Half-Cocked, or The Trouble With Too Many Views

Twice in the past week I have forced myself to not write. This has been much to my discomfort, for two reasons: first, because a full 97 percent of the time, I am in the mode of forcing myself to write, which makes not doing so when I actually desire to quite irritating — like an itch you can’t scratch — and second, because in both cases the topic was near to my faith and dear to my heart.

In the first instance, I had just finished a thought-provoking novel and wanted desperately to blog about it. The book, Shusako Endo’s Silence, was cautiously recommended to me by my friend Fr. Tyler as a great book, but dark and terribly sad. He was right, and as I finished, I wanted immediately to engage someone — anyone other than myself — on what it all meant.

The book is a relatively brief account of a Portuguese priest who travels secretly to feudal Japan during a time of intense persecution of Christians to discover the truth of rumors that his mentor, another Catholic priest-turned-missionary, has apostatized, or renounced, his faith and vocation. In broad terms, it deals primarily with the younger priest’s own thoughts about his priestly vocation, the poor Christians around him, the very real possibility of capture and torture, dreams of a glorious martyrdom, the brutal reality around him, and his own weaknesses.

I’m being purposefully vague. The final chapters cannot be revealed without diminishing the power of the book and straying into areas of faith of which I am ignorant, so I will go no further at this point. Suffice it to say, these final chapters are what threw me into a tailspin — what made want to talk first and think later, and what made it impossible for me to do so in good conscience. Ordinarily, I write quick, from-the-gut reviews shortly after completing a book, while it’s still fresh. But in this case, there was simply nothing I could say about the book that would not a) show my own ignorance and potentially stumble into error about our Catholic faith, or worse, drive someone else to error; b) spoil the story in order to get answers (Fr. Tyler!) and peace of mind; or c) both.

In the days since, I have thought a great deal about the book, and have regained my footing — though I still hope to discuss it in greater depth with someone who has read it and is better formed in the faith than me. I have also had a brief exchange with Fr. Tyler via Facebook — I brought myself to say this much: “[I]t’s masterful at making you ‘hate the sin and not the sinner’…” Father replied: ” For Catholics, it is a book that should contain the warning, ‘Handle with Care’.”

My caution in neither recommending nor casually reviewing this book, it appears, was not ill founded.

The second instance of holding my proverbial tongue came this morning, when I noticed a blogger for the Chronicle of Higher Education holding forth on the Natural Law and the Catholic Church’s stance on contraception. (The blogger in question is not supportive, surprise, surprise.) As I read his post, I felt the blood rise in my cheeks, and my mind raised ahead, formulating the response I would write: witty, pointed, deftly picking at the holes I saw in his arguments until they were gaping and obvious even to his likeminded readers.

My first reality check was the sheer volume of work I had to do today; I simply didn’t have time — especially to engage someone I didn’t know, personally or professionally, in an environment that was likely to be full of hostiles who were unlikely to be persuaded by wit or wisdom (let alone my own writing).

I felt a momentary pang of guilt for not standing up and being heard, until I finished the piece and reflected on my formal knowledge of the Natural Law and Aquinas’s writings (relatively little). I don’t know what the blogger knows — I feel like his expertise is not deep — but going off half-cocked might leave my own weaknesses exposed, even to someone who’s knowledge is only slight deeper than my own. A poorly formed effort would make this “Defender of the Faith” a liability, easily dismantled and dismissed — and the Church, by association.

So I said a prayer and sat on my hands. For a half-hour or so, my heart actually hurt, so badly did I want to speak out. Then something else came to mind: a passage I read yesterday, ostensibly for work, but with strong ties to my faith, written in 1852 by Blessed John Henry Newman and published in the preface to The Idea of a University (the underlining is mine, for emphasis):

“This is the emblem of [boys’] minds; at first they have no principles laid down within them as a foundation for the intellect to build upon; they have no discriminating convictions, and no grasp of consequences. And therefore they talk at random, if they talk much, and cannot help being flippant, or what is emphatically called ‘young.’ They are mere dazzled by phenomena, instead of perceiving things as they are.

