Monday, October 27, 2014

The Last Things

This Sunday is All Souls Day. It is a day in which we pray for the dead. All Saints Day is Nov 1st and is focused on those in heaven. All Souls Day is focused on those in purgatory. The tricky part is we don't actually know who is in heaven and who is in purgatory so we typically just pray for the dead. 

November 2nd is also my mother's birthday. The reason that this connects is because my mother's health has not been that good. She is turning 81 and suffering from serious dementia. In some ways it feels like she is already in purgatory. Purgatory is a place of purging. A place where our remaining flaws are removed. It is not pleasant but it is necessary for us to enter heaven. I can see that in my mother. A woman who has had serious control issues for much of her life has become completely dependent on others. It is very hard for her. Yet it will allow her to arrive in heaven with a better heart. 

Purgatory is just that same process completed after we die. Really we all should be in that process now. We should be embracing suffering to grow in holiness. Christianity is all about cooperating with grace. God gives us a road to holiness but not an easy road. We need to want it. After we die all that changes is the choice. During this life we keep choosing between hell and purgatory every day. Our choice at our death is our final answer. If we choose purgatory we will get to heaven. 

If Purgatory always leads us to heaven then why doesn't God just zap us and make us perfect quickly and painlessly? One reason is that God knows us. St Augustine prayed, "Give me chastity but not yet!"  We are all prove to do that. We want holiness but we find reasons to wait. God lets us know that waiting until we die is not going to mean a quick and painless transformation. It is going to be more difficult than it would be if we stepped up the the challenge during our lifetime. That is not the only reason to pursue holiness now but God knows that adding that incentive will cause us to make better choices. Fear is not the best motivator. Love is better. Yet God will use fear.

So why have a day about it? Partly to remember where we are headed. November is the time when we contemplate the last things. They are Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. It is good to contemplate them because we will face them and we don't want to be unprepared. It is easy to go through life without really considering our mortality. We have been blessed with strong survival instincts. We don't like to think about the fact that nobody actually survives. Yet we need to think about it. So it is good that the church gives us an occasion to do so.

The other thing it does is it encourages communion. We are not in this alone. We are to pray for the dead. The dead are to pray for us. We can do penance on their behalf. We are all part of the body of Christ and we are to help each other even if we are separated by death. It is the most natural thing. People we knew and loved while they were alive we continue to love after they have died. Death does not have the victory. 

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Main Thing

Mat 22:34-40:
When the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees,they gathered together, and one of them,a scholar of the law tested him by asking,"Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?"
He said to him,"You shall love the Lord, your God,with all your heart,with all your soul,and with all your mind.This is the greatest and the first commandment.The second is like it:You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments."
There is an old saying that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. There is a lot of wisdom to that. People start to get lost in details and lose track of what really matters. For Christians what really matters is love. The Pharisees were big on commandments. They took great pride in how well they observed them. So when they asked Jesus this question they expected to get an answer that made them look pretty good. Jesus hung out with tax collectors and prostitutes. Could he possible answer with any law they did not keep better than those people?

There is an interesting spiritual physics in this reply. Jesus starts with the notion that God should get everything we have. All of our hopes and dreams, all of our opinions, all of our possessions, all of our emotional and physical energy, everything goes to God alone. Unconditional love. Nothing is held back. 

It begs the question about the second commandment. If God gets everything then how can we be talking about loving our neighbor or loving our self? You just gave everything to God. You have nothing left. What gives?

Loving God does not imply hating everything else. Loving God implies loving the things God loves and hating the things God hates. So we love ourselves but only in that way. That is we only see ourselves as good because God created us and God loves us. We don't love ourselves in an egotistical way at all. That is why our love for ourselves is the same as our love for our neighbor. Our neighbor is created by God and loved by God just as much as we are. So we love them not only just as much as we love ourselves but for the same reason. It is all part of our love for God. 

Modern Christians tend to see love of God and love of neighbor as competing. You get the so-called progressive Christians who have liturgies that really focus on community and celebrating our dignity as children of God. They try and love their neighbor by focusing less on loving God. The result is sentimentalism. They get a lot of things right but when God's word does not line up with what feels right for their neighbor or even themselves then they have trouble. They end up creating an image of God that matches their feelings. The trouble is that image does not match scripture or tradition or the magisterium. It does not match their personal experience either. Their theology becomes a mess.

