Sunday, May 29, 2011

First Communion

We had 105 kids make their first communion in our parish today. The priest talked about communion being a family meal and Jesus coming into their hearts. That is all good and important stuff to learn. But their is another side that gets pretty much ignored. The bit about communion being a sacrifice. I can get why. These kids are grade 2 and they looked very cute all dressed up. For you to explain the Eucharist as sacrifice you would need to make them understand sin. I mean if we don't get that we are sinners then why are we making sacrifices in the first place? But we don't just need to see ourselves as sinners but as big sinners. We need a sacrifice that is bigger than any human sacrifice could be. Can we tell 8 year-old kids that their sin is that bad? Do we really believe our sin is that bad? We do and we don't.

I know as a child I understood sin and atonement. I did bad things and I was punished and that made things right. But then I became a teenager and my sins got worse. There was a point where there was no punishment my parents could give that was bad enough to make up for the things I did. That was when the atoning sacrifice of Jesus became real to me. Of course, as a protestant, I did not connect it with the Lord's Supper at all. But if I had it might have been powerful for me to understand that my real sins needed a real sacrifice offered for me at mass by the priest. Not just an abstract atonement many years ago for the sins of the world but Jesus' body and blood presented today for my sins.

But how old do you have to be to get that? For me it would have been early teens. No way I understood my sins that well when I was 8. We understand that. Our parish does not recommend kids go to first confession until grade 4. So they know in grade 2 they are not ready to seriously contemplate their sin and the way it effects their relationship with God. So they teach them about the mass as a holy family meal but largely skip the idea of the mass as sacrifice. I remember a talk by Bishop Sample saying that if you don't understand the mass as sacrifice you don't understand the mass at all. Is that really true? Should we simply not have kids at communion until they can understand their personal need for atonement before God?

I wonder how many ever get it. How many ever see their sins being atoned for by Jesus body and blood being presented to God on the altar by the priest as a sacrifice during the mass? I don't have any statistics but my gut feeling is many don't. We need to teach it better. Part of that is actual catechism instruction and part of it is liturgical practice as well. What we believe happens in a Sunday morning mass is radically different from what protestant believe happens in a Sunday morning service. We need to explain that and we need to change the way we do things to reflect that as well. I am not sure we do either well.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Oprah and the Big Questions of Life

Why the big fuss over her? She seems perfect for our time. She talks about things that are real and important. Quite often she makes you feel like you have learned something true about humanity. But after 25 years what has she learned? I read a number of reflections on Oprah's ideas and nobody seems to have arrived at anything. Everyone seems sure they are richer for having encountered her but nobody can say exactly what gem of spiritual truth she has left them with. Something we didn't already know or know as well without her.

This is why she is so perfect for our time. Modern society is marked by fear of the big questions in life. What is the meaning of life? Where did we come from and where are we going? How do we know what is really good and true and noble and praiseworthy? These are scary questions because the answers can change your life a lot. Modern man loves to play the skeptic with anyone trying to answer the questions. This is good. You don't want to order your life around an answer without scrutinizing it. But there is such a fear of making a mistake that the analyzing and scrutinizing never stops. Oprah is good at that. After 25 years she has taken us exactly nowhere. She has investigated every possible answer but settled on none.

It is like a man who moves from woman to woman. Dates a few times but never gets serious with anyone. At a superficial level such a man seems enviable. Especially if the women are beautiful. Our imaginations can make us sure he is having the most amazing life. It could certainly make for a popular TV show. But is that happiness? If after 25 years he still has not developed any sort of emotional intimacy with any woman should we really be jealous? Isn't the adventure of sharing a life together better than 1000 first dates? It is too personal to put on TV but the best things in life are.

Oprah is like that for spirituality. She can't be compared to the great spiritual thinkers because they all taught something. They settled on one answer to life's big questions and developed a deep intimacy with it. That has blessed the world with great wisdom. Oprah has done nothing of the sort. We would not pay much attention to her if she did. She has been on 1000 first dates with interesting world and life views. They make for good TV. We imagine that she was touched deeply and positively. But mostly she just went on the the next one.

Oprah's modus operandi is the very opposite of the liar, lord, lunatic argument of CS Lewis. She was about damning things with faint praise. Saying nice things about Jesus but refusing to bow down to Him as Lord. Then moving on the Buddha and doing the same. Not really taking seriously the claims of Christ and His church. Atheists are a bit more honest in saying that if Christianity is wrong about Jesus and the bible it is a huge error. Conversely if Christianity is right then atheism is a huge error. But Oprah's position and modern society's position is the one that makes no sense. To pretend neither is really right or wrong. That we can embrace both whenever we like and it is all good.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Answers and Courage

Over at Whispers in Loggia Rocco highlights the winner of the Notre Dame Laetare medal. It is a nun from his native Philadelphia named Sr Mary Scullion. The quote he selected as his title was “Our faith does not give us answers; it gives us courage.” That struck me as very sad. More than sad. Almost evil. This sister is highly respected for her service to the poor. That is awesome. That service gives her a platform. Speaking at Notre Dame's commencement is just one such opportunity she has to be heard. But why use that platform to declare your faith to be bankrupt of truth? That it is useful for motivation but not so much for knowing anything? Does she believe that? Not really. She talks about the dignity of the human person about being drawn toward mercy, compassion, and justice. I don't think she wonders if those things are really true. Not the way she lives her life around them. But she has bought into the idea that rejecting dogma is a virtue. Unfortunately places like Notre Dame embrace that school of thought as well.

