Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Controlled Normative Isomorphism

One of the most exasperating things anyone can ask a Catholic is how he can continue to call himself a Christian even in the face of overwhelming evil, evil, which, no doubt, has also influenced him in the past. Many an atheist has used this situation to crush the notion of theodicy, and concludes that God is evil, because the world around him is evil. Evil is everywhere, they say: it is in the highest places of authority, in the deepest bowels of poverty, in passivity and activity, in omission and commission. The image that results from these negativities is that of a bleak and powerless world, constantly at the mercy of a bloodthirsty deity-- that is, if he even exists in the first place.

I have talked with a number of Protestants in the past, and one thing that always pops up in the conversation is the subject of 'holiness'. For many Protestants, especially of the Evangelical-Fundamentalist-Baptist kind, holiness is simply something impossible to achieve. They see it as an unnatural desire to rival the glory of God, a lingering Babel in the hearts of men, that is sure to be the cause of shame and retribution in the final days. Indeed, calling something 'holy' for some Protestants is an unholy thing; for them, God is the only one worth calling holy.

The reason I am writing this is not to disparage Protestants, or to necessarily poke fun at them. I am writing this because it seems that a large number of Catholics fall prey too easily to this rigid and constricting view of holiness. So what is holiness in the first place? If I remember my grade school catechism classes correctly, holiness is (or should be) the goal of every human being on the planet; to call something 'holy' or 'sacred' is to recognize that it is set apart for some important function. It is thus something of the world, yet at the same time not of the world. Of course, holiness isn't the same as being in a liminal state; that would be lukewarmness.

I remember the subject of holiness being discussed in a family gathering some five years ago. It was a few days before All Saints' Day, and my relatives had come over to our house to attend a function at our parish, some sort of beauty pageant for children, which my sister had joined. The 'coronation' took place at our quaint little chapel; and as expected, my Protestant relatives were bombarded by an excess of images and altars and gold and silver during their stay there. One of my cousins was visibly uncomfortable in front of an image of the Virgin Mother, which was dressed in a beaten robe of gold; my aunt's eyes kept wandering all over the place, spotting Sacred Hearts and Teresas of Avila everywhere.

Later that evening, after dinner, the conversation shifted to my maternal grandfather's oncoming death anniversary. Somehow, from that topic, the subject of holiness popped up. The aunt who was scandalized in church spoke very strongly about it; she mentioned how the Church's teachings relegated 'holiness' to the realm of routine, so that any and all significance it may have had was 'destroyed'. She criticized this 'tendency' as a form of controlled normative isomorphism, a phrase she still relishes today. Basically, she is saying that the Catholic concept of 'holiness' is very similar to 'a lie repeated a thousand times becomes the truth'.

My apologetics then was still creaking and heaving with rust; I let the incident pass by without much thought. Incidentally, this was also the same time when I first began to explore Protestantism, albeit on a theoretical level (I did not have the guts to tell my father that I did not want to worship with him). In the passage of time, these criticisms found themselves renewed and reinvigorated, so much so that I have even been tempted to believe them once again. But are they really warranted?

Now that I think about it, these criticisms from Protestants don't really hold much water at all. These are the same people who made excessive capitalism possible, and these are the same people responsible for the separation of life into two spheres, the public and the private. I am not basing my accusations on polemics alone, but it definitely plays a huge part. It is this separation which, in my opinion, make Protestants an entirely different breed of Christians than us Catholics. It affects not just their way of lives, but also their conception of the world around them, effectively splitting it into two: the Kingdom and the Anti-Kingdom (terms which Fr. Sobrino also uses). One has to wonder, are Protestants really closet Gnostics?

The loss of the concept of holiness for Protestants seems inherent in their theology, especially those of more Calvinist bent. Just last week, I met my first dyed-in-the-wool Calvinist; she was one of the most intelligent students I've ever met, excelling in literature, the arts, as well as hard sciences (her past time is integral calculus since she was 14). Ironically, despite her erudition, my Calvinist friend thinks of herself in an entirely different manner-- she sees herself as the unrepentant sinner with one foot already placed firmly in hell for all her sins of intellectual vanity. She was one of 'them', as opposed to being in the side of God (although she says she already accepted DNJC as her personal lord and savior multiple times)I felt sorry for her, sorry that the 'God' she served could be so cruel as to place someone in hell for intelligence.

The ancient Greeks, too, were of this mold. Ironically, this civilization which brought light into much of the West lived in fear of its gods, who were fickle, vain things, made in their image and likeness than the other way around. The Christian God, however, is different. He is the kind of God willing to become lowly like one of His creatures, even descending to its primordial depths and encountering its most salient weakness, death. This is a very hard notion to grasp, a fact which manifested itself in the various Christological heresies of the Early Church: the notion of the Perfect and the Uncaused becoming one like His flawed creatures was a repulsive thought for the Greeks, who esteemed perfection (whether physical or otherwise) to unscaled heights.

I pity those Protestants who can never see themselves as anything but sacks of meat, the majority of which is bound to perish in everlasting fire, anyway. Of course, not all are of this mindset, but it is definitely a cancer metastasizing in the bosom of the Church. I simply cannot, for the life of me, choose to see only the negative things in the world. The Psalms are very evocative of a gracious and bountiful God, Who freely saves those who want to be saved, and Whose works declare His glory.

On the subject of holiness and routine, I can't help thinking that one of the main thrusts behind its criticism is the false notion that sanctity can only be sanctity if it can be visibly manifested. What an utterly despicable idea! It is more worthy of the perfidy of the Jewish high priests than the ministry of Our Lord. It confines holiness to mere philantrophy, which, while admittedly a positive thing, does not equate to holiness. Again, the compartmentalization brought about by Protestantism essentially makes it impossible to reconcile a flawed human being to the infinite love of God; is it any wonder that secularism is so rampant now? Being holy is not about being the absolute perfect human being on earth. Sanctity is effected, not inherent.

The world in which my ancestors lived was a place touched by God; in those days, seeing the Christ Child walking in church gardens, finding crosses miraculously stuck in the bosom of a tree, images of the Virgin being rescued from the raging sea, Hosts that bleed rivers of blood, and saints miraculously appearing out of nowhere were very much common things, that pointed to the mysterious and the wonderful in the most mundane of things. This was the world of the prophets, of the Early Christians, of the men of the Middle Ages and the Counter Reformation. It was a world wherein God dwelt, where His power was taken for granted because it was never lacking, and a world where routine was the normal way of life. It is interesting that only after the Reformation did the notion of routine become associated with impassivity and staleness.

Interestingly, this model of the 'split world' also extends to the Protestant notion of heaven; an Evangelical classmate of mine once gushed that the ultimate joys of heaven will be the endless mansions and properties accorded to the saved, and not the beatific vision. Needless to say, I was shocked. That was all the proof I needed to pull myself out of that rut.

It is a sad thing that many Protestants do not see the magnificence, the splendor, and the grandeur of the world around them. Theirs is a world that is bleak, haunted, and evil. It is such an irony that by arrogating holiness to God alone, they are confessing, if subconsciously, that they are unsaved.


Archistrategos said...

Incidentally, this is also my 100th post!

Andrew said...

Congrats on the milestone =)

Archistrategos said...

Thanks, Andrew =)