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. 

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Disney Kisses

Took the family to see Maleficent last weekend. I know it is out a while but we just don't have the time or the desire to see all the new releases. One thing that stuck me about this movie is something my 9 year old daughter seemed to have noticed as well. She said that one thing this movie has in common with Frozen is that the kiss of true love that saves the woman does not come from a man and does not lead to marriage. It comes from a woman and does not really lead to anything other than saving the person from the immediate and mostly contrived peril associated with not being kissed.

I think that is a pretty big insight. The Theology of the Body talks about a man's love making a woman come alive. That is most obviously realized in marriage and sex and procreation. The traditional fairy tales know this. Sleeping Beauty is not must about magical kingdoms. It is about real life. Beautiful women are just so ready to become great wives and mothers but they need a man to love them. That is to love them with a romantic love that awakens their womanhood in a way a man was designed to do. Not that they will have terrible lives if they remain single but some part of them will remain asleep. 

Some spoilers below.

Monday, September 29, 2014

New Management

Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders of the people:"Hear another parable.There was a landowner who planted a vineyard,put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower.
Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey.When vintage time drew near,he sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce.
But the tenants seized the servants and one they beat,another they killed, and a third they stoned.
Again he sent other servants, more numerous than the first ones,but they treated them in the same way.
Finally, he sent his son to them, thinking,'They will respect my son.'But when the tenants saw the son, they said to one another,'This is the heir.Come, let us kill him and acquire his inheritance.’They seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.
What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?"They answered him,"He will put those wretched men to a wretched deathand lease his vineyard to other tenantswho will give him the produce at the proper times."
Jesus said to them, "Did you never read in the Scriptures:The stone that the builders rejectedhas become the cornerstone;by the Lord has this been done,and it is wonderful in our eyes?Therefore, I say to you,the kingdom of God will be taken away from youand given to a people that will produce its fruit."
This weeks gospel seems like it does not apply to us. I mean Jesus is pretty obviously talking to the leaders of the Old Testament covenant community, namely the priests of Israel. The Kingdom of God was going to be taken away from them and given to new leaders, namely the apostles. We know this event Jesus was warning about happened at Pentecost. So why do we care? What does the church give us this passage to focus on this week?

First of all, it shows us that there is such a thing as God-ordained leader of the New Testament covenant community. This is something that is disputed by Protestants. They see churches as merely human institutions. Anyone can start his own non-denominational church and it is all good. The notion that God has to do something major like take the Kingdom of God from one set of hands and move it to another is not really taken seriously. 

Yet Jesus took it seriously. These bad leaders continued to be the legitimate leaders even after committing some terrible sins. None of the prophets declared their leadership to be null and void. In fact, not even Jesus did so. He said it would happen soon but not yet. In fact, In Mat 23:2-3 He tells His followers to "do what they tell you but not what they do."