Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Sexual Holiness

Jenell Paris has an article that talks about sexual holiness from a protestant perspective.
In the area of sexuality, specifically, morality too easily becomes an idol, whether it’s premarital virginity, marital chastity or heterosexuality. People follow hard after it, measure their worth by it and are sometimes devastated when they offend it. Moreover, Christians teach others to measure their worth by morality rather than by their belovedness. When sexual morality is elevated to an idolatrous place, it diminishes people’s sense of being loved and being able to love, instead of being put in its place by love.
It is hard to think of sexual morality as an idol because the bible so closely associates sexual immorality with idolatry. When Israel worships other gods she is compared to a prostitute or an unfaithful wife. So can worshiping the true God become an idol? Makes no sense. It makes about as much sense as talking about chastity as an idol. Means to the end of holiness can become an idol but holiness itself cannot.
Christians are called to holiness in all areas of life, both personal and corporate. Personal sexual holiness includes how a person cares for his or her sexual feelings, thoughts and actions. My views are conservative—I’m a “sex only within marriage between a man and a woman” kind of Christian—but I am well aware that Christians of good faith disagree about the meaning of personal sexual holiness. Maligning those with whom we disagree, even to the point of questioning the validity of their faith or salvation, is counterproductive and damages the witness of our religion as a whole, which is supposed to be comprised of believers from many times and places united in their devotion to Jesus, not to a set of beliefs about sexuality.
This is classic moral relativism. It even has the self contradictory nature of moral relativism. That is her declaration that "maligning those with whom we disagree" is wrong must also be declared to part of the kind of Christian she is and not something all Christians are bound to. So her maligning the maligners is out of place. She should just say you do that and I don't. Different strokes for different folks. Really it undermines all moral teaching. But she does not want to do that. She only wants to undermine sexual moral teaching. That is what sells. Nobody wants to buy a book that makes murder or theft or lying a matter we just can't agree on. A matter where the real issue is allowing everyone to live out their own diverse ideas of what might be moral. We don't want that in any other area but sex. That is where morals must somehow become wishy-washy.
The world in which Christians all agree about sexual issues is an imaginary one. Love of God and neighbor, the heart of holiness, has to be practiced in the real world in the midst of these disagreements.
Of course we don't agree. But why should holiness depend on agreement? We have one God who is the fountain of all holiness. The fact that we don't agree means we can and do misunderstand God. So we need a trustworthy source of God's truth. Just accepting that everyone has a different version of that truth and assuming our version is fine won't do. We need to find God's word. We can't find it by just looking at our world.

She has a hint when she says "our religion as a whole, which is supposed to be comprised of believers from many times and places united in their devotion to Jesus." Is there any consensus about sexual morality that emerges when you look at such a body of believers? There is. It is more conservative than her “sex only within marriage between a man and a woman” idea. It also rejects contraception and a few other things most protestants accept. So modern sexual morality, even that described as conservative, is very liberal when looking at all of Christianity. That is what " is counterproductive and damages the witness of our religion as a whole."
When the Holy Spirit (or a particular representation of the Holy Spirit) is emphasized to the exclusion of Christ, sexual holiness can be misconstrued as whatever seems right or feels right to a person. On the other hand, when Jesus (or a particular representation of Jesus) is emphasized over the Holy Spirit, Christians can coerce themselves and others into behavioral compliance with Jesus’ moral teachings to the neglect of cultivating personal spirituality and conscience.
Costly discipleship avoids, on the one hand, cheap grace that permits moral excess and, on the other hand, rigid moralism that occludes mercy and joy.
I am not sure how she avoids moral excess here. What would moral excess look like? But what I find interesting is that a moral problem immediately becomes a theology problem. She has Jesus and the Holy Spirit working against each other. She has personal spirituality and moral compliance as opposites as well. The essence of heresy is to over-emphasize one truth use it to defeat other truths.
The “end” of a holy life is to be like Christ. When it comes to sexual holiness, however, the end is often misperceived as a life station (heterosexual marriage) instead of a quality of life (Christlikeness). For some, marriage is not a viable or even a desirable state.
She has a point here. Many Christians think sexual morality is about remaining a virgin until your wedding day. There is a lot more to it than that. It is about having a pure heart in a world that worships filth. But how can you tell what is pure if you embrace relativism? If you are going to order your life around purity you need to know for sure what is Godly and what is a distortion. Relativism gives you nothing but questions. It attacks the solid answers you might not like but you end up with nothing solid left. Just warm fuzziness like "follow your heart" or "have a Christ-like quality of life."

