Friday, July 24, 2015

The Consumerism of Religion

   Sitting in the library this afternoon, I glanced up and noticed that my chair was situated right next to the "Religion" shelves. Religion. Hmm... when I see this word I get a strange blend of feelings initially. The first is a feeling of prickly guardedness and caution, while the secondary one is a sense of familiarity and confidence in the all that the word means.

 I ponder what kinds of books will be housed in this section, and the Holy Bible, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux float across my consciousness. Then of course I imagine there must be books about Judaism and Islam as well, but it is less easy for me to imagine their works apart from the Q'uran and the Talmud. It's a strange thing isn't it. Centuries of conflict, all resting peacefully together in one tidy little section of a vast library.

   In some way, this situation strikes me as humorous. It's a secret little joke I share with myself. I realize that the categorization and smallness of the "Religion" section is somewhat analogous to the American attitude toward religion in general. The attitude among my peers, and indeed more than a few of my elders, is one of somewhat disinterested choosiness. Many young people have the idea that they can pick, choose, and filter what they want to believe from any number of different religious systems without any sense that this could lead to instability, inconsistency, and a false sense of reality. I have a hunch that this consumerism of religion has a deep root in our cultural heritage...

      I have plenty of friends who have bounced from church to church, with no real rhyme or reason. If asked, a lot of times their reasoning is along the lines of, "Well, their beliefs just didn't quite add up with mine", or "I didn't like many of the people there". I find it kind of strange how they see their own views on Christianity, probably less informed than a pastor, as holding more weight and value. It would be like me - having never taken a physics class in my life - telling someone with a PhD in this field that his views are irrelevant because they don't correspond with mine. That's just pretty absurd.

   I'll tell you my rough "theory" on how this phenomenon came about. Cultural relativism. If you've ever taken an introductory Philosophy course, you know exactly what I'm talking about. Cultural relativism is a philosophical view which holds that no culture is superior to another in any regard, and that whatever one culture views is true must be legitimate.
   It permeates all aspects of American culture, including politics, law, education, entertainment, morality, and religion. Let me make it clear, as an anthropology major in college I was constantly bombarded with this standard, because from the academic standpoint it is the least dangerous to the cultures we are trying to understand and study. The core maxim of anthropology as a field (particularly in the "cultural anthropology" sub-field) is this:
"In conducting and publishing their research, or otherwise disseminating their research results, anthropological researchers must ensure that they do not harm the safety, dignity, or privacy of the people with whom they work, conduct research, or perform other professional activities, or who might reasonably be thought to be affected by their research."
   This idea is hammered into our empty skulls from day one, and I am always wryly reminded of the Wiccan Rede, summed up by one of its statements,  'An it harm none, do what ye will'. Oh well, I take it with a grain of salt. I can appreciate the relevance of cultural relativism, properly utilized, in my chosen field. However, I will never allow cultural relativism to trump my moral convictions that are informed by Christ and His Church.

   By no means am I an expert in history, so bear with me if the following seems a little generalized. I will state an educated guess about the formation of this subjective, relativistic worldview. It seems to me that it must have come about, particularly in America, as a counter-movement against the conquesting mentality of our European ancestors.

   The Anglo-Saxons in Europe and their descendants as well as the Romans and all those who made up the "dawn of civilization", as it were, left a lot of death and destruction in their wake as they conquered and assimilated smaller, less advanced peoples. They swept across Europe through the centuries until there were only several large empires remaining in the Eastern hemisphere.

   After the Spanish, French, and English sailed the Atlantic Ocean to colonize the New World,   important ideological views were shifting. The initial impetus of conquest was informed by religion, under the conviction that God wanted His Church to subdue all of the earth and bring it under Her dominion. Over time, this idea shifted to the desire to escape from the all-encompassing authoritarian rule of the crown. Some of those who left Europe and their descendants decided they wanted to have supreme ownership of their brand new country and the British were overthrown and cast out (wow talk about history 101 in fast-forward). They wanted a fresh start, and did not want to be accountable to the British, nor to have to pay taxes to the monarchy.

