Monday, January 30, 2012

Moses and the Pope

Pope John Paul II at Mt Nebo where Moses viewed the promised land
Our deacon opened this week's homily with this old joke:
This is the transcript of the ACTUAL radio conversation of a U.S. naval ship with the Canadian authorities off the coast of Newfoundland October 1995.

Radio conversation released by the Chief of Naval Operations 10-10-95.

Canadians: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.

Americans: Recommend you divert your course 15 degrees to the North.

Canadians: Negative. You will have to divert your course 15 degrees to
the South to avoid a collision.

Americans: This is the Captain of a US Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.

Canadians: No. I say again, you divert YOUR course.


Canadians: We are a lighthouse. Your call.
This is a made up story despite the word "actual" being in all caps. In the deacon's version the American was a high ranking official and the Canadian was a lowly seaman. His point was that truth was more important than office in determining authority. My guess is our deacon pulled this from a  protestant source and didn't realize that Catholic theology is a bit deeper on this point.

Truth is more important than office if the truth is known with certainty like it is in this case. But in many cases we don't really know the truth. We might have a strong opinion. We mistake it for knowing the truth. Everyone who disagrees with church leadership thinks they have truth on their side. They know that contraception is OK or they know that Mary was not sinless or they know the new mass translation is stupid. Then truth trumps office, right? That makes it OK to rebel against your bishop? Of course not.

But we love the story, don't we? We love when the lowly person is right and the proud ruler is humiliated. Especially when we happen to be the lowly person. So we are quick to assume that this is the case. Is it ever the case? Sometimes you do know facts that church leads don't know. Cases of sexual abuse come to mind. A person might have first hand knowledge that the bishop does not have. But this is rare.

Normally we have become certain because of who we chose to listen to. We listen to the secular culture or we listen to a particular protestant tradition or we listen to one particular wing of the Catholic church. We can read some good arguments and become very convinced. The human mind can arrive at psychological certainty when there is nothing approaching absolute certainty. That means we can become sure we are right and still be wrong. This is not rare.

In fact, we are more often like the commander of the larger ship. We are the ones loudly proclaiming our truth only to suddenly see that our truth was not true at all. We like to put the bishop or the pope in that role. Another old joke is that the good news is there is a God. The bad news is you are not Him. Think of yesterday's first reading:
Moses spoke to all the people, saying:
"A prophet like me will the LORD, your God, raise up for you
from among your own kin;
to him you shall listen.
This is exactly what you requested of the LORD, your God, at Horeb
on the day of the assembly, when you said,
'Let us not again hear the voice of the LORD, our God,
nor see this great fire any more, lest we die.'
And the LORD said to me, 'This was well said.
I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kin,
and will put my words into his mouth;
he shall tell them all that I command him.
Whoever will not listen to my words which he speaks in my name,
I myself will make him answer for it.
But if a prophet presumes to speak in my name
an oracle that I have not commanded him to speak,
or speaks in the name of other gods, he shall die.'"
It is interesting that Israel decided they didn't like the cloud of fire and the powerful voice of God. Sometimes people wonder why God does not make Himself more obvious. The answer is because man was totally uncomfortable with that. The good news is there is a prophet. The ultimate fulfillment of that is Jesus. But popes and bishops are examples of this too as well as the Old Testament prophets. So the good news is that somebody does speak with the authority of God. The bad news is it is not you. This is good news too. Remember we didn't want to hear from God directly. We want a pope and a bishop to do that for us. But then we want him to agree with us.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

More Shots At Santorum

Rick Santorum's candidacy may have a few problems on issues related to war and torture but he sure is touching some nerves with his social policy agenda. It seems he is not as easy to ignore as a few hundred thousand Walk For Life marchers. Kate Harding is the latest to take notice and respond to Santorum's comments about abortion.

As a lapsed Catholic turned atheist, a staunch feminist and someone who has a strong general aversion to sleazy, disingenuous men, I was shocked yesterday to find myself feeling something like respect for Rick Santorum, Pope Benedict XVI and Piers Morgan all in the space of three minutes.
Good to know where she is coming from. 
The three minutes in question are a clip from Morgan's interview with Santorum on the former's CNN talk show. In it, Santorum declares that even if his own daughter were raped – a hypothetical scenario both men manage to discuss with remarkable calm – the Roman Catholic presidential candidate would maintain his adamantly pro-life position regarding abortion.
I do think that candidates should just refuse to discuss hypothetical questions like that. It has become normal but it quite silly. Candidates should discuss matters of public policy. Nobody really knows what they would do when faced with a huge trauma like a family member being raped. This is sentimentalism in action. We want to put your moral code to some kind of emotional acid test. But the right thing to do can be hard in some scenarios. Often it is not as hard as we imagine it will be. A woman can love her child even if it is the product of rape.
I sincerely feel a tiny, grudging mote of respect for that degree of consistency. As anti-choice zealots go, those who will take the "baby killer" argument to its extreme appeal to me slightly more than those who can say with a straight face that abortion is murder, except when the woman didn't want to have sex.
This is good. Consistency is critical. It is either a baby or it isn't. The rape exception is mostly crafted to take the very rare scenario off the table. Focus on the most common abortions. Once we agree that those are wrong we can talk about the hard cases.
Of course, that's the beginning and the end of my respect for Santorum, who had the gall to tell Morgan that his opposition to legal abortion is "not a matter of religious values". He insists that it's founded on his interpretation of the US constitution, as opposed to his interpretation of the teachings of Jesus Christ: "[L]ife begins at conception and persons are covered by the constitution, and because human life is the same as a person, to me it was a pretty simple deduction to make that that's what the constitution clearly intended to protect."
It is not even the constitution. The notion that life begins at conception is a scientific one. It has biblical support but previously many Christians believed that life began at quickening. That is the time when a woman can first feel the baby in her womb. Nobody believes that anymore because the science has shown it to be incoherent.  The fetus is a living thing from the moment of conception. It's species is human.

