Can you lie through a piece of art?
This will be a pretty technical post. There is a TLDR summary of some of the complex stuff if you scroll down. But come on, give it a shot!
All lies are sins. A lie is a willful statement of what one believes is a falsehood in order to deceive another person. In other words, it is a statement at variance with the mind, which says what one thinks is false is true or what one thinks is true is false, so that one’s interlocutor erroneously believes what is said.
This is the teaching of most Catholic moralists throughout the ages, and the teaching of the Catechism (the official Latin “Editio Typica” version, which came after the edits to the original French version that removed a qualification about the “right to know the truth,” much to the pleasure of then-Cdl. Ratzinger if I recall correctly… and to this day the Vatican website quite lamentably has different texts in Paragraph 2483 in Latin and English, the former without the qualification, the latter with it). Lying is a willful misuse of our faculty of communication. Here are some resources on this topic. Knock yourself out.
According to the general trends in moral theology since St. Thomas’ time, lies are indeed wrong because of both the kind of statement (thought to be untrue) and the intention of deceit (trying to get someone to believe that statement). They are not, as has been argued by some, wrong merely because of the object… sort of. Get your moral theology hats on – or, should I say, get your Duns-caps on?
Most lies are done through normal, verbal speaking. If I really did shoot both the sheriff and the deputy, I cannot truthfully say, “I did not shoot the deputy,” if I am asked about this particular deputy who has been shot and who is the only really possible referent to my utterance of the word “deputy.” However, if there are multiple deputies that have been shot (most of whom I did not shoot), or there are some deputies which have not been shot, all of whom I could realistically be talking about, that statement is not necessarily a lie – I could really speak those words in meaningful reference to one of those deputies I did not shoot. It is probably an unjust use of deception, but it is not a lie… It is what is called a “broad mental reservation.”
If I’m talking about some deputy nobody in the conversation could realistically possibly understand to be the referent of my use of the word “deputy,” then it is a “narrow mental reservation.” (This is distinct from the question of what will probably be understood, which is not at issue. The interlocutor must not realistically have conceptual access to the referent of my use of the word. I cannot legitimately make my referent the deputy of Hicktown in Nowheresville “out of the blue.”) That is actually a lie, because the use of language is for the communication of true things broadly available to those who are communicating – so I am misusing the faculty of communication, doing an act which is inherently frustrating its natural end of conveying the truth. Another way to show the problem is with a question. If I ask, “Which deputy,” those I am speaking with should be able to understand what other deputies I might be speaking of, if they try hard enough. It is this same deputy-pool out of which I might legitimately speak of a deputy whom I did not shoot, given that I did shoot the one that the others are actually speaking of.
This is not totally clear, but hopefully it’s clear enough. Exactly how to demarcate the precise limits of the “referent pool” is a great challenge but is not necessary to get into further.
The second issue at stake is whether every instance of falsehood-telling is really “lying,” supposing that all lying is wrong. I am going to do something rare and – are you ready for it? – challenge St. Thomas on something.
Language was probably not something St. Thomas was that interested in, I’m guessing. I argue that there are several lacunae (or “errors”), or at least large deficiencies in his treatment of language-related issues in the Summa. This includes his articles on derision and blasphemy, but here we will limit ourselves to his treatment of lying.
The definition St. Thomas gives of a lie is “a statement at variance with the mind.” For him, a lie even includes statements not intended to deceive. The famous story of the flying ox will come to mind of other St. Thomas fan-boys… As it goes, he was teaching a group of Dominican friars one day when one of them pointed out the window and said, “Look Brother Thomas, a flying ox!” He hurried over to the window to look, while the brothers all laughed playfully. We would not recall this incident were it not for his response: “It is better to believe that an ox can fly than that a religious could tell a lie.” The room was probably pretty quiet after that.
Maybe the story isn’t true… Or maybe the common interpretation isn’t true, insofar as it might be unreasonable to think St. Thomas would actually think it better to believe something ridiculous than something obvious – maybe he was just joking back!? But given his treatment of “jocose lies,” or “lies for fun tricks,” maybe not. They are, as he says, “not meant to deceive anyone,” and yet he treats them as venial sins… because they are lies, or statements of falsehood (which are against the mind, which cannot really be said to contain “falsity,” or else it would be rejected by the mind as false).
Why is this so? It comes down to his view that the statement against what one has in one’s mind necessarily contradicts the faculty of communication regardless of what one intends by that deed, be it deceit or some trivial pleasure. However, one must ask at least two questions…
First, can there be such a statement without the intent to deceive, given the nature of language as a tool for communication? That is, can a statement really be “at variance with the mind” without trying to put a falsehood into another’s mind, or must a statement necessarily carry with it a communicative import in accord with the falsehood one’s actual words indicate?
Second, is the act of communication limited only to the “dictionary meaning” of one’s spoken words, or is there a broader milieu of signals by which ideas are transferred?
