The Gospel of Math

[As I am still recovering from an intensive retreat I recently gave, I am thin on words. But here's a fun and fleeting thought for today.]

As I once collapsed under the weight of advanced calculus in college, this Blog post title strikes terror in my soul.

I used to have a t-shirt back in college (that I took off on the spot and gave to a complete stranger who said she thought it was ‘so cool’ — something you do when you’re an undergrad) that had this on the back:

I wish I had it again.

I recall my physics professor in a lecture back in 1988 at Florida State said,

If there is a God, his first language is math.

Thank God my own theological work does not require this language, though if I were a real theologian like Augustine, I would be more committed to learning:

God’s infinity would still be of a higher magnitude, an infinity of different kind. His infinity is above all possible temporal (and spatial) infinity; it is an infinity of infinities, whose magnitude can be dimly imagined by means of mathematical infinity. It is an infinity of infinities also in that, As St. Augustine said in City of God, “all infinity is in some ineffable way made finite to God,” since no infinity is incomprehensible to God, he can count numbers without succession of thought. God is even able to count without numbers, which assumes that there is no number equal to the quantity of all numbers, that is, no number, to use modern parlance, expressing cardinality of integers (which is aleph zero). This is no hindrance to God who is able to see the entire sequence of numbers without looking at these numbers one by one. Infinity of these numbers can be grasped in one act of comprehension. — Adam Drozdek, “Beyond Infinity: Augustine and Cantor”

Reading Drozdek’s book, as a friend of mine words it, often feels like a dog watching TV: captivated but uncomprehending.

On that note, let me encourage you to watch this ~9 minute video on “falling in love with math,” and then apply its principles to evangelization and catechesis. My son shared it with me and said: “This is how the Church should approach making the faith attractive.” Yes.

Here it is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yexc19j3TjE

Happy Feast, O.P.!

St. Thomas Aquinas, O.P.
1225 – 7 March 1274

On this feast of St. Thomas Aquinas, whom I was named after by my parents, I want to steal a few quotes from Denys Turner’s excellent introduction to Aquinas’ life and thought, Thomas Aquinas: A Portrait, and roundly affirm what Turner argues is the saint’s greatest quality: his radically self-effacing humility.

Contrasting Aquinas with Augustine, who wrote “himself prominently into nearly every work of theology he composed,” Turner contends that St. Thomas “doesn’t really have a personal style; you have the feeling that for him nothing he writes is his.” His genius, Turner says, is his refusal to be scintillating or spotlight himself. As Turner puts it,

Everyone loves to quote the Thomas who says that it is better to cast light for others than merely to shine for oneself, and truly the Dominican motto, contemplata aliis tradere, the passing on to others what one has encountered in contemplation, is nearly as good as it gets as a précis of Thomas’s holiness.

Pro vobis et pro multis, “For you and for many”

That Dominican motto has served as my personal examination of conscience for years — In what sense have I, or have I not, placed all that I possess and all that I am at the service of God’s glory and the betterment/salvation of others? When I first read St. Augustine’s comment in grad school — “What I learn, I learn that I might give it away” — I suddenly saw my life’s work in a new light. What should motivate me in my studies is not just what I find interesting or pleasing, but what will best serve the needs of those I have been called to serve in the future I am preparing for. It’s the message I ardently desire to share with the seminarians who are preparing to be sealed by the sacramental mark of Christus Magister, “Christ the Teacher” –Your love for those you will one day serve as priests, allow it to open in your mind a ravenous hunger to learn all you can for them.

Thinking with Thomas

To read St. Thomas is to find yourself accosted by order, clarity, precision, breadth, depth. To think with him is to find yourself immersed in a wildly diverse intellectual communion, other minds in quest of the one Truth — Jews, Muslims, Pagans, Heretics, Saints. Aquinas was willing to give anyone a hearing, to welcome them into the ambit of his faith’s quest for understanding. To enter his mind is to enter into a vast, complex yet unified cathedral, and feel your own mind at once dwarfed. As Turner says,

The main danger is that of supposing that the thing to do is get a mind on the scale of Thomas’s into your head, a task of compression that will be achieved only at your head’s peril. The only safe thing to do is to find a way of getting your mind into his, wherein yours has room to expand and grow, and explore the worlds his contains.