  Of course, the ideal of freedom from oppression and hierarchical rule,  among other things, eventually lead to the American Revolution and Independence. It's no wonder Americans have a serious problem with authority, particularly when presented with the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church! And it's certainly no wonder we have a problem with telling people that they may or may not be wrong about anything. After all, we all have freedom of speech and everyone has a right to their own opinion! Sigh.

(Pic credit here)

    I believe that as globalization has progressed and greater strides have been made in our knowledge of the world and other societies, we realize all of the horrible things that have been done in the name of religion. We see also the damage that has been done by cultures who deem their own to be superior and the "only way to do things". A humorous side note: I know some English people who still hold this mentality to some extent, although they do not carry it through to its tyrannical end!

  Anyway, cultural relativism is a worldview that attempts to reconcile all people without taking the moral or cultural high ground. However, this view has the potential to be dangerous, as it rejects all objective truth. A relativist, if remaining consistent with this perspective, would not be able to look Hitler in the eye and say "what you're doing is wrong". There is no justice within a relativistic system.

   Say, for example, that according to a particular culture cannibalism is not only morally acceptable, but is even actively encouraged. According to American sensibilities, cannibalism is both morally wrong and extremely repulsive. Objectively speaking, both of these views cannot be true. An action is either objectively immoral or objectively moral. The only grey, subjective area is intentionality - but only God truly objectively knows what a person's intentions were.

   Imagine the "Ghearlapha" (made up) tribe believes that every day the sun is pulled into the sky by a giant unicorn pegasus that has rainbow fur. In the United States, most of us believe that the earth rotates around the sun and each day represents one full turn of the earth on its axis. One of us is correct... but according to cultural relativism, the US culture does not have a right to tell the Ghearlapha culture that they are wrong. If the Ghearlapha tribe wants to believe that a unicorn pegasus brings the sun into the sky, they can, because who are we to tell them their truth isn't true? LOL HAHA

Here is something for all of you relativists to consider: the classic relative trump card. Here it is: If all truth claims are relative, and there is no objective truth, then how can you make that claim? Isn't that statement self-refuting? If there is no objective truth, then you cannot say that your relative view is true.

   On a more serious note, this relativistic attitude carries over to religious views. Looking at the book shelf categorization of Religion in the library, I came to this realization. Religion, in American society, is just another category we get to shop around in. It's very nonchalant, and appears to be of no consequence. All over the internet, people proclaim that everybody has a right to choose which religion to follow and that no one can be more right than someone else about religious truth.

   We are encouraged to pick which religion to follow based off of... well, what? How we feel? What "seems" truest? Did everyone suddenly become Biblical and Quranic scholars overnight?? No. No, they did not. Oftentimes they dabble here and there and settle with whichever religion makes them feel best. (Um yes, I was very guilty of this in my earlier days - before college, mind you! Which is kind of ironic because it seems to me that a lot of college students pick this up while they're in college. But I digress). How have we come to this? I believe it is the result of a dangerous mixture of cultural relativism, consumerism, and the mistaken view that the goal of life is happiness and comfort.

   If all religions were philosophies, then perhaps this pickiness would be justified. After all, how would we even know which religion is true, since they all come from different premises? For example, some religions claim there are many deities (pagans), some religions believe there is no Supreme Being at all (atheists), etc. Everyone has their own arguments as to why they think they hold the most reasonable position. Fine. That's just how it is. Christianity, however, is not the same as the all the other world religions.

Here is why.

