Saturday, June 16, 2018

Jordan Peterson


I was reading Jordan Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life. He has a lot of interesting thoughts. I can see why people are fascinated by what he has to say. One thing that struck me is he does not have this artificial line between religion and non-religion that you see almost everywhere in our culture. Christians could learn a lot from him there. We tend to have religious conversations and music and movies and schools. Then we have secular conversations and music and movies and schools. We can live double lives. We can have people in our lives that we only see in a religious context and others who are barely aware we are Christian. Catholics are likely more known for this than Protestants. I have been the opposite. I was worse for this sort of thing in my Protestant days.

Peterson will jump into religion frequently. He does it in a way that secular people can accept. He does not treat the bible as the Word of God. He treats it as a collection of human stories with their own largely-unknown histories. What do they say about the human condition? That is interesting and frustrating. Interesting because he has read a lot of scholars, and looking at scripture from that angle can bring out things we have never seen. It is frustrating because he never really deals with the question of is the bible the Word of God or not? Or the related question of is Jesus Christ what He claimed to be or not? He has such a style of being willing to ask the tough questions and even being willing to interact with some horrible potential answers to those questions. So why are these questions out of bounds?

He does tread a strange middle ground. For example, when asserting we should do what is right he gives good reasons for rejecting the idea that nothing is right or wrong. He does a Pascal’s wager type of argument. If it leads to nihilism he just dismisses it with an assertion that if that is right everything is hopeless. So, he is not in line with any of the New Atheism thinkers. This is good because many people disillusioned by Christianity also find atheism problematic. Yet he rejects all the major religions as well. He has said he is a Christian, but he does not go to church anywhere. So, he is leaning a bit further in that direction but not hugely. In areas where Christians are counter-cultural he does not seem to take a clearly Christian position on any of those. He says if you are doing something you know is wrong then stop it. He does not say pornography is wrong so stop it. He does not even seem to tell us where he has personally landed on these questions.

On the problem of pain, he does a good job of pointing out the atheist problem with pain. That the only real answer they have is suicide. Again, he uses Pascal’s Wager type reasoning to dismiss it. I did not know that Tolstoy said the only reason he did not kill himself was because he lacked courage. He really believed his life’s pain out-weighed its value. If a man as impressive as him can believe that, then who am I to say otherwise? Peterson details huge pain in his daughter’s life. Interestingly enough, he dismisses thinking as a response. He suggests maybe there is something higher than thinking. I thought he was going to say Faith. He doesn’t. He waffles again.

Really when faced with such pain we need to either take the plunge of faith or let despair take over. We can choose to believe God is all-powerful and all-loving and this pain is not meaningless, or we can choose to believe God is either not loving or not powerful and judge him inadequate or even impossible. When life seems hopeless and God seems absent, we either accept that as the truth that or we refuse to believe that because it contradicts our faith. That in the end, God will give an adequate answer to evil and pain and injustice and everything else. In the meantime, we need to trust Him.

I was struck but how he talked about one positive thing from his daughter’s life. She was given yet another terrible diagnosis. Yet something they thought was scientifically impossible happened. She got better. Not only did her ankle pain go away and not require surgery, but her knee got better as well enabling her to walk long distances. Quite something. I noticed how he did not want to use any language of grace or miracles to describe this.

Anyway, we are already seeing some people talking about Jordan Peterson as a stepping stone towards Christianity. People follow him and that prepares them to follow Bishop Barron or others who previously they would never have come near because of all the God talk. I can see that. So many people today just shut down when you bring up the topic of God. If he can do it in a way that does not shut them down, then that is great. Yet they can’t really stop with him. He leaves them in the mushy middle and that is not a great place to be. We need to evangelize him for sure but also those who are following his thinking.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Incomplete Christianity

Last post I reflected a bit on what Christians teach about pain and suffering. How many Christians get the traditional Christian teaching wrong and that leads many to reject religion entirely because their wrong ideas don't pass the scrutiny of modern secular people. Andy Stanley saw this but he did not see the Protestant Reformation as being the ultimate source of many of these wrong ideas and the Catholic teaching on suffering as being right. He flirts with the Catholic notion on suffering but does not go there completely. Still he sees quite rightly that the incomplete answer is inadequate and causes people to lose their faith.

