Monday, January 31, 2011

Wisdom of God

The mass readings kept going with 1 Cor 1 this week.
 Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.
 Brothers and sisters, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption.  Therefore, as it is written: “Let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”

It struck me that we have two concepts that might seem to contradict.
  1. God's truth is consistent with human reason
  2. God's truth is foolish to men
How can something be logically, internally consistent and still be seen as foolish. It might be seen as a school of thought you disagree with but one would think that smart people should be able to see that there is no logical inconsistency and therefore there should be no shame in accepting it as true. But it does not work that way. Christianity will always be logical and it will always be scorned by the intellectual elites as foolishness. The same is true of Catholicism. The Catholic faith will always be the only logical consistent form of Christianity yet it will always be the one that is held up to the most ridicule by the brightest and best protestants.

Why is that? The answer lies in a flaw in human wisdom. Our reason can be warped at key moments by our will. We don't even realize it. No matter how good you are at logical analysis and no matter how unemotional you are in your approach you just can't follow the logic of God without the grace of God allowing you to do so. Something in you spirit will cause you to see a foolish argument where there is actually a rational argument. Call it sin. Call it Satan. The cross of Christ is never going to make sense to someone living in the flesh.Not because it is illogical Because it is too much love. The human heart is not capable of understanding that kind of  love. That is the essence of original sin. It is an inability to understand love rather than an inability to follow commandments.

A lot of people seem to feel that modern secular scholarship can pick up what the Christian tradition has created and we can continue to progress as society. That intellectuals, without using explicitly Christian language, can nonetheless improve on what Christians have done and do more good than harm. But it ignore the fact that secular people will see brilliant Christian insights as foolish. They won't look for ways to improve upon them. They will sneer at them and discard them.

So Christians intellectuals have a choice. To have our intelligence respected by society or to embrace the wisdom of God. If we try and do both we will get neither. If we pursue God we will often be mocked by some in the short term but in many cases the wisdom of such people is eventually recognized. Most are now trying to have it both ways and embarrassing themselves and embarrassing Jesus.

Protestants have the same problem. They think they can start with scripture and take it the rest of the way with human reason alone. But it is precisely when you look at the cross that human reason fails. We cannot follow the logic of supernatural love. This is why protestants never seem to accept the Catholic idea of how the grace of the cross is applied to our lives. Not that it is illogical. Still we need help to get there.

Pain and Evil

Another distinction St Thomas Aquinas makes that is quite relevant to our time is the difference between pain and evil. When we talk about objections to the existence of God we talk about the Problem of Pain and the Problem of Evil as two ways of stating the same objection. According to a Christian mindset they are. But many people don't think that way. The answer to the Problem of Evil comes from the fact that God has given us free will. But the problem of pain is different. Evil is one source of pain. There are others. Love is a source of pain. If we love to play football we will suffer the pain of practicing. Pain itself is not evil. The pain that flows directly from our evil choices is a blessing. It allows us to see graphic evidence that what we have done is evil. We may choose to ignore that evidence but at least it is there. If punching you in the nose is evil then the pain that you feel after I hit you will help me understand that ... or not.

Really all the consequences of evil are good. The only true evil is when humans are given the freedom to choose good or evil and choose evil. Everything else is good. Think about sickness and death. They are punishments for our sinful nature and not always for sinful acts. They remind us that we live in a fallen world. Everything in our spirit says these things are wrong. They should not be. They don't prove God does not exists but they do show God has made us for a better place. If such intense suffer really is meaningless then it would be hard to understand how God allows it. But it is an invitation to stop focusing on the things of this world and start storing up for yourself treasure in heaven. We may choose to ignore the invitation but the invitation itself is good.

When people voice objections like, "If there is a God why do so many bad things happen?" they are not typically thinking of the problem of evil even though Christians often answer like they are. They don't normally wonder why God does not prevent them from committing some sin or other. Sometimes addicts who have tried and failed to quit might ask this but that is not typical. What they want to know is why this world seems so broken. Why do innocents sometimes suffer more than those who are guilty? Why have I experienced so much pain in my life?

I find the more personal the question gets the less likely people are to jump to the conclusion that there is no God. The new atheists who work up moral outrage at this or that injustice to show there must not be a God are not often personally experiencing that pain. People who are in real pain have trouble believing God loves them but they also have trouble accepting a world where there is no path to peace. The problem with the ladder position is much more real to them than it is with the person just using the existence of suffering to make an intellectual point.

But there is always that jump. That suffering is always wrong. It reminds me of the quote from Spe Salvi at the top of this blog, "without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality." So they have begged the question. They have assumed there is no deeper truth than the sentimentality they appeal to. It could be an honest mistake. Many people teach something they call Christianity that actually does reduce to sentimentality.That is why Pope Benedict saw the need to write that encyclical.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Good and Evil

I have been reading some St Thomas Aquinas lately. It is his feast day today so I thought I might reflect on some of it. One thing was the idea that good exists and evil does not. Evil is just the absence of good or the corruption of good. It got me thinking. Do we talk too much about evil and not enough about good? In theory understanding good should come first if it exists. Only then can we properly understand what absence of good or corruption of good might be. I think of sexual morality. We seem to have it backwards. People talk about doing evil. That is committing gravely immoral sex acts. Often good is understood as the absence of such evil. When framing the discussion in that way good does not seem very appealing. St Thomas would have us focus on the good of sex. Concepts like purity and virginity and faithfulness. That is hard to do. Often even those terms are thought of in a negative way. Faithfulness means you have not committed adultery. Virginity means you have never had sex. But that focuses on how you didn't corrupt the good. Do we know how to talk about the good itself? Taylor Marshall asks this question about virginity.

I find it relates to revelation. The idea that whether something is morally permissible should be determined by whether it is explicitly condemned in scripture. That immediately brings the focus to the "thou shalt not" aspect of Christianity. That is one reason I appreciate John Paul's Theology of the Body. He attempts to paint a picture of the greatness of sex, fruitfulness, married and celibate vocations, etc. He sees the marital act as an icon of the inner life of the trinity. But protestants don't want revelation by icons. They want chapter and verse. So they are not going to make those arguments even if they can be found in scripture in places like Song of Songs or even the book of Revelation.

Catholic thinkers have been trying to digest Humanae Vitae. It has flummoxed most Catholics. They don't want to defend it. They don't want to attack it. So they try and avoid the subject as much as they can. Russell Shaw writes about that here. It is, of course, right. But so many can't imagine themselves publicly defending that. Some feel the church just got this one wrong. But you can't declare God' revelation to be in error without profoundly changing your relationship with Him. Then there are those who imagine a huge backlash if they teach it. I say imagine because when it is explained well the reaction is not bad. But it takes courage and quite frankly most Catholic leaders lack courage.

What is more, for many of these questions we not only have to present the good from a personal point of view but also from society's point of view. It is not enough to show the great good that makes you say No to personal sexual temptations. We need to show how the good of the nation is served by protecting the dignity of human sexuality, the sanctity of human life, the integrity of marriage, etc. But again these words cannot be simply short forms for opposing pornography, abortion, and gay marriage. We need to paint real positive pictures of what good is being lost. The slogans have caught this. They have done the market research and found Christian positions were seen as purely negative. So their slogans are positive and that is good. But there needs to be a positive moral and spiritual good that is behind that slogan. Something we can argue for from a very broad religious base.

