Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Lord: Chapter 14, “Sincerity in Virtue”

Dear friend of my old school days,*

In this chapter, Romano Guardini makes a challenging assertion: The only way to be truly moral, ethical, good (choose your adjective for a life oriented to true north) is through faith in God.

Ridiculous! This flies in the face of everything we believe today. As I wrote last time, we have reduced the Ten Commandments to Two. Having done so we believe that we are quite capable of following them, thank you very much. Faith has nothing to do with it.

Right?

The title of this chapter highlights two old-fashioned concepts. Virtue sounds like something from Boy Scout days or, if you were raised in that tradition (I wasn’t), the catechism of the Catholic Church. Sincerity is, well let’s face it, a nice thing to have, but only if you need it. Irony is today’s watchword, the very opposite of sincerity.

Irony ruled the butt room, that’s for sure. It’s hard to believe that each dorm in our old school had a room where student smoking was permitted, but the butt room was more than that. It was the place to lean your chair against the wall, slouch, flick ash, and let the wit rip. Anything and everything was a target of our irony, which quickly turned into something more toxic: cynicism.

Was nothing sacred? Nope. But then I think that old rhetorical question—Is nothing sacred?—gets close to the root of the matter.

We’ve come to that place in the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus talks about pearls before swine, and not letting your left hand know what your right hand is doing. With these, the Lord is warning us “against indiscriminately presenting the mystery of divine life to the crowd”—or even “parading it” or “reveling in it” ourselves, according to Guardini. “The Lord warns us . . . to guard against . . . the deeply rooted human traits of vanity, complacency and egoism.”

So how does the sacred assure our sincerity? The answer comes when RG considers what Jesus means by reward, any thought of which threatens the purity of our behavior:

“I conclude that the idea of reward must be profounder than most moderns suspect, and that underlying these teachings’ ethical intent there must be a subtler motivation that completely escapes the attention. And there is.

“As we understand it, what the New Testament says is this: At the root of ‘pure ethics’ lurks the possibility of a monstrous pride that is particularly difficult to unmask. To desire good for its own intrinsic dignity, and so purely that the pleasure of goodness is the sole and entirely satisfying motive behind our vitue—this is something of which God alone is capable.

“Only God can perform good in the pure freedom of self-expression . . . Yet modern man has assumed this prerogative for himself. He places the moral attitude and the divine attitude on a par . . . tacitly taking it for granted that human ego, indeed all ego, actually is God.”

Our teen egos were little gods, little tyrants, but a Christian should expect more of himself, shouldn’t he?

But can’t we all just be good? Well, maybe not.

Your friend as ever,
WB

This series of posts continues here with chapter 15.

* This is one in a series of open letters to an old schoolmate about Romano Guardini’s book The Lord.

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