By John Rieping | Published 30 May 2015 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
The first book of Jewish scripture, Bereishit (aka Genesis), tells of the creation of the universe — once. Yet the origin of humanity is told twice.
As a writer myself, I suspect the author wanted us to pay particular attention to that part.
One sentence from the first telling has always delighted me: "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them." (1:27)
As a Christian, such words speak to me of the equal dignity of men and women. For Christianity sees our creation in the image and likeness of God as the root of our human dignity.
Now notice another implication: the image of God is displayed in humanity, but humanity is fully revealed in a couple -- not an individual.
That's hardly an American stance there. After all, the U.S. is a nation that especially prizes independence and self-reliance. Tough individualism marks our mythology, from the western frontier heroes to many of our superheroes.
However that isn't the only challenging thought of this verse.
Consider this: we may take the sexes of humanity for granted, but it is no absolute necessity. Some creatures do fine with only one sex (look up the female-only New Mexico whiptail lizard). Why would humanity's two sexes, together, show the divine image better than only one would?
As the rock band Boys Like Girls sang in a 2009 duet with Taylor Swift, "Maybe two is better than one," though I think we can go deeper than that.
The medieval thinker Tommaso di Aquino (A.D. 1225-1274) once claimed Christians had to admit that the abundance and variety of God's creations were intentional.
God, Tommaso wrote, wanted to share and show the divine goodness with and through creation. So God made many and diverse creatures because the creator's goodness "could not be fittingly reflected in just one creature." Thus "what each individual thing lacked in order to reflect the divine goodness would be made up for by other things." ("Summa Theologiae," 1, q. 47, a.1)
One just isn't enough. It is not that we, as individuals, are incomplete. Rather all creatures, at their best, offer little glimpses of the divine. We form a mosaic.
Even so, there's a more subversive idea here. For if humanity's two sexes can show the image of God better than one, then it seems they must not be identical. Men and women are equal in dignity, personhood, and humanity, but we differ. And we do so in more than where our mushy parts can be seen or are absent.
These differences, far from being bad, show the divine creator more fully than either sex could alone.
Perhaps the most obvious example of this is when a man and a woman, acting according to their natures, take part in creation itself by together bringing a new life into existence. It is hard to be more creator-like than that.
That relies on those aforementioned mushy parts and such, but that isn't all there is to it. There's a natural result of offspring that, ideally, shows us God in a special way: motherhood and fatherhood.
The Jewish and Christian scripture often uses such imagery of mother and father to describe God, as well as the image of a husband. As a spirit, God transcends male and female. Nonetheless, God is paternal, maternal, and spousal in the most wonderful of ways.
We can't reflect that in solitude. Others evoke our parental or spousal sides in us. Thus it is we cannot reach our human potential in isolation. Instead, it is our relationships with others (especially God) that expose us most fully, even to ourselves.
As God reportedly said in the beginning, it is not good for us to be alone (Bereishit/Genesis 2:18). So let we who claim to believe in God dare to love, patiently and perseveringly, like God loves us.
"Listen, and tell your grief: But God is singing! / God sings through all creation with His will. / Save the negation of sin, all is His music, / even the notes that set their roots in ill / to flower in pity, pardon or sweet humbling. / Evil finds harshness of the rack and rod / in tunes where good finds tenderness and glory.
"The saints who loved have died of this pure music, / and no one enters heaven till he learns, / deep in his soul at least, to sing with God."
— Jessica Powers, aka Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit (1905-1988)
By John Rieping | Published 15 May 2015 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
Empowering affirmations have perhaps become some of our era's most popular cliches, doomed to be drained of meaning and impact by casual overuse.
Even so, one made me think when I heard it on social media. It says: "You are enough."
To me, the phrase begs for the reply: enough what? Am I enough of an annoyance? Enough of a man? Does it mean my body mass index is healthy? Or that my income is above poverty level?
How am I enough?
The more I pondered the words, the less sense they made to me. If anything is clear, it is that humans are social animals by nature. We're not self sufficient.
This is especially clear in the U.S. today, in which most of us rely on others to feed, house, and equip us in exchange for money. We lack the skills to survive on our own.
