Friday, December 18, 2009

"If you must see ghosts ..." Materialism, Being Spiritual, and Uncle Deadly

A Muppet Show episode - I think it was the one that introduced Uncle Deadly - had the back-stage Muppets telling Kermit that the theater was haunted. Kermit assured them that there was a 'rational' explanation for what they'd seen. Then, as I recall, Uncle Deadly did a horror-house 'bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha' laugh. Kermit's reaction was something along the lines of 'or, not.'

I know: that's pretty vague. It's been years (decades?) since I saw that episode, and I wasn't taking notes.

The (very entertaining) Muppet Show episode's gag relied on a notion that's deeply embedded in American culture - western culture, in general, I think.
  • "Supernatural" means "irrational" or "illogical"
  • "Logical" and "reasonable" people 'know' that "supernatural" things aren't
    • Real
    • Logical or reasonable
For folks who put their brains in 'sleep' mode inside church; or whose religious leaders focus on emotional highs, rather than deep thought, that may be true.

There are even Catholics who are convinced that faith and reason are utterly, completely, totally incompatible.

Well, that's what they believe.

Me? I looked up what the Church teaches: and came up with a different answer. (March 20, 2009) I think being a convert helps. That, plus having a mind that won't treat facts and assumptions the same way, and a habit of:
  • Testing assumptions
  • Verifying facts
I've written about faith and reason before: check out "More-or-less-related posts", below.

Materialism, the Sixties, and All That

I spent my teens in the sixties - a colorful decade, even if you weren't following Timothy Leary's "turn on, tune in, drop out" advice. Various sorts of "materialism" weren't really popular then. Quite a few of America's youth - myself included - were taking a long, hard look at "success" and "the American Dream," and deciding that they didn't like the trade-offs.

Don't get me wrong: I have nothing against people making money, even making lots of money. Provided they do so ethically, and use their wealth responsibly. (More, December 14, 2009, in another blog)

Which is another topic.

A lot of kids in the sixties looked at what their parents said they believed, and how their parents lived. Quite a number decided to bail out of their parents' value systems. Can't say that I blame them. You heard "hypocrite" a lot in those days.

I didn't think my parents were hypocrites, then, and I don't now. I think I understand what they believed, and why they believed it. But I also learned too much about the Catholic Church, and had to join.

Which is yet another topic. ("Firebase Earth" (April 5, 2009) is a brief, if unconventional, account of my conversion)

An 'up' side of the sixties was the way that people - young people in particular - recognized a spiritual void in their lives, and were trying to fill it.

A (big) 'down' side was the array of weird ideas that dropped into the culture then - or, to use another metaphor, rose to the surface like a drowned muskrat.

Let's Remember: "Spiritual" Doesn't Mean "Good"

A science fiction story I read, a few decades back, discussed an imaginative idea - and a theological howler. In the story, our heroes met intelligent creatures that weren't like us. These aliens weren't made of wet organic stuff: their bodies were electrical fields and currents. Sort of like ball lightning.1

So far, so good. I'm not convinced that highly-evolved static cling could be alive, let alone intelligent - but the idea was good enough for a story.

Then the author made a remarkable statement. Two of them.
  1. These creatures, because they had no physical bodies were 'pure spirits'
  2. And therefore incapable of sin!
Let's look at those ideas:
  1. These (fictional) energy beings had been specifically described as being made of electrical fields and charges
    • Which are very much a part of the physical world
  2. 'Pure spirits' can sin
    • Case in point: Satan2
I'm pretty sure how the author came up with the idea of those sinless energy beings. 19th and 20th century western culture, some of the Christian subcultures, anyway, got the idea that sin was something you do with your body. So far, so good: but they got bogged down in the old notion that physical things are bad, spiritual things are good. That doesn't wash.

Sin is:
"An offense against God as well as a fault against reason, truth, and right conscience. Sin is a deliberate thought, word, deed, or omission contrary to the eternal law of God...." ("Catechism of the Catholic Church", Glossary, S)
And, no, the physical world isn't inherently bad. We've had that issue crop up, from early on (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 465, 285 - Gnosticism and all that) My take on it is that God made the physical world (but no, I'm not a creationist), God said that it was good - several times. I'm convinced that God isn't too stupid to tell the difference between 'bad' and 'good', and that God doesn't make junk.

Some of the early heresies, in addition to having all-too-familiar notions about who - and what - God is, held that "...the world (at least the physical world) is evil, the product of a fall, and is thus to be rejected or left behind (Gnosticism)...." (Catechism, 285)

Just like disco balls, the old heresies keep coming back - with shiny new covers and new names, but the same wack ideas.

Back to that story: Those energy beings were no more "pure spirit" than I am. They weren't wet and sticky inside, like plants and animals are, but energy of any sort is very much a part of the physical universe. If you've ever completed an electrical circuit with part of your body, you should know that. (I have - and don't intend to repeat the experience.)

There are sins that involve the body - like purposely getting drunk or cheating on your spouse. But sin is something you do mostly with your mind - and you don't need a body to defy God.

Bottom Line: The Matter is Real; So is Spirit; We're Both

Here's a pretty good definition of what a human person is:
"PERSON, HUMAN: The human individual, made in the image of God; not some thing but some one, a unity of spirit and matter, soul and body, capable of knowledge, self-possession, and freedom, who can enter into communion with other persons--and with God...."
(Catechism, Glossary, P)

Exorcists: They're Real

The Catholic Church in America seems to be remembering that the spiritual world exists, that some of the free-willed spirits aren't all that nice, and that there's a reason for having exorcists. (Conclusion 22, "A Report of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops Subcommittee on Lay Ministry Committee on the Laity" USCCB, and definition of exorcism in "E", Glossary, Catechism of the Catholic Church) Whew! That was a long title.

