Thursday, December 22, 2011

Evangelicals and Sex

I have read a few articles about the high rate of sexual activity among Evangelical singles. I hesitate to post on it because it seems like someone else's dirty laundry. It is not like the studies show Catholics are chaste. But I think it is a serious trend and I think it will have seriously bad consequences for Christianity in the US and to a lesser extent in Canada. The other reason is I think Catholicism offers some real hope. There is a new reality with the modern availability of pornography and contraception. But where sin increases, grace increases all the more (Rom 5:20). The trouble is we need to cooperate with that grace. I believe that that grace is flowing primarily though the Catholic church. So we need to speak the truth in love.

What is happening is that evangelical churches are focusing a lot of their chastity teaching on teens. This is very popular. Parents love it. The teens are leery of jumping into sexual activity so they are happy to get good arguments for chastity. Many teens do remain pure. This is good.

When you look at the next age group the story changes a lot. Evangelicals aged 18-29. They tend to wait for marriage just as much as secular people do. Most of them don't wait with sex as well. Their parents are less of a factor. They question the church they have been raised in. The culture continues to wear at them with the constant assumption that everyone their age is sexually active. At the end of the day the rate of sexual activity among single, evangelical, young adults is about 80%. For non-evangelicals it is about 88%. So the gap that is large among teens becomes a lot smaller when those teens move to adulthood.

So what is going wrong? The first issue is contraception. When marriage is not about children then young adults don't see much difference between the serious relationships they have and what a married couple has. We are not married but we are in love so what is the big deal? If marriage is about procreation that question answers itself. You are not ready for children so you are not ready for sex. Or it is time to reorder your lives so you are ready for children. When the contraceptive mentality permeates their thinking then it is hard to see the sense behind a requirement to marry before having sex.

Related to this is the effect of Sola Scriptura on sexual morality. What verse tells you that premarital sex is wrong? What about one that shows pornography is wrong? Then you get into the more perverse questions and the proof texts just are not there. Where are the boundaries? Where do I go to get a definitive answer? What about all the people arguing from the bible that this and that is OK? There simply is no coherent sexual morality in the protestant world. You have to bring in tradition. You have to bring in the sacramental nature of marriage and sex. Some do it by the back door and don't admit it. The arguments just don't hold up under scrutiny.

Then you have Sola Fide. From one of the articles:
Brittany, a 24-year-old veterinary technician, is an example of the newly disaffected. In high school, she attended a conservative Episcopal church in northern Virginia. She enrolled in college thinking of herself as a conservative and not wanting to have sex until she was married. Her views changed when she met her boyfriend. She began to question the theology of her home church on a number of social issues. "I know I'm a Christian and believe in God, but the church hasn't helped me in my struggles," she says. "It really doesn't affect anything in life right now."
The result? "I don't go to any church."
She knows she is a Christian. Why? Sola Fide tells her she does not need to go to church and does not need to live a chaste life. There is no such thing as mortal sin, right? How can anyone tell her that her faith is inadequate without bringing works into it? Church is not needed. It is something that might help with your struggles and if it does not then don't go. Sacraments? Obedience? I believe in God so what is your issue?

Then there is the theology of the body. A great grace God have given through the church in at an time of need. It gives us a sexual ethic that is not only coherent but beautiful. Rules no longer seem arbitrary. They are there because the dignity of the human person and the nature of sex demands they be there. You would not want to change either of those things. It shows how we can't improve our sex lives by making some exceptions for ourselves. Trying to remove the sacrifice ends up removing the love.

Then there is the lack of celibate witness, that is priests and religious. Having people around who have sacrificed sex for a greater good. They blow all the cultural thinking out of the water. Who says you can't resist sexual temptation? Who says you can't be fulfilled unless you are in a relationship? It is one thing to teach that sexual pleasure is way less important than fellowship with God. It is another to live it.

Then there is the heavy artillery. When we deal with serious temptations we need serious weapons. Eucharist, confession, penance, fasting, the intercession of Mary and the Saints, adoration, relics, the rosary, etc. Most of these protestants don't have. They say they don't need any of those things because they have Jesus. But when you need extra grace to fight some serious battles with lust these gifts can make all the difference.

The short answer is the evangelical house is built on sand. The storm of the sexual revolution is hitting it hard and it looks like it is going to fall. The answer is to build your house on the rock. The Catholic church can weather this storm but only if the members actually live the faith. Too many are living like protestants or living like atheists. The atheists will wait a lot longer before they admit their system has failed. Evangelicals will see the decline in sexual morals and know there is something very wrong. Will they accept a solution so radical as becoming Catholic? That remains to be seen.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Real Christianity

Most people are confused about Christianity. Both people who think they are Christians and those that don't can be profoundly confused about what are they accepting or rejecting. Is it about going to heaven and avoiding hell? Is it about being a good person? Is it about knowing why we are here? There are so many reasons why Christianity is accepted or rejected that only touch on a small fraction of what it is about. This is why Christmas matters. It brings us back to the beginning. God became man. The Logos became flesh. The light entered the darkness. So much talk about religion is so small compared to such a huge truth. The Being that holds the universe in existence entered the womb of a woman. Understanding Jesus as someone who wants you to be nice or wants to take you to heaven is such a small shadow of that.

This is why so many describe Christianity as wishful thinking. For many Christians it is. They imagine the God they want. Nothing more. But real Christianity is not wishful thinking. We could not possibly wish for something we cannot even comprehend. It is too big an idea to be made up. Truth is stranger than fiction. Christianity only ceases to amaze us when we water it down. When we reduce the faith to family values or social action or the sinners prayer or whatever. Christianity is about meeting God.

This is why the early church was much more focused on who Jesus is than it was on what Jesus taught. Look at the creeds. God from God. Light from Light. True God from True God. Consubstantial with the Father. It does not talk about loving your enemies or helping the poor. They are not unimportant but they are not central. The central matter is exactly who it is that came to the world on Christmas morning.

Modern scientific humanism can be quite open to Christianity. They are OK with saying Jesus is someone who advanced human moral thinking. They are OK with saying Christianity is one of the great positive influences in history. But to say Jesus is God is quite another matter. If Jesus is God then He is not just one of the great goods this world has to offer. If He is God then He is the Good by which all other goods are measured. Modern man wants to decide for himself what he will call good. Like pagans who were always willing to make room for another god in their worship. But the one God that demanded to be in the ultimate place of worship was too much. Modern man is like that. We will give Jesus faint praise along with everyone else's favorite good. But putting Him over everything is too much.

Christians are not that much better. We confess Jesus is God but often we don't really deal with the fullness of what that means. We don't enter into a love relationship with Him. We can fall into using God for our own ends. It is wrong to use people as a means rather than as an end. It is more wrong to use God that way. This is why getting theology right is important but only the beginning. We need to get liturgy right. We need to get prayer right. We need a whole spirituality that is focused on loving the true eternal God as opposed to our pious imagination of what He might be like. That is why I see the church as such a gift. It gives us a fighting chance at getting this right.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Understanding the World

I stole this image from Marc Barnes' blog. I wanted to go a different direction with it than he does. Dawkins is unintentionally insightful here. He describes well what he wants and what we all want in a world and life view. What he has that many religious people he knows seem to be missing. The trouble is he assumes that his hunger to understand the world comes from his atheist creed and other people's perceived satisfaction with a lack of understanding comes from their religious creed. Quite the opposite is the case. Why does an atheist want to understand the world? I would suggest that the reason does not flow from atheism. It is borrowed from Christianity. You know why Christians want to understand the world. Understanding creation means understanding the creator. That brings us into fellowship with God which is the ultimate goal of man.

But why does an atheist want to understand the world? If he dies with a head full of knowledge he still dies. Why put in the effort? Isn't power or pleasure more important than knowledge? If you can shout down your opponents then why does it matter if they have a true understanding of the world and you don't? Dawkins does not see himself this way. He thinks he has the truth. Many have said he does a lot more shouting than he does reasoning. But he does value reasoning and likes to think of himself as a pursuing actual truth. But why do that?

Think of Martin Luther. He opposed the pope as a way of pursuing truth. He believed he had the real truth about God and the church was teaching error. Then Henry VIII embraced Luther's rebellion against the pope but he didn't care so much about truth. He likely convinced himself he was right but it was basically a power grab. He convinced the English bishops to support him by executing St Thomas More and St John Fischer. He didn't need to make a theological argument. Why should the next atheist that comes along care about science? Why not just use force to shut up the scientists? There is nothing in atheism that makes that inconsistent.

