Archive for the ‘Popular culture’ Category

Facebook Friendships and the Good Life

For Lent this year, I gave up Facebook. My reasoning was multifold. In part, I was starting to worry how much time I was spending “piddling” on the computer during the long Boston winter. I wanted to spend more meaningful time on the computer, and replace the time I was wasting on Facebook with reading books (which has been largely successful until I started reading War and Peace; now I am craving FB again). But I also watched “The Social Network” right before Lent started and found Mark Zuckerberg’s character pretty reprehensible. It was the final scene that struck me most, where Zuckerberg is in the lawyer’s office, and the pretty young lawyer has just left, and he sends a friend request to Erica, his ex-girlfriend, and keeps refreshing the page, waiting for a response.

Zuckerberg’s character went from reprehensible to sympathetic. I could not but help feel pity for a guy whose only possibility for “friendship” was through Facebook. A couple of years ago, the New York Observer interviewed some Facebook holdouts who were critical of such alleged “friendships” that Facebook offered:

Cary Goldstein, 33, the director of publicity at Twelve books, is another proud Facebook holdout. “I don’t see how having hundreds or thousands of ‘friends’ is leading to any kind of substantive friendships,” he said. “The whole thing seems so weird to me. Now you really have to turn off your computer and just go out to live real life and make real connections with people that way. I don’t think it’s healthy.”

Yet the number of people not on Facebook is steadily declining. So as Lent comes to an end and I prepare to reenter Facebook, I’ve started thinking more about the nature of Facebook friendships from an EverydayThomist perspective. I’ve addressed this question before using Cicero, but I think the question demands further examination in light of the rising importance of Facebook in people’s lives.

It is not too much of a stretch to say that friendship is at the heart of Aristotle’s ethics: “For without friends no one would choose to live, though he had all other goods,” he writes at the beginning of Book VIII of the Nichomachean Ethics. Following Aristotle, Aquinas also places friendship at a central place in the moral life by identifying charity, the mother of the virtues, as friendship with God.

What is friendship? For Aquinas, it is a particular type of love. Following Aristotle (Rhetoric ii, 4), Aquinas writes,

To love is to wish good to someone.’ Hence the movement of love has a twofold tendency: towards the good which a man wishes to someone (to himself or to another) and towards that to which he wishes some good. Accordingly, man has love of concupiscence towards the good that he wishes to another, and love of friendship towards him to whom he wishes good (I-II, Q. 26, art. 4).

Most generally, a relationship of friendship is one characterized by mutual well-wishing and benevolence. Friends are those who wish good for one another. But friendship goes beyond benevolence. For both Aristotle and Aquinas, friendship demands that one see the friend as another self, and demands a certain “affective union” between oneself and the friend (II-II, Q. 27, art. 2).

Because of the intimacy that is prerequisite to friendship, friendship demands contact with the person who is our friend. It seems that for Aristotle, one needs actual physical contact to sustain the friendship: “Those, however, who approve of each other but do not live together seem to be well-disposed rather than actual friends. For there is nothing so characteristic of friends as living together.” In Book XI, Aristotle provides further support for the idea that friendship demands a certain physical society:

Surely it is strange, too, to make the supremely happy man a solitary; for no one would choose the whole world on condition of being alone, since man is a political creature and one whose nature is to live with others. Therefore even the happy man lives with others; for he has the things that are by nature good. And plainly it is better to spend his days with friends and good men than with strangers or any chance persons. Therefore the happy man needs friends.

Friends, for Aristotle, must share a life together. Friendship, he says at the end of Book IX, delights in the sight of the beloved. Friendship is an intimate partnership.

“And as a man is to himself, so is he to his friend; now in his own case the consciousness of his being is desirable, and so therefore is the consciousness of his friend’s being, and the activity of this consciousness is produced when they live together, so that it is natural that they aim at this. And whatever existence means for each class of men, whatever it is for whose sake they value life, in that they wish to occupy themselves with their friends; and so some drink together, others dice together, others join in athletic exercises and hunting, or in the study of philosophy, each class spending their days together in whatever they love most in life; for since they wish to live with their friends, they do and share in those things which give them the sense of living together.”

As Paul Wadell writes, “The test of any friendship is our willingness to let our life be shaped by it, not only to spend time with our friend and be present to her, but also to succumb to the friendship, to make ourself vulnerable to it because in some way our life is created from it” (Friends of God, 34).

The question, it seems, is whether Facebook satisfies the demands for a “shared life together.” For Aristotle, the society of friendship is clearly physical, but he, of course, did not know the possibility of a virtual society. Can we agree with Aristotle that friendship demands contact, but also conclude that the virtual “contact” provided by Facebook satisfies this demand? After all, it may be true that we do not stay friends with people that we lose contact with, but Facebook makes it possible to never lose contact and hence, to never lose the friendship.

It is hard to see, however, how the intimacy that friendship demands is satisfied by Facebook. One possible reason is that we are corporeal creatures, and hence, our friendships demand a great degree of corporeality. To be a human self is to be embodied. It is impossible to see the friend as another self without somehow sharing in bodily life together: eating together, touching each other, hearing each other’s voices, looking into each other’s eyes. Facebook friendships can only palely imitate this corporeal intimacy with pictures, wall conversations, and likes and dislikes, but at the end of the day, the Facebook friend can never be “another self” because the friend is always disembodied.

We are social creatures, and the intimacy that we human creatures demand is a very physical intimacy. And this is what makes the end of “The Social Network” so tragic: Zuckerberg’s isolation is a physical one, one which he tries to fill virtually but can never find satisfaction. You get the sense that what he wants at the end of the movie is not money, nor power, nor fame, but somebody to eat dinner with, to converse with, to touch his arm consolingly, to bear with him. The man with thousands of friends is actually friendless.

From an Aristotelian perspective, friendship is clearly the basis of a good life. Maybe the end of “The Social Network,” however, reveals more about the corporeal nature of the good life than it does about the friendship made possible by Facebook. If Facebook keeps us from a shared life with our friends, it can be antithetical to the good life, as we see with Zuckerberg. But Facebook need not replace true friendship. Like so many things in life, Facebook may only become bad when used excessively.

So, as Lent comes to a close, I am looking forward to getting back on Facebook. I think I’ll probably use it less, but I bet I’ll always use it some. I have, however, enjoyed this time of abstinence and the opportunity it provided to reflect more thoroughly on the nature of friendship and the good life.


What Kind of Theology is Elizabeth Johnson’s Quest for a Living God?

If you study theology, you have probably already know that a committee of the US Bishops Committee on Doctrine recently raised a series of red flags about Sister Elizabeth Johnson’s most recent book Quest for the Living God: Mapping frontiers in the Theology of God. The committee suggested that the book should not be in used in Catholic schools and universities because it conflicts with church doctrine:

The Committee has concluded that this book contains misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors that bear upon the faith of the Catholic Church as found in Sacred Scripture, and as it is authentically taught by the Church’s universal magisterium. Because this book by a prominent Catholic theologian is written not for specialists in theology but for ‘a broad audience’, the Committee on Doctrine felt obliged, as part of its pastoral ministry, to not these misrepresentations, ambiguities, and errors.

The bishops’ first critique is a methodological one. The bishops write that theology must begin from faith and proceed within the heart of the Church:

Theologians must therefore, first lay hold of the content of God’s revelation, the auditus fidei, as proclaimed in Scripture and taught within the Church, through an act of personal faith. Only then are they properly equipped to inquire into the content of that faith, the intellectus fidei, seeking a greater understanding and clearer expression of it.