The trouble is that motivation by itself is useless. The Muslims who drove planes into the World Trade Center were motivated. Their problem was not that they lacked courage but that they lacked answers. They had dogma but they had wrong dogma. People will look for truth. If the church refuses to give it to them they will find it somewhere else. Secular people don't refuse to give answers. Evangelicals don't have a problem being sure of themselves. The Catholic church claims the authority to be able to define dogma that secularists and evangelicals deny. Yet it is often the Catholics who get all timid and start saying things like their faith does not provide any answers. Why is that?

Pope Benedict once said there was a danger in serving the poor. When Jesus becomes an instrument for serving the poor He becomes less than God. That Jesus is no longer the goal but social justice is the goal. What he said is that when that happens you not only lose Jesus but you fail at true social justice as well. Practically speaking it means that Catholics working with the poor want to avoid the church's sexual morality. They don't want to talk about abortion or homosexual acts as things that are evil. Just accept people and show them mercy and compassion. To a point that is true. Our first line should not be one of moral judgement. But if we truly love people then we should find occasion to teach them the whole truth. Even if, at least initially, they are not going to look good in the light of that truth. Still telling them that this is what God is calling them to and having faith that He will give them the grace to live it just as He gives you the grace to live it.

When we water down the gospel to make it easier for others to live it we are putting them lower than ourselves. We can embrace the fullness of the Catholic faith but the people we minister to can't. We need to edit it for them. Or do we edit it for ourselves? It is always the counter-cultural pieces of the faith that we want to leave out. Is it really impossible for the poor to live them? Or is it because we fear of losing respect in the secular world? At the end of the day answers and courage are not opposites. It takes real courage to give real answers.

If you look at Bl. Teresa of Calcutta you see something different. She never made disagreements over doctrine a problem in her serving the poor. Still she never allowed anyone to be confused about what she believed. She lectured secular elites on the immorality of abortion and contraception. She would see an address like the Notre Dame speech as a great opportunity to make that point.Always mindful of where her audience is at but always wanting to not leave them there but to bring them closer to sainthood. For her the poor were a powerful way to get closer to Jesus but Jesus remained the goal. Not just for her but for everyone. You can't get there by running away from truth.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Good Thoughts on an Old Debate

Janet Smith writes an article in First Things that goes back to the "Is Lying Ever Justified?"debate. Here is a quote:
Can the defense of some false signification be squared with the traditional absolute prohibition of lying? A close consideration of the analogy with the use of lethal force and the taking of property should help us see that the absolute prohibition can be retained. Neither Aquinas nor the Church understands the use of lethal force in defense of innocent life to be an “exception” to the prohibition of murder. Nor does the taking or destroying of property belonging to another when necessary to avert some great evil function as an “exception” to the prohibition of theft. Murder is the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being. Theft is taking something against the reasonable will of the owner, and a reasonable owner would approve of taking property to protect important goods. Therefore, properly stated, although killing and the taking of property are sometimes morally permissible, the norms against murder and theft remain absolute, without exception. Similarly, I believe that the telling of some falsehoods and other forms of false signification are compatible with the absolute prohibition of lying.

The mistake that Aquinas makes (and those words do stick in my throat!) is that he analyzes the question of lying with a prelapsarian understanding of the purpose of signification—an understanding that presumes the innocence of man before the Fall. He does not make this same mistake in respect to the protection of life and property: He realizes that behavior in reference to human life and property is necessarily different in the postlapsarian world. Before the Fall, man has no need to use force against another, nor need he destroy another’s property (or even possess property). But after the Fall, innocent life is often threatened, and property owners are often absent or unreasonable. Thus new forms of behavior are permissible given new realities, behavior directed towards defending human life and protecting other important goods.
I found her argument quite convincing. After reading both sides of the debate I wasn't quite sure. My intuition told me that there should be cases where lies can be told morally. It just bothered me that the arguments of Aquinas that continue to be defended by many Catholics I respect never seemed like they were adequately dealt with. As a Catholic I want to think with the church and not just follow my private judgement. So I didn't want to just say the tradition is just wrong. I wanted something that takes the church's non-infallible teaching seriously. This did that well.

