Archive for February, 2010

Montherlant and the Monster of Marriage

In this month’s The Atlantic, B. R. Myers posts this worthwhile review of the works of Henry de Montherlant, a French essayist, novelist, and dramatist who lived from 1895 to 1972.  “No other writer,” Myers says, “ever argued as zealously as Montherlant that happiness is the only point of life.”

Sensual pleasure is the goal of Costals, the main character in Montherlant’s tetralogy, The Girls, and he dedicates his life to pursuing it.  Costals’ urges, Myers notes, “are those of every healthy male, and he will indulge them no matter what.”  Myers argues that this facet of the book still shocks modern readers because “it is still no more acceptable for a man to live for sex than for a woman to do so.  At least we expect him to present his libido as something freakish, either by boasting of a mind-boggling number of conquests or by seeking help for his ‘addiction.’”

Although Gretchen Rubin in The Happiness Project did not advocate pure indulgence in sensual pleasure, her book does leave one wondering whether the search for happiness is a false quest that will not end well for the seeker.  In Montherlant’s case, he committed suicide by shooting himself in the head after swallowing a cyanide capsule.

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The Happiness Project: From Here to Eternity

Which of the religions of the world gives its followers the greatest happiness?  “While it lasts, the religion of worshipping oneself is the best,” C. S. Lewis said in response to this question.  “I have an elderly acquaintance of about eighty, who has lived a life of unbroken selfishness and self-admiration from the earliest years, and is, more or less, I regret to say, one of the happiest men I know,” he continued.  Lewis, a convert from atheism, did not go to religion to make himself happy:  “I always knew a bottle of port would do that,” he said.

In her New York Times best-seller, The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin recounts her yearlong effort to increase her personal happiness, relying on neither port nor Christianity.  Rubin, the former editor-in-chief of the Yale Law Journal, Supreme Court law clerk to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and published author of biographies of Churchill and JFK, is a sober-minded and impressively successful person.  In undertaking her yearlong “happiness project,” she deployed her considerable intellect and strong work ethic toward making herself happier.  She also wanted to “develop the self-discipline and the mental habits to deal with a bad thing when it happened.”  Rubin ominously realized that “one dark night my phone was going to ring.”

You could rightly call her a happiness evangelist.  Her blog offers tips and forms for readers to use in starting their own happiness projects.  In her book, she details her interaction with a Washington Post writer who had negatively reviewed her biography of JFK.  Her friendly reaction to his review helped initiate an amicable relationship with her critic, and she enjoyed meeting him and conversing with him later at a cocktail party.  She seems like the kind of person who would be a loyal friend and a fine conversationalist.

Rubin says she has encountered no major tragedies in her life, which she portrays as an enviable one.  She came from a happy home, with a father, nicknamed “Smilin’ Jack Craft,” who was “unflaggingly cheerful and enthusiastic.”  Her parents are still married to each other, and she herself is happily married with two children.  She describes herself as ambitious, competitive, dissatisfied, and fretful, with a perfectionist and worrying nature.

She confessed that working in something like law, finance, or politics made her feel “legitimate,” and she had to overcome that feeling before she could allow herself to leave the law permanently and pursue her passion for writing.

For her yearlong project, she focused on one area of her life to improve each month — marriage, money, work, parenthood, and so on.  One month, on vacation with her family, she focused on eternity.  She checked out a stack of library books, mainly memoirs of catastrophes including death, paralysis, addiction, and all the rest.  She hoped “to benefit from the knowledge that these people had won with so much pain, without undergoing the same ordeals.”  She observed that “there are some kinds of profound wisdom that I hope never to gain from my own experience.”  She devotes a chapter of her book to eternity and her “contemplation of the heavens.”

This is where a particular irony emerges in her narrative.  In this chapter, she describes her lack of much of a religious background and also loosely mentions her current beliefs.  She calls herself a “reverent agnostic.”  As far as I can tell, this means both that she is worshipful (of what it is not clear) and that she believes that any ultimate reality (such as God) is unknown and probably unknowable.  She admits that she is “attracted to belief and through my reading, I enter into the spirit of belief.”  She grew up in a non-religious home, attending church only infrequently with her Christian grandparents.  Her husband is Jewish, and she terms their household a “mixed one” with even less religion in the home than in their childhood homes.  And, though her husband feared her contemplation of the heavens would be tiresome for their family, she forged on.

Research showed her that “spiritual” people were happier and healthier.  Embracing “one of the most universal spiritual practices,” Rubin decided to imitate a spiritual master, St. Therese of Liseux.  Rubin developed a mini-obsession with St. Therese, purchasing and reading seventeen books about this figure who lived the late nineteenth century.  The life of the Little Flower, as St. Therese is known, attracted Rubin because she “wanted to take little steps to be happier as I lived my ordinary life, and that was very much in the spirit of Saint Therese.” 

Yet an observation of St. Therese reveals that through the Catholic Church, she dedicated her life to pursing holiness, not happiness.  As she wrote, “Martyrdom was the dream of my youth and this dream has grown with me.”

