Friday, July 27, 2012

The Diabetic Church

Coptic Christians in Egypt
From an article on persecution of the church in Egypt
In my mind today, the picture I have is a church in a diabetic coma that has gorged itself on the sweets of affluence, materialism, and the idolatry of worshipping the materialistic world. That diabetic coma is now life threatening. We as a church are at the point of death – not the church in the Middle East. We are the ones who can no longer rouse ourselves to even pray for an hour on behalf of things that God would have us pray for.
I like this image. I think he could carry the analogy even further. One of the things that can happen to diabetics is they are unable to feel injuries to some parts of their bodies. They can end up with a toe or a foot amputated because they had an injury and they didn't respond correctly. Diabetics are told not to wear open-toed shoes because small injuries tend to become big problems due to the lack of circulation.

We are seeing that kind of non-response in the body of Christ. Christians are being attacked in many parts of the world. When healthy the body should react. The nerves should feel the pain. The circulatory system should send a bunch of stuff to heal the foot and fight infection. But right now the Christian nervous system is barely noticing the persecution. We are not sending help in any way. We don't seem too concerned that we might lose a toe. 

Moeller thinks this is tied to too much sugar in the church's diet over the long term. Materialism is one problem. Another might be too much concern over getting the pews filled on Sunday morning and not enough about what being the Kingdom of God looks like. Whatever the issue, the lack of response by Christians in the west is cause for concern. Certainly a concern for Christians in those parts of the world but also a concern for the church here that fails to respond to such an obvious crisis. 
One guy who has been talking about this is John Allen.

The second link contains this announcement.
The U.S. bishops, in collaboration with the Catholic University of America and Catholic Relief Services, are planning to hold a conference titled "International Religious Freedom: An Imperative for Peace and the Common Good" on Sept. 12 in Washington. Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York will deliver the opening address, and the Vatican's top diplomat, French Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, has been invited to give the closing speech.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Logic and Sex

Can a person approach sex purely logically? That is what those who reject most sexual ethics claim to be doing. Are they really? Freud warned of the dangers of repressing sexual desire. Even in scripture St Paul warns virgins it is better to marry than to burn with passion. But is sexual repression really the biggest problem in today's world? Should we be so scared of being repressed that we get rid of all the rules? Is that logically the smart thing to do? Just do whatever our hormones push us to do? It can't be wrong if it feels right?

If that is true then logically you would expect that the people who live that way would be the happiest people out there. We have a pretty good sample size. In today's world there a lot of people who have lived that lifestyle or something very close to it for a time. Did that lead to happiness? Not exactly. People go a lot of directions from there. Some go into more deviant sexual behavior. Some find someone they want to marry and discover they are not prepared for a monogamous relationship. Some stop having sex for a while and reflect on what it all means. Some try and stop and discover they can't. The end up addicted to sex or porn. The stories go a lot of different directions but nobody seems to get to the top of this mountain and finds a lasting peace and joy. They all move on.

Of course those are just the survivors. There are also many who got hurt on the way to the top of that mountain. The ones who were scared by abuse and betrayal. The ones that suffer from post-abortion trauma. People who never fully embraced the promiscuous life but dabbled in it long enough to get deeply wounded.

So what is the logical thing to do with this data? If you know this field has many land mines. You know the powers of reasoning that you normally count on can be badly influenced by your hormones. You don't trust traditional sexual morality. So what is the most prudent thing to do? If the person involved is not you but your son or daughter then it becomes easier to see. The smart thing is to err on the side of safety. Go slow. Try and find a trustworthy path and stick to it.

Somehow that is not what is done in the name of logic and reason. People just assert that if they can't see a land mine then the logical thing to do is to assume there is none there. Even if the land mines in question are not expected to be visible. Even if there are people warning you this field is full of land mines.

I can understand when young people are impetuous when it comes to sex. They experience love for the first time and they are sure it is the greatest love the world has ever known. In some ways it is. What I don't understand is the idea that just following your desires into pornography and promiscuity is somehow logical.  That dismissing the wisdom of many generations of human experience is somehow smart. That doing what everyone else seems to be doing without asking whether you want the result everyone else is getting is somehow reasonable.

There was a time when we recognized a lack of sexual self control as contrary to reason. Now we just declare it to be smart. Never mind how many abortions, how many divorces, how many rapes, how much depression, etc. It can't be stupid because it is common. So it becomes the wisdom of the age. What you follow if you want to have a life like your peers. Completely unremarkable. No guarantees of happy life but you are much more likely to have a boring one. The irony is that using sex to fight boredom is one of the major errors of our times. Not only do we not get what sex is meant to point us to but we end up bored anyway.