   To steal an idea from Fr. Robert Barron (from his DVD "Catholicism"): The Dali Lama would say he has discovered divine truth, and is the instrument of God who disseminates this knowledge. The prophet Muhammad would never in his wildest dreams claim that he is God - no, he was a Prophet of God, but not God himself. Jesus, on the other hand, claims - and proves - that he is the Son of God. He is "the Way, the Truth, and the Life", and no one comes to the Father except through Him.
(borrowed from

   To steal a wonderful quote from another great thinker of our times, C.S. Lewis,
 "A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse."
 Luckily for us, Jesus was and is truly the Son of God. He is the second person of the Trinity, the Son, begotten, not made, of the Father, and he came to redeem us and reconcile our broken humanity with Himself. He humbled himself in the form of a slave and poured out His blood for our sake. The Resurrection confirms all the truths of the Gospel, and they were written by the apostles and disciples who had a personal encounter with the one True God. If you want or need more information about proofs of the Resurrection, here is an excellent starting point, written by one of my favorite modern Catholic apologists, Peter Kreeft:

   So if Jesus is truly who He claimed to be, and really meant everything He said, and really wants us to take up our crosses daily and follow Him (Luke 9:23), then don't you think that the most important pursuit of our lives is to determine what we need to do to really know Jesus, His teachings, and what He really wants from us?

   If we disregard Christ, then we disregard not some aloof abstract ideal. We reject a person, a person who loves us so much that He endured unimaginable torture for our sake, knowing full well that He possessed the power to make it all stop. He did not do that for some abstract "humanity". No, He did it for each and every individual who has ever been conceived. When you look upon a crucifix, imagine Christ's eyes piercing yours as you hear Him whisper solemnly "I did this for you".

   Will you reject his love by remaining in sin? When I sin, I imagine myself spitting in Jesus's face as he is burdened with the cross. It breaks my heart that I'm capable of offending Him so, after He has forgiven me countless times, but He is always there to accept my repentance as soon as I implore it of Him. Our God is Love unconditional.

Please pray for me, I'll be praying for you.

Next blog post: A Mystical Rosebud - the source of my blog title!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Intrinsic Goodness of Beauty

   Churches in the United States are businesses and social gathering places first and foremost. When my English husband first visited me here, he was surprised to see churches that seemed like aircraft carriers and warehouses on the side of the road. They are much unlike most English churches, which are often quite old with intricate architecture reminiscent of days when quality and beauty really mattered.
He commented to me that he has never felt inspired to go into an American Protestant church and finds it odd that so many of them don't even appear to have windows. 

"Nobody would live in a building like that, so why should God be housed in it?" he speculated.
Now I could be going a bit far down speculation road here, but I don't think the architects and those directing them are very much concerned about housing God. It appears, to me, to belie a casual attitude with regard to pleasing the Lord. And why not, if you consider the bread and wine to be merely symbolic, but not really the body and blood of Christ?

   When I put myself in the Protestant mindset, it appears to be perfectly reasonable to think "God understands" or "God doesn't care what our buildings look like as long as we love Him and our neighbors". There is something to be said for that, but personally I feel that great glory can be given to God through our effort to make a beautiful space for Him.

The space you worship in has the ability to influence your sense of awe and reverence for the Almighty. Of course aesthetic concerns are hardly moral or intellectual, but to me, it's still (in all honesty) one reason why I'm not Protestant! Yes, it is a small niggly reason, but it is a reason nonetheless.

I like a pretty Church. Call me old school. I don't think Mary, who housed the Lord, would have been an ugly woman - especially considering the fact that He made sure to preserve her from the stain of original sin! That having been said, God is not "too good" for less aesthetically pleasing spaces. After all, he was born in an inn and laid in an animal's manger.
How great is our Savior - to humble himself so!

God created humans as a perfect unity of body, mind, and soul. Therefore our perceptions are not restricted to just theological, philosophical, or otherwise intellectual revelations. Neither are they restricted to spiritual revelations, given as a gift to those who are open to belief. Indeed,we can also learn about the reality of God through our senses - sight, smell, sounds, touch, and taste.
That is one reason why the Catholic liturgy is so appealing to many. Its "bells and whistles" are beautiful to us on a deep level. We hear the Word of God. We taste the gift of Love in the Eucharist. Occasionally we "smell" incense, and we shake hands during the sign of peace. We see the crucifix, a reminder of the eternal sacrifice of Christ that we celebrate at Mass. We see the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.