Even more simply, an atheist could just decide science is hard work. He might have the ability to be a good scientist or engineer or doctor or whatever. Why put in the time? Why not pursue wine, woman, and song instead? If we are not going to be held accountable for our choices then what is the upside to all that learning? You could impress more people by learning trivia. There are easier ways to make money. Why shouldn't I be satisfied with not understanding the world to the degree I could?

Then there is the deeper question of whether there is even an actual truth to be understood. Dawkins thinks there is. He would accept that either God exists or He does not. That one should use reason to discern which of those possibilities is actually true. Many people disagree with that. They would say objective truth either does not exists or is unknowable. To me that seems like being satisfied with not understanding the world. If you say truth exists and is knowable, which religious people do, then you will try and separate truths from falsehoods.

The issue Dawkins has is the Christian does not limit his reason and his data to science. He looks at divine revelation. He looks at philosophy and art. He tries to put it all together into one big worldview. Now that is a very different way of thinking of the world. It is hard to see why he would interpret that as being OK with not understanding the world. He might be referring to some Christians denying evolution. Not sure what other example he could give. Generally religious people do not deny scientific truth.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Science and Religion

The English seem to be ahead of the Americans in matters of science and religion. That does not mean they know more. It means they know less. Society has been moving in the direction of forgetting truth it once understood. This comes from  a series called Heathen's Progress by Julian Baggini. It does not mean "progress" in the sense of learning and developing deeper understandings. Here it means progressively asking more questions and admitting fewer answers.
One of the most tedious recurring questions in the public debate about faith has been "is religion compatible with science?" Why won't it just go away?
I'm convinced that one reason is that the standard affirmative answer is sophisticated enough to persuade those willing to be persuaded, but fishy enough for those less sure to keep sniffing away at it. That defense is that religion and science are compatible because they are not talking about the same things. Religion does not make empirical claims about how the universe works, and to treat it as though it did is to make a category mistake of the worst kind. So we should just leave science and religion to get on with their different jobs free from mutual molestation.
Why it won't go away is because you have the wrong answer. Religion is more concerned with spiritual matters but it can say things about the physical world. Christianity has the doctrine of the incarnation. It has the doctrine of creation. Certainly the bible has many stories which have archeological evidence that seems to be related.

So religion and science are answering different questions but it is not like they will never run into each other. They will. The assumption is that they will always contradict. They won't. There is one truth out there. We want to know it as well as we can. Science can only address the physical world but religion can address both the physical and the spiritual. If they contradict then your science or your religion is wrong. You can't finesse the law of non-contradiction  by labeling some truths scientific and some truths religious.
Critically, however, scientific "why" questions do not imply any agency – deliberate action – and hence no intention. We can ask why the dinosaurs died out, why smoking causes cancer and so on without implying any intentions. In the theistic context, however, "why" is usually what I call "agency-why": it's an explanation involving causation with intention.
I don't like his term "agency" because science is interested in certain kinds of agents. If the dinosaurs does out because a meteor hit the earth then that meteor is the agent of their demise. That is still in the realm of science. I would prefer he say "teleological" because that is what he means.

He does not touch on the most common error. That is the assumption that the silence of science on teleological questions means they are unimportant or they do not exist. Most of the time when people assert that science and religion are not compatible they are confused about that. They note that science has determined the proximate cause of many things and even those things who's proximate cause we don't know we have good reason to believe that science will figure that out as well. Then they make the leap that somehow religion and even philosophy is not needed. I guess since this guy is a philosopher he does not want to go there. Still I think society's silence on teleological questions has caused the most confusion on the relationship between religion and science. It is ironic that Biggini, as a philosopher, is silent about these questions as well. 
Consider, for example, anthropic fine-tuning, which the religious physicist, Paul Davies, calls "The Goldilocks Enigma": the conditions in the universe are just right for life to have evolved, and had a few things been just slightly different at the Big Bang, none of us would be here. At the moment, there is no generally accepted scientific explanation for why or how this is so. Taking off his physicist's coat and donning his theologian's hat, Polkinghorne answers the "why" question by saying that the life-enabling laws of physics are "graciously provided by the creator". Not only does this introduce agency-why where we'd normally just look for scientific-why, it is also a claim about how the universe came to be this way, namely, by divine fiat. It trespasses onto the "how" territory of science, but since it cannot explain the mechanism by which God intervened, nor test the hypothesis that he did so, it is no substitute for a proper scientific answer.
This is an interesting theory. It is really a "God of the gaps" argument. It points out a pretty huge gap in science. Can that gap be filled? It is hard to imagine but not impossible.  It is somehow easier for us to see the fingerprints of God on something we don't understand scientifically. To the extent that is true then noting the huge number of things in the universe that seem to have been put in place so we could exist will tend to strengthen our faith. But he is not suggesting that this is instead of trying to answer the why question in a scientific way. All the phenomenon he describes are still the subject scientific research and I don't think Davies is calling for that to stop. He is just noting that the universe not only looks big and beautiful but it also look's like it is ordered towards life. How precisely it was ordered towards life is still an interesting question we should try and answer. But it right now it might also give us an important clue as to the ultimate cause of why the universe exists. It has something to do with life.

The comment about divine fiat is instructive. It comes from Genesis 1. God spoke things into being. But that is not an anti-science speaking. God is a God of power but also a God of order. One does not cancel out the other. If they did then the conflict between science and religion would make sense. To say God brings rain on the righteous and the unrighteous would be to deny that rain is scientifically explainable. But we don't deny it. We hold that both explanations are valid and true.
The religious believer could bite the bullet, accept that religion does make some empirical claims, and then defend their compatibility with science one by one. But the fact that two beliefs are compatible with each other is the most minimal test of their reasonableness imaginable. All sorts of outlandish beliefs – that the Apollo moon landings never happened, for instance – are compatible with science, but that hardly makes them credible. What really counts, what should really make the difference between assent and rejection of an empirical claim, is not whether it is compatible with science, but whether an evidence-led, rational examination of a view supports it better than competing alternatives.
So the fact that science is compatible with religion turns out to be a comforting red herring.
This is absolutely true. He is implying that religion is irrational and therefore should be rejected. I don't agree with his premise and he does not try and defend it. I do agree that is it were true that religion is irrational then it should not be believed. In today's world you can just state that religion is irrational and people will accept it. That is because secular people are ignorant not because religious people are irrational. Religion is very rational. It takes the data from prophets or whatever and scrutinizes it. It determines what is believable and tries to put it into some system of theology. This is really the only kind of religion I have been exposed to so when people just assume all religions are irrational I wonder how much they get out.
The less comfortable wet fish slapped around the face is that how easily science and religion can rub on together depends very much on what kind of religion we're talking about. If it is a kind that seeks to explain the hows of the universe, or ends up doing so by stealth, then it is competing with science. In such contests science always wins, hands down, and the only way out is to claim a priority for faith over evidence, or the Bible over the lab. If it is of a kind that doesn't attempt to explain the hows of the universe, then it has to be very careful not to make any claims that end up doing just that. Only then can the science v religion debate move on, free from the illusion that it rests on one question with one answer.
This explains a lot. Religions can be grouped loosely into two categories. Fundamentalists and liberals. Either doctrine trumps secular reasoning or doctrine changes to accommodate secular reasoning. The trouble is Catholicism does not fit into either category. It is always open to new ideas but it can firmly reject new ideas as well. The answer is not a firm and unthinking No like the fundamentalists give. It is also not an initial No that inevitably changes to a Yes like the liberals give. It is an open mind that will eventually close on either a No or a Yes. It does not compete with science. It accepts scientific results for what they are. Then it determines the doctrinal implications.

That kind of religion seems foreign to him. The kind that can accept evolution and reject contraception. That cannot be fit into the simple categories he offers. That takes both faith and reason very seriously.That does not pit progress against tradition. In other words he has not considered the Catholic faith very well when he wrote off religion. 

