Friday, October 25, 2013

Communicating Sin

One of the hardest parts of Christianity for modern people to grasp is the notion of sin. We think we are pretty good. We have been trained not to feel guilty for anything. Self esteem is important and if you just believe in yourself you can accomplish a lot. It is true to a point. The trouble is that then people just don't understand why we need a savior. Why Jesus would die on the cross. Why God would have the concept of hell. Why grace is really amazing.

I wonder if the parable of the prodigal son from Luke 15 makes sense here. It is often seen as the picture of grace but it gives us a picture of sin as well. I am thinking of the two kinds of sin exhibited by the two sons. The sin of rebellion which we can see plainly. Of course, the rebellious son could not see it until he came to his senses but it is kind of obvious.

Then there is the other son. He is the good kid. Yet he says he served his father like a slave. He resents his father for not rewarding his good behavior and being too forgiving to his brother. He is the one who does not see himself as a sinner. He has done good but not on the same level as the father.

It is that kind of guy that can have a problem grasping sin. He has never been bad enough to feel that sin is a big problem. So accepting that radical solution that Christianity offers to sin seems a little much. The smallness of the problem is part of the problem. That is a small vision of life. Play by the rules. Don't question the rules but don't really embrace the rule-maker either. You make peace with God but you don't love God with everything you have.

That peace is based on some sort of micro-rebellion. God keeps drawing us closer and closer. The only way to not end up deeply in love with Him is to push Him away at some point. For the older son that point was being asked to forgive his brother. That was too much. But pushing God away at any point is a problem. In fact, it is the only real problem we have. If we stay with God what seems like a problem ends up being an adventure. We get hurt. We look stupid. No problem. We learn. We heal. We fall deeper in love with God. But if we push God away. If we say this is too much. If we would rather lose God than follow Him down this path. Then we have a problem.

That is the essence of sin. It is not so much the size of the rebellion. Adam and Eve rebelled over a piece of fruit. It is the lack of trust. Saying to God, "My life would be better if I did something other than Your will."

So we can see how every sin will separate us from God. A lack of trust can never really be a small matter. It will make the kind of love relationship God wants to have with us impossible.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Less Sex And Worse Sex

Greg Popcak did a post a while ago now analyzing a study of the hookup culture. His point was that the media missed the point. They summarized the study as finding that hookups are all hype and nothing has changed. That is because they focused on how often college kids were having sex and with how many partners. It turns out that has actually gone down a bit. But Popcak is still concerned:
So, as I said, young people are having, more or less, about as much premarital sex as ever.  But that’s not really what the hookup culture is about.  The hookup culture isn’t just about the amount of sex people have and the number of people having it.  It is about the kind of sex people have and the attitudes toward sex people hold.   And  this where I think the Univ. of Portland study really does support concerns about the hook-up culture.  The second part of the study shows that young adults are more likely than their older counterparts to have casual sex with strangers or friends and see casual hookups or “friends with benefits” as a substitute for marriage instead of a potential path to marriage as previous generations at least tacitly did.
Then I saw something else on sex in Japan. That is another sexually permissive culture. What has happened there? Sexual activity has gone way down. Why? There are a bunch of theories. The bottom line is marriage and children have become unattractive options, especially for women. It takes time for that to sink in but once it does then a lot of young people just stop dating.
I meet Eri Tomita, 32, over Saturday morning coffee in the smart Tokyo district of Ebisu. Tomita has a job she loves in the human resources department of a French-owned bank. A fluent French speaker with two university degrees, she avoids romantic attachments so she can focus on work. "A boyfriend proposed to me three years ago. I turned him down when I realised I cared more about my job. After that, I lost interest in dating. It became awkward when the question of the future came up."
There is this notion that if religion would just get out of the way then everyone would have tons of sex and life would be great.  Yet we see two counterexamples here. Permissiveness leads not to more sex but rather to worse sex in one case and to what is called the "celibacy syndrome" in the other case.

What Japan tells us is that Dr Popcak's concern is well founded. When marriage is removed as the goal of sexual relationships then they ultimately become boring and people lose interest. People eventually see the emptiness. They learn what Catholicism says is actually true. There are two vocations, marriage and celibacy. There is no other kind of sex life humans can find peace in. If you throw away all the rules that help young people find marriage that won't lead them to happiness. It will simply mean a longer, more painful road to marriage or celibacy.

