being human, part 2: on suicide

Humans are indeed created in the image of God. In us, God has planted the desire for eternity, and for true happiness–in other words, for God. The difficulty is that sin misdirects our desire and fools us into thinking that other things will satisfy us. Most of the stuff we see around us every day reinforces this false belief. Things cannot make us happy, no matter what the advertisements say.

We are also deceived in our self-image. That is, we are mistaken about who we are and what makes us good. The good that we are, and the good that we do comes from the Good itself: God. God created us in his image so that we might reflect it to one another and respect it in one another. This means, however, that we belong not only to ourselves, but to God and to our neighbors. So we are not meant to take our own lives in the same way that we are not meant to take the lives of others: they do not belong to us, to do with what we will.

But there is more. Choosing to live for the sake of bearing God’s image, when I am not sure I bear it clearly enough for anyone to make it out…is just not appealing. That’s when I think I ought to carry on because of the stuff that I do. If I am not around for my kids, for example, who will be? On a better day, I might even think about the theological work that I do. I should stick around; I might eventually do some good, when the dark fog lifts.

Wrong–for two reasons. First, the lifting of the dark fog is only ever temporary. Depression is a little bit like the weather. The sun may shine, but the rain is bound to return eventually. Second, and way more importantly, the good I might do, whether for my kids or for the world, is not what makes me significant. I tend to think that the meaning of my life is somehow bound up with what I can accomplish. (Nothing against accomplishments, here! They’re good.) It’s not true. God hasn’t put us in the world to do stuff, as if there were stuff he couldn’t get done on his own. The essential feature of human life is its relationship to God: to be loved by God, and to learn to love in return. That’s it.

Suicide might seem like the solution to the weary, grey, and lifeless burden of depression. After all, even if it does go away, the fog will return. Whatever happens after suicide, I’m guessing depression (as it’s related to  our way of being in the world in this life) isn’t going to be part of it. It’s hard to endure depression because it hurts, it slows me down, it makes me feel as if nothing I have done or will do justifies my existence on this planet. But what if my existence on this planet is already justified by God? What if I don’t have to do anything? What if God is like that teacher in Florida who compliments his students every day–if only I would come forward and listen?

Here’s what I have learned: self-respect is much, much more difficult than self-hatred. Hating yourself is easy: the whole world displays for us what we ought to be and do. And we fail. (At least I do–maybe some folks don’t.) So the natural response is to think, ‘I really ought to try harder. I could do better, couldn’t I?’ Then, when trying harder doesn’t do it, and I’m exhausted from the effort, I think, ‘Well, maybe I am just not good enough.’ Enter self-loathing. Self-respect, on the other hand, has to refuse the comparison. Self-respect has to be satisfied with what is truly my best effort and not reject it because it doesn’t produce the hoped-for results.

Maybe it’s good news, then, that self-hatred is sin. Not because now we can condemn it in one another–heavens, no! It’s good news because seeing this self-hating orientation as misdirection, as a turning away from God as well as an attack on self (an inward turning!), puts it in the light of grace. That doesn’t make it go away, but it does make fighting it part of the good fight of faith.

Deo gratias.

 

 

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being human, part 1

Made_in_Gods_Image_by_MacIomhairIn my quasi-professional life, the life in which I write the sorts of things academic theologians are supposed to write but without any compensation for doing so, I am working on an essay on Catholic moral anthropology. Mostly I stick pretty close to what the official teaching of the Church is–this piece is, after all, for the Oxford Handbook of Catholic Theology.

The official teaching is good, I think, so I feel no need to stray. There is an emphasis on the way in which we human creatures are meant to live, that is, to live up to the image of God in which we have been made. Again, this is good: I do believe that we ought to be the image of God in the world. Elaborating on this, I would say (and will in the piece to be published) that means following Jesus in humility with love. I remember walking along the path by the river one afternoon in the weeks following my mother’s death. Having seen her lifeless body, and yet speaking to her, and knowing I ought to grieve, but couldn’t–well, the experience put me in a pretty strange space, spiritually speaking. So I lamented on that day by the river, ‘if only I could see you, God.’ Silly, I know: no one has ever seen God, etc. What came to me that day, though, was not the appropriate material from John’s gospel but a new attentiveness to what was in front of me. ‘That,’ I heard/realized/saw, ‘is the closest you will ever get.’ That was a person, a stranger, walking towards me on the path. He passed by, not realizing that he had changed something forever in me. People show (or fail to show) God to one another.

