Several years ago, a friend gave me this book and although I paged through it, it didn't interest me much so I put it on my shelf, intending to read it "later". A week or so ago, someone on Twitter asked me if I knew of a particular book on "Happiness" written by some other popular author I had never heard of. Upon reviewing the official web page of that obscure and overly-marketed segment of pop-culture, I knew it was neither something I would recommend or something I wanted to delve into myself; but the query DID remind me of Prager's book which was quite busy gathering dust on one of my many bookshelves. Clearly, it was time to read it.
I began it with great interest and found that although he didn't use the same terminology, he was speaking, initially, by grounding his book in the virtues. He was careful to write his book for the secular set; his definitions excluding, officially, those arising from the purely religious. However, as it went on, more and more it was clear that he wrote from his own religious understanding. This, above all, was what made the book interesting to me, for, by knowing Prager's general religious philosophy, I could better accept his position and therefore, better evaluate it critically in light of my own.
While reading I realized, quite deeply, why one must learn one's own religion before trying to delve into another. It is quite popular in our culture, even in the Catholic world, to study "world religions" even by bringing some "expert" claiming expertise in such into a Catholic parish even to teach children! I have always been against this practice, not out of "intolerance", but rather, out of concern for academic and scientific integrity. Those who know little about their own position are unlikely to be able to fully grasp the position of another, and the logic that should make up ones foundation, if absent, leads only to chaotic but ultimately meaningless "connections" when presented with a plethora of options.
In other words, it's like an intellectual religious stroke that actually paralyzes any real thought or growth.
New Age, anyone?
In reading Prager's book, I received an insight into his own position, arising from his own Jewish Faith and found that it is at utter odds with what we believe as Catholics.
I'm grateful that he brought his interpretation of the words of Genesis, "Let us make Man in our image" into a discussion of the "lower parts" of human nature, for it was here that I finally began to obtain an understanding of a fundamental difference between the philosophy of Jews and Christians. When one follow's Prager's definition of human nature to a logical conclusion, that arising from his own faith, that God meant "us" to be He and the animals he created, it stands to reason that Man's "animal nature" is by instinct. Therefore, following that, things such as men's desires for multiple partners, use of pornography, and the moral neutrality of masturbation stand to reason. They follow a logical flow arising from what he believes both about God's nature and Man's nature.
Understanding this kept me from being outright offended by Prager's assertion that my Christian perspective that pornography and masturbation are deadly sins are a "fringe" belief belonging to a person who is both maladjusted and has taken religion to an extreme.
I wanted to be offended, but when considering Prager's fundamental belief about human nature, I could not be; he is very consistent and logical in what he presents, and although he wrote the book with the secular set in mind, he was still very clear in that he is informed by his Faith and finds a position of atheism and secularism to be completely illogical, and in fact, a position that inhibits happiness.
I am thrilled to agree with him here, and God bless him for pointing it out! This is one of those parallels with what we believe as Catholics. Gaudiem et spes, the Vatican II document on the Church in the Modern World comments on the causes of atheism and in reading Happiness is a Serious Problem, I was almost surprised that it wasn't a footnote in his own commentary on the subject. One would think that Prager and Pope John Paul II met and discussed this, for they both come to the same conclusion: that nominal religion (nominal Christianity) has more to do with the growth of atheism than anything else. Prager asserts that the lack of religion in our society is also a detriment to the pursuit and attainment of happiness. His logic, and the logic of the Church, both coincide in this regard.
Now, after this brief discussion about what Prager, and therefore, what the Jewish believe about human nature, how does that conflict with what we as Catholics believe?
Prager believes that we are both animal and divine; that when God said "Us" He meant He and the animals.
As Christians, we recognize God's use of the word "Us" to mean the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: the Trinity.
While Prager believes Man is created in the image of God and animal, we, as Christians believe we are created in the image of God Himself. We look to Him, and we look to Christ as our example as to how to live, how to sacrifice, how to walk the bloody road to Calvary. We look to Jesus to learn how to unite our sufferings to Him. We look to the Holy Spirit to give us the gifts we need to meet our final end; eternal beatitude in the Divine Processions.
We believe that pornography is a mortal sin because it undermines marriage as well as the dignity inherent in every human being. We recognize that because of that dignity, that any naked, airbrushed woman or man on a magazine page is being exploited and abused, for he or she is not being seen as who she is as a child of God, but by his or her physical attributes which objectify him/her and harm the one who looks upon him/her. We recognize masturbation as a mortal sin for it takes that which is owed to God in a sacred act, with another person in an act of self-sacrificing love, and spends it in an act of self-love which cannot bear fruit of any kind. We as Catholics understand that by cooperating with God to elevate what is lowest within us Glorifies Him, thus our quest for holiness by working to overcome the lowest points of our fallen nature is not "neurotic" but rather, a path to Heaven.
I don't recommend it (to the average Catholic) because Prager advances positions commonly held by unformed and un-informed "Catholics" who find the teachings of the Church regarding Mortal Sin to be inconvenient to the way they want to live their lives. Already we are inundated by people who at all levels of "expertise" in society who try to say that the moral teachings of the Catholic Church are "outdated" or "extreme" or the like. Those who agree with the popular flow would find even more here to weaken their faith and undermine their own moral fragility.
However...those Catholics who ARE informed and know the moral teachings of the Church as well as the Catholic/Christian belief of Human Nature might well benefit from Prager's book on happiness. There is much Truth within it, when one can recognize and dismiss the parts of his commentary that conflict with our beliefs. Further, it is of use to all of us to read and understand the differing moral positions of others, for it is there that we are able to confront our own doubts and strengthen our own positions.
Ah, the words of our age; they mean so much that they have been rendered to mean nothing at all.
I have a sense that if Dennis Prager was prowling blogs, he'd welcome my own particular post. Part of his book deals with growth in knowledge, the use of intellect as it relates to happiness, and I have to admit that he's right; I have been very happy as I've put my own education to use in recognizing fundamental philosophical conflicts between he and I.
There are those who would read this post and condemn me as "Intolerant" simply because I disagree with Prager. Do you see the irony in such a position, and how one who holds it is probably inhibiting their own pursuit of happiness?
True Tolerance recognizes differences, but doesn't necessarily agree with them or accept them. I accept SOME of Prager's premises, but others I utterly reject because I have a different understanding of God's nature and Man's nature.
I have to admit that although I don't recommend the book to the average "Catholic", I DO recommend it for those who know their Faith, understand their foundations, and can therefore engage fruitfully with the premises Prager establishes. The more you know about what you DO believe and the more you are able to hold to it, the more you will understand and accept or refute what he (or anyone with an opposing position) has to say.
I must thank Dennis Prager for this book, for he has opened my eyes to some fundamental differences between Christians and Jews; philosophical differences I had not previously understood. Quite honestly, had I read this book when it was given to me, I would not have gotten out of it, both the good and the bad, what I have now that I have completed my most recent three years of formal doctrinal studies.
Actually, although this would never happen, I'd LOVE to sit down with him and discuss our differing beliefs in God and how that leads to respectively differing moral conclusions.
It would be a fascinating conversation.
Ahhh...that would be fun enough to make me happy. At least in that moment. ;-)
*(Dennis Prager would understand)*