Monday, July 23, 2012

How Science Loses God

God is simple. That does not mean He is easy to understand. It means He cannot be subdivided. His love is His justice is His mercy is His wisdom is His providence ... Humans love to subdivide. Science tends to understand things by breaking them into component parts. Then they try understand each part and then understand the relationships between the parts. You can learn a lot about something that way. You can lose a lot too. One of the things you are likely to lose is God. You can see God in a sunset. If you analyze all the rays of light one by one you might still see some beauty there but you will lose the sunset.

We all know that science cannot find God. The truth is worse. If we are not careful science will lose God. They say the devil is in the details. That is not completely true but God is much easier to see in the big picture. When we consider all aspects of all of creation for all of history. We can't do that of course because we can't understand God but our tendency is to do the opposite. To learn more and more about less and less. Small is comfortable.

Peter Kreeft calls this reductionism.
Science's reductionistic method fails to see cosmic love. Modern science requires the use of the simplest possible explanation. This is the principle called "Occam's Razor." The modern mind always tends to reduce the greater to the lesser rather than seeing the lesser as reflecting the greater. It thinks of human love as only complex animal instinct, or even complex electrochemical attraction, rather than thinking of these subhuman attractions as love on a lesser level. Premodern thought saw lust as confused love. Modern thought sees love as rationalized lust. This is reductionism.
Just separating love and lust is a big enough problem. People also separate sex and procreation. They separate marriage and sex.  By analyzing the parts rather than the whole we can distort things badly. What is worse we don't see the potential that we might miss something. We not only end up wrong but wrong while being very sure we are right. We sum the parts and when we are told the whole is greater than that we check our sums and declare that it can't be.

Biblical interpretation has this danger as well. We tend to focus on one text at a time. Then we try and build a systematic theology. The word of God is scripture, tradition, and the magisterium. That is "word" singular. God is not giving us a bunch of independent revelations. He gave us one word. The Word was with God and the Word was God. But if God cannot be subdivided then how can we subdivide the Word? If we do we have lost God because God cannot be subdivided.

We are not meant to live in a small world we can understand. That is the world of pettiness and sin. A world closed in on itself. We are called to live in a world that we cannot possibly understand or control. That is the nature of God. If we will but trust and obey we can live that large and get a glimpse of glory. If we insist on living what we understand then we will always analyze God out of our life. We may not become explicit atheists but our image of God will be so tame we may as well be.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Atheism And Evolution

Joe Heschmeyer at Shameless Popery talks about how evolution does not disprove Christianity. Then he makes a quick point that the evidence is actually the other way.
In fact, the entire process of evolution points to an ultimate beginning, and thus, to a Creator.  So the entire debate over evolution is worse than a red herring, because it starts from the completely inaccurate assumption that if evolution is true, religion is false (and vice versa).  In fact, the opposite is true: if everything in time and space originated at a single point, and grew and developed and evolved, tracing the line backwards gets you to a place where a Timeless, Spaceless Cause is necessary to set the whole chain in motion... that is, evolution should be considered a proof for our Eternal, Immaterial God, rather than against Him.
This is kind of along the lines of St Thomas Aquinas. Causality points to an uncaused cause. I am not sure you need evolution to prove causality so it does not really add anything logically but the diagrams you draw when showing how one species led to another seem to cry out for an ultimate source. So it shows intuitively what St Thomas shows logically. But you still need St Thomas to show what sort of properties this uncaused cause has. That it really is God-like and we are not just filling a scientific gap with God.

Atheist allow themselves any gap in their theory, any huge question they don't have an answer to. They will mock you as believing in "god of the gaps" if you suggest the massive holes in atheism are a reason to reject it. There is a point that neither atheism nor Christianity claims to know everything. It is hard to imagine a problem with either system that cannot be covered over with an appeal to some answer we don't know and may never know.  So both theism and atheism are unfalsifiable. Christianity is somewhat falsifiable. You could find the body of Jesus. Catholicism is very falsifiable. The papacy could to cease to exists. The church could teach a contradiction. In fact, if Catholicism was not true the probability that it would have been falsified by now is about 100%.

