Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Body of Christ

Last week the church had us focus on the Trinity. I had to think a while about why I didn't contemplate the Trinity much as a Protestant. This week we are encouraged to think about the Eucharist. When Jesus gives us Himself under the appearance of bread and wine. Another thing I never contemplated much as a Protestant. The question as to why is a lot easier to answer. The truth of the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist does not make sense without a visible church to administer it. If the Eucharist is really a miracle as Jesus says then you need some parameters around when that miracle takes place. They are simply not in scripture. So either the church defines what makes a valid Eucharist or there is no such concept as a valid Eucharist. 

Most Protestant churches never claimed to be able to do what the Catholic church does. They never claimed to be able to define doctrine. They never claimed to be able to canonize saints. They never claimed to be able to consecrate the Eucharist. They are right of course. They can't do these things. What they are wrong about is that the Catholic church can't do these things and that Christianity does not require these things be done. 

Jesus says quite plainly we need to eat His body and drink His blood. Here are the words from John 6:48-59:
I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.”
Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”
Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.
I does not get any more plain. Yet many who say the respect scripture don't believe it. Why don't thy? Tradition. Human tradition nullifying scripture. No point in going there.

The real point is that the Eucharist is supposed to be part of the life of every Christian. We are supposed to internalize Jesus sacramentally. There are two principle sacraments of the ordinary life of a Christian. They are confession and the Eucharist. Confession is an important one but you need to start with a sin. You confess your sin and receive forgiveness. That is something Protestants get right. That is a big deal. We need to be able to ask for forgiveness and believe we have received it. 

Yet there is more. Eucharist does not start with a sin. It starts with a heart that is open to God. It is a bit like the immaculate conception. It is a mercy that can be given before the sin is committed. Mary received that mercy and therefore did not sin. More than that, she conceived God Himself inside her and brought Him into the world. Eucharist is like that. We receive the grace to avoid sin. More that that, we receive the ability to bring God into the world. 

Catholic tradition has always seen a parallel between the Eucharist and sex. The intimacy of Christ's body entering our body is profound renewal of our covenant the same way sex is a profound renewal of our marriage vows. 

Then there is the openness to life. Sex by its nature opens up the possibility of you and your beloved bringing something new into the world. Something that will require a major sacrifice. Something that will be an extension of both of you and yet a unique blessing for the world.

This is what God wants to do with us in the Eucharist. He wants us to be open to something new. Something that requires self-sacrifice. Something that is an extension of Jesus and an extension of you. Something that will bless the world with a new and exciting God thing. It could be a piece of art. It could be a relationship. It could be many things. What is important is we want it. Whatever the presence of Jesus is going to do inside us we want. No matter the cost.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Trinity Sunday

Today is trinity Sunday. It is hard to get Christians excited about the Trinity these days. There is a big focus on salvation. How do I get saved and how do I help others get saved? There is also much attention given to morality. That is asking how should we live? The Trinity is more about contemplating the mystery of God. There is much less emphasis on that today. 

Yet what is salvation about? We go to heaven. What do we do there? We contemplate the mystery of God. So it seems strange to be interested in going to heaven and not be interested in contemplating the mystery of God today. The same is true of morality. Why do we want to be good? Partly so we can go to heaven and partly so we can be close to God while on earth. Yet if we want to be close to God so badly why would God's revelation of Himself be unexciting?

There is a tendency in Christianity to keep things simple. A lot of that is to avoid disagreement. The more complex your theology the less agreement you will have. Protestants have no way to resolve disagreements so they avoid complexity as much as possible. That can tend to infect Catholic thinking to. Just focus on the ABC's of the gospel and you will be more convincing.

The truth is we are all made in God's image. That means contemplating the mystery of who God is has direct implications for who we are and who we should be. In fact the simple gospel makes more and more sense when you understand more about God. The Trinity is a good example of that. What do we see there?

God the Father loves God the Son and God the Son loves God the Father with perfect self-giving love. That love is by nature creative. It overflows from their relationship and creates blessing for others. The Holy Spirit is the overflow of this love. He proceeds from the Father and the Son.