By the time St. Therese died of tuberculosis at age 24, she had experienced much physical and emotional suffering.  Her mother died of cancer when St. Therese was four.  When St. Therese was nine, her older sister, who had become a de facto mother figure, left to join a convent.  On the other hand, as the youngest of nine children (only five of whom survived), St. Therese became accustomed to being pampered and spoiled.  She was a tearful, sensitive child.  At age fourteen, after reading The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, she had a conversion experience at Christmas upon avoiding a childish reaction when her father declared he would no longer have to provide her with Christmas presents.  She realized that she cared more about her father’s feelings than she did about her own.

Soon after her conversion, she followed her older sisters into a convent, where she is said to have led an unremarkable experience.  Yet she sought to show her love in the small sacrifices of everyday life.  In St. Therese’s words, “Love proves itself by deeds, so how am I to show my love? Great deeds are forbidden me. The only way I can prove my love is by scattering flowers and these flowers are every little sacrifice, every glance and word, and the doing of the least actions for love.”  Her sisters posthumously circulated her slim autobiography, The Story of a Soul.  The book’s overwhelming popularity and her life led the Church to suspend its normal fifty-year delay between death and canonization, and the Church not only canonized St. Therese in 1925, but declared her a Doctor of the Church, one of only three females to hold that title.  Therese sought holiness, using everyday actions to consider others greater than herself.

In imitating St. Therese, Rubin derived a Splendid Truth:  “One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy.  One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.”

Now back to the irony of Rubin’s approach.  In her chapter on eternity, Rubin recounts reading The Story of a Soul and imitating St. Therese to become happier.  But imagine if, in a book about cooking, the author discussed the impact of Julia Child’s book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and the important lessons it teaches about how to succeed in, say, horticulture.  Yes, the author might find that Julia Child was a great gardener and that might even have helped her cooking, but the author would be missing the real point of Julia Child.  Similarly, in her chapter on eternity, Rubin looks to St. Therese for happiness tips instead of recognizing that St. Therese’s Christian faith animated her extraordinary skills at making those around her happy.

When the phone inevitably rings with bad news, will happiness tips and checklists be enough, or has Rubin left something out?

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The Trinity: 3-D Divine Mystery

“I don’t believe in the Trinity,” my friend said.  She and I were discussing the Christian doctrine that holds that one God subsists in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Despite being a Christian believer, she rejects the doctrine of the Trinity.  I was surprised and concerned that she rejected what I believed to be a cornerstone doctrine.

Wondering about her Trinitarian unbelief, I determined to delve into this “problem which has long vexed the Church, and which even now has not been solved to the satisfaction of all who bear the Christian name,” according to Yale historian Kenneth Latourette.

“Doctrines are not God: they are only a kind of map,” C. S. Lewis observed.  He compared God to the Atlantic Ocean and theology to a map of the Atlantic Ocean.  The map is not the Atlantic Ocean any more than theology is God, but the map is necessary if we want to go anywhere.  Lewis argued that theology is practical, yet “bound to be difficult, at least as difficult as modern Physics.”  We can expect theology to be difficult and complex, yet necessary if we hope to go anywhere with our faith.

As my friend rightly noted, the Bible nowhere contains the word “Trinity.”  An easy response, though, is that many bedrock Christian doctrines are given names that are not found in the Bible, such as “monotheism,” “incarnation,” or “divinity.”  For that matter, the entire Book of Esther does not contain the word “God.”

But my friend’s objection hinted at a deeper question.  How did the church discern the doctrine of the Trinity?

To begin with, the church had the fact of the historical Jesus, and the fact of the one God who spoke through the Hebrew scripture.  The New Testament bore witness to the Holy Spirit.

Latourette describes how early Christian theologians faced the question of how to put the fact of Christ “into the categories of existing human knowledge, thought and speech.”  Tertullian (c. 160 – c. 220 A.D.), the father of Latin theology, is credited with inventing the term trinitas.  To translate the Greek term hypostasis he introduced the term persona, which translates into English as “person.”  The term persona means a mask, and it calls to mind the masks that actors in Roman dramas wore to distinguish the different characters they portrayed.  This gives the image of one actor who plays different roles.

Tertullian also introduced the term substantia to mean the one substance that the Father, Son, and Spirit share.

At the First Ecumenical Council called by Constantine at Nicea in   A.D. 325, the bishops agreed that the Son is consubstantial with the Father.  This doctrine countered the Arian heresy that Christ was not divine.  The Bible tells us that Jesus is the only begotten son of God.  “To beget is to become the father of: to create is to make,” Lewis explained.  “When you beget, you beget something of the same kind as yourself.”

The Second Ecumenical Council at Constantinople in A.D. 381, resolved that Christ is “the only-begotten Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, light from light, true God from true God, begotten not made, consubstantial with the Father.”  The Second Ecumenical Council also concluded that “the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, is God, one and equal with the Father and the Son, of the same substance and also of the same nature.”

Theologian Alister McGrath recounts that the bishops and early church fathers reached this understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity by looking at the scripture, including Matthew 28:19 (“baptizing them in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”) and 2 Corinthians 13:14 (“May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all”), for signs of God’s “pattern of divine activity.”

