Simulations & Spouses

Poster of “Bride and Gloom” (1918), Public Domain.

The popular philsophical writer Alain de Botton recently published an article in the New York Times outlining the ways in which, in the end, everyone marries the wrong person (a longer version of this essay can be found here) While this is often a cause for despair, de Botton chimed in with an encouraging note, as well as a note of caution with the words:

The good news is that it doesn’t matter if we find we have married the wrong person…We mustn’t abandon him or her, only the founding Romantic idea upon which the Western understanding of marriage has been based the last 250 years: that a perfect being exists who can meet all our needs and satisfy our every yearning.

This observation of the effect that that what he calls the “Romantic idea” of marriage is an important one, for it would seem that the current environment of image-saturation, creating a condition that the Marxist philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s called “hyperreality”, exacerbates the “Romantic idea”. This is because conditions of hyper-reality – where images are deemed more real than reality itself – bear the potential to generate, and indeed have generated, simulations of a spouse that cement themselves into the mind’s eye to the point that actual, embodied spouses are constantly coming up short, whether it is in terms of appearance, temperament, abilities or delivery of lifestyle. The actual spouse is constantly exposed to be nothing like the sweeping movie scene, the checklist or the airbrushed photo on Pinterest. It is in love that the death of actuality at the hands of an overpowering potentiality are most viscerally experienced.

On the other hand, what the article by de Botton, and indeed the Theological work on marriage in the tradition of St. John Paul II and Marc Oullet highlight, is that the taking of a spouse is always a taking in of a mystery that is gradually and constantly unfolding before you. Marriage is that context within which the embodied reality of the spouse acts as an abrasive to grind back the simulations that the conditions of hyperreality have encrusted onto us. An important task of the spouse then is twofold, to resist the simulations of the spouse delivered by movies, music videos and social media, but also develop a disposition of active waiting for the unfurling of one’s actual spouse.

Post-Materialism, Sacramentality & Marketing

Creative Commons

A friend on social media once wondered out loud why a big telecommunications company would decide to come out to join in a massive media campaign by a slew of large corporations who supported a particular social cause which, on the surface, had little or nothing to do with their particular lines of business. The question then asked out loud was “what do these causes have to do with making money”?

Nothing was said out loud, but silently and slowly an answer came to mind which is only now being put down. A few years ago in The Politics of Discipleship, Graham Ward observed that from the early 1980s onwards, we have been gradually entering an age of what he called “post-materialism”. This was a condition concentrated in highly affluent societies where, more than survival, material superabundance is the (highly unevenly spread) hallmark. In these societies, goods and services are becoming cheaper and profit margins are shrinking with every unit sold.

In such societies, there are growing cadres of highly affluent groups of individuals with massive spending power, who do not have to worry about material survival, but still seek to have a meaningful existence. As a result, many would come to adopt causes and values that have little direct relation to their economic output. Such values can be environmental, minority-related, political, religious, artistic or cultural. These values need not be traditional – indeed one journal article noted that post-materialism is occurring at precisely the moment when traditional values are on a massive decline. – , and these affluent individuals are willing to spend a large portion of their financial surplus to support campaigns promoting these values. The financial flows that are generated by such post-materialist pursuits are massive.

What is of interest for for-profit businesses then, is not so much the cause per se, but the ability to tap into those financial flows and boost lagging profits. What we see is the latest stage of a trend identified in the 1960s by the Marxist philosopher Herbert Marcuse in One Dimensional Man, where consumption in capitalist societies come to provide not only material but also “esoteric” well being, so much so that a consumer can, to borrow Marcuse’s words, find their soul in their car or stereo set.

In our day, corporations have come to boost their profit margins and market share by deliberately turning the commodities one consumes to something more than a mere material product. Under conditions of post-materialism, corporations have taken on a marketing strategy of turning their good or service into sacraments of the non-material causes that one wants to pursue. By providing material signs of invisible benefits, the corporation is making money by turning itself into an acolyte of a church called the market, where one saves oneself by taking and consuming, and every bite is a prayer from which a corporation seeks to literally profit.