The creation of the world also overflows from this love. In Gen 1:26, God said, "Let us make mankind in our image." So God as community decided to create mankind. That means community becomes critical to our understanding of what it means for us to image God.

Then in verse 27 They get more specific, 

So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.
So the image bearing is specifically related to our maleness and femaleness. This is the subject of St John Paul's Theology of the Body. We image God when we marry and create families. Think about that. God is our father. What that means is we arose from the overflow of God's love the same way a child arises from the overflow of love between a man and a woman. So God's desire for intimacy with us and to live in community with us comes from the same place as our desire to be intimate with our children and live in community with them.

So you see what a difference this makes. Heaven is not a reward we are given for doing what God wants. It is a family reunion. It is a father welcoming His children back. This is why heaven does not get boring. Being in a place gets boring no matter how nice the place. Being in a community of love never gets boring. That is what God's family is all about. 

Then you can see why marriage and sex and family are such important topics for Christians. It is because getting them wrong means getting God wrong. That means getting everything wrong. 

It also explains why it is so important for Christians to be able to unite into one community. That is what we have to become. If we have too much pride and disobedience to unify around one father on earth then what we are rejecting is precisely heaven itself. Do we want to put aside out petty squabbles and unite around God? Really? Does our behaviour on earth show that?

Pope Francis gets this. From today's angelus:


Our being created in the image and likeness of God-communion calls us to understand ourselves as beings-in-relation, and to live interpersonal relationships in solidarity and reciprocal love," the Pope told the pilgrims in St. Peter's Square.

In this mission, we are sustained by the strength which the Holy Spirit gives us: this cures the flesh of humanity wounded by injustice, oppression, hate, and greed.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

The Birth of the Church

Today is Pentecost. The day when the Holy Spirit came. The speaking in tongues as a reversal of the curse at the Tower of Babel. Yet what I want to focus on is the birth of the church. This time between Pentecost and the second coming of Christ is called the Church Age even by protestants. The church is the community associated with the new covenant that Jesus brought. It is the body of Christ. It is breathed into life by the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. 

Consider Acts 2:42-43:
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 
Here we have a description of what the church is. They devoted themselves to 4 things. The apostles' teaching, fellowship, the breaking of bread and prayer. What is missing? Scripture. Why? Well, the New Testament was not written yet. None of it. In fact, it was likely more than 10 years before any book of the New Testament was written. Yet why was it not written? Mohammed wrote the Koran for his followers. Jesus could have written something for the church. He chose not to do that. He chose to form 12 apostles and start His church on their teaching. The word of God continues to be made flesh and dwells among us. 

Notice how the office is emphasized. The apostles teaching is mentioned along side fellowship. In other words there was value in all the members of the Christian community. God speaks through every life so we should honour everyone greatly and ask ourselves what can this person teach me about God. Yet there is a special teaching ministry that is apart from the general fellowship. That teaching ministry is associated with the apostles. So the office matters as the central teaching authority in the church.

When I was a protestant this created a problem for me. This clearly violated Sola Scriptura. Sure we can say that once the apostles all died then the writing of the apostles became central. The problem is that is just a big change. Moving from a human authority to a book is a dramatically different way of answering questions. Think about it. If you have a question in the early church then you ask the apostles. They might give you an answer. They might tell you to pray about it and use you best judgement. Yet if they do tell you what to do then you have to do it. They are the final authority. 

That is just so different from reading a book. You read it and often things still are not clear. So you go through a process of debate and analysis of what the book means. At the end of the day you decide which arguments to accept and which to reject and you arrive at a decision. Nobody else's opinion matters as much as your own. 

Even leaving aside which method is better, the fact that they are different is a problem. This is the covenant community. How the community determines the content of that covenant is very much central to what that community is. That is to say, if you change the central teaching authority from a set of human beings to a set of writings then you really have a new covenant. 