In the footnotes, the Committee cites Thomas Aquinas: in saying that “just as other sciences accept as a given the first principles of their particular science, Christian theology ‘does not argue in proof of its principles, which are the articles of faith'” (ST I, q. 1, a. 8).

The Committee then accuses Sr. Johnson of beginning not with faith but with a critique of the orthodox doctrine of God, particularly regarding God’s immutability, incorporeality, impassibility, omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence.

I don’t want to comment on Sr. Johnson’s book or the Committee’s critique in any specificity. The ladies at WIT, bloggers at dotCommonweal, and the moral theologians at have done a much better job than I could in evaluating the merits of the criticisms. I, however, want to challenge the singular definition of theology the Committee provides us as “seeking a greater understanding and clearer expression” of the first principles of faith. Understanding and clarifying is one understanding of theology, which Peter Aureoli, student and commenter on Aquinas, calls “declarative theology.” In declarative theology, one starts

with some proposition about which it has been determined what has too be believed and held by faith, and then reasons for believing it are brought forth, and then doubts concerning it are dissolved, and terms expressing it [are] been explained. . .(Commentary on book I of the Sentences, Proem, section 1, q.1)

It is declarative theology according to Aureoli which can properly be considered a theological habit. But it is not the only way to do theology. He provides other ways:

The fist takes place when you draw your conclusions from one proposition that is believed and another that is necessary. A second is based on two believed premises. A third is based on one believed premise and another probable one. A fourth type of conclusion is based on two probable premises. A fifth way, depending on two necessary premises, is equivalent to the first procedure [where you arrive at a known metaphysical conclusion such as is God one? or is God infinite?], where you end up with a known conclusion, not just one that has to be believed.

In other words, theology can lead to metaphysical conclusions when it addresses demonstrative knowledge of truths that are based on necessary propositions that are naturally known, as we see in Book VI of Aristotle’s Metaphysics. This does not fit the Committee’s definition of theology as clarifying and understanding the principles of faith, but metaphysics is nevertheless a way to study theology.

Theology can also include simple conclusions of faith, “where you employ one premise held by faith and another necessary premise” such as when you conclude that Christ has two wills based on the fat that every intellectual nature has a will and Christ has two natures. The conclusions of this deductive theology are conclusions of faith, not “the habit of theology” according to Aureoli. Nevertheless, deduction from faith is a part of the study of theology, and indeed, a major part of Aquinas’ own theology.

Significant for Johnson’s book, theology can also lead to conclusions of opinion “if you ask what has to be believed in regard to some doubtful proposition in the are of faith”:

In these cases you do not acquire any habit that is different from opinion. And these make up the opinions of the doctors of theology in many of their questions.

Theological opinion is gained when we reflect on things like what Jesus was like as a kid, how the gifts of the Spirit contribute to sanctification, and what the nature of purgatory is like. Theological opinion is important, and indeed, can be very good, very persuasive, and very true. But the habit that such theological reflection leads to is nevertheless still opinion.

This seems to be what Sr. Johnson is doing in Quest. She is beginning with principles that are only probable, namely, with the experience of the living God. She is not beginning with the first principles of theology, the articles of the faith, because she is not doing deductive or declarative theology. Her contribution is still a theological contribution, just not in the narrow way the Committee has defined theology.

Now, to the Committee’s credit, they are trying to watch out for the faith of “little ones” who might think that the conclusions in Sr. Johnson’s book are doctrinal, but that same goal could have been achieved by distinguishing the different ways in which people do theology. Aquinas clearly is awesome, but he did mainly declarative and deductive theology (as well as some metaphysics thrown in for good measure). Augustine, one the other hand, did a lot of theological opining. How much worse off would the Church be if we didn’t have Augustine’s Confessions? Or Abelard’s Letter to Heloise? Or Von Balthasar’s theological aesthetic? Johnson’s Quest, I would say, should be considered an analogous work as these great theological opinions. As such, it is good to point out that people need not accept her conclusions, but that does not mean they need not read what she has to say.

Is There a Christian Response to the Organ Shortage?

Maybe because I teach the topic, but I have been noticing a significant increase in the media’s coverage of organ allocation in recent weeks. In January, two sisters who had been in prison for sixteen years in Mississippi were released on the condition that the younger sister donate her organ to her older sister. The ethical response to this case focused on the financial motives for releasing the sisters:

After considering the matter for several months, Governor Barbour announced in late December that he would not pardon the sisters, but would indefinitely suspend their sentences.

He said he had acted in part out of concern over Jamie Scott’s health, but also to relieve the state of the cost of her dialysis treatment, which is approximately $200,000 a year.

“The Mississippi Department of Corrections believes the sisters no longer pose a threat to society,” Mr. Barbour said in a Dec. 29 statement. “Their incarceration is no longer necessary for public safety or rehabilitation, and Jamie Scott’s medical condition creates a substantial cost to the State of Mississippi.”

Dr. Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said Mr. Barbour’s decision to free the women on the basis of the kidney donation had crossed a moral line.

“Either out of ignorance or out of indifference, he shifted what had been a gift into compensation,” Dr. Caplan said. “He turned it into a business contract.”

While it definitely raised ethical eyebrows, the judge’s decision in this case reflects a much larger ethical debate concerning what should be done about the shortage of available organs.

Currently in this country, about 100,000 people are waiting for organs. About three-quarter of these will die before they receive an organ. There are numerous proposals for what to do about the shortage of available organs, some of them rather creepy like the New York “Organ Wagon” that will try and harvest organs from cardiac arrest patients within twenty minutes of death. More serious and far-reaching proposals tend to focus on two solutions: (a) moving to a “presumed consent” policy and (b) encouraging donation through financial incentives.

A “presumed consent” policy already has a lot of worldwide support. Currently, in the US, organ donation depends on explicit informed consent. In other words, organs can only be harvested from your cadaver if you explicitly say so, usually by indicating so on your driver’s license. Supporters of a presumed consent policy argue that the number of available organs could be increased dramatically by requiring explicit “opting-out” of donation, presuming that all those who have not said otherwise have tacitly consented. This is already the policy in many European countries. Opponents argue that such a policy violates the foundational bioethical principle of informed consent, and furthermore, could exacerbate fears about doctors prematurely “harvesting” organs.

Another solution to the organ shortage looks to financial incentives. This is the argument of Sally Satel (herself an organ recipient) who argues specifically that relying on altruism for organ donation has failed. Satel’s argument is not so much that human beings are primarily self-interested rather than other-interested, but rather that an altruistic motive for organ donation alone is not sufficient. She recommends incentives like health insurance, tax credits, education vouchers, funeral expenses, and retirement funding as added motivations for people to donate.

The obvious response to a financial incentive solution is that it will place undue burdens on the poor while possibly disproportionately favoring the wealthy. In other words, it is the poor who would be most motivated by financial incentives to give up their organs without the same likelihood as the rich in actually receiving an organ. Satel’s incentives are primarily federally-allocated, as they are in Israel, thus avoiding the less savory option of having the organ recipient pay the donor directly (which is currently illegal in the US and elsewhere). Critics still argue that such a federal-based solution might not resolve the current organ trafficking problem, and may actually make it worse.

Most recently in the US, the debate has shifted away from increasing the supply of organs towards re-allocating the distribution of organs. The new policy of the United Network for Organ Sharing attempts to replace the current first-come, first-serve model with a more complex rationing protocol that would distribute organs first to those most likely to benefit: the young and the healthy.

“Right now, if you’re 77 years old and you’re offered an 18-year-old’s kidney, you get it,” said Dr. Richard N. Formica, a transplant physician at Yale University and a member of the panel that wrote the proposed policy. “The problem is that you’ll die with that kidney still functioning, while a 30-year-old could have gotten that kidney and lived with it to see his kids graduate from college.”