This pattern is more common. Sexual morality is one key area. The Protestant decision to accept artificial contraception has rendered their philosophy of sex incoherent. If it is OK to separate sex from child bearing then why it is not OK to separate it from marriage? You remove the one key piece and it become impossible to make the puzzle fit. So what most understand to be Christian sexual morality is really not it. It does not ring true to people because it is not true. True Christian sexual morality was abandoned by Protestants in the last 100 years. Catholics still teach it officially but many Catholics reject it as well. So modern man is rarely exposed to true Christian sexuality either in the form of teaching or in the lives of Christians. The rules are arbitrary and inconsistent and don't appeal to people at all.

In my devotions I have been reading about spiritual dryness and the dark night of the soul. I start to realize that this can be another area where many people are not exposed to actual Christian teaching. Atheists point to Mother Teresa's admission of spiritual dryness as proof Christianity is false. Why? Because they Christianity they understand does not have an explanation for this. The conversion is everything and the struggles you experience later are not really talked about. You are saved and you are not committing any big sin so what is the issue? Yet you don't exactly have the joy and the fruitfulness that will make others want to become a Christian.

Mother Teresa had dryness but managed to have joy and fruitfulness anyway. Why? She was a Carmelite nun. She started her own order later but she was formed in the Carmelite way. So she would have been very familiar with the great Carmelite doctors of the church, St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross. These people understood spiritual dryness as a gift. It gives you the ability to choose Jesus not for the consolations you receive from Him but because you love Him. You have to live on faith and not on sight so you know your faith is real. This is something she would know about and expect as part of her walk with God. She did not expect it for as many years as it happened but that was just a surprise in intensity not in kind.

The trouble is that post-reformation Christianity has trouble getting past the ABC's of the faith. They disagree enough about those. Once you get past that you get so much disagreement that you are pretty much on your own. Lots of good advice. Lots of bad advice. All of it claiming to be biblical and most seem to take that seriously. So how do you find truth in that mess? You deal with spiritual dryness and you get a lot of answers. Some tell you to just lower your expectations of what religion is supposed to be. Some say to find a funkier worship experience and manufacture some excitement. Some will tell you to quite the ministry you and try something new. Good thing Mother Teresa did not do that.

So what you end up with is Christianity looking very unimpressive to the outside observer. Lots of testimonies that say I found Jesus. Yet the strong feelings that are at the core of those testimonies often go away. Then what? Really it is like the Israelites. They had their huge experience of being saved from the Egyptians through the 10 plagues and parting of the Red Sea. They experienced God at Mt Sinai in a powerful way. Then what? There was 38 years in the dessert. Lots of hard days. They actually pointed out many days were harder than what they experienced in Egypt as slaves. Yet the reality was they were not slaves and that was a big deal. Yet wandering in the desert for so long is not is hard to take. People who were expecting something easier can get disillusioned. 

The true Christian faith is beautiful enough and strong enough to attract people to it. Yet we need to get it right and we need to do it in enough detail to live it out. Stanley talked a lot about the Christians of the first few centuries. How they lived the truth despite persecution was such a strong witness and attracted pagans to the faith. How we live it actually sends people back to a modern version of paganism. Somehow we have lost the true faith. 

Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Problem Of Pain


Still moving through Andy Stanley's series on Who Needs God. Like I said, he does take seriously the problem of people choosing to give up on religion entirely. He things Christianity has done something wrong but he does not go deep enough. He sees that the way many Christians relate to the bible is not working but does not really ask where does that bible-centered thinking come from? The obvious answer is the reformation and he does not dare question that.

Now he looks at pain and evil. Why are we shocked that pain and evil exist in the world? Many see it as a reason to reject Christianity. That has not always been the case. In fact, the church endured terrible suffering in the first few centuries. Their suffering actually brought them closer to God. Why does it move them away from God now?

It comes back to heresy. People think they know the Christian answer to suffering but many do not. Many think the Christian answer is that suffering comes from sin and the answer is to stop sinning. That is part of it. The bible is full of statements that obedience produces joy and sin leads to misery. Yet that is a certain kind of joy and certain kind of misery. The more superficial and more visible joy and misery often work that way but not always.

When I say more superficial I mean things that can be very intense. Heb 12:2 says, "For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God." So Jesus' suffering on the cross was superficial. It was intense suffering but there was a deeper joy. So by comparison it can be called superficial but it can be intense enough to dominate your life. That kind of suffering can and does happen to Christians. 


