Friday, June 8, 2012

Is this Real?

Corpus Christi Year B

Reality seems simple enough to understand. You are real. This place is real. I am real (at least I think so). We say this with the conviction that we are not caught up in a dream nor are we delusional. Just in case you may have your doubts, try pinching yourself and see if you feel the pain. We describe something as real when we wish to say that it exists or it had existed. In other words, a thing which is real is not just a figment of our imagination. But we also recognise that this simple definition of reality is not as simple as it sounds. Sometimes, we confine our judgment of what is real to that which is observable or comprehensible. But as people of faith, we affirm and believe that God is real even when he is not observable or comprehensible.

Some wise guy may argue that the only reality which is accessible to us is perceived reality. It’s real only because I perceive it to be so. In other words, when there is no one around to perceive a tree, the tree ceases to be real. This witty limerick illustrates my point:

There was a young man who said "God
Must find it exceedingly odd
To note that this tree
Just ceases to be
When there's no-one around in the quad."

"Dear Sir, Your query is odd.
I am always about in the quad,
And therefore this tree
Will continue to be,
Since it's observed by, Yours faithfully, God."

Philosophers wishing to delve deeper into understanding the phenomenon of reality has ironically complicated the whole discussion. They make distinctions between perception corresponding to reality, thought corresponding to perception, mental abstractions, and that which cannot even be rationally thought. To summarise the many philosophies that postulate different theories in understanding reality, one may divide them into two groups: those which focus on the object and others which examine it from the perspective of the subject. The first group teaches that reality exists independent of the mind whereas the second group questions whether one can ever be certain of the reality outside the mind. One could even describe the first group of thinkers as realists whereas the second group could be called idealists.

Much of Catholic theology and doctrines is founded on the first group, the philosophies which focused on the object rather than the subject. St Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) was a primary Catholic thinker who sought to Christianise the realist philosophy of Aristotle. The philosophical works of Aquinas was not just mental gymnastics for its own sake but laid the foundation for his theological propositions regarding the Ultimate Being, God himself. God exist. God is real. The reality of God’s existence is independent of our senses or even the human mind. God is not a figment of our imagination. Aquinas’ objective philosophy of reality would also help him in formulating the doctrine of transubstantiation, which is the basis of our belief in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the consecrated host and wine.

But the optimism of realism would soon be challenged by the age of skepticism, an age which moved the study of the object to that of the subject. A typical example of a philosopher of this kind is the father of modern philosophy, Rene Descartes. Descartes decided that we cannot trust our senses to prove we are real because sometimes our senses deceive us. The only thing we can rely on is our thinking.  This is famously summed up in his saying, "Cogito ergo sum" ("I think, therefore I am"). The discovery of Descartes paralleled the ecclesiastical and religious upheaval of the 16th and 17th century. Although a pious Catholic, his philosophy would supplement the Protestant Reformers’ rallying cry of independence from the ontological and realist dogmas of Rome. Protestants would maintain and teach that every Christian had the subjective right of private judgment – they could interpret Bible on their own without reference to a central ecclesiastical authority. This would in turn explain the proliferation and multiplication of Protestant sects over the centuries.

In shifting the debate from "what is true" to "of what can I be certain?" Descartes shifted the authoritative guarantor of truth from object to subject, and in fact from God to Man. While traditional concept of "truth" implies an external authority, the ultimate authority being God, "certainty" instead relies on the judgement of the individual Man. In an anthropocentric revolution, Man is now raised to the level of a subject, an agent, an emancipated being equipped with autonomous reason. Man is finally freed of the shackles imposed by Church doctrine and divine revelation, or so he thinks. Man in this way is turned into a reasoning adult, a subject and agent, as opposed to a child obedient to God. This anthropocentric perspective posed the basis for the Enlightenment's emancipation from God and the Church, and colours much of modern culture today.

We celebrate the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ today where we once again reaffirm our faith, the faith of the Church, in professing and believing that the whole Christ is “truly, really, substantially present,” body, blood, soul, and divinity, under the appearances of bread and wine. Our faith in the reality of Christ’s presence is based on objective reality, and not on the manner by which the Eucharist affects us subjectively. In other words, we say we believe that Christ is really present in the Eucharist despite how we may feel or think about it. The objective reality of Christ’s presence is based on his words which we hear at every Mass: “This is my Body … This is my Blood.” When we receive holy communion with the minister saying  these words to us, “This is the Body of Christ,” we answer with a firm “Amen” thus affirming our believe that what we receive IS the Body of Christ, and not just something we perceive to be so. It is also based on the reality of the truth of the scriptures, where we hear Jesus in John 6 tells us that his body is real flesh and not just something symbolic.

