Our Mirror of Virtue: A Meditation on Christian Morality

May 20, 2014 Leave a comment

Our Mirror of Virtue: A Meditation on Christian Morality
Br. Frederick Cutter, OblSB
Knights of Columbus Council 2838
Lector Reading for 20 May 2014

“Right is right, even if nobody does it. Wrong is wrong, even if everybody is wrong about it” (G.K. Chesterton, “Tom Jones and Morality”, All Things Considered, September 2, 1915).

Morality comes from the Latin moralitas – for character of proper behavior – the sum of a man’s thoughts, beliefs, and actions which forms the conscience. We evaluate this character in ourselves, each other, and entire civilizations. But by what standard do we evaluate morality?

Modern society reduced morality to an egocentric, subjective statement: “My morality shouldn’t be judged so long as it doesn’t hurt anyone else.” This statement presupposes three fallacies. First, that morality is defined by individual choice. Second, that the basis for its merit is whether it harms a social order. Third, that moral or immoral action should not be judged.

We don’t invent our own morality any more than we invent our own numbers or colors. Those who invent their own moral code either parallel existing moral laws and virtues, such as the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, the cardinal virtues, or they perpetrate crimes against each other, against society, against humanity. Moral truth is inscribed upon the very nature of the human conscience – it is why society has always sought to legislate itself. We don’t invent morality for it is already present as an intrinsic, genetic part of what we are in our creation.

“It doesn’t hurt anyone else” – the issue of harm to a social order. Running the red light at traffic intersections risks property damage, injury, and death. Straightforward legislation: running red lights is wrong because it disrupts an order established for the safety and welfare of society. Take a situation with zero traffic: Does the action still violate social order, or “hurt anyone else?” Tried in a legal setting, the defense of subjective morality’s lack of harm to others would not get very far with a judge and jury.

Perhaps the issue is the tenability of society’s moral norms. Society is an extension of the individual. Can society be any less fallible than the individual? What’s frightening is not that men like Hitler sought to rule the world through a regime of murder, but that he recruited your average next door neighbor to be his willing executioner. Societies can just as often become criminals against humanity, for they have murdered more than two hundred million people within living memory.

The obvious fallacy in the statement is that we should not judge immorality. We must determine by what standard moral virtue should be defined. This concept is anathema, scandalous, offensive to many in today’s world, to people who wish to live immorally without the inconvenience of judgment. But we should judge rightness of character with the same conviction of a mathematics instructor who is correct, if not obligated, to tell a student: “your answers are incorrect, they are wrong.” Have we no less duty to our fellow man to do the same with moral actions? Yet we see enraged eyes when we point out: “this action, this position you have taken is by its very nature immoral. It is wrong.” Modern society demands we stand idly by and watch as it destroys itself with its immorality while trumpeting accusations that we are intolerant, narrow minded, judgmental. We should be intolerant, narrow minded, and judgmental of immorality, with the same fervor of an academic that refuses to tolerate incorrect work.

By what standards do we make such bold assertions? Not individual, moral subjectivism. Not society, which is just as prone to fallibility as the individual. We judge against the source of our conscience, the natural law intrinsic to creation that governs everything from the mathematical precision of physical equations to the behavior of our interactions with ourselves and each other.

The standards of natural law in our behavior have been known throughout history as the classical cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. Prudence provides men sound reasoning and wisdom for discerning the truth. Justice moderates behavior. Fortitude provides the courage to act rightly even in the face of opposition. Temperance restrains the fulfillment of destructive desires. These virtues mirror our Creator’s nature: “Be holy, for I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16) and form the foundation for our claim to human equality in the Declaration of Independence, for our trial of war criminals at Nuremburg, for our examination of conscience, for the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity that transcend human nature.

The immoral man is often quick to praise, even admire those who espouse the virtuous life, and quick to ridicule those who similarly represent their antithesis. This contradiction, this inconsistency of the immoral man’s character itself speaks volumes and testifies to the truth of natural law.

Let the words of the Apostle echo in our hearts and overpower the obscenities and slanders we endure as we defend moral virtue in a society beset with crumbling values: “Have I now become your enemy, because I tell you the truth?” (Galatians 4:16).

Taking Flight in Faith: A Meditation on Christian Morality

April 23, 2014 Leave a comment

Taking Flight in Faith: A Meditation on Christian Morality
Br. Frederick Cutter, OblSB
Knights of Columbus Council 2838
Lector Reading for 22 April 2014

[As I proofread this essay, the NYT reported 16 Nepalese sherpas were killed in an avalanche on 18 April while preparing ropes for the 2014 Mount Everest climbing season. Please keep their families in your thoughts and prayers. ]

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“Who shall climb the mountain of the Lord? Who shall stand in his holy place?” (Psalm 24:3).

The Himalayan peak of Annapurna I beckons to the hearts of those men who gaze upon it from miles below. Out of every five climbers who make a bid for its summit, two of them will die in the attempt.

A quarter of the Earth’s land mass is a mountainous, vast wilderness, the most extreme of which is guarded by death: Pyramid slopes of avalanche prone snow, fierce winds that strip climbers free from their cliffs, thin air so unbreathable that a man at sea level would pass out almost instantly.

