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Tag Archive: Sacrality

Divine Manifestation and Humility: Pentecostalism and Eucharistic Hope

Posted: Friday, June 25, 2010 (12:21 am), by John W Gillis


monstrance_sm I was wondering, a while back, what kind of difference it might have made in my life to have encountered a perpetual Eucharistic Adoration chapel when I was a young man seeking some sort of religious grounding for my spiritual life. I’m wondering about it again as I sit before the Blessed Sacrament on another Sunday late-night. Specifically, I’m thinking about that year or so I spent huddled in my apartment, trying to piece together the shards of my shattered life in the wake of the disaster that was my twenties, and seeking a path to actualize my nascent faith in God.

Sitting in the Adoration Chapel each week, I see young people coming in and going out, some acting out elaborate and affected pieties, others more reserved and seemingly more recollected. I was drawn, at a similar age, toward a pentecostalism that promised to substitute an engaging and spiritually charged enthusiasm for the indulgent sensuality and attendant emotional crises I had been embroiled in, and was seeking to escape. I knew that I needed more than a prayer life, that I needed Christian community, that I needed to belong to something that was more than an idea – or worse, a projection of my own interior life.

But I was put off by the worldliness that seemed to underpin the life I witnessed in what I suppose I would have called organized religion. I was a thoroughly beaten young man at that point, an poor as dirt, and all but ready to embrace apocalypticism as the last station call for optimism. Pentecostalism in particular seemed constructed to marginalize me from the very community of the marginalized I felt spiritually bound to. On the surface, with its focus on the breaking-in to the world of the Spirit in charismata, it seems to exemplify the “in the world, but not of the world” ethos of the gospel. But in reality, it seeks the manifestation of God’s blessing in very concrete and even material forms. That’s why “the gifts” tend not toward a deep, quiet, and subtle prudence, but a public form that approaches spectacle. And that is also why the health and wealth gospel is so at home in pentecostalism. If the manifestation of God’s blessing is not actually the end of pentecostal faith, it is at least taken as evidence of the reality of grace in the life of the believer.

As a fragile, immature believer with nothing to show for my relationship with God but a deep sense of sorrow and repentance, pentecostalism was both intriguing for its promise of an affirming manifestation, and foreboding for its unspoken but unmistakable contempt for spiritual poverty and unapologetic humility. What is taken as being “not of the world” in pentecostalism is actually very worldly, insofar as it is public manifestation of blessing itself which is taken as the revelation “in the world.” In the end, I felt out of place in my poverty – not because I lacked manifestations like the glossolalia (which I had, even some fifteen years earlier, learned not to overvalue), but because I so thoroughly lacked the worldly successes that are taken to be signs of the blessing.

The sacramental economy stands in stark contrast to all that. The revelation of God is made manifest in the world in the simplest and humblest manner: a small piece of bread, water, a touching hand, a few softly spoken words. True, the Blessed Sacrament in Adoration is often enthroned within an elaborate gold monstrance; the places of worship themselves, where the sacraments are celebrated and dispensed, are often grand in form and rich in substance. Yet these displays of the wealth of the world are not understood as the blessings God gives to his people, but the blessings God’s people bring to Him in reverence. This is wealth that is “wasted” on God, as Judas had it, while God, in His manifestation, remains the bread of sacrifice: His depiction by the faithful being that of a Man crucified.

The sacraments, far from being evidence of the presence of the Spirit in the life of the believer in blessing, are evidence of the presence of the Spirit in the life of the Church, which the believer approaches in utter poverty and humility. Christ Himself, then, is manifest in humility, and the believer approaches in humility (“Lord, I am not worthy to receive you…”) to be joined in a sacramental communion of humility (“whosoever would follow me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me”), in which the eschatological manifestation of God’s self-revelation in humanity (“by the mystery of this water and wine, may we come to share in the divinity of Christ, who humbled himself to share in our humanity”) is pregnant as a Spiritual first fruits of Eternal life (“the guarantee of our inheritance”).

