Wednesday, November 30, 2011

From Christ To Christianity

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 28, 2011

Junk Praise

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 25, 2011

Calvinism and Moral Evolution

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

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

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Filtered Christianity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 21, 2011

Follow Your Heart

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 18, 2011

Why Mark Galli Isn't Converting (Yet!)

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Heretics Helping the Poor

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 14, 2011

Two Questions About Certainty

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Why Did You Become Catholic?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 7, 2011

Christian Fanatics

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 4, 2011

Where Does Gayness Come From? Why Do We Care?

There was a controversy about a column written by Daniel Avila about the ultimate source of same-sex desires. It was taken down from the Boston diocese paper's website but it was reproduced in full on the blog in the link with some commentary from a gay blogger. The USCCB didn't stand behind Mr Avila at all. He apologized and when that was determined to be insufficient he resigned from his USCCB post. So what did he say?
So what causes the inclination to same-sex attraction if it appears early and involuntarily and "who," if anyone, is responsible? In determining the answer to the "what" question, the most widely accepted scientific hypothesis points to random imbalances in maternal hormone levels and identifies their disruptive prenatal effects on fetal development as the likely and major cause.

The most recent and most comprehensive discussion of this research is found in a book published earlier this year by a scientist who also happens to be a gay-rights advocate. Even though it discounts other environmental factors that other scientists believe also may play a role, Simon LeVay's publication, "Gay, Straight and the Reason Why: The Science of Sexual Attraction" is worth the read.
This is dangerous territory. Not because the science is not interesting. It is because the scientific answer to the question of causation does not change the moral answer. So picking one scientific theory among many and using it to justify the church's position makes it seem that the church's moral teaching depends on Simon LeVay's theory being right. It does not.
LeVay is not interested in the "who" question and describes same-sex attraction as just a variation among other human inclinations. Catholics do not have the luxury of being materialists. We look for ultimate explanations that transcend the strictly physical world and that stretch beyond our limited ability to mold and reshape reality as we know it. Disruptive imbalances in nature that thwart encoded processes point to supernatural actors who, unlike God, do not have the good of persons at heart.
This is true but it is also dangerous. Looking at creation and figuring out why God made things the way He did and why God gave the commands He did is interesting but error prone. The biggest error we make is finding a partial answer and assuming it is the whole answer. We do believe we can learn from creation. We just need to be very careful. If the bible is hard to interpret we can expect creation to be quite a bit less clear.

In other words, the scientific evidence of how same-sex attraction most likely may be created provides a credible basis for a spiritual explanation that indicts the devil. Any time natural disasters occur, we as people of faith look back to Scripture's account of those angels who rebelled and fell from grace. In their anger against God, these malcontents prowl about the world seeking the ruin of souls. They continue to do all they can to mar, distort and destroy God's handiwork.
This is the paragraph that got him into trouble. He seems to refer to same-sex attraction as a "natural disaster." I don't think he intends that. His point is valid. Just because something comes from nature does not mean it is good and beautiful and right. Earthquakes come from nature. They are part of the brokenness of the world and not part of the goodness of creation. How can science tell us which is which? It can't. He is suggesting that same-sex attraction comes from what scientifically can be described as"disruptive imbalances in nature that thwart encoded processes." It is easier to associate those kinds of things with the devil then with God. But is it impossible for God to work good ends through such genetic anomalies? No. We might discover an example down the road. It would not shock me.
Therefore, whenever natural causes disturb otherwise typical biological development, leading to the personally unchosen beginnings of same-sex attraction, the ultimate responsibility, on a theological level, is and should be imputed to the evil one, not God. Applying this aspect of Catholic belief to interpret the scientific data makes more sense because it does not place God in the awkward position of blessing two mutually incompatible realities -- sexual difference and same-sex attraction.
The language of a broken world  I think is less offensive than the language of the devil. Saying the devil is in your DNA is hard to process. It brings up images of the Damien movies. We need to understand that this is a big misunderstanding with a lot of same-sex attracted people. They are told that the Catholic church teaches that they are just evil and cannot be saved. That is a lie but it is a lie many people have believed. So we need to be extra careful when addressing the fact that same-sex attraction is disordered. It does not mean the person is evil. Just like we don't say a diabetic is evil but we do say diabetes is disordered. So saying diabetes comes from the devil would be unwise. Some people speak of the devil in a very broad framework and from that point of view it would not be inaccurate to say diabetes is from the devil.
If in fact this analysis of causation and culpability is correct, then it opens new perspectives on the Church's teaching in this area. Being born with an inclination which originates in a manner outside of one's control is not sufficient proof that the condition is caused by God or that its satisfaction meets God's purpose. Furthermore, a proper understanding of who is really at fault should deepen our compassion towards those who experience same-sex attraction and inform our response to the question of loneliness. Ultimately, an accurate attribution of responsibility for same-sex attraction frees us to consider more fully the urgent question of why sexual difference matters so much to God. These matters will be addressed in my next column.
I think you could just remove the first line here. Causation is irrelevant. If you knew you same-sex attraction came from being sexually abused as a child. Certainly not God's will. You will still ask God where He expects you to go from here. You let me get here. I now have these desires. Why can't I act on them? It really changes nothing.

