Friday, November 30, 2012


There is a great trend these days to be religiously open-minded. I saw it in an article on RealClearScience recently.
Ultimately, the key is not to be swayed to one extreme or the other -- fundamentalist religion or strict atheism -- but to walk a reasoned middle path. Eagleman believes that path is "possibilianism," the concept of holding multiple beliefs or hypotheses whilst exploring new ideas.

"The goal is to avoid committing to any particular story," Eagleman told Discovery News, "whether that's religious fundamentalism or strict atheism. The goal of possibilianism is to retain the wonder that drives us all into science in the first place and to avoid acting as though we know the answers to things we can't possibly know at the moment."
It sounds pretty good. If people disagree you don't want to jump into the debate with both feet and pick a side. You want to reflect and keep in mind that disagreement almost always means we don't really know who is right. Certainly when we talk about God we can all have ideas and we should respect those ideas.

There is one problem with that. It is called Christmas. God became man. The whole marketplace of ideas about God gets blown away. God is with us. He comes into a world of Jews and pagans. Jews feel they know the one true God. Pagans are more open-minded. They are always willing to incorporate one more deity into their worship. Jesus presents Himself as the fullness of the Jewish faith. You think you know God but I am God so I will explain where you are right and where you are wrong. He also presents Himself to the pagans as some solid truth in a sea of contradictions.

Catholicism is like Christmas. We have lost track of the presence of God. Some still hold to Jesus as the one true God. They have doctrines they are pretty sure about. Others are more open-minded. They feel everyone has ideas and who knows who is right. Catholicism presents itself as the fullness of the Christian faith. You think you know Jesus but the Catholic Church is the body of Christ and can show you where you are right and where you are wrong. The church also presents herself to the open-minded, the liberal Christians, the confirmed secularists. She offers some solid truth in a sea of contradictions.

Catholicism is about preserving the mystery of the incarnation. Christmas was over 2000 years ago. We act like that is not a problem but it is. The solution to the problem is the church. The word continues to be in flesh and continues to dwell among us. Is it hard to believe? Sure. No harder to believe than the idea that God came to earth as a little baby. Man needed God and was unable to reach out to Him. So God reached out to man. It is still true. God is still reaching out to man.

Some will say that God is not longer reaching out to man in terms of a physical presence. That Jesus' life was in the first century and  the New Testament was written in the first century and that was that. Jesus is present for us spiritually but not in any physical way. Even God's physical presence through priests and prophets in the Old Testament is gone and replaced by something purely spiritual.

We have the marketplace of ideas back because this new and allegedly improved arrangement somehow creates a plethora of opinions about God that cannot be settled. Many have given up and declared Christianity to be either false or unworkable. Precisely the situation that the incarnation was supposed to end. Where has God gone? The good news is He is still here. God is still with us. Jesus has been here the whole time teaching true doctrine, offering true sacraments, and ordaining true leaders through His mystical body, the church.

So the message of Christmas is the same as the message of the new evangelization. God is with us. We don't have to wonder who has God figured out right. He has not left us orphaned. He has offer us Himself. His presence in the Eucharist. His presence in the confessional. He presence in the teaching authority of the church. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


Our priest said something interesting in Sunday's homily. He said we have lost the notion of mercy as part of our system of crime and punishment. We used to have kings. Kings had absolute power. If he pointed at you and said, "Off with his head!" then you were executed. That was just something society accepted for a long time. When democracy came along it was considered a big step forward in no small part because that was no longer possible. Of course, we are bringing that back. We are going back to executing people without due process of law. Part of the war on terror. So the gains we made when we brought in democracy are being rolled back. That is not the point.

The point is that the king's absolute power could be a good thing. He could take a person justly sentenced for a crime and pardon him. St Louis who was also King Louis IX of France was famous for doing that. He would take people facing death and pardon them. Give them a second chance.

In our modern justice system there are plenty of guilty people who go free but that is not because of mercy. It is because the system fails. When the system works it punishes the guilty and exonerates the innocent. It can deliver justice on a good day. It can never deliver mercy. Mercy means you are properly found guilty but then you are pardoned.

I know technically pardons exist in out system. There is even special power to pardon for the president written into the US constitution. I just don't think that is part of our consciousness. Presidential pardons are typically associated with corruption and not with mercy. I think the founders wanted the presidential pardon power to work that way. It may in some cases but every time it gets in the public eye it is being used in a self-serving way. A way to put the presidents friends above the law which is not what was intended.

People forget that the best form of government is a benevolent monarchy. A king that puts his own interests aside and serves the people. The thought was democracy would force rulers to serve the people.  It turns out that getting re-elected has just been added to the list of a ruler's self interests.  Guess what? Serving the people with justice and mercy is not the best way to do it. Raising money and buying TV ads works better.

So we have lost the sense of mercy that was associated with good kings. We don't have a good sense of judgement either. We think it can only be bad. A good judge would be merciful some of the time. He would not simply let everything go. He would also be predictable. He would not be merciful according to criteria that are known only to him. That would be scary.

What you really want is a just king that will distinguish between the good people who just messed up from the people who have no interest in being good. How did kings make that call? If they had a personal history with the person that would typically be the basis. That is why what Jesus says He will do is so perfect. I was hungry and you fed me, etc. That is basing his judgement on his first hand knowledge of your character. Exactly what a good king would do. It is just . Yet it is not self-serving because it is based on the least of these.

I do think the final judgement will be that way. People will see that the judgements are what they must be.  They will marvel at the wisdom and the fairness of the judge. Every decision will be right. Sure many will go to hell but it will be clear that they simply cannot or will not be in heaven. Once the beauty and goodness of heaven is made clear we will be surprised that anyone goes there. We will be amazed at His mercy. It won't be the caricature of mercy that involves simply ignoring what anyone has done.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Language And Sex

There is a commenter named Ted Seeber at Patheos who has a strange definition of rape. He calls any sex act rape that is not a true gift of self. That is it is not open to life and freely chosen and forsaking all others until death. Now redefining a word that is in common usage is quite problematic. It is even more problematic when you choose a word like "rape" that has a ton of baggage. So I think it is a very bad idea but he does have one point. We don't have a language, as Catholics, to distinguish between the kind of sex we see as right and beautiful and heavenly from the kind of sex that is cheap and immoral and hellish.

