Yesterday, for the first time in my life, I attended a Catholic Mass. Yesterday also marked the worst mass shooting in United States history. How can I, as a human being, reconcile these events?
For those who don’t know me personally, I was raised in the Church of Christ, a Protestant fundamentalist denomination. As is pretty well known, there can often be, and historically has often been, a certain division and even hostility between Protestants in general, but especially fundamentalists, and Catholicism. It will be the purpose of a future article to describe and explain what led me to take up an interest in Catholicism; in short, I discovered the Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophical system. For those who don’t know, Aristotelian-Thomism is a comprehensive school of philosophy that has its roots in the metaphysics of Aristotle, and which was revived, interpreted, and expanded by Thomas Aquinas and other Scholastic philosophers. It is somewhat of a long story how I came about finding this system, and the profound, significant impact it had on me, but I must make clear that never in my life have I been more impressed, and more convinced, by anything as I am by the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition. Its unity and coherence is staggeringly beautiful. And it just so happened that this system, with which I became so enthralled and convinced, is preserved and kept alive in a single institution: the Catholic Church. And so it was that a good friend of mine, himself a lifelong Catholic, graciously invited me to attend Mass with him yesterday morning.
While I was preparing for this, news reports were rolling in of a horrific event which took place in the early hours of the morning. A single man walked into a crowded nightclub with an assault rifle and opened fire, killing fifty people and wounding fifty-three others, according to reports. Fifty human beings, dead, at the hands of one man, one fellow human being. As I was sound asleep in my comfortable bed, only a few hours from waking up to attend Mass, fifty people were brutally attacked and murdered in the worst mass shooting in American history. What does this mean for me, for my life, and for humanity?
Excited and a bit nervous, I arrived at the church a little early (this was hours before I heard of the shooting). My friend met me, walked me inside, showed me around, introduced me to a few people, and eventually we found our seats amongst the pews, where I then experienced my first ever Catholic mass.
The whole thing was, in many ways, directly antithetical to my experiences in Protestant, especially Evangelical/fundamentalist, churches. But it also had some striking similarities as well. The differences and similarities are important, and I won’t be quick to label them as either “good” or “bad,” “positive” or “negative.” It will take much time and thinking to come to some conclusion about it all, but I’d like to describe a few things and make a few points.
The most obvious differences between attending a Catholic and Protestant church (at least, the evangelical/fundamentalist Protestant churches which I am familiar with) were the physical ones. A recent trend amongst Protestant churches, especially in North America, has been to “simplify” appearances. Many “fellowship” or “community” churches, such as Calvary Chapels, oftentimes meet in buildings which in outward appearance do not even resemble a church and are impossible to distinguish from “regular” buildings. The actual services many times take place in just large, empty rooms where chairs have been lined up in front of a stage. Even in older, more traditional type Protestant church buildings, there is a clear difference in architectural style when compared to a Catholic cathedral or basilica. This was especially made clear on the inside of the church I was visiting, where beautiful stained glass windows, in between each of which were intricately crafted carvings of the Stations of the Cross, reached upwards towards high vaulted ceilings. At the front was the sanctuary and the altar–an actual alter, covered in cloth with candles (in most Protestant churches I have attended, what is called the “altar” is nothing more than the podium from which a preacher speaks) where the Eucharist would be prepared–and behind which stood a massive, life-size crucifix. Around the sanctuary were many other sacred statues and icons. In short, it was the exact opposite of that contemporary trend, especially in nondenominational community churches, to “strip down” almost everything to just an empty room. Everything seemed detailed, elaborate, ornamented. Even right down to the pews themselves, on the backs of which were kneelers upon which one would kneel in prayer.
Beyond the merely physical aspect, the Mass was different too in its practices. From the very start it felt more solemn, more serious than any church service I had ever attended before. It was a far cry from the “emotionalism” heavily prevalent, almost dominant, in many contemporary Protestant churches. There was an order to it all, a strict, patterned ritual that hung over every sound and movement, from the kneeling in genuflect before entering the pew, to the hymns and chanted prayers, and, most importantly, to the Eucharist, around which the entire thing was centered. In a word, it felt ancient, as if I were participating in something solid and alive, whose roots stretched back in time to the very foundation of the world. Everything that was done felt precise and purposeful, like it had some definite end, like it meant something. Again, I am not here commenting on whether these things were “good” or “bad,” “positive” or “negative” compared to my previous church experiences. I am not yet judging its intentions or its accuracies. I am merely describing how it felt. And it felt sacred.
