Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Blog Break

Lent is here again. It is time to give up blogging until Easter.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Check Your Brains at the Door?

Does argument produce faith? Not directly. Things we believe as a result of argument are not matters of faith. But arguments can reduce fear. One fear many modern people have if that stepping out in faith is going to require us to ignore solid rational argument that go against our faith. Atheists worry that if they accept Christianity they will be forced to give pathetic faith responses to solid scientific arguments. Protestants worry if they become catholic they will be forced to give pathetic traditional responses to solid biblical arguments. The fear is the same. There are going to be a lot of questions. I now approach these questions using reason and I can follow the evidence where ever it leads. If I accept some truth based on faith I am creating a rational no fly zone.

One thing that helps with this fear is to encounter people who have embraced the faith and still show strong reasoning skills. Not so much to argue the truth of their position but to demonstrate how reason can be empowered by faith and not destroyed by faith. That you are not putting your mind in neutral and just accepting what the church tells you to accept but that you are able to see further once you stand on the shoulders of giants. The key thing is the giant shoulders are trustworthy. You don't spend all your time wondering how you can accept all this dogma. Like you got some huge stilts and you expect to fall at any moment. But rather you have arrived on higher ground and you can explore and build like could never before. There is no fear of falling because you have come to believe what you have accepted is rock solid truth.

So when I lurked around Dave Armstrong's blog or read Scott Hahn's books it was just as important to see Catholics engaging in solid biblical discussions as it was to see them prove their thesis. The marriage of faith and reason made the Catholic church more attractive than to say they were right on one particular doctrine. This was what Christianity should be. Not bogged down in endless doctrinal disputes that never gave you a satisfying answer but going deeper and deeper into the mysteries of the faith and being awestruck by it's beauty.

We need to be that for atheists too. Not to prove to them that the supernatural exists. Rather we need to make want to believe because they can see in us how faith makes a person fully alive. That all that is good about atheism, including their love for reason and science, can be even more fully lived out as a Christian. But we need to make that point by living it rather than by arguing it. This is why so many atheists have been converted by CS Lewis. Not because the liar, lunatic, lord argument is unanswerable. But because they respect a guy who fights his corner with those kinds of arguments. They could see themselves being a Christian like that.

Often rational people only encounter people who have a very simple faith. They respect their faith but they can't adopt their faith. I know I could never have a simple faith. I ask to many questions. But many don't know any other kind. Partly it is because fewer and fewer people are willing to teach a more intellectual faith. Churches, including many Catholic parishes, have dumbed down the faith.So solid thinking Catholics or even Christians are hard to find. Even when you seek out religious people you can go a long time before you find one that is the least bit impressive in defending his faith. So one can conclude that Catholics, or Christians, are just a pathetic lot of know-nothings.

But the truth is worse than they imagine. The truth is they are but they should not be. People are ignorant of their own faith because they don't live their faith. If we believe God is important then we should treat theology as the queen of the sciences. We don't because we lack faith and we lack justice. We don't give God the intellectual effort He is due. So society is merely being logical in expecting intelligent believers to be able to articulate God's truth. When they can't they conclude that God's truth is simply not all that impressive. They don't dare guess that so many bright Catholics go to mass week after week and sit on the very edge of the most impressive truth in the world yet never bother to learn it.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

When God Gets Too Close For Comfort

The more I think about the idea that everyone goes to heaven the more I think it is rooted in a misunderstanding of what heaven is. That misunderstanding leads us to think certain aspects of the Christian life are unimportant. Many people think of heaven as some abstract bliss. There will be streets paved with gold and you will be able to fly and the music will be great and everyone will be dressed in white or naked. If you think about heaven that way then God would be cruel to not let everyone in. It would be like taking half your kids to Disneyland and leaving the rest home to work in the salt mines.

But heaven is not like that. Heaven is presented to us as intimate union with God. Very few people think about being close to God when they think of heaven. That is just not the desire of their heart. Often that is rooted in a misunderstanding of who God is. Often that flows from a preoccupation with worldly pleasures. A drug addict will think of heaven as the ultimate high. A prideful person might think of heaven as the ultimate self-centered experience. We don't understand that getting these sins out of our lives is a prerequisite for heaven. Embracing our sin more fully and more permanently is what hell is about.

This finds its way into our spirituality as well. One of the things modern people want to exclude from their spiritual life is their sexuality. We want a relationship with God but we don't want it to effect our private lives. We don't understand what kind of relationship God wants. He wants intimacy. He wants to get personal and private. People don't appreciate that so they can't understand why their religion should effect what happens in their bedroom. So much teaching explains our relationship with God as a legal arrangement or maybe a financial debt paid. Those analogies work to a point but they miss the intimacy aspect. We are not comfortable with the image of marriage, sex, and procreation as an analogy for our relationship with God. The mystics were comfortable with it. The bible is comfortable with it. But we don't want God that close. Even small sins look so bad when God comes that close. This is why Mary had to be sinless.

The sacramental life is another area that is effected by this. We don't understand why anyone would want to go to mass every week. You get saved and you learn a few things but every week is a bit much. After a while it seems like such a waste of time. But if we show up to be with our beloved God then once a week seems like nothing. This is why the church sets it as a minimum. If we find it a lot then we are not getting what kind of relationship we are meant to have. We are to long for God as the deer pants for the water.