Anyway, after declaring atheism to be unfalsifiable I shall try and falsify it. I won't succeed in an absolute sense but I do think evolution gives us some good reasons to reject atheism. Atheism teaches that some of the basic desires of the human person are not based on reality. We want to believe in goodness. We want to believe life has meaning. We want to believe in life after death. We want to believe in justice, good deeds will be rewarded and bad deeds will be punished. Atheists want to believe these things too. They just tell us our desire to believe these things is not evidence that they are true. That is not really accurate. It is at least possible that our desires might be pointing to a truth. It could be we have a spiritual sense. Just like we have eyes to tell us about the world of light and ears to tell us about the world of sound we might have some sense to tell us about the spiritual world. That can't be logically excluded.

The other choice that atheists assume is right is that our minds are defective rather than perceptive. Rather than perceiving a truth they are telling us a lie. But that is where evolution comes in. Evolution expects biological traits to make some sense. Humans having a perceptive brain would fit. Humans having a defective brains does not really fit. Simple defects might happen but elaborate traits are supposed to have purposes. It becomes ironic because atheists love to go on and on about how terrible religion is and how superior atheism is to any religion but if that is really true then evolution should have given us atheism. It is certainly simpler and would be better.

Atheists can dig themselves in deeper if they want. They can argue that evolution should not be expected to produce a human mind ordered towards truth. That a mind that lies to us has survival advantages and that is what we would expect. There are two problems with that. One is that atheists tend to do their thinking with a human mind. If what comes out of such a mind is inherently untrustworthy then why should we listen to them?

The second problem is our minds value truth. We can't choose to believe something we know is false. So evolution has to produce a mind that loves truth yet also loves falsehood. Those kinds of minds need to be somehow superior to those that don't invent any supernatural narrative at all.

Isn't this beautiful? Try to imagine an atheist who has a teensy problem with arrogance. I know you probably never ran into any that are like that but I have encountered a few. Then imagine them having to show why ancient atheists were inferior to ancient theists. That atheists and theists had this long term battle for survival and the theists won. Maybe instead of referring to themselves as brights they should refer to themselves as losers to help make this scenario seem more reasonable.

Anyway, someone could just say science will someday find great answers to all these problems. But the point is evolution is actually on the side of the theists. Sure it causes problems for fundamentalist Christians who are a small minority of theists that happen to be overrepresented in present day US. Still overall it does not make atheism more reasonable. The causality issues it seems to solve are just pushed back and it creates a whole new set of questions.

Friday, July 20, 2012

What Liberal Christianity Is Not

Ross Douthat has a good follow up article on liberal Christianity. He is responding to a critique by Steve Holmes. Holmes sees liberal Christianity as a response to a crisis of truth.
So, as a broad approximation, liberal Christianity is Christianity that is acutely alive to the challenges to belief coming from modern philosophy. Kant’s denial of knowledge of the noumenal realm apparently made traditional accounts of revelation impossible, and the more-or-less simultaneous rise of Biblical criticism made traditional accounts of revelation profoundly precarious even if possible.
So we see a philosophical challenge that we might call modern skepticism. How can we know anything beyond the senses with certainty? Anything about God, anything about right or wrong, anything about how things are meant to be? We also have a biblical challenge. Lots of historical and linguistic research was shedding new light on the bible and questioning it from new angles. So having the bible as the foundation of your world and life view was not working that well.

One reaction to this was fundamentalism. It is actually only a few centuries old. It puts the focus on faith. Just reject all the research you don't like. Faith becomes a trump card that can defeat any rational objection. A rejection of evolution in favor of a literal interpretation of Genesis was a classic example. Dismissing scientific arguments based a a verse of scripture became a virtue.
Liberal Christianity didn't go there. Where it did go is unclear. Holmes said it based itself on "shared religious experience" and thought Schleiermacher was the key thinker. That strikes me as kind of lame. Every community has shared experience, some of it good and some of it bad. But that hardly counts as a basis for a religion. For a club maybe but not a religion.

What makes liberal Christianity hard to define is the lack of a foundation. It mostly believes in scripture. It mostly believes in reason. It tries to focus on action rather than theology. This is because its theology is either borrowed from the culture with religious language injected or it is a critique of fundamentalism. It really does not have a basis for its own theology.

So Douthat was being kind in just identifying liberal Christians as those who do a lot of social action. That is how they like to be thought of because that is when they are at their best. But fundamentalists and Catholics do social action as well. Liberal Christianity really can only be defined negatively. It is the faith without content. What CS Lewis called "men without chests."