Ironically, we may take the doctrine of St. Thomas to answer these questions. “Sins of speech are measured primarily by their intention,” he says. This is because words only have meaning inasmuch as they communicate ideas, and they only have moral relevance inasmuch as they have meaning. Given that, one must intend certain words to communicate some idea for them to have moral significance (negligence notwithstanding – you should know that yelling “fire!” in a movie theater is bad unless there’s a fire, even if you don’t actually intend to communicate anything by it). If the words are known to convey a falsehood within the linguistic context in which the communicators are part of, that is, their lexicon, cultural idioms, exclusive code-words, etc., it seems St. Thomas would call this a lie. Yet it is clear to him that this might not be meant to deceive but only to jest. Here is why this is inadequate: we also use non-verbal language as our communicative act, such as inflection, physical gestures, and the particular context in which we are in.
“My homework took sooooooo looooong last night.” This same statement could really communicate two opposite things, given a variety of factors. Is the class really easy, or really difficult? Is this person rolling his eyes playfully, or with real anguish? Etc. He could really be communicating a truth, even if his homework took no time at all.
So, words are not the exclusive matter of “statements.” St. Thomas admits this, but he fails to incorporate non-verbal communication into his treatment of jocose lies. (Here is some more information on jokes vs. jocose lies.)
It can still be said that lying is “intrinsically evil,” even though it involves a certain kind of intention in addition to a certain object. In the case of sins of speech, intention actually informs the object in a special way, because there is nothing inherently good or bad about producing collections of sounds with one’s vocal chords, unlike fatally stabbing an innocent person walking down the street, for example. Instead, one must adopt the means, “tell a falsehood,” within a particular linguistic context, to serve whatever end.
Clear as mud? Well here’s where things get trippy. Hold on to your Duns caps.
If you think you are speaking to a knowing and thinking person, all willful telling of falsehood necessarily involves an intention to deceive. But if you think you are speaking to a plant, or to a computer, or to Fido, the contradictory proposition holds: NO willful telling of falsehood involves an intention to deceive.
Yes, HAL (and Fido) can be “deceived,” but it is not the kind of deceit which matters for morality. HAL may be misled but does not actually rationally believe anything, so there is no such thing as “true” or “untrue” for him, only the “useful” and not “useful.” (I’m looking at you, William James.) What we are actually doing when speaking to these creatures is producing sounds to bring about some exterior change in them or to satisfy our own little emotional whims through a personification of a non-rational being. Psychologically, we might think of ourselves as “communicating” with them, but in the strict sense (which depends on the “rationality” criterion) we are not trying to do this. We are not trying to get Fido to believe some idea, merely to act on some collection of sounds in a certain way.
TLDR: We only communicate with persons, so we can only lie to persons. There is more to communication than mere words, so not all false communicative verbal utterances which indicate an untruth by their linguistic context constitute lying.
All this brings us to the question of art and lying. Can a painter lie through a painting? And no, I don’t mean writing some untrue words in his painting to deceive admirers. I mean to ask: is it possible to lie with an image?
The first distinction to make is that of an assumption of non-communication and an assumption of communication. In WWII, the Allies used dummy tanks to confuse the Germans prior to the invasion of Normandy. They also used fake radio traffic. In both examples, there is an assumption of non-communication on the part of the Axis. This means that the Axis was not thinking that the Allies were trying to convey a real message to them – instead, it was just the opposite. Reconnaissance and espionage were employed to gather information secretly. So, it could not have been an act of communication on the part of the Allies, provided they believed the Germans were spying in this way. Instead, the Allies put inflatable tanks and aircraft in strategic locations and let the Germans think whatever they wanted if they should happen to see them. The same is true of the radio interception, which consisted of words being spoken by persons who were not actually trying to communicate between themselves but simply to create a believable conversation which could be interpreted however any interceptor might like. Of course, the Allies knew what would be erroneously thought by the Germans, and this was the intended effect. Yet, because they were not actually telling the Germans falsehoods, this deception is not communicative and is therefore not lying. (This would be distinct from what occurs in games of deception like “Mafia,” where there is not real communication because players knowingly enter into an artificial paradigm of suspicion, where one only looks for truth based on players’ non-verbal behavior. The entire communicative dynamic is shattered.)
On the other hand, if there is an assumption of communication, there can be lies even in non-verbal signals.
The images above (including the main image of this post) do not contain words that say something untrue, but they certainly contain messages that are untrue: “All bishops and priests are out to corrupt the morals of our children,” “Hitler is a loving and fatherly national hero,” “Socialism is the best thing for the country,” “All Americans are bloodthirsty war criminals.” These images were made and received with a communicative assumption, so they could be lies. But unless their artists or distributors thought those messages to be untrue, they are merely falsehoods told without the intent to deceive. That means they would not actually be lies, just the blameworthy spreading of error.
