Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Blog Break

Lent is here again. I shall return at Easter. Got to keep the main thing the main thing. Pray for me and I shall pray for you.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Sola/Solo Revisited

A while back there was a series of articles at Called to Communion responding to a book by Ken Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura. There was a bunch of back and forth. Eventually Mathison responded. He even responded on this blog once.  But his main reply was in two parts. One was to note the bias of the authors. That is they all seemed to come from a Catholic point of view. The second was to make a more generic argument against the Catholic church.

Neal Judisch wrote a reply to that reply. There were a number of other replies but I want to reflect on Neal's which I don't think was ever really responded to. His response was basically to point out that the responses were not logical critiques of the logical argument presented. They were claims of bias but they don't matter when you are not making an argument from authority. If the trustworthiness of someone's judgement is not a premise of the argument then pointing out bias does not refute anything.

So that is where it was dropped as far as I can tell. With Neal challenging Mathison to refute the argument in logical terms. That is to state precisely which premise he rejected or why he didn't feel the conclusion followed from the premises. That was about a year ago. Nothing. Sure there were many comments on all of these posts but nothing I can remember as coming close to meeting this challenge.

So what does that mean? If you reject Catholic arguments because they are Catholic and not because they are logically unsound? What that ends up doing is pitting faith against reason. Reject this conclusion on faith despite the apparent rational basis for it. It is dangerous territory. It essentially says there are some truths that cannot be properly scrutinized by reason.

Protestantism is supposed to be based on scripture and plain reason. There is huge subjectivity in what counts as plain reason. But if defending it requires you to reject logical arguments without explaining what is unsound about them then you have taken that subjectivity to a new level. You end up undermining every logical argument you ever make. If you can simply ignore logical problems then why can't some else? 

Friday, February 17, 2012

Examining John Piper

Christian Piatt writes an article result reacting to what Piper said about Christianity and gender
I really want to give John Piper the benefit of the doubt. Given that he’s a minister in the Baptist tradition, it doesn’t surprise me when he only refers to God as “he” or when he talks about the man’s role as spiritual head of the household. I grew up Baptist, so I’ve heard it all before.
But he goes too far with it. Way too far. And given the breadth of his influence, his message serves to normalize the marginalization of half (slightly more than, in fact) the world’s population. While I expect he believes he is fulfilling a divine call in sharing his message, I believe I’m serving a similar call in holding him to account.
It is interesting that he starts with some comments about authority. He knows Piper has clout. That many evangelical pastors choose to give him teaching authority. He knows Piper feels called to speak for God but he feels the same call. So what has happened here? God is being taken out of the picture. We have a debate where both sides claim a divine call. But one of them must be wrong.

Piatt states this and moves on. He knows that if he can get people to see the divine authority question as a draw then he can win. He has the culture on his side on this. People living in modern society will find his ideas about the roles of men and women easier to accept that Piper's ideas. So it is a good debate tactic. Get the question of divine authority off the table. 

But if divine authority can be finessed then what chance do we have at arriving at truth? All we have is human opinion. Fallible leaders that have been immersed in our culture, immersed in sin, and immersed in human tradition. One of these leaders may have been given the grace to see God's truth clearly but how do we know which one? We don't.

We will come to agree with one and disagree with the other. Guess what? The vast majority of the time we will agree with the side that matches what we would have said anyway. Person A is telling us we are right. Person B is telling us we are wrong. It is human nature to be more sympathetic to person A because we like to be told we are right. So the process that was supposed to be us hear God's word and obeying it now becomes us convincing ourselves that God must agree with our opinion. 

Can the Holy Spirit intervene and make someone realize that he is wrong and person B is really speaking for God? Sure. Does it happen often? No. Most of the time people's thinking goes along predictable paths. We think we are above it. That our mind can set aside the influences of sin, society, and human tradition. It is spiritual pride. We don't really grasp the significance of our own fallibility.