It is all there in Catholic tradition. To whom much is given much will be expected. We have been given so much and we will need to answer for what we did with it.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Almost Christian

There is a lot of talk about this book. I think something similar was brought up a few years ago on White Horse Inn. I blogged about it on my old blog but it but we do need to be discussing it more. So the book is a great wake up call. What does it say?

You refer to this "moralistic therapeutic deism" quite a bit in your book. Can you unpack this term for us?

That's the name the NSYR came up with to describe the "belief system" of the majority of teens surveyed. The shorthand of moralistic therapeutic deism is that religion helps you feel good and do good, but God pretty much stays out of the way. Now, you can call on God if you need God to solve a problem, but God's track record on solving problems is pretty bad. So the primary God-images that the kids had were either as the "cosmic therapist" or the "divine butler." The therapist serves as the one who helps you feel good about yourself; the guidance counselor image comes to mind here when working with teenagers. The divine butler is somebody who comes when called upon but otherwise stays away. Those images were identified in the study as being dominant among teenagers. And that was very true with the teens I talked to as well. They believe that:
  • A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth. 
  • God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and most world religions.
  • The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  • God does not need to be involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.
  • Good people go to Heaven when they die.
So what is happening with the youth we are not losing to atheism is they are arriving at a very truncated version of the Christian faith. In fact it is a stretch to call it Christian. It includes Jesus and the cross but you could remove Him completely and not really have to change a thing. Jesus is not central or essential. But this is what most kids who are going every week to church believe. It is not what most of those churches preach. But most teens are watering down what they hear on Sundays with the feel-good morality of the culture.

Now when you get a wake-up call what do people do? They say the problem is the ideas I disagree with. They must somehow be causing this. The liberals blame the conservatives and vice-versa. It is difficult to do much with the Catholic numbers. I think the Catholic church is in flux so a single point in time piece of data would not tell us how the shift towards more orthodoxy is moving the numbers.

I am not even convinced that more people leaving the church is bad. People might be honestly seeing that they believe in moralistic therapeutic deism and that is different from Catholicism so they should leave. Some leave to become nothing and some leave to become protestants. But how many remain moralistic therapeutic deism followers?

But we do need to get better at proposing the Catholic faith and making clear exactly how it is better than moralistic therapeutic deism. Making the difference clear is step one. Making the difference appealing is harder. How do we do that?

The one thought I had was to tell people to do what they would do if the Catholic faith was really true. That sounds so simple it is insulting. But I don't think Catholic do this very well. Everyone who joins the church points this out. Catholics say they believe Jesus is truly present in the Eucharist. But do they celebrate the mass like that is true? Most don't even show up on any given Sunday. Kids have really good BS detectors. You say the Catholic church has the fullness of God's truth. Do we live that truth? Do we learn that truth? Do we even respect it?

The people who teach moralistic therapeutic deism really believe it. They live like it is true. They speak passionately about it. It is a pathetic theology. Just a small step from atheism. But a pathetic theology authentically believed is a lot more attractive than the gospel taught by hypocrites. If the Catholic faith is true it is worth dying for. Our youth can see that. But they can also see most Catholics are a long way from being willing to die for their faith. Most priests are a long way from challenging anyone to get ready. So what are they going to believe? It is easier to believe their parents were smart enough not to go all in on false faith. Nobody wants to believe their parents betrayed the true faith.

St Paul

Today is the feast day where Catholic celebrate the conversion of St Paul. I have been thinking a bit about Paul lately. A man at the prison was talking about the New Testament. He said it was written by those who knew Jesus best. I correct him. There were many people who knew Jesus better than Paul or Luke. But they wrote a large percentage of the New Testament. It surprised people.

The simplest way to produce the New Testament would be to have Jesus just write it. The next simplest would be for his disciples to write it. They wrote some important books for sure. But so much of it was written by St Paul. A man who came to the faith several years after Pentecost. Why would God do things that way? One of the things it does is it makes the genuineness of the conversion of St Paul central to the faith. If you believe in Jesus and His miracles and His death and His resurrection you could still deny that Paul's story about Jesus appearing to him on the road to Damascus was authentic. If you think about it Paul's word is all we have about this incident. People don't like to believe stories like that.

Paul is the apostle that is not one of the twelve. Some questioned that early on but the church accepted it. At some point the questions stopped being asked. But if you ignore the consensus of the early church the whole thing seems quite open to question still. That is the point. You can't ignore the consensus of the church. It is the only thing that makes St Paul and St Luke legit. Otherwise they are just people who experienced some things and wrote some things but they are not really in a different category from other people's amazing stories and other people's spiritual insights.

But this consensus building is not a well documented process. We can imagine church leaders played an important role. But it was a time of persecution for the church and the records are sparse. So we don't know what the discernment process was. I think that is providential. It tells us the how is not as important as the who.

Right around the same time as the church was discerning that the writings of Paul were from God they also discerned that the chair of Peter was legit as well. We don't know the process there either so we can't find some difference we can hang our hat on. The same people also discerned some things about the Eucharist. The list goes on.

By using as an instrument a person that was not connected with Jesus God forces us to trust the church one one very important question. It means Ecclessial Deism can't really get off the ground.

Monday, January 24, 2011


There is an article on Catholic Exchange about Downs Syndrome. It tries to make the point that children with Downs are "God’s most pure, innocent, and incorruptible persons." I don't doubt that this is true of this person's daughter but my son seems quite capable of getting into trouble. I was lying the couch after reading this article. John came over and hit me in the head with a pillow. I pretended like it really hurt. It didn't. But he started winding up and hitting me with all hit might. When he got me a good one he bust out in uncontrollable laughter. He does not often laugh that loud. He never seemed to tire of this game. It went on for many iterations. Very cute. But I got to thinking about the article. The picture is a bit more complicated. The word incorruptible does not always fit.

There is a tendency for us parent of children with Downs Syndrome to think we know the disorder. But we don't. We just know one example of it. OK, we hang out with more families that have children with Downs. But we still tend to extrapolate quite quickly from our sample size of one. Chloe sounds like a special little girl. I am happy to read about her. But if it shows me anything it is how different two people with the same diagnosis can be.

Counterfeit Gospels

A guy named Tervin Wax wrote a book on Counterfeit Gospels. He says he did not want to write a gospel that points out what is wrong with everyone else. So he wrote about the "doubts and struggles of people in my own congregation." That still sounds like someone else.

IT has been said the definition of heresy is to take one Catholic truth and use it to reject another Catholic truth. I think that is what is going on here. These are not fake gospels. They are out of balance. They have truth that we need to embrace but we can go too far and make one aspect of the gospel the whole thing.