What has become abundantly clear to me is that the extraordinary charismata of pentecostalism and related religious movements have emerged as some kind of substitute for the sacraments: one more compatible with the modernist spirit of the age. I find it no coincidence that the historical context for this reemergence of the charismatic gifts aligns with the powerful rise of Modernism as a broad philosophy of culture, as well as the emergence of phenomenology as an epistemological method. Epistemologically, Modernism is basically phenomological: able to perceive knowledge only in that which is experienced, which in reality reduces ‘truth’ to, at best, factualism, or, at worst, subjectivism. One could make the argument that objectivism and subjectivism are instead polar opposites which I am here conflating, but they share a common ground in the observing self, and in a difficulty (if not inability) to overcome a consequent self-centered rationalism in order to perceive the transcendent. Pentecostalism, of course, seeks the transcendent, but it seeks it in the experience of the self; in phenomena.

Likewise, it can hardly be a coincidence that the charismatic movement in Catholicism emerged in the decade of the modernizations following Vatican II, when a deep sacramental understanding seemed to evade much of Catholic culture: pizza was known to be offered as Eucharistic sacrifice in one of the more bizarre incongruities to emerge from the era; greater symbolism came to be sought in baptismal rites through the reintroduction of baptismal baths (such emphasis on symbolism exposing a growing vacuum of meaning born of a declining sacramental sensibility); lines were blurred between lay and priestly roles; confession fell into disuse; and marriage fell prey to contraception, divorce, and other – even worse – sacrileges.

Through the 19th and 20th centuries, Modernism sowed the seeds of a wasting dissolution in the liberal denominations that had held to a semblance of sacramental theology after the Reformation, made possible because their sacramentalism was in reality only formal or religious, not essential. From Luther’s denunciations of indulgences in the 16th century, to John Smyth (re)baptizing himself near the beginning of the 17th century, to Napoleon crowning himself Emperor in front of Pope Pius VII two hundred years later, the history of the West from the Protestant Reformation to the rise of Modernism is one of accommodating a religiously Christian society to a repudiation of the authority of the Church – a repudiation not only of authority as power or religious superiority, but of authority as an ontological reality, a sacramental gift: of the knowledge of the Church as the authentic and authoritative continuing presence of Christ in the world.

The repudiation of an authoritative Church by both by Protestant Christianity and early-Modern or Liberal skepticism did less to correct ecclesiastical abuses than it did to provide religious cover for skepticism, which carried on its own program of pseudo-orthodoxy in the guise of “science,” moving steadily toward Modernism’s atheistic naturalism, even removing God from the cosmos (never mind the curriculum), by first removing the presence of God among men in the form of the miraculous, including the sacraments, but more importantly in the form of authority in the Church – more important because religious anti-papists could happily hitch their wagons to the same “progressive” worldview, unaware of and unprepared for anti-clericalism’s final destination in godless totalitarianism. And now, majorities in these denominations cozy up to abortionists, and cluck their tongues at the sight of “conservatives” who are so unenlightened as to fail to embrace the new homosex norms…

Reacting against Modernism, however, were Fundamentalism proper and the main thrust of contemporary conservative Evangelicalism. They rejected the wholesale naturalistic skepticism of the miraculous, to say nothing of atheism, but they retained a skepticism of the miraculous nature of the Church, and formed (often after initial denominational schisms) an astoundingly fragmentary collection of staunchly anti-sacramental faith communities. Furthermore, despite fundamentalist hostility toward Modernism, it is widely perceived that fundamentalism and naturalism share a common set of (modern) assumptions about the relation of facts to reality, as is evidenced in fundamentalism’s insistence on facticity in its understanding of Biblical inerrancy. What  seems less often observed is that pentecostalism, which emerged at about the same time as a sister movement, sharing similar concerns but eschewing the fundamentalism’s focus on dogmatic Biblicism for a more personal (and miraculous) religion of encounter with God, taps into the same mindset of believing exactly what is seen: experienced-based belief.