It is something that is hard to fix once it has broken down. In Japan they are very concerned that adult diapers are out-selling baby diapers. Yet the number of children born in 2012 was the lowest ever. So government wants to fix it but it just keeps getting worse. Decisions about marriage and children are made at a deep level and governments just don't impact people at that level very often. They need hope. Not sure where you get that other than religion.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Is CS Lewis Infallible?

 Gerald McDermott over at First Things talks about Sola Scriptura and Nuda Scriptura. A bit of a similar distinction to Sola Scriptura and Solo Scriptura that Mathison asserted in a book a while back. That position was attacked extensively at Called To Communion a few years ago. Essentially saying there was no principled difference between the two. Can McDermott avoid the same problems?
A new battle is brewing over the future of Evangelical theology. Roger Olson, Evangelical theologian at Baylor University’s Truett Seminary, protests in a recent article that some Evangelicals (especially me in a recent article in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society) misunderstand “liberal theology.” We think, he says, that liberal theology “is a good label for any deviation from orthodoxy.” So we wrongly label, he says, “any deviation from or attempt to re-form orthodox Christian tradition as ‘liberal.’” Instead, he argues, liberal theology is that which makes modernity rather than Scripture its norm.
This is one of the problems. There is no firm ground in the evangelical theological world. Everything is relative with no fixed point of reference.  So it becomes a fight over terms. What is liberal? Who gets to say?
Yet there are troubling signs that Olson and his self-styled “post-conservative” Evangelicals approach Scripture and tradition in ways that are more modernist than orthodox. They refuse to let the Great Tradition (the Catholic-Protestant-Orthodox consensus which C.S. Lewis dubbed “mere Christianity”) ever trump an individual’s interpretation of Scripture. This is what can be called nuda scriptura—the idea that the Bible is self-interpreting, needing only the Christian individual to make sense of it. In contrast, Martin Luther’s sola scriptura used the great creeds to fight for the primacy of Scripture over late medieval tradition.
This is interesting. He is making CS Lewis into a point of orthodoxy. Why? From a rhetorical point of view it is because his audience will mostly accept it. But what is the theological  reason? Is there anything infallible about CS Lewis? No. He just takes us back to a time where there was agreement about many issues that no longer have agreement. CS Lewis expressed that agreement well. Yet does that mean what he expressed gets set in stone? In Catholic circles that could happen if he was the pope. When does it happen in protestant circles? I thought the answer was never but McDermott seems to want to make an exception.
Olson asserts that the Great Tradition has been wrong in the past, which just goes to show that all tradition is “always . . . in need of correction and reform.” Evangelicals should reject any appeal to “what has always been believed by Christians generally” because tradition by nature protects vested interests. The creeds are simply “man-made statements.” They all need to be re-examined for possible “revisioning of doctrine” based on a fresh reading of scripture. Nothing is sacrosanct, everything is on the table. Only the Bible is finally authoritative. But even that is too often mistaken for revelation itself, which in reality consists more of the “acts of God” in history than the words of the Bible. Post-conservatives tend to reject the idea that the actual words of the Bible are inspired, and often prefer to speak of “dynamic inspiration,” in which the biblical authors but not their words are inspired.

This is the point. Every liberal has the reformation as a precedent. If we can change the traditional teachings of Christianity once then we can do it again. The conservative evangelical has no reply. He cannot say the reformation was an error. He cannot offer a principled reason why this liberal idea is different. Yer he knows in his bones that it is so. Why? Because deep down inside he is Catholic. He knows certain truths are infallible. We must not question them. Yet he cannot express it in protestant terms.

J. Gresham Machen, author of the classic Christianity and Liberalism (1923), was a Great Tradition Evangelical who prized the early church creeds for their authoritative guidance of biblical interpretation. “According to the Christian conception,” he wrote, “a creed is not a mere expression of Christian experience, but on the contrary it is a setting forth of those facts upon which experience is based.”
You can say nice things about creeds all say long. At the end of the day the liberal will only have one question. Are they fallible or infallible? A non-Catholic has to say fallible. Who is this Machen guy anyway? Just one more human opinion. One more guy I disagree with. Why should I lose sleep over that?
The post-conservative view of tradition and scripture, in which Scripture is self-interpreting (Olson’s view), raises new questions. If we can overrule tradition because of Scripture, but the words of Scripture are neither the Word of God nor inspired, then how do we decide which concepts behind the words are the Word? And who decides? If the biblical authors were culturally-conditioned, and the Great Tradition is culturally conditioned all the more, what prevents the post-conservative theologian from being just another culture-bound interpreter? Are we really free to say that the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds never get a veto? Or the Chalcedonian consensus? Or that the development of the Trinitarian doctrines was only man-made and not guided by the Holy Spirit?
He is totally right in his instinct. But what made Chalcedon right? It was not a consensus. I mean there were a lot of Arians and Coptics at the time. It was a council based on the authority of the bishops and the pope. It was not based on consensus.

