Tag Archives: Purpose

Remain in Me

Before meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus, Paul was “breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord,” and yet today we remember him as a great evangelizer and prolific New Testament writer. What happened? Nothing less than an inbreaking of divine grace.

For the powers of humanity, there are a great many situations that are beyond hope: souls that have been irrevocably corrupted, systems that are beyond repair. But for God, no one is beyond hope. No matter how hardened a person, God can break through any barriers to offer them mercy and an opportunity for transformation. He stopped Paul right in his murderous path, turned him away from Damascus and out into all the world a changed man. He channeled Paul’s zeal toward its natural, rightly ordered purpose: building up the Kingdom of God. In the same way, our own human purpose can only be understood through an encounter with the divine.

Whoever eats my Flesh and drinks my Blood remains in me and I in him (John 6:56).
Jesus has given Himself to us in the Eucharist as an opportunity for encounter with Him, that we too might be transformed by His grace. He instituted this sacrament so that we might share a radical intimacy with Him. Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati understood this deeply—he received Communion daily, meeting Jesus every morning and carrying Him throughout the rest of the day. This is the key to his sanctity: not Pier Giorgio’s own goodness, but his openness to divine grace, to deep intimacy with and vulnerability before God.

“I urge you with all the strength of my soul to approach the Eucharist Table as often as possible. Feed on this Bread of the Angels from which you will draw the strength to fight inner struggles.”
—Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati

Conversione_di_san_Paolo_September_2015-1aThe great things that Paul achieved after his conversion stemmed from this intense closeness with God and awareness of God’s perfect love. This is what opened Paul’s heart to allow God to work through him rather than imposing his own will. When the scales fell from his eyes and he saw his life with sudden clarity, he fell to his knees in humility before God. Throughout the rest of his life, as he wrote and preached and converted a great many souls, he was ever aware that it was all due to God working in him: It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me (Galatians 2:20). Paul knew all too well the cold, cruel man he would be without God, and thus he was able to recognize that any good fruits that flowed from his work were not due to his own power or talent or goodness, but from Jesus Christ working through him.


1. Domenico Morelli, Conversion of Saint Paul / PD-US
2. Caravaggio, The Conversion of Saint Paul / PD-US

Originally posted at Frassati Reflections.

Mercy, Justice and Grace in “Suits”

Suits is a popular TV show about slick lawyers who are rude, nasty and deceitful while bending, skirting, or straight-up breaking the law and playing interminable office politics, and it may be the last place one would expect lessons in mercy, justice and grace, but as St. Augustine says, where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more.

[Warning: spoilers ahead]

Mike Ross is a bike messenger and drug dealer who was expelled from high school for giving his best friend Trevor the answers to a math test, which his friend sold to a girl who happened to be the dean’s daughter, leading to the dean’s dismissal. While evading the police, Mike stumbles in upon a job interview for law graduates, and is hired by Harvey Spector despite his lack of a law degree, after demonstrating his exceptional eidetic memory and knowledge of the law – Mike had also been making a living sitting the LSATS for other people. This incredible opportunity enables Mike to fulfill his dream of becoming a lawyer, which was derailed by the incident with Trevor as he had had to give up his acceptance to Harvard law.

To the associates and partners of the firm Pearson Hardman, their jobs are not just jobs, but become their entire purpose for living, their telos and identity. Jessica Pearson tells Harvey that when he joins the firm, he’s joining a family. The lawyers are married to their work, and this theme is played out over and over in hilarious and heartbreaking ways, as the language and norms of courtship are applied to their work relationships. Mike desists from destroying a dodgy opposing lawyer’s career, because that man pleads with him that being a lawyer is who he is, and all he has left after losing his family following the financially calamitous loss of a massive suit.

In more somber tones, Suits also shows how damaging it is to familial bonds when one becomes completely given over to one’s chosen career. Jessica’s husband divorces her, and Harvey’s mother repeatedly cheats on his father, who is often away as a traveling musician.

The show also explores how one’s childhood and family experiences can continue to play out throughout one’s life, especially when one is deeply wounded. Harvey seems to have everything go his way, and appears to be invincible and suave, fixing everything that goes wrong. But he is unable to sustain a romantic relationship, and although he and his secretary Donna have fancied each other for twelve years, he does not allow himself to truly love her and give himself to her. His inability to be vulnerable and trust others is traced back to his mother’s infidelity. We see how the sins of a parent can mar the child for life, damaging his future relationships.