Then there is always the question of what gives Trevin Wax the authority to declare anything to be heresy? Who says what he teaches is closer to the true gospel than the movements he deems counterfeit? He seems to imply that he is immune to the issues that caused these movements to go astray. He is not. The truth is in the protestant world all gospels are counterfeit. Which one is least counterfeit? There is no good way to know. Nevertheless, I thought it might be useful to comment on the counterfeits he sees.
Therapeutic Gospel: Sin robs us of our sense of fullness. Christ’s death proves our worth as humans and gives us power to reach our potential. The church helps us find happiness.
This is all true. Healing is an important part of what Jesus is all about. Just count the healing stories in the gospels. Sickness is like sin in many ways. But one important difference is that sin involves our choice. So repentance involves a change in our behavior. We need to stop doing certain things and start doing other things. An over-use of the healing model can leave this fuzzy. The temptation is there because secular people respond much better to being told they are hurting than being told they are sinners.
Formalist Gospel: Sin is failing to keep church rules and regulations. Christ’s death gives me an agenda, so I can begin to follow the predescribed forms of Christianity.

This is a caricature. Nobody describes the sin or Christ's death this way. People do notice that certain behaviors lead people closer to God. Prayer, bible devotions, church attendance, confession, etc. But God is not a machine. It is not as simple as managing inputs to achieve outputs. Doing these things can become a substitute for the change God wants rather than a way of achieving it.

As a protestant I was probably too afraid of the dangers of formalized religion. I think most protestants are. There is a tendency to try and manufacture a life-transforming moment. You listen to enough testimonies and you start to think that is the way God works. But often God works most powerfully through long slow processes where we repeat the same things many times and the grace kind of slowly soaks down deep. Regular mass, rosaries, adoration, etc. are very powerful this way.
Moralist Gospel: Our big problem is sins (plural) and not sin (nature). The purpose for Christ’s death is to give us a second chance and make us better people. Redemption comes through the exercise of willpower with God’s help.
This is true as far as it goes except of course for the explicit denial of our sinful nature which is almost never done. Protestants would object to the tying of redemption and moral living but that part is actually right. What is often the danger here is the focus on the big sins and not enough on the inner heart transformation. We want to have a heart that does not even desire mortal sin because it is like God's heart.

Judgmentless Gospel: God’s forgiveness does not need to come through the sacrifice of His Son. Judgment is more about God’s goodness, not the need for human rebellion to be punished. Evangelism is not urgent.
This is where you need to go if you are not willing to formally exclude people who engage in publicly known sin. Modern secular people don't want to exclude anyone for sexual sins. They do feel there are some sins like racism and pollution but they don't look to scripture or the church to define morality.

Evangelism is not really lacking in urgency. It is just impossible. The church cannot call people to live up to a higher standard so the church only makes sense to those who have been raised with the idea of going to church. You don't have to get up on Sunday mornings to not be judged. You can just sleep in.

Social-Club Gospel: Salvation is all about finding fellowship and friendship at church. The gospel is reduced to Christian relationships that help us enjoy life.
I don't think this can be called a gospel. It is more of a symptom of a church where people don't actually believe. They tend not to close their doors. They just move on and become a society of niceness. It is like the emperor without clothes. You don't notice what is missing for quite a while. Nobody talks about God except in cliches. Nobody challenges anyone to grow closer to God, to turn from sin and embrace the gospel.

Activist Gospel: The kingdom is advanced through our efforts to build a just society. The gospel’s power is demonstrated through cultural transformation, and the church is united around political causes and social projects.
This is a real challenge. The truth is that the church has to be socially active. But how do you take on such a huge thing and not have it become the center of your ministry. Jesus is God. If we make him an agent of social justice that is good but not good enough. We must proclaim Him as God and nothing less. Pope Benedict has said if we do this we will not just fail at evangelization but at social justice as well.
Churchless Gospel: The focus of salvation is primarily on the individual, in a way that makes the community of faith peripheral to God’s purposes. The church is viewed as an option to personal spirituality, or even an obstacle to Christlikeness.
The proper name for this counterfeit is protestantism. This is what the reformation was all about. To deny the visible church. But they do sense the importance of a church-like organization. So much so that they think someone saying it is unimportant is teaching a counterfeit gospel. Yet somehow they excuse Luther of exactly the same thing.

Mystic Gospel: Salvation comes through an emotional experience with God. The church is there to help me feel close to God by helping me along in my pursuit of mystical union.
Not sure what the problem is here. Seems fine to me. You need to be more precise about exactly how the church helps. Maybe he is keying on the word "emotional" and the word "feel." But mystical does not mean emotional. Maybe to him it does.
Quietist Gospel: Salvation is about spiritual things, not secular matters. Christianity is only about individual life change and is not concerned with society and politics.
I think most don't even feel religion is about life change. If you change your life you will change society and change politics. But the "religion is a private matter just between you and God" people don't typically have any dramatic changes in their life from their faith.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

1 Cor 1

It is Christian unity week. The second reading is one of the classic texts on Christian unity.

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”
This is a classic text where people simply see what they want to see and ignore what they want to ignore. Catholics point out that protestantism is full of people who say "I follow Calvin" or "I follow Luther." Isn't that exactly what Paul is condemning here? Sure it is.

But protestants point out that Paul does not point to the same answer as Catholics do. He does not say Christians should unite around Peter. In fact, he mentions Peter, as Cephas, but lumps him in with everyone else. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the papacy.

That does not really hold up as a exegetical out. If scripture says don't do X then you don't do X. The fact that scripture does not directly prescribe the best method of avoiding X is not excuse for not using that method and engaging in X anyway. If scripture says don't do it you don't do it. No excuses. No rhetorical tricks. Just obey.
Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gius, so no one can say that you were baptized into my name. (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
So what does Paul suggest? He suggest focusing on Christ. Protestants get that. But how? He rambles on about baptism. That is where protestants stop listening. Focusing on Christ in a sacramental way is not where they want to go. They want to focus on Christ in a doctrinal way. In fact, the model of  "wisdom and eloquence" that Paul rejects sounds like the typical protestant scenario. Some guy comes out and has a new teaching that is allegedly a more correct understanding of scripture. But there is also a charismatic leader involved. Much of the success of protestant leaders have nothing to do with exegesis and reason. Eloquent presentations and magnetic personalities are at least as important.So the protestant model is anti-biblical. It is precisely the opposite of what Paul says we should do.
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” Where are the wise? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. 
It is interesting that it is in the context of Christian unity that Paul goes into the topic of human wisdom and God's wisdom. That there will always be people who seem smarter than the apostles and their successors. There will always be people whose message is more appealing to one segment of society or another. But the key is to preach Christ crucified. Isn't it interesting that protestants don't like to use the crucifix as a symbol? Catholics put an image of Christ being crucified right in the center of their worship space. Protestants are not comfortable with that.

They would never accept that they are not preaching Christ crucified. I know I never dreamed protestantism could be thought of that way. But as a Catholic I can clearly see it. No Stations of the Cross. No sorrowful mysteries. No sacrifice of the mass. No uniting your suffering with the suffering of Christ. No Ash Wednesday. No celebration of martyrs. No penance. So many ways the preaching of Christ crucified gets replaced by something else.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Shea Weighs in on Star Trek

Mark Shea points out one a scene where Star Trek give a long discourse on religion. It is the basic religion is for undeveloped societies stuff. But one line struck me. One word really. When Picard asks if this civilization, which had already discarded all ideas of the supernatural, would regress into religion based on their encounter with the Enterprise crew. He said it was "inevitable." It amazes me that that passes the laugh test with anyone. One isolated incident that can't be explained would cause a whole civilization to embrace religion? That is inevitable? Really?

