Saturday, July 26, 2003

How's your reception?

Remember the Zenith handcrafted television? In the 1960's, the Zenith television was considered one of the 'top of the line' models. Printed circuit boards were just beginning to appear in less expensive, often Japanese-made models that were less reliable and difficult to repair. (My, how times have changed!) Zenith commercials showed a craftsman soldering each component by hand. "The quality goes in before the name goes on" was their slogan.

In those days, television sets varied widely in price and reliability. A co-worker of mine liked to tell a story about an entrepreneur who wanted to manufacture a cheap television set, so he bought an expensive television and began clipping out components, one at a time. When the picture went out, he replaced the last component removed, and sold the set as a cheap TV. My friend used that story as an analogy to explain a modern industrial management philosophy where non-essentials are eliminated to save money.

I work for an electric utility that has adopted that philosophy. Management took a first rate company and began removing components, one at a time. Workers were eliminated, budgets cut, inventories reduced, and maintenance curtailed. When production failed, they put back just enough to restore it.

Short term savings are usually lost in long term costs. Poorly maintained equipment must be replaced more often, meaning that immediate savings in Operations and Maintenance are offset by expensive capital improvements. Intangible costs in terms of diminished worker productivity and morale are difficult to measure.

We sometimes manage our spiritual lives the same way. We want to get by with as little upkeep as possible. We start removing components to minimize our cost in time and sacrifice. The result is an inferior product with a higher ultimate cost. Removing elements of our faith is more complicated, however. Unlike the television, we don't always know when we are no longer seeing a clear picture.

I don't know who invented the first inexpensive television, but perhaps we can trace the modern-day cropping of the faith to Martin Luther. When it became too difficult for him to accept the authority of the church, he simply removed that component from his faith. Once he deemed it no longer necessary to listen to the Magesterial authority, he could also reject oral teaching or what we now call Apostolic Tradition. Luther removed components until all that remained was the Bible alone. He may have still seen a picture, but it was now subject to the eye of the beholder.

Instead of working within the church to fix the problems and maintain the overall 'quality', Luther chose to scrap the original church and establish a less cumbersome version. His short term solution, however, opened the door for long term deterioration. The book alone is not enough. Just because a student has a text book doesn't mean the teacher can be removed from the classroom. Without the authoritative teacher, the book is left to self-interpretation by the student. The student is then free to spin the interpretation to his own liking, in effect, removing obstacles considered too costly to his spiritual lifestyle. As different interpreters interpret themselves into different beliefs, one must conclude that somebody is no longer seeing the true picture.

Once Luther removed the obstacle of Magesterial authority, he was free to remove other doctrinal components as well. He declared works no longer affective to our justification. Others followed Luther with their own modifications such as removing the necessity of Baptism and confession of sins to a priest. They pulled the ban on divorce and artificial birth control. Some removed the ban on same-sex marriages. They denied the presence of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Sacrifice of the Mass. These were essential components of our faith. Without them, Christians are left with a snowy unreliable picture.

Even those still in the Catholic Church often seem intent on removing what they consider to be obstacles to their immediate gratification in this life. It's like having the expensive television set without taking advantage of the special features. Our set comes with seven grace-filling sacraments that often go under-utilized. The Blessed Sacrament is the most powerful gift available to us, but we often fail to appreciate its value. Many Catholics rarely, if ever, take advantage of confession.

I've heard ex-catholics say they didn't get anything out of the Mass. If a person doesn't get anything out of the Mass, that person is not tuned-in to what is happening. It is not enough to merely put in an appearance each week. Too often, we remove ourselves from active participation by allowing our attention to wander. We must be attentive at Mass, listening intently to the gospel, and focused on what is happening on the altar. Those of us with satellite dishes know that they need to be pointed directly toward the source of the signal or they will not work. The same is true in our spiritual lives. If we are not pointed toward God, we will not receive His grace.

What is the short-term benefit of removing components from our faith? By doing so, we can effectively disable our consciences. This allows us to participate in more enjoyable and perhaps sinful activities instead of prayer, attending Mass, and receiving the Sacraments. Removing the teaching authority of the church enables us to pick and choose what we wish to acknowledge in our lives according to our own liking. We are relieved from our responsibilities to God. We no longer have to tell a priest about watching that adult movie or missing Mass on Sunday. We can eliminate all but the minimum requirements and we can set those requirements ourselves. We can still call ourselves catholic with minimal investment.

What is the long-term cost of choosing the cheapest route? Our view of Christ and His plan for us becomes distorted by sin and a lack of grace. We jeopardize not only our own spiritual well-being, but that of others around us, and especially our descendants. We send them a message that it's okay to settle for less, to lower expectations, and to take the easy way out. We compromise our own integrity, diminish our self respect, and risk damage to our character. We cloud the truth and propagate relativism. Above all, we risk losing our salvation. No cost-cutting measures are worth that.

When it comes to observing our faith, quality is of utmost importance. We need to strive for a high definition, true color, clear picture of where we are headed and what we need to do to get there. Our Lord transmits ample grace through the Sacraments and His Church. We to have our antennae pointed, our receivers on, and our tuners set. We cannot afford to be hampered by poor reception.