Under the proposal, patients and kidneys would each be graded, and the healthiest and youngest 20 percent of patients and kidneys would be segregated into a separate pool so that the best kidneys would be given to patients with the longest life expectancies. The remaining 80 percent of patients would be put into a pool from which the network that arranges for organ matches, called the United Network for Organ Sharing, would try to ensure that the age difference between kidney donors and recipients was no more than 15 years.

While this policy shift has been commended for its sensibility, Satel and others are critical of the assumption that we should have to ration organs in the first place. “Rationing should not be taking place at all,” Satel told NPR earlier this week.

Is there an “everydaythomist” response to the organ shortage? Aquinas obviously never dealt with this issue, but there are a few guidelines we might apply from his general worldview. The first is that the debate over how to increase the number of available organs is often susceptible to the utilitarian critique that the “ends justify the means.” In other words, whatever we need to do (within limit) to increase the number of available organs is justified if we can save more lives. From a Thomistic worldview, the ends do not justify the means. The means themselves must be good as well. More specifically, the means chosen to increase the organ supply must also attend to those who are most potentially vulnerable, in this case, the poor who are more likely to give their organs and less likely to receive organs when in need. Thomas is famous for arguing that theft in the case of necessity is not actually theft (II-II Q. 66, art. 7) because “whatever certain people have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor.” While this “preferential option for the poor” (not Thomas’ language but not necessarily inconsistent with Aquinas’ idea of justice) need not preclude a financial incentive solution, it does provide us with a reminder to be wary of how the poor will fare in the long and short term should such incentives be implemented.

Second, the debate about organs frequently presumes on both sides that our bodies are our own. Our bodies, however, are not our own property, but rather, gifts from God over which we are stewards. We are not free to dispose of our bodies in any way we would like, but we should also not cling to our bodies as ultimate goods. Christians can be encouraged to donate their organs freely as a sign of the reality of the body’s giftedness. In other words, in donating their organs especially as live donors, Christians are reminded in a very visceral way that the body is a gift, and thus just as Christ gave up his body for us, we in turn are called to give up our bodies for others. As such, Christians need not be opposed in principle to a presumed consent policy on the basis that it violates autonomy. For Christians, autonomy is subordinated to the body’s giftedness. Christians can set a marvelous example to a nation that is rapidly concluding that “altruism isn’t enough” by making altruistic acts a little more common.

Finally, the organ shortage is partially a result of longer life-spans and better overall care for the terminally-ill and severely handicapped like those in a persistent vegetative state. In light of extraordinary new medical procedures to extend life, Christians need also to be reminded that death need not be avoided at all costs, nor must “every step be taken” to extend life. For Christians, what matters is dying well. In order to die well, Christians must prepare, not only by “living well” as Robert Bellarmine wrote in his book “The Art of Dying Well,” but also by making specific plans for end-of-life treatment and organ donation. Many organs are lost because the dying or deceased person did not make their wishes known. Christians reading this who want to register to become an organ donor can also take the opportunity to reflect on what constitutes a good death and how they can begin to live in such a way to make that good death possible. A wonderful exercise for the season of Lent.

Anthropological Musings on the Painfully Hot Ghost Chili

Last Wednesday, the Hub and I ventured over to Inman Square’s East Coast Grill for their legendary Hell Night. For four days out of the year, the talented chefs at East Coast prepare a menu to tantalize and terrify the taste buds. Habenero-infused vodka, Chile Chimichurri steaks, oysters drenched in hot sauce, and a dozen other spicy options ranging from one to nine chili peppers grace the menu. The star of the night, however, is the pasta from hell. This pasta, made from the world’s hottest ghost chilies, has been featured on the craze foodie hit Man vs. Food, where even the daring Adam Richman could only take about two bites. This pasta is hot. And I ordered it.

You are required to sign a waver before you dig in, which is all part of the fun. But after the first bite, the most excruciating pain sets in, the kind of pain that sends tears down your cheek as you dig your high heel into your calf to distract your dendrites from the horror taking place in your mouth. Now, don’t get me wrong. I live for spicy food. I eat sriracha on everything. I nibble on raw jalapenos while I cook spicy Mexican food. I have successfully taken an adolescent dare to drink an entire bottle of Tabasco. And by the time reached the half-way mark on my pasta from hell, I was doubled over in pain and had to stop. But I took it home, and the next night suffered through the rest (armed, of course, with a full bottle of antacids for the heart burn that came later that night).

When I recovered, I started wondering why in the world I freely and intentionally chose to do something so painful, not just once, but two nights in a row. Everydaythomist that I am, I toyed with the question of whether my actions constituted daring, one of the vices against fortitude that inclines the appetite toward danger in ways contrary to reason.

Turns out, scientists are doing research on this very question. A few months ago, the NYTimes featured an article on the pleasure and pain of chili peppers based on the research from Dr. Paul Rozin at the University of Pennsylvania:

[Rozin]has evidence for what he calls benign masochism. For example, he tested chili eaters by gradually increasing the pain, or, as the pros call it, the pungency, of the food, right up to the point at which the subjects said they just could not go further. When asked after the test what level of heat they liked the best, they chose the highest level they could stand, “just below the level of unbearable pain.” As Delbert McClinton sings (about a different line of research), “It felt so good to hurt so bad.”

Rozin disagrees with theories that argue for an evolutionary advantage to eating hot peppers, say, for example, by arguing that they lower blood pressure or provide some other such advantage in health. In fact, Rozin thinks there actually is not an evolutionary advantage at all to such acts:

No one knows for sure why humans would find pleasure in pain, but Dr. Rozin suggests that there’s a thrill, similar to the fun of riding a roller coaster. “Humans and only humans get to enjoy events that are innately negative, that produce emotions or feelings that we are programmed to avoid when we come to realize that they are actually not threats,” he said. “Mind over body. My body thinks I’m in trouble, but I know I’m not.” And it says, hand me another jalapeño.

One of the key observations here is that no other mammal likes hot peppers. And from this observation, Rozin and others draw an interesting conclusion: the human taste for painfully hot peppers says something important about what it means to be human:

[A]s Paul Bloom, a Yale psychologist, puts it, “Philosophers have often looked for the defining feature of humans — language, rationality, culture and so on. I’d stick with this: Man is the only animal that likes Tabasco sauce.”

That’s from Dr. Bloom’s new book, “How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like,” in which he addresses the general nature of human pleasure, and some very specific, complicated pleasures. Some, like eating painfully spicy food, are accidental, at least in their specificity. A complicated mind is adaptive, but love of chilies is an accident.

And that is what I celebrate behind my respirator as my son and I dice habaneros, accidental pleasures. A taste for chilies has no deep meaning, no evolutionary value. It’s just a taste for chilies. I might add, though, that since it takes such a complicated brain and weird self-awareness to enjoy something that is inherently not enjoyable, only the animal with the biggest brain and the most intricate mind can do it.

Take heart, chili heads. It’s not dumb to eat the fire, it’s a sign of high intelligence.

I find this a fascinating and largely compelling contribution to philosophical anthropology. Whereas for most animals, pleasure is a function of biology, humans have a lot more flexibility. They can, in many ways, choose what it is that brings them pleasure, even things that go against biology or evolutionary advantage. That is, human beings are masters of their actions largely because they are masters of their pleasure.

This means that for human beings in particular, morality cannot simply be a matter of examining nature and drawing normative conclusions. Human beings are greater than the sum of their biological parts, and the objects from which they draw pleasure cannot be reduced to merely a biochemical neural reaction.