Believing that human beings are the image of God in the world has–from the evidence of Scripture and on the strength of that encounter–two very important implications. First, we must be the image of God. Jesus said, ‘he who has seen me has seen the Father.’ He himself did only what he saw the Father doing. His work on earth was (not only, but importantly) to make the Father known. So also we, who claim to be his disciples, must never forget this charge: to make the Father known. The weight of that responsibility did not occur to me immediately, but it is obvious. Bearing God’s image is not something we do chiefly for ourselves, but for our neighbor. We show God’s love and forbearance, or fail to show God’s love and forbearance, in every encounter. (I don’t know about you, but by day’s end I cannot count my failures to do this even on all ten fingers.)

Being in God’s image, second, requires us to respect that image in our neighbor. Here the official line is clear: every human being is created in the image of God. This of course has implications for the way we treat people at the ends of life, respecting the beginning and not hastening the end. It also, and crucially, must inform the way we regard every human being at every stage of his or her life. My children are all in the image of God, all equally so. The bouncy and bright four-year-old and the intelligent and high-strung twelve-year-old, the creative and brooding 9-year-old, and the happy and determined 14-year-old.  The fact that one of those children has one more chromosome than the others makes no difference to her being in God’s image. It also–and this is in many ways more difficult–means that however well or badly the children are behaving, however they reflect or fail to reflect the love and forbearance of the Father (and they do, more often than we see it, I think), we owe them the same respect. (An aside here, though: respect is not the same as capitulation. I make no claim to be an expert in parenting, but I do not think that letting our children get away with everything is respect. How to treat them with respect when they are behaving abominably? I can only say that the failures I mentioned above mount up very quickly in just that context.) It may well be that my children challenge me most, but I have opportunities every day to be patient or irritated, to be kind or scornful. Just because I am bound to fail doesn’t mean I shouldn’t try for patience and kindness always.

Calvin (in the above comic, not the famous theologian of Geneva) both gets the point and misses it entirely. Yes, we ought to recognize God’s image in ourselves and bear it proudly. The image of God is not, however, something we see best reflected in a mirror, but in one another. I know I am in God’s image in part because you show me–by reflecting God’s image to me, and by respecting God’s image in me. So I pray for the grace to fail less, and to be more like Jesus, today and every day.

For that grace, Deo gratias.

What are people for?

Peter Singer is right. He’s recently argued that infants born with severe disabilities are not deserving of the same level of care as you, or me, or our healthy babies. He’s right, that is, if you believe that people are ultimately for walking and talking and interacting with other human beings on this earth. If that were the purpose of human life, if human life had no spiritual or eternal dimension, Peter Singer would be right: use the resources we have for the people who are fulfilling their purpose in life.

But that is not what human life is about, ultimately. Each human being is created for eternal delight in God. And the relationship of each human being to the God in whom we have our being originates with God, not with us. The Scripture tells us that God fashioned us while we were still in the womb; God knows us more intimately than we know ourselves. God gives us our purpose, which is to glorify God and to enjoy God forever (as the Westminster Shorter Catechism has it). Our ability to give glory to God, and to enjoy God, comes from God. Whether or not we appear able to do these things or not is irrelevant: ‘faithful is he who calls you, who also bring it to pass’ (I Thess. 5:24). Delight in God does not depend on our cognitive abilities, but on the relentless love and boundless generosity of the God who brought us into being so that we could enjoy God forever.

Regardless of our abilities, we human beings share one characteristic (which Peter Singer no doubt denies): we are made in the image of God. We who are able to recognize ourselves as participating in God’s being should do everything in our power to allow God’s love and God’s glory to be seen in and through us. Those who are not able to see it nonetheless participate in that love and that glory–and are less able to obscure the image through the evil inclinations of our hearts to which Genesis 6: 5 refers.

Because we are all sharers in the divine image, Nostra Aetate 5 reminds us that ‘We cannot truly call on God, the Father of all, if we refuse to treat in a brotherly way any man, created as he is in the image of God. Man’s relation to God the Father and his relation to men as his brothers are so linked together that the Scripture says: “He who does not love does not know God” (1 John 4:8).’ The council makes no special provision: every person is created in the image of God, and deserves to be treated as our brother or sister. Thus even the relationships we have with one another depend upon a generous self-gift, a love that does not ask to be returned–a love that does not seek its own. We love insofar as we are able, not insofar as the beloved is ‘deserving’ of our love.

