(The Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul on January 25th, 2006.)
How did it come to be that I, a half Jew, am a passionate follower of Jesus the Christ while my Jewish cousins who share much of my gene legacy, passionately do not? I resemble them in my facial features. I talk in a similar fashion as do they. We laugh at the same jokes. We all enjoy a spirited debate. We all rage at the Holocaust. We all fiercely believe in education. We are all high energy people. Most of them are smarter than I am. And certainly better looking. So, I pose to myself some knotty questions on this Catholic Feast day which celebrates the spiritual reversal of a short, bandy legged, bald headed, frenetic, enthusiastic little Jew from extreme hostility towards the crucified Galilean to an almost fanatic devotion to Him.
How come that I am a Catholic believer and my cousins are not? How do I explain to myself with any kind of honesty why I am so blessed with this Pearl of Great Price and they are not? While I fully believe in the reverential and grateful Catholic position that all Faith is an unearned Gift from God the Father, I am strangely fixated on the theological principle that God’s glorious grace builds on Nature. Of course, I am bursting with what I think is mature pride in my Church. I am convinced that the Catholic manner of life is a splendid way to live. I am delighted that I am a Catholic. Nevertheless, I have questions. Questions of nature. Questions of culture. Questions of environment. I wonder and I muse what effect these factors have on human personality and functioning?
My own studies of human behavior, both of the past and the present, shout out (at least to me) certain pre-articulate and intuitive potentials of our human “condition.” I remember the insights of a sub-human human (A. Hitler) who saw that very young human beings can be molded into brutal, dedicated followers if skillful learning manipulations are used. He understood the plasticity of the human psyche whereby “values” might be learned to fit his personal criteria.
Obviously, this insight can have a positive side, again depending upon one’s view of what positive means. We have probably all heard of the alleged Jesuit educational principle “Give me the child early enough and I will turn him into anything you wish!” Shades of J.B. Watson, the founder of American Behaviorism! And it is all about learning. School boys learn of Pavlov’s drooling dog whereby instinctive processes of survival (such as eating) become the baseline for manipulating behavior by linking an automatic response with a planned stimulus.
And certainly studies in human development testify to the incredibly quick learning that goes on in the life even of a new born infant. My sense is that such knowledge can be applied to Religious Faith whereby the child is given a reasonable life platform, upon which to build a life of morality and ethics. The research psychologist, B.F. Skinner, for all his sometimes nutty convictions, did clarify for us the now widely accepted Behavior modification system. Reward the acceptable behavior and it will increase. Withhold the reward and the unacceptable behavior will tend to decrease. A nod here, a smile there, an attentive posture, all can subtly modify behavior. We are not chimps to be manipulated but we are vulnerable to micro rewards or lack of them. With some modifications to his, sometimes complex, Modification Theory, we might use his insights in our attempts to understand and elevate human behavior.
However, it is elementary that certain human behaviors are innate and unlearned, such as breathing, eating, being sexually attracted to another, suckling at mother’s breast, pulling away from painful stimuli, raising one’s hand in defense against an approaching blow. Constitutionally, we are designed to survive which is perhaps the first law of human nature. Yet many micro behaviors are learned so as to function on a dimension beyond the biologic and the physiologic --- even if nudged along by Nature’s plan.
This is the more subtle dimension which interests me. Values, goals, purposes, love levels, sacred honor and virtue differ substantially, often from one person to another. This is the area of learning which we ponder. I personally believe that the Lord imprinted in all human “hearts” a basic sense of right and wrong, roughly analogous to the Ten Commandments. Yet, I also believe that this basic “imprint” can be almost muted by human psychological/cultural factors. Retardation of the moral sense (as well as the esthetic) is understandable in terms of a primitive and deprived environment. Kohlberg’s extensive studies decades ago illustrated this point in his work on the multi levels of moral development. Of course, in the cognitive realm, we know real cases of organically wounded children who have truly serious learning difficulties. While this statistically minimal is of concern, the larger picture investigated here is about learned behavior which could be moral or ethical or cognitive.
I was privileged to interview the articulate William F. Buckley on my own Television show many years ago. He spoke of the stimulating and elevated dinner conversation that “happened” each night in his home. This climate so stimulated him that somewhere around the age of five, he wrote an angry letter to King George of England demanding that the English repay the United States war debts from World War I. This differs significantly from my own early experience where the usual table silence was occasionally broken by something like “pass da salt”. Can I speculate that the confidence of Bill Buckley as compared with my own shyness and tentativeness might, in part, be traced to environment? Did we both learn from our surroundings—even if we didn’t know we were learning verbal behavior? Did we imitate what was “vibed” to us from our special world?
I have listened to recordings of my father’s voice, noted his vocal modulation, his phrasing, pronunciation and pitch, then listened to recordings of my own voice and found a startling similarity. Did I not learn my speech patterns which were neither inborn nor unlearned? I did not come to this world as a complete, factory tested package. I learned almost everything of my early life from environment!
In South Africa I lived for years under an iniquitous system called Apartheid. It was a truism there that little children, aged 3 or 4 would play joyously with each other even if one were Zulu and the other White (or European) with no awareness of skin differences. By the time they became 7 or 8, their behavior changed. No longer un-self conscious pals but now Baas (Boss) and servant. Their mode of social interaction drastically changed. Why? How? What happened in those intervening years to make such a profound and drastic change in a human relationship?
The children learned, even without knowing they were learning, that their Society disapproved of their intimacy. There were pervasive, racial norms which were verbal, non-verbal and demanding. People learned to behave in a clearly un-Christian manner because of the enormous power held by society to approve or disapprove.