It reminds me of the typical atheist argument. If God exists He would make His presence obvious and would make obedience easy. Here we have a similar assumption. God exists so He will make His will obvious and not let me embrace serious error unknowingly. The trouble is you are telling God how things should work. He has chosen to be hidden in plain sight so He is obvious to some and invisible to others. It gives us a choice whether to believe and obey or deny there is anything there. But if He gives us the bible and allows us to choose whether to believe it or not then why would He not give us leadership with divine authority and let us choose whether to believe it or not?

As a protestant I could see the atheist was pursuing his own version of good and blaming any God that might exist for not making the right thing clear enough. I didn't see that I was pursuing my own version of good as well. Sure it was formed by scripture. Still the pressure was on God to make things clear to me. I was not going to go out and find a more complete source of His word. Something that could guide me on issues like the role of women in the church that seem to have no strong consensus of what is biblical. Just like I would tell the atheist that if you honestly looked for God you would find Him in the person of Jesus. I can now tell protestants that if you honestly look for an answer to the divine authority stalemate you will find God working powerfully through the Catholic Church.

Anyway, this is getting long so I won't comment on the rest of the article.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Sucked In By Religion

One big fear people have when it comes to religion is being sucked in. Why not? There are many false religions. There are many smart people in those religions. So it happens. But smart people get trapped in bad sexual relationships. They get taken in by greed. They get addicted to alcohol and drugs. Yet people don't respond by avoiding sex, money, parties, etc. They realize there are dangers but you have to live your life. So you exercise due caution and proceed. With religion it is different. People think the most reasonable course is to avoid it altogether.

Of course you can't. Religion is just about answering the big questions in life. GK Chesterton talked about philosophy as thinking that is thought all the way through. It is a pain to do this but the alternative is to not think things through. With religion you can do that. You can refuse to think about the really big questions in life. It is cowardly and irrational but you can do it.

The trouble is those questions do force their way onto the stage at some point. Often you are not ready for them because it happens at the moment of great crisis. A loved one has just died. You have just seen your life's dream crash. Whatever it is. That is when you notice your world and life view is missing in action. That is precisely when you are most likely to get sucked into bad religion. You are emotionally needy and you are not going to be able to think straight. It is really not the best time to be making big life choices but that is often when they get made.

The good news is that most people who make religious commitments under such circumstances end up in a pretty good religion. Some end up in cults or radical groups but most are picked up by an aggressively-evangelizing protestant church. Theology won't be their strong suit but they likely get a lot of things right.

What happens next? Not a lot. They typically either stay where they are at and embrace the tradition that brought them to the faith or they stop going to church entirely.  Very few of them do any serious reading and try and find which Christian church has doctrine that makes more sense than the others. Even if they are in a church that makes up a very small fraction of Christendom.

Suppose you are sick and look for a doctor. But the first doctor you run into is a Sioux Indian medicine man. Would it make sense to judge all medicine by this one medicine man and other medicine men he introduces you to? That would be nuts. You need to go to a mainstream doctor. Even if the medicine man tells you main steam doctors are no good. But this is what people do with Christianity. They judge Christianity based on one particular tradition. They either embrace that tradition or reject all of Christendom. Even when that tradition might be just a few decades old and amount to a trivial fraction of all Christians.

For someone to reject Christianity without seriously investigating Catholicism should be quite strange. Like writing off all smart phones without investigating the iPhone. One could do it but you would not expect many to do it. Somehow it is common for protestant Christians. As a protestant I didn't know anyone who ever read anything serious by a Catholic on why he is Catholic. It is just never seriously addressed.

The bottom line is if people took a more rational approach to religion there would be more Catholics. We could avoid this scenario that starts with fear and later is driven by despair. Instead one could read the best representatives of all the major religious schools of thought. It is not really obvious who that would be but to make a serious attempt at it is not that hard. You can start by asking a member of that faith who you respect for something that describes his religion well. It is exceedingly rare. Most people only consider religious arguments they happen to stumble into.