I have been involved in church work for a long time. There have been many stories of miracle. Some very credible and some not so much. But people are generally very skeptical. I am not talking about the super-evolved atheist brights. Just ordinary, simple people. They tend to be very slow to believe in the supernatural. Even people who are already Christians will normally prefer to believe almost any explanation rather than accept that a miracle took place. I am not saying that we should believe any miracle story. Just that faith is an uphill battle. We struggle to believe even when we want to and many times we don't want to. So the idea that one little incident can change everyone's thinking and that that is not only possible but inevitable. That just seems so far removed from human experience. Yet people just accept it.

It seems clear to me that God has to keep intervening in human society with His grace. If He didn't we would forget about Him pretty quick. Our thinking is constantly corrupted by many things but that never leads us towards faith and humility and chastity and generosity and worship. It leads us to self-centered thinking. That is what you expect from evolution and that is what we would expect if God was not constantly intervening to point us in the right direction yet again. If you can't believe in the power of God you can infer it from the power of sin. People should be a lot worse than they are. The moral force that prevents that cannot be human because sin hits everyone.

So when atheists assert religion grew up with no true supernatural data they are assuming other people think differently than they do. That people they don't know have unsound minds that don't exist in themselves or anyone they know well. That is that they have not seriously considered the possibility that God does not exist and all previous generations just have it wrong. Pope Benedict in Introduction to Christianity said every theist has seriously considered atheism and every atheist has seriously considered theism. That fits the data so much better. So many people struggling to believe and so many people saying they believe but not living like they do. The idea that there is a clear and convincing rational argument for either side just makes so many people incomprehensible.


St Thomas Aquinas defined love as willing the good of the other as other. So if I help a poor person. That might be an act of love. It depends why I did it. Did I do it because because I wanted to feel good about helping the poor? That is not a bad thing but it is not love because it is self-centered. I will their good but not for their sake but for mine. It would be the virtue of generosity or justice. I would be fighting the injustice of poverty. There might even be love for Christ and His church in there. I might want to help the church with her mission of helping the poor. That would be willing the church's good and not mine. So that would be love.

What strikes me most about St Thomas' definition is that he cannot understand the concept of loving yourself. That is so common in today's society. When you talk about love in any group. It does not matter whether they are Christian or not. One of the first points that is brought up is that the most important thing is to love yourself. That you can't love other people unless you love yourself first. St Thomas would not understand this kind of thinking. For him, the very center of love was that it is selfless. The ultimate symbol of love is the crucifix. For us, the ultimate symbol of love is a mirror.

What people see is that humans need to be loved. But loving yourself is never going to be enough. You can't give yourself value. This is like trying to push a bus when you are on the bus. You have to push against something or it does not work. Some try and push themselves up by pushing others down. Ultimately what you need is not to love yourself but to understand that God loves you. That is just a place where modern psychology is not willing to go. Christians embrace modern psychology but they don't realize that it is making a very sad second choice in this area precisely because it wants to keep God talk out of their business.

The one thing that happens when we leave God out of our self esteem conversations is we find ways to love our strengths and don't really learn to love our weaknesses. When you understand God has created you and loves you with all your brokenness and all your idiosyncrasies then nothing can shake your self image. But if your self esteem is based on a rosy view of your talents and basically a denial of your short comings that is going to fall apart when you need it most.

When you realize God loves your brokenness then you can love another person who is also broken. Not weighing their strengths against their weaknesses and deciding the strengths win out. But really loving the weakness as a gift from God just as much as the strength.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Why Roe v Wade?

Russel Shaw asks this question at Catholic Exchange.
It appears to me that the only possible explanation for this voting behavior is that, no matter what many people say they believe about abortion, when push comes to shove the issue doesn’t carry all that much weight with quite a few. For them, clearly, it is not the great moral issue of our times that convinced prolifers—and not a few prochoicers as well—consider it to be.
His point is valid but he does not go far enough. Why are there so many pro-choice people?  Whether they are a slight majority or minority is not so important. We don't have the needed consensus on the issue to change a supreme court decision. Why not? In fact, among intellectual elites, the consensus is just the opposite. That is the real reason the Democratic part is pro-choice. It respects scholars more than the Republican party does. Why have they come down on the pro-choice side?

The first thing you need to understand is that Christian sexual morality without contraception is incoherent. Protestant Christians embrace the idea of sex that is not open to life. Most still discourage premarital sex but they have basically lost that battle. People just don't see why contraceptive sex is OK after marriage and not OK before. So the next domino falls. Then next people wonder why pornography is wrong. The whole moral ethic comes unraveled quite quickly.

Guess what? Now you have a society where the pro-life position is unworkable. Widespread premarital sex will produce far to many children without moms and dads prepared to raise them. Protestant Christians have basically not dealt seriously with the issue. Just make abortion illegal and deal with the crisis pregnancies as they come. But the system was being overwhelmed.

So Row v Wade was more a piece of social engineering than it was an opinion about human rights. Pro-life people rightly point out an unelected supreme court has no business engaging in social engineering. That is true. But was it needed? Pro-life people don't address that question much. They address the question of whether it is moral. That is one they can argue effectively. But does what is moral in terms of making sure every child is well cared for contradict what is moral in terms of an unconditional prohibition on murder? Christians don't see the need to address the question because God's law cannot contradict itself. You just trust and obey.

The trouble is the morals do contradict. Secular people think that is because these principles are not from God so we need to fix the problem by changing the principles in the most acceptable way. Protestants insist the principles are from God but they have God wrong. They don't have God wrong on abortion but they have Him wrong on contraception. So they trust that God cannot be in contradiction but He is not. They are.

Catholics get into the same problem. They often refuse to defend the church's position on contraception. They think since protestants are OK with it we should just focus on where we have agreement with them. So it leaves a very small number of people actually defending a logically consistent position.

So where does that leave us? Often you hear people saying there is no answer on the abortion issue. That no matter what people are going to accuse you of being immoral and/or irrational. But that is just because the one moral and rational position has very little voice.

Would it make any difference? Actually it might. I think liberal academics would re-examine the pro-life position if it was shown to be part of a consistent workable social policy. Yes, it would be hard to convince them that self-control is possible in matters of sex. But we can point to many societies that have had such control of their passions. Not everyone all the time but a whole lot better than we have now. So you would still have some crisis pregnancies but not so many as to make us abandon our respect for all human life.

We do have the advantage that there is no alternative. So we are again faced with a choice between Catholicism and atheism. Either we say that there is a huge design flaw in human morality or we trust that the Catholic church has been right all along. The first will lead to atheism. The second will lead to Catholicism. We, as Catholics, need to be unafraid to propose Catholicism to this world.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Changing Protestantism

Sherry has an interesting post that talks about how what used to be called protestant 100 years ago is in serious decline and something different is replacing it under the same name.
Classic Protestantism and Anglicanism have dropped like a stone and now only make up 26% of American Christians. Catholics and Orthodox grew dramatically and together now comprise 38% of all Christians in North America.  The new post-Protestant groups have come out of nowhere (Independents and Marginals) and now make up 36% of Christians.
Independents and Marginals still have Reformation DNA because they emerged in reaction to classically Protestant Christianity but most do not see themselves as "Protestant" in the way the term was used in 1910.  They are the more or less estranged children and grandchildren of historic Protestantism who no longer feel bound by historic Protestant creeds or consensus.  We continue to see them as "other" because we are highly sensitive to their still existing Reformed assumptions, but their recent past and their future trajectory is away from historic Protestantism.  Because they are passionately evangelizing and masters of the media - old and new - they are growing faster than all other Christian groups.