So if you leave aside the dynamic where we rebel against God's will and maybe we end up in jail or maybe we end up in addiction or in a broken relationship or whatever. That happens a lot but that is not all suffering. There is random suffering where someone get cancer or someone has a car accident or whatever. No obvious sin caused it. Then there is suffering actually brought on by living out your faith. Jesus' suffering on the cross. He was the first of many Christian martyrs. Maybe God calls you to make a painful decision. Often it ends up being much less painful than feared but not always. Sometimes it just hurts and that is the road we are supposed to travel. 

So what is the answer to the problem of pain or the problem of evil in those situations? There are 2 answers really. The first answer is, "Wait." God sees pain and sees evil. He is doing something about it. It is just taking time. We need to trust that God will right every wrong and wipe away every tear. His Kingdom is delayed because he wants to give us time to repent but His Kingdom will come. Then all the questions around the problem of evil will be answered. God's justice and mercy will be evident.

In some ways "Wait" is not a helpful answer. We have to live life now. Knowing that all this will make sense in the end helps but only so much. We need something more. The second answer God gives to this question is the cross. Now Andy Stanley got about as close as a Protestant can to talking about this. He seemed to realize the suffering of Jesus together with the suffering of the early church was the key. Still he stopped short of saying our suffering can become salvific. Just too Catholic an idea.

Still the notion of really embracing the cross and seeing our sufferings as carrying our own cross. That can really transform the way we suffer. The infinite love of God can be made more powerful by our finite love. We can see that. It can touch others because we are human and human love is easier for human to relate with. Similarly the infinitely powerful suffering of Jesus can be made more powerful by our suffering. It can bring grace to our lives and the lives of those we know. God chooses to give our suffering meaning the same way He chooses to give the rest of our life meaning. He allows us to make a difference. Sometimes He allows us to make an eternal difference. 

St Paul says in Col 1:24, " Now I rejoice in what I am suffering for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church." What is lacking in Christ's afflictions? Not that they are not enough. It is that they are not applied to everyone at every time. Paul sees his suffering as allowing Jesus suffering to have full effect in the church and thus being meaningful. 

That is the true Christian answer to the problem of pain. If we don't understand that answer and believe that answer then atheists will always have a point when talking about pain and evil. The criticism will ring true in the ears of many because our answer will necessarily be incoherent. 

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Who Needs God?

At our parish men's group we are watching the Who Needs God videos by Andy Stanley. They are quite well done. We have not made it through the whole series yet but he is making some of the same points I have made. He makes them a lot better. He is an exceptional communicator. The basic message is that the rise in atheism has nothing to do with the notion that atheism has suddenly become appealing. In fact, many who leave Christianity do not associate themselves with atheism. They call themselves the Nones. That is when asked which religion they are they don't say Atheist. They say None. 

He actually points out many of the conclusions many of the leading atheist thinkers have come to. They take seriously the possibility that there is no god and try to make sense of life. It is hard. We become the centre. All meaning is centred around what we feel is meaningful. All morality is centred around what we feel is right. Yet can we trust our feelings? The answer is No. We know people who based their life on what they felt is good and meaningful and got it terribly wrong. Do we have any reason to believe our own feelings are immune from such serious errors? No.

The conclusions that atheist philosophers draw are much worse. About free choice being an illusion, about love and beauty having no real value, about the human person being indistinguishable from animals and even machines. These are all out there but I am not sure he went over them in enough detail to convince anyone who was not already convinced. Still he does enough to show atheism, if true, is a terrible truth. It does not just declare God to be a delusion but it says anything you have ever thought worthwhile about your life or anyone's life is a delusion as well. 

Then he moves on to his main point. He says the real problem is not that atheism is appealing but the real problem is that people are latching on to wrong notions of theism. What is being presented as authentic Christianity is actually an incoherent theology that people eventually reject for good reasons. He lists a number of these. He is mostly right. These ideas are out there. They do not make sense and they are not taught by traditional Christianity. 

The trouble is he is declaring all these teachings to be heresy. He needs to do that. Yet he does not claim the authority to be able to do that. Andy Stanley does not claim to be able to define what doctrines Christians must believe and what heresies they must reject. Yet he does exactly that. He gets away with it rhetorically. You can always do that. You can say this other idea makes no sense or it is unbiblical or whatever. Yet if you put him side by side with someone who believes one of these ideas it would not be so clear which is the biblical one or which is the logical one. 

