Saturday, 29 September 2007

Powders, pills... and pests

No, this is not a tribute to the cockroach or fly. The pests to whom I refer in the title are those who, on seeing anyone else's situation (preferably problem), just have to make 'sage' contributions which will only make things worse. Of course, I've never understood the kind of 'curiosity' (I cannot think of a better term, though I sense that one is inadequate) which makes some people relish others' misfortunes. Perhaps it is fear - if I "know it all," then similar misfortune cannot come to me. In other cases, it may be that it gives someone a sense of being important.

One of few rules in my own life is that, if anyone has any sort of major misfortune (perhaps illness, being sacked from a job, being victim of a crime, losing one's home), a close friend may make an 'ear' available, but there should be no questions, much less any unsolicited "advice." Yet ask anyone who has been in such situations! Even vague acquaintances will be looking for details, asking for more information, "instructing" the other in what s/he should have done...

I was performing an Internet search today, and, though my search had not the slightest relation to health, the side panel of the screen yielded an advertisement for a prescription drug. I've noticed these in abundance recently. (Worse yet, I've also noticed many a 'know it all' on Internet fora with "health advice" - and this might not seem surprising unless I note that none of the ones I'm likely to visit has any relation to health!) I am not opposed to disinterested, purely factual information being available about health care, nor to people sharing their own experiences (though they should save the 'health' experiences for a forum on that topic only.) Nor do I have any inherent problem with advertising - though I handled capital purchasing long enough to forget that not everyone views advertising with discrimination (where I know all the tricks, often joined in the game for the sake of the sport, but never mistook advertising for fact.)

I feel very strongly that advertising for prescription drugs is highly dangerous. It doesn't matter that one needs a prescription - doctors often are inclined towards believing claims as well. Ask anyone with a chronic condition. A heart patient, for example, may finally find the drug that is genuinely helpful to him - and, next visit, the doctor wants to change it for another just because the latter is "new." Someone with anxiety disorders will have a doctor want to change the (finally!) useful drug because 'it's too sedating.' (Wasn't that the point?) I shudder when I read of how some doctors think nothing of how a drug may have been found to have side effects that can be deadly.

But there are two other reasons I object. If the Internet is any indication, people have become utterly obsessed with "health" in recent years. (If someone has a multiplicity of conditions, all of which could have been fatal, and it is a miracle that she is alive... if she isn't ready for the Olympics this week, or even has a bad day, pests will be upon her, insisting she doesn't have the right drugs, shouldn't be on medications at all, needs to see a nutritionist, needs vitamins, should be on a macrobiotic diet, doesn't go the right doctor...) People are so used to information (it may be misinformation! but those who are hounds for it think they are very well informed) related to 'health' that they may not step back and recognise advertising for what it is - mistaking it for a news report or scholarly study (in effect.)

I would think it tragic if someone who is ill saw an advertisement which gave him unrealistic expectations of what effects he could expect. Perhaps just as sadly, if someone has a condition, and is doing well all things considered, a relative or acquaintance could see, let's say, the drug which makes it appear that depression will disappear, or the one that will give someone the sexual potency of Casanova, etc., and think that the person who is ill "refuses to be helped" - or could be with the advertised drug.

There also are manufactured needs which those in the overall "health" business could seek to cultivate, when we're talking of advertising rather than disinterested information. As a simple example, menopause is a perfectly normal, natural process - yet I've seen advertising for everything from acupuncture to nutritional consultations to alternative therapies presented as a vital "management programme." Of course, I'm aware that some women have serious problems at that time of life, but I doubt they are anything but a small minority. By taking a natural process and turning into a 'condition' to be monitored, some controlling character will create a false need - and laugh all the way to the bank.

The paradox is tragic. The "information" (which is either advertising or the smug assumptions of pests) can lead people to the modern versions of snake oil - make those who genuinely are ill have false expectations of what can be done - or can make relatives and friends shrug off, or misjudge, the genuine suffering a loved one endures.

Saturday, 22 September 2007

Loving what a motley crew we all are

Admittedly, my scope of reference here includes mainly those who are devout in some sense, and also hopelessly intellectual. I enjoy how even those who are brilliant and/or perhaps in the category of saintly can see things very differently. I am not a member of either set, but let's just say that there's enough of an element of 'longing from afar' to make me love the diversity of God's human creation when I see how we vary in approach.

I shall ask my readers to bear with me, because, since I so cherish creativity (not a common property, since conformity is more profitable in many senses), I've been rather staggered by what I consider unwise use of same. My studies take up much time, and I've tried to unwind with watching such films as I can see on the television. Now, isn't trying to improve on Shakespeare a bit much? I was not exactly thrilled by a version of As You Like It (one of my favourite plays), which I turned off after ten minutes of seeing it begin with violence in 19th century Japan. (Huh?) But my just finding a film advertised which embellished on Othello (another favourite) by creating a version where the main character is a black basketball player in an all-white US school that I had to turn from television to blog.