Albert Molher and the Virgin Birth

Albert Molher has an article on the Virgin Birth. He defends it. This is a good thing because the doctrine is true. But he goes further. He says one must beleive it to be a Christian.
Now, even some revisionist evangelicals claim that belief in the Virgin Birth is unnecessary. The meaning of the miracle is enduring, they argue, but the historical truth of the doctrine is not really important.
Must one believe in the Virgin Birth to be a Christian? This is not a hard question to answer. It is conceivable that someone might come to Christ and trust Christ as Savior without yet learning that the Bible teaches that Jesus was born of a virgin. A new believer is not yet aware of the full structure of Christian truth. The real question is this: Can a Christian, once aware of the Bible’s teaching, reject the Virgin Birth? The answer must be no.
The problem is that  Albert Molher does not have the authority to define who is Christian and who is to. He is responding to Nicholas Kristof writing in the New York Times who says the very opposite. Some people think he has a lot of authority as well. In the protestant world everyone has authority and if everyone does then nobody does.

The doctrine is sometimes called the Priesthood of All Believers. Really it amounts to the Papacy of All Believers. Everyone has the authority to define the Christian faith for themselves. But the bible says in Ephesians 4:5 that Christians all have one faith. How can we have one faith unless we have some way of defining that faith that we share? We can't. Molher sees this. He says:
What are we to do with the Virgin Birth? The doctrine was among the first to be questioned and then rejected after the rise of historical criticism and the undermining of biblical authority that inevitably followed.
So the question is bigger than the Virgin Birth. If Christianity cannot say definitively that this doctrine is part of the faith then the same can be true of  any other doctrine. Molher gets that. But he cannot offer any more than his own opinion against the opinion of Kristof. They both make arguments. How can anyone be sure who is right? How can we say the Christian position is Mohler's position and not Kristof's?

Mohler does his best to appeal to tradition. He identifies Kristof with liberal theology and secularism. This is code for Evangelicals. He is basically saying these guys are not part of the Evangelical magisterium and I am so listen to me. An indirect appeal to authority. It is indirect because Molher does not believe in appeals to authority. As a protestant he rejects the doctrine. But without it Christianity is unworkable. So they kick it out the front door and slip it into the back door. They try to have it both ways. All Christians are equal but some are more equal then others.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Moral Pills

I was reading some thoughts about a morality pill. I guess in a culture that has a pill for every ill why not take one for immorality? But immorality is not like a disease. It is a lack of virtue. The 4 cardinal virtues are justice, wisdom, courage, and self control. Can a pill give you those? Then you have the 3 theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. They can only be a gift of God. So good luck putting that in a pill.

The trouble is people think about morality as a series of "thou shalt not" commands. Those are important. They are like land mines. We need to know where they are because they can hurt us. But the goal of a soldier is not just to avoid land mines. His goal is to win the battle. That means initiating action and not just avoiding something. Morality is like that. We need to be initiators. They say the greatest sins we commit are the sins of omission. The pill model completely breaks down on those.

In fact, a pill gives you what atheists claim is wrong with religion. That is it turns you into a unthinking robot that just does whatever he is told. That is not my experience of religion but you hear that a lot. Atheists call themselves free thinkers. So why take a pill to control your thoughts? What we need is access to the goodness that is higher than us but still complete freedom to choose good. We don't want good forced upon us. That would be beneath our dignity as human persons. This is precisely what Jesus gives you. He gives you the grace to do good and avoid evil but leaves your mind free and your actions free. You have to choose it every day. Either the road that leads to the cross and to the resurrection and to glory or the wide road that pursues the pleasures of the flesh and leads to destruction. But we have to choose. No pills. Just the truth of the gospel to help you decide.

The other assumption I felt coming from this analysis was that morality is something you want for others but not really for yourself. You are willing to be moral because if you were not then others would not be moral back. So it is a back scratching thing. Again, that is not what Christian morality is about. If it is then Jesus did it wrong. He ended up crucified. He did good not because He could benefit from some societal goodness He had contributed to. He did good because goodness is an end in itself. God is the ground of all goodness so to pursue good is to pursue God.

Ultimate goodness is relationship with God. Again, not something you find in a pill. The Eucharist might be thought of as such a pill but even that does not fit. Jesus is present in the Eucharist but we are still free. We need to partake while free from mortal sin. We need to cooperate with that grace every step of the way.

That is the problem for everyone trying offer humanity some form of salvation. How do you preserve free choice? Communism is a good example. Their planned society could tackle any question except the question of whether or not a planned society was a good idea. It had to impose itself on people in order to work. But people resist. No matter how good an idea it seems to be there will be some who don't like it. The pill would have this issue. What do you do with the anti-pill people? Do you force them?

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Contraception Error

Did Christians give away marriage? That is the provocative title of a column by Anthony Bradley. He actually dares raise the contraception issue. He does it by quoting others rather than owning the notion that breaking the link between sex and children has basically conceded the central point of the debate over marriage. It is a hard truth to contemplate. That evangelical Christianity made a bad call when it accepted contraception. That led to increases in divorce and premarital sex. That leads to "the reduction of marriage to a mere contract between consenting adults has stripped marriage of its sanctity and its family-forming utility."

Why is this such a hard truth to contemplate? If it is a mistake it is a huge mistake. How much spiritual damage has been caused by the sexual revolution? Christians were fighting it but were they fighting it with the fullness of truth? If they were not teaching God's plan and living God's plan for marriage and sex then Christians have to look at themselves as being responsible for the excesses of the sexual revolution.They were poor witness to the world.

A mistake that large and that damaging to society has to make you look at how you made that mistake. Protestant leaders got caught up in the culture of the day and embraced what they thought would be a morally permissible technological advance. There was debate for a while but they pretty much all ended up in the same spot. That does not happen often to protestants but it did this time. But why? Why did everyone abandon a moral teaching with so much Christian tradition behind it? Basically there were 3 reasons:
  1. Christians wanted it. The idea of having more sex and less self control within marriage appealed to Christians as much as it did to anyone else.
  2. The biblical data was not all that clear. You have the sin of Onan and a few words from Paul that might be referring to contraceptives but there is no strong proof-text.
  3. New technology. People were able to convince themselves that the moral questions around birth control were somehow different in modern times then they had been for the rest of Christian history when every Christian tradition condemned it. 
Of the 3 main reasons I would say #1 was most important. If you think about abortion, which many protestants continue to say is immoral, it is easy to see that #2 and #3 apply to the issue of abortion. Just read what liberal theologians say on the subject. But most Christians gain no personal benefit from abortion. The leaders who make the doctrinal decisions are almost all married men. They are faithful to their wives. So #1 does not apply for abortion.

So what does this say? That protestants can make huge errors that are not from willful disobedience but from more subtle causes. Causes so subtle that almost nobody in any of the major protestants traditions pointed out the error for decades. Even now, with the consequences moving from bad to catastrophic there are only a few protestants willing to even talk about contraception as something that might need to be re-examined.

What it means is we have a system failure. Everybody followed Sola Scriptura in good faith. Yet we didn't end up in controversy and stalemate like we normally do. We ended up in false teaching. So even when Sola Scriptura does give you a definitive answer it can be definitively wrong. So the stakes are high. Saying contraception is immoral makes it very hard to stay with bible-only Christianity.

The good news is that God is real. Even when Christians have embraced false teaching and society has seriously come off the rails as a result God is still there and He can still fix it. How? What church has not broken from the historical Christian teaching on contraception? That is a hint. More than 95% of Catholic couples have not lived the teaching. So what? That just makes it all the more amazing that the teaching has remained firm.

It is the opposite of what happened in the protestant world. In the Catholic church you did not have people doing everything right. They don't read scripture. They don't seem to live their faith. Most of them anyway. So how did they get it right? Their system works. Even when there are many bad Catholics. Bad Catholics succeed where good protestants fail. How does that make sense? It is called grace. It is not about our goodness but God's goodness to us.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

William Lane Craig and God-Commanded Violence

William Lane Craig had a debate with Christopher Hitchens that seems to have scared the bejebeers out of atheists. Edward Feser has a funny post on Dawkins ducking any Craig debate. This is all good. But one of the issues atheist have raised as an excuse to not debate Craig is his refusal to exclude the possibility that God might command some Christian or group of Christians to commit mass murder at some point in the future.

