A Promise to Love? The Possibility of the Catholic Wedding Vows

One of the fun things about being Catholic is that some of our prayers are a bit scary when one stops to ponder them. I’m not talking about prayers that only a few of us actually get around to praying, such as the Psalms in which we ask God to vent his just and terrible wrath on various evildoers. No, I have in mind prayers as common as the Our Father, in which we hold hands (well, I don’t, but you probably do) and blithely ask God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” One could possibly read that clause as asking God to make our own reception of forgiveness contingent upon our forgiveness of others. So not just “Please forgive me,” but rather “Please forgive me to the extent that I am fair enough to forgive others.” Uh-oh.

I welcome the correction of competent theologians on the aforementioned point. Until then, I will continue to feel nervous. Forgiveness and mercy are difficult for most of us. Evidence for this difficulty might be found in the fact that the Catholic Church is currently in the midst of a Year of Mercy. Holy Mother Church, in her wisdom, has not decided on a “Year of Fun” or a “Year of Getting Exactly What You Want” or a “Year of Free Candy.” We don’t need a year to work on obtaining those things. But it seems we might need a year to prepare our hearts for God’s mercy.

But if the Our Father isn’t terrifying enough, allow me to assist your Lenten mood of doom and gloom by helpfully providing another example: YOUR WEDDING VOWS.

Have you watched the recording of your wedding lately? Odds are, you said something along these lines:

“I, Boethius, take you, Rusticiana, to be my wife. I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.”

You think you know where I am going with this, but you really don’t. You think what frightens me is the part about “all the days of my life.” But that’s not so scary. That just simplifies things: now there’s finally a plan! Plus, the Sweet Meteor of Death may already be in route, so let’s not presume we are talking 60+ years here.

Or perhaps you think I’m concerned about promising to be true to one’s spouse during times of sickness and health. Again, not such a problem. Dunno about you, but when I have a pounding headache, I’m not likely to be pondering adultery. Theoretically, staying true in times of health could be more of a challenge. But the God also provided a practical solution to that problem, a solution called “children.” Once you have children you’ll be tired, and adultery requires at least some minimal effort. It’s hard to stray when you fall asleep on the couch every night at around 9 p.m.

Nope, the scary part of the wedding vows is in that other, seemingly innocuous little clause, the one in which you promise to love. Did you have any business saying that? Is love something within your control, the kind of thing you can actually promise to do? A lot of our common ways of speaking about love give the opposite impression. We talk about being “swept away” or “falling in love”–both of which seem to indicate that love is some sort of mysterious and powerful force beyond our control. Did you, in your wedding vows, make a rash promise before God to feel warm and fuzzy towards someone for the remainder of your life, a promise you no doubt felt emboldened to make because of your excellent track record in your previous relationships. Well . . .

One good solution to the problem I have heard in several wedding homilies proposes a truth our culture has largely forgotten: there is such a thing as love which is chosen, love which is willed. We philosophy nerds call this “volitional love.” This form of love consists in seeking the good of the other person. One thus “loves” one’s spouse when one chooses to say a kind word to one’s spouse, when one chooses to do the dishes so one’s spouse can relax at the end of a long day, when one chooses to enroll one’s spouse in that bowtie of the month club thing he keeps strategically leaving on the kitchen table every morning, and by the way he likes the thin kind of bow tie. Just an example. Move along.

The point is that we can indeed promise to love in this volitional way, and the point of a sacramental marriage is receive a pledge of God’s help in carrying out that promise. Sacramental marriage offers amazing advantages for creatures whose wills are wounded by original sin. Wondering if that includes you? Unless you are currently enjoying the beatific vision, then the answer is likely to be “yes.”

Telling people that they have promised volitional love of their spouses is true and important. However, because I am a philosopher, and one of the jobs of a philosopher is to rattle the bars of your cage–especially during Lent–I would like to remind you that “the Catholic thing” is to understand God’s grace as building on and perfecting nature. That means that the natural way human life works is not typically overturned by the actions of God. And in the natural order of things, human action is often prompted by the emotions as well as the will. In fact, as the psychologist Conrad Baars points out in his book Feeling and Healing Your Emotions, the human will is most truly powerful–i.e. it actually gets things done–when the emotions support the decisions of the will. The will indeed shows a certain power when it resists strong emotions running in the opposite direction, but such unpleasant situations threaten to enfeeble one’s actions. One is “fighting oneself” instead of focusing on the task.

wedding

No bow tie. Bad sign, bro.

