Saturday, July 13, 2024

A Call to Love, Kindness, and Empathy

"Rachel Delevoryas," by Randy Stonehill

We've all witnessed all too often the inhumanity that human beings show to each other.  We can think of large-scale situations like the current war between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the war in Ukraine, and many, many other examples.  We can also think of more small-scale but still serious and painful realities like middle school or high school students being bullied by other students.  We can think of the mean and harsh ways people so often talk to each other online.  In so many ways every day, people behave in ways that are hurtful to each other and often don't seem to really care, or not to care very much at least.  People are insulted, ridiculed, abandoned, betrayed, left out, etc.

I want to call all of us to something different - to love, kindness, and empathy, both in large-scale settings and in everyday life.

This can sound kind of cliche-ish and Hallmarky.  (Wow, I just discovered that "Hallmarky" is actually a word that is in some dictionaries!)  But I want to encourage people to really reflect on this more deeply.  Love, empathy, and kindness are not ideas for wimps and sentimentalists.  We have really good reasons why these characteristics should be at the heart of how we interact with everyone.  I want to point out three foundations in support of putting these things at the center: an experiential foundation, a philosophical foundation, and a theological foundation.

Experiential

Why are people motivated to treat other people with meanness, cruelty, and inhumanity?  To be honest, I really don't get it.  Well, maybe that's not entirely true.  There are times when I am angry and can understand the desire for someone to experience the pain I think they deserve.  I am often too self-focused and overly apathetic about the needs and well-being of others.  But for me, at least when I have the presence of mind to be aware, I find that I do not wish people harm.  I think that's at least partly because I can't help but see particular situations in light of a larger reality.  My perspective is shaped by my philosophical and theological views, but even without looking at these explicitly, there are experiential reasons for empathy and kindness.  Here we are, thrown into this world without our knowledge or consent, given no built-in instruction manual.  It doesn't take us very long to learn that bad things can happen to us here.  Babies typically cry almost immediately after birth, if they are not crying at times in the womb.  Why?  Because of something we all know only too well - that reality often presents us with a disconnect between our desires and what actually is.  Thus is born sadness, frustration, anger, and all negative emotional experiences.

But here's the thing:  We're all in this together.  You, too, were thrown into this world without your knowledge and consent, just like me.  We're the same.  This world is a frightening, lonely, bewildering place.  We all frequently feel inadequate to face it.  We need, and we crave, the love, empathy, and kindness of others.  We desperately want people to see us for who we really are and to love and accept us and comfort us, to be companions to us.  We want to be loved and valued - not rejected, or even merely tolerated.

How often do we really reflect on the reality that other people actually exist?  There is a point of view called "solipsism," which holds that we do not really know whether or not other people exist.  But the vast majority of us are not solipsists.  If we were asked whether we believe in the existence of other people, we would say "Yes, of course!", and look at the person who asked us the question as if we thought them a bit crazy.  But do we really believe in the existence of other people besides ourselves?  If so, why does this not have a much greater practical effect on our lives?  There I am in a room with other people.  That person over there in the corner on the opposite side of the room - that person is a real person, just like me.  That person, too, was thrown into this world without their knowledge and consent.  They, too, have an inner life.  They think, they observe the world around them, they question, they feel.  They get scared, and feel lonely, and want to be loved.  They want to be happy, just like I do.  Just like me.  Don't pass that by too quickly.  Stop and think about it.  Let it sink in.  That person over there has an inner life that is just as real as mine.  How can I possibly be aware of the existence of such an "other I" and not feel drawn by the deepest feeling of kinship and connection?  How can I see them hurt, abused, insulted, rejected, mistreated, abandoned, and not feel that?  Much less, how can I be the intentional cause of their pain and hurt and not care?  How could I possibly want to do that?  In my most profound moments of pain, grief, and loneliness, I sometimes think about all the other people out there in the world who are experiencing the same sorts of feelings, and I find myself desperately wishing that this was a world where everyone could be happy.  My sense of the unhappiness that I know is out there in the world in the inner lives of other people is added to my own pain.

Over the past year-and-a-half, I have gone through, by far, the hardest period of my entire life.  I have found that this experience has had the effect of increasing my sensitivity to the reality of other people's pain in the world and has produced in me a great desire for all people to be happy.  I have been more consciously aware than I ever have been in the past that I have the power to help make people happy.  I have had a greater sense of my own agency - that I can make choices in my interactions with people, and I have the power, by means of my choices, to help make people happier or to hurt them.  I can comfort those who are lonely.  I can provide a safe place for people to question, to express hurts and fears, to let down their guard and relax a bit and be themselves.  I can encourage people and help them see their own beauty and value.  I can be a companion and provide friendship.  And I love that I can do these things!  I choose to live in the world in such a way as to be a source of happiness and not pain.  Why?  Because other people are real too.  We are all the same.

Why do we alienate each other, look with disgust or suspicion on each other, and create distances between ourselves and others?  Yes, of course we have to be careful, for there are people who will hurt us.  But do we not want to overcome these barriers as much as we can, as far as it depends on us?  Why do we not want to increase the range of our friendships and draw everybody in insofar as it is possible?  Yes, we will find we have more in common with some people than with others, and thus will have personal friends who are closer than other people, but, on the basic level of human fellowship, why are we not more drawn to go out of our circles and make friends with other people?  Why do we let ourselves be divided into little sects based on religion, political views, culture, etc., and then ignore everyone outside of our circles?  And not only ignore them, but treat them only as labels and not as real persons in our thoughts, attitudes, and actions?  Do not those other people in the other circles exist too?  Are they not as real as we are?  Aren't Democrats and liberals real people - people who feel happy, sad, angry, lonely, who want to be loved and valued?  Aren't Republicans and Trump-supports real people too?  Don't they have real, inner lives?  Aren't they just like us at the most basic level?  What does that mean for us?  Why does that not affect us more profoundly?  Are not Christians, atheists, pagans, Jews, Muslims, etc., just like us?  People in other countries and cultures, other races?  People who have very different life circumstances?  People in nuclear families?  Single, unmarried mothers?  People living on the streets?  Gang members?  Soldiers?  People who oppose abortion?  People who get abortions?  Trans people?  Those who have concerns about current ways of thinking about transgender?  People who make us nervous when we pass them walking down the street?  People who annoy us?  The person working at the check-out aisle at Walmart?  That person who says irritating things in comments online?  People in reality TV shows?  People who do dumb things in the news?  People who act in ways we don't understand, even to the point of hurting others?  Aren't they all real people?  What does that mean for us?  Do we really believe it?

We're all in this together.  Let's stop being selfish and self-centered.  Stop holding grudges.  Stop snubbing.  Stop insulting people and laughing at their hurt feelings.  Stop interacting with people with little barbs of harshness and cruelty.  Stop rejecting people, abandoning them, betraying them, treating them like problems to sweep out of our lives.  Stop torturing and killing them, bombing them, declaring war on them, destroying families, leaving parents without their children or children without their parents.  (Really, it boggles my mind how people can conduct warfare the way they do.  How can people so callously take actions that lead to a small child sitting in front of a bombed house crying because their parents and family are dead?  Is this really the world we want to live in, where things like that happen?  Do we really believe in the existence of those children?  Whatever our justifications are for conflict, is it really worth this?)  Instead, let's really see all the people in this world.  Let's recognize that they are like us, that they are "another I".  Let's love them, treat them with kindness, encourage them, comfort them, do what we can to ease the pains and difficulties of this world, and help them be happier.  Why the heck not?!  Why would we want to do anything else?  We get so closed in on ourselves.  Let's wake up and see things for how they really are and act like it.  Sure, there are problems that have to be worked out.  There are disputes over property and land.  There are other causes of tension, both small and great.  But why do we not deal with these things in a spirit of empathy and kindness?  Just because someone has a dispute with me doesn't give me any reason to be any less kind or empathetic.  They are still "another I".  If we really lived that way, think of how different a place this world would be.  Don't we want it to be that way?  Well, we don't have to just muse about it.  We have power.  We can't change everything, but we can change a lot of things within the sphere of our own lives, our relationships, and our influence.  Let's do what we can with what we have to make the world a happier place.

Philosophical

OK, hopefully, if you're a human being, what I've already said has given you strong reasons to want to live with empathy, love, and kindness.  But you might be a solipsist.  Maybe you've really convinced yourself that you are the only person who really exists.  Or maybe you are a hardcore materialistic nihilist, and your response is, "Look, other people are real, but we're all just meat puppets born of billions of years of mindless evolution.  Consciousness is just an illusion flowing out of the interactions of matter.  Nothing really matters.  So, sure, I could be more empathetic.  But if I'd rather learn better to shut off my mind from empathy so I can exploit people and use them for my own selfish ends, why shouldn't I do that?"

Well, for one thing, even if you're right that nothing objectively matters, etc., it is still arguable that you personally will enjoy life more if you cultivate rather than stifle your natural impulses and abilities towards empathy and wanting to be a contributing member of human society.  We humans are herd creatures.  Whatever you believe about our nature on a more metaphysical level, we are not biologically designed to exist in alienation from or in opposition to our community.  It takes a toll on us when we do so.  I think it highly likely that the best way to be a happy person in this world, at least for most people most of the time, is to strike a balance between empathy and service to others on the one hand and adequate self-care on the other.  I think this is true considering only our biological nature.  It's even more true when we get into the metaphysical realities.  So don't you want to be happier?  Don't you want to get more out of life?  It may be meaningless, but you're here anyway, so why not try to enjoy it more?  It's at least worth considering.

But there are deeper realities to consider.  There are philosophical observations to make.  Now, this could be an extremely large topic.  To really delve into this holistically, I would want to talk about the nature of knowledge and how it is attained, the nature of Being, the relationship between mind and matter, the existence of God, etc.  I'm obviously not going to try to do all of this right here and now.  But let me try briefly to delve into a couple of things.

