Thursday, May 29, 2014

Why Atheists Ignore Islam

Atheists attack Christianity. You look at studies and you see that atheists make up a small percentage of the population. Yet they are everywhere on the internet. That means a high percentage of atheists spend a lot of time on Christian and atheist websites attacking the Christian faith. That is fine. I would prefer they attack it than ignore it. At least it gives me a chance to get to know many of them. Some of them eventually convert.

Yet they almost completely ignore Islam. William Kilpatrick has been doing a ton of writing on the subject of Islam for a long time. From his latest:  

As I say, these assertions about the authenticity of the revelation appear over and over. Far more space is allotted to vouching for the genuine nature of the revelation than to telling what the revelation is. But what sort of author feels compelled to tell us ad nauseum that his word is not a human invention? It’s not likely that the Author of all Creation would be so insecure about what he had written. On the other hand, a man who had invented it all himself would have good reason to be defensive. Muhammad, however, also realized that the best defense is a good offense. Thus, as the Koran repeatedly reminds its readers, the surest path to hell is to doubt “Our revelations.” 
In insisting that the Koran is the verbatim word of God, Muslims are stuck with the task of defending a second-rate literary production as though it were Shakespeare, Homer, and Dante all rolled into one. If they have been largely successful in so defending it, it is because not many want to challenge them on the point.

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Ascension of the Lord

This week the church focuses out attention on the ascension. That is Jesus returning to heaven after the resurrection. It is considered one of the glorious mysteries yet it does have a sad side. Jesus leaves us. Why? I mean He does not have to. In some ways it would be pretty awesome if Jesus just stayed on earth so nobody could ever doubt the resurrection. He does not do that. Partly it is because God chooses to work through faith. He gave us 40 days of appearances that are convincing but not overwhelming. He did not go to the temple and show Himself to everyone. He appeared to the disciples which is convincing yet appearing to His enemies would be more convincing. He appeared to St Paul who was a major enemy yet that is still just one guy. So the bases are covered but there is still wiggle room if you really want to deny it.

Beyond that, why did Jesus ascend? His goal was not just to build something for us on earth. His goal was to bring us to heaven. He can't stay here for the same reason we can't stay here. We are made to be with God. We forget that. We get so caught up in out day to day struggles we lose track of what this life is all about. The most important outcome of this life is determining whether we go to heaven or hell. Everything else pales by comparison. Jesus is in heaven. He is fully human. That means if He can go we can go. There is nothing we should want more.

The other reason Jesus ascended is so that the Holy Spirit could come. The Kingdom of God is not simply going to be brought about by Jesus. He wants to include us in that mission. That happens through the Holy Spirit. That is where we get power. That is how we become witnesses. It is how the grace of God can spread and renew the face of the earth. So we get something worthwhile to spend out lives on. 

Think about the gospel:
All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.
This is called The Great Commission. The striking thing about it is the absolutes. Jesus claims all power. He sends them to all nations. They are to baptize into the trinity which is all of God. The disciples are to observe all commands. Jesus will be with them all the time. Nothing is partial. It is not the best they can do. They must change the entire world. They must change it completely.

Think about it. They are just a few. Acts says about 120 people. They are not rich. They are not especially talented. They don't hold high office. They have just recently learned about God the Father. Jesus they know but the whole death and resurrection thing has blown their mind. The Holy Spirit? They know almost nothing about Him. Yet they are going to teach the world this gospel? 

This is the task we have to. Something we are totally incompetent to do. Yet Jesus says He will be with us. Never mind how you are going to change the world. Just go. Go and I will be with you. What more do you need to know? 

