Right Side of History, Wrong Side of Mystery
Phronesis File — Deify-It-Yourself
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Religion is making a lot of news. Some pundits say its conventional forms are a remedy for the chaos in society today. Some say religiosity has morphed into a secular theology particularly common in the “woke” culture.
Do-it-yourself theologians are crowning their political allies as righteous and condemning their opponents as evil. “They know not what they do,” as Luke’s Gospel puts it, because they are members of generations which were largely un-catechized. They don’t know their alt-religion is a religion at all. To the degree it is, it misleads them and society at large.
Huge percentages of the population are now growing up, or simply growing older, without positive experiences of God and religion in their lives. This is tragic because, as St. Augustine said, the human impulse toward religion is deeply ingrained: Our hearts were created for God, and they are restless until they find Him.
The search for Him, or a substitute, proceeds on various levels. Some folks assiduously dig for meaning and true happiness in their lives, naturally gravitating toward time-tested, “conventional” answers from philosophy and theology. But in recent decades, much of the practice of religion has been poorly taught or modeled by churches, ministers, families, and cultures. It has been too easily replaced by a therapeutic, intellectually lazy and hazy, self-centered and post-truth understanding of life.
American society has allowed the DIY religious impulse to grow among people all along the political and cultural spectrum, but progressive or “woke” folks seem recently to have embraced it with fervor. Influential sectors of society have helped them build structures and practices embodying their theology.
Like most people, they desire faith-like features that give them a sense of right and wrong, a sense that they are on the right side. They so far have missed developing a relationship of endless discovery with the loving God, so they have experienced religion as static, even irrelevant.
Many of those disenchanted with religious practice still demand a measure of stability, but their houses built on sand rely upon contrived, narcissistic foundations: My truth is what matters. I know what I need to know. I am right, good, and in control. My self-confirmation is more practical, intelligent, and rewarding, the disenchanted say, than the established religions I have perceived among old-timers and various “deplorables”!
Indeed, these aspirants to pragmatic religiosity say, we can enjoy the same benefits we accuse those backward believers of inventing. The deplorables send out signals of old-fashioned virtues and values. They exercise a judgmentalism born of moral superiority. But we know better!
Yes, the pragmatists have adopted similar traits, displaying a sense of infallibility while canceling advocates of traditional principles, trying to paralyze them with shame, guilt, and fear. Alt-religionists, who have not done their homework of prayer, suffering, and learning, have become what might be called “secular clericalists” at the top of a hierarchy resembling the Tower of Babel.
The do-it-yourselfers know they need to lead their lives “on the right side of history.” But, they ask, why invest time, talent, and treasure to appreciate real history? That stuff is being rewritten (or ignored)! Instead, history is a magical force that sweeps elite humans into a new and improved future.
Today’s oversimplified religious impulses empower the DIY crusaders to establish dogmas, rituals, and communities of solidarity. They grant privileges to adherents and impose punishments on opponents. But they don’t realize a crusade must be based on solidarity and communion, not anything-goes autonomy.
Of course, our circumstances should never become violent or take the form of religion vs. religion. Creeds of progressive values (or other values from elsewhere on the political spectrum) have become popular nowadays because they offer bonding and encouragement to a world where economic, political, health-based, and spirit-based forces have left many souls needy. We must be genuinely sympathetic toward those trapped by addictions, poverty, physical and mental health crises, and disconnection and despair.
Loving responses to such people include compassion, self-sacrifice, encounters of affirmation, and maximum patience with their complaints and demands.
But the needy now clustered under the “woke” hierarchy have gained such a critical mass—enabled by politicians, activists, the greedy, the power-hungry—that many well-intentioned people have become enablers, quietly allowing the secular shepherds and sheep of DIY religion to make broadly harmful changes in social mores and rational discourse. Theologian Scott Hahn has called this a kind of “Stockholm Syndrome” response among Catholics.
Why must we resist the DIY toolkit for self-centered religion? The box has no room for forgiveness, empathy, or merciful love; the misled manufacturers assume individuals can block out sin, shame, and sorrow on their own.
