Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Pope Francis And The Self-Referential Church

You have to love our new pope. He talks a lot about the church being self-referential. What he means by that is that church people are overly concerned about the opinions of other church people and not concerned enough about interacting with people outside the church. That does not mean we change the gospel to suit what people outside the church want. What it does mean is we want to make sure the people in society encounter God's goodness, God's truth, and God's beauty through us.

I remember on Price Caspian, Peter and Caspian had a debate. Peter wanted to go out an fight. Caspian wanted to stay in the fortress and remain relatively safe. Peter points out that eventually the fortress would become a tomb. Of course the church can never die but the point still applies. If we are afraid of the battle and hide behind a defensive wall we are not being what the church is meant to be.

Pope Benedict once pointed out that this was a key difference between the old covenant and the new covenant. The old covenant had defensive barriers. It was focused on Israel so there were ethnic, political and cultural barriers. God actually made the cultural barriers larger by giving them a lot of rules, no pork, circumcision, ceremonial washing, etc. One reason why these rules were no longer required in the new covenant was because the grace we had through Jesus and the Eucharist was greater. We now had spiritual weapons strong enough to open the gates and attack the enemy strongholds!

The trouble is that when the church encounters new challenges we tend to forget that we are supposed to be on offense. People start asking hard questions about the relationship between faith and science or the relationship between faith and sexuality and it just becomes way easier to avoid those topics or just discuss them with other strong Catholics. After all, if you get in an argument with a secular person you might say something wrong and make things a lot worse. Pope Francis explicitly says he would rather run the risk of church people going into society and messing up than the risk of shutting the church doors and having secular people mess up on their own.

I do hope people listen. One of the things I found in interacting with non-Catholics is it forces you to grow. You do mess up but then you go educate yourself because you don't want to mess up again. Sometimes that education challenges you to change what you believe and how you live. It is a very good thing.

I do think Pope Francis' way of asking people, especially priests, to get out more is a lot stronger than Pope Benedict ever did it. Yes, I did remember his catechisis on the old and new covenant where he makes that point but that is pretty easy to miss. Yes, he talked about the New Evangelization a lot but people were not sure exactly what that meant. Pope Francis seems to have gotten this point through.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Hell And Objective Moraltiy

Atheist philosopher Dan Fincke has a post on why he resents being told he is going to hell. Then he has a series of posts on objective morality. He thinks he can get to objective morality through reason. I don't see it. No matter how well he argues for a moral principle being objective and binding on all humans he always has to deal with the person that says, "I disagree." Then what? In what sense does this objective moral principle still apply to the person who disagrees?

This is where his objection to hell becomes a bit of a contradiction. Christian objective morality is objective precisely because simply ignoring it has consequences. It has supernatural consequences. If it had only natural consequences you might say it is not a moral principle at all but rather a principle of cause and effect. So a principle like:
People should not lie or else others will not trust them
That is not really moral. That is just a principle of logic. If you do A then B will result. It does not actually assert that B is bad. It just says A causes B so if B is bad then A should be avoided. So this is more of a statement of social science than morality.

What you need is more than statements about how to get certain results in human relations. Moral principles need to go beyond natural, measurable results. It needs to make precise what man desires when he wants to be good. Suppose you did that. You spelled out precisely what was good and what was evil. Why should we care? Does there not need to be some reason to pursue good and avoid evil?

That makes me wonder about his scoffing at the idea of heaven and hell. Has he not made his whole objective morality irrelevant? If there is no equivalent of heaven and hell then all you can get for being good are the things that naturally flow from being good. In other words you are back to the principles of cause and effect. You might also get a gold star from Prof. Fincke as well but mostly you are hoping to get some pain and pleasure benefit in this life.

You might argue that a particular moral system will give you better results long term than if you used other non-moral decision-making methods. But that would just be true until a better method came along. If we could get a more accurate cause and effect model then we could ditch morality. Again that does not seem like a moral system but just an indirect way of getting the best result for me.

Only a supernatural reality can explain why we should care about good and evil regardless of their natural consequences. Once you dismiss that possibility then you are down to what people subjectively see as good and evil. A goodness that people are willing to give up something material get. As soon as someone rejects the moral principle then it no longer applies to them. It might be stupid for them to ignore it but it would not be immoral.