Consciousness is real:  Those who deny the existence of consciousness, dismissing it as an illusion produced by mind-independent material activity, are, I think, taking literally the most absurd position that a person could possibly take philosophically.  Why?  Because consciousness is the only thing we actually have any direct evidence of.  It's all we actually experience.  If there is anything beyond or other than consciousness, we cannot perceive it or experience it.  We could only infer it from our conscious experience.

Perhaps I ought briefly to define what I mean by "consciousness."  I mean "1st person experience."  Consciousness is the condition of being the subject of experiences - that is, being the one having experiences.

So you can see why it is self-evident that consciousness exists.  (A "self-evident" claim is "a claim that carries its own evidence within itself such that to understand it is to see that it must be true.")  We directly experience consciousness, or 1st-person experience.  That is all we ever experience.  There is no way it could not exist.  We can be wrong about all sorts of things.  I could think there is a table across the room from me, but maybe it is an illusion caused by a holographic projector, etc.  But I can't be mistaken in thinking that I am having a table-like experience.  I've clearly got the experience, whatever it is that explains why I have it.  That I have the experience is something I can directly, without any intermediary, see to be true.  It is self-evident.

Therefore, the form of the materialist position that says that consciousness is not real is an absurd position because it denies the one thing we actually have direct, self-evident awareness of.  And it affirms the existence of something for which, I would argue, we actually have no evidence.  (For more on this last point, if you're interested, see here and here.)

Why does this matter?  It matters because consciousness is where we find feelings - happiness, suffering, joy, fear, pain, etc.  These things are not just illusions produced by the mechanical operations of mindless matter.  They are the kind of stuff reality is ultimately made of.

Universal consciousness is the objective reality:  OK, so consciousness exists.  But how do you know other people's consciousnesses exist and not just yours?

If you reflect on your own experience, you can see that it does not encompass the whole of reality.  How can you tell that?  Because your experience is limited.  Look at the space around you and the objects in it.  You are seeing all of that from one particular vantage point, and that one vantage point exists in the midst of an infinite number of other possible vantage points.  You could move slightly to the left and see things slightly differently.  You could move slightly to the right.  You could climb something and see from up higher.  You could lie on the floor or the ground (if you are not already doing so) and see things from a lower perspective.  You could move a significant distance south, north, east, or west.  If you did any or all of these things, you would then see aspects of reality that you were missing from your previous vantage point.  But there are an infinite number of potential vantage points from which to view everything!  In the end, then, your experience is an infinitesimal sliver of reality.  Reality viewed from an objective, unlimited point of view would be very different.

This has profound ethical implications.  To be selfish or self-centered or to lack empathy is to act as if you believe that your own experiences in your inner life are more real than other people's.  But this is completely incorrect!  From an objective point of view, all vantage points are as equally real as yours.  The objective point of view - the "God's eye" point of view, if you will - encompasses them all equally.  So self-centeredness is ultimately a kind of delusion or ignorance.  It is rooted in the illusion that your point of view is more real than other people's.  The more we see the world the way it really is, the more our viewpoint becomes objective and less obscured by illusion, the more we will truly believe in and take seriously the experiences - the joys, the fears, the desires, the pains, etc. - of everyone else, and therefore the more empathetic we will be and the more we will care about the happiness of all beings (and not just humans either by the way - all sentient beings!).

A philosophically-inclined person might ask, at this point, how we know that other created beings exist.  Perhaps I know that I exist because I have direct experience of my existence.  And perhaps I know that God exists because there has to exist a universal vantage point and a consciousness where that vantage point exists and is experienced.  (In other words, you can't have an actually-existing "God's eye" point of view without an actually-existing God.)  But how do I know other limited beings exist?  How do I know they are not just illusions, even if their experiences would be equally real to mine if they did actually exist?  It would take too long to make a full argument with regard to this now, but I will say that I approach this similarly to the way Rene Descartes did:  Once we've shown that unlimited being - God - exists, we can logically show various things that must be true about God's nature.  One of those things is that he cannot be deceptive because his experience consists only of truth and love of truth, since he is the fullness of all Being and all Good.  The world that comes from him, then, cannot have an intrinsically deceptive design.  Therefore, if the world is clearly set up in such a way as to create the appearance that other sentient beings exist, as it clearly is, then it must be the case that they actually do exist.  Therefore, other created beings exist.

It also follows from all of this that God is omnibenevolent.  That is, God loves the happiness of all beings and hates the suffering of all beings.  He cannot be otherwise, because all the experiences of all conscious beings are a part of his own experience.  If I am happy, my happiness is a part of God's experience.  If I experience pain, that pain is a part of God's experience.  True, God experiences these things differently, because he is seeing and experiencing the whole forest whereas I am only experiencing one particular leaf on one particular tree.  But God not only sees the whole forest; he also sees all the individual leaves, for they are part of the forest.  It is not like when a person goes up in an airplane and can see only the big picture but not the smaller details.  God's point of view sees all things, both the big picture and the smallest details that make it up.  So God cannot delight in the pain of any being, and he must be inclined towards the happiness of every being, for all beings (by definition) love happiness and hate pain when it is a part of their experience.

In short, we should love our fellow human beings (and all beings) because they truly exist, and their existence is just as real as ours.  From our limited point of view, it looks like we and our experiences are more real than other people and their experiences.  But this is an illusion created by the distance between our limited point of view and the universal, objective, God's-eye point of view that encompasses all that is.  All the experiences and feelings of all beings exist in the objective viewpoint of the universal consciousness and therefore have objective value whether we personally feel this experientially or not.  So empathy is more than just a subjective feeling.  There is an objective reality behind it.  Empathy can be a choice of the will rooted in awareness of the reality of the existence and value of other beings as we learn to see things from a more objective, universal point of view.

Theological

Christian theology agrees with what we've seen from experience and from philosophy.  In the Christian view, God himself is love (1 John 4:8).  Love is the chief characteristic of his life.  At the heart of reality, God exists as a Trinity of Persons who are forever blessed as they share life and love with each other.  Love is what created the world, as God chose to let that Trinitarian love overflow into creation.  We are saved by love.  Our salvation from sin and misery has come about because God the Son died on the cross to save us.  He gave his life out of love for us and love for his Father.  God is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy” (Psalm 103:8).

God loves himself and his own happiness, for he is the Supreme Good.  To the extent that we exist, we share in God's life, and so we have objective value and dignity.  We have seen that God is omnibenevolent.  He is the ultimate empath; all the experiences and feelings of all creatures are a part of his experience because he is the universal consciousness.

Scripture teaches us that the ultimate moral obligation is to love God supremely and to love our neighbors (our fellow beings) as ourselves (Deuteronomy 6:4-5; Leviticus 19:17-18; Matthew 22:34-39).  The Bible is full of passages teaching and encouraging us to have empathy and compassion, to love our enemies, to seek the happiness and well-being of others, to forgive, etc.  Here is a sample:

You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans. If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them.  If you take your neighbor’s cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbor’s only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate (Exodus 22:21-27, New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition [NRSVCE], verse numbers and footnotes removed and formatting slightly edited, here and in subsequent quotes further down).

When you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey going astray, you shall bring it back. When you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden and you would hold back from setting it free, you must help to set it free (Exodus 23:4-5, NRSVCE).

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins. Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God. "Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?" Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day and oppress all your workers. Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high. Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin? Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am (Isaiah 58:1-9, NRSVCE).

The Lord enters into judgment with the elders and princes of his people: It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor? says the Lord God of hosts (Isaiah 3:14-15, NRSVCE).

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,  so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.  For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?  And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (Matthew 5:43-48, NRSVCE).

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Romans 12:14-21).

Just to be clear:  Choosing love and kindness does not mean tolerating intolerable injustices, neglecting important personal boundaries, or letting people treat us or others in a way that lacks respect for our dignity as persons and our necessary self-care.  Scripture and the Christian tradition have always recognized balance in this area.  Sometimes conflict is unavoidable.  Sometimes we have to fight to defend what is right.  Sometimes we have to say no to people.  We strive for justice to be done and we rejoice when it is done, even when justice involves the defeat of those who do evil and their facing of the consequences of their evil.  We see this reflected in Scripture in the imprecatory psalms, the calls for justice to be done in the prophets, and many other places.  But what choosing the way of love does mean is that we never lose sight of empathy, love, and kindness, even in the midst of necessary conflicts.  We always recognize that our enemies are our fellow human beings and we continue to empathize with them.  We desire their welfare and seek it as we have opportunity.  We do not wish for those who do evil to do well and be happy without repentance, but we wish them to find happiness through repentance - that is, through recognizing and owning up to unloving attitudes and actions, facing them and dealing with the consequences, making up as best they can for what they've done wrong, and working to heal what is broken (in themselves, in others, and in the world).  Love and justice are not at odds.  Justice is rooted in love, and love is always just.  We avoid an unloving legalism on the one hand, and an apathetic sentimentalism on the other.  This is part of what St. Paul meant in the quotation above (Romans 12) when he talked about "leaving room for the wrath of God" and "heaping burning coals on their head."  When we do good in return for evil, when we return love for hate, we show up our enemies' evil for what it really is, and this brings them to the brink of judgment where they have to face their evil and its consequences - and, at that brink, they can either turn from their evil by repentance and be saved through the flames or they can go down with the ship.  We would not have evil go unchecked or unpunished, but we would have our enemies repent and be saved.  And if they do so, we will strive to welcome them home with open arms.  That is true forgiveness - not excusing or ignoring evils or abandoning the call of justice, but being willing to continue to love and to seek the good of those who have harmed us.  We may have to keep up boundaries of various sorts at times for our self-protection, but, even when this is so, we do it with an attitude of love and empathy and a willingness to receive our enemies into our fellowship as our brothers and sisters in the human race (and, if we and our enemies are Christians, as our brothers and sisters in Christ).  This does not mean necessarily that we must become friends or personally close, but it means that we choose peace and unity rather than division and conflict so far as it depends on us.

