Monday, December 24, 2012

From Pope Benedict's Christmas Eve homily:
I am also repeatedly struck by the Gospel writer’s almost casual remark that there was no room for them at the inn. Inevitably the question arises, what would happen if Mary and Joseph were to knock at my door. Would there be room for them? And then it occurs to us that Saint John takes up this seemingly chance comment about the lack of room at the inn, which drove the Holy Family into the stable; he explores it more deeply and arrives at the heart of the matter when he writes: “he came to his own home, and his own people received him not” (Jn 1:11). The great moral question of our attitude towards the homeless, towards refugees and migrants, takes on a deeper dimension: do we really have room for God when he seeks to enter under our roof? Do we have time and space for him? Do we not actually turn away God himself? We begin to do so when we have no time for him. The faster we can move, the more efficient our time-saving appliances become, the less time we have. And God? The question of God never seems urgent. Our time is already completely full. But matters go deeper still. Does God actually have a place in our thinking? Our process of thinking is structured in such a way that he simply ought not to exist. Even if he seems to knock at the door of our thinking, he has to be explained away. If thinking is to be taken seriously, it must be structured in such a way that the “God hypothesis” becomes superfluous. There is no room for him. Not even in our feelings and desires is there any room for him. We want ourselves. We want what we can seize hold of, we want happiness that is within our reach, we want our plans and purposes to succeed. We are so “full” of ourselves that there is no room left for God. And that means there is no room for others either, for children, for the poor, for the stranger. By reflecting on that one simple saying about the lack of room at the inn, we have come to see how much we need to listen to Saint Paul’s exhortation: “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom 12:2). Paul speaks of renewal, the opening up of our intellect (nous), of the whole way we view the world and ourselves. The conversion that we need must truly reach into the depths of our relationship with reality. Let us ask the Lord that we may become vigilant for his presence, that we may hear how softly yet insistently he knocks at the door of our being and willing. Let us ask that we may make room for him within ourselves, that we may recognize him also in those through whom he speaks to us: children, the suffering, the abandoned, those who are excluded and the poor of this world.
The bold part seemed so insightful to me. That was just after reading what gender and human nature courtesy of Brian Cross. Have I mentioned lately how awesome our pope is? He just understands our world like nobody in politics or the media does.

Merry Christmas all.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Virgin Birth And False Prophecy

I was just thinking of the virgin birth. I have always thought of it as one of those miracles that required faith rather than one that one that could increase our faith. The reason is that only Mary really knew for sure. No matter how well you know a person you can never be positive about stuff like that. Could her mother and her father and her betrothed not at least imagine that she could have been so embarrassed at her own behaviour she might have made up the whole angel thing? Isn't it pretty much a self-serving story?

Thinking about it as a modern person that makes sense. All sorts of people tell all sorts of stories about a lot of things. But in Jewish society that didn't happen. One big reason was the Jewish law about false prophesy. False prophets were to be executed. How could you tell a false prophet? If the prophet predicted future events based on revelations from God then if one of those events did not come to pass he would be known to be a false prophet. It was very much a one strike and you are out policy. If you claim God told you that X will happen then X better happen or you forfeit your life.

If you think about Mary's story with the angel. Did she predict a future event? She did. She said that she was going to give birth to a son. What if the child was female? Beyond that, the infant mortality rate was pretty high back then. What if the child died? Would that not put her in the uncomfortable situation of having made a prediction in the name of God and having it not come true?

Could she really be executed? It might depend on how widely know her prediction was. We don't know how public she went with her story. She told Joseph. She told Elizabeth. Once you tell a few people a story like that is pretty hard to keep quiet. Could a woman be executed for false prophecy? I don't know. Women were referred to as prophets in the bible. It makes sense that they would be subject to the same rules.

None of this comes across in Luke. Why would it? These calculations are for those telling lies. Truth tellers don't worry. If you really saw an angel then you would not worry if what he told you was true. There is no evidence Mary was worried. But the idea that this story might have been Mary's way out of an awkward situation is a little harder to swallow.

If you think about it, future events lined up so well with Mary's angel story that it can build our faith. If you don't look at the story as a skeptic but as an honest seeker of truth. When you see the mothers of celebrities interviewed what do they say? They don't make up fancy stories of amazing circumstances around the birth. Nobody expects them to. It would be the same for Jesus. When Luke interviewed Mary he was not looking for something amazing. There was no reason to make anything up. Christianity was already growing.

It ends up being one more thing for skeptics to dismiss based on a vague conspiracy theory. Either that or it ends up as one more witness to the historical truth of Jesus. Maybe Mary is the one witness who you will find convincing. They say nobody knows a man like his mother knows him. That is certainly true of Jesus.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Thing

Dr Ken Howell has an excellent article on Called To Communion. It talks about historical research. He talks about philosophical assumptions we bring to the process of analyzing data. He identifies 3 sets of assumptions or frameworks including the Catholic one.
An honest historian working within the Classic Catholic Framework (CCF) will face all the diverse and varied expressions of Christian belief brought forth from the relevant texts. He will, however, ask different questions about those texts from those who work in the CPF or the MCF. Central to inquiry in the CCF is the notion of witness. Witnesses point to something greater and more enduring than themselves. In the CCF, the goal is to study the relevant witnesses in order to discover the deposit of faith which is the doctrinal content of the Christian faith. This approach assumes continuity across space and time. That continuity may not be total or exhaustive but it has essential qualities and characteristics which are transmitted over time.
I am reminded of GK Chesterton's notion of The Thing. The idea that there is some thing called the Catholic faith and it makes sense of every other thing. There is not one area of life where the thing is essential. You can create a morality without the thing. You can create a history without the thing. You can create meaning and purpose without the thing. Not really but you can come close enough to make it plausible. In any one of these areas you will find people who found they could not. That contemplating this one area convinced them. The thing must be real. But no one area of life is convincing for everyone. There is no irrefutable line of reasoning that forces people to believe the thing exists. Over and over again you are invited to accept it but there is always the option to say No. That in itself is quite remarkable for the thing to always be attractive but to never be logically required.