Today, Christians everywhere view the Trinity as foundational.  Catholics believe that “the faith of all Christians rests on the Trinity,” which represents “the central mystery of Christian faith and life.”  Similarly, Baptists hold that “the eternal triune God reveals Himself to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, with distinct personal attributes, but without division of nature, essence, or being.”

My friend’s second objection concerned the conflict between the Son’s apparent subordination to the Father in the biblical narrative versus the Trinitarian doctrine of equality among Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Augustine took up this objection: “Although the Son and the Spirit may appear to be posterior to the Father, this judgment only applies to their role within the process of salvation.  Although the Son and Spirit may appear to be subordinate to the Father in history, in eternity all are co-equal.”  Viewed in this light, any appearance of inferiority of the Son and Spirit to the Father merely reflects our limited human condition and does not take into account the eternal nature of God.

Her final objection is probably the most difficult to answer.  How do you reconcile Old Testament monotheism with a triune God?

We must frequently hold two principles in tension.  Two opposing heresies lie on either side of orthodox Trinitarian doctrine.  The first heresy, Modalism, claims that there are three terms for the same God, and the only difference is where this God appears and at what time.  The second heresy, Tritheism, asserts that there are three equal, independent and self-sufficient beings who are all divine.  Both of these heresies are quite a bit simpler and easier to grasp than the Trinity, but each one lacks an essential element (three persons in the case of Modalism; one God in the case of Tritheism).

Lewis used the illustration of a straight line in one dimension.  In two dimensions, the line can become a square.  In three dimensions, the line can become a cube.  Our human dimension is like the first dimension compared to God’s greater dimension.  “On the human level, one person is one being, and any two persons are separate beings.  In God’s dimension, so to speak, you find a being who is three Persons while remaining one Being, just as a cube is six squares while remaining one cube.”  From outside God’s dimension, the mental experience resembles watching a 3-D movie without the glasses.

We cannot, in our human capacity, understand the Trinity.  But we should contemplate the doctrine, and as Lewis wrote, “the thing that matters is being actually drawn into that three-personal life, and that may begin any time — tonight if you like.”  As Lewis observed, “If Christianity were something we were making up, of course we could make it easier.  But it is not.  We cannot compete, in simplicity, with people who are inventing religions.  How could we?  We are dealing with Fact.  Of course anyone can be simple if he has no facts to bother about.”

Or, as my three-year-old daughter once cheerfully declared her understanding of the Trinity, “It doesn’t make any sense.  But it’s true.”

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Why I Blog

Many of you have posed some interesting questions and comments in response to my first two entries on Heidi Montag and Avatar, and quite a few of you are asking similar questions.  This entry will address the top four most frequently asked questions I have received.

1.  What inspired you to start blogging, and what prompted your foray into the world of the internet? 

As one reader put it, “It takes courage to put yourself out there like that!”  Those who know me well understand that I have long enjoyed writing.  Until now, I have not found a good outlet for this part of me.  For the past thirteen years, I have immersed myself in child-rearing and developing a law practice.  My passion for writing has been on hold while I focused on other priorities.  With a little more time available to me now and so many exciting and noteworthy events grabbing headlines (like cosmetic surgery addictions and 3‑D mythology), I decided the time was right for me to embark on this new adventure.

2.  Who is your target audience? 

This question perplexed me at first.  My immediate answer was “Anyone who will read what I write!”  As this question recurs, I sense that some readers ask this wondering if I am trying to generate income.  I am not looking to make a living out of this website.  Instead, I see it as a creative outlet.  I plan to write about topics that interest me.  My views do not fall neatly into any single category, so I expect that my writing will appeal to people from many walks of life.  I don’t expect my readers to agree with everything I write, but I hope to provoke people to submit comments and look forward to discussions that reflect a diversity of views.  My ideal reader is anyone who will take the time to read my posts and react to what I have written.

3.  What is the meaning of your subtitle, “books, politics, culture, and theology”?  Are you writing about books, politics, and culture through the lens of theology?  Or is theology its own topic?

The latter.  I intend to delve into theology much as I focus on the first three categories.  There may be some overlap, and I am excited about the responses this may generate.  Some of you expressed skepticism over the connection I drew between early Christian ascetics and modern-day aspiring starlets — each enduring a unique physical torture in pursuit of their own sort of perfection — but this connection delightfully drew some interesting responses.

Books, politics, culture, and theology deeply interest me and occupy my spare time.  I am constantly reading about and discussing these issues with friends.  I am not an expert in theology by any stretch of the imagination, but as humans, we all feel the existential tug to find meaning in life.  My way of discerning meaning is through theology and personal faith.  Readers do not need to share my answers to these questions, but I hope they will participate in the forum I am hosting.  Jefferson said it best:  “We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it.”

4.  What are your objectives?  What are you trying to accomplish?

I hope to develop a group of engaged readers who enjoy thinking about these topics.  I encourage readers to add their comments.  At some point, I hope to start adding podcasts to the site and develop audio content on books, politics, culture, and theology.  I will also continue to think about ways of bringing readers together to keep the conversation going.

Thank you for your interest in my site.  Keep reading, and keep adding your comments.

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