Mercy and Long Time Horizons

Mercy and Long Time Horizons September 16, 2015

triangle-warning-sign-30522_640 We Christians seem to spend a lot of time telling folks what not to do.  You mustn’t do this, you mustn’t do that, we say, or else you’re going to be a greasy spot on the pavement after the lightning strikes you.  At least, that’s the popular conception.  God is an angry God, and He’s just looking for the proper moment to strike you down, and we Christians are all down with that.

There’s a kernel of truth to this perception—though just a kernel, or there’d be greasy spots in many surprising places.  Lamentably, there are many whose actions and words project a God not of love but of hate.  And then, our contributions to the Culture Wars do seem to consist of “Don’t do that.  Really, don’t do that.  Please, don’t do that.”  All too often the message received (regardless of intent) is “Oh, no, you did that.  You’re evil, and we hate you and wish you’d disappear.”

Why do we focus so much on the actions of others?  Why do we tell others that they are doing wrong?  Why do we talk about sin so much?

Simply, it’s because sin is a real thing; and because sinning is counter to authentic human flourishing.  We are not so much saying, “You’re evil and God hates you;” instead, we’re standing in front of the culture at large waving red flags and screaming “Bridge out!  Bridge out!”

And when one someone actually stops and asks us, “What do you mean the bridge is out? I don’t see any bridge.  What bridge?” we marshall our arguments and usually utterly fail to convince them either that there’s a bridge or that there’s anything wrong with it.

Here’s the thing.  People do what they do because they see it as good, for what they understand to be good reasons.  The people who plastered their Facebook walls with rainbow flags and their Twitter streams with “#lovewins” this past summer weren’t trying to be evil.  They were seeking their own happiness as best they could, or endeavoring to allow others to have the same chance at happiness they have had.  Any arguments we make in support of some traditional but culturally unpopular moral teaching has to take that into account.

We can say that “the Church says so”; but that’s an argument only for those of us who give our obedience to Church teaching.  Those outside Mother Church understandably see no reason to submit their consciences to her guidance.  If we are more sophisticated we might try the natural law argument; and that generally fails to convince because few people possess the necessary philosophical background.

And that leaves us with consequentialist arguments: it’s a bad thing because it has these bad effects.  A Catholic might avoid the sin simply because it is a sin; but those on the outside need reasons.  And as it happens, most sins really do have bad consequences here and now.

Well, for some value of “here and now”, and that’s the next problem.  It’s a question of the time horizon.

Now, actions have consequences, but those consequences are not necessarily quick.  When I was a little boy, my time horizon was minutes and an hour was forever.  While I was in school, it grew to hours and eventually to days.  Now that I’m in my fifties it has extended to weeks, months, and seasons.  I’ve often reflected that one of my jobs as a parent is to provide short-term consequences to behaviors that otherwise would only have long-term consequences.  Small children do not have the time-horizon to understand or foresee the real consequences, so I have to provide consequences they do understand.

I think we’ve got something similar going on here.  The Church has strong consequentialist arguments to make about the role of traditional marriage and family as the organizing principle for a just society…but those arguments involve effects that play out over decades and generations.  We, on the other hand have been trained by the rapid pace of technological development and the quick turns of fashion to focus on a time horizon of at most years.  Why worry about ten or twenty years from now?  Everything’s going to be completely different anyway.

All this leads me to think that the Culture War is one we can’t win no matter how much we wave that red flag.  (That doesn’t mean that we should stop waving it.  Some battles are worth fighting even in defeat.)  In time, after the consequences have played out, we’ll have to help pick up the pieces.

Where, then, should we be putting our efforts in the meantime?  I see two places.  First, we can mitigate the damage as best we can.  And second, we can do our best to lead others, individually, to that place where they begin to think with the Church.

To put it another way, we can work to heal the effects of sin (the very real and concrete effects) in the world around us; and we can help others to begin to reject sin in their own lives.  The Pope’s Year of Mercy plays a role in both of these efforts:  Our aid to others is a form of God’s mercy, and without the promise of mercy those we love have no reason to turn to God.

Because, after all, sin is contrary to human flourishing.

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