A normal image, of a basket of fruit for example, is not intended to convey some political or ideological message, but it still might be intended to get the viewer to ascribe to some more fundamental worldview. Suppose a painter puts a white dot in a black field, and his intention is to get the viewer to believe there is no purpose in living. This could be a lie if the painter believes there is a purpose in living, and if we grant that there is some characteristic of a little white dot on a black field that is inherently enough ordered toward conveying purposelessness about human life (like the word “deputy” referring inherently enough to an assistant of a sheriff). Indeed, it is difficult enough to demarcate words, let alone artistic conventions and their relation to cultural assumptions and deeper, more universal (or Jungian) archetypes in the human mind. We don’t need to figure this out here in order to point out that the issue exists. On the other hand, if the painter simply wants the viewer to feel insignificant but not believe anything in particular, this is certainly not a lie. Other non-verbal mediums, like instrumental music, have this same property.
How about mildly false advertising? If a company produces bags of chips which are 50% empty inside, and the company wants customers to see those bags and think they contain more food than they really do, is this a lie? Possibly, but only if there is no reasonable way to tell that the bag is half empty before actually physically verifying it even without opening the bag. (If one physically verifies the contents of the bag, communication from the company about the quantity in the bag by advertisement and presentation is no longer occurring.) One example of a reasonable way to obtain this knowledge without verification would be seeing on the package how many grams of chips are in such bags on average, and it would even include accessing the general knowledge that most chip bags are half empty. (It would probably not include a chart on the company’s website that almost nobody knows about.) When there is a widely available “pool” of such information, it seems that companies may take advantage of this without lying – but that does not mean that a broad mental reservation or withholding significant information would necessarily be justified in any and every case. One example might be the sale of pseudo-scientific or similarly worthless products to vulnerable elderly persons… Yes, it might be true that a study which Healing Crystals Inc. did on its own product showed a significant increase in health in persons who have purchased their healing crystals, and it is certainly widely available knowledge that correlation does not imply causation. So to manipulate Granny out of 6 easy payments of $29.95 for what the vendor knows is an ineffective product is not a lie on his part, but it is still wrong, unless there is some extraordinary circumstance which justifies such deceptive manipulation.
Okay, got that covered. Now onto plays, films, novels, etc. Surely, actors are not really trying to communicate their lines to each other, they are trying to act. But the interplay with the audience is different. The answer should still be clear enough – audience members know they are at a play or film, so it is rightly assumed that what they expect is a group of characters speaking about the world of the play or film, even in the average instance of breaking the third wall. The “referent pool” lies within the story and setting itself. When a character speaks a line that is misleading about the imaginary world, or there is an image that deceives in a similar way, it merely takes advantage of the audience’s bad assumptions about the world of the characters, so these are not lies either… The audience should expect the possibility that a character is speaking in a way that misleadingly refers to something that has not been fully revealed yet, or that not everything is at is appears on the screen. If a character – even an omniscient narrator – does tell the audience a falsehood, he cannot really intend to deceive, because he, the character, does not really exist. The playwright or author or screenwriter exists and is ultimately the one doing any and all communicating within the story, which means the words of characters are really about exploring and explaining those characters and the world in which they live – even if the author is trying to show that the omniscient narrator is a liar. However, the above point about conveying a belief about the real world still holds. If your play is a propaganda piece that you wrote for the sheer amusement of tricking people into supporting what you think is a bad political ideology, then you are telling a lie through your play.
Documentary films do not enjoy this privilege of an artificial “referent pool,” because it is presumed that their object is the real world, not a fictional one.
Illusions are a tricky topic. (Get it?)
Simply “tricking the eyes” is not a lie, because there is no attempt at communication. The point of drawing such images is to show that our senses can be misled about the reality of what is right in front of them – if anything, these are anti-lies! These kinds of illusions could be used deceptively, however, but it remains immediately available information that the blue lines, for example, are parallel, so a trick which is predicated merely upon a person assuming his immediate perception about the blue lines is accurate would not constitute a lie.
Magicians are on a different ground altogether. If you have a gaffed deck of cards, but you tell your audience that it is “normal,” it is difficult to see how this would not be a lie. (But could you say it is “ordinary” and mean that it is “numbered”? It seems you could!) Yes, an audience should know that a magician is likely not to tell the truth, but so too should citizens expect falsehoods to be told by politicians and kingpins. Simply presuming a high likelihood of some person knowingly telling a falsehood does not automatically excuse that person from the possibility of lying. On the other hand, if you asked an audience member to inspect a regular deck of cards, ask their opinion about the cards, and then subtly switch to a deck with a gimmick while all the attention is on your eyes, all that occurs is a deception.
