Sunday, April 16, 2017

Lenten Journeys

Catholic spiritual leaders often invite the faithful to go on a journey during lent. I did one this year from TMIY and it was very good. What strikes me now is that it is over. Why is that? The liturgical journey we are on is not over. We have 40 days of lent where we do penance and focus on our sin and our frailty. We need that. Sin runs deep in us and we need to take some serious time to deal with it. Yet that is not the whole story. Lent gives way to Easter. Easter is not just a party. It is a season of joy and victory. It is 50 days rather than 40. That is not just because we want to enjoy good things longer than we want to deprive ourselves of them. It is also because living the joy and victory is also a complex business. 

Now that we have, hopefully, had some success in controlling our passions and dealing with the sin in our life the question of how to best use that freedom from sin. Consider these words of Jesus from Luke 11:
24“When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ 25When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. 26Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first.”
Jesus is explaining one danger of just focusing on fighting sin. When we win the battle against sin we can have a bit of a spiritual vacuum. If we don't fill that with virtue and positive activity then other vices or even the same vice can come back. The church gets this. That is why the journey does not end with Easter. It ends with Pentecost. Really it needs to continue into ordinary time because it is only when our ordinary life is changed that we know a permanent improvement has happened.

Yet almost all the lenten journey stuff you see ends when the 40 days is over. The 40 days is not followed up with a 50 days that prepares you to launch into something really big and exciting. It is like we are done. We don't see Easter as a victory that changes the game in our favor but rather as something that ends the game. We keep saying we are a resurrection people but don't really think deeply about what that means. It does not help that Pentecost occurs at the beginning of summer. Churches are more interested in taking a break at that point than challenging people to start something new.

Now a lot of lenten programs get this. Then know that just focusing on sin and penance is not complete. Yet rather than add an Easter portion to their journey the incorporate much of that into lent. The trouble is the two parts of the journey need to be separated. Often we find one part easier than the other and we do that part well and neglect the other. Two spiritual seasons for two different aspects of growth makes sense. Yet we don't do it. People are willing to put out effort for the lenten season but they don't want to do much for Easter. 

So what does Easter look like? Think of the disciples on the first Easter. Jesus dies. Jesus rises. There is immediate joy. Yet it is hard for them to figure out what is next. Jesus stays for a while and totally convinces them He is really alive. The He commissions them. Then He leaves. We go through the same sort of thing. We die during lent. If we did it right we rise again with new life. Yet what does it mean? 

First of all, it should strengthen our faith. When we embraced prayer, fasting and alms-giving we ended up not losing our life like common sense would indicate but gaining a richer life like Jesus promised. That is experiencing the truth of the gospel on a very personal and practical level. Often we end up breaking bad habits we once thought were unbreakable. Like the old song says, "You ask me how I know He lives, He lives within my heart." That kind of power acting inside our hearts should blow us away as much as seeing Jesus rise blew away the disciples.

Secondly, it should put us in touch with our spiritual gifts. When we rid ourselves of sin we don't lose our identity but we become who we are truly meant to be. We start to enter into the intimate communion with God we were created for. Think of the church in Acts 2 and the detachment they experienced from earthly goods and their hunger for the word of God and the sacraments. 

Anyway, this is getting long. My point is that lent is not the end of the journey. It is step one. Often it is the hardest step. Still when you get it right you want to keep going.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

God is Love

As Christians when we thing about the words God is Love we tend to think of them as a statement of theology. 1 John 4 boldly states that God is love. In the face of all the pain and evil we see in the world it is a pretty audacious claim. One that changes the way we approach life. Still I have been thinking of it a bit different. I have been thinking of God is Love as a statement of philosophy. That is that we cannot have a coherent notion of love unless we believe in God. Christians can talk about the mystery of love forever. When they ponder it they often talk about what happened on Good Friday and Easter as the best example of unfathomable love. 

Atheists are in a very different place. They believe in love. I mean they believe in the human experience. How could they not? Yet when they try and go deeper and explain exactly what it is, where do they go? They go to brain chemistry. They go to evolutionary biology. We have certain responses to certain stimuli because they created some survival advantage for us at some point in our evolution.  That is what we call love. We value love not because it is inherently valuable but because of the random events of our evolution. We enjoy love for the same reason a shark enjoys killing. We evolved that way. 

