Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Reformation and Salvation

Kevin De Young has a post over at the Gospel Coalition about the Reformation and Justification.
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses concerning clerical abuses and indulgences on the church door at Wittenberg. This famous event is often considered that launching point for the Protestant Reformation.
Whether this even took place or not is very much in doubt.Nobody who was in Wittenberg in 1517 refers to it. Luther never does. I know at Calvin College I had one history professor who denied it at every opportunity. Still it has become part of protestant folklore. So Oct 31st is a day when we contemplate the reformation.
The chief concern for Luther and the other reformers was the doctrine of justification. It was, to use Calvin’s language, the “main hinge on which religion turns.” And the doctrine of justification is no less important today than it was 500 years ago.
It is and it isn't. Certainly it is hard to justify the reformation if you don't say Luther was right on justification. But you have NT Wright and others who say exactly that and still remain protestant. Schism is a lot harder to fix than heresy. Even when the doctrinal issues have been forgotten most church splits continue.
There are five key concepts every Protestant should grasp if they are to understanding the reformer’s (and the Bible’s) doctrine of justification.
Of course you can't get it by just reading the bible. If you could it would never have taken so many centuries to arrive at it. You have to be taught how to find this doctrine in the bible. 
First, the Christian is simul iustus et peccator. This is Martin Luther’s famous Latin phrase which means “At the same time, justified and a sinner.” The Catechism powerfully reminds us that even though we are right with God, we still violate his commands, feel the sting of conscience, and battle against indwelling sin. On this side of the consummation, we will always be sinning saints, righteous wretches, and on occasion even justified jerks. God does not acquit us of our guilt based upon our works, but because we trust “him who justifies the ungodly” (Rom. 4:5).
People who are saved still sin. Nobody denies this.  But on some level our justification must show up in our actions. Look at Rom 2:6-8:
God “will give to each person according to what he has done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.
There are many other passages where salvation is tied to works. Galatians is the other favorite book of the reformers so I will quote another one from Gal 6:7-9.
Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.
So to say there is nothing about our works that is related our salvation is a bit strange. If that was what St Paul meant he contradicts himself quite strongly and contradicts Jesus even more strongly.
Second, our right standing with God is based on an alien righteousness. Alien doesn’t refer to an E.T. spirituality. It means we are justified because of a righteousness that is not our own. I am not right with God because of my righteousness, but because “the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ” has been credited to me. “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to thy cross I cling; naked, come to thee for dress; helpless, look to thee for grace; foul, I to the Fountain fly; wash me, Savior, or I die” wrote August Toplady in the old hymn. We contribute nothing to our salvation. The name by which every Christian must be called is “The Lord is our righteousness” (Jer. 23:6).
We are saved by grace from first to last. That grace flows from the cross of Christ. But it cannot remain alien to us. Even the images in the song are not alien at all. Clinging to the cross, being dressed, being washed, these are images of something intimate and not something alien.The images are right. The doctrine is wrong. The saving power of Christ must enter into our most personal space.
Third, the righteousness of Christ is ours by imputation, not by impartation. That is to say, we are not made holy, or infused with goodness as if we possessed it in ourselves, but rather Christ’s righteousness is credited to our account.
Actually it is both. We become a new creation. Yes our sins are forgiven but there is more. Think of Psalm 51.It starts out with: 
Have mercy on me, O God,
   according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
  blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
  and cleanse me from my sin.

but it does not stop there. By verse 10 we are at:
Create in me a pure heart, O God,
 and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
 or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
 and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
That is we are being infused with goodness. Not as if we posses it ourselves. Everything flows from God's grace. We can never forget that. Still that goodness becomes part of us.
Fourth, we are justified by faith alone. The Catholic Church acknowledged that the Christian was saved by faith; it was the alone part they wouldn’t allow. In fact, the Council of Trent from the 16th century Catholic counter-reformation declared anathema those who believe in either justification by imputation or justification by faith alone. But evangelical faith has always held that “all I need to do is accept the gift of God with a believing heart.”
Actually Trent did not condemn every understanding of faith alone. It is more of a slogan than a doctrine. Protestants disagree over exactly what it means. Trent condemned the "nothing else is required" teaching. Most protestants teach that good works are required in the sense that they have to happen. They are not required in the sense that justification is at least theoretically possible without them. Certainly James 2:24 is much harder to square with protestant teaching than the cannons of Trent.
True, justifying faith must show itself in good works. That’s what James 2 is all about. But these works serve as corroborating evidence, not as the ground of our justification.
What does James actually say? "You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone." It specifically says the works contribute to the justification. Then it specifically denies exactly what De Young is asserting. So he can say it is all about "faith must show itself" but that is not what the scripture says. That is what he wishes it said. Then it goes on to say "faith without works is dead."
We are justified by faith without deeds of the law (Rom. 3:28; Titus 3:5). The gospel is “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved” (Acts 16:30-31), not “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and cooperate with transforming grace and you shall be saved.” There is nothing we contribute to our salvation but our sin, no merit we bring but Christ’s, and nothing necessary for justification except for faith alone.
Just like faith without works is dead so too works without faith are dead.  We can only do salvific works by grace through faith. If we do superficially good works any other way they cannot save us.Without faith it is impossible to please God. We get all that. But the bible also says if I have faith that can move mountains and have not love I gain nothing. It says in Matt 7:21-23:
Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter. Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your name, and in Your name cast out demons, and in Your name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness.’ 
The idea of cooperating with God's grace brings all these biblical ideas together beautifully.  The idea of faith alone just does not.
Finally, with all this talk about the necessity of faith, the Catechism explains that faith is only an instrumental cause in our salvation. In other words, faith is not what God finds acceptable in us. In fact, strictly speaking, faith itself does not justify. Faith is only the instrument by which we embrace Christ, have communion with him, and share in all his benefits. It is the object of our faith that matters. If you venture out on to a frozen pond, it isn’t your faith that keeps you from crashing into the water. True, it takes faith to step onto the pond, but it’s the object of your faith, the twelve inches of ice, that keeps you safe. Believe in Christ with all your heart, but don’t put your faith in your faith. Your experience of trusting Christ will ebb and flow. So be sure to rest in Jesus Christ and not your faith in him. He alone is the one who died for our sakes and was raised for our justification. Believe this, and you too will be saved.
Venturing out onto a frozen pond seems a lot like doing works based on faith. That is the point. We don't just sit beside the pond and declare that it is strong enough to carry us. We need to get on the ice. If we don't act on our faith then how firmly do we believe anyway?  Works just show you really are serious.

