Thursday, December 22, 2011

Evangelicals and Sex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Real Christianity

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Understanding the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Science and Religion

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

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

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

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

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

Albert Molher and the Virgin Birth

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Moral Pills

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Contraception Error

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

William Lane Craig and God-Commanded Violence

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

False Morality

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 1, 2011

As Silly As Superman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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