He then goes through a list of doctrines where modern evangelicals are disagreeing with what Lewis and Machen said or what he assumes Lewis and Machen would say. The problem is they don't have any authority. In his mind they have a lot of authority but they don't have objective authority that no evangelical can dismiss.
The lesson Evangelicals should learn from this new dust-up over evangelical theology and modernity is that sola scriptura is necessary but not sufficient for maintaining theological orthodoxy. Only a “single-source” view of scripture and tradition in which hermeneutical authority is given to the mutual interplay of Scripture and orthodox community—the method that the church practiced for most of Christian history—can protect evangelical theology from going the way of all flesh, to liberal Protestantism.
This is sounding more Catholic yet. Who are the orthodox community? Who were the orthodox community at the time of the reformation? What if God never let that orthodox community be led astray? What if, when they said something about the Eucharist or about the nature of the church they spoke truth? That would mean applying the position he has just stated consistently. If you did that you would end up Catholic.
Post-conservatives claim conservative Evangelicals elevate tradition—both evangelical tradition and early church tradition—above Scripture. But Great Tradition Evangelicals say they want to submit their individual interpretations of Scripture to those of the wider and longer orthodox church, and interpret Scripture by thinking with the Great Tradition.
They do and they don't. They want to think with a human tradition they call "the Great Tradition." They don't want to think with sacred tradition. That is the greatest tradition because it is not just a human tradition. It is from God. We are great at calling others to obey tradition when it lines up with our opinion. What about when it is us that has to submit our individual interpretation to that of the wider and longer orthodox church? If we take it all the way and submit ourselves totally to the widest and longest and most orthodox church then we will end up Catholic.

If you asked McDermott why he is not Catholic my guess is it because of one of those individual interpretations of Scripture that he is condemning here. He has the right principle but he does not dare push it past his comfort zone.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Where Did The Eucharist Come From?

Where Did The Eucharist Come From? For Catholics this is an easy question. Jesus instituted it. He gave a discourse on it in John 6 at the passover prior to the one on which He died. Then on the night he was betrayed He took bread  and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” ...

But suppose you are not accepting the New Testament as true. Suppose you are inclined to think of the Jesus story as a legend. That Jesus taught a few things and all the miracles and resurrection stuff was added later. Where would the teaching of the Eucharist fit into that? Did Jesus really say that bread and wine would be transformed into His body and blood and we should eat it? Isn't that a bit crazy? If He was doing miracles people would be slower to just say he has lost his marbles but this legendary Jesus does not do anything supernatural. He tells a few stories and talks about love a lot. Many of the things Jesus says might cause people to question His sanity. This would push almost anyone over the edge.

So maybe Jesus did not teach that. Maybe it came later and it was added in to this master forgery we know as the New Testament. But how does that happen? How does someone in the early church stand up and say, "Maybe the bread and wine actually become Jesus." Again the insanity of the teaching just makes such a notion implausible. Especially since the church did not have a central command for very long. Nobody had the clout to assert such a teaching and have it be accepted by the entire worldwide Christian community.

Then there is the problem of motivation. Why would anyone think it is in their best interests to push such a doctrine? You have to explain that the elements look and taste like bread and wine but they really are the body and blood of Jesus. Hellenistic society loved to question everything. This teaching raises many more questions than it gives answers. Among the Jews it is even worse. They had teachings that explicitly condemned drinking blood. Gnosticism was popular. That taught that the spiritual was important and the physical did not matter at all. Even if the doctrine did not fail the sanity test there would be no reason to be attracted to it.

