Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Freedom From Love

There is an article in Atlantic magazine that praises the hookup culture in college.
And to a surprising degree, it is women—not men—who are perpetuating the culture, especially in school, cannily manipulating it to make space for their success, always keeping their own ends in mind. For college girls these days, an overly serious suitor fills the same role an accidental pregnancy did in the 19th century: a danger to be avoided at all costs, lest it get in the way of a promising future.
Of course this is wrong on so many levels. Intentionally avoiding the men who are looking for a life partner and seeking the men who are just looking for a sex partner. Encouraging men to think of women in the most degrading ways is somehow a win for feminism?

Still what strikes me is that it does not stop there. People are going to avoid religion for the same reasons. If your "promising future" is so important then you are not going to give yourself away in love. Not to a marriage and not to God. If a man is going to get in the way then God will get in the way all the more. So you pick a safe religion like liberal Christianity or atheism.

In fact, any sort of ultimate answer to the meaning and purpose of life is going to demand you change your life to reflect that answer. What are the odds it is going to fit with that promising future? It has the effect of preventing you from asking the really big questions in life. You end up accepting the default non-answer to what truth should be at the center of your life.

It really boils down to a lack of courage. An unwillingness to make a choice that costs something. But you always end up choosing something. You get a career in government, in business, in academia or whatever. You give your life to something one day at a time. You just do it without thinking about it. That "promising future" always looks better in the abstract than it does in reality. The commitment to serve God and a vocation that might flow from that often looks scarier but bless us much more.

The old song says "freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose." Modern feminism seems to be selling this to women. Throw away your love life. Throw away you religion. Then you will be free. Like we have something better to do. But what if there is nothing better? What if we sacrifice the greatest goods in this world so that we can climb the corporate latter and that latter leads nowhere?

Update: Leah Libresco has a piece at First Things about this same story.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Natural Law And Pornography

There is an interesting natural law discussion going on at Unequally Yoked. The key question is, given that the purpose of sex is procreation are the various distortions of sex an addition to that purpose or counter to that purpose?  Now the classic Thomists tend to get very anatomical at this point and talk about the purpose of the male and female genitalia. That is a bit distasteful to me. I can see the point but it seems a bit small. It makes it seem like the Catholic church is being obsessed with who is doing what with their "you know what."

I like to view sex as something bigger. I like to view procreation as something bigger. Sex is the entire use of the sexual faculty. Procreation is all of family life. That is everything involved in having a good marriage and everything involved in raising children right. So the purpose of sex is not simply achieving conception but it is to initiate and strengthen the marriage bond and to open the couple to not just accepting children but making a huge effort to raise them well.

So what do a man and a woman need to do sex and procreation well? They need to focus on the dignity of the other person and how the sexual impulse is a call to love that person completely. They need to avoid thinking about the shortcuts. That is how can satisfy my sexual desire without actually giving myself away in love. But these thoughts are hard to put out of your mind. This is especially true for young people who are in the initial stages moving towards what could be a solid family but could also be a dysfunctional family. They tend to have less self control and so the distractions are going to be more damaging.

When people ask a question like, "What does it hurt if I indulge in some pornography?" there is an assumption that they are an island. The better question is, "How can the common acceptance of pornography make it harder for a couple to focus their sexual energy on each other in a way that is not degrading?" Then the answer becomes obvious. If you are defending an action as moral you can't assume you are the only one who will be doing it. You need to look at the full impact of everyone embracing the same moral principle. You need to specifically look at what it does for marriage and the raising of children. Then you need to be honest. Is it harder to have a strong marriage in a pornographic society? Is it harder to raise children well in a pornographic society? Sure some will reply with "I don't see how" just because they don't want to see. You need to be honest.

There is another level of the question. How does my indulgence effect my personal ability to date in a healthy way and to enter marriage with a healthy view of sex? There is an assumption that because marriage is not on my radar today that I don't need to worry about what I do to my personal sexual faculty. How do you know that what you are doing has not prevented you from developing a healthy marriage with a person in your life? That is what your sex drive is supposed to do. Can you honestly say you are not making that less likely?

