Saturday, February 18, 2017

Tradition

This is the time of year where people announce they are becoming Catholic. They can do so anytime but the typical time for the sacrament is Easter and the typical time to make the go/no go decision is right around now. So there have been a few stories as there are every year. A couple mentioned that one issue for them was that they didn't know what tradition was. That sparked something in me. I had some of the same issues. When I started exploring the church I thought of tradition as a mindless "monkey see, monkey do" phenomenon. A lot of protestants still seem to have ideas like that.

What is meant by tradition? It is the whole impact of who you hang out with and what emotional attachments you have to them. What preachers do you listen to? What books do you read? What songs do you worship with? What friends do you confide in? Which opinion leaders do you respect? What stories do you connect with? 

The thing to notice here is everyone has a tradition and it is always hugely influential on your thinking. People don't think in a vacuum. They talk to each other. They influence each other. People who you love and respect will influence you more. If you are in a circle of friends where a certain thinker is hugely respected then you will have a strong tendency to go along with that line of thought. 

Often people underestimate the influence of tradition on them. They see it on other people. He is just that way because his dad is that way. He was raised to believe that. Yet when you ask the actual person about their own opinions they typically say it is not tradition. They say they have sound reasons for believing what they believe. They can list them for you. Yet that does not mean that person was not influenced hugely by tradition.

Tradition does not tell us to stop thinking. It tells us to think a certain way and gives us reasons to do so. Yet a different tradition would tell you to think a different way and give you reasons for doing that. Often the deciding factor is not which set of arguments is logically better but which set of people is emotionally more trustworthy. In fact, we rarely go against the thinking of the group we have grown comfortable with. That is tradition.

So tradition is not just people latching on to old ideas because they are old. Very modern ideas can gain a wide following simply because that is what everyone else seems to think. So someone saying that sex outside marriage is wrong because Christians have always believed that is appealing to one kind of tradition. Someone saying sex outside marriage is OK because everyone is doing it is appealing to another tradition. A modern secular tradition of thought which is not less of a tradition because it is new. In fact, many people accept it without serious question precisely because the tradition is so strong.

What we need to be clear about is that traditions can be very wrong. We can see this in the previous example. No matter what you believe about sex outside marriage you are going to believe one tradition or the other got it wrong. That is a big deal. Many people accepted a wrong answer to this important question because they listened to the wrong tradition.

Protestants talk about not letting tradition be the main guide of your thinking. They think the bible should be. That is actually humanly impossible. We don't make big life choices apart from other people. Sure the bible plays a role but often there is debate over what the bible says so you need to decide what to make of that. Tradition is always going to matter. Different people will have different opinions. Whose thinking do you trust more? That is how humans make choices. They don't just sit down with a book and ignore what everyone else thinks. They want their opinions affirmed by others before they really trust them.

In practice Protestants pick one particular set of thinkers they like. Not a bad thing to do. Yet there are many different groups who disagree with each other on many different questions. These groups used to be called denominations. Not so much anymore. People from different denominations can be very much in the same theological school of thought. People from the same denomination can be in very different groups. Yet these schools of thought are many and diverse. It really does matter that we get the right one. These are the big decisions that are supposed to transform our lives. We want to get them right.

Catholics believe God enters in to this with His grace. That He gives us something called Sacred Tradition. A certain set of people and opinions and ways of thinking that God has highlighted over time as being true. He has used the popes and the bishops of the church to do this in each generation. What this gives is a way to make decision as a Christian that is not inhuman. It gives us real people living the faith in the real world that we can trust. 

The trouble is that God pointing us to one source of truth means He is also saying a lot of other traditions have been getting things wrong. Modern society has made some real errors. Many Christian thinkers have made some real errors. So all the things we believed because they were emotionally easier now become harder. Sometimes we have to disagree with family and friends. Sometimes we have to face the fact that almost everyone we knew and trusted got this wrong. It rocks your world. 

Yet that would not happen if you chose to know and trust those who also have a commitment to this same Sacred Tradition. That is how God expected His church to work. That people would lead each other into truth and unity because we would actually be part of one body with the same head.  

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Conversion of Paul

The feast day for the conversion of Paul was Jan 25. The day of prayer for Christian unity was Monday, I think. These things got me thinking. Paul was a believer before his conversion. In fact, he was a very zealous believer. He believed strongly but because he believed strongly when he believed wrongly he was impossible to convince. We all know people like that. It is very likely that in some areas we ARE a person like that. I mean we tend to live like all the mistakes are being made by others but logically we can work out that that is probably not the case.