I wish I could say I had been more rational in my faith journey. I really wasn't. That is why I didn't become Catholic until I was 40. For a long time I just accepted the reformed tradition I was raised with. I thought I was being perfectly rational. I wasn't. I trusted the people I knew because I knew them. Even after I discovered other Christian traditions had impressive Christians in them as well it still took a long time for me to really question whether the reformed tradition was even close to the truth.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Political Sloth

Sloth is an indifference or lack of energy in matters of faith. For example, when people don't attend mass. They can't work up enough energy to go every Sunday. People who are slothful tend to be double-minded. They will affirm their faith but not in a really strong and definitive way. Sometimes the lack of faith comes from the lack of energy. Sometimes it is the other way around. If someone believes the Eucharist is the source and summit of the faith and that regularly partaking of it is essential to their spiritual health and personal happiness then why don't they go? Faith leads to action so if you are unwilling to act you must manufacture doubt.

But it is not only individuals that have trouble with sloth. Societies do as well. We seem to have all sorts of truth issues when it comes to pornography, torture, abortion, etc. Are they really truth issues or are they political sloth? We don't want to do the right thing so we convince ourselves that these moral questions are so hard we could not possible get agreement on them. We blame politicians for trying to run away from the issue. But running away is what society wants. Abraham Lincoln talked about doing right as God gives us grace to see what is right. Today's politicians are much happier being blind and the public does not want them any other way.

So what is the solution? At a personal level the solution to sloth is joy. If our Christian walk is a source of joy to us then we won't lack any energy or enthusiasm in pursuing it. If it isn't then sloth will be a constant struggle. The same goes for countries. If a nation does not see joy in respecting life then it is going to be very hard to get people to change their votes based on issues like torture and abortion. If they don't see joy in building a culture where chastity is supported and not ridiculed then those initiatives are going to have very limited success. It is not enough for people to feel they should do this or that. For them to get active enough in large enough numbers they are going to have to see how this will change their neighborhoods for the better. 

So how do we get there? That is harder. It is easy to point out when rules are broken. It is a lot harder to point out why breaking that rule is a bad thing. Why it will interfere with your joy. You can do it with philosophical reasoning but many people don't find that very compelling. You can try it with art. That has some real potential but art about sex or violence is tricky. We have experienced so much art that handles sex and violence so badly that it is hard to imagine it being done well and being received well.

But that is what is needed. To try and get someone to imagine a modern society where life is respected and sex is respected and how each person's dignity would be affirmed. How people would flourish and become the beautiful men and women God intended. How these strong, healthy people would benefit their friends and family rather than taking advantage of them. That would make the net effect on society much greater than the sum of the parts.

If you think about the Christian takeover of Rome. They didn't just imagine it. They built it. As Roman society became more and more dysfunctional Christians stepped in and  picked up the pieces. Sexual perversions went from being widely accepted everywhere to being recognized as gravely evil. They had seen where the Christian way led and where the pagan way led. But we have trouble even telling that story. When we do we end up making the pagan way of life looking pretty appealing.

Friday, February 10, 2012


Thinking about growth of secularism, I wrote a bit about the role of abortion yesterday. Really the sexual revolution was huge. But I think racism also played a role. Not that one side or the other was racist but the issue of racism and the way it has been discussed in the culture has made people more secular. It is an inflammatory issue. The topic of race is almost never discussed rationally. People have strong opinions and they don't want to have them questioned. It is one of the few true evils in society. Racists are given no respect and they are offered no forgiveness. Oddly enough even a small incidence of racism is enough to trigger this. You must be pure of all stain of racism.

Despite the fact that race is still such a sore spot with so many people it is still seen as an area where modern man has made some great strides forward. Slavery has been ended. Segregation in many forms is a thing of the past. The thought of excluding a person based on race just seems crazy to us now. So there has been great progress made. How did we make it? What was the process by which we arrived at the consensus that discriminating based on race is wrong? In particular, what role did religion play?