But, even if we did, we still would need other creatures around us for the sake of our hearts and minds.
In the 1950s, psychologist Harry Harlow of the University of Wisconsin studied the effects of solitude on rhesus monkeys, who were placed in an inverted pyramid they could not climb out of. After a day or two, most monkeys seemed to lose hope.
They became "profoundly disturbed, given to staring blankly and rocking in places for long periods, circling their cages repetitively, and mutilating themselves," Harlow said.
Most recovered after returning from isolation, but not all. "Twelve months of isolation almost obliterated the animals socially," according to Harlow.
The results of solitary confinement on human prisoners are similar.
In one study, psychiatrist Stuart Grassian of Harvard Medical School found about a third of such inmates were "actively psychotic and/or acutely suicidal." Being cut off caused hallucinations, panic attacks, paranoia, hypersensitivity, severe obsessions, difficulty thinking, and more.
Half of all prison suicides in California from 1999-2004 were by those in solitary confinement.
On our own, we are not enough, and we don't have to go to extremes to discover that.
In 2014, a series of 11 studies led by University of Virginia researchers found that most people would rather do something — even if painful — than be alone and undistracted from their own thoughts for 15 minutes.
Among this majority, two out of three men and one out of four women even preferred to self-inflict an electric shock instead of think while undisturbed for 15 minutes.
Not everyone is like this, of course.
I, for one, am an incurable daydreamer and can happily spend hours lost in idle thoughts, whether inventing worlds or solving puzzles in my imagination. During my years as a Benedictine monk in temporary vows, half a year could pass without the itch to walk down the hilltop on which the monastery stood.
I tend to be content.
Yet I too am not immune to loneliness, restlessness, frustrations, failures, pain, or so many other aches that remind us we are not enough.
We humans have a longing for "enough," for fullness, that drives us to connect with the world around us to find what we lack. It is a universal hunger and, if we deny it, we devour ourselves.
This hunger is the "emptiness" I wrote of near the end of my last column.
Neither pain nor pleasure can do more than distract us from this ache, and nothing in our lives can ease it for more than a time. As a Christian, I suspect it is this hunger that led our first parents to aspire to become like gods -- self sufficient -- by rebellion (Bereishit/Genesis 3:1-6).
It is a hunger for divinity.
We who claim to be Christians must offer this emptiness to God by resisting the urge to fill it with anything less than the divine.
That can be hard.
In heaven, Christians believe, we will be united with God fully and be fulfilled utterly. So much so that sadness will be impossible. Our hunger, so endless, will be satisfied by the infinite one.
Meanwhile, though, we don't experience this. We may love God, but we ache even so.
That is what makes the offering of our emptiness so pleasing to God. It is the yearning of a faithful lover.
"No gift is proper to a Deity; / no fruit is worthy for such power to bless. / If you have nothing, gather back your sigh, / and with your hands held high, your heart held high, / lift up your emptiness!"
— Jessica Powers, aka Sister Miriam of the Holy Spirit (1905-1988)
By John Rieping | Published 19 March 2015 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
In the philosopher Plato's great work "The Republic," his elder brother Glaucon is described as proposing an extreme test of morality to their teacher Socrates in the ancient city-state of Athens.
Glaucon felt that laws forced respectable men to walk "the same road" of justice due to fears of being punished as an evildoer or being powerless as a victim. Remove both fears and "the actions of the just would be [the same] as the actions of the unjust" -- immoral
There is only one way, he claimed, to test whether a virtuous life was better than a wicked one. We must compare the happiness of an "entirely unjust" man who has "the greatest reputation for justice" with another man whose situation is the opposite.
"Let him be the best of men, and let him be thought the worst ... and we shall see whether he will be affected by the fear of infamy and its consequences. And let him continue thus to the hour of death; being just and seeming to be unjust.
"When both have reached the uttermost extreme, the one of justice and the other of injustice, let judgment be given which of them is the happier of the two ... The just man who is thought unjust will be scourged, racked, bound ... Then he will understand that he ought to seem only, and not be, just."