A marriage is no exception to this general rule of human action: one wants the support of the emotions in order to succeed at it. Good luck carrying out all those loving actions you wrote down on the flyleaf of The Five Love Languages if all you feel is hatred, aversion, and anger towards one’s spouse. No, if you really want to love someone, if you really want to honor the promise you made before God, then you will also need to cultivate the emotions that will support volitional love. In short: loving well requires both that we seek the good of our spouses (i.e. volitional love) and that we seek to like our spouses (i.e. the warm fuzzies, emotional love). We can’t simply excuse ourselves from the emotional side of marriage; we can’t simply tell ourselves that “the fire has gone out” and give up. If you take seriously the promise to love with the will, then you must also try to sustain–or even recover–emotional love.

Yet surely we can presume the assistance of grace with this second form of love as well. And here, again, grace would actually be building on nature: the emotions are not as independent of our control as we commonly suppose.

If you think that last statement was some crazy talk, then I refer you to the crazy talk of St. Thomas Aquinas, who argues in p. 81, a. 3 of the First Part of the Summa Theologiae that the human emotions actually “obey reason.” To be sure, “obedient” is not the first word that comes to mind when we think of the emotions, and St. Thomas admits that we do not enjoy any direct or “despotic” control over our emotional states. Yet St. Thomas also points out that we do enjoy a substantial amount of indirect control over them.

For example, the emotions obey reason “in their own acts” by following upon perception–and in humans, one’s perception of a situation can be influenced by reason, especially over time. You can “tell yourself a different story,” and this can radically change the emotion triggered. For example, you may have had the experience of being angry at a spouse for not doing something, only to have that anger dissipate when your reason helped you to give a different appraisal of the situation: “Why didn’t he start the !@#$% dishwasher? Oh, it was because he was making me a totally awesome, homemade Valentine’s Day card . . . in the shape of a bow tie!”

The emotions do just obey reason reason as “mind”; they also obey reason as “will.” The point of emotions is to move you into action. But your emotions cannot fully accomplish this without the consent of the will. The will has a “veto power”–not over the experience of the emotion itself, but instead over the actions that flow out of the emotion. And the will has still more tricks. With your will, you can choose to pay attention to the sorts of things likely to trigger certain emotions, and you can choose to do certain things likely to trigger certain emotions. On date night, for example, instead of having a heart-to-heart discussion of the various inadequacies and failures of your spouse, you might instead consider reminiscing about how you first met, or some of your happiest memories together. Or to really be proactive, you might choose to set the stage for date night by doing–get ready for it–acts of kindness. You might do the dishes. You might buy flowers. Acts of kindness of that sort are likely to put one’s spouse in a good humor: they influence one’s spouse to be a lovable person, the kind of person that tends to trigger emotions of love.

So all of this can be summed up in four sobering propositions:

  1. If you got married in the Catholic Church, then it is quite likely that you promised to love another human being until death.
  2. This love should always exist on the level of one’s will.
  3. To whatever extent possible, this love should also exist on the level of one’s emotions.
  4. None of this is likely to be easy.

Still, it is Sunday, so we don’t want to wallow in doom and gloom, even during Lent. Since marriage is a sacrament in the Catholic Church, a pledge of God’s grace, a fifth proposition also follows:

5. God will help you to love in these ways, if you try.

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The Philosophical Anthropology of Pixar’s Inside Out

Inside OutEveryone seems rather excited about the new Pixar movie Inside Out, and rightly so. Unlike some of Pixar’s recent efforts since being acquired by Disney, Inside Out is a film that charts new ground; it is not a sequel. Moreover, it is one of those films that both children and adults can legitimately enjoy watching together. In fact, the movie may tilt the scales slightly in favor of adult viewers–not by including any objectionable content–but merely by being so clever. At any rate, the film seemed a bit above the head of my 4-year-old, who nevertheless enjoyed the popcorn and soda. Especially the soda, which he never gets to drink otherwise.