As for Mike, he lost his parents in a car crash when he was twelve, and he is unable to forgive the lawyer who convinced his grandmother to accept a settlement. His anger bubbling from this ingrained sense of injustice is a key motivation in his practice of the law; he jumps at chances to defend the underdog. Yet, his anger and ambition also blinds him, and he handles 88 cases despite his lack of qualifications. That is something like an invalidly-ordained priest celebrating the sacraments – everything he touches is invalid. Despite good intentions, when the means are flawed, the consequences can be dire.

In Season 5, this lie blows up in Mike’s face when he is turned in for conspiracy to commit fraud, just after resigning following a soul-searching talk with his old school chaplain, Father Walker. We are on tenterhooks while he navigates the court case – will another incredible stroke of luck save him?

Mike ends up in prison after a self-sacrificial act to save his superiors’ skins, but though things look dire, his presence enables him to work for the freedom of his unjustly-jailed cellmate. It is terrifying to watch Mike deal with the resident murderous big bully, but Harvey continues to have his back, pulling all sorts of strings to get Mike out of jail.

Meanwhile, as Jessica faces the loss of her firm and all she has worked for, her romantic interest Jeff Malone reflects that sometimes God allows unpleasant things to happen, for a greater good. Indeed, this decimation of her firm allows Jessica to reevaluate her priorities in life, opening her mind to the possibility that there may be more to life than work.

Suits provides a nail-biting examination of moral issues and the motivations which drive people to cheat, lie and blackmail while trying to secure that nebulous thing called justice. It is a riveting show which deals honestly with questions of truth and the factors surrounding human relationships, bound by die-hard loyalty but also fractured by pain and fear. When viewed through the prism of divine providence working through the messy lives of humans, it demonstrates how good can eventually be drawn from the consequences of bad choices, although each character pays a price for their misdeeds.

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The Pursuit of Purpose

A few weeks ago I had to make a trip back to the place of my origin as a Special Forces Soldier, a.k.a. Fort Bragg, North Carolina. While there I was able to chat with my younger brother Matthew, who is the last of the brothers still on active duty, although his time is winding down. He was in the Q-course for a while, but eventually decided that Special Forces was not his path, and dropped out. Now he is in the infantry, preparing to get out early next year.

Family Friday 47 (8)

We had the opportunity to hang out and eat dinner at a charmingly psychedelic little pizza joint called “The Mellow Mushroom,” and we talked a bit about his plans and about mine, and the point of Special Forces, or the Army in general. I was recommending he consider joining the National Guard, citing the reasons that I transferred to the NG rather than geting out completely:

1. Tuition assistance: I have the Post 9/11 GI bill, but financially it makes more sense to save that for the high cost university courses that I start next year. In the meantime, the Guard offers $4500/year towards a degree plan, which can cover a whole lot of community college, saving the Post 9/11 for the big ticket courses in Junior and Senior year, or in my case, the Masters program.

2. Tricare Reserve Select: for a single guy you can get full coverage for <$100/month, and for a family full coverage is <$300/month. When we found out we were pregnant with Evie that suddenly became the deciding factor for going Guard. It cost us less than $200 total to have her at the hospital by C-section. In our current world of Obamacare, you cannot find a better deal.

3. Keep the retirement going: I had invested 12 years already. By the time I am 39 I will be able to retire from the Guard and have a pension waiting for me when I hit 65 (or a little younger, based on combat deployments).

These were all practical and valid reasons for going National Guard, but in talking with my brother, and being in training with Active Duty guys again, I realized that these weren’t the whole stories.

The deeper issue was that I like it.

rest dayWhen asked why I went Special Forces in the first place, the closest I can come to a concise answer is, “To see if I could do it.” It is not being flippant. That was the major part of my motivation, just to see if I could gut through and be among the best. I never did, and still do not, consider myself one of the best. In terms of Special Forces guys I am pretty average in capabilities and way outside the norm in personality and priorities. In fact, my first year in group was a big, “What the hell have I gotten myself into!?” time.

But having gutted through and succeeded at some level; having pushed my limits beyond what I had expected, and in ways I never expected; having sacrificed a good deal of life, and some more worthwhile things to achieve a silly green hat; in short, having paid the price, I learned that I like it.

