Wednesday, August 31, 2011


I was reading this post on justification at Gospel Coalition. I thought as a Catholic there would be something to debate. The post zeros in on the protestant understanding on Rom 3:28
Having been convicted of our personal sin, the second fundamental thing Lloyd-Jones argues must be understood “is God’s way of salvation in Christ.”  The gospel.  At the heart of the gospel, according to Romans 3, is the imputation of Jesus’ righteousness to the sinner by faith in Jesus’ work on the cross and resurrection.  We stand righteous before God through an alien righteousness credited to our account.  We are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, apart from any works of our own.  Understanding this, Lloyd-Jones contends, unlocks the key to spiritual joy and increasing victory over spiritual depression.  Without this basic understanding, spiritual depression will continue to reign in the lives of those who are nominally Christian and unconvinced of their sin.
The funny thing is that this is all right. As a Catholic I don't agree with the language. It can be misleading but the point is valid and Catholic. We must understand the depth of our sin and our powerlessness to do anything about it without the grace of God. If we don't get that then we tend to think of God as a coach or a teacher. Someone who helps us improve ourselves. Gives us a hand. We tend to divide life up. I am OK in this area but I need help over here. Why does that lead to depression? Because we are not OK anywhere. Everything we have that is worth anything is by grace.

People who have been raised in a Christian faith have a tougher time with this. Partly because often they have not sinned as badly as some others and they want to hold onto that as something in their favor. God should be pleased with me because I have been a good person. But why were you good? Isn't it just because God has granted you more grace growing up? Given what you have received should you not be a lot holier than you are? This is the point the Jews in Rome were missing. The Roman gentiles were into some pretty serious sexual sins and the Jews mostly stayed away from them.  But the Jews sinned in different ways and Paul shows from the Old Testament that God is not impressed with their lives either.

The truth about sin is so humiliating that people being raised in the church stop hearing it. Even when it is preached over and over they never really contemplate it on a personal level. I know I didn't for long periods of my growing up. It is much more pleasant to believe you are just a bit holier than most people. Sure you need grace but not as much as some people you know.

The fact is that nothing here contradicts the fact that salvation by grace needs to produce works. That the imputed righteousness is also infused and your heart and mind are transformed by that grace to the extent you cooperate with it. In fact, it seems like many of the problems he describes would be less serious for Catholics. We would still have them but the Catholic distinctives seem like they would help rather than make them worse.

First you have mortal sins. The teaching that certain sins break your relationship with God. Often people look at their life and compare it to other people. The distinction between mortal and venial sins gives us a standard that does not depend on the people around us. When we fail we can't minimize it. We are a serious sinner. We need confession. We need to tell a priest what we did. It is humiliating. We get the same treatment as a murderer would get. We are entirely dependent on God's mercy.

Secondly there is the increased focus on Jesus' suffering. When we look at a crucifix we start to understand how great our sin is and how great God's love is. Same with the sorrowful mysteries or the stations of the cross. Even the mass, when we experience it as a sacrifice, it humbles us. I need to have this perfect sacrifice offered to God for me because I have sinned.

The idea of justification as a one time thing seems like it would make this problem worse. We become aware of our sin more and more over time. We need constant conversion. We need to keep going back to God and desiring more grace and greater graces. If you think salvation was somehow done somewhere in your past then you might not be as quick to go back to square one.

Still the remarkable thing about reading this was how little disagreement there is. They say the two main issues are Sola Fide and Sola Scriptura. The more I think about Sola Fide the more I understand it to be a minor issue. Most of the differences are misunderstandings and much of what the reformers thew out has been reconstructed in some other form.

I see the opposite with Sola Scriptura. The more I think about it the more I see how deep and how serious the problem is. How many doctrines are effected. How much the cause of Christ has been damaged by it. How much it makes people self-centered when they are trying to be Christ-centered. They might be the two pillars of protestantism but they are not equal.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Theology and Reality and Divorce

I saw the title, When Theology and Reality Don't Meet, and thought it would be about sentimentalism. That is human emotions being taken as a more reliable indicator of right and wrong then divine revelation. I was right.
The phone rang. My dad tearfully explained that he and mom had separated and would be getting divorced. I was devastated, shocked and overwhelmed. My parents’ 34-year marriage was ending.
As a seminary student I’ve been in several classes that explored divorce. Up till now it’s been a topic I’ve been able to discuss from a purely ethical, theological or pastoral standpoint.
So she has two sources of information here. Her feelings and her seminary. Now it makes sense to allow your life experience to shape your theology. Emotions are a part of that. But you can't just dismiss what is taught in seminary. There is a lot of life experience behind that as well. What you really can't lose sight of is God as the author of marriage. What He says about marriage and divorce has to be central. Normally young men and women cannot make promises that will last a lifetime. It is a God thing. So going to our own emotions for wisdom about it is going to be limited.
The neat theology formed in the safety of my seminary classrooms is clashing with the reality of my life. I’m no longer a safe distance from this issue; I’m living it. For the first time, my theology and reality are not matching up. The paradigm on which I have based huge portions of my life and faith has been yanked out from under me, and I am lost.
You wonder why she bothers with theology at all. If she allows it to be yanked from under her when life gets hard then what good is it?  Faith is only useful when it shows us a deeper reality than we would otherwise see. If we can't accept a deeper truth than our strongest emotions present to us then we really have not surrendered to God. So she is right to describe herself as lost.
Jesus speaks on divorce multiple times and says that it is only okay in cases of adultery. So is that the answer? I’m not a literalist but how do you argue something that seems so clear?
Actually it is unclear what Jesus means by "adultery." He does not use the normal word for it. It is very possible that He meant couples that were never married and just cohabiting.  God had not put them together so they are in a different situation. What is clear is that sacramental marriage is forever.
If we can interpret Jesus’ words in a different way, how do we go about applying these interpretations?
This is a good question. Particularly when we have a society that thinks serial monogamy is just fine. Commitment for a few years or even a few months is seen as more realistic. But it radically changes marriage from complete a gift of self to a relationship where I will abandon you as soon as you cease to be useful to me. One version of this is to actually marry each partner and then divorce them when you want to move on. So how can you accept divorce and not accept that kind of abuse of the marriage bond? You are either serious about your marriage vows or you are not.
If we take Jesus’ words literally, are we then requiring people to stay in abusive marriages? What about marriages completely devoid of commitment or love? Would Jesus have really wanted those unions to continue?
 Staying in a marriage does not mean you have to live with the person. If that person is abusive then move out.But you are still married. You don't marry someone else. You don't date. You live as a married person who's family life has sadly broken down.