So the Jesus as legend crowd has a bit of an issue. Nobody but Jesus is crazy enough or credible enough to be the source of this doctrine. Yet a legendary Jesus who taught such craziness and did not do miracles would not be someone people want to build a religion around.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Emperor's New Clothes

The fable of the emperor's new clothes has never made any sense to me. Supposedly this guy has these new clothes that nobody cans see. Somehow because he is an emperor nobody dares tell him the clothes don't exist. I can't understand how that is in any way plausible to anyone. So much so that by the time we get to the climax the story is too detached from any possible reality to have anything to say about anything.

Yet somehow modern culture loves this story. Why? Modern thinkers are like little children. They inherit a great western intellectual tradition. Yet they love to thumb their nose at centuries of serious scholarship without even trying to understand it. Saying, "The emperor has no clothes!" is just a great way to do that. It asserts a completely implausible stupidity on the part of everyone else. Somehow because there is an implausible fable to illustrate your implausible theory then you can get away with it.

Of course this line of reasoning has been used to write off religion quite frequently. I would say it is a mistake even if you are not inclined to believe in God. I tend to think the foundational teachings of Islam are false. Does that mean everything a Muslim writes can be ignored? Not at all. You assume people are not crazy. The Emperor story has the implicit assumption that everyone else is crazy. So crazy that they cannot even recognize a naked man when they see one.

So when you come to a modern skeptic and talk about God they don't consider in the plausibility factor the reality of so many people throughout history have believed in God. In fact, many would be more willing to accept the idea of God if you were the first one ever to advance such a notion. New ideas are inherently more plausible because ... well just because.

Now it occurs to me that this post could be turned around. I am saying modern skepticism has no clothes. So I don't want to assume all modern skeptics are just crazy. That would be committing the same fallacy I am accusing them of.

In modern times we are more aware of the many different ideas around religion and morality. We can see biases and unquestioned assumptions have led to some problems. So we try and question our own belief system more intensely. But there is a difference between questioning and expecting an answer and simply assuming nobody asks this question and just dismissing the whole thing.

There is an idea out there that people of faith don't ask questions. True faith, at least for Catholics, does not fear questions. If you really believe it is true then the questions should have answers. So assuming people only believe because they have never really asked the hard questions, that is one of those assumptions we should question.

The other assumption we should question is whether skepticism is the best approach. We need some way of arriving at truth. Is demanding rigorous proof of everything the right answer? Can you prove it is?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Humanism And Nihilism

There is a bit of controversy about the Yale Humanist Community. One of the things that really surprised me about the group was the rejection of Nihilism. From their website:
Morality vs Nihilism.  Who knows what reasoned experience ultimately leads to.  But whatever the result, the Humanist believes that the jury comes back concluding that there is morality and purpose in our lives.  So while the universe may be aimless, our own lives are no less meaningful and compassion, honesty and other virtues have no less value.  Ethics and purpose then becomes a human centered enterprise which we must work together on.
The makes remarkably little sense. It is trendy to be a humanist at places like Yale so a lot of smart people are signing onto this. OK, maybe not that smart because they misspelled "nihilism."  (I fixed it). Actually I am going to skip over the morality bits and focus more on purpose.

It starts by saying "there is morality and purpose in our lives." Great. But then it says "while the universe may be aimless, our own lives are no less meaningful." How does that work? No less meaningful than what? Than the meaning life would have if we were here for a purpose? How can that not make a difference? 

It talks about a "human centered enterprise." What does that mean? Which human is in the center? I am guessing it is yourself. But there is an obvious problem. In terms of purpose the problem is death. If purpose is a human-centered enterprise then how do you deal with the issue of human death? 
The trouble is that when you leave everything up to human reason all bets are off. How do you know reason will not lead people to Nihilism? You don't. Many will end up there because that is where the logic goes. If you take the skepticism you applied to God and apply it to meaning and purpose then you can conclude they don't exists either. The same problem of a lack of material evidence applies. 

So why assert that we will follow our reason wherever it goes except we are sure it won't go here? It is not because reason cannot go there but rather than reason has gone there. There would be no fear of Nihilism if it had not already happened to more than a few humanists. It is like when the church condemns a heresy. It is not because it is impossible to reason your way there from the scriptures. It is precisely because people have. Arianism was condemned because there were Arians. 