Half of Glaucon's test would become reality more than 400 years later in the life and execution of a wandering rabbi, Yeshua (aka Jesus). In the eyes of Christians and Muslims, he was an entirely just man.
A superficial hearing of his final words would seem to support Glaucon's position however. According to one record, they include, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?" (Mark 15:34)
This plea is a reference to a hymn from the Jewish "Tehillim" (Hebrew for "songs of praise"). It begins, "My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? Why are you so far away when I groan for help? Every day I call to you, my God, but you do not answer. Every night you hear my voice, but I find no relief." (Psalm 22:1-2)
Echoing Glaucon's test, it later continues, "But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people. All they who see me laugh me to scorn: they stick out the lip, they shake their heads, saying, 'He trusted on the LORD that he would deliver him, let him rescue him, for he delights in him!' " (Psalm 22:6-8)
"I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted within me." (Psalm 22:14)
Does that sound like happiness to you?
Yet, for Christians, these are not the final words. For beyond the agony of the cross we see a resurrection. The rabbi's cry was heard.
Near the end of the same song, the singer promises: "I will declare your name to my brethren; in the midst of the congregation will I praise you ... For he has not despised or abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; neither has he hid his face from him; but when he cried to him, he heard ... The poor shall eat and be satisfied; they who seek the LORD shall praise him ..." (cf. Psalm 22:22, 24, 26a)
An unappreciated life and undeserved death can end far better than Glaucon imagined if God is one's hope. But in this we find a paradox. For don't Christians say Jesus is God and, if so, isn't his rescue by God a hoax? And who among us can claim to be so worthy of help?
Strangely, the answer to both concerns is the same: emptiness.
As the apostle Paul wrote to Christians in the Macedonian city of Philippi: "Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although he existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant ..." (Philippians 2:5-7a)
The life of the one Christians consider to be both God and man was like his death. For both involved radical self-emptying (in Greek, "kenosis").
Why? For the same reason we seek an empty cup when thirsty: so we can fill it.
Let us be humble enough to accept and lift up our own emptiness to God in prayer and in service. We can embrace God no other way than with empty arms.
By John Rieping | Published 7 March 2015 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
Few of the 300 writings by ancient Greek philosopher Epikouros survive today. One paradox said to be his we know only through an early Christian writer in North Africa, Lucius Lactantius (A.D. 250-325).
In it, the problem of suffering is posed as a riddle for those who believe any god cares for humanity.
"God either wants to eliminate bad things and cannot, or can but does not want to, or neither wishes to nor can, or both wants to and can," Epikouros allegedly wrote.
"If he wants to and cannot, then he is weak and this does not apply to god. If he can but does not want to, then he is spiteful, which is equally foreign to god's nature. If he neither wants to nor can, he is both weak and spiteful -- and so not a god.
"If he wants to and can, which is the only fitting thing for a god, where then do bad things come from? Or why does he not eliminate them?"
Throughout history, many believers in divinity have proposed solutions to this mystery. But perhaps none match that offered by Christianity, insofar as every element of its message is in part a reply to the problems of pain and evil.
A drawback of this is that any quick or brief response to the scandal of evil falls short, both of the question and of the depth and breadth of Christianity's answer. Yet even Christianity admits it has only "partial" understanding of such divine mysteries (1 Corinthians 12:12).
So what can be said?
First, let us be honest here. When the paradox of Epikouros most hits us is not in a classroom or amid peace. It pierces when you lose someone you love and there's no remedy. It smashes in when we do our best or worst and the results are terrible beyond expectation. It crushes when we feel trapped in misery with no hope left.
In such moments, we don't want a rebuttal. We ache for restoration, if not immediately then someday.
This too Christianity promises, but that can fail to comfort when doubts overwhelm any belief in such assurances. Such skepticism can be fed by past disappointments, when our pleas for help seemed fruitless.
Hence the problem of pain can be a problem of perception.
Imagine, for example, a deathly ill child brought to doctors for a cure that requires an agonizing treatment. The boy resists, so the doctors ask the parents to hold him down. What betrayal he may feel as his supposedly loving parents, who gave him life and provide for him, seem deaf to his cries for escape.