A lot can be done to fix bad marriages. If a marriage is devoid of commitment or love today it need not be that way forever. God gives us a ton of grace to change our hearts if we let Him. It is when everything seems hopeless that God does His best work. Sometimes God asks us to suffer for a while. Unite your suffering with that of Christ and pray.
Adultery didn’t end my parents’ marriage, other mistakes did. Does that make their divorce more sinful?
Only God can judge the mitigating circumstances in a person's heart. Divorce is objectively immoral. It is a choice. It is not something that happens to a couple. One partner or the other must file for divorce. When they do they are committing a sin.
How am I supposed to deal with this? How do I form a new theology when I didn’t know the old one was broken? How much of my theology needs fixing?
That is a big question. When you accept sentimentalism you are essentially rejecting Christianity. The consequences are far reaching. You look at any of the modern controversies and you see sentimental arguments. Gay marriage, abortion, women's ordination, they all have people behind them with very sad stories. Do we change our theology every time?

The real issue behind this is Sola Scriptura. Where does this concept of "my theology" come from? Why does she think she has the right to formulate a theology of her own? Sola Scriptura tells her she can. The reality is that when we are emotionally involved in a situation we need the church all the more because our capacity for sound theological reason is much less. When the only authority you have is scripture and plain reason then anything that compromises your ability to reason distorts your picture of God. This often happens when you need Him most.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

How Lost Was Old Testament Israel?

Can God's covenant community fall into serious error? Protestants say Yes. They point to the nation of Israel. It fell into major sin for long periods of time. But is that the same thing? There are different levels of error one can fall into. There is disobedience. That is a constant reality in the church. The people can know the truth and simply ignore it. Neither Israel in the Old Testament nor the Catholic Church in the New Testament is protected from that. Even very serious disobedience that rightly shocks us because we don't expect God's covenant community to ever behave that badly. Both those communities have behaved very badly and did not lose their status as God's chosen community because of it.

Then there is another level of error. Where the truth is ignored. The community stops teaching the truth. Other teachings start to fill the void. But they know these other teachings are not the truth of Jehovah. They know it is something they have borrowed from some other religion. This can go on for generations and there might only be a vague awareness of the fact that there is a truth about God that has been lost. That is really a more extreme case of disobedience. Not only do they not respect God's truth enough to obey it  but they don't respect it enough to even understand it and pass it on to their children. So the practice of the faith goes from inconsistent to non-existent. Still when somebody calls them back to God they know what that is. Not in detail but they know it is not what they are doing.

Then there is another level of error. That is an error when they do something they think is holy and right in the eyes of Jehovah and it just isn't. That is a more serious error because when you have an obedient heart that is the time when you benefit from knowing God's truth. If you are not disposed to obey God then knowing what He wants of you is not going to help you. But if you want to do good but end up doing evil because of an honest mistake that is sad. You would expect that over the long term God would correct your mistake. At least when the entire covenant community is embracing the same error. God should have some method of correcting the error rather than having it persist for a long time and become firmly embedded in their spiritual life.

This is the level of error protestants say existed in the early church. The Eucharist, the papacy, saints, relics, penance, etc. If they are errors they are not small errors. They persisted for a long time. Many people during that time were very impressive believers. They were very smart. They were willing to sacrifice. There were many miracles and martyrs. People saw visions and dreamed dreams. Yet all these errors continued to be embraced without controversy. The Holy Spirit seemed to be working powerfully in some ways and yet not leading them into truth as Jesus promised He would.

The question is whether there is a parallel of that in Old Testament Israel. I don't know that there is. People engaged in temple prostitution and child sacrifices but they didn't think Moses and Elijah would have been fine with it. They knew they were following other faiths and other gods. When Ezra found the book of the law they read it eagerly. They knew they needed to hear it. Nobody thought they were already understanding and obeying God. They knew they were ignorant. Much of that ignorance was by choice. The book was always there. They just had not looked before. But that goes back to the first type of error. The error of disobedience rather than an error of invincible ignorance.

I don't see anything in the Old Testament that indicates a strong embrace of some false doctrine as if it were the truth of Jehovah God. Kings led Israel into sin. Even then some remained faithful. They did the best they could with the lights they had. Then as now people were not always blessed with strong spiritual leadership. But you didn't have strong spiritual leaders that were phonies and pushed a bunch of false teachings that fooled everyone. They got false teachings from false gods. It is not at all analogous to what protestants think happened in the early church.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

John Allen Nails It

He reflects on World Youth Day and talks about evangelical Catholicism.