St John Paul II said man cannot make sense of himself unless he gives himself away in love. I think most realize this is true. Yet is it a feature or a defect? An atheist would be forced to say even that meaning is an illusion. It is just that the feelings evolution gave us with respect to love are strong but they are not any more meaningful because they are strong. A Christian would say it is meaningful because when you love you connect with God. This is because God is love. So love can be meaningful if there is a God to make it meaningful. If there is no God then it can't be despite the fact that it really, really feels meaningful. 

This is a place where the atheist has to make a choice. Either to believe, on faith, that love is meaningless despite his feelings or to stop being an atheist and say there must be something more than the material world. The other choice is to simply live the contradiction and not think about it too hard. The last choice is obviously the easiest. Yet if atheists pride themselves on anything it is their brutally honest rationality. Some have taken the second option. Jennifer Fulwiler is the name that pops to mind. 

So love implies God. To say God is love you would also have to say God implies love. Does it really? Certainly people have believed in God's that didn't always love. Yet if we that love is the highest human value and acknowledge that it is that way because God made it so. Then would we not be justified to conclude that God must be love? Fr Robert Spitzer actually takes it a step further and suggests that God must be the greatest possible lover. That the Christian God should be seen as possible and even probable because it paints God as the greatest lover in giving His son to die for our sins. 

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Mary at Cana

Just reflecting on John 2:1-12. The wedding feast in Cana:
1On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, 2and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”
4“Woman,a why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”5His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
6Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.b7Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.
8Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”They did so, 9and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside 10and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”
11What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
12After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother and brothers and his disciples. There they stayed for a few days.
The first thing that strikes me is the opening lines. A wedding took place. Jesus's mother was there. Why is Mary mentioned first? You would expect John to start by saying Jesus was there and then follow with Mary and the disciples were also there. He does not. He tells the story like Mary is the main character with Jesus and the disciples playing supporting roles. Still he does not mention her name. She is referred to as Jesus' mother and, by Jesus, as "woman." So the emphasis is not on her in isolation. Her relation to Jesus and the fact that she is a woman are in focus.

Jean Vanier remarked about this passage that Jesus could have kicked off his ministry in a lot of ways. He could have gone to the temple. He could have focused on prayer or on scripture or a bunch of other things. Yet he starts by taking them to a party. A party where there a wedding being celebrated and wine being consumed. It is a joyful occasion. A celebration of love.

Yet the joy is not born out of a denial of sin. Where is the sin in the story? There are 6 20-30 gallon jars of water for ceremonial washing. What were they washing themselves from? Sin. Why so many large jars? This household seems to have frequently called to mind their sins and asked God to forgive them. It was they way they lived.

Still the theme of joy is here. Joy that is natural human joy. Yet human joy is finite. The wine runs out. Jesus provides an abundance of wine measured in the same jars that show their desire for holiness. Jesus provides a better sort of joy that becomes evident when the superficial joy runs out.

Yet Jesus does not just do this. He seems reluctant at first. Mary tells Him the problem. She does not ask him to do anything. His response seems strange. It actually parallels some of the things demons say to Jesus (Mt. 8:29; Mk 1:24 and 5:7; Luke 4:34 and 8:28). Sort of acknowledging an authority but suggesting that authority does not apply here. Like Jesus was saying I would normally do what you ask out of respect for you as my mother but not this. Mary accepts it but still does not give up. Really there is no other instance of Jesus seeming to say one thing and do another like this one. Like we are meant to see Jesus have his heart softened by his mother's intercession. Apart from her impact on Jesus we see her impact on the servants. She tells them to obey Jesus. Having Mary intercede is not an alternative to obeying Jesus. We have to do both.

Yet what about that word "woman?" Jesus refers to women that way a few times. It is not disrespectful. Yet nobody else in Greek literature refers to their mother that way. Jesus does so consistently. Why is that? As a protestant I was taught that meant Jesus thought of her as an ordinary woman and not as His mother. That would make Jesus less than human and in violation of the command to honour His mother. Maybe rather than making Mary less than His mother He is making her more than His mother. Maybe He is connecting her with all womanhood. Certainly that is where the early church fathers went. They connect this with Gen 3:15 and call Mary the New Eve.