That is a huge problem because it is a hard distinction to make. Most people don't get what you mean when you try to make it in shorthand. Even my phrase of "cheap and immoral and hellish" is going to make a lot of people think of the wrong thing. Many will think of sex that has some bad feelings associated with it. Maybe you didn't fully consent, you were drunk or you were pressured somehow. Maybe you thought you loved the person or the person loved you and you were wrong. There are lots of bad sexual experiences that don't qualify as rape. But I am not just talking about those. I am also talking about times when you might feel very good about it. When you love each other but you are not married. When you are married but not open to life. When most people don't feel guilty at all. They just think that is about all you can expect from sex. Not something that speaks the language of forever but something that is about a short term high.

Catholics say that even that sort of sex that most people would call good is really cheap and immoral and hellish. Why? We value sex more. The more you value something the more you need before you can say you haven't let it go too cheaply. We see sex as being designed to bring people into the very dynamic of heaven. Settling for something that keeps us bound up in our flesh when we should be soaring in our spirits is what hell is all about. Hell is not about giving us something bad but about giving us something, anything, instead of heaven.

As you can see, it takes a lot of words to get that idea across. That is a bad thing because it is a distinction we should want to make a lot. The Theology of the Body does it with 4 words -total, faithful, fruitful, and free. That is still quite a mouthful and often people still don't get it.

I remember Janet Smith saying she hated the phrase "having sex" because it is too mechanical. She preferred the older phrase "making love" because it conjures up an image of a more spiritual union. Many use the terms interchangeably so I not sure that will do much. Theologians sometimes use the phrase "the marital act." John Paul II used the word nuptial a lot. The trouble with these is they only focus on marriage. People who are in irregular marriages or people using artificial contraceptives within marriage are going to be confused. So words are pretty hard to find. Maybe we need to make up a new one.

Really we need 2 words. One for good, Catholic sex that we want to use very positively. Then we need one for the opposite kind of sex. The sex that is not good enough and is therefore immoral. That can be a bigger challenge because you want to use this word negatively. You don't want to be insulting or judgmental but you do want to highlight a significant lacking in many sex acts that are not typically seen as lacking much. I am wondering whether to offer a suggestion. All I can think of right now is soul sex and soulless sex. There has to be something better.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Why Is Meaning A Big Deal?

A Holy Cow
I was thinking about a post from Greta Christina on whether Atheism will become easier via Leah.
Tim was saying that he agreed with the original existentialists about how, from any external objective perspective, there’s no meaning to our lives, and meaning is something we create entirely for ourselves. And then he said something like, “The difference is that I don’t see why that’s a problem. Sure, I create my own meaning. So what? That’s fine with me. Sartre and Camus and that whole crowd thought this was a barely-tolerable psychological state that had to be struggled with on a daily basis… but I don’t see what the big deal is.”
I knew immediately what he meant. And I said something like, “I wonder if the difference is that they made up existentialism, it was totally new to them… but we grew up with it. The idea was already in the air. Even if you didn’t grow up in an intellectual household, the basic idea had already filtered down into the culture. So when we were figuring out the world and our place in it, existentialism just seemed normal.”
To me, this is one of the most confusing things about the new atheism. This comfort with meaninglessness. It reminds me of talking with prostitutes and drug addicts. They say that it does not matter how painful or wrong something is, if you live with it for long enough it becomes acceptable. That is where we are at with existentialism.

When we say "meaning is something we create entirely for our ourselves" what does that imply? Any meaning we create is going to be pretty temporary and pretty shallow. So we have to avoid thinking big. Humans don't do that well. A cow can be happy eating grass and chewing its cud and never be bothered to think about eternity and changing the world. People have a desire for significance. Atheism asks us to be cows. Ultimate significance is unavailable. For most of us even a modestly impressive temporal significance is not going to happen. Just chew your cud and think about something else.

It gets worse. If our life is meaningless then what about other people's lives? What do they mean? Ultimately nothing. So why should I value another human life? I might feel bad when I hurt or kill another person but I have already learned how to think about something else. Why is this any different?

Does this mean atheists will go out and mistreat people? No. It just means the rational reason for not doing that is gone. There are other things like tradition and moral feelings that can work. They can fail to. Having a solid rational basis for moral behavior is important.

So I have been shocked by people like this Tim in the quote that can't see the big deal in saying there is no objective meaning in the life of a human person. You hear this all the time and even from educated people. Sartre and company at least got it. That if their theory was true that it was very bad news. That we might be able to have a little more pleasure or a little less pain before we die but that is the best we can do. Once we are dead even that does not matter because we cease to be.

It kind of makes Pascal's wager make sense. Even if such a philosophy were true is there any advantage to believe it? The answer is Yes but it is only Yes because that philosophy is not actually true. The reason to believe it is because we desire truth and cannot be satisfied with anything less. That is precisely the sort of human quirk you would not expect to find in a purely materialist world. There are many of them. So we have reasons to reject existentialism that go beyond simply finding it distasteful. I find the fact that the Detroit Lions are 4-7 distasteful. That does not make it false. But there is only virtue in believing hard facts if there is virtue at all. So if materialism is fact then facts don't matter. So Pascal is right then.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Eight Myths Of Atheist Historical Analysis

If this graph is true then why aren't Muslims, Africans, and Chinese people exploring the galaxy today?

Eight myths of atheist historical analysis
  1. People in historical times were credulous. They were inclined to believe any story of the supernatural without question. There would not be a single skeptical soul among them. So if a man claimed to be born blind and said he was healed miraculously then nobody would check the story out with his parents. If someone claimed to be God they would not want to stone him or crucify him for blasphemy. They would just accept him at his word.
  2. The Catholic Church was like the CIA in all those spy novels. They could change scripture. They could change doctrine. Everyone would just switch without any question. No controversy would erupt. No traces would be left. It matters not at all how many churches there were and how far apart they were. People who laugh most at this are familiar with how the  church works and how small changes create a huge fuss and how often the Vatican completely botches public relations.
  3. Church leaders were focused on pagan ideas rather than Judea-Christian ideas. Never mind that there is a ton of Christian writing that reflects on the Old Testament and almost none that reflects on the teachings of the various pagan religions. Those who did try and promote pagan ideas were labeled heretics precisely because their teaching could not be traced back to the tradition of the apostles and to the scriptures. 
  4. People were very ignorant of sexual matters. Everyone talked like they were living a life of Christian chastity but we know that is impossible so they must all have been big liars. We know this for sure because every time Hollywood does a period piece there is a lot of sex in it! People just would not talk about it, even to a priest. Somehow the urge to talk about sex was controllable but the urge to have sex was not. 
  5. Church leaders were not just people who believed the gospel and sincerely desired to live it. They have bad motives. They wanted to control the people. They didn't mind lying because it was really about power. Once you start reading what these guys write you see how silly this is. There were some bad apples for sure but they were the exceptions to the rule. Even today people who read Pope Benedict are often surprised to find him a sincere believer and a serious thinker.
  6. The really smart people didn't really believe in God. Especially those who made real advances in science. They talked like they believed for various reasons but deep down they knew it wasn't true. Actually you hear this about people right through the enlightenment as late as Einstein and Pasteur. 
  7. Nobody dared openly question the truth of the Christian faith. Constantine imposed the Christian faith on the western world in 314 AD and nobody offered any real skepticism until the enlightenment. I remember reading the stories of the saints and being surprised that they were evangelizing in the middle of Europe during the middle ages. Turns out unbelief has always and everywhere been present. People were raised in the faith for sure but many had occasion to question it and many left the church.
  8. The church did not like science. Galileo is the classic example partly because there are so few incidents like his. Galileo's ideas did have theological implications. At the time, there were still many scientists that thought he was wrong. Once the science got settled they got serious about harmonizing Catholic thought with it. The doctrine of infallibility explicitly excludes matters of science so the church really has no interest unless the implications in matters of faith is quite direct.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Faith Talk