I find it interesting how little scripture is actually in these 5 points. Most are taught nowhere in scripture. It is also interesting how the images brought forward are much more Catholic than the doctrine. That is to say that Kevin De Young and I think most protestants are much more Catholic in their heart than in their confessions. They care more about good works than you would expect from their doctrine. That is because the Holy Spirit is active in those communities and leads them into more truth than they are willing to consciously accept.

Scientists As Spin Doctors

Politicians love to spin things. To get out there first and get people to interpret data a certain way. It works. People are influenced big time by that. Nobody admits that they were personally influenced but that is even better. The numbers show the influence is huge and the people involved are unaware. Some of your political opinions and mine are likely as a result of political spin and we think we came to those ideas on our own.

Now we have science getting involved. We have seen this in climate change debates. We certainly see it in the gay "marriage" debate. Recently there is a much quoted study in the abortion-contraception debate. Politicians use studies to spin issues. It works. People trust scientists because they think they are more honest that the politicians. They are not. We used to think journalists were objective. We were wrong. We want to find someone we can trust. We can't. That is what a moral breakdown in society looks like. We have been ignoring warnings about that for so long. Guess what? We are getting there.

Churches used to play this role. Historically when churchmen and politicians have gotten together it has been a bad thing. You want the churchman to sanctify the politician. That is not typical. It more often happens that the politician corrupts the churchman. The Catholic church is still paying for some of the alliances it had with the Democrats a few decades ago. Today's bishops seem to get that they don't want to switch parties. They want to transcend parties. I wish I could say the same for evangelical leaders.

Power corrupts. It can corrupt churches. It can corrupt journalists. It can corrupt scientists. But we think scientists are immune. That is not rational. We trust science above all else. That is secularist dogma. Still science can't solve the problem of sin. There is an old saying that figures don't lie but liars do figure. It is interesting that we often hear the first part of that quoted without the second. We don't like to think about that second part. We want to think politicians are just obedient to scientists. The truth is the tail wags the dog more often than not. Scientific studies are manufactured to prove what the politicians want them to prove.

So where do we go? We have self-appointed fact checkers in our political world now. They have huge biases as well. We have people that know something of statistics and criticize studies they don't like. But can we trust them? Most of them seem to come to conclusions that show a political tilt.

I have said it was a mistake for voters to accept dishonesty as inevitable for any politician. Once we crossed that line, once our respect for the truth got lost, then the system cannot work. We cannot have rational, informed political debate without demanding honesty from all sides. It is not a matter of, "O well, they are all liars so just pick one." It is matter of, "Your lies are destroying our political system so even though I like you and like you policies I will never vote for you again." When people get to that place then things will change. Democracy will start to work again.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

What Is A Cult?

The Billy Graham Evangelical Association(BGEA) stopped calling Mormonism a cult. The definition of "cult" is a bit hard but their website actually gives a definition.
What is a cult?
A cult is any group which teaches doctrines or beliefs that deviate from the biblical message of the Christian faith.
So that is it? Any deviation from the bible at all and you are a cult. Most protestant churches would actually admit to being a cult under that definition. That is they don't claim to have the true biblical faith without any errors. Some claim to be 100% right on matters of salvation but this definition does not even limit it to that. Any deviation at all from the correct biblical interpretation and you are a cult.

The problem is that limiting it to matters of salvation would matters of salvation would make people ask, "What are the true doctrines of salvation?" Protestant churches disagree even on that. So defining a cult that way really does not work. So the BGEA list a few examples.
Some of these groups are Jehovah's Witnesess, Mormons, the Unification Church, Unitarians, Spritualists, Scientologists, and others,
The obvious problem is the use of the word "others." How do I know if the group I want to join is one of the "others?"  They just don't have an answer because they know Christians will disagree wildly on what should be considered a cult.

Now they have drawn attention to this whole thing by removing Mormons from the list of cults. Why did they do that? Politics. Saying Mormons are a cult group makes Romney seem less reasonable as a candidate for president. But should politics influence how Christians answer a question like this?

It goes back to the classic Called To Communion article on Sola Scriptura and Solo Scriptura. What it says is that you can't really distinguish in a consistent way between reasonable opinions on biblical interpretation and unreasonable ones. That at the end of the day all bible-only Christians do exactly the same thing as cult leaders do. They do it to a lesser degree but the principle they follow is exactly the same.

What that says is that Sola Scriptura makes it impossible to define a cult as long as they claim to follow the bible. You can only say they are wrong in your opinion. That is that you disagree with them more strongly than you disagree with some other churches. The point is that your opinion is the central reference point. So they are cult-like relative to your theology but not in an absolute sense.

To get an absolute definition you need to look at Christian tradition. How far is a group from the historical center of Christianity? But even then you would need to define that in an objective way. You end up with something very similar to the Catholic notion of sacred tradition. That leads to the realization that Catholicism is closer to the center of Christianity then the particular brand of protestantism I follow. You can see why most protestants don't want to go there.

Monday, October 29, 2012

The New Evangelization

Just thinking about the New Evangelization.  There is some question about exactly what we are trying to change. Rocco Palmo quotes Abp Diarmuid Martin of Dublin.
In an assessment likely applicable to much of the Western church, Martin said in a 2011 lecture in Washington that "young Irish people are among the most catechized and the least evangelized."
My wife was raised in Dublin. They do a fair job of catechisis there. I don't know that Dublin is like the rest of the Western church in that regard. Certainly around the year 2000 the mass attendance rate in Ireland was way better than other western nations. That has changed a fair bit but I still don't think Dublin is typical.

What I am concerned about is the idea that catechizing and evangelizing are opposites. We have been there. In many ways we are still there. Way too many Catholic youth programs avoid teaching the facts of the faith in any great depth. Instead they try and help the child or teen connect with God. They do it terribly. They present the faith as a load of sentimental nonsense. Still they do try and evangelize them into that faith. So in that way the idea of doing less catechisis and doing more evangelization has been tried and has been a big failure.

I think that teaching the faith is most of evangelism. We should not just teach it as doctrine. We need to make sure people understand what it looks like when lived out. That is still teaching the faith. That is why the church has saints as well as dogmas. The dogmas are more precise but the saints are more practical. It just can't be one or the other. It has to be both.

When we pick and choose some parts of the faith to make it more attractive to the next generation we always end up doing the opposite. The human heart will respond to the fullness of God's truth. We need to trust that. Often when we don't it is because we don't really believe it ourselves. We want to fix the faith. To help God out a little. So we try and avoid talking about rules. We don't talk about martyrs. We even edit out the stories of miracles. What are we left with? The saints as just a bunch of people who were nice but didn't believe anything in particular. In other words, the saints end up looking a lot like modern liberal Catholics.