In some ways this feast is hard. It highlights the problem but does not really offer a solution. Should we really wait until we see a blinding light and hear the audible voice of Jesus? We certainly hope and pray that that happens to others who are on the wrong road and many of us pray it happens to us to when we are on the wrong road. Yet the number of errors is far greater than the number of Road to Damascus experiences.

Many of the people who do claim to have had a moment of divine revelation contradict each other. We believe Paul but we don't believe Mohammad like Muslims do or Joseph Smith like Mormons do. So just chasing people who tell these kinds of stories does not seem right. Yet there is something about this story that is instructive.

We all need to have this encounter with Jesus. We all need to have our life interrupted and to be struck blind for 3 days and to receive a baptism that would have been so offensive to us before that encounter. Yet meeting Jesus does not look the same for everyone. For Paul, the person of Jesus was the most offensive thing. There was so much of the faith he was willing to accept but this one thing he could not accept. That Jesus was the Messiah.

Is that what we have trouble with? Most of us not. We are OK with warm fuzzy feelings towards Jesus. Even atheists generally try and say nice things about Him. We don't find Him offensive. So what is the part of the faith we find offensive? That is different for everybody. For some it is the sexual morality. For others it is just the notion of faith rather than proof. For some it is compassion for the poor. Sometimes it is connected with people from other Christian traditions.

The conversion of Paul has a special place in evangelical Christianity. That life-changing experience where the truth of Christianity becomes clear is the very centre of their spirituality. Growing up in a dutch reformed church it really was not so central. Some people had that experience and some did not. Yet the traditions that flowed from the Great Awakening movements in the US do put that very much at the centre. They try and manufacture such moments in people.

Heresy is like that. They take a Catholic truth that Catholics have forgotten about and they embrace it to the point of error. In this case it means they elevate it to the point where they make all the sacraments irrelevant and the struggle for holiness irrelevant and just focus on that one encounter. Yet we cannot lose sight of the fact that there is a truth there.

Helping people to see how sinful they are, how powerless they are without Jesus, to challenge them to embrace Jesus and make this moment a life-changing moment. that is a powerful thing. Modern Catholics tend not to go there. We should more. We talk about conversion as an ongoing thing and that is true. Yet conversion often requires big decisions. We can't be afraid to challenge people to make big decisions. Not asking them to think about it but asking them to decide right in the moment. Jesus did not ask Paul to think about anything. He told him, "Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do."

Paul also said in Acts 26:19, "I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven." It is still important that people follow up that experience with a life of obedience and prayer and sacraments and all that. Still the experience remained important. Paul talks about it over and over. That is key. Many Catholics don't seem to have a way to talk about their faith. A central conversion event can give someone a story to tell, something to explain why they are Christian and why you should be too.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