Now Brandon makes a point in the comments that these new protestants are not fundamentally different from the old protestants. They share the same underlying assumptions. They have just taken them a step further. He is right. But the extra step or several steps are important to note. The more liturgical and more creed-centered churches of 100 years ago were stronger because of that. The rate of change over the preceding centuries was pretty slow. Now they have lost that and the rate of change has accelerated dramatically. When you talk about protestantism crashing and burning in the next 100 years people reply that it has been around for centuries and will continue for centuries more. But it hasn't been around for centuries. Not like it is now. It is not a solid rock. It is a house of sand that it crumbling over time.

Solid creeds and liturgy that helps the church pray her creeds is so important. It allows us to internalize what we believe. It helps us to pass it on to our children without changing it. It allows us to grow together and towards God slowly and organically rather than demanding a sudden conversion of life.

I was raised in a reformed church that was very liturgical and very creed-centered. It would still show as such on Sherry's study but it is much much less so than it was. Some congregations are independent in all but name. Those are the fastest growing ones. I think the same can be said about the Lutheran, Methodist, Presbyterianism, Congregationalism, and Baptist churches. Even those have become less creedal and less liturgical. Sure some traditional pockets remain but the excitement is all around the funky new churches that look and feel like independent churches even if they are technically mainline. So I think the stats don't tell the whole story. If that dynamic is accounted for the shift in protestantism would be more dramatic yet.

Journalism and Religion

Mollie at GetReligion starts an interesting post about journalism and religion. I say starts because she flips to journalism and politics in the middle. Also an interesting subject but much more widely talked about and I think more different from religion than she seems to realize. Anyway a quote from the good part of the post.
In the post where we discussed how the media invented quotes and angles (to push the narrative that the Pope didn’t like the way the Beckhams named their children), one reader said the behavior of the media surprised him. To that, reader Michael responded that it happens all the time when it comes to the Pope’s speeches and homilies. He said that if you’re actually interested in understanding what the Pope has to say, you have to find the remarks and read them on your own. He adds:
The really interesting question is, ‘why?’ Is it simply a matter of ‘bad will’? Is it a failure of journalistic standards? Or is it something built-in to the nature of journalism itself as a form of reason, such that even ‘good journalism’ is constitutionally incapable, qua journalism, of ‘getting religion’ (and many other things besides)?
I do think there are a few things going on here. Journalism tries to write objectively. There is an assumption that this can be done. It is the same assumption that allows people to embrace Sola Scriptura.  That is that the human mind can push aside all bias and subconscious influences and be objective when it really wants to. Most people believe they are capable of doing that. On the other hand most people can think of others who just can't do that. That is when people come from a different school of thought we can see that it influences their judgment. Their thinking is subtly but significantly warped by their ideology and they come to wrong conclusions because of it. We see it in others but we don't see it in ourselves. We think we can be and often are completely impartial and rational and free from the influence of any underlying philosophy.

In reality we think of our own mind as being objectively more reliable than the minds of others who have a different background. There is no reason to believe that. We are not smarter. We don't have better source of information. The reason we believe that is because accepting that we cannot trust our own mind has huge implications that we do not like. So it is basically wishful thinking. We want to believe out reasoning is more trustworthy than the next man's so we do.

Journalism is basically a vow to do exactly that. To be neutral and objective in the way you describe a story and the way you choose which details are important and which angle to take. It can only be done at a most superficial level. Giving equal time to parties and such. But when you get into the details. With whose ideas you report in a compelling way then you personal biases are going to be impossible to keep out.That goes for politics and religion and any other topic being reported on.

But religion and the Catholic church have a deep reason why journalism can't get them right. It is impossible to be objective about Jesus. By extension it is impossible to be objective about the Catholic church. The claims of Jesus and the claims of the church are so personal and so profound that nobody can just ignore them. They either are drawn to them and soon begin to love them dearly or they are disgusted by them and soon cannot say a kind word about them. There are periods when we can shut out God from our life and not feel anything about the church but they don't last. The supernatural always creeps back in. Then you are back there again. Confronting a God who loves you and wants to change you for the better. You can run to Him or run away from Him. But you can't write an objective story about the pope.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Drawing Distinctions

In the last post I asked the rhetorical question, "How many Catholics can make the distinctions that this last paragraph glosses over?" So I thought I would actually write a post that does that.

Once they find that works are not a necessary condition for salvation (Rom. 4:5; Eph. 2:8-9; Titus 3:3-6) but that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, they will make great evangelical Christians.  They will realize that we can’t work for grace but that we do work from grace.
First of all, works are necessary for salvation but they are not a condition in the true sense of the word. God gives us the grace to be holy. All we need to do is cooperate with that grace. We don't need to and are not able to do anything to earn that grace. But that cooperation involves works. It can't be purely an intellectual assent.

A lot of time it is just a matter of language. Somebody might say, "I heard the gospel and I walked the aisle and said the sinners prayer. I just knew I was saved right then. I didn't need to do any works." But that person did do a work. He walked down the aisle and said a prayer. If he felt God's grace pushing him to do that and stayed in his seat then any intellectual Yes he might have given would have lacked seriousness because he failed to cooperate with the grace and act.

So what about the passages he cites? Rom 4:4-5 says:

Now to anyone who works, their wages are not credited to them as a gift, but as an obligation.  However, to anyone who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.
The works Paul is talking about are those works we might think would earn us our salvation. Catholics don't believe God is obligated towards us based on our works. We do believe we need to trust God to justify us. The question then is what does that justification look like? It involves the covering of sins. But there is more. It involves a change to our heart, mind, and will. That needs to be lived out in our works. Nothing Paul says here denies that. His focus is on faith as the first step but not every verse is going to give the complete picture.
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. Eph 2:8-10
Again we add one verse for context and it becomes clear Paul is not saying grace implies that works are not involved in any way. It is not by works but works are the product. In fact, it says good works are the reason we are created in Christ Jesus. So if they are the reason then how can they be optional? Does God sometimes do things for a reason and not accomplish that goal?

At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior. Tit 3:3-6
 This one just shows he does not understand the Catholic doctrine of justification. I know some protestants who have an OK understanding of it and still think Rom 4:5 and Eph 2:8-9 contradict it. They don't but when they are read through protestant glasses you can understand how people might think that. This one isn't like that. It is just what Catholics believe. It only contradicts a caricature of Catholic doctrine and not the doctrine itself. It even uses strongly sacramental imagery connecting salvation with the washing of baptism. Beautifully Catholic and yet sadly used effectively to show Catholicism is wrong.