I had trouble finding a quote because the whole thing gets quite involved. Yet if you read the whole thing it makes a very strong case without getting too hard to follow. I was listening to Peter Kreeft say that sanctity and sanity are never in conflict. Catholicism is both. In this debate there were time I was feeling like I had to choose one or the other. This is both sane and holy.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Logic and Atheism

Anthony Layne has a post about a common logic error atheists make. He starts with this quote:
The problem basically is, you and all the other believers in all the diverse religions in the world will shut your ears to the logic that says for a start, two religions cannot be correct because they contradict each other. For example, the gods of Islam and Catholicism are not the same god, no matter how you try and make it so. So we see convinced passionate faith from both and yet a Hindu knows with equal certainty both are wrong.
He does a nice job of showing how that logic fails. But people are convinced by it none the less. Why is that? It is not because they can't think logically. At least that isn't the typical reason people accept bad logic. I think the common reason is the unspoken assumption. There is an extra premise in the argument who's truth is so deeply ingrained it is never stated let alone questioned. What is the premise here? That no one religion is likely to be more right than the others or at least no one religion can be known to be more right than the others. This is something every religious person would reject. Religious people are not vaguely religious. They belong to a specific religion. They believe that this specific religion is the truth or very close to the truth. If they didn't they would not be a part of it. I believed that when I was reformed. I believe it now as a Catholic.

So why do people accept this premise? The idea that because everyone claims to know the truth that nobody does? I think the root of it is in protestantism. When I first looked seriously at Catholicism one of my first aversions was to the very idea of a pope. The notion that one man or one office could somehow have a better connection with God than anyone else seemed just silly to me. Where did I get that reaction? Protestant tradition. It is one of the bedrock assumptions of protestantism that no office like the pope can exist. What bible verse is it based on? There isn't one. We just knew the papacy is nonsense.

But how far is that assumption from the assumption that no religion can be right when everyone else is wrong? It is almost the same idea. If there can be no pope there can be no Jesus. If there is no vicar of Christ then how can there be a Christ? Christ just means "anointed one". If Pope Benedict cannot be anointed to teach the true faith in a way nobody else is then how can Jesus be anointed to teach the true faith in a way Mohammad is not?

So if protestantism is granted it's premise that the papacy cannot be taken seriously because God simply does not work that way then the atheists logic suddenly looks a lot better. The notion that one religion is true among the many does not make sense because it boils down to a pope. You can find smaller and smaller subgroups that have the best truth and it comes down to one individual or group that is at the center of the truth. If that is ruled out then the argument can be shown to be valid.

But what if you explicitly stated that as a premise?
  • There are many contradictory ideas about religion.
  • There is no infallible individual or group
  • Therefore no religion can be correct
If a protestant could see that his anti-papal premise logically leads to the conclusion that all religion is false then he might re-examine it. I mean how many pope-like figures do we have in the bible? Moses, Abraham, David, the kings, the prophets, etc. How many religions have grown up without a pope-like figure? Calvin. Luther, Wesley, Joseph Smith, how pope-like were they?

Once you examine the role of such leaders you come to realize the power of the argument. It is not a matter of whether you have a pope but who it is. It could be yourself or your pastor. But why could it not be the bishop of Rome? Why is it so hard to believe that in such a mass of religious opinion God will give you a light and He will do it precisely that way?

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Is the Pro-Life Cause Winning?

Trevin Wax argues that the pro-life side is winning the fight for the hearts and minds of Americans. There certainly is some evidence. People seem to view abortion as morally questionable. Part of it is due to better technology. Ultra sound pictures make it harder and harder to look the other way. Pro-abortion people constantly find themselves arguing for ignorance. Don't inform women about what an abortion is. They openly admit a picture of a fetus is pro-life propaganda. It is. But how do you keep people from looking closely at the thing in the center of the debate?

Polls show most Americans now describe themselves as pro-life. That is great. But it is not enough. People have to see a pro-life society as possible. In order to have a pro-life society you need to recover some sense of chastity. It is ironic that the pro-choice side's best argument is that we don't have a choice. We can't avoid abortion because we can't avoid casual sex. No matter how much we want to be pro-life if we can't achieve some level of sexual self-control as a society it isn't really practical.

That is the argument we are still losing. To say we are losing it would be to suggest the argument is even being made. I am not sure that it is. Is a chaste society possible? Sure it is. You will never get rid of sexual sin but you can get to a point where it is rare enough that society can care for the children that come from it. How do we do it? Think about how we got from there to here. Prior to the sexual revolution abortion was not required. So it is possible to create a moral environment where most people remain pure until they can accept the responsibility of raising a child.

So what happened with the sexual revolution? Basically two things. First, mass media became much more powerful and much less moral. Secondly, artificial contraception was made easier. These two things were the main causes of the sexual revolution. They are both rooted in technological advances. So what can we do? Can we uninvent the pill or the television? No. But we can change our thinking about them. We can understand the moral implications of these things and react as a society. Scripture tells us that where sin abounds so grace abound all the more. We do not have to concede that sin has simply won and sexual purity is now something we can only expect from a small minority of the population.

So how does it start? It starts with the church. We need to be willing to teach clearly that contraception and pornography are wrong. How many church leaders are even going there. It is like teaching on these topics has been out-sourced to a select group of chastity speakers. We need to make clear the whole church is on board. It is not an optional part of Christianity. It is essential to a coherent Christian world view. I know we like to be ecumenical and all but we need to be clear. Being wrong on contraception is not a small error. It makes all of Christian morality illogical and unworkable. It distorts the way we think about human life which is about as bad a moral error as you can make.