In the case of history Howell's article shows how believing there is a thing called the Catholic faith completely changes the way we think about history. Everything relates to it. The first thing we want to know is if this person is reflecting the Catholic faith. If he is then we can learn not just about him but about the faith and how the faith was lived in that time and place. If we don't think such a thing as the Catholic faith exists then we will see one person making one statement and we will conclude very little.

The documents of history do give pretty good evidence the Catholic faith exists. There is remarkable consistency among those who adhere to the faith that breaks down when they break communion with the church. Does it prove the Catholic faith exists? No. It is good evidence but not undeniable evidence. Like every other area of life we see something but it takes a leap of faith to declare it is real.

When you look at all of life with pretty good evidence in one area and more pretty good evidence in another and another and another. Eventually you can get enough evidence that you can be very sure you are right. Putting all the threads together and arriving at a pretty strong rope.

Thomas Howard once said that there are two choices in life. Either everything means everything or nothing means anything. God is constantly giving us the choice to glorify Him and be fully alive or be self centred and slowly die. We see it everywhere unless you choose not to see it. Then you see nothing, just matter and energy. Once you accept that there is more to life than death. Once you see the thing somewhere then you see it everywhere.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Orthodox And Authority

Ron Dreher has an interesting article on how men respond to Eastern Orthodox Christianity.
Both Podles, in his 1999 book, and the Vancouver Sun reporter, looking into contemporary church statistics in Canada, observe that the Orthodox churches, small though they may be, do not have this problem attracting men to services. For my part, one of the first things I noticed about attending Orthodox liturgy was how many men were there. In the opening passage of her memoir Facing East, the Orthodox writer Frederica Mathewes-Green observes this too:
I find this interesting. I have often complained that when people do statistical analysis of Catholics that the liberal Catholics overwhelm the orthodox ones. That makes it hard for orthodox Catholics to see how they are doing in the categories that are studied by cross denominational research. So seeing this it made me think I should look at the Eastern Orthodox category more. We might track with them better than we track with the full Catholic church. There are a few problems though. In some places the Eastern Orthodox church is dominated by converts. In other places it is more, well, eastern. That is if there are a lot of Russians or Greeks or Ukrainians then you will get more of the cultural religious dynamic in that church as well. How many studies are going to include that kind of information?

Then there is another difference that Dreher talks about.
Another thought: in my 15 or so years as a Roman Catholic, I only rarely worshipped in a parish in which I related to the priest as an authority figure. I believed that his sacramental authority was real, but I’m talking about his pastoral authority. Most of the priests I dealt with struck me as — what’s the word? — is it soft? I wanted and needed a pastor, not a guidance counselor. There was a lack of masculine authority present, and I felt it. I can think of at least five Catholic pastors in my personal experience who did have and exercise spiritual and moral authority in a masculine way, and they were great. They reminded me of my own father: caring, but strong and authoritative.
This is fair. As an Orthodox Catholic I do relate to the church as an authority. It does not come down to the parish level all that well. You hear a fair bit about clericalism and how important it is for laymen to take positions of leadership. That is all good but it should not detract from the authority of the priest. Just like the authority of the church does not detract from the authority of Christ but it implements that authority because church leaders are in unity with Christ. So to having lay leaders does not need to detract from the authority of the priest. If it is done right and the lay leaders are in unity with the parish priest then his authority is going to be greater not less.

Somehow that has gotten lost and weaker priest have become the rule in the Catholic church at least in the post Vatican II generation. Part of it is a culture of consensus that encouraged priests not to act life fathers but to try and be one of the children instead. It is related to a culture of dissent that flowed from the reaction to Humanae Vitae. That is changing more and more at the bishop level. It might take some time to get down to the parish priest level but I suspect it will.

Another part of it is just the number of priests and the size of the parish. It is hard to project a fatherly authority when you have two priests and thousands of parishioners. I think the Orthodox church is smaller so the priests can project that authority a lot easier. That is likely to change over time as well. Either more priests or less parishioners or both.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

If Atheism Were True Sex Would Be Uncomplicated

I find sex to be the most amazing thing. There is just so much there. There is great pleasure possible for sure. There is also a lot of pain that is possible with rape and degrading sex.

There is a lot of humour about sex. Many of the jokes are not even really funny. They just contain a sexual reference and people laugh.

Our sexuality embarrasses us. We have a strange relationship with our own nakedness.

There is sexual morality. We have a sense that there is a right and wrong around sex. We might not know exactly what the rules are but we are sure there is something there.

We have love songs and love poetry. They say there is more bad poetry written about romantic love than any other topic.

We have more euphemisms for talking about sex than anything else. When a word is used in a sexual way that group of people seem to remember that connotation for a long time. It is like it bonds the group to have its own sex talk.

Science has its own language for talking about sex. It is cold and references purely biological functions.

Jenifer Fulwiler talks about how the first thing she could not explain through materialist atheism was her love for her husband and then later her love for her child. That is a bit of what I think too. That is if atheism were true then there would be a lot less to sex and reproduction. We would be much more efficient. It would not be so wonderful and so horrible and so messy and so confusing and so interesting to talk about.

