Sunday, August 14, 2016

One Flock, One Shepherd

At a prison bible study we were reflecting on John 10. It talks about Jesus as the good shepherd and thieves and robbers trying to steal the sheep. There is a lot there in the way Jesus cares for His sheep and protects His sheep. Even the idea that a shepherd in that day would risk his life for the sheep.

When it came to the thieves and robbers I talked about both the Protestant and Catholic ways of reading this text as I often do. Protestants would say thieves and robbers exist. They would be teaching something very different from the truth (as they see it). Often they would include Catholics and many other Protestants. Conservative Protestants would put liberal Protestants in this category but not those who are closer to them theologically. It all made sense to me as when I was Protestant.

The interesting thing is it didn't make sense to the prisoners. They get a mish-mash of Protestants denominations coming to the prison. They didn't get how the sheep would know Jesus' voice. As a Christian Reformed person talking to other Christian Reformed people I could easily appeal to common sense. Yet this sort of sense is not common to people who have experiences many contradictory religious ideas. That is actually more common these days.

Then there is the phrase that Jesus says that Protestants mostly ignore. He says in verse 16 that "there shall be one flock and one shepherd." Catholics see that as an obvious reference to the church and the pope. Protestants? Like I said, it is mostly ignored. To the extent that it means anything it would be spiritualized to the point where it becomes unfalsifiable. That is this invisible group of people has this invisible bond of unity with this invisible shepherd.

There is some visible unity in the Protestant world. I know I craved it when I was Protestant. Yet a lot of it is just a unity among some subset of protestants that happens to agree with you on an issue. It is like George Bush's coalition of the willing in Iraq. You just list those who agree with you, ignore those who don't, and declare it to be some sort of consensus. 

Yet what sort of community was Jesus really envisioning when He said there shall be one flock and one shepherd? If He foresaw the current Protestant reality would He not have said that He would be shepherding many flocks? Would He have just asserted that His sheep know His voice? Is there any amount of disunity that would indicate that Protestantism has a serious problem?

That does not mean the church needs to be homogeneous. Catholicism has many orders and many movements and many different spiritual personalities. They even have movements that reform other movements that have grown lax. There can be many moves of the Holy Spirit all withing this unity Jesus talks about. 

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Surprising Sex Survey

The latest sign that there is something rotten in modern society comes from a new study saying millennials are having less sex than previous generations. Dr Greg Popcak points out that when you get past the headlines which focus on sex what the study really shows is that young people are not pursuing intimacy like they should. This reminds me of the saying of St John Paul II that everything revolves around what man is for woman and what woman is for man. When that gets messed up society begins to unravel. 

What is remarkable here is things are coming apart in the opposite direction of what we would expect.  Our society has been willing to sell its soul in order to have free sex. Free of guilt, free of commitment, free of children, free of rules. Yet when we destroy marriage and destroy morals and destroy gender identity in order to get this we find people actually become less interested in sex. It is the classic deal with the devil. You surrender your soul to him expecting something in return but he can't even deliver that. You actually get nothing.

We often don't get this even if we don't live the lie. At least for me, I catch myself watching movies or whatever and getting caught up in it. The idea of people meeting and very quickly having great sex and it is all wonderful. The truth is sex does not work like that. You end up in all sorts of awkwardness where you feel intimate in some ways and feel like you hardly know each other in other ways. Yet we watch the story and on some level we buy it. 

So what is the solution? We need saints. People have lost track of how to live sexually. Even most people that self-identify as Christian will use contraception and get divorced at the same rates as people that don't. We need to know the stories of those who have lived life differently. Couples that have big families and awesome homes that seem to bless so many people. It used to be that everyone knew many families like that. It is not true anymore. Even many who go to church have never really seen what a traditional Christian marriage looks like. What used to be quite common has become heroic virtue. 

So even in the Catholic church we need to really believe and understand that artificial contraception will destroy our sexual integrity. We need to accept that we need to take radical steps to avoid the pornographic culture in which we live. Then we need to show the world how this approach to sexuality lead to true joy. We need to show a foretaste of heaven to those who are right now experiencing a foretaste of hell. Really that is where many young people are. Hell is nothing more than a lack of intimacy with God and with our fellow humans beings. When you dig into this study that is what you find there. A real despair about the potential for intimacy.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Heresy Question

One question that keeps getting asked by atheists and sometimes even by Protestants is why the Catholic church was so slow to declare the killing of heretics to be sinful. Sure they arrived there eventually but it took many centuries and many executions before they did. Isn't this principle a pretty easy one? Does this not show that religion has an inherent tendency to produce violence towards people who disagree?

