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A God Shaped Hole?

In Uncategorized on May 14, 2015 at 3:35 pm

WhyI admit that I wince every time I hear this phrase, but there is something here to think about it.

Everybody asks big questions at some time or another. Questions like “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” “Why is there suffering and death?” “Why bother?” Asking big questions is so common that it is often be considered a quality that is essential or structural to humanity.

Human beings ask a lot of questions and we are strongly compelled to answer them.   We cannot live without seeking answers. Seeking answers to questions asked of the material world is at the core of our sciences.   But we also ask questions beyond the material using human reason. Asking questions and compulsion to seek answers and meaning is foundational to being human.

Giussani says that if we have a hundred questions and answer ninety-nine of them, the one we can’t answer drives us crazy.  And the thing about the so called “big questions,” they are not answerable.  Hamlet quite correctly says, “There are more things, Horatio, than are dreamt of in our philosophies.” As we seek answers to our questions, we come to the conclusion that we can’t answer all of our questions. This is a tough situation for us. On the one hand, we have an insatiable desire to understand and on the other hand we are limited to what we can know. The tension created by the disparity between our ideals and our actualities suggests the existence of a source of ultimate fulfillment.

C. S. Lewis says in Mere Christianity

Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.

This from Blaise Pascal in Pensées VII

What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.

According to Lewis and Pascal, the big questions, which seem to be foundational to human consciousness, affirm the existence of an Ultimate. We cannot answer the big questions, yet we crave and even expect an answer. This expectation suggests that there must be an Other from which we crave the affirmation of our existence that an answer would give. Giussani says that our inability to answer these questions leaves us sad, but to deny the possibility of an answer is to disconnect man from himself because the desire for answers is structural–foundational to being human. To deny the possibility of an answer is to declare everything meaningless–this leads to the opposite of sadness–despair. As Macbeth says, it would be as if life is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

There must be an answer; and a human being cannot live without seeking that answer. Giussani says that a human being can’t live five minutes without affirming “the existence of a ‘something’ which deep down makes living those five minutes worthwhile” (57).

The disparity between our questions and our inability to answer them leaves us sad. Denying the possibility of an answer leads us to despair.

 

Humans are Amphibians

In Uncategorized on May 1, 2015 at 5:27 am

FrogHumans beings are, as C. S. Lewis says, amphibians, “half spirit and half animal. As spirits [we] belong to the eternal world, but as animals [we] inhabit time.”

Lewis suggests that human beings experience two realities–one linked to the physical world and the other to the spiritual. Luigi Giussani (The Religious Sense 40-44) distinguishes these two realities as well, describing the first as measurable and the second is immeasurable.

The material world has the qualities of height and depth and weight and temperature–these are all measurable. To measure is to compare the whole to one of its parts. A can of Coke can be broken down into millilitres, a human body into pounds and inches. Giussani points out that by their very nature material things are can be broken down into parts. This divisibility is closely related to mutability. All material things are subject to change. If a student puts the apple on my desk on the last day of school, I will find the gift greatly altered by the following September. This holds true even if the gift was a diamond, although the time would be considerably longer for the alterations to be noticed.

As human beings, we are aware of the measurable and the mutable–it is part of our identity. We are material, or animal as Lewis says.

But we are aware of something else that is just as essentially part of us as the material elements–an immutable element. Giussani identifies idea, judgment and decision as aspects of the human individual that are unchanging, indivisible and unmeasurable. He offers an example of each:

Idea: We have an idea in our head of something we call “goodness.” When I was a child, I thought my mother good. Even after all these years, I use the same criteria to determine that my mother is still good–this idea is unchanging.

Judgement: My declaration, “This is a piece of paper” will still be true in a billion years.

Decision: The act of deciding that I like a specific person establishes forever the definition of the relationship.

These things do not change on their own, like the diamond or the apple necessarily do. The ideas, judgments and decisions endure. The decision may be wrong, I may discover the person I liked had betrayed me and now I no longer like them, but this is a new decision. Both are indivisible and unchangeable in itself.

The point of all of this is to recognize that both the measurable and the immeasurable aspects are part of the experience of our “I”.  And we should not reduce our experience to one or the other of these two realities.

The important conclusion one can draw from all this is that the animal (body) and the spiritual (soul) are not reducible to each other.