Catholics have always had a hard time talking about their faith. They tend to leave that to the professionals. They assume priests and religion teachers will do a fine job. When it comes to evangelism they try and justify silent evangelism. There are two sayings you hear a lot:
  1. Actions speak louder than words
  2. Preach the gospel always. When necessary, use words
The first saying is simply false. Words speak louder than actions. It is better to have words and actions. Still someone can lead a relatively good Catholic life for decades and never cause anyone in his circle of friends to come to the faith. In fact, it is not just possible, it is the rule. Often they are only vaguely aware that the person is Catholic. Actions without words are almost completely ineffective.

The second saying is often credited to St Francis of Assisi. He never said it. St Francis almost never stopped talking about his faith so it would have been a strange thing for him to say.

In today's world it is hard to talk about your faith. I can see why people chicken out. You do it wrong and you end up feeling more guilty than before. It is awkward for you and awkward for those you are talking too. It is just hard to imagine something good happening.

There is one thing that you can do to try and fix that. You can talk to other Catholics about your faith. That is one thing that the protestant communities I was involved with did a lot and Catholics rarely do. Part of it is there is a wider range of spiritual types in the Catholic church. In a protestant community there is often more uniformity. A Dutch Reformed church is going to have less diversity and therefore you can expect to have more in common with the people you talk to. That makes it easier.

It is easier for protestants but that does not mean Catholics should not do it. We have a diverse church. Sharing our faith even inside the church can make for some challenges in terms of charitably disagreeing. We might have a few bad experiences. Still not talking about our faith at all leaves us in a bad space. If we don't talk about our faith inside the church then what are the chances we talk about it outside the church?

Suppose a non-Christian friend talks to you about something they regret. They feel guilty about something. It would be wonderful if you could talk about forgiveness with them. It would be even better if you could do that without using religious language. If you could speak with your own words from your own heart. Have you ever spoken about forgiveness that way with your Catholic friends? If you have then my guess is you are much more likely to try it with you unchurched friend. It will seem almost natural because your will be responding to your friends need by telling a personal story you have told before.

The key is to learn how to talk about faith like we talk about anything else. Don't force it into conversations but don't block it out either. If we are doing it right it should connect with our lives at many points and mostly in a very positive way. So find a safe Catholic community where you can learn to talk about such matters. Then your will have a fighting chance to talk about it with the secular people in your life.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Bible And The Legend

I have been reading poems, romances, vision literature, legends and myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know none of them are like this.   C. S. Lewis
I love this quote by CS Lewis. So many people dismiss the bible as legend. It is seen as the smart thing to do. The truth is it is just an intellectually fashionable thing to do. If you really scrutinize the notion of the bible as legend it does not hold up at all. What legends are said to have happened in a specific time and place? What legendary figures wander around the country-side for a few years, give a bunch of teachings on religion and morality, and then get executed? Then there are the stories. What legendary figures tell stories? They are the story.

Even Paul's story makes a very lousy legend. He starts out as a rich and respected individual. Then he meets Jesus. He eventually starts preaching. He runs into a lot of resistance. Sometime he leaves town and preaches somewhere else. He ends up in jail a lot. Eventually he is executed. He never has a legendary win but there are long explanations of his theology. I don't know of any legend that includes anything like that.

The other thing many people don't realize is that including realistic little details in fiction is a relatively recent phenomenon. It didn't happen until after the invention of the printing press. Before that copying stories was so expensive you reduced your word count to the bare minimum. Yet the bible contains many small details. They do indicate that it really happened. Someone might remember that there were 153 fish caught but is a fiction writer going to make up that number? No fiction written within 1000 years of that time period would make up details like that.

The other thing it shows is the care with which the bible was copied. Not only were the details recorded but they didn't get edited out. That indicates a desire to respect the text and make exact copies. They didn't do that with every work. Copying by hand they took shortcuts with a lot of texts but not with the scriptures.

It relates to another commonly-held but rarely-scrutinized belief. That people could have changed the scriptures and nobody would have noticed. Christianity was not a local thing. There were a lot of Christian communities spread over what is now France, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Israel, Syria, Egypt, Cyprus, etc. If people were changing the scriptures they would be a mess. There would be no way to keep them in sync. If you tried to resolve the differences you would create no end of controversy. Yet we have no plethora of different scriptures and no evidence of controversy. So it is easy to say the scriptures might have been changed. It is not so easy to imagine a scenario where that would happen and no evidence would be left behind.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Breaking Bad And Grundy's Morality Challenge

Grundy blogs at  Diety-Smeity. I found this challenge on his blog.
If you believe the only way to explain common morality is by appealing to a higher power, it must be that you can't think of natural, human reasons to be good. If you could, then those reasons should be all the explanation you need. To defend your position, I ask you to submit a moral situation for which only God can be the explanation for why a reasonable person would do the right thing. In return, I will offer an entirely human answer for the moral choice I, and likely many others, would make.
This challenge misses the mark by a lot. The first statement is false. The problem is not that I can't find human reasons to be good. In fact, the very fact that I acknowledge something as good means I see reasons for doing it. So where is the problem?

G.K. Chesterton said, “We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right. What we want is a religion that is right where we are wrong.”

That really sums it up. What if our reasoning fails? What if we conclude something is good and it is not? The classic example is Hitler. Really anyone doing something immoral. People have reasons for what they do. They convince themselves they are doing the right thing. They can be very wrong.  So how does one know when he has made a serious moral error?