At issue is a few of the atheist's favorite passages where God commands Israel to go to war and to kill every man, woman, and child of the enemy people group. Christians don't really focus on these passages much. Mostly they are used to underscore how the new covenant is superior to the old. But as a bible-only Christian Craig has to defend the entire bible as understandable without an authoritative interpreter. These passages make that hard. You can find good explanations for why you don't expect God to give orders for you to exterminate some group of people but can you completely exclude something from happening when there is a biblical precedent? Craig says No. He says Christians should obey a direct command of God even if it involves what would otherwise be gravely immoral.

For atheists this puts Craig in the same category as Muslim terrorists. In some sense they are right. Holding that God can command immoral acts is one of the big problems with Islam. It makes God irrational. It means anyone can claim that God is on their side. There are still important differences. Mohammad was way more violent than Jesus. The Koran is way easier to interpret as a call to violence than the bible is. Muslim history has way more religious violence than Christian history. So we should not accept the notion that Craig has put the two religions in the same category as far as violence goes. But leaving the door open to God giving such a command today is a problem.

It underscores how protestants cannot really believe in development of doctrine. They sneak it in and that is a good thing because it is true. But if you believe that the bible is it then as long as the bible does not change you cannot expect any deeper or fuller revelation of God's word. You have to argue from scripture and plain reason. Any exegetical principle you want to make normative would be an addition to scripture and is not allowed. Remember you are dealing with difficult opponents who will call you on any inconsistencies. So I am not surprised Craig has gone where he has gone.

It is so sad because Christian tradition has gone in completely the other direction. Pope Benedict has recently spoken out against religious violence and atheistic violence. That has been the way the Holy Spirit has been leading the faith for many centuries now. If Craig didn't have his bible-only dogma he could point out lots of authoritative statements that would make this scenario impossible. He could go on the offensive and point out the atheist history of violence as Pope Benedict did. But Sola Scriptura puts him in a theological straight jacket.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

False Morality

Humans are wired to strive for good. We can get confused about what is good. We can strive for lesser goods like physical pleasure or money. But we can't just not feel any moral impulses at all. So when atheists try to tell us there is no God they don't tell us there is no right and wrong. What they tell us is religion is evil and they are good. Modern man has the desire to be free from moral constraints but he also has a burning desire to do good and fight evil. Mark Shea linked 2 articles that talk about this. One is a reflection on Pope Benedict
Moral obligation is not man’s prison, from which he must liberate himself in order finally be able to do what he wants. It is moral obligation that constitutes his dignity, and he does not become more free if he discards it: on the contrary, he takes a step backward, to the level of a machine, of a mere thing.
A Turning Point for Europe?, 36
He suggests that if we rebel against a high moral calling we don't get freedom. We just get a lower morality that will be just as difficult and give us less dignity. What could be worse is that running away from true morality can lead us to false morality. So the good we fight for might not be just too small but it might actually be evil. Fr Denis talks about how one common lesser good is consequentialism. That is rejecting the revelation of God about what is good and simply trying to figure out which actions will have good consequences. The trouble is our assessment is limited by how well we understand human dignity and how well we can predict future consequences. So the moral argument is simply, "I don't see what is so wrong with it." But the fact that you don't see means you need moral guidance. Consequentialism says not seeing means you can ignore moral concerns.

The other article Mark links is by Mike Flynn on hypocrisy. It is another way to run from morality and replace it with moral outrage.The trick here is to assume everyone who says they are trying to do good is a hypocrite. Then you can do evil and claim to be better than everyone else because you admit you are doing evil. Now this works better if there is some doubt whether the act in question is actually gravely evil. You can trade on that. We know hypocrisy is wrong so you can trade moral certainty for moral gravity.

Is it better to admit you indulge in porn rather than do it secretly? It depends what you mean. If you mean is it better to confess your failings, they it is true. But if you mean it is better to act like indulging in porn is not morally wrong, then it is false. It is better to try and stay pure and fail than it is to fail without even making an effort. So you have people self-righteously claiming, "My porn might be wrong but at least I am honest about it." That is not better. They say hypocrisy is the compliment vice pays to virtue. To feel contrition enough to want to keep your actions secret is better than to proudly and publicly act. The best is to be honest and contrite but we should not be fooled into thinking honesty with no contrition is a step in the right direction.

Again, the reason this works is people see pornography as a minor sin. They see the lying as a bigger issue. It isn't. Pornography is gravely immoral. It is also a choice. Modern society sees it as inevitable. The idea that nobody is pure. Everyone does it. It is just a matter of who admits it. Nonsense. People can be holy. That is the goal. If we switch the goal for just being honest about our vices then we have lowered ourselves.

The really honest sinners not only admit they sin but admit they are powerless over sin. Like step 1 of the 12-step program. Saying you need help rather than saying you commit this sin and everyone should just accept that.That is real honesty. The happy drunk or the happy fornicator or whatever is really not that honest. At some level they know they are doing evil and they are not at peace with themselves.

This is why many of Mike Flynn's examples come from fiction. Fictional characters can flaunt moral standards without the slightest crisis of conscience. Real people have trouble with that. Fiction also allows all the moral characters to be confirmed hypocrites. We imagine a world devoid of saints so our hero becomes the one-eyed man in the world of blind men. But in the real world it is possible, with God's grace, to be good. When you encounter someone who shows you virtue then you just can't be happy with your vice.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

As Silly As Superman

Alvin Plantinga was once the most celebrated professor at my alma mater, Calvin College. He didn't become Catholic but he did move to the somewhat Catholic University of Notre Dame. Anyway, he wrote an article about a debate he had with Daniel Dennett on Science and Religion. He makes a bunch of interesting points but I just want to react to one point Dr Dennett made.
Dennett agreed with my first claim: that in fact there is no conflict between evolution and theistic belief. He went on to say, however, that many very silly claims are compatible with science-for example, Supermanism, according to which that redoubtable comic book character is real. (But the way Superman flies around without the benefit of wings or aircraft? The way he can leap over tall buildings in a single bound? Is that really compatible with current science?)
My first reaction is that calling something silly does not really belong in a philosophy forum. Silly things can be true. I can say atheism is silly. It does not prove anything. What I think he means to say is that we need evidence to believe in superman. If he existed, at least on this planet, we would expect to have some significant, documented, physical evidence. Since we don't have that we can say there is no reason to believe he exists. If he didn't exist we would not expect the world to be any different than it is now. So it is more rational to believe he does not exist.

So can't you make the same argument about God? Not at all. God is not an entity existing within the physical world. St Thomas Aquinas thinks of God as the essence of being itself. Like Merton said in Seven Story Mountain:
And the one big concept which I got out of its pages was something that was to revolutionize my whole life.” That concept was aseitas, a word “which can be applied to God alone, and which expresses His most characteristic attribute…” Merton learned from Gilson that God does not require any justification for existence, for his very nature is existence... Merton realized that God is not one being among many, but ipsum esse subsistens—the sheer act of being itself. He had never imagined that people could speak of God in such an intellectually satisfying way, but Gilson showed him otherwise.
So God is fundamentally different from superman so the evidence we would expect to find is going to be very different. If you can imagine Hamlet trying to prove Shakespeare existed. The fact that he searched his castle and didn't find him would not prove that he didn't exist. He isn't in the play. He is the author. Hamlet could reason that because he is a character in a play there must be an author. We can do that. We can reason that way about God. That is not called science. It is called metaphysics. Science isn't going to find Him. To expect science to find God like we would expect it to find superman is just to misunderstand what Christians believe about God.

The other side of it is the incarnation. God would not be findable with our senses and analyzing the physical world except  for Christmas. God became man. So He is one being among the many beings in this world. So He does give science a fighting chance. In fact, there are enough miracles that any scientist that wants to can find some very strong evidence for a miracle. That is not evidence we would expect to find if God existed. It is only evidence we would find if God existed and wanted to be found. If He wanted to intervene in human history and have a relationship with us.

Does this evidence prove God exists? No. The existence of Jesus and the existence of miracles does not preclude any other explanations. Often we can conclude that with our existing understanding of the world we cannot find another explanation. That does not mean there isn't one. God always seems to leave that door open at least a crack.

That is really at the heart of Dennett's objection. God could give us evidence that is massive and undeniable. What he is saying is that the expected evidence is not the same as it would be for superman but it should be larger not smaller. Why does God not make his existence physically obvious? That is a fair question. God asks us to walk by faith and not by sight. Why does He do that? He asks us to accept Him without the kind of scientific evidence we want. That is a hard thing to do.