How can you make it clear? Typically the only way to make clear which is the orthodox teaching and which is the heresy is to appeal to tradition. To go back to prominent Christian thinkers from previous generations and show that what they are teaching is not in line with what Christians have historically taught and what you are teaching is in line with them. Yet that line of reasoning is precisely what protestants rejected in the reformation. 

This is why we have atheism. Christianity is a complex faith. It is important we get it right. If we distort it in some way we can end up in an incoherent belief system. Then we are asking people to spend their lives on something that does really make sense. They are not going to want to do that. 

The controversies get harder. So far he has stayed away from the questions around sexual morality. I am surprised because he claims to base these talks on reading many de-conversion stories. That is stories of Christians losing their faith either to become an Atheist or become a None. I have read a fair few of those stories too. Many of them talk about sexual morality. That can reduce their credibility. Christians can dismiss them saying this guy just wanted to engage in a certain sex act and his faith told him No so he ditched his faith. Sometimes that is accurate but often it is not. 

Even people who are married and faithful have questions. Can I tell someone who is not married and in a sexual relationship that they need to stop having sex or get married? Can I tell a woman who is pregnant and sees huge problems with having a child that she should not have an abortion? Can I tell someone who is same-sex attracted that sex is for marriage and marriage is for a man and a woman? For all these questions the answer may well be Yes but you don't want to say that unless you are sure you are right. Can we be sure we are right? Can we know God's truth on these questions with any sort of certainty? If not, then why bother with Christianity? If so, then what do you reply to all the liberal Christians who claim you are wrong? 

Saturday, April 7, 2018

Atheism and Modern Paganism

We see a lot of paganism about. My child loves the movie Moana which is about gods and demigods and being characters being told by the ocean what their purpose in life is. We see characters like Thor and Loki coming back. Wonder Woman has Zeus as part of her story. These religions have been discarded for a long time. Why are we as a society coming back to them? 

What is happening is we have rejected the Christian story. Art wants to point to something true and good and right. Yet they are no longer able to point to explicitly Christian definitions of that. Why not? One big reason is that many people mistakenly believe Christianity can't stand up to logical scrutiny. That it is not true. Leaving aside for now why that is, it becomes a lot easier to say something comes from Zeus or Odin rather than from Jesus. 

What they really want in most of these stories is a sense of purpose in life. Who are you? What are you mean to be? How can you tell when someone lies to you about who you are? How do you know your true purpose? The story tellers want these questions to have answers and for the characters to find these answers as the story unfolds. This makes sense. We love stories like this because we believe that our lives have meaning and purpose. We believe that we can get confused about what that purpose is. We believe that clearing up that confusion can change our lives dramatically for the better. It can be what one might call a conversion experience.

So what's the trouble? Well, the reason why we rejected the Christian story is because it did not stand up to logical scrutiny. Guess what? These stories don't stand up either. In fact, they do much worse. That is why they were rejected in favor of Christianity. So why accept these? 

The reason is because atheism is unlivable. What would an atheist story look like? A young person has a restless heart because they feel they are meant for something more. Then he is told that feeling is a lie. He is not made for anything at all. He is just a random configuration of DNA. He thinks his life matters because his brain has evolved to make him believe that lie. He is just wrong. His birth, life and death are completely meaningless events. The end. So who would see that movie?

They say if you reject Christianity you don't end up believing in nothing. You start believing in anything. Deep down inside we know that the pathetic answers atheism give to life's big questions are not really true. So we pursue sex or drugs or Marvel movies as the answer. We know they are not but our hearts want to love something. 

Does this prove atheism is false. Not logically. Yet is seems to make it inherently implausible. Why would the human person find the truth so intolerable? If that is the case it is a horrible state of affairs. The only way we an be happy is to tell ourselves a lie. Yet we inherently hate lies. 

It eventually comes to a point where Pascal's wager makes sense. If atheism is true then we can never be truly happy. None of our friends or family can be truly happy either. Humans just have no place of peace. So we gain nothing by believing it. We just end up with a joyless life that ends in a meaningless death. So if atheism is true the truth is so horrible that we have almost no choice not to face it and try some sort of escape. 

So why not try the escape that actually benefits you if atheism is not true? Why not embrace the greatness and joy Catholicism? If it turns out to be true you gain everything. If it turns out to be false you still gain. You have at least placed a bet that has a chance to win. 

