Saturday, March 7, 2009

2009 Lenten Read-A-Thon Day 11

Day 11 and I've already failed. Last year, I was much further into Lent before I goofed up. Here I was looking at some art stuff, and I...I read a comic strip. Yes. During my Lenten fiction fast, I read a comic strip, and I didn't even think about it until later. Kind of like when you find yourself eating beef jerky on Friday: It didn't seem like the time.

Come to think of it, I think I read some newspaper comics last week, too. Also without thinking about it. Until just now. I'm not sure those count, though, because newspaper comics suck. You could read those for penance.

PENITENT: Father, I lied to my wife and got angry at my boss.

PRIEST: Go read a collection of "For Better or For Worse."

PENITENT: Oh Father, not that!

I should start paying better attention to what I'm reading. After all, the exterior practice is only worthwhile if accompanied by an interior disposition and by prayer. Fasting from food, or from certain foods, gives us opportunity to be more attentive to what we put in our bodies, and fasting from fiction gives us opportunity to be more attentive to what we put in our brains. And attentiveness, of course, is vital to effective prayer.

Anyway, I'm now posting the comic strip I read so I can damn you the same way I damned myself, dammit:

You read that, didn't you? See, you're no better than me. You think you're better, but you're not.

Notice how this comic strip is quite relevant to our present project, which is the reading of Man and Woman He Created Them by Pope John Paul II, or J.P. Deuce, as we affectionately call him. The comic is about Lent, and in it, Poland and Italy are hanging out together. Now, in our present reading project, we are for Lent reading a series of catecheses presented by J.P. Deuce in Italian, based on an unpublished manuscript he originally wrote in Polish. So Poland and Italy come together. For Lent. Awesome, huh?

Where was I? Ah, yes. I have already gotten some of the inevitable legalistic questions about how to observe the Lenten fiction fast, so here's my answer:

The Church requires us to observe a day of fast and abstinence on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and abstinence on each Friday of Lent. These are opportunities to join in with the Church for days of mortification and prayer, in which we all come together as one body, and so forth. Any additional fasting you do or don't do for Lent is between you and God. I decided to fast from fiction during Lent because I thought it would be a good way to get under my belt some hefty nonfiction tomes that I had meant to read but hadn't, and to see some documentaries I had meant to watch but hadn't. It started with Josephus, who I had meant to read all of because of my Archaeology degree, and it's continued from there. I invite my blog readers to join in because that's fun and because I assume others have meant to read some of the same books I have meant to. Everything beyond that is your business.

Speaking of which, how many of you have made it through Michael Waldstein's magisterial introduction? Rough going, huh? Man, that blew me away; what a great overview. Contra Archdeacon Smiter, I'm glad Waldstein didn't go on for a few hundred more pages about J.P. Deuce's patristic sources. After all, an introduction must necessarily be limited both in aims and length, and I think 128 pages is a good place to stop on the length end of things. Besides that, for the skeptical modern reader, or even for most Christians, it is more important to outline what assumptions underlie modern thought and how J.P. Deuce has answered, used, or rejected those assumptions, rather than to show how he has used patristic sources, which the skeptical modern reader, and even some Christians, won't care much about. Besides that, because it focuses where it does and criticizes certain modern assumptions, this introduction, as it stands, potentially prepares the reader to take greater interest in, and to have greater appreciation for, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, an interest and appreciation the reader wouldn't likely have if Waldstein had simply jumped into the subject. So there.

If we were to take Waldstein's intro and my present place in the volume (page 190, yo!) and try to relate the pope's work to something much easier to understand, like, say, the Apostles' Creed, it would be fair to say the book focuses on the Christian belief in the "resurrection of the body." Last I heard anything on the subject, a poll had revealed that even most conservative Christians in America do not believe in a resurrection, or have no real concept of one, but tend to view their eternal destiny as involving some sort of disembodied state. This would seem to reflect what Waldstein calls a "Cartesian dualism," a view of the body as essentially a meat machine, only the spirit being of any real importance--and this belief, as Waldstein discusses only briefly, leads naturally to a disbelief in a spirit altogether, and a view of the human being in his entirety as nothing more than a meat machine, which in turn leads to a view of the human being as open to any kind of modification, exploitation, or abuse.

Meat machines. Mmm...meat. What day is this? Oh good, it's not Friday.

Where was I? Ah, yes: As Waldstein nicely puts it, with a bold and forceful use of EM dashes,

In contrast to the dominant mentality, John Paul II sustains Humanae Vitae to proclaim the good news--and it is indeed good news--that the human person "also is a body"--not merely "has" a body, but "is a body--e corpo." [pp. 103-104]

And when a man has to put a single word in both italics and quotation marks, you darn well better listen to what he has to say. Humanae Vitae, in case anyone doesn't know, is Pope Paul VI's encyclical reaffirming the Church's ancient and unchanging teaching on the immorality of contraception, which is controversial partly because Pope Paul VI went against the majority opinion of the Papal Birth Control Commission, thereby annoying some critics who apparently think the pope can change the moral universe on a whim, or that he is somehow obligated to concede to majority opinion or the winds of fashion. Is is amusing to watch the way so-called liberals will one moment complain that the pope has too much power and the next moment demand that he overstep the limits of his power to effect some change they want. For example, some time back, before I was Catholic, I read (most of) Hans Kung's bitter Catholic Church: A Short History, in which he one moment complains that the Catholic Church is not more like the Orthodox Church, the next moment complains that it is not more like the liberal Lutheran churches, and the next moment complains that it is not more like him. The petulance and self-infatuation of that little book put me in mind of a naughty child; I'm unsure if Kung needs an excommunication or a spanking.

So what J.P. Deuce is affirming, and what Paul VI affirmed, is that our bodies are not merely tools we have, but who we are, and that they by their nature communicate certain things and serve certain ends, and that in the resurrection they are destined for eternity. As J.P. Deuce explores in his opening chapter, which focuses on the first first few chapters of Genesis, a biblical anthropology does not permit of a sharp duality between body and spirit, but sees self and body as inextricably intertwined even to the point of identity. It is perhaps no wonder, then, that when a developed concept of afterlife appeared in Judaism, it appeared as a doctrine of resurrection.

We may add, in anticipation of something J.P. Deuce will probably discuss later, that when Christ fed his disciples, he fed them with his body; as the Church affirms in teaching that the "body, blood, soul, and divinity" of Christ are present in the Eucharist, when Jesus said, "This is my body," and "This is the cup of my blood," he was offering them all of himself, a self that, thanks to the Incarnation, is a body. And so after the crucifixion, Christ did not merely ascend spiritually to Heaven, but rose from the dead.

The difficulty modern people have in grasping all this can be startling; I myself experienced a small paradigm shift in my thinking while reading Waldstein's overview. The blithe, unquestioning acceptance of "Cartesian dualism" reaches so far, in fact, that it becomes difficult not to project it into the past. When I obtained my useless Philosophy minor largely under the yoke of so-called historical Jesus "scholar" Marcus Borg, for example, I heard more than once that the Apostles' original conception of Christ's rising from the dead was of a merely spiritual resurrection, revealed in visions, and that the details of the empty tomb were only added later. (This notion, like so many things, comes from a misreading of St. Paul.) I don't know who came up with this clever idea first, but it might have been Johannes Weiss, whose Earliest Christianity is considered a sort of classic, and which also makes a fine example of how bankrupt this branch of "scholarship" is: Being without many sources, Weiss speculates wildly and presents his wild speculations as facts.

So, I think that's enough of my reflections for this fine Saturday afternoon. I'm going outside to play. Have fun reading.
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