A Catholic Mass is very involved! It marries body, mind, and spirit in a way that few other things in life can. Marriage, more specifically the marital act, is one of the few "activities" (this word falls short) that can fulfill the human person in the to the fullest extent possible. And what is more beautiful than the fruit of the marital act - a tiny perfect innocent baby? Only one thing: the fruit of universal Love that is given to the Church, through the liturgy, to spread throughout the world!! The fruit of marriage is life. The fruit of the Mass is eternal life.

Oh dear, I've gone down a "theology of the body" rabbit hole... I really should do a post about marriage! Back to the subject...

Beauty is more than just a visual thing. There is also beauty in the soul. I would like to propose a type of biblically-informed hierarchy of beauty. A beautiful soul is to be treasured more than a beautiful body. All souls are beautiful because they are unique and formed individually by the mind of God. Their value is derived, in part, because they are immortal in the "image and likeness of God". This does not pass away.

A beautiful body will not retain its beauty forever, but like all things of visual attractiveness being bestowed with good looks is an unasked for gift that God chooses to grant to some individuals for reasons only He really understands. I'm sure there is a reason why God creates less than attractive people, but I'm not inclined or qualified to speculate on that topic! (i.e. I am a coward).

But the LORD said to Samuel: Do not judge from his appearance or from his lofty stature, because I have rejected him. Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the LORD looks into the heart." -1 Samuel 16:7

Charm is deceptive and beauty fleeting; the woman who fears the LORD is to be praised." -Proverbs 31:30

Thank goodness my soul isn't hideous; I would have had zero chance with my husband!

A lot of people like to point fingers at the wealth of the Church. If you love the poor and suffering so much, they cry, why not sell some of the art housed in the Vatican? Why not sell the Pieta, that glorious effigy of the mourning Madonna holding her dead Son in her arms?

The answer is this: the beauty of art is a priceless gift that can help us be inspired to search for God. When we imperfect, flawed, pitiful, and broken humans are in the presence of beauty - whether it be natural or man-made - our spirits are lifted out of the mundane to focus on that which is greater.

Timeless pieces of art serve the faithful by helping to inspire and retain a sense of awe in us towards the Almighty. We are more capable of appreciating the rich tapestry of His Church and His universe.
They touch the deep recess of the soul that longs for God. A God who is beauty, Truth, and Love.

There is an intrinsic goodness in beauty. "I am who am", God says. God just "is". In a similar way, beautiful things just "are". We can sit all day describing the characteristics and attributes of a pretty flower, but at the end of the day we realize that we can't really "get at" what it is that we are really drawn to. Why do people all over the world, through all the ages, love the rich colors of nature? The fresh scent of a newly blossomed rose?

Just like Plato's allegory of the cave, we can only see the dim likeness of perfection reflected on the wall. It is not until we see the Truth of reality in heaven that we will comprehend the pure essence of beauty which is God Himself.

It is a beautiful moment when creation beckons us to contemplate the Creator and brings us to a greater appreciation of His goodness and love.

It is important to keep beautiful things in the proper perspective, though. They should bring our hearts and minds to God. If we become too attached to creation (whether natural or man-made), it is harder to part with it. We have a strong tendency to become too attached to this life and its pleasures.
Like all of creation, beauty passes away.
(A perfectly relevant quote from the Little Flower herself, St. Therese)

The Creator alone is eternal and unchanging.
We can only have eternal life if we love Him and follow Him in the person of Christ, who has reconciled us.

Please pray for me, I am always praying for you.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Transgender Identity: From One Catholic's Perspective

Let me begin by stating categorically what this post is not meant to do. It is not meant to judge anyone.

*Only God is omniscient - only he knows people's hearts and true intentions, so only He can judge with genuine justice.
*It is not meant to damn or condemn (I'm certainly no saint myself).

What it is, however, is a series of observations regarding the transgender phenomenon from my own perspective, looking through the lenses of a somewhat objectively minded (albeit imperfect) B.A. "certified" anthropologist.

First I will explain what I think this phenomenon is all about.
Then I will briefly describe what I think Christians ought to consider doing to address these types of delicate transgender issues.

