Thursday, July 28, 2011

Five Modern Challenges to Christianity

I can understand why many secular thinkers believe traditional Christianity is going to cease to exist. We have seen a few factors that have historically helped Christianity change in modern times:

1. The control of parents over their children.

Public education and mass media have created a culture where parents cannot prevent their children from being exposed to ideas that they know will be attractive to their minds and destructive to their souls. Some still try. They home school and keep their kids away from TV and internet. But they get things from other kids. They don't even need to go to their house anymore. They have cell phones that can show your kids Lady Gaga anywhere.

So the option of protecting your kids is still needed but it isn't going to be enough. You need to explain to your children why things are wrong and why Christianity is worth the price of saying no even when they seem so alluring. The reality is most Christian parents have not been up to the task. Faith and morals have not been passed effectively from one generation to the next.

2.  Technology advances in contraception. 

Previous generations likely wanted to embrace contraception. They didn't have the choice. Sex and procreation were linked and they just had to accept it. Now God gives us that choice but asks us to keep the two linked anyway. That is one very dramatic way the fight against sexual temptation has become harder. It has always been a struggle to choose sexual purity. In every generation many souls have been lost due to sexual sin. That is why lust is one of the seven deadly sins. Now it is stronger than ever. The numbers are depressing. Contraception, premarital sex, abortion, divorce, etc. All are common and accepted by society. To some degree they are even accepted by Christians.

3. The advance of Islam

Islam came on the scene in the 7th century. Christianity was always very good at converting pagans. It has never been good at converting Muslims. Guess what? Muslims are growing in numbers and growing in influence. In many ways Islam has survived the onslaught of secularism better than Christianity. More of them practice their faith and follow their moral code. They have more people that are willing to be martyred for their faith. Most importantly they have children and keep them in the faith. They do that way better than Christians are doing that right now.

4. Disagreements Between Christians

This has been a problem since the reformation but it continues to get worse.When discussing the truth claims of Christianity it is one of the first objections raised. Christians don't agree on what the truth is so their claim to have the truth is not credible. Now the answer to this was given to us by the first Vatican council. That is the doctrine of infallibility. But protestants and even many Catholics reject that doctrine so they have no answer. The traditional answer that Christians agree on all the really important stuff is less and less tenable all the time. The nature of the disagreements has grown to include what everyone has to admit is the core of the faith. What doctrine is safe?

5. Loss of Wonder at Creation

Darwin is a big deal. Not because he explains where we come from. He does not. But he gave people the notion that every wonder of the natural world has a scientific explanation and therefore it does not require a religious explanation. Miracles? They are just gaps in our scientific knowledge. No need to wonder at them.

This loss of wonder is not limited to creation. Advances in genetics and our understanding of brain function have taken much of the wonder out of the human person. It is the matter of a partial answer allowing somebody to imagine a full answer. Then constructing a philosophy assuming the full answer is there. We don't have a full scientific answer to the origin of the universe. We are not really close. But people imagine we have it. Same with the mysteries of love and beauty. People assume science will soon be able to explain it all. It is a faith in science that was not possible until recently. Not so much for the deep scientific thinkers. They are aware of they limits of science. It is more for the people who know a little science and think they know a lot.


I believe in God's promises. The gates of hell will not prevail against the church. Where sin abound there grace abounds all the more. I still wonder what that will look like. Will we see the church unified like never before? Will we see a new persecution? Will some great new teachers arise? Will there be new high profile miracles? Something needs to happen. If present trends continue, well, present trends never continue. In this case we need to pray for something to turn things around. To bring the church back when there is no logical way it should come back. I am thinking there needs to be an urgency to our prayer that isn't there yet.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Why Questions

Why would God work through a priest? Or through Mary? Or through a saint? Or through holy water or rosary beads? Or through virgins or martyrs? Or through popes and councils? Why does God need any of that? He is God? He can come to us directly. Protestants ask this a lot. There is so much more that seems to be between us and God in Catholicism. What is the point? They think their protestant faith is pretty good without all that stuff. Why have it?

But you could also ask why did God make flowers and sunsets. Why did he give us smiles and laughter? Why music? Why make dolphins or beavers? Really the whole world is radically unnecessary. Does that mean we should reject these things? No. We should rejoice in all God's gifts.