The premise of Inside Out is simple: what would the emotional crisis of a child look like, if the emotions were personified? Most of the kid-friendly stuff comes through the 5 personified emotions and their oftentimes slapstick interactions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. As my son said, his favorite part of the movie was “Fire Guy” (i.e. Anger). Most of the adult-friendly content comes through seeing the movie’s “lesson” slowly play out: both positive and negative emotions have a place in human life. There are situations that are objectively sad, and they ought to be acknowledged as such. For the 11-year-old protagonist of the movie, “Riley,” growing up entails moving out of “pure” emotional experiences in which she is completely happy or sad to emotional experiences that are more “mixed,” such as that blend of joy and sorrow often referred to as “bittersweet.”

Another large part of what gives power to the movie for adults is how surprisingly “accurate” the imagined structure of Riley’s mind turns out to be. That is to say, the movie isn’t too bad as an exercise in philosophical anthropology. There is a “Train of Thought” (yes, literally a train) corresponding to discursive reasoning; it does not operate while Riley is asleep. There is “Imagination Land,” “Long-Term Memory,” and “The Subconscious” (complete with a giant, scary clown). Intuitive thought shows up in the form of “Ideas” (little light bulbs) that can be plugged into the control panel that runs Riley’s life at “Head-quarters.” Habituation even makes an appearance in the form of abiding “Centers of Personality” (little theme parks) such as Family Land, Honesty, Hockeyland, etc. These personality centers–or as Aristotle might call them, states of character–provide Riley with stable and reliable ways of acting. Like all virtues, they provide a wholesome sort of “autopilot” for the human person.

And, of course, there are the emotions. In Inside Out, the emotions are the movers of the person. The five emotions share a “control board,” and thus dictate how the young girl, Riley, will respond in any particular situation. Each person has a predominant emotion–Riley’s is Joy, her mother’s is Sorrow, and her father’s is Anger (perhaps this is a little nod to some of the classical temperaments such as sanguine, melancholic, and choleric). Nevertheless, the emotions cooperate well. They generally react immediately, without deliberation, and typically in ways that are reliable and correct. Each emotion senses when it is appropriate to leap to the console and take control–that is, until a move from Minnesota to San Francisco precipitates an emotional crisis in Riley, leaving her only with Anger, Disgust, and Fear to run her life. The results, as you can imagine, are not good.

As I said, much of the movie’s view of the human person is extremely clever and surprisingly philosophically sound. Some of the details are even thought-provoking. For example, Riley’s emotions are a mix of male and female characters, yet the emotions of her parents are all male or all female, as far as I can recall. Is it part of a successful maturation process that one’s emotions would tend to become more characteristically masculine or feminine? Does masculine fear differ from feminine fear? Masculine anger from feminine anger? It doesn’t sound wildly implausible. If even the structure of the eye differs in men and women, why not the calibration of the emotions as well?

However, there are also problems with the fanciful picture of the human person offered in Inside Out. To start with the most glaring, obvious problem, where is the free will? Riley certainly has what St. Thomas called the “sensitive appetite”–the emotions–yet she seems to be utterly lacking what St. Thomas called the “rational appetite,” the power of free choice that responds to goods proposed by the mind. In other words, in addition to the five little cute emotions, there should also have been an unruly giant (I picture him like a very large and fat Socrates) with a control console of his own, one which could usually override all the commands of the emotions. In the absence of free will, what Inside Out offers instead is a kind of emotional determinism. When I feel angry, I have to have an outburst. When I feel disgust, I have to express my revulsion. Perhaps that would be appropriate if we were considering a toddler. But the protagonist in the movie is 11 years old. Even more disturbingly, the film depicts the adults as having the same emotion-controlled cognitive structure. That is not quite the right view. It is true that many adults today allow their emotions run their lives–but they don’t have to. To be rational is to have a faculty of rational choice as well.

And more generally, the central lesson of the movie only makes sense when we supplement it with a fuller consideration of the irreplaceable role of the mind in human life. It is true that “growing up” often means our emotions grow more complex–but why is that? What causes the change? To put that question in terms of the movie, we might ask why the emotion Sadness suddenly has an uncontrollable urge to begin coloring with sorrow all the formerly happy memories. The answer has to do with the growth of rationality. Sadness wants to color all the former memories because of the new rational recognition that Riley is no longer living in Minnesota, the place where all those happy memories were formed. In a similar way, the movie only comes to its successful resolution when one of the emotions, Joy, arrives at a greater rational maturity. Joy realizes that the expression of one emotion, even if a “negative” emotion, often leads to a different, more “positive” emotional experience; this allows Joy to stop trying to prevent Sadness from ever having a turn at the controls.