More With Luke

This response is meant to complement my other one. I may just keep going until you tire out; you're the first Catholic I've happened upon who is interested in addressing my questions and concerns on such matters. (I haven't actively looked, although it has been on my to-do list.)
I am happy to be helpful. I have been thinking about and writing about these sorts of questions for quite a few years now.
Authority is not about dismissing anything. It is about knowing things. Anytime you assert that you know God's will on some point are you dismissing everyone else? You are offering wisdom. Do you believe in the scriptures? Why would truth arrived at in that way be less dismissive?
I am somewhat aware of the arguments over the role of church tradition in interpreting scripture; Brad S. Gregory wrote what seemed to be a decent overview in The Unintended Reformation. I've read Stephen Toulmin's Cosmopolis, which does a good job of grappling with the consequences of vying authorities in the wake of the Reformation. I've started Jeffrey R. Stout's Flight from Authority. So I'm not completely naive in the matter of authority.
I am familiar with Brad Gregory's book. The others sound interesting as well.
My question is what the timeline is for full maturity, such that we can get the underlined in arbitrarily many followers of Jesus:
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31–34)
Paul seems to believe that arbitrarily much of this maturity can be achieved before the eschaton:
I don't think we will every get to a point where all Christians are fully mature. Certain saints have reached full maturity but for the vast majority of us it is very much a work in progress. There is a greater grace with the coming of the Holy Spirit. That does not mean covenant community we saw in the Old Testament suddenly is not longer a part of the picture. Scripture does not say that. Nobody in the early church went there. In fact, the New Testament talks about the Church as an important part of the Christian life. 
Actually, authority underlies the entire New Testament. Why does what St Paul says to the Ephesians matter? Because He has an authority over them. Where does that authority come from? From his encounter with Jesus but that encounter was authenticated by the Church. He was eventually sent by the Church and recognised as an apostle. You can make similar observations for the authors or any New Testament book. 
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. (Ephesians 4:11–14)
Of course, we must deal with how that "until" is approached. Is there some very strong hierarchy up until "we all attain to the unity of the faith ...", at which point it simply dissipates? Or does it actually decrease so that the body may increase? When parents raise their kids to be adults, which dynamic is healthier?
Again, the until is on a person by person basis. I do not think we ever get to a point sometime after St Paul writes this where they Church fundamentally changes. The Church is to grow and develop but remain essentially the same. A fundamental shift in the nature of the coventant community implies a new covenant. Yet the covenant Jesus brought is to be the last one. Martin Luther cannot bring a better covenant that the one Jesus brought.
There are special graces with the offices. Some don't cooperate with those graces and can be very bad popes or bishops. On the whole we have had very few of those. Certainly the last couple centuries have been very good. Why can't God's grace work that way?
I think a case can be made from scripture that spiritual power tends to inversely correlate with social power. There are good reasons for this: those with social power are able to influence perception of reality such that the outliers are marginalized and silenced. This process can work for quite some time, until the marginalized grow sufficiently large in numbers. Then you get what appears to be calamity to those with social power—the marginalized often see what is coming much better, because they're not able to rest on socially accepted explanations (example: Chris Hedges' 2010 article Noam Chomsky Has ‘Never Seen Anything Like This’, which presages Brexit and Trump). There's interesting sociological research on this matter I can cite if you'd like.
I don't think this is true at all. Moses has social power. So did David. They were also spiritually very powerful. The bible criticises Kings and spiritual leaders for exercising power in an ungodly way. Never for simply having power. 
I think the Church has always been called to be separate from political power. It has sometimes failed to do so and bad things have resulted. Still Catholicism has been much more separate from and state authority than Orthodoxy or Islam. That is a blessing. One of the many ways God has been keeping us out of some bad places.
As to the record of the RCC over the last couple centuries, I don't know it well enough to comment. There is the obvious problem I'll leave unnamed, because it's probably an automatic derail. If I can go back further than two centuries, I would ask why Sublimis Deus got rolled back—at least, the bit which forbids slavery. I can see an argument along the lines of God commanding divorce certificates while intending for divorce to ultimately become obsolete, but (i) I'm not sure that actually worked; (ii) I'm not sure that's a spiritually wise plan after Jesus' death & resurrection. It is possible to compromise too much with evil, but I've never had an in-depth conversation on what constitutes "too much".
Is the obvious problem the sex abuse scandal? That can derail things. Yet it should be noted that nothing that happened there is hard to square with the Catholic teaching on the Church or the Priesthood or the Papacy. It is a terrible thing but it is just sin. Sin is something we expect even inside the church. I was raised as a preachers kid so I knew about some of the dirty laundry in my childhood church. It is the same all over.
Sublimis Deus did not get rolled back.  It is an encyclical of Pope Paul III. Teachings of the popes can be respected or disrespected. When they get disrespected that is unfortunate but they remain the teachings of the Church. 
RG: Without the grace of God that comes through popes and bishops even Christian tradition is going to succumb to these psychological forces.
