Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Why Opposites Attract

By most measures, I have a large vocabulary. There are times in my day when I can't actually find the word I'm looking for, simply for having a glut of options. A large vocabulary is a good tool to have in dealing with people, dealing with books, dealing with just about anything.

But...a vocabulary, like any tool, can easily enough be turned into a weapon. It can be abused. Words can obscure, they can deceive, they can make labyrinthine the paths that they should render straight. Which is a long-winded way of saying that words, like everything else in the human experience, have a taint of darkness to them.

That's why there are certain settings in which it's imperative to be as simple and direct as possible. You don't want to create a zone of ambiguity when you're describing the physical tolerances of an aircraft. Neither do you want a blurry region around the method of producing an important pharmaceutical. These are important matters...what I believe the experts call "serious shit."

What's interesting to me is that those of us for whom material considerations, while important, are not at the top of the proverbial heap, don't seem to be quite as rigorous with our own brand of important considerations. Yes, yes, theologians - the good ones, at any rate - are very rigorous and precise when it comes to their language. But they're also not all that accessible, because their language, while precise, tends to be a little technical at best. At worst...well let's just say there's a reason I don't voluntarily read Heidegger and leave it at that.

Which is why I'm glad we have someone in the head expositor-of-theology position who can use small words and distill this stuff down. Don't get me wrong, the last couple of occupants were great, but if you were to compare the language of John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis the Roman-Numeral-less, there's a pretty stark contrast in terms of accessibility.

Let's start with Exhibit A, from the soon-to-be-saint Pontiff of my childhood:

If we wish to speak rationally about good and evil, we have to return to St. Thomas Aquinas, that is, to the philosophy of being. With the phenomenological method, for example, we can study experiences of morality, religion, or simply what it is to be human, and draw from the a significant enrichment of our knowledge. Yet we must not forget that all these analyses implicitly presuppose the reality of the Absolute Being and also the reality of being human, that is, being a creature. If we do not set out from such "realist" presuppositions, we end up in a vacuum.
Yuh-huh. You lost me at "phenomenological method." Mainly because I haven't had to worry about the phenomenological method for almost ten years now, and they've been a good ten years on balance. Call me old-fashioned, but when I was a kid, we didn't need phenomenology to figure out how to live.

Now I am just a little bit German, so I was happy when one of my own took over steering the ship. But he's a bit of an academic, too, and so there's a level of abstraction in his writing which is not fully satisfying:

Nowadays Christianity of the past is often criticized as having been opposed to the body; and it is quite true that tendencies of this sort have always existed. Yet the contemporary way of exalting the body is deceptive. Eros, reduced to pure “sex”, has become a commodity, a mere “thing” to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity. This is hardly man's great “yes” to the body. On the contrary, he now considers his body and his sexuality as the purely material part of himself, to be used and exploited at will. Nor does he see it as an arena for the exercise of his freedom, but as a mere object that he attempts, as he pleases, to make both enjoyable and harmless. Here we are actually dealing with a debasement of the human body: no longer is it integrated into our overall existential freedom; no longer is it a vital expression of our whole being, but it is more or less relegated to the purely biological sphere. The apparent exaltation of the body can quickly turn into a hatred of bodiliness. Christian faith, on the other hand, has always considered man a unity in duality, a reality in which spirit and matter compenetrate, and in which each is brought to a new nobility. True, eros tends to rise “in ecstasy” towards the Divine, to lead us beyond ourselves; yet for this very reason it calls for a path of ascent, renunciation, purification and healing.
That's great and all, but it doesn't really...connect all that well. And who the heck uses "compenetrate" in a normal conversation, anyway?

Now, contrast that with Pope Francis:

We can walk as much as we want, we can build many things, but if we do not profess Jesus Christ, things go wrong. We may become a charitable NGO, but not the Church, the Bride of the Lord. When we are not walking, we stop moving. When we are not building on the stones, what happens? The same thing that happens to children on the beach when they build sandcastles: everything is swept away, there is no solidity. When we do not profess Jesus Christ, the saying of Leon Bloy comes to mind: "Anyone who does not pray to the Lord prays to the devil." When we do not profess Jesus Christ, we profess the worldliness of the devil, a demonic worldliness.
There are three things that strike me about this guy: 1) nobody should have any difficulty with the language, it is very clear-cut; 2) he speaks in the communal sense of how not just an impersonal "one" ought to act, but how "we" ought to act; and 3) he really pulls no punches about actions, consequences, and how they all tie together in the way we live our lives. In short, he is a teacher. Not the abstract sort of teacher you run into in a classroom, but the very earthy, hands-on teacher that you hopefully encounter in the pulpit and in the confessional.

If not, you have this guy now. And that ain't nothing.

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