No doubt Peter Singer would disagree, and without the belief that we are creatures of a God who has made us for relationship with God and for participation in divine life, what he says makes a lot of sense. But the babies whom he regards as undeserving of our care (and all those whose human lives Singer would find substandard) remind us that we all are destined for the same end, and all equally unable to reach that end without grace. The Holy Spirit who works in us works in us all; we are all in need of the Spirit’s work, whether we have the power of speech, or abstract thought, or mobility. We are for delighting in God, and God makes it possible for each one of us to do just that.

Deo gratias.

a tattoo

Mine, to be precise:

3907_574197496527_1845720_nThere it is, freshly inked–that’s why there’s a halo of reddish skin around it!

I thought about it for a long time. I mean a really long time. When I was 16 or 17, I told my mother that I wanted to get a tattoo. I’m pretty sure she was against it. But she didn’t say so, not outright. Instead, she gave me a few things to think about before I actually got the tattoo. First, she said, remember it will always be there. You’ll change, you’ll change your mind, but the tattoo will still be there. And it’s more painful to have it removed than it is to get it in the first place. Second, she said, your body won’t look the same forever. Something that looks nice on 16-year-old skin might not look as good on 70-year-old skin. But the tattoo will still be there. Third, she said, tattoo ink breaks down over time. That’s why you see so many green tattoos. (Perhaps inks are better now; I think my mother was thinking about tattoos done in the 1960’s and 1970’s.)

So for the next couple of decades, I turned the idea over and over in my mind. Honestly. I never forgot that conversation with my mother. Now, I consider it a moment of parenting genius, not because that strategy would work for everyone–not at all. Rather, it was a moment of parenting genius because it took account (knowingly or intuitively) of the sort of kid I was, and the way I was likely to make decisions. It appealed to reason and vanity, which I had in rather unequal portions at 16. (You can guess which trait I had in greater abundance.) She never said “Don’t.” Other friends, over the years, said “Do!” or “Don’t!” but my mother never did. She was a little surprised, I suppose, when I finally got the tattoo, but by then I was well and truly grown-up.

By the time I found that thing that I considered permanent enough in my life to have it inscribed on my body, I was nearing 40. I had three children. And, luckily, I had a good friend with plenty of tattoos and friends in the business, who happened to be in need of more ink. So I researched and found the image. I worked out the Greek. On the eve of Mother’s Day, 2009, I went with a couple of friends to get my first tattoo (by which time I had had my 40th birthday). There it is: the crucifix, stylized. The Greek text is from 1 Corinthians 13: “The greatest of these is love.”

I don’t suppose it will be my last tattoo. I have other ideas. Chief among these is an addition to the tattoo I already have, one phrase, in English this time: “the image of the invisible God.” Maybe 2015 is the year for that.

I’ll keep you posted.

random acts of unkindness

Let me apologize in advance: this is not a carefully crafted post. I am deeply disturbed by something I saw (over my son’s shoulder) on youtube this morning. The boys were watching a series of clips of people who were the victims of pranks. Mostly, these were the usual sorts of thing–someone opens a cupboard door only to find another person inside, who yells ‘Boo’, or something like that.

But there was one set that showed people playing a computer game, where the object was to solve a maze. At the end, a hideous and frightening face appeared on the screen and made horror-film terrifying sounds. If my kids tricked me with something like that, it might be funny. Not in the case of the last clip we saw. In that clip, a young man was playing the game. As he looked up over his left shoulder inquiringly, I saw that he had an intellectual disability. He hesitated, then continued, reassured by the person holding the camera. I thought: this is not going to end well.

It did not end well. On seeing the horrible face and hearing the associated sounds, the man shrieked, put his fist through the screen, and leapt back howling. As he stood facing the person holding the camera, the camera panned downwards to show that he had wet himself, then back up to his shocked and sad face. Crying, he said, ‘it’s not funny!’

Most certainly not. Not remotely funny. Now, you might say that this is just one of those things. Maybe the jokester didn’t think (I hope not) that it would be such an awful shock for the man. But if that were so, he or she would have put the camera down at once and apologised, and offered some comfort. To keep filming, to make a spectacle of the man so upset by the experience, and then to post it to youtube as if it is just another clip, like the others in the set… well. I don’t even have words for that.

It has haunted me all day long, and will continue to haunt me for a good while, I think. The person behind that camera has a lot to learn from the man in front of it. We are all vulnerable, and to use someone’s vulnerability against him or her is a violation of our basic humanity. My thoughts about this are still in a jumble–but I think there is something to be said here, or somewhere, about how we are in the image of God, all of us, and to disregard that feature of another’s humanity obscures it in us.

Please pray.