Historically speaking, Evangelical Catholicism isn’t really “conservative,” because there’s precious little cultural Catholicism these days left to conserve. For the same reason, it’s not traditionalist, even though it places a premium upon tradition. If liberals want to dialogue with post-modernity, Evangelicals want to convert it – but neither seeks a return to a status quo ante. Many Evangelical Catholics actually welcome secularization, because it forces religion to be a conscious choice rather than a passive inheritance. As the late Cardinal Jean-Marie Lustiger of Paris, the dictionary definition of an Evangelical Catholic, once put it, “We’re really at the dawn of Christianity.”
Paradoxically, this eagerness to pitch orthodox Catholicism as the most satisfying entrée on the post-modern spiritual smorgasbord, using the tools and tactics of a media-saturated global village, makes Evangelical Catholicism both traditional and contemporary all at once.
This is exactly my experience and my hope for the catholic church. Catholics who have made a conscious choice to embrace the doctrines and traditions of the church. Many liberal Catholics have more of the unconscious cultural Catholic tradition. Everything they love about being Catholic is pretty much exactly the stuff I could not care less about. But inside that huge community there is a growing minority who have seen the beauty and truth of the faith and have been changed forever. Many of them, like myself, used to be evangelical protestants. I had not heard the term evangelical Catholic before but it works for me.

Whatever you call it it is interesting to see a guy like Allen notice is coming. He sees it as something that is coming from Pope Benedict down but also something that is growing at the grass roots level. It is a move of the Holy Spirit to bring the church back from the dead. I know in North America it was never really dead but in Europe it really was. See such huge numbers of young people in Madrid is a sign that renewal is coming. Abuse scandals didn't matter. A pope who lacks charisma didn't matter. Society's growing intolerance of church teaching didn't matter. People come because they believe it is true. The Eucharist is really Jesus' body. The pope is really the vicar of Christ. Confession really is a sacramental encounter with Jesus. Young people around Europe are coming to believe this in greater and greater numbers.

This is a movement that is so old it is new. Post-Christian society can't understand the Catholic faith anymore. So believing what the church has always taught becomes a strange new idea. I mean really believing it. Trying to order your life around it rather than just going through the motions. Even saying you want to be a saint makes people look at you funny. As if being Catholic and not wanting to be a saint made any sense at all.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Two Kinds of Faith

This week's gospel is Mat 16:13-20:
13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
 14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
 15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
 16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
 17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. 19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20 Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.
Here Jesus contrasts a faith based on human opinion with a faith based on revelation. This is a distinction being made a lot in discussions at Called to Communion and other places. But I was surprised to see how clear Jesus makes that in this passage. Where can we get information about Jesus? We can just see what people are saying. We will get answers. Actually pretty good ones. Jesus is a prophet. So comparing Him to Elijah or Jeremiah is not way off base. But it is too small. It is not the fullness of truth about Jesus.

In verse 15 Jesus asks "What about you?" As modern individualists we tend to think Jesus is making it personal. Asking what my faith is like. But He is asking the disciples. Those that have been chosen by Jesus to have a special role in the Kingdom. Jesus is suggesting the opinion of the disciples is going to be more accurate. That opinion is expressed by Peter. Jesus blessed Peter. Not just saying Peter got an answer right. He is saying the rightness is not just a coincidence. That the process of Peter speaking for the disciples was mysteriously transformed into God speaking through Peter.

Now if Jesus was just referring to an unrepeatable event that God revealed to Peter the 10 words he said in verse 16 then it is quite unremarkable. Why validate the way Peter arrived at this answer rather than just validating the answer itself? It only makes sense if this process can be used for other questions. So even before we get to verse 18 and 19 and the images of the rock and the keys we already have the suggestion that Jesus is teaching us how to get past human opinion and arrive at divine revelation.

The fact that Peter was to get the keys of the kingdom of heaven would have been expected. The disciples knew they were to reign with Christ. It was obvious Peter was the leader of the disciples. Why would Peter not be made leader of the church? The modern idea that Jesus' kingdom might not have any officers or magistrates or administrators would not have occurred to anyone. The notion that one person would serve as a chief administrator under the king was well known then and is well known now. Every president will  appoint a chief of staff. Peter was the obvious choice.

It would also be obvious that obedience to Jesus would imply obedience to Peter. You could not call yourself a follower of a king and disobey his officials. To rebel against the official was to rebel against the king. Why should the kingdom of heaven be any different?

Then you have the rock. Peter is the foundation of the church. This makes no sense to many people. How can a person, even a person with successors, be the foundation of the church? You see leaders being called the head or the summit or the top. Who calls them the foundation? Foundations are important but they are invisible. Popes are not invisible. They are to be servant leaders.

I do see the papacy as being thing that makes the Catholic church resist cultural pressure when other churches have caved in badly. The pope is not answerable to anyone but God. He has huge power in the church and is basically immune to public pressure. When a new pope is chosen it is by and from a college of cardinals that the old pope picked. So there is very little chance for the waves of human opinion to get in and toss the church around. Sure there is the Holy Spirit protecting the church but it does seem like in terms of human structure the papacy is designed to resist change rather than reflect the will of the membership.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Abortion and Religion