That cannot be what the New Evangelization looks like because that is what the Old Evangelization looks like. It is what we need to stop doing. We need to present the faith as it is. We can't fix it. It must fix us. We need to evangelize well by catechizing well. It is not enough to be new in ardor and new in methods. We need to figure out that we have blown the mission by changing the content. That we have taught heresy when we should have taught truth. Sure we need to use new media. Sure we need to show some passion and lots of joy. But the main reason we failed in the past is we watered down the truth. In our schools, in our parishes, and in our homes we didn't teach the true faith to the next generation.

The New Evangelization has avoided saying directly why the Old Evangelization failed. It is not that they were not responding to the culture. They responded in the wrong way. They responded by not talking about the parts of the faith that the culture deemed offensive. Lots of priests and religion teachers are still there. I am hopeful the New Evangelization will change all that but I would be more hopeful if they articulated clearly the mistakes of the past. It seems like we are still trying not to offend. Yes, we would be saying that some people gave their life's work to a form of religious education that did grave harm to the church. Some people would not like hearing that. Still if we want to stop doing something it would happen more quickly if we told the people who are doing it today to stop.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Concieved In Rape

The Washington Post has an article by feminist  theologian Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite about the latest rape comment from a Republican senate candidate.
Indiana GOP U.S. Senate candidate Richard Mourdock has declared he opposes aborting pregnancies conceived in rape because “it is something that God intended to happen.”
No, God does not “cause” either rape or conception following rape, nor is this “God’s intention.”
Rape is a crime.
Nobody is saying rape is not a crime or that rape is good. That is just a straw man. What he is saying is that God can use sinful acts to do great good. Look at the crucifixion of Jesus. It was the most evil act ever. Yet it was the greatest gift as well.
When you make God the author of conception following rape, you make God the author of sin. This is a huge theological error, and one that Christian theologians have rejected since the first centuries of the faith. “Unde malum?” “Where does evil come from?” is one of the most profound questions we wrestle with as Christians and has been from earliest Christian history (see Tertullian, Apology, 39).
This is nonsense. The source of evil is a profound theological question but this is a terrible example of it. Normally you use examples where no imaginable good is in view, maybe a Tsunami or something. Here you have a new life. So you have an obvious good that flows from the evil act. 
It is cheap, easy and wrong to attribute all that happens in the world to God, as this makes God the author of sin and evil, and thus less than all good.
This is an easy, cheap, and wrong way to mischaracterize what Mourdock is saying. He is not making God the author of rape. He is saying God is the author of life even when the life is begins with a bad act. It is hard to believe Thistlethwaite can't grasp this distinction. Does she deny this? Are children conceived in rape not a gift from God?
But frankly, Mr. Mourdock, the theological errors pale in comparison to the failure of compassion your comment exhibits. Your comments are contributing to the hurt and the self-blaming of women and girls who have already been violated.
She knows Mourdock lacks compassion towards rape victims? I don't know that. I would not want to judge Mourdock or make any uncharitable assumptions about his motives.
I counsel women all the time who have been raped. They are already blaming themselves for something that is not their fault, but that society and religion teaches them is their fault.
I tell them over and over again, “It’s not your fault. Rape is violence. It is the sin of the perpetrator. It is a crime.”
Society and religion teaches them what?  Then Thistlethwaite rides to the rescue and tells them it is the perpetrator who is at fault? Whatever. But regardless of who's fault something is there is a chance of both good and bad consequences. Valuing the child does not communicate that this is somehow her fault. It just means they need to accept what has happened and move on. That won't be easy. Telling her that her child is somehow less of a child because she was raped is not facing reality.
Knowing that God judges rape as a profound wrong is part of the healing and grace for women and girls that can follow. Taking back your moral agency as a person who can make an ethical choice, as Christian ethicist Beverly Harrison helps us understand in regard to the ethics of choice regarding any pregnancy that results from rape. When you take away the capacity for ethical agency following violent rape, you are contributing to the diminishment of these human beings and impeding their recovery.
Treating them like a special case seems worse to me. Saying we respect the life of unborn children but we don't respect your unborn child because we feel sorry for you. That seems to diminish their humanity. Loving your children is part of being human. The issues that need to be dealt with are huge but pitting a mother against her child is not the answer.
Our current political polarization is a failure on many levels, but none so profound as the failure of compassion, of empathy.
There is, however, no failure of compassion so glaring as the way rape survivors are being made into political and religious scapegoats today.
Stop that. In God’s name, stop it.
Who is making the rape survivor a political issue? Pro-life people rarely bring it up. It is either the media or the pro-abortion side that always want to focus the debate on the rape exception. Yes, it shows a huge lack of compassion. So many women get hurt by that topic being brought up over and over. But what can pro-life people do? When the question is raised it is hard not to respond. They could point out the questioner has a profound failure of compassion, of empathy but they don't want to judge. 

Politics Last

Oddly enough we get a lot of talk about politics. Should we vote for an awful Republican candidate or an even worse Democrat? It is enough to get people depressed about the country. The good new and the bad news is we get the candidates we deserve. It isn't just bad luck that we get politician after politician who can't be honest with the people and can't get the right answers to even the most basic moral questions. These guys come from somewhere. They come from society. They are evil because we are evil. They make stupid arguments because we fall for stupid arguments.

On the surface this does not seem like good news. The system is not broken. We are broken. Our hearts and minds have gotten us into this mess. But it is good news. The reason it is good is because Jesus can help us fix our hearts and minds. We can start with our own. We can focus on loving God with all our hearts and minds and souls. When we do that the political world will look different. Parties disappear. Even most policy becomes irrelevant. You just see a bunch of lost people. Who cares who wins? God will take care of the nation. We just need to keep our integrity and put love first.

The key is that politics is the last place we should be doing that. We should do it there but we should have done it everywhere else first. We should love gay people first before we enter a gay marriage debate. We should love women with unplanned pregnancies first before we talk about abortion. We should love the poor and the immigrant and the racial minorities. The list goes on. We can transform society with great love. If we try and take a short cut and just transform it through political games we will lose out souls and get nothing in return.

The truth is that love and politics both will change us. Love will change us for the better. Politics will change us for the worse. Look how Jesus took down the Roman Empire. He did not do it by attacking the political leaders and calling for them to be overthrown. He did it by giving Himself up in love. It took time but He changed the Empire from the bottom up instead of from the top down. It is not enough to just change the leaders. We need to change society. We do that by loving one broken heart at a time. Some will respond by joining us. Some will respond by getting angry with us. No shortcuts. No master plan. Just know that God can do more with one small act of great love than with 100 clever political putdowns.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Hurricanes And Gay Marriage

Just ran into this again. I know it is a bit dated but it actually illustrates some common problems with the way secular people talk about religion. The first issue is the assumption that all Christians agree with something one particular religious figure says. The statement being referenced here is from Pat Robertson. He suggested hurricane Katrina might have been punishment for sin, specifically the sin of society accepting gay marriage. But Robertson is just one guy. I don't know any Christian who puts a lot of stock in what he says. I am sure there are some but they would be a small minority.