Once you start making the case seriously and not running away from you own teaching then amazing things can happen. The same sorts of things Trevin Wax was point out on the abortion question. The appeal to reason and the appeal to conscience do have an impact over time. That is how the church won the battle for sexual morality over pagan Rome. Just teach it and live it. Over time society will see the two lifestyles and the Holy Spirit will give them eyes to see the Christian way is better. But we have to put it out there. If we are living something that is an incoherent mix of the secular and the Christian it will have little chance of wining the day. That is where the pro-life cause is now. Making some points but not presenting a sustainable, livable alternative to the culture of death.

Friday, May 13, 2011

St Thomas Aquinas and Martin Luther

I am still thinking about church history. Carl Trueman is a great guy to read when it comes to that. He is protestant but he has lots of good insights. He said something recently that related to the Luther, St Thomas Aquinas thought I was having:
Any intellectual historian of any merit will tell you that the last 1,000 years in the West have only produced two moments of paradigm shifting significance, and neither of them was the Reformation.  The first was the impact of the translation into Latin of Aristotle's metaphysical works.  This demanded a response from the thirteenth century church.  The response, most brilliantly represented by Thomas Aquinas, revolutionized education, transformed the philosophical landscape, opened up fruitful new avenues for theological synthesis, and set the basic shape of university education until the early eighteenth century.  Within this intellectual context, the Reformation was to represent a critical development of Augustinian anti-Pelagianism in terms of the understanding of the church and of salvation, but it did not represent quite the foundational paradigm shift that is often assumed.
It is interesting that a protestant sees the development God brought thought Aquinas and Aristotle as much more important than the reformation. That is the positive changes were much more significant. The negative changes from the reformation in terms of the stunning loss of church unity were severe. Nothing St Thomas did was anywhere near the unqualified disaster that Luther left behind in that area. What Luther brought was a rediscovery of something the church had already learned, namely that Pelagianism is wrong. The church needed to be reminded of this truth but not at the cost of knocking down a large number of other truths. So Luther was hugely destructive and made only a minor positive contribution by comparison.

Looking at history this way makes more and more sense to me. The combination of faith and reason that St Thomas blessed the world with was just too much. That the light of Christ got brighter and people ran. I sense this whenever I read Thomist thinkers. There is a grace there that demands a reaction. Do you want to think like the angelic doctor or are you going to dismiss him as too … too something? William of Ockham was one of the first in the ladder camp. Luther followed him. They refused to think in the categories and accept the reasoning of St Thomas.

The trouble is that when God offers more of Himself to us and we reject that offer we don’t end up in the same place as before. We get out of the mode of wanting as much of God as we can have and being willing to pay any price. We start to see our opinions and thought patterns as something we don’t want to surrender. It is too humiliating to accept that even these are soaked in sin and must be transformed by God’s grace. It is too personal. We are afraid we will get lost. But we can never get lost in God. We are because God wills us to be. So thinking more like God will never cause us to lose our identity. On the contrary, nothing could be more true to yourself than learning to match you intellect to that of your creator. Because God is the author of your essence He can make you more yourself than you can be on your own.

This view of history would put the reformation into the same category as the enlightenment. Trueman’s other big even of the last 1000 years. They would be seen as different ways of running away from the revelation of Christ being unrolled by the church. The developments end up being reductions and simplifications. From the sola’s of the reformation to the increasing anti-supernatural bias of recent centuries we have seen the big picture simplified by merely declaring large segments of human endeavor to be unimportant. But parallel to all this, the Catholic faith has continued to develop. This synthesis of Greek philosophy and Jesus’ revelation has continued to grow and continues to be a light calling those who want to embrace the fullness of truth no matter the cost.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

William of Ockham and Luther

Edward Feser wrote a post on William of Ockham during lent. He linked it again recently so I got a chance to read it. His blog is just amazing . The posts are pretty short and easy to read and yet very philosophically deep and very Catholic. Here is one statement:
In Luther’s case, the prospect of judgment by the terrifying God of nominalism and voluntarism – an omnipotent and capricious will, ungoverned by any rational principle – was cause for despair.  Since reason is incapable of fathoming this God and good works incapable of appeasing Him, faith alone could be Luther’s refuge.
I had heard that nominalism and  voluntarism were ideas put forward by William that sowed the seeds for the reformation. But how did one produce the other? Ockham seems like a reaction to the power of St Thomas of Aquinas. When God gives revelation we either bow down to it or fight it. William wanted to fight what St Thomas had put forward by faith and reason. So he attacked one of the central building blocks of Scholasticism. He denied the existence of essences. That had the effect of reducing the power of reason. It meant all that could really be known about faith and morals was from revelation. God's will was not predictable from God's essence and reason. God's will simply was.

