Thursday, June 18, 2015

Conversion... to What?

The other day I expressed some of my cynicism regarding the capacity of people to believe. Remember, faith is one of the "theological virtues," and, as such, a grace rather than a virtue in the Aristotelian, moral sense of the word, i.e. something that we can build up ourselves by repeated action. I build up bicep strength by repeatedly stressing it. I cannot give myself faith in this way. It is a gift. If you don't agree with me, we'll just then agree that you don't know your Faith.

Anyway. I am not cynical, I am sober. (Of course, who of us doesn't describe himself as realistic? "They are optimists, they are pessimists, but I am realistic...")

I had an interesting conversation yesterday with someone else who I think would also consider himself more of the cynical persuasion. We posed this question of theoretical evangelists: "To what are they aiming?" - What goal to they have in mind for their 'subjects'?

That's an important question, no?

Let's rephrase it: Do they have in mind what, for instance, St. Anthony of Egypt, St. Benedict, St. Francis, St. Theresa of Avila had in mind for conversion to Christian living?

If you will accede a discrepancy (that's seems reasonable) what should we make of it? Is it important or incidental?

Perhaps most wold say that of course there's a difference between what modern evangelists are aiming at and what they saints were aiming at. The former are simply concerned with the first stage of conversion, the latter the next stages...

Of course, I bet you that's not universally so. All the saints listed above, but most overtly Anthony and Francis, thought that our bourgeois Catholic life is intrinsically, radically un-Christian.

But who cares - am I splitting hairs here? What's the importance?

Let me outline something of it.

A friend of mine says that he hesitates to go to certain church functions because all the people talk about are sports - in which he has no interest at all - and their latest purchases: especially trips they have or will be taking or renovations they are undertaking. I get that. I haven't taken a trip in... almost twenty years. All my renovations are more like putting duct tape on things and praying like hell that fire does not result. I get that. Since I got married I have always been the poorest of my friends (and family). Sometimes that's hard to deal with. Like now, seeing how my whole family is pressuring us to visit them this summer and I cannot afford to purchase a vehicle that would safely get my family there... Sometimes it's hard. Sometimes. Other times (most times) I don't care.

So, what are evangelists aiming at? I would warrant that they are not thinking of converting the guys who talk about sports, vacations and home-maintenance. These guys go to church and spout the party line. Most importantly, they dress up for mass on Sunday. These things show they are true-believers, part of the club.

I get why people think we should dress our best on Sunday. I don't agree with their arguments, but I understand them. The reason I don't agree is based upon my own experience and my 'conception' of the experience of others who would be like what I was when I was considering joining the Church.

This is a little digression, but relevant to my main point. I purposely do not dress up. It has a lot to do with comfort and laziness, but also a great deal more to do with one of my main concerns: not alienating young people who see the Church as some superficial conformist club. That's how I looked at Christianity as a young person. I am determined to dissuade young men like me of this notion. The Church is not about externals, hypocrisy, bourgeois values, etc. It is about the mass, the saints, mystically connecting with God. I don't care that many don't see it this way. This is how I see it. There are lots of people who feel alienated from the Church. I want them to feel this way for the right reasons, not because they come from a broken home, don't have nice clothes, etc. These are people for whom I feel compassion. I really feel like Nietzsche and Dawkins could have been saved if they met someone like me... Yes, I have grand self-conceptions.

Let's move forward here. Am I mischaracterizing faithful Catholic evangelists as shallow tribalists? Well, it's all a matter of degrees: how much is your evangelization about wanting to re-create people in the image of Christ that is really your image of the image of Christ, which looks more like you, Joe-blow Catholic than it does the very Son of the Living God, and, not only you, but the whole white picket-fence bourgeois view you have of the good life? I see this when I go to church sometimes. If it strikes me, a believer, you can be sure it strikes others.

Nor is the solution to insert another type of person (a cool marginalized person) for sake of the hated WASPs you have in mind, or think I have in mind (WASC, I guess, but you know what I mean).

Young, cool, hip Christians think we need to make the Church all about this:

rather than this:

I say, we should make it about this:

And that these two here below are more like this than the two above:

St. Diego of Alcala (by Murillo).
St. Francis in his tattered attire.

Images are pretty powerful things. Don't we all have some pretty strange mental pictures about things? The girl above would doubtlessly evoke a feeling of admiration from liberals: she is free, authentic, etc., while the second would represent to them hypocrisy and conformism, etc. What does the bloody Christ represent, and the dirty lives of the saints.

Images. Why do pop stars look like they do? Don't tell me it's because that's who they are. Why do homosexuals dress up as they do at their parades? It's not authenticity. It's a costume; it's an image; it's acceptable.

So, in summation, we all have a lot of work to do towards clearing up our notion of who Christ is and who we are supposed to be as a result. Don't confuse exterior trappings with inner spiritual states. The suit tells us something; the nose ring tells other people the very thing the suit tells us. In the end Christ had neither the one nor the other. He would not have hung around with the hippies, nor would He have treated the bankers with special scorn.

Nor is it at all possible to cling on to this world. Have you ever noticed how how evangelists phrase their goals: how do we get people back to church? How do we get people to marry, vote for traditional marriage, etc., etc.? These things might look like intrinsically good things, but don't we all know that people can go to church for all the wrong reasons, support traditional marriage for all the wrong reasons, hate homosexuality for all the wrong reasons?