But experience is peripheral to sacramental faith, and experiential religion turns out to be a poor substitute for the sacramental life. The point of contact between sacramental manifestation and the believing community is faith in the power of God’s promise that He is indeed present, even despite appearances, if necessary. The point of contact, in other words, is not experience, not “what is seen,” but hope. Being rooted in hope, sacramental worship seeks no signs, but looks behind symbols to the realities they re-present, being open to the transformative movement of grace through the sacraments in ways that are often subtle – even humble. Not phenomena, but a still, small voice.

Despite my mildly Catholic upbringing in the 1960s, I think I would have been shocked, in the 1980s, to encounter God present under the form of bread, even sitting on an altar in a gold monstrance. I think I would have realized that, despite the trappings, God was, in all His glory, even more impoverished than me. I think that may have led me to see how profoundly true it is that for God, all things are possible, and that the meanness of my condition was not an alienating factor that kept me from full communion, but a vector for God to embrace me through the agency of His continued manifestation among men. I think I may have discovered the restorative and integrating power of genuine Christian community. I truly praise God for the Eucharistic faith of these young people; I hope they appreciate someday what a gift they have.

Body/Soul Dualism, the Commodification of Man, and the Contradiction of Death

Posted: Friday, July 31, 2009 (11:16 pm), by John W Gillis


As a rule, I like Jeff Jacoby’s columns, but every now and then he comes out with something I find downright unconscionable. His July 5th Boston Globe op-ed promoting the marketing of human organs is an unfortunate example. The recent liver transplant of celebrity tech guru Steve Jobs having roiled again the waters of the debate over the “fairness” of our current organ donation system, Jacoby has added his voice to the rising tide of liberal, utilitarian opinion promising free market “solutions” to the “problem” of death.

I’ve read a number of these proposals over the years, and they all seem to involve the same three basic errors. As can be surmised from the title of this piece, I see these errors as involving misunderstandings of the nature of man as a being both physical and spiritual, in ontological unity; the fundamental and unique character of human subjectivity in differentiation from other material objects (or ‘what are people for?’ – to steal a phrase from Wendell Berry); and the inability of mankind to cheat death (or “what is not given to man” – to steal a phrase from Leo Tolstoy).

The premise of these proposals is that there are currently many people dying from organ failure who could be spared death if more organs were available for transplant, and that the economy of transplant organs would produce at least part of the requisite supply if it were freed from legal constraint, to function more or less unimpeded in the liberal model of supply and demand, therein saving lives. The thinking is that everything else is for sale, after all, including all the other products and services involved in actually transplanting an organ – the organ donor is the only non-compensated person in the entire chain, and that not only introduces market inefficiencies, but may even be unjust.

The most fundamental moral or ethical dilemma that arises from these proposals stems from the fuzzy — and yet now widely appealed-to — notion of human dignity, which itself has its origins in the recognition of the sacredness of human life. Meanwhile, sacrality is a concept that is all but alien to modernity (my spell-checker didn’t even recognize it as an English word when I typed it!). Jacoby, like most any writer promoting blasphemy, marginalizes the matter of sacrality, conflating the transmission of human organs with the broad vista of “medical care” ( a concept which does not share with organ transmission the very characteristic at issue), and substituting utilitarian arguments about “needless” deaths.

Ethical concerns also arise around the prospect of the rich and powerful exploiting the poor under such a system. Jacoby, ironically, writes these off as resulting from misguided altruism (but see, for example, this column from University of Minnesota Bioethicist Jeffrey P. Kahn, discussing a JAMA article on organ sales in India, where it is legal). Though I am convinced that Jacoby is actually the one suffering here from a misguided altruism (and am not in the least surprised by the realities come to light in India, as per the linked article), I am not particularly interested in this angle of the argument, as it is clearly a secondary issue: the unjust character of any specific policy implementation is wholly subordinate to (and inevitably predicated upon) the immoral nature of the proposal in and of itself (in other words, it is secondary because there is simply no right way to do a wrong thing, so there’s not a lot of point in harping on method, or even consequences).