I have not  read her whole book but she seems to have enough hints here that she is going to cave in on the gay issue. The code words are all there. Even the use of the phrase "heterosexual marriage" like there is another kind of marriage.

The book is published by InterVarsity Press. I thought they were more solid than this. The scary part is that most college students, both protestant and Catholic, are not going to be able to tell this from more traditional Christianity. They are going to be able to tell the final answers are different but many will be unclear on exactly where she went wrong.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

First Follower

Timothy Dalrymple has a post about leaders and followers. Again and again in scripture Jesus calls us to be followers. Still you go into any Christian bookstore and you will see a ton of stuff on leadership and very little on how to be a follower. This is on being a "first follower." So you are sort of leading but sort of following.

Let’s be honest.  The concept of leadership appeals to our pride and egotism, and the concept of “servant-leadership” appeals to our worldly pride (we are “leaders”) and to our spiritual pride (look at what Christian leaders we are, how willing to humble our great selves even though we are leaders!).  Pride is insidious, and it will finds its way into anything; but I like the concept of the first follower.  (1) It takes true courage and humility to be a first-follower, for you will be thought a fool.  (2) First-followers show others how to follow Christ; they re-present Christ, making him visible to others, showing what it looks like to strive to follow Christ in this context, and showing that such striving is possible.  (3) The true leader gets the glory, and the first-follower celebrates the leader instead of himself.
What struck me is ho much this sounds like the way Catholics talk about Mary.  She is the ultimate first follower. She does seek glory but celebrates Jesus. She makes Jesus visible to others. She shows great courage and humility. What makes her such a great example is that she is not a leader in the sense of holding a church office. He says:
In the New Testament, there are worldly authorities, but no kingdom leaders apart from Christ.
Of course that is nonsense. There is a concept of ordained leadership even in protestant circles. But this idea of being a first follower is different. An ordained leader could do it but so can a humble woman with no official standing. We all need to learn to follow even in ways nobody else has yet followed. It is not either Mary or the church. We need both. We need leadership up front teaching us and praying with us in public liturgy. We also need lay people whose willingness to follow boldly is all the more remarkable because they are not the kind of people the world would see as important. Mary was one of those and gives us the courage to be one of those as well.

They even talk about 4 spiritual types that flow from Jesus. They are exemplified by Peter, Paul, Mary, and John. Peter is the internal church leader. Paul is the one who confronts people outside the church and aggressively evangelizes.  Mary is the humble servant. John is the contemplative mystic. The Catholic church has them all. Protestant churches often focus on one and only occasionally talk about the others.

Monday, April 23, 2012


EJ Dionne wrote an article on the Vatican's problems with the doctrine of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
I identify entirely with my friend and colleague Melinda Hennenberger’s excellent take on the Vatican’s crackdown on American nuns. Indeed, I also liked what one commenter on her piece had to say: “The American Bishops should be washing the feet of American nuns and sisters!” Actually, all of us who are Catholic should honor the nuns. The Church would be lost without them. I hope to have more to say on this unfortunate Vatican statement next week.
This is the first reaction of many to this document. It completely misses the point. The CDF started by saying that these nuns were doing a lot of very good work. Nobody disputes that. The questions are about doctrine. Sure the nuns should be honored. But what does honor look like? You look at Act 18:24-26. Apollos is doing great work but is making some errors in doctrine. He only knew of the Baptism of John. So Priscilla and Aquila explain to him what orthodox teaching is on the matter. That is not disrespect. That is what you do when someone is not teaching correctly. You point out the errors and explain the correct doctrine. You don't just say they are nice people therefore we should just let them be. That would be disrespect. That would imply that nuns somehow could not learn the truth.
It’s especially odd that a criticism of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious for apparently placing too much emphasis on Catholic social teaching came in the same week that the Bishops offered strong criticism of Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget (without mentioning Ryan by name).
Again, nobody is saying anyone is "placing too much emphasis on Catholic social teaching." This is putting God's truth and God's love against each other. Like we have to choose. It is precisely this kind of confusion that the pope wants to get rid of. That is why he wrote his encyclical Caritas in Veritae. If we think truth and love are in conflict we have likely gotten both of them seriously wrong. Like the quote at the top of the blog says, love can degenerate into sentimentality if you don't have truth. So are these Catholic nuns really living the love of Jesus or some nice, but purely human, sentiment? Don't we believe the former is infinitely greater than the ladder? Doesn't that make this question very urgent?