The other answer is because we need them. We need to have God's grace mediated through humans. What remains in our minds is in our control. Even thoughts we are sure are from God can be just our pious imagination. We try and surrender to God but what that surrender looks like is limited by what our minds can conceive. So God gives us help. Real people. Models of faith but more than that. Actual conduits of His grace.The conduits don't even have to be people. They can be places or objects or rituals.

These are things we don't control. When we are just meditating on God our minds can go in a lot of directions. But when we venerate a relic of St Maria Goretti we tend to get focused. Would we rather die than commit one sin even if that sin is mostly someone else's fault? She has become such a powerful spiritual force in so many lives. Is that something we could get on our own?

When Jesus was on earth people might ask the same question. Why can't God work through my Jewish faith? Why do I need to go to Jesus? Need is a strong word. More and better grace is available through Jesus. That is what God wants you to do and that is what will bless you the most. The same is true of the church and all the extra Catholic stuff that goes with it. It is the physical presence of God on earth. We are physical beings. We should be humble enough not to declare a purely spiritual God is good enough for us. God's presence in people, places and things can give us a clearer picture of who God is and a much stronger sense of His desire to be with us.

Protestants embrace most of this on a feeling basis. When someone inspires me I will do what I can to connect with that person. When a place or thing moves me I will contemplate it or go back to it. The difference is you have to feel something almost right away or you give up. If the feeling goes away after a while you drop it and move on. I found that worked for me when I was young. I was OK with jumping into new spiritual movements every once in a while. But that emotional kick just keep getting harder to find.

As a Catholic I take what the church puts before me. For a long time the emotion was negative because of protestant suspicions that keep coming back. But the fruit of such devotion has been so much greater. The focus is truly on God and not whatever God thing excites me.  God is not just providing me the general direction to walk but He is giving me stepping stone to guide my way.

BTW, if you don't know about St Maria Goretti here is a short documentary:

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Palins and Chastity

Track Palin and his wife Britta apparently conceived before they were married or even engaged. Bristol Palin is making a lot of money talking to teens about chastity after getting pregnant as a teen. This is not unusual. Often youth leaders who talk the most about chastity did not keep their virginity until marriage. Teens notice that. Certainly those asserting teen chastity is unrealistic have noticed. So what is going wrong?

The problem is the tie between sex and procreation has been cut. Protestants and many Catholics don't talk about being ready for sex as being ready to raise a child. They talk about waiting for marriage but they are unclear on what precisely happens on your wedding day. Marriage is not understood as a sacrament and divorce is seen as a fact of life. So what is marriage? It does not mean openness to life. It does not mean a special grace from God to join you together. It does not mean staying together no matter what. So why wait with sex until marriage when it means so little?

The most concrete reason is children. It is easy to understand that God intended sex and procreation to be linked. It is the way we are made. It is intuitive that sex should not be manipulated just for kicks. People get that it is something sacred. So the argument against contraception is much easier to make than the argument that contraception is OK but you should wait for marriage anyway.

From a teen point of view marriage seems like easy sex for adults. Why should they be expected to exercise self control? They are less mature. Their hormone levels, at least for males, are higher. So why is chastity for teens while adults get this big out with marriage, divorce, and contraception? Does it not make much more sense to say sexual self control is simply something they will need in every state of life? Marriage and celibacy would both be seen as hard roads that you would only go down if you were really called. Guess what? That way you end up with strong families and solid vocations instead of broken homes and an abuse crisis.

So chastity as it is taught now is unrealistic. Not because it is too hard. The problem is it is too easy. It is a compromise with the culture that has left Christian sexual ethics incoherent. People can do hard things if they have a good reason. They do very little if they are given a story that does not ring true. If young men know they are remaining pure so they can be good fathers or good priests they will rise to the challenge. If they think their future is in a contraceptive marriage where they won't need self control then they won't work hard to develop it.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Numbers Game

What do we do that makes a difference to our salvation or the salvation of someone else? As an evangelical we asked that question a lot. Some saw salvation in terms of saying the sinner's prayer. There were stats on what ministry activities were generating how many conversions. As a reformed protestant I was always a bit wary of those statistics but I knew many who took them very seriously. Feeding the hungry generated less walks down the aisle then a well organized youth program. So that is where church resources went.