Lastly, you wonder how he can every argue for a morality in a way that is significantly more convincing that people's arguments for God. I can see people dismissing arguments for God. It is not hard to be hyper-skeptical and demand absolute proof for every premise. But if you want to turn around and argue that some objective morality does exists then you are in trouble. This same skepticism will shoot down any argument you try and make.

If you do get past that and accept that virtues exist, or some such moral entities, then you need to explain how they came to be, why we should order our lives towards them, and how we can know what they are. This was the path that led Leah Libresco to the Catholic faith.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Is Atheism A Christian Heresy?

I was thinking more about what I wrote yesterday on liberals trying to be true to the heart of Christianity but not the the rules and doctrines of Christianity. I thought about one definition of heresy that I like. That heresy is over-emphasizing one part of Christianity and using it to destroy other parts. Arianism emphasized the humanity of Jesus at the expense of His divinity. Protestantism emphasizes a personal spirituality with Jesus and me and my bible at the expense of the church and the sacraments. Not that what they emphasize is wrong. It is out of balance. It needs to be understood in relation to other truths of the faith.

In that light it is easy to see liberal Christianity as a heresy. They have emphasized the mercy and love of God at the expense of our response. Especially sexual morality is lost but also the importance of personal salvation and authentic worship. It is in line with what secular anthropologists say about religion. That it is useful not really because the doctrines are true but because it encourages a morality that helps human society to flourish. Many liberal Christians would agree. They would affirm the truth of many of the main doctrines of Christianity but not their importance. Who cares if Jesus literally rose from the dead. Christianity ushered in a society that was less barbaric than the Roman empire. That is what matters.

Once you have Christianity reduced to a positive social development then what do you believe about its future? You either believe it will continue to play a positive role or you don't. We may or may not have found a better way of forming the consciences of citizens. We have learned some important moral principles during the Christian period that we want to retain but we can have those in a post-Christian society as well. Can't we?

How you answer that question determines whether you become atheist or remain a liberal Christian. But even those that go all the way to atheism retain large sections of Christian morality. They more than retain it. The use it to destroy the rest of Christianity in much the same way other heretics do.

The two things they focus on are the importance of reducing human suffering and the value of human reason. Those are things they import from Christianity. If you ask them why they believe those things they cannot explain it. Like asking a protestant why he believes the bible is true. It is just foundational and is never questioned. But then they use those tools to defeat other Christian doctrines. One being the existence of God.

It is odd how many argue that God must not exist because the bible records Him causing human suffering in various places. We know reason is valid and we know suffering is wrong so God must not exist. The problem with this is that suffering is not always bad. Still atheists go on and on with moral outrage. There is a myth that atheists have no morality. In some ways they should not but they do. They are often very zealous about right and wrong. They are often very Christian too. They know we should not judge others. They know that hatred and violence are wrong. They believe in the dignity of the poor and the handicapped. They believe in equality. They believe in education.

If you suggest to them they believe these truths because Christianity taught them they just don't accept that. Like when you tell a protestant that he only knows the New Testament is the word of God because the Catholic Church told him. It is just something everybody knows. You can't give you religion credit for that. But why does everybody know it? How long before it is questioned? When it is questioned what will be your answer?

So atheism flows from Christianity. Doesn't it cease to be a Christian heresy when it denies all the major doctrines of Christianity? Not really. Islam is often called a Christian heresy. It denies some pretty important doctrines like the truth of the bible and the crucifixion of Jesus. So the fact that they wandered very far on some fronts does not make them cease to be a heresy. You can look at many small Christian splinter groups and find some very wild doctrines.

So what is the advantage of thinking of atheism this way? It makes sense of the link between liberal Christianity and atheism. They share much in common. Liberal Christians still might go to church once in a while and say nice things about the bible but in practice their thinking is similar to that of atheists. It is very confusing because when you talk about atheism or secularism or whatever you call it different people put liberal Christians in very different categories and therefore paint very different pictures of the prevalence of atheism. I think of it as a dominant ideology in our society. Some talk about it as a small minority of around 1% because that is how many self-identify as atheist. The point is the self-identified atheists are just one very vocal form of this larger heresy. If it was only the 1% nobody would care.

