Friday, September 28, 2012

Peace on Earth

Jesus can you take the time
To throw a drowning man a line
Peace on Earth
To tell the ones who hear no sound
Whose sons are living in the ground
Peace on Earth

Jesus this song you wrote
The words are sticking in my throat
Peace on Earth
Hear it every Christmas time
But hope and history won't rhyme
So what's it worth?
This peace on Earth

Bono has always had an interesting relationship with religion. He talks about it quite a bit in his songs. He shows a concern for the poor. The picture shows him meeting with John Paul II about third world debt relief and sun glasses. Just listen to this song I was struck by how well he captures the two main objections to believing in God.  The first is the problem of evil. How can we proclaim peace on earth when war remain a reality?

Part of the answer is understanding what Jesus really said. Look at John 16:33
I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.
Sometimes when Christians evangelize they miss the bit about having trouble in this world. So someone who only tunes in once in a while, maybe at Christmas, can get the idea that Christians just look the other way when suffering happens. We do and we don't. We don't deny the reality but we also look at a deeper reality. The trouble is real but the fact that Jesus has overcome the world is real too. Jesus' victory is spiritual and can only be seen with the eyes of faith. We don't claim that death and pain and evil are not part of our real world. We experience those as much as anyone.

So what is it worth? This victory that we can only see with the eyes of faith? The full, visible victory will come. We know it because we trust God's word. We have seen some things. Lives transformed. Poor people fed. Wars ended. It is not purely spiritual. You just cannot prove the hand of God is involved. We see it but a faithless person will not.

Then  there is the other issue. It cuts deeper in some ways. In the first two lines of the song, who is the drowning man? You might say it is the ones whose sons have died in war. But in some way I think Bono is thinking of himself as the drowning man. He is trying to believe. He just needs a little help. If God is real then why doesn't he get that help? Why is believing in God so hard? Why does it remain hard even when people seem to be making a sincere effort? We are talking about someone's eternal soul. Can't God do something to push them into faith? He appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus. Why doesn't He do that with my loved one or with a guy like Bono who seems open to it?

It comes down to the nature of love. Love can't be easy. It has to be a choice. It has to deal with good times and bad, with sickness and health, etc. It even has to deal with times that your beloved is doing things that you don't really understand. When you go through those times your love either gets stronger or it proves to be an illusion. You might think getting some sort of miracle or vision when you feel you need it would be a great blessing. A greater blessing can be to not get it and and finding out you don't need it.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Measuring Morality

Are Christian people or moral people supposed to be happier? On some level you would think so. Morality is just living in harmony with the way God meant us to be. That is going to be easier than living in contradiction to it. But that ease is going to be at a deep level. It might be hard to measure. People spending their time in promiscuity and drunkenness are likely to seem happier. They are doing things to pursue short term pleasure and unless they are in a moment of self reflection they are likely to say they are happy. You might look at suicides or cases of depression or some other mental illness. But churches often attract a disproportionate number of people on the edge of mental illness. It is very a hard thing to study.

God tends to mess things up even more. When we get some principle right. When we achieve a certain level of spiritual growth. God does not just leave us in a state of joy. He takes us to the next challenge. Often that involves some suffering. Sometimes that suffering is quite intense. But that skews our results. So often you hear testimonies where people were living in sin and doing fairly well for a long time. Then they become Christian and a whole series of bad things happen to them. They are still happy they converted. They are experiencing a deeper joy and peace about life. They just have less superficial happiness. But if someone does a study they are going to show up as a Christian whose faith didn't produce measurable happiness.

In some way, if morality produces predictable happiness then it ceases to be morality. People living by the pain and pleasure principle will do it because it now meets that criteria. They might think they are more moral but that are not really. They are just smarter hedonists. True morality requires trusting some moral wisdom that not everyone is going to accept. An old song comes to mind:

But we never can prove,
The results of His love,
Until all on the altar we lay,
For the favor He shows,
And the joy He bestows,
Are for those who will trust and obey

That is at the root of it. We don't want to trust God and obey God. We want proof first. But asking for proof is the opposite of trust. Obeying only when you are convinced by other evidence is no obedience at all. So where is the proof? In the transformation of our own hearts. When we cooperate with God's grace and are made holy by God we become assured of God's existence and of our own salvation. There is the potential that others will see it to. Scientists are trained not to draw sweeping conclusions from a small data set. It is hard for modern man to break those rules. Still when people sense that someone they know is close to God they are drawn to them. Like God constructs a personal proof for every person. They fact that it is unlikely to be convincing to anybody else will make it hard. It will make it faith.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Abortion And Woman's Rights

I was reading a pro-choice post by Libby Anne. She thinks abortion is really about controlling women. That is not surprising. She is a radical feminist and thinks a lot of things are about controlling women. But her post makes a few points well. One is that a rape exception completely distorts the pro-life message:
A reader offered the following in a comment on a recent post on abortion:
“What I had really wanted to say is that, except in the case of a rape, the pregnancy had to have resulted from a voluntary decision on the part of the woman, and therefore she should take responsibility for it, and carry the baby to term.”
I’ve been encountering this argument with growing frequency, and it really bothers me. Just last week my awesome husband helped me understand why. Put simply, this argument lays bare the misogyny of the anti-abortion movement, and makes opposition to abortion a blatant attempt to control women. Let me explain.
As I see it, there are two main reasons people oppose abortion:
  • First is the argument that the zygote/fetus is a person with rights. I call this the “save the babies” argument. It is passively anti-woman in that it almost always involves erasing women from the equation and ignoring women’s right to control their own bodies.
  • Second is the argument that women shouldn’t have sex unless they’re willing to be mothers. I call this the “slut shaming” argument. It is actively anti-woman in that it involves shaming women for having had sex and seeking to impose a measure of social control on women.
Now the first argument is the only argument that matters. If the fetus is a person then all the pro-abortion rhetoric collapses. None of their arguments make any sense. Even the second sentence:
It is passively anti-woman in that it almost always involves erasing women from the equation and ignoring women’s right to control their own bodies.
That is just obscenely immoral. Only the most radical pro-abortion zealot could write such a thing. That even conceding that a fetus is a person with rights that we should not think about that person at all lest we be passively anti-woman. I doubt Libby Anne thought much about that sentence. She is just not the type to concede any point to the pro-life position.
In the last several decades pro-lifers have been distancing themselves more and more from this second reason and focusing on the first. But the second reason has not disappeared. Growing up in pro-life circles, I thought it was “save the babies” all the way. And I have to admit, I was taken in. I honestly thought abortion was about saving babies, not about controlling women. And I’m not the only one so taken in. As long as they focus on the “save the babies” argument, pro-lifers can claim that they aren’t being anti-woman (even if, by erasing women from the picture, they actually are). But when they start using the “slut shaming” argument, they don’t have any such excuse.
Notice the logic here. She was previously pro-life. She thought the fetus is a human with rights. She became pro-abortion. Now she does not think it is human. So what changed? Did human reproduction change? Did the definition of what is human change? Her politics changed. It became politically inconvenient to say the fetus is human so you simply start saying it is not. The trouble is the truth of the matter does not change with your politics. What was a human when you wanted it to be is still a human when you don't want it to be.
And that, quite simply, is the problem with the comment I quoted above.
If abortion is murder, the argument that women need to “take responsibility” for the “voluntary decision” to have sex by carrying the pregnancy to term is irrelevant. It should not matter. If it’s just about “saving babies,” then abortion is wrong because it’s murder, not because it’s a woman failing to “take responsibility” for having had sex.
You see how having a rape exception shifts the focus away from the child? If you want to win abortion debates you need to keep the child front and center. How the child came to be does not matter. What matters is the child is.