Sometimes the healing we seek frightens us more than the sickness that devours us. We may prefer destruction to change.
Alternately, we may not even realize we're dying at all if not for symptoms that shout too loudly for us to ignore, like despised prophets of doom.
"We need crises," writes Christian philosopher Peter Kreeft, "for we have spiritual sleeping sickness and need frequent alarms.
To unravel the paradox of Epikouros, though, is not a task for the mind so much as the heart. Both are precious, but the wounded first need aid, not insight.
The instinct of Christianity has always been that the mystery of evil can only be understood at the foot of another mystery -- the cross. For Christians assert as true what seems foolish to some: God chose to become man to liberate humanity from evil by suffering and dying.
Reflecting on and reacting to this mystery of the cross is the greatest answer to the mystery of evil any Christian heart can find. Yet how often we believers look away, whether the crucifix before us consists of metal or flesh.
"When Jesus came to Golgotha, they hanged him on a tree, / They drove great nails through hands and feet, and made a Calvary; / They crowned him with a crown of thorns, red were his wounds and deep, / For those were crude and cruel days, and human flesh was cheap.
"When Jesus came to Birmingham, they simply passed him by. / They would not hurt a hair of him, they only let him die; / For men had grown more tender, and they would not give him pain, / They only just passed down the street, and left him in the rain.
"Still Jesus cried, 'Forgive them, for they know not what they do,' / And still it rained the winter rain that drenched him through and through; / The crowds went home and left the streets without a soul to see, / And Jesus crouched against a wall, and cried for Calvary." (G.A. Studdert-Kennedy)
By John Rieping | Published 28 Feb 2015 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
"Empty is the argument of the philosopher that does not relieve any human suffering."
-- Epikouros (341-270 B.C.)
Greek philosopher Epikouros, one of the most popular of his day, saw pain as evil and the archenemy of happiness. To thwart it, he taught, one must fearlessly dwell on past or present enjoyments.
"Pleasure is our first and kindred good," he wrote. "It is the starting point of every choice and of every aversion, and to it we always come back, inasmuch as we make feeling the rule by which to judge of every good thing."
To maximize pleasure and minimize suffering, Epikouros advised avoiding marriage, religion, politics, the problems of others, and concern for the future. The well-being of the world is not one's responsibility, he claimed.
"The time when most of you should withdraw into yourself is when you are forced to be in a crowd," he wrote.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca (3 B.C. - A.D. 65) also believed in enjoying the present without worry about the future. But the Roman statesman and writer saw value in suffering.
"To be always fortunate, and to pass through life with a soul that has never known sorrow, is to be ignorant of one half of nature," he wrote.
Born in what is now Spain, Seneca followed the Greek philosophy of Stoicism, which taught that everyone has a spark of the universe's intelligent divine fire (aka Fate or Reason). To be happy, one had to live in harmony with this divine fire by virtues, which are how we apply reason to our lives.
“If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place but to be a different person,” he wrote in a letter.
It isn't that we should behave unnaturally, he felt, but rather the opposite. We should act according to human nature, which is rational. We should govern the fires of desires with reason instead of being slaves to emotions or circumstances.
"We should every night call ourselves to account," he wrote. "What infirmity have I mastered today? What passions opposed? What temptation resisted? What virtue acquired? Our vices will abort of themselves if they be brought every day to confession."
He noted, "To err is human, but to persist [in wrongness] is diabolical."
Seneca believed virtue enables peace of mind, which lets us rise above suffering. It also allows us the pleasure of simply being ourselves instead of "assuming a pose."
"For it is torturous to be constantly watching oneself ... fearful of being caught out of our usual role. And we are never free from concern ... for many things happen that strip off our pretense against our will, and, though all this attention to self is successful, yet the life of those who live under a mask cannot be happy and without anxiety."
You may have already heard the words of Seneca more than you realize. Some of his sayings, such as "it's quality not quantity that matters," continue to be used by many to this day. The man who wrote, "The best ideas are common property," would surely approve.