Jesus is actually presented here as a bridegroom messiah. Some more liberal theologians have used this passage to suggest Jesus was married. The bride and groom are not mentioned here and the one time the bridegroom is addressed by the master of the banquet we are aware that he should be saying this about Jesus. Remember there is a lot of Old Testament talk about the Messiah as Israel's spiritual husband. John is drawing on this and Mary is standing in for the church which is the bride.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Don Johnson

Talking about justification makes a lot of sense to a relatively small subset of Protestants we are a bit nerdy about theology. I happen to be on of those but most people are not. I was listening to Don Johnson on The Journey Home and he talked about justification in a much more compelling way for the average person. 
His story was interesting because he talked about justification without using any of the same language. He got into it because he had arrived at essentially the Catholic position on justification without knowing anything about the historical controversies. He arrived there mostly contemplating the book of Exodus. That our story parallels the story of the Israelites. We are enslaved to sin like they were enslaved to Egypt. God saves us miraculously. The we receive the law like they did right after the Red Sea. Then there is a journey through the wilderness. In fact, the journey lasts 40 years because they are slow to learn what God is trying to teach them. The Red Sea was not the end of their salvation. They had to be transformed over time before they could enter the promised land. Likewise we can't be saved just by a one-time event but must journey towards heaven after that initial commitment. 

People are not well versed in theology these days so his protestant church just loved this teaching. It was quite a while before anyone pointed out that this is precisely the opposite of what the reformers said about justification. So he started to read. He read Alistair McGrath's book on the reformation where he said this idea, which he called forensic justification, was completely new around the year 1500. Maybe you can find it in Jan Hus but not earlier. He started reading major Christian thinkers before that and saw that this was true.

The interesting thing is he did all this without any influence from Catholics and any notion of becoming Catholic. He did eventually convert but it took him a long time. He didn't even want to refer to the pre-reformation Christians as Catholics. He called them historical Christians or orthodox Christians or some such phrase. 

While Exodus is an interesting angle from which to approach the justification from it is not as strange as I first thought. Paul and the other apostles were Jews. They knew the Old Testament first. So they would approach everything starting there. Paul explicitly draws the same parallels between our Christian journey and the journey in Exodus. 

The other point he brings up is how the implausibility of forensic justification has led some to reject Christianity altogether. He spent a lot of time arguing with atheists and heard this often. Why should a good man go to hell because he believed the wrong thing and a bad man go to heaven because he had said the sinners prayer at some revival once? Is that really fair? I know grace is inherently not fair but any God that declares someone righteous when they are not seems quite strange. 

For me, it teaches me the value of using ordinary layman language. When we are talking about heaven and hell there can be no more important topic to anyone. If they are real and our lives determine which one we go to then we need to be very concerned. Yet finding the real information in the midst of all the falsehoods is quite a challenge. Really impossible without God's help. I can see people saying God would not leave us like that so He must not exist. I can see people saying God would not leave us like that so Catholicism must be true. To say God did leave us like that seems like the only choice a Protestant has.  

Sunday, March 5, 2017

If Paul Was A Protestant

Following the last post I wanted to give a few more details on why I thought the Protestant reading of Paul was problematic. I ran into passages in Paul's writing that if Paul was thinking like a Protestant as I understood Protestantism he would not have written like he wrote them. Not really searching for unexplainable defeater passages because lots of theological gymnastics are possible. The question is does Paul write like someone who believes in Faith Alone or does he write like a Catholic who sees faith as important but also that it needs to be expressed in love and action before it does us any good? It started with this passage from Gal 5:6:
For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love.
This seems simple enough. Yet what would a Protestant say? He would not say "faith working through love." He would say "faith alone." I know he would. If that is what Paul believed this would be the time to give the summary statement. Why does he back away and bring in works? Supposedly, Christianity took 1500 years before figuring out that Paul really meant Faith Alone. If he was really thinking Faith Alone and the Holy Spirit was guiding him to communicate Faith Alone then why didn't he write "faith alone?" Not only did he not use the phrase here but he never uses it.

That was not a big deal. You can't read to much into what a person did not say. Yet the question kept coming back. Look at Rom 2:6-8
But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.
Can a Protestant explain this? Of course. Yet we are in Romans. This is the place Paul allegedly teaches Faith Alone most clearly. Right here he is doing a terrible job. He seems to teach exactly the opposite. God will repay each according to what they have done. Not according to faith. Now a Protestant would say Paul overthrows this in later verses. That the faith talk later should be taken seriously and this should be ignored. Yet if Paul believed in Faith Alone and wanted to teach Faith Alone in this document why would he talk like this? I can't imagine Protestant phrasing things this way.

