Sunday, February 24, 2013

Coffee with the Culture

Based on a coffee I had with a classmate the other day. All I did was omit her name.

The other day I met up with the Culture for coffee. She picked the place: it was a fashionable, relaxed coffeehouse, with catchy rock playing so softly that unless you listened, you would miss the profanities woven into the lyrics.

We got our steaming paper cups and sat down opposite each other at a round little table near the center of the room. Since we were only acquaintances, so I asked about her day. It was busy, she said; she'd been interviewed. I told her I'd been studying most of the day, and I didn't mention that I went to Mass that morning.

I asked about her background, to get to know her. She was very educated—in engineering, neuroscience, and medicine—but had complaints about the U.S. educational system, that no one learns to think. She wants more people to study philosophy and spoke much about recent scholarship and discoveries about older cultures. The books she recommended to me all sounded interesting, but they all sounded like negations of past assumptions. (I guess that's what still sells.) They all sounded like history and sociology, not what I know as philosophy.

Her mother identified with one religion but supported her when she chose to follow no religion at all, keeping only some remnants of her culture's behavioral standards. Her father was not much a part of her life. She'd chosen no religion, and told me she would never indoctrinate her children. "No scripture is true," she said once or twice. I felt like I was being used for archery practice and started praying with my fingers in sign language under the table. I l-o-v-e Y-o-u. I l-o-v-e S-a-c-r-e-d S-c-r-i-p-t-u-r-e.

Currently her studies were focused on medical ethics, she said. She spoke about conscience boundaries and patient autonomy (a few more arrows, right to the heart). She spoke about changing cultures and values, and the need to adjust what physicians are expected to do to include not only contraception and abortion but euthanasia. It was, after all, only a choice that should be available to patients. She was permeated with relativism. I didn't turn anything into a debate, but when she literally said, "there are no absolutes," I pointed out that this is an absolute. She seemed mildly confused and thought that she must have made a misstatement.

But she was polite and asked me about myself. I told her that I had a bachelor's in liberal arts and studied philosophy and theology; as usual, I expected that she didn't know what I really meant. And she didn't. How could she? I studied the objective and absolute truth and began to learn to find it; she does not believe that such a thing exists. To her I have a bachelor's degree in Fairies or Heliocentrism. I had to work to avoid feelings of embarrassment whenever she mentioned a philosopher that I hadn't heard of, since I spent most of college reading Aristotle, with a few landmark treatises before 1900.

Our conversation touched practical ethics, too. She told me how appalled she was to learn that a certain pro-life physician she'd discovered did prenatal ultrasounds and hid bad news from patients (fearing that they would abort). She though this was horrible.

Happy to find some ground for agreement, I agreed that he was not serving his patients well. (I didn't state why I thought so, but I will for you: a good pro-life doctor should share what he finds with patients and refer them to perinatal hospice, so that they could prepare for the birth of their child and parent them well). I didn't go into my reasons because I had a burning question to ask her. "Is this behavior always wrong?" I asked her.

"Yes," she replied.

"But you think good is relative," I responded. "Why would this always be wrong?"

Many words followed my question, but no answer came with them. The right thing is dependent on circumstances and culture and values, but there are some things that she would never do and which offend her, and one should do.

"I think there is one right thing and one happiness," I said, "and that's why some things are undeniably bad for everyone."

She was quick to say much about how different people pursue different things and that she doesn't agree with me. But eventually she asked me, "What is happiness?"

"Love," I said. We all hunger for it, and try to find it in all kinds of ways.

"And what is the opposite of love?"

I looked at her levelly. "Apathy," I answered. I wanted to explain more, but she did not want to hear it today.

As we left and went out to the parking lot, she was still puzzling that "nothing is absolute" is an absolute. But I am not sure if a thousand coffee dates would ever sway her, so deeply ingrained is everything. Finally, coffee and words are just occasions; grace changes and intercession and penance open the gates to it.


  1. This is sad but so true. These kinds of discussions can seem so hopeless. I hope you are not discouraged,and hope you are not feeling bad that you didn't think of additional brilliant remarks that would have made more of an impact on Ms.Culture.

    1. No, I'm not discouraged or feeling bad! The last picture kind of gives that tone, and so does the abrupt end to the story. Oops!

      I left the coffeehouse feeling sort of resigned. Like: "Jesus, she's your daughter, and You're omnnipotent and gentle and creative. I know you want her safety even more than I do. So... [smiling] do whatever you want!"

  2. Thank you for your post- I appreciate every one of them. Ms Culture can be confounding but you have sound principles and strong faith- all will be well

    1. Thanks be to God for those who pass on the truth to you and me! All *will* be well...I've been recently impressed by the certainty of the Psalms and the New Testament, e.g. "God has promised and he will do it" (1 Thess 5:24?)

      God bless you!