To put the matter more philosophically, as rationality grows in the human person, so should the emotions. While the emotions have a bodily component–for example, one’s pulse rises when one is angry–the emotions also have a great deal to do with the rational soul. Fundamentally, the emotions are all responses to some sort of “awareness,” either sensory or mental. As we grow smarter and gain more experiences, we become aware of much more, and as a result, we typically become emotionally broader. We develop the ability to perceive things that delight us, disgust us, or anger us . . .  all in the same situation.

The great irony is that despite its declared purpose to reveal what is hidden, to turn the human person “inside-out,” this rational core of the emotional growth process remains more or less hidden in the film.

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Do Catholics Need to Talk About the Faith?

One theme that emerges from the Church’s documents on evangelization, education, and catechesis is the primacy of personal example, of the “witness” of one’s life over and above one’s mere words. As Pope Paul VI (1975) wrote in Article 21 of Evangelii Nuntiandi: “Above all the Gospel must be proclaimed by witness.” The pope continued by contemplating what would happen if “a Christian or a handful of Christians” were to give a witness of understanding, solidarity, and faith in the midst of the larger community. He anticipated that such an example would give rise to questions on the part of the surrounding community, and thus bring about “a silent proclamation of the good news . . . an initial act of evangelization.” Cardinal Baum (1982) made a similar point in article 32 of Lay Catholics in Schools. As he wrote: “Conduct is always much more important than speech. . . . Students should see in their teachers the Christian attitude and behavior that is often so conspicuously absent from the secular atmosphere in which they live.” A similar intuitive preference for actions as opposed to words probably also accounts for the popularity of the quotation dubiously attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times; use words if necessary.”

This naturally leads to a question: if actions are so important for Christian witness, why do we need words at all? What is it that prevents us from giving up the task of talking about the Christian faith? The possibility is tempting: no more awkward discussions, no more verbal confrontations with family members, no more possibility of being labeled a hypocrite, no more nights spent wondering “Do I have to say something?” As this line of thought goes, people will just see our lives of numinous holiness, and then–rather like students imitating a Tai Chi master exercising in a park at dawn—they will begin to live out the fullness of Christianity after our example. This line of thought is especially seductive to parents: surely our children will just “pick up” the faith by hanging around us. Why bother with the hard work of actually teaching them the Gospel with intentionality?

St. Francis preaching a sermon to Pope Honorius III (photo credit: WikiArt)

St. Francis preaching a sermon to Pope Honorius III
(photo credit: WikiArt)

Although tempting, such a model of “evangelization solely by personal example” is ultimately unrealistic. Paul VI (1975) pointed this out in article 22 of Evangelii Nuntiandi: “Even the finest witness will prove ineffective in the long run if it is not explained, justified.” Yet the pontiff’s judgment prompts a further question: Why is that? What is it about “words” that makes them so necessary to evangelization? Why did St. Francis of Assisi spend so much time preaching if he thought personal example was so important? Why does legend have it that St. Anthony of Padua, one of Francis’s spiritual children, once preached a sermon to the fishes of the sea when the people refused to listen? Why aren’t holy actions and a joyful personality simply sufficient for evangelization.

It seems to me that we have ample theological resources to answer that challenge (“and the WORD was made flesh”), but a philosophical response is also possible. Actions are insufficient for evangelization because our actions are primarily images that other people see. Since other persons have no direct access to our interior mental and volitional states, they view our actions from the “outside.” It somewhat akin to viewing a picture or a video of someone. But as the philosopher Robert Sokolowski (2008) wrote in Phenomenology of the Human Person, “Picturing alone does not make the intelligibility of the thing present to us; we need the support of words in picturing” (p. 139). We “need the support” of words because pictures and images are ambiguous. For example, if I see you running across the grocery store parking lot, your action is not self-explanatory. Perhaps you are running from the police. Perhaps you need to find a restroom facility. Perhaps you are exercising. However, your words could assist me in understanding precisely what is going on: “I am late for work!”

Because grace typically builds upon and perfects human nature, the same necessity of conjoining word and image applies to our Christian witness. As Paul VI rightly anticipated, our actions can provoke questions. But only our words can provide answers.

