Random Ruminations #3

Voting with Feet... Pantheism Keeps Marching On... But It Was Foreseen... and more

Eyes (and Minds) Voting with Feet

Most mornings I have a 20 minute wait at my bus stop. The shelter has one of those electronic ad boards, so I get to see a limited loop of what advertisers want to sell. It’s often a telling commentary on the world today, e.g., in early December, a dating agency was promoting its matchmaking services with telling lines like “Don’t Let Your Date Be Like Thanksgiving Leftovers” and “Don’t Look for the Love of Your Life, Look for the Love of Your Night!” It’s the pulse of modernity.

This morning, a cruise company was advertising summer vacations in Europe. A happy family—blonde mother, smiling father, one child between them—is walking, elated, in front of Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia Church. That got me thinking.

Cruise lines give us pictures of Sagrada Familia or a ship sailing past the Gothic majesty of Cologne Cathedral, even the neo-Gothic sacralization of Parliament in Westminster Palace on Thames. College admissions show us Princeton’s Gothic chapel or the University of Michigan’s Gothic library.

Notice nobody ever uses pictures of the renewed “Our Lady of Pizza Hut” on their brochure? Notice nobody shows the brutalist architecture of the student dorm on their “please send your darling to us for four years at $50K/year” promo literature?

What do advertisers know that our “liturgists,” “church architects,” and “diocesan building commissions” apparently don’t?

 

Pantheism Keeps Marching On

Radio Canada International reports [here] a group of “First Nations” people are pushing to confer “legal personhood” on the St. Lawrence River. Nothing new about that: rivers have already become “persons” in several countries. Canada has no abortion law at all, which means abortion is legal for any reason through birth. Up there, the unborn are not persons; rivers may be.

Perhaps one reason is because Quebecers have an “emotional attachment” to the River, explains a Canadian senator. Would that they developed an “emotional attachment” to the flesh of their flesh and bone of their bone. But they haven’t been attached to their Church or its teaching since the 1960’s Quiet Revolution.

River people and tree huggers are not confined to the political. Italian website La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana reports that Catholic and Lutheran clergy conducted a “funeral” July 25 for … a German glacier. The Zugspitze is melting. The ecumenical “requiem” is intended to highlight the ice’s demise; they even composed a musical piece to go with reading Psalm 121 (“I lift up my eyes to the mountains”). The event is in Reinhard Marx’s Archdiocese of Munich, which invites mourners (in German) on its website [here].

La Nuova Bussola Quotidiana raised an interesting question: did the glacier pay its Kirchensteuer? Human Catholics get denied funerals by German clergy if they deregister themselves at the tax collector’s office. (In France, there’s an effort to accustom the faithful to “lay-led funerals” – see here).

Silliness? No, quite serious. This is all leading up to a 2024 internationally-sponsored “Earth Assembly,” whose aim is to frame “a new, non-anthropocentric, Earth-centered paradigm,” leading to drafting “a universal declaration of Mother Earth’s rights.” The Radio Canada report says the effort began “in 2008 when Ecuador recognized the rights of Mother Earth, or Pachamama, in its constitution.” (But, of course, the Pachamama parade was not idolatry, its apologists insist).

I have long argued that Jews and Christians — not just Catholics — need to recognize and resist the multi-pronged assault on what I call our “Genesis heritage.” The Book of Genesis makes multiple anthropological statements under modern attack. Three key ones are:

  1. The human person is the summit of creation, qualitatively distinct from, superior to, in charge of, and responsible for the rest of the material creation.
  2. Sexual differentiation is not a biological or social construct but God’s Will.
  3. Fertility is not neutral or even a curse. It is God’s blessing, a participation in creation.

All these Judeo-Christian assertions are at loggerheads with the “mainstream” vision being pushed in our world today. That “non-anthropocentric” vision is anti-humanist.

It would be far more useful for Rome to speak of these assaults on the basic truths of humanity and creation than engage in a bad St. Patrick’s Day riff by sprinkling green holy water on anti-human ecology.

 

But It Was Foreseen

Richard Weaver’s oft-cited adage “ideas have consequences” is true, even of Supreme Court opinions. Many ridicule Anthony Kennedy’s “sweet meaning of the universe” paean to abortion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”)but let’s dig out some other moldy oldies.

Back in 1972, Justice William O. Douglas dissented in Sierra Club v. Morton, proposing that natural objects, animate and inanimate, become “persons” for legal purposes. He would have treated “valleys, alpine meadows, rivers, lakes, estuaries, beaches, ridges, groves of trees, swampland, or even air” essentially as rights-bearing persons. What was deemed a bad joke 51 years ago, however, is now infallible teaching in the church of ecological fundamentalism.