Anyway, back to our merry Church situation. I've always enjoyed seeing how those, well grounded in theology and dedicated to the faith into the bargain, can have totally different perspective on details. For example, a liturgical scholar will applaud common themes in a lectionary, where the specialist in scripture will protest (often quite correctly) that the set of readings has no exegetical basis in common. A sociologist and a moralist, though their pastoral practise may be the same, will express very different bases for their versions of 'family values.' Those whose lives have been devoted to educating children will often see the very liturgy which I'd consider to be an aesthetic and intellectual wasteland as what would bring families into the church.

I believe I've mentioned that I'm avidly preparing for my exam in Philosophy of Religion. (It is not till next May - but, since it's an area I find rather difficult, I cannot store up my avidity until later.) I naturally am hopeless, since my own emphasis (however accidentally) has so been either cultural (doctor of humanities, after all) or in ascetic theology. I realise, of course, that no theist thinks he can prove divine existence or describe the godly essence - and no atheist philosopher can show there is no god. (Don't be offended - atheist philosophers are speaking of a 'god,' not the Christian God. And no theist worth his salt would presume to explain all the attributes of the Christian image of God.) It is mainly a matter of asserting or challenging that an attribute, or worldly condition, whatever, is or is not logically feasible.

I am no lover of Anselm - his 'atonement' makes me cringe, even if he wrote some very lovely words about prayer - but I'm afraid I'm a little too far removed from Greek thought of Anselm's day to think that what one can imagine has to be true - much less that the ultimate in what we can imagine is divine. (As one with a passion for the medieval, I have seen Hildegard of Bingen, in her noted work on medicine, describe the humours of the unicorn and gryphon. Hildegard may be forgiven for lack of scientific method, having lived in a day when zoology was studied in libraries, and she presumably had it on some testimony that the gryphon's feathers alleviated hay fever or something along those lines. But let us say that I have some reservations about how what we can imagine points to its being true.)

I'm growing a little bored with all the readings about whether God could create a stone too hard for him to lift. My all too practical side (yes, it's there under the romanticism) wonders why a being who is pure spirit would be lifting rocks in the first place. I also doubt that Jesus of Nazareth, even if he had to fall into certain feats such as walking on water to get his message through the thick skulls of the apostles, would have been lifting Gibraltar.

Today, I devoted hours to study of the 'problem of evil,' the particular unit which I've been pursuing this week. (I'm not referring to the massive pastoral problem of evil, but entirely to the philosophical problem of whether the existence of evil means there can be no omnipotent, all loving God.)

Of course, no one has the answer to evil, but the efforts to show it is compatible with theism yield interesting results in the works of many authors, ancient, medieval, or modern. I did enjoy John Hick's "Irenaean theodicy," which he develops on the concepts Irenaeus had of our being an immature creation with glory in the future. (I'm drastically over simplifying, of course, but, coming from a western Christian tradition so focussed on 'the fall,' punishment, and salvation as the end of punishment - even if one must either roast in purgatory for a time if one is Catholic or be obliterated till the last Judgement if Calvinist - I love the Eastern emphasis on constant creation, growth in this life and beyond, deification, and, ultimately - how we cannot imagine - sanctification of the cosmos.)

Yet something occurred to me when I was reading some of the philosophers who are theists, including Hick. They are working not only from the assumptions that a Creator God remains active in his creation, but, seemingly, from a perspective which assumes that spiritual considerations are foremost in people's thoughts and actions. Had I spent my life in the anchorhold, without my long exposure to parish work and the like (not to mention 'the world,' but I cite parish and diocesan work specifically because it involves people who are both believers and seeking to practise Christianity), I might not have grasped that, for example, many people are 'moral' because a lack of the appearance of respectability could damage them socially or financially.

Hick, in speaking of natural evils as opposed to those rising from moral choices, gives a detailed presentation of how living in a world with its own laws, and one which is no paradise, fosters responsibility, maturity, and compassion. (Not necessarily... but he makes a good point overall. I'm not going to go on in great detail, but it was superbly presented.) He notes that there would be no morality if no evil action could cause harm. I need to step out of my normal mode to understand and discuss philosophy! My immediate thought (which is pastoral, not philosophical - Hick is not addressing pastoral cases, but showing that evil does not make theism implausible) is that no real virtue exists if one's concern is avoiding consequences alone.

Perhaps I'm just refreshing my weary memory, but, in the same unit on the Problem of Evil, David Pailin, whose approach is highly scientific rather than what might be termed the more mystical approach of Hick, made an excellent point. The problem of evil makes moral evil seem as if God were manufacturing humans as one might make a drinking cup, or is fostered by a non scientific approach where everything is as we find it because God fashioned it precisely that way. (God could not have made dinosaurs, or they would have survived...) Pailin's fine point was that we cannot understand fully what "God is Creator" even means! How can we say that an omnipotent, all good, God would have done things differently, when we cannot begin to understand what creation fully entails? (Though Pailin dislikes Hick's idea of the earth as a proving ground for maturity, Hick actually is not beyond the scientific - because he depicts a God who is always creating, not one who created a perfect world, had his plans botched by a fallen angel and two humans, and then had to go to plan B.)