One of Canada's national newspapers ran an article on abortion today. I have been thinking I have not discussed abortion enough so I thought I would respond.
Much is made about the influence of religion in determining one’s opinion about this issue. Indeed, Christian beliefs are cited as a principal motivation for many prominent opponents of legalized abortions, including Linda Gibbons, whose June 25 speech to the Toronto Pro-Life Forum included several references to her religion. However, the faithful do not hold a monopoly on objection to the euthanizing of unborn children, as I consider myself to be a committed, though lonely opponent of both abortion and religion.
Christianity is a rational religion. I know opponents of religion don't really grasp this. Most Christians oppose abortion both because of their faith and because it is the morally reasonable position to take. It is not either/or. Christians often make arguments that don't involve religion. Peter Kreeft makes one here. Scott Klusendorf makes more here. The fact that they sometimes include references to religion in their speeches does not mean they only make religious arguments. I don't know of any pro-life person that is not happy to say there are pro-life atheists.
I am convinced that the pro-life position is not dependent upon any references to Christianity and that religious arguments about the sanctity of life and the protection of unborn children are actually very powerful secular arguments in disguise. Nevertheless, both sides of the debate continue to promulgate the notion that religion, or lack thereof, is the linchpin of both pro- and anti-abortion perspectives.
We are conflating two things here. Is the argument religious? That is does it require an explicitly religious premise like "The bible is the Word of God?" No. We can stick to purely secular premises. But that does not mean one's attitude towards Christianity is irrelevant. Most people have a strong emotional reaction to traditional Christianity. Either they love it or they hate it. Very few have no reaction at all. This will impact what people make of the various arguments. It is not a purely logical exercise. 
It is impossible not to notice the way in which this debate has been unnecessarily complicated by religious differences. With few exceptions, both hardline supporters and opponents of abortion have set up hermetically-sealed universes for themselves, in which they write and speak of their convictions before pre-approved audiences and then smear each other’s positions outrightly as hedonistic or theocratic. The consequence is a stalemate, in which positively no progress is made on the debate.
I would say this about pro-life politicians. We don't have such beasts in Canada but the ones in the US tend to only beat the pro-life drum in front of solidly pro-life audiences. Once they know many pro-choice people are in the crowd they tone down the rhetoric. Pro-life activists are the opposite. They try and talk to anyone who will listen. That is not that many. Most people who have not made up their mind are quite hesitant to get into a discussion.

I do think the pro-choice side is much less logical. I don't think they seek out pre-approved audiences either. They typically use their access to the mass media and get their message to everyone. But the message is more of a smear than an argument. People are imposing their morality on me. People want to turn back the clock. Even the name pro-choice is more of a smear. Like abortion is just a random choice people want to remove because they somehow don't like choices.
In order free ourselves from this deadlock, both sides need to take responsibility for these false perceptions. On one hand, opponents of abortion need to have more faith in their own arguments, ironic as that may sound, and resist the urge to mire their dialogue with religious rhetoric. While using this sort of language may be mutually satisfying among fellow believers, it quite effectively alienates adherents of other faiths and non-believers who may be sympathetic to the pro-life persuasion. Making this adjustment would not only serve to gain non-Christian support for the cause, but would also shake the pro-life position from its stereotype as an entirely religious opinion.
Absolutely. I just would add that many pro-life people are doing this. Often people are tone deaf. They hear a religious argument because they expect to hear one. Even when the speaker explicitly states that his argument won't be religious and it isn't. 
By contrast, the pro-abortion camp should recognize that there is a secular debate to be had about the issue. (I could barely believe my eyes when, in response to this claim, a liberal and fellow secularist wrote to me: “I suspect [that] religious dogmatism is so deeply entrenched, you cannot see how ingrained it is. What viable reason is there against abortion? I say none. Any reason given would probably have its roots in religious dogma.”) Most reasonable people, on either side of the political divide, should be able to recognize that the abortion issue amounts to a conflict of rights between an expectant mother and her unborn child, and that prioritizing these competing freedoms is the role for rigorous public discourse.
Interesting comment. Under this analysis the pro-choice position that is law in Canada  and the US has to be considered a complete failure. There is no prioritizing of competing freedoms. The unborn child is given no rights. Zero. None at all. Never. So if that is the goal society could hardly fail worse than we are now failing. In Canada I would also say there is no rigorous public discourse. It is almost never discussed and when it is the pro-life position is not allowed to be defended. So, yes, recognize there is secular debate on the issue and that many pro-life activists are willing to engage in that debate without referencing to God or the bible. They may be Christian but they are capable of secular arguments.
Furthermore, apologists for abortion should be cautious about characterizing pro-life advocates as misogynists. This is not only hopelessly demagogic, but is also false in almost all cases, including religious opposition to abortion. 
So saying this is uncharitable and it is untrue so therefore you should be "cautious" when you say it?
Finally, supporters of legal abortion should recognize that the privilege of comprehensive and secular dialogue is an end in itself, and not simply a means of achieving liberal aims.
It is certain that the religious angle to the abortion debate provides both sides with ammunition in prosecuting their cases; however, it has also led to a protracted gridlock, in which all parties refuse to further engage. Only by recognizing the self-evident ethical dilemma posed by abortion, without being obstructed by religious differences, can we hope to make progress toward ending the practice.
I am not sure the ethical dilemma is evident to everyone. Once you understand the dilemma the answer is obvious. Some characterize the dilemma as "Should I bring a child into the world?" But that isn't it. The child is already in the world. It has a beating heart, fingernails, etc. The question is not can I bring it into the world. The question is can I kill it. When that ethical dilemma becomes evident then the answer becomes obvious. But the whole pro-choice game is to prevent the question from being seen in that light. So why dialogue? Why break a gridlock that preserves a status quo which they like? 