Think tanker Wesley J. Smith has for years been something of a John-in-the-wilderness, crying out about the paradox of how the personification of things has gone in tandem with the reification of persons [see here]. It’s another example of pushing our Judeo-Christian Genesis heritage off the public square.

 

The Meaning of Burying

Next Sunday’s Gospel recounts an instance of burying. One of its three parables about the Kingdom of Heaven speaks of a farm laborer who, by accident, discovers a treasure buried in the field he is ploughing. Investigating his find and assessing its value, he quickly reburies it and then buys the field to acquire title to it.

The parable made me reflect on the anthropological meaning of burying. People have been burying things for as long as there have been people.

What do people bury? As the Gospel today reports, they bury treasure. It’s not the Gospel’s first instance of using the earth as a safety deposit box. Remember the parable (Mt 25:14-30) of the three servants whose Master entrusts them with talents? Two invest; one buries the talent for safe keeping, only digging it up to give it back. That last servant even speaks of investment in agricultural terms: he feared losing his master’s money because “you reap where you did not sow and gathering where you did not scatter.”

Burying one’s valuables was not unusual in ancient Israel. The country lay between two great civilizational basins: Egypt in the Nile Valley, Mesopotamia along the Tigris and Euphrates. Israel was literally the ancient world’s Route 66. People who needed to hide something from the next invader down the road buried it. If the people did not survive, their treasure went to somebody else (cf. Lk 12:20) who might be, say, ploughing a field.

Think of all the literature you read as a child that featured buried treasure, with pirates and their maps. Think Stevenson’s Treasure Island. 

We bury what’s valuable. That’s why burial had a particular meaning among Christians. It also expressed a value: this body, this person, was valuable.

That’s why Christians always instinctively recognized, even at a visceral level, that burying a body versus burning a body were not just two different “techniques” to handle a rotting corpse. They were fundamentally two different anthropological postures. We bury what we recognize as valuable, even sacred. (The water used to cleanse chalices in the sacristy is piped separately directly into the ground; it does not go into the general plumbing’s wastewater). We flush what we deem waste. We burn what we think is trash. It’s not accidental that the traditional method of garbage disposal was incineration.

We never even thought of the earth as dead. Yes, we put our dead in it because they came from it: “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”… though they are ashes and dust that the breath of God animated. But we also saw their burial like a seed: what is laid down like a mustard seed rises as a great tree (I Cor 15:36-39; Mt 13:31-32). In that sense, burial of the baptized Christian prolongs the treasure motif: our mortality is laid in the earth for safe keeping, to be animated by Christ who — also having lain in a tomb — will restore our mortal bodies (Rm 8:11).

As Jesus asked Martha, he asks us: “do you believe this?” (John 11:26b)

Catholics are practically indistinguishable from non-Catholics today in terms of their acceptance of cremation. While some opt for it in the name of their mite to “Mother Earth,” most do so for less ideological reasons: it’s cheaper. Faith and its public expression take second place to checkbooks.

The French philosopher Damien Le Guay’s book La Mort en cendres: La crémation aujourd’hui, que faut-il en penser? (Death in Ashes: Cremation Today—What Should We Think about It?) argues that the not very much heralded transition by Catholics from burying to cremating is an anthropological sea change whose implications we have not processed. Because, yes, burying — and not burying — are acts that say something profound.

 

A Gospel of Tolerance

Given the word’s co-optation to certain ideological agendas, one might think twice before indulging in too much “tolerance,” but the Gospel for the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time is actually a Gospel of just that. At a time of political polarization and woke intolerance, we might actually take note that it is Christianity that preaches a Gospel of tolerance.

The owner of a field has learned his enemy has sown tares amidst his wheat. His slaves ask what to do: shall we rip up the weeds? The owner’s reply is negative because, in tearing up the field, he runs the risk of weeding out some wheat. The enemy didn’t sow just any kind of weeds: tares are invidious because they look like wheat.

The owner says to let them grow together until the definitive separation at the harvest. Unlike the utilitarian calculus of modernity, the field owner does not regard a single blade of wheat as expendable, any more than the Good Shepherd is willing to write off one errant sheep against 99.

Today’s woke, who demand “safe spaces” for themselves, would happily go on a de-weeding, DDT-fumigating garden rout. God, happily, is patient, willing to rain on the good and the bad. It’s not that He’s relativist — there will be a division — but in His time.

The Gospel also reminds us that, like the poor, you will have sin with you always, until “the end of the age,” because its eradication is not a human work but one of Divine grace. Evil will be conquered by eschatological triumph, not mere human effort nor the ineluctable “progress” of history on automatic pilot towards “justice.”

Patience and tolerance are divine virtues moderns might learn to imitate.

 

John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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