LB: I suggest some careful thinking about your train of thought. There is a pattern I have observed among those who used to be socially powerful but have lost that power. They tend to think that they had and still have enough of the right answers, and everyone is just sort of irrationally rebelling. Their loss of social power is the fault of others; little to no interesting introspection is required of themselves. I am seeing Protestants slip into this mode of thinking/​rationalizing in the US, and I am concerned that the RCC may have engaged in it with respect to its loss of power in Europe.
RG: I am a convert. So I have never had any power through Catholicism.
I don't think that's relevant to my point. The claim is that "the grace of God that comes through popes and bishops" is a necessary condition for preventing "even Christian tradition is going to succumb to these psychological forces". What I am saying is that this could be false. What I think we should do is construct the best models we can for it being true and it being false, and then use those models in a friendly competition, where we attempt to pursue truth, goodness, and excellence in relationship—relationship between humans & God, humans & other humans, humans & themselves, and between humans & themselves.
I think humans have been doing that since Peter became the first Pope. The history of Protestantism is one of the best arguments for the papacy I know. The history of the Church before the Reformation is strong as well. 
I don't think testing God's word is generally a good idea. Try adultery for a few year to see if it brings happiness? No. It is sin. Don't do it. Yet many have done the experiment so you could learn from them. So Yes. Look at the complete failure of Protestantism but don't add your own sins to that pile.
I was raised Reformed. I did get a sense growing up that people were rebelling against something. Yet what was it? Generic Christianity but what was that? The churches were moving as well as society. So I didn't think we had right answers. I would never say Catholics don't need to do any introspection. I think they church has many faults but it is a vehicle for grace. Anything negative you say about the church I will likely agree with. Still it is not a reason to leave her because she is the Body of Christ.
I definitely agree that the RCC is a vehicle for grace. Anyone who thinks you need to be particularly holy or righteous or just in order to be a vehicle of God's grace needs to read Hebrews 11.
I found this difficult as a Protestant. I realised that if the RCC was wrong it was not wrong just a little. The Papacy, the Eucharist, the Priesthood, Mary, etc. If these are errors they are not small errors. They make the Church a massive abomination. It becomes a liar, lunatic, Lord type of argument. A church that makes such audacious claims cannot be a nice vehicle of grace. It is either right, or deeply confused or downright evil. Can the history of the Church be squared with deeply confused or downright evil. The Church that fought all those heresies and produced all those saints? The church that defined the canon of scripture?
But I still must push back against what I see as the infantilization of the majority of people. Push the "until" of Ephesians 4 to the eschaton and you infantilize. Exercise coercive power and you infantilize. Treat some vocations as more valued by God than others and you infantilize. What is the problem our world faces today? Too many adults are children. See CT's When Are We Going to Grow Up? The Juvenilization of American Christianity (pdf), or the NYT's The Death of Adulthood in American Culture. The populism we see today is a result of the immature finally realizing that those in power (who are often more mature in the sense required for at least quasi-stable governing) aren't being good parents. Maybe God never designed reality for such sustained parent-child relational dynamics; maybe God designed it to break down if the children aren't being helped mature in a reasonable time frame.
I don't see this at all. We see ourselves as Children of God. This means we look to father figures in out priests and look to mother figures in the church herself and in St Mary. Yet the family is there to help us grow up. It is not there to keep us infants. 
Coercive power? I experienced much more pressure to conform to the good as a Protestant. I would never have called that coercive although it likely meets the technical definition. As a Catholic there is more of a sense of proposing truth rather than imposing truth. I would prefer stronger leadership. So your continued use of the word "coercive" seems quite strange. I am not aware of anyone else describing the Church that way. 
LB: Recall who is routinely criticized in the Bible: religious leaders in power. This should be a sobering fact. Sadly, I cannot ever recall being taught that religious leaders in power today could possibly fall into the same patterns. It is as if there is a belief that ever since Jesus died, the religious power elite could not be arbitrarily corrupted.
RG: Catholicism does not say religious leaders are perfect. They are called to do better than the pharisees but do have temptations. Still Jesus does not respond by saying His Church will have no leaders. He responds by saying His leaders will be different. So we will still have leaders. Starting with Peter and the Apostles and continuing to the present day.
But God and Jesus didn't criticize religious leaders for failing to be perfect. He criticized them (and Israel as a whole) for stuff like this:
“Thus says the Lord GOD: This is Jerusalem. I have set her in the center of the nations, with countries all around her. And she has rebelled against my rules by doing wickedness more than the nations, and against my statutes more than the countries all around her; for they have rejected my rules and have not walked in my statutes. Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Because you are more turbulent than the nations that are all around you, and have not walked in my statutes or obeyed my rules, and have not even acted according to the rules of the nations that are all around you, therefore thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, even I, am against you. And I will execute judgments in your midst in the sight of the nations. (Ezekiel 5:5–8)
You note that there have been some terrible popes in the past. Can you tell me whether all the reasoning you have deployed on this page applies even during the tenure of such popes? Should they and the RCC be trusted just as much then, as you want it to be trusted now?
The covenants do get stronger as they go on. This covenant is to be the final covenant so  the talk of Israel being replaced with a better Temple or a better Passover or a better Priesthood would be fulfilled in the Church. 

