Saturday, February 13, 2010

Whence, Whither and Wherefore

The LORD'S message was, Halt at the cross-roads, look well, and ask yourselves which path it was that stood you in good stead long ago. That path follow, and you shall find rest for your souls.
Jeremias 6:16a [Knox]
Simon Peter saith to him: Lord, whither goest thou? Jesus answered: Whither I go, thou canst not follow me now; but thou shalt follow hereafter.
John 13:36 [Douay-Rheims]
Our culture is in a crisis. It is a crisis of direction and discernment. It is a crisis of ends and means. It is a crisis of causality. It is a crisis at a cross-roads.

A wayward generation looks for a sign. Ours is a wayward generation in the most literal sense. We wander capriciously, blindly led by the blind, ever clutching at new mess-making demagogues for want of rescue from the messes made by previous ones. We put our hope in change, in changeable objects that have no business bearing the aspirations of that holy virtue. We look for signs, maybe. But our sign has been given us: the sign of Jonah. We too little heed its clear indication, the Way which it signifies; but brazenly march forward down our own path - headlong, mad, and dangerous footsteps down a mired and muddied road.

Prophets were sent to the people of Israel to call them back to the Lord, that they might walk humbly with God (Micah 6). The gift of prophecy is still given, as Saint Paul observes (see 1 Corinthians 12-13). And prophecy consists in much the same task as it did in times past. Prophets call us to task for waywardness and point out the true road. What has changed is that the Way has been revealed to us in its fullness: it is Jesus Christ himself. Prophets now point to Him and to His Word to be our guide. Our urgency should be no less than the people of Nineveh, who feared the Lord when they heard the preaching of Jonah. That whole great city, its whole political order (from the King to the chattel), underwent upheaval in order to follow that sign and embark in the way of righteousness. Our social order has also been given a sign: the Church has proclaimed the Gospel of Truth and Life to the modern world. But we have been slow in donning our sackcloths.

In What's Wrong With the World, G.K. Chesterton (one of many modern prophets sent to show us Christ more clearly) attempted "a rambling and elaborate urging of one purely ethical fact" (Part V, Chapter 5: Conclusion). This fact he pithily states in his first chapter: "I have called this book 'What Is Wrong with the World?' and the upshot of the title can be easily and clearly stated. What is wrong is that we do not ask what is right."

Another way of putting this is to say that what is wrong is not merely that we do not heed the sign given us to show the Way, but we do not even look for one. We are not so concerned with where we go, but myopically center in on the fact of our going someplace.

Chesterton railed against the cult of progress, and this cult is perhaps even healthier in our day than it was in his. It is the worship of Mammon, an obsession with means to the detriment of the fair consideration of ends, the very essence of materialism.

In our mad rush from one crisis to another, we forget where we've come from and give no thought to where we should ultimately end up. It's a mad game of musical chairs, having a laugh with a moribund shrug that it seems somebody, after all, must always end up without a seat each time the silence falls. The Gospel of Wealth can only afford so many places round the table, and we figure perhaps the poor left out of the game are only there for lack of effort during the last interlude. We're just following the rules.

But Chesterton suggests that we might change the rules; nay, we might even change the game. Our Lord's banquet table has seats for the poor and maimed and blind and lame (Luke 14:21), and for Chesterton, securing our invitation should be the end of all our actions, even our political and economic ones. If this requires taking a seat on the floor and bowing out of the mad rush, then so be it.

Whence, whither and wherefore do we go along our way?

This patchwork of ideas that I have dumped onto the page above is an inroad to exploring this question. It is not a question to find an answer unknown: the answer is self-evident. But the question helps one to find where that answer lies in each of the sundry affairs of modern-day life: every moment of discernment and decision, big and small, finds us at a cross-roads. Which is the way that stood us in good stead before? Which is the way of the Cross?

I have above suggested several ideas that I invite my readers to reflect upon with me in the coming months.

I have decided to begin writing a series of papers which I will germinate here on the blog. If all goes as planned, these papers will become the formula of some kind of small book aimed at bringing the Catholic Social Teaching's answers to bear upon the questions of modernity. I propose to put these questions in a somewhat novel (but also very old) way.

My focus will be the four causes of classical philosophy. I said above that our culture is in a crisis of causality. We suffer most of all for losing sight of our final end, our telos: to know, love, and serve God in this life and to be happy with Him in the next. We suffer also from post-Cartesian metaphysics; formal causation has been largely subsumed into the consideration of the efficient or agent cause. This cause, too, is effete in our day: because an agent without an end lacks its ultimate definitive trait of directedness. We are left with a capricious efficiency and robust materialism (a kind of primacy given the material cause).

My goal will be to approach these topics in "primer" language, so that they can be freed somewhat of the technical language of philosophy and placed before the layman. I would consider this an injustice if my object were to train philosophers, but it is not. My object is to invite the question: whence, whither and wherefore? I hope to persuade that there is an ethical satisfaction in seeking full causality for our individual actions, as well as our social and political ones. We must bring the discernment of proper ends back into the discussion of appropriate means, and heed the signs of the times.

Finally, I will propose one path which places man (as an individual and as a member of a society) more easily and efficiently within reach of his ends is not a new road, but a very old road. It is a road that has stood men in good stead for many ages, a road that many Distributists sought as a way of transforming Nineveh. I will suggest this road as perhaps not quite necessary but at least expedient for one's own good and his contribution to the common good...

So, this is my project. This is how I plan to demonstrate the answer to my question, whence, whither, and wherefore. I beg your input, your reaction, your patience, your criticism: in a word, your help. And I beg the help of your prayers, because any builder labors in vain who has not the Lord's help.

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