Once you grasp that then you can take a lot of different roads to arrive at the position that it is immoral to kill it. Moral thinking varies a lot from person to person but most people accept that an innocent human life deserves the protection of the law. Christianity says it. The US Constitution says it. Kantian morality says it. There are lots of ways to get there. If fact, you would have to wonder about any moral system that does not say innocent human life deserves protection under the law. That is the big letter E on the top of the moral eye chart. Everyone gets this one right.
Hang on, I need a moment. Reading those words just gave me a bad flashback to tutoring hopeless freshman composition students in a university writing lab.
We're to believe that Santorum's desire to overturn Roe v Wade is "not a matter of religious values", yet, when discussing a hypothetical pregnancy by rape just moments later, he says: "I believe and I think that the right approach is to accept this horribly created, in the sense of rape, but nevertheless, in a very broken way, a gift of human life, and accept what God is giving to you." ("In the sense of rape." Deep breaths, Kate.) "Gift from God," "person under the law" – why quibble about semantic differences? The point is: Life! Glorious life! Santorum will defend it!
 OK, so you do think life is worth protecting. Then why are you pro-abortion? It boggles the mind that that never needs explaining. It is like the default position. I might get kicked out of the feminist club if I was pro-life.

And here's where my blip of respect for Morgan comes along. "I know that your position is – correct me if I'm wrong – that you believe in the sanctity and the innocence of life. How do you equate that with supporting the death penalty?" he asks. Boo-yah! I dearly wish more American reporters would put that question to self-styled "pro-life" candidates who evince little interest in the sanctity of human life ex utero.
That brings us to my smidgen of respect for Pope Benedict XVI – and for that matter, John Paul II before him – for making it clear that Catholic doctrine, in a moment of convergence with common sense, holds that a pro-life position contraindicates revenge-killing born people. "It cannot be overemphasised that the right to life must be recognised in all its fullness," Pope Benedict said in 2009, praising the abolition of the death penalty in Mexico. So at least in that one respect, Santorum can truthfully say that his political intentions are not based on his professed religious values.
This is not exactly a "Boo-yah!" moment. There is a distinction between killing an innocent human being and killing someone who has committed a serious crime. Every Catholic should have serious reservations about the state taking any life precisely for the reason Pope Benedict gives. But there is a balancing concern. How to properly address what this person has done. One can reasonably say the right to life still trumps everything but one can also reasonable say there are cases where it does not.

Still, if you can't even speak for a whole minute on a political issue without invoking "God's will" as a supporting argument, you have no business running for president of a country whose constitution actually – no weasel words or tortured logic necessary to make this case – enshrines freedom of religion. That alone should be enough to make any American who truly loves liberty and the vision of the "founding fathers" lose all respect for Rick Santorum as a politician.
That would be the same constitution that says "all men are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights?" How is that different from talking about "God's will?" Santorum does not invoke God's will when talking about taxes or foreign policy. Just when talking about issues of life and marriage. Where should he get his ideas about the value of human life and the importance of marriage? From Kate Harding? 
But if you're not persuaded by that, just try remembering that he said becoming pregnant by a rapist is a gift from God. Out loud. With a camera on him. And he wants to be president of a country that has women in it.
What does this man have to do to get drummed out of the race?
That is what it means to say every person is a gift from God. Not just when mom and dad are in love and planning to conceive.  Everyone, regardless of the circumstances of their birth. If not, then when does that human life become valuable? Would it be OK to kill that child as an infant or a toddler? He or she remains the product of a rape. You worry about consistency. Where is the consistency in valuing the lives of those who are born but not those very same lives prior to birth?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Mark Driscoll on Sex

Mark Driscoll is a pastor of a Mars Hill Church in Seattle. He wrote a book on sex and Christian marriage that has drawn a lot of reaction. He recently wrote a response to that reaction. Not surprisingly, he thinks everyone is very confused except him. There is something deeper there. Evangelicals are unsure about how to handle issues of sexual morality. He identifies the two extremes and the ideal in the middle. We can be too permissive, we can be too legalistic, or we can be just right. But just because one can describe these categories does not mean one can correctly put everything related to sex in the correct category.

This book and a few others have generated reaction more from the way they talk about sex than what they actually say. They are quite explicit in their style. They say those who react badly to that have bought into the mistaken idea that sex is gross. That might be true for some of his critics. He does not give examples so there is no way to know. But there is also the idea that sex is sacred. Sacred things are often veiled. That is why we wear cloths to veil the sacred sexuality of our bodies. But language has it's own form of veiling. By using less graphic and more poetic language around sex we respect the sacred nature of it. Modern man does not like that. We see sex as a biological function and tend to think more clinical language should be used. But we have trouble doing it. Something inside us wants to move to the higher language of love or the lower language of the barnyard. We know what we are doing and it isn't clinical. It is either love or lust. Our talk tends to reflect that.

Christians should not fight this. We should not tell couples to use more graphic language in their marriage. We should develop our own love language. Just because some people think of Christians as prudish is no reason to make ourselves talk dirty to our spouse. Just have good marriages with large families and people will figure out that their is a healthy sexuality. That is what the bible does. It talks about men being blessed with a beautiful wife and many children. We are left to fill in the blanks.

Speaking of large families. The other huge problem with this book and many protestant books is it does not see the link between sex and procreation. It is a huge blind spot. He rightly starts by asking what is the purpose of sex. But then he gets the answer wrong. Partly because he is in a bible-only mindset. He can't see that the biological connection between sex and procreation might imply a spiritual connection as well. He can't see it because it is not stated in the bible in explicit, clinical language.

Gen 4:1 says, "Adam lay with his wife Eve, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain." There are quite a few similar verses. Are they just giving us biological information or is there a deeper truth they are trying to communicate? Why are those verses not cited when looking for the biblical purpose of sex? Because protestants choose to ignore them. They have already embraced a contraceptive mentality before examining the scriptures. That is precisely what Driscoll says everyone else does wrong -bringing  their existing bias to their biblical interpretation. This is a problem but he is not immune from it either.

So everything he says about sexual morality is off. He is right that sex is a gift from God. That it is given for a purpose. We honor the Giver if we use it the way it was intended. But he gets the intent wrong. By missing procreation he has reduced sex to just binding two people together. Any two people for any reason? You can see how this would make his whole argument come off the rails.