Nor does the kit include a God with whom we can be in a helping, healing relationship through good times and bad. Alt-religion designers see this role played by governments, corporations, technologies, social-justice policies, and groups we call our allies. These components cannot heal by making people immune from guilt, shame, and fear; they only make the scourges worse.
Sooner or later, the inadequacy of this DIY toolkit becomes obvious. Remember, many of the “woke” already have given up on religion once, failing to appreciate the real thing. They might be prone to give up on an alt-religion, too, if it does not meet the high standards of their cost-benefit calculus. They may become alt-heretics, returning to the humbling mysteries of more “conventional” faith, if the magical force of history does not propel them to demigod status..
Meanwhile, followers of Christ can provide a valuable, authentic alternative. We must model strong relationships with the Lord and with each other, in families, parishes, and communities. These still draw stability from our humble pursuits of truth and love, our patience with reality’s ups and downs, and our reaching out for supernatural hope. Fortunately, these resources remain available to all through the Catholic Church.
We can respond to the DIY impulse not merely with the aforementioned compassion, but also with a “tough love” that reveals the truths and principles we stand up for. This confidence will give the lie to the alt-theologians who wrongly condemned old-timers’ “pretenses” of faith. Charitably, without combativeness, we can help the disenchanted to see that the common good benefits when the Holy Spirit acts and reality wins.
They will see that their toolkit succeeded only in assembling what is called an ouroboros, a snake swallowing its own tail. These newly hopeful “heretics” will abandon their post-truth doctrines. They will stop merely imitating religion when even secularized people around them are acknowledging (along with old-timers, going back to America’s founders) that a healthy society needs God.
Did You Hear What I Heard? — Paternity Test
Everybody seemed to be criticizing Giorgia Meloni, who emerged from elections in early October as most likely to become Italy’s next prime minister. I won’t take sides regarding the desirability or inherent political implications of this result, but I want to take a modest stand in favor of fair and reasonable translations of words.
Most of the “breaking news” I heard regarding the election came with an emotionally gripping “hook”—namely that Meloni and her party, “Fratelli d’Italia,” took far-right positions that evoked fascist memories within the “Brothers of Italy,” akin to the dictatorship of Mussolini. Some early reports testified to this by citing a slogan Meloni had adopted during her campaign: “God, Fatherland, and Family.”
Well, that’s a bit unsettling, given echoes from World War II during which Nazis and Italian Fascists hailed their respective “fatherlands.” I wanted to know if that was the word Meloni had used, fearing that she was conjuring up those echoes herself. I did a bit of research, and, as always, I invite readers to make up for gaps in my work.
It appears Meloni adopted her phrasing at least as far back as a 2019 speech, reported by la Repubblica. One story described the scene: “Siamo qui per dire che non siamo numeri, difenderemo il valore della persona umana. Difenderemo Dio, patria e famiglia” ha detto Meloni tra gli applausi dei partecipanti.
Via google.translate.com, voila, this becomes English: “We are here to say that we are not numbers, we will defend the value of the human person. We will defend God, homeland and family,” said Meloni to the applause of the participants.
Did Meloni intentionally use “patria” to mean “fatherland,” as it was reported (with the phrase emphasized by an exclamation point!) by CBS News? “Fatherland” was also the word used by MSNBC. Great Britain’s Guardian reported, “In August, she issued a video, spoken in English, French and Spanish, in which she said “fascism has been consigned to history”. However, she refused calls to remove MSI’s [Italian Social Movement] tricolored flame from the Brothers of Italy logo and maintains the fascist motto, “God, family, fatherland”.
I do not know enough about Meloni, the MSI, Italian history and culture, or current geopolitics to issue any outright rejection of this coverage. Suffice it to say this modest research is information whose value rests largely in sparking our curiosity to learn more.
Most importantly, I learned to treat with some skepticism the use of the word “fatherland” as the go-to translation for patria. We can be happy with the more broadly adopted, less sensationalized “country” or “homeland.” And, in light of society’s growing push for global citizenship, we can try to resist any temptation toward linguistic manipulation, which at worst would be xenophobic propaganda and, at best, weaponized wordplay.