Both of these areas of ethical concern refer directly to the second area of error I am pointing out: the commodification of man; the failure to adequately distinguish between the human being himself, and those things which are produced by man. When the term “human dignity” is used properly, it refers precisely to the ontological distinction between the human person (a subject) and an objective reality that lacks subjectivity, or personhood, or a spiritual soul. The dignity that humans distinctly possess within the material world derives from our unique spiritual character, which is the capacity to love rationally – or to choose love. The violation of humanity consists in asserting that that subject can be objectified, and treated as a thing.

The idea of the wrongness of treating people as things is widely acknowledged, even among people who don’t put a lot of thought into moral issues. That does not mean that it can’t be (and isn’t often) trumped by utilitarian arguments, but at least the notion is readily available to most people. So when folks like Jacoby argue that the human being (or human parts) should be a commodity, because everything else is for sale, the argument runs against the grain of an intuitive sense that it is wrong to treat people as things. Or, to be more precise, even if we allow that everything should be for sale (a dubious proposition in and of itself), people are not things.

This is the moral or ethical problem with the human parts market proposal, but it is not the root of the problem, because the moral error is itself grounded upon an inadequate understanding of human nature, or what it means to be a human being. It is furthermore, in this case, driven by a culturally pervasive but irrational view of death, but that is a point to be taken up later. It can be clearly demonstrated by example how the “commodification of man” proposal fails the moral test by noticing how the “everything else is for sale” argument not only meets intuitive resistance to treating people as things, it also runs smack into the fact that, no, not everything is for sale – or at least it shouldn’t be.

peopleforsale1 For examples, we have only to look at slavery and prostitution to see that society does not accept as morally licit the notion that anything can be bought and sold: people cannot morally be bought and sold. Sure, there are those who will argue that prostitution should be legal, just as there have been many who never flinched at legal slavery, and we have our chorus today calling for the buying and selling of human body parts, but civilization has come to see that people cannot morally be themselves reduced to commodities, and this insight is the genius behind the modern ideas of human dignity and human rights, being long anticipated in the ancient idea of tsedaqah (righteousness), or what we owe one another as fellow beings created in the image of God.

If someone who despises slavery promotes the marketing of body parts (whether for medical purposes or sexual purposes), he most likely has fallen into one of the two popular errors concerning the nature of man: naturalism, or (much more commonly) dualism. In a follow-up post, I will explore how slavery, prostitution, and organ sales share a common mode of unrighteousness in the degradation of the self, properly understood. This is no trivial matter, as it is the unrighteousness itself, not this it that particular expression of it, that is a growing menace to a human civilization that has largely succeeded in forgetting that righteousness comes from God, and is rooted in right relationship with Him. We must not allow our “misguided altruism ” to feed the beast of unrighteousness.

There’s Bozos and There’s Bozos

Posted: Friday, July 4, 2008 (3:07 pm), by John W Gillis


George Carlin

I have to begin this entry by confessing that, when I heard last week of George Carlin’s earthly demise, I reacted to the news with a feeling of subdued satisfaction and relief, one that was very similar to the feeling of watching the trash collectors drive away from the house after a weekend of cleaning. There was a mild sense of losing something familiar, but more a sense of being done with that which finally had to go.

Now, I realize that was not at all a charitable reaction, nor do I offer any justification for it. I didn’t know George Carlin, and I mostly paid very little attention to him while he was living. But there was a time when I thought he was funny, and there was also a time – an earlier time – when I thought he was more than that.

At one time, Carlin represented to me a kind of secret knowledge –  even a kind of blessed existence – that operated on the other side of a divide that I was being restrained from crossing by the sorry circumstances of my life (that is to say, by my youth). He was a kind of symbol of what was possible, if only I could be freed from the shackles that kept me bound to the boredom of my genteel, supervised, life. For genteel, he surely was not.

I remember in particular being fascinated by the existence of his famous routine on the seven words you could never say on television. I’m not sure I ever heard the routine – perhaps I did, but I can’t remember. What I remember is wanting to hear it.