Yet moral problems do persist. Yes, there have been times when moral problems in the church were severe and perhaps even greater than those in some other religions. We are called to recognise what graces God has given the Church and what He has not. If we had a truly bad pope or a truly bad bishop then we would need to be extra cautious. Think of Matthew 23:1-3:
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach.
We would be in exactly the situation Jesus describes. He goes on to detail at length many of the things the Pharisees were doing wrong. Yet He still commands His followers to obey. Yes, we would pray for a time when virtue and authority would come together. Yet one thing we could never do was start another church. There is one Church started by Jesus and we are commanded to keep it united. We are never commanded to make sure we get all the doctrinal questions right. We are to stay together as one body and let the Holy Spirit guide us into all truth. Trust Him to do what Jesus promised he would in John 14:26. 

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Catholic Leaders

Luke Breuer and I were having an interaction on another blog. Copied it here because I thought I might answer some things more fully. Now I am wondering if I will have time. He has replied again. We will see how it goes. My original commetns will be in green for context.
You... may not like this comment. Suffice it to say that I've long struggled with these issues, and continue struggling with them. I don't claim to have found answers, but I do claim to have found issues in need of rational & spiritual investigation and not authority-based dismissal.
I like comments like this one. No worries. Authority is not about dismissing anything. It is about knowing things. Anytime you assert that you know God's will on some point are you dismissing everyone else? You are offering wisdom. Do you believe in the scriptures? Why would truth arrived at in that way be less dismissive?

This is a huge problem for sure. Yet why has it grown worse recently? What can be done to solve it? I mean rationalization is not new. What has happened in the past us we have been called back to a few core truths by Christian tradition. It has kept us centered. Yet that has been degrading. Why? 
My judgment: reality has sped up, been compacted, and is increasingly about inculcating and satisfying desire rather than pursuit of truth and ever-increasing excellence in love (agape). We've gained incredible amounts of power over reality but we haven't kept up with wisdom. When containment vessels are not strong enough for the pressure within, they crack and shatter. One might even suggest that God is constantly pouring more energy in, hoping that it will lead to growth, but cognizant that grace can appear as wrath if the supporting walls of holiness, righteous, and justice do not increase appropriately. BOOM
I am not sure how a faster pace makes us less interested in truth and love and more interested in satisfying desires. We have gained power. We do need an increase of grace. God has provided that through His church. We have the the Theology of the Body. We have the teachings of Vatican II. Where sin increases grace increases all the more.

 It centres around the Protestant reformation. Really more of a revolution that a reformation. A revolution against God. Without the grace of God that comes through popes and bishops even Christian tradition is going to succumb to these psychological forces. Tradition is still powerful but we can wriggle out of its hold over time. We can even convince ourselves that is a good thing. We are breaking free of something and that feels good. Yet what we are breaking free from is God. Like a man committing adultery is breaking free in a way but he is breaking the most fulfilling relationship in his life. We are breaking our relationship with God.
My objection to this is that I see Jer 31:31–34 and Ezek 36:22–32 as reversals of Deut 5:22–33
There is no reversal. The idea of the Holy Spirit speaking to our conscience is very much a part of Catholicism. Yet we have public revelation so that we can get the essentials right and unite around truth. Reason and scripture alone simply leads to more and more disagreement until unity around any truth becomes impossible. We need both these concepts. A personal relationship with the Holy Spirit and obedience to authority. Again, if scripture can be accepted as a legit authority then why can't the church be accepted. You objections to a meaningful concept of church should also cause you to reject the bible. They both give you God's word. Ephesians 4 is very interesting. It talks in verse 14 about being "tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming." So which teachings should we listen to and which are deceitful scheming? Maybe verse 11 has a clue "So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers." Maybe letting anyone who wants to be a pastor have equal claim to legit teaching is not the way to go. Maybe Jesus really does want to appoint our leaders even today.
One of the key things I think Jesus did on the cross was to show that sometimes, when all of the humans in power line up and declare that one of the humans needs to die, they're wrong. Can the Roman Catholic Church ever be as deeply wrong as was demonstrated by the unjust execution of Jesus by the Romans, provoked by the religious elite?
I would actually say Yes to this. St Joan of Arc is one example of someone executed as a heretic by Catholic officials who turned out to be wrong. The Saint title indicates that. The gift of infallibility is very limited. It keeps us from losing the gospel to corrupt leaders. Yet it is not easy. We still have corrupt leaders as do Protestants. The only difference is God keeps them from doing irreversible damage.
See, I grew up as a social outcast and learned how social power works. Except when kenosis is practiced, it is not clear to me that God gives Christians with power any special advantage over non-Christians with power. (I allude to "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.")
There are special graces with the offices. Some don't cooperate with those graces and can be very bad popes or bishops. On the whole we have had very few of those. Certainly the last couple centuries have been very good. Why can't God's grace work that way?
I suggest some careful thinking about your train of thought. There is a pattern I have observed among those who used to be socially powerful but have lost that power. They tend to think that they had and still have enough of the right answers, and everyone is just sort of irrationally rebelling.
I am a convert. So I have never had any power through Catholicism. I was raised Reformed. I did get a sense growing up that people were rebelling against something. Yet what was it? Generic Christianity but what was that? The churches were moving as well as society. So I didn't think we had right answers. I would never say Catholics don't need to do any introspection. I think they church has many faults but it is a vehicle for grace. Anything negative you say about the church I will likely agree with. Still it is not a reason to leave her because she is the Body of Christ.
Recall who is routinely criticized in the Bible: religious leaders in power. This should be a sobering fact. Sadly, I cannot ever recall being taught that religious leaders in power today could possibly fall into the same patterns. It is as if there is a belief that ever since Jesus died, the religious power elite could not be arbitrarily corrupted.
Catholicism does not say religious leaders are perfect. They are called to do better than the pharisees but do have temptations. Still Jesus does not respond by saying His Church will have no leaders. He responds by saying His leaders will be different. So we will still have leaders. Starting with Peter and the Apostles and continuing to the present day.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