It is a good question. The trouble is it has a bit of an assumption behind it. That is that heresy is no big deal. The modern secular mind has this notion that any ideas about religion are obviously of little consequence and people should be able to say whatever they want. The trouble is that is not true. Very few things can destroy a society like a heresy can. What people believe matters. It does not just matter in terms of whether they go to heaven or hell. It matters politically, socially, militarily, etc.

So we should not ignore heresy. What should we do? First of all, we should teach. Explain exactly why a teaching is wrong. When that does not work you simply let the bad impacts start to happen. Yes, that can mean many people die or many people get abused or we end up in bad wars. 

Bad impacts can be terrible but they are not as terrible as using violence to prevent them. Having the Church, the mystical body of Jesus, associated with violence and murder is just unacceptable even when there seems like it can avoid a serious error. The number of people raising this objection proves the point. It has presented Jesus in a bad light and we can't do it. 

So what happens next? Well, sin when it is full grown leads to death. It can be the death of the heretics. That is often much more destructive than killing the heretics earlier would have been. Yet letting it play out respects people's freedom. It becomes clear that sin is not destructive because the church has so much power but rather because of its nature. 

There is another possibility. When sin is full grown it leads to death. Yet sometimes that death is not our death but the death of Jesus. It can happen with heresy to. The church as the body of Christ can become the object of hatred just like Christ Himself did. The death we allow to happen can be our own. This can ultimately lead to the resurrection of the church and the salvation of society. 

This is not a persecution complex. It is just a recognition that this is the way history flows. When society falls into sin the church goes onto the cross. The faithful remnant become annoying to the sinners because they keep speaking the truth. That eats at people's consciences and they overreact. At the end of the day it becomes obvious that the one on the cross is the Holy One and the ones who put them there is not. 

So you can see why people are slow to go here. People who have power don't tend to give it up right to the point of letting themselves be killed. Jesus did it and we are called to do it yet it is not easy. It is not the obvious moral principle people often assume when they ask the question. It is the stuff of heroic virtue. 

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Stoning of Soraya M

I just saw The Stoning of Soraya M. last night. I know it is old but it got me thinking. It is definitely a film that stirs up your emotions. The fact that this woman was stoned is outrageous and should make you angry. I was certainly angry. It can make you passionate about some moral cause. But which cause? I could think of many that could use this film.
  1. The death penalty is always wrong
  2. If you are going to use the death penalty stoning is a particularly cruel way to do it
  3. The death penalty should not be used for the crime of adultery
  4. The death penalty should not be used unless there is real certainty about someone's guilt
  5. People accused of crimes should have access to a lawyer to present a proper defence
  6. People should just stop believing in God
The list could go on. Some of these principles I agree with and some I don't. That is always true with sentimental arguments. There is a real sense of moral outrage we feel from a situation. We can sense that something is wrong. Yet it is not obvious exactly what that something is. Yet when somebody connects the story with their particular cause then all the other possible causes are typically forgotten about. One moral principle is put on trial and typically found wanting. It is ironic that this movie is about an unfair trial because the sentimental argument is often an unfair trial and execution of a moral principle.

What happens when moral principles lose out to sentimental stories? Morality goes backwards a few thousand years. Really with the 10 commandments and a few other ancient moral codes we saw a move of humanity beyond moral feelings and advance towards the notion of moral principles. 

That really was an advance because principles allow us to apply morality more evenly to ourselves and other groups. We feel moral wrong more acutely when we are the victim but morality only really helps us when we can see wrongs that we inflict on others. Principles help us do that. 

The trouble with principles is you need to believe, first of all, that they exist and, secondly, that we can know them. That means you need to believe in something supernatural and in some trustworthy revelation about the supernatural. Modern society is sceptical of both. That is why the attacks of sentimentalism are so effective. 

My reaction to the movie was more along the lines of why it is important to get your religion right. People had a very detailed understanding about what God's will was. Not only was adultery a stoning offence but even the standards of evidence came from their religion. The testimony of two witnesses was enough. The burden of proof was lower when the accused was a woman. All that came from Islam. 