When it was released in 1972, I was in 6th or 7th grade, and undoubtedly using all of Carlin’s favorite words in common speech with my peers (my own life actually being genteel in theory only), so there was no unknown pleasure waiting to be experienced in the knowledge of the routine’s content, I only wanted to experience the hearing of it. Knowing which words they were was not enough, I wanted to hear them said. Not by my friends, either – that might have had a certain charm, but it was not the real deal.

What I wanted to experience, I know now, was sheer mockery of civility. I wanted to experience the contempt for goodness that this piece trafficked in and pivoted on – in much the same spirit, I realize now, that other boys liked to watch frogs cruelly and contemptuously destroyed by firecrackers. I wanted to cheer on the defilement of purity.

I could be profane all by myself – I didn’t need Carlin. What made the vicarious insolence of indulging in a sophomoric rant like his seem more like “the real deal” than even my own private insolence was precisely the participation factor. In it, I could be a part of something much larger than myself, something of a social movement. It’s actually a perversion of liturgy – a way for me to belong; to be an insider in something that provided a kind of meaning to life.

And this is very ironic, because the mockery and insolence came off as a kind of liberation – a liberation from socially imposed expectations, which would purchase the freedom of independence. But I see now that it can only free one from the expectations of civility. Once across the chasm and into the promised land of irreverence, social expectations don’t disappear, they simply change, and mockery becomes the only acceptable currency, the only real proof of virility. It turns out to be not freedom from expectations at all, but merely an exchange of one master for another: exchanging the good, the true, and the beautiful for the cruel, the cynical, and the profane.

When something sacred is violated, we experience a kind of revulsion that is all too easily distorted into a titillating thrill. The perverse pleasure we take out of the debasement of the good is a masquerade that hides our inability to accept the cross of suffering with God for the sake of overcoming sin. First we feel sick to the stomach, and we get fearful and angry, but if we do not have the character to persevere and overcome, we will end up laughing. Such is the state of so much of what passes for contemporary comedy.

I’d intended to let Carlin’s passing pass without remark – in part because I felt no urge to expose the callousness of my own sense of good riddance – until I was confronted with my very contrasting response to the news of the death yesterday of Larry Harmon, a man I’d never even heard of, but who was largely responsible for the phenomenon called Bozo the Clown.

Frank Avruch as Boston\'s version of Bozo the Clown

I don’t recall much in particular about Bozo. I can picture the face, though it’s almost conflated a bit with Ronald McDonald in my memory. What’s important for my purposes is that the comedic entertainment that Bozo represented was of such a different character than Carlin’s. When I read of Harmon’s demise, I thought “there goes someone whose life work brought delight and wonder into the lives of so many children.” What a contrast to Carlin, whose life work peddled contempt and cynicism to the hearts of so many of those anxious to avoid being contaminated by the sweetness of childhood. Carlin is truly the one of these two contemporaries who deserves the title Bozo.

The NY Times obituary for Carlin says that he himself defended his particularly obnoxious recent “material” by claiming that “his comedy had always been driven by an intolerance for the shortcomings of humanity and society.” Of that, I have no doubt. But if society is going to avoid disintegrating into a fratricidal jungle, we need turn back from this “new way” of unmitigated contempt advanced by bozos like Carlin. Communities, like families, survive, in no small part, on the willingness of their members to overlook each other’s shortcomings. What we should be intolerant of is not human foibles, but the willful and deliberate corruption of the human spirit.

The challenge, for me, is that my community is not only full of people like Larry Harmon, who find a way to put their talents to work in ways that contribute in somehow to the common good, but also of bozos who try their best to tear down the good: to degrade, to demean, to belittle, to mock, to despoil. It’s a challenge to me because such people are a temptation to me to stoop to their level. I realize that Carlin can win the battle for my spirit by either getting me to laugh at his depravity, or by getting me to treat him as he treated others. I fear that the incivility and vulgarity that has come to so permeate my society over my lifetime has become barely recognizable in its ubiquity.

And I fear I remain a long way from being freed from the servility of the caustic inhumanity that makes up the faux-liberated modernism promoted by Carlin, if news of his death can only provide me a sense of satisfaction and an opportunity to call him a bozo. Lord, have mercy on all of us.