Friday, December 23, 2005

Peanut Butter, Planes, and Procreation

So, I have arrived safely in Tejas to spend this Christmas with my family. As I prepare to be confirmed in the Catholic Church this coming Easter, I have been reading through Peter Kreeft's book Catholic Christianity. I do love it. I brought it along on my flight, in addition to a smashed peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a baggy of broken Saltine crackers. (*drooling*) Hey, at least I didn't have to pay an arm and a leg to eat some MSG-saturated Chinese food at the airport, as much as I love to eat Chinese food.

I had my first introduction to teachings on sexual abstinence until marriage (via a Baptist church) when I was 12. It's been over a decade since then, and although sexual purity is very important to me, I often feel like there is nothing particularly gripping left to say on the subject. I feel that I have heard it all. However, as I began my journey towards Catholic Christianity, I discovered that the Church goes beyond "abstinence" and upholds what is known as "chastity." Chastity is much more than simply abstaining from sex until marriage; it involves living all of one's life before God in purity. It requires seeking purity of heart and mind, as well as purity of action. Spouses are to practice chastity in their relationship with one another, sexually and otherwise. Sexual marital chastity involves honoring the human dignity of one's spouse in sexual actions. This is why the Catholic Church teaches against things like sodomy, barriers and artificial "birth control", and climax outside of the intended sexual embrace. They are a means of treating one's spouse as an object for pleasure.

Well, Peter Kreeft has indeed blown-me-out-of-the-water with his observations on the marital sexual union. This stuff is revolutionizing how I think. In the Bible, it is written, "As a man thinketh, so he is" (sorry, I don't know the "address"). Guess this is why we are called by God to "renew our minds" and seek His help in surrendering our twisted perceptions and misguided affections to Him while seeking His truth (see Romans 12:2 and Ephesians 4:23).

Kreeft begins laying the foundation for grasping the truth about God's design for human sexuality as quoted below:

"To create a thing is to give it existence. To make a thing means to give new form to matter, to something that already exists. What is created is not just changed but made to exist in the first place.

"The closest man ever comes to creating is 'procreating'. Procreating is cooperating with God's most important act of creation . . . the creation of human beings, with immortal souls, destined to exist eternally. When God creates a new human soul out of nothing, he does so only when a man and a woman make a new body out of their previously existing matter and genetic form by sexual intercourse. That is why sex is holy" (45)

Are you ready for this? Kreeft picks up . . .

"Sexual intercourse is like the Consecration at Mass. It is a human work that God uses as the material means to do the most divine work done on earth. In the Mass, man offers bread and wine, the work of nature and human hands, for God to transform into the Body and Blood of Christ. In sex, man offers his work--the procreation of a new body--for God to do his work: the creation of a new soul. God grants priests the incredible dignity of being his instruments in working one of his two greatest miracles. God grants spouses the incredible dignity of being his instruments in working the other one.

"Something that is so very good 'ontologically', that is, in its being, essence, or nature, needs to be respected and rightly used. Misuse of something ontologically good is morally bad. The better and more important it is ontologically, the more seriously harmful its moral abuse is. We have rules for careful use of precious works of art, not for paper clips. . . .

"As Holy Mass is the place for the Transubstantiation, holy marriage is the place for sex" (61).

I never want to grow tired of this stuff; I want to truly know it so that I may live it from the depths of my being!

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Subjective Sweethearts

Immanuel Kant is known for his moral imperative against utilitarianism - holding that a person should always be an end in himself and never a means to an end. Utilitarianism cries, "Seek the maximum amount of pleasure for the greatest number of people." If the ultimate aim of man is pleasure, if pleasure is "the whole basis of moral norms" (37), then everything we do must be aimed at gaining pleasure, the ultimate good. JPII writes, "If I accept the utilitarian premise I must see myself as . . . an object which may be called upon to provide [pleasurable] experiences for others" (37).

JPII continues:

"If, while regarding pleasure as the only good, I also try to obtain the maximum pleasure for someone else - and not just for myself, which would be blatant egoism - then I put a value on the pleasure of this other person only in so far as it gives pleasure to me: it gives me pleasure, that someone else is experiencing pleasure. If, however, I cease to experience pleasure, or it does not tally with my 'calculus of happiness' - (a term often used by utilitarians) then the pleasure of the other person ceases to be my obligation, a good for me, and may even become something positively bad. I shall then - true to the principles of utilitarianism - seek to eliminate the other person's pleasure because no pleasure for me is any longer bound up with it - or at any rate the other person's pleasure will become a matter of indifference to me, and I shall not concern myself with it" ( 38).

Viewing pleasure, a subjective and ephemeral experience, as one's greatest good leads to egoism. Well, yeah, we all want to feel good. We are all largely looking out for our own desires, right? So what's the problem with that?

Glad you asked. ;-D According to JPII, if you ever want to experience a true and lasting love, it must be built on an objective common good, not a subjective good such as pleasure. Although it is possible to harmonize two egoisms, the relationship still remains based on egoism. The only difference is "that these two egoisms, the man's and the woman's, will match each other and be mutually advantageous. The moment they cease to match and to be of advantage to each other, nothing at all is left of the harmony. Love will be no more, in either of the persons or between them, it will not be an objective reality, for there is no objective good to ensure its existence. 'Love' in its utilitarian conception is a union of egoisms, which can hold together only on condition that they confront each other with nothing unpleasant, nothing to conflict with their mutual pleasure. Therefore love so understood is self-evidently merely a pretence which has to be carefully cultivated to keep the underlying reality hidden: the reality of egoism, and the greediest kind of egoism at that, exploiting another person to obtain for itself its own 'maximum pleasure'. In such circumstances the other person is and remains only a means to an end, as Kant rightly observed in his critique of utilitarianism" (39).