“It were well if none remained boys all their lives; but what more common than the sight of grown men, talking on political or moral or religious subjects, in that offhand, idle way, which we signify by the word unreal? ‘That they simply do not know what they are talking about’ is the spontaneous silent remark of any man of sense who hears them.”

Cardinal Newman goes on to talk about the importance of impressing “upon a boy’s mind the idea of science, method, order, principles, and system; of rule and exception, of richness and harmony.”

“Let him once gain this habit of method, of starting from fixed points, of making his ground good as he goes, of distinguishing what he knows from what he does not know, and I conceive he will be gradually initiated into the largest and truest philosophical views, and will feel nothing but impatience and disgust at the random theories and imposing sophistries and dashing paradoxes, which carry away half-formed and superficial intellects.”

Cardinal Newman’s words resonated with me as I re-read them this morning. Starting from fixed points and making your ground good as you go enables you to keep your feet even as the world spins around you. This is why, in both instances this week, I hesitated – I was (wisely, I think) looking to the placement of my feet.

Newman goes on:

“Such parti-coloured ingenuities are indeed one of the chief evils of the day, and men of real talent are not slow to minister to them. An intellectual man, as the world now conceives of him, is one who is full of ‘views’ on all subjects of philosophy, on all matters of the day. It is almost thought a disgrace not to have a view at a moment’s notice on any question from the Personal Advent to the Cholera or Mesmerism.”

Indeed. When was the last time you heard anyone in a suit answer a question with a simple I don’t know?

“This is owing in great measure to the necessities of periodical literature, now so much in request. Every quarter of the year, every month, every day, there must be a supply, for the gratification of the public, of new and luminous theories on the subject of religion, foreign politics, home politics, civil economy, finance, trade, agriculture, and the colonies. Slavery, the gold fields, German philosophy, the French Empire, wellington, Peel, Ireland, must all be practiced on, day after day, by what are called original thinkers. …[T]he journalist lies under the stern obligation of extemporizing his lucid views, leading ideas and nutshell truths for the breakfast table.”

Again, he wrote this in 1852 – well before the cable TV, the internet, and the 24-hour news cycle, let alone Twitter. If the constant fluidity of views was eroding the foundations of Newman’s society, how much more so today, when the weekly or daily trickle has become an incessant torrent? (And yes, I recognize the mild irony that I am posting this on a blog.)

Today, everyone’s got an opinion. We know too much, perhaps – and we often think we know more than we do. We think we know better – especially, better than those “ignorant” souls who came before us. Poor saps. Poor Cardinal Newman.

At Yale I learned to argue, among other things, and not always in an honest manner. Unfortunately, strength of conviction and principle often seem less valued than compromise or an ill-defined “progress.” Partly in concession, partly to defend my views, which in college were considered quaint and outdated, I learned to bait-and-switch. I learned to massage my meanings as I went. And when I’m angry or impatient, I still do these things today.

But these days I find I trust people more who stand firm, even if in opposition to me, and I hope to solidify my own stances. More importantly, I hope to cultivate in myself the tendency to “spout off” less and listen more, read more, think more first. Indeed, this week I’ve found Lenten inspiration not only from Newman, but also from the Book of James (in the daily readings for this whole week) and this post from Catholic Drinkie. This Lent and thereafter, I hope to better embody the proverb, often attributed to Lincoln: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”

Pass the Beer Nuts

Blogger’s Note: I had another beer-related post in mind for tonight, but ran out of creative juices. This piece originally appear under the headline above as a column in the February 24, 1998, edition of The Pioneer daily newspaper in Big Rapids, Michigan. It explains the origins and peculiarities of my love of beer. So gosh-darn cute and innocent, too. Oh, yes … and this awesome poster image above? Not mine, but it can be purchased from the creative minds at Pop Chart Labs. Check it out!

