Beyond the Echo Chamber

So yesterday evening we had a meeting at my parish to kick off the confirmation program for this year. There were around eighty people in attendance (other than the folks running the meeting), half kids and half parents. Our youth minister opened the meeting with a prayer, and then told us that the confirmation program was going to be a little different this year. And then he asked how many of us knew what the Catechism of the Catholic Church was.

Naturally, I raised my hand. And I looked around. Nothing. I was all alone. After a moment or two, my pastor raised his hand. Still nothing. Just me and him (and the other members of the confirmation team, who didn’t put up their hands but certainly could have).

The youth minister encouraged us not to be shy. Still just me.

None of the other parents knew about the CCC.

I was floored.

Now, mind you, I don’t tell this story to bang on my fellow parishioners, or to lament the low level of catechesis at my parish. On the contrary. The youth minister asked the question knowing full well what the answer was going to look like…and then he and our pastor explained a plan for changing this:

  • The confirmation program is going to be based on studying the catechism (in the form of the highly-regarded youth catechism, or “Youcat”).
  • Parents and their teens are going to be studying it together, month by month.

This is very cool, and I’m looking forward to it.

The two of them went on about for a while, and our pastor made an observation: what most adult Catholics know about the Faith is whatever they learned as a child in catechism class. For most, catechism class ended with Confirmation, around 8th grade; for some, it might have ended even earlier, after First Communion. And as he pointed out, you wouldn’t expect to have success in any adult endeavor based on a fourteen-year-old’s understanding of the subject. We But that’s the situation we’re in, and we’ve got a plan to begin to deal with it. As I say, cool.

I tell this story because my guess at the number of hands would have been much higher. I’d have guessed at least 25%, and maybe 50%. Instead, there was just me. Now, why I would I expect it to be higher?

Let me rephrase that question. What kinds of Catholic do I hang out with? Well, let’s see. I’m a Lay Dominican. I hang out with other Lay Dominicans once a month; and I assure you, they all know about the CCC. And then, on-line: I hang out with blogging Catholics. These are Catholics who care enough about the Church to write about it on-line. From the frequency with which I see the CCC mentioned, most or all of them know about it.

And the point is, these are not typical Catholics.

The term “echo chamber” has been floating around the blogosphere for a while now. You’re in an echo chamber when your positive interactions are only with people who think about things the way you do, and you begin to think that all of the sane people in the world must think that way, too. Every month or so, I see another call to get out of the echo chamber, and to see your opponents as real people with something worthwhile to say. And this is good advice, and we’d all be wise to follow it.

But…but…there’s a tacit assumption here that what’s beyond the echo chamber is the Real World. And that turns out to be hogwash: what’s really outside the echo chamber is just a bigger chamber with more disagreement in it. The set of Catholic bloggers, whether liberal or conservative, progressive or traditional, labeled or “merely” Catholic, simply isn’t representative of the American Church. It’s worthwhile listening to the different voices, and essential to remember that there’s a person beloved by Christ behind each one, but you can’t safely generalize from that set to the people in the pews with you on Sunday.

Now, there’s good news and bad news here. The bad news is that you’re never going to get out of the chamber: no matter how hard you try, you’re going to be dealing with a particular set of Catholics, and there’s no reason to think that whatever set you’re dealing with is representative of the Church as a whole.

The good news is that there’s no need to generalize. We’re called to serve our neighbors, which is to say the people that God puts us next to. They’re the ones we need to get to know. Each of them is different, and each reflects Christ in a unique way.

Generalizations are odious.

The Rainbow or the Egg?

Yesterday, my friend Ian happened to mention a bit of dialog from an episode of the 80′s TV show Moonlighting. Bruce Willis’ character is surprised to discover that Cybil Shephard’s character doesn’t believe in God. “Well, where do rainbows come from?” “Refraction of water droplets in the air,” says Cybil. (We’d been talking New York baseball teams, and the bit of dialog ended with a gag about the ’69 Mets.)

