Friday, November 27, 2009

Woodward: "Be Good for Goodness' Sake"

It's a bit of conventional moral advice best known by most people as a lyric from "Santa Clause Is Coming to Town." Doing something "for goodness' sake" originated, the linguists tell us, as a euphemism, a circumspect alternative to doing something "for God's sake." The earliest example of the phrase I can find is in Shakespeare. It is spoken by Cardinal Wolsey in Act III, Scene 1 of Henry VIIII. The Cardinal (not one of the good guys of the play, or of history) is urging Queen Catherine of Aragon not to make trouble for the King in his pursuit of a dissolution of their marriage. Catherine remains unpersuaded, and the Cardinal lobs an oblique threat in her direction: "For goodness' sake, consider what you do." Elizabethan Englishmen were not shy about swearing what we moderns (or at least we modern Christians) would consider blasphemous oaths. So perhaps Wolsey's "for goodness' sake" -- which would have sounded in the ears of Shakespeare's audience much the way "gosh darn" would sound in our own -- was intended to make the Cardinal seem a bit prissy, or perhaps even hypocritical. Everybody in the audience would have known that Wolsey was thinking "for God's sake," no matter what he actually said.

Well, enough of linguistic history. The American Humanist Association has launched its 2009 "holiday ad campaign," which will involve the placement of public transit ads in four cities offering commuters the following bit of philosophical insight:

No God?

No Problem!

Be good for goodness' sake
Humanism is the idea that you can be good without a belief in God.

Umm...okay. I am apparently a humanist, much to my own surprise. I freely acknowledge an acquaintance with at least six people whom I know to be good and whom I also know to be disbelievers in the existence of God.

So what?

As a Catholic, I too maintain that one can be good without believing in God. That's not the same thing as saying -- and I wonder how long it would take me to explain this distinction to a member of the American Humanist Association -- that one could be good if God did not exist.

Every sane person goes about his business every day as if he assumes that (1) there is an objective order of good and evil; (2) life has some meaning in a realm of absolute value ; and (3) the perceptions and conclusions of the human mind bear an ontological relationship to an objective reality outside itself.

As a Catholic (again), I believe that those three premises are grounded necessarily in a belief in the existence of the Christian God. If you want to have some fun with a humanist interested in following up on the conversation suggested by his "2009 holiday ad campaign," ask him to name something he thinks is good. Then ask him to explain why the thing he has mentioned is good. Then ask him to explain why that makes it good. Then ask him...oh, you get the idea. If you're persistent -- and polite -- maybe he'll begin to wonder whether ethics is a subject small enough to fit in a transit ad. Maybe he'll even begin to wonder whether doing something "for goodness' sake" isn't a lot like doing it for God's sake.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Woodward: Happy Thanksgiving

Some very random thoughts on the day:

  • Abraham Lincoln's November 1863 proclamation of a national "day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens" makes for interesting reading. It moves well beyond the customarily vague and treacly religiosity of other such presidential documents to make a substantive theological point. We owe God not only thanks for the material blessings he has showered on us as a nation, but also penitence for the sins we have committed as a nation. Collective guilt would understandably have been on Lincoln's mind in the middle of the Civil War; but every generation of Americans can profitably be exhorted to meditate on "our national perverseness and disobedience" and be mindful of those who suffer as a result. (I wonder if Lincoln's proclamation makes him one of those "America-hating liberals.")
  • Like other presidents before him, Barack Obama yesterday "pardoned" the official White House Thanksgiving turkey. Every year, this ceremony strikes me as perhaps the stupidest thing a president is required by his office to do. Does anyone believe that the Obamas don't (or that the Bushes or Clintons or Reagans before them didn't) eat turkey on Thanksgiving? Of course they do and did -- some anonymous turkey killed dispassionately and efficiently in some undesignated packing plant. But the fortunate bird that gets a name and a photo op on the South Lawn is magnanimously spared and goes to a petting zoo (or, this year, Disneyland -- perfect). Does this foolish annual charade, I wonder, have some ominous sociological significance? Is it a symptom of creeping vegetarianism? Or is it merely the age-old spectacle of politicians trying to look like "nicer" people than they really are? Just once I'd like to see the President of the United States stride briskly out of the White House with the official Thanksgiving turkey Robespierre clamped firmly under his arm, make a few brief remarks about the significance of Meleagris gallopavo in the settling of America and the history of Thanksgiving, thank the National Turkey Federation and the Poultry and Egg National Board...and then chop the turkey's head off.
  • As we dress our children up as pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians and sing "Come, Ye Thankful People, Come," it might be well to remember that Thanksgiving began not in the Plymouth Colony in 1621 but 80 years earlier than that. Francisco Coronado and his expedition camped in May 1541 on the rim of Palo Duro Canyon and celebrated a thanksgiving service in gratitude for abundant game and deliverance from severe weather. Which means that the first Thanksgiving on the North American continent was both (1) Catholic and (2) Texan. We win again.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Msgr. Ronald Knox: Feast of Christ the King

"The substantial victories of the Church have lain, always, in the sphere of the human conscience. Christ has reigned, not in the councils of nations, but in men's hearts. If every country in the world professed the Catholic religion, set up religious emblems in its market places and voted special honors, special privileges, special revenues to the clergy -- that would not be the reign of Christ on earth. It would not be the reign of Christ on earth if the homage which men paid to religion was merely external, merely political; if they treated the emblems of Christianity merely as an ancestral tradition they were proud of, and a convenient rallying-point for civic sentiment, no more. Christ will reign in the world only where, only in so far as, he rules in human hearts."

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Woodward: Veterans' Day

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Woodward: Dame Joan Sutherland

I'm ashamed to have forgotten her birthday yesterday. The great lady is 83.

In 40 years of opera-going, I never experienced anything else like the excitement of a Sutherland performance. From a Lucia di Lammermoor in Philadelphia in 1972 to her final U. S. appearance in a staged opera -- a Dallas Merry Widow 20 years ago this coming Wednesday -- I went to hear Dame Joan every chance I got. In retrospect (which is, alas, all we have left now) she represents a standard of classical singing that is pretty much gone. (Every generation of opera fans says that, of course. And the sad truth, which is dawning on me now in late middle age, is that every generation of opera fans has probably been right.)

There is in music a kind of transcendent expression that prompts religious thoughts. At various times in my life I have genuinely believed that the Mozart clarinet concerto might be the most persuasive argument for the existence of God. I realize that evolutionary psychologists probably have a stock explanation handy for the ability of music to exalt the human spirit. Probably has something to do with drums and hunting -- I really don't want to know.

One thing I do know is that listening to Joan Sutherland sing has made me happy every single time I've done it. Here are a couple of reasons why.

For some reason, this wonderful performance of an old Victorian song can't be embedded.