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Tag Archive: Charity

Only If Liberty Is Beautiful… Can It Really Be Worth the Courageous Risk of Life

Posted: Monday, December 6, 2010 (8:29 pm), by John W Gillis


Quote of the Day for Monday, December 6th, 2010:

With the Thanksgiving holiday still lingering in the air, I found this excellent article on the continuing value of America’s Puritan forebears over at the always worthwhile First Principles Journal site. Written by Peter Augustine Lawler, it is entitled: Praising the Puritans:

Because the Puritan conception of political freedom wasn’t based on the apolitical, selfish, rights-obsessed, and duty negligent Lockean individual, it both not only demanded virtuous civic participation but also connected political freedom with the creature’s charitable duty to the unfortunate. It set a high or virtuous standard for political competence and incorruptibility, and it didn’t seem to need to rely on institutions with teeth in them to restrain the spirit of faction and boundless ambition of leaders.

Whatever Puritan government was, it was not another name for a band of robbers, just as Puritan freedom could never be confused with another name for nothing less to lose. The Virginians’ view of freedom was finally merely useful or materialistic; it is the liberty of beings with interests and nothing more. The Puritans distinguished themselves by their “beautiful definition of freedom,” “a civil, a moral, a federal liberty,” “a liberty for that only which is just and good.” That’s the liberty for which it makes sense “to stand with the hazard of your very lives.” Only if liberty is beautiful or for the display of the most admirable and virtuous human characteristics can it really be worth the courageous risk of life.

The citizens of New England took care of the poor, maintained the highways, kept careful records and registries, secured law and order, and, most of all, provided public education for everyone—through high school when possible. The justification of universal education was that everyone should be able to read the Bible to know the truth about God and his duties to Him for himself. Nobody should be deceived by having to rely on the word of others; they had the democratic or Cartesian distrust of authority without the paralyzing and disorienting rejection of all authority. That egalitarian religious understanding, of course, was the source of the American popular enlightenment that had so many practical benefits.

readersmIn contrasting the worldviews of two early colonial communities within what would become the United States (Virginia and the New England Puritans), Lawler sketches out a sound defense of the much maligned New Englanders, showing how their characteristic reading of man’s place in the world laid the groundwork for much of what came to be the best of the American genius, and how it could provide an important corrective today to some of the more narcissistic and utilitarian tendencies that threaten to undermine the American community.

HT to Joe Carter over at FirstThings for the link.

Celebrity Gossip and Moral Reasoning (part 1)

Posted: Friday, April 4, 2008 (12:05 am), by John W Gillis


If you can’t be a good example, then you’ll just have to serve as a horrible warning.”

The preceding quote from Catherine Aird is always good for raising a laugh, and there’s a certain ring of truth to it. Having read the Bible, I’m well aware of the kind of role horrible warnings can play in human history. But any real estate agent will tell you that location is everything. Translation: context matters – a lot.

Ty Burr wrote an Ideas piece published in the Boston Sunday Globe this past weekend that I found quite disturbing. The basic premise of the piece was that Mr. Burr thinks his two young daughters are learning important life lessons – moral lessons – from watching the travails of celebrity starlets. At the root of this mistaken belief is the evidence that his children watch, with thorough (and probably dramatic) disapproval, the predictable flame-outs of their popular heroines, and are therefore able to stitch together a kind of cause-and-effect moralism that links either certain behaviors, and/or perhaps celebrity itself, with eventual failure – moral and practical.

There are at least three fundamental flaws in this line of reasoning. The first stems from a lack of understanding of the quite central role of “flame-out” in the ongoing spectacle of merchandised gossip, commonly referred to as “news,” that I like to call “Celebrity Psychopath of the Week.”

My term is intended to be understood very broadly, as a sarcastic mockery of the marketing that propels the product (and it is nothing if not a product). It doesn’t require an existing “celebrity,” it can create them, and the almost ritualized debasement of these unfortunate souls takes place through an ordeal that can take considerably less or considerably more than a week. The point is that they are held up before the public eye to be the object of gossip, the object of projected psychological needs for both attention and punishment, and, ultimately, the object of ridicule and contempt. They are, in a nutshell, scapegoats.

Not all celebrities fall into the scapegoat trap, and as I mentioned above, you don’t need to be a celebrity to become a scapegoat (becoming one will grant the celebrity, however fleeting), but it does seem to be a fundamental characteristic of the notion of celebrity in liberal society, and existing celebrities make excellent scapegoats – especially ones that are most successful in attaining the power of “stardom.” Our culture loves to see the successful fail – and fail miserably (especially those whose success is rooted in sensuality, as opposed to, say, hard work).

The truth is, we build them up to tear them down. This thought is by no means original to me, nor can it be seriously challenged. We couldn’t tolerate the failure of all our celebrities – our social fabric would collapse – but let’s be very clear: we require a steady diet of falling out, of failure, of those people, who make us feel insignificant, losing their marbles and getting their comeuppance. Celebrity Psychopath of the Week. I don’t know if OJ Simpson or Michael Jackson had the longest running tenure starring in this ongoing ordeal du jour, but there is always somebody starring. Always.

Why is this not a good moral classroom for Ty Burr’s daughters (or for mine)? If it’s behavior that adult society engages in routinely, shouldn’t it be considered appropriate for girls (OK, that line is a setup for a forthcoming post!)? Even at the level of common sense, the answer to the question should be obvious. I’m dumbfounded to realize that anyone might think that engaging in celebrity gossip can build up the moral fiber of a young woman – or anyone else.

