Thursday, December 11, 2014

What is "What-Is"?

Here's something Flannery O'Connor said,

"What the fiction writer will discover, if he discovers anything at all, is that he himself cannot move or mold reality in the interests of abstract truth.  The writer learns, perhaps more quickly than the reader, to be humble in the face of what-is.  What-is is all he has to do with; the concrete is his medium; and he will realize eventually that fiction can transcend its limitations only by staying within them."

The "concrete" is the spiritual embodied.  "What-is" is the consequential, the actual limitations of reality around us, not the Unreal make-believe that we think we can get away with living in.

But we religious folk don't usually understand that.  We think religion is a fine feeling we get on a Sunday, or a certain thrill we feel watching "Matthew Kelly on a headset" (as a friend of mine puts it).  Christopher West might make a tingle run up our leg, but his version of Theology of the Body has nothing to do with the ups and downs of sacramental marriage as it actually exists and is lived out day to day.

Much of my life story (which I will be writing) has to do with my coming to terms with this what-is.  Much of my life story has been a story of traveling from Unreality to Reality, out of shadows and images into the truth, as my blog's motto and as Cardinal Newman put it.  This is a hard thing for anyone, especially for anyone who makes his living off of his imagination, as I do, to understand.

But if Unreality is a way of describing the Anatomy of Sin, then What-is is a way of describing the shocking Presence of God in our midst.  What-is is the source of humility and wonder.  What-is shows us the Judgment that is present even in time.  What-is is the key to sanity, to all right philosophy, and to the Incarnation.

What-is is the Cross of Christ.

But what is what-is?

Here are three of many possible examples.

  • A suburban couple lives beyond their means.  Their creditors start to harass them.  They demand as much as 33% interest per year from the couple on their credit card debt, which is equal to or more than their annual income.  The couple struggles to keep up.  Eventually they either have to go bankrupt, downsize, or settle for a fraction of what they owe.  The Unreality is the bubble, the treadmill, the panic of trying to satisfy creditors with make-believe money, with money that isn't there and that never will be.  The reality is what-is.

  • The homosexual agenda is pushed in the world and in the Church for decades.  You befriend a young homosexual and are shocked to discover that his "same sex attraction" is not something that is limited to his bedroom activities (or to his public bathroom or highway rest stop activities) but is a symptom of a broader psychology that colors everything he does, making him a very difficult person to trust and relate to.  You have no idea why this should be, and you assume there's something wrong with you and that you're being "judgmental" - but, dammit, that's what-is - and you deny it at your peril.  Sex is never segregated from the wholeness of who we are as persons, physically or spiritually - and, even though the whole world and most of the Catholic Church now denies it, that's what-is.

  • You want to provide for your family and make a name for yourself in your chosen field.  You work non-stop 80 hour weeks and you finally have a heart attack or a "nervous breakdown".  Your kids don't know you, your wife is neurotic, and the porn you've been using to ease the pain no longer helps.  Welcome to what-is.

There are some forms of art that tell stories that are Lies, stories that deny what-is and that prop up what-isn't.  This kind of shallow propaganda is never recognized as great art, or even as good art.  For good art entails grappling with what-is.  And so does true Faith.


Drusilla Barron said...


JohnK said...

Everything you said, Yes. Very, very effectively presented.

But a part -- a huge part -- of moral responsibility, and hence of What-Is Knowledge, consists of 'domain dependent' knowledge, the dirt-under-the-fingernails immersion in the situation that defines 'this' person as a moral agent 'here'.

This characteristic, part of the moral understanding and reasoning of C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton, O'Connor as you point out, and Christopher Dawson, demands, as you say, more detail, more What-Is, not in order to prevaricate or hesitate, but to firmly grasp the nettle that is ours to grasp in this particular 'What-Is'; viz., to be morally responsible, no holds barred: "I will take The Ring to Mordor, though I do not know the way."

That said, I beg you to consider that you might currently have a less-detailed (and therefore, by your own standards, less morally apt) grasp of 'torture' than you have heretofore imagined.


Kevin O'Brien said...

Torture is intrinsically evil, per the infallible Magisterium of the Catholic Church and plain common sense. To make the case you're making, to imply that it is sometimes licit in the nettle in which we grasp, to invoke the greatest Catholic authors of the 20th Century in doing so, is reprehensible. If you support torture, you are neither fully Catholic nor a decent human being. Post here again and I'll delete your comment immediately.

John Henry said...

This "zero tolerance for dissenting viewpoints" thing is as ugly from you as it is on the Facebook pages of my progressive friends and family.

Kevin O'Brien said...

Zero Tolerance for torture enthusiasts. Sorry that offends you.

Kevin O'Brien said...

Of course I allow all sorts of opposing viewpoints, but when I ban Torture Enthusiasts, you get miffed.

Scott W. said...

I'd be inclined to allow a torture apologist on the condition that had a new failed argument other than the tired and failed ones we've already heard repeatedly just so we can add it to the collection: A Catalog of Failed Arguments

John Henry said...

Well, yes. It's one thing to ban someone for making rude comments or otherwise polluting the conversation without adding anything of substance. It's something else when you ban someone just for arguing in favor of a particular view. What puts torture in a special "zero tolerance" category, as separate from other mortal sins?

John Henry said...

It reminds me of my progressive former friends who have unfriended/banned/shunned me because of my own "unforgivable" viewpoints.

Kevin O'Brien said...

So advocating the torture of another human being is "unforgivable" in quotes? No, it's forgivable, as are all things we repent of. When we make sophistical and smug arguments in support of the worst thing one person can do to another without repenting, that's when it's "unforgivable" - and not in quotes.

Sorry you think this is a "Progressive" position and that I'm being judgmental like your "progressive" friends.

I learned years ago that the people who advocate for torture have no intention of discussing the reality of the issue. I've gone round and round with this argument, and if torture advocates won't admit that torture is always and everywhere wrong and can never be justified under any circumstances, that it is the attempt to destroy the Image of God in another human being, and that it's a horrific act that boils up from the pit of hell - if they don't admit this, then I won't let them comment.

This is not an issue I think is cute, or an issue you can play games over. It is condemned as intrinsically evil by the Church. If you support it, you are not fully in communion with the Church and you are something far less than a decent human being.

Benjamin. said...

Yes, almost everyone supporting torture is very quick to cruelty and thoughtlessness on the matter.

But I highly doubt banning them from commenting will change that.

Many people say horrible, horrible, things. But telling them NOT to discuss it will end almost any consideration on their part to agree. Eventually we can hope their conscience is awakened, but I don't think stopping them from speaking will help accomplish that.

Kevin O'Brien said...

I'm not trying to change the minds of people who don't argue in good faith, and the torture apologists don't argue in good faith. Torture is simply a tool of Satan and I won't have it defended here.

Christian LeBlanc said...

2297 Kidnapping and hostage taking bring on a reign of terror; by means of threats they subject their victims to intolerable pressures. They are morally wrong. Terrorism threatens, wounds, and kills indiscriminately; it is gravely against justice and charity. Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity. Except when performed for strictly therapeutic medical reasons, directly intended amputations, mutilations, and sterilizations performed on innocent persons are against the moral law.

David Paggi said...

Had we taken the way of humility and grave respect for the intrinsic worth of every person (see Blessed Mother Teresa), we would have demonstrated an entirely new paradigm to our "guests" at Gitmo. Instead, this unique opportunity was squandered while our best efforts only served to reinforce all the distorted indoctrination their masters had fed into their minds.

Giving in to the desire for retribution & revenge can never produce a morally defensible result. In this case it appears it was counterproductive to an extreme, the full cost of which will not be known for decades.