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Trouble At My Alma Mater

Calvin College has a flare up over views on creation/evolution. A professor of biology has left and another one is under a cloud for writing about evolution and Christianity. The college has a statement saying all professors must affirm the Bible is the authoritative, Spirit-breathed Word of God, and fully reliable. But many people think that implies you reject evolution and many think it does not. These professors are in the ladder camp but many Calvin Alumni are in the former. So who is right? No way to know.

This is a good example of how my thinking has changed so much since becoming Catholic. As a protestant I would have one of two reactions to this. One would be to declare it unimportant. The other would be to pick a side. So I would end up disrespecting something. Either disrespecting the doctrinal question or disrespecting the people on one side of the argument. I might have said what one of the professors involved said:
Harlow, who like Schneider has tenure and considers himself a committed Christian, said that the backlash reflects the views of fundamentalists within the Reformed denomination, not what most people think. "I work in the mainstream of Biblical scholarship, and we believe that the early chapters of Genesis are divinely inspired stories which imagine the human condition and creation of the world. Their intent is to make theological statements. They weren't written to provide geological or biological information," Harlow said. "My college freshmen seem to be able to handle this, but fundamentalists get all bent out of shape over this."
Notice how the fundamentalist group is being disrespected. It is not a good dynamic. But he is reacting to people who want him fired from his job and have already gotten his colleague to resign. So you can understand the frustration. Another faculty member takes a shot at colleges that have affirmed the more fundamentalist position.

This faculty member said he is not sure what the future holds for colleges like Calvin. While it may be more difficult to reconcile science and faith, he said that he sees some Christian colleges that "are thriving by ignoring the scientific evidence."
But this goes to the heart of the problem. Why is it so difficult to reconcile science and faith? It comes from Sole Scriptura. When do you change your biblical interpretation to account for scientific discoveries? Sola Scriptura not only does not provide an answer but it rules out any potential answer. Why? Because under Sola Scriptura any bible-based argument is infallible. The college can't overrule it. The synod of the church can't. Nobody can even set out what questions are to be addressed by the church and what questions are properly addressed by science. The fundamentalist has his proof texts and that settles it in his mind. It just does not matter who tells them what.

In the Catholic world there is at least a chance of charity. The church makes clear what the faith is. We are not allowed to ignore dogma but we are not allowed to create dogma either. We might think everyone should believe in a literal six-day creation but we don't have the authority to impose that on anyone. We can save our angry letter writing campaigns for when someone explicitly denies church teaching. But in those cases the professors should know they are doing that and they have excluded themselves as reliable teachers of the faith. So even then there need not be a lack of charity. You are not saying they are lousy or dishonest bible interpreters. The church's teaching's on these matters are clear.

Now that is how is should work. Often it does not. Sadly many Catholic schools have drifted into liberalism. Why? Because many people didn't trust dogma. Just as Catholicism gives you the chance to be charitable it gives you the chance to respect truth. It does not guarantee either. This is a case of Catholicism not being tried and found wanting but being found difficult and left untried.

So at the end of the day I have to admit Calvin College has done better than many schools in avoiding the twin pitfalls of liberalism and fundamentalism. They have chosen a middle ground and have been right on many issues. But they are relying on human discernment to find that middle ground. What is more everyone recognizes that as fallible so they feel free to attack it. So as human effort goes I think they have done pretty well. It is just that human effort is not enough. We need grace and the particular grace needed is only available through the Catholic church. So their effort is ultimately going to fail. It has already failed on issues like contraception and divorce. They unknowingly embraced error on those issue. That will keep happening. But they do better than most and remarkably well given the lights they have.

This is why I am grateful for the few orthodox Catholic schools we have. They seem to be growing but they are still quite a small blip on the overall Catholic higher education scene. Protestants need to see how Catholics can reconcile science and religion quite beautifully and naturally. They can avoid fundamentalism and liberalism. It is not going to happen unless Catholic schools as a whole get a lot more Catholic.

Friday, August 12, 2011

How Much Do Bad Sexual Choices Affect You?

Fr Barron said a few things about the hook up culture and John Paul II. One thing I found interesting is he quoted Dr. Leonard Sax and his book Why Gender Matters. That is a book I had read and was impressed by but I didn't think many others had read it. So it was pretty cool to see Fr Barron talk about it. The other thing I found interesting was a point he made on the forming of an ethical person.
Karol Wojtyla taught that in making an ethical decision, a moral agent does not only give rise to a particular act, but he also contributes to the person he is becoming. Every time I perform a moral act, I am building up my character, and every time I perform an unethical act, I am compromising my character. A sufficient number of virtuous acts, in time, shapes me in such a way that I can predictably and reliably perform virtuously in the future, and a sufficient number of vicious acts can misshape me in such a way that I am typically incapable of choosing rightly in the future.
This is not judgmentalism. It is a kind of spiritual/moral physics, an articulation of a basic law.
This is something he applies directly to engaging in acts of casual sex. That is that they compromise your moral character. This is something you don't hear very much about. That sexual immorality will produce other forms of immorality. Conversely that being sexually pure will make you better morally in other areas of life.

This is something many people assume is false. When Bill Clinton does something sexually immoral nobody says that that makes all his moral judgements suspect. People assume that is just one area of life that won't affect his job, even such a multifaceted job as president of the US. They talk about Kennedy who committed adultery a number of times. He is considered a saint by American civil religion so he can't be questioned.

Even in today's paper there was a headline that struck me. A person on trial for child pornography was charged with murder in an "unrelated" case. That seemed like a loaded word to put in a headline. How do you know the moral problems he has in the area of sex are unrelated to moral problems in other areas of life? I do remember reading about some study that showed exactly the opposite. That people who indulge in porn do commit more crime. That is violent crime, not just sexual crimes.