Friday, May 23, 2014

Losing Your Religion In College

Jennifer Misner write something on why she stopped being a Christian. She is not alone. There is a problem with Evangelical Christianity. It does not stand up to scholarly scrutiny the way Catholicism does. Sadly she ends up rejecting all of Christianity. She even agrees that that is sad. 
During my master’s degree program, my plan of going on to do a Ph.D. gradually dissolved — Exhibit A: me working full time at BuzzFeed, hi! — but something else materialized: a swelling doubt about the faith I’d set out to preserve, which hinged almost solely on believing the Bible to be the literal, inspired word of God. As I learned ancient Greek and Hebrew and pored over the biblical text in its original languages, and read it in larger quantities than I’d ever read it at church, its discrepancies began to shine a hot and uncomfortable spotlight on my personal religious views. Pieces of the gospels contradicted each other, I realized. Greek words, like the ones we’ve translated 2,000 years later to mean “homosexuality,” didn’t quite mean what modern evangelicals wanted them to mean. Early Christians disagreed up to the fifth century on which portions of texts should even be in the biblical canon. 
More and more, I realized that the Bible was a flawed, messy, deeply human book — and that in treating it as an unimpeachable guidebook for life in the 21st century, many conservative Christians were basing their entire worldviews on a text that, in my opinion, wasn’t that much different from any other historical collection of letters and stories. I was forced to confront the fact that I’d converted into a pre-fab worldview: one hatched largely in recent American history from Jonathan Edwards and the theology of the Great Awakening, and one that “family values” politics has buoyed through modern decades.
Notice her own summary. Her faith "hinged almost solely on believing the Bible to be the literal, inspired word of God." Now she has gone to Yale and pulled herself and her bible out of her Christian community. It does not work. There are a bunch of questions that have no answers. She goes through 3 basic categories:

  1. There are questions of interpretation. It is messier than her youth pastor made it seem. When you get into all the language issues and the culture issues it is hard to see much certainty.
  2. There is the cannon question. Which books belong in the bible and how do we know? When, as an Evangelical, you try and deny the role the Catholic church played in that process the answers get very unsatisfying. Certainly nothing close to the conscience-binding certainty such a central question seems to demand.
  3. There is the historical question. You see the connection between what you believe and the history of your particular Christian community. Why should the truth about God depend on which denomination you ended up in?

These are precisely the questions that have driven many protestants to convert to Catholicism. It shows why we should be grateful for their conversion. Many more protestants are wrestling with this question and concluding the whole Christian story is a sham. Take a look at some numbers.

Much of this gets meshed in with politics. We saw a surge during the Reagan years. Sine he left office we have seen a pretty steady decline and it has been more pronounced among the youth. I think a lot of it has to do with social media. Youth especially are asking Jennifer's 3 questions. They are not being satisfied with the answers. 

Atheists are very active online. At least initially I think the most serious questions come from other Evangelicals. Atheists are listened to because they have struggled with question #1 and #3 even when they only listen to other Christians. Question #2 is more brought up by atheists. 

I wonder if we are getting to a point where Evangelicalism is unsustainable. It is not intellectually robust enough to satisfy highly educated people. If you lose those then you will lose the masses over the longer term. People are just not going to accept a religion when all the opinion leaders are rejecting it. 

Catholicism solves the intellectual issues. It has been scrutinized and it stands up to the toughest critics. I've read enough conversion stories to know it can attract very smart people in almost any discipline.

The trouble is that Catholicism lacks something Evangelicals have. They know how to get people to convert. They build community. They talk about sin and forgiveness. They challenge people to make real commitments. As Catholics we have gotten very bad at that. 

So what we need is the best of both worlds. We need a church that can reach out to a 16 year old Jennifer Misner and bring her to Jesus. We need that same church to stand up to the questions of the 22 year old Jennifer Misner. How do we get there? We need a miracle. The good news is that God is real and He really does miracles. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Getting Wet

At mass this morning they had the Rite of Blessing and Sprinkling Holy Water. Our priest said that we should all be gathered around the baptismal font for this blessing but we shortcut it by having a small jug up front with a few bottles for spreading the holy water. 

I got to thinking. The baptismal font is a good picture of God's grace. The one at our church is huge. It is big enough for many people to stand in and overflowing with holy water. It is a picture of God's grace. God pours it out lavishly on his people. Yet we don't experience it lavishly. We experience a few drops. Sometimes it all seems to miss us. Why is this? It is not because there is not enough water. It is because the priests can only spread a little. They are the limiting factor.

Yet we are not supposed to be drenched. We are to be reminded of our baptism. That is when we got soaked. That seemed interesting. Not to experience God today so much as to reconnect with a time I did experience God in a big way. We all have those. Maybe a really powerful confession. Maybe a retreat where you focused on God for an entire weekend. Maybe a small group fellowship where you got really honest. These things happen. We experience God. Maybe we make some promises. Yet we need to reconnect with those moments. We need to bring them back to our present reality and allow them to define us. Like St Paul said he was faithful to the vision he received on the road to Damascus. We need to be faithful to our moments of grace.