I don’t necessarily enjoy sucking at life, but I enjoy being the sort of person who can suck at life and not give up. I don’t like the hardship, and the constantly critical environment, the need to prove yourself everyday or risk letting your team down. But on the other hand, I like the kind of person that living and even thriving in that environment has made me.

But more than that I like being around the kind of guys that like that sort of thing. I may not like heights, but I like being in the gang of guys that does. I like that I can at least keep up with the group, and that it pushes me to be better than I ever could be on my own.

You see, in Group we lived life at such a high level of intensity. Constant self-improvement was not optional, it was a life-and-death serious business. It was what we did. I try to maintain that attitude in my daily life on the civilian side, with a program of constant study, daily prayer, and regular physical training, but on the civilian side you are always the odd man out. People look at you funny.

sfauc_shoothouse_63_by_djmonkeyboy

When I go back to the SF world for short stretches it is refreshing to be around the sort of folks who don’t find it weird when you tell them that you are trying to deadlift 500 pounds, or that you practice dry-fire from a concealed holster every day, or that you are trying to learn a foreign language, study the history of Western civilization from Ancient Rome to modern America, get a Masters degree, perfect the one-armed pullup, staff and manage a trip overseas, and keep your two mile time under 13:20, all while maintaining a family and home life. Guys who will nod and say, “That’s cool. Here’s what I did when I was trying to train up to one-armed pullups,”or “Have you checked out the S.I.R.T. laser trainer? That’s what I use for dry-fire.”

It is cool to be around people who also have no time for video games or even seeing most of the new movies that come out, because they are too busy trying to be more!

But the catch is that if you ask most of these guys why they do all this, and if you asked me, it is most often not for noble, altruistic reasons like, “To defend my country,” “To make the world a better place,” “To liberate the oppressed.” A few actually do want to do all those things, but most do it simply because they like it. We like getting high on getting paid to do badass things that most other people can only do on video games. Even those (like me) who do actually want to liberate the oppressed, have long since learned that De Opresso Liber is less a mission statement than a catchphrase.

That’s why when I stay on Active Duty for long periods of time I become gradually more depressed and less motivated. Sure, the job is fun, but what is it for?

laskoIt’s all very well to spend your life trying to be a warrior monk, but if it isn’t about something bigger than yourself it’s ultimately meaningless and unsatisfying. Like it or not, America’s global interests are not a sufficient why. Self-improvement for its own sake is a higher goal than serving America’s interests because the human person will last forever while America is nothing more than a temporary political construct, with at best a few hundred years of use left in it.

At home I have a purpose. I get up early so that I can pray and workout, but after that I have to get things ready for when Kathleen and Evie wake up (breakfast, clothes, pack for work or school, etc.) and once they do get up there is constant work to be done and play to be played. When I leave for work or school I am trying to perform the best I can at these tasks so that I will provide or care for these two people. When I get home there is the practical, hands on work of feeding and clothing to be done (in the form of dishes, cooking, laundry, etc.)

From the time they wake up until the time we all go to bed, my time is not my own. It belongs to my family and its sole purpose is to provide or care for them. This is ultimately more satisfying than shooting, training, martial arts, fitness, and even reading, study and doing medicine.

In the end, glorifying God and serving people are the only two things I have found that carry with them an abiding sense of meaning

Militant Scientism

the-january-dancer-360x548
This is the first book in the “Spiral Arm” series.

One of my favorite series in science fiction is the “Spiral Arm” series written by Michael Flynn. This series is set in the future, during which mankind has colonized one of the spiral arms of our galaxy, only to fall into a dark age in which much knowledge and even technology is lost. The series takes place after mankind has re-established interstellar travel, and follows the adventures of several secret operatives of the two major interstellar governments of the spiral arm.

One interesting plot element used in this story is that men have recovered much of their forgotten technology, but not the underlying knowledge of how it works. Einstein and Newton and other famous historical scientists are invoked as gods whose decrees over nature are obeyed, and not merely men who discovered the laws of nature. It is a society skilled in engineering (or re-engineering) technology, but not in discovering knowledge about the universe or the understanding and creativity to develop new technologies. What is depicted is a high-tech and low-culture civilization, of sorts, and one whose technological prowess is advancing but lucky re-discoveries of old technology, and yet whose culture is stagnant at best.

bake+the+cake
Or “sign the certificate,” or “legitimize the license,” etc.