As with many theological discussions, the inadequacy of the Sola Scriptura method has once again become clear. The bible is a wonderful book but it is not a sex manual. That is a good thing. But that does not mean there should be no authority in matters of sexual morals. But if you accept Sola Scriptura then it does mean that. So you have the typical scenario of everyone speaks for God so nobody does. Guys like Mark Driscoll thrive in that system because absent real authority people will look for someone who is personally compelling. Driscoll is that. Unfortunately that does not correlate at all with being theologically correct. If anything, the devil will have the better presentation.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Pro-life Atheists

Can atheists be pro-life? There are a few. Nathan Hentoff is the classic example. But the fact that there is one classic example means it is pretty rare. I wonder about that. Atheists are very rational, counter-cultural thinkers. Why would they not be pro-life? Thinking about what Paula Kirby wrote about original sin made it more clear. Being pro-life means having to face the reality of grave evil. When innocent children are being killed by the millions and it is being defended by people who are otherwise find upstanding citizens that is big time evil. You can't contemplate that much evil sanctioned by that many people without believing in sin. I mean really believing in sin. Not just saying "nobody's perfect" but accepting that there is something deeply wrong with the human person. That we have a great capacity for denying evil or pretending we just don't see it.

Atheism just does not have an answer to that kind of evil. The kind of evil that can take the mind of an intelligent person and twist it so he can't see what is right. Atheism is essentially salvation by human reason. So it cannot deal with facts that show evil winning out over human reason. Intelligent people who do stupid things because they were overcome by pride or anger or lust or greed. They are all over the place. Atheists need to see that as the exception and not the rule. They must believe that the power of human reason can remain intact. That society won't just come off the rails and embrace evil. That is why they can't contemplate the Nazi holocaust. For the same reason they can't process the modern holocaust of abortion.

You hear this from people who are doing crisis pregnancy ministry. The women involved are not typically atheists but they are often very secular in their thinking. The ministry does not try and evangelize. They try and make the mother see her child is already human and deserves to live. But the two are tied together. When a mother chooses life she often also chooses faith. They typically go back to church and make many positive changes. If you accept sin then you have to accept grace. Otherwise you end up in despair.

Some will make a choice for life and still deny that it was a moral choice. They will just say they personally could not do it but they don't think it is wrong for anyone else. They almost treat their inability to have an abortion as a mental defect. Sort of like an irrational fear of flying in an airplane except this is a phobia about killing your child. In truth it is an irrational fear of transcendent moral principles. That happens but it is not the argument crisis pregnancy people make. They say it is wrong for everyone despite the fact that millions have done it. You can't really process that if you don't believe in grace. Grace for those who have had abortions or pushed other to have them and must account for their actions some day. Also grace for those who choose life and have to face all the challenges that come down that road.

The cross of Jesus is really the only answer to sin that makes sense. But if you don't really, seriously believe in sin it will never make sense. Then taking up your cross and following Jesus won't make sense either.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Atheists And The Meaning Of Life

Apparently the most popular post I have ever done was a reply to an article by Paula Kirby. Not sure why but I ran into another one of her articles.  See what happens:
The correspondent was blunt: “Why don’t you atheists just go out and kill yourselves right now?”
True, most Christians phrase it rather more delicately, but atheists are regularly informed by a certain kind of believer that our lives can have no value if we do not believe in their God. What is the point, they ask, of being kind or loving, caring about suffering or doing anything at all, if one day we just die?
The problem is not just that we die. Sartre said, "Nothing finite has any meaning without an infinite reference point." It is not that we die. It is that everything dies. The human species will one day be extinct. On that day will it matter if you have been nice or cruel? Will it matter if you have helped advanced human society or been a self-centered jerk? As long as that society continues it will matter at least a little. But however long that is will be small in comparison with eternity. So why should I give up some short term pleasure for something that will vanish in significance?

It is true that in the absence of a divine plan our lives have no externally determined purpose: an individual is not born for the purpose of becoming a physician or creating a spectacular work of art or digging a well in an arid corner of Africa. But are the sick less cured, the pleasure to the art-lover less intense, or the thirst of parched villagers less slaked, simply because a man sought his own purpose rather than following a diktat from on high? Do we really need a deity to tell us that a life spent curing cancer is more worthwhile than one spent drinking in the gutter?
Augustine weighed this very question before his conversion. Could he be happy as a drunk? We think the question is rhetorical because we make assumptions that flow from centuries of Christian influence. How should a man seek his own purpose? Why should he suppose he has one? Why should he suppose following that purpose would lead to joy?
Why should we not find satisfaction in alleviating suffering or injustice, just because we’re all going to die one day? The very fact that this life is all we have makes it even more important to do everything possible to reduce the suffering caused by poverty, disease, injustice and ignorance. To describe such attempts as meaningless is to say that avoidable suffering does not matter, hardly a moral stance.
It is not to say it does not matter. It is to ask why it matters. To look at that moral imperative you feel in your spirit and ask where it comes from. It could be just a feeling. The way the human brain has evolved. It could also be a sign pointing to a bigger reality. But if it is just in my head then it's meaning cannot be bigger then my head. The meaning is either an illusion or it is real. It cannot be both.
Many Christians claim we have no reason to care about others if there is no God. But this is itself a religious claim, arising from the theological concept of Original Sin, which declares humankind fallen and corrupt. We can safely ignore it, for in reality we do not need childish stories of eternal reward or damnation to coerce us into being good: research shows that the least religious societies have the lowest incidence of social ills, including crime and violence. Healthy humans have empathy built in, and the explanations for this lie in psychology and evolutionary biology: no gods required. 
Christians don't say that the moment people stop going to church they become serial killers. People have natural empathy for family and other people similar to themselves. They continue to follow many Christian morals on autopilot for a while. In some cases a long while. But there will always be undesirables. People groups that the leadership does not like.We were shocked at how harshly the Nazi's and the communists dealt with these groups. We thought human empathy would have prevented such crimes against humanity. It didn't. You can say you don't believe in original sin but there is ample evidence that people are capable of great evil. Modern man has not made himself immune to this.