For those who choose to enter, there joy awaits; joy that emanates from the disarmingly pure heart of this giant of our Catholic tradition. And once God seduces you into the mind of the Angelic Doctor, you’ll fall in love. But if by chance you don’t believe me, let me permit that self-proclaimed “Hillbilly Thomist,” Flannery O’Connor, argue my case:

So I couldn’t make any judgment on the Summa, except to say this: I read it every night before I go to bed. If my mother were to come in during the process and say, ‘Turn off that light. It’s late,’ I with lifted finger and broad bland beatific expression, would reply, ‘On the contrary, I answer that the light, being eternal and limitless, cannot be turned off. Shut your eyes,’ or some such thing. In any case, I feel I can personally guarantee that St. Thomas loved God because for the life of me I cannot help loving St. Thomas.

Happy Feast, O.P.!

With St. Thomas now, let us pray:

Lay geniuses

Vatican II’s vision of lay sanctity needs a new St. Francis of Assisi, stripped of a religious habit and re-clothed in a secular baptismal garb. His 13th century mendicant revolution transformed cloistered monastic life into an outwardly focused, mobile, mission-minded movement.

Someone asked me to re-post this post I wrote 16 months ago. I reworked it a bit over last Fall, and it likely needs more editing, but as I have only received 2 requests in 4 years to re-post a specific post, how could I resist? It recapitulates some of the points I made a few weeks ago on the lay vocation, but for what it’s worth, here it is…

This post began with a hope to simply offer a few brief thoughts on a radio interview I heard last week, but as you’ll see my meandering mind got the best of me. Pardon its length and its ragged edges.

I was listening to a radio show featuring a convert to Catholicism whose radical conversion to Christ had led him from a life of moral corruption and spiritual aimlessness to a profound and lively faith in Christ. It was a beautiful and moving story. This sudden life-rocking roundabout eventually led him to quit his highly successful job in the business world and start a Catholic company that distributes religious goods.

It was indeed inspiring, and I admired the man for his courage. But there was a moment in the interview when I found myself really perturbed. After the man recounted for the interviewer the moment he felt Jesus was asking him to abandon his secular career and turn to selling religious goods, the interviewer said,

That’s really great. How inspiring for our listeners to hear that you abandoned your worldly pursuits, like St. Matthew, in order to serve God and his holy Church. We need more of you.

Out of my visceral reaction, I thought, “Oh, yes, as opposed to the uninspiring choice of remaining in a secular career to serve God in his Church!”

Clarify

A clarification aside here. The word “secular,” which comes from the Latin word saecula, meaning “age” or “span of a lifetime,” refers in theology to this present time-bound world, the “temporal order,” in contradistinction to the “Age to Come,” the heaven of God’s eternity. Also, in the New Testament, the phrase “the world” (in Greek, ho kosmos) can refer to those elements of creation opposed to God, to creation as made good by God, or to creation as a “theater of redemption” loved by God even in its rebellion.

Though the word “secular” has come to refer in pop Catholic-speak to hostile cultural forces that sideline and demonize religion, here I will use the word secular (and worldly) in a more complex theological sense. However, in addition to the senses I just mentioned, I will also use secular/worldly to refer to those dimensions of our life in the world that are not explicitly religious or related to church institutional structures, liturgical worship, acts of piety, etc., i.e. all that is not directly related to the virtue of religion. In this positive sense, secular refers not to what is irreligious (which implies disdain or hostility) but to what is non-religious. For a person of faith, it’s important to affirm that there’s lots to talk about, think about and do that’s not religious.