That is the key from a Natural Law point of view. Are you making the natural end of sex less likely or impossible by using sex in an unconventional way? If you are then you are committing an immoral act. That is a sin against reason. Natural Law does not make reference to God. It discerns the purpose of things by reason and asserts that to use something against its own purpose is ultimately self-defeating.

You can make similar arguments for all of the other sexual distortions. You can see that if they were practiced freely in society then they would make strong families more challenging. You can see that pretty easily because we have done pretty much all of them in our society. Anything we can do to make marriage harder we have done. Anything we can do to make raising children harder we have done. We have done them in the name of reason and progress. We are just that smart.

The good thing about thinking at this level, that is the level of society and not the level of an individual act, is that you don't have to focus on the precise details of the act. Pornography is notoriously hard to define. Here you don't need a precise definition. You can redo the argument at a more precise level, making clear that we are talking about PG13 rated porn rather than R rated porn. You can still keep the discussion on the big picture. Sexual morals are not about being concerned someone might be having too much fun. We are concerned man and woman might miss out on the great love they are meant to have in marriage and they might be unable to give their best gift to the next generation, that is to be great mothers and fathers. That is what is at stake, our greatest joy and the well being of our children.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Miracles And SuperHeroes

Christian Piatt write an article on miracles and superheroes. Just a few comments
I was fascinated by Jesus’ miracles as a kid. I pictured him alongside the Green Lantern and Batman stickers, adorning my canary yellow toy box. There he’d be, fists on his hips, a giant, red “J” on his chest and his long, blond locks, flowing in the wind.

It’s Super-Jesus!
He mocks this as a silly and childish way to think.  I think this is precisely why we love superhero stories. It points us to Jesus. We might not know it but we have an innate hunger for a person to step forward that does not have the weaknesses we all have. Somebody who is truly good and amazingly powerful and is willing to do what it takes to save us. This is the kind of child-like faith that Jesus wants us to hang on to rather than grow out of.
The older I’ve gotten, the more circumspect I am about the nature of miracles and what they mean in the context of faith. I’m not in a place where I’m ready to qualify all of the miracles in the Bible as metaphor — though I think some likely are — but I am wary of affording too much weight to them, as if my own faith depended on them being literally true.
The question is not what your faith depends on but whether you have faith or not. When someone approaches the word of God and is wary about giving too much weight to its truth then I wonder. What does it meant to have faith? You expect faith to be reasonable. But is a miracle inherently unreasonable? Not at all. God can do anything. But miracles are uncomfortable. Our modern scientific minds are scandalized by them. Interpreting God's word and expecting it to be reasonable is one thing, expecting it to be comfortable is quite another. It is putting our mind over God's mind. It is the opposite of faith.
I started thinking more about this when I saw a magician, maybe 20 years ago, whose routine largely was built on replicating the miracles described in scripture. No, he didn’t raise anyone from the dead or heal them of any sicknesses that I’m aware of, but there are more “minor” miracles of transformation (water to wine), levitation (walking on water) and multiplication (fishes and loaves) that are all part of a modern-day magician’s wheelhouse.
A modern magician can do these things. If he has time to plan it, get material together, rehearse it, etc. The point is Jesus had no chance to do this. The gospels make clear Jesus did not have that quantity of wine or that quantity of bread available for tricks. Remember his disciples were amazed, not just the "audience."
When I met my wife, Amy, she described miracles more broadly as something wonderfully inexplicable that we choose to attribute to God. This made sense to me, but then I watched Michael Phelps achieve superhuman things in the water. He was accomplishing things no one in recorded history has ever done before. I can’t explain or really comprehend how he can do it. And although he did them, I attribute his physiology and gifts to God. So is what he does in the Olympics, according to Amy’s definition, a miracle?
This is nonsense. If this meets anyone's definition of a miracle then they need to get out more. We can be amazed but it is a different level of amazement.  It is a human thing. Yes, it awakens in us our inner hunger for a superhero. But we know Phelps isn't it. He just reminds us of what we are looking for in some ways.
It almost seems that we worship him as if they were miraculous acts. We literally put him up on a pedestal and adore him, much like how people adored Jesus. And just like with Jesus, these amazing feats, whether or not they are literally miraculous acts, are simply not enough. The fall will inevitably come.
People want to worship in response to such a thing. We need to realize that the ultimate credit for such things goes to God. We can thank God for inspiring people like Phelps. Some will get carried away and give to Phelps what belongs to God. Often it is because our worship of God is inadequate. It is not because our response to Phelps is bad.
If they were, Jesus wouldn’t have been abandoned at his most vulnerable moment. Some will argue that he saved the biggest and best for last, raising from the dead, which finally put all of his doubters in their place. Really?  Then why are our numbers, at least in the Western World, in such precipitous decline?
Miracles do make it easier to believe. They do not compel us to believe. At least Jesus never did enough miracle-wise to compel us to believe. He wants to leave us a choice. Still many more people choose to believe when there are miracles. It makes sense. Even the odd little glimpse of the supernatural makes it a lot easier to know it is there.