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The Supreme Court and Christian Glory

Saint Peter and Saint Paul by El Greco (photo credit: Wikipedia)

Saint Peter and Saint Paul by El Greco (photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today the Roman Catholic Church celebrates the Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul. Church tradition tells us that both Peter and Paul suffered martyrdom. Peter was crucified; however, at his request, he was crucified upside down, since he felt unworthy to be honored with the same sort of death as Christ. Paul was beheaded, the quicker and more dignified form of capital punishment reserved for the Roman citizen.

The Church is by no means embarrassed at the ends met by these apostles. In fact, the Liturgy of the Hours recalls their martyrdoms by choosing these prophetic words from the First Letter of St. Peter as the reading for Morning Prayer:

“Beloved, rejoice in the measure that you share Christ’s sufferings. When his glory is revealed, you will rejoice exultantly. Happy are you when you are insulted for the sake of Christ, for then God’s Spirit in its glory has come to rest on you.” (1 Peter 4:13-14)

We hear these kinds of things so often in church that they actually tend to become unhearable for us. Their very familiarity makes them invisible to our minds. We don’t notice them. But it is worthwhile pausing to consider just how strange those words are from a natural perspective. Suffering–especially insult, the kind of suffering inflicted on us by other people–is said to be “glorious.” I don’t know about you, but when I think of glory, I have vague thoughts of confetti flying and music trumpeting (yes, like the end of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace). There usually isn’t too much of that going on while I am being insulted.

Perhaps we can understand these paradoxical words from St. Peter better by first getting a more precise sense of “glory.” What exactly does it mean for something to be glorious? In his Summa Theologiae, St. Thomas Aquinas offers us two useful and concise definitions. First, he approvingly quotes the definition of St. Ambrose that glory consists in being “well-known and praised” (ST I-II, q. 2, a. 3). A couple of questions later, St. Thomas offers a definition of his own: glory is when “a man’s good is brought to the notice of others” (ST I-II, q. 4, a. 8).

No mention of confetti or trumpets. Rather, the core of glory is intellectual. It is a sort of knowledge: one’s formerly private good is now made known to others. One’s good is publicized.

As I have often explained this point in class, being a good soccer player does not yet equal glory. You may be a good soccer player, but you are only glorious when you score the winning goal in the state championship game in front of the entire cheerleading squad. Or think of Rigo, the young pitcher/peanut boy in that gawdawful movie Trouble with the Curve (2012). Rigo has an amazing fastball, but nobody knows about it. Fortunately, he is discovered by a scout near the end of the movie, shows up at the ballpark and strikes out the jerk (Bo) who can’t hit curveballs, and signs a pro contract. It is only with this ending that Rigo achieves glory. Glory is the manifestation of one’s good to others.

With this sharper sense of glory in mind, we can now return to the words of St. Peter. To be sure, on the natural level, insult is always painful. Yet St. Peter’s point is that there is more to the story. Evil does not have the last word, for the Christian who is insulted is not just insulted. He is also brought into closer conformity with Christ, the model of humanity, who was also mocked and spat upon (Matthew 26:67-68). This process of being conformed to Christ (or as one might also say, sanctified) is understood by the Church to be an action carried out by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, in a paradoxical way, being insulted reveals to the Christian the presence of a good–or really, the good, the Holy Spirit. The Christian can thus be invited to rejoice, even in the presence of tremendous suffering, because of the manifestation of a good that transcends that suffering.

And all of this brings me, at long last, to the title of my post today. This past Friday, a bare majority of the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage is a “fundamental right” protected by the Constitution. A decision more at odds with the natural law and the revealed truth of the faith can scarcely be imagined. Furthermore, as sober thinkers such as Justice Samuel Alito, George Weigel, and many others have already pointed out, it is a decision likely to lead to the persecution of those with the temerity to publicly disagree with the decision (such as Catholic churches and Catholic schools). The rhetoric for such persecution and legally-sanctioned bullying already begins to fall into place. If the Supreme Court decision was, as President Obama remarked and Tweeted, an act of justice and love, then logically speaking those who continue to disagree be on the side of injustice and hatred–and the law certainly doesn’t tend to carve out much space for anyone to act “unjustly.”

But the paradoxical lesson recalled to our minds by the Church’s liturgy today is that these coming trials have a deeper meaning for faithful American Christians. Before the decision of the Court on Friday, the faith was a good for those of us lucky enough to profess it. Henceforth, our faith will be glorious. Rejoice.