Still this should not be confused with a logical objection. It is not impossible that God exists and always makes belief and unbelief logically plausible options. Just like it is not impossible that God exists and asks us to live through extreme suffering. It is a hard reality to accept but it is not something we can exclude based on evidence and reason.

In fact, the evidence is quite strong that man cannot settle in either camp. One of the big arguments against theism is that people have such a strong tendency to doubt God's existence. But the same is true for atheism. People don't settle there either. Many have tried. Certainly in our day many have tried. But for most if not all the transcendent has a way of creeping back in over and over. You would think a God who does not exist would leave people alone. So if you don't want to walk by faith you are just out of luck. Whether you believe in God or not it is going to take faith.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

From Christ To Christianity

Just reading a story about Frank Turek and a talk he gave at Saddleback Church on the historicity of the resurrection. He makes some good points. Essentially arguing that the gospels do not make sense as a made up story. Just one example:
“They make no effort to give Jesus a proper burial. Who buried Jesus? Joseph of Arimethea. Who is Joseph? He is a member of the Sanhedrin. The Sanhedrin actually sent Jesus to die.”
“So, they are saying they ran away and had Joseph bury Jesus in a Jewish tomb.” Turek then asked, “Now, why would they make that up? They look bad, he looks good, they put him in a Jewish tomb. That’s the last place they would put him in if they were making up this story.”
There are many arguments along this line and they make sense. If you are going to say the apostles or anyone else made up the resurrection story then you have to find answers to these questions. Very few atheists actually even address them. So these are good arguments for every Christian to know. It shows how the Christian position actually is better thought out than the atheist position.

But then he makes a leap:
Turek concluded his lecture from the pulpit by saying there is proof that the New Testament is historically reliable and fact not fiction, therefore the entire Bible is true. He added that there should not be a reason for young people who grow up in a Christian home to fall away from the church when they go off to college.
“The bottom line here is that Jesus rose from the dead and if He rose from the dead then Christianity is true and you can trust it,” he concluded. “There is evidence that you can show beyond a reasonable doubt that Christianity is true and we don’t have to watch another generation walk away from the church.”
The trouble is that this does not logically follow. If the New Testament is historically reliable then the entire bible is true? Why is that? Because Jesus rose from the dead the book of Ephesians is inerrant? Is that supposed to be obvious? The next conclusion that "Christianity is true" is even more problematic. It is not even clear what that means. Lots of different ideas have been associated with Christianity over the centuries. Which of these are obviously true because of the resurrection? He has given a strong reasoned defense of one Christian teaching but he blows it with a completely unreasoned leap from Easter morning to Saddleback Church. So much for a well thought out belief system.

But how else can we get there? The logic has to proceed step by step. The impulse of "Christianity is true" is a good one. But we need to define that. That is where the church comes in. You can trust a visible church. You cannot trust something as vague as Christianity. But as a protestant he can't get away from the vagueness. What he means is the broad strokes of Christian doctrine are true -creation, sin, the atonement, the bible, etc. But what is on that list and what is not? Do we need a separate argument for each thing we want to put on the list? If you have one main source of divine revelation then you just need to prove that is trustworthy and you are done. But the Catholic Church is really the only candidate and he does not want to go there.

But it is worse than that. Not only do you not have a church that can make precise this vague argument of  the main doctrines of Christianity being solid. You have to undermine the whole process by denying many of the doctrines early Christians held. So your argument is not just imprecise but it is also inconsistent. For example, as Bl. John Henry Newman points out, evidence for the book of Philemon being part of the New Testament is very similar to the evidence for the prayers for the dead being part of the deposit of faith.
For instance; the first Father who expressly mentions Commemorations for the Dead in Christ ... is Tertullian, about a hundred years after St. John's death. This, it is said, is not authority early enough to prove that that Ordinance is Apostolical, though succeeding Fathers, Origen, St. Cyprian, Eusebius, St. Cyril of Jerusalem, etc., bear witness to it ever so strongly. "Errors might have crept in by that time; mistakes might have been made; Tertullian is but one man, and confessedly not sound in many of his opinions; we ought to have clearer and more decisive evidence." Well, supposing it: suppose Tertullian, a hundred years after St. John, is the first that mentions it, yet Tertullian is also the first who refers to St. Paul's Epistle to Philemon, and even he without quoting or naming it.
There is no solid reason to accept Philemon as trustworthy and not accept prayers for the dead. But protestants are forced into this kind of inconsistency over and over again.

The point is you go from a very well reasoned defense of the resurrection to a very poorly reasoned defense of Christianity. You can show that Jesus is legit but you can't show how that implies Christianity as you know it today is legit. You can say if Jesus is God then He would not let His message be lost. But the protestant historical narrative involves the gospel being lost for many centuries. Any argument you make just does not survive scrutiny.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Junk Praise

I heard a speaker talk about the book The Self Esteem Trap this weekend. It is actually written by a Buddhist but it seems to have some insights. It talks about the emphasis placed on building up children and making them feel special. She argues that it does not produce better or happier adults.
Today's children and young adults are suffering from a number of symptoms, including obsessive self-focus, restless dissatisfaction, pressures to be exceptional, unreadiness to accept responsibilities and feelings of either superiority or inferiority. According to the author, instead of contentment and positive self-regard, kids raised to believe they are extraordinary or special are more likely to be unhappy and disappointed.
This really resonated with me. People of our generation are not willing face their sin or admit their failure. Often they blame their parents for much of it because they were punished for this or for that. They think they can raise kids so much better by just being positive. It does not work. Kids are too smart. They figure out when they are getting junk praise. That is adults who would never say their effort was poor even when it obviously was poor. They handle it in different ways. None of them very good.

It goes hand in hand with religious movements of the same time. Guilt was declared to be the biggest evil. That had to be avoided even at the cost of making what the person did wrong unclear. The reality is guilt and failure are some of our strongest motivators. They need to be properly formed but they should not be removed entirely. When we try we do people a great disservice. The good news is we can't really get rid of guilt. We can raise kids to have no language to express guilt and failure but we can't raise them not to feel those things. Those are just part of being human. We can tell people they did nothing wrong and not to feel guilty but they still feel that way and then they feel additional guilt for feeling guilty. They need to learn to distinguish legitimate guilt for real sin from a phoney guilt trip someone else tries to impose on you. Then when the guilt is real they need to learn how to turn that into positive change.

However, the choice offered by this author is a false one. She says we have to choose between telling our kids they are extraordinary or telling them they are ordinary. She argues for the ordinary option. I do think Christianity gives you a way to do both. Each child is extraordinary but not in comparison with other children. They are extraordinary because they are loved by God and have access to the grace of God. Therefore they can do amazing things. They are ordinary because they sin. They struggle with the same pride, envy, anger, sloth, greed, gluttony, and lust that we all do. There is nothing special about our sin. There is something special about how God made us. Again, taking nothing away from how special God made the next kid. God has enough amazing stuff to gift us all.

So we should not give up on telling our kids they are special. But we should give up on the junk praise. The stuff we come out with just to give their self esteem a boost that really isn't accurate. Speak the truth in love. Even when it comes to the hard failures we should not protect our kids. They say you learn to ride a horse in seven falls. We need to let them take their falls and be there to bandage their knees. If we keep them from falling it will just mean a bigger and more painful fall later in life. Then who knows where they will go for comfort? They won't go to you if they think you think they are perfect.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Calvinism and Moral Evolution

David Lahti has an article on Calvinism and evolution. I understand he has a PhD in moral philosophy but works as a professor of biology. I guess not many people hire philosophers these days. 
When I told my father I was going to Cambridge to give a talk on the question of whether humans were good or bad, he looked at me sternly over his glasses. "You know what the answer is, don't you?" Total depravity and filthy rags he was hoping I would say of our nature – the first is a primary tenet of Calvinist doctrine, and the second is a phrase from Isaiah. I was about to say that we are at our root neither good nor bad, but pulled in contrary directions with the ability to make a decision. So I knew we were in for … a discussion.
I don't think Calvinism is that simple. As a Calvinist I did believe in common grace. That means that even the unsaved are capable of good though the grace of God. Still evil is emphasized as the deepest truth about ourselves. The creation story is actually different. We were created good, even very good. Then we chose evil. The corruption of evil is deep and profound but the good in us is even deeper. That is our essence. That is who we are.