The other assumption is that somehow recent American politics plays a big part in this. I am sure the Vatican has no idea who Rep Paul Ryan is. The US is only 6% of the worldwide church. They are not following every political proposal in every major country. This is just about doctrine. American bishops commenting on American social policy truly has nothing to do with this. 
There is a real struggle going on in the Church right now between conservatives, who seem intent on making President Obama a target and downplaying the Church’s social mission, and more progressive Catholics, who think the Church should be placing even more emphasis on social justice and issue more emphatic rejections of budget cuts along the lines of Bishop Blaire’s letter. Conservatives have had the upper hand over the last few months, but Bishop Blaire’s statement can be seen in part as a response to the pushback from Catholic liberals who wondered where the Bishops have been in the ongoing budget fight. (Blaire, it should be said, has a strong social justice commitment of his own.)
This is more or what this issue is not. Nobody in Rome cares about the Republican/Democrat divide and who has the upper hand. They did choose Bishop Blaire in part because he does have strong social justice credentials. They don't want those questions ignored and they knew he would not ignore them. But he also did not ignore questions of doctrine. He raised very specific doctrinal issues. What is the reply? Is he right? Have the nuns been making the errors he alleges? No liberal seem to be willing to address it. It is a big game of move the discussion away from what the document actually says is the issue.
My hunch is that the attack on the nuns will bring a lot more blow-back from progressive Catholics. Up to now, Catholic conservatives have been especially aggressive in pushing the Bishops’ Conference to the right.  The Bishops will now be getting a lot more pressure from Catholics on the other side. I think conservatives will ultimately regret targeting the sisters. The nuns have a great many friends in the Church. 
There will be blow-back. There always is when the truth is taught. Some of the fallout will be very good. Some will not. Everyone involved will have a choice to repent or to defend bad behavior. Not everyone will make the same choice. The hope is that many nuns will strongly reaffirm their commitment to the faith as taught by the magisterium. If they can't do that in good conscience then at least that will become clear. Hard choices might need to be made but if they are made based on an honest assessment of what the church teaches and what an individual believes then it will be for the best.

It is not a matter of conservatives targeting nuns. It is a matter of a pope expecting that consecrated people will embrace the faith of the church and not stray from it. That brings up the real issue. Why is that a problem? If you see the bishops and the pope as God's ordained leaders then consecrated men and women should be the best followers. If you see the bishops and the pope as somehow behind the more progressive Catholic thinkers then this will seem like a bad thing. But then you have to think God has somehow erred in putting them in charge. Being Catholic is not about accepting a set of doctrines as much as it is about accepting a set of leaders. Did God really mean for us to follow the successors of the apostles and the successor of Peter?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Depressing Election

One real change is both major parties are led by women

On Monday we have an election in Alberta. Social issues have become dominant this last week. That is normally good news but this time the debate has moved even further away from morality. There is no debate about abortion or gay marriage. All parties support both. The question has now moved to whether we should tolerate pro-life or pro-marriage people. Should they be kicked out of the party? Should they be excluded from government appointments? That kind of thing.

So what does one do with that? One party at least has some social conservatives. They might make a difference. But their leadership is publicly saying they won't make a difference. The other has rooted out any trace of social conservatism. They criticized the first party for allowing a former evangelical pastor to run for office because he opposed the gay agenda once. Not that he is making an argument for traditional marriage today. Just that he once expressed those views privately. He is guilty of a thought crime.

So who is more evil, those that react angrily when good is expressed and evil is pointed out or those who don't even care? Normally the first group is better. They feel some call of goodness and that is why you get a strong reaction. They don't have any rational way to reject that call so they opt for irrational anger or name calling or whatever. Those that have no reaction can be further gone. The call of moral goodness does not even register.

The promise to ignore social conservatives might be mostly poll driven. They have made political calculation that they are more likely to win if they just assure Albertans that nothing will change on that front. But why should Christians accept being demonized like this and not having the party most of them are supporting stand up and defend them? Would the leadership do that if they really respected the social conservatives in their number?