Yet grace being limited by priests spoke to me as well. Not so much the ministerial priesthood although we do have shortages there. More the baptismal priesthood. That is the sense in which we are all made prophets and priests and kings when we are baptized. How this gush of grace becomes a few drops because so few people actually respond to that calling and pass on grace to others. You just need to give them one drop. One drop gives them a chance to reconnect with who they are called to be. It might make them relive the moment they got drenched. Yet so few Catholics go there. 

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Fighting For The Faith

We see some famous passages in the readings this week. I expanded on the one from 1 Peter 3. It is quite relevant to internet discussions about religion. 
13 Now who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? 14 But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, 15 but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; 16 yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame. 17 For it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil. 18 For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, 
1 Peter 3:13-18
1 Peter 3:15 is often quoted by apologists. It is probably the clearest statement in the bible commanding us to defend the faith against attacks. Yet it does not stand alone. The context gives us a lot more information about how and why we interact with those who criticize the Catholicism. It starts with a basic principle of charity. Be eager to do good. Most people won't attack you if your motives are to provide information or explain the thinking behind something. If you are doing right and you are attacked then God will bless you.

Notice it does not say if you are attacked you may respond in kind. Quite the opposite, it says "do not fear what they fear." What do they fear? Maybe looking stupid. Maybe having a flaw in their belief system exposed. Those are the two basic fears are they not? We will look bad or God will look bad. The answer to the first is humility. The answer to the second is faith. 

Friday, May 16, 2014

Special Pleading

Special Pleading is something atheists accuse Christians of a lot. It is a logical fallacy. Sometimes it is called the ad hoc fallacy for people who prefer their fallacies named that way. Here is an example:
We know Bob killed Jane because he was in her house on the night of the murder.
Dave, Ralph, and Fred were also in the house the night of the murder so you argument is special pleading
It is taking a line of reasoning that can be applied to many and applying it to one. If you don't believe it to be true for the many then you can't use this argument to prove it is true for the one.  That is if you don't believe all four must be guilty of murder then just the presence of a person in that house on that night is not enough evidence. If it is not enough evidence for Dave or Ralph or Fred then it is also not enough evidence for Bob. It is important to note that this does not prove Bob did not kill Jane. He might have. It just means you need some more evidence to show it.

So why are Christians accused of engaging in special pleading? In the US, most Christians are protestants. Even the Catholics are often protestant in their thinking. Protestants engage in special pleading when they choose which parts of Christian tradition to embrace and which parts to reject. Here is GK Chesterton:
Every great heretic had always exhibit three remarkable characteristics in combination. First, he picked out some mystical idea from the Church's bundle or balance of mystical ideas. Second, he used that one mystical idea against all the other mystical ideas. Third (and most singular), he seems generally to have had no notion that his own favourite mystical idea was a mystical idea, at least in the sense of a mysterious or dubious or dogmatic idea. With a queer uncanny innocence, he seems always to have taken this one thing for granted. He assumed it to be unassailable, even when he was using it to assail all sorts of similar things. The most popular and obvious example is the Bible. To an impartial pagan or sceptical observer, it must always seem the strangest story in the world; that men rushing in to wreck a temple, overturning the altar and driving out the priest, found there certain sacred volumes inscribed "Psalms" or "Gospels"; and (instead of throwing them on the fire with the rest) began to use them as infallible oracles rebuking all the other arrangements. If the sacred high altar was all wrong, why were the secondary sacred documents necessarily all right? If the priest had faked his Sacraments, why could he not have faked his Scriptures?
So the objection being raised is often valid. Why is the bible legit and the Eucharist and the papacy not legit? The come from the same church?