The other reason it makes sense to me is that modern western atheism does not make sense apart from Christianity. Many atheists would disagree with this but so much of their value system is borrowed or stolen from  Christianity. They all believe in human rights. Why? They will never admit they took that from Christianity and really don't have a solid rational basis for it within their own creed. They like to think of themselves as people who went back to first principles and reconstructed a worldview based on pure reason. If that was true they would disagree on almost everything. Reason without tradition does that. The truth is they share a pretty strong tradition and much of it is Christian. Atheists get offended by this suggestion but I actually think it is a compliment. Christian tradition is a good thing.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Progressive And Conservative

When discussing religion and politics we always seem to get the two camps. We have the "people of faith" that want to conserve our values and our way of life. Then you have the progressives who are not drive by faith but by scholarship. They are ready to question everything and move society forward. The trouble is both are wrong.

Both are trying to hold on to what was good about Christianity. Conservatives want to hold on to the rules. If we can just get rid of the pornography and the abortions and gay marriage and get back to praying in schools then God will be happy with us and we will be blessed. Progressives want to hold onto the heart of Christianity. As long as we love it can't be bad. So follow you feelings. Don't follow rules.

On the surface it would seem the progressives would do better. I mean the greatest commandment is to love, isn't it? If you get that right the details should be relatively unimportant, right? Not exactly. If you had true love and true commandments then love would be greater. The commandments depend on love and not the other way around. But we don't have that. We have distorted love and distorted commandments. That flips things around. Love get distorted a lot quicker than commandments do.

The quote at the top of the blog says, "Without truth, charity degenerates into sentimentality. Love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way." That is where we are at. We have lost track of truth. Since the reformation the Christian faith has divided and divided. Protestantism has questioned almost everything and settled almost nothing. So we have had Christians becoming sentimentalists. The trouble is a sentimental argument can be made for anything. So Pope Benedict is right. You can always say you are doing the loving thing and accuse the other side of being full of hate. 

So progressives errors are often worse then conservative errors. That is accepting abortion and gay marriage is worse than neglecting the environment or not providing health care to the poor. The trouble is that accepts a false choice. That you have to pick between the progressive camp and the conservative camp. Hanging onto rules is not always the right answer either. The right to bear arms was just a mistake. We don't need to hang on to that rule. What we need is the ability to ground love properly in truth. Then we will know which rules we should conserve and which ones need a progressive rethink. 

That sounds like progressive thinking. The question is where do we get this truth? Progressives get it from whatever is fashionable among society's intellectual elite. The assumption is that man is smart enough to save himself. That if we just get the best minds together then society will get better and better and the sky is the limit. 

The trouble is sin. Sin is not a problem that can be solved by smart people. In fact, sin can make very smart people embrace very stupid ideas. So society comes to the conclusion that pornography is wonderful not because it is wonderful but because the intellectual elite is made up of sinners. Since they are smart people they think every idea that appeals to them must be brilliant. But being smart is not the highest goal of man. 

In fact, being smart is not even helpful in becoming a truly good person. It is just another talent that can be used for good or evil. We don't get that. That is why "doctor assisted suicide" is more popular than just suicide. You don't need  medical degree to kill someone. We just assume since the doctor is smart that the doctor is moral. It isn't true. Doctors are no more moral than welders. Yet nobody talks about "welder assisted suicide." 

So we need to get truth but we need to get truth about what is the greatest good of man. Just the opinions of some smart guys is not enough. If we don't get that then any chance we have at progress is pretty much finished. We don't know what progress looks like. 

There is good news. There is the grace of God. He tells us what is true and noble and pure and right. We just need to be willing to accept that grace. We need to be willing to accept it through the church. That is unthinkable for progressives. But that is what true progress looks like. Actually progressing towards something rather than just chasing your tail. 

This is unthinkable for conservatives as well. Putting God at the center seems like an idea they would like but only when it is God as they understand Him. When a progressive idea becomes old it can actually become a conservative idea. Contraception is a good example. Progressives will notice that conservatives used to oppose contraception and most of them no longer do. They like to think that this is typical. That progressives are always right and the conservatives are just a little slow to notice they are right. They eventually do come around and forget to thank the progressives for making society better. The trouble is they didn't make society better. We just have a strong consensus around a bad idea. 

Without the grace of the church there would be no way to know what needs to be conserved. So conservatism ends up fighting the wrong battles. They end up just wanting the values from 100 years ago. Not all the time, things like racial equality and gender equality they would not roll back. They don't have a consistent rule. It is more of a suspiciousness towards change. They are right a lot because progressives push more bad idea then good ones. When they have a really bad idea they push it really hard. 