The objective reality of these revealed truths and the teachings of the Church on Real Presence and Transubstantiation are being challenged today. Critics will maintain that such teachings on Real Presence are sentimental and nostalgic attachments to a bygone era. Many would argue or even believe that the presence of Christ in the Eucharist is as real as one chooses to make it real. It is no longer transubstantiation, but transignification, in other words, the presence of Christ in the Eucharist is no longer determined by the objective reality that that there has been a substantial change in the bread and wine at consecration but on the subjective reality that it has this meaning or significance for us. And so we constantly find ourselves giving the following assessment at the end of the mass, “Oh today, I really FELT the presence of Christ” or “Today I didn’t FEEL anything at all. In fact the whole mass was so dull and uninteresting.”

Our contemporary society today lives under the tyranny of the subject or the subjective. We assess the value or worth of something based on how much we, the subject, get out of it. If we do not derive any benefit therefrom, if we are not entertained, if we are not excited nor do we find meaning from that reality, we conclude that it isn’t ‘real.’ So we sing that dreamy Christmas Carol, “Christmas isn’t Christmas till it happens in your heart,” oblivious to the meaning of the lyrics. The fact of the matter is that Christmas did happened. Christmas happened with the birth of the Son of God. Our subjective feelings do not change that. Couples conclude that their marriage has come to end only because they perceive, think or feel that it is so. The gravity and permanency of  their sacred vows are set aside because it really doesn’t matter what you had professed on your Wedding day, it’s how you feel about it now that matters.

The tyranny of subjectivism has led to the dictatorship of relativism. Since the only reality, as claimed by  subjectivism, is the reality that is perceived by the subject, which would mean that there is no objective truth or even if there was objective truth, none of us would be able to fully perceive it. According to Pope Benedict XVI, “We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires.” Although relativism and its seeming tolerance for every kind of opinion and idea, all and sundry, has a certain attraction to it, the danger of its reasoning remains largely hidden to the public. Relativism rejects every absolute truth except the truth that there is no absolute truth. This is in itself a contradiction. But the more sinister aspect of this line of thought is that ideological relativism leads to moral relativism. If there is no absolute truth, there can also be no absolute moral standard. In a world that is relativistic, there is no wrong or right, its only how you see it. It doesn’t matter whether something is right or wrong, it’s how you feel about it. Perhaps, the only guideline would be the opinion of the majority. So if the majority is of the opinion that abortion is permissible, then it is so.

We live in an age where we can no longer trust the ability of our senses to abstract reality. Man no longer trusts in his ingenuity, in his intelligence and in his ability to find world peace and solutions to the many global problems that plague us. We have lost trust in our institutions and structures, in our economic and political systems and in their capacity to improve our present conditions. Our Holy Father tells us that we are like a small boat tossed about by waves - flung from one extreme to another: “from Marxism to liberalism, even to libertinism; from collectivism to radical individualism; from atheism to a vague religious mysticism; from agnosticism to syncretism and so forth.” In a world drowning in skepticism and pessimism, man continues to search for an anchor of stability. Today, the Church holds up the Body and Blood of Christ as that beacon of stability, of objective reality, of objective Truth. The reality of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is not just a philosophical concept among the many philosophies that propose ways of examining knowledge and reality. When we gaze upon the Blessed Sacrament, we see God’s endearing love, his fidelity to the promise that he will always be with us till the end of time. When we look upon the Blessed Sacrament, we see the Incarnate Son of God, who gave up his life on Cross for our redemption. When our eyes pierce the sacramental veil of this Great Mystery, we see our salvation. And that, my brothers and sisters, is not just a product of our minds, a figment of our imagination, a fevered delusion. It is Real.

Ecce panis angelorum
Behold the bread of angels, sent
For pilgrims in their banishment,
The bread of God’s true children meant,
That may not unto dogs be given.

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