In modern times we are seeing it more. We expect huge promiscuity. We encourage it as a society. We mock people who talk about morality. We use the mass media to push sexual immorality all day every day. Our schools make clear to kids that we expect zero self control from them. Parents are actively discouraged from imposing any sexual moral standard on their kids. We could not do more as a society to destroy every ounce of sexual morality in our children.

So what is the result? One study say 28% of teens have sex by time they are 17. That means 72% do not. I am always amazed at these studies. The assumption is that everyone is doing it. I sometimes fall into that kind of thinking to. But every time I look at the numbers I am amazed at how many resist the culture. Why do they do that?

If atheism was true that would not happen. If sex is just natures way to get us to reproduce and we can manipulate our bodies to render ourselves infertile and have have fun with our sexual faculty without any deep consequences. If all that is true then we would not be seeing so many young people wait so long.

I don't want to harp on one stat because the truth is you see it all over. Promiscuity is not the utopia it should be if atheism was true. Some people go there for a while but they move on. I know atheists don't deny them the right to do that. It is just that if the biological picture of sex was the whole picture of sex you would not expect this. But that is precisely what scientific materialism says.

When the sexual revolution hit we blamed Christianity for our inability to enjoy sex freely. It made us feel guilty. But in the last 50 years we have see a huge decline the ability of Christianity to make anyone feel guilty. Birth control and abortion solve the procreation issue. Yet somehow casual sex has not worked for most people. It was supposed to be like cars and telephones. Just something everyone would embrace and never want to go back. Young people especially should be going there without a second thought.

It seems that analysis has missed something. It is harder to argue that what it has missed is precisely what Catholicism says they have missed. Still the idea that there is something sacred about sex is hard to avoid. Certainly sexual morality is one area where our society has not questioned atheism at all. We have swallowed their ideas whole. We have asked few questions. We have sacrificed our marriages. We have sacrificed our children. All because we might get some sexual pleasure. That is what smart people do, isn't it?

You would expect, if it was true, that after this much time it would start making sense. Those alleged hang-ups that don't have anything real behind them would disappear. Nobody would care who was sleeping with whom any more than they care what people are having for dinner. People would no longer look for something more. It would be sad because I think the more is literally heavenly. It would be sad but it might be true. The reality is that people are still very much sensing the more even when they try and get themselves to believe it isn't there.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Atheist Bible Questions

A few questions were asked by atheists when I was posting on the problems I have with atheism. I was hoping I would get some intelligent and non-offensive atheists and I have been blessed with a few of them this past week. I did detect that Grundy especially was a bit annoyed when I declared some of his question off topic. I can understand that. So I thought I would respond to some of them now.

They all revolve around the bible and how Catholics read it. I talked about it before. There is a big difference between Christians in the way they read the bible. Protestants set the bible as the highest authority. That means they try to put the actual words of scripture over and above any Christian tradition. That means the way the bible has been interpreted in the past is informative but not normative. So they can't use Christian tradition to declare one part of scripture less important or one way of reading scripture to be wrong.

Catholics say God speaks through sacred tradition just as much as He speaks though the bible. We have one faith. We can agree on the questions that are important to the faith because we believe the pope will not lead us into error. That means we can also progress into a deeper and better understanding of God's truth. Not something that completely contradicts the past but something that clarifies things for the future.

So how does this change the way we look at some of the passages atheists love to quote? First of all, it becomes very important that the church does not frequently call our attention to these passages. It is not because the church is trying to cover up the embarrassing bits of the bible. It is because they are less important. They are not the centre of the faith. They are a footnote. Protestants can't really say that because the bible is the bible to them. They can point out that nobody is teaching these passages as something to be imitated but they say that teaching from scripture is beneath the scripture itself in authority so that does not quite work.

Secondly, we have this idea that God's relationship with man progresses. God's grace increases with the various covenants but also over time within the same covenant. So early on we have the story of Noah. God kills every man woman and child on the earth except for eight. He does this as punishment for sin. There is still grace. Noah and his family are saved. Still it seems pretty harsh. God says as much. He promised to never do it again. But why did He do it once? The wages of sin is death. We all need to understand that we interact with God as death row inmates who have received a reprive. We should not be confused about why God wipes out sinners. We should be confused about why any are saved. That is the way the story is told. That the salvation of Noah and his family was the remarkable part. A sinful society completely wiped out is unremarkable.

God continues to teach us that sin causes death but over time uses less and less actual death to do it. There are three ways of dealing with evil.
  1. Kill the evil people. This happened a lot early on. The people of Israel need to be made holy. That required they be given a special land. That land needed to be free from heathens or the Israelites would have just degenerated into another heathen nation. So God told them to completely wipe out those nations. Many heard there would be no mercy and knew they had to run far. They could not go into the hills and come back in a year. They had to go hundred of miles and never come back. It was brutal but God wanted a people for Himself and He knew evil would not easily be kept at bay. It would require raw power.
  2. Separate evil people from your chosen people. This is racist although not completely. Members of other races could convert to the Jewish faith. Still God separated Jews from gentiles using a bunch of ceremonial laws and practices. Circumcision, dietary laws, laws around washing, animal sacrifices, Sabbath observance, laws against intermarrying with gentiles or even sharing dishes with them. These protected Jewish society from many outside influences over the centuries. Still Eleazar died because he refused to eat swine flesh. 2 Mac 6:31 says he died "leaving in his death an example of nobility and a memorial of courage" but it is strange because Christians today eat swine flesh. 
  3. Overcome evil with self-sacrificing love. This is the way Jesus showed us. It requires the grace to be able to look evil people in the eye and love them even knowing they might kill you. This is what Jesus did and what the grace of God's word and sacraments is supposed to enable us to do. The ceremonial laws are gone because God does not want to protect us from evil people. He wants us to engage them because we now have the means to be able to win the spiritual battle. Sin still causes death but it is our death. The willingness of all Christians to give themselves as martyrs. 
Now in the New Testament times we see examples of all these methods of dealing with evil. A good example of #1 is Constantine defeating Maxentius in the Battle of Milvian Bridge. God does occasionally work that way. An example of #2 is Catholics not eating fish on Fridays. But as time goes on we see less and less of #1 and #2 and more and more of #3. That is the direction history is moving. That is the direction God is leading His church.