Talking about fundamentalism and liberalism, I should not neglect to mention that Catholicism has the best of both worlds. That is it has infallible doctrine but no doctrine contradicted by science. We have help. The Holy Spirit keeps us from defining falsehood as dogma. Biblical criticism is easier for us to deal with because the bible is not the foundation of the Church. Again we had help. Jesus cleverly built the church on the rock of Peter and not on the scriptures as its basic foundation. So the successor of Peter can define how scripture is to be read. Pope Benedict XVI has said that his Jesus of Nazareth books are, in part, an example to all Christians on how to do proper exegesis, how to use historical criticism, how to avoid hyper-skepticism, how to incorporate the unity of the whole of scripture and tradition, etc.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

How Is Sin And Hell Be Good News?

One of the big objections to talking about sin when we evangelize is the idea that the gospel is supposed to be good news. How can we say that Jesus' arrival is cause for great joy and at the same time say that unless they repent they are going to spend eternity in hell? One answer to that is because you were already in that situation before Jesus arrived. He gives you a way out. The trouble is many moderns don't feel that way. They don't have this sense that they are evil and deserving of great punishment. A few might but the great majority feel they are pretty much OK.

But why do people feel they are OK? What is the standard they are applying to themselves? Most people feel that if they are generally nice, tolerant and polite then they are fine. When they fail to meet even that standard if they have a good reason they still think they are fine. They think of themselves as social animals. Mostly self-absorbed but occasionally doing something out of empathy. Most of their relationships fill their own needs and are not really focused on the good of the other person. Sex is often a game rather than a gift. They don't feel particularly bad about any of that.

What evangelism needs to do is spark a desire for more. I say spark because the human heart naturally wants to burst into flame with this desire. We know we are meant for self-sacrificial love. We should have great courage and wisdom. There should be hope for an eternal rest in peace when we die. There should be profound truths about life that we can learn. We know we are meant to be saints. We just can't be satisfied with anything less. Evangelism is about awakening that knowledge in people's hearts.

When we do that then people will get that there is something deeply wrong with the way they are living their life. That hell is not just something Christians use to scare gullible people. Hell is just where this self-absorbed lifestyle leads. It logically should lead there. When St Paul calls people "senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless" (Rom 1:31) they see themselves in that and get that that road has to lead to something bad. 

So the good news of God's love for us and the bad news of our sin turn out to be 2 sides of the same coin. When we know we are meant to partake in the divine nature then our temptation to think of ourselves as animals is deeply offensive. Yet we still fall into it. That sends us to God begging for His grace.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Can Christianity Be Saved?

Can Christianity be saved? Diana Butler Bass asks this question on responding to Ross Douthat's NY Times column called: "Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?" She has a point. Back in the 1960's liberal churches were the only one losing members but that is changing.
That was 1972. Forty years later, in 2012, liberal churches are not the only ones declining. It is true that progressive religious bodies started to decline in the 1960s. However, conservative denominations are now experiencing the same. For example, the Southern Baptist Convention, one of America's most conservative churches, has for a dozen years struggled with membership loss and overall erosion in programming, staffing, and budgets. Many smaller conservative denominations, such as the Missouri Synod Lutherans, are under pressure by loss.
So we have all of Christianity under threat. Quite frankly many have already assumed the disease is terminal. People expect their children will be less religious than they are. That politics will consistently move in a direction that respects religion less and less. They have bought into the idea that religion is going down and if you cling to it too tightly you will go down with it.

But are they right? Are even the strongest churches in America going to go the way of the Episcopalian church today? I think it will get a lot worse before it gets better. I don't think protestantism is strong enough to withstand modern secularism. All of protestantism is really liberal. It changes with the culture. Evangelicalism has created a subculture that has protected it for a while but it is just delaying the process. The subculture is holding off liberal doctrines for a few decades but that is a very short time in the life of the church.

So what is the answer? Ms Bass seems to feel we should just embrace liberalism as inevitable. She puts a lot of hope in a few creative leaders that are generating some excitement. There will always be those but they don't last. Humanly speaking we have no hope.

I am reminded of something Fr Barron said in the Catholicism series. That Israel expected the Messiah to gather the scattered tribes. That Israel was intended to unify the whole world and bring them to God but instead Israel itself had become divided and really a barrier to people embracing the Jewish faith. The solution was Jesus. He called Jews from all these scattered tribes to Himself or more precisely to His Church. Those that did not follow were destroyed in 70 AD.

