Monday, June 27, 2016

The Stoning of Soraya M

I just saw The Stoning of Soraya M. last night. I know it is old but it got me thinking. It is definitely a film that stirs up your emotions. The fact that this woman was stoned is outrageous and should make you angry. I was certainly angry. It can make you passionate about some moral cause. But which cause? I could think of many that could use this film.
  1. The death penalty is always wrong
  2. If you are going to use the death penalty stoning is a particularly cruel way to do it
  3. The death penalty should not be used for the crime of adultery
  4. The death penalty should not be used unless there is real certainty about someone's guilt
  5. People accused of crimes should have access to a lawyer to present a proper defence
  6. People should just stop believing in God
The list could go on. Some of these principles I agree with and some I don't. That is always true with sentimental arguments. There is a real sense of moral outrage we feel from a situation. We can sense that something is wrong. Yet it is not obvious exactly what that something is. Yet when somebody connects the story with their particular cause then all the other possible causes are typically forgotten about. One moral principle is put on trial and typically found wanting. It is ironic that this movie is about an unfair trial because the sentimental argument is often an unfair trial and execution of a moral principle.

What happens when moral principles lose out to sentimental stories? Morality goes backwards a few thousand years. Really with the 10 commandments and a few other ancient moral codes we saw a move of humanity beyond moral feelings and advance towards the notion of moral principles. 

That really was an advance because principles allow us to apply morality more evenly to ourselves and other groups. We feel moral wrong more acutely when we are the victim but morality only really helps us when we can see wrongs that we inflict on others. Principles help us do that. 

The trouble with principles is you need to believe, first of all, that they exist and, secondly, that we can know them. That means you need to believe in something supernatural and in some trustworthy revelation about the supernatural. Modern society is sceptical of both. That is why the attacks of sentimentalism are so effective. 

My reaction to the movie was more along the lines of why it is important to get your religion right. People had a very detailed understanding about what God's will was. Not only was adultery a stoning offence but even the standards of evidence came from their religion. The testimony of two witnesses was enough. The burden of proof was lower when the accused was a woman. All that came from Islam. 

The problem is not that they were religious but that they believed the wrong religion. The solution is not atheism. Atheism is just another wrong religion. OK, you can argue that it is technically not a religion so call it a wrong world and life view. It is not immune from leading us to do terrible things. Just look at Hitler or Stalin. The solution is to examine all world and life views and find the truth.

Anyway, if we don't have any moral principles that we trust then everything will fall to sentimentalist reasoning. That is a very bad thing. What happens then? A government that controls the narrative can justify anything at all. What stands in their way? Only God. God and those who are sure they have heard His voice and are willing to be a light in the darkness. The good new is God is real and we can be sure of what His will is. 

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Charismatics and Traditionalists

I ran into this link about the the charismatic gifts and the hierarchical gifts. It is actually quite a recent document from the church's theology department. Something called the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. I found it interesting because it puts its finger on one of the key issues in the church today. That is the false choice that is put before us. There is this notion that need to choose to be liberal or conservative. Either you embrace a personal relationship with Jesus where your life is animated by the Holy Spirit and you reject the rules-based, stuffy, traditional Christianity or you stick with solid unchanging truth and reject a Christianity that compromises with the world. Lots of Christians view themselves in this way. They pick one side and define much of their spirituality against the other side. This divide happens in pretty much every denomination. In fact, conservative Christians across denominations have much more in common with each other than with liberal Christians in their own denomination and vice-versa. 

What we are called to do is embrace both. The charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit make Christianity personal. Everyone animates the faith in a different way and we absolutely need to be free to be true to ourselves. We even need to get together groups of people who have common interests and common gifts. St Irenaeus said the glory of God is a human being fully alive. We need a spirituality that is fully alive and life-giving and joy-filled. 

Somehow conservatives have always struggled with this. There is such an emphasis on self-control that it is hard to feel free. Sometime people can feel free in worship but have a hard time feeling free at a party with music and wine. 

