One of the keystones for understanding the world, as I see it, is this: men desire the transcendent, but only experience the concrete.
I say we desire the transcendent. Freedom, love, justice, happiness, and so on. There are indeed people who seem to desire nothing but pleasure or material things, but in the first place these are the people who are, frankly, the least human, in the second, their general misery and the disgust with which they are held by the rest of the world shows that even they don’t really want these things in themselves. If all we wanted were safety, security, pleasure, and so on, then we would be happy and content once we got them. But we find (thanks to the experience of the past few generations) that the people who have these things in abundance are precisely the ones who are most likely to blow their own brains out.
Yet we only experience the concrete. When we say we want ‘love,’ for instance, what do we mean? Well, we want a particular kind of relationship with another person, but what does that relationship look like on a day-to-day, minute-to-minute basis? It’s hugs and kisses and making breakfast and affectionate nicknames and jokes and touches and backrubs and so on and so forth. No one would say these things are love, but they are the way we experience it. A husband who cut them all out (and all other expressions) would have a hard time credibly convincing his wife, or anyone else, that he still loved her. Even if he did, he probably wouldn’t very long, nor she him.
The transcendent must be embodied in the concrete for us to experience it at all. We see this even in the fundamental experience of language, in which ideas are embodied in combinations of sounds or symbols. And on the other hand, when we try to examine pure thought or pure belief or pure emotion, absent anything concrete, we find only a mass of uncertainty, assumption, and question-begging. Our interior life, the farthest removed from the concrete of our experience, is also our most uncertain. That is where our self-deception, our confirmation biases, the fleeting influences of the moment are strongest.
In short, we do not encounter ‘pure spiritual experiences’ in this life. As St. James put it, “shew me thy faith without works; and I will shew thee, by works, my faith.” (James 2: 18).
This, as I say, is a keystone concept: man desires the transcendent and only experiences the concrete, therefore the transcendent must be incarnated in the concrete for us to experience it. That is, in fact, the particularly human experience. Once get this straight, and many other things follow.
Obviously, the supreme example of this is God manifesting Himself to men in the person of Jesus, and Christ offering Grace to mankind through the Sacraments. But other things follow as well.
One I want to point out especially is this; authority is a transcendent concept. As I’ve pointed out, authority is the power to create moral obligation in those subject to us (and I’m still working this out, so bear with me here). Now, this is incarnated in the power to enforce one’s authority (“For he is God’s minister to thee, for good. But if thou do that which is evil, fear: for he beareth not the sword in vain. For he is God’s minister: an avenger to execute wrath upon him that doth evil.” Romans 13:4). Authority is not dependent upon that power, but that power is how authority is normally manifested. This is due to the nature of our being; no one, not even God Himself, can compel a person to do good, we can only punish them for doing evil (which is a curious thing when you think about it; it is absolutely impossible for us to force someone to do good. We can inflict punishment on someone regardless of his will, but we cannot never ‘inflict’ goodness). Therefore, authority, which is directed to a certain good of the subject, manifests itself most clearly in chastisement.
It is, of course, right and indeed best if the commands of legitimate authority are obeyed regardless and chastisement never has to be inflicted. We ought to obey out of love and respect rather than fear. But if we will not obey, then the best thing the authority can do, what he is, in fact, obligated to do, is to establish his authority through chastisement. The father’s duty to his children requires that he punish them when they do wrong. The ruler’s duty to his subjects requires the same.
Nor is this contrary to mercy. Remember, mercy is a function of authority. Therefore, before anyone can show mercy, he must first establish his authority through chastisement (or at least the subject must be brought to understand that such chastisement is both possible and just). “Thou art great, O Lord, for ever, and thy kingdom is unto all ages: For thou scourgest, and thou savest: thou leadest down to hell, and bringest up again: and there is none that can escape thy hand” (Tobit 13:1-2).
Violence, you see, is not contrary to mercy. In fact, it is often an essential part of what we could call the ‘merciful system.’ In order to show mercy, authority must be established, which often means chastisements must be inflicted and the rebellious subject made to acknowledge, however grudgingly, the authority of the one over him. Even if it gets no farther than “you acknowledge that I could grind you under my heel like a bug right now, correct?” that still creates sufficient authority to show mercy. It is only then that mercy becomes even possible.
Because as long as the other side refuses to acknowledge your authority, and as long as he thinks he doesn’t have to, then refusal to enforce it is not mercy but abdication: the refusal to act according to one’s responsibilities.
The historian Victor Davis Hansen put it very well (though I can’t now find where he said it) that “mercy means beating your enemy to the ground, putting your foot on his neck, and then saying ‘I am not going to destroy you this time.’” The code of chivalry was that vanquished enemies were to be spared: after the knights had done their best to kill one another, and one was finally beaten down to the point where he knows he will either ask for quarter or die, the victor was morally obligated to spare his enemy if he asked for it. Even if, as is the case most of the time, violent chastisement is not necessary, the very idea of mercy requires that it is a moral possibility.
You see what I mean by the idea of the transcendent manifesting in the concrete is a keystone idea? At once we see how things like war, the death penalty, soldiery, and so on are compatible with Christianity, even to the point of being necessary elements, at least in potential. “Blessed are the merciful,” requires that it be possible to show mercy, which means it must be permissible to establish authority.
This also pretty much defangs every clever deconstruction that we moderns employ to try to escape from inconvenient realities. To say something like “marriage is just a piece of paper,” for instance, is simply flat out wrong; it isn’t, but the ‘piece of paper’ (or at least the vows it records) is what the fact of getting married and bound to one another for life looks like in this world. You are not being clever when you point that out; I may as well say that your witty essay arguing the point is nothing but a lot of black marks on paper. Deconstructions, fixing your gaze on the material manifestation of something, is nothing but an irrelevant smokescreen.