But I was thinking about it later, and it occurred to me that the whole snatch of dialog was based on a misunderstanding of what it means when we say, “God made this.” Since that same error underlies a lot of the arguments I hear around and about, about evolution and similar issues, I thought I’d say something about it.

Bruce asks, “Well, if there’s no God, where do rainbows come from?” He’s arguing from the beauty and grandeur of nature to the existence of God: God is responsible for rainbows.

Cybil respond, “Rainbows are caused by the refraction of sunlight through water droplets in the air.” She’s using one of the only two real arguments for the non-existence of God: we don’t need God to explain natural wonders, so there’s no God.

But there’s a false dichotomy in how the question is stated: it’s assumed that either God makes rainbows, or nature makes rainbows, but not both. And to ask, “Does God make rainbows or does Nature make rainbows?” is kind of like asking, “Which came first, the rainbow or the egg?” It’s simply the wrong question.

In point of fact, God makes rainbows; and He uses Nature to do it. This is what theologians refer to as “primary” and “secondary” causes. God is the primary cause, and Nature is the secondary cause.

It is the nature of water drops to refract light. It is the nature of light that different wavelengths bend differently when refracted. It is the nature of the Sun to produce light and heat. All of these things have the natures they do because God so created the universe. Put these things together in the proper geometry, and you get a rainbow.

A skeptic might complain that I’ve just pushed the problem back one step. Now the question is, “Why do water droplets refract light?” And the skeptic might come up with a perfectly natural explanation for how water droplets refract light. This is not a problem; God is still the primary cause.

And then the skeptic might say, “But saying that God is the primary cause doesn’t tell you anything about how it really works!” To which I answer, “Yes, that’s right,” if by “how it really works” you mean, “How natural things interact to make it happen.” Secondary causes are true causes. There’s more than one kind of knowledge, and more than one way to discover the truth.

Archie Says

I pushed the button, shoved the door open when the click sounded, and was proceeding along the hall when a door toward the rear was suddenly flung open and somebody’s female ancestor appeared on the threshold. If you had deducted for skin and bones there wouldn’t have been more than 20 pounds left of her for tissue and internal parts all together. Straggling ends of white hair made a latticework for her piercing black eyes to see through, and there was no question about her being able to see.

— Rex Stout, in Not Quite Dead Enough

What D&D Character Are You?

Me, well…if the shoe fits. I’m a little hefty to be an elf, though.

I Am A: Lawful Good Elf Cleric (6th Level)

Ability Scores:
Strength-8
Dexterity-10
Constitution-11
Intelligence-17
Wisdom-13
Charisma-11

Alignment:
Lawful Good A lawful good character acts as a good person is expected or required to act. He combines a commitment to oppose evil with the discipline to fight relentlessly. He tells the truth, keeps his word, helps those in need, and speaks out against injustice. A lawful good character hates to see the guilty go unpunished. Lawful good is the best alignment you can be because it combines honor and compassion. However, lawful good can be a dangerous alignment when it restricts freedom and criminalizes self-interest.

Race:
Elves are known for their poetry, song, and magical arts, but when danger threatens they show great skill with weapons and strategy. Elves can live to be over 700 years old and, by human standards, are slow to make friends and enemies, and even slower to forget them. Elves are slim and stand 4.5 to 5.5 feet tall. They have no facial or body hair, prefer comfortable clothes, and possess unearthly grace. Many others races find them hauntingly beautiful.

Class:
Clerics act as intermediaries between the earthly and the divine (or infernal) worlds. A good cleric helps those in need, while an evil cleric seeks to spread his patron’s vision of evil across the world. All clerics can heal wounds and bring people back from the brink of death, and powerful clerics can even raise the dead. Likewise, all clerics have authority over undead creatures, and they can turn away or even destroy these creatures. Clerics are trained in the use of simple weapons, and can use all forms of armor and shields without penalty, since armor does not interfere with the casting of divine spells. In addition to his normal complement of spells, every cleric chooses to focus on two of his deity’s domains. These domains grants the cleric special powers, and give him access to spells that he might otherwise never learn. A cleric’s Wisdom score should be high, since this determines the maximum spell level that he can cast.