I see the solution here being similar. The divisions among Christians are at the root of our weakness. We have become a barrier to Christ. The solution is to embrace Jesus through His church. Like the first Pentecost we need Peter to stand up and say we are not drunk but we are following Jesus in a way that seems strange to you. Then we need the multitude from all over to be grief stricken at the way they have treated the body of Christ. It is beginning to happen. As the problems with protestantism become more obvious we will see more and more of it.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Eskimos And The Missionary

The Eskimo said to the Missionary: “So, if I died without ever knowing about Jesus, I’d go to Heaven?” “Yes,” said the Missionary. “So why did you tell me about him?” asked the Eskimo.
This is a statement made in a comment box that somebody named Zack claims he gets a lot of different responses to.  I believe him. There is a lot of confusion among Catholics on this point. Even protestant converts, who are normally very orthodox, often fudge this. They typically have a lot of protestant friends and family members who are unlikely to convert. They want to manufacture some certainty about their salvation. In the process they create this kind of problem.

The answer the missionary gives is wrong. The best he can say is, "I don't know." Vatican II said people living in ignorance of Christ and His Church are not automatically damned. That they might be save through Christ and His Church through some invisible means. Somehow people have translated that to mean they are all saved or at least the vast majority of them. How do they get there? Just through some hand-waving appeal to the love of God.

The trouble is that such an leap of logic does not take into account why hell exists in the first place. It is because of sin. We sin. Eskimos sin. That problem of sin needs to be dealt with. We can't deal with it ourselves. We need grace. That is why Jesus came to earth and died. That is why He established His church. That is why He commanded the church to send missionaries. The problem of sin has a solution and God's desire is that as many people as possible have that solution made available to them.

That is the story of salvation. Christians are to preach the good news to the world so they can be saved. They don't find the world already saved. They find the world on the path that leads to hell. Look at the book of Romans. Paul is preaching a message of grace. Where does he begin? He starts with human sin and God's wrath. Not many preachers do these days.
I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.  Rom 1:16-20
The first couple of verses about grace are quoted a lot. It struck me how Paul moves so quickly to talking about God's wrath. We just are not that comfortable talking about God's grace and God's wrath in the same breath. But God cannot be divided into component parts. He is what the philosophers call simple. So it follows that God's grace and God's wrath are not two things. They are one thing. They are the same thing as God's love, God's wisdom and God's justice. To separate them is to distort them.

Anyway, Vatican II was not ditching this concept of man as a sinner in need of salvation. We still need grace. It was merely allowing us to speculate that God might have some other way of applying His grace to human lives beyond what has been revealed. We know God works through his word and sacraments. Can someone who is ignorant of them receive God's grace another way? We can hope that happens. How common is it? We don't know. But St Paul does not seem to give us a lot of reason for optimism. Here is how he describes first century Romans:
Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.   Rom 1:28-32
Does he say 100% of Romans are going to hell? No. Still he does not seem to think they are all headed for heaven either.  He sees the need for the gospel as very grave. That is the way we need to see the world. People don't want to hear that their sin is hugely offensive to God. We live in a culture that worships self esteem. That message will get a lot of resistance. That is why the doctrine of hell gets so much resistance. If sin is no big deal then hell is just a ghastly doctrine.It seems like God is responding in a way that is completely out of proportion. I am a nice enough guy. Why can't God just accept me?

Friday, July 13, 2012

Drug Dealer Turned Monk

Rocco tweeted this story about Fr Taras Kraychuck. It is interesting to me because I was at this conference and heard his story live. I have heard a lot of conversion stories but I was still quite surprised when he told us about his biker days. He just seems so not the biker type. Amazing grace.

The Argument From Authority

How do you turn faith into reason? You use an argument that goes like this:
  1. The Christian faith is true
  2. Doctrine X is part of the Christian faith
  3. Therefore Doctrine X must be true
This is what St Thomas Aquinas called the argument from authority.  He referred to it as the weakest form of argument. Not that he didn't feel it was acceptable. He did. But he didn't think you should be satisfied with it. You should always look for arguments from scripture or from nature and try to convince yourself in another way that doctrine X is true. First of all, because we are rational beings and just accepting thinks blindly is not something we do well with. Secondly, because we will understand Doctrine X a lot better if we find out why Christendom teaches it as truth.