So saying it was OK for a pope to call for a Crusade in the 11th century does not mean it is OK for a pope to do so today. Not just because people are less likely to listen to the pope today but because the Holy Spirit has moved us beyond that. Not saying it was wrong but saying organizations like the United Nations are the appropriate ways to do a crusade today.

Anyway, that should be enough to provide a framework for discussing most atheist bible question. I will make one more point. Often atheists accuse God of murder. That makes no sense. Murder is the taking of matters of life and death into your hands that belong in God's hands. God cannot commit murder because He that power belongs to Him. It is like accusing the government of being a tax cheat. The government is the tax master in the same way that God is the life master.

So no matter how many people God allows to be kill and why He kills them He cannot murder. In fact, all death is allowed by God. We question it all. The point is none of us deserve to live. We continue to draw breath by God's grace. Why does He let 20 children die? I don't know. But to accuse Him of murder is to confuse things greatly.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Origins: Intelligent Design And Anti-Supernatural Historical Analysis

I see a major parallel between the intelligent design theory of the origin of earth and the more anti-supernatural analysis of the origins of Christianity. One is an attack on evolution and the other is an attack on Christian claims about history. Catholics happen to be quite rare in that they believe both evolution and Christian tradition. Most people are on one side of this debate on evolution and the other side of the debate on Christianity so they don't see the parallels.

I talked about it briefly before when discussing Leah Libresco's rejection of The Case For Christ but I thought I would develop it a bit more in response to some recent comments. They both follow very similar lines and have very similar problems. Here are a few:
  1. They both start by dismissing all the evidence that points to the current theory. Not for any good reason but simply because it points to that theory. So biblical and extra-biblical sources are not to be trusted on matters of history. That means any document that supports the bible. In the same way evolutionary propaganda should not be taken seriously. That means any scientist who argues in favor of evolution. 
  2. Frequently declare that there is no evidence for the theory. Of course you mean no evidence that you didn't exclude in step #1. So a creationist will say there is no evidence for evolution without actually declaring that he know about lots of evidence and just does not feel it meets his standard. In the same way a skeptic will declare there is no evidence for the resurrection without saying it is because he does not count the bible or the early church or any other writers that might have been influenced by Christians.
  3. They subtly suggest a conspiracy without really suggesting it. There is something to this. There is a tendency even among experts to be unduly influenced by the standard way of thinking on a matter. Pretend the other side has this problem and your side does not. In fact, suggest the problem is so bad that you can safely ignore many of the worlds leading experts on the topic. So experts in biblical history are ignored because they are Christians. Experts in evolution are ignored because they believe in evolution. 
  4. Appeal to matters of faith a lot. Make statements like, "We don't have to reject the bible based on this lame theory" or "We don't have to believe the bible based on this lame theory." It commits the fallacy of a false dichotomy. That is accepting all of atheism or all of fundamentalism. You not only connect logical questions that could be evaluated independently but you also inject a lot of emotion into the discussion.
  5. Complain a lot about the other side being anti-Christian or anti-reason. Make sure to question their motives and declare your motives to be pure.
  6. When somebody is arguing too strongly always remember the response, "Were you there?" Were you there when the dinosaurs walked the earth? Were you there at Jesus' grave on Easter morning? This forces your opponent back to first principles and having to explain why we have any confidence at all in historical research or archeological research. 
  7. Never explain anything. Always sit back and shoot at the other person's theory and demand impossible standards of proof. But don't make any serious attempt to explain the data with your own theory. How did Christianity change the world based on miracles that never happened and stories that are obvious legend? Who knows? How did the fossil record get like it got? Who knows? Or God did it, which amounts to the same thing.
This is common to all attempts to cut down good research when the time expanses involved are too big to design repeatable experiments and do a large number of trials. You saw it with the smoking and cancer link. You see it with the climate change debate. It is a special case of the twisting of science that I have talked about before.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

If Atheism Was True It Would Have A Coherent History

Atheism struggles to explain when and how western civilization came off the rails and became Christian. They love the Greeks. They were not really atheists but they valued reason more than any society before. Then Athens and Jerusalem got together and produced Rome. How did that happen? What did a Hellenistic empire find so appealing about Christianity? If reason is superior to religion why was that not clear to people back then?

When you look at the reasons people of the day actually gave it becomes worse. They refer to miracles. Many miracles but one central one, the resurrection of Jesus. Why did they believe these stories? Don't rational people just know they are all false? The best they can come up with is that the previous generation believed them. That is a bit lame. People don't just accept what the previous generation believed. Didn't youth question their elders back then? Again, when you read what they wrote, it appears they did. St. Augustine's Confessions is a good example of a young man asking many of the same questions young people ask today. He certainly didn't just accept what his mother told him without thinking about it.