He does what many do. He judges all of Christianity by the particular form of it he was raised with. This is why it is important to identify heretics. Then people know when a guy is not considered a true Christian.
From an evolutionary perspective, considering other social species on this earth, it is remarkable that a bunch of unrelated adult males can sit on a plane together for seven hours in the presence of fertile females, with everyone arriving alive and unharmed at the end of it. We could be a lot worse than we are, according to our common notions of right and wrong. We have certainly come a long way towards becoming a co-operative, sympathetic, even loving species.
This is a good point. People know there is something sacred about sex and about life. If evolution told the whole truth about us we would engage in rape and murder all the time. Scientists have frequently speculated that cave men married by means of kidnapping and rape. There is no historical evidence this ever happened. But if you follow the logic of the science that is what we should do. The fact that we don't means that science is missing an important part of the picture. They understand man only as an animal but that does not explain all the data.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Filtered Christianity

I was having a dialogue with Nathan at Called to Communion. He is a Lutheran arguing that we don't need to obey church leaders if they are bad. He does not really argue that. He mostly documents their badness and thinks that it becomes obvious that Jesus does not require us to obey them. I argue there that in Mat 23 explicitly commands His followers to obey bad leaders. 

The problem is we appoint ourselves as the judge of badness. What it does is it puts a filter on our pipeline with God. When God tries to tell us something through His leaders we allow ourselves to label the leaders bad instead of obeying. It does not seem like a big deal at first. But like all sin it gets worse and worse over time until it leads to death.

What happens is we limit God by our own imagination. God's wisdom is foolish to men. So when it comes to us we need to put aside our human assumptions and accept that His thinking is higher than ours. That is just not compatible with the idea that we can judge the messenger to be wrong. What we end up with is something human. Something that tries to make sense of all the data but it is a human attempt to do so. The first real attempt at this was by John Calvin. It was pretty impressive but it was still human. There were certain truths about God that were foolish to Calvin and so he rejected them and tried to create a system of theology that worked without them.

There have been many more attempts to make this filtered Christianity work. They all have different things they find foolish in God's revelation. They often embrace the errors of the previous generation. You end up with a man-made theology or a bunch of man-made theologies.

The big question facing us today is, "Did man invent God or did God invent man?" Is the idea of God something man created to give himself a meaning and purpose, to give himself a basis for morality, to give himself comfort when facing death or for whatever other reason? It is a fair question. They look at Christianity and see this collection of man-made theologies. What conclusion are they going to arrive at?

Many have said the bible contains a story so incredible man could not have made it up. That is true but people are so familiar with the basic story that it stops being amazing. When you get past the basic story you lose that sense of wonder if you are examining a protestant faith or, worse yet, a number of protestant faiths.

When you begin to dig into Catholicism in a charitable way. That is you are able to see it's beauty and not just look for it's faults. What becomes clear is that man could not have invented the Catholic church. The wonder does not disappear after you get past the basic story. It just gets more amazing. It is unfiltered Christianity. What happens when you let God tell you things you know are foolish.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Follow Your Heart

The doctrine of invincible ignorance says that a sin is not a mortal sin if a person is ignorant of the sinfulness of the act through no fault of their own. There are two ways people run with this. One is the charitable way. We are to refrain declaring people to be in hell or on the road to hell because they have committed an act that is gravely immoral. This doctrine says we cannot know that unless we know the person's conscience and are qualified to judge it. Well we don't and we aren't. So we should stick to teaching the truth about gravely immoral acts and let the individual judge for themselves whether they are guilty of such sin and on the road to hell. Only their judgement of their own soul leads to repentance anyway.

But we don't just have the danger of judging someone guilty. We also have the danger of judging someone innocent. That can be a bigger danger in our tolerant and affirming culture. What happens is we assure people that although the church says what they are doing is wrong and it involves grave matter that they won't go to hell if their heart is in the right place. That might be technically true but it a very dangerous thing to teach. How can somebody know if their heart is in the right place?

We have many examples in scripture where somebody was telling themselves they were doing right and God judges them to be sinning gravely. One that comes to my mind now is from 1 Sam 15. Saul says explicitly, "I have carried out the LORD’s instructions" with respect to the Amalekites. Even after Samuel points out the fact that sheep that he was supposed to kill are still alive he repeats, "But I did obey the LORD." So he was telling himself he was being obedient. If you told him to not worry as long as his heart was in the right place he would have been reassured by that. But it would have been a false assurance. Samuel gives him the true word of God and it is not pleasant.

So the "follow your heart" gospel is not true. We are expected to obey God's word even when our heart finds it difficult. That is what it means to surrender your heart to God. It is precisely what the road to heaven is all about. So we can't present the gospel in such a way that these hard issues seem like optional extras. They are not. That is why the church says they are grave matter. They can cost a person their eternal soul. People have a right to be told that.

Two places where this comes up a lot is dealing with protestants and dealing with gays. They are both times where we run into people that seem to be good Christians except for one thing. But that one thing is a serious sin and seems quite unlikely to change. You don't know their heart. You don't know whether they are ignorant of God's true will for their lives or if they know and are just rationalizing their disobedience. But we tend to make assumptions. I tend to be quick to assume the protestant is invincibly ignorant. Not so much for the gay person. That comes from my own experience. I have no trouble imagining somebody wanting to serve God and not thinking even for one second that God wants him to become Catholic. I went to mass with my wife every week for years before that thought crossed my mind. So I know how slow that truth can be to penetrate. A gay person? I have trouble getting my mind around the idea that someone might not know that is wrong. I know people say it. I just have trouble believing it.

The biggest problem is this doctrine gets used by liberal teachers to finesse around unpopular church teachings. Yes, it says that in the catechism but if your conscience is clear you are OK. Just follow your heart. But you need to judge your heart against God's word. Don't avoid the parts of God's word that you are afraid will convict you of sin. Seek them out. Even if they tear your apart inside. Follow God's heart.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Why Mark Galli Isn't Converting (Yet!)

Mark Galli wrote an interesting article on CT about whether evangelicals should become Catholic:
On a recent trip to Durham, North Carolina, I was asked, "What do you make of all the evangelicals converting to Roman Catholicism?" What immediately came to mind was two recent and well-known conversions of evangelical scholars: Christian Smith, sociologist at Notre Dame, and Francis Beckwith, who at one time was president of the Evangelical Theological Society. Other well-known conversions to Catholicism in my generation—by men whose writings have been important in my intellectual growth—include the late Richard John Neuhaus and Robert Wilken (not from evangelicalism as such, but from Lutheranism).
These are not minds to trifle with! We're talking about men who were and are at the top of their intellectual games, in sociology, theology, and church history. And none of their motives are to be questioned. When it comes to momentous conversions, we usually don't know our own deepest motives. These are often discovered only long after the fact, or maybe never (at least not until we find ourselves in the presence of our Lord—Ah, so that's what I was doing!).
What I can comment on is the tug of Catholicism on the evangelical heart. Because it is a tug that I must admit has pulled at me and many close friends. But there are tugs and there are tugs. Some tugs come from the Holy Spirit, and these naturally are not to be criticized! But other tugs deserve a little scrutiny.
I find this so refreshing. So many times you see protestants psycho-analyzing Catholic converts. Saying they were not real protestants. Questioning their honesty and/or intelligence.  He does not go there. He can only comment on his own heart. That is all he tries to do.