Meaty Souls & the Death of Prince


People die everyday, sometimes in great numbers at a single time, from wars, genocides, domestic violence, stabbings, shootings, prenatal dismemberments and natural disasters. We are so bombarded by death and the notifications thereof that the avalanche of bodies cascading down into the meat-grinder of history has almost become a kind of cultural white noise, the backdrop to everyday lives punctuated by the beholding of more virtual deaths on television shows, games and movies.

In light of this, it seems somewhat jarring to read on social media that 2016 is only now being singled out as a year of death, following with the deaths of Prince (and the less noted death of the female wrestling star Chyna) earlier this week and David Bowie a couple of months before.

Putting to one side the asymmetry of ascribing greater significance to the deaths of a handful from the world of North American entertainment (compared to the hundreds of deaths of more ordinary folk in South America, Europe and the Middle East in the same period), what one senses from the recent lamentations is the idea that with the loss of these bodies, a certain spirit of the age has gone with them. We the fans of these entertainers feel that a part of our identity – childhoods, adolescences, key stages in our lives – has been lost with the disappearance of these bodies. There seemed to be something more to these bodies than mere flesh, and clearly gets a sense of this from the obituary to Prince by Rebecca Bratten Weiss.

What this sense of loss of a communal geist that accompanies the loss of these particular bodies demonstrates is a phenomenology of the body outlined by the likes of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Graham Ward and St. John Paul II (and well before him, Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle before him still). We feel the sense of loss of a communal geist because, Ward tells us in his Christ and Culture, bodies are not mere flesh, isolated objects that are just there. Bodies are tied, sometimes biologically, to communal relations, and as such they are infused with the weight of the symbols that form and sustain that community. Lose that body, and you lose a node to those symbolic strings that were stretched and held taut across peoples, ages and places, held in place simply from that bodies presence.

What is more, bodies are not merely flesh because, as Aristotle once suggested, flesh is ensouled. Ward reminds us of the German designations of the word “body”, namely körper (to designate dead bodies) and leib (to designate living bodies). Ward notes that Leib was not just an expression of life as mere locomotion. Leib put the body as “the seat of the soul”. Put this way, soul and body are not the separable, independent categories that we imagine them to be. As Merleau-Ponty wrote in his The Structure of Behaviour, soul and body “can never be absolutely distinguished without each ceasing to be” since, as he noted elsewhere in his Phenomenology of Perception “man’s body and ‘soul’ are but two aspects of his way of being in the world”. The movements of the body, to paraphrase Aquinas’ de Veritate, are but movements of the soul, and the movements of the bodies of the entertainers that captured our collective imaginations, are simultaneously movements of their individual souls and the semiotics of the communities in which we belong.

Catholic Social Dispatches


With all the intense hypervigilence and dissection of the recent Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Letitia, and equally intense online sabre-rattling over whether the Catholic faith has been transformed beyond recognition because of it, a lot of other stories in the Catholic social media landscape have received scant attention. Deliberately or otherwise, directly or indirectly, the theme of Catholic Social Teaching has figured rather prominently in these more marginal threads.

What jumps out is the way in which ecclesiology seems to undergird these seemingly diverse nods to Catholic Social Teaching. More specifically, these stories the attempts to position the Church as a crucial waypoint between the periphary and the centre, the hospital waiting room bridging the wounded and the well, the secular and the sacred and the ladder between the transcendent ideal and the less than ideal temporal situation.

Chief among these was the Pope’s recent visit to the island of Lesbos with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I. Both the Patriarch and the Pontiff focused their visit on those itinerant peoples who, for whatever reason, seek to relocate to Europe and found themselves stranded in that part of the European continent (other pockets of stranded are found in other parts of the Europe, mostly in the south and the east). Having concluded that visit, it was also announced that the Pontiff had also taken twelve individuals – those whose papers are in good order but remain stranded – onto the papal plane back to Italy. It is one of the more dramatic moves of a papacy characterised by highly symbolic moves.

While this story unfolded, it was also reported that the American Democratic presidential hopeful, Senator Bernie Sanders, addressed a conference at the Vatican at the invitation of the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences. His paper, “The Urgency for a Moral Economy”, can be found in full here.

