Counter Culture

The website of moral theologian Christopher Klofft

Archive for the month “August, 2014”

Augustine, the 21st Century Student

Today is the Feast of St. Augustine, patron saint of (among many other things) theologians.  So I thought it would be worth briefly reflecting on the life of this great figure.  In particular, I invite you to look at Augustine’s own description of his life and thought as presented in his great spiritual autobiography, the Confessions.

Up until the actual account of his conversion experience in Book Eight (whoops! Spoiler alert!), we get a picture of Augustine’s life, education, career, and psychology, especially in regard to his existential questioning and his struggle with morality, specifically sexual morality.  Augustine was born into an upper-middle class family and was raised by parents who did not share the same values throughout most of their lives.  They even disagreed on what important values to impart to their son.

What they didn’t disagree about was their desire to see their son be well-educated and get a good job.  Even when their son joined what we would now call, at best, an alternative self-help movement and at worst , a cult, Augustine’s parents showed concern for his professional success and his social propriety.

In his own mind, Augustine was always a thoughtful student.  There were subjects he loved and excelled at (rhetoric) and ones he could do without (Greek).  He raised important questions about the meaning and purpose of life and the nature of God and the universe and his place in it.  However, when those questions actually threatened to impinge on his normal way of life morally, he was quick to retreat to the intellectually safe position that, “these questions are hard – who can possibly have an answer to them?” And so his morally sketchy way of life could be preserved.

Teaching at Assumption College, a college founded by the Augustinians of the Assumption, I have had the opportunity to see young, pre-conversion Augustine many times sitting in front of me in the classroom.  Many of our students come from similar backgrounds: financially not wealthy, but not exactly struggling either, raised by one or two parents who care much, much more about their child’s professional success than his or her formation as an excellent human being.  These parents know that these children do not always make the best decisions about important things, but they cross their fingers and/or say a prayer and hope for the best.

The students for their part are generally curious enough to raise at least some basic interest in the so-called “big questions” about life, the universe, and everything.  But when confronted with the challenges posed by these questions to their decision-making on the weekend, many of them choose to think less hard.

The difference between the best of Assumption’s students and the rest are in those with whom the comparison to young Augustine is most apt.  Education in the liberal arts should encourage us to grow beyond our families of origin.  It should prepare us to be productive members of society.  But first and foremost, it should give us the environment in which we can grow into excellence as human beings.  When confronted by the challenges raised by the big questions, does one grow and adopt a more mature way of living? Or does one decide that intellectual pursuit of the most important questions is an interesting way to get through class time, but not really important to one’s day-to-day life? I submit that those who can’t take these conversations beyond the classroom will also not take them beyond the doors of the college.  The result will be well-trained professionals who can continue to make the machinery of the world continue to grind forward, while the heart and soul of humanity continues to erode.

St. Augustine, pray for us.

Art, Insanity, and the Nature of Everything

A couple weeks ago, I had a fascinating conversation with an artist friend of mine about the nature and purpose of visual art.  It was particularly interesting to me because, while I have some competence in understanding literature and music, I am not as confident when it comes to the visual arts.

I took many things away from that conversation that I am still considering, but one point especially jumped out at me on that day that I wanted to share.  The point I am ultimately making in this post is hardly revelatory to my typical audience, but I think it bears repeating nonetheless.

While discussing art, I mentioned that there is a subjectivity to art; this subjectivity is noted in the method and intention of the artist, and to a certain degree in the effect of the art on the viewer.  This subjectivity even applies to the skills and means by which the artist approaches his or her work – and that’s where my friend corrected me.  He described how, in fact, there is a greater objectivity to visual art than most people ever account for.  Simply put, there is such a thing as objectively “good” art and the subjective intention of the artist cannot make objectively bad art into good art.  Rather, one can have a mistaken notion of what constitutes good art, or one can learn to make good art and develop one’s skills towards that end.

Is this accurate? Isn’t there any truth to the cliché phrase, “I don’t know art but I know what I like?” Sure.  But what you like may be wrong.  An analogy from music may be apt here.  I can bang away at random keys on a piano and call it music, but it simply isn’t.  If the “artist” in question is my five-year old son, I may find the noise endearing, but that has to do with my affective relationship with the artist and nothing to do with the “art” itself.  If the same “music” was being produced down the hall from my office while I was trying to write, I assure you it would not be in the least endearing.  And so it is with visual art as well.  I may be moved by a piece of art, I may enjoy a piece of art, but that doesn’t make it good art and in truth it may ultimately reveal my own lack of knowledge of the truth.