Conclusion

There is not much more to add.  Reflect deeply within yourself.  Do you recognize each and every one of your fellow human beings as "another I"?  Do your attitudes and actions reflect that reality?  You have a choice.  What kind of person do you want to be?  Will you further the hate and pain of the world, or will you choose to use your agency and power and influence to bring healing and happiness to yourself and to others?  That is the ultimate question.

Published on the feast of St. Henry II.

A Brief Theology of Self-Care

Self-care is a popular topic these days - and for good reason.  In some times and places it has been too neglected, and our current secular culture does well to bring its importance to our attention.  I want to lay out a brief theology of self-care and then make a few practical points.

Our Lives Are Not Our Own

The first thing we should note is that, in the Christian worldview, everything belongs to God.  God is the Supreme Being whose viewpoint constitutes the objective view of reality, for God is the universal consciousness.  Our consciousness and viewpoint, on the other hand, constitute an infinitesimal sliver of his.  To see things correctly, therefore, we must see them from God's point of view.  God's viewpoint constitutes what is real, what is good, what is bad, what is valuable, etc.  It is his will, therefore, which ultimately matters.  All things exist for God's purposes.  We are all part of his story.  We all belong to him and exist for him.

It is therefore our moral duty to "love God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength."  We are to love God supremely and give ourselves to him fully.  We are to keep nothing back.  The idea that we can divide our life up, give some of it to God, and keep some of it for ourselves, is a notion alien to the Christian worldview.

Then he said to them all, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it" (Luke 9:23-24, New Revised Standard Version Catholic Edition [NRSVCE], verse numbers and footnotes removed and formatting slightly edited, here and in subsequent quotes further down).

If "self-care" is conceived of as a kind of absolute principle, an inalienable right we have to preserve and feed our lives conceived of as our own apart from anyone else, including God, then this concept has no place in the Christian worldview.  God often allows us much joy and pleasure in our lives.  But he also asks us to make sacrifices.  In principle, God can ask any of us to sacrifice anything, for all we have is his.  All of us are asked to make great sacrifices in this life in order to follow him, and some are asked to make especially dramatic sacrifices (like the martyrs, who have to lay down their very lives, or those who are called to be faithful through extraordinarily difficult circumstances that can sometimes even be so severe as to break their mind and body).  We have no right to refuse to make such sacrifices when following Christ calls us to them, for, if we view things properly, we will recognize that God is our life,  With him, we have everything.  Without him, we have nothing.  He is our all.  If we enjoy anything else, we enjoy it as a trickle of joy coming down from his infinite fountain.  "So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do everything for the glory of God" (1 Corinthians 10:31).

The Place of Self-Care

Well, you might say, if our lives belong to God and we can keep no part of them for ourselves, it would seem that self-care can have no place.  But this is not true, because God, who owns our lives, gives them back to us - fully in eternity, but significantly in this life as well.

As we see things from God's point of view, we should love what he loves.  God loves himself as the Supreme Good, but he also loves his creatures.

For you love all things that exist, and detest none of the things that you have made, for you would not have made anything if you had hated it. How would anything have endured if you had not willed it? Or how would anything not called forth by you have been preserved? You spare all things, for they are yours, O Lord, you who love the living (Wisdom 11:24-26).

All God's creations exist by participating in his Being, and so they bear, to a limited degree, the beauty and value of the divine life.  Since God loves his creatures, they have objective value, and we should love them too.  The two greatest commandments on which the whole moral law hangs are supreme love to God and love of our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:34-40).

Charity is the theological virtue by which we love God above all things for his own sake, and our neighbor as ourselves for the love of God (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #1822).

But love of one's neighbor as oneself includes within it love of oneself.  God values and loves me, so I should value and love myself as well.  I have objective value and am worthy of love.  Just as I seek the welfare of others, so I should seek my own welfare also.  There is a sense in which I must put others ahead of myself (Philippians 2:3-4).  That is, I must be willing to sacrifice all my desires for God and his will, which includes sacrificing for the good of my neighbor.  As we've seen, we must give our all to God and keep nothing back for ourselves as if it belonged to us intrinsically apart from God.  Love of my neighbor for their objective value infinitely outweighs my will conceived of as my own apart from God.  And yet, objectively speaking, others are not more important than me, for we are all loved and valued equally by God in terms of our creaturely and human identity (Romans 12:3-5).  If we all had to really believe our neighbors were objectively more important than ourselves, it would lead to an absurd paradox.  If I believe my neighbor is more important than me, and he believes I am more important than him, who is right?  These would be contradictory claims that cannot both be true.  Our willingness to sacrifice for our neighbors is a practical way of giving up our lives for love of God and neighbor, not an objective belief that our neighbor is objectively more important than we are.

So we should love ourselves and seek our own welfare.  We should seek our own good and happiness, and protect ourselves from harm.  This means that there is a balance required of us - a balance between service to others and self-care (or service to ourselves, if you will).  We need to be aware of our own needs and desires and devote a reasonable and moderate amount of our energy trying to meet them.  We should not live in such a way as to make ourselves miserable and burn ourselves out.  We should strive to be happy.  God has given us life in his world and he wants us to enjoy it.  He wants us to be happy and have a positive and cheerful attitude.  This doesn't mean that we have to go around happy and cheerful all the time in a superficial sense, or that we can't be sad, angry, depressed, etc.  In fact, Scripture tells us to "weep with those who weep" (Romans 12:15).  There are times for anger and sadness.  Depression is normal at times.  But, insofar as we are able (recognizing that we are not always able, and that's OK), we should try to cultivate an overall positive attitude that avoids being saturated with negative emotions.  When we can see the bigger picture, as Christians, we have an infinite amount to be joyful for!  The Good and Blessed God is at the back of all things.  He is in control, and good will win in the end!  So Scripture encourages us to rejoice (Philippians 4:4) and to enjoy the good gifts that God has given to his creatures.

You make springs gush forth in the valleys; they flow between the hills, giving drink to every wild animal; the wild asses quench their thirst. By the streams the birds of the air have their habitation; they sing among the branches. From your lofty abode you water the mountains; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work. You cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for people to use, to bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart. The trees of the Lord are watered abundantly, the cedars of Lebanon that he planted. In them the birds build their nests; the stork has its home in the fir trees. The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the coneys. You have made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows its time for setting. You make darkness, and it is night, when all the animals of the forest come creeping out. The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God. When the sun rises, they withdraw and lie down in their dens. People go out to their work and to their labor until the evening. O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures (Psalm 104:10-24).

"We bring you good news, that you should turn . . . to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to follow their own ways; yet he has not left himself without a witness in doing good—giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, and filling you with food and your hearts with joy" (Acts 14:15-17).

Wine is very life to human beings if taken in moderation. What is life to one who is without wine? It has been created to make people happy. Wine drunk at the proper time and in moderation is rejoicing of heart and gladness of soul (Sirach 31:27-28).

A cheerful heart is a good medicine, but a downcast spirit dries up the bones (Proverbs 17:22).

If you think that piety requires us to burn ourselves out in lives of service with no thought for our own rest and joy, or if you doubt that self-care is a biblical category, take a look at these words from Sirach: 

Do not give yourself over to sorrow, and do not distress yourself deliberately. A joyful heart is life itself, and rejoicing lengthens one’s life span. Indulge yourself and take comfort, and remove sorrow far from you, for sorrow has destroyed many, and no advantage ever comes from it. Jealousy and anger shorten life, and anxiety brings on premature old age. Those who are cheerful and merry at table will benefit from their food (Sirach 30:21-25).

No one is worse than one who is grudging to himself; this is the punishment for his meanness. If ever he does good, it is by mistake; and in the end he reveals his meanness. The miser is an evil person; he turns away and disregards people. The eye of the greedy person is not satisfied with his share; greedy injustice withers the soul. A miser begrudges bread, and it is lacking at his table.

My child, treat yourself well, according to your means, and present worthy offerings to the Lord. Remember that death does not tarry, and the decree of Hades has not been shown to you. Do good to friends before you die, and reach out and give to them as much as you can. Do not deprive yourself of a day’s enjoyment; do not let your share of desired good pass by you. Will you not leave the fruit of your labors to another, and what you acquired by toil to be divided by lot? Give, and take, and indulge yourself, because in Hades one cannot look for luxury. All living beings become old like a garment, for the decree from of old is, “You must die!” Like abundant leaves on a spreading tree that sheds some and puts forth others, so are the generations of flesh and blood: one dies and another is born. Every work decays and ceases to exist, and the one who made it will pass away with it (Sirach 14:6-19).

That last passage from Sirach reminds us that our life on earth is fleeting, and the writer encourages us to make the most of it for others and for ourselves while we have it.  If we cannot enjoy even a moderate use of the good things of the world in this life, if all things are taken from us or we must sacrifice them to follow what is right, we know that we will reap eternal rewards with God after this life; but, if we can, we should try to seek enjoyment even in this life, for God has freely given us many good things for our joy.

Balance

So we should seek to moderate our service with appropriate self-care.  But it is also true that reasonable self-care is an important foundation for our lives of service as well.  If you've ever flown in an airplane, you know that the little speech at the beginning that tells you what to do in case of an emergency instructs people to put the mask on themselves before putting it on others.  Why?  Isn't that selfish?  No, it's because it is very difficult to put a mask on somebody when you yourself are passed out!  The same principle applies more broadly.  We cannot serve others well if we do not take care of ourselves.  We need rest.  We need recreation.  We need to take time to relax and soak in the beauty of creation and enjoy the things God has given to us.  We need to have fun.  If we do not provide these things for ourselves adequately, we will find ourselves too weak and miserable to help others as well as we could have otherwise.  One of the things that struck me when I became Catholic and started learning about the lives of various saints is how many times saints have been exhorted by their spiritual directors/mentors to moderate their discipline.  One example that comes to mind is St. Aloysius Gonzaga.  He used to practice great austerities in his early life, including fasting three days a week (!).  Then he entered seminary as a Jesuit.