The problem is not that they were religious but that they believed the wrong religion. The solution is not atheism. Atheism is just another wrong religion. OK, you can argue that it is technically not a religion so call it a wrong world and life view. It is not immune from leading us to do terrible things. Just look at Hitler or Stalin. The solution is to examine all world and life views and find the truth.

Anyway, if we don't have any moral principles that we trust then everything will fall to sentimentalist reasoning. That is a very bad thing. What happens then? A government that controls the narrative can justify anything at all. What stands in their way? Only God. God and those who are sure they have heard His voice and are willing to be a light in the darkness. The good new is God is real and we can be sure of what His will is. 

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Charismatics and Traditionalists

I ran into this link about the the charismatic gifts and the hierarchical gifts. It is actually quite a recent document from the church's theology department. Something called the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. I found it interesting because it puts its finger on one of the key issues in the church today. That is the false choice that is put before us. There is this notion that need to choose to be liberal or conservative. Either you embrace a personal relationship with Jesus where your life is animated by the Holy Spirit and you reject the rules-based, stuffy, traditional Christianity or you stick with solid unchanging truth and reject a Christianity that compromises with the world. Lots of Christians view themselves in this way. They pick one side and define much of their spirituality against the other side. This divide happens in pretty much every denomination. In fact, conservative Christians across denominations have much more in common with each other than with liberal Christians in their own denomination and vice-versa. 

What we are called to do is embrace both. The charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit make Christianity personal. Everyone animates the faith in a different way and we absolutely need to be free to be true to ourselves. We even need to get together groups of people who have common interests and common gifts. St Irenaeus said the glory of God is a human being fully alive. We need a spirituality that is fully alive and life-giving and joy-filled. 

Somehow conservatives have always struggled with this. There is such an emphasis on self-control that it is hard to feel free. Sometime people can feel free in worship but have a hard time feeling free at a party with music and wine. 

It is a problem because if our spirituality comes across as joyless and stuffy then our evangelism is likely to be non-existent. In fact, we might have a problem with sloth because it is hard to maintain energy living that kind of faith.

Hierarchical gifts perhaps need a bit of explaining. It is a bit of a Catholic word. What it means is the gift of orthodoxy. The ability to know the truth about faith and morals and be united around that truth. This is hugely important as well. Our faith has to have content. Something has to make us different from the culture around us. Just talking nicely about Jesus and the bible is not enough. There needs to be something solid, something timeless, something we would die for. 

Liberals have a problem with this because for them the focus is always on the person. Every time you declare something to be part of the faith that many in society think is false you force people to either accept a hard truth or reject the whole faith. Many are going to do the latter. 

Again, if we don't get this right the results are devastating. Who will believe Christianity has the truth when they don't have any agreement on what that truth is? Even for ourselves it becomes hard to lean on our faith for truth when there are so many different opinions that sound good. 

The key is to recognise that both these kind of gifts come from the same spirit. The Holy Spirit that wants us to unite in one true faith is the same Holy Spirit that wants each of us to be unique. It really is a false choice. Any time you find yourself fighting for one side of this divide against the other you need to remind yourself of that.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Dictatorship of Sentimentalism

Pope Benedict started his pontificate by coining the phrase "The Dictatorship of Relativism." He was pointing out the irony of the fact that Relativism who's sole raison d'etre was to oppose anyone imposing any idea on anyone else was actually being imposed as an idea on society today. This was very insightful and unfortunately still happens a lot. Really anyone who says anything intelligent about faith or morals should be prepared for a chorus of responses along the lines of "don't impose your ideas on anyone else." It is quite sad.

Yet I was thinking there is another dictatorship active in today's society. That is that of sentimentalism. Sentimentalism is when you base your moral philosophy on human emotion. Whoever gives the most moving sob-story wins the day. This is common as well. You talk about abortion or gay marriage or euthanasia and many people have been hugely influenced by somebody somewhere allegedly being hurt by those big bad Christian moralists. The question is then framed around, "Do you care about these people or do you not?"

That is a terrible way to do moral reasoning for a lot of reasons. One being that sentimental arguments can contradict. You could make someone feel sorry for the adulterer. You could also make someone feel sorry for the faithful spouse who is cheated on. It is easy to manipulate people's emotions. 

