Thursday, March 6, 2014

Judgment, Fraternal Correction, and Modern Lexicon

Icon of St. Paul preaching to the philosophers of Athens
I am coming back to write here at Cor-Inquietum (I know, the misspelling on the URL, it hurts, I know, I know - ) as part of a Lenten resolve to reflect more deeply on the Catholic faith, and life in the light of the Lord, or rather the light of the Lord on life. In this post I would like to briefly consider the modern lexical shift in the philosophy of judgment, from one human being on to another, and then from God’s relationship as Judge to the human soul. I will try and construct my brief meditations from the readings of the Mass for Sunday March 2nd. These were Isaiah 49:14-15; Psalm 62: 2-3, 6-7, 8-9; 1 Corinthians 4:1-5; Matthew 6: 24-34. It is with humility that we must approach the throne of the Lord, though we do so with the renewed confidence that we can boldly approach the Throne of Grace through the mediation of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of all Creation. Humility because we cannot be presumptuous of God’s mercy as if it were all from our merit, and confidence because it is on account of Christ’s merit and God’s condescending love that we know we are loved unconditionally.

Frequently here at the university I have noticed that it is common parlance to use the phrase, “Do not judge me”, when seeking a retraction or withholding of disapprobation of one’s action or behavior. It is a catch-all phrase by which the speaker desires to be left alone in his or her vice so that they may continue to enjoy said vice without the sting of conscience. What follows is however, the necessary assumption is that to judge another person is merely to disapprove of their behavior. This represents a shallower interpretation of judgment, approval, disapproval, and of the role of society to enact a form of moral development, a form development that we can perhaps see as part of civic duty. And so, the idea of having a moral code that stands outside of one’s self, i.e. not personal, but universal in scope (dare I say catholic, little ‘c’?), as a model for others incurs the statement of judgmental.

However, there is a flip side, an inconsistency in the usage of this word. Relativism is not quite in full swing, unless I push the inconsistency, but rather the conformity to more inclusive (to the point of coddling and stunted moral growth) moral systems based within a socially liberal framework. That is, I can disapprove of people’s actions and qualify them as stemming from malice and bad character if their actions are fundamentally against some of the key issues within socially liberal elite schools of thought (i.e. what he did was racially discriminatory therefore he is an awful person, etc.). And so, in this context, one is considered to be judgmental if one deems a pillar or element of the new cultural milieu to be immoral or inappropriate. However, all of those deeds which in the new college cultural orthodoxy have been determined as inappropriate are inappropriate and so we should disapprove of others’ engagement in such activities. Ultimately, the entire lexical usage of the phrases, “I judge”, stands in the place of a social group enforcing a certain moral and ethical code upon the world outside.

I believe that it should be noted that the use of the term judgment here at the University of Chicago, in its simplest setting does not indicate a full belief in radical relativism where there is no ethical truth, only action and freedom. I believe that there are few individuals on campus who are willing to take relativism to its logical consequences, and who reject societal pressures and authorities on the judgment of what one should do with his own life. The ‘how ought one live’ of Socrates becomes fundamentally individual in such a way in relativism, that it mutates the question, it is no longer how ought one live, but the devaluation of all ought’s into ‘how will I live’. In relativism, there is no meter by which actions can be valued above others with the exception of the personal metric, which is arbitrary and even ambivalent to the material nature of man who must obey certain laws in his composition. And so, I return to the thesis that for many students, the phrase of judgment is means of placing moral and ethical values in an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ mentality that excludes the views of others which are dangerous to the worldview of the host cultural group. The lack of vocabulary for moral and ethical distinctions in adjudication in common speech, I believe, lends itself easily to the whole sale condemnation of groups whose actions are disapproved of, or seen as discriminatory. As it strikes me, from my Christian background, the statements are tied unfortunately to a more ancient meaning, that of condemnation of character, rather than condemnation of action, behavior, or ideas.

The Christian worldview is far different. One cannot insomuch as condemn the being and identity of another human being because every human being is considered to be willed and loved into existence by the grace of God. Furthermore, it is already considered within the Christian framework that God so loved the world, yes, all of its inhabitants, that He gave us His only Son, that whosoever should believe in Him, should have life eternal. Judgment in the Christian framework is the final determination of God, the decision of what a person’s life was truly about, a statement about the whole movement of the will and life of that person. This is what a judge is supposed to do, supposed to separate the criminals, from the innocent, and so the Scriptures are rich in simply describing how God brings justice to the wicked, and has mercy on those who fear Him.

Whereas, the university students carry an added meaning in the word judgment where they want to collectively, or individually, critique and condemn a certain behavior so as to also imply a condemnation of character, the Christian lexicon bares more fruit. We have an entire diversity of language by which we can give approbation or disapprobation to behaviors, habits, and actions, without an implied character assassination. We typically refer to this as fraternal correction, the notion that Christians have the moral duty and responsibility to help each other grow in virtue towards the truth, but that we must do so out of love. This act of mercy stems from compassion and zeal, which can manifest itself in a thunderous reminder of the pains of Hell or a tender tap on the shoulder with a calm and tender suggestion.