Though Seneca wasn't a Christian, the ancient and medieval Christian Church recognized in him a kindred mind. One early Christian writer (Tertullian of Carthage, Africa) referred to him as "our Seneca."
Coincidentally, Seneca's elder brother, Gallio, appears in the Bible. The Roman official showed apathy towards a religious dispute involving the apostle Paul in the wealthy Greek city of Corinth (Acts 18:12-17).
In his letters, Paul would repeatedly display an attitude toward suffering that even today seems countercultural.
"I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up that which is wanting of the sufferings of Christ, in my flesh, for his body, which is the church." (Colossians 1:24)
A core belief of Christianity is that God chose to become a man, Yeshua (aka Jesus), to suffer justice in place of all who have done wrong. By doing so, he earned for humanity a pardon for our crimes so that we could be free to return to God, who we reject by wrongdoing.
Paul's words point to this belief and a related one: the suffering of those united with God shares in the value of his anguish as a God-man who died for all.
Hence Paul could rejoice in suffering, because he -- like Jesus -- could offer it to God as a sacrifice for the benefit of those Paul loved.
So should we who claim to believe.
By John Rieping | Published 19 Feb 2015 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
So agreed the Continental Congress of the summer of 1776, representing the original 13 colonies that would become the United States of America.
Long before and ever after, humanity's pursuit went on and continues — in many different directions. The desire for happiness may be universal, but not our paths in chasing it.
Born in 341 B.C., Epikouros would be a man ahead of his time. He embraced the philosophy of his contemporary Demokritos. Both believed the material world consisted of atoms moving and interacting in space, and forming clusters that result in the substances we see. Without an electron microscope, they clumsily glimpsed the atomic age.
Yet the two thinkers differed when it came to finding happiness.
Demokritos, sometimes called the Laughing Philosopher, urged cheerful contentment through moderation and self-discipline, without envy or laziness.
"Happiness does not dwell in flocks of cattle or in gold," he wrote. "Happiness, like unhappiness, is a property of the soul. And it is right that men should value the soul rather than the body ... Men find happiness neither by means of the body nor through possessions, but through uprightness and wisdom."
Epikouros, who never married, had a small following in his philosophy school, the first one of its time open to female students. Inscribed on the gate of its garden were the words, "Stranger, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure."
For Epikouros, good and evil could be determined by whether an act ultimately led to pleasure or pain. Overindulgence was bad, for example, because it caused pain later on. Friendships, which he considered essential for happiness, only had value insofar as they protected pleasure. Tranquility, his ultimate goal, could be found by satisfaction amidst an absence of suffering.
"Death is nothing to us," he said, because in it humans no longer exist and so escape both pleasure and pain. Hence his gravestone's epitaph: "I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care."
In these two ancient Greeks we see, I think, contemporary thoughts on the pursuit of happiness. But there is another, a man devoted to reflecting on it perhaps more than any other philosopher in history.
To his students in Athens, Aristotle would lecture so extensively on how to be happy that his notes would be turned into 10 books on the subject, now called the "Nicomachean Ethics."
It is no accident his teachings on pursuing happiness are termed "ethics." To Aristotle, ethics are a practical science of how to achieve joy as an individual. For him, ethics are a subset of politics, which works to bring happiness to a people.
Aristotle, who died in 322 B.C., saw happiness as humanity's highest good and function. It is our nature and purpose to be happy, he taught. But joy is not automatically granted, whether by nature, divinity, or luck. It demands learning, good habits (aka "virtues"), and persistent effort.
"Happiness depends upon ourselves," he said.
Yet it is not a solitary chase. Like Epikouros, he viewed friends as essential for joy, not as defenders of pleasure but for their own sake and for virtue's sake. Not only can the company of the good be pleasant, it also enables us to grow in virtue. "He who is to be happy will need virtuous friends ... And one should be content to find even few friends such as these."
There is far more I could share from Aristotle, but what of theology no less ancient? What does Christianity have to say on happiness?
Aurelius Augustinus -- bishop of Hippo, North Africa, in the early 400s A.D. -- wrote, "We all want to live happily; in the whole human race there is no one who does not assent to this proposition, even before it is fully articulated."