Music has rules that guide it (and anyone who doesn’t think music is science as well as art has never studied the mathematical foundations of music).  Language has rules that guide it, so one can discern between actual communication and mere gibberish.  Literature has rules that guide it to distinguish between a good story and a bad one.  And so does visual art.

Now I arrive at my rather simple point: the objectivity of visual art, recently revealed to me in more cogent form, combined with the objectivity of music, the objectivity of literature and language, the objectivity of the natural sciences, all combine to present a ridiculously strong case for the objective structure of reality, put in place by an Intelligence who did so with a design in mind.  As human beings, we can learn the “rules of reality,” as it were, or one can essentially be insane, even if one appears functional according to the dysfunctional standards of post-modern humanity.

And, if there is an objective structure to reality, that extends not only to the “physical” universe (though it is odd to speak of art and music as “physical”) but also to the moral universe.  For a mathematician or a physicist to marvel at the complexity of the universe and its structures and then conclude that they are free to make choices however they want according to their subjective feelings and desires is the very definition of delusion.  So many people live according to a variation of the above cliché: “I don’t know morality, but I know what I like.”  The key difference here is that people don’t acknowledge their lack of knowledge about morality; instead they assert that their feelings are already truth…”for them.”  (The same wrong-headed thinking applies to the whole of theology for most people, but I’ll stick to morality for now).

My friend’s revelation about the objective nature of art was a new thought for me, a new concept by which I was able to better understand the nature of God’s tapestry as a whole.  Even when something seems like it might be purely subjective, what it might actually be is an invitation to go deeper and come to a better understanding of what it means to be a part of this awesome design.

No, Zedd, you’re wrong

Anyone who knows me also knows about my unapologetic love for electronic dance music.  One generally doesn’t listen to this kind of music for its deep, introspective lyrics (though I’d argue that a few songs are deeper than one might think upon first listen).  Most of the time, the lyrics have to deal with the romantic joys and tribulations in that most superficial of Edens: the dance club.  I appreciate that the earnestness of the lyrics often adds an air of gravitas that in fact just isn’t there, as if the fate of the world hung on this one romance.

“Stay the Night” is a song by Zedd, featuring vocals by Hayley Williams of Paramore, released earlier this year.  It is a typically simple dance track lyrically: there might be 80 words in the whole song.  But for these songs, bridges and choruses matter the most, as these are the words that the listener is going to hear over and over and get stuck in his or her head.  And lyrics stuck in your head matter, as a steady diet of certain kinds of lyrics (good or bad) inevitably wash the brain and move the spirit of the listener.

Leading into the chorus, Hayley sings, “I know that we were made to break/So what? I don’t mind.”  Here is an acceptance, not of our creation in God’s image, but rather of the inevitability of our failure, especially in relationships – the specific area in which we are most God-like, as God Himself is Relationship.  Not only does Hayley concede that our relational failure is inevitable, but she welcomes the damage.  These simple words actually reveal a sadly all-too-common reality in modern relationships: one does not enter into relationship in order to become most fully human through the gift of self to the other and the reception of the same.  Rather, one enters into relationship to find some temporary satisfaction for the God-sized hole in the self.  People come together to share dysfunction, not to realize their full humanity.

Then we come to the chorus itself, repeated about a zillion times: “Are you gonna stay the night? Doesn’t mean we’re bound for life.”  As the answer to her own self-perception of her lack of value, she seeks meaning in the temporary pleasure of sex.  As a college professor teaching sexual ethics, it breaks my heart to know how often this occurs.  She wants to feel something because she has no idea who she is, or who she is capable of being if her heart and mind were in line with the will of her Creator, so she seeks meaning in a supposedly meaningless act.

But there’s the rub: it is not, it cannot be, a “meaningless” act.  The act of sexual intercourse, regardless of the participants, the status of their relationship, or the intentions with which they enter into it, is an act which always means exactly what the Creator intended it to mean: the union of man and woman as one flesh to fully image God in His life-giving, love-giving capacity.  It is the full gift of self to another, open to new life, and capable of sharing in God’s creative power.  To not mean that, to engage in that when it is not  the revelation of the sacramental image of the permanent union of Christ and His Church, is profoundly disrespectful to both the Creator and to the persons involved in whose image we are made.

Seeking meaning and purpose through sex is a misguided quest for God.  When we finally come to recognize our brokenness, then we should take hope that our Healer has made Himself present to us, by giving us His very flesh and blood so that we might have life and have it more abundantly.

Probably not my last word on electronic music.  Maybe next time I’ll evaluate something I think is a lot more positive.

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