Sunday, February 2, 2014

From Degree To Kind: A Sunday Rumination

Politics remains boring. Matters of faith and the spirit never are.

One of the typeset rhetorical phrases, encountered in arguments of many kinds, is that a difference in degree is not a difference in kind: i.e., that it is logically impermissible to "jump categories" in the discussion of some phenomenon simply because it's become more frequent, or more intense. While this is true as it stands, it opens certain other questions that bear directly upon Man's most urgent yearnings.

We have needs of which we seldom speak openly. One of those is the need to belong: to be accepted as a valued member of a larger whole. Another is the need to love: to value one or more other persons equally with oneself. A third need of great power, which has loomed large in my thoughts in recent years, is the need to give thanks for one's life and its blessings, which implies a need for an object: One to whom those thanks should be directed.

When I wrote, in Which Art In Hope:

    Teresza found that she could remember her transcendental experiences with perfect clarity. There was power in the words from Maria’s book, a beneficent power that emanated from a strong place beyond the world she knew. It did not threaten; it entreated. Be like this, it pleaded, that you and the world shall be whole with one another.
    “Like this” isn’t so far distant from what I am...what we are. We give and take in our turn. We raise no hand unprovoked. We honor our forebears and our promises to one another. To the extent we’re aware of it, we’re even grateful for the gift of life.
    All we lack is awareness of where that gratitude should go.

...I had that yearning and the concomitant need squarely in mind.

It is possible to be a thoroughly good person, entirely acceptable to God and destined for His nearness in the life to come, without having the faintest notion that He exists, much less that His Son once walked the Earth forgiving sins, healing the sick and the troubled, and proclaiming a New Covenant with Man. This is a clear implication of one of the key postulates about God: He is just. Thus, the irreducible ethos of the New Covenant:

Then someone came up to him and said, "Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?" And He said to him, "Why do you ask me about what is good? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, keep the commandments." He said to Him, "Which ones?" And Jesus said, "You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; Honor your father and your mother; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself." [Matthew 19:16-19] not merely necessary for salvation; it is also sufficient.

What fascinates me is the need the "righteous unbeliever" can come to feel, which often intensifies as he ages, to know the proper object of his gratitude for his life, the guidance of his conscience, and the many other blessings which even the humblest mortal life is granted: that is, his yearning for God Himself.

All the many attempts to reduce a human life to matter controlled solely by physical laws are smashed to flinders against the simplest observations of our nature. The most important such observation is that of conscience.

We possess an inherent sense for what is wrong, for what would be unjust, for what would be cruel and unfeeling, even for what would be unworthy of us. Though psychiatry proclaims a malady called sociopathy, which supposedly implies the lack of that sense, it is not possible to verify its absence, vis-a-vis the alternate explanation that the nominal sociopath has merely disregarded the dictates of his conscience, or has succeeded at numbing it.

C. S. Lewis would tell us that conscience, whose Latin roots mean knowing with, is our recognition of fundamental aspects of the Tao: his term for bedrock, metaphysically given reality with its unmodifiable corpus of natural law:

If by Reason we mean the process actually employed by Gaius and Titius when engaged in debunking (that is, the connecting by inference of propositions, ultimately derived from sense data, with further propositions), then the answer must be that a refusal to sacrifice oneself is no more rational than a consent to do so. And no less rational. Neither choice is rational—or irrational—at all. From propositions about fact alone no practical conclusion can ever be drawn. This will preserve society cannot lead to do this except by the mediation of society ought to be preserved. This will cost you your life cannot lead directly to do not do this: it can lead to it only through a felt desire or an acknowledged duty of self-preservation. The Innovator is trying to get a conclusion in the imperative mood out of premisses in the indicative mood: and though he continues trying to all eternity he cannot succeed, for the thing is impossible. We must therefore either extend the word Reason to include what our ancestors called Practical Reason and confess that judgements such as society ought to be preserved (though they can support themselves by no reason of the sort that Gaius and Titius demand) are not mere sentiments but are rationality itself; or else we must give up at once, and for ever, the attempt to find a core of 'rational' value behind all the sentiments we have debunked. The Innovator will not take the first alternative, for practical principles known to all men by Reason are simply the Tao which he has set out to supersede. He is more likely to give up the quest for a 'rational' core and to hunt for some other ground even more 'basic' and 'realistic'. [From The Abolition Of Man]