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What Heaven Will Be Like (If You Make It)

One of my favorite exchanges in the 1991 film Black Robe concerns the nature of the Roman Catholic understanding of heaven. Early in the film, the Jesuit missionary (i.e. the “black robe”) chides one of the Frenchmen for speaking respectfully of the concept of the afterlife held by the Algonquin Indians, an afterlife in which the souls of men hunt the souls of animals at night. Daniel, the young Frenchman, snaps back at the missionary: “Is it harder to believe than in Paradise where we all sit on clouds and look at God?”

Gustave Dore's image of the beatific vision

partial of Gustave Dore’s illustration of the beatific vision

The official Catholic teaching would not have us sitting on clouds, but otherwise the young Frenchman’s characterization is not too far off the mark. One somewhat apophatic strand in the Church’s tradition emphasizes the transcendent, incomprehensible nature of heavenly life (“no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him”). Yet another strand in the Church’s tradition does make a positive statement about what heaven will be like: the blessed in heaven will see God “as he is,” even “face to face.” The Church calls this form of union the “beatific vision.” It is an intuitive contemplation of God’s essence. To put that back in the terms of the young Frenchman, the Church claims that we will “see God”…with our minds.

Both strands of teaching are equally authoritative; both are included in the Catechism (see CCC##1023, 1027-1028). However, as a teacher, I have found that the second strand is initially more difficult for students to accept. If you want to see this yourself, conduct a little experiment with your students (or relatively unchurched friends): ask them to brainstorm for a few minutes about what heaven should be like. If they don’t believe in heaven, then have them approach it as a thought experiment–if there were a heaven, what would it need to be like? At first you will get a few silly answers like “hitting you in the face with a dodgeball, forever” or “72 virgins,” but you can deflate those answers by emphasizing that the goal of the discussion is to try to figure out the sort of ideal nature of heaven, what it should be like, what it must be like to actually be, well, paradise.

As the conversation turns serious, someone will invariably invoke some version of the first theological strand identified above: “We can’t know, but it will be AWESOME!” Others will nod their heads approvingly. But when the dramatic moment comes, and you reveal the more positive theological strand–the intuitive contemplation of God–no one will nod. The sense of disappointment will actually be somewhat palpable. Privately, some may even think, like Ivan Karamazov, “Where do I return my ticket?” Spending eternity in thought doesn’t seem alluring to most of us.

However, the idea of the beatific vision is surprisingly defensible–not only theologically, but philosophically. In fact, St. Thomas Aquinas arrives at the ideal nature of heaven as contemplative activity through a line of thought that is exclusively philosophical (i.e. he thinks his way to the idea; he does not draw upon revelation). His argument in the Summa Theologiae I-II, q. 3, a. 8 depends upon three fundamental principles:

“Man is not perfectly happy, so long as something remains for him to desire and seek.”

“The perfection of any power is determined by the nature of its object.”

“The object of the intellect is ‘what a thing is,’ the essence of a thing.”

If you accept these three principles, then the argument is rather straightforward and hard to criticize: We would not be perfectly happy in heaven unless our minds were perfectly “fed” by being able to have some insight into what God is, his nature. Without the contemplation of God’s essence, there would be a part of us–the highest, strongest part–whose desires were not being met. We might be happy at first with the dodgeball and virgins, but after awhile (we are talking about eternity here, after all) our mental desire to know God would become like an itch we could not scratch.

The ancient myth of Cupid and Psyche as told by Lucius Apuleius offers a marvelous illustration of this truth about the human mind (“Psyche” is the Greek term for soul or mind, as one of my students recently reminded me). Psyche, a human woman, ends up marrying Cupid, a god of love (the son of Venus). However, there’s a catch: Psyche never gets to actually see Cupid. He only visits her at night (he’s the god of love, you see).

At first, everything is great. She lives in a magnificent palace “filled with all manner of treasures.” Invisible servants bring her “the greatest delicacies of food.” Invisible performers sing and play the lute for her. And at night…it’s the god of love.

But after a time, the situation begins to prey upon her mind. She needs to see him. She has to know. Her sisters don’t help the situation much either: they suggest that he has been concealing his form from her because he is, in fact, “a direful and tremendous monster . . . who nourishes you for a while with dainties that he may, by and by, devour you.” (There’s surely a moral in that, but as I like my sisters-in-law, I will refrain here from commentary).