The point is you get this all the time. Ideas are labeled generically Christian when they are not held by all Christians and often only by a small subset of Christendom. Of course, much of this flows from disunity among Protestants. Then there are people trying to make fun of Christianity rather than understand it. They will cherry pick quotes from all over. The casual observer ends up with a confusing mess of ideas that are associated with Christianity most of which are nowhere near central to the faith.

The other problem on display here is the notion that spiritual explanations for events somehow exclude material explanations for them. That is just not what Christians believe. For example, 2 Kings 17 talks about God punishing Israel for her disobedience by delivering them into the hands of Assyria. It states the reason plainly in verses 7 and 8:
All this took place because the Israelites had sinned against the Lord their God, who had brought them up out of Egypt from under the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt. They worshiped other gods and followed the practices of the nations the Lord had driven out before them, as well as the practices that the kings of Israel had introduced.
That does not mean there is no geopolitical explanation for how and why the Assyrian king decided to attack Israel. In fact that is also explicitly stated in verses 3-5:
Shalmaneser king of Assyria came up to attack Hoshea, who had been Shalmaneser’s vassal and had paid him tribute. But the king of Assyria discovered that Hoshea was a traitor, for he had sent envoys to So king of Egypt, and he no longer paid tribute to the king of Assyria, as he had done year by year. Therefore Shalmaneser seized him and put him in prison. The king of Assyria invaded the entire land, marched against Samaria and laid siege to it for three years. 
The point is the invasion happening as punishment for sin and the invasion happening as a result of Hoshea's political blunder are not an either/or. They are both true. God could have said,  "Let there be an invading army!" and one would have appeared out of nothing. That is not the way He normally works. He works within the framework of existing causes and effects even when He explicitly says this army destroyed Israel because they disobeyed.

So the notion of God sending a hurricane as punishment for sin does not mean the normal meteorological causes would be not apply. From a scientific perspective you would not expect anything different. The same laws and the same equations would hold. That is not always the case but it is the norm. True miracles, that is miracles that break the laws of science, do happen but they are very rare. I don't do miracles but it seems to me that doing them without breaking with science would be way harder.

It does raise the question of how we can tell that something is punishment or blessing from God? The answer is that it is all from God. We don't wait for the miraculous and then try and discern God's will. God gives us what He gives us every day. Some challenges, some joys, some punishment for sin, some rewards for being faithful. The key is to see His loving hand in everything. One thing we should avoid is looking for God's punishing hand in other people's tragedies. Even if we are right it is not that charitable to point it out.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Hostility To The Other

Brian McLaren has a piece up on why people are leaving church. It is a classic case of how we tend to spin data and convince ourselves it proves we are right.
A young man introduced himself, explaining that he had heard me speak several years earlier at his Evangelical college. "Of all of my fellow students who were in the ministry track at my school," he said, "I'm basically the only one who still even goes to church, and I'm only hanging on by my fingernails." I asked what it was that had driven his peers -- all preparing for ministry work -- not only from the careers in ministry that they planned on, but from even attending church at all. "It's just what you spoke about tonight," he explained. "Hostility to 'the other.' People don't want to have to side with the church and against their friends who are Buddhist or Muslim or Jewish or agnostic."
We are not supposed to be hostile. I don't know any conservative Christians who describe themselves that way. But we are supposed to believe. We are really supposed to think Jesus offers something better. That does not mean we have nothing good to say about people who are Buddhist or Muslim or Jewish or agnostic. We can learn a lot from them. But we do believe Jesus is God. So Christianity is not one more religion among many. It is has that fundamental thing right that other religions have wrong.

It is the same thing with other Christian religions. We are not hostile to protestants or orthodox. We want to learn from them. But we don't believe Catholicism is on an equal footing with them. Catholicism has the fullness of truth because God basically forced the church to hold onto it. It is not true because we are so good. It is true because the Holy Spirit is so good. But it is true.

A lot of times people simply lack that faith. They don't really believe that the Catholicism is true. The interact with people of other faiths who can be very impressive and they wonder who, if anyone, has the true religion. If that is where you are at then any proclamation of truth is going to sound like an act of hostility. It is going to seem self-serving because you are going to think of the gospel as your faith and not "the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes (Rom 1:16)."
Later in the evening, two young women, current college students, told me the same thing. "We grew up in the church," they explained. "We're still followers of Christ, but we're not attending church any more. We can't find a church that doesn't load a bunch of extra baggage on us. We tried, but they all had this long list of people we had to be against. It's just not worth it."
One of them added, "But tonight, you gave us hope that there's a way of being Christian that doesn't mean we have to hate on anybody." 
These are classic church shoppers. They want a church that will not ask them to change. They will evaluate whether a church is "worth it." They say they are following Christ? What does that mean? Whatever they want it to mean today. They use secular language saying that Christians are haters. It shows they have made no effort to learn what Christ or His Church actually say.

So what is the solution? To teach them an even less demanding version of Christianity? Why would they commit to that? How would it change their life? I can see a church like that not being worth it. It just leaves you as you were, with a dead faith that makes no difference in your life.

Why not challenge these young women? Why not tell them there is a better way. Yes, it means calling some things right and some things wrong. It does not mean hating anyone. It does mean sticking to your convictions that some basic rights and wrongs apply to everyone. They might balk at such a notion. They might not. At least there would be a chance for them to have an encounter with Christ that really matters.

The key is to realize that where they are right now is lost. Don't make them the judges of all of Christendom. McLaren seems to present them as having a wisdom that most churchmen lack. He kind of has the tail wagging the dog.
Their comment reminded me of something a woman about my age had shared during the Q&R session after the lecture. She explained how she, a lesbian, had left the church years ago, deeply wounded by the hostility she experienced. "I didn't choose this as a 'lifestyle,'" she said. "This is the way I am." She told us how hard it was just to show up in a church for the lecture that night, and asked me if I saw a connection between hostility against gay people and hostility against people of other religions.
I explained that I think there's a deep and powerful connection: religious communities often take a short-cut to building a strong group identity -- by defining themselves in opposition to others. Muslims, atheists and gays are high-profile "others" which can be scapegoated to build a strong "Christian" identity. On top of that, Christians have been taught to see in "us vs. them" terms for centuries, and it will take time to reorient faithful people in a new direction -- "us with them," working for the common good.
Of course this kind of ecumenicism will lead to heresy. Not just to one heresy but every idea the culture can serve up. Why not? We don't really believe what we believe so there is just no spiritual strength.