I do not have a vested interest to offend or hurt anyone... But I do have an obligation to speak the truth when I have reason to believe it will help even one single person. 

The transgender movement is getting a lot of attention these days. But what you don't see in the popular media very often is how many transgenders attempt suicide.
Bruce Jenner, now wanting to be recognized as Caitlyn Jenner, admitted to Diane Sawyer that he contemplated suicide, following a surgery to remove his adam's apple (link here). This may have made the news due to the Jenner's high profile status, but what about the countless others who suffer unnoticed?

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, a survey conducted by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and National Center for Transgender Equality indicates that the the rate of suicide attempts among respondents is a staggering 41% (Haas, Rodgers, & Herman 2014:2). Compare that to the overall U.S. population rate of suicide attempts which is 4.6% (Haas, et al 2014:2).
You don't have to be very clever to realize that this is quite a significant difference. There is a high rate of suicide attempts among those who identify as transgender. What is the cause of this? Who can say? What matters is that there is clearly an underlying problem that is not being dealt with. The trans question goes deeper than many people realize.

The following is by no means perfect science or perfect doctrine, but is something I've picked up from various psychology and anthropology readings and classes.
The zeitgeist of our age espouses the philosophy that gender identity exists on a continuum rather than (as formerly believed) a binary concept. People often identify themselves as having varying levels of "female-ness" or "male-ness". For example, a girl who exhibits many traditionally "male" characteristics such as competitiveness, aggressiveness, or as being rather strong might identify as being more manly, or a "tomboy". On the flip side, males who exhibit womanly traits might consider themselves more effeminate.
What we need to remember is this: these characteristics are culturally defined - although they are generally consistent across cultures.
A woman can exhibit manly characteristics without identifying as a man and vice versa.
Western cultures - particularly the American culture - are not very hospitable to allowing the expression of this, however. How many men do you see going around in women's clothes because they like it, and yet still get to join his friends at the bar to watch football? You're right. It never happens. It's taboo.

Let me back up a second and extrapolate on what it means to be a man or a woman, in terms of physical sex.
Sex is genetically determined. Apart from exceedingly rare cases of true hermaphroditism, all people either have an XX (female) or XY (male) sex chromosome configuration. If you have XX you are genetically and physically a female (exhibited by eggs and accompanying hormones such as estrogen, etc), and if you are XY you are genetically and physically a male (exhibited by sperm and accompanying hormones such as high testosterone, etc).

It can be conceived that a woman might have higher male hormones which could make her subjectively feel more the way men supposedly feel. However that subjective feeling does not mean that she is a man because her sex chromosomes - particularly the way they are expressed in her reproductive organs - define her womanhood. The same goes for a man with high levels of estrogen. We are not given the ability to step outside of our bodies, look objectively at “male” essence and “female” essence and then pick one and say “that’s me”. Our perspective is always subjective.
In his book, When Harry Became Sally, Ryan Anderson states, “Our minds and senses function properly when they reveal reality to us and lead us to knowledge of truth. And we flourish as human beings when we embrace the truth and live in accordance with it. A person might find some subjective satisfaction in believing and living out a falsehood, but that person would not be objectively well off.”

Transgender people often claim they have always identified more with the opposite sex and "feel" more like the opposite sex than they were born. I pose this question (assuming the person is genetically male and intellectually honest):
1) Have you ever been a biological female, that is to say, have you ever had XX sex chromosomes?
-All males must say no, because science has not advanced so far as to allow people to change their sex chromosomes.
2) Then I would ask, if you have never been genetically female, how could you ever know what a genetic female feels subjectively?
-They cannot answer, because they have never been in that situation.
3) If you have never been a female, and you cannot know how a female feels subjectively, then how can you claim to identify that way?