When it comes to chili peppers and roller coasters, the human ability to find pleasure in biologically unpleasant things may not have much moral consequence, but in other areas the question may be more serious. For example, a friend sent me an Atlantic article on porn addiction which also examines the recent prevalence of anal sex. I hesitate to even quote the article on my blog due to how explicit it was, but I do think the following revelation from the author is significant:

Never was this made plainer to me than during a one-night stand with a man I had actually known for quite a while. A polite, educated fellow with a beautiful Lower East Side apartment invited me to a perfunctory dinner right after his long-term girlfriend had left him. We quickly progressed to his bed, and things did not go well. He couldn’t stay aroused. Over the course of the tryst, I trotted out every parlor trick and sexual persona I knew. I was coquettish then submissive, vocal then silent, aggressive then downright commandeering; in a moment of exasperation, he asked if we could have anal sex. I asked why, seeing as how any straight man who has had experience with anal sex knows that it’s a big production and usually has a lot of false starts and abrupt stops. He answered, almost without thought, “Because that’s the only thing that will make you uncomfortable.” This was, perhaps, the greatest moment of sexual honesty I’ve ever experienced—and without hesitation, I complied. This encounter proves an unpleasant fact that does not fit the feminist script on sexuality: pleasure and displeasure wrap around each other like two snakes.

If anal sex is unpleasant, why do it? Human intentionality, that is, human choice, can transform unpleasant actions and unpleasant objects into pleasure. In Dependent Rational Animals, Alistair McIntyre made the somewhat surprising claim that ethics could not be separated from biology. Ghost chilies and anal sex remind us that morality also cannot be reduced to biology. Human intentionality transcends what we are biologically conditioned to do.

Natural law scholars, especially those rooted in the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, debate whether natural law should be grounded in a “metaphysical biology” which assumes that the normative “ought” can be drawn from the biological “is.” The more we learn about biology, the more important biology becomes in our moral reflections, and this, I think, is a good thing. Biology reminds us that we are creatures, not just spirits. It reminds us how much we share with our non-human animal cousins. But, while biology can tell us what it means to be “animal” (which humans are), it cannot tell us what it means to be human. In Aristotelian parlance, our human species is derived from our genus (animal) and differentia (rational). And that differentia does a lot to separate us from our non-human animal cousins. It does not totally separate us, but it separates us enough to give us pause as we realize that our animal nature cannot explain the many perplexing questions regarding why we do what we do. Now, if you will excuse me, I need another antacid.

The Challenge of Naturalism

At an ethics colloquium this week, I heard a professor tell a story (which I hope is okay to repeat here since both the storyteller and the subject of the story are anonymous) of a former theology student who had recently written with proud news of an upcoming publication on the topic of liturgy. She went on to tell him that she was flourishing in her job as the campus minister at a Catholic school. She had recently gotten into spiritual direction, which was going okay, despite the fact that she no longer believed in God, and overall, she was very happy with her life and career.

Wait. . . she no longer believes in God? In America, this is not as rare as you might think. While Europe is becoming increasingly more secularized, and the churches are becoming more and more empty, in the US, something else is happening. Externally, we are a very religious nation with a high percentage of churchgoers (about 47% of Americans attend a weekly religious service as opposed to about 20% in Europe). Nevertheless, there are signs that we are a nation a lot like this professor’s former theology student—involved in the act of religion without the corresponding belief. As Terence Nichols puts it in his very fine book The Sacred Cosmos:

Supernatural realities such as miracles, angels, afterlife, a sacred cosmos, and so on are rarely broached, at least in mainline Protestant denominations (and less and less so in Roman Catholic churches). God has become distant from everyday life. People may still believe in God, got to church, even pray, but without deep conviction. . .(8)

For Nichols, the problem is naturalism, “the belief that nature is all that exists, and that everything can be explained by natural causes and therefore by science. There is no nonmaterial reality, such as God.” The problem, he says, is deep and

. . . originates further back—with the separation of God from nature, a split that began in the late medieval and early modern period. This resulted in the (perceived) separation of god from everyday life that is so characteristic of contemporary secular societies. . .Ancient and medieval Christians lived in a sacred cosmos and saw nature as a window or sacrament that expressed the beauty, majesty, and glory of God. . . Sacraments make God present and invite the believer into a sharing of God’s presence. But for a sacrament to work, there has to be some similarity, some unity. . . If nature is seen sacramentally, rather than as an object to be investigated and used, it also can mediate the presence of God. Seen sacramentally, nature is a sacred cosmos, for whatever mediates God’s presence is sacred (9).

Instead of a sacred cosmos infused with the supernatural, what we have now, according to Nichols, is a universe completely subject to natural laws, where even religion (to quote E.O. Wilson), is subject to the explanations of the natural sciences. This metaphysical naturalism is the greatest challenge Christianity faces in the contemporary world. As Nichols puts it,

For if nature is all that exists, there cannot be any reality that is greater than and independent of nature. Nor can there be any hope of an afterlife, nor any means to really transcend our natural condition. The consoling grace of god, which frees us from sin, addictions, selfishness, hopelessness, and lovelessness, is, for naturalists, a fiction.

Must we then, as Christians, be anti-science in order to avoid the dangers poised by naturalism? Not at all. Christians have long held (rooted especially in the Thomistic tradition) that scientific naturalism is perfectly appropriate for the natural sciences. Science can tell us much of the world—how it originated, how it fits together, where it is headed. The laws of nature that scientists study are laws created by God and hence are very, very good.

But just because a scientist is committed to scientific naturalism, she need not commit herself also to metaphysical naturalism, i.e., the belief that these natural laws are all that exist. More specifically, a Christian evolutionary biologist very committed to the principles of natural selection need not conclude that simply because evolution exist, God does not. As Nichols points out, some of the greatest scientists were also Christian (Galileo, Newton, Descartes, Pascal, Max Plank). The problem is not evolution (or any other natural “law”), but rather, when evolution becomes an all-encompassing philosophy. Science and theology are meant to be complementary, not antagonistic.

No, the solution for Christians, what Christians need to do if they are to survive the naturalist challenge, is not reject science (and hence the “natural”), but rather, they need to recover the supernatural. In a Christianity Today article, Hwa Yung writes on this,

A careful reading of the Bible and the sheer weight of empirical evidence eventually brought me back to a supernatural Christianity. In this, I found myself out of sync with much of Western theology. Here liberals were at least consistent, but not evangelicals. Most liberals denied the supernatural both in the Bible and in the present; evangelicals fought tooth and nail to defend the miraculous in the Bible, but rarely could cope with it in real life.

Now, Yung is writing about the recovery of a more charismatic Pentecostal form of Christianity, which I am not arguing for here, but his basic point is sound. Christians need to recover the idea of the miraculous, the realm beyond science, the invisible, the graced. To describe how this might take place liturgically or in other Christian practices is beyond the scope of one blog post (though I would love to hear your thoughts), but at the very least, Christians can recover the supernatural in conversation. We can admit that knowledge of God is beyond the capacity of reason. The natural world can lead us towards God, but true knowledge is a supernatural gift, elevating the intellect beyond what it is naturally capable of.

We can also admit that simply because knowledge of God is a gift, and one which we do not experience fully in this life (see 1 John 3:2 and 1 Corinthians 13:12 for when we can expect full knowledge), we can still do theology. In other words, we can still speculate about God, and even do so “scientifically.” Thomas Aquinas tells us

Sacred doctrine is a science. We must bear in mind that there are two kinds of sciences. There are some which proceed from a principle known by the natural light of intelligence, such as arithmetic and geometry and the like. There are some which proceed from principles known by the light of a higher science: thus the science of perspective proceeds from principles established by geometry, and music from principles established by arithmetic. So it is that sacred doctrine is a science because it proceeds from principles established by the light of a higher science, namely, the science of God and the blessed. Hence, just as the musician accepts on authority the principles taught him by the mathematician, so sacred science is established on principles revealed by God (I, Q. 1, art. 2).