“Bread is the staff of life,
but beer is life itself.”
— old English proverb

The world is home to beer drinkers and beer lovers, and most often the two are not the same.

The majority of beer drinkers care little about the alchemy at work in converting bread and water into those heady concoctions known collectively as beer. Most beer drinkers buy their beverages in packs of twelve or more and are content believing that born-on dates and pure mountain water are the two most important elements in  choosing a beer.

Ever wonder why the less expensive domestic beers tend to tout their water? As beer judge and connoisseur Bob Klein said about one American brew, “…take away that crisp, clean, fresh liquid, and it’d hard to tell what you have left.” Commercial breweries — those with “vats the size of Rhode Island” — speak highly of their water to avoid the Crispix debate: Which tastes better, the corn or the rice?

Barley, my friends — barley, hops yeast and water [Blogger’s Addendum: And occasionally a little wheat…] give us ales and lagers; porters, stouts, lambics, pilsners, bocks and barley-wines.

The world is home to a great many beers, and I am a beer lover.

I began drinking regularly at the “proper” time in my life — my twenty-first birthday — which has given me interesting perspectives on beer and drinking. (At least I think they’re interesting — they seem more so over a room-temperature Guinness.) I drank my first beer when I was three, sitting on my daddy’s knee one summer day at a family barbecue. I was holding his beer for him, and asked if I could have a sip. Dad said sure, assuming, I’m certain, that I wouldn’t like it.

I took a sip, and sat quietly for awhile, the took another.

A short while later, Dad took the can from me and was surprised to find it all but empty.

Did I like it? Did I get sick? I don’t remember. [Blogger’s Note: I do, however, remember the brand. Because I loved the jingle.]

I did not taste beer again until my twenty-first birthday — seriously. I did it then for two reasons: first, because I was of age — a sort of rite of passage — and second, because my future in-laws were drinkers of beer, and although they never pressured me to do so, I felt I’d like to be able to share the experience with them, and more importantly, be able to offer Jodi’s father and brothers a beer when they came to visit us.

A couple of college buddies took me out to dinner that day and ordered me a respectable brew: Sam Adams Boston Lager. It was bitter, nasty, and I drank only half of it. My friends — good friends that they are — said the beer was on them, and to enjoy it or not at my discretion.

Still, I was determined to find a beer that liked. The following week, another friend, Steve, introduced me to a raspberry wheat beer (“If you can drink any beer, it’s this one — it doesn’t even taste like beer!” he said) and Woodchuck hard cider (not beer at all). Both were easy to drink, fruity and flavorful. Neither could be offered to Jodi’s brothers with any sort of self-respect.

Steve took it upon himself to introduce me to a couple of new beers every week — the following week it was the English classic, Bass Pale Ale, and I was hooked. It was over that first Bass that I first gasped the mystical nature of beer. It occurred to me that, on first swallow, I thought Bass tasted pretty good; the second sip was better, and the more I drank, the more my taste buds relaxed, no longer bracing themselves against the bitterness of the hops or the sting of carbonation. I began to note intricacies of flavor I’d never noticed before, and I felt a certain oneness with the beer, until I was no longer certain who loved whom. I smiled at the revelation that I was no longer sure whether Bass tasted good or felt good, and smiled again at the notion that both were likely true, and it was impossible to extricate one from other.

As the weeks went on, Steve introduced me to a world of other beers — some black, some red, some brown, some yellow, and most very friendly. I discovered that when I discussed these beers with others, not everyone felt the same as I. Some beer drinkers liked only light beers, for example, and some beer drinkers, irrational as it seems, didn’t like beer at all.

Which is why I say I began consuming beer, and it me, at the proper time. I drink beer because I enjoy the taste (some of which, I’ll admit, is acquired — I do like Boston Lager now, especially on a hot day). I also began drinking beers A) not readily available in groups bigger than six, and B) too expensive to drink in mass quantities.