Another way this kind of moral thinking fails is in dealing with dissenters. If you reduce the question to "do you care" then what is your reaction to the people who continue to hold the other position. They must not care. So you immediately get very strong rhetoric accusing people on the other side of hatred. They almost never actually hate the people in question. Yet sentimentalism requires that be the only reason they hold the position they hold. If they admit any exception then they move from emotional ground to rational ground. The two don't mix. Sentimentalism must crush logic because it  can't compete with logic. It is a far less reliable guide to the truth so it has to declare the rational person to be a monster. 

So letting your love and compassion guide you will lead you to develop hatred and disgust for another people group. Emotion is a two-edged sword. Yet it gets worse. What happens when the band wagon goes too far. Human movements always go from one extreme to another. Eventually their hatred for the other side will get so harsh you can't stomach it. For some that will take longer than others. That is when sentimentalism gets really harsh. As soon as you jump off that band wagon then you become the one that does not care. You are now the hater that has been so demonised in your mind. 

The trouble is because your initial acceptance of the sentimentalist position was not principled then you can't find any principled way out. It is like any sin. Even when you realise how wrong it is it is difficult to stop. This is especially true when we don't want to stop completely but just want to stop the most extreme consequences. It does not work like that. Just like an alcoholic can't cut back a little but must attack the power of his addiction at the root. So too someone addicted to sentimentalism must go back and reconstruct their morality based on sound principles. The same principles the church has always defended. All of them, not just the ones you find appealing. That is hard to do.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Plain Reason

My post on Why Atheism? was a bit different than I intended. First of all, the tone was more anti-protestant than I wanted. Secondly, it ended up being longer that I expected. Rather than write a very long post I just stopped. So I appreciate the reaction. Good to know someone is reading. Still I thought I should keep going and maybe things will make more sense over time. 

One thread I see in common between many Protestants and many of the new atheists is the unusual relationship with tradition. By tradition I mean the role of some subculture in shaping thought. The particular school of thought you subscribe to. 

It is hard to define because both protestants and atheists tend to downplay and sometimes even deny the influence of tradition. Luther's notion of "plain reason" is very strong. They can see influence and bias in other people. They don't really see it in themselves. They tend to see their own thought as plain reason.

You get this a lot when you ask protestants why they are this kind of protestant rather than that kind of protestant. It is just obvious from plain reason that this is right and that is wrong. Yet equally reasonable people connected with the other tradition find the opposite just as obvious. This is so deeply ingrained that I find if I give an example then people can't get past that. They give their standard argument for that issue and keep repeating it like that somehow answers the question. If all you want is the answer to issue X I have that for you. 

Atheists do the same thing. They assume everything is just based on plain reason. The fact that most new atheists agree with Christian morality on most issues and disagree with it on the exact same issues is just a coincidence. There is nothing but plain reason in play. A principle like equal dignity for all human persons is just obvious. Why? You look at humans and they don't seem equal no matter how you measure them. Yet their equality is obvious? It has nothing to do with the Christian culture you were raised in? You can keep going. Why is it wrong to judge people? Why is humility a good thing? There is just this belief that everything comes from plain reason and nothing comes from your particular perspective as a western secular person.

The truth is that plain reason simply does not exist. Nobody starts reasoning with no premises and no assumptions and considers all perspectives equally regardless of what they have experienced or who they have learned from. Many professions recognise this. They demand people are mentored for a time in addition to book learning. They don't just give them the reasoning but realise they need to develop the right intuitions and experience. Often they want them to have several mentors to learn to think like a professional doctor or accountant or engineer or whatever.

Jesus did the same thing. He didn't just give people plain reason. He spent 3 years with 12 men. He didn't write anything. He taught them life to life. Sure His discourses were important but they needed to learn how He approached every kind of question and every kind of person. 

When we understand how drastically our subtle philosophical assumptions impact our final conclusions then we will look for something other than plain reason to guide us. The good news is that God has provided such a thing. It is called sacred tradition. Sure Jesus condemned the traditions of men. Yet the very phrase "traditions of men" hints that there might be a tradition that is not from men. At least one that is guided in some way by God. That is what sacred tradition is. 

Catholics admit to being biased and influenced like everyone else. We don't try and avoid all tradition because that would be inhuman. We try and think with the church. If we have to be influenced we want to be influenced by something holy. It is a choice.