Like other seminarians, Aloysius was faced with a new kind of penance—that of accepting different ideas about the exact nature of penance. He was obliged to eat more, and to take recreation with the other students. He was forbidden to pray except at stated times.  (Franciscan Media, "Saint of the Day: St. Aloysius Gonzaga," accessed 7/13/24.)

There are many other such examples.  If you're the sort of person who is going to get canonized, chances are you're pretty extraordinarily zealous in some ways!  But not infrequently that zeal has led to a blindspot where an imbalanced piety or service overwhelms adequate self-care.  Those of us who take our duties seriously and are on the scrupulous side often feel guilty and selfish for engaging in even moderate self-care, but this is a distortion of true, healthy piety.

Before we conclude, I should address an imbalance on the other side.  We can go too far in the other direction and idolize self-care or develop such an extreme version of it that we become as unhealthily unbalanced as those who denigrate proper self-care.  For example, it is necessary for our self-care that we learn to set proper boundaries to protect ourselves from those who would try to control our lives or monopolize our time and energy in an imbalanced way.  We have to learn to say no, etc.  But we don't want such boundary-building to turn into a kind of paranoid fear.  There is a tendency for some in our culture today to feel that any significant disagreement with their beliefs or values constitutes an unacceptable threat to their self-care, justifying an extreme reaction where they cut themselves off from all those who don't see the world the same way they do, refuse to listen to others or be challenged by alternative viewpoints, and isolate themselves into "echo chambers," as it were, where they can surround themselves only with people who are "affirming" - that is, who think the same way they do and will never challenge their thoughts or feelings.  Or there are some who feel that any difficulties felt in a relationship constitute a threat to their self-care, and they take extreme actions to respond to this threat - by ending relationships prematurely, etc.  There are, of course, intolerable situations that happen in relationships requiring a distancing or even an ending to the relationship, but some people react too quickly and strongly and end or damage relationships that should rather be worked on and healed.  Living in this world and getting along with other people in community requires a lot of hard work and sacrifice.  We have to be able to deal with difficulties, conflicts, and disagreements.  We don't want to have such an exaggerated concern for self-care that we keep ourselves from developing the emotional and psychological maturity necessary to live a balanced and healthy life in a world full of people with different personalities, viewpoints, etc.

It's a tricky balance, no doubt.  As with many other areas of ethics and practical life, virtue lies in seeking the mean between the extremes.  And that is not easy.  That's why Aristotle famously said that living an ethical life is very difficult.

That moral virtue is a mean, then, and in what sense it is so, and that it is a mean between two vices, the one involving excess, the other deficiency, and that it is such because its character is to aim at what is intermediate in passions and in actions, has been sufficiently stated. Hence also it is no easy task to be good. For in everything it is no easy task to find the middle, e.g. to find the middle of a circle is not for every one but for him who knows; so, too, any one can get angry- that is easy- or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for every one, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble (Aristotle, Nicomachaen Ethics, Book II, section 9, found here).

Let us pray for grace and wisdom to live the balanced life God calls us to strive after.

Published on the feast of St. Henry II.

The Relationality of the Classical Theistic God

 This is a selection from my book, Why Christianity is True (pp. 83-86):

The Relationality of the Classical Theistic God

We have seen that the God of classical theism is dimensionless and non-temporal. This brings up some natural and important questions. How can such a God relate to the space-time universe and the beings in it? If he is outside of time and space, how can he relate to beings who are in time and space? And how could he be the creator of the space-time universe, if he himself is dimensionless? Earlier I said that consciousness must go back to the First Cause, because you can’t get consciousness from non-consciousness. You can’t start from one thing and then get something so totally different that the product can’t be explained by the ingredients and the relationships between the ingredients. Well, the same issue can be raised here. If God is dimensionless, non-spatial and non-temporal, how can he be the source of a dimensional universe? Wouldn’t that be an example of having a product that is not explained by the ingredients and their relationships?

All the western, monotheistic religions are committed both to the idea of a classical concept of God--God is dimensionless, etc.--and to the idea that God is the source of the space-time universe and can relate personally with that universe. So if these two ideas are in conflict, that would be fatal for all of these religions (and for any form of classical theism, as all forms of it require God to be the source of the universe, even if he doesn‘t interact with it any further). The Bible, for example, teaches a classical theistic concept of God. It teaches that God is the source of the entire space-time universe and that he owns it and everything in it (Genesis 1-2; Romans 11:36; Psalm 24:1-2; Psalm 95:3-7; Psalm 100:3; John 1:1-3; Hebrews 11:3). Therefore, all things exist for him, to exhibit his glory and to do his will, and the destiny of all things will fulfill the will of God and glorify God (Romans 11:36; 1 Corinthians 15:24-28; Philippians 2:5-11; Colossians 3:17; Colossians 1:15-18; Romans 12:1-2; 1 Corinthians 10:31; Isaiah 43:5-7; Revelation 20:11-22:17). He is the only God, the highest being and the highest authority in the universe, and our ultimate purpose is therefore to obey him, to love him with all our hearts, and to worship him alone (Isaiah 42:5, 8; 43:8-13; 44:6-8; 45:20-25; 46:5-10; Exodus 20:1-7; Deuteronomy 6:4-5; 1 Corinthians 8:4-6; 1 John 3:4; James 2:8-13). God is all-powerful, does whatever he pleases, and ordains everything that happens in the world and in history (Amos 3:3-6; Isaiah 45:6-7; Amos 9:7; Lamentations 3:37-38; Job 42:2; Daniel 4:34-35; Psalms 115:3; Proverbs 16:33; Proverbs 19:21; Proverbs 21:1; Psalm 105:17, 25; Isaiah 46:8-10; Genesis 30:1-2; Ephesians 1:3-14; Genesis 45:5-8; 50:20; Job 1-2; Acts 4:27-28; John 9:1-5; Exodus 4:11; Matthew 10:29; Romans 11:30-36; Romans 8:28-30; Romans 9-11; Exodus 4:21-23; 10:1-3; 1 Timothy 1:11). God knows all things, including the entire future (Psalm 11:4-5; 14:2-3; 33:13-15; Hebrews 4:12-13; Isaiah 46:8-10; Genesis 15:5, 12-16; 25:23; Exodus 7:2-5; Daniel 7-12; John 13:21-30, 38; Genesis 40:8; 1 Samuel 23:9; Genesis 37:5-11; 49:1; Deuteronomy 31:14-29; 30:1-10). All of these things (and I could go on for quite a while longer adding to our list) show that the Bible is committed to and teaches classical theism. Although the Bible does not speak in the philosophical language that we have been using (because the Bible was written to many different kinds of people in many different cultures at many different times, not just to philosophers or to people trying to lay out a rationally articulated proof of the existence of God), its teachings clearly point to a classical theistic concept of God once they are “transposed,” so to speak, into a philosophical key and their necessary philosophical implications are spelled out. The same thing could be said for the Qur’an as well, which is the claimed revelation of Islam.

The Bible (as well as the Qur’an) is also committed to claims about God that might seem, at first glance, to be incompatible with classical theism. The Bible depicts God as being the creator of the space-time universe. But how could God, who is dimensionless, outside of space and time, create a dimensional universe? The Bible depicts God as acting in time and space, and entering into relationships and interacting with people in time and space. But how could God, being outside of time and space, act and interact in time and space?

The answer lies in realizing that God sees reality very differently from the way we do. God is all-knowing, outside of space and time, all-powerful, etc. We are clearly not. The universe is obviously going to look different to God than it does to us, just as the world no doubt looks different to us than it does to, say, a lizard. A lizard has far less intelligence than a human being. The intelligence that it does have is very different from ours, as well as its instincts, desires, etc. This is going to have a profound impact on how the world looks to a lizard as compared to how it looks to us. And the difference between God and humans is infinitely greater than the relationship between humans and lizards. God, being dimensionless, is going to see reality as a single, indivisible whole. We, being dimensional as well as limited in our point of view, are going to see the universe as divided up into parts spread out through space and time. We are in one place at one time, and so the universe appears to us as a large system spreading out away from us in space and in time, with everything getting smaller (at least in space) the farther away it gets, until it finally vanishes from our sight--until we try to explore further. But no matter how much we explore, there will always be more universe out there for us to discover. But God, being outside of space and time, and therefore equally present in all places and at all times (omnipresent and omnitemporal), will not see the universe in that way. This vast difference in the way we and God see things is what creates the impression that our two realities are incompatible.

However, they are not incompatible. We just have to recognize that the language that we use at any given time will reflect one of the two points of view--God’s or man’s. What would be said one way in reference to God’s point of view would be said in a different way in reference to man’s point of view. (41)  I like to think of the analogy of a prism. I look at my prism, and I see that white light goes into the prism, but a rainbow of colored light comes out. How can the colored light that comes out be the same as the white light that went in? Well, the prism has caused the different wavelengths of light to be divided up, so that what started out as single and unified white light ends up divided up into an array of different colors. When you try to describe the light, therefore, you must keep in mind which side of the prism you are on. Think of the universe as it looks from God’s omniscient point of view as represented by the white light. The prism itself represents the transition from God’s point of view to our limited, dimensional point of view. And the rainbow of colored light represents the universe as it looks from our human point of view.

