Saturday, July 25, 2015

Hijackers

The Catholic Church is led by the magisterium—the Pope and the bishops in communion with him, with the priests passing on the teaching in the parish level—who have the authority and the responsibility to teach the Catholic faith, and to determine what is and what is not in keeping with the Catholic faith. The rest of us cooperate in this teaching mission to the extent that we accurately present the Church teaching. It stands to reason that the Pope and the bishops can’t be everywhere at once, and the lay Catholic needs to explain and defend the faith.

However, once Catholics try to establish a “Catholic ministry” that is in actual opposition to the teaching of the Church as passed on by the Pope and bishops in communion with, they are no longer faithful Catholics, but hijackers.These hijackers appeal to figures of renown within the Church and Church documents to either give credibility to their own position, or to discredit the teachers of the magisterium who teach something they dislike.

Of course what they think the Church should be conveniently reflects their own behaviors and rejects the views of the Church when she teaches against the preferred behavior. Thus we see Catholics openly treat bishops with contempt when they teach and give heed to Catholic bloggers who have no authority to claim that their views represent authentic Catholicism. 

When we see Catholic blogss treating the Pope with open contempt because they dislike Laudato Si, that is a clear sign that the person is a hijacker and not presenting an authentic Catholic teaching. When we see Catholics dismissing the authority of the bishops to teach on the death penalty or the defense of marriage, that too is a clear sign that the attacker is a hijacker. Heed the warning signs—such a person is attempting to make themselves a counter-magisterium and take the faith to a new generation.

The fact is the Pope has authority over things far beyond making ex cathedra statements. As the Vatican I document, Pastor Æternus, says:

If then any shall say that the Roman Pontiff has the office merely of inspection or direction, and not full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the universal Church, not only in things which belong to faith and morals, but also in those things which relate to the discipline and government of the Church spread throughout the world; or assert that he possesses merely the principal part, and not all the fullness of this supreme power; or that this power which he enjoys is not ordinary and immediate, both over each and all the Churches and over each and all the pastors of the faithful; let him be anathema. (Chapter III)

This doesn’t mean the Pope or the bishop has the right to “say whatever the hell he wants,” of course. But nobody is claiming he can in the first place. Such accusations that he is doing so only demonstrates that the accuser has nothing more than a superficial understanding about the Church teaching he or she disputes. If one looks at Pope Francis and his teachings, one will find the same concepts being used by his predecessors.

For example, the Church has never supported indiscriminate capitalism, indiscriminate use of the environment, indiscriminate use of the death penalty or war. But hijackers use the either-or fallacy in order to portray the Pope or bishops as holding the contrary position. If the Pope speaks of the evils of unrestrained capitalism, that is seen as endorsing socialism (which the Church condemns). When the Church condemns the abuse of the environment, she is accused of being on the side of Al Gore. When she speaks against particular wars and particular applications of the death penalty, she is accused of contradicting previous Popes and bishops.

But the either-or fallacy fails because the contradiction to a universal claim is not the opposite universal claim (All men are honest vs. no men are honest). The contradiction is done by demonstrating that some things or people do not fall into that universal claim. If one claims that all capitalism is good, one doesn’t refute it by claiming no capitalism is good. One can refute it simply by proving Some capitalism is not good. There’s a huge difference.

The Church, in challenging the world, is not saying that all things in a category are bad. She doesn’t teach (contrary to modern claims) that All Sex is bad. She teaches that sex taken out of its proper context is bad. The content in which it is good is marriage between one man and one woman in a lifelong relationship which is open to the possibility of offspring. But hijackers misrepresent her position into saying that because the Church does not say “all sex is good,” it means she teaches “no sex is good,” and encourage people to rebel against the Church—but the rebellion is against something that does not exist.