On the positive side the role of religion was more behind the scenes. Many of the major players were Christians and their opposition to racism flowed from  their Christian world and life view. But there was no explicit doctrine that this idea was connected with. In fact, there were a lot of intellectuals involved who were not very religious at all. Some black leaders were Muslim. In Africa and India you had a wide variety of religions on side. So it is very hard to draw a clear line between one religion and the emerging consensus that racial discrimination is a morally wrong.

On the negative side you can see religion much more clearly. The white southerners who defended racism were all religious. Many used religious arguments. They found scriptures to back up their point of view like protestants tend to do. I grew up in a Dutch Reformed church. I remember being embarrassed by our sister churches in South Africa. Those churches were some of the most racist institutions in that society and they remained so for a very long time.

So the net effect of religion in the area of racism seemed quite negative. It seemed like man reasoned his way to moral progress rather than praying his way to moral progress. The underpinnings of that reasoning were often Christian but it was man that was largely credited with making the steps forward. Religious people were seen as in the way. They were obstacles to progress. Even when that progress was moral in nature.

So if you talk with a secularist today it won't take long before they compare gay marriage or abortion to racism. The implication is clear. Christian thinking is not infallible. You got the racism question wrong and eventually admitted that liberal intellectuals were right. That pattern is likely to happen with other moral questions as well.

Again the Catholics have a good answer and the protestants don't. Catholics believe in a very precisely defined doctrine of infallibility. So it is very easy to see that racism is old but it isn't magisterial. That is, it does not have the authority of popes, ecumenical councils and saints behind it. So we can label that as sinful because sin is old too. But our teachings on abortion, gay marriage, contraception, divorce, etc. are magisterial. That means Christians have not just believed them but God has led His church to teach them with her full authority. Christians can err. God cannot.

Protestants just don't believe in this distinction. Protestants believe in Sola Scriptura. The trouble is he cannot really say Sola Scriptura could not lead him into error. So how can he say his biblical source of truth is more reliable than secular sources? Even if the secularist accepts that the bible is trustworthy when interpreted right the protestant has to admit it is often not interpreted right. So why should we not believe those that say religious people are standing in the way of progress again?

Thursday, February 9, 2012


Peter Berger writes and interesting piece on blasphemy.
Barring an onset of collective amnesia in the Supreme Court, there is no chance of overt anti-blasphemy legislation. But it is important to point out that the concept of so-called “hate speech” offers a usable substitute, and it has achieved considerable judicial approval both in this country and in Europe. Here the insult is not deemed to be against God, but against the presumably tender “sentiments” of some believers. As far as I know, this concept has not played itself out in the federal courts.
I have written before on how secularism is becoming the state religion in the west. It is not seen as a religion so it escapes the non-establishment clause in the constitution. But it functions very much like a state religion. Hate speech laws are very similar to the "blaspheming the prophet" laws that we criticize in Islamic counties. There is some inflammatory speech that seems reasonable to get rid of. But where is the line? One person's unreasonable inflammatory speech is another person's honest attempt to embrace the truth. That is precisely why the American civil rights movement took as its basic principle that all religions were to be respected by the state.

It is interesting that we are seeing how hard it is to establish democracy in places where this freedom is not respected. When political movements can label their opponents blasphemers and justify the use of violence against them then true political debate ceases and democracy fails. Precisely at the time when we are trying to teach others how to do democracy we are forgetting how to do it ourselves. With all the influence the US had in Iraq and Afghanistan they never suggested simply allowing blasphemy as part of free speech. They were too afraid they would offend the Muslims. Then they wondered why democracy failed.

On the home front we have political correctness trumping freedom of religion in more and more court cases. There are certain dogmas of secularism that you cannot contradict. They are taught in public schools. They are assumed by the news media and the entertainment industry. Increasingly they are enforced by law.