And where do Christians believe this can be found? In humanity's creator, who alone can fully satisfy our otherwise insatiable desires. For a Christian, even a life of pleasure, virtue, or friendship falls short without a loving relationship with God.
Because God, by definition, is infinite in the truth, goodness and beauty we hunger for. Created in God's image, we long for divinity.
As the traditional season of Lent begins this week with Ash Wednesday, let us Christians turn to the ultimate source of our happiness.
By John Rieping | Published 18 Dec 2014 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
Look up the noun “advent” in the New Oxford American Dictionary and you will read: “the arrival of a notable person, thing, or event.” The roots of the word in Latin mean “to come” or “coming.”
In short, “advent” looks forward, and so does the Christian season of the same name.
My family took the weeks of Advent seriously in my childhood. The season has long been a time to happily prepare for Christmas — not celebrate it beforehand.
No Christmas decorations, music, or television specials were allowed in my childhood home before Christmas Eve except for Advent carols, an Advent calendar, an Advent candle wreath, and a nativity (a tableau of events surrounding the birth of Jesus).
We set out wooden statues of shepherds and their sheep first, and a stable with only an ox. Later Joseph and Mary would arrive with their donkey. Across the room, figures of gift-bearing wise men would lead a camel.
Before our evening meal, we’d pray and then light the number of colored candles for the current week of the season. I hoped to be chosen for that task. I loved the liveliness of fire dancing upon the wick. More importantly, the candles counted down to Christmas.
Sometimes we’d go to a “posada,” which is a nine-day Spanish and Mexican custom reenacting efforts of Jesus and Mary to find lodging in the town of Bethlehem. Although Hispanic, I didn’t know Spanish. Yet I understood the simple theater, music, and tasty refreshments in those homes.
On Christmas Eve or so, my father would buy an evergreen tree for us to ornament. We could finally play my parents’ Firestone Tires collection of recordings with uncommon Christmas songs and singers such as Perry Como and Nat King Cole. The exoticness delighted me.
On Christmas Eve night, my family would worship God at Mass and marvel. Back home, a figurine of a baby Jesus would be passed around and rocked in our hands as we sang. After kissing it, we’d place it between the forms of his earthly parents in the stable and sing the “Happy Birthday” song.
Then we sang posada carols in Spanish, which signaled that a plate of treats would soon be in my greedy grasp.
Next the gifts, if any, would be distributed. Sometimes we followed an older tradition of both Mexico and Germany and receive presents not on Christmas Eve, but on the holy day of Epiphany (aka Little Christmas, the 12th day of Christmas, etc.), which traditionally falls on Jan. 6. Epiphany celebrates Jesus being revealed to non-Jews, such as the three magi whose figurines at last arrived at the nativity stable.
I initially believed Santa Claus visited our house to reward good children, but a friend destroyed that illusion early on. Since I was the youngest in my family, the charade didn’t continue, but my mom instead labelled my gifts “From: Baby Jesus.”
I’m not the easiest person to buy a gift for. One Christmas, my mother gave me “horrible” generic toy robots instead of the expensive brand name “Transformers” toys I asked for, and my eldest brother gave me an “Erector” construction set I loved.
To spare her feelings, I exclusively played with the robots I despised. My mother pulled me aside to urge me not to ignore my brother’s offering. With the cruel honesty of a child, I explained my deception and never played with the unloved robots again.
I have been unappreciative of so many gifts I’ve received in my life. Of them all, however, God is the best present I ever received from my parents, and I am thankful.
My mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, will probably be convalescing away from home this Christmas after an unplanned stay in Madera Community Hospital this week. She is not likely to join in singing any carols or even be aware of what day it may be.
Yet her gift of faith remains. She offered it to her children by the witness of her own life. By God’s grace, I hope and trust it will one day carry her on to a far truer life than this one, a life where the celebration will never end.
In the meanwhile, this life we believers lead is just another Advent, a time of preparation for the coming of our God. “Happy birthday” the angels may sing when our journey ends.