I find that even many Christian resources don't make this argument. They say your sexual choices impact your relationship with God. That might in turn effect your moral life generally. But the idea that even for non-Christians and even for people that don't believe something is immoral. Just the fact that what they are doing is against the moral order will cause their character to degrade.

So even if you honestly think there is nothing wrong with hook ups or pornography or artificial contraception just the fact that it is wrong means your entire moral life will suffer if you engage in it. The "acts can misshape me in such a way that I am typically incapable of choosing rightly in the future." Certainly if you know they are wrong and do them anyway the effects will be worse. But simply getting rid of all teaching on the wrongness of such things does not solve the problem. The wrongness is inherent in the act. Our conscience will tell us that on some level at least for a while.

Those of us whom God has entrusted with the knowledge of that wrongness should say something as well. After all, evil won't stop when it infects the whole person. It will infect the whole of society. Unless people start saying they don't want to live in that kind of society. But so many of those people have been misshaped by what was considered casual sex 30 years ago. Not as bad as the hook up culture today but a long way from a truly moral sexuality. Back then 3 sexual partners a year was considered casual. Now it is more like 30. So we are getting worse. Most of today's parents have not had a solid moral formation so they can't provide one. Really a return to the church is our only hope.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Love and Science

People love to separate the spiritual from the physical. The old heresy was gnosticism. That said the spiritual was good and the physical was bad. Very few people defend gnosticism explicitly. Yet you still see it as the underlying assumption behind much modern thinking. It is tempting because the physical can get so messy and painful.

Today a lot of people are going the other direction. They separate the physical and the spiritual but prefer the physical. The physical world can be examined by science. That is where the real truth is. The spiritual is nice but just not as important. Spiritual truth is kind of fuzzy. There might be contradictions that could not happen in science. It just does not matter except at a very subjective emotional level. Some people say it matters a lot after you die. You might believe your spirit lives on if in a good place or a bad place based on this or that but who knows who is right about these matters? The really serious minds focus on the physical world. That is the path to progress.

Still most people would say that love is the highest human value. But this kind of thinking says love is not part of what is real. Is it physical? If it is physical then it is just a state of a set of neurons in a person's brain. Apart from the lover's brain there is no such thing as love. But saying a neurological phenomenon is the highest human value does not make a lot of sense. It is like saying having good teeth is the highest human good. Sure neurons are more complicated than teeth but it is still an arrangement of body parts. Love must be more than that.

If it is more than that then it is not physical. That means truth about love is second class. It is in the category of fuzzy non-scientific truth. But how can what is most valuable not correspond to what is most real? So either way love is diminished. It is either a neurological phenomenon or it is something deeper. If it is deeper then it must take a back seat to solid, scientific truths.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Getting Answers From God

As Christians we all want to obey God but we don't always know what God wants. So you have vocation stories. Someone explains exactly how they figured out God was calling them to religious life. You have them for the married vocation to but those are normally called romances. But it is similar. Typically at a young age people are discerning how God wants them to spend the rest of their lives. How do they know this? God does not often give an external command. He could appear to a young person and say "marry so and so" or perhaps "become a monk." He does do that but only in a small minority of cases. He could do it more. Somehow God wants us to discover who we are rather than Him just telling us. We tend to rebel against things that are imposed on us. When it is our own idea we are much more likely to embrace it.

We also have an amazing capacity for questioning the most obvious signs. If we did have a vision or a dream and God spoke to us and told us exactly what His will for our life was then what would happen? We would proceed with great confidence at first. But as we went along and we encountered struggles and the vision faded in our memory we might start to wonder. Did I really hear from God? Did I imagine it? Could my mind have been playing tricks on me? We imagine that God could resolve all our doubts with one obvious sign but God knows there are deeper doubts there that will resurface even after something like that. So he puts us through a much slower process that deals with those deeper doubts. Letting your faith that this is God's will for you grow over time. So you might not be able to describe how or why you became certain this was His will. But you do get a peace about it.

So we can spend much time searching and praying for our mission and God can be quite slow to answer. Often He is giving hints. Pointing us in the right direction. Why does it take long? One reason is we are not willing to contemplate that God might be telling us what he is telling us. GK Chesterton said the big step in his Catholic conversion is when he simply decided to be fair to the church. Once he took that wall of prejudice down the conversion process proceeded slowly but surely. That is pretty common in conversion stories and vocation stories. There is something that is preventing the person from seriously considering going there. Once that has been removed it is a matter of due diligence. You still need time to pray and get questions answered. If it is truly God's will that should strengthen your resolve.

Another reason it can take a long time is because the answer can be way bigger than we imagined. I know when I prayed for a wife in my early 20's God seemed not to answer for a long time. In hindsight I can see that He had to clean up a lot of issues in my life before I was ready for the kind of marriage He wanted for me. That took time. But back then I didn't see those connections. I thought God was just slow.

Something similar often happens when people ask God for something and the answer is to discard protestantism and become Catholic. They often don't know how big a thing they have asked God for. They might just want to know what God's truth is on one doctrinal question that has been bugging them. But the answer is going to imply that many doctrines they are quite confident about are actually wrong. So people get confused as to why God can't just show them whether women can be ordained or not. But their understanding of ordination is way off base so what seems like a simple question isn't simple at all.

Asking God questions is not safe. The answers can mess with our lives big time. But we need to do it and we need to be willing to consider any answer. We need to persist. We need to use all the means of grace available. Read the bible and pray for sure but don't stop there. Fast, make sacrifices, do Eucharistic adoration, have a mass said for your intention, say a rosary, ask saints to intercede, ask family and friends and clergy to pray and give advice. There are so many ways God gives us to pray.