Will a pro-life society require more responsible sexual choices? Sure. Both men and women will need to take sex more seriously. But that is beside the point. Abortion does make some things easier. So what? It involves the killing of an innocent human being. What more do we need to know?
Women should not have to risk becoming a mother every time they have sex. To quote from a reader once again:
Women can’t live without sex during all periods of their lives in which they aren’t able to care for a child (they should be extremely careful with contraception during these times but accidents do happen).
Women need to “take responsibility” for what, exactly? Since birth control sometimes fails and I doubt this argument includes exceptions for birth control failure, I have to conclude that the argument is that when a woman chooses “voluntarily” to have sex she must “take responsibility” if a pregnancy results. In other words, if a woman chooses to be sexually active, well, she is assenting to motherhood. This used to be true, and was one reason women could not reach parity with men – they faced constant childbearing, with all of the difficulty, invasiveness, and risk it involved. But this isn’t true anymore, and those who want it to be true, whether they realize it or not, are hearkening back to a time when women “stayed in their places.”
And before someone says that women can just abstain from sex if they don’t want to become pregnant, let me point out two things:  a) in the case of premarital sex, this is a free country and you are not allowed to impose your personal views on another and b) in the case of marital sex, remaining celibate is silly, since sex is important to maintaining a healthy marriage (Getting married should not mean becoming a constant baby machine. I’m in my twenties, married, and the other of two children. My husband and I don’t want more at this point in time, or perhaps ever. Should we then be celibate until I reach menopause?).
Unless we women can control when and if to have children, we cannot reach equality. Being able to control our reproduction is, in my opinion, one of the most important advances in women’s rights in the twentieth century. And damned if I’m giving that up.
So many people want to condemn abortion and embrace contraception. But the separation is not natural. Someone who does not have a stake in keeping them separate typically sees them working together. If you want to have sex and not have babies then you need both. Accidents do happen. Of course the "constant baby machine" talk is a little silly. It might even be a bit anti-woman. There is NFP. But the reality is men and women should embrace the chance of becoming a father and mother every time they have sex. The chance may be small but the possibility of raising another child together should not only be accepted but cherished. That is what we say with our bodies when we engage in the act of sex.

There is a deeper problem with this. That is that gender equality should not depend on biotechnology. The equal dignity of men and women is something that exists in people's hearts and minds. Once that is there we can approach the differences between men and women with justice and prudence. Technology might have a role in the second part of that but it has no role in the first. To say women need contraception and abortion to have equality means we don't have quality in hearts and minds. It just means the inequality does not get manifest because the technology makes the issue go away.

So if technology goes back 100 years would we expect woman's rights to go back 100 years? Catholicism does not suggest that but hypothetically, if it happened would you expect women to lose the vote and to start being denied certain jobs and for wife beating to be legalized again and so on? If so, then the gains in equal rights for women are pretty shallow. We have not really changed people's thinking. I don't think that is true. I think we have changed people's thinking. That change will not go anywhere if we decide to reject abortion and contraception. The idea is not to turn back the clock. The idea is to keep and develop the good parts of classical feminism and discard the bad parts.

Woman's rights that exist only under the condition that women control their reproduction without denying men sex, that is not equality. Equality means equal dignity regardless. It means respecting a woman's fertility and not expecting her to make it go away. If you lose equality when you face the reality that a fetus is human then you never had it in the first place.

German Church

I wrote about a year ago how Pope Benedict's suggestion that the German church levy should end was making a lot of German clergy upset. If the government listened to him the church would lose $6.3 billion a year and be forced to change radically. There is an update to the story. The German bishops have decided those who don't pay the tax can't receive the sacraments. That is using their power to preserve the status quo in an area that the pope has suggested radical change might be needed. Bishops need to be very careful about using the power to refuse sacraments. Taking this position only after the church levy is challenged and only after the pope's comments seems quite strange. It is a fight they will likely lose. A secular state such as Germany is not going to keep handing the Catholic Church billions every year. Rather than preparing for the change they take this stand that ties money and spiritual goods together quite directly. Seems like they could dust off some of Tetzel's old slogans, "No sooner do the coins clink in the money chest ..." Maybe that is not fair but there is a huge danger this could be misunderstood.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Sex Changes And True Happiness

Someone called Aurora commented on my post about a Christian woman's story where she supported her husband's decision to get a sex change.
This post makes me very sad. I wouldn't say that if you hadn't posted a link to it on Melissa's blog, not only because I wouldn't have read it, but because this is your space and it would feel sort of rude to come over here and argue with your most core and sacred beliefs without at least reading a lot more of what you have written. But you did post the link, and that suggests you're open to a conversation with people who don't come anywhere close to agreeing with you, so: this post makes me very sad.
You are absolutely welcome to comment. I love to get reaction from anyone and everyone. That is why comments are open on all my posts. I actually like comments from those who disagree more, if they are serious and polite. So yes, I am glad you commented.
It is just so sad to think of people choosing to see the world as you do, of choosing to treat one's potential for happiness and wholeness and love as a burden. Of course one must live with what cannot be changed and make as good a life as possible with that suffering. 
You need to back up a bit. I would never suggest someone not pursue "happiness and wholeness and love." The question is how do we do that. We need to know what wholeness looks like. We need to know what love looks like. If we get that wrong and pursue a false image of happiness and wholeness and love then we have problems.

I even find the phrase "people choosing to see the world" strange. I don't decide how I want to see the world. I try and discern what is true. We can't manufacture truth. We can only respond to it. We can embrace it or we can fight it. We can't change it.

Of course that suffering can, at times, have good effects. That does not mean that any bad or hard thing must be bourn when it is possible to change it without harming anyone. Melissa and Haley have harmed no one (yes, their families of origin have felt pain around it, but that is primarily because of their choices about what to believe, not because of anything inherent to what their children have done). 
You are making a lot of assumptions here. One is that harm consists of short term pain. That if the total pain and pleasure of all involved goes in the right direction then good must have been done. That is only true if there are no higher goods than pleasure and no real evils other than pain. I just don't agree with that.

I would even suggest that the families of origin might not have suffered harm precisely because they did feel pain.When some people suffer pain and others don't in response to some sort of stimulus then somebody's reaction is off. There is either a false positive or a false negative. You seem to imply that because being pain-free is good that the one who does not feel pain is right. That does not follow. You need to figure out the truth of the matter first. That is harder because even your own conscience is not infallible.
They have worked carefully and thoughtfully to come to beliefs and lives that do not do them unnecessary harm. The beliefs they grew up with did them harm. Your beliefs, if they shared them, would do them harm by denying them the opportunity to seek happiness. I know you believe that harm is necessary. I'm reluctant to argue with you about that, because I know you believe there are factors involved which simply don't exist in my mind. 
Catholicism would not deny them the opportunity to seek happiness. It would say that you don't seek happiness by fighting God. That our sexual desires can lead us astray sometimes. We are rational and we can choose the higher good. Ultimately the higher good will lead us to true happiness. You seem to say those higher goods simply don't exist. Does that mean that sex becomes the be all and end all? This story seems to say that. That when your hormones tell you something will make you happy then all rational analysis must stop. You must reorder your entire life around your sexuality because it alone can lead you to true happiness.