In the meantime, we need to live on faith. That is we need to live as though Doctrine X is true even though we don't understand it yet. Sin darkens the intellect so knowing how to avoid sin in the area we are still trying to understand is a big help. We can think clearly and experience the benefits the knowledge without really knowing what we are doing.

What often happens is that we eventually find some very important and very beautiful reasons why Doctrine X is true. This ends up strengthening our faith. At a minimum we see wisdom in the faith. That Christian tradition knows more about what it means to be human than the modern culture does. But often we see more than that. We can see Love. We can see a Father God and a Mother Church raising us up in the faith.

For example, when I was a teenager there was the issue of premarital sex. The culture told us it was OK and the church told us it was not. With my teenage mind I really didn't see a big issue. I was firmly protestant at the time so contraception was OK. Really it was purely a matter of "Thou shalt not." So I didn't.

After a few years I did see why that was a good choice. I saw others commit this sin and bad things happened. It actually made their dating life less joyful. Their relationships remained shallow, It led them into bad marriages. It, also, destroyed their relationship with God. This took years but but eventually I became convinced based on evidence that this was just a bad life choice. Those who chose to follow the culture never arrived at that conclusion. They were just to deep in to have any perspective.

I can tell you that grew my faith. Everyone was saying that the church was crazy on this issue. They are still saying it. But I know better and I only know it through the grace of God. So I trust that crazy church because it saved me.

BTW, this is not something that changed at all when I became Catholic. Catholics and protestants differ on how we evaluate point #2. That is how do you know what is part of the Christian faith. But once you become sure of that then this all works exactly the same.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Reason and Humility

We talk a lot about faith and reason. How do the two interact? But one of the key problems in arriving at religious truth through reason is those truths hit very close to home. Where is our self esteem rooted? Even the most logical among us will have their thinking skewed when dealing with such matters. But that is exactly what we are talking about when it comes to religion. That is accepting truths about God and about yourself that are very hard. Our reason tends to fail us at that moment. Rational people become rationalizers.

Christianity asks us to accept two truths about ourselves. Almost everyone will have a huge emotional barrier to one of them. The first truth is we are sinners. Not that we have a few flaws. It is that we are deeply inclined towards every kind of evil. It is a huge problem. We cannot solve it. It will destroy us unless we get help.

Denial of our sinfulness is actually one of the features of sin. Our sin is rooted in pride and our pride does not allow us to look directly and honestly at our sin. Can we be rational about it? We can see when other people can't be. How many people do you know that can't see their own faults when they are plain as day to other people? We get that. Their reason is failing them. Still we have trouble seeing it happen in our own minds. We have even more trouble realizing the significance of it. We can't trust out own thinking in these matters. We need to trust something beyond our reason. It is humiliating.

The other hard truth Christianity gives us is that we are children of God. That we are made in His image and He loves us. Typically those who have an easy time accepting they are sinners will struggle with the idea that they have great dignity and God loves them dearly. Often they are people who have had their self esteem destroyed in some way. The good news is God's love for us is an even deeper truth than our sinfulness. That is our essence. Sin corrupts that essence but does not destroy it. We continue to be beautiful creatures of a loving God.

But when people just can't believe that God loves them and forgives them, is logic going to solve that problem? Typically not. Even when the rational mind accepts it there is something in their psyche or their spirit that just does not buy it. Again reason alone becomes inadequate.

So what is the solution? It is not a better argument. It is to look at the cross. Pray with a crucifix. Watch The Passion of the Christ. Read the crucifixion accounts in scripture. Spend some time contemplating the death of Jesus. His death is the ultimate statement of the seriousness of my sin and at the same time the assurance that God's love for me is stronger and has conquered that sin. Those of us who are thinkers rather than feelers have a hard time doing that. Are you not just checking your brains at the door? Yes and No. You are rationally coming to the conclusion your reason is inadequate due to your pride. That you need the grace that comes from the cross even beyond what your intellect can process.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Agreeing To Disagree

Looking at the last part of Michael Griener's series on why he is not Catholic. It is more than a little disappointing. He details how his opinion or the teaching of his protestant tradition is different from the Catholic church's teaching on many points. Then he just assumes his opinion is obviously right. Often protestants will provide some biblical argument explaining why they think their opinion is right. He does not even go there. He just does not seem to get his mind around the fact that not everyone thinks like him. That other churches, including the Catholic church, use the same New Testament he does and arrive at very different doctrines. It shows how far we have to go in raising the authority issue that someone who is reasonably highly thought of as a protestant pastor can address the question of Catholicism at some length and totally miss the authority issue. Not just getting the wrong answer but not even coming close to the right question. Just treating his own opinion or his own tradition as infallible and thinking that is going to be convincing. Either he does not get out much or the Catholics who have been talking about this need to get out even more.