However, I’m willing, for the sake of argument, to provide a brief argument as to why celebrity gossip cannot provide a genuine moral education. In fact, I can state it extremely briefly: gossip is sinful, and sin is immoral, not a means to moral growth. Some may find that explanation overly brief (and too similar to the argument from common sense – let’s call it the argument from common decency), so I will (briefly) extrapolate.

The voyeuristic obsession with celebrity in and of itself is grounds for serious moral criticism, but to focus specifically on the judgmentalism that Mr. Burr seems to think represents a moral victory over the implicit threat that these fallen starlets might by poor example lead his children over the precipice of moral doom, I have to point out that the soap opera of Celebrity Psychopath of the Week is psychologically rewarding because it allows the (paying) audience to satisfy both envy’s lust for vengeance, and pride’s appetite for contempt. It lacks any semblance of charity, and it uses the troubles of other wretched human beings for self-satisfaction.

For as much as it might satisfy certain human desires, and provide what is undoubtedly some kind of a framework for developing moral norms, it must be said that scapegoating is morally repugnant, and spiritually devastating. Cynicism is not morality.

I will follow up on this post, to address the other two major flaws I see in Mr. Burr’s evaluation: the problem of subjective objectivity, and the problem of defining morality without reference to virtue.

Good Friday Intercessions

Posted: Friday, March 21, 2008 (7:48 pm), by John W Gillis


While listening to the general intercessions today during the Good Friday liturgy, I couldn’t help but think about all the hubbub that was raised recently when Pope Benedict made the Latin-rite Mass more widely available.

I had some good, mentally stable, friends tell me that it was the beginning of the end of the Second Vatican Council reforms; that the priests would soon turn their backs – literally and figuratively – on the people (which I guess I’m supposed to think is self-evidently worse than priests turning their backs on the tabernacle, though I’m not sure why I’m not supposed to be just as offended by the backs of all the parishioners in front of me that are turned toward me – better stick to the front pew if I’m feeling sensitive…); that the Church was about to become a fortress of spiritual repression, where domineering, Latin-speaking clergy would rule ruthlessly over a servile laity… well, you can guess the rest.

I was approached by a particularly irate parishioner in Dunkin’ Donuts one morning, who explained to me (complete with a lesson on the finer points of Latin) how he was certain that the disgraceful reintroduction of the term “perfidious Jews” into the Good Friday liturgy would set Catholic/Jewish relations back decades (turns out he didn’t even know which liturgy is being used in the Latin, but accurate facts are such an encumbrance during an outrage anyway!).

I find it terribly difficult to understand the lack of trust so many Catholics have in the Church – which is what this smacks of, to me. I’m not unaware of the feet of clay that encumber us all, but how can anyone who feasts at the table of the altar not be amazed at the nature of the Divine gift that is the Church? If we believe that the Church is the Body of Christ, then a meaningful faith in that same Christ would seem to me to demand a certain level of confidence in His desire – and ability – to lead the Bride into “all truth” (c.f. Jn 16.13).

?

Then there is the curious situation of Jewish leaders who say that “something must be done” about the prayer for the Jews that actually is said as part of the current Tridentine Good Friday liturgy, because in it, the Church prays for the conversion of the Jews. OK, so . . . what am I missing here?

If the Christian Church believes that Jesus Christ is the Son of God – the very Incarnation of God – and that fellowship with Christ (communion) is the means to complete reconciliation with God – and eternal life in pure, wondrous bliss – then why exactly is it offensive to express to God a genuine, loving desire that someone else come to share in that? In the English of the Novus Ordo, we pray that the Jews may come “to the fullness of redemption,” and this appears not to offend anyone. Being at least modestly familiar with Catholic theology, this suggests to me that it’s OK to wink, but not to nod.

I understand that most Jews do not accept Jesus as the Christ. I’m not offended by that. And if anyone thinks I’m in error, and wants to pray sincerely to God that I come to a full understanding of the truth, I won’t be offended – I will be grateful, in fact, even if I think that by coming to understand the truth more fully, I will be even firmer in my conviction of the Lordship (and Godhood) of Jesus Christ.

One thing I will not do is tell people of other faiths how they should or should not pray.

?

This may be a very politically incorrect thing for me to say ( imagine that), but I think the position of those Jewish leaders (I have no idea if it is many, or just a few that manage to get press) who have agitated to have the Catholic Church’s liturgy changed is nothing short of religious intolerance on their part. Judaism may not be evangelistic, but Christianity is – by its very nature.

Any meaningful understanding of religious tolerance would have to allow for Christians, as well as anyone else, to practice their religion faithfully, as they understand it. To be sure, it would not require leaving room for malfeasance, religiously motivated or not, but it certainly must allow for charity and goodwill. Modernity’s unwritten rule against proselytizing is nothing but a weak man’s religious intolerance – nobody is allowed to challenge the status quo with religious conviction. What a sham.

The prayers for the conversion of Jews to the knowledge of Christ are offered in charity, and good manners would seem to demand that they be acknowledged as such, in goodwill. If the Jews think we’re bonkers (or idolaters), they can at least take note that we wish for them – nay, pray for them – the most important and wonderful good we can conceive. If they want to roll their eyes at us, and say “silly goyim,” well, I’d get a good chuckle out of that, and God probably would, too. But I never find anything amusing in someone taking offense where none is offered.