For Catholics, the “religious” and the “secular” are seen to each possess a certain rightful autonomy relative to one another, and are understood to be each distinct but integrally related to the other. Such a view would reject any notion that the secular is somehow is absorbed into the religious or that the religious is absorbed into the secular, just as it would reject the idea that religious and secular dimensions of this world are either unrelated or opposed (which represent the growing consensus of Western culture). It was this necessary distinction that Pope Paul VI was thinking of when he said,

Here is the answer; and here is the new concept, of great importance in the practical field, the Church agrees to recognize the world as such, that is, free, autonomous, sovereign, and in a certain sense, self-sufficient. She does not try to make it an instrument for her religious purposes, far less for power of the temporal order. The Church also admits a certain emancipation for her faithful of the Catholic laity, when they act in the domain of temporal reality. She attributes to them freedom of action and a responsibility of their own, and she trusts them.

The Lay Call

Now, it may be that this Catholic businessman felt after his radical conversion that he was unable to maintain his new-found integrity within the matrix of the morally compromised business relationships he had previously established, and that Jesus was indeed calling him away into a religious-goods business. That’s not my judgment to make. And though I don’t know what the interviewer really meant by his comment, here’s the underlying message that I find detestable: when it comes to radically serving God, secular careers constitute a form of “settling for less,” while ecclesial, religious or even non-profit careers are the higher, more-radical way. Likely, I would not have been so attentive to this point had I not, since I came back to my faith in 1987, seen this mindset at work so many times. Though it is rarely blatant, and mostly latent, it lurks in the shadows as a sort of pious concession to contemporary culture’s secular-sacred schism.

Such an approach implies that coming near to Christ forces the faithful into an option crisis: secular or sacred, godly religious/churchy careers or godless secular/worldly careers. And flowing from that logic, those who convert and leave their secular careers to work for the church, engage in ministry, or to do overtly religious things are valorized and championed as the truly radical witnesses of real discipleship, superseding the choice of their still-secular counterparts to muddle along in the shadows.

Ordinary and Extra-

I cannot tell you the number of times I have been told by secular-career Catholics, “I wish I could work for God like you.” Though many years ago I would have probably agreed in some way, after reading the Pope’s magna carta on the laity, Christifidelis laici, for the first time back in 1997 my whole worldview was upturned. Not long after reading CL, I had a university math professor (I’ll call him Frank) express his regret that he could not be more involved in parish activities and ministries, and say to me that he really envied my job working so close to God every day. I said something like this back to him,

Yes it’s a privilege to work as a layman for the church, but you have to know that the church’s teaching is that I am an abnormal layman, an exception to the universal call of the laity to be secular like you. And my vocational abnormality exists to serve your vocational normality. As a man with a secular career, as a family man, you are exactly what the church says the laity are called to be, and being there where God wants you makes you very close to Him. The truth is, God has called me into the church’s employ for one single core purpose: to support what you are about in the world. That’s the real privilege for me.

I recall him saying, “I feel like a thousand pound weight of guilt has been lifted from my shoulders.”

As a man long employed by the Church, I obviously am a firm believer in the lay ecclesial ministry/career path as a genuine calling from God. In fact, for those laity who believe themselves called to serve in voluntary or employed ministries, the Bishops have spelled out a program and vision for their rightful place in the Church Institutional. But the fact remains, mine is not the ordinary or even preferred career path for the vast majority of lay men and women. It’s extra-ordinary, non-normative. The orthodox Catholic vision is that the essential character of the lay vocation is secular, meaning that the vocation of the laity is to primarily live, play and work in the temporal world, to be fully engaged citizens of the City of Man, engaging in the ordinary circumstances of secular affairs or domestic life.

St. Gianna Beretta Molla

From whence the temptation?

Last summer a priest friend of mine and I were talking about the many possible reasons that people who have radical conversions immediately want to abandon all-things-secular. Among the many points we shared, I found this particular point made by the priest to be very powerful,

For those who suddenly “get” Christ, living in the secular world while not being “of the world” becomes a great challenge, with lots of dissonance between what’s in you and what’s out there. Being called to love the world God’s way and remain in the world to consecrate the world to God, while not shunning or fleeing or disdaining the world, is as at times like a crucifixion. Working and living outside the ecclesial safe-zone is filled with ambiguities and ragged edges. We need to help people see the “church institutional” as a mother who makes a safe place to come to and be filled with strength, but to see the “church missionary” as a mother that thrusts them out the door to become saints.