Suppose a party did that with blacks. They said they had black supporters and even some as candidates but they were not going to allow black ideas to effect the way they govern. I can't imagine it. Blacks are a respected people group. Even if the polls suggested that strategy might work it would not happen. Hopefully blacks were full partners and listened to as much as anyone else. Why say they are not? Because someone is stirring up fears about blacks? You would try and deal with those fears but not by accepting the premise that the black agenda is something to be feared.

It makes me scared for my children. Christians seem to be the hole in human rights thinking. Every group is defended as worthy of respect and dignity. That is good. Christianity taught society to do that. But Christians don't get that respect. Intolerance is OK when it is Christians you are intolerant towards. So where does it go? That is what scares me. It is just disappointing speech from political leaders today. But where will it stop? People believe that we have figured out the human rights thing. We need longer need the grace that comes from a Christian faith to prevent us from falling into torture and genocide. We are advanced.

I don't buy that. Humans apart from the grace of God remain capable of great evil. Especially when they feel they don't need God to build a better society. I hesitate to mention the Nazi's and the Communists but that is what they were about. Building a better society without God. How many times do we have to try that and fail? We have trouble admitting our sin as individuals. We have just as much trouble as a society.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Church and Community

The church was always intended to be a community of love. But most Catholic parishes are a long ways from there. The church is rightly concerned with doctrine and liturgy. We need the true faith and we need to celebrate it in an authentic way. But at the end of the day it is by our love for one another that people will know we are His disciples. There has been a lot of talk about how protestant churches are not as successful as they used to be in building community for young adults. Catholics have been seeing people leave for quite some time. The latest study of why they leave does not mention community much but that suggests Catholics don't even expect community from their church. They see it as a cold institution. They hope it becomes less cold. The idea of it being a place where people feel supernatural love for each other is so far away that it does not make the radar.

So what is going wrong? Why don't Catholics bond with each other and form friendships that make the whole world want to be Catholic? That is what Jesus wanted for His church. We are His church. What gives? There are likely many reasons. One that comes to mind is that it is too easy to be Catholic today. People bond when they share a struggle. But too many Catholics don't struggle. If we would all struggle to understand and live out all the teachings of the church we would find ourselves being powerfully bonded together. The culture would be laughing at us and we would be looking for encouragement and support. But many parishes are not that different from the culture. Sure there are some who want to know the faith and live the faith but they are not exactly the majority. A serious Catholic is almost as likely to find his faith being ridiculed inside his parish as he is in the society at large. So you tread very lightly.

People find solutions. There are organizations like Opus Dei that offer that kind of community. Some find it online. But that is not the supernatural love that the world would find amazing. That is just groups of like-minded individuals hanging out together. There is nothing remarkable about that.

1 Peter 2:11 talks about Christians being like aliens in a foreign land. That resonates with me because when I was growing up the church I went to was mostly dutch immigrants. We were close. My dad was a pastor so that helped but most families socialized together a lot. They went to the same school. They had boys and girls clubs as part of the church. The teenagers had a strong community. It was all quite natural.

That broke down a generation later when the church members became less dutch. We were not bonded like aliens in a foreign land because we were living our faith so well. It was because we were actually aliens in a  foreign land. When we ceased to literally be that we ceased to live like that. But we should have that dynamic all the time. We should not fit very well in our culture. We should feel strange enough that we should naturally seek to spend time together as Catholics.

That is when the church starts to act as a body animated by the Holy Spirit and the whole becomes greater than the sum of the parts. Then her holiness and her beauty will be easier to see. It is often when the church is persecuted that we see this happening. When the people who are there are paying a price or taking a risk to be there. Then the witness becomes even stronger because you not only see the body of Christ but you see the cross as well.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Born This Way

An Edmonton pastor who is now running for public office is being attacked for blog post he wrote a while back. It was a reflection on the song Born This Way. The controversy is being handled in the normal terrible way. No reflection on what the man said. Just name calling. People are so sure they have reason on their side they feel justified in behaving irrationally. So what is so offensive? Here is what appears to be the worst line:
You see, you can live the way you were born, and if you die the way you were born then you will suffer the rest of eternity in the lake of fire, hell, a place of eternal suffering
I guess it is bad because it talks about hell. Gays often say Christians believe they are all going to hell. We don't but this might feed into that fear. He hints at it here. The question is not how you were born but where or not you become a new creation in Christ Jesus. But there is another distinction he needs to draw. Humans have desires to do good and desires to do evil. Both types of desires can be there at birth or acquired later. So whether a person was born with a given desire is not the right question to be asking. The question is whether or not a desire is good or evil. We all have both. Gay people don't have more evil desires than straight people. We are all made in God's image and we are all born with original sin. Both truths run very deep. The good news is that our identity as image bearers of God and children of God is the deepest and most profound truth about us.