Here's a quote from David Pailin that I found interesting. It was presented in acontext of showing that evil does not make a god logically impossible, and that speculations (by atheists) about what God 'might have done' were the will to do it there imply "a transcendental understanding which it is hard to render credible". (One of the amusing parts of my study of philosophy, Lord forgive me, is noticing how atheists implicitly seem to believe they have the greatest knowledge of what omnipotence, beneficence, goodness, whatever, would be if only there were a god.) He notes first, and aptly, that atheists who go on about how a god who permits evil is not omnipotent, all good, and so forth, ignore that "It is far from certain that we are sufficiently clear in our apprehension of the nature of divine power to be able to warrant the implications of 'omnipotence'".

"Theism sees God as deeply involved, as One who experiences all suffering produced by human evil... and seeks, by love, to draw us from perverted conduct arising from our sense of unimportance into acts of creative love made possible by the self-respect that comes from knowing their total acceptance by God."

I'll never be a philosopher, and, unlike my co-contributors, all I know or understand about science is that I love dinosaurs, the DNA molecule, and the planets. (Pailin is superb on showing how images of God which present faulty theistic arguments often are based on "certainly pre-Darwinian, perhaps pre-Copernican" images of creation.) Yet that last paragraph I quoted was as powerful a meditation for me as anything I've read at my orisons.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Hazardous hagiography

This past week, I've noticed some brief news reports about how Pope Benedict needs to reassure the flock that Mother Teresa's book, in which she writes of struggle, pain, and doubt, does not show an unusual situation for a saint. On the contrary, many of the greatest saints lived for years with darkness, a sense of aloneness, confusion, an idea that they were not genuine and the like.

God leads us to him in ways that differ greatly. For example, were someone to have been a spiritual director for forty years, he may never have met anyone who went through the "Dark Night" which John of the Cross describes - yet there indeed are cases where that total emptiness, complete awareness that one cannot know God's essence, is a means to sanctity. Teresa of Avila, despite huge physical sufferings and troubles with the Establishment, was a Carmelite of another flavour. Her own prayer was filled with consolations - and she saw them more as distractions than as helpful. There is no one mould for the making of saints!

One of my favourite quotes is from Dermot Quinn: "History as Revelation is seldom very revealing, and histories of holiness are full of holes." I shall refrain from writing a dissertation on church history for the moment, because, in the context of the thought I'm developing today, I wish to focus on the blessings and curses one finds in 'lives of the saints' - while noting that hagiography was the largest portion of most young Catholics' exposure to church history in any sense. The very young were given the impression of saints as obedient children (though saints tend to be controversial, and many were far from meeting the standards of obedience in their day.) Adults were presented with the "martyrdom with no trace of self pity" image - saints could see five of their kids slaughtered and remain peaceful knowing God works through all things. I suppose the underlying idea was to give an example, though it often distorted the entire picture and stripped saints of their humanity.

There was no question that the saints suffered, but we were given a vague idea that their opponents (who could not deal with seeing holiness before them) were responsible, or that God sent the saints suffering because His grace can't work unless evil is instrumental... The 'good' around them were perpetually edified, in awe of their wonderful temperaments, perhaps overwhelmed by their shining virtue.

It is very common for saints to have suffering of quite another source - the silence of the Beloved in response to the burning desire for intimacy with Him. Often, those who have reached a point where God is their only treasure are faced with a sense of total desolation. Images of God are always inadequate - but the sense of passion for one who now seems totally unknowable, which for many saints is the road to a greater maturity, causes intense emotional pain.

Inadequate though it may be, I think an example from the life of a very popular saint may shed some light on this. Thérèse of Lisieux, living in an era when too much French spirituality was focussed on suffering, had an amazingly positive spirituality. Her Little Way continues to be an inspiration for many, and certainly has no element of morbidity or negativity. Yet, during her short life, she went through years of having no consolation at prayer.

This analogy is far from perfect, but it may go some ways towards an illustration. Thérèse often was very childlike in her imagery - herself as a plaything for the Child Jesus, God and Mary as tender parents. Of course, her early love for Jesus was fostered in a family where she was a very well-loved child, with a doting father and sisters who supported her in her vocation from the earliest inclinations. There is an unusual, moving tenderness in Thérèse's writings about God, and she was of a sensitive, delicate temperament.

Keeping all of this in mind - her empty, dark years at prayer must have been emotional torture. For one whose images of God were initially of loving parents, it must have been horrid to be calling out, as she might have to the earthly father she loved so as to call 'her King,' and have him seem to be unresponsive, silent, cold. During the time when her body was wracked with agony from tuberculosis, Thérèse had no solace from consolation in prayer.

I'm sure no one had any illusions that Mother Teresa's work for the poor of Calcutta was any joy ride, but I suppose, based on images from past (and poor) hagiography about other saints, people assumed that Teresa was universally loved and totally peaceful and trusting in her faith. I wonder if the poorer grade of hagiography, which eliminated the possibility of adoration for an unknowable and silent God, is considered 'safer' because, otherwise, people might fear approaching the true God.