The tragedy is this: rather than believing the problem is with society, transgender people believe the problem is with themselves. That they have been "born in the wrong body". This is nonsense!
Just because you subjectively feel "effeminate" according to what society dictates does not mean your physiology is wrong.
Being a man and exhibiting traditionally womanly characteristics and liking dresses and high heels does not mean you're a woman inside. It means gender stereotypes are not binding.
I can conceive of a culture in which girls predominantly prefer the color blue and often take the leading role in relationships. I can conceive of a culture in which boys like the color pink and prefer to stay at home cleaning and looking after children.

What is sad is that, in seeking to realize their personal preferences, people who choose to label themselves transgender often do so in order to be accepted.
Unfortunately, it is not enough for them to declare, "I am a man, and I like to wear makeup and sing in the shower." To do so would emasculate them - which is perceived of as being worse in American culture than being transgender. Feminine men are ridiculed and shunned. Crying in public is absolutely forbidden, if you are a man. Transgenders, on the other hand, are increasingly praised and encouraged, especially by liberal universities, mainstream media, and social media platforms such as Twitter. It is easier to say "I was born in the wrong body!" because that makes outsiders more sympathetic than they would be towards someone who can control his or her own preferences and outward expression.

The high suicide attempt statistics among transgenders belies the fact that these people are hurting.
I realize that not all transgender people feel exactly the way I've described, but from my observations this is nonetheless an attitude that is quite prevalent within the transgender community.

Here's the main point I would like to make concerning how we ought to treat our dear, afflicted brothers and sisters. All transgender and transsexual people are beyond being thoroughly convinced of their plight. It is not a belief that they hold, but rather it is a conviction that touches the core of their personal identity. This is not something to be dealt with lightly. It is a matter of life and death for many of these people, who feel so beaten down by their existential distress.

Subjectively, they feel that "it's my life, I know what I feel like on the inside". I understand that mentality! I used to think I was bisexual. For years. I found women attractive, and I even dated a girl for several months at one point. On the outside, for all intents and purposes, I was bisexual. I felt fulfilled in my relationship with the other girl. It wasn't just a "phase", and I too was thoroughly offended by people who seemed to claim they knew me better than I knew myself!

Once I met my husband, however, I realized something. I had thought I was bisexual because my need for real, genuine love was so desperate that I was willing to accept it from anyone. In addition, I had allowed my own feelings and behaviors to define something that only God is the author of. He created my body in a particular way, and my selfish distortion of His plan was not sufficient to alter who I really am: a woman, made in His image, with the capacity to be a co-creator of immortal beings.

What is the responsibility of the Christian toward someone struggling with their sex/gender identity? Let's meet these people where they are. That is what Jesus did, while in the midst of a broken, confused world. Don't try to convince them they are wrong. No argument in the world will sway someone who thinks they were born the wrong sex. Not the ones I've discussed in this post, nor any of the others. Instead, we need to live our lives as an example. Treat them with love. Let them see how much joy there is in carrying our own personal crosses with Christ. All of us have crosses, and transgenders arguably have acutely heavy ones.

We ought to be reaching out where we can to help people realize that it's OKAY if you do not conform to gender stereotypes. It is OKAY to be a feminine man or a masculine woman!
But please do not go so far as to disparage your worth by thinking you are anything other than what God made you to be - a man or a woman in His image and likeness. We live in a broken world, where sin has distorted Truth and confused our senses. I can guarantee one thing, though: in heaven, you will be fully male or fully female - perfected in your glorified body, as God intends.

Transgender individuals are the same as you and I, and they deserve all of the respect, dignity, and love as anybody else.
To love, however, is not to allow people to persist in deleterious attitudes and practices. In most situations, when we encounter someone who identifies as transgender it will only be in passing. The best thing we can do in those situations is to simply treat them as we would any other fellow human being. That includes praying for them, that they might become who God fully intends them to be. Their dignity extends infinitely beyond their struggles with their gender identity, just like the dignity of anyone stretches beyond their particular faults and failings. Fundamentally, we are all children of God.

To love is to help walk someone out of destruction by caring for them as a friend and fellow human being. Allow people to seek refuge in your confidence and give them the courage to open up so they can take small steps towards discovering who they are really meant to be.