 

Mom Crashes Son’s Sex Ed Class

In False Dichotomies - the lines between on April 21, 2015 at 9:11 pm

On my way home from a haircut after work last Friday, I heard a brief interview with a woman who had gone to her son’s grade 9 sex ed class. This was in a public school in Michigan. She got angry enough about the perspective being presented that she hollered obscenities at those leading the class. I agreed with some of her objections, but she does not seem to be aware that her position begins with the same premises as that of the people who made her so angry.

Apparently, the guest speakers were teaching the students that 1/6 of the time you have sex with a condom, you will end up pregnant. Although there is an 18% chance of getting pregnant using a condom incorrectly, this is reduced to 2% if using it correctly. Dreger’s argument is that the presenters were giving students half-truths, and we ought to be honest with children about sex so that they trust us an openly come to us with sexual issues.

I don’t have any argument with this, of course we ought to be honest with children about sex.

One of the speakers told his story. He had a challenging past involving an alcoholic father and getting a girl pregnant. He ended up dating and then marrying a different woman who had practiced abstinence. According to Dreger, the man concluded his talk telling the boys that they should look to marry a girl who says no. Dreger’s was very angry about presenting these conclusions to young people because it shames those girls who say yes–girls that she describes as those who “enjoy sex.”

I agree that when we talk about sex with young people we must be careful. The message of abstinence must be delivered without shaming those who might be sexually active. It is important to let children know that abstinence is a state to which one can return. I do object to the implication that people who say no to sex, do so because they don’t, or wouldn’t enjoy it–those practicing abstinence have a pretty good idea that sex is pleasurable.

It’s the whole shaming thing that made Dreger lose it. Here too, I agree with Dreger. But she seems to link between advocating abstinence and being ashamed of sex. Of course sometimes abstinence and shame go together, but one doesn’t follow the other.

As a side note, both the interviewer and Dreger seemed to be under the impression, perhaps they are right, that the main (or only) purpose of sex education is to prevent unwanted pregnancy. This strikes me as a very narrow purpose.

Ironically, Dreger’s view and that of the presenters which so angered her (at least the way she characterized them), both have similar roots going all the way back to the ancient Greeks. Both believe there is a profound separation of spirit from the body. One view has a negative idea of the spirit and the other has a negative view of the body.

For some, the separation results in the belief that the transcendent is essential non-existent, thus sex is a solely physical event. It seems as if Dreger fits into this category, and the presenters in her son’s sex ed class (as she characterizes them) fit into the other–where the separation results in the belief that the body is inferior to the spiritual and therefore a corruption of the spirit. Dreger quite correctly objects to the denial of the inherent goodness of sex which comes with this view, but to view sex as simply physical is also, in my opinion, a degradation of sex.

There is a third view avoids this degradation, and celebrates both sex and abstinence, by understanding the integrity of body and spirit. It’s the view of sex found in the Bible, and there it’s described using the term “one flesh.” One flesh is built the understanding that body and soul are one, and it refers to a new entity created by two individuals in the marriage relationship.  Sex is only one piece of the “one flesh” paradigm. It’s much more than a physical–the marriage partners become one in every other way as well. Take relationships for example.   Once married, all relationships change–with mother and father, with friends, and particularly with every member of the opposite sex. There are changes in the good I eat, the movies I watch and how I spend my time. My money, becomes our money. My big TV becomes our big TV. The physical act of sex is representative of this new entity created by marriage.

You can see why many Christians believe in abstinence before marriage, not because sex is something bad, but that it is a part of a much bigger picture. In the Christian mind, you can’t separate the sex from all the rest without degrading the sex. Just as it would be foolish to share all your banking information with someone with whom you have no commitment, it would also be crazy to share a bed with them.

This idea seems strange to our culture. How can my body–the site of the self–not be mine and mine alone? It’s an alien idea because we are so committed to the autonomy of the individual, that we are repulsed by the idea of belonging to another in such a significant way.

If we are nothing more than animals, we might as well enjoy the pleasures of sex when it feels right–it’s only natural. But if are something more than animal, and that everything we do with our body is linked to every other aspect of our being–including a spiritual reality–then we might look at sex a little differently. This is a Biblical view and those who follow it’s truth believe that sex is a wonderful thing that is best enjoyed when it is shared along with one’s whole life. Placing sex in this context elevates it from the level of a shameful act, but it also lifts it way beyond the level of a pleasant, animal act. If you are going to be pro-sex, it seems to me the Biblical approach is the best.

I agree we with Dreger that we should be honest with children about sex. But honesty about sex, looks different from different perspectives. For me this means we tell children how good it is and also that it’s a part of giving one’s whole life to another.