A guest post by Thomas Sundaram
|The Christ Child appreciates both random article themes and serious side-eye.|
Sometimes, you really want to write a guest article, but you just stiffed Our Glorious Leader Damian out of a really sick paper on Penance and you get a case of writer's block. But out of necessity arises genius, which in my case consisted of asking Damian to give me three themes about which I should write an article.
Genius is sometimes hard to recognize at first glance.
People actually abstain — willingly! — from all animal products out of some sort of notion that this is a good thing to do! They even judge other people for using them! I can guarantee you it isn't because of the flavors, whatever people tell themselves. I've tried vegan food out of a mistaken desire to broaden my mind about other people's lifestyle choices, and the conclusion of that experiment was that veganism likely originated out of a particularly odd brand of German vegetarian pious mortification of the kind you saw in small monasteries where people didn't really talk to each other. (It wasn't the most scientific methodology, but I'm a humanities major! La la la!)
Joking aside, veganism is an interesting phenomenon, arising out of a peculiar view of the dignity of animals, and therefore of the notion of dignity by nature. In the development of behavioral science, animals are (according to Aristotle and everyone else forever) by their very nature sentient and able to take in nutrients on some level; as such, some of the most basic criteria for animal life are sentience of a properly sentient sort (not simply, for example, the tendency to grow toward the Sun, which applies to plants and is properly a response to the natural motion granted by something else) and vegetative digestion. The most important is perhaps the ability to move, in a certain way, according to instinct. However, there have been variations in the view of what else is characteristic of animal life since then, especially in the wake of Darwin and the notion of the material continuity of speciation (which, for those of you who don't read this stuff for fun, means that the division between reason and instinct becomes muddy). Some have claimed, for example, that animals only differ from human beings by mode of communication.
Without judging such a view, where the difference between animals and human beings is thus blurred to a near similarity in thought, this leads to the idea that animals deserve the same treatment, or at times better treatment, than human beings. If we are of equal dignity, if our human by-products ought not to be harvested, why should we harvest cow milk? By what right do we colonial species-ists appropriate the products of other beings as though it is not their property? Such considerations certainly played into the early development of veganism, and while vegan thought is in no way monolithic, it does share a basically different apprehension of the mode in which animals are said to have dignity than that characteristic of classical thought. Because most of our thinking was originated and conditioned by classical thought, the result is that veganism looks weird. Is it wrong? Depends on the correct notion of nature. Which brings me to my next question.
Boycotting pants. Why?
People actually abstain from wearing pants out of some sort of notion that this is a good thing to do! They even judge other people for wearing them! I can guarantee you it isn't because of the feeling, whatever people tell themselves. I've tried not wearing pants out of a mistaken desire to broaden my mind about other people's lifestyle choices, and the conclusion of that experiment was that this boycott likely originated out of a particularly odd brand of German poverty-driven pious mortification of the kind you saw in small convents where people didn't really talk to each other.
Now that I have demonstrated the engine of my conceit, which is that people don't do these things — becoming vegan or boycotting pants — except that they are preceded by a peculiar sort of notion of nature, let's look at the notion of nature at hand here. The reasoning behind the prohibition of pants is really very simple. Much as we don't like to mention it in our enlightened Christian culture, women have, occasionally, noticeable butts. Fun fact: Men do, too, and women have noticed them for decades, centuries even! (I realize this is a shock to some of our male readers, but bear with me, guys, while I let you join me on this magic carpet ride.) However, owing to a number of interesting and mildly confusing anthropological developments, while women are expected to be totally free of showing any sexual attraction to men in all of their polite outward social conduct, at least since the Victorian era, the social expectations about men have (through a combination of evolutionary reductionism, more licensed thinking about sexuality, the advent of the Birth Control Pill, and mass media) largely been reduced to insisting that women be overcome with gratitude if the man in the house remembers to leave the toilet seat down. Let's get serious for a moment — I say this knowing that the beloved readership cringes at such a preface, but what the hell — while women ostensibly have much more control about their bodies, men have proportionately much less material responsibility, and this is not helping a conception of men largely based on Homer Simpson and Mad Men.
As a result, the entirety of the responsibility for men not behaving in a way beyond acting on impulses seen as primal and chaotic is placed squarely on the shoulders of women, usually in the form of a shirt with a turtleneck collar and a long, flowing homemade skirt. (This is deliberately an exaggeration — I am aware of modesty chic — but the thing about modesty chic is that if it wasn't chic, a lot of the modesty crowd would still be satisfied for the simple fact that it isn't pants, making its aesthetic appeal irrelevant to the question.)