Monday, May 12, 2014

Marrying Into God's Family

Bernini's Ecasty of St. Teresa of Avila
In the gospel this week Jesus focuses on where we are going. He is talking about heaven but he does not really use the language of heaven. He uses the language of marriage and of family. Fr Dwight has a piece a while back that clarifies the one line of "in my father's house are many mansions." 
During the betrothal year the boy would build a place for him and his bride to live–this was usually a room which was an addition to his father’s house. Then after about a year he would come with his groomsmen at night in a torchlight process to the bride’s house. She would be waiting there with her bridesmaids, not knowing when exactly he was to come. Then the cry would go up, “The bridegroom is coming!” and the bride and her maids would go out to meet him and process back to his house with her family and the whole village in order for the wedding to take place. After the wedding the marriage was consummated in the new home he had built for his bride and the wedding supper lasted for a whole week.
Fr Dwight quotes this verse a bit later in his post but does mention that the Greek word for mansion here typically refers to this whole scenario of a room being prepared by the man for the him and his bride to live in. So this idea that Jesus is going to prepare a place for us is really marriage talk. He is the way to the Father. Through a covenant with Jesus we enter into a family relationship with the Father. We join the family of Jesus and all the benefits of kinship.

This is what Jesus means by "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." A relationship with Jesus implies a relationship with the Father. It is marriage-like in that it involves a gift of your entire self. Every hope and dream you had either becomes something you hope or dream together or something that no longer matters. 

Jesus then indicates how He lives in total dependence on the Father. "The words that I speak to you I do not speak on my own. The Father who dwells in me is doing his works." 

He says that more often. In John 5:19 He says, "Very truly, I tell you, the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise." 

Then in verse 30 He says, " I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge; and my judgement is just, because I seek to do not my own will but the will of him who sent me."
These are radical statements. Jesus is the second person of the Godhead and He says He can do nothing without the Father. Then how much should we be willing to do without God? It is a hard thing to get your mind around. 

The Father image is apt. God gives us everything the way an earthly father gives his child everything. Yet children are often focused on manipulating their parents into giving them what they want. Their parents give them everything and they don't see it. They eat their parents food and sleep in their parents house and wear their parents clothes. Even the money they call their own is just allowance from their parents. Yet their focus is on how can I get them to give me this toy that I want? They try and ask in the right way. They try be extra good when mom and dad are watching. 

We can live that way with God. We just focus on what we are trying to get from God. We don't just live in a trust relationship with Him. If we learn to do that Jesus has another promise for us.
Amen, amen, I say to you,whoever believes in me will do the works that I do,and will do greater ones than these,because I am going to the Father.
What Jesus did while on earth did not constantly access his divine power. What He did was what a human can do when living in perfect harmony with God. We can access all of that power. The only thing that stops us is our own sin. In some ways the works we do are greater because we are sinners. God's raw power does not give Him as much glory as His ability to work in a loving way with people like us and empower us to do good works. Not overpowering us and making us puppets but loving us into submission and getting us to want to work with Him. 

Monday, May 5, 2014

Godwin's Law

Godwin's Law:
As an online discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1 —​ that is, if an online discussion (regardless of topic or scope) goes on long enough, sooner or later someone will compare someone or something to Hitler or Nazism.
This is actually quite commonly referenced on the internet. Any time you make a reference to Hitler someone will bring this up. Yet they bring it up not in the sense that this is inevitable but in the sense that this is somehow out of bounds. That comparisons to Hitler need not be taken seriously because of this law. It is beyond silly. The Nazis were one of the biggest failures of modern moral reasoning. If you can't talk about your biggest failures then you can't learn from them. Why wouldn't you want to do that?

In fact, one of the slogans that was used in response to WWII was "never again." That meant we would never allow anything like the holocaust to happen again. Godwin's law is the opposite of that. It says that when something that reminds you of Nazi Germany that association should simply be ignored. We will ignore history knowing we might be condemning ourselves to repeat it but at least we will have more pleasant discussions. 

The reality is that Godwin's law allows atheists to duck a bunch of hard questions. It is a relatively modern, western society that discarded Christianity, embraced atheism and tried to develop a moral code based on reason. Of course it was reasoning that we would never agree with and even be offended by but it was an attempt to be rational. Nobody said we are going to be irrational or we are going to be evil. They tried their honest best to make things better. They just failed.

That is a key fact. That the Nazi's were not some mutant breed that is nothing like us. They were a lot like us. They were smart. They were unafraid to try new ideas. They wanted progress. They were suspicious of the power of religion to limit progress. 