I think we are unwise to assume we are above that sort of thing. Sometimes we can buy into the materialist assumptions of the culture we live in. We just recoil at the very idea of a miracle. Something in our mindset changes when we accept a miracle. Like God has entered a whole new area of our world.
If we focus solely on the supernatural, fantastic stories of Jesus, he becomes removed, unreachable, less human. And if we justify our faith by such miracles, what happens if someone else comes along who appears to be equally miraculous? Will we know the difference? Call it off-the-cuff amazement, but I’ve heard people describe the tricks performed by magicians David Blaine and Criss Angel as miracles. Do we even know the difference?
We don't want to focus solely on miracles. Miracles point us to God. So do saints. So do sacraments. So does morality. The focus needs to be on God. But should we reject some of the ways God reveals Himself? If we do it likely points to a problem with us. Will we start worshiping magicians?  I can't imagine that being a problem. The devil does have supernatural powers as well. We could be fooled. We should be careful. That is why we involve the church in the discernment process.
For me, the critical question is what we find beneath it all, or perhaps the better question is, where does it all point? In the cases of Michael Phelps, Criss Angel and David Blaine, the ultimate focus is themselves. I’m not saying this to condemn them, but rather to distinguish them from Jesus in this important way. It seems to me, based on my understanding of the Gospels, that Jesus always pointed toward something other than himself — toward God — in all he did and said. And in doing so, he performed what I consider his greatest miracle; complete transcendence of self.
Actually Jesus always pointed at Himself. His main reason for doing miracles was so that people might believe in Him. So this is a really poor way to solve his non-problem. How can you talk about Jesus transcending Himself? Jesus is God. This seems confused. 

The distinction is the one he refuses to make here. That is Jesus claimed a power beyond the material world. Neither magicians nor athletes do that. If such a claim is made and backed up with miracles then it matters a lot whether the miracles are truly beyond natural explanation. If they are then they give us a good reason to take the claim seriously. If they are not then we should be dubious. So when we say a biblical miracle was somehow faked we don't leave the bible with one less miracle story. We give people reason to reject the idea that Jesus is God. Conversely, when we point out evidence for miracles associated with Jesus and the Church we give people reason to accept the claims they make about themselves. We can sow seeds of faith or we can sow seeds of doubt. We don't know whether they will grow in the hearts of others. We do know they will grow in our hearts. We will reap what we sow.

Monday, August 6, 2012

From Religious Freedom To Persecution

The Roman Empire had freedom of religion. You could beleive in a wide variety of gods. People did. We call the religious environment paganism but that could mean a lot of different things. People were trying to find god in many ways and it was all good. So why the persecution of Christians? It happened because Caesar did something that was perfectly consistent with most people's religion. He asked that he be worshipped as a god. Most people had many gods and had no issue putting Caesar along side them. They owed allegiance to Caesar anyway. Was worship really all that different?