Getting back to the original paragraph. The next phrase is "we are saved by grace alone through faith alone." This is almost in Eph 2:8. The only word that is not there is "alone." The bible never uses the phrase "faith alone" except to deny that salvation is by faith alone in James 2:24. But every time the bible uses the word faith the protestant thinks faith alone. Luther famously did that when he translated Rom 5:1. They don't do it in the translation anymore but they don't need to. They are trained to interpret it just like the word "alone" is there. Pastors will often rephrase the verse immediately after reading it and insert the word in the rephrase.It is so automatic they really feel Catholics are getting all technical when they point out that verse does not actually say "faith alone."

The other thing to know is that Faith Alone or Sola Fide is a slogan and not a doctrine. It does not have a precise definition. Some understandings of Faith Alone are actually acceptable for Catholics. So we can't say it is wrong. What we can say is it is not biblical language. It has the potential to be misleading so there is good reason not to use it.

Why Roman Catholics are Leaving the Church in Mass

 Norman Geisler wrote a post about Catholic becoming protestant a vise-versa.

True, there are a few intellectual evangelicals who are becoming Roman Catholic, but the overall trend is in the other direction. Actually, the Roman Church is hemorrhaging members. A 2007 Pew Foundation survey revealed that Catholics have experienced the greatest net loss of any American religion. Were it not for immigrant Catholics, the percent of Catholics in America would be decreasing. In 1997 a Catholic sociologist reported that one in seven Hispanic Catholics was abandoning the church. According to World Magazine (Jan. 15, 2011), the number is nearly one in five. And it is almost one in four for second-generation Latinos. This is good news and bad news. It is bad news in that most of those who leave Rome are claiming no religion at all. It is good news for evangelicalism since 40 percent of those who leave the Roman Church are becoming evangelical.
It is interesting that the trend is for people to leave Catholicism. It is a minority who of those who leave that actually become  evangelical. The reality is that mainline protestant churches are experiencing an exodus as well. People are leaving Christianity. Some are church hopping but many are just church stopping. They just don't go anymore. 

Why is that? Many will say the church is becoming irrelevant. Has God become irrelevant? No. But people don't see the church as a place to connect with God. A big part of that is because people are more aware than ever about doctrinal differences. They see any church as just one opinion about God rather than God's revelation of Himself. Why devote yourself to that?

Why do a few intellectual evangelicals become Catholics?  Many reasons are given.  It is an older, deeper, richer, more intellectual tradition.  Or, to summarize one recent convert, “My family is Catholic.  They wanted me to return, and the Bible says we should honor our parents!” It is clear that none of these are a test for the truth of a religion, and by the same logic one could argue for becoming a Hindu, Buddhist, or even an atheist.
This is just disappointing.I have read a ton of conversion stories. This summary reminds me of exactly zero of them. The conversions have many themes. Most center on the problems with Sola Scriptura. Truth claims are very seriously considered. Saying converts are not concerned with the truth of their religion is mind-boggling in it's inaccuracy.

We have weighed all of these reasons (in Is Rome the True Church?) and found them wanting.  As for the appeal of the intellectual tradition, I have a Ph.D. in philosophy from a Jesuit institution and have never once been tempted to become a Roman Catholic.  If you want to compare the two, read our book, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences.  My co-author Ralph MacKenzie and I both have Catholicism in our background.  We have studied both sides carefully, and we see no reason to swim the Tiber.
First of all, he claims to have "weighed all of these reasons." But his previous statement shows he is clueless about what those reasons are. This is shocking because he is considered one of the protestant experts on the subject. He think that just because he went to a Jesuit school he understands the faith. What he understands is liberal Catholics. I understand why he does not find that philosophy appealing.

The really misleading thing is his co-author of "Is Rome the True Church?" has become Catholic. So he trumpets the fact that he and one of his co-authors remain solidly protestant. But he ignores Joshua Bellancourt who actually did swim the Tiber and has the same status as Ralph MacKenzie. He seems to be trying to tell his readers they don't have to study the issue. We are smart guys. We studied it. Nothing to see here. Just keep walking. 
On the other hand, why are so many former Catholics becoming evangelical?  In short, they are having a personal experience with God through Christ that they never found in Romanism.  As one of my liturgical friends once put it to me, “The problem with our church is that we tend to confuse lace and grace.”  
It is interesting he describes a person as a "liturgical friend." That means he is not actually Catholic but in one of those churches evangelicals see as pretty much the same thing? If he does not understand the difference then he really does not grasp the Catholic doctrine of the church. That is a central doctrine for many protestants and he seems oblivious to it.
Evangelical converts from Rome like Christ Castaldo (see his, Holy Ground: Walking with Jesus as a Former Catholic) say they feel a liberation from ritual and a freedom of guilt they never had in Romanism. 
He complained, wrongly, that converts were not engaging in a "test for truth." I don't see any test for truth here. I see an appeal to feelings. There may well be something positive that has happened in these people's spiritual lives. It could also be very bad. The point is nobody is claiming to have found a more reliable source of truth. They claim the doctrine is better from a purely subjective perspective. By the same logic one could argue for becoming a Hindu, Buddhist, or even an atheist.
Tens of thousands of these Catholic converts end up in one of the large Calvary Chapel churches where they are singing God-centered praise music and being taught the Word of God verse-by-verse.  This is something that Rome with all its layers of tradition has lost.  Thomas Aquinas (13th cent.), who was more of a pre-Protestant, taught the Bible verse by verse.  
So Calvary Chapel and St Thomas Aquinas are basically the same thing? I don't know what Jesuit school he studied at but they should give him his money back. The reality is it is Catholics who teach the bible verse by verse. They go through the lectionary just like St Thomas did. Calvary Chapel lets the pastor preach on whatever verses he wants. He can ignore as much as he wants too.

By the way, another word for pre-Protestant is Catholic. St Thomas believed that if you reject one article of faith taught by the church you had no faith at all. You didn't even have a dead faith. You simply believed the other articles of the faith by coincidence and none of your beliefs were really based on faith. Does that sound protestant? 
But what we know of as “Roman” Catholicism today, with its belief in works being necessary for salvation, the veneration of and prayers to Mary, the worship of the consecrated host, buying indulgences, Purgatory, adding apocryphal books (which supports praying for the dead) to the inspired Scripture, and bowing to the infallibility of the Pope, simply cannot compete with the simplicity of the evangelical Gospel: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved” (Acts 16:31). 
This is classic protestant question begging. The contradiction between Catholicism and scripture is obvious. So obvious it does not need to be demonstrated. He seems to imply that this is not the Catholicism that St Thomas Aquinas believed. Of course that is not true. During his day they actually did buy indulgences. That is no longer the case. We can receive them for other acts or penance but not for alms-giving.

The phrase "adding apocryphal books to the inspired Scripture" is quite strange as well. Is he that clueless about the history of the bible? Does he really think Catholics took this pristine protestant bible and messed with it? Maybe he is just counting on his audience to be ignorant.