Socialist societies do tend to be less religious and also have less crime. But where does their concern for the poor come from? It flowed from the enlightenment but also from the Christian idea of the dignity of human life. Except for abortion and euthanasia the left has mostly kept this idea intact. How long will that last? I don't know. In principle there is nothing to prevent it from changing. Remember that social ills are what the government tells you they are.
Life cannot be meaningless so long as we have the capacity to affect the well-being of ourselves and others. For true meaninglessness, we would need heaven.
In the state of permanent, perfect bliss that is the very definition of heaven, ‘making a difference’ is ruled out. If the difference made an improvement, the previous state could not have been perfect. If it made things worse, the result would not be perfect. In heaven, neither is possible. Even being reunited with loved ones could not add one jot to their bliss or yours, for heaven would be, by definition, a state that could not be improved on.
Just consider for a moment the hellish pointlessness of heaven. At least in our real existence our actions have an effect, for better or worse, and it is therefore worth trying to get them right. In an eternal life where we can have no effect whatsoever, we might as well be dead.
This is interesting. It is also wrong. God is a trinity. A love relationship. More of a dance than a static thing. Heaven will be us joining that love relationship. To be in communion with each other and with God. A marriage between Christ and His Church. God is compelling enough to keep us fulfilled for all eternity. I know those who have always been bored by holy things can't understand that. Don't worry. God won't force heaven on anyone who has not shown the desire to be with Him on earth. If you want to trust yourself to the idea that sin is just a theological concept that can be safely ignored then God will let you do that. That is why He allows hell to exist.
If you have ever claimed that your life would have no meaning if it weren’t for your faith in God, do you really believe your family and friends have no worth in their own right? Can you really not see the point in striving to protect and nurture your children, even if there is no eternal life? Really?
If you do, then it is you, not atheists, who debase humanity, and it is Christianity, not atheism, that diminishes the real value and meaning of life. We atheists find purpose in the world as it is, and in our real lives; we see living beings as valuable in their own right, deserving of our concern and compassion simply because they share our capacity for pain and pleasure. It is hard to imagine a position less moral, less conducive to empathy, than this inherently warped and uncharitable view of humanity proposed by Christianity.
This is just a false choice. That you care for someone because they are children of God or because you feel empathy for them. It can't be both. That is just silly. The issue is that some days we won't feel empathy for some people. Then what? Can we use them and abuse them? We will be tempted. We will be able to rationalize it. We are not above that. Is that is an "inherently warped and uncharitable view of humanity?" I would accept warped. I would not accept uncharitable. I think the honest truth is we are warped. We are sinners in need of God's grace. To deny it would be uncharitable.
This is a perverse view of reality. After all, if the only valuable thing about existence is that God gave it to us, then that must mean the gift is not worth having in its own right. God’s creation would be the equivalent of a shapeless, baggy sweater of dubious color that you would never willingly wear but which you nevertheless can’t bring yourself to throw away because it was a gift from Granny. This approach in effect says you’re grateful for God’s gift, but you don’t actually like it very much; that, were it not for your belief that there’ll be an eternity in heaven to compensate you for having had to endure it, you can see no reason why you’d ever want it.
The trouble with this notion is that the Christian life is a life of joy. It might not seem so when analyzed from a pain and pleasure point of view but there is a much deeper peace and satisfaction that only those living the life understand. So you do wear the sweater. It turns out to be perfect. It suits you like nothing you have ever picked out for yourself. God knows you that well. Heaven is just a bonus. We pursue God on earth because He is worth more than anything this world has to offer. Heaven is going to be the same God and His sweater.
Theistic religion reduces life to something that has no value other than as the creation of an imagined deity. It decrees that purpose and meaning can only be found in being that deity’s puppet, having no purpose but its purpose and no value other than as its handiwork. Theistic religion looks on all that is best and most noble in human impulse and endeavour and dismisses it as meaningless and worthless --or worse: corrupt --unless done in the name of God. It is time to abandon this baseless worldview. It is time to reject theistic religion and start viewing ourselves and others with real dignity, as beings with value in our own right and not just as the distorted shadows of a fictional creator. 
It is still not clear why human beings have value in their own right. If they are products of evolution and evolution has no particular goal then why does human life matter? It seems that she is doing precisely what she accused theists of doing. That is just asserting something for the purpose of manufacturing meaning. Instead of asserting God exists she is asserting humans have value. But she gives no reason why that assertion is likely to be true. If it is true, and I think it is, then the reason it is true would be very important. She just says, "There must be a reason. I don't know what it is but I am sure it isn't God."

If you know the meaning of life then you have to reorder your life around that truth. So the trick is to say there is meaning but to not be precise about what that meaning is. Then you don't have to live up to the morals that fall out of that. I am reminded of John Paul II saying, "Don't be afraid of the truth about yourself." Face that truth with all its implications and live life to the full.

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

Every year this week comes up and is marked the same way. Christians from different denominations worship together. They pray together. They make some sappy speeches about love and respect. What unites us is greater than what divides us. Then they go back to their regular lives and ignore each other or, quite often, compete with each other. This is a step forward from where we were 100 years ago. Where Christians did not respect each other. Some Christians still need to make this step but I think they are getting fewer and fewer. Those that have resisted these symbolic gestures despite all the cultural pressure towards tolerance and celebrating diversity are not likely to change their mind anytime soon.

So these events used to be significant steps forward but they really aren't anymore. We can't keep celebrating the same piece of progress forever. We need to take the next step. What is that? Asking why we can't all be part of one big church? What are the issues that divide us? What are the possible resolutions? That last question is particularly hard for protestants. Protestants can see that simply arguing their particular interpretation of scripture is right will not lead to resolution. But it is the only method of resolving truth claims that Sola Scriptura allows. So there are very few choices:
  1. God does not want all Christians to come to unity confessing one faith
  2. All these people in other denominations are not Christians
  3. Sola Scriptura is not what God intended
Given the fact that 3 is unthinkable for a protestant he is left with some combination of 1 and 2. But once you fellowship with other Christians and talk charitably about your areas of disagreement both those become untenable. Unity is God's heart and there simply has to be a way to get there. God would not leave us snookered.