The conservatives can have problems to. They can fall into the same trap as the Pharisees. Get the doctrine right. Get the commandments right. Live them as best you can. Yet that is all. Don't give your heart. You can believe that God loves the poor but still not love them yourself. You can even believe God loves you and not love yourself. 

Then Jesus says the whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments. What He means is the whole Old Testament. The law refers to the first 5 books. The law and the prophets refers to the whole thing. The point is that all of the Christian religious life has to be lived out of love for God or it is going to lose its value. If we learn about God, if we sacrifice, if we make moral choices, if we worship, if we serve the poor, whatever we do if we do it without that agape love for God we fail. St Paul's beautiful writing from 1 Cor 13 comes to mind.
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. 
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Render Unto Caesar

The Pharisees went offand plotted how they might entrap Jesus in speech.
They sent their disciples to him, with the Herodians, saying,"Teacher, we know that you are a truthful manand that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth.And you are not concerned with anyone's opinion,for you do not regard a person's status.Tell us, then, what is your opinion:Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?"
Knowing their malice, Jesus said,"Why are you testing me, you hypocrites?
Show me the coin that pays the census tax."
Then they handed him the Roman coin.
He said to them, "Whose image is this and whose inscription?"
They replied, "Caesar's."At that he said to them,"Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesarand to God what belongs to God."
This weeks gospel is a trap for Jesus. The Pharisees are get together with the Herodians. That is quite something. The Herodians were considered traitors by the Pharisees. Suddenly they are working together? It is often that way. People can be united in their love for Jesus and they can be united in their hatred for Jesus. Differences that would otherwise be huge can be laid aside. 

So what is the trap? Paying taxes to a foreign ruler was something they they thought was wrong. Yet they did it because they knew the Romans would kill them if they didn't. They could not imagine Jesus admitting He was disobeying a religious law simply to save his neck. Yet at the same time they knew Jesus' neck would be on the line. That is why the Herodians were there. If He even hinted that Jews should not pay taxes Herod would know very quickly and that would not end well for Jesus. 

It is interesting that Jesus used the word "image" to suggest it is OK to pay money to Caesar. It connects with Gen 1:26,27 where the bible says we are created in the image of God. So we give money to Caesar but by implication we are to give ourselves to God. It is a problem when God's chosen people are beholden to a foreign ruler but the problem is not that they have to pay a tax. It goes much deeper. 

This passage is often used as a springboard to talk about church/state relations. The church has always held that political leadership should be a separate thing from spiritual leadership. Even during the lay investiture controversies where secular rulers were often also bishops there was at least the notion that a representative should give that person the symbols of his ecclesiastical office. That the king should not do that. 

The truth is that whenever the church and the state have become to closely aligned then it is the church that suffers. The church should try to influence the state but only the same way she influences everything else. That is by teaching the faith effectively. If people know their faith then they should go out and live their faith in their political life and in every other area of life. 

There is also the problem of laymen just assuming God is on their side in a political fight and using that belief to justify all sorts of unChristian tactics. Yes, bring Christian truth to the political arena but also bring Christian charity. Charity without truth becomes sentimentalism. Truth without charity becomes fanaticism. We need to bring to really transform politics. You rarely see it. 

Now there are some who argue that any religious idea should be left out of political debate. That is quite incoherent but still you hear it all the time. If something is good public policy then how do you know if it is good for religious reasons or it is just inherently good? What is often behind this is another definition of goodness. A secular definition that they think is more right because it is less religious. Of course it is neither more right nor less religious. 

For example, some might label the good of having equality in marriage a secular good and the good of having marriage be for a man and a women a religious good. Then they would argue that separation of church and state means we need to let equality trump gender. 

Yet where does the notion of equality come from? Some countries have the death penalty for homosexuality. They don't see equality as something obvious. Why is it obvious to us? If we honestly look at where these ideas come from we have to admit religion played a big role. 

In fact, you could say that marriage between a man and a woman is a less religious idea. It has strong roots in biology. That is the way humans reproduce. Yes, various religions have affirmed this but it has always been basically an easy question because the biological data is so strong. 