So when Luther desires assurance of salvation the Catholic answer to that is our assurance flows from God's grace working in our lives. When we are made holy in ways we know we could not achieve ourselves we can be sure that God is real and that He is saving us. But what if we look at our life and simply don't know if we have received supernatural grace? This is possible if we lose our rational basis for determining good and evil. If we cannot make any sense of what God does then we can only have assurance of salvation based on what we do? So he latched onto those passages which talked about salvation by faith. Then he committed the error of every heretic. He used his pet doctrine to knock down other doctrines and change the faith.

I am quite interested in the root causes of the reformation. Why did someone become totally convinced of an error and why were they able to convince so many others? Often the answer to these questions lies in philosophy. Bad philosophy almost always leads to bad theology. Where did the bad philosophy come from? I see it as a running away from the bright light of Aquinas.

Certainly there were more factors. There were immoral popes and bishops around that time. There was the invention of the printing press. The development of universities. Lots of things that made the 16th century Europe ripe for the spread of heresy. But why this heresy? How did Luther get so far from Catholicism so fast and with such moral certainty? Once your have rejected the philosophical underpinnings of a system then nothing built on it has any strength. Large swaths of settled doctrine can be discarded in an instant.

The scary part is people are often unaware of their underlying philosophy. We can't examine it against scripture because our reading of scripture is colored by our philosophy. The only way we can tell is when we start coming to conclusions that contradict dogmatic teaching. Then we know we have to rethink things. But that is hard to do. It can mean changing your mindset quite radically. It is so much easier to just pretend those problems are not there.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Bad Art

Mark Shea talks about why Christians make bad art. He insults the Little Drummer Boy but he raises a good point. Why is so much Christian art bad. His answer is a false sense of humility. Not sure that is it.

Christians have always made great art. But lately we have not seen so much of it. Certainly the Christian movies and music that have come out has contained very little excellent art. But that makes the mistake of trying to create art like the popular secular art. It is not a matter of an artist being moved by some aspect of the reality of God and expressing himself beautifully and honestly. It is a matter of Christians seeing what is popular and trying to create something like it. Then they work in the gospel message so we can get them saved. This is not the formula for great art.

Look at the Passion of the Christ. Please, look at at it! How did that come into being. Mel Gibson was not trying to make a movie like other Hollywood movies. He had an artistic vision that flowed from his experience of God and he wanted to make a movie that reflected that. People responded. He expressed something of God that touched many people. Nobody even said the sinners prayer. Still this was a means of great grace.

Then there was The Blind Side. That was a true story. What was amazing is they didn't sanitize it. Christians behaved badly. Sometimes when they did the right thing it was for the wrong reasons. Sometimes they were confused about what God wanted them to do. It was just messy. But a beautiful sort of messy. They could not show Michael Oher making an altar call because it did not happen. Somehow God worked anyway.

Good art does not come out of a desire to make Christians out of a bunch of sinners. It comes out of real experiences with God. Often they are painful and humiliating experiences. Evangelicals have a bad theology of suffering. Good art come from being honest with your pain. It is hard to do when your theology can't make sense of your pain.

If you ask evangelicals what is wrong with today's movies and music most of them say there is too much objectionable material. They are right but that is not the deepest problem. Just removing the sex and violence from them does not make them good. Some of them would be good but much of the time the sex and violence was all the art had going for it. The problem is not what is there but what isn't. That is the deeper beauty of God. Society is getting less and less able to reflect that in it's art as it gets further and further removed from being Christian.

Another proof of this is how often the top movies and the top songs change. True art can capture the imagination of people for a long time. We measure the life of our art in weeks. True art can be enjoyed for centuries. My son and I were listening to a reflection on St Francis de Sales' book The Introduction To The Devout Life. It is about 400 years old. How many 14 year-olds are exposed to anything 400 years old?

Monday, May 9, 2011

Protestant Reactions

My wife worried about my last post. That maybe I would offend any protestants who might read it. I can do that. I can say things to flippantly and have protestants simply ignore me rather than engage my arguments. I try to be charitable but I have a more direct writing style that is hard to change. I don't back up and give disclaimers a lot. But I don't want to offend anybody.

When I criticize protestantism I am not criticizing protestant people so much as a system of thought. It is a system that has influenced many Christians over the past 500 years. Over time that has caused many Christians to embrace serious error. But I don't see those errors being always or even typically the result of bad intentions on the part of the protestants themselves. With few exceptions the protestants I have known have been very sincere and very serious about discerning and living the truth of Christ. Many continue to dismiss Catholicism without a good logical reason but people do that. There are just so many Christian traditions nobody can make a full and fair evaluation of all of them. I would argue that because of its history Catholicism deserves a full and fair evaluation but many feel that is a waste of time for precisely the same reason.

When criticizing protestant thought it is easy to make strong statements. One tries to distill what protestantism has become into a few words. The idea is to convince somebody that there is a serious error being embraced. So when Blessed John Newman says protestants have no faith he is not being uncharitable. He is trying to convince people that Sola Scriptura is not only an error but a fundamental error. It is hard to do that without risking offending people. But that is the truth. Catholics believe protestantism has made a very serious error that makes both unity and truth impossible.