The other question that leaps to mind is when did this change get made? If Sola Scriptora was not true at Pentecost and became true later then when did it start to be true? One answer you hear is the death of the last apostle. It makes logical sense. The trouble is there is just nobody around the time of the death of the last apostle that is making this point. We have writings from Clement of Rome, Polycarp, Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus, etc. They are all focused on the successors of the apostles and the teachings they have passed on. 

In fact, the New Testament was still not quite ready for prime time. Individual books are floating around and bishops are starting to pay attention to the question of which writings should be read at mass and which should not. Still it is not until the 4th century that we have a New Testament canon. 

So if it is not the death of the last apostle then when is it? Did God change the very foundation of the church and nobody noticed? Nobody until Jan Huss and eventually Martin Luther in the 15th and 16th century? You see the problem? If Luther brought a new covenant then Luther becomes greater than Jesus. New covenants are always greater than the old ones they replace. The new messenger is always greater than the previous one as well. Yet saying anyone is greater than Jesus is unthinkable. So what is going on?

The answer is Sola Scriptora never became the truth. We have successors of the apostles with us today. We need to devote ourselves to their teaching. The church born on Pentecost is still here today. 

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Ascension

Imagine you are a disciple. You experience the disappointment of the crucifixion but then you have the huge thrill of the resurrection. Suddenly you can see how Jesus is going to do things. He is alive. All He has to do is show himself to the Jews and the Romans and anyone else who doubts. If need be He will work a few more miracles. This will be easy. Some of that notions comes across in Acts 1:6 when they ask, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

That seems like such an obvious next step. He has so much credibility by just being alive people will follow Him for sure. All He has to do is show up. The crowds will fall on their faces in worship. The Romans are done. A new age is dawning. You can just taste it.

Yet Jesus does not go there. He goes up to heaven. He did not come to earth and die so He could spend 2000 years ruling over a sinful human society. It is not enough. He wants heaven. He wants heaven for us to. A heaven in which we are not only forgiven but sinless. Nothing less will do.

Then He says more, " But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."

Notice the difference here. The disciples say Jesus is just going to do it. Jesus says they are going to do it. Sure God is going to empower them but that is not quite the same thing as God just doing it while we cheer. The word here for "witnesses" is martyria where we get the word martyr from. So The disciples are not just going to play some ceremonial role. They are going to contend for the faith with every ounce of their being. 

What is more, when Jesus leaves the earth He removes the best evidence of the resurrection. Sure they are eye witnesses but actually producing a living Jesus is way more convincing than having somebody tell you He is alive.

God is always like that. You can think of so many ways He could just remove doubt. Yet He does not quite do it. He gives enough evidence to be convincing to some but not enough to be convincing to all. It is called the scandal of faith. God chooses to relate to us through faith.

So ascension is good news and bad news. It is good news because the Christian road leads to heaven and not just to a nicer society on earth. That gives us hope. Yet it is bad news because the Christian road is hard. It is hard because it will require faith to walk it. It is hard because it will demand everything we have in this life to walk it effectively. It will be a road marked with suffering.

It is hard because not everyone will be coming. Not everyone will chose to believe and not everyone will choose to suffer. This gives our life meaning but it also gives our mission some urgency. We will make choices that have eternal consequences. We can say and do things that will lead to our salvation and the salvation of others. The flip side is we can fail to say and do those things. That can mean same might be damned that could have been saved had we been more holy or more loving or more bold.

When God leaves the business of His Kingdom in our hands it is an a huge thing. His plan of salvation involves our cooperation. He does not just want us to receive His grace but to become the principle instruments of it. So much so that our lives can be hugely powerful forces for good or they can not be that. It is up to us. 

Sunday, April 17, 2016

No Evidence For God's Existence?

In interacting with atheists on-line one of the most common lines you run into is the bold assertion that "There is no evidence for the existence of God" usually emphasized with all caps or exclamation points or something. It is a hard thing to respond to without being insulting. Think about it logically. They are not saying the evidence for God is insufficient. They are saying there is none. What is evidence? Evidence for something is data that makes that something at least a little more probable. It does not have to prove that thing. It just has to provide some weight towards that proof.