Beyond the fact that the "previous generation" explanation is lame it really does not explain anything. It just pushes the question back. Eventually you get back to the time of Jesus and the Apostles. That is when worlds collide. Of course the writings of scripture and any writings related to them are treated with massive skepticism. No reason is needed to assume wild conspiracy theories. I get that it is hard for atheist zealots to be be rational about such matters. Why should we believe these hyper-credulous people?

Except they were not hyper-credulous. The Hellenists we have already said were very rational. Exactly the kind of people who should never believe miracle stories. Then we have the Jews. They were huge religious conservatives. They were still following the writings of Moses. They were willing to die rather than let the Greeks or Romans mess with their religion. Then when Jesus came along they had him killed because they didn't like religious radicals. Many of his followers got the same treatment. So this picture of a hyper-credulous society is purely something modern people have asserted to get their theories to work. It does not fit the data at all.

So what we have is a mismatch. You have what we are assuming are false stories about Jesus and His miracles and the apostles and their miracles. Then you have those who clearly believed these stories were true. But how did one flip to the other. When did the first Christians get out of "make it up as you go along" mode and get into "guard the deposit of faith with your life" mode? That is never very clear. You can see why. As soon as you start to say when it happened and how it happened and who was involved then you have a ton of problems. So the strategy is to be non-specific. Just make vague assertions and maybe nobody will notice that your theory in incoherent.

Caravaggio: Martyrdom of St. Peter
But if atheism is true then there should be a actual true history out there that makes sense. Christianity is simple. People responded to real miracles. People responded to real truth. People discerned the inadequacy of pure reason. From an atheist perspective people were responding to nothing at all. They were accepting a very demanding religion that could get them killed for no apparent reason.

Then they allowed that religion to exert a dominating power over society for thousands of years. You can assume they never really questioned it but there is a lot of evidence they did. Evangelism was constant because doubt was constant. People kept coming back to the faith. Not just the stupid people but many very bright minds. The kind of people who were capable of declaring that the emperor had no clothes. Anyway, looking at the history of the middle ages is another topic but it is another period of history that atheism cannot make sense of.

The problem is that atheism is a rather obvious religion. So obvious that it is hard to imagine that any serious thinker in history did not consider it. So it becomes hard to explain why humanity has had such a hard time arriving at such a simple and obvious truth. Why the greatest minds of human history rejected it. It is even harder when you read their writings and see how seriously they took these questions.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

If Atheism Was True Then The World Would be Ugly

Everywhere you look in this world you find amazing beauty. Whether you look at the big picture of the universe or smaller picture of the planets or the still smaller picture of the earth and her eco-systems or the many smaller pictures of the various species on the earth or look at the many individuals in the human species or look at molecules and chemicals and on and on. If you just had a big bang what would you get? Would you get Mozart?

I get that when you have something complex like genetic reproduction in place then you can get natural selection occurring based on survivability. But that does not explain why the species that ends up the winner should be at all interesting. I have read that if humans were to create a species that could out-compete existing animal species it would probably be a simple grey goo. Something that could reproduce itself efficiently and eat just about anything but it would be ugly. I can see the point. It is going to be a bunch of engineers that come up with this stuff. It is going to be functional for sure but don't expect beauty. They are not going to come up with a flower let alone the thousands of different flowers we currently have. So if we should not expect something designed by humans to be beautiful why should we expect something designed by natural selection to be beautiful? But that is what we see.

It reminds me of this from Rocco Palmo:
The most distinctive evidence of a new spirit in the documents came a couple weeks back in Tyler. Not in memory has a congregation broken out in laughter during the reading of a Papal Bull, but amid the usual thicket of formality, the inclusion of the see-city's moniker of "The Rose Capital of the World" in Bishop Joe Strickland's Roman mandate clearly tickled the locals (as well as the bishops in attendance), and even brought the normally austere Nuncio to Washington, Archbishop Carlo Maria ViganĂ², to crack a smile on reading the line.
What you have is a purely functional document from the pope.  He is appointing a new bishop. But then he includes the one line, "The Rose Capital of the World." It is a little wink. He is saying, "Tyler, Texas, I know who you are and I love you."

My point is that nature is full of those little winks. We have to be really thick to not see them. I wrote before how Dawkins can study bees his whole life and just see bees. Then someone else can look at bees and see beauty and ultimately see God. If it was just bees then it would just be one of those things but it isn't. It is everywhere. There are so many moments of wonder when you study science or history or politics or sports or whatever. That is not even counting human creativity we see in art, music, literature, etc.

If Atheism Was True...

Devin Rose wrote a book called If Protestantism Is True. Devin once said that my writing was a lot like his. That not only did we say many of the same things but we tended to say them in the same way. The title of his book made me think of that. My analysis of the Protestant/Catholic questions was very much along those lines. I was just bothered by all the things that logically one would expect to see and we did not see. The more angles I looked at it from the more things I came across that just didn't make sense if God really wanted Sola Scriptura to be the way Christians should live. At least initially it was a very negative case. I started to see some of the beauty in the Catholic faith later but my conversion was primarily based on scrutinizing the Protestant faith. It didn't stand up.

Bl. John Henry Newman noticed the same thing before he converted. He said to be deep in history is to cease to be protestant. He did not say it is to be Catholic. He thought the two logical places historical analysis would lead was Catholicism or Atheism. He saw Protestantism as being an inconsistent middle ground. So it was relatively easy to see the problems with it. At least atheism rejected all of what Catholicism claimed.