It is similar with the Eucharist. The Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist is an amazing claim. The truth or falsity of the claim cannot be a small issue. Either Catholics are in serious error or protestants are missing a huge part of what Jesus intended to give them. I don't think it is charitable to minimize an error like that. When you grasp that it is really Jesus then nothing can be more important than to make a valid Eucharist central to you spirituality.

Contraception is another issue that has huge implications. It shows a large gap between protestants and Catholics on moral thinking. Protestants are massively confident they are right. How can you explain to them that their church has caused them to embrace grave evil without offending them? That they are approving a mentality that has led to the acceptance of abortion, premarital sex and divorce. In other words they are helping the other side win the culture wars. To a politically active protestant that is hugely offensive but it is truth.

The last post was about Mary. Most protestants believe that they have erred on the side of safety with respect to Mary. That the danger of giving her to much attention is seen as much greater than the danger of giving her to little. I was suggesting the opposite. That avoiding veneration of Mary parallels to more serious misconceptions about Christianity. Maybe removing that from the faith has deeper consequences than most people think. Empirically, it seems to me, Marian devotion and liberal Catholicism don't co-exist very often. So I do think there is a positive effect of Marian devotion that I don't fully understand. The last post was an attempt to explore it.

But there are things on the other side. Certainly the view of science as a way to learn about God is something taught in the reformed faith.That was always described as a reformed distinctive meaning other protestant groups did not emphasize it as much. I don't think the reformed faith experiences the same tension between science and religions as a more fundamentalist believer would. Sex was theoretically the same way but in practice our church was much more fundamentalist about sexual ethics.

Still when they wanted to get back to basics, those basics were faith alone and bible alone. When Catholics get back to basics it is typically creation, sin, and redemption. Faith alone and bible alone only really talk about science and sex in a negative way. In the sense of rejecting things that contradict scripture. Creation, sin, and redemption are easy categories to talk about science and sex in a positive way. Sin certainly effects those areas of life but there is a good that is being distorted by sin and will be restored by grace.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Science, Porn and the Blessed Virgin

How is the way Richard Dawkins looks at bees the same as the way a lustful man looks at pornography? Dawkins is, of course, a biologist who specializes in bee research and also an atheist. When I look at bees I see God. They make honey and that is just divine! Also in the way they pollinate so many species of flowers and the way they work together. Not as much in the way they sting but all of it is from God and communicates God and can lead us to worship God. Dawkins sees none of this when he looks at bees or at least he does not admit it if he does. He just sees bees.

When we look at a beautiful woman something similar can happen. God has given us hormones that tweak us to a special presence. That biological reaction is intended to awaken us to the great dignity of the human person you are looking at. Here is someone who God has made beautiful and holy.  Not only that she is capable of producing another human person in her womb and she is capable of nurturing and caring for that person. She is truly a masterpiece from the hand of God. She communicates God and should lead us to worship God. But when we look at pornography we miss all that. We focus on our physical arousal. We just see anatomy the way Dawkins just sees bees.

What does this have to do with the Blessed Virgin Mary? As a protestant I looked at Mary and saw a concubine. Someone who performed a biological function. A surrogate mother. I was told not to look at her and marvel at how amazing a thing she did. God using her body to bring Jesus to the world. Contemplating that was dangerous. It might lead me to worship Mary. The truth is it leads me to worship but it is worship of God I see in her. Just like I worship God if I look at a woman rightly or look at bees rightly.

But how do we do that? How do we insure that we look at things rightly. The wrong way is to concentrate on what we should be avoiding. As a protestant I came to understand that Catholics saw the worship of Mary as a great sin just like I did. But I was confused. If they recognized that as sin then why did they kneel before a statue of Mary and say a bunch of Hail Mary's? That seemed like a strange way to avoid sin. Now I understand the veneration of Mary leads me to worship God. So trying to avoid worship when it comes to Mary is not right. She communicates God and properly leads us to worship God. We should not bottle up the impulse to worship. We need to let it flow through to God. The more we venerate Mary and worship God in conjunction with that the less likely we are to end up seeing Mary as an idol.

I see a connection between the protestant theology of Mary and the saints and the tendency of science to lead to atheism and even the use of women as objects of lust in pornography. These are all icons of God. They should properly be leading us to veneration. When we do that we see God more clearly and worship Him in these icons. That is the right way to approach science, the right way to approach human beauty, and the right way to approach the saints. But protestants said that was all wrong. We need to worship Christ alone. They left us with nothing good to do with our impulse to worship God through these icons. So it becomes distorted. Science and religion end up in conflict. Sex and religion end up in conflict. Even religion and religion end up in conflict. Rather than marveling at the bigger picture we try and prevent ourselves from marveling at all.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Fixing Sola Scriptura

Why are there are so many disagreements about the bible? Why should I listen to your interpretations and not someone else's? These are common questions for protestants. One answer they give is that there is some way of interpreting the bible that they use and others do not. Either they say they let scripture interpret scripture or they say they consider the context more fully or they say keep in mind certain overarching biblical themes. What ever it is. They identify some exegetical principle, call it principle A, that they follow and others fail to follow. Often there is some truth in it. Often it is a good principle and there are some people who have not followed it that well.