That seems to be the way they did things. When they analyzed the teachings of various religions they seemed to use their sexuality as the plumb line against which all truth claims should be measured. It was more of a subconscious thing. They didn't state their dogma about the supremacy of sex and then ask themselves if they really believe it. They just kind of fell into this way of thinking. By rejecting God as #1 something else just slipped into the #1 spot in their hearts.
I don't think either of us is likely to convince the other and I accept that. However, the main point I got from your post is that you think Melissa and Haley are good and thoughtful people who have made mistakes and that, though you hope they'll change, those mistakes, and thus the very basis of their current lives and identities are sad and tragic.
There is a sadness about where they ended up. I was not totally happy about where they came from either. They were buying into some poor teaching. That was sad too. I read a lot of conversion stories about people becoming Catholic or becoming Christian and their lives become much more joyful and fulfilling. They encourage me in my faith. The question comes, "What do you do with the stories of people who convert the other way?" Well, they encourage me in my faith too but in a different way. This story shows me that pursuing sexual happiness first and spiritual happiness second leads to neither.
I just want to say that that sadness doesn't go only one way. A lot of us who are agnostics and atheists see sentiments like yours and are ourselves very sad for the people who believe them and make their choices based on these beliefs. Not necessarily for you individually, that would feel presumptuous to me, but for people like Melissa and Haley would have been had they chosen your beliefs.
It is sad to see someone give up something major in pursuit of a higher truth and end up in a bigger lie. It is also sad to see someone refuse to give up something and not even try for the higher good. If a man gains the whole world and loses his soul it is a sad story indeed. But atheism and agnosticism do not avoid this problem. They avoid one error but make the other much more likely. It is like saying that romantic relationships can be very sad and therefore I won't get involved in one. But missing out on a good romantic relationships is also sad. Atheists and agnostics are like a woman who is sure every man is going to be abusive and all their talk of love is a lie. You can't prove her wrong. But you know someone who will truly love her if she gives Him half a chance.
I would also like to point out that Melissa's last post was mostly about one particular "issue[] with depression:" that for her at least, it seems to be a burden she cannot completely banish, whether through prayer or through medicine, but that by finally accepting that there are tools to deal with it besides prayer, hope, will-power, and self-reproach, she as been able to make depression a much more manageable and less all-encompassing aspect of her life. For that, I applaud her. 
I agree with you here. Telling someone who suffers from depression that she should not use medication and should not seek professional help is really bad theology. So I was glad to see her rid herself of that belief.

This is the reason I became Catholic. It is because truth is important. Just accepting the version of Christianity you were raised in is dangerous. You need to discard all the forgeries and embrace the true Christian faith. We need to use our reason and not just accept things on faith alone. Reason purifies faith. Faith purifies reason.
You say "the road they are on is not easy," and that's true; most people's roads are not easy. But just as Melissa has taken action to make depression a smaller burden for her, Haley has taken action to make her relationship to gender and to her body less of a burden for her, and I also applaud her for that.
Again you fail to draw the obvious distinction. When our bodies don't function the way they should we can fix them. That is legitimate medicine. But who can say that a man's body should be a woman's body? That is something we don't decide. It is decided for us. But is the process that determines that higher than the human mind or lower than the human mind? If it is lower then we can question everything. Why respect human life if it is a product of a lesser intelligence? What would be so wrong with ethnic cleansing? If the process that gave us an ethnic group is suspect and human decision making is more trustworthy then why not simply kill off an ethnic group that seems inferior or undesirable?

Everything is connected to how we view the human person. If we act like who we are is just a collection of organs and chemicals that can be manipulated in whatever way we want for whatever reason we want then we end up losing the basis for respecting the human person as sacred. If the creator is mistake-prone then we really lose track of who we are.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Science And Sentimentalism

Someone linked a paper in a discussion about divorce laws. It was part of a larger discussion on the role of science in moral debates. The paper is a good example of the way science is often used. The study in question looks at the effect of divorce on marriages that end in homicide or suicide and those that involve violence. Those are the only marriages they look at. Guess what? It makes divorce look like a good thing. 

But why look at only those marriages? You can assume someone is designing the study to get the answer they want. That might be the case. It is also possible that the error is more innocent. They might automatically think of these hard cases when they think about divorce law. These cases that involve violence and death are the most emotional. If you think about the issue of divorce in a sentimental way you are going to focus on these cases. 

Sentimentalism is an error in moral philosophy. It resolves moral questions by determining which side has the more emotionally compelling story. It is a common error. What happens here is the error in philosophy gets embedded into the design of the experiment. So we get a scientific result that seems to show that easier divorce laws are a good thing. That gives it credibility. People treat science as infallible at least until the next study comes along.

So why don't we design experiments based on sound moral philosophy? It is not that easy. Virtues are notoriously hard to measure. Science needs to reduce things. It needs to narrow the question down until you can produce a single variable. Morality involves irreducible things, like the sacredness of the marriage covenant. How do you measure that? If divorce is more common and more convenient then marriage will be perceived as less sacred. Fewer couples will grasp the mystery of married love, of what man is meant to be for woman and woman is meant to be for man. But what is meant to be is not something science can investigate.

Will some couples undergo more pain if divorces are harder to get? Sure. But minimizing pain is not the greatest goal in life. Some things are worth suffering for, even worth dying for. Sentimentalism does not see that. The sob story trumps everything. Science is well suited to documenting the precise source of the pain. The great goods in life remain unscientific. So it makes sentimentalism that much more credible.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

One Woman Deals With Sexual Disorders

I read a series of posts called Unwrapping The Onion. It is actually a conversion story of a different sort. A woman starts out Christian but then ends up atheist. I always say I love conversion stories. I actually liked this one too. She goes the wrong way in some respects but she is actually trying to discern important truths about herself and the world. I pray she keeps discerning and arrives at the fullness of truth.

The story starts out great. Her and her husband are conservative evangelical Christians. He is a pastor. They are exploring becoming Catholic. They already believe contraception is immoral. What could go wrong? Well, her husband becomes convinced he is really a woman. She had had some degree of same-sex attraction. So after much research and reflection he gets surgically altered to look like a woman. They present themselves as a same-sex couple.

So where do things go wrong? A lot of the issues come down to the bad theology of the evangelical church she was raised in. Certainly their teaching on homosexuality other gender issues was poor. They condemned same-sex attractions as evil in themselves. They had a lot of strange theories about how such desires came to be but they all had one thing in common. They were evil.

As bad as that was there was a deeper error. That is a bad theology of suffering. She was able to learn the Catholic teaching on homosexuality. That sounded better to her. But she still had the notion that God should heal what is disordered in you and deliver you from suffering. Sometimes God does that but not all the time. Often God wants you to live with a disorder and endure your suffering well. Like St Paul's thorn in the flesh. He wants it removed but God just said, "My grace is sufficient." It seems like the tradition she and her husband were raised in did not believe that.