So putting these truths in different categories is not really about secular truths and religious truths. It is more about what the people in question agree with and what then don't. Labeling an idea as religious is basically arguing that you don't like it because it seems to Catholic. What you might call the genetic fallacy. 

Friday, October 10, 2014

California Consent

There is an interesting new policy on consent in California public universities. They are demanding that people get explicit verbal consent before any progression of intimate contact. So there is a lot of potential for humor. In theory a man and a woman should have to ask each other dozens of questions during intercourse and demand clear and unambiguous answers to each one. 

It reminds me of GK Chesterton's line that if you don't obey the big laws you don't get no laws. You get a thousand little laws. Rebecca Frech has a funny post on this. 

I have said before the very concept of consent is quite problematic. You are working at the wrong level. You are assuming a superficial, short-term thing like consent is going to be adequate for something that has very deep and very long-lasting consequences. It does not work. It gets even worse when you consider the effect hormones and alcohol have on decision-making. The moment sex is about to happen is a really bad time to consider whether or not you want to do this. 

The California law does seem to make it a little less likely that people who are double-minded will consent. If it makes some people pause and ask their slightly reluctant partner if they really want to go through with it then that is a benefit. I am not sure how often that will actually happen but it has the potential to do some good.

I do worry that it will make some chaste Christian dating illegal. If you have an understanding from your shared Christian morality that sex is not happening anytime soon then you can allow for impulsive behavior. Having a man kiss a woman without asking should not be illegal. Asking changes the dynamic a lot. It makes it cold and calculating. Women want to feel like a man really desires them. That her womanhood has connected with his manhood and caused him to be overwhelmed by her beauty. A kiss says that. A question does not.

The key is the context. When you have a context that assumes chastity then you can embrace the impulsive nature of sexual expression and still keep boundaries. You don't have to worry that either party will interpret a great kiss as consent to sex. You know you are not going there. There is a freedom in that. 

Christians need to learn this. We focus on chastity. Yet chastity is only half the battle. What you should not be doing. What about what you should be doing? You should be shaping your sexual desire. You should be connecting it with love rather than lust. Yet what does that look like? It seem there are a lot of Catholic young adults who have trouble there. Men whose pursuit of women is so subdued and so polite that women simply don't respond. Logically they should be a good couple but he does not know how to spark the relationship to life. At some point you have to just kiss her.

So one problem with this law is that it equates virtuous sexual expression with rape. Kissing a girl as an honest act of erotic love in the context of Christian morality is a good thing to do. A good thing that many more conservative Christians don't realize is good. Often they are uncomfortable with anything erotic. There is a lot of confusion there. So this law might make that confusion worse by categorizing all intimate contact as sexual assault. 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Did Later Christians Edit The Gospels?

One of the key questions of biblical scholarship is whether the gospels are accurate accounts of Jesus' life or if they were highly edited. I have gone through why it would not make sense for the early church to embrace such editing. 

Yet there is another way to look at it. Suppose they did make big changes to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, what would they add? The reality is we know what the early church was concerned about. They were concerned about circumcision. They were concerned with eating meet sacrificed to idols. There were a lot of questions around sexual morality in a very promiscuous Roman empire. There were early forms of Gnosticism coming on the scene a bit later. So if the church was of a mind to put words in Jesus' mouth then these are the things you might expect. 

What do we see? We see nothing of the kind. One more talked about examples is the fact that Jesus never says anything about homosexuality. Does that mean Jesus was somehow pro-gay? Quite the opposite. It means Jesus didn't have the need to talk about homosexuality. He was in Israel. There was no controversy about it there. Jesus was not suggesting the Old Testament teaching change in any way. So there was just nothing to talk about. If he did talk about it what He said was unsurprising enough that nobody bothered to write it down. 

St Paul talks about it. Not because he has issues. He talks about it because in places like Rome and Corinth people are challenging the church's teaching. This is what you would expect if Paul is addressing the gentiles and Jesus is focused on the lost sheep of Israel. You would not expect it if the gospels were written slowly over time and people added things they thought would be good for the church but had no basis in history. 