Why Catholicism and not some other religion? Of course that is a fair question that has a good answer. Not as hard as you would expect. Science and history go a long ways to eliminating other religions. Is it that hard to know Zeus and Thor are not candidates? People who seriously ask the question of which of the many religions has a real chance to be true typically arrive at Catholicism very quickly. Jesus stands out among religious figures. Catholicism stands out among all the flavors of Christianity. 

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Why Should The Devil Have All The Bad Music?

This is a time of you where Catholics are trying to walk with Jesus through the passion. We try to connection our suffering with those of Christ. That can not only make us feel better but give our suffering salvific significance. That is our pain becomes a powerful weapon is the spiritual battle to save souls, including our own. This is a doctrine protestants reject because they get salvation wrong. I won't get into that here but it matters in practice because much of our Christian music comes from protestants. 

I recall something I read a while back about Christian music being excessively happy
This just documents what many have said. That is that Christian music is great when you are happy and feeling good. It is not so good when you are in pain. Now Christians should always have a deep underlying joy and our music should help us connect with that. It is good we have music that does that well. Yet we still have pain. We still have  deep pain that we cannot just ignore for a while when we sing some happy clappy songs on Sunday morning. Even the lesser struggles we have that we can set aside, is Sunday morning a time when we should set them aside? 

If your theology does not really have a place for suffering you have no choice. That is not true of Catholic theology but many Catholics don't really get it. We can slip into protestant thinking because we live in a sea of protestants. We have a very secular culture but to the extent we have a Christian subculture it is very much a protestant one. We get that we believe in the Eucharist and the pope and they don't. Yet other differences like the way we think about suffering come out in more subtle ways and impact us a lot.

One way it impacts us is we have no Christian art we can turn to in times of suffering. We don't even really think Christian art can address the subject. We can even go so far as to imagine Christian community cannot address it. It happens that someone who is in serious pain withdraws from Christian community because it does not go well. Often they can find secular art and secular community that can understand their pain. Yet the secular world has no answer. We need something that points us to the cross. Yet we have forgotten how to do that.

So that brought me to the title of this post. Larry Norman had a song a while back called "Why Should The Devil Have All The Good Music?"
What I am thinking has happened is the Devil has all the Bad Music. Not artistically bad but "bad" in the sense of music we listen to during bad times. Christianity needs to relearn how to write such music. It needs to relearn how to embrace the cross. 

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Dying And Rising

The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. John 12:23-26
This is part of the gospel for this week. It is the story thing John records before moving into the crucifixion account in John 13. The homily we heard on it was about doing better morally and trying to make some incremental improvement in your life. It struck me how that is not at all what Jesus says here. Jesus call for a dying and rising. That is a radical change. It does not describe making a effort at an attainable improvement. 

One big difference between the two is that one requires faith and the other does not. Trying to become a better person is something an atheist can do. I would suggest they don't have a coherent answer to what it means to be a better person but that is another story. They do feel the impulse to improve themselves and many of them do. It is all based on human motivation and human effort that does not need to be connected with God at all. 

Dying and rising, on the other hand, does not make any sense if God is not real. Dying means you are completely helpless and you need God to raise you up. If God is not there then you will die and that will just be the end of it. This is why this story is told in the context of Jesus' death and resurrection. We can die to sin and be sure of our resurrection precisely because Jesus rose from the dead.

The objection to this is if you set your sights too high you will fail. Make the goal attainable and you are going to succeed. Is not some small victory better than one big defeat? First of all, you are not guaranteed a small victory. We can set our sights quite low and still fail to achieve the target. Secondly, and more importantly, failure does not have to leave us in a bad place. We tried to be a saint and we failed. That leaves us knowing we are sinners and still having a long way to go. So we need to do this conversion thing again and again. Our failure will remind us of our sinfulness again and again. This is good.

The line that was repeated so often is that in order to be a disciple we need progress but not perfection. I am not sure this is true. We don't need perfection for sure but I am thinking we don't even need to make progress. Long term you would wonder about a person who never makes any progress. Still in the short term you might not achieve even a little bit. Someone who tries to quit drinking might not be very successful at all. Do you have to show progress to call yourself a disciple? I would say just the fact that you want to follow God in this is enough. The fact that you did not even make progress today is not important. Tomorrow is important. Do you try again or do you give up? 

It comes down to the difference between grace and works. Is God acting with our cooperation or are we acting and maybe getting some help from God? Christianity is very firmly in the former. We need God even for small progress. What follows is that difficulties are kind of irrelevant. Nothing is too difficult for God. What matters is whether we trust God.