It’s risky business to bear the mind of Christ into the City of Man, and in a post-Christian culture that increasingly judges Christ’s mind to be mentally ill, it’s even harder. But Christians, martyrs at heart, have always been risk-takers who are willing to chance being labeled a madman or fool for love of Christ. They’re on the Church’s front lines, engaging in God’s risky business as God’s foolish geniuses.

Personally, I have always been far more inspired by Christian men and women who live their faith outside the walls of the Church, fighting the good fight on the front lines, bringing the light of Christ to life’s darkest corners, revealing the goodness of creation and culture. For these lay saints, all forms of work, civic involvement, cultural activities, marriage and family life serve as their personal altar of sacrifice set up in the midst of a cosmic Colosseum.

And we must never forget that it was the Colosseum that offered Roman Christians in antiquity the very best PR for Christ.

Staying Power

So, what we really need hold up in the Church are the lay witnesses who encounter Christ in a life-altering way and subsequently heroically choose to remain in their secular careers, retain their “worldly” friends and acquaintances as befits their own personal limitations, embrace more fully their spousal and domestic duties, uphold more vigorously their civic responsibilities, feeling wholly at home in non-church environments among friends, co-workers and strangers of all persuasions and ways of life. In a word, the Church needs secular saints whose vibrant religious-church life naturally thrusts them back out into the secular world as their natural habitat and place of flourishing. We need secular saints who see that the leaven of the Gospel needs to exit the security of the leaven-jar in order to be kneaded deep into the heart of an unleavened world.

We especially need young people who fall in love with Jesus only to find their passion for future secular careers set aflame, allowing them to become a new “creative minority” in our society. And the Church ministers, lay and ordained, must help them in their discernment and encourage them in their vocation and mission to take on secular careers. They alone will serve as the wellsprings of a new culture, creating new economists, new artists, new politicians, new journalists, new educators, new students, new spouses and parents, new car mechanics, new salespeople, new justice advocates, new janitors, new business leaders, new lawyers, new doctors, new technologists who each excel in their respective field, being thoroughly imbued with the spirit of the Gospel while being at home in the midst of the world.

The Church must help them acquire what Vatican II called the “lay genius,” that they might become adept at doing the world in Christ, speaking all languages, living in all states of life, and mastering all cultures in order to offer all humanity the chance to think with them. These world-wise Catholics are ever-ready to speak with anyone about “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, or anything worthy of praise” (cf. Phil 4:8). Nothing that is genuinely human is foreign to them.

But such lay geniuses will never be unleashed into the public square as long as we continue to think that the radical, converted and faithful Catholic is only “working for God” if they work for the church, do ministry, abandon their careers or secular interests or at least view their secular ties as necessary evils. For the secular saint, church activities, ecclesial ministries or religious practices are essential servants to their core vocation and mission: to do the world God’s way. And let me note here that doing the world God’s way is the very purpose of the magnificent social teaching of our church. God’s gift of this magisterial teaching at this time in history is meant to give birth to a fresh flowering of holiness in the communion of saints: secular lay saints. And it’s primarily through such godly secular saints, in whom sacred and secular are reconciled, that God will heal the ills of godless secularism.

They are mistaken who, knowing that we have here no abiding city but seek one which is to come, think that they may therefore shirk their earthly responsibilities. For they are forgetting that by the faith itself they are more obliged than ever to measure up to these duties, each according to his proper vocation. Nor, on the contrary, are they any less wide of the mark who think that religion consists in acts of worship alone and in the discharge of certain moral obligations, and who imagine they can plunge themselves into earthly affairs in such a way as to imply that these are altogether divorced from the religious life. This split between the faith which many profess and their daily lives deserves to be counted among the more serious errors of our age. — Gauduim et Spes #43

A final “unsettling” anecdote

A young Catholic man I knew at Florida State University once mentioned to me that, after his conversion to Christ, he felt “guilty” every time he did anything secular. He said,

I feel like I always have to be doing church things, or talking about God, to feel like I’m close to God. And I feel like every time I do something outside of that religious world, like if I listen to non-religious music or hang with non-religious friends, I’m somehow settling. Even if I’m not really doing anything wrong, I always feel compromised. I hate it, but I can’t shake it! I guess I feel that religious and secular things are like oil and water. There’s God-stuff and there’s worldly stuff, and never the two shall meet.

