Sunday Thoughts: Failed Systems

There is an episode of the original Star Trek called “Ultimate Computer”. The premise is that the genius Dr. Daystrom has built a revolutionary supercomputer that, he claims, can run a starship more efficiently than any human captain and obviates the need for a human crew at all. They install in the Enterprise for a test run, and at first it seems to work; it makes better decisions faster than Kirk and effortlessly triumphs in an initial simulation.

But then problems start showing up. It fires on a passing drone ship. It begins shutting down ship functions to power itself. It accidentally vaporizes a crew member and creates a shield to prevent itself being turned off. By the end, it’s firing on other starships, killing hundreds.

All the while, Dr. Daystrom (played with great pathos by William ‘Blacula’ Marshall) keeps insisting that things are fine; that these are understandable mistakes that can be corrected, that the computer will work, has to work, because its purpose — eliminating the need to send people to war — is that important. And also because he’s staked his entire career, reputation, and self-image on this one project.

That episode functions as something of an allegory for Modernity. Take an existing, functional-but-imperfect system (the Enterprise), note its very real flaws, and propose to replace it with a new, man-made system designed specifically to correct those problems. The system is brilliantly designed, and at first it seems to work perfectly, outperforming the traditional form in key areas. But then, as time goes on, more and more issues begin to arise that simply did not exist under the old form. The new system begins to behave erratically and unpredictably, it cannibalizes more and more of the old structure, and takes increasingly stringent measures to keep itself going. In the end it becomes far, far more destructive than the imperfect system it was meant to replace while simultaneously doing all it can to perpetuate its own existence. And all the while those who created it refuse to acknowledge its patent failure by continuing to point to the original purpose as being that important, despite the fact that their system is acting directly contrary to what they intended.

This pattern, it seems to me, plays out again and again. Feminism has made women more miserable and embittered than ever and left tens of millions of dead children in its wake, but it’s still being imposed because “it means respecting women”. The sexual revolution has gutted human relationships and, again, left millions dead from AIDs and other highly-preventable diseases, but we’re still celebrating it and pushing it because “it’s the only sensible way to think of sex”. Marxism devastates every single nation it ever gets imposed upon and again leads to tens of millions of dead bodies (are you noticing a pattern here?), but we’re still insisting that it somehow means justice for the poor and pretending that it was ever remotely rational.

Then there’s Vatican II.

Vatican II was supposed to be a new springtime in the Church, to make the faith more relevant and attractive to the people. It has, by any objective measure, done more damage than anything since at least the Protestant Revolt. The Church has never been more irrelevant, anemic, and unsure of herself. It’s really rather impressive; perhaps the most resilient, effective, and vibrant organization in human history, and the council fathers actually managed to hamstring it with only a few key monumentally bad decisions. There was a time, and not long ago, that that would have been considered impossible, but they found a way.

Of course, that’s not the only reason for the current state of affairs (Modernism was infecting the Church long before), but I don’t think anyone looking at the state of the post-Vatican II Church can honestly deny that it has been an utter disaster unless they are specifically trying to avoid that conclusion.

Of course, since this has only resulted in tens of millions of dead souls rather than dead bodies, it’s disastrous failure is not quite as noticeable, though since many of the same people who are most apt to defend and celebrate Vatican II are also the ones liable to heap praises on Red China, feminism, and all the rest of it, I have to conclude it would not have helped.

(Apparently, pretending not to notice mountains of corpses is a feature of Progress.)

I really wish the Bishops would get this through their heads and admit the obvious, but until then the only thing for lay Catholics to do is to simply ignore it as much as possible. Seek to live as if it never happened, at least in your own lives. If you want to learn about the faith, turn to pre-council documents and books. If you want to live it, seek out the devotions and practices from before the council.

The short version is that, until those in charge of our institutions wake up and realize they have to rip the damn computer out, we as individuals should at least stop doing what it says.

Sunday Thoughts – Corpus Christi

I think one of the great problems of the contemporary world is that we undervalue the material aspect of things. I’m sure that sounds shocking, given how materialistic we are, but actually our materialism is only what is to be expected from the undervaluing of matter. Because as with lust to sex, the evil of materialism isn’t that it gives matter too high a place, it’s that it gives it the wrong place. It takes it out of context and so values the wrong aspects. It’s as though we are appraising a book without being able to read, and so we judge it on the typeface and the quality of the pages.

Our materialism is founded in a denial that matter has any intrinsic meaning; the reductionist view that, “the material does not convey Grace, or beauty, or importance; it only helps to elevate our minds to them because we have imputed meaning to these things.” The throne is just a chair and the king is just a man who happens who is imputed to have authority because he is supposedly the best qualified. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A flag is just a piece of cloth. The sacraments are only symbolic expressions of faith.

And matter, consequently, has its importance defined as “does it keep us safe and comfortable?” It is no longer a vehicle of spiritual elevation and communion with God, but only of pure pragmatism. Call it a soft Manichaeism.

