Monday, July 28, 2014

Love Like Jesus

This week's gospel is a familiar story. The multiplication of 5 loaves and two fish to feed 5000 men plus women and children. It starts with Jesus in mourning. Jesus hears about the death of His cousin. He withdraws to be alone. He has no home so He just goes off in a boat to try and find a place where He can mourn in peace. 

What happens? People find out about this. As soon as He steps off the boat there are vast crowds there. He has to be a little annoyed. Yet the gospel says He had pity on them. He cured their sick. 

We tend to try and set boundaries in ministry. We don't want our whole life to be consumed by it. We need some personal space. Yet Jesus does not enforce boundaries. He does not try and avoid rewarding this behavior. He has pity on them and heals them. It gets to be evening and He has every excuse to send people home and He says No. He wants to do more than cure the sick. He wants to feed everyone. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Why Does Christianity Produce Atheists?

A while ago on Strange Notions someone noted that modern Christianity is the first religion to produce a significant number of atheists. Before the last 200 years atheists were rare. Female atheists were almost non-existent. Even in the last 200 years we have not seen a lot of atheism in Muslim cultures or Buddhist cultures or Hindu cultures. The only cultures that have produced a lot of atheists is those where the dominant historical religion is Christianity. 

Why is that? What is it about Christianity and particularly modern Christianity that becomes a fertile ground for atheism? A key clue, I think, is to look at atheists. What kind of Christians do they typically resemble? Certainly politically they are left of center. They tend to be feminists. They tend to be environmentalists. Basically they are almost all pretty consistent liberals. 

There is such a thing as liberal Christianity. It does not have to coincide with liberal politics but it tends to. I am strange because I am politically liberal, except on social issues, and yet theologically I am not at all liberal. You find a few people like that but very few, most of us are Catholics. 

So what defines Liberal Christianity? Is it their willingness to question long standing traditional Christian teachings? Sort of. It is an undisciplined questioning of Christian teachings. Questioning is good. All Christians do that. But is there anything you won't question? The bible? The resurrection of Jesus? Sexual morality? Anything? The ultimate liberal would be willing to question any aspect of Christianity. There are very few of those. Most Liberal Christians have a few things they believe are solid. Yet the list is quite arbitrary. 

You might be able to see why liberal Christians and atheists have a lot in common. If you start questioning the basics of the faith then it just makes sense to question the existence of God as well. If more and more of your religion is based on human reason rather than divine revelation then why not go all the way and say it is all reason and no divinity is required?

Monday, July 21, 2014

All Thing For Our Good

The second reading this week begins with Rom 8:28 which many Christians pick as their favorite verse:
We know that all things work for good for those who love God,who are called according to his purpose. For those he foreknew he also predestinedto be conformed to the image of his Son,so that he might be the firstbornamong many brothers and sisters.And those he predestined he also called;and those he called he also justified;and those he justified he also glorified.
It is a big promise. All things work for the good of those who love God. I love God. So all things work for my good. Sweet! Yet we need to be careful. What is meant by "good" here? The rest of the passage makes that clear. Being conformed to the image of Jesus. That is the good that is being referred to. 

God knew beforehand who would respond positively to the gospel. He took that knowledge and used it to accomplish something called predestination. That is a word Calvinists use a lot. When they use it they refer to a doctrine that Catholics reject. That does not mean Catholic reject predestination completely. As you can see in this passage, the word is in the bible. We have to have some understanding of what St Paul meant when he used it. 

What this means is that God uses Hid foreknowledge and power to plan our road to holiness. It does not mean it will be easy. That is often the implication when people quote the text. That all of life will be good because we are believers and that means we will have great jobs and wonderful relationships and good health. All of life will be good and that means we will become more and more Christlike. Of course, Christ did not have an easy life. So it is good news. It means we don't just go through life and put in time until heaven. That God is actively working not just in us but in everything and everyone around us. 

His goal is to bring about the virtues of faith, hope and love. Being called is to hear God's voice and respond positively to it. That is to have faith. Being justified is to understand God's mercy and to have the hope of heaven. Being glorified is to let the grace of God permeate the depths of your being and to make you a lover through and through. 

We tend to comb the scriptures for assurance that God will protect us from some of the things we worry about. The trouble is we don't know God's plan. He might be protecting us from all manner of misfortune. That is often the way He works for our good. Yet there are no guarantees. He might let the calamity we most fear happen. That is hard to face. We know the future is planned for our good but we don't know what that good looks like. 

The other aspect of it is our choice. God can give you opportunities to grow in holiness and you might not take them. God can put someone in your life who is difficult for you to love. That is a great chance for you to become a better lover. Yet you can respond the other way. You can treat them badly. God is working for your good and you are turning it into something bad. At the end of the day grace always requires our cooperation. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Good But Not Good Enough

There is an old joke that sex is like pizza. When it is good it is very good. When it is bad it is ... still pretty good! There is a lot of truth to that. When Catholics talk about how bad pornography is or how bad casual sex we run into this problem. Bad sex is still pretty good. Sure sometimes people feel cheap and used but there is some pleasure there. Pleasure is good. Catholics don't believe that everything that feels good is wrong. Physical pleasure is good. It is a lower level of goodness than some of the other good we often talk about but still a good thing.

Then there is the next level which gets even more confusing. When people have somewhat less casual sex. When the physical pleasuring of casual sex is supplemented by psychological and emotional pleasuring. It goes much deeper than casual sex and we know it. It makes us feel like all the purely physical stuff we did was an embarrassment and this is true love. The trouble is we are not there yet. What has happened is we are still pleasuring each other. We are in it for our own benefit. This person gives me what I want and the main reason why this relationship is good for me. We are still at a selfish stage. It is a deeper and more noble form of selfishness but still selfishness. 