You can see why most events praying for Christian unity do not want to go there. It is very uncomfortable. I was there for a long time. I wanted unity. I didn't dream it could require me to change my thinking so much. Nobody does. Nobody thinks they are far from the truth. Logically some people will need to seriously rethink some important doctrines. You just always think it is the other guys that are in need of the rethinking.

As Catholics, what are we to do? It seems pretty hypocritical to say everyone else must submit to our church. Even though we have good logical, biblical, and historical reasons for saying that it will always seem to protestants like we get a free ride on the unity issue especially for cradle Catholics. I am not sure we do. I am reminded of something a nun told me long before I considered joining the church. She said, "If you become a Catholic become a good one. We have enough bad ones!" The biggest thing preventing people from becoming Catholic is bad Catholics. The biggest thing causing people to become Catholic is good Catholics. From whom much is given much is required. We have been given much and we can't bury it in the ground.

First, we need to do a good job of submitting to the church but remaining a good critical thinker. When protestants look at the church they see dissenters and they see Catholics who avoid the topic of religion at all cost. Since they can't see themselves becoming either of those kinds of Catholics they think Catholicism is not for them. They need to interact with people who are completely Catholic and undeniably Christian. Many protestants don't believe that is possible. It is easier for them to believe that. Then they can write off the Catholic church. It is the job of every Catholic to be the counter example to that thinking. To make protestants think the church really might have something they are missing. In short, we are to be saints.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Santorum and Drug Dealers

A CNN columnist, LZ Granderson, writes on why he does not hate Rick Santorum.
When I was a youth pastor at a small, evangelical church in Kalamazoo, Michigan, I used to accompany my pastor and other members of our congregation into some of the city's neighborhoods where gang activity and gun violence were most prevalent.
We would stand on the corner next to the drug dealers and talk to them about why it was important to turn their lives around.
We start with an attempt to build credibility. Liberal Christians have to do this because you can't tell from their thinking they are Christian. So they have to tell you.
Some would listen.
Others would walk away.
All gave us respect, even if they didn't agree with what we had to say. And I believe they did so because we respected them. We didn't call them names or discount how they felt. We met them where they were -- literally and figuratively.
Not clear what this means. You want to meet people where they are at. Do you have another choice? But you don't want to affirm everything about where they are at. Look for positives but don't pretend negatives are really positives. Which does he mean here?
In a lot of ways, hearing Rick Santorum talk about social issues, particularly gay rights, reminds me of those days. Like those drug dealers, I'm sure he can't see how he destroys his community. Like those drug dealers, Santorum is probably doing what he thinks he needs to do. And like those drug dealers, what Santorum is pushing is addictive, poisonous and a trigger to violence we see all around us. 
Just no moral difference between opposing same-sex marriage and dealing drugs. No qualifiers. No explanations. Isn't it just obvious. Drugs destroy communities. Marriage between a man and a woman? Does he have any statistics to show how drug use and traditional marriage are equivalent in their community destroying property? Somehow I doubt it. We just have to take his word for it.
His anti-gay rhetoric justifies, for some people, the bullying in school, the senseless beatings of people perceived to be gay and the under-reported murders of transgender people. The truth is that the disrespectful tone in which Santorum talks about GLBT people, in the name of religion, gives permission for our lives to be equally disrespected. Disregarded.
 Can we get a quote from Santorum that justified violence against gays? I guess we will have to take his word for that to. But I have one more question? What happens if someone reads Mr Granderson's stuff and goes out and beats up a member of the Christian right? All it takes is "some people" reading what you write and becoming violent. Granderson can't control that. Neither can Santorum. So why bring it up?
Sometimes, the impulse is to return the fire, matching name-calling with name-calling. I, too, have found myself so ticked off by Santorum's words that I've called him everything but a child of God. That's when I come to my senses and try to remember the one thing he seems to forget. We're all God's children. We're all brothers and sisters.
You just accused him of destroying communities and of inciting violence. Unfairly. So how is that different from name-calling? If you are going to throw mud that is your right but at least admit you are throwing mud. Treating someone as a child of God involves more than just saying you love Santorum like a brother. It involves doing it. That would start with actually interacting with his ideas and not simply making baseless inflammatory accusations.
And like brothers and sisters, we won't always agree. Sometimes we will fight. But we can't get so caught up in our disagreements that we forget that what bonds us is far more important than what divides us. Being respectful doesn't mean you have to give up your religion.
Still, as much as it pains me to admit, Rick Santorum is my brother. I don't support the way he sows seeds of discord for political gain, but I can't allow him to drag me down so far that I hate him. Just as I didn't hate the drug dealers and gang bangers who were poisoning the Kalamazoo neighborhoods.
 Not sure he has a clue what being respectful means. If he can't see that comparing Senator Santorum to gang bangers and drug dealers might be disrespectful then there is not much hope. He seems to feel respect is about patting yourself on the back for being respectful and that is it.
Instead we all must go to the figurative street corner and find a way to respectfully engage. After all, Santorum's views are not just his. More than 30,000 Iowans last week said they wanted to see him in the White House. This week thousands in New Hampshire might say the same. Calling social conservatives names might help blow off steam, but it's not going to change their hearts. And you cannot change a person's mind without first changing his or her heart.
Some will listen.
Some will walk away.
But neither group is going anywhere without at least getting to the place of respect.