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Centrality of Love

Thinking more about spiritual formation and how someone might appear to be well formed but internally they have been pushed into compliance and don't really believe what they are living and saying is true. So what is the answer? How can you be sure your formation program works deep down. The only way is to love them. If people are loved then they will be honest with you about their most politically incorrect thoughts. If people are loved they won't tow the line out of fear of the consequences. They will know whatever consequences happen are designed for their own good. This is why this blog is called Speak the Truth in Love. Because truth spoken without love can become a weapon that can drive people away. I never want to do that.

It seems that the Catholic church and the larger, entrenched protestant churches didn't have a good combination of truth and love. Certainly in the Catholic church before Vatican II we had truth and little love. After Vatican II we had love and very little truth. Neither really worked. Part of it has to do with size. When you need to teach a lot of youth with a few staff you can either drill it into them and allow no talk back or you can just discuss what they think the truth might be and have them feel good but learn nothing. Given the choice I would prefer the former. At least you learn facts. They might come alive for you later. If you just leave with a warm fuzzy feeling that is not likely to help you later.

But why choose? Why can't we have both? Develop some real relationships with youth and teach them the faith. OK, so you won't be able to process thousands of kids with a small group of volunteers. But if you make the ministry rewarding for both teachers and pupils then it will grow. Pray hard and God will send you enough teachers and enough kids.

The key is to go deep. The temptation is to keep it simple and fun. I have done youth ministry as in protestant and Catholic settings and that is the common theme. Too much focus on experience and too little on content. Many kids are very bright and they need to be pushed. Society tells them religion is for the weak minds. Real thinkers don't talk about faith much. Churches play right into that by dumbing down the faith. Not just intellectually but often spiritually too. Often the part about taking up your cross gets short shrift. There is an assumption that if we challenge people they will head for the door. Some will. But some will take up the challenge. Do we dare offend some to convert those who are willing. Often the big bureaucratic churches won't go there. They want fewer complaints instead of more saints.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Preacher's Kids and Catholic Societies

Carl Olson has a post about preachers kids (or PK's as they are called in the protestant world) and strongly Catholic cultures like Ireland, Quebec, Portugal, etc. that lost their religion as a culture. These are both interesting topics to me because I am a PK and because, as a Catholic convert, I have often struggled to understand how places that were almost completely Catholic became secularized so quickly. Olson has a theory.
On a much smaller, more intimate level, I liken this process in some ways to what I witnessed with many "preacher's kids" ("PKs", they were often called) from my Fundamentalist youth: they were so tightly controlled and directed in every facet of life—even into their late teens—that they struggled to think critically and properly engage with the larger culture. They were often given pat answers that weren't, in many cases,  necessarily wrong, but which weren't so much taught as foisted upon them. There was, in other words, an approach to life that was quite reactionary and fearful, rather than confident and open to questions and debate
There are some parallels here. You would think that if a world and life view is strong then those who are closest to it and are deeply immersed in it from birth should see its strength and not be attracted to counterfeits. But it does not always work that way. PK's can rebel against the faith. They tend to be really good or really bad. But one would expect that having a strong spiritual father they would do better than they do.

Catholic societies have been generally weak. There are exceptions, Poland, the Philippines, until recently Ireland was one too. But Catholic societies like Spain, France and Italy have really not resisted liberal Christianity very well. Protestant countries like Sweden, Germany and England have not done much better but you would expect some spiritual benefit from true sacraments and a legitimate teaching authority. It is hard to see it.

So why does this happen? Olson's theory is that power can cause pastors to take shortcuts. That is they push their theology but they don't teach their theology. They arm twist people into the faith rather than presenting the full beauty of the faith and letting it attract people. So they look converted but they are not really converted. They have not made the free choice to embrace Catholicism. So it can become somewhat forced. God can seem oppressive. Intuitively they know He is not so they put the stuff they were forced to accept in a different category. It is not like being forced to accept truth about math or geography. It is personal so nagging doubts continue to bother you. But you might not be able to ask those questions out loud. You just don't feel people would respond well.

As a PK I can understand some of that. In school kids could ask offensive questions but I could not. If the preacher's son asks, "What is wrong with looking at pictures of naked women anyway?" there will be a different reaction than if a random teenage boy asks that. So you learn not to ask anything that might embarrass your father. For me that was not a big deal because I was not the kind of kid to ask stuff like that anyway. But I can see how some people might feel they had questions that there was no forum in which they could ask them.

So the thinking is that when religion becomes entrenched in society the fear of questioning can be widespread. Especially when it becomes associated with political movements or ethnic communities. Rejecting Catholicism becomes unthinkable on grounds that have nothing to do with religion. So even seriously questioning it is out of bounds. So nobody struggles with the hard questions in a good way. That leaves an invisible weakness in people's faith. As soon as the non-religious reason for being Catholic is removed then that weakness expresses itself.

I have posted previously on Belloc's explanation for the rise of liberal Catholicism. His focuses on intellectuals. Olson's theory, borrowing from Wiegel,  really applies to all Catholics. He emphasizes the importance of clericalism in associating the church with something other than the faith. Belloc talks about anti-clericalism as a big factor. It seems like a contradiction but perhaps not. People tend to go from one extreme to another when they see a problem and overreact.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Is Sweden Atheist?