Long story short: she looks, he’s cute but offended at her lack of trust, she gets kicked out, it’s sad, Mother-in-law demands impossible tasks as atonement, Cupid misses her and takes her back, Psyche becomes a goddess, they have a baby (Pleasure).

I read once that C.S. Lewis was haunted by the story of Cupid and Psyche; Lewis felt that the characters behaved “irrationally,” and so he felt compelled to offer his own interpretation of the myth in his novel Till We Have Faces. The only thing I find irrational is that the famous pair only had one baby (are gods and goddesses worried about the cost of daycare, or something?). As far as Psyche goes, her actions make perfect sense. We want to see because we want to know. Our minds are wired to seek the essence of things, even the “thing” that is God. A paradise in which we could not contemplate God would be a paradise fit for animals, not humans.

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The Goodness of Human Life, Part II: Reflections on the Suicide of Brittany Maynard

In Part I of this post I wrote about a philosophical error we ought to avoid when thinking about the value of human life: namely, the idea that human life is the highest good possible.

Here, in Part II, I would like to discuss two more common errors we make when thinking about the value of life: first, that the goodness of life is entirely subjective (that’s the fancy word for “up to us”); second, that freedom can somehow be a good even when it destroys life. Both of these errors are exemplified in the tragic suicide of Brittany Maynard. More importantly, however, these are errors that are “in the air.” That is to say, they are by no means specific to the thought of the late Ms. Maynard: they are everywhere, pervading most discussions of the issues of physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. Most importantly, these errors will surely influence the ongoing debate about the “Aid in Dying” Bill (SB 128) that has recently been introduced in the California legislature, and they will factor in the debates about future legislative initiatives in other states.

The Value of Life Exceeds Our Perception

The most common problem I find in both philosophical and popular discussions of bioethical issues such as physician-assisted suicide is the idea that the value or goodness of one’s life is relative to one’s perception of that value–that one’s life is as valuable as one thinks it is, end of story.

For a sophisticated example of this, consider Catherine Constable’s 2012 article “Withdrawal of Artificial Nutrition and Hydration for Patients in a Permanent Vegetative State: Changing Tack” (Bioethics 26, no. 3). In the article, Constable notes that it is sometimes said that life has intrinsic value, the sort of value that can never be lost. For this reason, some people (or institutions, like the Roman Catholic Church) think that patients in seemingly irreversible comas should continue to receive food and water–sustaining their valuable lives. Constable disagrees, and her response to this point exemplifies the error in question: “Without consciousness, continued life cannot benefit [the patients].” In other words, Constable assumes that the goodness of human life is in the eye of the beholder. For someone lacking consciousness, the ability to perceive the goodness of one’s existence, life loses all its value.

Photo credit: Huffington Post

Photo credit: Huffington Post

Brittany Maynard never explicitly says that her life would have lost all value had she seen her illness through to its end–however, the idea is there implicitly in her open letter. After discussing the awful side effects her proposed course of treatment would have had, Maynard states: “My quality of life, as I knew it, would be gone.” To be sure, that little phrase “as I knew it” leaves open the possibility that there could be some remaining quality of life–but not for someone like Maynard. Her judgment about the value of her life is assumed to be paramount. This same attitude–that I am the judge of the quality and goodness of my life–reemerges in her powerful final question: “Who has the right to tell me I don’t deserve this choice?”

But as we wish we could have asked Maynard, what gives you such confidence that all value is subjective, that life has no quality or goodness beyond what you know? Why should you assume that your perception fully determines reality? As Thomas Aquinas reminds us, only God’s knowledge is causal in that way. Human knowledge, by contrast, is “caused by the things known.”

The dependency of human knowledge upon reality is important because it means that life might still surprise you. Despite all your “knowledge,” reality escapes the net of your expectations. Even a person with a terminal disease might find still more moments of happiness. And more importantly, someone enduring a terminal disease might give others an example of courage in the face of unrelenting suffering. That sort of courage is something one’s fellow humans ought to see; they need to see it, as they struggle with their own pains. That, it seems to me, is the surprising answer we would have to give to Maynard’s rhetorical question. Who has the right to tell you that some choices are not legitimate? We do. We all do.