The Catholic doctrine of makes this pretty much impossible. The problem is nobody's salvation is assured and nobody's damnation is assured. So we can't put solid numbers down. We can see if someone goes to Eucharist and confession. If they do go we don't know if they make a good confession or if they have secret mortal sins. If they don't go we don't know if their heart. Is there some deep ignorance that prevents them from living their faith in the normal way?

What I think this is meant to do is allow us to see almost any situation as potentially a matter of heaven and hell. If you help a protestant become catholic will that save their soul? Maybe. If they are already right with God it certainly makes it more likely they will persevere. But even if you encourage a priest perhaps just by showing up. That might be what he needs to prevent him from falling into serious sin.

Catholicism also hold out hope that you might inject salvific grace into the life of someone who will never consider conversion. Someone might be Muslim but your heart might minister to their heart and you might bring them closer to God without them actually changing religions. It could make the difference of heaven or hell for them. They lack the graces of scripture and the sacraments but you can give them some grace for them to respond to.

Knowing so little about salvation kind of makes us like the sower who mindlessly sows his seed everywhere. We have no idea where our holiness can make the difference so we should just sow as much as we can. It is also true that the soul we save might be our own. For if we grow weary in doing good we can be in serious sin in no time. Only spreading seed on what we deem to be fertile soil is likely to make us cold to some groups of people. That is a very dangerous place to go.

So never mind the numbers. We can see that society has much mortal sin. We know there is work to do. Many souls are in danger. It always comes down to being a prophet and priest and king. Teach the word boldly. Yes, that means use words. Sanctify others through constant prayer and penance. Then govern your personal affairs so the fruits of the spirit are there for all to see. Don't calculate where the line between heaven and hell is and how many people can I pull over it.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Feser's Related Post

Edward Feser has a post on the subject of Atheism and Morality. He knows a ton more about the Philosophy of Religion than I do but he makes some of the same points from the opposite direction. He starts with how the logic of morality makes it reasonable to study it without reference to God just like the logic of physical creation makes science possible without mentioning God. In hindsight I probably should have made that point because the commenters showed they confused that point with the one I was trying to make. Dr Feser then says what I was saying in more precise language.
As I say, then, atheism per se is not a direct threat to the very possibility of morality. Someone who denied the existence of God but accepted Aristotelian essentialism could have grounds for accepting at least part of the natural law. So too could someone who endorsed an atheistic form of Platonism (if there could be such a thing). But to opt for a completely anti-essentialist and anti-teleological view of the world -- one which holds that the natural order is entirely mechanistic and that there is nothing beyond that order -- is, the A-T philosopher would argue, to undermine the possibility of any sort of morality at all. For it entirely removes from the world essences and final causes, and thus the possibility of making sense of the good as an objective feature of reality. (See The Last Superstition for details.) And since modern atheism tends to define itself in terms of such a radically anti-teleological or mechanistic view of the world, it too is to that extent incompatible with any possible morality.
I didn't even say it was incompatible with any morality. Just with objective morality. We could still construct a moral code from our reason but someone else could simply choose to ignore it. I am not sure if his definition of "any possible morality" would even exclude that. 

But the point is if you don't just deny God but also deny anything supernatural then you have a huge moral problem. So many people treat the denial of anything beyond the scientifically verifiable as a kind of virtue. That they deal in real stuff and not that mumbo-jumbo. They have no idea that they have gotten rid of the concept of virtue. Just like the Nazi's and Communists had no idea where their atheism would lead. We think the modern atheism won't go there because we are somehow better than those movements were. Has the heart of man really changed?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Reply To The Anonymous Atheist