Finally, we arrive at the question of comedy. Is it a lie for a comedian to tell a story that he passes off as true? This seems to be just as problematic as the magician speaking about his gaffed deck… Certainly, some people are expecting falsehoods to be told at the comedy club, but many story-based jokes are only so funny because the audience believes them to be true. Can you imagine a comedian starting a joke, “What if my kid walked up to me the other day and said…”? No, instead it is, “My kid walked up to me the other day and said…” The strength is predicated on the audience being deceived about reality. It is not merely the use of a convention, or the use of a broad mental reservation, and it is not a non-commutative act altogether. Once again, just because some people are expected to tell falsehoods knowingly does not entail the inability of them to lie. It does not seem that telling tall-tales, even as a professional comedian, can escape the label of “lie.” As for only briefly deceptive jests, see this article, already linked to. Those might not be lies, so long as the punchline or reversal comes quickly enough to precede the real formation of a belief in the person being joked with, because the reversal changes the message that is actually being delivered in a single communicative act that simply has a strategic pause in between its verbal parts. “Look, Brother Thomas, a flying ox! . . . JK, LOL!”
To summarize… Art can be a means of lying, but when it is used rightly it might represent something unreal but in order to convey a truth, or even just a feeling.
Post by: Eamonn Clark
Main image: Thomas Nast, American River Ganges, 1871
Once in a while some zealous atheist, agnostic, or deist will throw down a challenge: “If God answers prayers, we should be able to prove it with an experiment. But we see no statistically significant difference between groups of sick people who are prayed for and groups who are not. Therefore: A) there is no God, or B) we can’t be sure if there is a God, or C) God does not involve Himself with us.”
It seems like a strong argument at first. If God really does respond to intercession, then we ought to be able to observe that response in contrast with a lack of response corresponding to a lack of intercession. Intercession is an action, healing or whatever response is or would be an equal and opposite reaction, while on the other hand whatever is in motion tends to stay in motion – those who are sick or in need will continue to be so unless they are helped.
There are some problems with this argument.
First, let’s take a look at the Temptations of Christ (Mt. 4:1-11)… It is Lent after all.
- Turn stones into bread – Jesus could solve world hunger and win over all the crowds this way. (Jn. 6:26 – “Amen, amen, I say to you, you are looking for me not because you saw signs but because you ate the loaves and were filled.”) He responds, “One does not live on bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.”
- Fly around Jerusalem – Jesus could publicly manifest Himself with abundant clarity in a way that would leave everyone in awe. (Mt. 16:4 – “An evil and unfaithful generation seeks a sign…” And in the same chapter, v. 17 – “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in Heaven.”) He responds, “You shall not put the Lord thy God to the test.”
- Make a compromise – Jesus could rule over the Earth without the Cross, without the public ministry, and generally without much effort. (Jn. 18:36 – “My Kingdom is not of this world.” And Lk. 24:26 – “Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and enter into his glory?”) He responds, “Get away, Satan! For it is written, ‘The Lord, your God, shall you worship and Him alone shall you serve.'”
Christ’s Temptations provide the first major counterpoint to the skeptic, which is that God is not primarily concerned with making this life easy for us. We are promised that we will receive whatever we ask in His Name (Lk. 11:9, Jn. 14:13), but we are also promised trouble and suffering, the acceptance of which is even a condition of discipleship (Mt. 10: 16-39). These two promises do not square with each other unless we see that Jesus does not mean we will be given whatever material convenience we want, like a genie would do for us, but that we will be given every spiritual gift truly suited for us for which we pray sincerely. Virtues are the goods which truly help us.
Furthermore, God is wise to our tests and designs (Jn. 2:24). And no, He does not care to play along. A mysterious kingdom needs a mysterious road to lead to it. The New Jerusalem is nothing like the New Rome. Citizenship in the one is gained by unyielding faith in a crucified carpenter as God Incarnate, while in the other citizenship would be gained by simple obedience to an opulent and benevolent dictator.
Let us consider another passage, Mk. 9:14-29, where Jesus heals a possessed child. The crowd gathers, and the boy’s father explains the damage the demon has done over the years… “But if you can do anything, have compassion on us and help us.” Jesus does not take kindly to the word “if”: “‘If you can!’ Everything is possible to one who has faith.” Then we are given the famous line, “I do believe, help my unbelief!” Jesus rebukes the spirit and tells his disciples that this kind of demon only comes out “through prayer.”
This episode gives us an insight into the project of the public ministry – it is not primarily about fixing people’s inconveniences, it is about fixing people’s souls. Jesus waited to do a good deed until the boy’s father manifested faith… This was His prerogative, since He came to draw people away from the world to Himself. The Christ did not open a miraculous hospital, or an infinite soup kitchen, or an infallible psychic hotline; rather, He told people to beg for God’s forgiveness (Mt. 4:17), to sin no more (Jn. 8:11), and to extend faith in God to Him as well (Jn. 14:1). Fixing people’s earthly problems were and are for Christ merely a means to an end: moving people to repentance, conversion, discipleship, and finally perfection in union with Himself and the Father. Just because we don’t get exactly what material convenience we want, when we want, how we want it, does not mean that God does not exist or concern Himself with us. When He doesn’t give worldly help, even when asked sincerely, it’s because He knows that to give us some particular opportunity to forsake the world and cling to Him in abandonment to His will is better than to give us what we’re asking for. (Remember the dichotomy of promises!)