The message I tried to convey to him was that he really radical lay Catholic finds him/herself in love with all that is genuinely human, and sees that every aspect of life, if carried out in the spirit of Christ, is an integral part of your path to holiness. Though it was clear that his experiments with sex, alcohol and drugs before his conversion had left him with a long and hard journey ahead to integrate his new-found faith with his moral character, ensuring his restlessness would be around for a while, I wanted him to understand clearly the positive vision of a reconciled religious faith and secular life that should inform and motivate his desire to be a saint. If he continued to drink in the toxic “split of faith and life” model that Gaudium et Spes describes so well, he would always feel caught in an irresolvable conflict between God-church-religion and the rest of life in the world. And anyone caught in such a conflict for too long will either abandon the faith or abandon the world.

Integrated Holiness

Going to Mass, praying the rosary, going on pilgrimages, spending a holy hour, talking about God are all part of growing in lay holiness. Reading the local newspaper with a cup of coffee, going to a movie with a friend, playing cards with your kids, tinkering with your car, going hunting, playing pool with co-workers, learning to dance, enjoying sports, reading a good novel, making love to your spouse, or sipping a glass of Chianti with your bride while listening to some good jazz music in the French Quarter, all the while talking about the world, is likewise part of growing in lay holiness.

Post-resurrection breakfast
John 21:12-13

O Lay saints, end the schism that sin had driven between God and the secular Garden He made for you to labor to cultivate and to celebrate with joy as a sacrifice of thanksgiving. Remind the world that all that nothing is good in the world is strange to you, and that nothing broken in the world, when purified and transfigured by God through our lives, is lost. Remind the world that the riot of beauty that is our worldly pilgrim home will be caught up into the beatific happiness in the next world. The vision of God and the goodness of creation do, and will, both constitute our eternal happiness. As my moral theology professor in grad school pithily put it, “The Risen Jesus still loves fish sandwiches (cf Luke 24:41-43; John 21:12).”

There are two words that frame the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass: Venite, “Come!” and Ite, “Go!”  These two words encompass the entire spirituality and mission of the lay vocation: to come to the Eucharist with all the “material” of your worldy labors, to give them over to Christ, and to receive them back transformed in the reconciling fire of His God-Man heart. O laity, made priests of the world in baptism, go out and labor in the world, making of it new bread and new wine susceptible to Christ’s consecrating power. Then, at the end of the day, bring it to Christ in his Eucharist that He might multiply it for the nourishment of many and keep it safe in His joyous Paradise for the everlasting Day of God and man’s immortal wedding Feast!

“For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard” — Matthew 20:1-2

Why Ineffably Precious?

Moses Receives the God-written Tablets of the Law
painting by João Zeferino da Costa, 1868

Here are two “fun” quotes that I wish to share today from one of my favorite quotable authors, David Bentley Hart. As I’ve said, his writing celebrates the beauty of words. Reading him makes me re-appreciate again and again the intimate link between the Word and the feast. Those who love God’s Word also love language itself for its luminous capacity to unveil the God-inscribed nature of things. Whether that script be carved into the Book of Nature, in history or on the human face of God, Jesus Christ, deciphering its meaning by engaging the linguistic arts transforms life into a perpetual feast on the Word that falls from the heavens and springs up from the earth anew each day.

There’s a German saying that enriches this view of language as celebration, “Bach gave us God’s Word, Mozart gave us God’s Laughter, Beethoven gave us God’s Fire. God gave us Music that we might pray without words.” And if we can say that Liturgy is the highest expression of language, we can understand better the essential role of music in Liturgy (and music’s daughter, joy) in worthily lifting human speech back to the uncreated Fire under the form of adoring beauty.