What changes things is the knowledge that celibacy can be a blessing. That is something this world cannot seem to understand. They see a life without sex as unthinkable. You need to know that however you got to that place God is going to either heal you of same-sex attraction or grant you the grace to have a fruitful celibacy. Both options seems impossible to many same-sex attracted people. It requires such a deep change of heart they can't imagine it. But God can heal anything if you let Him. Do you want to be healed? Do you want God more then you want your sin? These are the questions every person faces.

The whole incident shows me how rational discussion has been shut down on this issue. It is true of many issues. This article is not perfect but it is reasonable. It is not just name calling. It is insensitive but it is not malicious. It certainly does not deserve to get anybody fired. That can only have a chilling effect on freedom of expression on this issue.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Tim Tebow Not Offended

I am a Detroit Lion fan so I was pleased to see my Lions kill the Denver Broncos. I do like Tim Tebow though. Not so much as a football player but as a Christian. His is happy to let his faith be central to his public persona as well as his private one. He is real. He is not playing PR games when he prays or when he shares his walk with Jesus. This is why I found it very amusing that people were outraged when Lion players poked fun at Tebow's much-publicized prayer pose. The picture shows Lion LB Tulloch striking the pose after sacking Tebow. I cannot imagine a Christian getting offended by that. He is not poking fun at God but rather the media frenzy around one moment of prayer. It's OK for the media to go crazy. They do that. It is also OK for people to joke about it.

What is interesting to me is society's inability to figure out what is offensive. There is an assumption that non-Christian people interacting with the faith are going to offend. It is quite the opposite. The most offensive thing one can do is ignore a Christian's faith. If you tell him he seems like a regular guy and his faith does not make any difference. That is offensive. It may be true and if it is you should still say it but a Christian should take feedback like that to mean he has completely missed the boat.

When you tell a Christian you find his faith strange and even crazy that is to be expected. We are claiming to be transformed by the supernatural love of God. So if you analyze us using purely natural thinking we should not make sense. So people should laugh. They should get confused. They should see something that is condemning in the sense that it makes their sin seem really bad. Yet that same thing is still attractive. Like they are meant to be like that. In short, they should see God.

We love it when people want to interact with that in any way. If they have fun with it. If they argue against it. If they ask questions about it. Somehow we have this idea that if you don't affirm someone's faith you should just ignore their faith. That means the affirmations are going to be pretty shallow. So most people just avoid the whole topic. But this is often just imagined offense. What it flows from is the idea that religion should not be rational. That is not a Christian idea but our society has gone there in the face of many differing theologies. So it is considered unfair to hold up someone else's faith to logical scrutiny. So to ask if you give God the credit when you score a game winning TD what happens when you get sacked? Is that God's fault? It is a fair question even if it is asked in a mocking sort of way. Lots of mocking goes on on the football field. How else are you going to express yourself in an atmosphere of such intense aggression?

So what is offensive? Really just deliberate attempts to desecrate what is holy. If somebody tries to find something offensive to do to the Eucharist precisely because they know Catholics believe it is sacred. That is offensive. It can hardly be done in ignorance. We might not be able to explain why something is sacred but if we know it is then we can treat it in a blasphemous way. Sex is a prime example. People know sex is sacred. They might hold to a materialist world and life view that cannot make sense of the sacredness of sex. But they still know. So crude talk or behavior is uncharitable. Again society always gets this wrong. The offended party is labeled intolerant and the offender is given a free pass.