Someone left a longer comment on the Atheists and Morality post so I thought I would reply in a post rather than having it get buried in an old comment thread. Unfortunately he didn't leave a name but here it goes.
Be careful. Proposing that morality is the result of evolution is not the same as proposing that morality is not objective. Evolution is not a random process, and neither is morality. If morality evolved, it was to help in the preservation and proliferation of a population.
But in this case where is morality located? It is in human DNA. So how can something in human DNA be objective? You could say it is objective because it would be common to almost all humans. But if humans did not exist then rightness or wrongness would not exist.
Morality must be systematic then, because a morality which impedes the preservation and proliferation of a population is rejected. If you look at it that way, then the "big contributor" to morality was the environment, or, if you wish, the universe. 
So suppose that is how we got human morality. How does that impact future moral analysis? We accept that morality has helped the human species get here. But who says the same moral principles will continue to be helpful? Maybe the path to progress is to do some things our morality recoils at. So even if genocide feels morally repugnant that does not mean we should not hold our noses and do it anyway. So anything becomes OK if you can call it progress.
You could say that, looking between different universes or environments, that the resulting differences prove a subjective morality. 
You could say it. It does not follow logically. All it proves is a subjective element. That is a subjective perception of an objective reality or perhaps some types of morality might be subjective and others might be objective. Morality in different times and cultures are more remarkable for their sameness then their difference. 

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Marriage From Heaven and Marriage From Hell

How do married people make choices? There are a few ways. One is what our Marriage Encounter called being a married single. That is basically assuming your wife thinks like you. So you do as you would do if you were single. When your wife questions it you explain what you were thinking. That should be enough. After all, you were not trying to hurt her.

A second approach is to try very hard to avoid offending your wife. You walk on egg shells because you never know exactly what will offend. You have some patterns of behavior that seem to work well but you are often surprised at the things that do cause problems.

A third way to do it is to get inside the mind of you wife as much as you can. You start to know how she thinks. Almost like you are becoming one flesh. Then you start to know when you have to be really careful and when you can do as you want because you know how she is going to react. Sure there are still times you get it all wrong but those times get fewer and fewer. When it does happen you talk and learn even more about each other.

The way we approach God can be similar. The married single is like the Christian atheist. Someone who become Christian but basically makes choices the way they would if they were not. They assume God thinks like they think. Since they are not trying to offend God they assume He will forgive any missteps they make.

People like this tend not to believe in hell but you wonder if they will notice when they are wrong.  They have such a small view of God it might just be compatible with hell. They certainly have shown no appetite for being close to the real God. The fountain of all holiness. The one who's ways are so much higher than ours.

The other extreme is the conservative Christian. They are so afraid of offending God they are afraid to have any fun. Long standing patterns of behavior are deemed safe but they prefer not to take risks. When things go bad they are often questioning how they offended God. They can only guess.

These people make me sad because the seem to sincerely want to please God. They are willing to sacrifice many personal pleasures to do it. They just don't know how. Their faith gives them guilt rather than power. They get no joy or life from their religion. They know that is not what should be but the only alternative they see is the functional atheism of liberal Christians. They are sure that isn't right either. So on they go. Many will persevere and be saved but it is a hard way to live.

Then there is the one flesh group. Do they have to be Catholic. It sure helps. Catholics are supposed to learn to think with the church. Some protestants might do that even though it is not really consistent with protestantism. But Catholics can grab the fullness of truth with great confidence. They can become one in flesh with Jesus because they become part of the body of Christ. That is the visible church. They are sacramentally joined to Him.

The one flesh method is more work but in the end if both parties are willing to put in the effort there is no comparing the results. Oddly enough, many Christians think it is God who has failed to communicate well in the relationship. They have questions on issues on which Christians differ. They get stuck. But God always holds up his end of the covenant. He does still speak clearly or infallibly. Learning to listen is not easy. Relationships are always harder than you think they should be. But just like with marriage, body language is important. If you look carefully at the body of Christ, that is the church, discerning the heart of Christ becomes way easier.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Temptation and Eucharist

One of my favorite verses as a protestant was 1 Cor 10:13:
No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.
Now as I contemplated it more and more it became clear to me that the second part was vitally important. Look for the way out of temptation. Don't just assume that God will protect you. Often the way out came in the form of community. Someone who was struggling with the same temptation and could provide some wisdom. But one thing I never did as a protestant was check out the context. Lets see what follows this verse in 1 Cor 10.
Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.
So what does that way out of temptation look like? It might involve fleeing. There is a lot to be said for fleeing as a way to deal with temptation. Sometimes we can get so caught in stinking thinking we forget simple answers like that.