So what about atheism? Does it pass logical scrutiny? I don't think it does. It is harder to see. You can't appeal to scripture or God's desire to let people understand His gospel. Still there are some things that follow from atheism that don't seem plausible to me. Many of these are directly parallel to problems I saw with protestantism. Protestantism is essentially a protest against Catholicism. Atheism is protesting even more.

One of the things that complicates matters is that atheism means a lot of things to a lot of people. I like to talk about it as a strict scientific materialism. That is the denial of anything immaterial like virtues or nirvana rather than just the denial of God. To me, if you are asserting something supernatural that is different from Catholicism then you are in the territory of professing another religion rather than simple rejecting Catholicism. On the other hand, I consider many secular Christians to be practical atheists. A Christian who rejects miracles is in almost in the same place as an atheist who embraces the dignity of the human person. The biggest difference is one goes to church on Sunday morning and the other stays home.

Anyway, I was asked in the comments what would make me an atheist. I don't have a short answer but this is my blog so I am allowed to give long answers! I thought I would try a series of posts of the form "If atheism was true..." That is to give reasons why I don't find Atheism plausible. I was thinking of trying to draw the parallels to the reasons why Protestantism is implausible but I think I shall skip that part. Every time I try and connect those dots the posts get very abstract and nobody gets it. So I keep it simple and just try and write about why atheism can't be true or as Thomas Nagel put it, Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Abortion Politics And Science

Marc Barnes has a great post researching the grotesquely biased research that went on in Mexico to help the push for legal abortion. I have written before about how science gets corrupted by politics. People don't seem to grasp the importance of this. Sure they get upset when tactics like this are used by their political opponents but it is really a feigned outrage. Really they are thinking to themselves how they can use similar tactics to win the next battle.

The trouble is deeper than just winning a political battle with dishonesty. That is a much bigger problem than we are willing to admit but we have kind of gone there. We accept dishonesty as a legitimate tactic in political debate. It is not a good choice because we end up with lousy government but it a choice society has made. What we are seeing here is the spread of that evil.  That is what happens when you accept sin. You don't just pay the price and that is that. It grows. It infects more and more of life. Here we have dishonest politics infecting science.

Right now it works great. You put together some sham research. You get some science PhD's to make it look all researchy. A little like having an actor wear a white lab coat in an ad except a deeper facade than that. You need to design things so that it would take a person many hours of reading through the details of your paper to figure out something is amiss. Most people don't do that. Even then the really smelly stuff is not there. It is what they fail to document.
Guttmacher surveys healthcare professionals “selected on the basis of their professional affiliation, training, experience and specialization on the subject.” (1) Who these people are remains unavailable, as do their qualifications (what counts as specialization?), as do the questions asked in the survey (and whether those questions contain any relative bias), thus rendering the survey unrepeatable — an issue for any scientist. But the Guttmacher Institute is resolute, well-funded, and undeterred by such trifles.

Anyone who knows science can appreciate how twisting the question a bit and sampling only professionals that are strongly pro-choice can skew you results big time. You don't document that you do this. You just leave out exactly how you worded the questions and how you screened the participants. You document the good parts of the procedure and just fail to mention some things. We can only be sure they were dishonest in this case because their results were so far our of whack. Still the numbers were quoted as accurate by politicians in the abortion debate in Mexico. So they achieved their goal of twisting the debate with dishonest studies.

The ironic thing is that secular people sing the praises of science. Science is the wonderful thing. Religion is a medieval relic. But it is the secular people that corrupt science. When push comes to shove they don't want to follow scientific truth any more than they want to follow religious truth. They want to rationalize their behavior rather than honestly seek the truth.

Can science survive? I don't see how. It depends on the integrity of the scientist. That is precisely what is breaking down. What will prevent it from coming completely unraveled? The morals of society? They continue to degrade. Will political players want truth more than they want to push their ideology?  Have you observed an election campaign lately? Will they respect science enough to not use political power to corrupt research? Remember we have created a political system where an honest politician cannot win. So what can we really expect? We give a bunch of liars a lot of power and see what happens. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Fr Barron On Hell Again

I love Fr Barron. He has a great way of teaching Catholic truths. Very profound and very beautiful and very intelligent. For some strange reason he has this huge blind spot when it comes to hell. He can't see the logic problems with what a guy like von Balthasar has to say about hell. He just pretends they are not there. Baffling. Anyway, he has written another article responding to Dr Ralph Martin's recent book.
Dr. Ralph Martin, Professor of Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Seminary in Detroit, has written an important book titled Will Many Be Saved? The text received a good deal of attention at the recent synod on the New Evangelization, and its opening pages are filled with endorsements from some of the leading figures in the Church today.

Dr. Martin's argument is straightforward enough: the attitude, much in evidence in the years following Vatican II, that virtually everyone will go to Heaven has drastically undercut the Church's evangelical efforts.
Why then, if salvation is guaranteed to virtually everyone, would Catholics be filled with a passion to propagate the faith around the world with any urgency? Therefore, if the New Evangelization is to get off the ground, we have to recover a vivid sense of the reality of Hell, the possibility, even likelihood, of eternal damnation for the many who do not come to a lively faith in Christ. 
I have not read this book by Martin. I have read another book by him called The Fulfillment of All Desire. In that he goes much further that just saying that our evangelism might be impacted. He says the great mystics all had as a foundation for their contemplation a strong realization of the reality of heaven and hell. That the difference between heaven and hell is so huge that it makes the difference between earthly pains and earthly pleasures not worth considering. That our choices can mean the difference between heaven and hell for us or for the people in our lives.