For Aquinas, the object of this science is God, and its principles are the articles of faith (things like the Incarnation and the Trinity). Sacred Scripture is important, but is of itself neither the object nor the principle of theology:

Such are the Trinity of Persons in Almighty God [The Leonine Edition reads: The Three Persons, the omnipotence of God, etc.], the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation, and the like: and these are distinct articles of faith. On the other hand certain things in Holy Writ are proposed to our belief, not chiefly on their own account, but for the manifestation of those mentioned above: for instance, that Abraham had two sons, that a dead man rose again at the touch of Eliseus’ bones, and the like, which are related in Holy Writ for the purpose of manifesting the Divine mystery or the Incarnation of Christ: and such things should not form distinct articles (II-II, Q. 1, art. 6).

And in the end, although theology is a matter of disputation (I, Q. 1, art. 8), it ultimately does not get us knowledge of God, but only a certain knowledge of God’s effects, and how those effect pertain to our salvation:

Although we cannot know in what consists the essence of God, nevertheless in this science we make use of His effects, either of nature or of grace, in place of a definition, in regard to whatever is treated of in this science concerning God; even as in some philosophical sciences we demonstrate something about a cause from its effect, by taking the effect in place of a definition of the cause.

Ultimately, the point of theology is not to render God understandable or to possess God, but rather, to seek a mysterious God in love. And when we talk of God (or do theology), it should be this gifted love that we communicate, especially to our friends in the natural sciences. We do not have to make Christianity “natural” in order to speak to scientists. We need rather to speak confidently, humbly, and reverently about the supernatural, and listen to what the sciences have to say about the natural. Maybe, with a little grace, we can actually get a conversation going in which the scientist learns a little about grace and eternal life, and the Christian learns a little about the world.

And this brings us back to naturalism. In terms of religion, naturalism pushes us to make all matters of faith matters of natural science. The Bible becomes an anthropological and sociological document, sacraments become merely rituals, God becomes an idea, and the afterlife becomes a naiveté. Christianity becomes a voluntary association that anybody can “do,” like the girl in the opening story of this post, rather than a graced invitation into a relationship with God. Terence Nichols expresses well the appropriate Christian response:

The greatest gifts of grace are faith, hope, and the love of God (1 Cor. 13) which, Paul tells us, is poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit that is given to us (Rom. 5:5). It is this love that allows us to love others, even enemies, and that characterizes the converted Christian life. Such a love is beyond our natural abilities. . . Christianity is not about rules and laws, guilt and fear of punishment, or extrinsic rewards. It is about grace: the experience of God’s transforming love and power in our lives that elevates and perfects our natural abilities and allows us to do more that we thought possible. In this sense, the life of every fully converted Christian moves beyond naturalism. It is god’s grace that makes the Christian practice of everyday life possible. And it is this same power of grace that one day will bring us to the resurrection, the ultimate transformation of nature, and to eternal life with God (226-27).

What Does Aquinas Have to Say About Egypt?

Jim, over at Zwinglius Redivivus, has a post entitled “Egypt Burns, and the Theologians and Biblical Scholars Remain Silent.” He writes,

Nothing really needs to be added to that title except one blazingly evident fact: too many are so involved in pointless pursuits and the useless drivel and dreck of their own limited interests that they are blind to what’s going on around them and voiceless.

Therefore they are, as far as I am concerned, worthless. If the teaching of Scripture isn’t applied to real life (as opposed to attempting to apply it to sci-fi and other stupidities) and theologians and biblical scholars have nothing to say to or about events such as we are presently witnessing, I think they have proven themselves unworthy of the title they bear and no longer relevant to anything, for anything at all.

I don’t normally read his blog (I found this post through a link on another blog), but Jim has a point. What say we blogger theologians about the events unfolding in the largest country in the Middle East?

Aquinas, following Aristotle, is clearly a supporter of a people’s right to rise up against an unjust tyrant. He writes in “On Kingship”

If to provide itself with a king belongs to the right of a given multitude, it is not unjust that the king be deposed or have his power restricted by that same multitude if, becoming a tyrant, he abuses the royal power. It must not be thought that such a multitude is acting unfaithfully in deposing the tyrant, even though it had previously subjected itself to him in perpetuity, because he himself has deserved that the covenant with his subjects should not be kept, since, in ruling the multitude, he did not act faithfully as the office of a king demands.

He is also wary of civil unrest. He goes on in “On Kingship” to say, “The welfare and safety of a multitude formed into a society lies in the preservation of its unity, which is called peace.” However, his more systematic response to the disorder caused by political revolution is in the Summa, in the treatise on sedition (contained within the larger treatise on charity, not justice, as you may be surprised to know). In II-II 42.1, Aquinas identifies sedition (“when one state rises in tumult against another part”) as a sin “opposed to a special kind of good, namely the unity and peeace of a people.” In 42.2, he cites Augustine (De Civ. Dei ii, 21) that “‘wise men understand the word ‘people’ to designate not any crowd of person, but the assembly of those who are united together in fellowship recognized by law and for the common good.’ Wherefore it is evident that the unity to which sedition is opposed is the unity of law and common good: whence it follows manifestly that sedition is opposed to justice and the common good.”

Aquinas’ comments on sedition in the Summa are not opposed to what he says in “On Kingship.” In “On Kingship,” the overthrow of an unjust tyrant is an expression of unity on behalf of the common good. He confirms this in 42.2 ad. 1: “It is lawful to fight, provided it be for the common good. But sedition runs counter to the common good of the multitude, so that it is always a mortal sin.” And in the same article ad. 3, he says even more explicitly:

A tyrannical government is not just, because it is directed, not to the common good, but to the private good of the ruler, as the Philosopher states (Polit. iii, 5; Ethic. viii, 10). Consequently there is no sedition in disturbing a government of this kind, unless indeed the tyrant’s rule be disturbed so inordinately, that his subjects suffer greater harm from the consequent disturbance than from the tyrant’s government. Ondeed it is the tyrant rather that is guilty of sedition, since he encourages discord and sedition among his subjects, that he may lord over them more securely; for this is tyranny, being conducive to the private good of the ruler, and to the injury of the multitude.

In other words, Aquinas would probably say that a lawful uprising in accord with the common good simply is not sedition, in the same way that taking food from another when one’s life is in danger is not stealing (II-II, 66.7). Since neither are opposed to the common good, neither are sins.

So this brings us to Egypt. There is some fear among US onlookers that the uprising is the work of the Muslim Brotherhood, which could potentially be contrary to the common good (especially the small group of Egyptian Coptics). But Egypt’s Islamist opposition has vowed to “respect the will of the Egyptian people” if Mubarak is disposed. Moreover, the uprising is more eclectic than merely the Muslim Brotherhood, as the Guardian notes:

“There is widespread exaggeration about the role of the Brotherhood in Egyptian society, and I think these demonstrations have exposed that,” said Khalil al-Anani, an expert on Egypt’s political Islamists at Durham University. “At first the movement showed little interest in the protests and announced they weren’t going to participate; later they were overtaken by events and forced to get involved or risk losing all credibility.” . . .

. . . Even on Friday, when the Brotherhood finally threw its weight behind efforts to bring down the government – a stance its leadership initially held back from – Islamist slogans were noticeable by their absence, and the formal contribution of the movement remained limited.