So at a practical level they were doing the right thing but expecting that over time the disordered desires would go away. When they didn't they wondered whether those desires were disordered at all. That led them to wonder whether God existed. I mean if He really got their sexuality all wrong then how do you make sense of that?

But why should disorders go away? If someone is blind does that mean they should have their sight restored in time? It is a bit like the Why Won't God Heal Amputees website. The idea that good people should not have to endure hard suffering for a long time, at least not for the rest of their life. This is not just bad theology. It contradicts much human experience. The best counter-example to this is Jesus Christ Himself. He is the ultimate good man who suffered terribly. Now theologically you can argue He is a special case but there are many, many examples of good people suffering big time for a long time and for no obvious reason. The answer Catholicism gives is radical. Suffering, when it is done well, can have meaning in its own right. It can be united with the suffering of Christ and become powerfully redemptive.

I think grasping this would have at least given them another option to consider. Maybe God has given these desires to us as a cross we must carry. Part of that cross is that some methods of reducing the suffering are available but are not morally permissible. What makes it harder is you might not fully understand why it is immoral. Some of this might get better over time. Your husband might learn to express his feminine impulses within the church's moral framework. Certainly your understanding of the church's teaching on sex and gender matters can improve and deepen over time. But the hard part is the desires very likely will not go away. There is always the chance of a miracle but it seems far more likely that you will just have to walk with this for the rest of your days.

The good news is that God promises to give you the strength to carry any cross He gives you. You look at some of the really hard crosses people have. I mentioned physical disabilities. There are mental disabilities. There are sexual disorders like pedophilia. Some people are born into countries where there is war or famine. Some Christians are jailed or even tortured and killed for their faith. Then you can have any number of these things happen to your family and friends. Life can get pretty hard. Where does your cross rate? Does it seem like the hardest one to you? Maybe that is why it is yours. Trust God. Suffer well. Be not afraid. Know that He is with you through it all.

I am not saying she would not have chosen atheism (I assume she self-identifies as an atheist now because she is on the Patheos Atheist Channel). I pray that they will eventually choose the hard Catholic road. They have made it more difficult by having surgery but it is never to late to repent. The road they are on is not easy either. Her last post is about more issues with depression. I think they have 4 kids. You pray that they are able to find a place of peace with God and with themselves at the same time. I have no idea how I would have done with the challenges they face. Lord have mercy on them.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Rob Bell And Hypocrisy

We had one of those accidental theme days Sunday. The homily was about faith and works and their relationship. Then we watched a Rob Bell video on hypocrisy. He talks about passages like this one:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.  Mat 23:27,28
There are actually quite a few verses like that in the gospels where Jesus very strongly condemns the religious leaders of his day.

So we got our fill of people doing good works and not being holy. It is a bit depressing. People try very hard to be holy and they fail. They fall in love with the concept of holiness but they miss actual holiness. They do all the things that make men think of them as holy but not the things that make God think of them as holy.

Rob Bell uses these passages in a typical way. The Pharisees? They are other religious leaders. Guys I don't like. Me? I am like Jesus. I am the truly holy one that calls out those bad leaders. I know what God really cares about.

You see these passages used this way a lot. Protestants use them against Catholics. Calvinists use them against Pentecostals. Liberals use them against conservatives. Everyone can think of someone else who is just playing church and does not really have an authentic relationship with Jesus.It is ironic because one of the things Jesus criticizes them for is looking down on other believers.

But what about us? How can we avoid this trap of becoming beautiful on the outside and dead on the inside? Many times we do things over and over again. They are part of our routine. But do we really connect with God through these things? Things we do over and over are never going to give us a big spiritual high every time. So does that mean we should stop doing them? That is not that practical. Even if we searched for a higher high every week that would put even more emphasis on the thing we were getting the high from and not God Himself.

You need to remember that the things are not typically bad. Going to mass. Saying a rosary. Speaking in tongues. Whatever it is the act is often not a bad thing. It is just not something that can save you on its own. So the solution is not to stop doing the good thing. It is to do it better. Scott Hahn said, "Some say we pray the Our Father too much. I say we contemplate it too little."

When we contemplate things we need to remember that we are simple beggars before God. Spiritual pride is at the root of much of this. We think we have arrived because we do a bit more praying then the next man. That is not what we believe. We confess we are saved by grace alone. But we forget that. So we should deliberately try and internalize that truth.

The other safeguard against this is to avoid too many purely spiritual ministries and do more people ministries. This is often overstated. Rob Bell talks about doing the things God really cares about. He means helping the poor and suffering. But we can't do that in the way God wants any more than we can pray in the way God wants. Still there is something about real people and real problems that can keep us grounded. Pride is a lie. We are not really better than other people. Interacting with other people makes it harder to believe that lie.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Sustainable Religion

The Hipster Conservative has an article on sustainable religion. He starts with an intersting point:
Religious belief sustains society by causing a person to act more virtuously than he needs to in order to placate society at large, since he compares his behavior to a standard which exceeds the morality of society.
If we get our moral standard from society we are unlikely to ever behave better than society. But society is just the average of all of us. So if nobody actually behaves better than the average then the average is going to go down over time. We will all try and be as good as the next man. We will all be about 90% successful. But it will add up to a steady decline in morality. It is not sustainable.  It leads to anarchy.

This does not mean religion is true. It just means that if it isn't we are in a real quandary. We can try and push a religion that is not true. That is hardly sustainable. We can try and find transcendent moral principles outside religion complete with strong motivations for following such principles. But that is just manufacturing a religion. Essentially it means that as a society we are in trouble. We are in a moral death spiral. We need a savior.

He then turns to the question of whether evangelicalism is sustainable. Whether it can pass the faith on to new generations without declining each time. He sees a big problem there too. He sees the issue as a degrading of doctrine. Traditional and biblical Christianity has been replaced by Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.This is just secularism with religious language but research shows it is what many church-going young actually people believe.

Then he looks at fundamentalists. They have maintained doctrinal purity but at the expense of much division and  a lot of debates over small matters of doctrine. He does not see them as sustainable either.

So who does he see as sustainable? Coptic Christian immigrants in Australia. He saw them as maintaining both unity and doctrinal integrity even among their youth. Something no protestant group was able to do. He is a bit confused as to why such a group might succeed where others have failed. He identifies a few things. Tradition is one. He does not mention liturgy and sacraments. I would put them pretty high.