The real question is do we want to be good? Do we want to surrender our evil desires to Jesus and let Him fulfill our good desires? That is the grace He offered us at the cross. But part of that is we need to accept His definition of what is evil and what is good. Not what we makes us feel good. Not what society tells us is good. What Jesus, through His church, tells us is truly good. Guess what? That is hard for everyone. Gays can feel that Catholic sexual  morality is impossible for them and easy for everyone else. It just isn't so. Celibacy is difficult. Marriage without artificial contraception is difficult. But by the grace of God we are all capable of chastity. Gays are only different in the particular distortion of sex they are tempted towards.

So what is offensive? It is more the assertion that society's moral judgement about homosexuality is wrong. That is not something unique to same sex attracted people. If we tell people something is good when it is evil that is no small thing. It is injecting our own judgement where only God has the right to judge. Secularists convince themselves they never do that but it is unavoidable. They think that if they just permit everything then they haven't judged anyone but they have. Judging people innocent when they are not is just as big a problem. Saying that such false judgement could cause people to go to hell is something that is going to make the elites angry. I know much of it is feigned anger for political points but some people may actually be bothered by their conscience and getting angry is one way people react to that. Still if we give them a pass we commit the same sin they do. We can take the sin of declaring some sin to be a non-sin. Then we can declare that sin to be a non-sin.

Not judging really means not judging at all. Just try and discern the moral principles of God but don't try and apply them to anyone's personal life but your own. Certainly you can communicate these moral truths but we can't take the next step of finding our neighbor guilty. Each person needs to worry about his own sin. Only when we convict ourselves of sin can we do anything good with it. Convicting someone else does not do anyone any good. But finding someone else innocent of sin does not help either.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Kingdom of Whatever

What is the connection between the reformation and the enlightenment and modern secularism? Prof Brad Gregory from Notre Dame wrote a book pointing out some long term historical trends. Trends that are not well understood because historians tend to be either totally religious or totally secular. Secular historians tend to start with the enlightenment and ignore the reformation because they feel religion does not matter. Religious historians tend to trace the development of religion and ignore the impacts on modern secular thinking. This video from a Called to Communion comment box has Prof. Gregory giving a 90 minute overview of his book. The talk is call The Kingdom of Whatever. The book is called The Unintended Reformation.

Carl Trueman has written an article replying to the book by saying he blames too many things on protestants. I was hoping the guys at CtC would make an extensive reply. Especially David Anders with his knowledge of reformation history. Anyway, that does not appear to be coming so I shall post some of my thoughts.

A key part of the book's argument is the apparent anarchy created by the Protestant emphasis on the perspicuity of scripture. In this, Dr. Gregory stands with his Notre Dame colleague, Christian Smith, as seeing this as perhaps the single weakest point of Protestantism. He also rejects any attempt to restrict Protestantism to the major confessional traditions (Reformed, Anglican and Lutheran) as he argues that such a restriction would create an artificial delimitation of Protestant diversity. Instead, he insists on also including those groups which scholars typically call radical reformers (essentially all other non-Roman Christian sects which have their origins in the turn to scripture of the Reformation). This creates a very diverse and indeed chaotic picture of Protestantism such that no unifying doctrinal synthesis is possible as a means of categorizing the whole. 
Trueman suggest Prof. Gregory "creates a very diverse and indeed chaotic picture of Protestantism" by defining it like he does. But  there is no alternative definition proposed. Why not? Because it is hard to come up with a definition of protestantism that includes the Reformed, Anglican and Lutheran traditions and excludes the radical reformers. If you happen to be reformed then the difference seems huge. One movement was right and the other was wrong. But if you are looking for a principled difference that is not dependent on which group you happen to agree with then you have a problem. They did use exactly the same justification (Sola Scriptura) and did exactly the same thing (schism).