The Egyptian revolution, therefore, does not seem to fit the criteria for sedition. Rather, it seems the whole nation, and especially the youth, are rising collectively to challenge the injustices of a tyrant. Still, the unrest in the country definitely endangers the common good, and needs to be settled as quickly as possible.

Paul VI wrote in Populorum Progressio in 1967, keeping largely with the Thomistic tradition, “We know . . . that a revolutionary uprising–save where there is a manifest, long-standing tyranny which would do great damage to fundamental personal rights and dangerous harm to the common good of the country–produces new injustices, throws more elements out of balance and brings on new disasters. A real evil should not be fought against as the cost of greater misery.”

Although the mood is celebratory, the violence can escalate rapidly. Nik Kristof blogs from Cairo

The people I talked to mostly insisted that the army would never open fire on civilians. I hope they’re right. To me, the scene here is eerily like that of Tiananmen Square in the first week or so after martial law was declared on May 20, 1989, when soldiers and citizens cooperated closely. But then the Chinese government issued live ammunition and ordered troops to open fire, and on the night of June 3 to 4, they did – and the result was a massacre.

In the past, the army famously refused President Sadat’s order to crack down on bread riots, and maybe they won’t crack down this time. But I’ve seen this kind of scenario unfolding before in Indonesia, South Korea, Mongolia, Thailand, Taiwan and China, and the truth is that sometimes troops open fire and sometimes they don’t. As far as I can see, Mubarak’s only chance to stay in power is a violent crackdown – otherwise, he has zero chance of remaining president. And he’s a stubborn old guy: he may well choose to crack heads; of course, whether the army would follow orders to do so is very uncertain. The army is one of the few highly regarded institutions in Egyptian society, and massacres would end that forever.

One troubling sign is that the government isn’t showing signs of backing down. It used fighter planes to buzz Tahrir, in what surely seems an effort to intimidate protesters. It moved the curfew even earlier today, to 3 pm. It has sent the police back into some areas. The Internet remains shut off. And the state media continue to be full of lies. None of that sounds like a government preparing to bow to the power of the people.

It seems clear that Mubarak needs to go, but his overthrow will only be moral so long as the scale tips in balance of the common good.

March for the Life of Unborn and Women

Tomorrow, around 200,000 people will march in the frigid DC temps to protest the ongoing cultural and legal support for abortion in this country. Those who march, and those who support them in spirit, will have in mind especially the recent discovery of a Philadelphia abortion clinic where not only late term abortions, but also infanticide, went on for years, unchecked by any government oversight. Kermit Gosnell, who is being charged with eight counts of murder in the deaths of seven infants and a Bhutanese refugee who died in his care after a late term abortion in 2009, had been sued 15 times for malpractice and had two women die in his clinic without raising any neighborhood eyebrows about the practices going on his clinic. What is most disturbing about the story is the following quote from the grand jury report:

“We think the reason no one acted is because the women in question were poor and of color,” the report said, “and because the victims were infants without identities, and because the subject was the political football of abortion.”

“The women in question were poor and of color.”

The late Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago advanced what he called “the seamless garment” of life, recognizing that the protection of life is threatened on many fronts in our society, not only by abortion, but also by war and capital punishment, euthanasia and suicide, poverty and racism. Bernadin recognized that whenever one area of life is attacked, others will follow.

This is the message of Guadium et Spes, confirmed by John Paul II in Evangelium Vitae:

“Whatever is opposed to life itself, such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or wilful self-destruction, whatever violates the integrity of the human person, such as mutilation, torments inflicted on body or mind, attempts to coerce the will itself; whatever insults human dignity, such as subhuman living conditions, arbitrary imprisonment, deportation, slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children; as well as disgraceful working conditions, where people are treated as mere instruments of gain rather than as free and responsible persons; all these things and others like them are infamies indeed. They poison human society, and they do more harm to those who practice them than to those who suffer from the injury. Moreover, they are a supreme dishonor to the Creator” (GS 27, EV 3).

The grand jury report on Gosnell confirms supporters of a consistent ethic of life that abortion is not an isolated issue. A society that is ready to sacrifice millions of nameless unborn in the name of expediency is also a society likely to sacrifice poor and colored women in the name of expediency. The unborn and the women who bear them are related. Considering the following interview from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg:

Q: If you were a lawyer again, what would you want to accomplish as a future feminist legal agenda?

JUSTICE GINSBURG: Reproductive choice has to be straightened out. There will never be a woman of means without choice anymore. That just seems to me so obvious. The states that had changed their abortion laws before Roe [to make abortion legal] are not going to change back. So we have a policy that affects only poor women, and it can never be otherwise, and I don’t know why this hasn’t been said more often.

Q: Are you talking about the distances women have to travel because in parts of the country, abortion is essentially unavailable, because there are so few doctors and clinics that do the procedure? And also, the lack of Medicaid for abortions for poor women?

JUSTICE GINSBURG: Yes, the ruling about that surprised me. [Harris v. McRae — in 1980 the court upheld the Hyde Amendment, which forbids the use of Medicaid for abortions.] Frankly I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of. So that Roe was going to be then set up for Medicaid funding for abortion. Which some people felt would risk coercing women into having abortions when they didn’t really want them. But when the court decided McRae, the case came out the other way. And then I realized that my perception of it had been altogether wrong (pgs. 3 and 4).

Note what Justice Ginsburg says: “I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of. So that Roe was going to be then set up for Medicaid funding for abortion.” Ginsburg is admitting that there was an association at the time of Roe with “reproductive rights” and what we might call “eugenics policies” (curbing the reproduction of poorer women).

As we remember the anniversary of Roe v. Wade tomorrow and the millions of victims of abortion that have resulted from that decision, we cannot forget the women that have also been victimized by abortion policies and attitudes. And we cannot pretend that by keeping abortion legal, we are also protecting women.

So as we march and pray and work for life, we will also remember the words of Sargent Shriver, who passed away this week, and others who work to promote a consistent ethic of life for all, especially the most vulnerable:

“The advocates of abortion on demand falsely assume two things: that women must suffer if the lives of unborn children are legally protected; and that women can only attain equality by having the legal option of destroying their innocent offspring in the womb. The cynicism of these assumptions reflects a terrible failure of moral imagination and social responsibility and an appalling lack of respect for women.”

Why Religion is Bad: A Strawman

Family Guy is one of those TV shows I watch with guilty glee. I still giggle when I think of Stewie’s Tab commercial (“Just gettin’ my bronze on, baby”). However, I do admit that the show is an effective communicator of bad values.

This is no less true than last week’s episode entitled “I’m Joyce Kinney” where Lois reveals that she was in a pornography film in college. We’ll leave aside the rather explicit scenes of said film and focus on the bigger problem in the show: the church’s reaction when they find out.

Lois, an active member of what appears to be her mainline Protestant church, is reviled and ridiculed when she walks in on the Sunday following the revelation that she had been in a dirty film. Parishioners whisper as she walks by, culminating in the pastor looking down at her menacingly, declaring, “Lois Griffin, you are no no longer welcome in this church.”

As might be expected, Lois heroically overcomes the church’s reaction. She marches in next Sunday and states vehemently, “Who did Jesus hung around with? Mary Magdalene, who was a prostitute. If video cameras had been around then, she probably would have done a porno too! And if she did, I know Jesus would have forgiven her. Are you all better than Jesus? You all need to admit that I made a simple mistake. And here it is.” Everybody gasps and Lois shows her film to the entire congregation.