He did raise one point that is worth a comment. He tells the story of his daughter trying to date a Catholic.
He was a nice young man, polite, kind, and a fellow student at her little Christian high school. He was also a Catholic from a devout Catholic family. As the non-dating stage of their relationship went on, it became apparent that he was “really” a Catholic, even though he attended a non-Catholic Christian school. My daughter assured me that his faith was genuine and that their religious difference would mean little. I told her I did not question his relationship with Jesus, but I suggested she was underestimating the differences in the faiths.
Look at what is happening here. He is saying that this boy is a Christian yet there is a difference in the faiths. That is not biblical. St Paul says in Eph 4:5 that all Christians have one faith. What we have together in Jesus is supposed to bring us together. People that you would not expect to get along should become friends because they are both Christians. But the opposite is happening here. A young couple that seems like they like each other has to split up because of their religion.

In John 17:23 Jesus prays,"May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me." Here we have the opposite. Not only is complete unity not happening supernaturally but even the natural human bonds are being broken. Our unity is supposed to let the world know Jesus is really from God and that God does love them. Those are pretty important truths. So what happens when we do the exact opposite of what Jesus prays for? When we let religion divide Christian from Christian? The world might still see something of God but there is a lot that is not of God obscuring it, a lot of pride and a lot of judging.

It has become politically correct to say Catholics are not evil and many Catholics have a good relationship with Jesus. But that only makes sense up to a point. Having their child contemplate marrying a Catholic is too much for most protestants. It makes sense. Realistically the new family is going to end up choosing to be Catholic or protestant. Both sides dislike that idea. Catholics can articulate why. They believe valid sacraments are important and the protestant church does not have them. Protestants have more trouble saying why their child becoming Catholic is worse than their child moving to another protestant denomination. They say the Catholic church is a Christian church but not really. 

The truth is the differences go quite deep. Protestants can't really process that. They want to believe that anyone who accepts Jesus as their savior and accepts the bible as the word of God is part of the family of God and all the differences will be minor. It just is not true. There are different doctrinal frames of reference that are a hugely important. If the protestant admits they exist he has a problem. He has to address the question of which one is the right one. That is precisely the question being ducked in this article. 

When you ask that question, which tradition, which philosophical framework, which paradigm is the correct one? Supposing you try and answer it objectively and not assume something from your tradition. Then Catholicism wins from almost any angle you look at it. It is more logical. It is more biblical. It is more historical. It is more workable. It is more beautiful. It is more global. It has produced more saints and a greater variety of saints. It has inspired more great art. It's claims are more testable and have been tested for a longer time. 

This is why this question never really gets faced. It does require a bit more abstract thinking but not all that much. Most are capable of doing that analysis. But when the thinking leads to unpleasant conclusions then they just think about something else. That is what struck me about the article. Even with this incident with his daughter and even choosing to write about Catholicism it is so easy to duck the central question. I was there once. Twenty years ago I would have done exactly the same thing. So I shall pray for Pastor Michael and his daughter Michal because these are important questions. Not just important for their spiritual walk but for the witness that Christians give to the world.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Six Ways People Convert