Anyway, being Catholic allows you to be the ultimate progressive and the ultimate conservative. You don't have to pretend every new idea is awesome. You don't have to pretend every new idea is evil. The church will identify the truly awful ones. Most of the rest are probably pretty good. At least to the point where we can try them and see if life gets any better and reverse the changes that don't improve things. 

The evil changes like abortion, contraception, and gay marriage  are not reversible without some serious divine intervention. It has to get ugly where society turns on the church. The church is the body of Christ. Just like Christ's physical body suffered on the cross for the sins of the world and won salvation, Christ's mystical body suffers for sins and saves the very people who inflict the pain on her. It can make being Catholic very interesting.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Is Atheism Immoral?

I was interested in one throw away comment on another blog. Someone said atheist was wrong but then added in parenthesis that is was factually wrong and not morally wrong. I wonder about that. If faith is a virtue then lack of faith would be a vice. Look at John 3:18:
He who believes in him is not condemned; he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.
Jesus here is calling unbelief a sin.  Then there is Rom 1:18-23:
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles.
So Paul is saying that much of the time people know on some level some truth about God that they are refusing to believe. There are two questions to think of here. Is atheism itself immoral? And are atheists fully culpable for that immoral act? The first answer seems like a clear Yes. The second answer can be different for each atheist. The two factors are freedom and ignorance. How free they were to make the choice they made? Was there intense pressure? Secondly, was their invincible ignorance? That is a lack of knowledge that could not be easily overcome because of strong bias they got from their culture.

The church says we should not judge these questions of ignorance and freedom. They require a heart knowledge of the atheist in question that we cannot have. So we should leave that judgement to God. When the person in question is ourselves we should always assume we are fully culpable. We might not be but we should not use that as an excuse.

What happens is that some Catholics judge atheists and say they are going to hell. Then some other Catholics react to that mistake and judge atheists the other way. They assure them they are going to heaven. Both are errors. We need to tell atheists that their unbelief might well cost them their eternal soul but we cannot know that.

Anyway, that is not the really interesting question. What I was thinking about is where we get the idea that false belief systems are not immoral. We see that having a false belief about sexual morality and acting on it by committing an immoral act would be immoral. Still when we switch the example to having a false believe about theology and acting on it by committing an immoral act then we often don't see that is immoral. We seem to be OK with sins against God. When someone blasphemes God or someone worships someone or something but refuses to worship God. We give people a pass for bad theology but not for bad morality.

I think it goes back to the doctrinal agnosticism we got from the protestant reformation. The slogan was faith alone but the actual content of that faith became a big question mark. At the beginning the different branches would condemn each other to hell. If you believed the wrong thing about the Lord's Supper or baptism you were just lost. But it became impractical after a while. Matters of doctrine that effected faith and worship but did not directly effect morals were kind of relegated to a lower class. Disagreeing about polygamy like the Mormons did was still a big deal. Things like sacraments, liturgy, and the trinity? Those things were no big deal. They could not practically be a big deal because such disagreements were so common.

What does that do? It inverts the commandments. See Mark 12:28-31:
And one of the scribes came up and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, asked him, “Which commandment is the first of all?” Jesus answered, “The first is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is this, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these.”
What we end up with in practice is the second commandment being taken a lot more seriously than the first. Matters involving loving God with all you heart, soul, mind and strength are places where agreeing to disagree reigns supreme. Matters involving loving your neighbor? We don't agree to disagree about those. We need to know what to expect from our fellow citizens from different faith traditions. In practice, for the first few centuries after the reformation the Christian morals about how to treat other people went pretty much unchallenged. Even today much of it is but in the last century we have the exceptions of sexual morality and abortion. So even that is breaking down and will continue to break down.

But this unspoken idea that false beliefs about God are not really a big deal has infected even Catholic thinking. Catholics, of course, don't have nearly as much doctrinal uncertainty. We believe God reveals Himself through the church so matters of pure theology can be resolved definitively. Yet we don't treat them with the same seriousness. We even wonder of there is anything morally wrong with denying that God exists. If you are a nice guy and you pay your taxes and don't cheat on your wife then what is the big deal? Jesus thought it was a big deal or he would not have put loving God as the #1 commandment. St Paul thought it was a big deal or he would not have said "for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened." If we really believe God belongs at the center then we need to be clear. Getting God wrong is a moral matter. Faith is a virtue. The content of faith matters.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Labels And Churches