What is being denied is even the existence of very weak evidence. The vast majority of people in the world believe in God but not a single one of them has even the weakest piece of evidence for that belief. How do you respond to such a mind-boggling claim? It is even more amazing that many of these atheists assume all smart people would accept such a claim as obvious. If you respond by trying to explain how crazy their reasoning is then you quickly get into a name-calling exchange which has no value. So rational discussion ends up shut down. Ironically enough, atheists are actually a very hard people group to reason with.

This is what made Fr Robert J. Spitzer's book, The Soul's Upward Yearning, so refreshing. He goes over some very interesting thinking about what evidence there actually is for the existence of God. There have actually been some very good scholars that have looked at the question from many different perspectives. The book contains many arguments involving miracles and astrophysics and on and on. The one I want to focus on here is the human person's innate tendency to become religious. That seems to be the most obvious line of inquiry. If almost all humans in all cultures throughout all of history believe in God then you might want to ask why. Just assuming you are smart and all of those billions of other people are not is a bit of a stretch. 

The first thing that stuck me was how similar the different experiences and expressions were across cultures and throughout history. They looked 3 datasets. 
  1. The psychological belief in transcendence and significance
  2. The social structures around religious myths and rituals 
  3. The role of conscience in our consciousness and the demands it paces on us
Each of these 3 things have caused many people to conclude that God is real. These arguments are similar but not the same. When taken together they do gain strength because they reinforce each other. 

Again we have the modern culture looking at the same data and arriving at the exact opposite conclusion. They see religion in many cultures and throughout history but they focus on the differences and not the similarities. Sure there are some differences. Yet you have to ask what would you expect the data to look like if atheism were true and what you would expect the data to look like if theism were true. 

I think there is the assumption that if theism were true everyone would agree on the myths and rituals. Yet why should that be the case. If God is happy to let man approach Him in an imperfect way then that is what we would expect. Different people come up with different ideas. If God does not correct these ideas quickly and efficiently then they are going to hang around for many generations. Yet that is hardly a logical impossibility. Christianity, for one, accepts that God often works with people who believe bad theology. So God's failure to make the true religion obvious and undeniable is hardly evidence He does not exist.

The reality is God has done quite a bit to make the true religion obvious. We are just very thick. I know I was. Yet when I saw the truth of Catholicism I could not help but be overwhelmed by how strong the evidence really is. It really is the city built on a hill and still we somehow miss it. So God does a lot to point us in the right direction but he does not do enough for some. Giving us Jesus. Giving us the church. Giving His presence in our hearts and minds. If you look at the totality of what God offers us it is amazing. Yet it is not enough for us until one day we decide that it is. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Blogging

I wonder about blogging. I have been doing it a while and I like writing down my thoughts. I am just not sure what kinds of thoughts make the most sense. I have been blogging a lot of scriptural reflections lately. I like to contemplate scripture. Yet very few people read it. What is more, I am more sure people should read it. If folks want to read scriptural reflections I am thinking that mine are not the best use of their time. There are some very good biblical writers out there and my $0.02 is not worth much when the demand is pretty low.

Besides, people who are drawn by biblical reflections are typically already Christian. So you are not really encountering the culture or going our into the peripheries as Pope Francis likes to say. It is basically an inward focused activity.

You can get more readership by connecting with the pop culture. You can reflect on the latest news stories and movies and scandals and whatnot. The trouble is that takes a lot of effort. You need to be right up to date and on top of everything. I just don't have time to stay right on top of cultural happenings. I do like to reflect on movies and TV but I often don't see them until the public interest has cooled off a lot. I like it that way. It means I can pick and choose. It just means nobody is going to care much what I write about it after.

Then there are the arguments. I have argued with protestants quite a bit. I find it is hard to find any protestants who are at all interested in interacting with Catholic arguments. Many will argue with atheism because they know why they reject atheism and can express it in a compelling way. Most protestants don't understand why they are not Catholic. Why that is such a closed question in their minds. Engaging Catholic arguments just makes them uncomfortable. It does not lead to a productive conversation.