It was really only Christians and Jews that simply could not worship Caesar as god. They believed in one God. That was a central tenet of their faith. Adding Caesar as god would deny monotheism and fundamentally change their religion. They would not do it. The Jews had shown their willingness to die for this. Eventually the Romans decided to leave them alone because they pretty much kept to themselves. Christians didn't do that either. They were constantly evangelizing.

The point is that the Roman Empire didn't try and attack Christianity, at least not at first. What they did was pass a law that they thought any reasonable religion should be OK with. Even when some complained they just assumed the fuss would die down after a while. They didn't get it. The Christians could have their god along side Caesar. That was good enough for everyone else. What is the big deal?  Their version of religious freedom allowed for so many gods how could anyone think they were being unreasonable?

In modern times we have something similar happening. We allow for freedom of religion. We have all the major faith groups and a lot of the fringe ones as well. So what is the problem? If you make a law that Christians can't live with there can be a problem. The law won't have to do with someone making anyone god. That is from a different time. Our law will likely have to so with sex. Either gay marriage, contraception, abortion, female clergy, something along those lines. It is going to be something western society has deemed to be totally reasonable. That is where it will begin.

From there it will follow the Roman pattern. We think we are better than the Romans. Our leaders would not demonize Christianity to hide their own incompetence like Nero did. They would not publicly execute the most respected Catholic bishops like St Ignatius and St Polycarp. We will not get local massacres of Christians from time to time. We are just so much more evolved than Roman society. Those things could not happen anymore.

I am not convinced.  How much of our good behaviour is due to God's grace and how much is due to man really getting less evil? I think it is 100% grace. That means man is still capable of great evil if he leaves the grace of God. I fear we will see proof of that.

So where does the HHS mandate fit into this? Not sure. It is good to see the bishops get it. It is disturbing to see the politicians do not. We will see about the courts. If this was the only issue I would not be concerned. The truth is the society is getting less and less tolerant of sexual morality. If you say any sex act is ever morally wrong you are going to be attacked. All that is needed is some pretense of public good. That is some rationalization for forcing everyone to do X. That will be our "Caesar is God" moment.

Update: Mark Shea makes a similar point He also includes a quote from Chesterton which of course says the same thing better than either of us.

Mormons And Context

I was listening to a testimony of a Mormon convert. He spent 2 years as a missionary in Alabama. Right in the middle of the bible belt. Some of the things he said struck me. He would routinely go through about 15 bible passages and interpret them in such a way as to make people beleive they were teaching some of the Mormon distinctives. It is not surprising that they can find some passages that they find useful. Almost any doctrine can find some support in scripture if you look hard enough.

What did surprise me is later on in his testimony he talked about reading the passages in context for the first time. For example, 1Cor 15:40-41 was one of his proof texts. He said he had never read the entire chapter of 1 Cor 15 before. I know the Mormons would not encourage that. Still I would expect that many of the protestants he encountered would make him do that. I know I was taught that as a protestant. If somebody quotes something in scripture that does not seem right the first thing you should try is reading the the verse in context. So how does somebody go door to door in Alabama using this technique and have nobody ask him to read those passages in context? What are they teaching these guys?

Mormons do know how to get Christians off balance. They challenge a ton of things that modern Christians are not used to having challenged. Where does the bible say Jesus is God? Where does it say we won't become gods? I remember being trained in how to witness to a Jehovah's Witness and struggling with some of these things. Mormons raise another big question. Why do we accept the bible and not the Book of Mormon? A huge question protestants almost never ask. So all this is good. Defending the faith is positive if it gets us to do some research. The curse becomes a blessing.

Too often people just respond by just assuming these questions have no good answers. They must have done their homework. They must have discovered a real issue with the Christian faith. So we let it win. We don't give up our faith but we let it damage our faith a bit.