Those already biased against the religious will watch this and say this is exactly what is wrong with religion. Churches are filled with hypocrites, casting judgment on sinners while ignoring their own sin. But this is a strawman. In reality, few religious communities, even the most conservative and sectarian, would condemn Lois as the show depicts. Her repentance is clear, and her sin is far in the past. In many ways, she is not the [cartoon] person now as she was when she made the film. And practically every church in this country would recognize that.

Priests in their homilies constantly bring up the common complaint, “I don’t go to church because I can’t bear to sit with all those hypocrites.” The complaint is half-right. We are hypocrites, unworthy of bearing the name of Christ. But we are hypocrites who rest in the assurance that God is a merciful God, slow to anger and quick to forgive.

Family Guy wants to reveal Christians as hypocrites, but they do so in such an over-the-top way that it ceases to be realistic. But there is a lesson to be learned for Christians even in this relatively offensive show, a lesson Dominican Timothy Radcliffe makes better than I can. In What is the Point of Being a Christian, Radcliffe writes,

Even when Christian teaching seems clear and unambiguous, we must still be prepared to enter into the complexity of people’s lives as they struggle to discover what is right. . . . the truth is simple, but unless it is the simplicity that has passed through the complexity of human experience then it is a childish simplicity that we dimly glimpse in God. Those who feel that the truth of our teaching must be protected with denigration and violent attacks on others may well be insecure in their convictions, frightened to hear the other side in case they begin to doubt. It is precisely when we are most confident in the teaching of the Church that we should be most fee to listen and to learn, and to open our minds and hearts to those who have arrived at conclusions with which we agree (38-39).

Radcliffe goes on to quote the great Thomist Josef Pieper: “‘A friend, and a prudent friend, can help to share a friend’s decision. He does so by virtue of that love which makes the friend’s problem his own, the friend’s ego his own (so that it in not entirely ‘from outside’)’ (The Four Cardinal Virtues, 29). We have to become that other person, enter their imagination and share their dilemmas, before we share our teaching.”

It is a good lesson to be learned from a very bad episode of a show that, like us, has a lot of evil mixed in with the good.

The Virtues of Parenting

My husband I do not yet have children, so forgive me if I seem to be speaking beyond my area of expertise. Parenting has been on my mind a lot recently in light of certain articles of interest. First, David Brooks’ piece in this week’s New York Times is excellent, and responds critically to the author of the new controversial book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua. Chua’s book is a reflection on her own experience as a “typical Asian mother”: strict and uncompromising in discipline, rigorous in achievement, and unapologetic about the incredible pressure she placed on her children. In “Amy Chua is a Wimp,” Brooks writes perspicaciously

Chua’s critics echoed the familiar themes. Her kids can’t possibly be happy or truly creative. They’ll grow up skilled and compliant but without the audacity to be great. She’s destroying their love for music. There’s a reason Asian-American women between the ages of 15 and 24 have such high suicide rates.

I have the opposite problem with Chua. I believe she’s coddling her children. She’s protecting them from the most intellectually demanding activities because she doesn’t understand what’s cognitively difficult and what isn’t.

Practicing a piece of music for four hours requires focused attention, but it is nowhere near as cognitively demanding as a sleepover with 14-year-old girls. Managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group — these and other social tests impose cognitive demands that blow away any intense tutoring session or a class at Yale.

While I wonder how Brooks knows the cognitive demands of a 14-year old sleepover, I do think he is onto something here. Personal achievement is more than the score one achieves on an exam or the chair one earns in the orchestra. It is about holistic functioning within complex group dynamics. He goes on

This skill set is not taught formally, but it is imparted through arduous experiences. These are exactly the kinds of difficult experiences Chua shelters her children from by making them rush home to hit the homework table.

The implication is that parents do best by their children if they not only push them to excel academically and in extracurricular activities, but also if they encourage them to participate in complex social interactions where they can develop their more emotionally-based cognitive activity like “the ability to trust people outside your kinship circle, read intonations and moods, understand how the psychological pieces each person brings to the room can and cannot fit together.”

The problem is that, as an excellent blog post on dot Commonweal observes, kids these days are doing pretty atrocious things in their group interactions that can seriously thwart personal achievement and overall flourishing. In his discussion of the MTV show “Skins,” Eduardo Peñalver cites Matt Zoller Seitz:

Is “Skins” bad for kids? Well, if shows directly influence behavior, over and above whatever morals that parents teach their kids – a big “if” — then yeah, maybe, I guess so. But on the other hand, I have yet to witness a scenario in either series that I didn’t personally fantasize about in some form or another when I was the same age as the teens that comprise this program’s target demographic. When I was in eighth grade (prime “Skins” age, I’m guessing) I snuck into explicitly violent and/or sexual R-rated films almost every weekend, furtively tried out adult substances, and spent hours futzing with the aerial on top of my parents’ TV set after they went to sleep hoping to catch a fleeting glimpse of fornication on a scrambled pay-per-view broadcast channel. If I were that age again in 2011, I’d probably watch “Skins” religiously for a couple of seasons, then get bored and move on to something else. The series would have been absorbing, silly, sexy and trashy no matter what critics said about it. The fact that it’s officially considered Bad for Kids makes it awesome.

Peñalver responds as I would: “it seems a little strained to call the idea that a show like this might influence kids’ behavior “a big ‘if’.”” If 14 year-olds are doing the sort of things portrayed on “Skins,” Brooks is right to call their sleepover parties “cognitively taxing.” More likely, such sleepovers are cognitively ruinous. It is no surprise that parents like Chua want to reign kids in with strict discipline and high expectations, even if it means social ruin, in order to save them from the sort of life ruin adolescent social interactions often lead to.

The challenge for parents is how to find a balance between pushing their kids to be the best they can be and letting their kids find their own way by watching their friends, experimenting, and making mistakes. The best solution I have seen recently was on my own new favorite television show “Modern Family.” In the most recent episode “Our Children Ourselves,” Phil and Claire Dunphy try and get their high-achieving daughter Alex to relax in fear that she is pushing herself too hard to be the top of the class (great scene with Phil and Claire staring on as Alex jumps on a trampoline, arms crossed, in the middle of the night). When Alex comes in second in the class, she tells her parents that she simply cannot compete with Sanjay, the first in the class who has a doctor and a professor for parents. “I’m doing the best with what I have.”

What ensues is a beautiful effort on behalf of Claire as she tries to prove herself to her daughter by going to a French film with Sanjay’s parents rather than attending the film of her choice–Croctopus. But her efforts fail, and Claire falls asleep during the film, bereft at the fact that she cannot live up to her daughter’s perceived needs. She leaves the theater not only confirming Brooks’ conclusion that social competence is sometimes more important than intellectual achievement (Sanjay’s father cannot work the parking validation machine), but also feeling more competent in her role as a parent, with the unique talents she brings to the table. Most importantly, she leaves the theater with renewed love for her husband and daughter and the family they try to make work.

Aquinas had firsthand experience with overbearing parents. His own father ordered the kidnapping of the adolescent Aquinas when he went off to join the new mendicant order of the Dominicans, the “Begging Friars.” As Chesterton writes,

[Thomas] said he wished to be a Friar, and his family flew at him like wild beasts; his brothers pursued him along the public roads, half-rent his friar’s frock from his back and finally locked him up in a tower like a lunatic.

Chua should know that we have a tradition of “tiger parenting” in the west too. But the moral of the story is that Aquinas would become what he became, try as his parents might to stop him. He would be a beggar and a philosopher, not an abbot and a politician. Chua’s children too will become what they become, despite her effort to “keep them in check.” In the end, parents must realize that the little life in front of them is not their own, not a precious commodity to be fostered into perfection, but a gift and a loan from the Creator who calls us all to our own vocation.