If you use reason alone you are in a lot of trouble. Anyone who has argued with someone who has arrived at a wrong conclusion through reason can appreciate how sure of themselves they can be. Whether you argue politics or religion or even sports it is not at all uncommon to have two rational people totally sure they are right but we know at least one must be wrong because they contradict. They can debate endlessly and it almost never resolves it.

So we want to do good and avoid evil. We don't want to be the guy who thinks he is doing right but ends up doing evil. We can't trust pure reason. So it helps to have something outside yourself to check your reason against. Something that is likely to be right when you are wrong. For GK Chesterton that something was the Catholic Church. For many Christians that something is the bible. The church works better than the bible here because the bible can be twisted but even that is better than nothing.

The truth is we think we are right all the time. We know that is not a rational position to take but we like our thinking because it is ours and we don't like to be corrected. We don't really believe we will go that far wrong. Sure Hitler went very wrong but that is just an extreme example.

It makes me think of Breaking Bad. On that show the main character makes a lot of moral choices. They all seem reasonable. You can make an argument for any of them. Still they get him, bit by bit, further and further into immorality. I am only at the end of season two and he has done some pretty horrific things. He has completely lost his moral center and there really isn't much that he would not do at this point. There are still three season to go.

His reason is corrupted by some hard circumstances and some deep wounds. Nobody wants to judge him. Still we don't ever want to become the kind of man he becomes. How do we avoid it? One key is a moral anchor. Walt has none. No religion to be right when he is wrong.

Making important choices actually makes it harder for him to discover his error because it would involve facing the fact that he has done some horrible things. He can't admit that to himself and he certainly can't admit that to his family.  So instead of getting out of the drug business he gets in deeper.

I know it is fiction but it shows how evil can grow and get out of control. We need grace. Nobody plans to be a drug addict. Nobody plans to end up in jail. Nobody plans to get divorced. It starts with a few bad choices and it gets out of control.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Pope Benedict Reflects On Atheism

Pope Benedict talked about atheism in his Wednesday audience. He speaks with such clarity and intelligence. A pleasure to read:
From the Enlightenment onwards, the criticism of religion has intensified, history has also been marked by the presence of atheistic systems, in which God was considered a mere projection of the human mind, an illusion, and the product of a society already distorted by alienation. The last century has seen a strong and growing secularism, in the name of the absolute autonomy of man, considered as a measure and artifice of reality, but depleted of his being created "in the image and likeness of God." In our time there is a particularly dangerous phenomenon for the faith: there is in fact a form of atheism that we define, as 'practical', which does not deny the truths of faith or religious rituals, but simply considers them irrelevant to everyday existence, detached from life, useless. Often, then, people believe in God in a superficial way, but live "as if God did not exist" (etsi Deus non daretur). In the end, however, this way of life is even more destructive, because it leads to indifference towards faith and the question of God. 
In reality, man is separated from God, is reduced to a single dimension, the horizontal, and this very reductionism is one of the fundamental causes of totalitarianism that have had tragic consequences in the last century, as well as the crisis of values ​​that we see in our current reality. By obscuring reference to God, the ethical horizon is also obscured, to make room for relativism and an ambiguous conception of freedom, which instead of being liberating ends up binding man to idols. The temptations Jesus faced in the desert prior to his public ministry, represent well the "idols" that fascinate man, when he does not look beyond himself. When God loses centrality, man loses his proper place, he no longer finds his place in creation, in relationships with others. That ancient wisdom evoked in the myth of Prometheus is still relevant: man thinks he can become "god" himself, master of life and death.
I love his equating of practical atheism with theoretical atheism. You take a guy like Joe Biden and ask, "If he became an atheist what would change?" Obviously his Sunday morning routine would change. He would not go to mass. What else would change?  If the answer is nothing then he is a practical atheist.

As my discussion with Grundy is showing, theoretical atheists can't really eliminate the supernatural from the picture. Still they see that if it existed it would be unreasonable to ignore it. Practical atheists reduce their concern to the natural life even while admitting they believe in the supernatural. It is not logical. If the supernatural does exists it should merit primary consideration. They just don't like where they end up when they think that way. So they stop thinking that way.

The Gift Of Hell

Satan in Hell From Dante's Inferno
Why would hell be a gift? You need to understand contrition. Contrition is just a big word for being sorry. When you feel sincere remorse for the choices you have made. It can come from two sources. One is perfect contrition. That is when you feel sorry because you have offended God or at least some understanding of God. You might feel you have sinned against justice or against human dignity or against love. You get that you have offended some greater good. You might not understand that great good as God but it is God.

The other source of contrition is self-centered. You have done wrong and you are afraid that wrong will turn out bad for you. You might have already experienced some bad consequences of your actions or you might just sense something bad will result. Still it is not the badness of the act that has you remorseful but the possibility that it might be bad for you. This is called imperfect contrition.

So why is hell a gift? Hell allows us to experience imperfect contrition. That is easier for us self-centered people to grasp. We can grow into an understanding of the great good we have offended but that is not likely to happen until after we have repented and grown in our faith for a while. Especially when we have offended the sacred. Often part of our fallen state is that we don't understand the sacred very well. We can sin against the Eucharist or we can commit a sexual sin and really not grasp the significance of what we have done wrong.

But then there is hell. We can know that we will be judged for our actions one day. We can get that all our rationalizations will be swept aside and the true depravity of what we are doing will be laid bare. That God will look in our heart and judge us. That this judgement can land us in hell forever. In that light we can see how avoiding sin can be in our self-interest. It can turn us around. We don't want that to remain our primary motivation. We want to grow out of fear and into love. Still fear can motivate us at times when we are not able to love.

Look a the parable of the prodigal son. He runs away from his father and blows his money. What motivates him to come back?
When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ So he got up and went to his father. Luke 15:17-20
Ultimately it was his hunger and the chance to eat better in his father's house that caused him to go back. It was not love for his father. That is imperfect contrition. God will take us back on that basis. He is that merciful. We go back expecting to be God's slave. We end up being restored to our status as sons. He is that merciful.

So what role does hell play? Christians tend to feel uncomfortable with it. They want to apologize on God's behalf for going there. But it is a good thing God did go there. We need hell for the same reason we need imperfect contrition. Sometimes we just get wrapped up in ourselves and cannot do the loving thing. We need a selfish reason to do the right thing.

God does not mind playing bad cop. The sinful soul is full of fear. It focuses on pleasure and power and prestige. Those things are not secure so it lives in constant fear of losing them. God speaks the language of fear to reach the fearful.