It think he is confused between respecting an idea and respecting a person. People always deserve respect. Ideas might or might not. Some ideas are just evil. If someone holds them deeply you interact with them for the sake of the person. No for the sake of the idea. He is nowhere close to respecting Santorum as a person. If he did he would be quoting him and explaining why he disagrees.
Now I'm sure some are surprised to learn that I was heavily involved in the evangelical church. Others are shocked to read I lived in a small town called Kalamazoo. But we are all more than we appear to be.
Santorum is more than his homophobic rhetoric.
I am more than a gay guy who opposes it.
And if we were to sit across from each other with a cup of coffee, I'm sure we would find the labels we assign to constituent groups and such wouldn't do any of us justice.
Sound touchy feely?
It is.
But that doesn't mean it isn't true.
It does not mean it is true either. Who cares if you both cheer for the same baseball team or both like to fish? What we need to know is what is true about marriage. Let's talk about that. This is just sentimentalism. Never mind about the moral fiber of society. We are nice guys. So we want a gay marriage here, some pornography there, and an abortions every few seconds. Let's just be friends and forget about that.
Rick Santorum's significance has nothing to do with the election -- it's that he gives voice and seeming legitimacy to a lot of people who think it's OK to fire someone for being gay. Getting upset by such a notion is natural. Slapping them with a name like bigot is understandable. But then what? Santorum's campaign presents us with the uncomfortable but necessary task of dealing with that question.
Sure the issue is bigger than the election but to say it has nothing to do with the election is a little strange. It has nothing to do with bigotry. It may be natural for him to call everyone he disagrees with a bigot. Good thing he is above name-calling. But he is right. There is a question to deal with. It is uncomfortable. We need to ask whether society is giving marriage an environment where it can flourish? The numbers seem to indicate No. It matters because children matter. That is what will be uncomfortable. Looking past out short term pleasure long enough to think about the nation's children.
Santorum said he would love his son just the same if his son were to tell him he was gay. Whether that's true is debatable, but what isn't debatable is the importance for fair minded people to push for a country where, if Santorum's son were gay, he wouldn't feel society hates him for it.
You wonder if people like him actually buy this. That they can't imagine a society where marriage is between a man and a woman and yet society would not hate someone who declares himself or herself to be gay. Is it really that hard to imagine? Probably the advocates are the worst people to ask about this. My guess is most people want to keep their sex lives private. Guys like Granderson have chosen not just to make it public but seek a public image built around their sexual preference. Their profession is being a public gay person. So if one says society should not celebrate gayness then they are likely to take it personally. It costs them money. It costs them celebrity status. So they might feel loved or hated by society based on whether people feel the need to trot out a token homosexual every once in a while and say nice things about them.

Part of this has to do with the notion or moral relativism. That society can somehow control the rightness or wrongness of an act such as gay sex. That if gays win the political battle then the tortured consciences will go away. They won't. Moral relativism is false. Gay sex will remain immoral regardless of how widely it gets accepted in contemporary society. But I think many have that hope. Salvation through politics.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Are Protestants Still Protesting?

Are Protestants Still Protesting? If you had asked me that 20 years ago I would have said No. My experience growing up reformed was embracing the reformed traditions and Calvinist theology. We didn't see them as a rebellion against Catholicism or anything else. We were pursuing truth and holiness and that was that.

But things have changed. This discussion over I Like Jesus But Not Religion is typical of what you hear from protestants a lot lately. They distinguish themselves from traditional Christianity. They don't say Catholicism partly because it would be offensive and partly because there are more Christian groups they would include as traditional. But the aim is clear. They want to paint themselves as different from what people think of as Christian. People are not interested in traditional Christianity. We want to show them Jesus without that. That starts by affirming that they were right to reject the traditional worship Christians have always engaged in. This is even done within the same denomination. The reformed, liturgical worship I grew up with is often mocked by modern reformed pastors. It is seen as a great evil. Something that caused a lot of young people to leave the faith.

But when you protest previous generations of Christians what are you protesting? What protestants would call the church. They would not think of this but what is their definition of the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic church? They say it is the collection of all the saved both living and dead. How is that different from what they are attacking when they rail against those churches with empty ritual and judgmental sermons? Are they saying none of those people in those traditions were saved? They seem to come close to saying it. It just isn't sustainable. Those traditions represented almost all protestants up until around 1950. You start to think of names like CS Lewis and Corrie Ten Boom. Very few protestants would start to argue they were unsaved.

You can see what is happening. They are not protesting the Catholic church by itself. They are including a bunch of protestants that are lumped in with the Catholics. They are getting the same issues. All that is happening is the line between "good modern Christian" and "bad historical Christian" is being drawn differently. But they are still rejecting what scripture calls the Bride of Christ or the body of Christ or the family of God. They don't want to be identified with historical Christianity. They want to emphasize all the ways they are different. That they have somehow fixed this broken thing called Christianity. 

Ultimately it is not an emphasis on Jesus but on the pastors. They try and emphasize Jesus. They really do. But you say previous generations were wrong and you are right. Was Jesus there in previous generations? Sure. So what has changed? What fixed this big problem? New human leadership. So Jesus without the hip new pastor is bad? How do you get away from that?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Feeling God

I was reading about a Barna study about young people and church.
One category that was monitored was connecting with God, which the study described as the most important outcome to churches.
According to the study, 66 percent of churchgoers said they have had a personal connection with God during church service, while one-third of churchgoers never felt a connection God during church.
The report says that 44 percent of people who attend church weekly feel God's presence every week and 18 percent feel God on a monthly basis.
What struck me was the emphasis on feelings. What the churches described as important was "connecting with God." That is a great thing for a church to desire for it's members on Sunday morning. But then the responses from the members added that extra dimension. Feelings. Do I feel connection with God? That is a huge leap.

As a Catholic I go to mass to connect with God. Jesus is objectively present in the Eucharist. That means He is there whether I feel that connection or not. I want to feel His presence but reality is more important than my feelings. I need to believe on faith that the connection happened whether I feel it or not.

This is a huge distinction. If you approach Sunday mornings from a  perspective of how can I manufacture a feeling of God then you are liable to go very far afield. What if you feel God more when you go fishing then when you go to church? Should you go fishing on Sunday morning? What if the church that makes you feel God's presence also teaches heresy? I had that issue as a protestant. I was Reformed in my theology but felt more inspired by Pentecostal services.

What I need is a way of worshiping God that does not depend on my feelings because they change like the wind. That is what the mass gives me. I was actually Catholic for a while before I realized I needed this. I was actually happy with my feeling-driven Sunday morning experience.