You could view this as a Christian's personal, internal evangelization. The giving over of our hearts and minds to the truth of Christ. The reality of hell is an important reason why we should not be slothful in this matter. Think about the choice someone makes about whether or not to go to mass on Sunday. Among the people I know the decision to stop going has been spiritual death. The church confirms this by saying not attending mass has the potential of costing your eternal soul, that it is gravely evil. But if hell is empty that crushes that doctrine like it crushes so many others. So why get out of bed on Sunday morning?
The universalist perspective received a further boost in the 20th century, especially through the work of two of the most influential Catholic thinkers of the time, Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar. Rahner held that every human being is endowed with what he termed a "supernatural existential," which is to say, a fundamental orientation toward God. This spiritual potentiality is fully realized through explicit faith in Christ, but it can be realized to varying degrees even in those non-Christians who follow their consciences sincerely. 
The key word here is "even."  Faith in Christ is the basis for salvation. It can be implicit or explicit. Implicit faith is weaker and therefore less likely to save. The trouble comes when you flatten everything. If you assume 100% salvation then all the distinctions disappear. You go from almost everything having a potential salvific impact to nothing having any impact. If you grow in your faith your chance of persevering to the end is increased. If you fall into sin your chance decreases. Then universalism comes along with a big "Never mind!"
The supernatural existential makes of everyone -- to use Rahner's controversial phrase -- an "anonymous Christian" and provides the basis for hoping that universal salvation is possible. Basing his argument on the sheer extravagance of God's saving act in Christ, Balthasar taught as well that we may reasonably hope that all people will be brought to Heaven.
This is just sentimentalism. We can't find anything in revelation that comes close so we just appeal to God's niceness. God is nice. I am nice. So God must agree with me. Hell is an offensive doctrine. God finds it offensive. If we are thinking like God we should find it offensive to. But that does not make it false.
A good part of Balthasar's argument is grounded in the Church's liturgy, which demands that we pray for the salvation of all. If we knew that Hell was indeed a crowded place, this type of prayer would be senseless.
Why? We do need to pray for the salvation of every single soul. We cannot give up on anyone. Not the most brazen sinner. Not your worst enemy. We need to hope for and work for the salvation of every soul. Like the parable of the sower. We need to plant everywhere because we don't know where the good soil is. But that does not mean it is all good soil. It just means we are lousy soil judges.
Now the heart of Martin's book is a detailed study and critique of the theories of Rahner and Balthasar, and space prevents me from even sketching his complex argument. I will mention only one dimension of it, namely his analysis of Lumen Gentium paragraph 16. Both Balthasar and Rahner -- as well as their myriad disciples -- found justification in the first part of that paragraph, wherein the Vatican II fathers do indeed teach that non-Christians, even non-believers, can be saved as long as they "try in their actions to do God's will as they know it through the dictates of their conscience."

However, Martin points out that the defenders of universal salvation have, almost without exception, overlooked the next section of that paragraph, in which the Council Fathers say these decidedly less comforting words: "But very often, deceived by the Evil One, men have become vain in their reasonings, have exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and served the world rather than the Creator. Hence to procure the salvation of all these, the Church takes zealous care to foster the missions." A fair reading of the entire paragraph, therefore, would seem to yield the following: the unevangelized can be saved, but often (at saepius), they do not meet the requirements for salvation. They will, then, be damned without hearing the announcement of the Gospel and coming to an active faith.
He does not even make a counter argument here. This passage of Lumen Gentium is not alone. Much of Catholic teaching is reduced to utter nonsense by universalism.
So who has it right in regard to this absolutely crucial question? Even as I deeply appreciate Martin's scholarship and fully acknowledge that he scores important points against both Balthasar and Rahner, I found his central argument undermined by one of his own footnotes. In a note buried on page 284 of his text, Martin cites some "remarks" of Pope Benedict XVI that have contributed, in his judgment, to confusion on the point in question. He is referring to observations in sections 45-47 of the Pope's 2007 encyclical Spe Salvi, which can be summarized as follows. There are a relative handful of truly wicked people in whom the love of God and neighbor has been totally extinguished through sin, and there are a relative handful of people whose lives are utterly pure, completely given over to the demands of love.
I read this when it first came out and re-read it now. The pope seems like he is talking about human judgement when he talks about a  small number of people. There are few Hitlers and few Mother Teresa's. God judges the heart. We don't know what happens to the numbers then. When talking about the remainder the pope refers to 1 Cor 3 and says:
Paul begins by saying that Christian life is built upon a common foundation: Jesus Christ. This foundation endures. If we have stood firm on this foundation and built our life upon it, we know that it cannot be taken away from us even in death
The key word there is "if."  So he is not assuming the people he is talking about all end up in heaven. He is focusing on the different forms salvation can take. He is not saying everyone who is not as bad as Hitler is saved. He is saying that
Those latter few will proceed, upon death, directly to Heaven, and those former few will, upon death, enter the state that the Church calls Hell. But the Pope concludes that "the great majority of people" who, though sinners, still retain a fundamental ordering to God, can and will be brought to Heaven after the necessary purification of Purgatory. Martin knows that the Pope stands athwart the position that he has taken throughout his study, for he says casually enough, "The argument of this book would suggest a need for clarification."
Who is the Pope opposing. He seems to say hell is not empty. I don't think he says anything about numbers but to the extent he does he says there are some in hell. That falsifies universalism.
Obviously, there is no easy answer to the question of who or how many will be saved, but one of the most theologically accomplished popes in history, writing at a very high level of authority, has declared that we oughtn't to hold that Hell is densely populated. To write this off as "remarks" that require "clarification" is precisely analogous to a liberal theologian saying the same thing about Paul VI's teaching on artificial contraception in the encyclical Humanae Vitae.
This is just so stupid I am amazed Fr Barron would ever say such a thing. When a pope writes and encyclical for the expressed purpose of clearly defining the church's teaching on an issue like contraception or female ordination or whatever, then you have acknowledge God is shepherding His church through this man and obey. Spe Salvi is a reflection on hope. It is not in the same universe as Humanae Vitae. People can try and twist and squeeze it to imply he is teaching universalism. It just does not say that. It certainly does not bind the consciences of all Catholics the way a document like Humanae Vitae does.
It seems to me that Pope Benedict's position -- affirming the reality of Hell but seriously questioning whether that the vast majority of human beings end up there -- is the most tenable and actually the most evangelically promising.
The pope does not seriously question that. Jesus actually ducks questions about numbers and hell. He talks about a wide road and a narrow road  but the emphasis is always on your own salvation and not on the relative population density. I think the best approach is to assume it all matters. Don't assume anyone, including yourself, is going to heaven regardless. Don't assume anyone, including yourself, is going to hell regardless.