I do argue with atheists quite a bit. I don't do it here. It is quite hard to find places where charitable conversations with atheists happen. I know of a couple and I go there a lot. I like to show how Catholicism can stand up to the scrutiny of very smart atheist opponents. Of course, said opponents eventually loose patience. Catholicism is hard to argue with. It is relentlessly logical. If you don't want to become Catholic it can become quite frustrating. I thought so when I was a protestant. 

The other think I have done with some success is respond to other people's articles. Maybe I need to do that more. Find some things to respond to. I do think I need to be more positive. We will see.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Can We Trust The Gospels?

I have argued quite often that we can trust the gospels. I was convinced by the notion of apostolic succession. The notion that even in the early church the handing down of the faith from one generation of leaders to another was taken very seriously. That young potential bishops would spend a lot of time with older bishops and learn every aspect of the faith. A life to life passing on very much like what Jesus did with the disciples over 3 years. 

Now I have always known that many scholars have come to a different conclusion. I hate disagreeing with scholars. It feels to much like believing in a conspiracy theory. Yet two things made it less disagreeable. First of all, they all shared a strong aversion to the supernatural. That is an assumption they all get from modern culture. So they are not really independently arriving at wrong conclusions. They all get their bad starting point from the same place and all make the same mistakes and all affirm each other in their flawed way of thinking. 

Secondly, I found the theory they came out with to be quite unimpressive. They rejected traditional Christian teaching for sure but they didn't come up with any plausible way the story could have been created and become accepted by the church. This is especially true because the church did believe in apostolic succession and was geographically spread out. Both these features would cause any big changes to be noticed and talked about as they grew to become accepted. We don't see any of that.

Now I have read Brant Pitre's book The Case For Jesus. It is odd because it is almost too good. My biggest problem is discussing this with sceptics is getting people to accept that the scholars might be quite far wrong. Yet Dr. Pitre actually convinces me that the scholars have been much less worthy of respect then I have said. I had assumed that there was at least some evidence for many of the assertions they have been making. That the ideas they arrive at and defend make sense from a scholarly perspective given the philosophical assumptions they make. The trouble is that is not true. 

For example, the idea that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John almost certainly didn't write the gospels and their names were added later to what might have been put together at some other time by someone else. Now you hear this so much that you think there must be some evidence for it. That some early manuscripts must be missing the name of the author. That maybe one or two early church fathers might have suggested they were written at least in part by someone else. Something that could launch them into this great speculation about anonymous authors. 

Dr Pitre makes very clear that nothing of the sort exists. Every early manuscript clearly identifies the traditional author. None of them are nameless. None of them name anyone else. Moreover, the people who talk about the gospels, both Christians and opponents of Christianity never suggest the gospels were late additions or forgeries. They do say that about some gospels but those are the gospels the church rejected. So they dared to question allegedly apostolic writings like gospels attributed to Peter, Thomas and Judas. Yet they didn't question Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Go figure.
The trouble is these scholars have prestigious positions at ivy league schools and many of them claim to be Christian. How can you convince people they have gotten it so wrong? That they did not just added two and two and got 437 but actually added zero and zero. That is they didn't just overstate their case but they actually have no case. Not one data point pointing the the theory that they keep asserting is obviously true. How can anyone talk about such a fiasco without having people baulk and assume they must be the one off base?

Dr Pitre just calmly presents the evidence and lets people arrive at their own conclusions. By the time he quotes Bart Ehrman for the tenth time you wonder why he is still taking him seriously because he has been so far off base each time. Still he is very charitable and never questions motives or competence. 

Yet he is dealing with people who are interested enough in what he has to say to read a whole book. It is still quite a challenge to get people to even open their mind to the possibility. Thinking about many of the people I have discussed this with the stronger case becomes a harder sell because you need to believe something worse about guys like Ehrman.