Thursday, April 8, 2010

Catholicism isn't Nice: That, I Can Live With

I'm a devout Catholic. And I think that Catholicism isn't nice?!

So much depends on what part of which meaning is at the top of the pile for "nice." The word has a fairly lengthy definition. The word "nice" can mean:
  1. Nice
    • (pleasant or pleasing or agreeable in nature or appearance)
      • "what a nice fellow you are and we all thought you so nasty"- George Meredith
      • "nice manners"
      • "a nice dress"
      • "a nice face"
      • "a nice day"
      • "had a nice time at the party"
      • "the corn and tomatoes are nice today"
  2. Decent, nice
    • (socially or conventionally correct; refined or virtuous)
      • "from a decent family"
      • "a nice girl"
  3. Nice, skillful
    • (done with delicacy and skill)
      • "a nice bit of craft"
      • "a job requiring nice measurements with a micrometer"
      • "a nice shot"
  4. Dainty, nice, overnice, prissy, squeamish
    • (excessively fastidious and easily disgusted)
      • "too nice about his food to take to camp cooking"
      • "so squeamish he would only touch the toilet handle with his elbow"
  5. Courteous, gracious, nice
    • (exhibiting courtesy and politeness)
      • "a nice gesture"
    (Princeton's WordNet)
I have no problem with someone assuming that Catholicism is "nice" in definition (1) sense. As long as that's not all that Catholicism is.

Let's go through those definitions by the numbers:
  1. The way I see it, a faith that's only "pleasant or pleasing or agreeable in nature or appearance" is, well: nice. But pretty near worthless. If that's all an American thinks Catholicism is, a "nice" country club or bowling league might serve the same function.
  2. The second definition is a little closer to what a faith should be: "Socially or conventionally correct; refined or virtuous."
    • Actually, that's really two definitions. It might be socially or conventionally correct in a person's culture to sneak up on an enemy, cut off his head, and display the skull on a pike. I'd have to work to say that an act like that was "virtuous." By Christian standards, anyway. By the code some of my ancestors lived by: well, we didn't know as much then.
  3. The third definition, "done with delicacy and skill", could be used to describe the making of a homily or a statue. Or a well-crafted saddle. It really doesn't have much to do with faith.
  4. The fourth? Too many people I've run into gave the impression that, for them, 'true Christianity' was a matter of being more "excessively fastidious and easily disgusted" than anybody else.
  5. Number five, "exhibiting courtesy and politeness", is - nice. And, I think, a pretty good way for anybody to act. Providing that it doesn't interfere with a person telling the truth. Even when it isn't, well, nice.
Summing up, I don't mind someone thinking that Catholicism is "nice" in sense of being "refined or virtuous," or "exhibiting courtesy and politeness". Actually, I think that living with those standards is generally a - nice - idea.

I don't even mind Catholicism being "pleasant or pleasing or agreeable in nature or appearance". As long as that's not all there is to it.

Was Jesus 'Nice'?

Do I think my Lord is "nice"?

In some ways, yes: Jesus was nice. But he wasn't just a nice, affable guy who was liked by pretty much everybody because he was, well, nice.

I don't think the merchants he drove out of the Temple would necessarily have thought Jesus was "nice." And the Sanhedrin almost certainly didn't. It looks to me like they may have thought Jesus was trying to muscle in on their turf, and were understandably miffed. They also had some concerns over national security. (John 11:47, 48) If they'd paid a little more attention - Well, that's water under the bridge.

I wrote about how people have been viewing Jesus, at least in the English-speaking world, since the 19th century, yesterday: "Jesus Christ, Tough as Nails" (April 7, 2010). (And before: "Jesus, Men, and a Marketing Campaign Gone Wrong" (February 15, 2010))

Being So Heavenly Minded, You're No Earthly Good

It'd be - nice? - if all a person had to do, to be a good Christian, was get upset about rock and roll, alcohol and/or tobacco, and maybe a few other 'Satanic' things. Like candles.

"Nice" by definition #4, that is: "excessively fastidious and easily disgusted".

"Nice," maybe. Useful, I don't think so.

