Friday, March 21, 2008

Thanks Be To God

In a little more than a month, I will celebrate 10 years as a Roman Catholic.

It was April 22, 1998 that I was received into full communion with the Church. My baptism as a Free Methodist infant was done properly, so I merely had to make a profession of faith and receive confirmation, and I was in.

My new fiancée (now wife) was at my side that Wednesday evening during the Easter Octave in St. Mary's Church in Ottawa. I was originally scheduled to fulfill my RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) journey on Holy Saturday, but my brother had planned his wedding for then, back home in Saskatchewan.

Those silly Protestants and their weddings in Lent. Sheesh. :)

My RCIA group had met on Wednesdays throughout the year, and had planned on meeting the Wednesday after Easter anyway, so it was a logical time for me to be brought into full communion with Rome.

As I received the Blessed Sacrament for the first time that night, I mis-spoke the traditional response. Fr. Bill placed Christ's flesh on my tongue with his priestly words, "The Body of Christ." Not knowing exactly what to say, my instinct took over and I uttered the response, "Thanks be to God" instead of "Amen. " Afterwards, my sponsor, Harold, informed me of my gaffe, but admitted the words still fit.

Looking back today, I have no regrets. My decision to become Catholic - which was less of a decision than it was an act of obedience - lost me some good friends, but it has gained me many more. My family reacted poorly at first, but they now have a deeper sense of appreciation for the Catholic Church, and I suspect that some of them are feeling the call to set a foot in the Tiber themselves.

There is a witty welcome for those who join the Church in today's world: "Welcome aboard! Now grab a bucket and start bailing." Indeed, our Church is in a sorry state. Lambasted in the media, scorned by the elite left, sabotaged by scandalous clerics and religious - and yet we survive. Converts such as myself are numerous. There is something about the Church which has appeal throughout the ages, despite its tarnish: it is holy, radiating truth, and when a truth-seeker espies that glimmer of its gold ("All that is gold does not glitter" - J.R.R. Tolkien - another Catholic) behind the oxidation of scandal, he cannot help himself.

It is at that moment, wrote G.K. Chesterton in 1926 (yet another convert), that even the most vehemently anti-Catholic man is confronted with the truth that his prejudices are a lie. "When a man really sees the Church, even if he dislikes what he sees, he does not see what he had expected to dislike. Even if he wants to slay it he is no longer able to slander it; though he hates it at sight, what he sees is not what he looked to see; in that place he may gain a new passion but he loses his old prejudice. There drops from him the holy armour of his invincible ignorance; he can never be so stupid again."

That echoes my own experience. Once I took an honest look at what the Catholic Church is and was willing to put aside my own perceptions (among which were they worship Mary, they believe we're saved by our works, they talk to the dead, they ignore the Bible) I could not ignore it. I had lived on my own little single-coconut-tree Christian island, with other little single-coconut-tree Christian islands scattered within sight, for my whole life. I thought that was the normal Christian experience. But then God lifted me up into the sky and showed me a massive continent, just over the horizon, teeming with life and abundance. When he set me back down on my single-coconut-tree island, I knew I had to get to the continent, and I jumped in the ocean and started swimming. Previously I had thought I would fall off the edge of the ocean and lose my soul - but once there I found not only my soul, but an infinitely deeper relationship with Christ.

Thanks be to God, indeed. Praise him for his sacrifice on the cross! Praise him for his resurrection! Praise him for the Holy Spirit! Praise him for the Church! Thanks be to God!

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

War is Here to Stay

The April 2008 edition of Discover magazine carries a curious teaser headline on the front cover: "Could Iraq Be Our Last War?"

The article, page 25, is written by John Horgan and is complete bollywash. The whole premise is that we as a species are becoming more and more peaceable, more and more capable of resolving out problems in a civilized, non-violent manner, and the general thrust of the article is that many esteemed university professors (including Horgan) believe we are approaching an age where we will see no more war.

He forgets that university professors in the decade following 1918 termed World War One as the "war to end all wars" because of its horrific scale and unprecedented loss of human life.

A few years ago a lady in our apartment complex was moving into an old folks' home and was giving away a bunch of her possessions. I espied an encyclopedia set from 1951 - The American Peoples Encyclopedia - and immediately knew I had a good find on my hands. I wanted that set because it's very difficult to find today a perspective on world affairs that's fifty years old. Now, right away, some of you may think that a perspective that old is immediately disqualified or irrelevant, but I would disagree. The people who compiled this encyclopedia were the true masters of knowledge in their time. The workmanship of the volumes, the objective tone of the composition, the thorough dissection of events, even the custom-built wooden shelf all allude to a sense of honour and a work ethic gone from modern academia.

The article on WWI is pleasantly free from any mention of political or socio-economic ramifications. The authors refrain from topics outside the realm of the facts of the war, even though it's obvious from today's perspective that the catalyst for Hitler's rise to power in Nazi Germany was the harsh restrictions placed on Germany sovereignty by an over-reactive victorious Allied force. One would think that's an obvious "oh by the way" footnote for the end of the fifty-six page article, but the encyclopedia authors don't go there.

Not so with John Horgan, as he connects the dots between ape and man. Here's a smattering of what he has to say:
  • Observations of lethal fighting among chimpanzees, our close genetic relatives, have persuaded many people that war has deep biological roots. But [primatologist Frans] de Waal says that primates, and especially humans, are 'very calculating' and will abandon aggressive strategies that no longer serve their interests.
  • Over the last few decades, researchers in Africa have observed males in rival troops of chimpanzees raiding and killing each other. Archaeologists and anthropologists also keep unearthing evidence of warfare in their studies of prehistoric and tribal human societies.
  • De Waal acknowledges that 'we have a tendency, and all the primates have a tendency, to be hostile to non-group members.'
This is just from the first five paragraphs; the whole article goes on like this. Does he really think that we are bound by the same biological rules which aren't even consistent among observations of the lower primates?