Craig Groschel has a piece on FOX about religious decline in America.
Recent research indicates that the number of people who do not consider themselves a part of an organized religion is steadily on the rise.
Interestingly enough, though the number of those religiously unaffiliated is increasing, there is little to no trend in the number of those who express atheist or agnostic beliefs. People aren’t saying they don’t believe in God. They’re saying they don’t believe in religion. They are not rejecting Christ. They are rejecting the church.
It is interesting that people are not winning to go all the way and say they are atheist or agnostic. There is a connection that people don't want to break completely. Still rejecting the church is rejecting Christ. Remember affiliated in this context does not mean you actually go to church. It just means there is a church you feel connected with. Maybe you were raised in that faith but have not attended in a while. That is what we are losing.
This begs the question, “Why are we losing our religion?”
The growing number of people who don’t identify as part of an organized religion speaks to an increasing wariness of labels in our culture.
Some may be losing their religion, but I challenge the notion that faith in general is waning.
I believe, instead, the trend of people who don’t identify as part of an organized religion speaks to an increasing wariness of labels in our culture. Those labels carry baggage for many who might have been hurt by the Church or let down by religion.
Labels do have more baggage now. Why? Because Christians are attacked more in the culture. Gay marriage has certainly made it very acceptable to hate Christians. So more inactive church members are preferring to identify themselves as unaffiliated rather than Catholic or Presbyterian or whatever. I am not sure that is a bad thing. It means people see a cost to calling themselves Christian. Some are willing to pay it and some are not. I think that is better than when the label meant very little. 
You see, religion alone can only take a person so far. Religion can make us nice, but only Christ can make us new. Religion focuses on outward behavior. Relationship is an inward transformation. Religion focuses on what I do, while relationship centers on what Jesus did. Religion is about me. Relationship is about Jesus.
So what does relationship with no religion imply? I say I know Jesus but my outward behavior does not change?   First of all, the unaffiliated do not claim to know Jesus. They do not say they are atheists but to assume they have some sort of relationship with God is a bit of a stretch.

If they did have a relationship with God and remained unaffiliated what would that mean? Probably very little. Most people need a religion to push them into real change. It is just too easy to assume what God wants and what we want are basically the same. Religion allows God to use other people to reveal His will to you. That is when real change is possible.

This is why choosing a church is so important. People say that as long as you have a relationship with Jesus which church you go to does not matter. That is nonsense. That is precisely when which church you go to matters a lot. If you have not given your life to Jesus then you can ignore your church. When you want to serve Jesus you will follow the teaching of your church.
In order to become a new person, we need Christ. Only through an active ongoing relationship with Jesus can we become transformed and overcome the labels that bind us.
Yes we can. But we need to understand that the main way this happens is through the church.  Yes that means we get a new label. That is good. When we get adopted into a family we get a new name. That is the biblical view of church. It is the family of God. It is your new identity in Christ.

New converts naturally trust the church they end up in much like a child trusts their parents.As we grow in the faith we internalize what we have been taught. It become a part of our conscience. Still we need to understand that the church we pick is the source of almost all of it. This is why it is good that the creed says, "I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church." We really need a supernatural church. Something that is purely a human institution will not do.
In fact, I’ve struggled with what people think of my label: pastor. For many, this label carries emotional baggage.
When I meet someone new, I get to talk to him or her like a regular person. We joke around, talk about our families, and then the inevitable happens. “What do you do for a living?” When I answer this question, I typically get one of two responses. I either get an onslaught of Christianese phrases -- “Oh, praise the Lord! What a blessing, brother Craig!” or I get stonewalled, and the conversation dies as quickly as it started. 
When people are consecrated as holy then they get different reactions. All holy things divide people like that. Some are drawn to the holy. Some are repelled by it. This is a good thing but it can be hard for a consecrated man.
One time when this happened, the person I was talking with politely shared that he didn’t like religious people. I chimed in that I didn’t like religious people either. His mouth nearly dropped to the floor. I explained that religion is about rules, but being a Christian is about relationship.
What kind of relationship has no rules? Certainly not a close relationship with a holy God. If that does not require any accommodation  on our part it is because we have imagined the gap between God and us is much smaller than it is. It is a good line for shock value but I would hope it is not true. It would certainly mean he does not like me. If I reacted that way he would probable withdraw the comment immediately. It reminds me of a man trying to find the right line to pick up a woman at a bar. It is a cheap manipulation and not the heart reaching out to heart dynamic that evangelism is meant to be.
Now I’m not saying is that religious organizations are useless. Obviously, I’m a part of one. I am the pastor of a church and truly believe what Bill Hybels asserts: “The local church is the hope of the world.” But in order to reach the current generation and generations to come, we must change the way we do things. That’s why we like to say, “To reach people no one is reaching, we have to do things no one is doing.”
If you just get rid of the word "local" then Bill Hybels is right. He is especially right to say "the church" rather than "a church." We need to admit we want people to join the old-fashioned church that everyone has labeled. It is ancient and yet forever new.
As churches, we don’t have the liberty to change the message, but we must change the way the message is presented. We have to discover our "altar ego"—and become who God says we are instead of who others say we are.
The problem is the protestants are at liberty to change the message. The message should not change but it does. Often the message is changed with just this slogan. That is they claim to be just changing the presentation. But how we worship is deeply connected to what we believe. So if we make the sermons more funky and less exegetical we have changed what we believe about how God speaks to us. If we make our services less liturgical and more contemporary we have changed what we believe about how God should be worshiped. God becomes less holy and more someone we can approach casually.
Peeling off the labels that cling to our reputation brings great freedom for us as individuals and as the global body of believers known as the Church. Only when we push past those artificial constraints can we truly become who God created us to be.
What if the label was not artificial? What if the label simply says what God created the Church to be? That is what Catholic says. The church for all of us. That is what Catholic means. The church for everyone. People really are done with thousands of churches with thousands of different labels. But the solution is not to avoid church entirely. It is to go back to the one church for everyone. The way it was for the first thousand years of Christianity and the only way it really works.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Two Kinds Of Freedom