We are not in the same position. It does not belong to us to help others conditionally to the same extent as God because we do not have the same privileged insight into people’s souls that He has, and even if we did we would not always know how best to use that knowledge. Sometimes we can be quite sure that withholding some help will be good for another – like when we allow a child to “learn the hard way” – but by and large we have a duty to provide basic goods for others we encounter and are able to help. We do need to open hospitals. We do need to run soup kitchens. (No psychic hotlines, however.) In fact, we would never be able to show love for each other without the opportunity to do these kinds of selfless acts.
So, can we test God’s response to prayer and prove with statistically significant results that He does indeed answer them? As it turns out, we actually can. Anyone who prays earnestly and frequently for help to become virtuous and holy will become virtuous and holy. And you can survey the lives of the saints and see that this is indeed how they prayed.
I will now teach you a short but powerful prayer which if you repeat often and with sincerity will change your life radically by changing you radically: “Oh Lord, help me to become a saint as soon as possible and at any cost to myself! Amen.”
Don’t be afraid to have this prayer answered.
Post by: Eamonn Clark
Main image: screenshot from the film Aladdin (1992)
As we read the Gospels, we can often feel that certain persons and events are such caricatures of prophetic fulfillment that there must have been some kind of embellishment on the part of some redactor with a theological agenda. Everyone’s heard it before – “Jesus gave the 5,000 the miracle of SHARING… You don’t have to believe the multiplication was real, that was probably something the Matthean community used to show that it was like God giving manna in the desert.”
Every word in the Gospels is chosen very carefully, yes. But it is not Catholic, and indeed, it is downright foolish to think that because some action “fits” with a prophecy, it must be untrue. (Suppose it didn’t “fit” – then doubt would be cast in the other direction.) So when the most obvious prophecies are clearly fulfilled, say, in the Lord’s Passion and Death, we cannot simply call it “too bad to be true.” Hear Paul address the Antiochenes: “The inhabitants of Jerusalem and their leaders failed to recognize him, and by condemning him they fulfilled the oracles of the prophets that are read sabbath after sabbath.” (Acts 13: 27)
Our eyes become accustomed to darkness. That does not mean that it isn’t still dark. The pupil dilates to allow more light to enter the eye so an image can be produced. We all know, though, that sometimes we see things in the dark that aren’t really there. The dark allows for illusions and distortions, no matter how well we think we have accommodated – there is no replacement for a truly well-lit environment. Therefore, ignorance of the content of prophecy is one thing, while ignorance of oneself in relation to it is quite another. The best example is Christ’s prophecy of Peter’s threefold denial which would come not centuries later but only hours. Can we really not understand how Peter could make that mistake, even given that prediction?
The eye of the soul can become accustomed to darkness just as the eye of the body. It is built to take in the brightest Light while fully opened, although it cannot for now… But it will open to find whatever light there is in the darkness, for it will always be drawn to light, as man always seeks the good even if he is mistaken about what the good actually is. The Western world has all but completely abandoned itself to liberality, consequentialism, and Modernism. It presents, therefore, a great pressure on the Church, and sometimes the world entices those in the Church most responsible for fighting against it, just as it does anyone else. They are drawn in by the shade of the zeitgeist, and their souls’ pupils dilate. This allows for errors which to many are plain to see. But the darker it becomes, the more difficult it can be to tell what one actually sees in the dim light still available.
We do well to remember this as the Amoris plot thickens, wherein we are seeing shepherds gently – even mercifully – picking up lost sheep and then carrying those sheep to the jaws of the wolf. The same scene is lit differently for different people, according to the light in their mind and heart, that is, in their soul.
It is easy for some to see the difference between a single adulterous act in some particular circumstance that might – just might – mitigate culpability for that act and deciding after taking counsel on the “internal forum” (presumably away from that mitigating circumstance) to continue doing that same adulterous act habitually.
It is easy for some to see the difference between a temptation, which can never excuse from sin, and a psychological disorder, which can. (1 Cor. 10:13… “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.” Also, Council of Trent, Decree on Justification, Can. 18… “If anyone shall say that the Commandments of God are even for a man who is justified and confirmed in grace impossible to observe: let him be anathema.”)
It is easy for some to see the difference between the conscience of a minister of Holy Communion being bound (c. 915) and the conscience of a communicant being bound (c. 916).
It is easy for some to see the difference between the authentic development of doctrine combined with a fair use of the historical-critical method and the complete relegation of Christian truth not only to an impenetrable cloister of history but also to the shifting, subjective, and fallible consciences of individuals. (Jn. 18:38… “‘Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Pilate said to him, ‘What is truth?'” Also, Decree of the Holy Office of July 3, 1907, “Lamentibili,” Condemned Proposition #4… “The magisterium of the Church, even by dogmatic definitions, cannot determine the genuine sense of the Sacred Scriptures.”)