It is interesting that he connects it with groups building identity. What is that a problem for Christian churches? Because of schism. When the church is one our identity is Christ. When the church is fragmented then every group needs to define itself over against the others. He says Muslims, atheists and gays are "others" but I don't see that. Atheists and gays have historically not been "others." Until recently all groups believed in God and agreed that gay sex was wrong. Muslims were there and we likely could have handled them better. Still the main "us vs. them" I experienced as a protestant was when the "them" was another group of Christians.

That is why I see the whole situation as the fruit of the reformation. The unworkability of denominations is being used as an argument in favor of doctrinal and moral relativism. It goes back to what I said earlier about learning the wrong lesson from the data. We cannot have many flavors of Christianity. We need a way to say which is the true Christian faith that is not ad hoc. Then we need to actually trust and obey that faith. We need to lose ourselves in finding Christ. Nothing else will work.
Later, this woman was in line to get a book signed, not far behind the two college students. With tears in her eyes, she gave me a hug and said, "Tonight gave me hope that there's a way I can maybe come back into the church, that there's a place for people like me."
As I was leaving, the two students who had spoken with me earlier circled back to talk some more. "If we can make the changes we talked about tonight -- finding a new kind of Christian identity that's built on what we're for instead of who we're against -- I think we'll make history," one said.
"Let's do it," I replied. "Let's do it."
There is always the appeal to the emotions. What else can you appeal to? Once you have knocked down the church and the bible there is not much left.

I do always question someone who promises to build a new Christian identity. I wonder what he thinks the Holy Spirit has been doing for 2000 years. Can McLaren build something better than Jesus built? If he can make history it will be a history that makes no sense as a story of salvation through Jesus Christ. Jesus will be like one of the Avengers. He can't win the victory until He teams up with other superheros like Buddha and Mohammad. It took him 2000 years to figure out He could not do it on His own. That does not sound right to me.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Does Sex Mean Anything?

Does sex mean anything? That is does it have inherent meaning. Not meaning that we give it based on custom or superstition but meaning that is imbedded in the very nature of sex. Many people say No these days. There are people involved in the hook-up culture or whatever else that say they  engage in sex and it means nothing to them. Does that prove sex can be meaningless? Not really. You can have a Nazi declare the life of a Jew to be meaningless. He can kill many Jews and seem to have no ill effects. Does that prove he is right? That those loves and by extension all human lives are meaningless? No. You can say that the person in question is acting contrary to the nature of things. That people in the hook-up culture are living a lie when they engage in sex that way and Nazi's were living a lie when they treated Jews that way.

The next thing that people will ask is whether you can prove that people in the hook-up culture are suffering some ill effects from living sex lives contrary to what you say is the nature of sex. They want some irrefutable study that shows some measurable bad consequence of this. Of course that is a rats nest. All studies can be questioned. What qualifies as a "bad" consequence? When that can be shown then they can always claim the effects are not from the immoral acts themselves but the bad reaction of society to those acts. So you blame Christians for calling something immoral. That must be the real problem. It never ends.

But what about the Nazi example? Would you need to see a study of Nazi soldiers to know that the holocaust was wrong? Suppose they seemed to be otherwise upstanding citizens and claimed to sleep well at night? Would that make you think that maybe their actions were just fine? I hope not.

It really boils down to why can't we prove God exists scientifically. Moral truth has the same issues. We can come up with arguments that will work for those willing to be convinced. We can't typically come up with arguments that will convince everyone regardless. If that was the case we would no longer be talking about a moral issue. We fill our cars with gas so we won't get stranded on the road. That is not a moral issue because the bad consequence is clear.

They other reason we don't want to say that sex has meaning is that it is not nice. The people who claim sex has no meaning are going to say you are judging them. Besides, why does it really matter? I think the sexual acts I engage in or refuse to engage in have meaning. Isn't that enough? Not really. What we have done is taken something that is God's and made it something that is ours. When it is ours we can change it. When it is God's we must be changed by it. 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Dialogue with an LGBT ex-Catholic

Richard Evans responded to my post on gay marriage below. 
Is it not also circular reasoning to assume that the Roman version of Christianity is the only correct one as well? And even if she is, that all of society must follow it in the areas of sexuality, even if it differs from their personal morals and understandings of life?
It is not circular. You might say it is ad hoc if you were going to associate it with a logical fallacy. Of course, I would say there is good reason to believe that Christianity is the most correct sexual morality. The point is society has to do something. If I was the only Christian then your point would make some sense. But there is nothing Christian about letting society go in a wrong direction because a minority claim the right to take it there. If you really believe Christian sexual morality is true, and you should, then you should want society to be built on true principles.
Full disclosure I lived as a "same-sex attracted" Roman Catholic, nationally published and interviewed, for 7 years--until this summer when a well-known priest unfriended me and blocked me from FB for asking, in a polite manner, that we simply be careful in the way we approach others during the Chic-Fil-A controversy and protests.
Who cares what a well-known priest does? People treat each other badly over this issue a lot. I would say the pro-gay side has been much more mean-spirited and hateful but there have been incidents on both sides. It is sad. Still I don't understand changing your opinion of Jesus or His Church based on that. Jesus never promised us every Catholic would be nice.

While I did not leave the Church over this issue solely, it did influence me. When ecumenical Councils such as 4th Lateran can both begin to define Transubstantion (more fully developed at Trent) and then in the same documents define circumstances where land (which in those days usually meant a person's entire livelihood and even life at times) could be taken from "heretics," where this same Church can claim to have never, not once in 2000 years, erred in "faith and morals" but yet Popes have issued decrees, ones that any good Catholic at the time would have considered infallible, about not just if but how to proceed in burning infidels, meaning other Christians who did not agree with them,
First of all, the doctrine of infallibility was not defined until the 19th century. So the idea that any good catholic would find papal decrees infallible in the 13th century seems a bit anachronistic. Still heresy was taken seriously. The concern was more that it could lead to civil unrest and political instability. Doctrine does matter.
when this Church claims to believe in natural as well as Divine law and then uses that claim to stop people from simply living their lives such as LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) or others who are different in various manners, and onward to many other examples, then she is a Church drunk with power--and wears the blood of others on her vestments.
So exactly how does the church stop LGBT people from living their lives? It simply teaches that certain sexual acts are gravely immoral. That list includes acts commonly committed by heterosexuals as well as some more common with homosexuals. People are free to ignore what the church says.