Now, let’s take this analogy and apply it to our understanding of God’s relationship to our space-time universe and the beings within it. The Bible says that about twenty-five hundred years ago (or so), God parted the waters of the Red Sea so that Moses and the Israelites could pass through on dry ground. Then, about fifteen hundred (or so) years later, God sent an angel to release the Apostle Peter from prison. These are two events attributed to God in the Bible. (Of course, every event is ultimately attributed to God in the Bible in some sense, as we saw a little earlier, but miraculous events, being special acts of God outside of the normal course of things, make good examples for our present purpose.) God performed these two acts at two different times. Does that imply that God must be in time? Not at all. From God’s point of view, all of reality appears as an indivisible whole, for all reality is immediately present to God’s omniscient view. So if we were talking about these events from God’s point of view, we would not describe them in the same sort of temporal language. I don’t know exactly how we would describe them, because I am much further from being able to see things from God’s point of view than I am from a lizard’s point of view! But the Bible, if it is the Word of God (which we have yet to establish, but let us assume that it is hypothetically for now for the sake of thinking through this issue), is a communication to human beings that is meant to be understandable to them, and therefore describes events in their space-time universe from the point of view from which the description would make sense--namely, from a human point of view. Both the human point of view and the divine point of view are correct--neither of them is in error--but they are different, just like the lizard‘s and the human‘s points of view. Therefore, the Bible is accurate in describing these events in human-point-of-view-language. In fact, it is more accurate in a sense, because being accurate involves communicating clearly and understandably to the ones to whom you are speaking. So, when we are contemplating God acting at various points in time (and the same things apply to God acting in different places in space as well), we should not think that we are seeing things just as God would see them, but we are looking at them “through the prism,” so to speak, translated into the forms that the universe takes from our limited, dimensional point of view.

Let’s look at another example. We’ll use another event in the life of Moses. When God called Moses to lead the people of Israel out of Egypt, at the burning bush, Moses reacted at first by coming up with excuses for why he wasn’t the right person for the job. In response, Exodus 4:14 says that “the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses.” Now, this may seem strange, considering that we are talking about a non-dimensional, omniscient, omnipotent (all-powerful) Being. This passage shows God involved in a personal relationship in time and in space with a particular person, and even getting angry with that person. How could this be possible?

There is only conflict here if we make the unwarranted assumption that God’s relationship to Moses--to his particular behavior, at this particular time, in this particular place--is all that there is to God. God sees all reality in its totality in one, undivided view. This does not mean that he is missing a part of reality. How could seeing all of reality in one view imply that one is missing something? It would be exactly the opposite of missing something, as far away from it as it is possible to get! God’s seeing all reality in one view does not mean that he does not see particular places or particular times and cannot relate to those places and times. True, he does not seem them the same way that we do, for he does not see them all divided up as we do, but he does see them and relate to them. Some people seem to have the idea that we have to choose between knowing a portion of space or time and knowing the whole, just as we can either be close to the forest and see the individual pine trees and pine needles but not see the whole forest, or we can be far away (say, flying above in an airplane) and see the whole forest but not the individual trees (or at least not the pine needles). But being omniscient means that God would see all of reality in one complete picture, without missing anything.  So God could know and relate to Moses’s time and place in Exodus 4, while still being omnipresent and omnitemporal and seeing all reality as a whole. Think of the prism analogy again. Saying that God’s involvement with Moses in space and time contradicts his transcending space and time would be like saying that the blue light that comes out of my prism contradicts the white light that went into it. It is the same light, but one view of it sees it as a united whole, while the other view of it sees it as divided up into a rainbow of colors. To say that God’s relationship with Moses at that place and at that time was a part of God’s total experience (abstracted from the whole, as we humans see things) does not preclude that there is more to God’s experience than simply that part.

But what about God getting angry with Moses? Is this not incompatible with a classical concept of God? If God is dimensionless and the source of all reality, then how could he dislike any portion of reality? Wouldn’t that be to dislike himself, since all things have come from him and are based on him? And since he is a dimensionless being, to have any dislike of himself would imply a total dislike of himself, since he does not come in parts. But if God disliked himself, he would be at odds with himself, which would imply that he is divided into parts and not dimensionless. He would have to have an idea of how he would wish himself to be and to love that image, while hating what he really is, which would clearly imply division in God‘s mind. So surely God could not dislike himself, and so must be unmitigatedly happy with everything, all things considered as a whole. Ah, but there’s the key phrase--all things considered as a whole. Yes, God would have to be unmitigatedly satisfied with all things as a whole, but that does not imply that he must be satisfied with all the parts of reality abstracted from the whole, as we humans see things. It is possible to be fully satisfied with something as a whole, while being displeased with some individual parts considered in themselves apart from the whole. Consider J. K. Rowling and her famous Harry Potter books. Voldemort is a bad guy in the books. Does J. K. Rowling like Voldemort? Does she find him, in himself, pleasing? I doubt it! But does that imply that she is dissatisfied with her books because Voldemort is in them? No, of course not. Voldemort is displeasing in himself, but he contributes to the overall good of the books as a whole. To use another example, a symphony might have discordant notes in it that are not in themselves pleasing or beautiful, but which in the context of the entire piece contribute to the whole, making it better than it would be without them. So it is no contradiction to say that God found Moses’s behavior in Exodus 4 displeasing, in itself considered, while recognizing that in the context of the whole, it is not displeasing, but contributes to an overall good product which is totally satisfying to God. So why did the Bible describe God’s reaction to Moses as being one of anger, rather than unmitigated happiness? It is appropriate for God to express his emotional experience in “pieces,” so to speak, because we experience life in “pieces.” If we want to know how God feels about some particular event or thing in our experience as we experience it, abstracted from its place in the overall tapestry of reality, a communication of God’s overall emotional life would hardly be helpful. For God to have represented himself as unmitigatedly happy when Moses was making excuses would have been to misrepresent his attitude toward Moses’s behavior. In itself, that behavior was displeasing to him, and that is what needed to be expressed at the time, however true it might have been that Moses’s displeasing behavior was infinitely overbalanced by good in the overall scheme of things (as the Bible teaches elsewhere).

There is one more thing we need to address in this section: the issue of creation. How could a dimensionless, temporal God have created the space-time universe? Isn’t creation, by necessity, a temporal act? To create something, doesn’t that imply that there is a before, a during, and an after? If I create a cake, that implies that there was a time before the cake was made, a time when the cake was being made, and a time after the cake was made. It is a temporal process, one that would be impossible for a being that is outside of time and is thus incapable of acting temporally.

Well, of course the concept of creation by humans will always involve an inherent temporal component, because we are temporal beings. But the concept of creation itself need not necessarily be conceived temporally. The core concept at the root of the idea of “creation” is “dependence.” The reason we say that “I made the cake” is because the cake came from me. The cake exists because of me, because of something I did. I was the cause of why the cake came to be. If the cake started out not being there, and then came into being while I watched and did nothing and had no part in it, then we would not say that I made the cake. When we say that I made the cake, we are saying that the existence of the cake is dependent on me and on my actions.

Similarly, to say that the universe is created by God is to say that it is derived ultimately from God, and derived willingly--not by unconscious instinct or accident. If God is fully conscious and omniscient, and if he is indivisible, then all that he does he does with all that he is--with full knowledge and will (“will” here being defined as a “desire which brings about a certain state of affairs”). God is the creator of the universe, because the universe exists because of God and his will. Even if the relationship between God and the creation is non-temporal (from God’s point of view), this doesn’t make the term “creation” any less valid as a way of expressing the fact that the universe exists because of God. From God’s point of view, his relationship with the universe is part of one unchanging, indivisible whole, but from our point of view--on our side of the prism--the creation is a temporal event that took place in the past, and God is still bringing new moments of time into existence in the present and presumably will on into the future as well. (Classical theists usually speak of God’s having created the world in the past, while superintending it and ordaining all events by his providence throughout subsequent history.) So there is no conflict between saying that God is dimensionless and non-temporal and saying that he is the creator of the space-time universe.

41  You can get a sense of this when you read novels, or stories, attempting to portray the world we live in from a different point of view than the typical, adult human point of view--such as stories told from an animal’s point of view, or a child’s point of view.  (Of course, many of the stories told from an animal’s point of view often distort the effect by humanizing the animals, like in Finding Nemo or Bambi.)  But the distance between our point of view and God’s, as I’ve mentioned, would be infinitely greater than any of these other distances, for obvious reasons.

Published on the feast of St. Henry II.

Sunday, July 7, 2024

Christianity and Self-Love

I would like to respond to a concern that some people have regarding the Christian worldview.  Let me first try to articulate the concern:

Christianity is harmful to a healthy, positive self-image and self-esteem.  It tells us that God is everything and that we are nothing.  We are mere worms in comparison to God.  It tells us that we are all fallen sinners, that God is angry with us and always judging us, that we are so bad we deserve to go to hell for all eternity.  It tells us we are never good enough, that we can never be enough ourselves.  This attitude leads to an unhealthy, negative self-image that harms mental health and keeps people from seeing their true value.  It leads them to despair and depression.  It leads them to see themselves as ugly, as deserving of all the bad things that happen to them.  This hinders people from having the self-love that gives them what they need to be the best they can be.  It causes them to be endlessly introspective and self-doubting, and to feel endlessly and hopelessly defeated.  People with this attitude will be miserable with self-loathing, fearful, and inclined to accept abusive situations, believing they deserve what they get.  What we need instead is to be told that we are enough, that we do have what it takes, that we are doing great, that we are beautiful and valuable and worthy, that we don't have to put up with bad situations in our life because we deserve better.  We need to love ourselves and relax, feeling confident, freed from our neuroses of self-doubt, so we can live our life to the fullest and make the world a better place.

Going along with this, Christianity teaches people to be ashamed of central aspects of their humanity.  It encourages a sense of shame with regard to the body and human sexuality, for example.  It encourages people to see their physicality and their sexuality as shameful, harmful things that must be guarded against, that make them bad people.  Instead, we need to encourage body-positivity and sex-positivity.  We need people to feel, not shame, but pride for their bodies and for their feelings and their nature as human beings.