On the other hand he leaves the reasons these men have given for their conversion behind as well. You don't want to question the man but you want to respond to the argument. He does neither. He just gives his own reasons for not becoming Catholic.
The Holy Spirit set the pattern for what church would be like at the day of Pentecost. And it looked like this: Massive confusion. So much confusion that when onlookers tried to describe it, they called it a drunken party (Acts 2:13). 
He starts his defense with a very strange reading of the Pentecost account. There is a leap he makes that if the Holy Spirit is in all men and women that somehow a magisterium is not needed. I don't think that is stated and I don't think that is obvious. In fact, the opposite is implied. Peter stands up and calms the crowd and exercises his teaching office. So confusion is OK but not only confusion. There is a time for clarity.
Reading through Acts and the New Testament letters, we see a radical leveling in the early church; all manner of people were speaking in the name of God. We find arguments about whose baptism counted, what Jewish laws needed to be obeyed, whether the Second Coming was still coming, whether to participate in civil religion, and so on. Paul and Peter and John used their authority as apostles to try to settle disputes, though they mostly argued from Scripture or the teachings of Jesus. But even after they spoke or wrote, the church had to go through a period of discernment to determine what the Holy Spirit was, in fact, teaching the church.
This is just nonsense. There is no radical leveling of the church. The apostles are in charge. When they are challenged that is seen as a challenge to God. Did they argue from scripture? Sure. But not just as one opinion among many. What about the "teachings of Jesus?" That is called tradition. Sacred Tradition is just the teachings of Jesus given to the church and protected by the Holy Spirit. Protestants tend to think that if it comes from Jesus it does not count as tradition. It does not count as a tradition of men. But Sacred Tradition is the opposite. It only counts if it comes from Jesus. That is the very definition of it.
Many matters took decades, if not generations, to settle out—including the matter of which writings were to be included in the canon to help settle these matters! In other words, there was no magisterium in the early church, but only Christians who lived and argued together at the prodding of the Holy Spirit. Yes, there were bishops and councils who attempted to settle disputes that arose, but many of those bishops were simply wrong on key points, and many of the councils had to be reversed by another council. The full sweep of church history suggests that the Holy Spirit has, in fact, led us into all truth through no other way than men and women, slave and free, Jew and Gentile wrestling with one another about whatever issue is at hand until, in the Spirit's good time, a consensus emerges.
There was no magisterium but there were bishops and councils? Who called those councils? The Bishop of Rome. Was he just another Christian with a bible to be argued with? How did they arrive at answers? Yes there were a lot of arguments but when they got to a place of unity and put an issue behind them how did they do that? What was the thing that worked? It was the councils and the pope. Without their authority issues like the trinity and the cannon of scripture simply would never have been settled. He says "in the Spirit's good time, a consensus emerges" but it never emerges in a way that would be possible within protestantism.

He says "many of the councils had to be reversed by another council." I am not sure what he means. There are councils and then there are ecumenical councils. If he means smaller councils and individual bishops needed to be corrected by ecumenical councils and the pope then he is right. But that does not describe chaos. That describes hierarchy. No ecumenical council recognized by the pope has ever been reversed. If he is claiming that is not true he should give an example.
We mustn't forget that for a couple of hundred years, most Christians were not Trinitarians in the way we understand the Trinity today, but the Holy Spirit slowly led the church into a fully Trinitarian faith. At one time, Arianism was the majority option in the church, and yet the Holy Spirit led the church to reject that heresy and reaffirm the full divinity of Christ.
Again I have to ask how? How did we get from a place where most Christians were not Trinitarians to a fully Trinitarian faith? The Holy Spirit? Sure. What means did the Holy Spirit use? Sometimes you can say wait for the Holy Spirit but the Holy Spirit might be waiting for you to stop sinning. In this case it is the sin of schism.
At another time, huge segments of the church were bound to the chains of works righteousness before the Holy Spirit ignited the Reformation. And on it goes. 
The Holy Spirit wanted a reformation but that is not what happened. The so-called reformers actually left the church rather than reforming it. The church was reformed a bit later. It was needed. But the reformation removed protestants from some of the basic tools the Holy Spirit uses to lead and purify and unify the church. The sacraments and the magisterium.
When we're in the middle of one of these intractable issues, the church will seem like it is going to collapse under the weight of confusion and disagreement. But it hasn't so far, and we're assured it never will. The common critique of evangelicalism is that "the center will not hold." Bah. Humbug. Of course the center will hold, because at the center is not a doctrine, nor some human authority figure, nor a complete and inerrant statement of faith. There is only the Center, Jesus Christ. We don't need a magisterium. We already have a Lord, who told us that not even the gates of Hades (whose landlord loves to sows confusion in the church!) will prevail against the church.
The truth is the center will not hold. The center is not Jesus. That is just arrogant to say Jesus must be at the center of my faith community because it is mine.I am saying that as someone who held exactly that arrogant position for a long time. Jesus says I will build My church and the gates of hell will not prevail. You can't just build any church and apply the same promises to it. It is Jesus' church that the promises apply to. This strange beast known as the American evangelical movement is not it. Can it withstand the onslaught of modernism? I don't think so. The storm is coming and only the house built on the rock will stand.

We need to realize that it is not the Holy Spirit or the magisterium. It is both. Jesus said the Holy Spirit would lead them into all truth but He made that promise to the disciples not to the crowds. Those disciples became apostles and those apostles ordained bishops but the promise is still there.The Holy Spirit frequently works through the magisterium to make truth clear. He can't teach us definitive truth unless we can know objectively one voice that is His. The hard part for me was accepting that such a voice might not be evangelical at all.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Heretics Helping the Poor

Catholic charities have often struggled with the question of how much of the Catholic faith does one have to believe in order to be active in ministry. Should the answer be different for teaching and sacramental ministries than it is for caring and sharing ministries? Does it matter if you are pro-choice if you are delivering food hampers to poor families for St Vincent de Paul? There is a chance they will grow in their faith and become more orthodox as they see the faith in action. That is one theory. In many places it works the opposite way. The caring and sharing ministries become bastions of liberal theology. Pope Benedict has said this is a problem. We need to bring the fullness of truth to the poor and not just material help. Only that can affirm their human dignity in a deep enough way to produce a real change of heart.

What we are seeing now is the inverse if this. Secularists are demanding doctrinal purity of anyone involved in secular ministry. That is why Catholic charities are being denied the right to do adoptions or to get government money to help the poor. We don't subscribe to the secular doctrine of being pro-choice and pro-gay marriage. It turns out that they are more zealous about being secular than we are about being Catholic. So if you are not a member of the secularist faith then you cannot be involved in implementing any government programs.

That would be fair except for two things. One is they don't say pro-life and pro-traditional marriage people are immoral. If Obama would get on national TV and declare ex cathedra that the 54% of Americans that identify as pro-life are immoral people and therefore unfit for government service then that would make sense. We could debate and vote on such a notion. But they don't do that. It is easy to see why. Here is some of what he said about abortion at Notre Dame:
Let’s honor the conscience of those who disagree with abortion, and draft a sensible conscience clause, and make sure that all of our health-care policies are grounded not only in sound science but also in clear ethics, as well as respect for the equality of women.
If you demand doctrinal purity among government agents you need to be able to say clearly what you are doing and why. Otherwise you might end up saying one thing and doing another.

The second issue I have is that it is not limited to government programs. Especially in health care it seems to include everyone regardless of whether they are taking government money or not. That amounts to the establishment of a state religion. I know they deny secularism is a religion but if it pushes out other religions that contradict it then what is the difference. Could the US become officially atheist and say it is OK under the non-establishment clause because atheism isn't a religion? How is secularism different? In many ways it is just repackaged atheism. So saying you have to be a secularist to run a hospital or to offer health insurance or to practice obstetrics that is state-sponsored religion. 

In the short term many of these things will benefit the church. Catholic institutions will need to ask whether they really care about their Catholicism. Many are already saying No. For example the Catholic adoption agency in Illinois re-created itself as a secular adoption agency and solved the problem. I think that is good for the church. Agencies that are bastions of liberal theology should probably just admit they don't believe in anything close to Catholicism. Some will go the other way and re-affirm their Catholic identity and rediscover what that means. I see that all as positive.

The other positive is that many Catholics will wake up and discover where secularism is going. It is out to destroy Christianity. Many Christians don't grasp that. The Catholic bishops understand that a lot better now than they did just a few years ago. As we go down this road the conflict will become harder and harder to ignore. This is good. The spiritual danger is not in fighting and losing. It is in not fighting.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Two Questions About Certainty

The one thing that always impresses me about protestants and atheists is how sure they are of themselves. They might not provide a good argument but they sure leave the impression that there is a convincing one lurking somewhere. Sometimes that is called the phantom argument fallacy. That is acting like there is an iron clad proof for something but never actually giving it. You run into this a lot in religious discussions. People don't want to take the time to wade through all the evidence. Still they don't want to say they are unsure or that they accepted a position based on a few superficial arguments.