How To Do Church

A while back I wrote about the rift in the church that mirrors the political rift between liberals and conservatives. That rift is even stronger in the protestant world. Over Christmas a bunch of conversations about this with protestant family members got me thinking a bit more. It seems like there is talk of yet another split in the denomination I grew up in. The split was described in an interesting way. There are those who are concerned about doctrine and theology but basically preach to the converted. Then there are those who connect with the culture. They focus on bringing Jesus to the unchurched folk. They like to talk about themselves as having a transformational ministry. That is a reference to Christ as Transformer of Culture in terms of Niebuhr's categories. Yet it seems they are the ones getting transformed. It is easy to see how the world has made them abandon parts of their faith. It is harder to see how they have changed the world in a way that a secular person could not. Still they do connect with people in powerful ways and that is a good thing. 

I have said we should abandon the either/or thing. That Christianity must be understood as a both/and. We connect with our neighbour and we remain obedient to God. If we go to our neighbourhoods and leave out the offensive bits of the gospel then we are not really offering them much more than we would if we were not Christians. In fact, we leave ourselves worse off because we limit God. We don't let Him tell us things that the culture rejects. We always find some way to rationalise caving in to the culture. We are so immersed in worldly thinking that the world's voice is louder than God's voice. 

The other side is that we can't just preach to the converted. There is a real failure on that side as well. Many churches that do things that way are in serious decline. People today are exposed to so many idea through mass media and social media that you can't just teach your theology and expect them to accept it. You need to deal with the realities of the world. 

I am thinking that the either/or thing might be hard to avoid. Some people are just going to much better at connecting people with God who already have a faith commitment to Jesus. Others are going to be better at meeting unchurched people where they are at and proposing Jesus to them. To some extent we can ask people to work on their weak areas but there is a limit to that. What we really need is for these two groups to work together. We need them to respect each other and recognise they need each other.

Now this is quite impossible in the Protestant world because they very quickly disagree on what the gospel is. The relational people are not going to accept that the doctrinal folks have the doctrine right. So the common ground disappears quickly. They find more common ground with other relational people in other protestant traditions. That makes sense because their thinking is formed mostly by the culture and not so much by their faith tradition so differing traditions are not going to matter much.

In the Catholic world there should be substantial agreement on what the gospel is. Often there is still a problem because many Catholics have not embraced the faith fully. So people on both sides of this divide must constantly remind themselves that the Church is the Body of Christ. That liberal and conservative Catholics are supposed to see the other wing of the church as a gift from God. Often there is a danger that we look at ourselves and those like us as being good Catholics and those on the other side as being bad Catholics. 

It is hard because we have the graces required to make this work but we don't always do it. We need to cooperate. We have the faith defined but we are still tempted to ignore the hard stuff. We need to actually take it all with us when we evangelise. I am reminded of a paraphrase someone did of The Great Commission that emphasised the word ALL.  They talked about making disciples and baptising them into ALL of God. That seems like what we need here. We don't decide what parts of God a person is ready for. We give them everything and trust Him. 