What they are trying to do is fix Sola Scriptura. They are saying that if we understand principle A then Sola Scriptura works. The fact that it is obviously not working now flows from the fact that we have neglected A. The trouble is that it works much better as a rhetorical device than as a consistent principle. Can you think of protestants who either follow A or claim to follow A and still disagree with you? Most of the time you can. So the principle makes scripture more clear but not clear enough to unite Sola Scriptura believers around one faith.

Then there is the problem that adding A to Sola Scriptura violates the Sola part. For example, if I take my exegetical principle to be that biblical interpretations cannot contradict the infallible teaching of the Catholic church That would fix Sola Scriptura. Sort of. It just would not be Sola Scriptura anymore. I would have added something to scripture. In fact, I would have added precisely the thing Sola Scriptura was invented to remove. Namely the Catholic church. So saying scripture needs to be interpreted in a certain way adds to scripture and thus violates Sola Scriptura.

Protestants don't see this. They will add just about anything to scripture other than the Catholic church and still call it Sola Scriptura.If fact, many of the differences between protestant groups can be explained by the things they add. Exegetical frameworks that they say flow from scripture but many just don't see it. Calvinism is one but there are many others. The trouble is they don't see it as an extra the same way they see the Catholic exegetical framework as an extra.

When you reduce the question to a choice between one set of interpretive principles and another then it makes sense to ask if there are reasons why one set might be objectively more trustworthy than the other. For example, there are reasons why a Calvinist church is a better interpreter of scripture than the Jehovah's Witnesses. Even before you evaluate the arguments you can look at their relative relationships with Christendom as a whole and see a difference. It is not just a verse by verse thing. There are over-arching principles of reading scripture that are different and objective ways of saying the Calvinist way is better.

What happens is that is becomes very hard to find an objective criterion that does not yield Catholicism as the most trustworthy guide for interpreting scripture. Older guides are more trustworthy. Catholicism is the oldest one out there. Guides that have some scriptural basis are preferred. The church is mentioned in the bible as the pillar and foundation of truth. Some guy from the 16 century is not mentioned at all. Which one is the biggest? Which has the widest variety of beautiful Christians? Which has the most remarkable continuity? Which connects best with the biblical images like the body of Christ, the family of God, the Kingdom of heaven? You keep getting the same answer. Which is great. Except when you WANT another answer.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Choosing a Church

Listening to a radio preacher talk about choosing a church the other day. Just caught a snippet but I was struck by how strongly he talked about it. Both about how central it is to our spiritual health and about how many Christians struggle with it. So I googled it and saw many protestant teachers address this question frequently. It makes sense. People understand that deciding to follow the bible is hardly the end of your spiritual questions. Where are you going to get your answers? Your pastor, your bible study, your Christian friends, etc. Where do those come from? From your church. When you choose a church you are choosing something that will directly or indirectly influence almost all your religious thinking and spiritual relationships.

What is more, most religious thinkers regularly point out major errors that are made in many churches. So while they believe there are many good churches they also think there are a lot of bad choices to make. They see, quite rightly, the danger of choosing a church based on your personal comfort. Spiritual growth happen precisely when we allow God's word to make us uncomfortable. But God can call us to spiritual growth in directions that surprise us. So we need a church that matches who God wants us to be rather than who we are. The problem is we don't know exactly what God wants us to be.

So how can someone avoid these problems? Is there a simple, biblical rule to follow? No. The bible never addresses the topic. As far as teachers go? They typically give a number of broad categories like biblical exegesis, accountability, being spiritually fed, etc.

What I found interesting is that even these broad categories have changed since I learned about the marks of a true church back in school. We were taught there were 3:
  1. They teach the true and complete doctrine of salvation
  2. They conduct valid sacraments
  3. They discipline people engaged in public sin
I think these come from Calvin. But even though I went to Calvinist thinkers in my web search I didn't get this list. The first one used to be understood to mean only go to Calvinist churches. Now most phrase it in terms of the bible. But every preacher claims to teach the true biblical doctrines so you have to measure that claim against something.

The last two criteria have disappeared entirely. Sacraments and church discipline have gone out of fashion. There is so much doctrinal disagreement over sacraments that nobody wants to assert they have the right teaching. On public sin it is not disagreement as much as disobedience. Churches typically agree that premarital sex is wrong but they often no longer discipline unmarried people living together. The practice has become so common many churches just accept that people do that. So what used to be very important Christians doctrines that would prevent you from being part of a church have been downgraded. Not because the bible does not say they are important. It does. But in one case because protestants disagree with each other and in another case because the culture disagrees with protestants.