I remember a German exchange student in high school who could not understand her American friends’ fascination with sneaking off with a case of beer to get drunk. In Germany, she drank beer with meals as just another beverage, and she didn’t look at beer (especially American brews) as any sort of thrill or high.

I understand that now, but not everyone does.

Jodi and I had gone to a bar one evening with some friends of hers from work. I ordered a tall black and tan (a truly beautiful drink — the magic of physics causes Guinness Extra Stout to float atop Bass Pale Ale, and the layers remain separate: Irish and English, dark and light, yin and yang…). A short while later, I tried a Polish brew, in honor of my mother’s heritage.

When my glass was again dry, I ordered a Samuel Adams Honey Porter. I do not drink to excess — after two beers, I was very relaxed and drank the third with scarcely a second’s thought.

As I drained the glass, I realized that I had no idea what Sam Adams Honey Porter tasted like. When I voiced my disappointment, everyone except Jodi looked as me as though I were nuts: “You don’t have an impression of your last beer? That’s a new one.” “Yeah — who’d want to remember?”

Call me a beer nut — I would.

Living with Unbelief

“The new rebel is a Skeptic, and will not entirely trust anything. He has no loyalty; therefore he can never be really a revolutionist. And the fact that he doubts everything really gets in his way when he wants to denounce anything. For all denunciation implies a moral doctrine of some kind; and the modern revolutionist doubts not only the institution he denounces, but the doctrine by which he denounces it. … In short, the modern revolutionist, being an infinite skeptic, is always engaged in undermining his own mines. In his book on politics he attacks men for trampling on morality; in his book on ethics he attacks morality for trampling on men. Therefore the modern man in revolt has become practically useless for all purposes of revolt. By rebelling against everything he has lost his right to rebel against anything.” – G.K. Chesterton

I have a friend from high school – an intelligent and articulate husband and father who reads widely, is well informed on a wide range of issues, and is fearlessly outspoken. I admire these things about him. He is also the closest to a conspiracy theorist of anyone I know. He appears to be skeptical of the government, the media, and the motives of nearly everyone he encounters who is unknown to him or disagrees with his perspective. I can live with that – but I can’t live like that.

In the Ben Stein documentary Expelled—a interesting film with numerous serious flaws, in my opinion—one of the atheist academics says that he rejects the idea of a higher purpose or meaning to the universe, and indeed, rejects free will. He has suffered a brain tumor, and says if it comes back, he will shoot himself in the head.

My first thought was, “Will he?”

How does he know? What if the chemicals and synapses line up differently? What if his neurons compel him to look into the sight organs of those of his species with whom he has chemically bonded, and some subconscious part of his brain gives rise to the unbidden hallucination that these “others” matter to him? Will he override those impulses, knowing that they are false and irrational?

I suppose he won’t. He has no free will, so he can’t override anything. I’m not sure how he professes to believe anything. His choices (er, potential life paths) are two, as far as I can see: either choose nothing, ever, to see whither his impulses lead (they will perhaps compel him to eat, drink, breed, and die, like an animal) or to insist upon his beliefs, but act otherwise – to live as though he had decisions to make, even as he says he doesn’t. He will regard this as perfectly rational. And if he kills himself, those who love him shouldn’t mourn or blame him. It’s nobody’s fault.

I see a similar (not identical) problem with the diehard skeptics and conspiracy theorists. It is reasonable, especially these days, to look around and think the deck is stacked against us. It is prudent, then, to proceed with caution and with our eyes open, doing our best to build a good life, and protect what we have and those we care about. But how much is too much? When you see the government, and those who are wealthy or powerful, and the political structure, and the healthcare system, all as false or corrupt; when you are ready to quit participating in government “of the people,” however flawed it may be; when you are skeptical of transcendental Truth and dismissive of religion – what’s the next step? Secession? Revolution? Or marriage? Can you justify bringing children into such circumstances? I admire my friend’s tenacity in uncovering possible lies and conspiracies, but how, then, does he live his knowledge? On which false information does he act? And what will he teach to his children?