When people make a major life decisions, like becoming Christian or converting to Catholicism or getting married or becoming a priest or whatever, they tend to follow some interesting paths in arriving at these choices. I was thinking of a few major kinds.
  1. Zapped by God. The classic example here is St Paul on the road to Damascus. He get gets a big bright light and the voice of Jesus. We often think God should do that more both with us and with our loved ones who seem like they are on the road to destruction. The fact is it is rare. It is also overrated. No matter how amazing the event we do have the capacity to question it. Paul talks about being faithful to the vision he was given. Like he had his moments where he asked whether he could have imagined it. We have an amazing capacity for skepticism. 
  2. Logical Proof. This one is also very rare. Many people say they need logical proof but few people claim they arrived at an absolute logical proof. I came close with my conversion to Catholicism. I think of Lee Strobel's conversion story. Many people have found the arguments to be logically quite strong but very few would say it amounted to an undeniable proof. In fact, a reasonably simple, absolute proof would would mean the matter was not one of faith. 
  3. Leap of Faith. This is much more common. You follow the logic to the point of due diligence You contemplate the evidence. You take your time to get emotionally ready. Then you just choose it. Certainly most people do this for getting married or having a child or for changing careers. Becoming a Christian is often like that. Both scary and exciting at the same time.  Often people need a push to make the final leap. 
  4. Drifting. This is typical of people who were raised in a faith without much opposition. They end up embracing it but they don't really understand how they got there. I was that way with the reformed faith. I got it from my family, my church, my school and most of my family's social circle. It was just everywhere. There are a lot of Catholics there too. Often people converted this way have a problem with spiritual sloth. They lack an energy and enthusiasm that someone who has chosen a faith against their culture would have.
  5. You Just Know. You hear this a lot too. A bit like #1 but there is no supernatural event involved. God is talking to your heart. We like this because we want to be certain. The trouble is this method is pretty error prone. The Mormons have mastered the technique of generating this burning in you bosom feeling. They use it to prevent people from doing a logical sanity check of the Mormon faith. They know they will fail it because Mormonism is an historical religion that runs counter to the historical data. 
  6. Denial. This is when a person declares that unless I get zapped or unless I see logical proof I won't believe it. Except they do believe. They just don't want to act on their belief. Then they realize the game they are playing. Often there is an emotional prejudice against believing that gets broken down somehow. 
Humans are strange creatures. Rational and yet emotional. Freely choosing yet drawn by God.I love these stories after they happen. They can be quite maddening when you or someone you are talking to is in the middle of it. The stakes are so high. There is no simple formula.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Consecrated Life

I went to a conference this weekend and some of the Dominican Nuns were there. One sister talked a bit about Pope John Paul II's apostolic exhortation on consecrated life.
The first duty of the consecrated life is to make visible the marvels wrought by God in the frail humanity of those who are called. They bear witness to these marvels not so much in words as by the eloquent language of a transfigured life, capable of amazing the world. To people's astonishment they respond by proclaiming the wonders of grace accomplished by the Lord in those whom he loves. To the degree that consecrated persons let themselves be guided by the Spirit to the heights of perfection they can exclaim: "I see the beauty of your grace, I contemplate its radiance, I reflect its light; I am caught up in its ineffable splendour; I am taken outside myself as I think of myself; I see how I was and what I have become. O wonder! I am vigilant, I am full of respect for myself, of reverence and of fear, as I would be were I before you; I do not know what to do, I am seized by fear, I do not know where to sit, where to go, where to put these members which are yours; in what deeds, in what works shall I use them, these amazing divine marvels!"The consecrated life thus becomes one of the tangible seals which the Trinity impresses upon history, so that people can sense with longing the attraction of divine beauty.
These are amazing words to contemplate.  John Paul expects the world to be blown away by consecrated men and women. They are something tangible that points to the Trinity. That is they make an argument against atheism. They exist in the material world but cannot be explained except by the presence of God. That encountering such people will create a longing for divine beauty.

This fits in very well with the last thought on celibacy from my previous post. That is that celibacy needs to be seen as a holy state. That when we don't give any physical expression to our sexual desires, when we take seriously the call the purity, then our sex drive will actual propel us to love God and neighbor in a very beautiful way. That is the very opposite of what Freud said. His theory was that sexual repression was the root of many problems. That we need to express out sexual desires. That we should never discourage sexual experimentation. It is a lie. How do you prove it? You look at people who live celibacy. Do they experience greater love, joy, and peace in their lives?

What this does is it changes the baseline when we talk about sex. When we ask whether committed gay relationships are good what are we comparing that to? It is compared to a same-sex attracted person living a chaste life. When we ask whether contraception in marriage is good what are we comparing that to? Is is compared to a couple abstaining for a time. So the way we think about these questions is hugely effected by the way we think of a human person who is not having any form of physical sexual activity. Is such a person inherently pathetic or is he or she inherently holy?

It also changes how we consider the single life. Are we trying to control ourselves until we find a spouse or are we reaping the benefits of celibacy as long as our single state lasts? If we buy into the first theory we can try too hard to find a spouse. Often we also cheat and indulge in some sort of impurity to tie us over until we get married. We live in the future.

If the single person can embrace his or her current celibate state they can let God gift them with a spouse in His time (or perhaps God will give them a religious vocation instead). It is a question of moving from glory to glory and not from frustrated to fulfilled. Ironically focusing on sex as a call to love God rather than a call to marriage actually prepares you better for marriage. Your spouse is a blessing. They are not expected to fill a need.