So, while we are losing a few intellectual egg-heads out the top of evangelicalism to Rome, we are gaining tens of thousands of converts out the bottom from Catholicism.  The trade-off highly favors evangelicalism.  
He seems to have a problem with faith and reason. That evangelicalism can ignore the serious problems in it's intellectual foundations because it is about appealing to the masses. He would love to give a reasoned response. He can't.  Evangelicalism is unreasonable at it's core. So he is arguing that it does not matter. It is about marketing and protestants are better at that than Catholics. I prefer truth.
So, invite a Catholic to your Bible study or church.  There is a good possibility that they will get saved!  They have a least been pre-evangelized by Roman Catholicism to believe in God, miracles, Christ, His death and resurrection.  
Is he saying Catholics are not saved? Is he saying  St Thomas Aquinas is not saved? It is not clear. This is about marketing remember. Don't ask to many questions.
Once they find that works are not a necessary condition for salvation (Rom. 4:5; Eph. 2:8-9; Titus 3:3-6) but that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone, they will make great evangelical Christians.  They will realize that we can’t work for grace but that we do work from grace.
Often what this amounts to is telling Catholics that the Catholic church teaches something it does not. The idea of "we can’t work for grace but that we do work from grace" is very Catholic. Again showing an astounding ignorance of Catholicism for a protestant who has written multiple books on the subject. Once you leave the realm of truth and focus on numbers then why stick to the facts? I know few protestants knowingly preach falsehoods. But these lies remain accepted more because they work than any other reason.

The reality is Catholics need to know their faith. Many simply accept what the protestant marketing tells them Catholic believe. How many Catholics can make the distinctions that this last paragraph glosses over? Not many compared to the size of the church. As long as that remains true then protestants will be able to define our faith for us.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Freedom of Religion

The Pope has been very concerned with freedom of religion lately. Part of it is related to the massacres of Christians going to church in various Muslim countries. But even before those incidents happened he used very strong language when speaking to the curia. He said we need certain basic principles as a foundation for democracy. Historically we have had that because all the people in democracies have been basically Christian. He saw that breaking down in England. Here is a quote:
Alexis de Tocqueville, in his day, observed that democracy in America had become possible and had worked because there existed a fundamental moral consensus which, transcending individual denominations, united everyone. Only if there is such a consensus on the essentials can constitutions and law function. This fundamental consensus derived from the Christian heritage is at risk wherever its place, the place of moral reasoning is taken by the purely instrumental rationality of which I spoke earlier. In reality, this makes reason blind to what is essential. To resist this eclipse of reason and to preserve its capacity for seeing the essential, for seeing God and man, for seeing what is good and what is true, is the common interest that must unite all people of good will. The very future of the world is at stake.
 The trouble is the basic principle required is not that easily arrived at. One needs to see the value of human beings even when you know their world and life view to be seriously in error. Catholicism teaches this. That you can never impose the faith but only propose it. People always have the right to say No. God does not force Himself on anyone and we should not force God on anyone either. What is more, we need to value what they say about God. Despite their errors we can still learn a lot about God from them. So we need to welcome them into conversations about public policy and even engage in charitable dialogue over matters of faith.

The trouble is many other belief systems don't end up there. Catholics struggle mightily to live out their own teaching because it is hard. Our pride tempts us to dismiss "all those people who are just all wrong anyway." So if we have trouble embracing this teaching we should not be surprised that many other belief systems simply reject it. Here is one comment about the Koran:
But the Qur'an (or Koran) itself, the holy book of Islam, contains over 100 verses calling for violence against Christians and Jews. To give just one example, Sura 9:5 says, "Slay the idolaters wherever you find them."
This kind of thinking has  a long history in Christianity as well. The only reason it didn't find it's way into authoritative Catholic teaching is by the grace of God. Islam is not protected by God from error in the same way so we do see this sentiment strongly reflected in the Koran and there is just no way to get it out of there. There is no authority to definitively tell Muslims how these verses should be interpreted. Remember the impulse to attack those who are different is sinful but very strong. So the fact that it is easy to find verses to justify such behavior makes it even more difficult to control.

Then you have the secularists. They seem to embrace exactly what the pope is thinking about here. In fact, many of the moderate Muslims who don't support violence are moderate precisely because of the influence of western secularism. Secularism has tolerance and respect for all views as a basic tenet. So where is the problem?

The trouble is they try and often fail to be fair to all views. They tend to respect fashionable views. They tend to disrespect Christian views. So, for example, they will exalt the gay agenda and praise it as something pure and good and right and holy. They will despise the Christian view as backwards and narrow minded and bigoted. They will do this in the name of equality and fairness. They really cannot see that they are imposing their view as the correct one and condemning another view simply because they don't agree with it.

Both secularist and Muslims lack a principle that requires them to listen seriously to dissenting opinions. They believe the other side has nothing to offer. They are simply wrong. So marginalizing them and shutting them out of public debate is very tempting. But that kind of thinking leads to the breakdown of democratic institutions. This is why the pope says the future of the world is at stake. If a country like England cannot have a functional democracy in the post-Christian Europe then where can democracy survive?

Friday, January 7, 2011

Bread and Circuses

This is the name of a Star Trek episode. It is part of a discussion about whether Star trek is Christian or Catholic. Jimmy Akin makes a comment on it here:
In The Original Series we had some episodes, that spoke respectfully of religion. For example, there was "Bread and Circuses," in which the crew visited a parallel planet where the Roman Empire never fell and there were televised gladiatorial matches and such. During the episode they learned of an underground group of sun worshipers and were perplexed by this as ancient Rome didn't' have a lot of sun worshipers. At the end of the episode, Uhura informs them that she's been listening to the planet's broadcasts and that the sun worshipers don't worship the sun in the sky, they worship the Son of God, and the show closes with a direct allusion to Christianity and the possibility God is incarnating on other planets.
 What strikes me is that this is not a pro-Christian moment at all. What is being asserted when one suggests that a parallel planet to earth would have Jesus and Caesar? The notion is that a man like Jesus is a product of history. That if Jesus had never lived something similar to Christianity would have developed anyway.

You could say this about Mark Zuckerberg. If he had not existed would social networking still be almost as big? One could argue that advances in networking speed and normal growth in people's willingness to use technology would have produced this growth whether Zuckerberg existed or not. When a new day dawns we tend to give credit to the rooster and miss the sun.

But can you say the same thing about Jesus? Could the person of Jesus, the story of Jesus, and the spread of Christianity be explained as a expected historical and sociological development? Many have simply asserted the answer is Yes. But nobody has really offered any explanation. The best they can do is a hand waving argument that simply claims people were more credulous back then and would believe such things. That somehow humans didn't doubt claims of miracles back then. It has to be a hand waving argument because it collapses under the slightest bit of scrutiny. Ironically atheists are the one that need to be credulous to accept such lousy argument.

The reality is that the most skeptical place for such claims was first century Israel. If you said something that the Jews found blasphemous they might stone you or get the Romans to crucify you. Everywhere else in the Roman empire they were pagans. They could add you god to their list of deities. The Jews were monotheists. There was one true God. If you were a false prophet of that God you needed to be executed. That is not an environment where religious radicals flourish.