The awe of spiritual heights holds even greater power over human imagination, for even the godless concede we possess a spiritual quality to our nature. We use “rising/falling” as metaphors for life/death, awakening/sleeping, and success/failure. Perhaps we used these descriptions all throughout history and across every civilization because they reflect something intrinsic about the image of our spiritual nature. We profess in our Nicene Creed that Christ descended into hell, rose to new life, ascended into heaven.

Scripture describes our faith with images of mountains. This is the place where the Lord dwells, where mystics retreat to discover the depths of eternity, where our light as disciples is meant to shine, where our patriarchs received revelation. God made covenants with Noah and Abraham, and gave Moses the Ten Commandments from a mountain. The transfiguration of Christ and his later Ascension into Heaven occurred on a mountain. Revelation promises that the bride of Christ is to be presented from atop a great, high mountain.

But for that to happen, we must first arrive at that summit. The Lord calls us to carry our cross up the mountain upon which he dwells. He gave us the example through his own life, and just as the rabble ridiculed his climb to Calvary and His falls on the way, so too will the world ridicule us. The media feeds its ravenous appetite on news of our falls into spiritual death. The world hopes, wants, and encourages us to fail. The godless world watches, with a sickening anticipation of delight and alacrity, as men fall to certain death.

Yet onward we climb. A man atop a mountain peak can see much farther than a man flat in a ditch covered with the mud of the world. A man encamped within a mountain stone fortress is unassailable. The world builds upon easily destroyed foundations of sand.

As we progress in this spiritual ascent, we see the world for what it is and could have been, but we also glimpse into the eternity that will be.

No wonder history’s greatest mystics disappeared into the mountains. Benedict of Nursia taught his first monks that the climb is exhausting, dangerous, filled with snares and traps and temptations that lead to cliffs of spiritual death. The safe path is narrow, hidden. As a result most men remain obstinate and unwilling to make the ascent. But failure to make the attempt at all leads to certain eternal death. The master cast out the servant who buried the talent of gold. This servant did not waste or squander the money, but did nothing with what he had been given. The Lord punishes the lazy far more severely than those who honestly try and fail. But even as we so often fall, we take solace in the knowledge that the Lord commands his angels to bear us up, lest we dash feet against stone.

We are safer in these mountains than we ever could be in the world.

With that confidence we undertake this journey with tools and equipment to make the ascent. The Lord gave us our ropes and harnesses: Scripture, liturgy, creed. These tools save us when we experience avalanches of despair, when winds of temptation threaten to blow us free from the cliffs to which we desperately cling, when the air becomes so thin, so unbreathable, that the only breath we have left is that which the Lord gave us in our creation.

Yet just as we collapse from the exhaustion of our ascent, the angels will raise us upright, wipe us clean, dress us in the finest linens, and present us to all the new Creation as the Bride of Christ our Lord. In this eternity to come, from within that holy place on the Lord’s great mountain, we will then ascend higher than ever before.

For from upon the breath of the Holy Spirit, we will spread wings and fly.

The Relationship Divide: An Essay on Christian Morality

March 18, 2014 Leave a comment

The Relationship Divide: An Essay on Christian Morality
Br. Frederick Cutter, OblSB
Knights of Columbus Council 2838
Lector Reading for 18 March 2014

Towards the end of his life the influential Protestant theologian Karl Barth was once asked what the most profound theological concept he had ever attempted to wrap his mind around. Without a beat, he replied: “Jesus loves me.”

We are a social species. Anthropologists study our social nature from an evolutionary construct, but the scientist fails to recognize the true source of this nature.

For it is written: “God said, let us make man in our image.”

Our Nicene Profession of Faith identifies our belief about who and more importantly what God is: The very nature of God within the Trinity is that of a relationship.

Theologians have spent twenty centuries contemplating the mystery of this relationship. Nearly every heresy the Church fought in its early history began with an attempt to demystify God’s relational nature within himself.

 God breathed life into man. This act separated us from the rest of creation, for it imparted God’s nature within us. We are made in his likeness. What is this likeness? It is God’s relational identity: our desire to commune with Him and with each other. No wonder marriage is the very first sacrament in Scripture. No wonder every culture in history not only had some understanding of a transcendent divinity, but communed with that divinity.

God’s desire to create through relationships was similarly imparted into us. We create civilizations, corporations, music, literature, art. Why? To relate with and within our world. We create in a way unlike any other species. We procreate God’s likeness into our future generations.

Our fractured relationship with each other wounds our spirit, much like our sinful nature fractures our relationship with God. Why else is divorce so destructive to the spirit of a young child?  We confess our sins through the Church, not because God needs to hear us confess our sins, but because we need to reconcile our relationship with each other as much as, if not more so than we need to with God. He knows our sin. Scripture commands us: “Confess your sins to each other,” for “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us and cleanse us of our unrighteousness”

We govern each other within society because we recognize the necessity of enforcing the ideality of a full communion with each other. That is why we govern morality: laws against murder, theft, and treason are designed to prevent a fracture of the society in which we live. People who say we can’t legislate morality are out of touch with the reality of exactly who and what they really are.

