instruere...inlustrare...delectare Disputations

Monday, July 17, 2006

Heroic islands

Let me reach back into the distant past to recall a comment made by Matthew Fish, defending his examples of "what the islands and oases [of Catholic culture] we need should look like" against my criticism:
I did not mean to imply that one must go to Mexico or the Lord's Ranch; I think it was clear from my post that it was a suggestion. It might even be a heroic (and not normative) one. But I'd like to think that suggesting the heroic is always praiseworthy, and indeed informs and shapes the normative, as long as you do not exclude the possibility of the normative ("normative" of course being a far fuzzier concept).
Here he joins with an "and" an idea I agree with and an idea I disagree with.

To begin agreeably, yes, the heroic does inform and shape the normative. I think it is too easy to view them as completely separate categories, rather than imprecise and sometimes overlapping points along a spectrum. The evangelical counsel of poverty, for example, is something lived in its full expression by only a few, but that doesn't mean poverty means nothing for those who do not make that vow.

Moreover, I have sometimes seen what I think is a too-quick spiritualization of poverty. While it is possible to be rich in material things and poor in spirit, this point is sometimes made as though what's great about it is the "rich in material things" part. If we don't allow our normative understanding of poverty to flow freely into our heroic understanding, we risk dividing them, at the cost of an anemic and ultimately worthless normative understanding.

That said, suggesting the heroic is not always praiseworthy. Certainly suggesting the heroic as though it were normative is wrong, both in itself and in its possible effect of despondency on those who, not called by God to heroism, are yet told by another that it's that or nothing. Given the choice between doing something you can't do and not doing it, most people are going to choose the latter.

(It might even be argued (or at least proposed; I don't know how strong the historical argument would actually be) that a heroism-as-normative approach to catechesis contributed to an attenuated view of the lay vocation in the history of the Church. If what it means to be holy is to be burned to death on an iron grill for your faith, then there aren't going to be many holy housewives and tradesmen.)

In order for the heroic to inform and shape the normative, there needs to be a normative to be informed and shaped. Note: to be informed and shaped, not disparaged or set up merely to contrast with the heroic.

Furthermore, just as I can easily ignore a suggestion of heroism to which I am not called, thereby also dodging the universal call to the normative, I can cheaply and indifferently offer a suggestion of heroism to others, thereby perhaps dodging a responsibility to instruct others on their normative calling.