Is this wrong? Obviously, the decision to take that on oneself is not totally worthy of censure, considered as a voluntary mortification out of humility, recognizing that God made the natural beauty of the female form and recognizing that He meant it to be beautiful, representative (in the Gospel of John, for example) of the personhood of one further representing the Church. Obviously, if someone knows that will keep someone from sin, and does it, and for that reason, that's a very respectable thing to do. But if one is doing it as a sort of judgment of male degeneracy or a prideful desire to be the one who is more considerate than others, or in a way that attempts to claim universal moral import for every woman, then one has some problems. Pants are not evil, the female form is not evil, men should cultivate virtue, and they should be in all cases held to a worthy standard. In any case, though, the result is that boycotting pants can be weird. Is it totally wrong? Depends on the operative notion of nature. Which brings me to my last question.
The Rosary. Why?
People actually recite 150 Hail Marys out of some sort of notion that this is a good thing to do! They even judge other people for not doing it! I can guarantee you it isn't because of the feeling, whatever people tell themselves. I've tried joining the Dominican Novitiate out of a desire to pursue my possible vocation, and the conclusion of that observation was that this devotion actually originated out of a particularly odd brand of Dominican and pre-Dominican perfection-seeking pious duty of the kind you saw in small monasteries convents where people didn't really talk to each other. (See what I did there? They were vegetarian too, AND they didn't wear pants. OH. SNAP. DAMIAN.)
You've seen the gas, you've seen the engine, and now you get to see the prestige of my little symposium. Veganism proceeded from the notion that all animals have a dignity that demands certain obligations to them, upon which are founded rights, like human rights, which animals in vegan thought have as a result of their dignity. We, too, have dignity, and this represents itself in a curious phenomenon that we see as on the very edge of representing that dignity — the need to be solicitous to keep others from sinning, but to do so out of humility, not out of pride and judgment, recognizing the good of those things (like the expression of the beauty of the female form), which we offer up as a sacrifice for a greater good. This proceeds from our dignity as human beings, which we have by our nature. But our dignity, like our nature, broke a little in the Fall. By natural justice, for our sins against God, we deserved death, but in the fullness of time Christ became man so that man could become like Him — the new Adam to renew us from the sin of the old.
And He did this by being born of a woman, Mary, “our tainted nature's solitary boast.” To her, as source of our theological dignity as baptized Christians, we ought to offer our devotion from the same consideration with which vegans offer piety to animals, and with even greater passion. Vegans tend to be feisty people on the Internet, one tends to observe, and become very impassioned in argument out of a conviction about their position — yet Catholics very often shy away from discussing Mary, who, not merely someone of equal dignity to us, is the Mother of the Love Who moves the Sun and the other stars. Those who strenuously argue for boycotting pants we see taking this ostensibly vital moral issue very seriously, as though it were the first step to braking the roaring hot-rod of our society before it flies off into the rapidly approaching embankment — yet Catholics often shy away from the principled insistence upon our concrete duty of veneration to Mary as a vital part of our Catholic life. (I want to note here that I am not actually insisting on this devotion or that devotion. Rather, I am referring to the imperative to venerate our Theotokos by our constant imitation in all things, and not to impose this only on women, for example. It is not simply that Mary is for everyone — it is that if men do not imitate the humility and active passivity of Mary to the Divine Will, we are failing.) The Rosary, even, often gets swept under the rug of evangelization. Why? I'll tell you why. Devotion to Mary, like the Creed, the Eucharist, the Church, and salvation itself, is weird. Weirdness, my friends, is the sign of the conviction that one has discovered meaning.
And so we reach the denouement. We have the weirdness of veganism, the weirdness of boycotted pants, and the weirdness of the Rosary. I do not agree with veganism, but I recognize in it the conviction about something about reality having a dignitative aspect demanding a response in our lives: truth. I do not agree with the boycotting of pants, but I recognize in it the desire to move from some (indeterminate) principle to a moral act for the sake of the betterment of humanity. I do agree with the devotion to the Rosary, because it takes the Truth Himself, born of a human woman; it recognizes the good of salvation which we must seek to provide; and it coalesces that truth and goodness into an expression of the two which moves ad extra and contains both virtually: beauty. But if the Rosary expresses the perfection (and correction) of the truth which vegans claim to espouse so passionately it conditions their entire lives, and if it expresses the goodness which some (perhaps mistakenly) attempt to espouse in their lives with such passion (and, frankly, sacrifice) by the boycotting of pants, should we not outdo these things in fervency and in allowing our very lives to reflect the beauty which the Rosary expresses in itself? Then the purpose of veganism, the good treatment of Creation, and the purpose of clothing, to express the glory of God in the ornamentation of the human form, will follow, if only we learn to seek first the Kingdom of God, and His righteousness.
Tom Sundaram has an MA in Philosophy and an MA in Theology from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, and is currently pursuing a Licentiate in Canon Law at the Pontificia Università della Santa Croce in Rome, Italy, because he's an overachieving nerd going for the trifecta.