That comes from lacking that inner certainty that we have the truth and there must be some mistake this person is making. If we believed that then we would at least make enough effort to uncover basic exegetical errors. I means the devil is the father of lies but at least make him work a bit to come up with a good one. Don't let him get away with a lie that can be exposed by just reading the entire chapter in question. Reading the passage in other translations is good too. Looking up the key words in the dictionary. These are the things that sowed doubt in one Mormon missionary's heart and he is now a Catholic priest. But he did them himself. No Christian suggested them to him. One woman happened to produce an NIV rather than a KJV when asked if she had a bible but that is it. I thought protestants would have more biblical fight than that. I know Catholics would likely be worse but they could not be much worse. If the heart of the bible belt can't point out when a verse is so obviously being taken out of context then that is scary.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

50 Reasons Why Contraception Is Bad

  1. It prevents you from glimpsing the beatific vision in your sex life. That is what sex was meant to be. A foretaste of heaven. It can't be that if you distort it.
  2. It makes Christian sexual morality incoherent. Why wait until marriage if sex is not about children anyway? Experience has shown that it takes time but eventually premarital sex becomes the norm. It is even happening among evangelicals.
  3. It can make you marry the wrong person. Dating becomes more about who would I like to have sex with rather than who would I want as a life partner. So you make bad choices. 
  4. It reduces marriage from a commitment to spend your life populating the world with people like your fiancee to simply committing to live with that person.
  5. It opens the door to gay marriage because marriage is no longer about children.
  6. It changes our thinking about sex from being primarily about children to being primarily about orgasm exchange. This changes sex from a loving act to a selfish act. 
  7. It confuses the meaning of sex. We can think of it as a casual thing. It can never really be casual but without the openness to life we are tempted to treat it that way.
  8. Safe sex is boring. Sex becomes truncated. It becomes finite. It can no longer satisfy our deepest desire. 
  9. It causes us to lose respect for human life. If we are free to manipulate the act that creates life then how can that life be sacred? The ordinary does not produce the sacred
  10. It causes us to lose respect for sex. We don't fiddle with sacred things. 
  11. It causes us to lose respect for all holy things. What has happened to liturgy since contraception? Certainly in the protestant world traditional liturgy has all but disappeared after being pretty much unchanged for many generations. We have lost out inhibitions about messing with the holy. There is a parallel between the altar and the womb. If we lose respect for one we will lose respect for the other.
  12. Similarly respecting nature in family life can cause us to respect natural law be not destroying the environment. 
  13. Then there is the huge quantity of hormones that end up in the environment. That an cause all sorts of reproductive issues with animals and people
  14. It causes health problems in women. Too many to mention. The ones documented on the insert that comes with the pill are weight gain, irritability, loss of sex drive, and depression. Not exactly what I want for my wife.
  15. It increases the temptation for adultery.
  16. It makes it harder for women to say No to sex. With premarital and extramarital sex the woman often would use potential pregnancy as an excuse. Now she has to say it is wrong or she does not want to. Both of those might be harder for her to defend.
  17. It messes with the natural hormonal balance of male/female interactions. Men lose interest in women. Women lose interest in sex.
  18. It disconnects men from their masculinity and women from their femininity. We lose track of who we are. 
  19. It creates a situation where the most educated reproduce less. Kind of the opposite of the survuval of the fittest.
  20. The least able to successfully use it are often the least able to parent as well. So the most children go to the worst parents.
  21. It causes parents to see children as something to enrich their own life rather than a gift from God to bless the world.
  22. It puts pressure on kids to live up to the parents dreams because there are often no siblings who can.
  23. It creates very few large families. They are the ones that will be kid-focused but not overly focused on one child. Families with one or two children tend towards ignoring the kids or letting the kids run the family.
  24. It deprives people and societies of hope. The average age of societies tend to go way up. There are few youth to provide optimism and enthusiasm.
  25. It causes communities to die off in the long term. People groups that embrace contraception don't produce enough children to replace their existing population. It is a societal form of suicide. 
  26. It forces huge immigration and all the problems that can come with that.Europe is a good example. Low birth rates have caused Europe to embrace Muslim immigrants. They don't make good Europeans but if Europeans aren't making enough Europeans what are they going to do?
  27. It produces an abortion mindset. That is that children are something I should only accept when I want to. 
  28. It has hugely increased the abortion rate. It is still talked about as a solution to abortion but it has the opposite effect
  29. Same goes for STD's. It sends a message that chastity is impossible. 
  30. Sends a message of unlove to your children. I don't want more like you.
  31. It prevents you from totally embracing the Catholic church. This is true of both protestants and Catholics. When they consider becoming a serious committed Catholics contraception is a huge barrier. 
  32. Even if you don't want to accept the Catholic church it is still something all Christians saw as gravely evil for a long time. If you want to appeal to tradition to say Christians can be sure abortion or gay marriage is wrong then you have to say contraception is wrong just to be consistent.
  33. It sets a bad precedent of disobeying God for the sake of some physical pleasure. 
  34. It creates the impression that denying your sexual desires is unreasonable or even impossible. This leads to pornography, all the forms of sexual abuse and many consensual forms of sexual perversion
  35. The call to accept more children in your family is hard but it comes with amazing blessings. God leads you to a place of great joy that you would never have chosen for yourself.
  36. More children increases the impact of your life on future generations. 
  37. More needs increases you reliance on God. That ends up being a good thing because He does provide.
  38. You get attention when you live in an obvious counter-cultural way. That can attract people to the faith when you live it with joy.
  39. Religious life is hard and rewarding. It makes a lot more sense when married life is hard and rewarding. 
  40. You can talk much more credibly to your kids and other singles about sexual self control when they know you have to deny yourself within marriage
  41. Spiritual fruitfulness comes from being open to physical fruitfulness. So a non-contracepting couple will bless the world in other ways even if they don't have a lot of kids.
  42. It prevents you from having to discuss fertility with your spouse. 
  43. It allows sex to become routine and expected. It can lead to bad sex and eventually to no sex.
  44. NFP couples end up with more sex and better sex
  45. NFP couples almost never get divorced
  46. You end up with more grand-kids. Don't have those yet but I hear they are great.
  47. You have a much greater chance of one of you children or grandchildren becoming a priests or nun 
  48. Your children get to have lots of siblings. Nothing can teach people skills like living with people who know how to annoy you and often do it just for pleasure.
  49. Kids are just amazingly beautiful. They are a source of so much grace and joy.
  50. To me the bottom line is integrity. Integrity in my relationship with God, with my wife, with the church, with society, and with my family.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Making History