It is a problem because if our spirituality comes across as joyless and stuffy then our evangelism is likely to be non-existent. In fact, we might have a problem with sloth because it is hard to maintain energy living that kind of faith.

Hierarchical gifts perhaps need a bit of explaining. It is a bit of a Catholic word. What it means is the gift of orthodoxy. The ability to know the truth about faith and morals and be united around that truth. This is hugely important as well. Our faith has to have content. Something has to make us different from the culture around us. Just talking nicely about Jesus and the bible is not enough. There needs to be something solid, something timeless, something we would die for. 

Liberals have a problem with this because for them the focus is always on the person. Every time you declare something to be part of the faith that many in society think is false you force people to either accept a hard truth or reject the whole faith. Many are going to do the latter. 

Again, if we don't get this right the results are devastating. Who will believe Christianity has the truth when they don't have any agreement on what that truth is? Even for ourselves it becomes hard to lean on our faith for truth when there are so many different opinions that sound good. 

The key is to recognise that both these kind of gifts come from the same spirit. The Holy Spirit that wants us to unite in one true faith is the same Holy Spirit that wants each of us to be unique. It really is a false choice. Any time you find yourself fighting for one side of this divide against the other you need to remind yourself of that.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Dictatorship of Sentimentalism

Pope Benedict started his pontificate by coining the phrase "The Dictatorship of Relativism." He was pointing out the irony of the fact that Relativism who's sole raison d'etre was to oppose anyone imposing any idea on anyone else was actually being imposed as an idea on society today. This was very insightful and unfortunately still happens a lot. Really anyone who says anything intelligent about faith or morals should be prepared for a chorus of responses along the lines of "don't impose your ideas on anyone else." It is quite sad.

Yet I was thinking there is another dictatorship active in today's society. That is that of sentimentalism. Sentimentalism is when you base your moral philosophy on human emotion. Whoever gives the most moving sob-story wins the day. This is common as well. You talk about abortion or gay marriage or euthanasia and many people have been hugely influenced by somebody somewhere allegedly being hurt by those big bad Christian moralists. The question is then framed around, "Do you care about these people or do you not?"

That is a terrible way to do moral reasoning for a lot of reasons. One being that sentimental arguments can contradict. You could make someone feel sorry for the adulterer. You could also make someone feel sorry for the faithful spouse who is cheated on. It is easy to manipulate people's emotions. 

Another way this kind of moral thinking fails is in dealing with dissenters. If you reduce the question to "do you care" then what is your reaction to the people who continue to hold the other position. They must not care. So you immediately get very strong rhetoric accusing people on the other side of hatred. They almost never actually hate the people in question. Yet sentimentalism requires that be the only reason they hold the position they hold. If they admit any exception then they move from emotional ground to rational ground. The two don't mix. Sentimentalism must crush logic because it  can't compete with logic. It is a far less reliable guide to the truth so it has to declare the rational person to be a monster. 

So letting your love and compassion guide you will lead you to develop hatred and disgust for another people group. Emotion is a two-edged sword. Yet it gets worse. What happens when the band wagon goes too far. Human movements always go from one extreme to another. Eventually their hatred for the other side will get so harsh you can't stomach it. For some that will take longer than others. That is when sentimentalism gets really harsh. As soon as you jump off that band wagon then you become the one that does not care. You are now the hater that has been so demonised in your mind. 

The trouble is because your initial acceptance of the sentimentalist position was not principled then you can't find any principled way out. It is like any sin. Even when you realise how wrong it is it is difficult to stop. This is especially true when we don't want to stop completely but just want to stop the most extreme consequences. It does not work like that. Just like an alcoholic can't cut back a little but must attack the power of his addiction at the root. So too someone addicted to sentimentalism must go back and reconstruct their morality based on sound principles. The same principles the church has always defended. All of them, not just the ones you find appealing. That is hard to do.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Plain Reason

My post on Why Atheism? was a bit different than I intended. First of all, the tone was more anti-protestant than I wanted. Secondly, it ended up being longer that I expected. Rather than write a very long post I just stopped. So I appreciate the reaction. Good to know someone is reading. Still I thought I should keep going and maybe things will make more sense over time. 