Pandevotional Reflection — Too Clocked for Comfort?
“Intelligent Speed Assistance.” It’s the next big thing, or the next big fight, in the ongoing trend toward all sorts of smart cars—vehicles that park for you, drive for you, keep your seat warm in winter, check your blood-alcohol level, and raise your pro-environment ranking from zero to 60.
European governments have directed that new cars must contain speed-regulating technology. The United States is now taking steps in that direction, with New York City poised to test “intelligent speed assistance” in its municipal fleet.
A “passive” speed-governing system will sound an alert when you drive above the speed limit posted in your area. An “active” system will check your speed and respond by limiting your engine’s torque to slow you down.
It will be interesting to see how Americans feel about this once the debate blossoms, to the degree that it becomes a subject for wide-open discussion. I sensed that the CNN report I saw regarding this was wrought by cognitive dissonance, intended to favor such an improvement because technology was making it possible to save more lives, but produced by journalists who all love to speed on their way to work.
Is this an issue where some citizens’ instincts to support every new life-improving device, with little concern about privacy and individual autonomy, will crash into the wall of America’s drivers, who long for freedom on the open road—or even on crowded highways?
America is learning a lot about itself these days, thanks to new possibilities and new limitations which require us to talk and think through many complicated, even existential, issues. We need leaders who can rein in social polarization and increase the level of focus in the population’s distracted minds.
Bringing the traffic cop right to our dashboards will hardly be the most important issue we will confront, but we will need phronesis to “assist” us in slowing down enough for “intelligent” conversation that weighs costs and benefits. Come Holy Spirit, and please step on it!
That’s the Spirit — Message in a Battle
Is there a moral theologian in the house? I’m sending out an SOS.
Pope Francis has used the word “phronesis” in a speech. He has questions. And so do I.
The welcome but challenging locution occurred in mid-May, as explained in Catholic World Report. The Pope was addressing an international conference on moral theology, hosted in Rome by two pontifical institutes.
He addressed the attendees: “How can Christian families bear witness today, in the joy and labors of conjugal, filial, and fraternal love, to the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ?”
Obviously, moral theologians do not receive the luxury of multiple-choice tests or “short essay” assignments.
Francis instructed that “different theological approaches should work in dialogue to help answer the question.” He expanded his assignment to include my keyword:
“You are all asked to rethink today the categories of moral theology in their mutual connection—the relationship between grace and freedom; between conscience, the good, the virtues, the norm, and the Aristotelian phronesis; Thomistic prudentia and spiritual discernment; the relationship between nature and culture, between the plurality of languages and the oneness of agape.” (I added the semicolons.)
Phronesis is obviously something theologians, philosophers, and popes take seriously. The Honors College at the University of Houston takes it seriously enough to offer an undergraduate minor called “Phronesis: A Program in Politics and Ethics.” Google’s search engine identifies phronesis as a factor—actually, more of a brand name—in other fields, like marketing, jazz music, social science, and scientific consulting.
A glimpse at “Wikipedia” has told me that Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, highlighted phronesis as a sort of “wisdom” that emphasizes practicality, alongside intellectual virtue and good judgment. We might say it’s Christian common sense.
My internet surfing also found Bent Flyvbjerg, a professor of business management at Oxford University, whose Linked-In article cited Aristotle’s own words: Phronesis is an intellectual virtue that is “reasoned and capable of action with regard to things that are good or bad for man.”
Dear moral theologians, and all readers, please send in your replies to the Pope’s assignment, or simply a one-sentence summary of your monograph. Send them to me, or the Pope. Seriously, we can all proclaim that Aristotle’s enduring term, be it ever so humble, is a word worth defining and using. The virtue itself is worth using—and more necessary than we realize, given the complexity of questions we face and the urgency of SOS messages on behalf of families and society .
“Hope is the firm conviction that good lies in our future.”
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