Tuesday, 13 August 2019

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C 2019

One of the themes of this Sunday is faith in God who will be there for us. In tandem with this faith is also our preparedness to meet Him when He comes. It is within the context of God’s fidelity that I would like to explore the phenomenon of the “dystopian future”.

Have you noticed the number of movies which offers a peek into the future that is darkly dystopian. If utopia means a good place, then dystopia is just the opposite meaning a “bad” place.

There could be an inherent flaw in the dystopian universe represented not least by books or movies like Maze Runner, Twilight, The Hunger Games and The Divergent Series. For example, the world is dark and destroyed and yet in the Divergent series, trains still run... These scenarios pose a pertinent question on where humanity might be heading to. They also highlight man’s anxiety about the future; a future where either God has failed, God is impotent or God is absent. For Nietzsche, God is dead.

A fear of the future is symptomatic of a crisis of faith. Put it in another way: we do not know where we are going. But that is not as bad as doubting if there is a future where we can be at home in. Our miscalculation is to mistake dystopia as a future reality because it is somewhat staring at us now because we do not recognise it.

The question on where humanity is going is both anthropological as well as theological. Anthropological because it is a question about man. In other words, what does it mean to be a human person. Theological because it is a question about God. Does He exist at all? Both these questions are closely related in the sense that the question of man is at the same time the question about God. Why? The locus for the connexion is that man is made in the image and likeness of God.

The first reading implicitly establishes this affiliation between man and God. The connexion is observed through civilisation which expresses mankind as a flourishing society. Dystopia, on the contrary, reveals the failure of civilisation. For any civilisation to flourish, we must make certain assumptions about the human person. Sadly, this anthropological question, that is the question of man, is being asked with God out of the picture.

Society today has been trying to determine what the human person is independently of God. A good example is the discussion whether gender can still be use to differentiate between a man and a woman. Gender binary or hetero-normativity are concepts which are challenged because they are considered to be restrictive and oppressive. Instead, we are moving in the general direction that a man is who he defines himself to be. Likewise the same for a woman. Who I am is merely a choice I can make.

This renders gender a fluid, flexible and nomadic reality. Such ambiguity is emblematic of the confusion that arises from a discussion on man’s identity that is autonomous from God. When God is absence, the future of man can only be bleak because the human person without God is merely “natural”. A good analogy for  man as “natural” is Plasticine or Play-Doh as it is called today. It means a person’s gender is mouldable subject to the buffeting winds of prevailing ideologies. When that happens, sexual differences are reduced to a social construct and they are not grounded in significant biological differentiation. It does not matter what physiology you have because one’s biology is not important. When a person is what one defines himself or herself to be, then it does not take long before gender re-alignment can be imposed on some young children. The question is if your child says he feels like a dog, do you begin to feed him dog food?

In this dystopian future without hope, the present is no more than a prison of competing despotic whims and dictating fancies. One day it is the Paleo diet, the next the Atkins diet. Yesterday we studied grammar but today we focus on situational English. We buy into a regimen of Noni juice to prevent cancer but now we have changed it to Soursop.

Where we are heading to, that is, the resolution of this crisis of faith in the future, can only come about when we face God. 

As mentioned earlier, the anthropological question about man is also a theological question. This means the answer is found in trying to understand what God has intended for creation to be. It is significant that of all created reality, visible and invisible, man is the only creature who bears the image of God. This designation gives man such a personal privilege. It is not a privilege of entitlement or domination in the way we have rapaciously destroyed the environment. Rather, it reflects a truth that whilst the world was created for man, man was created for God. Therefore, God must enter into the discussion about who man is. The starting point is God’s love for us revealed in the human nature He gives to us in creation. It is the same human nature which, in the mystery of the Incarnation, God the Son took upon Himself when He became man. Therefore, who we are is cannot be our self-construction.

If there is anything useful about the dystopian genre, it can discern a common theme running through each movie or book. In this really messed up future, man is looking for salvation and the one who saves is either a hero or anti hero. Sadly, when push comes to shove, we prefer anti-heroes because they are like and so justify our poverty of heroism. At the same time, these anti-heroes possess a modicum of what a true hero is to perform what is necessary for salvation. Whereas, the Christian perspective, bears witness that the salvation of the whole human race comes not from a hero or anti-hero but from Jesus Christ—Son of God made man. In Him, we have hope because He is faithful and can be trusted. The author to the Hebrews reminds us: Faith is confident assurance concerning what we hope for, and conviction about things we do not see. What we cannot fully see is the future but it is not dystopian. Instead, we believe in the future because it belongs to God. Faith in God is the only cure we have against this dystopian depression and anxiety. Man must head into the future with faith in the present and hope for tomorrow. This is the preparedness that the Gospel speaks of. Instead of fearing for the future, we should live in the present as if we are ready for eternity because we know God will keep His promise as He did to Abraham and his descendants forever.

Thursday, 8 August 2019

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C 2019

The reconstruction of the burnt down Notre Dame de Paris has begun. There have been pledges from conglomerates for the funds needed to rebuild the Cathedral. However, recent reports indicated that money instead is coming from the small donors whilst the multinationals have yet to make good their promises. This is rather telling.