I want to respond to this concern with a two-pronged response.  I want to acknowledge, first of all, that there is a good deal of legitimacy and validity in the concern.  There is a true need to emphasize a positive attitude towards the self and towards human nature.  And it is true that Christianity has often been presented in a way that harms this positivity and encourages self-loathing, a constant sense of shame, and neurotic attitudes towards self, body, sexuality, etc.  But then I want to go on to claim that Christianity, rightly understood, actually promotes a very positive view of the self. and yet it also teaches that these truths about "positivity" need to be balanced with other truths about humanity and the human condition that rightly encourage within us a proper humility, a recognition of our creaturely finitude, our need for grace, etc.  Christianity, taught in a balanced and full-orbed way, captures both of these sides of the human condition in a way that tells us the full truth about ourselves and gives us the tools we need to understand who we are so we can live most effectively.

Humility and Affirmation

In the Christian view of human nature, both the "positivity" and the "humility" strands run through everything.

There is one God, one Supreme Being, who is the fullness and source of all reality.  God is the Creator of the finite universe.  There is a fundamental dichotomy at the heart of reality - there is the Creator, and there are creatures.  We human beings are creatures.  God is infinite being - unbounded, all-encompassing.  He is infinitely superior in being to all creatures.  Creatures are nothing in comparison to him.  A good way to get at this is to look at the difference between the divine and the creaturely point of view.  God's point of view is all-encompassing.  He sees all in one view.  His conscious experience includes reality as a whole.  Because of this, his consciousness transcends space and time.  On the other hand, as finite beings, our view and experience constitute a mere infinitesimal point in a universe that extends out from us with potential infinity in all directions of space and time.  We see/experience only from one limited vantage point among an infinite number of other possible vantage points.  We are bound within space and time.  God's consciousness and experience constitute the true, ultimate reality, while ours is nothing but an infinitesimal sliver of reality - and our sliver is derived from his fullness.  God is thus the center of reality, and we are infinitely far from it.

Tbis is a realization, of course, that leads to deep humility.  What Christianity teaches here has been recognized by many human philosophies and religions to varying degrees.  One great example is Buddhism.  The enlightenment of the Buddha came precisely when he recognized that it is an illusion to think of this world, or even of our own selves, as if they are a true, ultimate, substantial reality.  Buddhism goes so far as to view the world as an illusion.  "There is no self" is one of the key ideas of Buddhist philosophy.  As a Christian, I recognize that Buddhism is perceiving the very same thing that I perceive - the utter distance between ultimate, substantial reality and this comparative nothingness we tend to think of as reality.  (Christianity does not tend to refer to the world as an illusion, because, despite its finitude, it does exist in its own sphere - something I think Buddhism would not deny, though they would put it in other terms - but we agree with the truth that this language is pointing to - that, compared to Ultimate Reality, this world is nothing, and to treat it as ultimately substantial is to seek fullness in nothingness and therefore to be utterly miserable.)  Hinduism is another religion that recognizes these realities, as do all religions and philosophies, at least to a degree, that hold to a supreme state of reality beyond this one.

It is here that I would bring into the picture the Christian view of humanity as "fallen".  According to the Christian worldview, our first parents, who were created in a right relationship with God, turned away from that relationship in an effort to declare independence.  They wanted to be their own ultimate principle instead of trusting in God to fill that role.  But God is the fullness and source of all being, goodness, life, power, wisdom, knowledge, and happiness.  To declare independence from God, then, is to plunge oneself into a condition of emptiness, evil, death, weakness, foolishness, ignorance, and misery.  This is what our first parents brought upon themselves, and this condition has been passed on to the whole human race.  We are not blamed for what our first parents did, but we inherit the consequences - cut off from the life of God and experiencing the condition of alienation from him.  This is what Christians mean by speaking of humanity as being in a "fallen" state.  But we should not think that there is any injustice done to us in this situation.  We would have done the same thing had we been in the situation of our first parents, for we, like them, have nothing in our nature that, without God's special gift to us of his own divine life, would keep us from falling away from God.  We fall together as a human race because we all share the same fundamental nature and condition.  The final conclusion of the narrative begun by the Fall is the condition Christians call "hell".  Hell is nothing other than complete alienation from God and all that that entails.  That is the destiny of all of us, and justly and naturally so, unless God chooses to give to us something we cannot deserve - the gift of his divine life.  And that is the gospel - that God has come into the world in Jesus Christ and united himself to our fallen human nature, absorbing our weaknesses, sins, death, and misery, so that he can share with us the power, goodness, and ultimate blessedness and happiness of his divine life.  From him, and not from ourselves, we receive all that we need.

According to Christianity, this is who we really are.  We may react positively or negatively to this account of things.  But I think the first question should not be whether we find this view of things attractive or repulsive, but whether or not it is actually true.  Reality is reality whether we like it or not, and we have a duty to accept it as such.  That is yet another thing true humility teaches us.  Now, I believe that the Christian worldview is ultimately one of supreme beauty once we see it fully for what it is; but if we are used to thinking more highly of ourselves than we ought, it can seem very bitter at first.  It is like the sabra fruit of Israel - prickly and off-putting on the outside, sweet and delightful on the inside.

Now, having addressed the humility required of us as creatures, let's address the other side of the equation - the side of "positivity."

We are creatures of God.  All that we are is derived from God.  And God is the fullness of all that is good, beautiful, and valuable.  Therefore we, too, in our intrinsic nature, are good, beautiful, and valuable, and we should see ourselves as such.  Yes, unlike God, our being comes to us from without.  We cannot be enough on our own.  But we are not on our own.  We are never on our own.  To the extent that we exist, we are like God.  We reflect the divine beauty.  Love of God entails love of creatures and love of ourselves - for our existence is a participation in God's.  In a sense, I can say that I am nothing and God is everything, and this is a central and crucial truth.  And yet, at the same time, I can say that because God is everything, I am something too, and that is also a central and crucial truth.

Yes, I am nothing without God.  But God has created me, and so I am not nothing.  Yes, without God's grace in Christ, I am a sinner bound for hell.  But I am not without God's grace in Christ.  He has come into the world to give grace to us all.  "Grace" is nothing other than the gift of the divine life.  So what we are given through the redemption of Christ is the gift of sharing truly in the beauty and glory of that life.  This is true even in this current life we live, and it will be infinitely more true when we grow up into the fullness of our redemption and come to partake fully in the glory of God.  This is our destiny.  No, it is not something we have of ourselves apart from God.  But we are not apart from God.  In God, we are legitimate heirs of infinite glory and beauty.  This, also, is who we truly are, and we should see ourselves accordingly.  (We do have free will.  If we choose to reject the divine life offered to us, we are still valued and loved beings participating in God's life, but we will have cut ourselves off from the eternal fruition of this reality and sentenced ourselves to lose it all in the end.  But if we receive what God offers us, we will grow up fully into the glorious identity God has planned for us.)  In the words of C.S. Lewis:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which,if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously - no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be a real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinner - no mere tolerance or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory [HarperOne, 2001], 45-46).

We must recognize that we are creatures and not God - but having recognized that, we should value ourselves as icons of the divine.  We should have great and humble self-love, positivity, and self-esteem.  If we recognize who we really are, we should know that we are enough, by the gift and grace of God.  And we should bask and delight in our beauty and value and in the beauty and value of all our fellow creatures.

A More Balanced Christian View

OK, so having laid this foundation, let's tie up some loose ends.  There are better and worse ways of living out Christianity, just as there are better and worse ways of living out any religion or philosophy.  And Christians haven't always lived and taught in ways that have encouraged the best that Christianity can be.  Let's address some of these areas.

Shame - We should not have an attitude towards ourselves centrally characterized by shame.  Yet there are things it is proper to be ashamed of.  When we fail to live in love towards God, our neighbors, or ourselves, that is something we should not view positively.  And yet these failures don't characterize us.  We are not perfect, but if, by God's grace, we are choosing to be the best versions of ourselves that we can be, even if there are areas where we are not that great at it yet, then our lives are characterized fundamentally not by shame but by beauty.  If we are trying to be good people in this world, that is something we should be proud of!  Sure, it is a gift of grace.  We could not do it on our own.  But that doesn't make it any less ours.  Christianity, rightly applied, encourages a kind of paradoxical "humble pride."  We do not see ourselves as superior to everyone else or as existing independently.  And yet, recognizing our limits and our dependence on God and others, we see the beauty of what God is making out of our lives and we are proud to be that sort of person!  Catholic theology has always emphasized (against those who would advocate an overly pessimistic view of human nature and goodness) that while our merits are pure grace, yet they are, at the same time, our meritsWith God's help, we are not shameful but beautiful beings.  Our sins, failures, mistakes, and weaknesses are things we struggle with, but they do not fundamentally define us.  It is true that Christians have sometimes failed to keep this balance.  But Christianity, properly defined, teaches us to do so.