To be sure, they had some problems that we don't have. They hated Jews. They hated homosexuals. It is hard to see such prejudices coming back into common thinking. Yet what was behind that? One theory is that of scapegoating. Blaming some people group for the country's problems. If you think of it that way then maybe we have not advanced so far as we suppose. We can blame the 1% for the problems of society. We no longer define that 1% by race. That is a good thing. Still we are not above unfairly demonizing a minority. 

It is important to remember that the fact that the Nazi's were bad does not prove that atheism is false. It only proves that atheism is dangerous. It does not even prove that it is more dangerous than Christianity. It shows that when society casts aside its moral traditions and tries to engineer a better human experience that things can go very wrong. Not that they will always go wrong but that the danger is real and should be acknowledged. 

How real is the danger? That is the hard question. How do we see it coming? I can see huge hatred developing in some people yet they don't see it at all. They think they are responding reasonably to objectionable behavior by Christians or others. Will that kind of over-reaction every become mainstream? What would prevent it? 

It does not seem like people can address that question seriously. They can point out and hugely exaggerate hatred on the other side of the debate. They can't really grapple with the issue of their demonizing of that other side might work too well. Hatred is not an easy thing to control once you unleash it. How many Nazis thought through the final solution from the beginning and how many were just consumed by the hatred and there was just no escape after a while? 

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Jesus As A Gate

I was reading one scholar recently who thought John 10 was so incoherent that he used it as his best argument for why the gospel could not have been written by one author. I didn't find that convincing but I found it interesting that the gospel that comes up next in the readings is John 10. The heading says The Good Shepherd And His Sheep. It is not quite right. Jesus is comparing Himself to a gate. What is going on?

We are the sheep here. We are kind of used to that. Still it is not a flattering comparison. Sheep were not smart animals. They were never safe. They were in constant danger from predators when they were out of their pen. When they were in their pen they were in danger of being stolen by humans thieves rather than animals. That is what is in view here.

Shepherds are the topic but Jesus is not the shepherd. Jesus is the gate. The shepherd is a human leader of Christians. Jesus is saying we need to be very concerned with how this shepherd gains control of the sheep. Does he use the normal method of accessing the sheep indicating he is sent by Jesus or does he use a sneaky method? Does he just show up and declare himself to be the shepherd?

Now do sheep follow just any shepherd? Some would for a while. Some would stubbornly stay in the pen. The ones that would follow would often stop following when they became sacred. They would miss the comforting voice of their regular shepherd. By that time the option of going back to the pen is no longer there. So often they would scatter and possibly be lost.

That can happen in church life as well. Some guy shows up with a strong personality and declares himself to be the shepherd of a new church. Some follow him. Some don't. Still when there is a spiritual crisis, when temptation or suffering get difficult, then they notice that this guy does not have authority to lead from anyone other than himself. At this point people are more likely to scatter than return to the fold. Some will come back but often that relationship has been poisoned to much.

Both Protestants and Catholics can see this happening. They can think of examples of charismatic pastors leading people astray and having them end up in a spiritual wilderness with a shepherd they don't trust. Many protestants would even agree that true leaders come from the church, from the body of Christ. False teachers tend to be self-appointed. They would disagree on which church but many would see being sent by their church as being very important to a pastor.

Certainly it was more important to my father than it is to my siblings. My father became a pastor in the early 60's when having the stamp of approval from the congregation meant everything. My siblings became pastors much later when that authority had broken down and far more people chose a church based on an affinity for the pastor rather than what any denomination said. So the switch in the protestant world has been away from caring about whether the shepherd came through the gate or not.

In the Catholic church there has been no such switch. Priests simply must be ordained in the church and approved for ministry by the local bishop. When you think of false shepherds the first thing they want you to do is question the church. So Jesus' words ring true that if the shepherd comes through the gate of the church, from the body of Christ, then we can trust his voice and follow him. When taken to its logical conclusion we arrive at the doctrine of apostolic succession. That is your bishop needs to come from a legit bishop and that bishop needs to come from a legit bishop and so on and so on, all the way back to the apostles.

The truth is that every protestant church has a false shepherd in their history. At some point they broke away from the church and followed someone who was essentially self-appointed. For many protestant denominations it happened several times in their history. Most churches are a split of a split of a split. Then why follow them into the wilderness?