If you think about it, Roe v Wade made the concept of an American Christian impossible. To be a good American you have to believe in the rights and freedoms of the constitution. Roe v Wade said that included abortion rights. So it says anyone who thinks abortion is intrinsically wrong is against the constitution and the bill of rights. That really defines the country in a way that rejects Christianity. Chesterton talked about America as a country founded on a creed. When you change the creed you change the country.

Once you enshrine one tenant of secularism into the constitution you are not going to stop there. The dogmas just keep coming. Eventually Christians get pushed to the fringes of society and the more extreme secularists are able to gain more power.  People who believe on faith that all faith-based beliefs are wrong. Who think it is immoral to declare something immoral. Who are radically intolerant of intolerance. Who bully people by calling them bullies. Anyone can believe anything as long as it has no real content but those who believe in an offensive gospel are going to have a tough time.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Why Children?

When people pursue marriage today they often don't think much about children. Often people are dating saying they don't want to have kids. They just want a spouse. They want to storybook romance but family is often not part of that dream anymore. So when they hear the Catholic church say that the unitive and procreative purposes of sex are inseparable they don't understand. Part of the reason they don't understand is the theological language. The unitive purpose of sex is just the ability of sex to bring a man and a woman close together not just physically but emotionally and spiritually. (My spell checker keeps wanting to change "unitive" to "punitive," not sure what to make of that.)  Anyway, the procreative purpose of sex is the conception of children. So these are unfamiliar words for familiar concepts.

But the concept that is radical to modern ears is the inseparable part. The notion that sex cannot fulfill the purpose of bringing a couple close together when there is no openness to having children. That seems insane to modern culture. We love the idea of falling in love. Our culture is constantly telling stories about lovers. All cultures tell love stories. Our culture tells them in a more explicitly sexual way and they rarely involve children. But then the church tells us that openness to life and true romantic love can't be separated. One has to involve the other. Why is that?

Think about what children are. They are people like their mother and father. So if you love someone, why would you not want to create more people like that someone? Often it is because we don't really love them. We love the idea of being in a sexual relationship with them but we don't really love them. They are very different things. Being in a relationship where you can use them for your pleasure and tolerate their closeness is not love. You would not want to spend time, money, and energy to raise a child who is going to be like that person. You only want to make that kind of effort to raise a child if you believe strongly they are going to be a huge blessing to the world. That means you need to believe that your partner is a huge blessing to the world. But if you don't believe that then do you really love him or her?

Many people today approach marriage from a selfish point of view. I can see myself being happy with this person because they are good looking and they have a good sense of humor or good manners or whatever. It boils down to what I get. Can I take the good and tolerate the bad? Are there more pleasures than pains? This is what John Paul II called the opposite of love. That is a self-centered relationship where a person uses the other. That is contrary to the nature of sex. Sex calls you to a complete gift of self but as long as you are in a using type of relationship it will be destructive to you and your partner.

But does every relationship that is closed to children have to be a using relationship? That is the claim. It is not that you must have children. It is that the desire must be part of your relationship. You might have practical reasons why having children is not going to work but the desire should be strong. It should be as natural as living together. There might be reasons not to live with your spouse but they need to be serious reasons like you have jobs in different cities. If a couple lives apart without serious reasons that is a very bad sign. The same goes with children. If you avoid having children without serious reasons there is something very wrong with the relationship.

Many people will say their relationship is wonderful and they have chosen to never have children. People say a lot of things. Some say committing adultery made their marriage better. You don't want to call people liars but that can't stop you from identifying the essence of marriage. Society is very lost and there are many good-hearted people who have strayed far from it. That does not make it unimportant or optional.