I found the following especially enlightening: "Chimpanzees fight 'when they think they can get away with it,' [anthropologist Richard Wrangham] says, 'but they don't when they can't. And that's the lesson that I draw for humans.' "

So the way to end war is for nobody to be able to get away with aggression. Let's transpose that concept onto history and see what happens. I've studied World War II extensively, and there is a lot we can learn about war from its examples.

When the Nazis started rebuilding Germany's military strength in violation of the Versailles Treaty which ended WWI, one of the first thing they did was secretly re-form the Luftwaffe, or Air Force. In 1935, four years before the start of WWII, they suddenly announced to the world that Germany had an Air Force again. The response from the League of Nations (the failed precursor to the modern day UN) was a collective, "Um....OK." Then in 1936 Hitler sent troops into the demilitarized zone of Germany known as the Rhineland. Again, the League of Nations didn't quite know what to do. Germany then successfully lent some unofficial military help to the fascists trying to gain power in Spain, and again the world had no response. In 1938 Germany annexed its neighbour state of Austria in a bloodless invasion and coup.

At this point Britain and France started to get a little antsy. This was all happening during the biggest economic depression in world history, and neither nation had the stomach for war. "Their policy was based on the belief that any sacrifice compatible with their national security was preferable to an armed conflict, and on that the hope that the aggressors could be satisfied with minor concessions which would remove their main grievance and make them willing to co-operate in the establishment of peace," my encyclopedia says.

In March of 1939, Hitler made several bold moves against Czechoslovakia, Bohemia, Moravia, and Slovakia, with little to no military resistance from any of them, and with not so much as a verbal condemnation from the League of Nations. It was at that point that Britain and France each grew a pair and made a stand. They had both reneged on treaties with the previous countries Germany had invaded, but something made them stand up at this point. Germany was already making demands on Poland which Poland could not meet, and it was obvious that Hitler's next move was yet another invasion.

In April 1939 Britain joined France in a promise of defense to the Polish people. Geographically, Germany stood between Poland and the allied nations, so Hitler had a hard time taking their threat seriously. The wild card was Russia, which could storm through Poland and confront Germany directly. So Hitler set up history's greatest lie of a treaty, promising non-aggression if the Russians agreed to divide Poland with Germany. A few years later Hitler would break that treaty and attack Russia, which ultimately would cost him the war, but for now it gave him relative safety. My encyclopedia again: "The most solemn warnings that Britain and France would stand by their pledges failed to shake his illusions. Frantic efforts by the democracies to secure peaceful negotiations between Germany and Poland were of no avail. At dawn on September 1 the German invasion was launched; and on September 3, after all attempts to find a solutions had failed, Britain and France declared war on Germany."

My point here is that Germany thought it could get away with its aggressions because of the lack of a war-like response from Britain and France, until it was too late. Earlier diplomacy would have solved nothing: Hitler sensed the weakness of his opponents and struck. What drove him to strike? Was it a desire for "living space" as he so frequently articulated to the Germany people? Was it an act of vengeance upon Europe for the harsh conditions of the Versailles Treaty which had kept Germany's economy down since the end of WWI in 1918? Was it a hatred for Jews which drove him to try to wipe them out under the guise of military conquest? Or was it simply that a deeply troubled megalomaniac was in the wrong place at the wrong time?

Horgan postulates that our environments contribute to our desire for war. "In one experiment, rhesus monkeys, which are ordinarily incorrigibly aggressive, grew up to be kinder and gentler when raised with mild-mannered stump-tailed monkeys." But therein lies the problem with Horgan's argument: There is no human equivalent to stump-tailed monkeys. There is no such thing as a mild-mannered community, society, or group of people - except maybe engineers. But we simply cannot detect the future Hitlers of the world and graft them into families of engineers. The human mind is subject to waves of temptation and complex psychological processes which affect all people, regardless of class, race, education, or environment. The lower primates have no such burden. Our souls are corruptible; we are capable of evil for its own sake, and even the meanest rhesus monkey (don't let your kids see that) is simply responding instinctively for territorial reasons, hunger, or protection of offspring.

So what's Horgan's solution? He quotes archaeologist Steven LeBlanc: "Two keys to peace, he believes, are controlling population growth and finding cheap alternatives to fossil fuels. 'I was just in Germany,' LeBlanc exults, 'and there are windmills everywhere!' " Is he sure it wasn't Holland? But seriously, does any of that justify the frequent connection between lower primates and humans? And don't get me started on population control.

In short, until absolutely everybody on the face of the earth is predisposed to peace, a responsible nation must prepare for war. As long as we have an enemy, we must have an army. Hitler attacked the weakest nations around him first because he could get away with it. Osama bin Laden coordinated the 9/11 attacks on America because he thought they'd just lie back and take it. If he had foreseen the fall of Iraq and Afghanistan and an increased American presence in the Middle East, and if he had known that he'd have to dig a hole for his toilet in a different cave each day for more than six years and counting, I rather think he would have reconsidered.

The only alternative to war in this world is surrender, and I am proud to live in a country which does not surrender to the enemies of democracy and modern liberalism.

It is only in the world to come that we shall truly know peace. I pray that Horgan and his fellow university professors would promote that.