More and more these choices boil down to feelings. Doctrines matter only if you feel strongly about them. Liturgy, leadership, community. Use some basic principles but it all comes down to what makes you feel like something is from God or it isn't.  But that gets back to the problem of your personal comfort. People often choose churches badly. The people who like to talk about end times prophecy find a church where the pastor preaches on the end times almost every week. The people who's faith is very rational find a pastor who preaches very deep theological sermons. The people who are very charismatic find a church that focuses on that. The trouble is nobody grows beyond where they are at. The thinker really needs to go feed the hungry. But the church he has chosen has the same limitations he does. So growth does not happen.

So what is the answer? It is simple and it is biblical and it is humanly impossible. One church. All these people with different beliefs and different spiritualities need to come together and learn from each other. Iron sharpens iron. If they are all part of the same fellowship that will happen. But now it does not.

So how would they choose their leadership? God will choose.   Everyone simply needs to respect the priest who was chosen by the bishop who was chosen by the pope. This is why it is humanly impossible. God actually has to be in the process. If He does not give a special grace to the priest, bishop, and pope then there is no reason for anyone to respect them. But the truth is he does give the grace.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Silly Love Songs

We have been getting back into secular music at our house. My wife and I never listened to any of it so until recently that meant it was not a part our lives. But our kids have recently reached an age where they are starting to bring their own music into the home. It makes me start to reflect on how many love songs there are. It is encouraging and discouraging. There is the lack of modesty and morality. It is constant. But there are signs of hope as well. People seem quite comfortable with love as a gift of self. There is such a contradiction. On the one hand they want to treat sex as a simple stimulation of certain glands resulting in a certain change in brain chemistry that produces pleasure. Many species mate so why is there anything remarkable about  humans doing it? But then there are songs that talk about deep and eternal spiritual bonds. Describing the idea that tow people were made for each other and want to promise to be together for the rest of their lives.

The odd thing is that people don't see the contradiction. The same song can glory in cheap sexual thrills and also use very grand language about how great and pure their love is. Like I can be focused on the other person and focused on myself as well and somehow it will work. That I can celebrate one lifelong love and also celebrate many casual relationships. That using and abusing people can co-exists with a total gift of self.

What is really missing is reflection. To try and determine the truth about things and then live according to that truth. That is hard even when we have internalized that truth. But when it comes to sex all you hear is not to worry about right and wrong. Truth is relative. Nobody says that about stealing or lying. Just sexual morality is somehow impossible to know.

If they think about it for any length of time the evidence that sex can be solely a matter of physical biological realities is pretty hard to see. The impulse to the transcendent keeps coming back. Why would that happen if there is no reality there? Previously it has been argued that the culture pushes people in that direction. Often people assert that the church has big influence over people to make them imagine such things. But the culture does not put forward any shred of moral decency. Quite the opposite.People who talk about any form of self control are mocked by the culture. Not just the youth sub-culture but even the so-called respected cultural elites. Even when you look at teachers and families it is hard to find a lot of strong moral influences. When kids make good choices it seems the culture can take no credit at all. It can only be that they actually perceive something the older generation does not dare tell them. That chastity can lead you to understand the great dignity of the human person. Young people don't understand this fully but to me it is just amazing that they haven't completely lost this truth. It means they can find it in their hearts because they sure don't find it anywhere else.

As I write this I am reminded of The Loser Letters. Here is a quote:
Looking back to my own years at the university, I'd say that if the place had had to choose a motto in English, likely the fittest would have been "Let copulation thrive!" if You know what I mean (and I bet You do!). And the connection between all this furtive fun behind doors and the absence of any public religiosity was quite obvious, at least to this former Christian. It wasn't just the deity who'd taken a hike off the quad, of course; authority in practically any form had disappeared along with Loser. But there's no doubt that "God" above all just wasn't done. In four years, I met one student who openly attended church, and the subsequent number I have uncovered were doing so more or less samizdat. That's what I'm trying to explain about this. The place was as pure as any Atheist's dream, as deity-free as the Bravo channel on Sunday morn (or any other time!).

Now why is any of this a problem for the Atheist side? Doy. First, the fact of what's been happening on campus all these years means that we Brights can't very well go around like the Communists always tried to, and say that the problem with our vision is that it "hasn't really been tried". No, Secularism/Atheism, when it comes to sexual mores anyway, has been tried, is being tried, and the empirical fact is that what's happening on campuses is what sex and "romance" look like when we Brights get our way and dispose of all those silly religious rules — two, three, many Charlotte Simmonses.
The point she makes is similar.  When the culture embraces a complete lack of sexual morals it does not simply leave Christianity behind like we now invented the car and no longer need horses and buggies. People discover atheist sexuality has a huge emptiness. They don't all go to the extremes she talks about before they find this out. Still it is when this is pushed to it's logical conclusion that the problem becomes clear. The hope is we can do that with a thought experiment rather than actually traveling that road.

When we take a relativist view and say there is no absolute truth about sexual morality we actually cut reason off at the knees. Reason seeks truth so the denial of truth destroys reason. Atheists are worshipers of reason so it is ironic that it is the Christians who are the ones suggesting more reflection and moral reasoning. If secular people have one doctrine they dare not question it is that there is no sexual morality. So reason gets shut down.