Here are some figures to further your reflexion. From 2017 to 2018, there was an 18% jump in wealth amongst the 2208 billionaires coming from 72 countries and territories giving them an aggregate worth of US$9.1 trillion. China, the supposedly great egalitarian country, hosts 373 billionaires and their wealth grew by 39% compared to the 12% increment of 585 billionaires living in the USA. (These statistics are gleaned from Forbes). Well, note that China is going to swarm all over the world. Like cockroaches.

Anyway, some of them have gotten rich on the back of their employees. An example is Jeff Bezos of Amazon. Amazingly, it pays the workers poverty-level salaries. What is glaringly unsettling is that many transnational companies also maintain a disproportionate scale of reward for the upper echelon of management. For example, what sort of philosophy undergirds such a corporate culture that in order to be sacked, a chief executive is paid £75m? Furthermore, many of these billionaires also know how to bankroll governments so that policies favouring them can be kept intact. Was this Dr M’s reference to the Deep State? Sadly, the chasm or divide between the rich and the poor is only going widen because automation makes it easier to discard the human labour force in favour of machines.

What do these depressing scenarios have to do with the Gospel this weekend?

One can read the Rich Man as a failure of stewardship. In general, the land that a person claims to own, it cannot be that it belongs to him absolutely. Since God is the creator, one may say that the occupants are merely tenants and whatever they possess is owned in the form of stewardship. A quotation attributed to so many sources might help us understand what this notion entails: “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children”.

Within the maxim, we recognise the transient or temporary nature of ownership echoing the First as well as the Second Reading. However, in a culture of victimhood and blame, it is easy to embrace an idea that being rich is somehow a curse whereas poverty is somewhat favoured. The Gospel lends itself to such a thinking because we keep hearing how the poor will be exalted and the rich brought down. However, in all His teachings, Jesus has never criticised the rich for being rich.

The sin of the rich man was not that he received a bountiful harvest. His sin was choosing to live without any reference to God. He toiled, as the author of the Ecclesiastes reminds us, in vanity of vanities. He has not sought things that are above as per the letter to the Colossians. Life for him was rather autonomous because he did not think further into the eternal but instead thought he could store up for himself the fat of the land.

What was his sin but blindness? It is a kind of blindness can lead to a calculativeness which in the example of the rebuilding of the Notre Dame is seen in “how much tax rebate can I get for my contribution?”. Measure that kind of consideration against those who give out of their pocket, thinking only of the God’s glory rather than their benefit.

It is not communism to regard wealth as a blessing to be shared. To be rich is more than a personal blessing. Remember the steward in Matt 24 or Luke 12 who was entrusted with feeding the household when the master had gone away. In place of rendering his stewardship conscientiously, he set about lording over those placed under his charge—beating and starving them whilst he himself enjoyed life. The Lord’s reappearance did not bode well for him. Of course, those who are blessed may not be doing anything of this sort but it invites us to think what it means to be a blessing for others who are not as blessed as we are.

If wealth is a blessing, then we must make a distinction between the equality of opportunity and the equality of outcome. In order for a society to be just, we need to ensure, as far as possible there be an equality of opportunity for every person although we can never guarantee the equality of outcome. In fact, this country squandered away that possibility of creating a just society. It had an affirmative programme which was designed to ensure that the economically deprived had equal access to opportunity. But, it was blatantly abused and when the equal outcome could not be attained, the corrupt government then devised even more asinine programmes or policies to force an equitable result with disastrous consequences. Just like the APs for the importation of cars. The point is, give every person an equal amount of capital and the outcome can be as different as the number of personalities involved in the exercise. We can never force a just ending.

Be that as it may, those who are able to make more, like the first two men of the parable of talents, whatever surplus is generated, consider it a blessing even though personal effort may have gone into it. Why? Even the best and the brightest sometimes do fail. For example, it was the best and the brightest, assembled under JFK that gave birth to the Vietnam War and also destroyed the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. Whatever success we can attribute to our prowess, it helps tremendously to recognise that it could have been a failure because nothing can be guaranteed. Thus, the rich man’s bountiful harvest was no more than a blessing. For, no success is ever our own if God Himself does not permit it. Without God’s permissive will, all successes could have been failures.

Accepting that may help to mitigate or ease one’s resentment at having to share one’s blessing. It is easy to look at a failed person which we have the obligation to share with, as someone who is lazy. It does not take much to make us resentful. Wealth is never a personal blessing even if it feels like it. Instead, God blesses a few so that they can reach out to the many.

We have generated unimaginable wealth the world has never witnessed before if you consider the wasteful lives of some of the rich and famous. Note that one’s future is not assured, as the rich man thought, by one’s effort and especially by the promise of storing up wealth. Our wealth can never buy us heaven and so our relationship to wealth must follow St Teresa Avila’s fabulous advice. The great saint tells us that “Money may be the Devil’s excreta, but it is certainly a good fertiliser”. Hence, wealth, when properly administered and judiciously used, may be a stepping stone to heaven although we must always rely on God’s grace and trust in Him and never our abilities or possessions for salvation.

Finally, you should not feel guilty if you were rich. You should celebrate being rich. However, be aware that there are the terms and conditions: When a man has a great deal given him, a great deal will be demanded of him; when a man has had a great deal given him on trust, even more will be expected of him (Lk 12:48). If I were a Proddy preacher, I would be guilt-tripping the congregation to putting more into the collection but I am not. I am merely want to state that this is a mortal reality with an immortal repercussion.