Then there is talk about "gained new spiritual insight" or it "affected their life greatly" or "they experienced transformation." You do expect these things from a church but you would also expect these things if you were "tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming" (Eph 4:14). If we continue to embrace the same faith more and more deeply then the change should be more organic. Like a tree grows over the years but you don't think of it as experiencing transformation. Your new insights might be new fashions rather than real growth.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Christians and Persecution

Timothy Dalrymple discusses whether Christians have a persecution complex. It turns out to be about the "War on Christmas." That is something I have not noticed this year. What I have noticed is persecution of Christians around the world. Violently in many places in the world and more politically in the west but increasing at an alarming rate all over.

Tim's post does a good job of addressing the fact that Christians have not really claimed the Christmas issues were persecution but I wonder if we should have. It is becoming clearer and clearer that western society is drifting towards persecution of Christians. The Christmas issue has gone away mostly because other issues have cropped up that are worse. We are now talking about Christians being excluded from government programs unless they agree to support abortion. Christians being fired from their jobs for disagreeing with gay marriage. Christian adoption agencies being shut down for believing children need a mother and a father. These are not possibilities. These are things that have already happened.

The future is looking even worse. The government is setting a very dangerous precedent by making conscience exceptions much narrower than they have ever been. These are clauses in laws that mean government can't force religious institutions to act against their faith. So if a head of a Christian ministry is caught in a sex scandal he can be dismissed on religious grounds and the government can't force the ministry to rehire him because it meets their definition of an unfair dismissal. These protections have covered a lot of church and para-church organizations in the past. The plan seems to be to change that. It is right now focused on contraception and health insurance but the principle is broad. It has the potential to attack any pro-life or pro-marriage organization.

It is the tyranny of sentimentalism. All you have to do is imagine someone who will be hurt if you don't do that. The person does not need to exist. It is not like there were millions of people in agony from being wished Merry Christmas. You just act as if there are. How many gay couples were really hurt because they could not use a Catholic adoption agency? It does not matter if there are none. There are going to be some activists who will claim offense. You can't prove they are lying. So that is enough. Sentimentalism is not about others being hurt. It is about making us feel hurt vicariously. Reality does not matter. If we can imagine a gay couple would feel devastated and not just go to another agency then we are there. Sentimentalism is really self-centered. It is our feelings that matter. We only pretend to care about another person.

I wonder if God is not sending us persecution because we don't care enough for our persecuted brothers. Studies show that Christians are by far the most persecuted religion word-wide. But over 80% of Christians live in countries where Christianity is the majority religion. So we tend not to care about the 200 million or so Christians living under persecution. Christian countries have done little to protest these incidents. So maybe if God gives us persecution here we will start to care. So next time you see a story of some Christian person getting fired or some Christian organization losing funding because of their faith, pray for them, but also pray for the Christians dealing with violence in Egypt, India, Nigeria and many other places.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Saint and Lions

Saints usually win. They win over kings and emperors. They win over philosophers and armies. They even win over popes. But there is an exception. Lions beat saints. St Ignatius is the most famous example but there were many saints who were fed to lions. I did find one, St Blandina, who was miraculously not eaten by the Lions but even then the Lions did not get eaten. St Blandina was still martyred. So it seems that when Saint and Lions meet that the Lions do pretty well.

Politics and Justice

School of Athens by Raphael
I find US elections hard. I like politics. I just don't like watching Christians engage in politics. The accuse each other of all sorts of things. They also tend to twist their theology inside out to fit their politics. It is not pleasant to watch. But the election seems to dominate all the talk these days. It is hard to avoid.

I don't think we should avoid it. As Christians we should look to transform politics and make it more Christ-like. The opposite is more the rule. Politics transforms Christianity and makes it more political. What we are to work on as Christians needs to be bigger than one political race or even a political party. We should all read Pope Benedict's' address to the German parliament where he talks about how politics and religion should interact.
Politics must be a striving for justice, and hence it has to establish the fundamental preconditions for peace. Naturally a politician will seek success, as this is what opens up for him the possibility of effective political action. Yet success is subordinated to the criterion of justice, to the will to do what is right, and to the understanding of what is right. Success can also be seductive and thus can open up the path towards the falsification of what is right, towards the destruction of justice. “Without justice – what else is the State but a great band of robbers?”, as Saint Augustine once said . We Germans know from our own experience that these words are no empty spectre. We have seen how power became divorced from right, how power opposed right and crushed it, so that the State became an instrument for destroying right – a highly organized band of robbers, capable of threatening the whole world and driving it to the edge of the abyss.
I could not really find a quote that does it justice. You kind of need to read the whole thing. But he did not talk about one party or one issue. He talked about what is the core motivation. First of all, it must be about justice rather than winning. But then he goes on to ask where your sense of justice comes from. How we need to merge our morality and our reason to get there? Can we bring Athens and Jerusalem together?

Then he did something that reminded me of a CS Lewis quote that can be found in something Mark Shea just linked.
This thing which I have called for convenience the Tao, and which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgements. If it is rejected, all values are rejected. If any value is retained, it is retained.
What the pope sees is that if he can sell Germans on one value he will have sold them on the whole concept of morality. What value did he choose?  Environmentalism. Something Germans have embraced big time. That is one way that people have seen "that the earth has a dignity of its own and that we must follow its directives." If we can see what is natural ought to be preserved ecologically then we have moved from "is" to "ought." That can lead to the same kind of "ought" in preserving what is natural socially. Like the sanctity of life and the integrity of marriage.

The point is that we need to think rationally about what ought to be. We should pick politicians that do that well. Sure you expect them to avoid certain wrong answers. But how do they avoid them? Do they make a political calculation? That is do they decide based on winning rather than justice? If so, then they are worse than those who decide based on a warped view of justice.

I must say the choices all look pretty poor when evaluated on this basis. I don't see any candidates that consistently make choices based on justice rather than winning. I guess that is because they don't win. Santorum seems to do so on social issues but not on issues of national security. There he seems to follow the polls. Paul seems interesting but I don't know enough about him. He seems a little unbalanced but I can't point out exactly why.