I am reminded of these stories of a society on the edge of returning to decay whenever I read an essay like the recent article by physicist Lawrence Krauss in the New Yorker. There, Dr. Krauss calls on all scientists to become “militant atheists.” Though he devotes much of his article to discussing the recent jailing of Kim Davis and the Obama Administration’s assault on religious liberties—he is in favor of both—he does devote some space to discussing why he thinks that all scientists should become militant atheists:

“In science, of course, the very word “sacred” is profane. No ideas, religious or otherwise, get a free pass. The notion that some idea or concept is beyond question or attack is anathema to the entire scientific undertaking. This commitment to open questioning is deeply tied to the fact that science is an atheistic enterprise. “My practice as a scientist is atheistic,” the biologist J.B.S. Haldane wrote, in 1934. “That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel, or devil is going to interfere with its course and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career.” It’s ironic, really, that so many people are fixated on the relationship between science and religion: basically, there isn’t one. In my more than thirty years as a practicing physicist, I have never heard the word “God” mentioned in a scientific meeting. Belief or nonbelief in God is irrelevant to our understanding of the workings of nature—just as it’s irrelevant to the question of whether or not citizens are obligated to follow the law.”

Hammer-and-nails1
Image source.

There is an old adage that when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail. A gentler error of the same sort is that when your only tool is a hammer, you tend to look for the nails and ignore things like screws, nuts and bolts, staples, etc. So too with scientism. Since Dr. Krauss has limited himself to using only science—or so he himself appears to be claiming—he becomes blind to anything which science cannot also see. The crux of Dr. Krauss’ argument—essentially, that God is not presupposed by any scientist in the process of “doing science” and thus is unnecessary to and ultimately precluded by science—has been amply rebutted by Dr. Feser:

“Is this a good argument? Only if this parallel piece of “reasoning” is also a good argument:

“Checkers is an atheistic enterprise. My practice as a checkers player is atheistic. That is to say, when I move a game piece across the board, I assume that no god, angel, or devil is going to interfere with its course and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my career as a checkers champ. In my more than thirty years as a checkers player, I have never heard the word ‘God”’mentioned at a checkers tournament. Belief or nonbelief in God is irrelevant to our understanding of the workings of the game.”

“So, it isn’t just science—even checkers proves atheism! Who knew?

“Of course, the fallacy in the latter ‘argument’ is obvious. That we need make no reference to X in the course of doing Y doesn’t prove that X does not exist. We need make no reference to general relativity when studying dentistry, but that doesn’t cast doubt on Einstein’s discovery. We need make no mention of the physiology of tapeworms when engineering bridges, but that doesn’t mean that reports of people having tapeworms are all bogus. Similarly, the fact that scientists need make no reference to God when doing physics, biology, or any other science doesn’t prove—or even suggest—that the existence of God is doubtful.”

Professor Krauss continues by stating that

“Because science holds that no idea is sacred, it’s inevitable that it draws people away from religion. The more we learn about the workings of the universe, the more purposeless it seems.”

This smug aside is not so much the crux of Dr. Krauss’ argument as its desired conclusion. Of course, where the argument fails, so must its conclusion. I am not here interested in investigating whether or why “science…draws people away from religion,” though any field which has as its current gatekeepers those who are hostile against religion will tend to have that effect on those who wish to enter that field. Instead, I true to the latter statement, that knowledge of the universe tends to dispel notions that there is a purpose behind the universe.

The idea of “purposefulness” is ultimately tied to final causality: the very thing which many scientists and would-be philosophers of science have attempted to banish from the endeavor of science! We could, in other words, re-phrase Dr. Krauss’ statement as, “The more committed we become to a philosophy which denies final causes, the fewer final causes we will discover.” Again, this is a rather tautological statement. Yet this is in essence what is being asserted by Dr. Krauss here.
Students Guide Natural ScienceOf course, even science cannot entirely escape from final causes, try as it might. It may not need to invoke final causes to be successful, though as Professor Stephen Barr and others have noted, there are final causes in science:

“Newtonian mechanics is also ‘mechanistic’ in the sense of dispensing with ‘teleology’ [1], which played so important a role in Aristotelian science. That is, in Newtonian physic the behavior of a system can be predicted without invoking any ‘final cause’ (any future ‘end’ towards which it is tending, or ‘goal’ towards which it is striving). Rather, it is enough to know the past state of a system and the laws of physics [3]. This fact contributed to the idea that nature is ‘bind’ and without ‘purpose.’ It should be noted, however, that a somewhat more teleological way of looking at Newtonian physics is possible. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries…powerful ways were developed to reformulate Newtonian physics in terms of the so-called ‘least action principle.’ A similar principle for optics, called the ‘least time principle,’ had been formulated a century earlier by Pierre Fermat…The analogous principle in mechanics says that any system will evolve from its initial configuration to its final configuration by following the series of intermediate configurations (called the ‘trajectory,’ ‘path,’ or ‘history’) that minimizes the quantity called the ‘action’ (usually denoted S).

“This way of formulating Newtonian mechanics is mathematically equivalent to the older way or formulating it in terms of forces, in the sense that it gives exactly the same answers. However, the action-principle formulation is more beautiful, powerful, and profound. In the older formulation, one start off with as many ‘equations of motion’ as there are coordinates needed to specify the state of the system (and for a complex system that number can be exceedingly large). With the least action principle, however, one starts off with the single fundamental quantity, S, and the requirement that the trajectory minimizes it [which] allows one to derive all the equations of motion. One thus sees another kind of unification taking place: many laws (or equations) flow from a single dynamical ‘principle’ involving a single fundamental quantity.”(A Student’s Guide to Natural Science, pp. 44-45).

mammel-finless-porpoise-244x200
Porpoises must pursue their final cause, their purpose, like everything else.

That there are final causes even in the sciences, indeed even in that hardest of sciences which is physics [4], should give pause to those who reject the very notion of final causes. And where there are final causes, there are hints and glimpses of purpose. But science as science does not train us to look for purpose—indeed, centuries of “modern” muddling have practically trained us to look away from purpose. Rather, modern science has long been concentrated upon efficient causes—the “what” and the “how” of the universes’ workings, but not the “why.” Science is descriptive but rarely prescriptive or proscriptive. These latter tasks fall to philosophy and theology, which can (and should) of course draw from the knowledge gained by science, by history, and even by simple experience when forming their judgments.

What Dr. Krauss and his ilk are advocating when he says that “all scientists should be militant atheists” is not science but rather scientism. It is not so much a matter of following the evidence provided by science as eschewing the possibility that we can gain knowledge through other avenues. It is to make the nakedly philosophical assertion that no philosophies matter, to embrace the dogma that there are no final dogmas. Down that road lies madness. Down that road, even science will ultimately find itself in ruins.

 

—-Footnotes—-

[1] In his conclusion, Dr. Krauss writes that

“I see a direct link, in short, between the ethics that guide science and those that guide civic life. Cosmology, my specialty, may appear to be far removed from Kim Davis’s refusal to grant marriage licenses to gay couples, but in fact the same values apply in both realms. Whenever scientific claims are presented as unquestionable, they undermine science. Similarly, when religious actions or claims about sanctity can be made with impunity in our society, we undermine the very basis of modern secular democracy. We owe it to ourselves and to our children not to give a free pass to governments—totalitarian, theocratic, or democratic—that endorse, encourage, enforce, or otherwise legitimize the suppression of open questioning in order to protect ideas that are considered ‘sacred.’ Five hundred years of science have liberated humanity from the shackles of enforced ignorance. We should celebrate this openly and enthusiastically, regardless of whom it may ‘offend.'”

While I agree with parts of this conclusion—we should strive to combat ignorance, since this is contrary to Truth—the context of this statement is ominous. He is arguing, in essence, that this pursuit of knowledge should trump the right of conscience and the right to life. As an ironic aside, he argues here that abortion is not a religious issue, but rather is a social one. This, after decades of hearing from the pro-abortion side about how it is not a social or political issue, but rather a religious one, and thus that it had no place in the public square.

[2] Teleology means the study of “telos,” that is, “ends.” That is, it is a study of final causes.

[3] Of course, “the system will do this in order to obey the laws of physics” is itself a sort of statement of final causality.

[4] To say nothing of the other hard sciences. Biology is replete with final causes, as Etienne Gilson shows in his From Aristotle to Darwin and Back Again.