The problem is that we only experience the world materially, just as we only read through letters. If you deny that the letters have any meaning and try to sever the letters of the poem from the words, then you soon only have a jumble of symbols on a page. And if all you have is a jumble of symbols, then you can do with them whatever you like. The actual purpose of the letters – the words – has been obscured, and so the letters at once seem to be the only relevant factor and to impose no obligations on us. We don’t have to form actual words or coherent successions of sound, just an arrangement that pleases us. The disconnection of the meaning from the letters leaves the letters both the only concrete thing and without any actual value of their own.

JLJHIK HTH T MIM JLJLHIK

Christianity, in contrast, teaches that matter is not only good, but meaningful. Physical actions create and correspond to spiritual realities, from eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil to painting doorposts with the blood of a lamb. Most importantly, God Himself became Man. A real flesh-and-blood man, born of a woman, with all that implies. His physical actions with that body created a new spiritual state of affairs for the mankind which He is now a part of.

Not only that, but this same body of His is the means by which He works His salvation upon us (and this is where things get really interesting). He tells us ” Except you eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, you shall not have life in you.” (John 6:54). Now, what happens when we eat something? It is broken down and the relevant nutrients become part of our bodies. So, when we eat the flesh of God, God becomes a part of us. That is, we become part of Christ’s body when we eat His flesh. As such, we participate in His resurrection and glorification, as we are now physically related to Him. It’s sort of like how we are physically related to our family members (at least in the sense of there being a real material link), but conveyed in a different manner.

The feast of Corpus Christi reminds us of this relation. More fundamentally, it ought to remind us that material things are not to be treated as if they were just material. Because there is a Body of Christ, let no one hold the body as such in contempt.

Stop Feeding the Beast

I struggle with what is called Depression, though recently I’ve had better success in dealing with it by stumbling onto a very important insight, which I call ‘Don’t Feed the Beast.’

See, Depression takes the form of extreme negative thoughts, sometimes explicit, more often present as a kind of underlying assumption. E.g. “I am never going to amount to anything.” That these are, objectively, often untrue isn’t really relevant; they seem plausible enough, and you can always point to something that you do or don’t do, to habits and facets of your personality that seem to lend credence to them (every lie has some degree of positive evidence in its favor; just ask Herr vom Rath. It is usually the existence of counter evidence that shows it to be a lie).

A lot of the time it works something like this: we sit down to work and hear the thought “You’ll never amount to anything, so why bother putting in the time? You’ll only humiliate yourself”. For fear of humiliation, or because we just want the painful thoughts to go away, we comply, hoping that, perhaps later, we’ll feel better. But then an hour or a day later, with nothing much to show for our time, it becomes, “See? You just wasted all that time doing nothing instead of working. That’s why you’ll never amount to anything.”

But if once we realize that our depression is based on the fear that we’ll never amount to anything, we ought to see that a reluctance to work is exactly what would make that fear come true, and thus in giving into that fear, we only make it stronger. We are feeding the very beast that we’re trying to escape.

So, per the advice of the great therapist Bob Newhart, stop it.

A lie becomes stronger the more it is believed or acted upon. The more you treat as if it were true, the greater the hold it will have over you. It may even become true in the end.

I bring it up both because I hope it’ll help anyone reading who has a similar problem and because I think we’ve been living this pattern on a societal level, especially in the Church, for quite some time now: acting on lies that we know are lies in the hopes of sparing ourselves pain. The attitude of “Yes, this isn’t true, but…” But we don’t want to be thought intolerant. But there are people like that out there (remember Herr vom Rath). But people might turn away if we make a fuss about it.

And in so doing, we confirm the lie and lend our own credence to it. By saying something like, “this is true, but we can’t put it like that because people will think we’re bigots,” we only vindicate that interpretation. We are, in effect, agreeing that this particular truth is bigotry and thus cannot be spoken, when what we ought to be doing is challenging that interpretation: not “that’s intolerant; we don’t believe that. We believe (same thing in weaker words),” but rather “we believe that and it isn’t intolerant because….” In trying to be charitable, we in fact surrender.

As with depression, we really need to stop it; to stop admitting to lies or trying to make accommodations because we’re afraid of what others will think about us. By so doing, we only, in fact, confirm their worst ideas by acting as if they were true. Then we wonder why we keep losing ground.

Stop Feeding the Beast.

Sunday Thoughts: 1-5-20

Feast of the Epiphany

Reading 1: Isaiah 60: 1-6

Arise, be enlightened, O Jerusalem: for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee. For behold darkness shall cover the earth, and a mist the people: but the Lord shall arise upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee. And the Gentiles shall walk in thy light, and kings in the brightness of thy rising. Lift up thy eyes round about, and see: all these are gathered together, they are come to thee: thy sons shall come from afar, and thy daughters shall rise up at thy side. Then shalt thou see, and abound, and thy heart shall wonder and be enlarged, when the multitude of the sea shall be converted to thee, the strength of the Gentiles shall come to thee.

The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Madian and Epha: all they from Saba shall come, bringing gold and frankincense: and shewing forth praise to the Lord.