Anyway, it just struck me that people see the anti-Christian overtones in many episodes at this comment shows:
This was not the only time Roddenberry let his anti-Christian streak show. Multiple episodes (and the first Star Trek movie) are all based on the idea of going into space and symbolically finding God and finding out that he's a fraud, or an alien, or a child, or a computer, or insane, or some combination of these. The two twin themes Roddenberry felt drawn to were "God is unworthy of worship" (for one reason or another) and "There ain't no paradise except the Federation" (all other paradisaical societies having some horrible hidden flaw).
But suggesting religion is just another sociological phenomenon like governments or blood sports seems to have been mostly missed. The fact that people of faith are the good guys is not important. The question is whether the faith is true. Is whoever they believe to be the son of God really the son of God? The implied answer seem to be No. There may be some truth in the religion but the central teaching is not true. Then the fact that it is an obvious parallel to Christianity is not flattering at all.

Thursday, January 6, 2011


Today's reading has this verse:

Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.. 1 Jn 4:20
I found it interesting because it directly relates being visible with being spiritually useful. We need to love God but our ability to love Him is limited because we cannot see Him. We end up loving what we have imagined God to be rather than loving God. Loving people does not have this danger. They are who they are. There is no imagining they are something else. So if we cannot love real people then the odds are we cannot love the real God either. We are lying to ourselves because we have replaced God with someone easier to love.

I find the same is true of an visible church. If we can't obey a visible church then we can imagine we are obeying God but it is not likely. Much more likely that we are obeying our own image of God. Not the true God. Obeying the invisible is harder if we are not cheating that way. So if we fail at the easier task of obeying the church we can see we are never going to succeed at obeying the God we cannot see. All we will really succeed at is lying to ourselves about the God we cannot see.

So we need to thank God for giving us real people that stretch our ability to love. We also need to thank Him for a real church that stretches our ability to obey. It is only through these medium that we have a chance to love and obey God. They solve our spiritual blindness. They keep us from taking the easy way out.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Unplanned Pregnancy

Over Christmas I was thinking about the phrase "Unplanned Pregnancy". After all the Christmas story is the story of an unplanned pregnancy. We don't use the adjective "unplanned" to describe much else besides pregnancies. We don't talk about unplanned job changes or unplanned friendships. Somehow we expect pregnancies to be planned when most of life is not planned. That is to say it is not planned by us. God has a plan. Mary's pregnancy was planned by God. Was it ever. It was mentioned many time in the Old Testament. The genealogies in Matthew and Luke make clear that God had been preparing for thousands of years. But Mary had no such plans. Her response to the angel indicates that her plan was to live a life of consecrated virginity. She didn't expect to be a mother.

Really the Christianity is about accepting God's plans for your life. That is what Mary did and that is what we are called to do. Even in the areas of our life that we really would like to plan. Pregnancy is one big one. Yet God chose to tie pregnancy to sex. He makes something we want to plan flow from something we struggle to control. Then He introduces a ton of randomness into the process. A certain percentage of children have Downs Syndrome. Why does God throw that in? Our family is living the answer to that. Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.

There was a joke in evangelical circles, "if you want to make God laugh ... tell him your plans!" The truth is even when we try and prayerfully make plans God would like we can't do it. We have this idea that plans involve doing something or accomplishing something. But often God's plan is just the situation we find ourselves in right now. Love the one you are with. No in the sexual sense that saying implied. But in the spiritual sense. If we are in pain we tend to run from it. But often God's plan is for us to suffer it well. Like a pregnancy the pain can lead to new life if we embrace it for long enough. But we never make plans like that. It seems like our plans focus on the mountain tops and God's plan focuses on the valley of the shadow of death.

We say we want to be saints. But when we plan our lives how much is about saint-making and how much is about avoiding pain and maximizing pleasure? Sure the pleasure can be Christian. We might want to see people give their lives to Jesus. That might be the pleasure we want rather than the more carnal pleasures. But it is still about our fun. It is not about embracing our cross.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Newman on Faith

There is yet another great discussion going on at Called to Communion. Deep in the combo boxes but worth following for sure. Somebody posted a link to Newman's Faith and Private Judgment. A great little article. Here is a quote
Men might indeed use their reason in inquiring into the pretensions of the Apostles; they might inquire whether or not they did miracles; they might inquire whether they were predicted in the Old Testament as coming from God; but when they had ascertained this fairly in whatever way, they were to take all the Apostles said for granted without proof; they were to exercise their faith, they were to be saved by hearing. Hence, as you perhaps observed, St. Paul significantly calls the revealed doctrine "the word of hearing," in the passage I quoted; men came to hear, to accept, to obey, not to criticise what was said; and in accordance with this he asks elsewhere: "How shall they believe Him, whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher? Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ."
Now, my dear brethren, consider, are not these two states or acts of mind quite distinct from each other;—to believe simply what a living authority tells you, and to take a book, such as Scripture, and to use it as you please, to master it, that is, to make yourself the master of it, to interpret it for yourself, and to admit just what you choose to see in it, and nothing more? Are not these two procedures distinct in this, that in the former you submit, in the latter you judge? At this moment I am not asking you which is the better, I am not asking whether this or that is practicable now, but are they not two ways of taking {200} up a doctrine, and not one? is not submission quite contrary to judging? Now, is it not certain that faith in the time of the Apostles consisted in submitting? and is it not certain that it did not consist in judging for one's self.

He has an excellent point. As a protestant I didn't contemplate the church when the apostles were still alive so much. But I did generally contemplate the idea that the covenant relationship between God and man changed at the reformation. That the church as the covenant community was understood in such a radically different way that it could only be described as bringing a new and better covenant between God and man.

The trouble with this was that it did not fit my theology. Old Testament covenants came one after the other, Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David all had covenants that improved on the previous covenant. But the covenant Jesus brought was to be the final one. Jesus is God so nobody could institute a better covenant than He could.

This is a problem Newman points out here. There is not just a change in a few doctrines. There is a change in the basic understanding of how Christianity works. If you say it is a change for the better yo really say Luther is better than Jesus. That he brought a new and better covenant. That is unthinkable but how do you avoid it? Newman states it well. The process of how to approach questions of faith and morals is very different. Aside from whether the change is for the better or for the worse the fact that there is a change is hard to dispute.

Now Newman is too hard on protestants at some points. He says they have no faith. I get his point. I think for many of the protestants Newman interacted with this was true. They accepted truth if and only if it seemed reasonable to them. But this is more true for the intellectual elite. Ordinary protestants do accept things on faith. They treat their tradition like it is the Sacred Tradition. Not all the time but often. I know I tried to do that as a protestant. You just sense something is from God and you accept it. You can be wrong but I think it is an act of faith. I think pastors and certainly theologians are less likely to do that. They will tend to look at all the exegetical data and make up their own mind. That is to use reason rather than faith.

So I think it is fair to say that protestant leaders lack faith. They lead by reasoning from the scriptures and not by accepting something or someone they cannot control as being sent by God. But many of the protestant faithful do have faith. They just have faith in the wrong leaders. The fact that they have faith is seen as a weakness. To do more critical thinking is seen as growing in your faith by protestants. But in truth it means replacing faith with reason.

Catholics can do more thinking. They can and should learn the reasons the faith teaches what it does. But when reason leads them to conclusions contrary to the faith they need to change their reasoning and not their faith. They need to learn to think with the church. In truth, this frees the mind to think not only rightly but also safely. People worry that if young people get too much education they will lose their faith. If it is truly faith they cannot lose it. They can lose their religion only if it was really based on reason. Sadly for many protestants and Catholics that is the case.