Hundreds of miles away from where I sat and knelt in reverent contemplation, fifty bodies lay piled and littered on a dirty floor, no doubt drenched in a layer of flesh and blood, splattered and spilt. Fifty bodies ripped and torn by the violent force of a mechanical weapon. Fifty bodies shredded with bullets, countless more lives forever shattered. As I bowed my head in worship, hundreds of families and friends bowed their heads in absolute sorrow and despair. Destroyed by the cruelty of the world, haunted by a seemingly senseless evil and aggression and murderous rage. I moved my mouth to speak words and sing songs of the faith; they moved their lips to pour forth agonizing cries, drowning in tears. No scene could be farther from sacred. No scene could be more hideous and profane.
Yesterday I witnessed two events, two “masses,” one in person and one from a distance. One an act which felt holy and beautiful. The other an act which feels ugly, hideous, vile, gut-wrenching, evil. One which was inspired by, and inspires, some sense of hope and peace. The other which was inspired by deeply ingrained hatred, fueled by systematic disorder, and which inspires only despair and sorrow. How do we possibly make sense of these discrepancies of experiences? How can the same world possibly contain both events? How can human hands both build cathedrals and violently massacre fifty other humans? Both events, both masses, were in every possible way exact opposites. And yet they have one thing in common. They were both human. And thus they were both mysteriously, and overwhelmingly, profound.
I don’t want this post to slip into a mundane discussion about the philosophical “Problem of Evil.” For although such discussions are extremely important and necessary to philosophical inquiry, the mere discussions are not sufficient for the present situation. The Problem of Evil, in my opinion, has a very powerful emotional potency behind it, and this is, for the most part, whence it derives its relevance and support as an argument against the existence of God. The “problem” of the Problem of Evil, however, is that it abstracts the reality of evil, it views evil as an intellectual idea which is seemingly inconsistent with the separate idea of the existence of God. This abstraction of evil, as I said, is important. We need to try to understand evil as a whole, and how it fits into our beliefs and world views. But the abstraction itself is not what is felt. The families and friends of those victims aren’t crying over some distant, intangible idea; they’re weeping because of its overbearing reality. Simply put, the Problem of Evil is a deeply troubling question. But it’s an even more deeply troubling experience to undergo. In the end, it won’t matter if we can answer the question, but can’t help those undergoing the reality of it, a reality which seems to be intrinsic to human existence.
With that having been said, I’d like to look briefly at both aspects of the Problem of Evil, both the question and the fact, and how they relate to the present situation. For Christians and other theists, this question usually comes in a form like this: If God exists, and God is good, and God is all powerful, why does He permit such horrible atrocities? Why does He not do something about all the evil and suffering in the world? Where was God when a gunman slaughtered fifty human beings?
But the question doesn’t merely exist for Christians and others who believe in God. Whatever your worldview, evil and suffering still exist in the world. Evil and suffering are still extremely troubling and challenging, both on a personal and intellectual level. The Problem of Evil still raises questions, albeit in different ways. For atheists, the question is sometimes posed in terms of accounting for moral objectivity, and making sense of how one can attribute values such as evil to a purely materialistic world where everything that exists is just meaningless atoms floating around randomly. But I don’t think this is the most pressing question which is raised to the atheist. The most pressing question, in my mind, and the most practical question, the question most directly tied to our immediate, personal reality, is this: where is the hope?
We can argue however much we want about what evil is, what causes it, and for whom’s worldview it poses more of a challenge. We can argue all we want about the Problem of Evil, but there is no arguing about the reality of evil, and for those fifty dead humans, and for their families and friends and communities, that is all that really matters.
