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Monday, June 28, 2010

Faith, Reason, and Happiness

I recently read Dennis Prager's book, Happiness is a Serious Problem.  While I enjoyed the book, I admit that I read it with a critical eye informed by my last three years of study, and in good conscience, I cannot recommend it as good reading material for the average Catholic.

Please, allow me to explain.

I like Dennis Prager and have read many of his articles. There is much that he says with which I agree and which coincides with Catholic Tradition and belief. Within his book on happiness there are many points that DID fully agree with Catholic teaching, and from THAT standpoint, I do recommend this book to knowledgeable Catholics.

Are you confused yet? I recommend it and yet I don't? 

In our present age, the vast majority of self-proclaimed Catholics are very uninformed. In fact, they haven't been formed at all, but only raised to engage in a particular behavior, that of "doing Catholic things".  To them, that means going to Mass on Sunday, getting Baptized as an infant, getting Confirmed, and this latter to enable one to eventually "get married in the Church."  To the vast majority of self-identifying Catholics, the rosary is a nice prayer but something old ladies carry and young gangsters wear in certain parts of the country.  Catholic homes have the trappings of Saint statues and pictures, especially those of Mary. Holy Communion has a vague connotation of a mere meal we call  "Eucharist" and, many think that after reception of this "blessed thing" one is free to leave church for the bumper-car ritual in the parking lot to see who can beat a retreat faster.  Many of those within this group show up only a few times per year, primarily of which are Christmas and Easter.

Yes. This is the vast majority of self-proclaimed Catholics. I'm sorry to say it, but it's true.This is also the same group that loves to "study" World Religions, pick and choose what beliefs to follow, and still call themselves "Catholic" out of a fundamental misunderstanding of what it IS to be Catholic, for, sadly, they have both never been taught, and as adults, have chosen never to actually study their own faith before either dismissing it entirely or calling it their own while actually embracing tenants and philosophies of other belief systems. 

It is not that I am against learning about other religions; rather, I am an advocate of it.  

I only offer this caveat;  before one goes rushing off to become "informed" in other religions, one must first know ones own, for without a foundation in ones own beliefs, one cannot accept or reject ANY tenants of ANY belief system with any kind of integrity.  This lesson has, at the hands of Dennis Prager, been brought home to me, and it is for this reason that I do not recommend his book, "Happiness is a Serious Problem" for the average Catholic.

A Little Relevant History

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?

Faith and Reason, Together, are related to Happiness. 

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.

Christian Anthropology and the impact of Trinitarian philosophy on human nature.

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.

Why I Don't Recommend This Book

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.

Tolerance and Intolerance

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)*


Robin said...

You make many points here that are probably valid from the POV of all religions. I know that as a leader in the education program in my own (Presbyterian) church, I have been frustrated by the fact that we get twice as many folks in attendance for adult ed programs on world religions as we do for programs on our own faith and practices. I'm all for learning about other faiths, but I'm not happy that we think that we know so much about our own that we can just skip those educational and formation offerings and go straight to those on Hinduism and Buddhism.

I think that my former teaching colleagues in an Orthodox Jewish school would take the same position. I taught a lot about world religions in high school world history, but it was made easier by the fact that the students were well versed in their own faith and could ask questions from a well-developed and acknowledged perspective.

My brother, who is in a searching mode these days, expressed a great deal of interest in Buddhism for awhile, and finally asked me what the differences were between Buddhism and Christianity. As far as he could tell from a superficial and mostly cultural perspective, they were about the same. I'm afraid that his viewpoint is a common one.

Adoro said...

Robin ~ Everything you said here is true. That common perspective, that of "all religions are the same" has done much to cause the increase in secularism and atheism in this country. It's a position of intellectual laziness that's got all too many people in a downward spiral!

It also seems there are extremes: occasionally I'll "run into" someone who disagrees with the Catholic Church, but through their misunderstandings of our beliefs. Conversations in that regard are unfruitful for the other person is telling me what I allegedly believe! lol! If they would focus on what THEY believe, they would make more sense, but I suspect in many of those cases, where the other party is hostile, their anger arises from a position of uncertainty. They don't have their own foundation of belief!

I also work in religious education, and although we don't offer world religions, we DO try to provide adult formation materials...but the same people are the ones who attend. Those who are knowledgeable! Those who need to be informed won't even darken the door!

We may have differing beliefs, but you and I are dealing with the same problems!

Banshee said...

The other caveat is that a writer from another tradition may seem very mainstream to his faith, but not be. No matter how plausible his interpretation seems to us ignorant outsiders....

Adoro said...

Suburbanbanshee ~ yes, that too. I was in fact wondering about where he stands within his own religion. However, logically, knowing that they do not believe in a Triune God, fundamentally it is going to affect their beliefs about human nature. I'd really never thought about that before.

I have no idea where he is on the spectrum of Judaism, though. As with any discussion about religion, it does help to not only know one's own beliefs, but those of the other person so as to avoid a priori assumptions that may not be applicable!