The reality is that is what happens. Nobody will admit it but it is true. I know I would never have admitted it as a protestant. That I never really gave all the non-Calvinist forms of Christianity a fair hearing. I had my proof texts and I was confident. I knew the truth. I was not rude like some protestants but it took me a long time to even start to doubt that it was true. Even when I could see the philosophical foundations were weak. Even when I could not find a principled difference between my position and those I considered obviously wrong. Still I was sure Calvinism was very close to the truth.

So I asked myself two questions. The first was, how does that happen? How do you get people so sure without actually giving them solid reasons for being sure? Is it something about biblical exegesis? That trying to get truth from the bible without sacred tradition is going to produce many contradictory doctrines but it is also going to produce camps with rock solid certainty about the truth of each of those doctrines. Is it the nature of human reason and religion? That we need certainty and therefore our minds manufacture it. So we declare controversies to be settled. We pretend it is a matter of faith but the object of our faith is not God or even the scriptures. It is ourselves. It is the discernment of our faith community. This is why you can have this phenomenon among atheists. They can have faith in themselves and in their fellow atheists just as much as Calvinists can.

The second question I asked was, is it a good thing? Should I wish Catholics could be as sure of themselves as protestants and atheists. Sure some Catholics have a lot of confidence but I don't see the phantom argument thing happening. Most of them are converts and they have sweated the details. That is a different kind of confidence. But should we have faith in ourselves and our fellow Catholics? Sort of. The Church is a proper object of our faith. So if our faith is in the Church and not some fringe element within the Church then it is healthy. Faith in the church is ultimately faith in God and the promises He has made regarding the Church.

Somehow our legitimate faith in the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church often pales in comparison to a Protestant's or atheist's faith in his community of human tradition. Why is that? When the church teaches something we have very good reason to believe there is a solid argument backing it up even if we don't know that argument very well. Yet most Catholics don't act like they expect the Church's explanation to make sense. They are afraid. They think the atheists and the protestants probably have better arguments. They often don't want to convert but they have lost their faith anyway. By not believing the Catholic doctrine is logical and defensible they are essentially doubting it's truth. You even hear talk about religion being true in a different way. That is nonsense. There is only one kind of true. The kind that stands up to any questioning and not only survives but shines. Do you believe the Catholic church has that or do you not? If you do then act like it. Assure people answers are there. Learn how to find them when you need to find them. Do not be ashamed of the gospel. It is the power of God for our salvation.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Why Did You Become Catholic?

Converts get asked that a lot. The answer is very hard.  Some people try and write 50 reasons why I became Catholic. Some people have blogs where all they write on is the question of why they became Catholic. I can understand that. I wonder about people who can give one reason they became Catholic. It could be complex reason that takes a long time to explain. Like "Because it is true" or "To get closer to Jesus". If it is a simple reason it is probably not a great reason.

The reality is people join protestant churches for a lot of simple reasons. They like the pastor. One particular doctrine appeals to them.  They have a great youth program for their kids. Their worship experience is awesome. Traditional denominational ties have grown weaker and many protestants go church shopping. They look for a spiritual home much the same way they would look for a physical home. They take it seriously but they balance different considerations. You can't have everything. You need to choose something so you do.

So when a protestants asks why you became Catholic your first task is to respectfully communicate that this choice was not like that. That is was simple and yet very complex. That it involved none of those things yet it involved all of them. The simple explanations often sound insulting to protestants. Because I want true doctrine and true sacraments. Because I want to stop committing the sin of schism. The point is the reasons are very serious and a corollary of that is that your choice not to be Catholic is also a very serious one. It is a little bit like when someone asks "How are you?" Do they really want to know? Most of the time they don't.

Mat 6:33 says, "But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well." I think that principle makes this question harder as well. By seeking God's kingdom we get everything we wanted in a church when we were protestant:
  • The right pastor? We have pastor with real authority from God to teach, govern, and perform sacraments in His name. 
  • Powerful worship? The mass is the highest for of worship. Offering the sacrifice of Jesus' body and blood for our sins. 
  • A shared story. Protestants are often bonded by similar history. I grew up with a church full of dutch Calvinists who's family immigrated after the WWII. But Catholics have the whole story of salvation history to share.
  • A solid foundation for our children. Where else can you find a church that you know will be teaching the true gospel in a generation or two or three?
  • Strong social action. Not every church is actively caring for the poor. Often protestants that have a heart for the poor find a church that focuses on that. The Catholic church has  that as a big part of her identity.
  • Strong on life and marriage issues. 
  • Vibrant spiritual community. This seems to be absent at first. We tend to judge people who have different spiritual gifts and devotions quite harshly until we get to know them. But difference is where the blessing is. 
  • Biblical. No church that I know of reads as much scripture together as the catholic church does. Especially if you go to daily mass. 
  • Spiritual gifts. When I was protestant that was big for a lot of Christians. Are miracles occurring? Is the gift of prophecy active? But none of those churches could touch the Catholic Church for the sheer number of miraculous stories that were attested by solid evidence.

The list could go on and on. If you get beyond the superficial things then the Catholic church becomes the best from almost any perspective you can think of. That is what you would expect. A supernatural church will be different from a natural church. It will ignore some things that consume natural churches. But in the ways that are really important it will be better. 

So why did I become Catholic? Because the Catholic Church has everything. Because the Catholic Church has the one thing that is needed. The only thing it might be missing is you! 

Monday, November 7, 2011

Christian Fanatics

Dan Delzell has an article on The Christian Post called How Christians Can Avoid Tangents and Fanaticism .
Think of it this way. Every Christian has opinions on many secondary areas of doctrine and practice. I am talking about things that are not essential for salvation. This is the level I call "Convictions." Picture it being the center circle of several concentric circles. At this level, Christians differ from one another on a multitude of perspectives and practices. It doesn't change the fact that every believer, regardless of his other convictions, is saved by grace through faith in Christ alone. We are one in Christ through the blood that He shed to make us His own. We are family forever.
This sounds reasonable but he does not give any examples. Why not? One reason is that there is not agreement on what is a secondary doctrine and what is "essential for salvation." For example, some Christians get excited about speaking in tongues. I was there once. Most would see this as a good example of an issue Christians can become fanatical about. But there are also many Christians and some fairly large churches that teach that speaking in tongues is essential for salvation. So if you make that your example your whole point will get sidetracked by a discussion about whether that teaching is true or not. Guess what? Almost any example you give presents the same problem. End times prophecy, political activism on the left or the right, anti-Catholicism, no matter what you chose you will get somebody saying it is not a secondary doctrine.

So he is assuming people can clearly discern whether something is primary or secondary when that is precisely what Christian fanatics cannot do. They need help. Is their church going to help them? Often the church is part of the problem. They have hooked up with a strange pastor who seems quite holy but has a pet issue he talks about way too much.

Pastor Delzell analyzes this in terms of everything's relationship to the center. He imagines concentric circles and later defines tangents from those. But the assumption is everybody knows where the center is. They don't. Most think they know. But they can also be convinced they have missed some central truth of Christianity. How often do books make a claim that they have discovered some key principle of Christianity that has been missed up until now? Even this very article has a hint of it:
Brother in Christ. Sister in Christ. Please sit down when you have some time and prayerfully meditate upon Romans 14. It will change your life. It will change our churches. It will lead to renewal in our fellowship with others. If you and I as Christians think that somehow we are above or beyond this sinful tendency toward tangents and fanaticism, we are living in denial and we have only deceived ourselves. There is a beautiful saying that goes like this: "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity."
Romans 14 talks about giving other Christians freedom in one non-essential area, the eating of meat sacrificed to idols. The point is Paul has the authority required to declare this matter to be non-essential. In 1 Cor 5 he gives some very different instructions about a matter of sexual immorality. Again he has the authority to decide that this matter is much more serious. The question is who has that authority today? If it is yourself or someone of your own choosing then you are assuming you are "above or beyond this sinful tendency toward tangents and fanaticism." It needs to be someone ordained to speak for God the same way Paul was ordained. The amazing thing is God provides us those leaders today.

If you want an example of how this should work look at what Cardinal O'Connor said
Indeed, on this current occasion I have repeated publicly what I have said before and mean, with every fiber of my being: "If anyone has an urge to kill an abortionist, kill me instead." That's not a grandstand play. I am prepared to die if my death can save the life of another.
The killers of abortionists are often cited as a typical example of a Christian fanatic. If they accepted leadership from men like Cardinal O'Connor then that fanaticism would not happen.