People elect the same old type of politician again and again but they always seem to want someone different. It is like we know these guys are not what we need but we don't demand better. Justice gets hard. Politicians mostly fold when anything gets hard. That is the problem with guys who are focused on winning. That is all they will accomplish is winning. But that problem is not just with the candidate. Many of the supporters have the "just win" mentality. They are not concerned with leaving behind a better society. At least not concerned enough to risk their political life for it. It is rare to find candidates like that. Santorum and Paul seem like the only guys out there who believe something strong enough to stick by it no matter the cost. Guys with that kind of courage can do great good or great harm. That is why we need to understand where they get their ideas about right and wrong.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Are Good People Boring?

We got season 5 of the show House for Christmas. One plot line has Dr House finding out embarrassing details of the various character's lives by hiring a private detective. There is one character, Foreman, he can't find any dirt on. House dismisses him as boring. Then they have a follow-up conversation reenforcing that comment that this Foreman character, who is the only moral character on the show, is boring.

Now in thinking about this post I am reminded of some debates about World Cup Soccer. I have pointed out that if you have to argue something is not boring then you are already in a lot of trouble. So I don't want to go there. I do think we often find good people less superficially attractive. There are a bunch of reasons for it. One is because we like to sin vicariously. We don't want to do drugs but we like to hear about any excitement generated by them in someone else's life. We don't cheat on our spouse but we want all the details when someone else does. It is an affection for sin. It can rob us of our spiritual joy. That can make us boring people.

The other problem is we are scared to look too close at good people. Certainly fiction will dig endlessly into the depths of evil. We love Macbeth and Romeo and Juliet because of their tragic flaws. Hollywood has endless attempts to plumb the depths of drug addiction and sex addiction and whatever else. But what about what makes a good person tick? When you explore goodness humans feel pressured to respond. They feel like you are preaching at them. When you show the source of a character's goodness you issue an implicit demand that everyone pursue that source too. That is the nature of goodness. If we fail to pursue it we are failing as human beings.

I was at a hockey banquet last night. There were a couple of inspirational speakers there. I found they suffered from this as well. They had their lives changed by coming into contact with something good. But they refused to explore that good thing in any depth. Why not? Because when you do you are talking about religion. When you do that it demands a response. Often these stories are Christian stories with the God talk removed. Someone suffered terribly and through their faith in Jesus they were able to move from being an angry person to being a joyful person. People hear that and think it it is an incredible story of the human spirit. That the God stuff is just an aside. But it is not off to the side. It is the foundation. Why was this person OK with a life that was very different and in some ways much less than the one he had dreamed of? Because he believes God meant him to be what he is and not what he dreamed. Once he gets that the envy and anger can melt away he can be truly joyful. But if he believed it was just bad luck that took away his dreams then why should he not be angry at life and envious of those who get to live the life he dreamed of?

So how could the House writers make Foreman more interesting? Give him a compelling reason to be good. Don't just take away the sin and replace it with nothing. Certainly don't take away the difficulties in life. Good people have challenges. Most of the suffering on the show is self-inflicted so Foreman has none. That is not real. You still suffer. Your suffering just does good. Love does amazing good but it opens us up to suffering. It is not boring.

Thinking about it makes me wonder how much contraception has played a role here. Certainly contraception makes marriage boring. The protestant endorsement of contraception is really a big embrace of boredom. God wants to make you fruitful but you can be safe instead. You can have a sterile Christianity where you don't do anything good or bad. God wants our cup to run over and we just want to turn it off. Half full is fine ... and water please because wine is to dangerous!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

A Pope Benedict Quote

From Pope Benedict's book Jesus of Nazareth II (p241-2):
The Christian faith stands or falls with the truth of the testimony that Christ is risen from the dead.

If this were taken away it would still be possible to piece together from Christian tradition a series of interesting ideas about God and men, about man's being and his obligations, a kind of religious world view; but the Christian faith itself would be dead. Jesus would be a failed religious leader who despite his failure remains great and can cause us to reflect.  But he would then remain purely human, and his authority would extend only so far as his message is of interest to us. He would not longer be a criterion; the only criterion left would be our own judgement in selecting from his heritage what strikes us as helpful. In other words we would be alone. Our own judgement would be the highest instance.
This is written about the resurrection. It strikes me how similar it is to the problem with Sola Scriptura. That the resurrection makes Jesus the ultimate criterion. He is the one true mediator between man and God. But the moment that mediator leaves this earth we have the same problem again. We are left with merely human authority that is only going to extend as far as it interests us. Unless we aren't. Unless there is an authority on earth that is more than human.

This is the insidious thing. Protestants claim their authority gets the important things right. So what is the big deal? The problem is that reduces Christianity to something human. You and the thinkers that interest you decide what is important and what are the right answers on those issues. That is the end of the public part of Christianity. The private part of Christianity is still there where we pray and reflect and try and follow Christ. But "what strikes us as helpful" is even more central in our private discernment than it is in our public confession. For me and many protestants I knew that sense is assumed to be God's voice. It can be God's voice. It can also be our own pious imagination. How do we know? We don't. Not unless we have some discernment that we trust more than out own.

Mary is a good example of something that does not interest protestants. There is an assumption that because I don't have a desire to meditate on her role in salvation that it must be unimportant. We read the bible, we pray, we just don't feel led to think about Mary. Is that God telling us she does not matter? Not at all. It is your human tradition becoming an echo chamber and drowning out God. Unless there is an authority that can demand we go beyond what interests us then there is no way out. Then Jesus is not really alive to you. You are still in an entirely human situation.

It sounds harsh. If you reason in good faith and try to follow God why should that not work? But that is why we needed Jesus. People reasoning in good faith was not adequate. He came to give us something better. A new covenant. But we also need a new covenant community. We need to encounter the true Jesus and not just ideas about Him. Even very pious and sincere ideas are not good enough. We need the way, the truth, and the life. Not just from one of the many who claim to have Jesus figured out. From the mystical body of Christ itself.

This is what Bryan Cross was saying with his now-famous Ecclesial Deism article. That Sola Scriptura turns Jesus into "a failed religious leader." Still a very interesting figure but not a criterion. At least not a knowable criterion. No matter how many good things grow from that foundation they are ultimately human things. For we are alone with our judgement. God is not with us.