Ultimately, the obligation of the Catholic is to discern the sources they use for information about the Church. If the sources are putting themselves in opposition to the magisterium and claiming they are giving you the “true story” about the Church or claim that they are being more like Jesus than the magisterium, you can be certain that they are simply hijacking the label of Catholic to give their position of rebellion an illusion of credibility. We have to reject these false teachers.

This is done by studying the faith, so that when we run into hijackers, we can discern their distortions. We also have to look to the Pope and the bishops with trust as having the authority to teach in a binding way and recognizing that when our understanding runs afoul of the Church teaching, we have to be very careful when we are tempted to label our own interpretation as true and the magisterium is false. Remember, God didn’t give us the charism of infallibility.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Forgetting the Inconvenient Parts of Scripture

Some of the common attacks against the Christian moral teaching involve the attempt to negate or evade the parts of Scripture that are disliked. For example, the teaching on homosexuality involves people trying to negate it on the grounds of other teachings--Leviticus is denied on the grounds that the Church doesn't oblige people to keep the dietary codes also listed there. St. Paul's epistles are denied on the grounds that people don't like what he had to say about the role of women. In other words, such attacks take the "all or nothing" view, saying that if one wants to insist on the moral obligations of Scripture, they have to take the rest of the demands as binding as well.

I am certain that such people believe that they have created a reductio ad absurdum to confound the Christian. In their eyes, they believe they have created the perfect foil: Either the Christian is forced to adopt other rules of behavior they find repellant or they will be forced to admit that others have the right to pick and choose as well. 

The problem with such an argument is that it assumes that all Christians are sola scriptura literalists who have the Bible as their sole rule of faith and assume everything must be given equal weight. Such Christians do exist, but it would be a mistake to assume that all Christians hold such a view. It would also be a mistake to assume that Christian moral teaching was invented out of this way of reading the Bible.

The fact of the matter is, Christian moral teaching comes from several sources. The Catholic Church, for example, believes that the Word of God comes from both the words of Scripture and the Sacred Tradition (which we deny is the same as the human tradition Our Lord denounced in (reference). We believe that the Church established by Our Lord has been given the authority and the responsibility to assess whether an action is in keeping with the Word of God. But the Church is the servant to the Word of God, and does not have the authority to go against what God commanded. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it:

85 “The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living, teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.” This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome. (888–892; 2032–2040)

86 “Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication, and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith.” (688)

87 Mindful of Christ’s words to his apostles: “He who hears you, hears me,” the faithful receive with docility the teachings and directives that their pastors give them in different forms. (1548; 2037)

Once one recognizes this, we have to ask some questions:

  1. What exactly is the teaching? (As opposed to what someone might think it is)
  2. Why does the Church teach what she does?

In other words, before a person understands what the teaching is, and why it exists, a person is making an ignorant assumption in attacking it.  GK Chesterton wrote once, in the article, The Drift from Domesticity:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it." 

This paradox rests on the most elementary common sense. The gate or fence did not grow there. It was not set up by somnambulists who built it in their sleep. It is highly improbable that it was put there by escaped lunatics who were for some reason loose in the street. Some person had some reason for thinking it would be a good thing for somebody. And until we know what the reason was, we really cannot judge whether the reason was reasonable. It is extremely probable that we have overlooked some whole aspect of the question, if something set up by human beings like ourselves seems to be entirely meaningless and mysterious. There are reformers who get over this difficulty by assuming that all their fathers were fools; but if that be so, we can only say that folly appears to be a hereditary disease. But the truth is that nobody has any business to destroy a social institution until he has really seen it as an historical institution. If he knows how it arose, and what purposes it was supposed to serve, he may really be able to say that they were bad purposes, that they have since become bad purposes, or that they are purposes which are no longer served. But if he simply stares at the thing as a senseless monstrosity that has somehow sprung up in his path, it is he and not the traditionalist who is suffering from an illusion.