Reading 2: Ephesians 3: 2-3A, 5-6

If yet you have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me towards you: How that, according to revelation, the mystery has been made known to me… Which in other generations was not known to the sons of men, as it is now revealed to his holy apostles and prophets in the Spirit: That the Gentiles should be fellow heirs, and of the same body, and co-partners of his promise in Christ Jesus, by the gospel:

Gospel: Matthew 2: 1-12

When Jesus therefore was born in Bethlehem of Juda, in the days of king Herod, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem. Saying, Where is he that is born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to adore him. And king Herod hearing this, was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And assembling together all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where Christ should be born. But they said to him: In Bethlehem of Juda. For so it is written by the prophet:

And thou Bethlehem the land of Juda art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come forth the captain that shall rule my people Israel. Then Herod, privately calling the wise men, learned diligently of them the time of the star which appeared to them; And sending them into Bethlehem, said: Go and diligently inquire after the child, and when you have found him, bring me word again, that I also may come to adore him. Who having heard the king, went their way; and behold the star which they had seen in the east, went before them, until it came and stood over where the child was. And seeing the star they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.

And entering into the house, they found the child with Mary his mother, and falling down they adored him; and opening their treasures, they offered him gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having received an answer in sleep that they should not return to Herod, they went back another way into their country.

Thoughts:

With the Epiphany, we have ‘wise men from the East’ coming to Jerusalem in search of the newborn King of the Jews, bearing suitable gifts to offer in homage. That is to say, pagan scholars from a distant land – probably Persia – have learned, by their own arts, that Christ the Messiah is come, and they have undertaken a long, arduous journey to behold Him and pay Him honor. Indeed, it is said that they are guided there by “the star,” and through counsels in dreams.

What does all this mean?

Consider these three men; scholars of a distant land. They are educated men, brought up to be philosophers, astrologers, masters of knowledge and the keepers of lore. They are, presumably, literate men. We can imagine them, in their homes or workshops or libraries, pouring through scrolls and manuscripts, committing vast reams of words to memory, even from boyhood. They were relatively wealthy men, as they could travel and bear gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

In the course of their research, perhaps, they found a pattern, or a prophecy. They saw “His star at its rising.” One can picture them looking over their work in awed wonder as they realized what these signs meant; one can imagine them telling their colleagues, trying to convince them of what they had found. Perhaps one or more of them needed convincing from the others. On the strength of their studies, they had faith enough to understand what that “Star” meant and to follow it for perhaps hundreds of miles to a little village in a backwater province of the Roman Empire, where they found a peasant couple and their newborn baby.

The timeline of the Gospels is a little ambiguous. The shepherds around Bethlehem, we know, were the first to hear of His birth and pay Christ homage in the flesh. My own understanding is that the second were Simeon and Anna in the Temple. Then third come these wealthy, educated pagans out of the East, bearing rich gifts and guided by the combined work of an angel of God and their own scholarship.

In so doing, these three eastern scholars unknowingly stand in the place of the entire non-Jewish world. Their presence so near Christ’s birth, and their attendance on him, shows that He will not only be a prophet and king to the Jews, but to all mankind.

They also reveal something else, which shall be crucial for the future of the Church, once it is established. They are a vindication of pagan wisdom, and a pledge that God has not abandoned the gentiles, but has been working through them as well as through the Jews, though in a different fashion. Their studies, their own lore led them to recognize Christ; therefore let no one condemn pagan knowledge or wisdom again. They don’t just bring gold, frankincense, and myrrh; they bring Aristotle and Cicero, Homer and Virgil, Confucius and Lau Tzu, the Ramayana and the Book of Five Rings. The three wise men come to say that there is truth in paganism, or at least the way to truth, and therefore these things are to be cherished and studied, for there can be nothing good but what comes of God and leads to Him. “The strength of the Gentiles shall come to thee.”

Consider, finally, the humility of these men; here, surely, is that pure love of knowledge that is the mark of the true philosopher. Their lore tells them that Christ, the King of the Jews, is to be born in a distant land, the Messiah of a faith they do not practice, and of a people who, ostensibly, are of no account. Seeing that it is so, they undergo great hardships and dangers to bear costly gifts for His honor. They followed His star wherever it went; that is to say, they followed the truth wherever it went, not only in abstract thought, but in concrete action.

This was, indeed, the purpose of all ancient thought, and of all knowledge up until the end of the Middle Ages; we learn things, not that we may change them or manipulate them, but that we may better submit to them. We learn what the world is really like so that we might live accordingly. The purpose was to change ourselves; not the world. The three wise men following the star were following the path of the true man of knowledge: to conform our lives to the truth, wherever it leads.

This is the one common feature among all those who recognize Christ: humility, the willingness to recognize things higher than oneself and conform to them. It is present in the poor shepherds living in and around a tiny hamlet in the middle of nowhere, and it is present in rich scholars from Persia. The chief question we have to ask is, is it present in us? Do we seek to follow that star, wherever it leads? Is our main concern, “how can we change our lives to better conform them to the truth?”

Or do we greet the knowledge that something may disrupt our own ideas, our own plans, and our own comfort by being “troubled” by the idea and seeking to silence it at all costs? Is our main concern how we can interpret and use the world to suit our needs and wishes? Do we regard that star, not as primarily true or false, but convenient or inconvenient?

AMDG