One thread I see in common between many Protestants and many of the new atheists is the unusual relationship with tradition. By tradition I mean the role of some subculture in shaping thought. The particular school of thought you subscribe to. 

It is hard to define because both protestants and atheists tend to downplay and sometimes even deny the influence of tradition. Luther's notion of "plain reason" is very strong. They can see influence and bias in other people. They don't really see it in themselves. They tend to see their own thought as plain reason.

You get this a lot when you ask protestants why they are this kind of protestant rather than that kind of protestant. It is just obvious from plain reason that this is right and that is wrong. Yet equally reasonable people connected with the other tradition find the opposite just as obvious. This is so deeply ingrained that I find if I give an example then people can't get past that. They give their standard argument for that issue and keep repeating it like that somehow answers the question. If all you want is the answer to issue X I have that for you. 

Atheists do the same thing. They assume everything is just based on plain reason. The fact that most new atheists agree with Christian morality on most issues and disagree with it on the exact same issues is just a coincidence. There is nothing but plain reason in play. A principle like equal dignity for all human persons is just obvious. Why? You look at humans and they don't seem equal no matter how you measure them. Yet their equality is obvious? It has nothing to do with the Christian culture you were raised in? You can keep going. Why is it wrong to judge people? Why is humility a good thing? There is just this belief that everything comes from plain reason and nothing comes from your particular perspective as a western secular person.

The truth is that plain reason simply does not exist. Nobody starts reasoning with no premises and no assumptions and considers all perspectives equally regardless of what they have experienced or who they have learned from. Many professions recognise this. They demand people are mentored for a time in addition to book learning. They don't just give them the reasoning but realise they need to develop the right intuitions and experience. Often they want them to have several mentors to learn to think like a professional doctor or accountant or engineer or whatever.

Jesus did the same thing. He didn't just give people plain reason. He spent 3 years with 12 men. He didn't write anything. He taught them life to life. Sure His discourses were important but they needed to learn how He approached every kind of question and every kind of person. 

When we understand how drastically our subtle philosophical assumptions impact our final conclusions then we will look for something other than plain reason to guide us. The good news is that God has provided such a thing. It is called sacred tradition. Sure Jesus condemned the traditions of men. Yet the very phrase "traditions of men" hints that there might be a tradition that is not from men. At least one that is guided in some way by God. That is what sacred tradition is. 

Catholics admit to being biased and influenced like everyone else. We don't try and avoid all tradition because that would be inhuman. We try and think with the church. If we have to be influenced we want to be influenced by something holy. It is a choice. 

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Near Death Experiences

Father Robert Spitzer talks about near death experiences a lot. There are some fascinating stories. Many of them have been rigorously investigated by credible scientists and published in peer reviewed journals. Yet the evidence gets ignored. Why is that? Even Christians tend to be very hesitant to go there. I feel weird about it to. I am not immune to whatever stigma our culture places over these stories. There are a few people who talk about them a lot and most people talk about them never. So the few become labelled somehow as strange. Nobody wants to be labelled that way.

Fr Spitzer approaches the data well. First of all he puts the near-death experiences in the context of other evidence for the transcendent. This is one set of data that we have that can tell us something about the relationship we have with our bodies. It is not the only data. He brings in many other thinkers that argue in very different ways for the existence of something beyond the physical world. 

Secondly he does not lean just on one story. There are stories like Heaven Is For Real that can make us think. Yet you don't want to give such an anecdote too much power over your life. The studies Fr Spitzer refers to take many examples and scrutinise them heavily. It is amazing how many of them stand up. People give detailed accounts of things that happened when they were clinically dead and have these observations confirmed independently. Sometime they observe things in other hospital rooms or even outside. Sometimes blind people see. These things are not just one example but many similar stories. A non-trivial number of people who are near death have something like this happen.