Then there's definition #1: "pleasant or pleasing or agreeable in nature or appearance". Yes, that's "nice" and I don't mind Catholics being "nice" in that way. I try to be "pleasant or pleasing or agreeable in nature or appearance" myself. It's - nice.

But I've known for a long time that there was more to being Christian than that.

I was raised in a - nice - normal, mainstream Protestant faith. I have fond memories of those years, with a few daft exceptions. The particular congregation my parents were in didn't sing all the songs in the hymnal, but I'd read through the book - and had some favorites. Two of them use the same tune: Ebenezer.

A verse in one of those hymns starts with these words:
"...By the light of burning martyrs,
Christ, thy bleeding feet we track...
(James Russell Lowell, 1819-1891)
Nice? I don't think so. But I knew, even as a teen, that Christianity wasn't always a matter of misty feelings and noble spirituality. Or is it noble feelings and misty spirituality? Never mind.

I knew that I worshiped a Man who is God, who was flayed alive, nailed to a piece of wood, and left in the sun to suffer until he died. And that people who decided to follow Him must expect to put up with a spot of unpleasantness now and then.

Particularly when lack of action will keep good from being done - or allow evil to happen.

You Mean, All That 'Good' and 'Evil' Stuff is Real?

I realize that this isn't what this isn't the preferred reality for America's dominant culture - and hasn't been for decades - but I'm quite convinced that there is good - and evil. And that there's a difference between the two. (Sorting out which is which can be challenging, sometimes: but it's a job that's gotta be done.)

That hymn I quoted before? Its common name is "Once to Every Man and Nation." And I can't recommend it as a theological treatise. It's a rousing good song, though. Here's how it starts:
"Once to every man and nation
Comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood,
For the good or evil side....
(James Russell Lowell, 1819-1891)
So far, so good. I think it's literally a good beginning. For me the going gets rough a little further along:
"...Some great cause,
God's new Messiah,
Offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever
Twixt that darkness and that light....
(James Russell Lowell, 1819-1891)
"God's new Messiah"?! The house of that shaky theology is not built on a rock. Never mind. I'm guessing that the "Messiah" Mr. Lowell had in mind was more of an idea or situation: not another Son of the Father. Too bad the poet capitalized "Messiah," though.

Still, there's a good point there: When faith is just pretty feelings - it's pretty useless. Faith is merely "nice," unless a person does something with it.

Nice is Nice, God is Forever

The other set of lyrics using "Ebenezer" is called "God Hath Spoken by His Prophets". I don't use the 'thee/thy/thou, hath/hast/speaketh' dialect of English all that much - but it does sound, well, nice.

And, more to the point, the lyrics show God as someone with serious staying power.

"God Hath Spoken by His Prophets" is also one of those hymns that struck a responsive chord in me: and it still does. Not that emotions alone are enough of a foundation for a solid faith. I've written about that before.

Here's how "God Hath Spoken by His Prophets" ends:
"...God yet speaketh by his Spirit,
Speaketh to the hearts of men,
In the age-long Word expounding
God's own message, now as then;
Through the rise and fall of nations
One sure faith yet standing fast,
God abides, his Word unchanging,
God the first, and God the last.
(George W. Briggs, 1875-1959)
Catholicism isn't against the United States of America - or Ghana, or Sri Lanka, or any other of today's nations. But the Catholic Church was around before any of these nations emerged - and I expect that when Nauru and America and France are literally ancient history, the Catholic Church will still be around - two or three of us, anyway.

Maybe more.

Related posts:


Brigid said...

A little peculiarity, you've been putting punctuation marks outside the quote marks, as in this example: "I'd have to work to say that an act like that was 'virtuous'."

I'm pretty sure that's grammatically incorrect.

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

P.S. Such a very 'nice' post.

Brian, aka Aluwir, aka Norski said...


Thanks for the heads-up. Right you are. And, fixed it.

I think I know where that glitch came from. The point is, though, that I'm using "The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual" (1984), ammended and annotated to keep up with new words and phrases.

And that authority is pretty clear about punctuation and quotes.

I'll make a quick search of the other 300 or so posts in this blog - but no guarantees made or implied about finding them all.

Again, thanks!

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Sometime regrettable advertisements get through, anyway.

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