Monday, November 3, 2008

Moralism and the Sense of God

My family recently happened to attend a school Mass at one of our local parishes. The pastor, a pretty good preacher, and a good priest, addressed kids aged kindergarten through high school. I can't recall what the readings were (not a good sign), but he preached on responsibility, how we can't just leave things for others to do, but have to take charge ourselves. The theme was decent in itself, and well preached, but it exemplified a danger for preachers, and indeed for all Christians: Christianity is not a moralism.

It is easy, in trying to make the faith "accessible" (as when preaching to kids), to speak in terms of putting the faith into practice -- and to reduce practice to moralism. (It is striking how "putting it into practice" has come to exclude praying, studying the faith, or frequenting the sacraments.) But as St. Thomas says, in practical things, the end is first: that is, if you do not know why you are doing something, do not know the goal you are trying to attain, you will never take the first step. When preaching excludes the reality of God in our lives, as if Christianity were primarily about "being a good person," goodness becomes pointless, and ultimately emasculated. Who cares about treating kindergartners nicely, or cleaning up the school yard, unless you know why these things matter?

I bring this up not to scourge preachers, or dear Fr. Mike, who really is a good priest, but to try to explain, again, the purpose of this blog. In my mind at least, this blog is about the intersection of faith and life. But I know I focus more on politics, economics, and urbanism, than on any religious themes. Has my blog fallen into the same kind of moralism?

To try to exculpate myself from that accusation, I need to introduce a distinction--and it is really the central distinction on which this blog rests. We might lable the distinction as the difference between a "practical" morality and a "contemplative" morality. (I am trying to side with the latter.)

An excessively practical morality is interested in "being a good person," in a purely earthly sense. Subjectively, there is something of keeping a clean conscience, and keeping clear of bad entanglements. In relation to the world, it is a matter of results: caring for the weak, making other people happy, etc. Let me stress: these are good things, and I do not mean to disparage them, any more than I want to disparage telling the big kids to watch out for the kindergartners and clean up messes.

But a truly Christian morality is above all contemplative. Which is to say, first, that it is directed to God: the purpose of being good is not goodness in itself, but the contemplative embrace, unitive prayer. Mother Teresa expressed this one way when she said she saw the poor as "Christ in his most distressing disguise." Dragging the poorest of the poor out of the streets of Calcutta was not about social work or "making the world a better place." It was about embracing Christ. And thus her hours of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament was not a means of attaining energy for her apostolate, but was the goal of her apostolate: she did what she did in order to embrace her God, and to be embraced by him. Such a worldview can only be maintained by a robust life of prayer: not just for divine assistance, but to train the heart to penetrate to the one thing necessary.

A corollary to this contemplative goal of morality is that it changes the norms of morality. Our care for the created world can be an embrace of the Creator only when we embrace it precisely as creation. Which is to say, truly Christian morality -- contemplative morality -- is not a matter of following rules, or seeking results, but of receiving the created world as a gift. And that means truly receiving the world as what it is, the way the Creator made it.

The purpose of this blog -- the purpose of my writings about urbanism, economics, political philosophy, and occasionally culture -- is to nourish this kind of contemplative, receptive view of man in the world. In this view, the question for morality is not "how ought things to be," or "how would we like the world to be," but "how did God make us? What has God given us?" To see God in politics is to embrace the world as he made it. The question is not what city would be prettiest, or most fun, but what nature did God give us, what is the nature of cities, what is the nature of human relations, and economies, and polities. We should see the world as something real: not just a blob to be shaped according to our visions, but a reality to be embraced; a norm for us, not just something on which we impose our moral norms.

Though it is receptive, this is not a passive view of politics. Abortion, for example, is not wrong just because we don't like it, or because it imposes on another persons rights, or because it threatens the rights of the rest of us (though all those things are true).

Rather, the Christian opposes abortion because it is contrary to nature. It is contrary to the nature of the mother, who is most herself in nourishing her child, and the nature of doctors, who are most themselves, who fulfill their nature, in healing, not killing. And it is contrary to the nature of neighbors to idly watch self-destruction: I can only be myself, be the social being I was created to be, by withholding the implement with which the troubled woman threatens to maim herself. And it is contrary to the nature of society to be heedless of its very foundation, the love of parents for children and the love that binds families together. I cannot be a citizen and not care for the right ordering of society. It's not just that I should or shouldn't. It's that I already am, by nature, a citizen. My task is to live like one, to embrace the task I have been given by what I am.

And that I am a citizen is not a choice, not a preference, not even a prudential decision, but a fact of my creation. I fight against abortion -- and against all the other things that threaten the nature of man -- not just because it's mean, or ugly, not only because God tells me to, but because so doing fulfills my nature. It is a matter of receiving the world God gave me, embracing him -- learning to embrace him, practicing to embrace him, receiving his embrace -- by treating Nature, the world and human nature as he choose it to be, as a gift from him, a place of encounter with Nature's God, the Creator.

This, I suppose, was the heart of Fr. Mike's preaching about taking care of kindergartners. It is the heart of my pontificating about how a life built around the automobile is not an authentically human life. But two things need to be said, again and again. First, the purpose of embracing our nature is to embrace the God who made it so. And second, because of this, morality is not about obligations or being kind, but about contemplating how the world is, and living accordingly. The purpose of this blog is to present a view of politics based on receiving the world as it is -- receiving the nature of economics, culture, cities, and polities -- not just fashioning them according to our better lights.