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Three Evangelists

This week we got to encounter 3 evangelists. St Andrew on Wednesday, St Francis Xavier on Saturday and St John the Baptist on Sunday. They all show us different ways we can bring the gospel to other. St Andrew is best know for leading Peter to Jesus. Andrew met Jesus first and was impressed by Him greatly. He does not keep it to himself. He immediately goes to his brother Peter and declare we have found the Messiah. That is quite a claim. Yet Andrew makes it quite quickly and  quite boldly. How many people do that today? How many Christians share big spiritual experiences with close friends and family? Many do not. It is not considered polite in modern society. We worry about what others will think of us. We don't want to be considered a religious freak. Yet Andrew does this and ends up bringing to Jesus the man who would lead the church through its first 30 years of existence. Christmas is a time when we are to experience Jesus once again in a renewed way. When we do tell someone else about it. Let them encounter Jesus as well. You never know what might come of it. 

St Francis Xavier brought the gospel to people who had never head of Christianity before. He was in remote areas of India and Japan where many had never seen a Christian before. He started with the young. He used the Creed, the Lord's Prayer and the 10 commandments. He used a lot of music. Children would often convert their parents. He would baptise the converts very quickly.  Very simple but very complete. Just giving people the opportunity to be saved then moving on to the next village. 

This sort of evangelism is not for everyone yet St Francis complained there were so many who could do it that didn't do it and therefore many souls were being lost. Even if we are not called to present the gospel to strangers we can support those that do. We can encourage them. We can pray for them. We can give alms to their ministry. 

St John the Baptist is a different sort. He preaches repentance to those who are already believers. He calls the religious leaders a brood of vipers. We need that to. Lots of religious laxity around even among church leaders. Lots of people presuming they are saved. We need people to be convicted of their sin and make serious changes to their lives. 

It is called admonishing sinners. It is considered one of the 7 spiritual works of mercy. Often you hear people talk about not admonishing sinners as being merciful. It is not. People need the grace of repentance and forgiveness. That starts with people understanding that the way they have been living is very wrong. How will they understand that if nobody tells them? We are just too polite. 

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Last Things



November is a month when the church asks us to contemplate the last things. The traditions 4 last things are death, judgement, heaven and hell. We don't like to think about them much. Obama illustrates this well as he comments on Fidel Castro's death. He says history will be Castro's final judge. Really? If he actually means that it says a lot. Who cares about history? Your reputation is not the most important thing when you are alive and it is not the most important when you are dead. Ultimately you don't control it. History is written by poorly informed people rushing to judgement. The deeper truth is that history's opinion of you or me or anyone pretty much fades to black once we have died anyway. How often will you think about Fidel Castro? For me I don't expect it will be very often. So why does history's judgement matter when it represents just a short-term, frequently incorrect reflection? It does not.

What matters is God's judgement of us. It is not short term. It is eternal. It is never incorrect. It always deals justly with our true self. The one we so often fight to keep other from seeing. Did we cooperate with God's grace in our lives? Did we want to be holy and want to be in friendship with Him? Or did we prefer something else? Wealth, honor, fame, glory, power, the goods of the body, or pleasure? It does not matter. Anything else you choose will be granted you but you you won't have God. You won't be in friendship with Him and that is the definition of hell.

So being judged well by history is just one more thing we can desire instead of God. A lot of times that means being judged well by one particular group of people. The liberal or conservative elite. The people at work. A group of friends that we have come to car about. Our family. We crave a positive judgement. We crave love. Ultimately God offers us the only place where we can be sure to find love and acceptance.

The gospel this week is about the end of the world. People tell us it is good to begin with the end in mind. The end of the world is something good to keep in mind. We can get wrapped up in little disasters like somebody dying or the wrong political party winning or some people you cared about rejecting you. Whatever it is it is not as serious as the end of the world. That is what we are called to be prepared for.

The end of the world is also connected with the beginning of a new life with God. The thoughts of the last things pivot to a contemplation of Christmas on the first Sunday of Advent. That is the way it always is. When we encounter God's judgement with a heart of repentance then God responds by giving us the gift of new life. Not just any new life but the new life of Jesus Himself. The joys of heaven are available now. Emmanuel. God is with us. So let God be your judge not just when you die but today and every day.