Related to this, Hart said in his theological masterpiece, The Beauty of the Infinite,

What Christian thought offers the world is not a set of “rational” arguments that (suppressing certain of their premises) force assent from others by leaving them, like the interlocutors of Socrates, at a loss for words; rather, it stands before the world principally with the story it tells concerning God and creation, the form of Christ, the loveliness of the practice of Christian charity — and the rhetorical richness of its idiom. Making its appeal first to the eye and heart, as the only way it may “command” assent, the church cannot separate truth from rhetoric, or from beauty.

In my judgment, Hart never separates truth from rhetoric, or thought from beauty. Nor does he, as he engages his opponent’s arguments with ironic jabs and subtle skewers, ever resort to crass vulgarity as he ably engages in what George Weigel aptly calls the the gentlemanly art of the insult. In this he demonstrates what my grandfather taught me many years ago in a letter he sent me when I was a Freshman in college: “Those who resort to profanity in emphasizing their point demonstrate both their lexical poverty and the shallow character of their trivial souls.”

But I digress within my digression.

The Quotes

The first quote is from Atheist Delusions, and makes brief mention of modernity’s  indebtedness to the Christian Gospel for its “unnatural” reverence for the inalienable dignity of the human person, while the second quote, from his bracing article in First Things, Christ and Nothing, makes reference to some consequences that flow from the cultural abandonment of Christianity that is nearing completion in the West. If you want the full argument, I highly recommend both the book and the article — though be warned, they are not quick reads, and will require a Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary by your side. At least it does for me.

Enjoy.

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The ultimate  power and meaning of the Christian movement within the ancient world  cannot be measured simply by the richness of later Christian culture’s art or architecture, the relative humanity or inhumanity of its societies and  laws, the creativity of its economic or scientific institutions, or the perdurability of its religious institutions through the ages. “Christendom” was  only the outward, sometimes majestic, but always defective form of the  interaction between the gospel and the intractable stuff of human habit.  The more vital and essential victory of Christianity lay in the strange,  impractical, altogether unworldly tenderness of the moral intuitions it succeeded in sowing in human consciences. If we find ourselves occasionally shocked by how casually ancient men and women destroyed or ignored  lives we would think ineffably precious, we would do well to reflect that theirs was-in purely pragmatic terms-a more “natural” disposition toward  reality. It required an extraordinary moment of awakening in a few  privileged souls, and then centuries of the relentless and total immersion  of culture in the Christian story, to make even the best of us conscious of  (or at least able to believe in) the moral claim of all other persons upon us, the splendor and irreducible dignity of the divine humanity within  them, that depth within each of them that potentially touches upon the  eternal.

+++

Modern persons will never find rest for their restless hearts without Christ, for modern culture is nothing but the wasteland from which the gods have departed, and so this restlessness has become its own deity; and, deprived of the shelter of the sacred and the consoling myths of sacrifice, the modern person must wander or drift, vainly attempting one or another accommodation with death, never escaping anxiety or ennui, and driven as a result to a ceaseless labor of distraction, or acquisition, or willful idiocy. And, where it works its sublimest magic, our culture of empty spectacle can so stupefy the intellect as to blind it to its own disquiet, and induce a spiritual torpor more deplorable than mere despair.

Per crucem ad lucem

I wrote a poem 3 years ago for a friend of mine who has lived as a hermit in a pine forest for over 25 years, and who wrote about some intense physical suffering he has undergone – and about what a gift that pain was to him to come to know Christ in such an intimately physical way.  He referenced in his letter that the crib-wood and cross-wood both opened to him access to the same Tree of Life.

This reminded me of a number of medieval women-theologians who spoke so vividly of their own bodily suffering as, far beyond intellectual knowledge, a supreme form of knowing Christ-crucified. In our highly anesthetized cultural approach to suffering, this insight is hard to access.