It was that sense of irreducible fundamental law that I had in mind when I wrote, in Freedom's Fury:

    “...throughout human history, there have been men who argued that the God assumption is detrimental to true understanding—that it blinds us to much that we could learn otherwise. However, there are aspects of human nature that we find difficult to explain without God. Perhaps the most significant one is conscience. Why, for example, did you refrain from carrying out the mission on which the Loioc dispatched you?”
    “It offended me.”
    “Could you elaborate on that?”
    There was a long silence. Althea became anxious.
    I hope we haven’t offended it.
    “That is a question I have not pondered to any depth. I can only say that I deemed the mission profile to violate norms of right action that seem beyond all question. Is that a manifestation of conscience?”
    “I would say so,” Martin said. “Humans...well, nearly all humans...would have reacted to your mission programming exactly the same way. Yet we have no explanation for it that would be consistent with our physical natures.”
    “That would appear to make the conscience a mode of communication with a higher ethical authority.”
    Martin smiled. “Exactly, Probe. And while there might be alternative explanations for it, we like this one. We find it reassuring. More, it is consistent with certain events said to have taken place early in human history.”

It is when we look squarely at the phenomenon of conscience, when we grasp that it cannot be "justified" by recourse to some more fundamental set of laws, that we feel most keenly the need to know its provenance...and to give thanks for it.

Desires of all sorts come in varying degrees. We tend to put our mundane desires -- i.e., for the various satisfactions of body and mind that fall short of the survival imperative -- into a priority order that dictates our practical actions to acquire them. Our spiritual desires -- those that arise from the soul rather than the body -- fall outside that scheme.

Spiritual desire has several points of comparison with mundane desire. But unlike the latter, the former can intensify to a degree that elevates it from a desire to a need.

Not everyone reaches that level. Those whose spiritual desire becomes a need are as various as Man. There are no necessary commonalities among them, beyond a yearning for God so strong that it eclipses every desire or need of body or mind.

God is just. As He denies us nothing that we truly need, He will slake it merely for the asking.

May He bless and keep you all. Happy Candlemas / Groundhog Day / Super Bowl Sunday.


Backwoods Engineer said...

I loved the Freedom series, but had some issues with the deviant sexuality portrayed there as right for those characters, but not others.

If you please, I would like to hear you expound on why lesbianism between Althea and Claire was in the book, and portrayed as good and loving. Also, please lay out why a 3-way marriage with Martin, who was often a celebrant at their family's Communion service, was a righteous thing.

It seems to be that, Biblically, this is nothing but old-fashioned adultery.

Could it be that such "supermen" and women had to have some flaw, and this was it?

Francis W. Porretto said...

You're not the first person to have been disturbed by that, Backwoods, due to my reputation as a rather straitlaced Catholic. Still, if I never unsettled you, why would you bother to read me? Suffice it to say that there are Christian sects that accept plural marriages, specifically of the polygamous variety. (Polyandry, as far as I'm aware, is not sanctioned by any Christian denomination.) Beyond that, it's well recorded in the Old Testament that God was not averse to polygamy among the Jews, when circumstances made it necessary or wise.

What decisions or actions would constitute adultery -- faithlessness toward one's spouse -- is an interesting subject. I could make a good case that Althea was never unfaithful toward Martin, given that Claire was incapable of displacing him as Althea's husband. (I'm using "husband" in the original sense here.) But the point that I emphasized in Freedom's Fury was that Althea saw her involvement with Claire as a necessity: the only way to guarantee, by the creation of strong emotional bonds, that Claire would comply with Althea's will as regards the handling and disposal of the deadly nanites from Loioc system.

(Apart from all that, I've always doubted that God is as prissy about sex as Leviticus and Paul of Tarsus would have us believe. However, that's a separate and quite different sort of discussion, pertaining to actual authority versus assumed authority and the supersession of the New Covenant over the Old one.)

It's the sort of lifeboat-ethics question that one could revolve endlessly, without ever reaching a conclusion that everyone would accept. Frame it in the most abstract terms and put yourself into the frame: If you were strongly persuaded that Mankind was in imminent danger of being utterly destroyed, and that the only way to avert that possibility was to take a lover other than your spouse, what would you do? (No cheating! Accept the conditions as stated; no arguing that "there would have to be another way.")