September 17, 2009

It's in the Culture

In a comment on this post, Tom of Disputations disputes the Richard Rohr quote, saying:
"...there is a Christian disappointment that isn't 'the human situation,' it's the divine situation when faced with human hard-heartedness.

Is 'the central Christian logo' really 'a naked, bleeding, suffering man' because 'life is suffering'? Or is it because the central Christian teaching is that we are saved through the suffering of one particular man, whose sufferings were not those of the human condition but those of God's Anointed One?...to suggest 'life is suffering' is a doctrine shared by Christians and Buddhists is stuff and nonsense.
The "life is suffering" motif ingrained in our current culture has effects both good and bad; the good effect is that in some ways there is more desire to prevent and ameliorate human suffering than there was a hundred years ago (see the very low tolerance for casualties in war, greater health and safety precautions in the work place, child labor prohibited, a prevalence of handicap ramps, children wearing helmets while bicycling etc...). But the bad effect is the culture of death shown most explicitly by euthanasia and abortion. (A co-worker once shocked me when he said he favored abortion since most of the kids who are aborted would likely live lives of suffering and want.)

Carl Anderson, author of Our Lady of Guadalupe, acknowledges this factor in our culture:
A culture of life respects life for what it is, not for what hardship and suffering frame it to be. A culture of life does not deny the reality of death. A culture of life deals with death as a serious but not ultimate principle. In fact, one of the most strikingly human elements conveyed in the apparition account is Juan Diego's grasp of the reality of death...In his words to the Virgin, we glimpse how powerfully this impending death colored Juan Diego's view of life: 'because in reality for this [death] we were born, we who came to await the task of our death.' This statement, perhaps more than any other in Juan Diego's dialogue with the Virgin, resonates with contemporary views of the person; and the Virgin's response - 'Am I not here, I who have the honor to be your mother' - tests our understanding of the person and points us toward hope.
Upon first reading I didn't find Juan Diego's view very unremarkable, seeing in it shades of the familiar Christian theme of memento mori. Richard J. Neuhaus begins one of his books with "We are born to die." A quick check of wikipedia regarding memento_mori was interesting:
In ancient Rome, the words are believed to have been used on the occasions when a Roman general was parading through the streets during a victory triumph...The thought came into its own with Christianity, whose strong emphasis on Divine Judgment, Heaven, Hell, and the salvation of the soul brought death to the forefront of consciousness. Most memento mori works are products of Christian art, although there are equivalents in Buddhist art. In the Christian context, the memento mori acquires a moralizing purpose quite opposed to the Nunc est bibendum theme of Classical antiquity... Colonial American art saw a large amount of 'memento mori' images in their art because of their puritan influence.

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