Nick made a comment on my post about Leibniz. I was saying that Leibniz' universal language would make humans less free. He envisioned many of the matters of faith and morals could one day be resolved by calculating. We are not free to reject the results of calculating the way we are free to reject the preaching of the gospel. Nick's objection was interesting:
You seem to be saying that if person is unable to go against what they know to be true, then they're not truly free. Pope Leo XIII quoted St Augustine on this very point, who said that argument cannot be right, because God is supremely free and is unable to go against what He knows to be true. So being free does not depend on being able to choose the wrong, it means being able to choose between different goods. The fact we can choose the wrong is a limitation/defect due to the fact we are finite: which is why even when we choose what we know is wrong, we do so seeing some apparent good in the choice.
I find this distinction to be useful. The freedom to choose between different goods on the one hand and the freedom to choose between good and evil on the other. The first kind of freedom is what Christians talk about when they say they are free. It is only really experienced when we choose good over evil. Sin enslaves us. So the more we sin the less free we are. So we must first choose to turn from sin to experience this freedom.

The second freedom, the freedom to choose good or evil, is the one modern society is obsessed with. When people talk about protecting a woman's right to choose they mean this freedom. When people talk about the freedom to marry who you want they mean this freedom. But this kind of freedom is not there so that you can do anything you want with it. It is more like the freedom you give someone when you know they won't do anything stupid.

Like when you give a child the freedom to cross the road by himself. There is a dignity there. But his freedom does not depend on him potentially running in front of a car. Quite the opposite. It depends on him understanding that he never wants to do that. The true freedom of crossing the road comes when you get that. Then you can safely walk anywhere you want in the city. That is a much greater freedom than the freedom to run in front of a moving car.

So focusing on our freedom to choose evil if we want deprives us of the greater freedom that comes from choosing the good consistently. We can go out into the world of dangerous ideas and dangerous temptations and fear no evil because we have learned to trust God. We are free to be sources of truth and beauty and goodness.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Wax On Bell

Trevin Wax reviews Rob Bell's latest book. After saying some nice things about the book he gets into an interesting topic of dogma and certainty. 

Unfortunately, the strengths of the book are outweighed by the vagueness of Bell’s talk of talking about God. Nowhere is this more evident than his treatment of traditional Christian teaching. For example, Bell chides religious people for their certainty. He believes certainty about God has limits. We have to leave the door open for mystery. Knowing always takes place in the middle of unknowing. People who talk with too much certainty about God are attractive because people want to be right, but we should resist the allure of the religious know-it-all.
Wax is protestant. So he does not believe in infallibility. At least not an explicit doctrine of infallibility. But conservative protestants really don't believe that things basically all Christians have taught strongly for a long time are open to change. Deep down inside they believe those doctrines are irreformable. They hate it when somebody like Rob Bell comes along and pretends disagreeing with such teaching is no big deal. They know it is a big deal but can't say why.
It’s true that the Christian should have the humility to recognize that no one has exhaustive knowledge of God or truth. To point out our finiteness is not only humble; it’s really the way things are! There is no way to know everything we could know when we talk about God. But Bell seems to make the jump from humility due to our inability to have exhaustive knowledge to the newly defined “humility” that says we can’t have certainty about anything.
How do you get certainty in the Sola Scriptura world? You assert that your biblical interpretation is right. That it has to be right. That anyone who says it is wrong is seriously defective. They are either dishonest or uneducated or under the spell of some false tradition or something. That is not a humble stance.