He seems to be suggesting that evangelicals steal a few ideas from the Coptics. That they are authentic in a way most churches today miss.
Young people are perhaps always preoccupied with authenticity, perceiving a general lack of it in themselves and in society. An authentic and true connection to Jesus Christ, then, should be the number one priority of those involved in youth ministry. And I don’t think this means having more altar calls, Switchfoot concerts, or endless guilt trips about frequency of personal devotions. I believe we need to teach children, teenagers, and young adults how to eat Christ as part of a worshipping Body. This can be accomplished with or without a praise band, cool graphics, or edgy haircuts. These things are mistaken for relevance, but to the main issue they are completely irrelevant. The Body of Christ is the central and eternally relevant element of a sustainable Christian religion, because by this He himself sustains the church.
So the most important thing is for the church to be the Body of Christ. But that is not something we can be on demand.  It is something we are by grace. So we should not look to manufacture relevance. We should think about what being the Body of Christ really means. Maybe ask the Coptic Christians. They would talk about apostolic succession and sacred tradition and the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The kinds of things that evangelicals can't just incorporate into their programs. These are things that require letting your whole idea of church die and embracing a visible church that is the Body of Christ. That is the true sustainable religion. All the houses built on sand will fall. The one built on the rock will survive.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Abortion and the Election

George Weigel says the pro-life cause is at stake:
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is 79. Justices Antonin Scalia and Anthony Kennedy are 76. Justice Stephen Breyer is 74. The president elected in November will likely appoint two Supreme Court justices, and may appoint as many as four, over the next quadrennium. If that next president replaces Justices Ginsburg, Breyer and Kennedy with nominees who think that Roe v. Wade (1973) and Casey v. Planned Parenthood (1992) were wrongly decided, there could conceivably be a 7-2 Court majority to overturn (or, in effect, gut) those dreadful decisions and return the abortion debate (and related life-issues questions like euthanasia) to the states. There, the pro-life cause would win some states (likely the majority) and lose some others. With national opinion polls showing a pro-life majority for the first time in a long time, however, the conditions would be right for legally advancing the cause in a dramatic way.
There are two big assumptions here. One is that these judges won't serve into their late 70's and early 80's. I don't think it is particularly likely. Judges often try to time their retirement so their replacement is picked by a like-minded administration. So if a liberal judge was thinking it was time to retire they would have done it before the election so Obama would fill their spot. The fact that they did not means they don't feel that close to retirement. Sure a decline in health could change that but it would surprise nobody if all 4 were still on the bench in 4 years time.

The other assumption he makes is that Romney would appoint pro-life judges. I don't think that is a given at all. Republican administrations have appointed pro-abortion judges in the past. Why wouldn't Romney do it? Think about his convictions and think about the politics. His pro-life convictions are, at best, wishy-washy. Pro-lifers have always been concerned about that. They have good reasons for concern. He is not the passionate and principled pro-lifer that George W Bush was. He is more like Bush Sr in terms of his principles. This his principles are sometimes ignored.

Then you have the politics. Romney loves to appeal to moderates. Would he fight to get a pro-life judge confirmed? He would have to twist some arms and call in some favors. Would he do that over this issue? How concerned would he be that pro-life people would abandon him in the next election? They are partisans. They would be upset but he could do something to get them back onside.

I don't even know that stacking a court with a certain type of judge is a good idea. There are better ways to approach it. One is to change the dominant legal thinking on the issue. Most legal scholars think abortion belongs as an intrinsic human right. So if you are looking for a pro-life judge you are immediately eliminating the vast majority of the most respected legal minds in the country. As long as that is the case it will be very hard to get a pro-life majority on the court. But can that change? Why not? It takes arguments. So we need to make those arguments.

The other way the constitution allows is through an amendment. That is the normal way to fix a supreme court decision that is wrong. Turning every judicial appointment into a political fight over that issue is not healthy for the country. The amendment process is hard but it seems to me the more proper way to change the court's behavior on one question. I think this was tried many years ago. Not sure if it is still out there.

What it would require is getting enough a significant number of Democrats to support it. They technically would not have to be pro-life. All that would be required is that they think the issue should be resolved by elected leaders and not by judges. Once the matter gets back to the state legislatures then those same Democrats could vote for a very permissive abortion law. Some political observers actually think putting the entire abortion question in the political domain might help the Democrats. Who knows? The only question would be whether the abortion law should be decided by an unelected court and imposed on the country. Is that the right process? Especially when their decision is extremely pro-abortion and the majority now identify as pro-life

Anyway, I think the chance for a true pro-life victory is already gone. Neither candidate will do much. Romney will be somewhat better. He will throw the pro-lifers a few bones. Obama might make things marginally worse but only around the margins. Regardless of who wins the reality of abortion on demand  won't change much.

So am I a pessimist? Not really. I do think the grass roots are moving in a pro-life direction. People are queasy about abortion. They want to be pro-life. Most don't vote on the issue yet. Then there are the bishops. They have been more vocal lately. That is huge. So there is reason to be optimistic. They just have nothing to do with this election.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Book Of Awesome

My son got this book from his teacher and we passed it around the campfire and read sections of it. Interesting stuff. There is a website of 1000 awesome things if you want to get a taste of what it is like. It is great to see beauty in little things. Neil Pasricha does a good job writing them up. Selling the awesomeness of small things. Eloquently describing the even small sub-things that together make up this thing. Awesome.

Small kids don't need to awesome book. Nobody needs to tell them that the chipmunk that sometimes runs across our campsite is awesome. They get so excited. The book is almost teaching us to be a kid again. For me it was often affirming the thoughts I have had about the awesomeness of small things. Not typically the same things Pasricha highlights but knowing other people have Wow moments is good.

Still when you get to hundreds and thousands of these it kind of leaves you wondering. Can we connect this with something bigger? Can we use our minds to tackle the big questions of life and not just settle for thinking about 1000 small things?

It reminds me of communist Russia. It was a country that excelled at producing great chess players and great mathematicians. Why? Because people were afraid. How do you use your intellect and not risk drifting into political thought? Even science is dangerous. It can have military connections. It can have health or environmental connections. One might feel obliged to fight the system. When fighting the system has such dire consequences you don't want to go down any path that might lead to such an obligation. So if you are brilliant but not brave you focus all your intelligence on chess and/or math. Pursuits that can challenge the best minds but have no danger of changing the world. Not changing the world means not offending anyone.

Our society has much of the same. We are terrified of religion. We don't want to think about morals or purpose. So we think endlessly about how awesome it is to dive into a pool on a hot day. Thoughts that are inoffensive but also not very powerful.

Christians will always attempt to tie little episodes of awesomeness to big truths about God. I learned that being raised a reformed Christian and it is very much part of Catholic thought as well. All these little pieces of awesomeness that fill our lives are glimpses the infinite beauty of God. They impact us more than they logically should because at some level we know that. We long for the ultimate in awesomeness but we fear it as well. It isn't safe. As our culture becomes more and more anti-Christian we are likely to see more great minds choose to be safe.

Monday, September 10, 2012

England, Constantine, Pagans, Etc.

Pope Gregory The Great Sends St Augustine To England 
I got a wide ranging comment from someone who calls themselves Hornblower. I decided to reply and made it its own post. 
Interesting - but.... Catholicism is the Johnny-come-lately in Christianity. The Popes are in reality figureheads supported by an intense series of myths, and it is only in understanding these myths that the complete error of Roman Catholicism becomes apparent.
Catholicism was started by Christ. That is the claim the Catholic church makes. If you are assuming they were started later you are begging the question. The question being whether they are who they claim to be.