St Thomas Aquinas says God never gets angry for His own sake. He only gets angry for our sake. Like a father gets angry with a son. God presents Himself as angry not because anger is His nature but to motivate us. Yet we tend to avoid presenting God as angry. Like we have grown beyond the stage of being belligerent children that need to be scolded once in a while. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

More On Inconsistent Atheists

A commenter going by Grundy has responded to my You Might Be An Inconsistent Atheist post.
Your perspective is a common one, but I'll try to explain the atheist perspective. Saying we only believe science and reason isn't true for all atheists, but even if it was, it encompasses more than you think. 
It is a common perspective because it makes a lot of sense. I know there is no one atheist position but you see variations of this same theme over and over and they generally don't appreciate the difficulties it has.
Science is a way of explaining the natural world, so atheists simply deny the supernatural and think everything is understandable even if we haven't yet understood it. Make sense?
It does make sense. It just says a lot about the nature of the thing in question. If you say love is completely understandable as a physical phenomenon then you are saying it is only a chemical thing. That love songs completely miss the true nature of love. One person's brain chemistry has been effected by interacting with another person. Sure that is part of it, but is it the whole thing?

Other people say love is the greatest human good. That true love is something we should devote our lives to. It is something we should be willing to die for. Which of these ideas are true can be debated. What cannot be debated is that they are different ideas. That to hold them both is inconsistent. The fact is many atheists do hold both or at least act like they do. They say everything is reducible to science but they believe, not based on science, that only this woman can make them happy. So that is all I am trying to point out.
I'll take issue with your points specifically. In number 1, you say that you can't prove truth. That may be true in a philosophical sense, but we can determine what is consistent with our shared perceptions of reality. That is closer to proven truth than any religion provides.
I don't think I was saying that. I was not talking about how we get to know truth. I was talking about the virtue of loving the truth. Many atheists have this virtue. Not everyone does. There are a lot of liberal Christians who play games with truth. They use unclear language to finesse around contradictions. Atheists typically don't do that. This is good. But is the reason they don't do it based on science or is it prior to science? If it is prior to science then you have violated your creed.
Point 2, I agree that it is subjective. Someone's importance is only relative to an individual or group.
I am not saying all atheists will have all these beliefs.  What I am saying is many have at least one. If they do then they don't really beleive all truth is accessible through science. I do think your last sentence has huge moral implications that you don't appreciate.
Point 3, 4 & 9 deal with morality, which to me is just what is more beneficial or harmful to an individual or society. I am outraged far less than most, but in cases of loss of life, I am saddened by the waste of it all and want justice just so that it is less likely to happen again. I see this as completely rational, don't you?
It is rational but it is not scientific. You cannot do experiments that tell you about justice. It is a common mistake for atheists to assume any talk about religion or morals or metaphysics is inherently irrational. Some religions say that. Catholicism does not. It say not all truth is scientific but all truth obeys the laws of logic and reason. 
I don't think my life has meaning of its own right, but I want to create meaning in part to give me something to do, earn esteem from those around me and be remembered, pretty rational, right?
Not really. If your life has no inherent meaning then other people's lives would be inherently meaningless as well. So how do you create meaning by having meaningless lives interact? Earning esteem from meaningless people? Being remember by meaningless people? 
I thank those who help me, because I'm social and want to maintain relationships.
How is appreciating our time is limited not rational?

It is kinda brain chemistry, and therefore explainable. Also, we are social creatures and it's harder to go through life alone.

I'm never really overwhelmed....but I do prefer some music, movies and the female form. There are studies about how we form preferences,
Again, not everyone will see themselves in all the points. That is why they all begin with the word "if." I think many atheists cease to act like atheists around art or around death. The point is the atheist creed is almost impossible to live. It does not mean it is false. It just means the human mind operates in terms of the transcendent even when they have accepted as fact that it does not exist.

That leaves the atheist with two options. Either accept that the human mind senses something real and that there really is something there and materialist atheism is false. The other choice is to distrust the human mind. Again you are going down a path that seems simple but has huge consequences. If you can't trust your own mind then how can you know anything? But that is a whole other can of worms.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Death Of The Last Apostle

St John's Vision on Patmos
The last apostle to die was likely St John. He settled near Ephesus and tradition tells us he lived to a very old age. The exact date of his death is not known. That is important. Why would that be? If Sola Scriptura is true then there is a problem. The New Testament was not written for a while after the church began. So Sola Scriptura was not God's will for Christians from the beginning because the apostles have a big part of God's revelation in their heads. Even Acts 2 says the first Christians devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles.

So the question is when did Sola Scriptura begin? When did it become God's will for every Christian to look to the scriptures as the final authority in matters of faith and morals? One answer many protestants give is at the death of the last apostle. At that point all the books of the New Testament had at least been written. The cannon was far from being settled but that is another can of worms. If they could figure out the cannon they could proceed with Sola Scriptura and that is what God would want them to do.

You see what happens here. The death of the last apostle becomes a huge even in salvation history. The whole life of the church needs to change on the day St John the Apostle enters his heavenly glory. What day was that? Christians didn't bother recording it. Why not? Up to that point they were allowed to use oral tradition. St Polycarp would listen for hours to St John tell stories about Jesus. It would not matter if those stories were recorded in scripture or not. John was there. What more do you need? St John tells us in his gospel that there were many stories he did not include (Jn 20:30, Jn 21:25). 

As long as Sola Scriptura was not in place these stories would have huge authority in defining the faith. Remember they are devoted to the teaching of the apostles. But once Sola Scriptura kicks in these stories have no authority at all. All that matters is what does scripture say. That is a pretty big change. How did they figure it out? How did they communicate it? There is no evidence they did either.

It gets worse. There was a controversy in Corinth near the end of the first century. St Clement is Bishop of Rome. They take the issue to him. Is this before or after the death of the last apostle? We don't know. Nobody involved with the controversy bothers to note whether St John is still alive in Ephesus or not. If the way the church resolves questions changed with the death of the last apostle would that not be important?

The historical reality is nothing changed with the death of the last apostle. They had ordained successors which were called bishops. They put them in charge of the church in every town (Titus 1:5). Read the letters of St Ignatius of Antioch. He can name who is in charge of the church in every city he writes to. Only the apostles had the ability to put those bishops in place. Christians were devoted to the teaching of the bishops just as much as they were to the teaching of the apostles. Sola Scriptura simply didn't happen. It was not on anybody's radar. It is important because once you establish that the first succession from the apostles was valid then you need a really strong reason not to believe they are all valid.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

You Might Be An Inconsistent Atheist If ...