A utilitarian relationship has "a paradoxical pattern: each of the persons is mainly concerned with gratifying his or her own egoism, but at the same time consents to serve someone else's egoism, because this can provide the opportunity for such gratification - and just as long as it does so. This paradoxical pattern . . . means that the person . . . sinks to the level of a means, a tool. . . . If I treat someone else as a tool in relation to myself I cannot help regarding myself in the same light. We have here something like the opposite of the commandment to love" (39).

JPII observes that the only way to escape from utiliarianism and egoism in relationships if to recognize "beyond any purely subjective good, i.e. beyond pleasure, an objective good, which can also unite persons - and thereby acquire the characteristics of a common good" (38). He continues, "Such an objective common good is the foundation of love, and individual persons, who jointly choose a common good, in doing so subject themselves to it. Thanks to it they are united by a true, objective bond of love which enables them to liberate themselves from subjectivism and from the egoism which it inevitably conceals. Love is the unification of persons" (38).

Wednesday, December 7, 2005

Pleasure or not . . . here I come

God said "It is not good for the man to live alone. I will make a suitable companion to help him." And so God gave to Adam animals of all kinds, and yet "not one of them was a suitable companion to help him. . . "

"Then the LORD God made the man fall into a deep sleep, and while he was sleeping, he took out one of the man's ribs and closed up the flesh. He formed a woman out of the rib and brought her to him."

"Then the man said, "At last, here is one of my own kind--Bone taken from my bone, and flesh from my flesh. 'Woman' is her name because she was taken out of man." (Gen. 2:18, 20-23 TEV)

Because only another human being shares equal status with another human being, only two persons can truly become "partners" in activity with one another. JPII says that "a person is for another person the source of experiences with a special emotional-affective charge" (32-3). The depths of personal and moral interaction that are possible between two persons bring with it great potential for pleasure as well as pain, emotionally, physically, psychologically, and spiritually. When we throw romantic relationships into the mix, the potential for pleasure and/or pain is something I'm sure we all can relate to.

Peter Kreeft, in his book Catholic Christianity makes a comment regarding "Social and Economic Morality" that is quite applicable to the issue of pleasure in human relationships. He writes:

"Profit is to production what pleasure is to sex: right and proper and natural when associated with the intrinsic purpose of the activity, but all too easily divorced from that purpose and loved for its own sake" (264).

JPII makes the same point in Love & Responsibility regarding the temptation for man and woman to make pleasure the "say all and be all" in their relationships with one another. He writes in his usual eloquent, philosophical style:

"For man, precisely because he has the power to reason, can, in his actions, not only clearly distinguish pleasure from its opposite [pain], but can also isolate it, so to speak, and treat it as a distinct aim of his activity. His actions are then shaped only with a view to the pleasure he wishes to obtain, or the pain he wishes to avoid. If actions involving a person of the opposite sex are shaped exclusively or primarily with this in view, then that person will become only the means to an end" (33).

After the fall, it has become an enormous temptation for us to use one another for the sake of physical and/or emotional pleasure. JPII says "enjoyment must be subordinated to love" (34). He warns us again that sometimes "use" masquerades as "love"; selfishness often justifies itself as being love.

The utilitarian principle is that pleasure in itself is "the sole or at any rate the greatest good, to which everything else in the activity of an individual or a society should be subordinated" (36). Of course, people want to avoid pain and experience pleasure by nature, but pleasure is an elusive thing; it is contingent and incidental, not something we can secure by our actions. In fact, we cannot even properly predict the degree of pain that may be entailed in our various actions. Obviously, pain and pleasure cannot be our measuring stick for the morality or worthiness of our actions.

Man is a rational being; he is a material and spiritual entity with his soul being the animating force of his human existence. It is, therefore, improper for man to organize his actions around the principle of avoiding pain and seeking to maximize pleasure.*

Because JPII says it best, I'm going to close with his thoughts:

". . . Pleasure (as opposed to pain) cannot be the only factor affecting my decision to act or not to act, still less the criterion by which I pronounce judgment on what is good and what is bad in my own or another person's actions. Quite obviously, that which is truly good, that which morality and conscience bid me do, often involves some measure of pain and requires the renunciation of some pleasure. The pain involved, or the pleasure which I must forego, is not the decisive consideration if I am to act rationally. What is more, it is not fully identifiable beforehand. Pleasure and pain are always connected with a concrete action, so that it is not possible to anticipate them precisely, let alone to plan for them or, as the utilitarians would have us do, even compute them in advance. Pleasure is, after all, a somewhat elusive thing" (36).

* This is not the case when it comes to eternal pain and eternal pleasure. We should rather endure temporal pain, on earth or in purgatory, in order to obtain the joy of being in God's presence forever and to avoid the eternal torment of separation from God in hell. That is proper to the nature and design of the human person.