We hear a lot about making history in the Olympics. I guess in sports in general. The media reach for strong language and they often talk about history. Nobody is really making history. Sure sports events can be remembered for a long time. I remember very clearly some big sports moments from my childhood. I starting thinking and there are too many to count. But historical means more than memorable. Historical means that people who were not event born when it happened will care about it. Will they really? How many sports events that happened before you were born do you care about? I can't think of many. You need to ride the emotional roller coaster between hope and despair and have the big moment either realize those hopes or crush them. It is a personal thing and therefore not an historical thing.

Then there is politics. How many things are called historical that are not? Every election is seen that way. Pretty much every major piece of legislation. Many meetings of world leaders are described as historical. Again you have to go back to before you were born. What political events that happened before you were born do you think of as a big deal? There were the world wars, the depression, not much else. Politics tends to flow one way and then flow the other. We think liberalism is dead when Reagan wins and then think conservatism is dead when Clinton wins. But it is a completely unhistorical ebb and flow of political currents.

So what matters? What is historical? To a large extent it is hard to tell. I would say ideologies matter more than events. Changes in the way people think about the world and think about the human person last much longer and have deeper impacts then any single event. Those things are rarely called historical and are often completely missed by the news media. Often they see a piece of it. They report on a shift in thinking about homosexuality but they report on it as an isolated thing and like the right answer has always been obvious and inevitable. The truth is it is part of a larger ideological change that the media can't see because they are caught up in the current as much as anyone.

They say God is outside of time. When you become Catholic you get a bit of that. You start to see all of human history. You see the the culture of the day. Where it fights against God and where it celebrates God. You can analyze it because the church gives you a fixed point of reference. You don't get swept up in the changes in the same way. Chesterton talked about the Catholic church being the only alternative to the degrading slavery of being a child of your time. You can still celebrate the highs and mourn the lows. It is just that you know they are not what make history. God makes history. The real story is whether we cooperate with Him or fight Him.