Hand me that Ibuprofen.

I was so flabbergasted by this hermit’s capacity to be transparent to this vantage, I had to poeticize my thoughts for safe viewing; so I wanted to share here his white-hot wisdom seen through my safely scattered refraction.  As with everything I write, it is merely an extrapolation on the Cross and its life-giving sap.  What else is there?

Here’s the poem:

Solitude, lonely God-flesh

hid mid pines and wood,

bled of slivers, silver doves

flutter above; silently stars

light-bathe a blazing Cowl.

Solitude, lonely God-flesh

hung on Oak, stolid Post,

bled of iron, crimson love

streams down; shamèd sun,

tenebrous day, soiled Face.

Solitude, lonely God-flesh

entombed by Stone-sealing,

bled dry, gray; lifeless air

hushing Sabbath, linen corpse

resting Sheol, nay, Unshackling.

God, why can’t I see you?

If you’ve ever asked a form of the question, “Why does God seem to hide?” this brief (5 minute) snippet of a Peter Kreeft lecture (referenced on StrangeNotions) is well worth your time. Really, anything Kreeft says or does is worth your time. It’s embedded in my post, so you have to visit NealObstat to see it here:

Consuming God on Black Friday

Black Friday 2011

This year’s Black Friday push-back into Thanksgiving evening, 7:00 p.m. has caused a stir as many people feel that something is amiss. But exactly what is it that’s amiss?

I was listening to a talk radio show the other day, and they were interviewing people in a Mall asking them what they thought of the incremental encroachment of sales and store hours into the sacred space of Thanksgiving Day evening – a process they dubbed “Black Friday creep.” Many said they think it’s a shame that stores just won’t leave family time alone. Others offered a more pragmatic view and said that an earlier opening Thursday evening allows people to not feel they have to stay up late into the night to take advantage of sales. One Corporate rep from a store that will open early said “it gives consumers a choice they’ve never had before. It diversifies their options, which is what drives the market and keeps our economy healthy.”

The fact is, consumerism unrestrained by a “thick” ethical and theological worldview (like that articulated in Caritas in Veritate) spares nothing in its ravenous appetite for more, insidiously, relentlessly commodifying persons and placing the core values that undergird marriage, family, childhood, adulthood, sexuality, religion, leisure, or the meaning of the “feast” (e.g. the Sunday Sabbath, Thanksgiving or Mardi Gras) at the service of the market.

On that last point, Josef Pieper powerfully argues in his book Leisure: Basis of Culture that the authentic role of leisure and the feast is to guard those God-given foundations upon which all human dignity lies: truth, goodness and beauty. When the market does not serve, but overtakes these three “transcendentals,” truth becomes a market-driven statistic, goodness a market-driven appetite, and beauty a market-driven advertising ploy.

David, Take it Away

But let me not waste any more time here trying to say poorly what David Hart, yet again, says so incisively. This is taken from his latest book, which I am also wading through with great joy, The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss.

Late modern society is principally concerned with purchasing things, in ever greater abundance and variety, and so has to strive to fabricate an even greater number of desires to gratify, and to abolish as many limits and prohibitions upon desire as it can. Such a society is already implicitly atheist and so must slowly but relentlessly apply itself to the dissolution of transcendent values. It cannot allow ultimate goods to distract us from proximate goods. Our sacred writ is advertising, our piety is shopping, our highest devotion is private choice. God and the soul too often hinder the purely acquisitive longings upon which the market depends, and confront us with values that stand in stark rivalry to the one truly substantial value at the center of our social universe: the price tag. So it really was only a matter of time before atheism slipped out of the enclosed gardens of academe and down from the vertiginous eyries of high cosmopolitan fashion and began expressing itself in crassly vulgar form…In a sense, the triviality of the movement is its chief virtue. It is a diverting alternative to thinking deeply. It is a narcotic. In our time, to strike a lapidary phrase, irreligion is the opiate of the bourgeoisie, the sigh of the oppressed ego, the heart of a world filled with tantalizing toys. (313-14)