Isn’t this true, in some way, of language, mores, cultures? For example, in the United States kids learn to love playing baseball, the national sport which is regarded in South Africa as quaint and tacky. In Johannesburg and Capetown we play a sport of good manners and sophistication. It is called cricket and played leisurely in spotlessly white trousers while spectators sip hot tea under shady trees. That is what the South African environment teaches and citizens learn.
A priest client of mine was told by a Religious person when he was in the 6th grade that he could never be a priest. He was too stupid, she said. He could never pass the exams and handle the intricacies of the clerical life. On top of a dysfunctional family background, he carried this punishing inner voice within him for years as he struggled with the belief that “others” viewed him as inadequate, impotent and ineffectual. Since Authority (his environment) told him, he learned to view himself thusly. This self destructive learned self image hampered him all his life even though he did become a priest and subsequently earn two Masters’ degrees which he personally discounted as just due to hard work and good luck. In fact, he was not “born that way”, i.e. to disesteem himself. He was unknowingly taught to be “that way”.
My friend and psychiatrist colleague, Dr. Arnie Zucker, delights in singing into the ears of his one year old grandsons some traditional Jewish ditties which generally carry the following theme. “Aren’t you glad you are a circumcised little Jewish boy and that you weren’t born a goy?” He clearly understands, as do I approvingly, that little human beings are taught from the earliest moments of life how they will live. With constant approvals like this, these little boys will grow up to be clearly defined in their Jewish identities. This is not being defined by hormones and genes.
Sexual orientation is a factor of great relevance here. Persons who suffer from SSA (Same Sex Attraction) sometimes, in (what I believe is) an ultimately ineffectual attempt to relieve their undoubted suffering, will insist that they were “born that way”, i.e. homosexual. Often parents, in their own attempt for guilt relief, will insist that there must be some sort of biologic basis for their children’s homosexuality. To believe that a parent might have unconsciously contributed to such an unhappy orientation would be an enormously heavy burden to carry. The deduction from the “being born that way” belief is that the Lord Himself clearly ordained that some of His children should have a sexual life with persons of the same sex. There would then be no guilt. No social shame. All would be paradisiacal. Ironically, Lobbyists for such a view battle fiercely, using learning theory to achieve their goal of glorifying a false identity. Such a false identity would demand the following stance. The clear teachings of Scripture would have to be denied as would the teachings of the Judeo-Christian world along with the sad lessons of homosexual history.
In the absence of any serious scientific data supporting biologic basis for homosexuality, the available voluminous correlation studies become significant. One notable example is the factor of Defensive Detachment with male homosexuals. This means that a very young male perceives (possibly inaccurately) rejection from his father figure who is physically distant or abusive, undemonstrative, unloving in action in words, and uninterested. The young one feels rejected or uncomfortable and pre-empts parental (or surrogate) rejections by detaching himself from his father and he does the rejecting before he is rejected!!!! He has learned to defend himself from a (perceived) projected painful experience. But for the rest of his life he will be seeking healing as he searches, even unconsciously, for the love of his father. I know that this is only one of the many learning factors associated with the drab parameters of the “gay” life. In my own clinical work over 30 years, such “detachment” has been, not exclusively, but very frequently operational. In the research studies it is paramount.
However, this one piece of data can be invaluable for young fathers who might not understand the urgency of showing affection to their very young sons. (Obviously, we have concern for female children but who have a somewhat different psychic structure).
Granting the constitutional fund of libido which is obviously innate (and planned so by the Creator/ Designer), we can learn how to direct and channel the enormous power of sex into the Great Plan. It is intellectually (not emotionally) simple, as Pope Benedict XVI pointed out in his Encyclical on Love, that sexual love belongs only to the union of a man and a woman in a monogamous committed relationship called “marriage.” The sexual “freedom” so cherished by modern liberals, leads to “bad” eros and broken hearts. A bad environment teaches how to ruin one’s life. Conversely, one can learn to love as a responsible adult presuming a healthy personal environment. We have seen such love flourish within the Courage movement” almost endlessly.
Of course, there is always a sexual drive from the human physical constitution which is ever tempting, ever conflicting and so interestingly called the “id” by Freud. Fortunately, one learns that, with the help of God, one can live with integrity and virtue and we can put the lid on the id!!!
Research Science tells us that the human being’s learning potential is unimaginable, so vast is its depth. It would be a pity if we give up too soon on the troubled or limited human being through our own indolence or ignorance. “Bad” learning can often and surprisingly be unlearned with real promise of re-learning the helpful and the good. Young parents would be far ahead of the game if they would apply principles of learning (not necessarily from books) to babies!! We remember that little children are imitators of the heroes of their lives, principally their parents. Certainly, there are several inborn obvious factors as noted above but there are treasures in the child which may never be surfaced, unless knowledgeable and clearly identified people are present. And childhood years are crucial. This is more than learning soccer or ballet. This is learning how to be a healthy person. Is this Nature or Nurture? Who really knows? Both are present. But we cannot ignore the Environment and its effect on loving and hating and thinking creatively.
Nor can we ignore the environmental matrix as the ground for the great Gift of Faith. How did I get my Faith? Certainly, from the Lord but with the help of believing and simple Catholics. Perhaps, my Jewish cousins would be saying the Rosary today and Marching for Life if they had had the social advantages I had. The Catholic Church prods us to recall that, after all, Grace builds on Nature. While God’s grace clearly abounds, we are expected to do our part. In this Great Mystery of searching for God, we are all teachers as well as learners. May the loving and merciful be God be with us!!!!