You cannot point to the consistent teaching of the church like Catholics would because you don't accept that as reliable. But it is not only reliable it is also humble. You are not saying you are right. You are saying the church is right. 
Certainty is suspect. Except, of course, when it comes to the certainty of the harm traditional theology can cause. On this, Bell leaves no room for ambiguity. Our view of God may be foggy, but our view of fundamentalists is clear.
This is an important point. Rejecting the idea of infallibility is self-refuting unless you admit you could be wrong. So you never want to be certain of anything including your principle of uncertainty. But how can you implement a principle that effects so much of your thinking without being sure about it? It makes the faith unlivable.

Bell writes:
You can believe something with so much conviction that you’d die for that belief, and yet in the same moment you can also say, “I could be wrong…”
This is because conviction and humility, like faith and doubt, are not opposites; they’re dance partners. It’s possible to hold your faith with open hands, living with great conviction and yet at the same time humbly admitting that your knowledge and perspective will always be limited.” (93)
Then Wax responds:
First, it’s hard to imagine martyrs giving their lives when they think they might be wrong. Nothing would cause me to rethink and renege on my certainty than facing a lion in a coliseum.
Not just this. When we face hard moral choices in a relativist culture we will often be told that morals will change. Christians say abortion is wrong now but that might change in a few years. If someone is looking at a very scary future if they do the right thing how are they going to react if you can't even teach that principle with any certainty? The same logic applies to gay marriage and a host of other moral issues. When the stakes are high we want to be certain before we do something the culture says is stupid.
Secondly, notice how Bell says we should have conviction and humility, as if these two things are opposites, like faith and doubt. He appears to see “humility” not as the gracious stance of someone who has tasted and seen the Lord is good, but as the willingness to hold doctrines loosely, as if certainty and humility can’t coincide.
Like I said before, Sola Scriptora creates tension between the two. It requires you to assert truth rather than bow before truth.  The focus is not on the office but on how convincing the person is.
Ironically, his description of fundamentalism centers on the elimination of paradox:
When a leader comes along who eliminates the tension and dodges the paradox and neatly and precisely explains who the enemies are and gives black-and-white answers to questions, leaving little room for the very real mystery of the divine, it should not surprise us when that person gains a large audience. Especially if that person is really, really confident. (93)
There is a bit of a pot kettle issue here. It reminds me of politicians calling the other candidate arrogant. Really every teacher is trying to get you to make them your personal pope. That is they want you to treat their interpretation of scripture as the authoritative one. Rob bell does that. Trevin Wax does that. Really every protestant pastor does. They want you to listen to them and not the guy in the church down the street. Is there arrogance in that? Big time.

Do Catholics have the same issue? Not really. There is always some temptation towards pride but Catholic leaders do have the option of pointing to the church rather than themselves as the source of their teaching. Even the pope can do this. Then the teacher can become just another person begging for the grace to be able to live this teaching.
What’s interesting is that, in reading the rest of the book, Bell eliminates more paradoxes than traditional Christian teaching does.
Of course, nobody is going to sell books by being wishy-washy.  Anyway, I shall leave the rest because it is getting long and I mostly agree with everything he says from here out. There is the frequent use of the phrase "traditional Christianity" which is a cheat to try and refer to an authoritative teaching without actually accepting an authority. But what he says about Bell is right on.
It’s traditional Christianity that portrays God as holy and wrathful against sin while being gracious and loving towards the sinner. For all Bell’s talk about embracing “both/and,” it’s his vision of Christianity that emphasizes God being for us, to the exclusion of any idea that God would stand over us in judgment.