A third story can be found in a story (dated 14th April), in the Jesuit magazine America, which was a write up on Solidarity Hall, a group of writers who have converged in an online space started by Elias Crim, and has slowly evolved into a publishing venture under the management of Daniel Schwindt. Solidarity Hall now features its own contribution to the Patheos platform with The Dorothy Option. In the interview with one of its authors, Mark Gordon, the article spoke of the focus of the venture’s contribution to the development of the Catholic Social tradition by negotiating a “radically Christian life in the space between the state and the market” and the “polarities of left and right”, by reclaiming the “whole teaching of the church, unalloyed by the ideologies and false identities of party, class, even nation”. As a footnote, the article also mentioned by name the Divine Wedige‘s Matthew Tan, him being an Australian voice in an otherwise dominantly American project, contributing to the Solidarity Hall website on pop culture and total war, and a chapter on the migrant in their flagship publication Radically Catholic in the Age of Francis.

Catholic Social Teaching is not just about teaching or a space called the social, but also the bodies that occupy that space and live out the teaching. With this in mind the fourth item, a post from Rebecca Bratten Weiss of Franciscan University of Steubenville, deserves mention here. In it, Weiss draws our attention to the way in which a Church and a theology should not not only speak to and about the perfect or respectable bodies, but also those who enter its doors with bodies broken and violated from violence, illnesses or defects both intended and unintended, maladies that we try to shield our eyes from in our quest for the comfortable bourgeois Christianity. Weiss suggests that such imperfect bodies ought to be part of the story of the Body of Christ.

A Sin Called Sadness

In the reading of Scripture, we are familiar with the exhortations against committing specific sins. Do not fornicate, do not kill, do not steal, do not cheat your neighbour, and so on. We are warned that to sin is to earn the fruit of sin, which is death.

What is less obvious are the exhortations that do not fit into any recognisable schema, most probably due to their isolated mentions in obscure parts of scripture.

Key among these more obscure exhortations is found in Psalm 98, in which the exhortation is to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord”, or in Psalm 66 “shout for joy to the Lord”. Many may think this as an optional suggestion for exuberance, until one considers its converse, which is sadness. In the Wisdom of Sirach, more commonly known as the Book of Ecclesiasticus, we are warned against “Sadness” and “Sorrow”. More than a warning, we are given a chilling a reminder of what sadness can do. The Book of Ecclesiasticus presents us with a prescription and a warning that says “put sorrow away from you, for sorrow has killed many” (Sir 30:23).

The reader might sympathise with such an exhortation, arguably due to the familiarity with the phenomenon of literally dying from a broken heart. However, the ancient tradition of the Church does not confine the reading of this verse to a causal connection between emotion and medical outcomes.

As can be seen from a new book on the vices by Dr. Rebecca DeYoung, published by Brazos Press, early Church Fathers such as Evagrius Ponticus and John Cassian have designated sadness as leading to spiritual death, so much so that sadness was classified as one of the capital sins. Even though Gregory the Great was to remove sadness from the list of deadly sins to make the more familiar list of seven, sadness nonetheless lurked behind the operation of many of the other deadly sins, in particular sloth.

Sadness was thus seen as more than just a pervasive and morose emotion. As a vice, it was also a predisposition that could prime us towards separation, not only from loved ones, but even from God Himself. This link has been given some recognition in the liturgical life of the Latin Church, especially on “Rorate Sunday” in Advent, during which a Gregorian hymn couples Isaiah’s familiar cry for the dew to drop from heaven and the clouds to rain the just (Isa 48:5) with a less familiar rhetorical question from God: Why art thou consumed with grief, for sorrow has estranged thee.

Part of the Christian moral life then calls for a vigilance against something that is incredibly deadly, yet also incredibly ingrained into the texture of everyday human experience. It is something that we must recognise, even articulate and express in lament. The Christian is also called to be vigilant against simulations of the antidote to sadness, which is the frenetic cheerfulness lacking in any foundation. Be that as it may, the Church does, to borrow from the words of Michael Hanby’s article on boredom, have a solemn duty to put a “resistance of joy”. It is a resistance that does not ignore the sadness in this world but also, in Hanby’s words “make a radical ontological affirmation, and yet this affirmation is…only intelligable if the world is created in the Father’s loving delight for the Son”. Such an affirmation then cannot be found in the inner cheerfulness of the human person, but in that person’s praise of God in the liturgy.