The biggest reason for universalism is because people don't want to explain why God would send anyone to hell. As far as that goes the numbers are irrelevant as long as the number is not zero. So the talk of crowded or densely populated really does not matter. If there are a million people in hell or a billion people in hell we still have to explain why those people are there and square that with a all-powerful and all-good God. So that logical problem does not go anywhere unless we say there is nobody in hell and then we get bigger logic problems. Like why do we even talk about sin or salvation or heaven or hell.

Fr Barron seems to bounce around here about whether he is talking about fewer people in hell than many think or nobody at all in hell. The difference between those two is massive. One is an optimistic speculation about numbers that might lead some to presumption but it otherwise harmless. The other turns Catholicism and really all of human existence into an exercise that will eventually become meaningless as we all enter heaven. That is the one we need to clearly distance ourselves from. Von Balthasar failed to do that. That is a shame because his career is more and more defined by that error. 

Monday, December 3, 2012

Atheist Heresy

Alvin Plantinga  reviews Thomas Nagel's new book Mind And Cosmos. Ed Feser has several posts about the book too. Nagel is an atheist who spends most of the book explaining why the most popular atheist philosophy is wrong.
So far Nagel seems to me to be right on target. The probability, with respect to our current evidence, that life has somehow come to be from non-life just by the working of the laws of physics and chemistry is vanishingly small. And given the existence of a primitive life form, the probability that all the current variety of life should have come to be by unguided evolution, while perhaps not quite as small, is nevertheless minuscule. These two conceptions of materialist naturalism are very likely false.
So he provides good evidence for rejecting atheism on its own terms.  Theists often point this out but as you can imagine their judgement is not trusted by atheists. So having this guy out there is a good thing.

Plantinga's article was titled "Secular Heresy." That got me thinking in a different direction. Atheism can't really have heresy. Still Nagel feels like a heretic. He is denying some things that many atheists feel you cannot deny and still be an atheist. But Nagel is in a worse position. His heresy is being proclaimed by mob rule. Other atheists are just shouting him down. They don't want people interested in atheism to think Nagel is one of them. That makes sense from their perspective.

But what can Nagel do to defend himself? Can he argue that what he has proposed is within the bounds of the thing called atheism? That is almost impossible because that thing is ill-defined. In Catholicism there are documents that define orthodoxy. When you are accused of heresy you can go to those documents and try and argue that you have not denied the faith. That what you are proposing can be understood as a legitimate development of the faith. It is a winnable case. There is a magisterium there that matters. You don't need to try and convince the same mob that already condemned you to admit they were wrong.

So it seems that the ill-defined form of heresy is going to be way more oppressive than the precisely defined one. In other words, Catholicism creates a better environment for free thinkers than atheism does. This is ironic because atheists love to describe themselves as free thinkers. It is like the teenager who demands freedom from his parents and then submits to his peer group in everything. It is only freedom from the previous situation and not true freedom.

We have seen this before. What atheism is doing is exactly what protestantism has been doing for a long time. They are trying to keep together some school of thought without an authority to define what that thought is. We know what happens. Authority defaults to the loudest voices. People become afraid to challenge the alpha male in their pack. So free thinking is not really happening. But you don't get unity either. Occasionally somebody does break off and defines another school of thought. In protestantism they are called denominations. Atheism is really too young and undeveloped to have names for these things. Still they do exists and will grow in number. Sola Ratio will not be any more united than Sola Scriptura. It has the same weakness. There is no central authority to hold it together.

Brad Gregory has this quote:
‘Sola ratio’ has not overcome the problem that stemmed from ‘sola scriptura,’ but rather replicated it in a secular, rationalist register. Attempts to salvage modern philosophy by claiming that it is concerned with asking questions rather than either finding or getting closer to finding answers might make sense – if one just happens to like asking questions in the same way that thirsty people just like seeking water rather than locating a drinking fountain, or indeed having any idea whether they are getting closer to one.
So free thinking is possible but harder. It involves being demonized by the current crop of dominant thinkers. Not sure if they will start burning heretics at some point. We advanced beyond that but we can move backwards quite quickly. When the state starts to enforce one school of thought as the only right one then we are in real danger. Nagel need not worry for his physical safety right now. His professional safety is another matter. At 75 he likely does not care. I wonder if a bright young philosopher would be able to survive this kind of heresy. I wonder how many have decided to not take the risk.