What about those who are not drawn to have children? There is the option of the celibate life. People dismiss that too quickly. Marriage is hard. Celibacy is not easy either but it is a very different road. If a man wants to spend his life on something that takes too much time and provides too little income to allow for a family then the celibate life can free him up to do that. The priesthood is the obvious example but there are others. With women it is more common. Motherhood is more demanding so women tend to choose celibacy in greater numbers. This is all good. Marriage and children need to be top priority. If you feel God is calling you to make something else top priority then marriage is not for you.

Friday, February 3, 2012

The Decline of Man

Pope Benedict's phrase "the decline of man" came to mind when reading this article. It takes a long view of it and goes back to William of Ockham and St Thomas Aquinas.
St. Thomas, in line with patristic Christianity and Greek philosophy, gave primacy to the natural reason as formative in our free choices. The human will, he taught, was inclined to the good, to happiness, to being, to truth, and beauty, and the intellect was ordered toward knowing where these are found. These transcendentals are positive, spiritual realities that attract the will and the intellect. This attraction precedes the free will choices we make. Our freedom derives from the use of reason ordered to truth, and the will ordered to the good, the two uniting to make a choice.
The point is that the will being ordered towards the good has been degrading over many centuries now. We are at a point where many don't know what good is or even if it exists. Reason ordered towards truth has taken a beating as well. We have advanced in our understanding of scientific truth but have declined in our ability to grasp deeper truths. We know the mechanism of things but not the meaning.

You see it in politics. When I was young there were still politicians who were trying to do good. Now we are just looking for someone who will refrain from gravely immoral acts. The chances of even that happening are slim and none. Then there is religion. Decade after decade we see a drop in faith and a rise in all sorts or immoral behavior. There is just a lot of bad news.

So where does it go? Is this general decline we have seen since the 13th century going to just continue? I was thinking that the seed of the church is the blood of the martyrs. So once it gets to a point where Christians start getting killed simply for being Christian then the world will see that something has gone amiss. In many parts of the world they are already doing that. The West does not seem that far off.

But look at WWII. The west had to face the reality of evil then. What happened? They went back to church for a while. But the next generation, the baby boomers, they picked up the same ideas as before the war and ran with them. The WWII generation didn't look very deep. They didn't ask what truth were they missing or what evil were they tolerating that allowed WWII to happen. It was more that they were scared. They almost lost their freedom. Many almost lost their lives. So they went back to their old faith. But they didn't go forward to a closer union with God.

The fact that it was WWII should have been a clue. Responding the same way people did to WWI had already proven inadequate. Embracing the faith of your fathers or even your grandfathers is not going to do it. The seeds of the decline of humanity were already in that faith. It was like trimming the weeds rather than pulling the weeds. It was only a matter of time before evil returned.

I do think we will see a revival like that.That is a returning to God as people currently understand Him which is still a degraded understanding based on false philosophical assumptions. That kind of revival happens every once in a while. They are part of the longer story of the decline of man. But will the errors in Christian thinking that this article traces ever become less dominant? That might take longer.

I do think that evil is growing stronger. Man is more capable of violating human dignity and less capable of seeing why we shouldn't. We might be creating an environment where lesser faiths have trouble surviving. Catholicism will always survive. It can take anything the devil can throw at it. Other faiths have survived a long time. Islam is almost 1400 years old. Protestantism is almost 500. But they require an absolute belief in a book without really addressing questions about where that book comes from and why we should believe it is true. With modern technology it is getting harder and harder to avoid scrutiny. Young people will find websites that ask all the hard questions and ridicule their family's faith.

The good news is that God is real. The Catholic church has been growing in it's understanding. As people's questions get more sophisticated the church's answers have gotten deeper and more beautiful. That is the grace of God that has been poured out despite the fact that many have rebelled. God has kept a people for Himself in every generation. So the answer is there when people want it.

The biggest issue is people's desire for good. They have set the bar low. When will they see that? When they encounter a saint. When they see someone living a truly holy life they realize what they are pursuing is junk by comparison. Then they won't need to be arm twisted into joining a religion. They will want it.