It is quite a claim to say something is immoral. You need to be right about it. Jesus gave us one institution that could get questions of faith and morals right. That is my faith. I pray it is yours as well.
I am no longer Roman Catholic--and no longer defining myself as "same-sex attracted." I am humbly but gladly LGBT and still a "catholic Christian" within Anglican/Episcopal circles.
The question is whether you were following God or following your own desires.  How do you know? You have tried to get rid of a church drunk with power. You have ended up with all that power yourself. Can you do better at discerning God's will than the successor of Peter and the successors of the apostles? I can't. My sin is too great and I end up arriving at all sorts of false doctrines.
And if you and I or some of those who have blogs in your roll had lived 500 years ago, you likely would have torched me by now and felt justified. Thank God for secular law which stopped them from such horrendous practices post-Reformation on both sides. There is a reason for separation of Church and state. And yes it is a delicate balance for either.
The same-sex marriage issue is not about separation of church and state. It is only to the extent that people don't understand what separation of church and state means. People feel some sort of obligation to not oppose same-sex marriage if their opposition is rooted in their faith. They should not feel that way. That is a twisted notion of the non-establishment clause. No church body is trying to control the government. We have individuals exercising their democratic rights to fight for a government that reflects their values. Chris Kluwe calls that "unamerican." He could not be more wrong. 
Though it may seem it from this comment, I do not hate Rome--far from it. But Rome does not authentically accept me, except in the far back row of the Cathedrals and some parishes.
The Roman Catholic church accepts everyone. What they don't accept is serious sins. If people are in a state of mortal sin then their communion with the church is going to be limited by that. The hope is those obstacles are eventually removed and communion can be restored. That can only happen when we repent and allow God to change us. God is not going to start accepting sin. We have to start accepting holiness.

Jesus does not want you to define yourself as same-sex attracted or LGBT. He wants you to define yourself as a child of God. Everything else about you needs to be seen in the light of that central truth.
That is what is at issue here. Not some secret "gay agenda," and I do not deny that some activists go too far, I have been one and done that at times, nor some conspiracy against the Church and all she stands for. Live and let live is at issue here. And that is something Rome at times seems to forget how to do. 
I don't think there is some secret agenda. I do think that evil grows. When people start attacking the church and calling her evil for teaching what she has always taught that tends to get more intense over time.  Nobody plans that. It just happens. In the Chic-Fil-A controversy we have government openly stating that they will try and destroy a business because of their religion. If you would have told me five years ago that big city mayors would publicly call for the state to discriminate based on religion I would have said we are decades away from that. Now we have seen it. Where does it go next? Anti-Christian bigotry and hatred will get worse.

Friday, October 12, 2012


It seems we always want to make a deal with God. Give Him this much and that should be fine. This is especially true when we do things right that most people don't do. I know as a teen and even as a young adult I was there. I was going to church. I was not having sex. I was staying away from excessive drinking and drugs. I knew most guys my age were not doing those things. So a certain pride develops. Looking back on it that had me in a spiritual rut for a long time. Just assuming God should be satisfied because I do those few things right.

When you get into married life the list changes a bit. You avoid contraception. You tithe. You teach the faith to your children. Pretty good. But that is just the basics. Luke 17:7-10 says:
Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, ‘Come along now and sit down to eat’? Would he not rather say, ‘Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink’? Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’
What is Jesus getting at here?  Obedience is not something we should see as a big deal. Disobedience is an insult to God. It is like punching God in the nose. If you avoid punching your friend in the nose you don't expect him to be overwhelmed with gratitude. It is expected. Our obedience of God is like that. It is expected. It is the starting point of a relationship. It isn't the goal. Jesus is pointing out that God remains our master. We should still be more concerned about God's business than about ours.

That is the nature of God. He is always going to want more. He is looking to take us all the way up. That is the goal. For us to be holy enough to enter into the life of the trinity. We get a few feet up that mountain and we want to celebrate. There is a lot of hard work ahead.

St Teresa of Avila has this as her first of seven levels in her interior castle. Not just the decision to take the spiritual life seriously but the ability to stop congratulating yourself for doing that. She lived with nuns. Many thought they were spiritual superstars because they answered the call the religious life. But we need to get to a point where that is unremarkable. God calls. We obey. That is what Christians do. It is not heroic virtue. That comes at the higher levels.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Depressing Surveys With Silver Linings

There is yet another study showing the increase of secularism. The headline is that for the first time less than 50% of Americans self-identify as protestant. That is just a milestone more than anything else. The trend has been downward for some time. But I was interested in a point Jeffrey Wiess made:
Because drilling down, it looks like more of the remaining Americans who say they are religious are very religious. While the folks who were nominally attached to some particular church have decided to give that up.
He associates that with politics. I don't know if I agree with that. But the notion of the disappearing middle ground between secularism and Christianity is something that has been expected. People are less and less able to keep one foot in both camps. Part of it is that secularism keeps moving. Gay marriage is the latest non-negotiable doctrine of secularism. The demonizing of dissenters is much more intense as well. It is quite scary. So people have to choose. Churches have to choose. Either cave into the culture or accept being radically counter-cultural.

This is actually a great time for The New Evangelization. That is for the church to actively re-propose the Catholic faith to those who are just going through the motions. That is what Vatican II was all about. To have the laity catch the faith. Letting them become full-fledged members of the People of God, not just hanging onto the church but actually becoming one with the church and therefore with Christ.

For many years people just declared themselves to be one with the church and thought they had the spirit of Vatican II. That is not it. Unity with Jesus and with each other requires us to change. Jesus does not become like us. We become like Him.

But you can't do that in an atmosphere of dissent. Right after Vatican II we had Humanae Vitae. The most openly dissented form papal teaching in the history of the church. It really has taken this long to get to a point where most bishops and priests are willing to defend it.

So we are at an interesting time. The church is finally willing and able to engage in evangelizing secularized Catholics. At the same time those Catholics are really starting to feel that position becoming untenable. 1 Kings 18:21 comes to mind:
 Elijah went before the people and said, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”
That is the idea of a choice. If you think money, power and sex are really the most important things then go serve them. Give your life to those things. But if you really believe that Catholicism is the truth and Jesus is God then give your life to that. Don't waver between the two.