It is easy for some to see the difference between the ideal presented by the Gospels (perfect poverty, chastity, and obedience together with the Beatitudes) and the ideal presented by defenders of Amoris (merely following the Commandments), which is not only a dreary and hopeless vision of humanity completely at odds with Catholic doctrine but is also as legalist as can be, seeing as for them following the law is the ideal, rather than the ideal being the transforming union, a life of heroic virtue, etc., things which only begin with the law. (Mt. 19:17-21… “‘If you wish to enter into life, keep the Commandments.’ He asked him, ‘Which ones?’ And Jesus replied, ‘”You shall not kill; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; honor your father and your mother”; and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”‘ The young man said to him, ‘All of these I have observed. What do I still lack?’ Jesus said to him, ‘If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.'”)
It is easy for some to see the difference between dioceses encouraging the faithful to follow the precept of the Church requiring material contribution to the Church for the good of their souls and holding that contribution as even more sacred than the Sacraments to which those dioceses grant access contingent upon that contribution being given… and then insisting on some kind of spiritual and intellectual primacy in the global Church.
But it is not easy for everyone to see these distinctions, especially if they are directly involved.
The tragedy, frustration, and irony, especially of the last example, can be overwhelming. We might sit and waste hours pondering how men who publicly read the words of Christ to the Pharisees, the Sermon on the Mount, etc., etc., “sabbath after sabbath” could obstinately walk into the same kind of pitfalls which the men of Jerusalem did, or at least into ones just as obvious. The answer lies in realizing the darkness which surrounds the eyes of the soul, crowding around the Church as it spills over from secular Western culture. The optic nerve has become accustomed to it, allowing for errors more easily. The amount of light by which the eye was supposed to be able to see, even after the Fall, is not the light by which it currently sees. That light is now painful, and it will be shunned. (See John 1.) This same darkness allowed the men of Jerusalem to think of themselves completely apart from the prophecies they knew by heart as they fulfilled them as clear as day.
Looking into the Gospels, as always, will help to reveal the deeper things of our current situation. In this case it is also true that our current situation will help us to understand the Gospels.
But let no one pride himself on his faith. (Eph. 2: 8-9)
Note: This will be CRM’s only post on Amoris Laetitia. This post is intentionally left void of links to the persons and groups responsible for these dangerous ideas. Let us use the time and energy we would spend investigating particular persons to pray for our clergy instead.
Post by: Eamonn Clark
Main image: Detail from Gustave Doré, “The Creation of Light,” 1866
In my time in parish work, and in my exploration of the world’s great (and little) churches, I have encountered many interesting phenomena. As you might imagine, that involves a spectrum, with the simply “good” on one end and the simply “bad” on the other, with plenty of ho-hum stuff in the middle. But there is also a category of things sort of “in the middle” which don’t really fit well into such a simple paradigm. They deserve their own little separate space.
In psychology, there is something called the “uncanny valley.” Here is a chart:
At this point, I’m not exactly sure how I would rearrange the variables on this chart to explain these experiences, but they are definitely of the kind that would fit into that valley which just feels “off.”
Electric candles – especially votive candles – are a big one.
Yes, it’s cheaper. Yes, it’s less dangerous. Yes, it’s cleaner. But isn’t that all part of what makes it not as good? It seems far “less human” than it should. All you do is put in a coin… Some electrons move… And there you go. That’s it. No careful management of the flame as you transfer it from a candle already lit, no satisfaction of getting your wick to light, no organic timeline for when it will go out, and nothing is actually burnt up and “wasted” on God. The last bit is probably the most important. Here’s 2 Sam. 24:22-24:
But Araunah said to David: “Let my lord the king take it and offer up what is good in his sight. See, here are the oxen for burnt offerings, and the threshing sledges and the yokes of oxen for wood. All this does Araunah give to the king.” Araunah then said to the king, “May the Lord your God accept your offering.” The king, however, replied to Araunah, “No, I will buy it from you at the proper price, for I cannot sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.”
King David was worried about not spending enough himself for a burnt offering of oxen. One can only imagine the king’s reaction if Araunah had offered to put coins into a candle machine that just moves electricity in a circle.
This does not necessarily mean that the one using a candle machine is doing a poorer job praying, but perhaps over time it could have an effect on a person’s perception of worship, leading to the thought that what’s in your wallet is more important than what’s in your heart… After all, there are no “suggested donations” for a machine.
Another big one is recorded music.
We don’t accept lip-syncing at concerts. Why would God accept a recording from a CD at Mass? This can be especially prevalent at funerals, where a well-meaning family wants their loved one’s favorite song played, and while it is certainly difficult to deny a grieving family, the songs are often inappropriate and are never anything much more than a catharsis over memories when what the funeral rite is primarily for is prayer for the soul of the deceased.
Recorded music also shows up outside liturgies as “filler,” when silence is, I suppose, too unsettling. You will find this in many churches in Rome, Paris, and beyond. While the music is often “good,” the fact that it is an mp3 means that those voices and instrumentalists are not actually there praying with you – it just sounds like it. And to me that can be a bit more unsettling than silence.