Popes are not just figureheads. They have real power in the church. They appoint bishops. They define the official teaching. They canonize saints. A figurehead ruler is someone like Queen Elizabeth II who has no real power.
Note 1. Constantine's mother was the daughter of Brychan Brycheiniog (Brychan ap Brecon), the Christian king of one of the British kingdoms.
If this is true then what does it show?  Constantine was a Roman emperor. He had no official authority in the church. He was not even baptized until late in his life. Even if he was a pope, who his mother was would not matter much. The graces of leadership in the church are not conferred at birth based on who your parents are.
Point 1. Britain was Christian before Constantine, and hence before there was such a thing as a pope.
Note 2. King LLeirwg declared all Britain for Christ in 156 A.D.
Point 2. Britain had already been Christian a long time.
Note 3. The oldest known Christian construction is a beehive hermitage near Llan yr Angel Aber Cowyn. This dates from approximately 38 A.D.
Point 3. Christianity had a presence in Britain just after the Crucifixion.
I have seen evidence that Christianity was in parts of England before St Augustine of Canterbury arrived in the 6th century. He is traditionally credited with converting England but that is likely an exaggeration. Christianity had probably made it there before that. Still 38 AD is pretty early. Even 156 sounds too early.  Again, what do you think we believe about Constantine? There are no articles of faith about Constantine.
Note 4. Constantine was a pagan, who was converted by his mother. However, he refused to let go of most of the Roman pagan festivals and practices. Instead he incorporated them into his new ersatz form of "Christianity".
Christians during Constantine's time had  been living their faith illegally for centuries. They were quite used to defying Roman emperors. Why would they suddenly obey this one and let him redefine their faith? Not only that, guys like St Athanasius and St Augustine were not able to see this.

There are quite a few Christian writings from before Constantine. It is not like the church didn't exist before then. There was obviously the New Testament but even outside of that we have documents that show there was no major doctrinal shift at the time of Constantine. Sure the faith was legalized and that meant the church changed in some important ways but it did not deny its old teachings or make up new ones out of thin air.
Point 4. Roman Catholicism is predicated substantially on pagan rites and beliefs.
This is repeated over and over again. It just isn't true. In fact, Marcion was excommunicated for trying to bring in pagan ideas. Gnosticism was a pagan idea but it was a heresy the church fought. The bishops who remained in control were the ones who wanted nothing to do with paganism. 
Among the pagan rituals Constantine introduced was:
1) the doctrine of the trinity: this came from several pagan sources, for example the worship of Mithras and also from Isis Osiris and Horus.
We have many of the writings of the church fathers at the time they were developing the doctrine of the trinity. They talk endlessly about scripture and tradition. They don't talk about pagan gods at all. So when you say the doctrine of the trinity "came from several pagan sources" you are making an assertion that goes against all the data. There is just no evidence of early church leaders holding these things in high regard. That is not where they went for truth about God.

Having said that, it would not be troubling to me if some pagan beliefs were somehow similar to Christian beliefs. It would not prove the Christians just copied the pagans. Another possibility is that both were getting their revelation from the same source, namely God. We believe Jesus is God's best and most complete revelation of Himself. We don't believe God could not or would not have revealed himself to another group in a lesser way. So seeing Christian truth in other religions just means those other religions got some things right.
2) Walking around the outside of the Church on Easter Sunday morning: this is worship of the pagan god Baal.
Do Catholics do this? Nobody told me. 
3) Christmas: Yeshua ben Yusef (or bin Miryam) was born in 4 B.C. in September, but the pagan rites of winter sacrifice to make the crops grow again had to be retained, so the date was moved to nearer midwinter.
You need to read this from Mark Shea.
4) Yeshua ben Yusef was crucified on a Wednesday, on the eve of the high Sabbath, on the 14th of Nisan. Hence the prophesy is true, since from Wednesday to Saturday is three days. From Wednesday to Saturday is a day and a half. Three days He was in the Tomb, but the entire concept of Easter had to be altered to fit in with pagan rites of Spring.
There was a controversy about when to celebrate Easter. The East and the West churches has a big difference over it. Again, you look at the arguments they made and you don't see any concern with fitting the pagan rites of spring. There was concern with the Jewish passover. Should Easter follow the passover? It does. But that is because Christians believe in a legitimate connection between the two.
5) the doctrine of Transubstantiation was invented at Nicaea. It is completely without Biblical foundation and was intended to provide a mystical bond. Equally the concept of the sacrament of the communion is a fallacy, built upon the same demands of mysticism. All that Yeshua did was to say 'every time you sit down to eat, remember me – raise your glasses to my memory' - the rest is made up.
Nicaea? I think the word "Transubstantiation" was first used by St Thomas Aquinas. He was way later than Nicaea. The doctrine existed in a simpler form from the beginning. St Thomas just gave it more philosophical depth. St Justin Martyr, St Ignatius of Antioch and, of course, the gospels teach that Jesus said "This is my body" and He meant it literally.
6) nowhere in the Bible is Miryam described as a virgin. She is called a young woman: sometimes translated as a maiden – having the same sense in english as young woman. Furthermore, Yeshua was by no means her only child, and yet romanism expects to change every aspect of reality to fit its concept of a mysterious myth led religion.
 Matthew was quoting Isaiah. Isaiah wrote in Hebrew and used a word that can mean virgin or young woman. The best version of Matthew we have is in Greek. The Greek word does mean virgin. There is some evidence that Matthew might have been originally written in Hebrew. If it was that version has been lost. Still people can suppose that Matthew originally quoted Isaiah in the Hebrew and used the word that need not mean virgin. It would make the passage quite strange. Why would he note that Jesus was born to a young woman? That is not much of a sign of anything. The early church has always seen that passage as noting a virgin birth. Besides, Luke also mentions Mary was a virgin.
7) most of the books of the New Testament were ignored or destroyed because they did not fit with Constantine's concept of the new religion which he was creating.
 This is just silly. Constantine didn't have strong opinions about doctrine. Books were ignored because they were expensive to copy so only the most valuable, that is those best connected with the apostles, were reproduced.
8) Peter could not have laid his hands on the next Pope – because there wasn’t one for more than 300 years. Furthermore, there has never been a ‘single line of succession’ of popes until relatively modern times. There have been three female popes, and during one period, there were five popes claiming the title at the same time.
You can find the list of popes here. There has been a lot of things said about the papacy. The question is if it is true. You seem content to believe any bad thing anyone says about the office. But if the office is true would you not expect some lies to be told? Would you not expect some people to falsely claim to be pope? Would you not expect myths about Pope Joan or whatever to appear? So the existence of this kind of thing is not really evidence that there is no legit office. In fact, if the office was not legit you would expect it to be impossible to construct a list of popes back to Peter.
9) finally, the Coptic Church is both older and truer to primitive Christianity than Rome.
OK, become Coptic then. The Coptic church was started in 451 AD. Even if you hold to the silly notion that the Catholic church was started by Constantine that would still make the Catholic church older.
So now tell me - from where does the much vaunted "authority" of the Roman church come?
 From Jesus. That is what we have always claimed. Catholics don't believe in a church started by Constantine. That religion is a straw man. It does not exist in the real world. It is an urban legend.
It is a complete fake: a botch up of everything Constantine decided was a good way of not offending any of Rome’s old pantheon. The Augustine mission to Britain was to achieve agreement with this much older Church, and every new Pope upon his accession used to acknowledge the seniority of the British Church. [NOT, you will note, the Church of England which is even newer than the papists.]
You seem to think that when the gospel came to England is important.  England is a big place. Just because St Augustine went there does not mean he encountered any Christians that may have been there. He talked about converting non-Christians. I believe him.