In fairness, dealing with unpleasant realities by ignoring them doesn't seem limited to America:
"...Far from mere literal interpretation of the text and far from eisexegesis or mutilated hermeneutical approach to an apocalyptic writing such as the Book of Revelations I have just cited, the entire Bible, Old and New Testaments, bears witness to the existence of the devil.

"The Church recognized these and offered courses on 'de Demonio'. Besides, she not only provided the rite of exorcism but made room for the exorcists. This seems to have fallen into disuse over the last few decades...."
The good news is that the role of exorcist is being reviewed.

And no, the movies aren't the best place to learn about exorcism.

Exorcism, Divination, and Magic

Exorcism is:
"The public and authoritative act of the Church to protect or liberate a person or object from the power of the devil (e.g., demonic possession) in the name of Christ...."
(Catechism, Glossary, E)
It can be a "simple exorcism prayer in preparation for Baptism" - or an application of divine authority delivered by an official exorcist.

On a related topic, the Church has a word to say about divination and magic: Don't. (Catechism, 2115 and following)
"All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one's service and have a supernatural power over others—even if this were for the sake of restoring their health—are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion...."
(Catechism, 2117)
In other words, it's okay to be a stage magician and pull hats out of rabbits. (Now that would be a trick.)

Trying to "tame occult powers"? Thank you, no. I do not want to go one-on-one against a fallen archangel, or any of Satan's lot. Taking on a main battle tank in my skivvies, armed with sharp stick, would give me better chances of success. And survival.

What Got Me Started On This?

I ran across this quote today:
"...Materialism is in fact no protection. Those who seek it in that hope (they are not a negligible class) will be disappointed. The thing you fear is impossible. Well and good. Can you therefore cease to fear it? Not here and now. And what then? If you must see ghosts, it is better not to disbelieve in them...."
(Chapter 10.1, "That Hideous Strength" C. S. Lewis (1946))
That started me thinking - and writing - and here I am.

One More Thing!

Having been out of touch with informed spiritual awareness for so long, it's no wonder that westerners get it wrong so often. A case in point:
"Ghost Rider"
Office for Film and Broadcasting, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

"Lightweight supernatural action adventure based on the Marvel Comics' character about a motorcycle daredevil, Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage), who makes a deal with the devil (Peter Fonda) and is cursed with having to serve as his 'bounty-hunter' - transforming into a flaming skeletal biker astride a fiery chopper by night - to escape damnation by stopping a renegade fallen angel (Wes Bentley) from unleashing hell on earth. Despite a dumb script and risible theology, the film never takes itself too seriously, and Cage-s campy but committed performance is laced with enough humor to make the hokey ride sufficiently diverting B-movie fare. Some parents may find the demonic elements problematic, but it's little more than a comic book retelling of 'Faust,' and, while, of greater concern, vengeance, not justice is meted out by Blaze, love is ultimately shown to be stronger than evil, with a recurring theme of redemption and second chances. Stylized violence, some horror images, a vulgar gesture, scattered crude language and couple of instances of profanity. A-III -- adults. (PG-13) 2007..."
A few comments, and I'll sign off for the night.

That A-III rating? Here's how the USCCB film reviews explain it:
"...The classifications are as follows:
  • "A-I -- general patronage;
  • "A-II -- adults and adolescents;
  • "A-III -- adults;
  • "A-IV**
  • "L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. L replaces the previous classification, A-IV.
  • "O -- morally offensive.
"** Discontinued classification. All archived movies that were originally in the A-IV category are now classified as L."
That's right: "Ghost Rider" Got an A-III rating. the USCCB film reviewers thought - rightly, I think - that the film was suitable for adult audiences, but not so much for adolescents or children.

But, O - morally offensive? No. L - a film with "problematic content many adults would find troubling"? Again, no.

What's "risible theology"? Risible means "arousing or provoking laughter". (Princeton's WordNet) I haven't seen "Ghost Rider", but Hollywood is pretty good at mangling theological concepts.

As my father told me, "don't attribute to malice, what can be explained by stupidity." Or, I think, ignorance.

More-or-less-related posts:
1 (I know: there are scientists who say it doesn't exist - mostly, I think, because they can't explain just how it works.

Sort of like thunderstorm sprites, which were 'well known' to be hallucinations seen by simple, credulous people like soldiers in Vietnam and airline pilots. Until an astronaut's video camera recorded the phenomena. The astronaut's report could be written off as another "hallucination." The video camera? Even scientists who only read their own books weren't quite willing to say that a video camera had experienced hallucinations.

Posts relating to thunderstorm sprites and other "hallucinations:" More, about ball lightning: 2 There are some pretty good discussions of Satan online:

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Marian Apparition: Champion, Wisconsin

Background:Posts in this blog: In the news:

What's That Doing in a Nice Catholic Blog?

From time to time, a service that I use will display links to - odd - services and retailers.

I block a few of the more obvious dubious advertisers.

For example: psychic anything, numerology, mediums, and related practices are on the no-no list for Catholics. It has to do with the Church's stand on divination. I try to block those ads.

Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

Bottom line? What that service displays reflects the local culture's norms, - not Catholic teaching.