Scrupulosity - It is true that many Christians live a life full of what Catholics call "scrupulosity" - a neurotic, obsessive focus on fearing to do the wrong thing, feeling guilty, feeling ashamed, wondering if we are in a right relationship with God or if God is angry with us, feeling useless, ugly, and defeated.  There is a sense in which Christianity, as such, can even be "blamed" for this tendency.  Christianity teaches us to take goodness very seriously, and whenever we take something seriously some of us are going to be prone to excessive introspection, obsessive doubt, a sense of shame and despair for failures, etc.  I would say that this is one of many examples of a case where a true and good thing naturally brings along with it unique, specific dangers.  (For another example, notice that conflicts and wars happen because people care about things.  A society full of completely apathetic people who value nothing would never fight, but would that be a good thing?  It is better to care and therefore to have to take extra precaution to control our immoderate tendency towards conflict.)  But Christianity does not truly recommend this excessive scrupulosity.  In fact, the Catholic tradition warns us away from it, giving it a label ("scrupulosity") and addressing it explicitly as a problem for our spiritual lives.  God is not following us around, looking for minor infractions so that he can zap us!  Remember, as God's creatures, we bear his image and divine beauty.  He loves and delights in us.  He wants to give us good gifts and make us happy, and to help us in every way.  He is looking out for our good.  As I said earlier, we do have free will, and we can fundamentally reject him and turn away from him and persist in this to the end of our lives.  But if we do so, we have to do it "against the wind," as it were, of all of God's pleadings, warnings, encouragements, helps, graces, and opportunities to turn around.  And if we do choose, fundamentally, to pursue the path of goodness, that is what matters in the end.  Sure, we are not perfect, but our imperfections do not characterize us.  God does not look on us with shame and disgust, but with love and delight.  If we don't do something perfectly, if we mess something up - well, we recognize the fact, acknowledge it, ask for forgiveness if necessary, try to fix our mistakes, and move on.  We do not, we should not, continue to dwell on our mistakes.  This is something many Catholics find delightful about the Sacrament of Confession.  If you've committed a sin, you don't go into despair and fear.  You go to Confession, admit your mistake, receive forgiveness, and leave it behind.  All God asks of us is that we pursue goodness.  Sure, that takes effort and diligence.  But obsessiveness does not further our goal but rather hinders it, for it stops us from seeing clearly and objectively.  Rather, we should approach our pursuit of goodness and efforts towards personal growth and improvement with common sense.  Don't be lazy and apathetic about doing the right thing, but don't be neurotic and obsessive either.  (And, of course, if you struggle with neurosis, or scrupulosity, or any other such thing, don't obsess about that either!  It's not something to feel shame over.  These things are a part of our human condition in this life.  We do the best we can in our own particular circumstances.  None of us, in this life, have arrived at our destination.  We're on the journey, struggling with our own peculiar trials and difficulties.  There's nothing wrong with that - it's the way it should be.  We should give ourselves a break, and make sure to give each other a break as well!)

I addressed the problem of scrupulosity in an earlier article, and I'd like to copy here some of what I said there:

As Aristotle famously pointed out, a lot of times error and vice are found in the extremes, and virtue is found in the mean between the extremes.  One set of extremes that is often a pitfall for those seeking to live a holy life involves, one the one hand, laziness and carelessness with regard to sin and bad habits, and, on the other hand, an excessive fear, obsession, or even paranoia about these things.  Those inclined towards the former extreme need to be reminded that sin is a serious matter.  The fundamental nature of sin is opposition to God and the moral law, and this attitude is the essence of all wickedness and the fount of all misery (because God is the Supreme Good).  We need to take God with the utmost seriousness, and therefore sin needs to be our mortal enemy.  This is why the Bible is always telling us to "fear" God--that is, to have a proper recognition of the gravity of who God is and to fear being against him as the greatest of all calamities.  To be righteous is to love God above all things, so our ultimate goal in life should be to please him and enjoy him perfectly and eliminate all sin and all tendencies to wickedness in our life.  The more virtuous a person becomes, the less such a person will come to tolerate even venial sin, for the clearer our vision is of the greatness and beauty of God, the more repulsive all sin will seem to us.  This should be the chief aim of our entire life.

But the other extreme--obsessive fear and obsession about sin--can also be a serious problem, especially for those particularly inclined towards it.  Such people need to be reminded that what really matters is the fundamental choice of our life--are we choosing God as our chief good, or are we ejecting him out of that place in order to put something else there?  Is God the one we choose above all else?  This is not a matter of feelings or the strength of feelings, but of the will.  What do we choose to put supreme value on?  If we choose to follow God as our chief goal, and we orient our lives towards seeking him as our greatest value and ultimate end, then we can be sure that we are in a right relationship with him, a state of grace, and everything will come out fundamentally right in the end.  The only thing that can put us out of the reach of God's salvation is mortal sin--and mortal sin doesn't mean all sin; it doesn't even mean all serious sin (objectively speaking).  Mortal sin involves a deliberate, fully-informed, fully-aware, intentional choice to adopt an attitude or pursue a course of action which involves rejecting God as our supreme value and end in life, choosing instead to break from him fundamentally and go our own way.  Mortal sin is defined by being incompatible with "charity"--that is, with supreme love to God as the choice of our will.  Mortal sin is not the ways in which we regularly slip up and act inconsistently with our chief goal, the bad habits we have that tend to draw us into foolish and sinful actions, the difficulties we face in developing virtuous habits, how many times we tend to slide back into sinful tendencies, etc.  These are all natural and ordinary parts of life in a state of grace as we pursue holiness in this fallen world.  When we understand this, it will help us to relax a bit, to let go of obsessive fear.  We will remember that "there is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear: because fear has torment. He that fears is not made perfect in love" (1 John 4:18).  To "fear" God in the biblical sense is not to be obsessively afraid of him, but to recognize his supreme value and importance and therefore to take holiness with the utmost seriousness.  If we love God, and trust God, we need not live in obsessive fear, but can rest confidently in the help of his grace as we grow in holiness.  If we fall into sin from time to time, well, that is to be expected of fallen creatures struggling to be holy.  The Council of Trent actually condemns as false doctrine the idea that people can avoid all sins throughout their entire life.  "If any one saith . . . that he is able, during his whole life, to avoid all sins, even those that are venial,-except by a special privilege from God, as the Church holds in regard of the Blessed Virgin; let him be anathema" (Sixth Session, Canon 23).  When we sin, we don't need to dwell on it.  We can learn what we need to learn from it, get back up, repent, go to confession if appropriate, and then move on--like a gymnast who doesn't fall into despair every time she falls onto the mat, but just keeps getting back up and resuming her practice.  (In fact, overly obsessing about sin often has the effect of making it worse rather than better.  There's hardly a better way to ensure that something will have a strong presence in one's mind than to continually be worrying about how strong a presence it has.)

Another practical tip to make our path to holiness smoother is to recognize the difference between concupiscence and sin.  Concupiscence is the Catholic theological term for our fallen, disordered desires that have a tendency to lead us into sin.  But concupiscence, while it tends towards sin, is not itself personal sin.  Acts of sin involve the consent of the will.  Insofar as our desires happen to us without such consent, they are not sin.  So stop feeling guilty for having such desires.  You can't just banish them away with some strong act of the will.  We will all struggle against concupiscence throughout our entire lives, for that struggle is the pathway to holiness.  Holiness isn't only about avoiding sinful acts of will; it is also about developing virtuous habits and unlearning vicious (that is, un-virtuous) ones.  We are trying to learn not only to avoid individual sinful acts of will in particular cases, but also to develop habits such that we will become more and more naturally inclined towards virtuous attitudes and actions in general and away from vicious or sinful ones.  So even when you are avoiding particular acts of sin, you will still have plenty to work on in terms of building habits of virtue.  Don't be paranoid about that, but just go forward, like the gymnast I mentioned in the previous paragraph.  Keep practicing.  Don't worry if you mess up, or you haven't got a particular skill down yet very well.  Just keep going forward.  You'll keep getting better (but don't get paranoid about your rate of progress!).  You won't get fully where you want to be until after this life, though, so don't be impatient.  Be diligent, but also be tolerant of yourself and where you are.

Just briefly, before moving on, I want to mention for the sake of non-Christian readers that, in the Catholic view, being in a right relationship with God is not a matter of passing a theology exam.  It is about the fundamental orientation of our will towards the Supreme Good.  A person can have proper theology but be, in spirit, very far from God and even against him, while another person might have very bad (from the Catholic point of view) theology and yet, in spirit, in terms of the orientation of the will, that person might be very close to God and in a right relationship with him.  This is not to say that correct doctrine is not important.  It is just to say that there is a complex interplay in our lives between the intellectual, volitional, emotional, and spiritual components of our souls.  God is the Supreme Good, but the Catholic Church recognizes (see, for example, Lumen Gentium #16) that people are in different places in terms of how well (from a Catholic point of view) they consciously realize or can articulate this reality.  It is the orientation of the will towards the Good, as that is understood with greater or lesser clarity, that is of central importance in terms of a person's moral character.

The Body and Sex

Now let's look a bit at the Christian view of the body and sex.

Body Positivity - Remember, we are creatures of God.  Our bodies come from God as well.  Therefore they are intrinsically good.  They are to be celebrated and delighted in!  We should not be ashamed of our bodies.  We can recognize their weaknesses and oddities in an affectionate way (we remember St. Francis, who called his body "Brother Ass"), but we should acknowledge the body's intrinsic goodness and beauty.  And that means all bodies.  Our culture tends to put forward such unrealistic standards of beauty, and so many people are ashamed of their bodies because they don't match up with these standards.  But it's all fake.  Real human bodies come in lots of shapes and sizes.  They all have their unique beauty.  Just as each of us should celebrate the uniqueness of our individual personalities (quirkiness and all!), so each of us should celebrate the uniqueness of our individual bodies.

In some circles, body positivity is expressed in an openness to public nudity.  The Christian virtue of modesty is sometimes characterized as a kind of shameful embarrassment we are supposed to feel towards our bodies, and that is why we are supposed to keep them covered up.  And it must be said that, particularly in some circles, Christians have sometimes twisted modesty into this kind of attitude of shame.  But this is not what Christianity, properly understood, truly points us to.  Modesty is about recognizing and valuing the dignity of a human person as a human person.  The body is not to be treated as an object for another's use or personal pleasure, detached from respect for the entire person.  Before the Fall, humanity is portrayed in Scripture as naked.  This is because, in that unfallen condition, when the grace of God was still ruling human attitudes and behavior, the human body could be expressed in all its beauty without being reduced to an impersonal object (objectified).  After the Fall, the parts of the body most prone to abuse and objectification should ordinarily be covered as an expression of respect for the dignity of the body and for the safeguarding of that dignity - just as a person's private thoughts should ordinarily not be expressed entirely without any guard, as that also tends to lead to abuse and objectification.  The body is so worthy of value and respect that it should not be promiscuously exposed without guard in a fallen world.  That is the moral reason for clothing - not because the body is shameful, but actually quite the opposite!  There are particular circumstances, however, where nudity can be appropriate - when there is a situation established where the body can be seen with a proper understanding of its dignity as part of a person who deserves our respect as a person.  In marriage, for example, assuming the marriage relationship is healthy, there is a mutual giving and sharing of selves in a uniquely deep and profound way, and that involves the sharing of bodies.  That sharing is recognized as the gift of something of great dignity and value and is received in that attitude, and the body is not divorced from the person and made an object for another person's personal use or pleasure.  There is a special relationship of trust established there.  Another context would be the arts, when they are governed by proper values - where the body is appreciated in an artistic fashion and there is a recognition of its dignity and value and its context as part of a whole person, where objectification is absent by agreed consent and understanding.  In the Catholic view, then, nudity is normally avoided but occasionally allowed, not because the body is shameful, but precisely because it is recognized as something that deserves special protection and respect.