Lots of people claim to believe nothing on faith. They say they go by science and reason. But how do you do that? How many ideas do you accept as true that are not based on science and reason? I think there are quite a few. This is a good thing. Still it is even better if we can admit that to ourselves. If we inconsistently assert we don't think this way then we won't scrutinize our thinking as much as we should. So how can an atheist tell if he is being inconsistent? I am here to help with my list. You might be an inconsistent atheist if:
  1. If you believe in truth. If you think truth is worth great effort to find. If it is unthinkable for you to base your life on a lie even if it benefits you greatly. You can't imagine that being a good thing for other people either. Truth matters but we can't prove that from science. 
  2. If you think the people in your life have great dignity. We can't actually prove that people are important. We can say we are important and those we are in relationship with are important but that is pretty subjective. 
  3. If you get morally outraged at things. Did the Catholic sexual abuse scandal make you angry or did you just say "different strokes for different folks?" What about the shooting of the teenage girl in Pakistan who advocated for the education of girls? Nazi's? Anything. 
  4. If you have a sexual morality. Many atheists are pretty conservative sexually. They are faithful in their marriage. They don't want their kids to see smut. Many are more permissive. Still almost all have a line they won't cross. They draw it in very different places but they don't really believe there is not right and wrong when it comes to sexuality.
  5. If you think your life has meaning. You don't just focus your life on sex and drugs and rock'n roll. You try and accomplish something. Anything. You might even demand your children pursue something more than their own pleasure as well.
  6. If you give thanks. Thanksgiving is so natural we have a special day for it. When life goes well do you feel a sense of gratitude?
  7. If you go to a funeral and the reality of death feels deeply wrong to you. You might even find yourself talking to your loved one. 
  8. If you love someone with a deep self-sacrificing love. Something that is more than just brain chemistry. Something you might even die for.
  9. If you feel guilty when you do something bad and wonder if something bad might happen to you. If you want to make things right. 
  10. If you become overwhelmed by beauty. A piece of art. An elegant argument. An intricately complex biological system. 
The list is not complete but you get the idea. Saying you only believe in science and reason is a big deal. It does not just mean you don't go to church. It means you deny the significance of some of the most powerful moments in life. It is very hard for a real human being to embrace that doctrine fully and consistently. I think atheism taken to its logical conclusion is the most oppressive of all religions. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Hell And Purgatory

People are in hell because they choose it. God offers everyone the grace of salvation in some form. People end up in hell by refusing to cooperate with that grace. But why would anyone choose hell? Would heaven not be obviously better? In the long term it would. But the immediate choice people are faced with is not the choice between heaven and hell but the choice between hell and purgatory. 

When we encounter the grace of God we are in sin. We are deep in sin. Our thinking, our habits, our lifestyle, even our imagination is permeated by sin. God calls us to change. He wants to purge us of that sin. That is what happens in purgatory but it can also happen on earth. We need to do the hard and painful job of getting rid of the sin in our lives. Sure God is with us every step of the way but it is hard to face.

So what is hell? Hell is not some terrible torture chamber that God made for people He does not like. Hell is life without God. We can have that on earth too. We do as we please and ignore the will of God. Long term it leads to many problems. Our relationships with both God and man break down, we lose the meaning and purpose in our life, we become more and more turned in on ourselves, and we find aging and death impossible realities to face. But in the short term hell does not seem so bad. We don't have to face purgatory. We can just go on happily and not worry about our sin.

Look at addictions. That is the choice they face. Not to be an addict or to be clean. That would be easy. The choice they face is to accept the pain of a recovery program or to just keep using. That is one reason why people who have been through recovery are more effective counselors because they know how heroic a choice that is. Those of us who have never been addicted might think like this:

I saw this also when reading some atheist blogs. They talk about trying to avoid masturbation or contraception or some other sexual sin. Guess what? It is not easy. So they give up. They choose hell over purgatory. Some of the stories break your heart because they have struggled quite intensely for quite a while. Somehow they did not persevere. They end up quite bitter towards Christianity. We never lose hope for someone's salvation but it is very sad.

A big part of this comes from setting expectations. Jesus uses very strong language to talk about how hard and how long the struggle is that He is calling us to. He gets it. Sin is a serious problem and requires a serious solution. Sure there will be joys along the way but there will also be days where all you can think about is how hard the Christian life is and how slow the progress has been. You need to be ready for those days.
Unfortunately there are many Christian evangelists who don't set the expectations very realistically. They put you on the road to heaven but give you no idea how hard that road will be. Some even tell you not to worry about persevering until the end. These are very dangerous heresies.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Abp Chaput On The Kingdom Of Whatever

Abp Chaput talks about the election and the reformation over at Public Discourse. He goes into a review of Brad Gregory's book The Unintended Reformation. He is a very good writer.
The Reformers’ stress on sola scriptura sought to close the gap between Christian preaching and practice. But it failed at that, while opening a Pandora’s Box of new problems. Competing interpretations of Scripture actually intensified the confusion. Lutherans read Scripture one way, Calvinists another, with varieties of Anglicans, Anabaptists, Baptists, Puritans, Pietists, Methodists, and Quakers veering off into options beyond counting.

Gregory also chronicles the secular philosophers who stepped into the breach. In the place of sola scriptura, the Enlightenment offered wisdom sola ratio. From Descartes, through Hobbes, Spinoza, Rousseau, Kant, Hume, Hegel, and others, on to Heidegger and Levinas and their successors, the great end-run around revealed religion and its traditions began, seeking truth based on human reason alone.

But as Gregory shows, the philosophers fared no better than the Reformers. Competing ideas proliferated. Truth, and answers to life’s big questions, remained disputed. In more recent times, Nietzsche, Foucault, and the post-modernists have been honest enough to say so, scorning the Enlightenment as much as they scorned Christianity. We can see the results in today’s pervasive spirit of irony and skepticism.

As Gregory explains, our culture’s metaphysical chaos has helped shape our politics, economics, and science. No corner of everyday life has gone untouched.
This is such an important truth that only a small sliver of Christians seem to get.  The protestants who get it will obviously convert and become Catholics. There are more and more of them but still a small part of the total protestant picture. The Catholics who get this seem few and far between as well. Some seem intent on living Sola Scriptura in the Catholic Church. Some think it is arrogant and arbitrary to simply declare the religion they were raised in to be the fullness of truth.