Thirdly, he does not try and conclude too much from it. A lot of times you see people jump right from "this strange thing happened" to "you have to become a Christian." He does not go there. He is very careful to analyse exactly what this proves. The idea of consciousness when the person's brain activity is being measured at zero. The notion that people seem to see and hear without their eyes or ears. Just wrestling with how unscientific that all sounds but the data is reproducible. 

He particularly questions those who believe that all consciousness and morality and faith and meaning can be explained fully by biological processes in the brain. The biology can be reduced to chemistry. The chemistry can be reduced to physics. That leaves everything completely determined by the laws of physics. No room for any sort of free choice. That has huge philosophical implications. He sees this as pretty strong evidence on the other side. Not the only evidence but some solid data that seems hard to explain from that perspective. 

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Why Atheism?

One of the more interesting questions I have been thinking about lately is why we have this rise of atheism in western society in the last few generations. I have seen some scholars point out that this is quite unique. Other religions and even other Christian societies have not seen anything like this. One religion can be replaced by another as the dominant one in a particular culture but never does a religion get replaced by a null religion. No better revelation of God but rather a decision to doubt all revelation of God. There is no central prophet either. You could see Jesus or Mohammad being the authors of movements that overtook many countries but no similar central figure around atheism. It is more like people just drifted away. Yet why do people drift away from the central truths of human existence? This has not been a feature of humanity before. Why now?

Many of the functional atheists actually don't actively oppose religion. Most secular people won't explicitly deny there is a God. They try and say a particular religion is true but they don't live like it is. It is a polite lack of interest rather than a rebellious spirit. They don't want to offend God in case He exists but they are not willing to reorder their lives around that possibility. 

You can think of a few reasons. There has been some bad theology. Yet much worse theologies have held sway in other places without producing atheists. You have the hard moral teachings but again we can think of other religions with harder moral teachings that remained basically intact. 

So maybe people have gotten more sophisticated. Maybe they don't have the same desires for morality, immortality and meaning. Maybe science has somehow given us better answers to these questions. I think this is getting closer but I don't think this is it yet. 

What has happened is the balance between faith and reason has become skewed. All religions have certain things you must accept on faith. After those things are assented to then reason kicks in and fills in the rest of the picture. What happened in Christianity is quite strange. People started to reject articles of faith yet they considered it a virtue and not a vice. 

It started with Luther. He said that unless someone could convince him from scripture and plain reason that he was wrong then ... here I stand. I was always told that the key to that statement was scripture. Thinking about it later it seems clear the key is reason. He was rejecting the church and the councils and the saints and the sacraments in favour of reason. He was not rejecting them in favour of scripture. Catholicism already embraced scripture. He was rejecting many articles of faith and replacing them with his own reason and considering it a virtue. 

That process has simply continued. Luther was followed by the radical reformation which replaced more articles of faith with reason and called it a virtue. Then we get the Age of Reason. People are still basically Christians yet faith is becoming less and less important to them and reason more important. This is seen as progress. 

Even when we had revivals like the Great Awakening movements in the US there was a call to faith but very little emphasis on the content of that faith. Just having faith is what mattered. 

So what has fuelled this constant degradation of Christianity? It is the embrace of your own reason and the distrust of tradition. Tradition is just the reasoning of previous generations of Christians. This is a basic tenant of any religion that the truths it teaches are timeless and therefore what was received from the previous generation should be trusted. Protestantism has in its DNA to distrust that teaching. 

That process of distrust  does not lead us back to scripture. Why would those trained to be sceptical of what comes from the previous generations choose to accept scripture without question? The process leads to atheism and nihilism. Articles of faith are rejected and human reason has no foundation to arrive at any truth. 