Sex Positivity - Some people believe that the Christian view of sex is that it is a bad thing, or at least a shameful and negative thing, and that is why there are so many sexual taboos in Christian teaching.  But, as with the body, the truth is very different.  However, it is true that many Christians have indeed twisted Christian teaching into this kind of overly-negative attitude, and that has done a lot of harm.  As with the body, sex is part of God's creation from the beginning and is essentially good.  In the Catholic view, sex was created by God for the enjoyment and bonding of spouses and for the procreation of children.

Everything I said above about scrupulosity applies here in particular.  It is true that Christians, at some times and places in history, have tended to promote or model a kind of morbid, overly introspective and obsessive, and fearful attitude towards sex.  Sex is a powerful thing.  It is easy for human beings to become enslaved to sexual desires or to fall into immoderate and overly-indulgent sexual habits.  Aware of this, Christians have often approached sex with great wariness, warning of the dangers that accompany sex.  As I said above, when people take something very seriously or are acutely aware of its dangers, an inevitable side effect is that some, at least, will tend to fall into an overly scrupulous attitude.  Such an imbalanced attitude has definitely been a real issue at various times and places in Christian history.  And yet the Church has never fundamentally lost sight of the essential goodness of sex.  She even recognizes marriage (with its ordinarily essential component of sexuality) as one of the seven sacraments - a high status that is pretty hard to beat!  A well-adjusted Christian moral approach, true to a balanced appreciation of the whole of the Christian worldview, opposes scrupulosity in sexual matters as much as it does in any other matter.  As in all things, so in sex:  We must guard against the extreme of over-indulgence and moral laziness on the one hand, and the extreme of obsessive fear and "puritanism" (in the worst sense, unfair to historic Puritans by the way!) on the other.

For example, I mentioned above that Catholic moral teaching cautions against a promiscuous public nudity that does not adequately guard the precious gift of the human body.  OK, there is a value here that needs to be protected, from the Catholic view.  We do well to challenge forms of "naturism" that would make public nudity a near-universal and unguarded norm.  However, we do not need to go to the other extreme of being obsessive or fearful about nudity.  Obsessive fear of something is not only an imbalanced attitude in itself, but it actually tends to strengthen the very thing it is fearful of!  There's hardly a better way to ensure that something will have a strong presence in one's mind than to continually be worrying about how strong a presence it has.  We need to avoid a kind of over-mystification of the nude human body that is a result of an obsessive attitude towards nudity and sex.  There is a kind of "taboo" mentality we can fall into.  We need to remember that, in a sense, nudity is really not a big deal!  What I mean is that we all know what the human body looks like.  Why, then, put so much mystique into seeing it like it's some astonishing or fearful thing?  Why do we need to be so obsessively fearful of being naked?  Why do we need to feel like we've been polluted or damaged somehow if we should see nudity?  Making such a big deal out of nudity actually tends to inflame immoderate desire  We all know that there is hardly anything more appealing to our human nature than something that has been forbidden to us and that has been placed in the special category of "taboo" and "off limits."  Pandora just had to open her box.  If we are going to follow Christian moral teaching more holistically, we need a more balanced attitude.  The human body is not some mysterious and forbidden object.  Experiencing nudity is not, in itself, a big deal.  Modesty in clothing is not the upholding of a "taboo" but merely a practice that is born of an attempt to protect something that is of great dignity and value that we don't want to be treated less respectfully than it deserves to be treated.  The naturist movement and the body-positivity movement have done a great service in challenging the "taboo" approach to nudity and encouraging a more healthy and less neurotic acceptance of our physical nature.

We can say the same thing about sex.  It should not be approached as if we are in the realm of some mysterious and forbidden taboo subject.  It should be approached with openness and realism and accepted as a normal part of human life.  It does have to be protected, because it exists for a particular purpose and belongs in a particular context and should not be taken out of that context.  In the Catholic view, sex is for spousal enjoyment and bonding and for procreation.  If it's used outside of that context, it's misused.  So we need to preserve the ethical use of sex, but there is no need for this to lead us to an obsessive attitude towards it.  Again, the more "sexually liberal" components of our modern society deserve our gratitude for challenging the unhealthy neuroticism about sex that, unfortunately, has been common in a lot of "conservative" and Christian circles in recent times.

Another concern/objection some people will have which I should deal with while we're on the subject is that there is an inherent problem with the actual Catholic teaching with regard to sex, even interpreted in the best and most balanced way possible, because it still forbids sex outside of the marriage of a man and a woman.  The concern is that this is contrary to basic human nature which is "designed" to allow sex to happen in a broader context.  Since the Christian position is out of accord with human nature, it naturally leads to frustration, guilt, despair, and mental health issues.  This is a big topic, and I can't do it justice in this brief context.  I will say two things, though, for now:

1. The first question we have to ask when we come across any idea, whether we like it or not, is Is this idea really true or not?  Just because something is very hard for us, contrary to our deep desires, and leads to all sorts of practical problems, that doesn't in itself necessarily prove that it is not real.  Reality has no obligation to make things easy for us, and, as we all know, it all too often cashes in on that lack of obligation.  In the Christian view, we live in a fallen world and are in a fallen state.  Instead of being the harmonious and peaceful world God made in the beginning, the world is now chaotic and divided.  Everything is at odds with everything else.  Unfortunately, it is often the case that ethics is in conflict with the tendencies of human nature.  That's why ethics is notoriously hard.  We are all often called to do very difficult and painful things.  Some of us are called to extreme forms of this - like being ethically bound to stand up for justice even to the point of enduring the physical or psychological torture of persecutors.  Some are called to be martyrs.  In this fallen state of the world, our desires are often at odds (and deeply and seriously so) with the values we should seek and how we should live.  This is a very unfortunate state of affairs, but does that prove it is not the actual state of affairs?  Personally, I find the evidence for the truth of Catholic Christianity compelling, and that gives me a reason to embrace Catholic moral teaching.  As much as I empathize with those who feel the weight of difficulty Catholic moral teaching can bring sometimes - and as much as I myself often feel that burden personally in various ways - I do not find in this a convincing argument against the truth of the Catholic worldview.  So I must follow where I think the evidence leads, as we all must.

2. Sometimes, we simply can't do it.  There are those who break down - physically, mentally, emotionally - under the weight of what happens to them in life, whether that comes to them unavoidably or through their own choice to do the right thing.  This is not a failure; it is simply a reality.  We are only expected to do the best we can.  But, oftentimes, we find that we are more resilient than we previously thought.  People can find ways to survive and even thrive under seriously adverse circumstances and while pursuing extremely difficult and painful courses of action.  Perhaps sometimes we paint certain conditions as impossible when they are not always so.  Once we accept reality and decide to learn how to live within it, sometimes - sometimes - we find that things are brighter than we thought they could be.  Sometimes there are compensations for our pain that we didn't anticipate.  This also is something important to bear in mind.

As I mentioned earlier, Christianity can sometimes be like the sabra fruit.  It can be very, very prickly on the outside, but it is full of great sweetness on the inside.  Following Christian morality can be very hard.  But it also brings with it much reward in this life.  And, at the end of our lives, when we finish the race, Christianity tells us that we shall reap a fruit that is beautiful, glorious, and satisfying beyond our wildest ability to imagine.  If we follow the Good, we will reap it in full in the end.  We will find God, the fullness and source of all Being and all Good, and in him all creaturely goods fulfilled and summed up and embraced.  Once again, I find myself wanting to quote C.S. Lewis:

Give up your self, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favourite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end: submit with every fibre of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will ever be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find Him, and with Him everything else thrown in (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity [New York: Touchstone, 1996], 190-191).

There is that fundamental paradox again.  Because of who we are and who God is, the only way to truly find and affirm ourselves is to give up our lives conceived of as our own apart from God, to give ourselves wholly to God, and to find ourselves restored and grounded in him.  But at any rate, this topic moves us into fundamental questions about the nature of reality and therefore goes beyond the scope of what can be done in this article.  However, whether we agree with Christian sexual morality or not - understood in its best form - we can at least distinguish it from the obsessive, scrupulous, fearful attitude that has often been associated with it but which is actually contrary to its best practice.

For more on the topics of sex and the human body, I will refer you to Pope St. John Paul II's famous Theology of the Body, which sums up modern Catholic moral teaching in these areas to a great degree.  You can read a (very) long summary of John Paul's teaching here (it's summarizing a very long collection of lectures given over a series of five years by the Pope).  Despairing of finding a reasonably short summary of the teaching, I once again took up exploring the potentialities of AI (ChatGPT) and asked it to summarize the Pope's teaching overall and in a few specific areas.  I think it did a pretty good job, though it didn't capture every aspect or every nuance.  You can read those (much shorter) summaries here.  And here is an article I wrote up on this subject a couple of years ago.  You can also read more from the Catechism of the Catholic Church on this topic here.

Conclusion

In conclusion, then, Christian morality, rightly understood and in its best form, promotes a nuanced view of the self and of human nature.  It critiques both those who would idolize the self and those who would denigrate it.  It challenges those who believe we are good enough by ourselves without God's grace and also those who would say we are not good enough even with God's grace.  It warns us against licentiousness and moral laziness, but also cautions us against excessive scrupulosity.  It promotes a positive and celebratory view of the human body and sex but also reminds us to be wary of how both of these can be abused without proper protections and safeguards.