"I sought among them for a man that might set up a hedge, and stand in the gap before me in favor of the land." Ezekiel 22:30

Monday, June 10, 2013

Actions and Beliefs: A Thought Experiment

 "For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead." James 2:26

Pope Francis
Pope Francis (image via National Catholic Register)
I had an interesting thought recently. (I know. It's shocking). It made a lot of sense in my head, but let me try to explain this and we'll see where it goes.

The recent election of Pope Francis has pleased a lot of people, Catholic and non-Catholic alike. Although many self-identified conservative and/or traditionalist Catholics (like myself) can find a number of specific eyebrow-raising incidents to criticize him regarding this-or-that detail, generally speaking hardly a critic seems to have emerged. Our new successor to Peter appears to have the support that would make any democratically elected politician green with envy, and with his personality it is little wonder why.

Of course, having charm, charisma, and a vivacious personality is one thing; it is quite another to make some of the doctrinally rock-solid and hard-hitting statements and still have a committed following like he does. And in case you haven't been paying attention, some of the things he has said since being elected pope have at times made this author nearly as giggly as a five-year-old on Christmas, which is really saying something. All this being said, I would argue that one of the main factors, if not the only factor, uniting the largest swath of supporters is Francis' clear love of the poor.

But loving the poor is one thing. That doesn't automatically translate into adoration. So why has Pope Francis garnered so much support?  It's not just because he is Il Papa. There have been lots of popes over the 2,000 year history of the Church. Some were adored; some were...not. Many previous popes have had a very evident love for the poor. So why the adoration this time around for Pope Francis?

Several factors account for this phenomenon.

First of all, we live in a totally different time than we did, say, a mere eight years ago when Pope Benedict XVI was elected. Just look at this picture of the papal elections at the Vatican to see what I mean. Never before has the papacy (or any other public institution) had so much constant attention. I don't need to elaborate the point that information can travel faster and easier in 2013 than ever before. And it seems Pope Francis has been able to take full advantage of the publicity to showcase his humility, generosity, and love for the poor. His spontaneous character seems all but made for our constantly shifting sense of attention. (Is it too soon to credit the Holy Spirit for yet another brilliant choice as Pope?)

However, Pope Francis is popular and loved not merely due to his personality, his ardent love for the poor, his straight to-the-point sermons, and not even solely because of the speed of communications. All of these factors are at play, but the main factor, the biggest reason, the driving force behind his popularity is what I call the Principle of Unification.

Before I define my Principle, let me provide some background.

People the world over hate - hate - hypocrites and hypocrisy. Watch a few minutes of any major news network, be it "fair and balanced" or not, and within minutes - seconds even - you will hear some version of "He/she said this but he/she did that." And the crazy thing is a person's hypocrisy doesn't always need to be real; many times the mere allegation of hypocrisy is enough to sink a person's reputation. At times, this is the very actualization of American politics.

My Principle of Unification is similar to St. Anselm's Ontological Argument. Essentially, Anselm's Argument ultimately declares that a being which exists in the mind and in reality is greater than one which only exists in the mind or in reality. God, therefore must exist because he is the greatest being imaginable. My Principle follows a similar train of thought. Whereas Anselm's argument concerns existence of a being (God, specifically), so my Principle of Unification concerns existence of ideas in the form of beliefs and actions. Ideas are essentially a function of the mind, which can take form in language via words, or in the physical activities of our entire bodies (not just the flapping of our listless jaw, as some theologians, politicians, and pundits seem to think).

Take for example Pope Francis' rhetoric regarding the poor, as in this example. No one would argue that his words do not espouse an ideal that is quite commendable, noble, and to be held in high regard. Yet without action, his words would be empty, if not downright hypocritical. Similarly, were he to only take action towards this idea of helping the poor, but without true belief of his mind in the idea, well, his actions would also become empty, devoid of true meaning, and again, downright hypocritical.

As you might have guessed, the summation of my argument is that unification of rhetoric and physical activities of our body is far greater than one without the other. Essentially, beliefs and actions are two sides of the same coin. One without the other is worthless, at least in an immediate sense. Surely, some good could come from noble words spoken listlessly, or noble actions taken with no inherit purpose. Words do inspire action in others, as does action inspire further action. But the effect would be short lived. The actions or words which are devoid of true belief are like an engine apart from a car. It may function perfectly in and of itself, but lacks a real use. An engine joined with a car suddenly has a purpose; otherwise, it will more than likely be quickly cast aside.

Therefore, I would argue it is the unification of beliefs and actions which gives Francis such universal appeal. The unification (and importantly, the non-contradiction) beliefs and actions eliminates all trace of hypocrisy in our pope's words or actions. Surely, Pope Francis is human, and is susceptible to falter, as we all are. He is not the first person to unite his beliefs and actions, nor will he be the last to stumble. He is simply (emphasis on "simply") attempting to follow the example of God, His son Jesus Christ, and the Holy Ghost - the Most Holy Trinity, the perfect example of complete unification between ideas, beliefs, and actions. How dually blessed we are to have this most perfect example in the Trinity, and seemingly perfect example in the Vicar of Christ on earth. Viva Il Papa!

1 comment:

  1. Gaunilo's rebuttal to Anselm was devastating -- existence isn't a perfection.

    That said, I think your Principle of Unification might just as well be called the Principle of Incarnation, or maybe the Talk is Cheap principle. I'm still trying to get my head around "showcasing humility".