France has traditionally been thought of as the church's eldest daughter. This is because of the conversion of Clovis around the year 500. Some other countries converted earlier but to an Armenian faith rather than orthodox Christianity. But which country received the faith first is not really an important part of the faith. If we are wrong about that and England was first that would not disprove the Catholic faith.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Are Mormons Christians?

Taylor Petrey seems to think Mormons are Christians. Whatever that means. 
If one were to rank the issues about which the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is most sensitive, near the very top of the list would be the persistant accusation that Mormons are somehow not Christians.  This is literally the first question in the FAQ section at
Well saying Mormons are Christians because Mormons are sensitive about the issue seems like about the worst argument you can make. Christians believe in love and truth, not love instead of truth. But why should this even be something for Mormons to get bothered about? Joseph Smith asked God which Christian church has the true faith. God allegedly told him that none did. OK, so the Mormon faith that Smith taught would be different from historical Christianity. They talk about the apostasy in the very early days of the church. If Christians are apostates in their thinking they why do they want to claim to have the same faith as Christians? 
In responding to this charge over many decades, the church has sought to emphasize its Christian identity. Besides numerous discourses on the subject, the Church has projected a Christian image through the use of visual and material culture.  For the 1964-65 World’s Fair in Queens, New York, the Church acquired and displayed its now iconic reproduction of Bertel Thorvaldsen’s “Christus” statue, which appears on numerous websites and publications.  In 1996, the Church changed its logo to feature the words “Jesus Christ” more than twice the size of the other words in the name.  The image was meant to communicate the centrality of Jesus Christ to the faith.  Church leaders continue to offer impassioned sermons on the topic in recent years.
I know the Mormon church has tried to seem Christian. They see it as an evangelization strategy. People will join the Mormon church easier if they think it is Christian. But is there more the Christianity than Logos and statues? Do you simply have to have a high view of Jesus?

The Catholic answer is baptism. Mormons baptisms are problematic for a variety of reasons. The short answer being their understanding of the words used in baptism are radically different from the Catholic understanding. That is something you need to be careful with. Many of the same words are used by Mormons but they mean something completely different in the Mormon context. So then they really aren't the same words.
This election season has brought out renewed efforts from some evangelical leaders to “clarify” for their audiences that, in spite of being permitted to vote for a Mormon candidate for president, they are under no circumstances to consider Mormonism a part of Christianity.  This policing of the boundaries of Christianity raises the question of who gets to decide what Christianity is.  Different Christians have drawn the boundary differently, depending on whom they are seeking to exclude.  For many centuries Protestants drew the boundaries such that Catholics were out of the fold of Christianity, commonly charging the Pope as the Antichrist.  Catholics returned the favor.  Devastating wars were fought in Europe over precisely who was a Christian and who was not.
 He is right here. Protestants are quite arbitrary about how they decide who they call Christian and who they don't. They don't have an objective standard and so definitions change with what ideas are fashionable. Petrey is essentially arguing that this is good and Mormonism is now fashionable because of Romney so what is the big deal? If Christianity has no borders then it has no meaning. The fact that the protestant cannot give a clear answer to the question, "What is a Christian?" is a good reason to reject protestantism. It is not a good reason to say absolutely every belief system that wants to be seen as Christian should be recognized as such.

I won't copy all the stuff about  Adolf von Harnack. He says "Christianity is not about adherence to dogmas, but about life of faith." He is basically wrong. It is about more than dogma but it is about dogma.
Social theory may offer more help than theology in understanding how the boundaries of Christianity are created and enforced.  Identity requires both a sameness and a difference over and against which to define oneself.  In order for there to be an inside, there must also be an outside.  The self always needs an other, and there is no other which is more fraught than the intimate other, who appears so similar as to be almost indistinguishable.  Lines must be produced and guarded in order to protect a particular understanding of what counts as Christianity.
I don't get what he means here. First he insists lines should not be drawn  that would exclude Mormons. Now he says we need to draw lines. But don't you have the same issues of people being sensitive and people lacking authority?
Definitions of Christianity that seek to portray its essence are arguments about what that essences should be, not objective descriptions of fact.  They assume the very thing they are trying to prove.  Such definitions are rhetorical and ideological, producing similarities between themselves and what they see as authentic Christianity, and downplaying the differences.  Those that represent the boundaries as natural and fixed also represent themselves as atemporal, outside of the tumults of time and space.  But we know that such definitions fail the test of time.
We need to define what the essence of Christianity is for anyone's inclusion or exclusion to have meaning.That meaning needs to pass the test of time. If there is nothing timeless about Christianity then why bother with it?
If our definitions are always provisional, historically situated, and subject to change, what considerations should we make in determining the boundaries of Christianity?  One consideration must be the ethical.  As countless scholars have pointed out, the process of drawing boundaries can be fraught ethically.  Is it just to exclude a group who claim the title of Christians?  In answering this question it is useful to consider how defining some people as “outsiders,” as lacking a claim to some standard of authenticity, is the fundamental ideology behind so many of the ugly prejudices in this world. The Christianity police are often guilty of police brutality more than protection of their constituents.  Defining Mormonism out of Christianity sets, and follows, a troubling precedent.
He seems to have a mindset of brutality. That somehow when we label somebody non-Christian that we go out and beat them up. There may have been incidence of that but it is hardly a reason to pretend everyone who says they are Christian is. We are merely saying we share, in essence, the same faith. What I share with a baptist or a reformed person is the heart of the Christian faith and so I call them Christians. What I share with a Mormon is more like what I share with a Muslim or a Buddhist. That is something less. Because of that referring to Mormons as Christians would be dishonest. Whether this truth is unpopular with Mormons or with Romney supporters or with anyone else does not really matter.

It does not actually mean I think Mormons are all going to hell. I don't think that about Muslims. I don't think all Baptists and Reformed are going to heaven. I don't even think all Catholics are.  The term Christian is a public thing. Salvation is between you and God. The fact that Mormons lack the grace of a valid baptism is a big deal. That is God's normal plan of salvation. Still it is for God to judge their souls. Whether you were labeled a Christian while on earth won't play into it at all.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Should Historical Evidence of Jesus Be Convincing?