For all the imagery of fire and brimstone and torture, Hell possesses only two theological attributes: it is eternally private. It is private, for we lack communion with our Creator and each other. This lack of communion is the culmination of our willful desire to break communion with our Creator. “Depart from me, you wicked” are the words we fear most to hear at our judgment. Hell is the antithesis of what Heaven represents: eternal communion with our Creator and each other. The ultimate suffering of hell is that we are no longer a we, but an I suffering eternal loneliness. Erich Fromm was a mid-twentieth century social psychologist who studied the clinical nature of evil. As he once so famously said, “evil is an I-I relationship.”

As we progress through our Lenten observance, let us contemplate the mystery of God’s relationship within himself and with us, a mystery we cannot begin to understand. God willed his only Son to die for our sins, so that we may be reconciled back into eternal communion. This relationship is the foundation for everything we believe as Christians. It is our foundation of stone upon which we build our lives with each other within the Church.

And this relationship begins with the words, “Jesus loves me.”

The Flickering Flame of Faith

December 22, 2013 Leave a comment

Faith is the foundation of life, for we achieve nothing without it. Observe every great achievement, accomplishment, sacrifice, and you will find faith behind it as the driving action. Thus, there is a strong positive correlation between faith and achievement.

This is an intellectual, abstract faith in the capabilities of the human spirit. It comes from within the heart, and cannot be measured or quantified. The quality of this faith depends on the quality of one’s thoughts and spirit. Observe the reasons behind any failure and we will often find the lack of faith a significant factor. Faith can resurrect one from despair and failure. Without faith a person might as well be dead, for life has no hope for improvement, no hope for success, no hope for anything.

Faith drove Alexander the Great to conquer the known world. Discoveries and advancements in science and technology were driven by the faith of pioneers. Edison made thousands of attempts with the lamp. Despite the insurmountable cultural and social odds, Mother Teresa and her followers served the dying and impoverished of Calcutta through faith that their actions mattered.

What is faith?

A dictionary answer might be: “Confidence or trust in a person or thing: faith in another’s ability. Belief that is not based on proof. Belief in God or in the doctrines or teachings of religion. Belief in anything, as a code of ethic standards of merit. A system of religious belief.”

This dictionary citation captures the whole of humanity. There is not a person alive that doesn’t exercise faith in at least one of these capacities. However, I find it interesting that the antagonist to religious faith argues that faith is not rational, that to accept “faith” in the religious sense is to abandon reason, that to do so turns back the clock on a society advancing on the success of scientific reason.

I’d only want to turn back the clock if the clock is keeping bad time, which in this sense it is. And we have already seen that, in a larger sense, faith is the foundation for all that we have attained as a society. Faith is no more unreasonable than love – for though faith often transcends reason, so does love. And I have yet to meet a nonbeliever who rejects love on the same “rational” terms as faith.

So once we start down this road, where shall it end? Many “believe” in vibrating strings on a subatomic scale that form the building blocks for matter, and they believe in a mysterious “dark” matter and energy that permeates the known universe which cannot be observed or quantified. What good does this knowledge provide to the daily interior life of the human spirit, whether or not it is “true” or “correct” as a model?

I find it interesting so many are willing to believe in the created things of this universe without acknowledging a creator, the same source of the faith that drives us to knowledge of creation.

The Sound of Hope

December 19, 2013 Leave a comment

“All wars are civil wars, because all men are brothers” (Archbishop Francois de Salignac de la Mothe-Fenelon, 1651-1715).

The United Nations General Assembly condemned Syria, North Korea, and Iran for human rights violations. Civil wars rage, blood spills, and the cries of the defenseless echo throughout eternity.

Anyone who has taken an ethics class may have been posed the question: “Would you feel justified in stealing food if you were starving to death?” Maybe, if you were like me, you engaged in a colorful ideological debate on the subject. As interesting a topic this might be for abstract discussion, it’s impossible to have an honest discussion when your own stomach has never known starvation, or when theft is quite literally your only means of survival.

Survival is a miracle for the residents of these lands. Suffering is a given. Humanity has always needed to be rescued from itself, from its fallen state. Even the non-believer in a creator acknowledges the inherent evil that has driven humanity to every imaginable horror throughout its history. From the day Adam and Eve were first driven out of Eden, we have desired nothing more than to be free from the suffering we inflict on each other and ourselves.

The Christian recognizes this day will not come of our own accord. We will never “evolve” beyond this destructive nature.

But that does not mean we cannot hope.

What does hope sound like, look like, feel like? — “Love the Lord your God with all your soul and with all your mind… [and] love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37, 39).

 

A Light Goes Out

December 17, 2013 Leave a comment

A retiring medical officer I served with on both my deployments will be publishing a book detailing his observations of the Iraq war. He asked me to review it and perhaps add some of my own experiences and observations.

One of his chapters regards a wonderful young Iraqi man, who operated a successful cigar shop outside our camp in 2005. The chapter ends with his murder by insurgents. Even more sadly, it was done within sight of his own young son.

One of the few lights penetrating the darkness of that country has been extinguished.

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