Really you have all the problems of protestantism present here in just a slightly different form. You can really see Bl John Newman's idea that orthodox Catholicism and strict atheism are the only two logical positions on each end of the spectrum. Stopping anywhere in the middle leaves you open to the questions. Why not go further this way? Why not go further that way? There is no logical reason. It is just an arbitrary place to stop.

Monday, October 7, 2013

God And The Pope

The secular world has been predicting the end of Catholicism for a long time. Some might date such predictions back centuries and maybe even back into the middle ages. Still when all the mainline protestant churches caved in on contraception, on abortion, on divorce, on homosexuality, etc. then it seemed like a safe bet the Catholic church would follow suit eventually. It didn't. It has held to its traditional doctrines despite the public opinion even among Catholics.

Why has that happened? It is not because we are so smart. It is by grace. God protects the Catholic church from error because He promised to do so. Other churches enjoy no such protection so they are vulnerable to cultural forces. Catholics are not completely immune to them but they can't damage the core teachings of the church. The key is that this is a God thing and not some property of us as Catholics.

So what happens when Pope Francis makes some statements about this or that? People panic. Why? Because they don't get that it is a God thing and not a human thing. They really worry about the secular predictions of the church inevitably succumbing to cultural pressure.  But if it was God protecting the church through the past few decades and centuries and millennia then why would God stop protecting the church now? It does not make a lot of sense.

One thing was that the conservative wing of the church had its own inevitability narrative. That is that the conservatives would gain in church political power over time and the liberals would go down in humiliating defeat. That seemed to be coming true over the last decade or two. Now it is all in doubt. So what? God's presence in the church does not depend on this one political faction.

It comes down to pride. We cannot boast in ourselves but we can boast in Christ. So we can be proud to be Catholic because that is a God thing. We don't earn it. It is a gift. But when we are proud to be a member of this group within the church that is saving the church from ... well ... the rest of the church. That gives us problems. When God shows us that He does not view things quite that way then we get confused.

So what is God doing? I don't know but I have a guess. There is an old saying that only Nixon can go to China. That is the most anti-communist politician can get away with negotiating with the communists. The same might be said for more conservative doctrines. I think Pope Benedict was useless as a teacher to progressive Catholics. He was just written off as a conservative and  no matter how good his arguments were they were never seriously interacted with by liberals.

Pope Francis might change that. He might put a better face on traditional Catholicism that can get secular people both inside and outside the church to reconsider the Catholic position. How many will do that? Hard to know. In other mainline churches there were not that many. Maybe he will do better. The truth is that often God makes big effort even when few or even zero people respond. He keeps sending messengers. He is not ready to give up on those people.

So far step one is working. Liberals are falling in love with Pope Francis. But do they love him enough to accept any teaching from him? That will be seen over time. They certainly love to point out stuff he says that they agree with. The question is will they rethink their position when he says something they disagree with? That is when it gets hard. I suspect most will balk at that point but even if a few are drawn into the fullness of the faith it will be worth it. At the very least it should be fun. The man is just such a joy to read about.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Pope Francis

Cardinal George makes a great point about Pope Francis.
Before his election, Cardinal Bergoglio warned his brother cardinals about the danger of a “self-referential” church, a self-absorbed church that speaks more about itself than about Christ. Today, ironically, it seems that many are speaking more about the pope than about either the church or Christ!
What is going on is that papal interviews are coming so fast and furious that they are consuming a lot of attention. The trouble is that when we talk about Pope Francis we are actually doing exactly what he does not want us to do. We are focusing on the political dynamics of the church and not focusing on being Christ to the unchurched the way he wants us to.

The trouble is Pope Francis' way of speaking makes hard to ignore. He says a lot of things that need to be clarified. People take things out of context and intentionally or accidentally trumpet this great new papal teaching that is actually not what he is saying at all.

Sometimes it is a person who is panicked that the pope might be destroying the church. There really is not need to panic. Pope Francis is a solid Catholic. Besides, it is God's job to preserve His church. It is not ours. So if Pope Francis is taking the barque of Peter off course the Holy Spirit will correct it back. Of course there is also the chance you could be wrong and his course turns out to be exactly right for the church. We always tend to underestimate how likely that is!

So what do we do? Don't fight about what he said. Just do what he does. Try and interact with people who are on the edge of the church or completely lost. Be yourself. Don't be overly focused on theological precision. Just love people and let your love for Jesus show. Don't worry about the details. Don't worry about looking foolish. You are a new creation. Show yourself off!