This is what we are seeing. People are rebelling against Christianity but not in a very different way from the way Protestants have frequently rebelled against their fore-bearers. It is rejecting more of the faith and replacing it with their own reason. Just that now the articles being rejected are the very existence of God and the truth of scripture and other very basic tenants. Yet many retain much of the moral framework of Christianity. How long will that last? Not sure.

The question is how far will we fall before we come back to the faith. Not a revival where we embrace a slightly less watered down form of Christianity and declare ourselves to be holy. I mean the real faith. By the grace of God it is still here. 

Friday, June 3, 2016


May is a month when Catholics talk about Mary a bit more. I know May ended before I posted this. Get over it. Mary makes Protestants very nervous. She still makes me a bit nervous and I have been Catholic for 13 years now. Something just does not feel right about the idea of coming to Jesus through Mary. Why is that? I think deep down we think about holiness as being between me and God and anybody else is mostly irrelevant. We don't think of salvation as joining God's family. Protestants use that language and even think in those terms with superficial things like worshipping or doing ministry. Yet when things get intensely personal and we start dealing with our deepest fears and our most entrenched sins then we don't think family. We think Jesus and me. 

Really even when Protestants think family they think father, that is God, they think brothers and sisters, that is other Christians, but they never think mother. Somehow God has given us a motherless family and nobody notices. There are 2 great sources of spiritual motherhood in Catholic tradition. That is the church and Mary. The church they are kind of OK with. John Calvin talks about the church as his mother in The Institutes and nobody found it that strange. Yet modern Protestants don't go there much. Obviously Mary as a spiritual mother is seen as more than strange. It is seen as idolatry. Really that is how Mary was presented to me as a Protestant. She was a potential idol. That is it.

There are a bunch of objections but the most common one seems to be why. Why is Mary needed when Jesus is every thing we need? Often they quote 1 Tim 2:5, "There is one God and one mediator between God and man, the man Jesus." Don't Catholics talk about Mary as a mediator?

Fair question. We do talk about Mary as a mediator. Yet that verse says Jesus is the only mediator between God and man. That is true. He is the only one who is both God and man. So Mary can't bring us to God without Jesus. She can't even bring herself to God without Jesus. Yet that does not make her unimportant. In fact, we are all called to be mediators, not between God and man but between other people and Jesus. If we bring someone to Jesus then Jesus can bring them to God. This is important because a lot of people are more likely to come to Jesus if we lead them because we have a closeness and a credibility with them. 

Think of the scriptures. The bible can't save anyone. Yet it can bring someone to Jesus who can save them. So what do we do? We encourage people to read the scriptures as much as possible. We read them ourselves. We talk about them positively often. Do the scriptures become an idol? It is possible. Yet should we avoid promoting the scriptures because of that possibility? Not at all. There is just 100 times more good that can come from the scriptures than bad. 

Mary is like that. She cannot save anyone. Yet she can lead people to Jesus. So we should encourage a relationship with Mary. We should venerate her ourselves. Can she become an idol? It is possible. Not nearly as likely as many say, but it can happen. Should we avoid promoting Mary because of that possibility? Not at all. She leads people to Jesus far more often than she leads anyone away form Him.

The truth is God has given Mary a special role in His plan of salvation. Now when a man impregnates a woman God expects that man to have a special relationship with that woman. In fact, He expects that relationship to be permanent. He wants him to be married to her. So why should we assume that when God impregnates a woman that He does any less? That He would not maintain a permanent, special relationship with her?

The role of Mary is just an extension of the role of Jesus. It is not a replacement. Jesus came to earth and shortened the distance between us and Heaven. Yet He didn't shorten it to zero. Other things can shorten it more. Other people, other things, I have already mentioned the bible. Yet St Louis de Montfort says Mary is the quickest, easiest, and surest way to Jesus. Who believes Him? St John Paul II, St Maximilian Kolbe, too many to count. 
Why would it not be true? Nobody is closer to Jesus than His own mother. Nothing can help us overcome our fears like a mother's love.