Anyway, read the whole thing. Gregory and Chaput do a fine job of expressing what has gone wrong over the last 700 years or so.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Pleasantville And Biblical Womanhood

Morgan Guyton writes an interesting piece on post-modernism and irony at HuffPo:
So Rachel Held Evans is apparently becoming this year's Rob Bell. She's written a book called "A Year of Biblical Womanhood," in which she documents a year of taking absolutely literally a bunch of things that the Bible tells ancient Israelite and first century Palestinian women to do. I haven't yet received my review copy, but from what I hear, it's mischievous in a Tina Fey kind of way, which has predictably rankled the Southern Baptist "bishop" Al Mohler and his crew who made a video about biblical inerrancy in which they called Rachel's book a "mockery" of the Bible, among other things.
I think the reason Al Mohler and people of his mold don't get Christians like Rachel is because they don't speak irony, which is the first language of a large chunk of my generation and younger who inhabit the postmodern world outside the gated communities of suburban megachurchianity. Christians today who want to share the Gospel with any credibility in postmodern culture must learn how to talk like Tina Fey, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, et al. Otherwise our evangelism is about as effective as a black and white "Reefer Madness" video in a junior high health class.
I do think that irony is something post-modern people love but it is not just style. Post-moderns love to poke fun at the sacred. It is a way to make a point but sometimes the method chosen sends another message. That message is that things like the bible don't need to be treated with respect. That they can be spoofed in the same way we spoof politicians. That you don't lose something when you poke fun at the sacred.

I find it interesting that he says irony is the first language of much of his generation. I think he really means profanity is the first language. I don't think that is sustainable long term. Profanity requires people to actually hold something as sacred. Chesterton joked about not being able to profane Thor. Ironically our society can now profane Thor because he is no longer a god of Norse mythology but a movie superhero. Still the point is that profanity as a teaching tool requires people to have the profaned thing on a pedestal. As you profane something it comes down and the profanity stops working.

So when we poke fun at sacred scripture or poke fun at solemn liturgies we lose as we go. Post modern people always point out the crowd loves it. They love it for a while but not for the long term. That is why churches that say shocking things about the bible and do shocking things like have female priests or clown masses will get crowds for a while and then they stop coming. You can't profane something forever.
One of the most important things to understand about the postmodernity through which Christians like Rachel have to navigate is that it's not something that was instigated by the snobby French philosophers who write about it. And it's not "moral relativism." You don't get "infected" by it from majoring in English in college (which is how I learned how to talk about the postmodernity that already exists). 
Actually philosophers do matter. What was the dominant way of thinking among the intellectual elite at one point often becomes dominant in the society a few generations later. Education plays a role in that. The intellectual roots are pretty clear when you look that them. There can be other causes but that one is undeniable one.

Postmodernity does imply moral relativism. They do try and sneak in a few moral absolutes just because the human mind can't avoid doing that but they are being inconsistent.
Postmodernity is the product of an information age that is drowning in layer upon layer of commentary and addicted to scandal and hypocrisy. It is created every time the pundits on TV deconstruct the meticulous calculation behind every word choice that a politician makes, every time a preacher who rages against homosexuals gets sued for molesting little boys, every time a family values newsletter talks about the importance of denouncing the myth of global warming or defending the right to carry concealed weapons. Postmodernity happens every time people my age and younger encounter something that insults our intelligence, and it has nothing to do with elitism, because the kids I taught in high school who have not gone to college are more postmodern than I am.
I don't know that scandal and hypocrisy are new so it isn't that simple. I do think he has a point in that the awareness of different traditions is much stronger. So it is not that some people don't respect their own sense of sacredness. It is that different people call different things sacred. That confuses matters. Some jump to the conclusion that nothing is sacred. That is not logical but it is understandable. It becomes clear that some people must be showing great respect for some things that are not sacred.

For example, Christians respect the bible and Muslims respect the Koran. They can't both be right. The can both be wrong. That does not mean they are both wrong. But if you say Christians are right then you say Muslims give great respect to a book that is filled with errors. Previous generations of Christians didn't think so much about that.
One of the main things that is insulting to the intelligence of people 35-and-under who grew up outside of the Christian homeschool/gated community enclave is the way that "biblical" has come to be used as a code word for issues that are associated with a specific political agenda. That adjective is almost always used in public discourse by evangelical "spokespeople" chosen by the media to talk about homosexuality, abortion or putting wives back in the 1950s kitchen where they belong. 
I have complained about the word "biblical" a lot. It really means "my." That is if someone says, "The Catholics say X and the Lutherans say Y and the bible says Z" what that means is I say Z. As a bible Christian they believe their theology is the biblical theology. Everyone else has the bible wrong. They don't REALLY believe that, not if you challenged them on it, but they talk like that is the case. They will always use the word "biblical" to describe their own ideas. They don't contemplate this but they are really making their own opinion equal to God's opinion. Their don't even have language to describe the difference between the two.
Al Mohler and his buddies can protest that this is all they ever get asked about, but they sure don't seem to mind letting their lips flap. And when June Cleaver is seriously used as a model for women to follow at a "biblical womanhood" conference, it's obvious that a different agenda is at play than a call for Christian women to model their behavior after Sarah, Rebekah, Deborah, Miriam, Hannah, Esther, Mary and the handful of other background female characters that made it into the male-dominated biblical text.
Studying biblical womanhood is interesting. If you don't believe in Sola Scriptura you can say that Christian womanhood has developed since that time. It is interesting how he equates Christianity with 1950. That is not what Mohler or anyone else says. There is the notion that just because you see some good things we have lost since 1950 that you want to role everything back to that time. To me it seems obvious you want to keep the good changes and roll back the bad ones. That is easier said than done but the principle should not be that hard to understand. 
That's why Rachel had to write her book -- because somebody needed to say that there are Christians who take the Bible seriously who don't confuse it with black and white Pleasantville reruns. In order to establish credibility among a generation that has very legitimate reasons to be cynical, a postmodern evangelist like Rachel has to let her audience know that she's not blind to the things that make her audience cynical. The trouble is you can't be taken seriously in the world our generation inhabits if you get your undies in a bunch over sass and sarcasm. I have wrestled with this a lot as a blogger myself. I am often accused of throwing other Christians under the bus, but in my view, Christians my age who aren't oblivious to the real challenges and stumbling blocks of reaching our generation have been thrown under the bus by those who have conflated the gospel with Fifties nostalgia. And I don't think I have to be polite to them if being sassy will help my non-Christian friends know that we aren't all like Ned Flanders.
You have to be careful. You need to progress but you can't disassociate yourself from previous generations of Christians. If you say their spirituality was all wrong and their morals were wrong in some important ways then why should anyone believe you have it right now? To say we can be sure Christianity is right in today's culture means we have to say Christianity was always and everywhere right. Otherwise we are saying Jesus blew it for women in 1950 but we are pretty sure He won't blow it for you today.
When I look at how Jesus interacted with the Pharisees and what Paul had to say about his theological opponents, it sure doesn't look like they were constrained by the pseudo-morality of the privileged that we call politeness. They called a spade a spade often quite rudely out of solidarity with the people who had been damaged by the bad theology of their opponents. Now I do agree that there is mockery that is just mockery, but there is also a legitimate role for teaching that follows Jesus' model of "You have heard it said ... but I tell you..." in order to let the rapidly expanding crowd of the ex-churched and never-churched know that the Pharisaic hypocrisy that made them leave the church or never consider it is not the only Christianity that's out there.
It comes down to authority. When Jesus said, "You have heard it said ... but I tell you..."He was claiming for Himself the authority to rework the Torah. That does not means every blogger has that authority. It means Jesus does. St Paul had a position of authority as well. That is how doctrine develops. Someone with authority has to declare the Christian understanding of this has changed. The trouble is that in the protestant world everyone has authority or nobody does. The truth is guys like Mohler do stand out. Still there is no way to be sure who to listen to.