No Freedom Without Life

The final error I wish to discuss is assumption that the exercise of freedom (in the sense of self-determination, at least) is a much higher good than life, so much higher that freedom may even be used to destroy life. We see this in Maynard’s statement “I want to die on my own terms.” Only that sort of death is, presumably, a “death with dignity.” Christy O’Donnell, a 46-year-old mother with lung cancer, makes the point even more forcefully in her recent interview in People magazine: “It’s an injustice that I can’t die the way I want to.” Dignity is thus understood to be inextricably found up with freedom. Freedom is more important than life. Freedom is so important that whatever thwarts freedom is unjust. Even life may be brushed aside in the name of freedom.

Well, no.

First of all, if it is true that dignity always requires freedom of choice–and that’s a big if, because that would seem to mean that marriage is undignified, school is undignified, and anything else that restricts our freedom–then it is even more true that dignity requires life. Why? This isn’t a hard one to figure out: you can’t exercise freedom if you don’t exist.

In his article “Death-suicide-euthanasia,” the philosopher Robert Spaemann tries to bring home this point in a discussion of euthanasia, and it seems to me that the same principles would also apply to cases of suicide like Maynard’s. In a reductio ad absurdum, Spaemann asks why everyone supposes that euthanasia should only be allowed in cases of terminal illness. If self-determination, the right to “die on my own terms,” is truly the important thing, then “Why should the suicide that follows from weighing up all the plus and minus columns be placed at a disadvantage? Why not suicide out of unrequited love?” As Spaemann says, no rational answer to those questions is possible, as long as one continues to make the fundamental mistake of thinking that one’s freedom can validly be exercised to destroy one’s life. In fact, life is the precondition of freedom.

Freedom and life can be distinguished in speech, but they are existentially united in the human person. The freedom that allows us to determine the course of so much of our lives is the direct result of our having a rational nature, a rational form of life. Freedom arises out of life.  Practically speaking, this means that life provides the context for all of the exercise of our rationality. It is an unspoken premise in all the justifications one gives. It can only be good to play soccer while one is alive. It can only be good to get married while one is alive. It can only be good to end one’s life while one is alive–oh wait, did you see the problem there? In ending one’s life, one ends any possible goodness, any reason the action might be justified.

Freedom and life are not meant to stand in an adversarial relationship. Rather, freedom exists for the protection of life. As the philosopher John Locke puts it, freedom is meant to act as a sort of “fence” around life, and “that ill deserves the name of confinement which hedges us in only from bogs and precipices.” In other words, we are free so that we might attempt to save our lives–not destroy them.

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Cinderella and the Magic of Virtue

As I think you can gather from the movie posters, Kenneth Branagh’s new adaptation of Cinderella is live-action–with, of course, a good measure of CGI thrown it. It is Cinderella, after all; did you really want her to show up at the ball in a Prius?

Other than the live action, what has most impressed viewers–and surprisingly, even many critics–is the lack of revision in the story. Branagh’s Cinderella is faithful to its source material. Cinderella is good. The stepmother is bad. The prince is handsome. Cinderella does have a bit of an anti-hunting sensibility, but that actually fits in well given her St. Francis-like way with animals. The story does not get warped in the usual and disappointing ways (ahem, Maleficent).

But there is one significant change in the movie worth noting, and it is this: Cinderella gets humanized.

Now if you are like me–and really, you probably aren’t–that term “humanization” sets off warning bells in your mind when used by a reviewer. It usually means a generally good person or character being re-envisioned as a disagreeable, borderline psychotic (ahem, Noah). However, there is a different sort of humanization at work in Branagh’s film: an enigmatic figure is suddenly presented in an intelligible light. In the case of Cinderella, an explanation for her incomprehensible goodness is given.

What is the explanation? In a word, virtue.

You see, this Cinderella does not really direct her life at being swept off her feet by a rich, handsome man. Oh, don’t get me wrong, she doesn’t mind when things play out that way (would you?); nevertheless, the critics carping about the movie’s tacit patriarchy have missed the point. The happy ending is actually a byproduct of Cinderella’s focusing her life on moral goodness–not fulfilling a checklist of moral commands, but rather existing in a certain excellent way, embodying certain human qualities.

We learn those qualities from Cinderella’s dying mother, who counsels her daughter to “have courage, and be kind.” Cinderella takes the lesson to heart, and so we find the line being repeated at strategic points in the movie: it would not be an exaggeration to say that the line serves as the film’s unifying thread. Virtue is the point, and as the movie explains early–and shows in the end–“there is magic, real magic, in it.”

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