So we will have more Nones but we will also have more nuns and more priests and more great Catholic families.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Chris Kluwe and Matt Birk

Matt Birk is an NFL football player for the Baltimore Ravens. He came out against same-sex marriage. I think the issue is being voted on in Maryland. Chris Kluwe is an NFL punter. He has a reputation for speaking up a lot more than punters normally do. Here he responds to Birk's position.:
Full disclosure: I know Matt Birk, having played with him for multiple years in the NFL. I think he’s a smart, funny person who has done both good things in the community here in Minnesota as well as with the concussion issue facing disabled players. I respect Matt, and I respect his right to his own views and ideas. However, in this instance, Matt I think you’re wrong. This is not an attack on you as a person or your beliefs, but the argument you presented in the Star Tribune simply does not stand up to logical inspection.
It is good that he is trying to be charitable but he is actually arguing  against Birk's beliefs.
Problem the first – Your argument lacks facts, sources, or statistics. You can’t just say “Same -sex marriage is bad for kids because I think it’s bad for kids, and I think it’s bad for kids because it’s bad for kids”. That’s called circular reasoning and it’s a logical fallacy. If you want us to understand why same-sex marriage is bad for kids, you need to provide some sort of substantial evidence. Tell us that children from same-sex couples are more likely to grow up broke and miserable and alone and will end their days starving in a gutter. Just don’t use a study like this one, which displays clear source and confirmation bias (as outlined neatly in this article from Slate). Use something like this
This is funny. Use studies. They contradict each other so use the ones I like. Why? Because they say I am right. So who is engaged in circular logic?

He makes another assumption. That we need studies. That we can't figure out what is good for kids any other way. Before we had the internet and could trade links to studies we don't understand we had to make decisions about children. Guess what? We have an intuition about what is a good situation for children and what is not. Should we ignore that? Gay marriage is trendy. Do we want to bet a child's future on something just because it is fashionable? It shows a lack of seriousness about the business of raising children. They are political props that we use when we can make them help us and ignore when they don't.
Problem the second – Your argument that “government recognizes marriages and gives them certain legal benefits so they can provide a stable, nurturing environment for the next generation of citizens: our kids” is flawed on two counts. The first flaw is one of simple mathematics – if “marriage” is so necessary to the proper raising of children, why are we not passing an amendment to outlaw divorce? 
Very confusing.  Does he think Birk is in favor of divorce? I would be shocked if he is. Same-sex marriage is the issue on the ballot. So why bring up divorce? It is a bad idea too. Because we have already done terrible things to marriage we should continue? Is that the argument?
The second flaw is that you’re actually arguing in favor of same-sex marriage. If children having a stable home is the main crux of your concern, then denying gay couples the benefits of 1100 federal laws can only harm the children they will raise. Not allowing those children the same health benefits, family care benefits, survivor benefits; that can only be a detriment to the upbringing and care of a child, correct? Or do you propose that same-sex couples should be unfit for adoption, should be unfit to raise children?
I would suspect Birk is against same-sex adoption too. Again, not the issue on the ballot. The 1100 federal laws are a red herring. Including gay couples in those benefits might make sense. So change the laws that make sense to change. Don't just charge into 1100 unexamined law changes because it was politically correct.
Problem the third – You’re conflating “‘if it feels good, go ahead and do it’” with couples that want the stability and benefits of marriage and just so happen to be gay. There’s plenty more heterosexual couples that marry because “it feels good, go ahead and do it” with no intention of ever having children than there are same-sex couples (again, simple mathematics). Should we deny marriage to anyone who doesn’t plan to have kids? What about the infertile couples? The old people? You yourself say “Marriage is in trouble right now — admittedly, for many reasons that have little to do with same-sex unions.” So why the discrimination? Why should we be passing a constitutional amendment denying legal rights to American citizens who pay taxes and serve in our armed forces? If “marriage” is so important, why aren’t we going after all those “many other reasons” first?

Again, bringing up another issue that is not on the ballot. We need to fix every problem in the world before we can answer the same-sex marriage question. Until then the default answer is Yes for some strange reason. Marriage can be about procreation even if not all marriages produce children. The essence of man and woman is such that they can produce children. It is enough that a couple have those essences even if they don't reflect them well enough to be fertile. It does not make those essences unimportant.
Problem the fourth – Marriage has already been redefined multiple times over the years. Marriage used to be one man and multiple women. Marriage used to be a way to exchange property between two families. Marriage used to be between brother and sister to keep the royal bloodline pure. Marriage used to be between children. Marriage used to be only for people that were the same skin color. Marriage used to be a lot of things, many of them oppressive towards women and minorities.
Most of this is just false. Polygamy was accepted once but a marriage was between one man and one woman. The man would just have multiple marriages. Similarly the other things don't effect the definition of marriage. It was just an instance of marriage that we would not longer find acceptable.
I think I’d rather marriage be between two people that love each other and are committed to each other no matter what combination of fleshy bits are hanging off their bodies; not a reality TV show.
Is this about what we would rather have marriage be? Does that not assume a lot? That marriage is up for definition based on our preferences? Nothing other than human opinion need be considered.

Then there is his caricature of gender. Does he really believe that the essence of man and the essence of woman begins and ends with anatomy? I doubt it. It is more a willful ignorance.
Problem the fifth – You’re trying to raise a religious argument in a secular matter. The First Amendment isn’t just about the freedom FOR religion, it’s also about the freedom FROM religion. The word “marriage” appears in thousands of legal documents and laws in this nation, and to attempt to narrowly define it through a religious application means you’re trying to assert a religious viewpoint on those who may not necessarily hold the same views. Our founding fathers knew quite clearly the dangers that state sponsored religious persecution could inflict (they lived through it!), and the First Amendment is worded in favor of state neutrality for a reason. I will support your right to worship at whatever altar you choose, but I will not support you trying to force it on someone else, or to deny someone else legal benefits due to religious reasoning.
More nonsense. Religion cannot be imposed on a minority by the government. But that does not mean government policy cannot be informed by ideas that flow from religion. If those ideas have the support of the majority then they can be implemented. Even the constitution itself uses religious logic. All men are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights ...
Problem the last – The only impact same-sex marriage will have on your children is if one of them turns out to be gay and cannot get married. What will you do (and I ask this honestly) if one or more of your kids ends up being gay? Will you love them any less? What will your actions speak to them, 15 years from now, when they ask you why they can’t enjoy the same relationship that you and your wife have now?
This is also silly. Morals always get hard when people we love break them. If your child commits adultery does that mean adultery is OK? It is just an attempt to appeal to sentiment. I can feel sentimental about the guy who just robbed a bank. He might have a very sad story to tell. But we can't make our law about bank robbery based on that story.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Reasoning About Reason