Catholics are in much better shape. We have a pope and we have bishops. We can follow them. On abortion and homosexuality they have been clear. On he role of women in society there is lots of interesting discussion.
I realize that a subset of our country's population will never be postmodern. They're frightened (legitimately) by the fragmentation of our world and so they flee to a gated community where life is simple and safe and structured. I don't judge them, but I don't think those are the only sheep that Jesus wants. There are so many smart kids growing up today who have gifts that God wants to use in His kingdom even though they would never be able to live in Pleasantville or believe that a guy named Jonah really spent three days without oxygen not being dissolved by the stomach acid of a whale (as if 2 Timothy 3:16 prohibits God from breathing out legends that are useful for teaching and equipping disciples). Rather than ridicule their "sophistication" and name it as spiritual pride, it is worth stepping out on the treacherous tight-rope of speaking the postmodern world's language without getting sucked down into its nihilism. Not everyone has this mission field, but Rachel does.
He is not really doing that good a job of not judging. You can feel his contempt for evangelicals coming through loud and clear. Nevertheless, there are situations where the church must ask people out of obedience to beleive something the culture sees as silly.There are other situations where the church should embrace a new and better understanding of the faith. The key is to know which is which. That is what the gift of binding and loosing is about. Jesus gave it to the apostles and their successors still have it. Without it we can't be sure whether we should bind the faithful to a more literal interpretation of Jonah or anything else.

He is right that too much binding will cause people to reject Christ. The problem on the other side that he seems to be ignoring is real too. Too little binding will let the faith get lost in the thinking of the culture. That is the trouble with liberal and conservative Protestantism. Each chooses to ignore one one danger to avoid the other. It does not work. We need the grace of God. He gives it through the offices of bishop and pope. We just need to cooperate with it.
Furthermore, the Pleasantville to which many evangelicals think we need to return is not the kingdom; it's actually the reason that many Christians today do not live in the kingdom. How are we so sure that Pleasantville is not the worldliness that Jesus calls us to leave behind? The ancient church fathers defined "the world" in terms of wealth and privilege, not exposure to MTV. So if Rachel's satire is helpful to calling out our Pleasantvilles, then it is beneficial not only to the ex and never-churched, but also to Christians whose nostalgia for white picket fences compromises their ability to join the company of the crucified. If Rachel's book is anything like her blog posts, then her mischief is a subversive way of tricking us postmoderns into engaging in serious Bible study without realizing that's what we're doing. I'll be able to say more once I get my copy.
I don't know which evangelicals he is talking about when he says they are all about  Pleasantville. Al Mohler is the only one he mentioned and I would not say that about him or about most other evangelicals. If satire is supposed to work it has to ring true to some extent and not just play on false stereotypes.

I don't know why he thinks the early church fathers would have liked MTV. This is a false choice. They could see dangers in wealth and privilege and also see dangers in lust. In fact, they did.

Now he goes to the book in the last couple of lines. Can Rachel Held Evan's book be a good thing for postmoderns? It can.I am not as optimistic as he is. Tricking people into serious bible study is not really possible. You can trick them into actually considering an invitation to look into the bible deeper. She might do that. Still they have to change gears. They have to stop looking for things that might embarrass evangelicals and start looking for things that will speak to their heart.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Baptists And Saints

An interesting article from a Baptist on the communion of  the saints.
A number of years ago a student came to me with an interesting pastoral situation. His mother had died in a car wreck about a year before. After working hard on his grief, he had begun to ask some questions about her status in the afterlife.
“Does my mother know anything about my life, or is she just kind of a zombie?” he asked. “Will she know when I get married, when I have children, what happens in my life?
Then she reflects on the great cloud of witness from Hebrews 12 and says:
I responded to my student by saying that yes, his mother would be aware of his life and would take enduring interest in it. I suggested that it would be OK to talk with her and share the significant passages of life with her. I assured him that she was with Christ and would be reunited with him in resurrection to the life everlasting.
He was comforted. And I would suggest the same for us. While we are not trying to spring our relatives out of purgatory by buying indulgences, we must remember those who have gone before us and intercede for their well-being. We may also be confident that their concern for us is an instrument of grace, as well.
Other than the semi-obligatory comment denying purgatory this is a very good reflection on the Catholic doctrine of saints. It is very simple. If we believe our dead loved ones still live then why should we stop being concerned about them and why should they stop be concerned about us? If their prayers were powerful and effective on earth (Ja 5:16) then why should they be any less so in heaven?

She even goes the other direction and talks about interceding for their well-being. I am not sure how that makes logical sense if you deny purgatory but it does make emotional sense. Again, we prayed for their spiritual health while they were on earth, why stop?

When it comes to men and women more widely known for their holiness it is just as intuitive. Should I be able to ask Mother Teresa to pray for me? Why not? For that matter, why not St Paul? If they are really alive would they not want to help people like me just as much as they did when they walked the earth? You have some issues with numbers, how many people can one saint help? But why not try?

So what is the problem? I think it is related to the difficulty protestants have in defining what it means to be a Christian. When we proclaim saints we define the faith. Who are the spiritual giants we should be looking up to? Does it just include those in your own tradition? Does it include Catholics? Does it include anybody before the reformation? This would force protestants to compare their faith with the faith of the most respected Christians in history. I can see why they don't want to go there.