In the end, prudence is one of the most important virtue for a parent. In perfecting parents morally and intellectually, prudence allows parents to deliberate, judge, and command well in their role as steward over a new life. But no less important is hope, by which a parent is able to endure the difficulties of not knowing where their child will end up, but still maintaining the confidence that he or she is in the hands of God.

Few Lessons in Virtue in Karate Kid

A few days ago, I watched the new Karate Kid featuring Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith (If you haven’t seen the movie, be warned of the spoilers ahead). Basically, this Karate Kid is Rockie for pre-adolescents. Extensive scenes focus on the intense training regimen of the young Dre (Jaden Smith) who has been transplanted to China against his will and now has to defeat his enemy (and win the girl) in (get this!) an open Kung Fu tournament.

Besides the fact that I have problems with film makers turning kids into miniature adults in movies like this, my bigger problem with the movie was the end. The underdog Dre manages to make it to the final round of the tournament and face his foe, the school bully Cheng. Cheng has been trained in a dojo where he is taught to embody the motto “no pain, no fear, no mercy” as he utterly annihilates his enemies in ferocious moments of 12-year old rage. There are moments where you feel Cheng is not only capable of killing his opponent; he seems to actually be aiming for it.

The fight is unfair from the beginning. Dre is injured and Cheng has been told by his instructor to target the injury and break Dre’s leg. Somehow, Dre manages to stand up on his unbroken leg and take Cheng out in a gravity-defying kick, winning the fight and the tournament.

Here’s the problem. Cheng, our vicious, merciless, bloodthirsty adolescent stands up, and acknowledging his defeat, bows in respect towards Dre, and then bows in respect towards Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), Dre’s Kung Fu teacher. Then, all of Cheng’s peers (also portrayed throughout the movie as bloodthirsty merciless fighters) bow in respect towards Dre and Mr. Han.

I see two major problems with this conclusion. The first is that the challenges we face require a fight, and by winning the fight, we overcome the challenge. Pre-adolescents watching Karate Kid walk away with the moral that winning the fight (and I mean the literal fist fight) will allow you to overcome the influence of the school bully, a challenge a lot of kids face these days. Bullying though is rarely resolved through a fight.

Supporters of the film will say that this is not at all the intended lesson. Hey U.G.L.Y., a non-profit group dedicated to help kids overcome bullying, commended the film for its anti-bullying message:

Betty Hoeffner, author of the Stop Bullying Handbook and co-founder of Hey U.G.L.Y., said bullying is one of the most critical issues now facing U.S. students at all grade levels.

“And, as shown in the movie, bullying is a big problem in other countries as well,” Hoeffner said. “We need to help kids see beyond the bravado of bullies so they can recognize the pain and insecurity most bullies feel.”

But this film does little, if anything, to help viewers see the pain and insecurity of Cheng. He gets few lines, and is overall a flat character, portrayed throughout the movie as a ruthless and brilliant fighter, until the end when he is suddenly humbled in his defeat.

In commenting about the film, Jackie Chan said the martial arts are not for hurting people, but for protecting them. He hopes the film will introduce audiences to the reality of martial arts, instead of the dramatized movie versions.

Hoeffner warns parents that the film uses plenty of violent scenes among children to get the non-violent viewpoint across. But she believes it’s important for young people to recognize and talk about their own tendencies to victimize others, whether physically or emotionally.

The film also does very little to show that karate is not about hurting people (the tournament scenes left me cringing, including Dre’s final spar with Cheng), and it is unrealistic to expect kids to walk away with a message of non-violence buried amidst all the film’s violence.

The second major problem with the film is that it does not take into account the way our actions emerge from our habits. In the first place, Dre, in only a few months, manages to rise to the ability of a Kung Fu expert. In reality, mastering karate takes years of self-discipline, hard-work, and above all, repetition. Obviously, this would make a boring movie, but it is frustrating to see Dre go from days of putting his coat on and off a hook (at the behest of the mysterious will of Mr. Han), to immediately engaging in an expert spar with his instructor. Dre leaves this first fight looking in awe at his hands, hands that seem already magically habituated to deftly block and hit. Kids who pick up karate after watching this film will find the actual process much more laborious.

But this is movie world, and of course we expect Dre to master the art of Kung Fu by its conclusion. The bigger problem regarding the film’s dismissal of habits is at the end, where the film shows that bullies can change in a moment from irrationally bloodthirsty to rationally respectful, even friendly.

Cheng has been trained since childhood to be a fighter. Not only has he developed extensive physical habits as part of his athletic training (e.g. quick reflexes), he has also developed moral habits of mercilessness. The scenes in Cheng’s dojo are frightening in that they reveal how strong these habits of violence are. Cheng’s moral instinct is honed towards ruthlessness and malice. He does not have to think whether to spare his opponent. It has become second nature for him not to show mercy. Even if his bad character is partially a result of his bad upbringing, Cheng likely still has years of work to do before he overcomes his violent tendencies.

From the perspective of the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition, the film’s conclusion makes no sense. Habits are qualities of nature formed over time through acting a certain way such that the habit becomes a sort of “second nature.” “It takes more than one sparrow to make a spring,” Aristotle says, “and so also a habit.” For Aquinas, a habit differs from a disposition in that a habit cannot be easily lost, whereas a disposition may: “disposition, properly so called, can be divided against habit in two ways: first, as perfect and imperfect within the same species; and thus we call it a disposition, retaining the name of the genus, when it is had imperfectly, so as to be easily lost: whereas we call it a habit, when it is had perfectly, so as not to be lost easily. And thus a disposition becomes a habit, just as a boy becomes a man” (I-II, Q. 49, art. 2, ad. 3).

In our society today, we too are largely dismissive of the role of habits in determining our actions. We expect change overnight, whether we are talking about our New Year’s weight loss goals, the state of the economy, or our civil discourse. As a result, we have lost sight of the importance of endurance.

The virtue of fortitude includes two senses (II-II Q. 128). The first is attack, the courageous “rushing forth” to face a some difficulty. This is the glamorous side of courage, but the other sense of fortitude—endurance—is perhaps the more important side of this virtue. Of this sense, Josef Pieper writes in The Four Cardinal Virtues, “in the world as it is constituted, it is only in the supreme test, which leaves no other possibility of resistance than endurance, that the inmost and deepest strength of man reveals itself.” According to Aquinas,

two things are requisite for the other act of fortitude, viz. endurance. The first is that the mind be not broken by sorrow, and fall away from its greatness, by reason of the stress of threatening evil. On this respect he mentions “patience,” which he describes as “the voluntary and prolonged endurance of arduous and difficult things for the sake of virtue or profit.” The other is that by the prolonged suffering of hardships man be not wearied so as to lose courage, according to Hebrews 12:3, “That you be not wearied, fainting in your minds.” On this respect he mentions “perseverance,” which accordingly he describes as “the fixed and continued persistence in a well considered purpose.”

In real life, Dre would not only need endurance to face the years of training ahead of him in becoming enough of a Kung Fu master to defeat Cheng in a tournament, he would also need endurance to face the years of dealing with Cheng’s bullying as he not only tries to protect himself, but also strives to reach beyond Cheng’s violent façade to the human underneath, the human who will also need to endure the challenges of his own character as he strives to become a better person. As Dre endures, he will also need humility, compassion, forgiveness, and love to truly overcome his bully opponent.

On this note, I like the Niebuhr quote David Brooks used in his recent op-ed on the habits of uncivil discourse we have developed in this country.

“Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope. … Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore, we must be saved by the final form of love, which is forgiveness.”

We can add to this that most things worth doing then will require endurance. Unfortunately, few kids are learning these lessons today, and they certainly won’t learn it from Karate Kid.