If you say later Christians added most of what we find in the gospels today then they behaved very strangely. They didn't add anything on the matters they cared about. What did they add? A lot of very similar miracle stories. If you read the daily gospel reading it is striking how many almost redundant stories there are. Many of them are very short and don't seem to add much. Yet every one of them has to be a later addition according to secular scholars. They believe miracles are impossible so they can't be historical. Yet you struggle to imagine these Christians seeing the need to add so many short miracle accounts. What do they add to the story? They quickly become redundant. 

Again, it makes perfect sense if the accounts are real. One healing is not the same as another if you talk to the eye witnesses. The basic facts might be similar but a different person makes it a different story when you actually know the people. Once the stories are there then the fact that they remain there shows more respect for the integrity of the gospels. Nobody decides to remove anything redundant even if copying by hand is expensive. 

So we have a theory that does not fit any of the data. You try and remove the supernatural from the gospels and you end up creating a bunch of problems. You end up saying the early church created Jesus and the gospels rather than Jesus and the gospels created the early church. The trouble is the church is not capable of doing that. Jesus and the gospels are to surprising and to Jewish for that to work. A church is not even the type of entity that is capable of creating the gospels. What you need is 4 writers who have credibility. A larger community simply does not produce literature. 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Big Wedding

Today's gospel talks about the Kingdom of God as a King giving a wedding feast for His son. It is an extended analogy to heaven and hell. It describes heaven as a wedding feast and hell as being excluded form that feast. In the first reading Isaiah uses similar imagery. There is rich food and wine. Death is destroyed. God wipes away every tear from every eye. A lot of it reminds us of the Eucharist. It is a foretaste of heaven. A wedding feast. What is a wedding feast? It is a celebration of the love between a man and a woman. That is what heaven will be, a celebration of the love between Christ and His church. Marital intimacy is as intense as love gets in this world. That is what is being described. A love so close and so joy-filled it can only be compared to the best sex ever in the best marriage ever. 

That is what Jesus promises in heaven but that is not all. The Kingdom of God is not just heaven. It is also realized to a lesser extent in the church right now. It is still like marriage. You get out of it what you put into it. The joy comes from giving yourself wholeheartedly. Yet it is there and it is real. The greatest love possible is available for us to embrace right now through obedience, through the sacraments, through prayer, through serving, really just making any serious effort to love God. It is there to bring us abundant joy and peace that passes all understanding. This is what being a Catholic is supposed to be. 

Then there is the uncomfortable part of the gospel. Not everyone goes to this wedding. Some refuse because they are too busy. People who want to get serious about their faith but there just is never enough time. Career issues are mentioned. Nothing wrong with trying to get ahead but refusing to come to the wedding supper of the lamb? They say 70% of Catholics miss mass on any given Sunday. The church says this is gravely immoral. That is that it could cost you your eternal soul. People say that is a bit harsh. Is it? Precisely the same Jesus is offering Himself to you at mass that is offering Himself to you in heaven. If you don't want Him in this life why should Jesus think you want Him in the next? 

Then we have those who actively oppose the King's messengers and beat them and kill them. Jesus talks about the King sending his troops and killing those people and burning their city. Now this obviously refers to the Jewish leadership that ends up being slaughtered by the Romans when Jerusalem is destroyed in 70 AD. Still we have this notion that God actively causes the destruction of those who oppose Him. With the Jews it took decades. So we are not talking about a God who crushes you as soon as you make a false move. Yet He does do justice. There is warning. There is amazing forgiveness. Yet there still is justice.

Then there is the man with the wrong clothes on. What is going on there? What kind of person goes to a wedding not dressed in wedding clothes? Someone who is not interested in the bride or the groom. Someone who just wants to eat and to party. That is not the way we are to desire heaven. We should not be desiring superficial pleasures. That is not what heaven is about. Heaven is about being close to God. God will invite everyone but they need to show their desire to be close to Jesus and His church. They need to show it by their actions. Dressing for an occasion is a basic way to indicate you attitude. Our desire needs to be strong enough and sincere enough to change out behavior. Not to earn salvation. You don't earn a wedding feast by dressing appropriately. Just to really embrace it rather than merely giving lip service.