Notice once again the lack of “waste” – it is a mere digital re-presentation of someone else’s work.
On the other hand, once I walked into Wieskirche in Bavaria and there was a magnificent little choral arrangement being sung by a small group. Wonder and joy, the opposite of the liturgical creeps?
The “liturgical creeps” are then, I suppose, when something a little “fake” is helping mediate or ground prayer that reduces the “waste” of human effort. It’s a working definition, at least.
Perhaps you have had the experience yourself. What else fits into the liturgical uncanny valley?
Post by: Eamonn Clark
Main image: Opening title from the popular 90’s kids’ show, “Are You Afraid of the Dark?”
Uncanny chart: By Smurrayinchester – self-made, based on image by Masahiro Mori and Karl MacDorman at http://www.androidscience.com/theuncannyvalley/proceedings2005/uncannyvalley.html, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2041097
There is an old adage that a PhD is given to someone who knows everything there is to know about nothing. This is to say that as someone advances more and more in education, he will have to choose a field, then a sub-field, then finally a very precise issue in some topic within that sub-field on which to write a dissertation. That person might become the world’s foremost expert on the life cycle of African dung beetles, or the influence of Shakespeare on early 19th century Russian literature, or the architectural history of Plano, Texas.
Obviously, a person has to do preliminary studies to prepare to enter a doctoral program and might become extraordinarily well-educated in all manner of topics beyond his own specialty along the way and after earning his doctorate. So while the aphorism is ultimately untrue, there is still something right about it: simply because a person has an advanced degree within some larger field (biochemistry, American history, music theory, etc.,) does not necessarily imply that that he is truly an expert in the entirety of that larger field; it only implies expertise in the narrow sliver of that field which he focuses on. Much less does it imply that he is an expert in “science” or “history” or “art.” Yet often there is indeed such a delusion of grandeur in the academy, and even more so in those who look up to it and aspire to it.
In today’s world, some 18 year old Americans are shipping off to colleges where they will be taught remedial English skills, be coddled with trigger-warnings and safe-spaces, celebrate diversity by forcing everyone to share the same childish values and opinions as themselves, and complain that national election results are making them too distraught to take tests which they will then be allowed to skip. After four exorbitantly expensive years of this foolishness, these bright-eyed and bushy-tailed graduates will go on to call themselves “well-educated,” and they will be confirmed in this delusion by the society which they will then be poised to run.
There is nothing “higher” about this sort of education, except the greater availability of illicit substances. Students may be free to take all kinds of elective courses, often basing their choices on fleeting interests or even by factors having nothing at all to do with the content of the course itself (such as friends taking the course, having it at a certain time, etc.), or conversely, they will immediately be deeply plunged into their field of choice without ever being exposed to anything outside of it, putting them on the fast-track to knowing everything about nothing. And all of this after a primary and secondary education which probably left them with little more than a rudimentary understanding of algebra, a couple of names and events in world history, and some loosely connected ideas about science. After all, why should one bother to master these topics when they will not be part of one’s profession, especially since in a pinch all the answers can be accessed instantly by consulting WikiOracle? All the specialization without regard for the whole and all the reckless ambition and vanity which can drive educational pursuits create a paradoxical trajectory of learning for the sake of income or for the sake of advancing a political agenda without regard for what one would do if he made enough money to have no need to work anymore or actually accomplished that political agenda. It’s an upward trajectory, but where does it lead? We will never know – the tower is crumbling, just like at Babel.
Fulton Sheen was complaining about some of these exact imbalances of higher education some 60 years ago. Take a second to let that sink in.
It goes without saying that standards of education have dropped over the ages. What “well-educated” used to mean for an adolescent was having obtained serious proficiency in the classical group of liberal arts (grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy – in that order) as well as literature and history, plenty of Latin, and maybe some Greek as well.
Today it means “having a degree.” The argument from authority no longer works so well when appealing to the words of God or the Church, but one can appeal to the opinions of “experts” without feeling a touch of shame. If only Jesus had gone to an Ivy League and wore a lab coat!
The salve for this wound is precisely a return to older standards and methods of education. Since college has in many ways become the new high school, colleges ought to be teaching students at least the basics of the world which they are about to step into, no? Sure, let kids have a major, but a strong core curriculum is absolutely indispensable in these mad times. The tendency toward rapid specialization in education has gone too far. As each individual learns only his own language, the common language disappears, and so too does a recognizably unified culture. We are building a tower to the sky, but our base is shaky and nobody knows anything but his own special craft. The polymaths are gone. Will the West ever see another Alcuin? Another Dante? Another da Vinci? If we do, it will be in spite of our educational priorities, not because of them.