His point is a good one. Not understanding why some teaching exists is not a valid reason for overturning it. If one wants to overturn something, that person has the obligation to understand why it exists and whether it might still remain valid after all once understood. That doesn't happen however. Instead, the modern world assumes that because they are not aware of a reason to justify a teaching, it does not exist (the argument from ignorance fallacy) and the only reasons to hold to such a teaching is hidebound ignorance and intolerance. Both of these are charges we would deny.

The fact of the matter is we oppose behaviors which go against our moral beliefs because we hold that God designed marriage to be between one man and one woman in a lifelong relationship which is open to the possibility of fertility and the mutual support of the spouses. Behaviors which violate this design: adultery, fornication, homosexuality, masturbation (I'll leave out the more repellant behaviors that most people already recognize as wrong and, when mentioned, invariably bring up the accusation that we are equating the disputed behavior with) are condemned—not because the teachings were made up by cranky old celibates who were suffering from an "ick factor" (a common straw man fallacy)—but because those behaviors violate in one way or another what marriage was designed to be.

Now, yes, in the earlier years of Hebrew history, we did see things like polygamy seen as normal. Just like we did see all sorts of other behaviors mentioned which cause us to raise our eyebrows today. But one needs to understand the concept of divine accommodation. The problem people have is they assume that the world was an enlightened place until the Jews (and later, Christians) showed up with their "barbaric" laws and started slaughtering people willy-nilly who didn't happen to agree. It's a common view, but dead wrong.

The fact of the matter is, if you understand the behavior of the times, the culture of the region was extremely brutal. Mass extermination of an entire population in a city, rape and enslavement of captive women etc., were widely practiced. When you look at the other cultures of the region, it becomes clear that the teachings God gave to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses were not opening the floodgates to a psychotic people. They were putting restrictions on the Jews that set them apart from the barbarism of other cultures. They did not have the permission to commit genocide. They were sent to drive out those practices which were incompatible with serving God.

For example, those cities mentioned in the Bible as being "put under the ban," (herem) were guilty of practices we don't even tolerate today (though Planned Parenthood seems to be moving in that direction) such as the human sacrifice of children. The fact of the matter is, the Law of Moses made the ancient Israelites far less barbaric than their neighbors. But people who are ignorant of this fact assume the exact opposite. 

Divine Accommodation is the term used to describe how God picked out the descendants of one chosen man (Abraham), set them aside to be His holy people and moved them away, gradually, from the practices they shared with their neighbors, first by putting restrictions on them and then by forbidding them. The Law was not intended to be the final state of the Israelites, but a preparation for Christ.

Unfortunately, people today assume that Jesus was some sort of a teacher who said "Be excellent to each other," and wanted us to be nice to each other and never say that something is morally wrong. People who say that actions are wrong and that hell is the ultimate result of choosing to refuse to obey God are accused of "judging others" contrary to Matthew 7:1 and that hell is contrary to the idea of God being love as expressed in 1 John 4:8.

But such views ignore the fact that Jesus was the one who warned us about hell in the first place. Think about it. If Jesus warned us about hell and died to prevent us from going there, isn't the possibility of going there something to be avoided at all costs? Jesus thought so. Remember He once told us:

If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter into life maimed or crippled than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into fiery Gehenna. (Matthew 18:8-9)

So why are we going so out of our way to pretend that the warnings of the Bible to do good and reject evil are something we can ignore? Why do we pretend that "God is love" means there is no hell when it is clear that He meant it in the sense of God desires to save us from hell? Why do we pretend that God changed things from "X is a sin" to "X is OK" just because the thought that X is no longer a sin is pleasing to us (see Peter Kreeft’s thoughts on the attitude here).

But people who do that forget that Jesus called us to take up our Cross and follow Him. The “be nice to each other” smiley face Jesus is someone who the world would not hate, and followers of smiley face Jesus would not be hated. But Jesus told us:

18 “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first. 19 If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you. 20 Remember the word I spoke to you,* ‘No slave is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. 21 And they will do all these things to you on account of my name,* because they do not know the one who sent me. 22 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would have no sin; but as it is they have no excuse for their sin. 23 Whoever hates me also hates my Father. 24 If I had not done works among them that no one else ever did, they would not have sin; but as it is, they have seen and hated both me and my Father. 25 But in order that the word written in their law* might be fulfilled, ‘They hated me without cause.’