In my college days, I called myself agnostic, thinking this was the most intelligent way to regard God. After all, how could anyone know the unknowable? Only later did I realize that I was hedging – that I didn’t have the courage to believe in God or not. I found, over time, that I could not disbelieve and believe at the same time. I could claim to be an agnostic, but I had to live as a believer or a non-believer.

Devout skepticism, like hard determinism, diminishes the possibility of a credible life without contradiction. The diehard skeptic knows only that he’s skeptical – everything else is uncertain. But I suspect that my friend, like me, has made his choice. He’s a good man, a devoted husband and father, and he genuinely cares about others. He must see something of value in this world, in this country, in his marriage and family, which makes him persist in the face of his doubts. Is it God? Love? Freedom? I don’t know. But he doesn’t behave like an unbeliever. I believe he wants to make the world a better place – and to that extent, his heart is a believer’s heart. It’s a step – forward, in my opinion.

The Second Third, Week 23: Be Gentle With Yourself

A few years back, a dear friend and former colleague of mine was going through a number of big changes and difficult transitions in her life. Everything seemed to be hitting all at once, and I could tell she was freezing up a bit. Do you know that feeling? When there seems to be so much you have to do, and so much you want to do, and so much you feel you should do…and very little overlap, so no matter what you accomplish, you feel you should’ve done more, and feel guilty for what you failed to do?

You don’t have that problem? Well, you’re blessed. Show some gratitude.

We got together, for lunch, maybe, or else I was helping her with some project, and I gave her a card that said something like, “The easiest way to move the mountain is one pebble at a time.” She read it, and saw immediately: You can only do what you can do. Baby steps. “Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Sufficient for a day is its own evil.” — Matthew 6:34

It wasn’t long after — a few months probably — and I was telling her how I’d promised to read more and write every night after work, but I was so tired once the kids went to bed and couldn’t stay awake and focused. “I need to get in shape so I’m not dead tired all the time,” I said, “but how can I find time and energy to exercise if I can’t stay awake to read or write?”

I told her I needed a wholesale lifestyle change. She said, “The easiest way to move the mountain is one pebble at a time.” I had forgotten that when we worked together, we took a couple of personality inventories, and were nearly identical in score and profile.

That feeling’s been creeping in again lately. I look at what needs to be done, and what I want to do, and get that knot in my guts as I gradually…grind…to…a…halt. Then I think, “That’s it. I need to change. Everything. Now.”

When I was in college, a coworker in the School of Music had the Desiderata hanging over her desk. It struck me back then as wise; today the only parts I remember are the first four lines and this one, which I refer to often: “Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.”

These Second Third posts, as a body, seem to point to things I’d like to change about me: weaknesses I’d like to overcome, or goals I’d like to achieve. I need to remember to take it easy on myself and remember what’s important. One pebble at a time — I should be well along when I reach my third Third.

Book Break: Three Little Books

I’m playing catch-up on a few recently completed books, lest you think (aside from The Brothers Karamazov) I haven’t been reading in the past year. All of them are “little” books in one sense or another, but none are insubstantial; in fact, all three have Catholic or spiritual underpinnings and overtones. I shall write about them in the order that I completed them, though the last one I began reading even before Dostoevsky.

Parish Priest: Father Michael McGivney and American Catholicism by Douglas Brinkley & Julie Fenster is a short biography of the founder of the Knights of Columbus and an intriguing glimpse into the struggles of American Catholics in the nineteenth century. Fr. McGivney, like many priests of his day, died young, but nevertheless transformed the communities of which he was a part, and ultimately re-envisioned the role of Catholic men in America. The authors admit he left few personal papers or other items behind, and at times, it felt as though the material on Fr. McGivney was a bit thinner than the book. I was particularly struck by several points, however:

  • Fr. McGivney’s gifts as a parish priest, and his ideas behind the Knights of Columbus, first manifested themselves at St. Mary’s Catholic Church on Hillhouse Avenue in New Haven, Conn. Interestingly (to me, at least), when I was at Yale, this was a church I walked by on a daily basis, and when I met my bride and began (occasionally) to attend mass, it was at St. Mary’s. As a result, the book was full of names and places I knew and could envision from my college days.
  • Catholics in America were subject to discrimination; however, New Haven’s sophisticated liberal leanings made the community quite tolerant of its Catholic immigrants. On the other hand, when I was at Yale, the community’s sophisticated liberal leanings caused the students to look sideways at the priests and parishioners at St. Mary’s.
  • Fr. McGivney’s desire to start the KCs stemmed from the problems he saw in his Irish Catholic community, including poor widows, fatherless children, and men who wanted something more than their workaday lives, but were seeking it in the bottle and secret societies that separated them from their faith and their families. As they say, the more things change…
The book was a quick read, and especially for Yale Catholics and my KC brothers, I recommend it.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince is a grown-up fable masquerading as a children’s book. It’s a book I’ve seen often and have often wanted to read based on the whimsical illustrations alone, but until I recently heard an interview about the book on the local Catholic radio station, I’m embarrassed to say I knew almost nothing about the book or the author. I found a like-new, soft-cover, second-hand copy at The Sixth Chamber in St. Paul, brought it home, and did something I certainly haven’t done since Trevvy learned to read for himself: I began to read to the kids after dinner.

It’s neither overtly Catholic nor overtly religious. It is beautiful. I won’t tell you a thing about the story; I knew very little, and I found my voice choking with emotion throughout as I discovered my kids, and especially myself, in the characters in the story.* I will say only that it is worth reading and worth sharing. Everyone, from six-year-old Trevor to Jodi and I, loved the book. Gabe says it may be his new favorite. Our teenager said, “Will you pick another book, Dad? I really like this!”

If you want just a taste, my good friend Fr. Tyler wrote about The Little Prince, as well, on his Prairie Father blog. The excerpt he used is one of my favorites, too. Read this book!

Finally, the other night at Adoration I finished Introduction to a Devout Life, a Catholic spiritual classic written in the early 17th century by St. Francis de Sales. The copy I have is a pocket-sized hardcover; an undated old printing of an old translation, I suspect. The book is available for free in its entirety on several web sites; CatholiCity.com describes it this way:

Introduction to the Devout Life is the most popular Catholic “self-help” book of all time. First published in the early 17th century, it has proven its value as a daily spiritual guide and helpful reference for living an authentic Christian life. Written specifically for laymen, it began as letters from Saint Francis to a married woman who was seeking holiness amidst the distractions of her life of wealth and status. It contains treasures of wisdom for every reader, from eager beginner to lifelong Christian.

I came late to the Church and was confirmed as a young husband and father and an aspiring writer.** I picked St. Francis de Sales as my confirmation saint, primarily because he is the patron saint of writers. I read a bit about him and learned that he had a privileged education and upbringing, and he was looking for signs all the time…so it took him awhile to come to the decision to serve God. (That seemed appropriate.) Once he became a priest, he went into fairly hostile areas to convert people, and often used his writings to do so. These details, plus the fact that Francis is a family name on my father’s side, seemed like good reasons at the time. (I never even considered any of the numerous St. Jameses.)

It wasn’t until years later that I realized St. Francis de Sales was a doctor of the church and decided I should probably read my patron’s writings. I searched for a copy of the book and wound up with two (one in English, and one in French, which I don’t read or speak. I’ve been reading it a bit to a time each Monday night in the Adoration Chapel ever since. The sentences are often intricate, but the saint’s voice and genuine joy in serving God shines through. The book provides step-by-step guidance for increasing devotion and holiness in your life, and the saint’s suggestions, while intimidating taken in their entirety, are individually small, practical, and still relevant today. And every so often something strikes you as so profound that you incorporate it immediately into your prayer life. It is a challenge to anyone living in this world, but I suspect it rewards repeat readings.
* Of course, I am an emotional guy…
** I’m still all of these things except young.