Instead of turning to the treasures of our own culture and seeking to present them in the most effective way possible, Catholic schools often get distracted by trying to be on the “cutting edge.” It is a losing race, of course… We are outspent, especially in primary and secondary education. Most Catholic schools will never be able to beat secular schools at their own game even if they pay the hefty fees of conscience and identity. But we can offer the richness of the Western tradition from the platform of revealed truth without indoor plumbing, let alone without an iPad for every student. Perhaps endlessly trying to “keep up with Principal Jones” is a waste of our time, money, and energy, when we already have on the shelf an incredible product that we own by Divine right and therefore have an educational monopoly on.
We need an academic Pentecost to undo our academic Babel. A rigorous and holistic Catholic liberal arts education is the God-given way to make that happen. Otherwise, our universities will be full of sub-curricula which are so “united” that they will create students who are too “diverse” to share significant goals with each other in a meaningful way.
I will suggest in harmony with the mind of Professor MacIntyre that we as a Church ought to focus much more energy on building up our own communities in sound doctrine and morals, in addition to providing a solid education in secular knowledge. Perhaps parishes could invest “real money” in local homeschooling programs. But whatever the solution is, it will necessarily involve an openness to what has come – and is coming – from above.
Post by: Eamonn Clark
Main image: “The Tower of Babel,” Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1563
Have you ever heard of Cluj-Napoca? (Me neither until recently.) Well, it’s the unofficial capital of Transylvania, the most famous region of Romania.
I stopped by the other day for a visit, right after Thanksgiving.
Transylvania has historically been the stronghold of Romanian Catholics (and Hungarian Catholics living in Romania), with most of the country being Eastern Orthodox. The Reformation took its toll on the region, with Saxon influences leaving most if not all of the countryside’s beautiful fortified churches Lutheran.
Anway. I popped into the Greek-Catholic cathedral, which happened to be having a service of some kind. It was PACKED – on a Saturday morning… Didn’t look like a funeral or wedding. No photos from inside, and no apologies for it!
But now check out the Latin Catholic church in Cluj’s city center, Sfântul Mihail (St. Michael):
And yes, that’s a Christmas market going up in the corner.
The church – which is actually not a cathedral despite its size and its city’s cultural centrality in the region – has a checkered history. It was originally Catholic when it was built in the mid 1400’s, then became Lutheran during the Reformation. Shortly after that it was taken over by the Unitarians. Finally the Catholics recovered it in the early 18th century with the support of the Habsburgs.
And now, behold, the largest Advent wreath I have ever feasted my eyes upon…
The Gothic influence was as obvious on the inside as on the outside. It was also obvious that I would not be able to spend too long there staying still, since the place was not heated – cold enough to see your breath! And yet there were still people showing up to pray. Maybe there is a lesson here… Spend more resources on putting fire in people’s hearts than on putting fire in a furnace. (Really, every church I visited had people there PRAYING. Saturday morning and afternoon.)
The ambo, on the left side of the nave, was a real treat. I really just couldn’t get enough of it. (It’s even the background on my phone now.) The detail was exquisite!
This little organ was cool too. Not sure if it’s functional, as there was also a set of pipes in the choir loft.
The wall used to be covered with frescoes, but if I remember correctly what I think I overheard someone saying during a private tour, they got messed up during the Reformation. Here’s part of what’s left:
Another look at the sanctuary (and the ambo!) before leaving:
Also there was this thing in the cramped antechamber before the nave:
Off to the Franciscan church I went. The architecture of the city was a bizarre mix of old and new. For example, compare the buildings at this intersection (left) with the library (right):
The Modernism of course comes from the Communism that once infected Eastern Europe. There were some monuments around the city remembering that time and its characters.
No Commies in the Franciscan church. Take a look for yourself!
This was far more baroque or rococo (barocacoco?)… I enjoyed it quite a bit – despite having the same bone chilling temperature as St. Michael’s.
The royal blue, off-white, and gold color scheme definitely worked for me. The use of carpet did not.
Back out into the city. Here are some other churches, probably all Orthodox (except for the clearly iconoclastic Reformed one):
Hey, what’s that thing with a Cross up on the hill?
Over the Someșul Mic River, and up the Cetățuia hill to find out…
The monument was nothing too interesting, just another anti-Commie structure. But the view was fantastic.
With not much left to do, I wandered through the suburbs down the side of the hill.
I wrapped up the day with a nice sit in the city’s central park and buried myself in an oversized helping of kürtőskalács. (Don’t worry if you can’t pronounce it, it means you’re normal. The lady serving it even gave me a funny look when I tried.)
That just about did it for me. Off to the airport the next day, where I was bombarded by the Duty Free shop with Dracula-you-name-it, including wines of every sort.
While the outer part of the city (where I stayed) was pretty bleak, I found the center part of “Treasure City,” as it’s called, rather energetic and pleasant. And cold. But the religious spirit of the place was edifying. I was even asked for my last name and my “Christian name” when checking in at my hotel! Can you imagine? All in all, a worthwhile excursion.
And with that, I peaced out on Wizz Air. (It’s real, trust me.)
Post by: Eamonn Clark