Then there is the famous verses from 1 Cor 13:
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.
Here he pits love against worship and love against alms-giving and even love against martyrdom. That is OK. Protestants would do that. Yet he also pits love against faith. Really? Can you ever imagine a protestant going there? Faith is supposed to be central and love is supposed to be inevitable once you have faith. So how does this make any sense? I know it is hyperbole and all but it still seems like a statement not Protestant would make.

Once you open you eyes to these sorts of statements you find them all over the scriptures. Paul has many more. Jesus has some huge ones. You stop unconsciously fitting everything into the Faith Alone mindset and start noticing that the bible was written by someone who did not have that mindset.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Justification and Tradition

Thinking about how tradition influences the way we interpret the bible. One key between Protestants and Catholics has always been the area of justification. How are we made right with God and therefore saved? When I first had the Protestant view explained to me in Catechism class I found it very convincing. My only real question was, why are there still Catholics? I mean the bible has been available in the vernacular for centuries and I felt it had been clearly demonstrated that the Catholic position was inconsistent with the bible. So why had the Catholic position not become the equivalent of the flat earth position? Why did anyone in the modern world still think it was true?

The answer was that I was taught these particular scriptures from this particular point of view. The texts were picked for me. The words were explained to me. The problem texts were downplayed or completely ignored. It was a complex question. The people teaching it were very confident. They were people I trusted, including my father. I thought I was engaging in critical thinking but I really was not.

Later I did take a course in witnessing to Jehovah's Witnesses where they did bring up James 2 and how it appears to flatly contradict Faith Alone. We learned how to answer those questions. I still did not know that James 2:24, "You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone," was actually the only place the phrase "faith alone" occurred in the bible.

Really it was not until I read some extended debates on the topic between Protestants and Catholics that I started to doubt the idea that the Protestant interpretation was clearly right. Why did I spend many hours reading through such debates? Really because my emotional situation had changed. I had married a Catholic and I had met many Catholics that were good solid Christians. It made me rethink my original question. Why does anyone think the Catholic position is worth any consideration? Except this time I was at least a little bit open to the chance there might be an answer.

It does really take quite a few hours because there are many texts that need to be considered and many different arguments on each side of the debate. It is hard to give highlights but I shall try. The first step was to realise that in Galatians and Romans St Paul is not focused on the relationship between faith and works and salvation. His primary focus is on the relationship between Jews and Gentiles. That does not mean what he says about faith and works is wrong. It does mean he does not give all the expected explanations of related truths.

So when he says we saved by faith and not by "works of the law" he does not explain that this faith needs to be expressed as love and that is going to mean good works. Why doesn't he explain this? Because he has the ceremonial Jewish law primarily in view. This is why his classic example of a work of the law is circumcision. He is not thinking of the 10 commandments. Otherwise he would have made clear that the life of grace can't be lived in contradiction to the moral law.

Now we need to be careful. What Paul says about being saved by grace through faith apart from the works of the law does apply to the moral law. St Augustine says so. So does St Thomas Aquinas and so does the Council of Trent. Some Catholic apologists get this wrong. Some Protestants see this in St Augustine and think he was basically a Protestant. He was not.

What is important is the order. Grace first, next a response of faith, then a response of love cooperating with grace and producing good works. They all have to be there.

As with most questions there is not just one protestant answer. Luther's and Calvin's position were quite strong on works being totally irrelevant. If you collect some of there quotes you won't find many protestants that will preach those today. In fact, most of the preaching and teaching on this I experienced as a Protestant was watered down. It makes sense. The connection between works and salvation is talked about so often in the New Testament often without the mention of faith. A lot of the difference is language. Sanctification is still important to Protestants although they would not say it is part of justification and Catholics would not. Yet the core ideas are more similar than they first sound.

The doctrine does make a difference but not typically in the way we think about salvation. It makes a difference in the way we think about related issues. Sacraments, mortal sin, penance, saints, purgatory, etc. Once you have made good works irrelevant even if they are nice then a lot of things fall by the wayside. This is typical of heresy. One major error leads to many other errors.