Find out What Kind of Dungeons and Dragons Character Would You Be?, courtesy of Easydamus (e-mail)

Lawn Chair Catechism, Session 12

LawnChairCatechismSquare This summer, CatholicMom.com is hosting an on-line book discussion group for Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples. Each session will focus on one chapter of the book, and yours truly is participating. Hit the link above to see all of the participants, and to find the discussion questions.

Chapter 11 of Forming Intentional Disciples is about two things: creating opportunities in parish life for people to encounter Christ in a real way, and how people can contribute to this by using their charisms.

This chapter comes home to in a big way, because I recently offered to help with our parish RCIA program. So far as I’m aware, our pastor has been leading the RCIA sessions, with some help from a retired priest in residence; but recent events mean that he’s likely to much busier than he was—as in, he welcomed my offer to help, but we still haven’t managed to meet to work out any of the details. (I am being in no way critical; some things cropped up during the last couple of weeks that he’s absolutely had to deal with.)

So RCIA has been on my mind, and in particular the kind of RCIA program that Weddell talks about in this chapter: one aimed at bringing people to an encounter with Christ, at teaching the kerygma, at bringing disciples into the parish. I want to see that happen, and since my pastor has been preaching about discipleship since the beginning of Advent I expect that he does too. I’m excited that I might be able to help make it happen.

On the other hand, I’ve been to the Catherine of Siena Institute’s Called & Gifted workship; and while I’m not entirely sure what my charisms are, there are some I’m sure I don’t have. Two key ones are Administration and Hospitality. The first is essential to bring the necessary people together to get the job done; the second is essential to make the inquirers feel welcome. I can sort of do both—I mean, I can try—but I don’t take naturally to either. I might have the charism of Teaching, which would certainly be helpful for RCIA.

So my take-away from this chapter is that I need to start praying really hard for the other folks we need to show up.

The Trinity

My latest for CatholicMom.com is entitled, “The Trinity.” Enjoy!

Lawn Chair Catechism, Session 11

Update: There’s an interesting comment thread, which isn’t usually the case. Don’t miss them.

LawnChairCatechismSquare This summer, CatholicMom.com is hosting an on-line book discussion group for Sherry Weddell’s Forming Intentional Disciples. Each session will focus on one chapter of the book, and yours truly is participating. Hit the link above to see all of the participants, and to find the discussion questions.

Chapter 10 of Forming Intentional Disciples is about the kerygma, which is to say the gospel, which is to say the whole reason why the Church exists in the first place. If we want to make disciples, they need to be disciples of Christ. And to be disciples of Christ, they have to know Christ, and to get to know Christ they have to find Christ interesting and intriguing, and for that they have to know the story.

And that means we have to tell the story.

There are many ways to tell the story, and many pieces to it. One most of us have probably heard at one time or another is that God created the world, and then Adam and Eve sinned and were thrown out of the Garden, and lots of trouble happened after that, but then Jesus came and died and rose again to save us from our sins, and if we’ll only accept him as our personal lord and savior we can spend eternity with him in heaven. If you’re patient, you’ve probably heard this on your doorstep any number of times.

Now, this is certainly true, so far as it goes. It leaves out some important details (who is this Jesus person anyway? And why did he have to die? And how did rising again help?) but it’s true so far as it goes.

The trouble is, as Sherry Weddell points out, is that lots of people in our culture have much of a sense of personal sin. They are accustomed to thinking about institutional sin (those evil corporations!) or systemic sin (evils that are due to how our society is set up) but not about personal sin. And if you begin by trying to persuade them how sinful they are, and how they fall short, well, you know. Flies. Honey. Vinegar. ’nuff said. So you have to go after them a different way.

The book lists some of the essential points of the story, with suggestions for how to talk about them to “post-modern” listeners like the Millenial generation. I’ve read this chapter a couple of times over the months since it was first published (and most recently yesterday), and I have to say that Sherry’s outline doesn’t stick with me. I can think of a couple of reasons for that; one is that I very rarely tell the story to others in person, and so I don’t have the experience for Sherry’s suggestions to truly hit home. But second, I think the gospel story is one that you have to assimilate over time. As you try to live in Christ, the gospel story takes up residence in you. You have your own way of experiencing it and understanding it, and I think you need to go with that.