Reading some stuff on rationality. It strikes me at how complicated this process of reasoning is. There is endless analysis about how you should reason to avoid error. You can see why. We have a lot of smart people committed to reason yet they have huge disagreements. Somehow people are not reasoning quite right. At least the people who disagree with me are not reasoning right! Seriously, we have faith in pure logic. We tend to think we can engage in pure logic when we want to. Put all the bias and presuppositions aside and look at things in the cold light of pure reason. The truth is we can't. I am reminded of this quote from Merton which I have discussed before:
I think that if there is one truth that people need to learn, in the world, especially today, it is this: that the intellect is only theoretically independent of desire and appetite in ordinary, actual practice. It is constantly being blinded and perverted by the ends and aims of passion, and the evidence it presents to us with such a show of impartiality and objectivity is fraught with interest and propaganda. We have become marvelous at self-delusion; all the more so, because we have gone to such trouble to convince ourselves of our own absolute infallibility.  The desires of the flesh–and by that I mean not only sinful desires, but even the ordinary, normal appetites for comfort and ease and human respect, are fruitful sources of every kind of error and misjudgement, and because we have these yearnings in us, our intellects (which, if they operated all alone in a vacuum, would indeed, register with pure impartiality what they saw) present to us everything distorted and accommodated to the norms of our desire.
If we get our minds around what Merton is saying here it will rock our world. We can't trust our own thinking. We need our reason to be checked against something. Pure science gives us that. Ideas are tested by experiments. Even conclusions we are very certain of need to be discarded if they don't fit the data. We need that. Before we developed the scientific method the knowledge of the natural world grew very slowly. Reason alone just takes too many wrong turns.

When we get away from pure science into social science, morality, philosophy or even theology then our reasoning gets progressively less testable. The experiments are not precise and we get into endless discussions about methodology. As we get further and further into the realm of human choices and what they mean we lose the science. We are back down to pure reason and we don't do well. We still have great confidence in our logic. We are just wrong a lot.

Some say that it is only a matter of time before science becomes able to test our reason in all areas. That will only be true if humans are not actually capable of making choices. If every human thought and every human decision can be predicted 100% by analyzing the physical inputs then science at least has a chance of analyzing it all. But what if that is not true? What if people really do make free choices? That is a human person is more than their body chemistry, their brain processes, the sum of their inputs? What if we are not at the mercy of the physical world but actually have some power to act on it?

Then science would have a barrier. It would not just be a barrier of complexity but a more principled barrier. That human behavior simply could not be fully described by science because humans make real choices. They are capable of doing good and capable of doing evil. Then science will never be able to describe your marriage like it can describe photosynthesis.

In approaching this question logically we are firmly in one of those areas that Merton says is "fraught with interest and propaganda." Where our reason tends to be distorted. What is up for debate is the very essence of who we are. How can we not be biased? Biases can run both ways.

Merton found an answer in Jesus Christ and in the Catholic church. That is why he became a monk. Not to stop reasoning but to have something to check his reason against. More than that, he wanted to control those appetites that infected his reason. Through a sacramental, prayerful, and holy life he could keep the "desires of the flesh" under control and be truly rational.

Monday, October 1, 2012

What Is Evangelicalism?

There were a couple of stories that talked about evangelicalism and exactly where are it's boundaries. There was Dan Haseltine from Jars of Clay talking about his new record being outside of the comfort zone of most evangelicals. That can be good or bad. Spiritual growth comes through getting uncomfortable. Then again heresy can happen that way too. Which is it? Depends who you ask. The trouble is that evangelicalism is defined by comfort to a large degree. How else can it be defined? There is no one organization that defines it. There is no one leader or set of leaders that have the final say. In fact, one of the defining properties of evangelicalism is their discomfort with the very idea of any definitive religious authority.

The other story involves Brian McLaren. He has gone outside of the evangelical comfort zone a few times. The latest episode involved the same-sex "commitment ceremony with traditional Christian elements."

Timothy Dalrymple does a good job of analyzing the issues with defining who is and is not evangelical. Still he avoids the obvious question, how could it work?
There’s nothing inherently oppressive or intolerant or authoritarian in seeking to identify who is an evangelical and who is not.  The Jews, for instance, have clear terms of definition.  If they did not, they would not have survived as a people for so many centuries.  Similarly, any group that wishes to maintain some semblance of coherence over time will need, so to speak, to patrol its borders.  That means examining boundary cases, cases that challenge you to formulate a more precise definition.
It is not oppressive or intolerant. It is authoritarian in the sense that doing it claims for yourself the right to do it. That amounts to quite a significant authority. That is why it has not happened.

He makes a good point about the long term survival of any religion depends on defining clearly what it is and what it is not. That is why evangelicalism today is very different from what it was 100 years ago. It will be different again in another 100 years if it exists at all.

He talks of "examining boundary cases." Great idea. What would that look like? One evangelical criticizing another? That happens all the time. It would need to be some more definitive criticism. Something beyond just disagreement. It is just unthinkable in the evangelical world.
This is a particularly acute question for evangelical seminaries.  This nation has seen countless Christian institutions of higher learning that have, over time, lost their Christian character.  Evangelicals have shown a lamentable eagerness to discover the latent heresies in Christian college and seminary faculty, to make mountains out of molehills and drive people from their jobs for minor theological transgressions.  But I cannot fault the general desire to cultivate a faculty that reflects the fundamental convictions of the institution.
Seminaries do have authority attached to them. They define what faculty members have to believe. It is not simple. It involves one of the biggest problems with Sola Scriptura. That is deciding which doctrines are essential and which ones are OK to disagree on. There is no list in scripture so seminary rectors are in an impossible position. They need to make decisions that are going to draw fire and they have no biblical basis from which to defend themselves.
Finally, saying that Person P is not an evangelical is not at all the same as saying that P is not Christian or does not have a saving relationship with God in Christ.  If I were to say that P is not an evangelical, that’s not intended as an insult or exclusion.  It’s not to say that P is wrong or unrighteous, an enemy or unwelcome.  It’s merely an observation of what evangelicalism means and an observation of whether or not P comports with that definition.  A community that does not define what is holds essential will not survive as a community for long.
You need to say someone is teaching heresy. That does not mean they are going to hell. But saying it is "merely an observation of what evangelicalism means" is too weak. If that is all you are saying then why bother? What you need to say is that you believe evangelism to be true. That truth has content.When we define the boundaries of that content we need to say there are spiritual consequences to leaving those boundaries. Otherwise why bother with the notion of "evangelicalism" at all? If you don't claim it just is the true Christian faith then what is the point?

So Dalrymple has some good thoughts but he dances around the central problem. Evangelicals as a group can't say anything. They cannot, in principle, be precisely defined. They can only be defined by consensus of human opinion. When the consensus breaks down there is no way to be sure whether that is a good thing or a bad thing.

What that means is we get what Catholics call scandal. People associated with evangelicalism do things that get people talking. They don't know if this guy is all wrong or if evangelical Christianity is now accepting this. They just get that something is rotten. When that happens in the Catholic church it is up to the pope and the bishops to clarify matters. For evangelicals it is done by consensus. If you have all the major leaders basically saying the same thing it can work. If you don't then the scandal does real damage to the church's mission.