Friday, September 26, 2014

Rewarding Punishments or Punishing Rewards?

What use is a reward really? I’ve been thinking about this for a while. Should I reward a pupil who has done good work? Should I punish a pupil who has done bad work? Of course, my work as a teacher would be completely undermined if I allowed pupils to get away with doing no work and I would do a great disservice to the child who put his heart and soul into his homework which I then ignored. Children need to be valued and their work respected. Do rewards really do this?

What does a reward for good work actually achieve? Well, it means the work gets done, this is true. In that sense, I have what I wanted - completed work for me to mark and assess. It’s only a short-term quick-fix. What does the child really get?

This is where I get worried. If I reward a child for doing good work, then I’ve reinforced the idea that everything is a transaction, i.e. if you do well then you will be rewarded. The child doesn’t do the work in order to learn, to gain understanding, further development and progression to the adult world. No, the child does the work so that he gets a reward. Look at the logic here.

A) If I do the work then I get a reward.
B) If I don’t get a reward then I don’t do the work.

The two statements are effectively contrapositives. The reward sets the tone as to whether the work gets done, and we lose the idea that the actual doing of the work is the goal in itself. If our children see every action on their part as something transactional then this may indicate why we’re becoming more and more materialistic. We have that well-used phrase, “what’s in it for me?”

Work then has a definite value placed upon it, namely the value of the reward, rather than something done for its own sake. One might then suggest that all human interaction becomes little more than experimentation and conditioning of laboratory rats. That might be a bit too far, but it’s perhaps not hard to see how we could reach such a conclusion.

What then about punishment?

Again, this very much depends on whether a punishment is used as a negative reward. We might punish a dog for making a mess of the carpet and it learns not to do it again – though I hope we would find better ways of house-training a puppy! Lab rats again are conditioned through the awful use of electric shocks to keep them according to the correct behaviour. Should human beings be dealt with in the same way?

St Benedict says:
“Every age and degree of understanding should have its proper measure of discipline. With regard to boys and adolescents, therefore, or those who cannot understand the seriousness of the penalty of excommunication, whenever such as these are delinquent let them be subjected to severe fasts or brought to terms by harsh beatings, that they may be cured.” (cap. XXX of the Rule)
Discipline involves modifying behaviour. We humans do need to be conditioned in the way that leads to God. Pelagius effectively tried to show that human beings could condition themselves to produce the correct behaviour for entry into Heaven. We are fallen, and that means we need to discipline ourselves against sin.

Christianity seems to have perpetuated the notion of heavenly reward and eternal punishment. It’s not the only religion. One can consider the Islamic Hadiths:
“[I]f somebody commits suicide with anything in this world, he will be tortured with that very thing on the Day of Resurrection.” (Bukhari Volume 8, Book 73, Number 73)
Thus suicide bombing is actually condemned in mainstream Islam!

In Christianity, we have the fates of eternal bliss in the beatific vision or the wailing and gnashing of teeth in the outer darkness.

Yet, are these really rewards or punishments?

When we come to confession, we can come with either perfect contrition or with imperfect contrition. We confess our sins because we are sorry that we have offended God, or because we are frightened of going to Hell. Imperfect contrition is enough, but perfect contrition is most desirable.

Imperfect contrition is very much like the conditioning of lab rats. We fear the electric shock and so we seek to prevent that shock from happening. It can lead to leaving God out of the equation. Yet, to fear Hell is a Benedictine virtue. This is true, yet this hinges on the proper understanding of what Hell really is. So what is the true Christian reward?

The answer can only be God Himself. If we start seeing God as our reward, then we do lose the legal and arbitrarily judgemental side of Christianity. If God is the reason why we exist then we can only but find true happiness in Him, because “in Him we live and move and have our being.”

We fast on Friday. Why? Because the Church tells us to? Because it is a mortal sin to eat meat on Friday? Or because we remember that Our Lord died for us on Friday and we want to honour that love shown for us of our own free will. Should we therefore fast on Friday to gain a reward for doing so? Or because we fear punishment for mortal sin? Or should we fast on Friday because we want to?

If we look at this issue in the sense of reward and punishment, then we see that it is an exercise in conditioning behaviour, but it is not always edifying people. Unless there is a specific desire to fast on Friday, we have nothing more than a learned behaviour in the hope that God will reward us for not eating meat, or at least will not burn us in Hell for doing so. This is where the laws of the Church are in danger of becoming arbitrary and damaging people’s real relationship with God. It is also where the laws of the Church can become Marx’s opiate of the people. The Church thinks so that you don’t have to! That can’t be right!

Not everyone is going to be a theologian. Likewise, one does not get to Heaven by what one knows. The point is that one seeks God. This sounds desperately individualistic and that Individualism is very much the bane of Traditional Catholicism, for we get the rather protestant notion of personal salvation and private readings of Scripture alone sufficing for one’s justification. We know that membership of the Catholic Church is required for Salvation, because we are all members of the body of Christ. The Way is contained in the Faith of the Church which is changeless. Nonetheless, we, each of us, must seek God as the person He created us to be as a part of the body of Christ. It is not a question of reward or punishment. It is a question of finding love, life and happiness as opposed to hatred, death and misery.

Our whole life is, then, an exploration for God, learning to know where God is and where God is not. Thus Human beings necessarily need a knowledge of Good and Evil if they are to achieve their goal of finding God Himself. The Church possesses the method even if the teachers are no better than the students. If we’re seeking to be rewarded for our actions then either we will be extremely disappointed in the case that what we’ve been after isn’t actually God, or we receive grace upon grace upon grace more than we can actually conceive and so the microscopic managing and apportioning of reward becomes meaningless and trivial. St Paul tells us that whatever we experience now in this transitory existence is nothing in comparison with what is already within us, namely the image of the invisible God.

It seems to me that many folk, even ourselves, often have an all too legalistic interpretation of Christianity. The Church has law in order to keep good order, to ensure that the truth about Christ is evident, and to make fair and liberal provision of the grace of God through the Holy Sacraments. Yet, the Lord shows us that burdening the people with arbitrary law is contrary to their being able to live. We need to know what sin is, yes, but we also need to know how to be free from sin. We need to know what grace and mercy are as well as justice. The Law killeth, but the Spirit giveth life! What then are the alternatives to rewards and punishments? Well, somehow, I need to demonstrate to my pupils the beauty of mathematics for its own sake and for its relevance, nor only in their lives, but in living itself. If they seek something of material worth, then they will find nothing.

Likewise, all we Christians can do is demonstrate that we have something valueless (and thus useless to a world where value matters more). Yes, we should cry out at the way that the world treats the children of God, but the true worth of our Faith is how much we show that worldly matters, squabbles, and disputes are too tiny to be considered in comparison to the Divine.

I’m not out for a reward in life. I’m looking for something better than that. Aren’t you?

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