The Porn Again Christian

Human sexuality is a vital thing in the Christian tradition. Set in a sacramental register, human sexuality becomes more than genital activity. As the writings of St. John Paul II remind us, the experience of human sexuality and, extending from that, marriage, can become a microcosm of the covenantal bond between God and His creation, and the redemption by God of His creation. Christians thus are right in their concern over civic actions that impact upon this sacramental understanding.
The only problem, however, is that somewhere in the course of resisting any undermining of this sacramental understanding of human sexuality, the “sacramental” disappeared in favour of a lop-sided focus on “sexuality”. With this disappearance of the sacramental, the covenantal dimension similarly disappeared with it. Shorn of the covenantal outlook, public pronouncements of human sexuality by Christians has now become a self-contained discourse, with little reference to anchor any talk about the biological activity and its natural flow-on effects. Thus, sex has become confined to the physical.
What is worse, however, is that shorn of the sacramental and the covenantal ecology to house the discourse on sexuality, Christians seem to have entertained the notion generated by media entrepreneurs that the only thing that they can uniquely contribute to the public discourse is an already impoverished discourse of human sexuality. Beyond the groin, it is presumed that non-Christian concepts, institutions and practises and the cultural and financial elites that deploy them can safely have the monopoly on ecology, economics, war, peace, art, education, culture, food, city life, urban life and conceptions of what the good life is.
This supposed division of labour is not benign, but is a form of commodification by what St. Paul calls the “powers and principalities of this world”, creating that bourgeois Christianity so loved by political pundits and marketeers. Being so commodified, the Church has  now become little more than a zone where people get told about how to sleep with each other. In so doing, the Church has become distorted from this wide-spanning reality (which is what a sacramental ecology calls for), into a virtual world where sexual practice, and only sexual practice, is the central public concern. Commodified in this fashion by the powers and principalities of this world, the Church has become the strange inversion of the pornified culture it is trying to resist.
The key here is not in the rejection of resisting a pornified culture, but in realising that the Church’s resistence to that culture is founded on an infinitely richer understanding of what the world – and within that, human sexuality – is. This understanding must be coupled with the resisting of pressures to bring to public discourse and practice, even in translated form, of its sacramental and covenantal heritage.

Advent and the Comings of Christ

Amidst the onslaught of tinsel, Christmas sales, exhortations by ostensibly Christian politicians to spend more in order to save the economy and the renditions of “Mary, Did You Know?” blaring across entertainment systems, one would be forgiven for thinking that the infant Jesus had already come and perhaps even gone (and this is, of course, assuming that people still remember that was what Christmastide was about).
With all the hustle and bustle of Christmas shopping, one could easily forget that the period prior to the 25th December is the season of Advent. It is the period of waiting for the coming of Christ. It is for this reason that many Christian households set up or follow established traditions involving nativity sets or the use of Advent Calendars, with the arrival of the Incarnate Word as the culmination of this period of waiting.
This is understandable in the leadup to Christmas, but it is instructive to note that this is not the only coming of Christ that one remembers in Advent. For this season is also a time of remembering the final coming of Christ in the eschaton, where every tear will be wiped away, and the new heaven and new earth are instituted.
This remembrance of both comings of Christ is mentioned in a short but highly instructive interview with Alison Milbank



But this joint remembrance is acknowledged liturgically, as it is in the 6th-century introductory hymn of Lauds in the Liturgy of the Hours in the Roman Rite, where the nativity and the parousia are blurred into a single event (it is instructive to note that the Latin adventus is
Hark! a herald voice is calling
  Through the shadows of the night
‘Cast away the dreams of darkness
  Christ descends with heavenly light.’
Wakened by the solemn warning,
  Let the earthbound soul arise;
Christ, her sun, all sloth dispelling,
  Shines upon the morning skies.
Lo, the Lamb, so long expected,
  Comes with pardon down from heav’n;
Let us haste, with tears of sorrow,
  One and all to be forgiv’n;
So, when next he comes with glory,
  And his judgement-day draws near,
Faithful he may find his servants,
  Watching till their Lord appear.
Honour, glory, might, and blessing
  To the Father and the Son,
With the everlasting Spirit,
  While eternal ages run.