think we’ve discovered are changing, but so slowly that it would take tens of thousands of years for the changes to show up on our measuring instruments? Worse yet, what if they’re position-dependent – local to our solar system? How would we know, not yet being able to travel beyond it and replicate the processes by which we inferred the “laws” we “know?”

     I don’t mean to denigrate the Church in an absolute sense. I love the Church and regard the great majority of its teachings as beautiful and beneficial. But I’ve always criticized its arrogation of authority never granted.

     Some years ago, for example, a Christian writer delivered himself of the pronouncement that organ transplantation is morally wrong. His train of logic started from a thesis that few would question: that cannibalism is morally wrong, because the human body, being God’s creation, is sacred in and of itself. The argument rang false to me. If carried to its logical conclusion, it would forbid any and all surgical interventions into a human body.

     For reasons better imagined than described, that argument came to mind a bit earlier today. It switched my train of thought onto a wholly unexpected length of track.

     Could there be such a thing as a deliberate, voluntary, surgical intervention – one in which all the participants (especially the person being operated on) are engaged of their own free will and with entirely benevolent of motives – which can be shown to violate any of the Ten Commandments?

     It’s a problem with contemporary heft. Consider the recent journey of Bruce Jenner to becoming Caitlyn Jenner, a process that might have a stage or two to go. Many Christian commentators have condemned this transition. I disparaged it myself. Today I’m no longer nearly as certain of my grounds...if, indeed, I had grounds other than my personal dismay at an incomprehensible decision by a great athlete whom I’ve long admired.

     Among the Church’s most important teachings is not to be too sure of oneself. Christ’s parable of the Pharisee and the publican is aimed directly at this:

     And [Jesus] spake this parable unto certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others:
     Two men went up into the temple to pray; the one a Pharisee, and the other a publican.
     The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.
     I fast twice in the week, I give tithes of all that I possess.
     And the publican, standing afar off, would not lift up so much as his eyes unto heaven, but smote upon his breast, saying, God be merciful to me a sinner. I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other: for every one that exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.

     [Luke 18:9-14]

     [For those unacquainted with Biblical terminology, publican is an old term for a tax collector, then (as now) among the most despised of men.]

     God has reserved judgment of our souls unto Himself. No individual has authority in the matter – and if no individual has such authority, how can any body of men, however learned, claim it?

     Christ gave us Two Great Commandments and Ten Commandments that depend upon them. Beyond those quite explicit directives, all matters are to some degree uncertain, which is why I allowed two of my more popular characters to have the following exchange:

     “Have you known many Catholics?”
     She shook her head. “There aren’t many in Kentucky, and movie people tend not to talk about religion. Hollywood isn’t friendly toward it. Especially not Christianity. I’ve taken pains to keep my own beliefs and churchgoing on the q.t.”
     “I can imagine,” Ray said. “And here we are in Tim’s kitchen, the most famous actress in the world calmly conversing with one of the shamans of ‘the cult of Mary.’ It doesn’t seem to disturb you any.”
     She smiled and sat back. “Father, I could tell you stories about my people that would turn your hair white. I know there are bad people in every sect on Earth, but Baptists...well, let’s just say that the ones I’ve known are way too ready to point out the motes in others’ eyes. I’d say the verse they’re least fond of is ‘Judge not, that ye be not judged.’”
     A Gospel citation from the world’s number one actress!
     Automatically, Ray followed: “For by the standard you judge you will be judged, and the measure you use will be the measure you receive. Why do you see the speck in your brother’s eye, but fail to see the beam of wood in your own? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye,’ while there is a beam in your own?”
     Jana grinned. “Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye.”
     “You’re a King James aficionado, I see,” Ray said.
     “While you prefer the New Revised Standard Version,” Jana replied. “I own copies of both, but the poetry of the Gospels always seemed to me to come out better in the King James version. Especially Luke. More rhythm.”
     “And less blues,” Ray added, and they laughed together.
     “But still,” Jana said more soberly, “you’ve missed your most regular communicant, and now you’ve come to his home to discover that he’s been passing his nights with a Hollywood harlot.” She smirked. “A Baptist harlot, at that.”
     “That ‘judge not’ verse remains applicable, Jana,” Ray said. “I’m not going to stray from it, except to ask: are you promised to anyone? Because I know Tim isn’t.”
     Jana’s smile was wistful. “No, Father, I’m not. Neither explicitly nor implicitly.”
     “Then all is well, dear.”

     [Readers have been asking for more about Jana, Tim, and Father Raymond Altomare. I shan’t commit myself at the moment, but I’ll allow that I’m considering it.]

     It’s not enough to prattle on, as I’ve often done, about the importance of humility. It’s even more important to nurture and practice it.

     May God bless and keep you all.

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