Saturday, May 23, 2009

Speaking of Which.

Since it was just the feast of St. Athanasius, I'm reminded of one of my favorite quotes of his, in a letter to Marcellinus on the Psalms:
...Holy Scripture is not designed to tickle the aesthetic palate, and it is rather for the soul's own profit that the Psalms are sung. This is so chiefly for two reasons. In the first place, it is fitting that the sacred writings should praise God in poetry as well as prose, because the freer, less restricted form of verse, in which the Psalms together with the Canticles and Odes, are cast, ensures that by them men should express their love to God with all the strength and power they possess. And, secondly, the reason lies in the unifying effect which chanting the Psalms has upon the singer. For to sing the Psalms demands such concentration of a man's whole being on them that, in doing it, his usual disharmony of mind and corresponding bodily confusion is resolved, just as the notes of several flutes are brought by harmony to one effect; and he is thus no longer to be found thinking good and doing evil, as Pilate did when, though saying "I find no cause of death in Him," he yet allowed the Jews to have their way; nor desiring evil though unable to achieve it, as did the elders in their sin against Susanna - or, for that matter, as does any man who abstains from one sin and yet desires another every bit as bad. And it is in order that the melody may thus express our inner spiritual harmony, just as the words voice our thoughts, that the Lord Himself has ordained that the Psalms are to be sung and recited to a chant...those who do sing as I have indicated, so that the melody of the words springs naturally from the rhythm of the soul and her own union with the Spirit, they sing with the tongue and with the understanding also, and greatly benefit not themselves alone but also those who want to listen to them."
I really love the philosophy and theology behind art - and, being in a choir, really appreciate Athanasius' take on the relation between the soul and the song.

Who Will Save Your Soul?

If you've ever read Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, you instantly grock that the author truly loves the character of his excessively virile, flawed, and young protagonist: Tom Jones. Tom commits many shocking indiscretions and easily gets into bed with women whilst being deeply devoted to another who is the paragon of virtue, delicacy, and beauty. The author, anticipating our censure, makes a plea for Tom: he's flawed, yes, but he is also a man of good-will, capable of appreciating, striving for, and attaining virtue. Don't, Fielding begs, conflate *a* defining moment of a life - or even several "a"s - with "the" defining moment of our life. That is, with the moment of death. Most people habitually commit sins - some quite serious ones - and most people would not like to be judged solely by the worst sin they committed or by what the world sees and makes of that sin.

And yet, many people, in a fit of righteousness, use one defining moment/act as the defining moment/act of that person's life - on both a social and a moral level - when it comes to transgressions. The internet is rather devilishly misused to work that righteousness up to an unreflective frenzy (see the Christopher West eruption, for example). All one seems to hear about - even on Catholic blogs - is SCANDAL, SCANDAL, SCANDAL! Then follows the public hue and cry. Outrage! Shock!

Such a state of existence can be useful, if and when an object/act merits such a strong response, but it seems that when everyone is in such a state of hyper-agitation it is dangerously easy to jump from a moment to the moment, or to too hastily jump from a moderate to a nuclear sort of option (which isn't to say I dislike using nuclear options - in Sid Mier's Civ II, I often enabled the cheats and did just that. So long, Mongol hordes!).

Shame - or the idea of shame - is used to make people behave. It works, sometimes. When a radio dj messes up, or embarrassing pictures of a beauty queen emerge, or news of a cheating politician gets about, the common response of the offender - after the public has got wind of the offense - is to say: I am sorry - I regret what I did. Is this a success? Well, as Athanasius points out, one gets a very definite sense that they are not sorry for the act but that they are sorry they got caught and they regret the effect it will have on their career.

And why? What that radio dj said might be objectively really shocking. He will be remembered and judged in the minds of many people as 'that person who said X.." But there floats about an Ayer-like conception of good and evil which, roughly, equates "good" and "bad" with purely personal-value-driven-expressive-response. So saying "X is bad" equates to "@#%$^^ X!!!" These expressive statements cannot - *cannot* - be good or bad and certainly cannot be universal (de gustibus...).

Naturally, this touches upon the question of what it means to be human. If good and evil are driven by personal values, then my good is determined solely by myself - or by an other's utilization of myself for their own value-driven-conception of goodness (i.e. I might be used as a slave - I'd be useful then, and valued as such). A being's goodness, and a being's acts, are not intrinsically/objectively good or evil. Therefore, we are not capable of virtue or vice, of redemption or damnation, of repentance.

That doesn't jive with reality, and yet - or maybe "and so" - there is this morbid urge to damn those who gain notoriety by stepping outside of arbitrary demarcations (formally endorsed by law) determined by personal values. Damn the undamnable? Shame the shameless? Why? It seems like a form of mutilated hope for redemption. Saying something matters is better to say that nothing matters - a very tenuous grip on reality is held. And if someone else is being damned then at least I'm not, because I didn't do that.

I entirely agree with Athanasius that people who are shocked (along with those who are not) by the bad behavior of those in the public sphere have created the culture in which that behavior can thrive. However, I place a different interpretation on the use of shame: it's not really shame that moves a politician to express regret -- it's fear. When motivated by shame, it is because there is something that we are *ashamed of*: we recognize our acts/words as shameful. But there is an attempt going on to shame that politician (because we don't want to say that nothing matters) and it is an attempt that really finds no corresponding notion of redemption: of Christ.

And that really isn't very pleasant. Without Christ at the center of the universe, history, reality (I paraphrase the beginning words of Pope John Paul the Great's first encyclical), how can we look at another human being and say they are capable of repentance? How can we look at them and say "you are good," if we cannot say that their being is good because it is created in the image and likeness of God?

To some extent, Henry Fielding is not making a plea solely for Tom Jones, but for all of humanity - saying that we are all capable of being redeemed because we are all Tom Jones to a certain extent.

I close with a quote from Graham Greene (from The End of the Affair - the speaker is in a Church):

I was trying to escape from the human body and all it needed. I thought I could believe in some kind of God that bore no relation to ourselves, something vague, amorphous, cosmic, to which I had promised something and which had given me something in return - stretching out of the vague into the concrete human life, like a powerful vapour - I would escape myself forever...I had done so much injury with this body. How could I want to preserve any of it for eternity, and suddenly I remembered a phrase of Richard's - about human beings inventing doctrines to satisfy their desires, and I thought how wrong he is. If I were to invent a doctrine it would be that the body was never born again, that it rotted with last year's vermin...Then I began to want my body that I hated, but only because it could love that scar. We can love with our minds, but can we love only with our minds? Love extends itself all the time, so that we can even love with our senseless nails: we love even with our clothes, so that a sleeve can find a sleeve.
If you have a copy of the End of the Affair, I highly recommend finding this passage and reading it in its entirety - Greene is a profound writer.