But what else does it say? The next way out it suggests is the Eucharist. Paul sees the connection as so natural and obvious he does not even provide a segue. We can participate in the body and blood of Christ. What else would provide us a way out of temptation? Of course it makes sense that this context was never highlighted as a protestant because if the Eucharist is only a symbol then Paul's connecting it with temptations is quite strange. So you assume he just abruptly switched topics. But then what is next:
Consider the people of Israel: Do not those who eat the sacrifices participate in the altar? Do I mean then that a sacrifice offered to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons. Are we trying to arouse the Lord’s jealousy? Are we stronger than he?
Now as a Catholic this is still very natural. Paul is talking about ways out of temptation. So he mentions the Eucharist. He also mentions sacrifice. We believe as Catholics in making penitential sacrifices to break the power of temptation in our lives. We also believe in the Eucharist as a sacrifice. So everything fits. But a protestant needs to believe Paul has made yet another change of topic. He can't mean the Eucharist is a sacrifice on an altar even though he draws an explicit parallel between the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons and the table of the Lord and the table of demons.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Fear and Religion

Talking with atheists you can feel a different mindset. They will tell you what they see as the difference. They are smarter or at least more effectively using their intelligence. Religious people are stupid, they use that word a lot, either because they don't have much of an intellect or because they refuse to use it. That is what they see as really sad. When religion prevents people from using their intellect for fear of offending God.

That lack of fear of offending God is what strikes me about them too. The bible says the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. They don't have it. We should not be surprised. Liberal Christianity has been declaring the fear of the Lord to be evil for some time now. Catholic tradition has seen it as one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit but many modern Catholic and protestant teachers have seen the fear of the Lord as something paralyzing. Something we don't want to instill in kids. They have succeeded. They have raised many children that lack a fear of the Lord.

So what happens? Do people that do not fear God become totally rational? Not exactly. They still have fears. The question is what are they afraid of. Consider Luke 12:4-7:
 “I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.
Jesus here does not describe the options as fear or no fear. He describes the options as fearing what we should fear or fearing something less. That is where it goes. We don't lose all fear. We start to fear lesser things. We fear looking stupid. We fear missing out on the superficial pleasures of life. We can become filled with many fears when we lose the one fear we should have and that is the fear of offending God. The fear of sin and the fear of hell.

I find it interesting that Jesus follows up with a word on self esteem and then the command "Do not be afraid." These are the two objections we have to suggestions we should instill the fear of the Lord in people. One is that it is bad for their self image. Such a negative concept is bad for someone's psyche. There is a Freudian overtone here as well. Often the fears are around sexual sins. Doesn't that end up being an unhealthy repression of sexual desires? But Jesus connects his endorsement of fear directly with an assurance of the love of God. Perfect love casts out fear. Not all fears. Love isn't going to cast out a fear of getting cancer. But the fear of offending God can be dealt with precisely because we know God loves us. This is why it makes sense for scripture to tells us not to be afraid. Most fears we have are rooted in a lack of trust in God. Will God provide? Will God forgive? Will God protect? We don't need to fear those things. What we need to fear is evil and our tendency to embrace it. But He who is in us is stronger than he who is in the world. That is what prevents the fear from becoming paralyzing.

So why do atheists and liberal Christians see so much paralyzing fear of God? Their perception is certainly worse than the reality. But there are Christians who do have a paralyzing fear of God. Why does that happen? A lot of it has to do with not trusting the Church. People fear that allowing themselves to think will lead them to become liberal. Mostly they are protestants fundamentalists who have decided they will not question the fundamentals of the faith. So reason shuts down. I can understand that. If it is up to me to defend my biblical faith then I am not going to want to expose that faith to unchristian people who might have stronger intellects and/or stronger debating skills. Pearls before swine and all.

But life changes when you see your church as the true church of Christ. Let them take their best shot. Everyone else does. The church cannot be destroyed. It will stand up to the best and even the worst attacks unbelievers or separated brethren throw at it. So let us reason together. I not only trust God but trust God's ability to instill His wisdom in my mind through His church. There will be an answer. It will not be one contrary to reason. It will not get lost in the mass of theological opinion that makes up protestant Christianity. Through the church, the manifold wisdom of God will be made known (Eph 3:10).