The Mass, and the mass shooting, both point to our humanity, to our human nature. And that is an extraordinarily frightening fact. It is no good, and indeed it is simply false, to say that the evil capable of murdering fifty people belongs only to a few deranged outliers, and not to humanity as a whole. We debate about whether it is a “culture of rape” or a “culture of irresponsible drinking” which results in incidents such as the recent Stanford rape. But I say it is a deeper, underlying problem, not an external culture, that produces these tragedies. It is not a culture of rape or a culture of drinking, it is an internal and inherent lust which desires only the pleasure and gratification of the flesh, it is an internal and inherent pride which cares only for one’s self and for satisfying one’s own desires, it is an internal and inherent hatred which does not care for the life, the wellbeing, even the existence of another human except insofar as that human can be used as a means to one’s own personal ends. This mass shooting truly was an epitome of our society’s current raging wars. It involved the issues of homosexuality and LGBT rights/treatment. It involved gun violence. It involved radical Islamic terrorism and our understanding/response to it. It became a platform for social media venting and raging and name calling. It became a new opportunity for sides to polarize, to attack the other side and defend their own. It became a new story for the media to manipulate. It became an excuse for politicians, particularly those individuals currently in that vicious and indecent race for presidential office, to publicize their own image and push for their own goals. In short, it is an example of almost every major issue which our society currently faces, all of which are manifestations not of external cultural deficiencies, but of the internal nature and struggle of the human heart itself. It is not merely Islamic extremists capable of mass murder and terrorism. It is not merely right wing conservative “homophobes” capable of ignorance and bigotry. It is not merely the Donald Trumps and Hillary Clintons of the world who would, when given the chance, lie and cheat and push and shove their way to attain power and wealth and whatever else their hearts desire. It is anyone who has ever harbored angry, unkind thoughts to their neighbor. It is anyone who has ever cared more for their own comfort and way of life than the truth. It is anyone who has ever thought of their own self more than their fellow man. It is all of us. It is our humanity. It is our disordered hearts and minds. The Problem of Evil is a human problem.
The mass shooting displays the capacity of each and every human to be truly hateful and cruel. But the Mass displays the capacity of each and every human to reach for something other, and higher, than himself. It reveals the capacity for beauty, for light, for love, for hope and peace in the world. It reveals the capacity of each and every human to be healed, to be redeemed, to be made new and whole. It reveals a solution to the problem of evil.
Whether or not you’re Catholic (I’m not, by the way), whether or not you’re Christian, whether or not you believe in God or religion, we must all admit to our humanity, and to the problems inherent in that, and to the possible answers/solutions open to us. We cannot blame the evil in the world on “those other type of people, not people like me,” because that, in essence, just is the cause of all human evil in the first place. That pride which cannot see the faults and failures of one’s own self. That hatred which throws out and abandons fellow humans simply because they are different. That lust which wants only to fill its own desires. That is what evil is. And that is what we as humans are. That is why the mass shooting, as horrible and awful as it is, is profound. Because it shows that humanity itself is profound. That humanity itself is broken, and is in desperate need of help.
I saw and heard countless people today insulting and barraging those calling for prayer, instead saying that what we need is action. I agree, whole heartedly. But actions now, such as giving blood or donating money, as good and absolutely necessary as they are, will only serve this one problem, and this one event. But there are sure to be others, because we face the problem of our own humanity. And that is what prayer, and religion, and Mass, claim, and aim, to help fix. The problem of evil to the Christian is why God allows evil. The problem of evil to the atheist is what hope there is in the world, when our human nature is what is it, when we all will end up as lifeless as those fifty victims, when our very universe will end in darkness. But the problem of evil to everyone, as humans, is what will we do to change, to better ourselves. If you’re not a Christian, you may have your own ideas about how to achieve this. But I have a sinking suspicion that these ideas won’t work, as crude and impolite as that statement may sound. Because humans have been trying for thousands of years to lift themselves from the dust and ash of their humanity, but those fifty bodies are testament to the fact that we have failed, that we cannot do this alone. I would suggest that this is the whole power and purpose of religion: to cure the human heart of its humanity. To make it divine. The depth and and terrifying profundity of human nature is that it is able to both build cathedrals and tear down the homes of neighbors, that it is able to both write Hamlets and write unjust laws, that it is able to both paint Sistine Chapels or carve Statues of David and commit genocides or slaughter fifty people. Human nature is capable of both the Mass and the mass shooting. But one of these comes from above us; the other from within us. One of these requires us to change, to become what we were truly meant to be; the other is our natural end, the natural end of each and every one of us, if we stay on the path we are on. I put forth that the Mass is the solution, and maybe the only possible solution, to the mass shooting. I put forth that Christianity is the only thing which can heal us, and completely heal us.