Traditional Christianity doesn’t just include “both” but “triple” truths – God against us in our sin, God instead of us as sinners, and God for us as the Justifier. Far from diluting the beauty of God in His transcendence, traditional Christian dogma leaves us with unresolvable tensions and paradoxes galore: free will and sovereignty, God in us and yet distinct from us, the Trinity, the inclusive call to salvation from an exclusive Savior. The list goes on.

The paradoxes of traditional Christianity multiply in ways that stimulate the imagination. Bell’s teaching lacks that kind of substance. Bell’s book goes down easy, kind of like whipped cream without the cake. God is ahead of us, beckoning society forward, and (how convenient!) it just so happens to be in the direction that society is already headed. Who would have thought?

Oddly enough, after reading this book, I came to the conclusion Rob Bell is a fundamentalist of a different sort. In fact, I could apply his warning to himself, adding to his own words:
When a leader comes along who eliminates the tension (between wrath and love, or immanence and transcendence) and dodges the paradox (between judgment and grace) and neatly and precisely explains who the enemies are (traditional Christians) and gives black-and-white answers to questions (such as, you can’t be humble and certain) leaving little room for the very real mystery of the divine (or the revelation of this mystery, as explained by the apostle Paul), it should not surprise us when that person gains a large audience. Especially if that person is really, really confident (or really, really cool).
I believe this book will resonate with many because the idea of “spiritual experience” is popular today. The question is, does Bell’s vision of spirituality have the doctrinal bone structure to sustain faith for two thousand years? I’m afraid not. His artistic abilities aside, the book’s vision is boring because the drama is missing.
Dorothy Sayers was right:
It is the dogma that is the drama—not beautiful phrases, nor comforting sentiments, nor vague aspirations to loving-kindness and uplift, nor the promise of something nice after death—but the terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world, lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death.

The Meaning Of Life

Will Wilkinson at a site called Big Think responded to something Jen Fulwiler wrote a while ago.

If you ask me, the best reason to think "life is meaningful" is because one's life seems meaningful. If you can't stop "acting as if my own life had meaning," it's probably because it does have meaning. Indeed, not being able to stop acting as if one's life is meaningful is probably what it means for life to be meaningful. But why think this has any logical or causal relationship to the scientific facts about our brains or lifespans? The truth of the proposition "life has meaning" is more evident and secure than any proposition about what must be true if life is to have meaning. Epistemic best practices recommend treating "life has meaning" as a more-or-less self-evident, non-conditional proposition. Once we've got that squared away, we can go ahead and take the facts about the world as they come. It turns out our lives are infinitesimally short on the scale of cosmic time. We know that to be true. Interesting! So now we know two things: that life has meaning and that our lives are just a blip in the history of the universe.
This reminds me of sports. I watch a football game and it seems to have meaning. I find it very difficult to stop acting like it is hugely meaningful. But I know from logic it is not. Most things in the world will not change based on the outcome of this game. So what should I do? Should I follow my feelings or follow my logic? My feelings of course. Still I should temper that with the knowledge that they are not reflecting a deep truth. The deep truth is that it is only a game.

What Wilkinson seems to be suggesting is to hold two contradictory truths at the same time. People think that that is OK when it comes to religion when they would never do it in any other area of life. It isn't. If they are truly contradictory then one must be false. Which is more likely to be false? Science or your intuition? So you end up trying to avoid the conclusion that life is meaningless. Trying to avoid thinking deeply. That is a sad way to live.

But are these things really in conflict? Can our lives be infinitesimally short and meaningful? Well, yes. If that is not the whole story. Wilkinson is right not to look for meaning in life from science. He should not just look to his intuition either. At least he should not stop with his intuition. The only way such a small reality as a human life can be meaningful in such a large context as the universe is if it is connected with something much larger.

So when you are evaluating the truth claims of Christianity does it not make sense to note that it resolves this problem? People assert that atheism does not imply nihilism. Christianity would never assert something so irrational. It just wishful thinking. All the talk of "epistemic best practices" is just nonsense. Either there is a deeper truth about mankind and the world than science tells us or there is not. If there is not then life has no meaning. It becomes a tale told by an idiot full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

In the end atheism does exactly what they accuse religious people of doing. That is believing something irrational to avoid facing the meaninglessness of life. Christians at least accept that since our life has meaning beyond the physical world that has huge implications for how we should live. Believing there is meaning and denying the existence of the larger reality that could give it meaning leaves you in an odd spot. How can I make choices that are driven by the truth about what life really means? If it is just an irrational assertion not connected to anything then what do I do with it?