In short the smiley face Jesus is a counterfeit who has nothing in common with the Jesus who spoke against sin and warned us against hell and was willing to die to make it possible for us to be saved. We should keep this in mind and remember the teachings of Jesus that speak about our need to repent, turning away from evil and towards Him.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

What Do You Think the Church Exists For?

So, the Pope’s popularity among Americans has fallen from 76% positive in 2014 to 59% now. His unfavorable rating has climbed from 9% to 16% (See: Pope Francis' approval among Americans plummets ahead of U.S. visit, poll finds | Fox News). The article discusses the fact that among conservatives, his approval fell after Laudato Si, while among liberals it fell when they figured out that when the Pope said “Who am I to judge,” he didn’t mean it in the way they hoped he meant it. So what we have here is a case of both the liberals and the conservatives insisting that the Pope be what they want him to be.

It’s not surprising, given how polarized our society has become, but it is sad to watch because it is clear that the people of America and elsewhere have lost sight of what the Church is for. Without understanding what the Church exists for, it is easy to reduce her teachings to the level of political platforms which can be changed if enough people campaign for it. The Pope is then reduced to the level of politician who is good if he supports your positions and bad if he holds positions you disagreement. 

What we have to remember is that the Church is not a manmade institution that arbitrarily decides what is good and what is not. The Church is sent to carry out Our Lord’s mission:

18  Then Jesus approached and said to them, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

As Catholics, we believe that the Church was established by Our Lord with the Pope and bishops as successors to the Apostles. So, we can see that the mission of the Church is to make disciples, to baptize and teaching them to follow what He has taught us.

The problem is, many people seem to forget about this. Being a Christian means we are supposed to let God transform us and renew our minds—turning ourselves to Him and not being conformed to the world (Romans 12:1-2). But we have a bad habit of letting our preferences conform God’s teaching to the desires of the world—conveniently allowing us to stay as we are. Such a mindset cannot go out and transform the world as Our Lord commanded. In fact, it goes entirely contrary to what St. Peter taught us:

13 *Therefore, gird up the loins of your mind, live soberly, and set your hopes completely on the grace to be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 14 Like obedient children, do not act in compliance with the desires of your former ignorance 15 but, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in every aspect of your conduct, 16 for it is written, “Be holy because I [am] holy.” (1 Peter 1:13-16)

If we are called to be holy as God is holy, if we are called to be transformed and not conformed, if we are to make disciples of all nations, we need to live our life as Our Lord called us—which includes keeping His commandments (John 14:15). That means we need to turn back (metanoia) to God and away from everything that is in opposition to God called us to live.

But not only are people conforming themselves to the world, they are becoming hostile to people who remind them that Our Lord has called us to change (there’s that metanoia again). Thus we see some people, professing to be Christians, holding views on Christian moral teaching which is contrary to what the faith demands, while thinking they are Christian in doing so. It stands the Great Commission on its head. The Christian who says we must do good and avoid evil, pointing out the evil that exists in our society, the response is hostility. Some try to portray such a Christian as thinking like those members of aberrant Christian sects who think that hating sinners is the same thing as opposing sin (this happens when the Church stands up for morality—particularly the sexual morality. Others try to deny that the Christian challenge to them is Christian. For example, those people who presume to label the Pope’s teaching on social justice as “marxist."

Whether they cite Mathew 7:1 and 1 John 4:8 out of context, or whether they cite Church documents out of context, the point is the cite things in such a way as to redefine Christianity as being what they want it to be. But the Church, as we pointed out above, is not about making the Word of God conform to our likes. The Church is about transforming people into being disciples of Christ.That transformation is not about not saying anything that might offend. It’s about telling people that hell is real and that Jesus Christ died so that salvation was possible, and that salvation is offered to each one of us if we will respond to His grace and His invitation.