People who feel this way often don't want to marry right away. If they do want to marry they don't necessarily want to have kids right away. They feel they have arrived. They have figured out love and sex and really don't want to be told any different. Marriage and procreation are things they will use in ways that suit them. 

The church sees even these goods as not good enough. The physical pleasure of sex is not good enough to justify pornography and casual sex. People often get that. They might struggle with those things but they don't find it strange that the church would label them immoral. Yet taking it to another level is hard. That the emotional and psychological good that comes from more serious sexual relationships is still not good enough. What is more, it does not just miss by a little. It is fundamentally a different thing from what it needs to be. The relationship of give so I can take has to be replaced by a relationship of give so I can achieve something good for the other person. That is what the New Testament calls agape love. 

That love is what separates heaven and earth. The phileo love between brothers and friends is good but common to humans. So it the romantic love of eros. What God designed into the human body when He created sex and marriage and procreation was a road to agape love. Learn to celebrate each other's beauty at an intimate level. Learn commitment and communication. Then learn to give your whole life away. By giving our lives away we become fruitful and bless the word many times more than we could any other way. 

Yet the confusion remains. How can something that feels so genuinely good be seen as gravely evil? Think of what sex and procreation are for. Adam and Eve sinned and God gave them curses. The woman's curse was great pain in childbearing. Yet in the curse is a blessing. The pain we have in raising children gives us an opportunity to love. Suffering allows us to suffer for the good of the other. That is the essence of love. Sex tied together with marriage and procreation pulls us from selfishness into self sacrifice. The punishment for sin becomes a way out of sin. At least we can get an idea of what agape love should be.

This is why Catholics take sex so seriously. It is a path to love and to God. If we change the nature of it then it becomes a lesser good. Something finite that cannot satisfy us yet can consume us. We are to be consumed only by God. Properly ordered sex, marriage and procreation can lead us to be consumed by God through our family. If that does not work out for any reason we can be consumed by God in other ways. The religious vocation is the most obvious but there are many ways for a chaste single person to be consumed with the things of God.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Wheat And Tares

This weeks gospel sticks with the image of seeds and wheat. This time the difference is not in wheat that grows and wheat that dies but in plants that are true wheat and plants that look like wheat but are not. Jesus sees this as a problem in the Kingdom of Heaven.
Jesus proposed another parable to the crowds, saying:“The kingdom of heaven may be likenedto a man who sowed good seed in his field. While everyone was asleep his enemy cameand sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off. When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well. The slaves of the householder came to him and said,‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where have the weeds come from?’He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’His slaves said to him,‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’He replied, ‘No, if you pull up the weedsyou might uproot the wheat along with them. Let them grow together until harvest;then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters,“First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning;but gather the wheat into my barn.”’”

This can be very hard for Protestants to process. For them the Kingdom of Heaven is typically thought of as just the set of people being saved. Here Jesus talks about people not being saved and yet being active members of the Kingdom of Heaven. So what is it then? For Catholics that is easy. It is the church. Not everyone in it is saved but it is the visible kingdom of God on earth. The question of pulling up weeds is whether or not to try and purge the unsaved from the church. Jesus says No. You are not qualified to judge who is saved and who is not. You will make to many mistakes. 

How would a protestant see pulling up the weeds? Maybe throwing them out of the denomination? That does not make that much sense. They would not associate any denomination with being in the Kingdom of God. So pulling up a weed is simply impossible in the protestant world. So what is Jesus talking about?

The other way this passage gets used is to suggest that excommunication is wrong. The trouble is that is explicitly talked about in scripture. Look at 1 Cor 5. So what is the difference? These people look like Christians. There is not one external that makes it obvious they are not. You just kind of think they are insincere. Someone who is publicly contradicting the faith either with their teaching or with their moral life can and should be excommunicated. This is to protect the body and to warn that person that their sin is serious and needs to be dealt with. The key think in that case is the public perception of what the faith is. Is there confusion being created? That is a matter for church leaders to judge.

This is more around people who say they are trying to live the faith. You might think if they were really trying they would be a little more successful. We need to patiently encourage people to live their faith better but never try and run them out of the church. I said last week, "Expect a lot." That is true. This week Jesus is warning us against the danger of judging. He is rocky soil. She is thorny soil. Them? The bird have long eaten their seed! We are not to get into that game. We encourage everyone to be good soil and when they seem like they are not we keep encouraging because we might be wrong. 

It connects well with the second reading. The idea that we don't know how to pray as we ought. We don't know God well enough. We don't know ourselves well enough. We certainly don't know other people well enough. How can we know what grace their heart needs? We might even look at our own heart and wonder if we are wheat or tares. So do we need conversion or do we need to get up and keep walking the path we are on? The answer is just pray. If you pray the wrong prayer, which you will, the Holy Spirit will fix it.       

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Seed That Will Bear Fruit

This weeks gospel is about the parable of the sower. It is familiar to most Christians. There are 4 kinds of soil. The word of God is sowed on all 4 but only one bears fruit. It is encouraging and discouraging at the same time. It tells us many will reject the word. Even among those who accept God's word and respond with great joy many will not last. The word will die because they are not willing to do what it takes to actually bear fruit. Yet that last group is amazing. They say Yes to the word. They take that word deep in their hearts. They endure persecution. They sacrifice the pleasures of this world. Then they bear fruit. Boy do they ever bear fruit. It says thirty, sixty and one hundred fold. 

What can we take from this? My first thought is that we should not be afraid to demand a lot from Catholics. To many people are afraid that if you demand to much people will leave. Yet that is what is supposed to happen. Jesus expects great things from the good soil. I wonder if we are not so focused on not offending the thorny and rocky soil we fail to get anything from the good soil.