Lent can be like that too. Why focus so much on the death of Jesus? Why do extra penance and prayers? If we have a barrier up, if we let God come so far and no further then all this death talk will sound strange. It presupposes a relationship with no boundaries. To be made ready for heaven we need to die. Not just in an abstract spiritual way but in a very personal and painful way. We need to do it because God is worth it. We need to really believe that intimacy with God is the pearl of great price. It is the desire that explains all other desires. It is heaven.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Bell and Hell

There are fears that Rob Bell's new book will endorse the heresy of universalism. One of the fears is the number of cute plays on words we will get in the blog post titles! But seriously, if this is true, it is sad but not that unexpected. I am just catching up with Brian McLaren making some of his suspected liberalism more explicit. Not a surprise but sad. I know my siblings and parents, many of whom are protestant pastors, have read both these guys. I worry they and many others might be led astray. But the doctrine of hell is difficult. Protestants, especially those who love to challenge even protestant tradition, will have a tendency to reject difficult truths.

Hell is the most difficult of truths. It is a doctrine that needs to offend us. It offends God and so if we are godly it will offend us as well. Man is simply not meant to be in eternal separation from God. He cannot find the deep joy that he craves apart from God. He cannot be truly loved. He cannot know peace. He cannot control the desires of his flesh. Yet he will be rational enough to realize the hopelessness of his situation. It is a terrible situation because we were made for heaven. So it gives us every reason to want to go to heaven.

But as offensive as hell is the doctrine of universalism is more offensive. Why? Because it makes God into a rapist. It says that God will force intimacy with Himself on even the most god-hating of persons. That those who have not shown any desire to be near God and have avoided situations where His presence is most clearly felt will be compelled to be closer to Him than we can imagine and to remain there forever. This would include thought control at an incredibly low level. Remember in heaven nobody is even allowed to sin at a thought level so God would have to completely remove pretty much all the thought patterns of his earthly life. All of his god hating thoughts would be replaced with god-loving thoughts. Not even the smallest allowance could be made to preserve his human dignity or retain his identity. It would all have to go despite the fact that he had never show even the least desire to be holy. Holiness would be forced upon him.

Given these two offensive choices, God chooses hell. God continues to love those in hell.There are often references made to God eternally torturing those in hell. He doesn't do that. He lets people suffer the natural consequences of their choice. So they do suffer but God does not initiate the suffering. God does do that in purgatory. He is purifying those in purgatory which does involve great suffering directly initiated by God. That could accurately be described as torture but it is for a purpose and it is finite. Those that reject purgatory are forced to apply biblical descriptions like those found in Lk 16:19-31 to hell and arrive at a God who tortures eternally and without purpose. This is the source of many anti-Christian rants.

Actually many might find hell to be like their image of heaven is. For example, Muslims talk about heaven involving endless sex with many beautiful women. I have no trouble believing that would happen in hell. They would still desire a one flesh union and a total gift of self. That would not happen. So they would be trapped in relationships where men and women use and abuse each other. They would know they were made for something better and have no hope of getting there. That is the agony of hell. But it is what many have chosen and their choice will be honored.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Disappearing Distinctions

Over at Called to Communion there is an ongoing discussion over whether there is a distinction between Solo Sciptura and Sola Scriptura. Keith Mathison has observed that Catholics seem unable to see the distinction but protestants are well able to see it. He has tried to, as charitably as possible, suggest that there is something about Catholicism that poisons the mind and makes it incapable of seeing obvious distinctions. But there is another possibility that the Catholics have been too charitable to suggest. That maybe it is sin.

We all understand how we make distinctions between sins we commit and sins other people commit. They are not logically coherent distinctions. They are rooted in pride. I drink and occasionally I overdo it but I am not like so and so. He has a real problem. I swear once in a while when I really get mad but I am not like the guys at work. They totally disrespect holy things.

We do this all the time. We look at our own sin and we look at somebody else who commits the same sin with a bit more frequency and intensity and we can't see ourselves. I don't do that. That is so wrong. What I do is different. Sure it is. But is there a principled difference? Is there really a moral line they have crossed and you have not or is it just a matter of degree?

One of the real tests for that kind of thinking is to get advise from fellow Christians who don't struggle as much with that sin. Those Christians in the same boat as you will see the same distinctions. But if those who are not personally involved don't see any principled distinction then the odds are you have imagined one to rationalize your own behavior.

So it is with the sin of dissenting from church teachings. People who do it in a limited way see a huge difference between what they do and those that have drifted off into a faith that is nothing like historical Christianity. What you are seeing there is exactly what you would expect. People who are engaging in the sin look at those who have taken the same sin a little further and cannot see themselves. Certainly what I do is very different from what a Jehovah's Witness does. There must be some principled difference. The truth of it is hard to face.

Then they can't explain why orthodox Catholics can't see the difference. Because they are precisely those Christians who are not struggling so much with this sin. They have no personal pride to protect so they can analyze the situation accurately.

So if you see dissent from the church as sin then everything is quite explainable. You don't have to come up with a new class of mental defect as Mathison seems to be doing. People who are in sin tend to rationalize the sin. That is a well understood human defect. So there is no surprise that Mathison and his fellow protestants would see distinctions where there are none. That those distinctions would exonerate their behavior while condemning similar behavior in others. People do that with every sin. Smart people are actually more prone to do it. They also tend to get together and rationalize as a group so they can convince each other how strong their position is. There is nothing new or remarkable about that.

What is new and remarkable to protestants is to view all this scholarship and theological argument as rationalization for sin. For them this is the height of revelation. Solid reformed thinkers analyzing a problem in the light of scripture. That is where truth comes from. Sure they recognize them as fallible but just barely. They are the best minds in the reformed world so a lot is expected from them. To think that sin can skew their thinking as a group is hard to wrap your mind around.