Never fear—I’m not speaking of some personal, idiosyncratic, possibly quite peculiar and unorthodox version of me-and-Jesus. I’m speaking of the story as it is told in scripture and understood in Catholic theology. But if I’m going to tell it convincingly, I have to tell it from my heart. It has to be rooted in my relationship with Christ.

I’d like to give my version in a nutshell, but I’m not sure that I can. Let me try.

I start by thinking about oak trees. An oak tree grows from an acorn; it’s the nature of an acorn to sprout and grow, and given time and good conditions, to grow into a mature and mighty oak tree. All living things do this: grow into their mature forms over the course of time. And they don’t have any choice about it. An oak sapling will become an oak tree, unless external conditions prevent it. It can’t be a pine tree or a goldfish or an insurance salesman. A puppy will grow up to be a dog, but not a cat.

We humans are somewhat different. We are animals, like dogs and cats, and we do in fact grow up to be physically mature whether we like it or not. But we are also spiritual, and unlike everything else in the natural world, we have a choice. We can choose to grow to spiritual maturity, or not. All too often, we don’t.

The problem is, we mostly don’t know what spiritual maturity looks like. But it turns out that God created us for Himself. He, the infinite Godhead, the source and summit of all that is, is quite frankly the most fascinating and exciting thing there could ever possibly be. He created us to spend eternity receiving His love and to rejoice and delight in Him. And since everything good in creation is simply a pale reflection of the Glory of God, there’s a lot to rejoice and delight in there, an eternity’s worth of it.

But we have a choice, and the consequences of our choices are remarkably opaque to us. It’s very hard for us to choose to love God. And He won’t force us. He wants us to come to Him for love of Him. So He sent his son to teach us what love looks like.

And what does love look like? Then we get to the Cross, for greater love hath no man than this.

Archie Says

I’ve been re-reading Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe mysteries, and enjoying them thoroughly. One of the things that’s particularly striking this time through is the way that Archie Goodwin describes the various people he runs into.

But wait a moment. You do know who Archie Goodwin is, don’t you? You are familiar with his narrative voice, aren’t you?

You aren’t? Then what are you wasting your time here for? Get thee to Amazon, or any other bookstore or library of your choice, and begin feasting! (I use the word advisedly.)

OK. I love the way Archie describes people. He doesn’t emphasize the physical details, but somehow he manages to package up their appearance, their character, and his opinion of them all in a very few color words. For example,

She looked more like a school teacher— or maybe it would be more accurate to say that she looked like what a school teacher looks like before the time comes that she absolutely looks like a school teacher and nothing else.

— Rex Stout, in Black Orchids

And then,

Colonel Tinkham, who looked like a collection of undersized features put together at random in order to have somewhere to stick a little brown mustache, had had some kind of a gumshoe job for a big New York bank.

Rex Stout, in Not Quite Dead Enough

I’ve been collecting these; I’ll start doling them out over the next few weeks.

The Art of Blogging

Sam Rocha, he of A Primer on Philosophy and Education, has been doing a series of interviews with bloggers from the Patheos Catholic Channel on “The Art of Blogging”. The third in the series is with yours truly, rather to my bemusement. We talked about writing, the differences between technical writing, fiction, blogging, math, and programming, and how to acquire good taste. I enjoyed the heck out of the experience, and though the resulting interview is absurdly long I hope you’ll enjoy it too.

Attack of the Straw Daleks

So an ice cream shop in England decided to make a 35-foot tall dalek out of straw, in honor of the 50th Anniversary of Dr. Who. Apparently Snugbury’s has been making these sculptures for years; and the kicker is that if they hadn’t done a dalek this year, they were going to do the newly born royal prince.

As one of the headlines I saw says, “ExSTRAWminate!”

(Hat tip to my lovely sister-in-law, who pointed me at this.)

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