When we see that one new doctrine contradicts many existing, Christian doctrines we should question the one new doctrine. When it is frequently contradicted by Jesus and the New Testament writers then there is more reason to question it. Yet we don't question these things. Not really. Not seriously. Not unless or until we get in the right emotional space to face the possibility we might be wrong. To really take that seriously. If I had married within the Protestant church I doubt I would have ever gone there.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Tradition

This is the time of year where people announce they are becoming Catholic. They can do so anytime but the typical time for the sacrament is Easter and the typical time to make the go/no go decision is right around now. So there have been a few stories as there are every year. A couple mentioned that one issue for them was that they didn't know what tradition was. That sparked something in me. I had some of the same issues. When I started exploring the church I thought of tradition as a mindless "monkey see, monkey do" phenomenon. A lot of protestants still seem to have ideas like that.

What is meant by tradition? It is the whole impact of who you hang out with and what emotional attachments you have to them. What preachers do you listen to? What books do you read? What songs do you worship with? What friends do you confide in? Which opinion leaders do you respect? What stories do you connect with? 

The thing to notice here is everyone has a tradition and it is always hugely influential on your thinking. People don't think in a vacuum. They talk to each other. They influence each other. People who you love and respect will influence you more. If you are in a circle of friends where a certain thinker is hugely respected then you will have a strong tendency to go along with that line of thought. 

Often people underestimate the influence of tradition on them. They see it on other people. He is just that way because his dad is that way. He was raised to believe that. Yet when you ask the actual person about their own opinions they typically say it is not tradition. They say they have sound reasons for believing what they believe. They can list them for you. Yet that does not mean that person was not influenced hugely by tradition.

Tradition does not tell us to stop thinking. It tells us to think a certain way and gives us reasons to do so. Yet a different tradition would tell you to think a different way and give you reasons for doing that. Often the deciding factor is not which set of arguments is logically better but which set of people is emotionally more trustworthy. In fact, we rarely go against the thinking of the group we have grown comfortable with. That is tradition.

So tradition is not just people latching on to old ideas because they are old. Very modern ideas can gain a wide following simply because that is what everyone else seems to think. So someone saying that sex outside marriage is wrong because Christians have always believed that is appealing to one kind of tradition. Someone saying sex outside marriage is OK because everyone is doing it is appealing to another tradition. A modern secular tradition of thought which is not less of a tradition because it is new. In fact, many people accept it without serious question precisely because the tradition is so strong.

What we need to be clear about is that traditions can be very wrong. We can see this in the previous example. No matter what you believe about sex outside marriage you are going to believe one tradition or the other got it wrong. That is a big deal. Many people accepted a wrong answer to this important question because they listened to the wrong tradition.

Protestants talk about not letting tradition be the main guide of your thinking. They think the bible should be. That is actually humanly impossible. We don't make big life choices apart from other people. Sure the bible plays a role but often there is debate over what the bible says so you need to decide what to make of that. Tradition is always going to matter. Different people will have different opinions. Whose thinking do you trust more? That is how humans make choices. They don't just sit down with a book and ignore what everyone else thinks. They want their opinions affirmed by others before they really trust them.

In practice Protestants pick one particular set of thinkers they like. Not a bad thing to do. Yet there are many different groups who disagree with each other on many different questions. These groups used to be called denominations. Not so much anymore. People from different denominations can be very much in the same theological school of thought. People from the same denomination can be in very different groups. Yet these schools of thought are many and diverse. It really does matter that we get the right one. These are the big decisions that are supposed to transform our lives. We want to get them right.

Catholics believe God enters in to this with His grace. That He gives us something called Sacred Tradition. A certain set of people and opinions and ways of thinking that God has highlighted over time as being true. He has used the popes and the bishops of the church to do this in each generation. What this gives is a way to make decision as a Christian that is not inhuman. It gives us real people living the faith in the real world that we can trust. 

The trouble is that God pointing us to one source of truth means He is also saying a lot of other traditions have been getting things wrong. Modern society has made some real errors. Many Christian thinkers have made some real errors. So all the things we believed because they were emotionally easier now become harder. Sometimes we have to disagree with family and friends. Sometimes we have to face the fact that almost everyone we knew and trusted got this wrong. It rocks your world. 

Yet that would not happen if you chose to know and trust those who also have a commitment to this same Sacred Tradition. That is how God expected His church to work. That people would lead each other into truth and unity because we would actually be part of one body with the same head.