You can't just put some patches up on Canadian culture and call it the Kingdom of God. As long as we get the church attendance numbers up all will be well, we seem to assume.

Even my good buddy, C. S. Lewis, liked to talk about the Christian presuppositions "we used to all have" (i.e. the image discarded in his The Discarded Image). That is a grand exaggeration.

We all "used to" nothing. And we all never will anything.

For my friend, Mickey Blopp.


  1. Okay, so: do you go to mass to be seen by others, or to worship God? (Do you dress up for weddings? (Did you dress up for your own wedding? (Why? (Many people perceive marriage as a totally pretentious bourgeois institution.))))
    Re. your desire to meet and impress Nietzsche and Dawkins: this is neither cynical nor pessimistic - nor remotely realistic. (I'm just being realistic, since you're choosing not to be - although you're still a pleasure to read.) -D

  2. Don't get me started on weddings. Or, your over-use of brackets.

    What were wedding like in the old days, i.e., when people had faith.

    Hey, you got me started and I said don't even.

  3. I actually couldn't agree with you more re: dressing up for Mass, Colin!

    1. It's hard for me to get excited about mass dressing up when there appears to be an inverse relation between piety and fine clothing at mass. People are pious and casual at weekday masses, well-dressed and worldly on Sunday.

    2. That may be, but your analysis seems still awfully bourgeois and parochial. Who are you trying to impress? To whom are your intentions directed? I understand that in Africa (all of it? - I don't know) it is unthinkable to not show due reverence for God by one's dress at mass. Do you want to say they have no faith, those ignorant unwashed black-skinned masses (you might consider church-going black Americans too)? Or is their example of faith just irrelevant to us well-dressed-on-Sunday (albeit not in my parish) wealthy, insipid-in-faith North Americans? -D

    3. Since we are not in Africa, the cultural meaning of dressing up for mass would thereby be different. I grew up here and so this is where I gained my feelings, feelings no doubt shared by many searching youths...
      I did think about NA Africans. There is a Seventh Day church next to a place where I once worked and they always dressed immaculately. And I admired that, but again, not my community. They should do what they think is best, as I do.
      On the other hand, I started reading CS Lewis' Prologue to Paradise Lost and he has an amazing passage where he talks about dressing up for ritual as the very antithesis of narcissism - it is a service to others, he seems to say. Worth pondering.

    4. As the daughter of a man who never dressed up for mass, I would wholeheartedly agree with C.S. Lewis. I respect Dave tremendously for making an effort for Sunday mass. I remember a stop for sunday mass in PEI one summer when we had five minutes to run into the church. It was a super hot day and he threw his dress clothes over his shorts and tshirt because it was important even if it wasn't comfortable. That made a big impression on me. I think that the whole dressing down thing can be an effort at making sloth into a virtue. One of the reasons I hate going to saturday vigil mass is becuase i never want to dress up and the whole thing feels like a big cheat. Also, we live in a very casual, slothful culture and I don't think we should reflect that at mass. And, I don't think that dressing down helps at all with evangelisation - puh-lease!

    5. Haha. Puh-lease indeed. While it is true that we live in a sloppy culture, and I am always against shorts and ahem bare shoulders at church, I will yet maintain that Christians can and do have the rep of being the 'pure' people who sit in judgement of every other 'irregular' circumstance. I am not suggesting my form of evangelization should be undertaken by everyone. That would actually undermine it. I am sending out the message that it's okay to go to mass without a suit, without a husband, without kids, without parents. I am not attempting to say that it is not okay to go to mass with a suit, which one of our ethnic Catholic friends thought I was saying. (But, he's not that smart.)
      Frankly, I am turned off by the perfect Christian image. I want nothing to do with it. The one who has everything right on the surface and yet nothing right underneath.

    6. That's why I don't brush Isaac's hair or fix Joe's collar. I'm wearing a tank top to mass on Sunday and Dave will wear triathlon gear so as to better his run time. Just saying.

  4. I think that what really matters, whether you dress up or dress down, is the heart. Having a spirit of poverty is the important thing, not what you wear. I personally find it more spiritually fruitful to come before God dressed down; it helps me feel poor, humble, a sinner in need of mercy, and, even in my brokenness, loved for who I am and not for what I look like. Whether dressing down for Mass is *objectively* better than dressing up, I don't know, but even if dressing down were objectively better, as Colin seems to be arguing, it wouldn't make dressing up *bad*, the same way marriage isn't bad just because religious life is objectively superior. It all comes down to how you personally feel called by God. We can't judge a person's interior life based solely on what they wear to Mass.

    1. I tend to agree with you. One of the things I am trying to get to is that Christians are strangely resenting as being the "perfect people" in our culture. How we are perceived should not determine what we do, but I think it might be good evangelization strategy to concentrate on non-externals.
      One other point, I find suits very uncomfortable and I cannot pray well in them, as strange as that sounds. I am too worried about wrinkling my suit. I am too hot. My belly is squeezed.

  5. An obvious presupposition: You can do the right thing for the wrong reason and the wrong thing for the right reason. For example, if you're wearing shorts, t-shirt, and sandals to mass because it makes you feel more humble-sinner-in-need-of-mercy-ish, I think it likely you're doing the wrong thing, even if there's some rightness involved in your reasons for doing it. We need to keep in view doing the right thing for the right reason. -D