I believe it will be helpful to construct a further analysis of the Christian schema of judgment and fraternal correction from considering the readings from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Mass Readings on March 2nd,

1 That is how we ought to be regarded, as Christ’s servants, and stewards of God’s mysteries.

2 And this is what we look for in choosing a steward; we must find one who is trustworthy.

3 Yet for myself, I make little account of your scrutiny, or of any human tribunal; I am not even at pains to scrutinize my own conduct.

4 My conscience does not, in fact, reproach me; but that is not where my justification lies; it is the Lord’s scrutiny I must undergo.

5 You do ill, therefore, to pass judgment prematurely, before the Lord’s coming; he will bring to light what is hidden in darkness, and reveal the secrets of men’s hearts; then each of us will receive his due award from God.

 (1st letter to the Corinthians, Chapter 4, Verses 1-5)

It is relatively clear from the admonition of St. Paul that judgment is not his domain nor duty. God sent him to preach the Gospel of repentance of sin and of Christ crucified for the redemption of mankind. What St. Paul says here is defiant, in somewhat a similar way as relativism seeks to deny all human authority capable of any authentic or orthodox valuation of morality or ethics, so too does St. Paul say the judgments of this world are nothing. To St. Paul what matters is the judgment of God, Who is truly the Judge. This is the role of Christ in the book of Revelations, and one that He alludes to in the Gospels, as not coming here to judge in His first coming, but show compassion, but at the second coming, that He will come to judge the living and the dead. St. Paul must also be careful not even to clarify his own moral status before God, acknowledging that his moral valuation of his own identity is ultimately flawed, and incomplete. This is where the virtue of hope is exemplified through the writing of St. Paul. Though we are all sinners, God still loves, God still forgives.

One might begin to ask, how is it that God forgives in likewise manner, if we do not repent? It seems paradoxical that St. Paul is not allowed to judge himself, yet that he can still understand when he sins. Further in the passage it is clear that St. Paul desires to disapprove of the activities of the community of Corinth, calling them rich and fat with honors, reviling them, letting them go hungry, naked, thirsty, and abused. It is St. Paul after listing the sins of the people of Corinth adds, “I am not writing this to shame you; you are my dearly loved children, and I would bring you to a better mind. (1 Cor 4:14)” As it is clear, one ought to be ashamed of one’s sins, but St. Paul here adds the gentle approach to disapproval of sin, further stating that he ultimately is not here to make statements of character about who is a saint and who is of Satan, but rather he is here to bring the Christians of Corinth to a better mind, to grow morally and to find themselves walking in the Way of the Lord. St. Paul considers himself the father of the community of Corinth, a title well deserved for his evangelizing, (cf. verse 15), and as St. Paul is also our spiritual father, we would do well to consider closely the closing of his act of fraternal correction to the community of Corinth in this passage. “Follow my example, then, I entreat you, as I follow Christ’s." (1 Cor 4:16)

The final stage of fraternal correction is always to point back to Jesus Christ who is the cosmic lawgiver. All moral development, must ultimately pass the judgment of Him Who Is Judge. It is not for St. Paul to judge whether a person’s actions are venial (forgivable in the strictest sense), or will be sins unto death (be the cause of one’s ultimate damnation), but merely to see and draw people to the example of Christ.

Often this is where we fail, we become busy-bodies trying to correct the world of its flawed ways and cursing the darkness. Sometimes we feel like are the only ones who understand, the pure ones, and the rest of the world insane and filled with evil. Sometimes we say, “God, have you forgotten us?” as Isaiah alludes to. Christ speaks to us of the truth through the prophet Isaiah, and in His own person. “Can a mother forget her infant, be without tenderness for the child of her womb? Even should she forget, I will never forget you.” (Isaiah 49:15) Jesus only adds to this in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 6, verses 25 to 34. Our lives are not our own and we are not in charge of them, but rather it is God who has given all of the things in our lives and made them available to us. “Can any one of you, for all of his anxiety, add a foot’s growth to his height?” (cf. verse 27)

I am loathe to place one meaning on the Gospel, for its words are richest and hold the deepest mysteries, but in the reflection on judgment and fraternal correction. We must tend to the words of Jesus, to attend to the attainment of the Kingdom of God in our own souls, and be wary of seeing a mote in our neighbor’s eye, when we have a log in our own. Judgment is not our own to make about the character of sinners, that is God’s prerogative. We follow Christ, and we lead others to Him. That is why we disapprove of sin, for the love of God, not for the exaltation of our own lives, nor to condemn others and move them away from us.

Love is like gravity, it only desires to pull us closer. And so, I come to my conclusion that no one can judge. It is not appropriate in the Christian world-view to ever say, “I judge”, for to do so would be pride, and presumption. This does not mean I can stand idly by while people stray from God and His plan for human moral development and fruition. Such would be a sin, and ultimately would lead to my own condemnation. As we see from the Scriptures, fraternal correction is mandatory if dangerous, but judgment is never allowed. I wish that I could flesh out a more articulate methodology for expressing these distinctions of judgment and disapproval within my university settings. Pray for me.

Lord if I have misspoken, forgive me my sin, and when You look upon me, look not on my sins, but on the faith of Your Church. I implore, O Lord, that when You look down upon us, that you see us through the wounds of your Son, and recall the love by which you made us and redeemed us. Lead us not into the condemnation of our brothers and sisters, but into reconciliation with one another as we seek Your will in this world.

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