The Empty Tomb of Jesus Today?
Leah Libresco wrote a post a while back suggesting the historical evidence was unlikely to ever be convincing to her. I find that interesting. Not just because she has since converted but because she took the time to read Lee Strobel's book and explain why she was unpersuaded. Most atheists don't do that. They just sneer. I think an attitude like that is what eventually allowed her to be persuaded another way.
I’ve read Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ and I was unpersuaded.  (It doesn’t help that Strobel primarily interviews only believers and uses only the writings of critics without allowing them to comment on questions raised).
This is a common fallacy. People who are convinced of the truth of Jesus' resurrection are going to be believers. If I try and prove evolution and only quote people who believe evolution is true would that make my argument unconvincing? You can't just dismiss those who accept the argument because they accept the argument. It is really an ad hominem. The term "believers" is being used to imply they are not very rational and their thinking cannot be trusted.
But I’ll admit, it’s hard for me to come up with historical evidence of Jesus as messiah that would be convincing to me.  The long historical remove at which we operate, other instances of miracle workers in recorded history that are not treated as true, the extent to which the life of Jesus might not have been found worthy of record by historians of that era all make it extremely difficult to uncover anything that looks like a proof.
That is a bit lame.  Yes we should be skeptical of claims that someone is working miracles. Yes the chain of evidence is longer and that makes it harder. Again, if someone said that about evolution it would be lame. If the effects are still there we can figure out the possible causes and analyze which is most likely. If the analysis points strongly to one theory then that is a good reason to believe it is true.
And I should add that the quick expansion of Mormonism in the last 150 years (they’re apparently up to over 13.8 million converts worldwide) should cast doubt on the assertion that Christianity’s rapid success is proof of its truth.
Christianity's growth itself is not a reason to believe it is true. The Muslim faith grew faster, quicker than Christianity. I doubt the Mormons actually did but numbers themselves are not the story. The question is why were people becoming Christians or Mormons or Muslims. Christianity based its evangelism on the historically verifiable truth of the resurrection. People could check it out. There is evidence they did. Luke claims in his gospel that he has " carefully investigated everything from the beginning." If you read it it seems he did talk to Mary, Jesus' mother, and many other eye witnesses.  It was likely investigated by Jews and Romans as well to try and discredit the story. Why did those efforts not succeed?

We need to understand that people back then were skeptical just as we are now. They were not predisposed to believe all sort of stories like that. You often hear that but it is false. Jews were predisposed to believe in one God and execute anyone else who claimed to be God. Greeks and Romans were logical and they found Christianity offensive. So we can be sure they scrutinized it.

The other way the rapid growth of Christianity is convincing is because it was not governed very strongly from one central location. Sure the Bishop of Rome had primacy but churches were all over the Roman empire and beyond. Nobody could make a big change to Christianity unless they made it very early. Like while the apostles were still alive. It became too big with too many strong, conservative local leaders to let anyone throw in some new doctrine. If it was there consistently across the church then the only thing that would make sense is that it came from the apostles and probably from Jesus Himself.
I don’t think any truly persuasive evidence exists either way on the historical question of Jesus’s existence.  I’m glad to look at arguments on this topic, but to be honest, it’s frustrated to pour through conflicting secondary sources when I don’t have the training to evaluate their arguments or examine the primary sources myself.  Thus, I’m not ever likely to be moved by historical evidence for the truth of Christianity.
I am not sure you need a lot of training to evaluate the arguments. Most of the conflict is over whether to treat the supernatural as possible or not. That is a philosophical question. It is not a matter of training. If we are only going to learn when all scholars agree then we won't learn much.

We can read the documents. The question is whether they are authentic or they are forgeries. Have their been forgeries? Sure. That is one way we know what a forgery looks like. They tend not to be found in many locations. They tend not to be quoted by early church fathers. They tend to get lost and found again after many centuries. They tend to not have counter-cultural content.

So we have the two theories. The authentic theory and the forgery theory. We don't need special education to see some real problems with the forgery theory. Pops Benedict quotes Phil 2:9-11:
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father.
This was written by St Paul about 30 years after Jesus died. He was likely quoting a hymn or poem that was written even earlier but let us say 30 years. We are talking about a time when people who saw Jesus and knew Jesus were still alive. Suppose He had not done miracles and not risen from the dead. Suppose He had just come out with some nice sayings. How does the idea that every knee should bow to Jesus come about? Think of someone who died 30 years ago. Say Martin Luther King. He was about 50 years ago. We have great respect for him. But nobody would say every knee will bow and every tongue will confess MLK as Lord. What does a person have to say or do to inspire this? Military and political leaders sometimes get this kind praise. That is a claim based on obvious power. But Jesus had no obvious power. So how did this idea come about?

Does this prove Christianity? Not completely. It shows some problems with not believing. You end up in the famous liar, lunatic, lord trilemma except you apply it to guys like Paul. Did Paul make up the gospel? Was Paul crazy? Or did he really experience Jesus. You can say the same about Peter or Polycarp. It is awkward but accepting Christianity is not unavoidable. It gets more and more convincing as you keep digging.

The other thing that becomes clear here is how much we depend on the early church to preserve the gospel. That it makes sense to call the church an object of faith because we make a choice to trust her when we make a choice to trust Jesus. Then it makes sense to trust her not only for the truth of the faith but also for the content of the faith. It makes no sense to say we can trust the early church on the resurrection but not trust her on saints or the sacraments.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Politics And Reason

People today are not that rational. Look at advertisers. They get paid for results. They need to change people's behaviour. How many ads make a rational argument? Very few. Most play the association game. They associate the product with something good, a beautiful woman, a catchy jingle, a popular celebrity, whatever. It works.

Most people think they are above that. That ads do not work on them. They are too rational. But that just proves the opposite. If they would think rationally they would see that such a position is ad hoc. If everyone believes they are the exception to the rule then the great majority must be wrong. Thinking you are not among them just because you are you is not rational. Still we do it. We don't want to admit we get taken.

Politics is like that. Most people think congressmen in general are crooked yet most think their own congressman is honest. He is not. You have just been watching his ads.

You listen to political debate on TV or read political websites. You rarely get a rational argument. Just a bunch of buzzwords strung together with some eloquence. It is all supported by polling and focus groups. It is what people want. It just isn't reason. We like to think we are thinkers but we don't like to think. We just close our eyes and open our mouth and swallow whatever they feed us.

There is one form of pseudo-rational debate that you see. It is applying a hyper-skeptical analysis to you opponents position. Any position can be seen as illogical if you demand absolute proof for every premise and irrefutable evidence for every inference. We don't demand this consistently. That would leave us nowhere. We could not even prove that our senses are reliable or that other minds exist. Skepticism is not practical. But it sounds pretty rational when you use it selectively. It is not logical but the logical problem is not that easy to point out. People are not that educated in philosophy and logic so they don't know the classic errors.

Real rational debate needs to learn to reject basic logic killers. One is lying. We don't really demand our politicians tell the truth. People blame the politicians. But if we really wanted honesty we would get it. We just need to vote for the honest guys. Does anyone think Mitt Romney is more honest than Ron Paul? But being at least the most honest of the group didn't help him. Why? Because we just don't value honesty that much. We say we do but we are lying to ourselves. We make every excuse when our guy is caught in a falsehood. Truth is the lifeblood of logic. If we don't value truth we cannot reason.

Another thing the electorate has to reject is ad hominem arguments. We see them all the time. They are logic killers. Yet we don't care. When we accept those kinds of attacks we are saying we don't want reason and thinking to control the direction of the country. We are making a choice for stupid government. People don't get that. Reason cannot happen where ad hominem arguments are accepted. If you want proof go visit websites where politics, religion, or whatever is debated. Those sites where rational debate happens all have one thing in common. They delete personal attacks. The sites that allow them simply have no rational debate. Sadly the national political forum is like one of those sites.

So what do we end up with? A system that is more controlled by money than by reason. A system where common sense is not common. A system where truly great men can't win. The solution? Democracy guarantees we get the government we deserve. We need to upgrade the population.