Jerry Coyne has an article in USA today called You Can Be Good Without God. Most of it seems quite confused about the relationship between evolution and theism. He assumes the two are mutually exclusive. He must not get out much. He seems to make the error Ed Feser talks about.
The elimination of purpose and meaning from the modern conception of the material universe was not and is not a ‘result’ or ‘discovery’ of modern science, but rather a philosophical interpretation of the results of modern science which owes more to early modern secularist philosophers like Hobbes and Hume…than it does to the great scientists of the last few centuries
That is to say that as a biologist he things biological theories like evolution have obvious philosophical  implications. The trouble is real philosophers see those implications as anything but obvious. So when Coyne says:
As a biologist, I see belief in God-given morality as American's biggest impediment to accepting the fact of evolution. "Evolution," many argue, "could never have given us feelings of kindness, altruism and morality. For if we were merely evolved beasts, we would act like beasts. Surely our good behavior, and the moral sentiments that promote it, reflect impulses that God instilled in our soul."
This is a straw man. I don't know anybody who argues this. But notice the opposites here. We have evolved  morality and God-instilled morality. Why can't it be both? These are no only not opposites. They are not even in the same category. Asking whether something is from evolution is a scientific question. Asking whether something is from God is a religious question. So the thinking is quite muddled.

Then he addresses the question we have been discussing a bit on this blog.
Should we be afraid that a morality based on our genes and our brains is somehow inferior to one handed down from above? Not at all. In fact, it's far better, because secular morality has a flexibility and responsiveness to social change that no God-given morality could ever have. Secular morality is what pushes religion to improve its own dogma on issues such as slavery and the treatment of women. Secular morality is what prevents ethically irrelevant matters — what we eat, read or wear, when we work, or whom we have sex with — from being grouped with matters of genuine moral concern, like rape and child abuse. And really, isn't it better to be moral because you've worked out for yourself — in conjunction with your group — the right thing to do, rather than because you want to propitiate a god or avoid punishment in the hereafter?
So what does he think the purpose of morality is? Is it is just to be responsive to what we want to do? Then why have it? An immoral person does what he wants. Is that is the goal of morality? To do exactly what an immoral person would do? Secular morality was very responsive to the communists and the Nazis. It was able to "improve" it's dogmas against genocide.
Nor should we worry that a society based on secular morality will degenerate into lawlessness. That experiment has already been done — in countries such as Sweden and Denmark that are largely filled with non-believers and atheists. I can vouch from experience that secular European nations are full of well-behaved and well-meaning citizens, not criminals and sociopaths running amok. In fact, you can make a good case that those countries, with their liberal social views and extensive aid for the sick, old and disadvantaged, are even more moral than America.
 About 70% of Sweden's population are members of a church. It is less Christian than the US but hardly an atheist state. Still he begs the question when he asserts Sweden is moral. Sure they have "well-behaved and well-meaning citizens, not criminals and sociopaths." But you could say that about Nazi and Communist countries as well. He seems to feel qualified to judge the morality of Sweden. Based on what? 

The problem with secular morality is that whatever the ruling class thinks is moral can be declared to be moral.Western societies are not there yet. There is still a Christian moral sense deep in these populations. But how long will it last? It has given ground on abortion, euthanasia, etc. What is next? Where will it end? In principle all that is required is time and a continued decline in religion and anything can be accepted. Does that mean they will go out and do a bunch of evil things? They will do what is right in their own eyes. Just like Hitler did. Just like Stalin did.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Hope And Hell

I noticed Bryan Cross weighed in on the Is Hell Empty issue. Glad to see it. I have a lot of respect for Brian. As normal he makes the point better than I did. I did want to reflect on one related question. Suppose we are hoping hell is empty. What are we hoping for? What would a world in which this hope was realized look like? People don't get this. That they are not hoping that God lowers the admission price of heaven. That when Rev 21:27 says, "Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful" that God will reconsider that and say why don't we just let everyone in? That might be what some universalists suggest but it is not what von Balthazar is discussing. What he is hoping for is that God changes hearts. That is a good thing to hope for.

Suppose it happened. Suppose God transformed every heart on the planet so that they were all in a state of grace. What would the world be like if that were the case? It would look like heaven. We would have on earth exactly those who would go to heaven. What would be the difference? Ignorance and freedom. People might do gravely evil things if they were invincibly ignorant of the fact that they were evil or if they were somehow unable to avoid the evil. Where would ignorance come from? Where would the lack of freedom come from? It would come from false teaching and the abuse of power. But even these false teachers can't be culpable for their evil so they must themselves be ignorant or under some sort of compulsion. It becomes like a Nazi chain of command where everyone is following orders and nobody is responsible. But somewhere it seems ignorance and/or compulsion must have a source.

But more than a source, ignorance must also have a purpose. Having a world where people can exercise free will and make clear whether or not their heart is inclined towards the things of God makes sense. Having a world where people do evil simply because they lack the information even in their conscience to know what is good or evil makes less sense. If the heart of man is not the problem but simply ignorance of what is truly good then it becomes very confusing why God does not just fix that problem. He has given us the bible and the church and a conscience but if ignorance is still so deep that good people continue to do gravely evil things all the time then it seems God has not given us enough. We simply don't have enough information to allow our conduct to reflect our character.

It seems that the only way to process the idea that hell is empty is to get rid of the notion that certain common acts are gravely evil. That is where non-Catholic universalists go. They say not attending mass or using contraception or indulging in pornography and masturbation etc. that these things are not really that bad and that you don't need to suppose any deep ignorance on the part of people who do these things. But trying to fit universalism within Catholic orthodoxy you have to assert widespread and deep and long term ignorance of even basic morality. What is does is create a world where nobody is culpable for anything. It does not stand up to scrutiny.