That means we have to stop thinking of things as if our own desires are the center of the universe. God is the center of everything. If we want what is good, we have to seek The Good—God. In this understanding, the things of the world can be good (God created the world, after all). But they can only be good if we look at them through Him. Our Lord told us, “But seek first the kingdom [of God] and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides.” (Matthew 6:33).

Again, we believe that the purpose of the Church is to fulfill our Lord’s Great Commission and bring people to Christ, encouraging them to turn away from their sins, as Peter said in Acts 2:38: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins.” If we will not turn away from our sins, we will not be forgiven. As St. Paul wrote,

13 For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” 

14 
But how can they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach? 15 And how can people preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring [the] good news!”

We believe that this is the mission of the Church. And since we believe this, it stands to reason that the Church needs to be listened to when she teaches on observing all Our Lord has commanded us. If we do not listen, then we demonstrate that we have completely failed to understand why Our Lord established the Church, and in following the world, we are comforting ourselves on the way to hell (See Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Celestial Railroad, a parody of The Pilgrim’s Progress, as an example).

Let us keep this in mind the next time the teaching of the Church makes us uncomfortable about going along with what the world demands. It might turn out that the discomfort is a sign that we need to change, turning away from sin and towards God.

Friday, July 17, 2015

To Hell With You? Not If We Can Help It!

The doctrine of Hell is one that is easily distorted into portraying Christians as gleefully awaiting non-Christians to be sent there, while thinking that we have a free pass where what we do doesn’t matter. While it is true that some Christians have so missed the point about what they are called to be that they do think this way, it is an aberration which perverts what Christianity really believes.

Far from being a cruel belief invented by a vindictive people in a way that contradicts the concept of a loving God, the concept of Hell recognizes that:

  • God created us with an immortal soul
  • God created us with free will to choose Him or to reject Him
  • If we misuse free will in a way which rejects God, our immortal soul has to exist somewhere that is the logical result of that rejection

So, Hell is not an issue of “don’t steal that cookie or you’re going to burn forever!” It’s a reality of, “If you choose to reject God, that decision has eternal consequences if you do not change your ways.” Peter Kreeft describes four major errors which leads people to think Hell shows that Christians are judgmental: 

Those who have been hurt by the misuse of this doctrine often seem to think that those who believe in hell:
 

1. want hell to exist (as if doctrines were not facts but desires);

2. want humans to go there (as if Christians could want what the Devil wants!);

3. self-righteously exclude themselves from its dangers (as if Christians were Pharisees instead of saved sinners); and

4. coolly and detachedly discuss this ultimate holocaust and horror (as if missionaries were making maps of the ocean instead of throwing out the life boat).
 

All four assumptions are false, of course—in fact, hellish distortions. If Christians follow Christ, they will give anything to save humanity from hell, because that is what Christ did.
 

The third cavil above is the most devastating, if true—but it is not. Christian teachers have repeatedly made the point C. S. Lewis makes to conclude his chapter on hell in The Problem of Pain: “In all our discussions of hell we should keep steadily before our eyes the possible damnation, not of our enemies nor our friends ... but of ourselves. This chapter is not about your wife or son, nor about Nero or Judas Iscariot; it is about you and me.” That is the proper use of the doctrine of hell.

[Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics: Hundreds of Answers to Crucial Questions (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 309.]

So, when we stand up and say something is morally wrong, we’re not acting out of hatred of sinners any more than the person who puts a “Danger! Bridge Out Ahead!” acts out of hatred for motorists. Indeed, if the distortions Kreeft listed were true, we wouldn’t be warning people against sin. We’d be watching with smug satisfaction and take bets on how each individual was going to crash and burn. But such behavior is actually monstrous in the eyes of Christians who understand their faith.

The fact is, the Church did not invent Hell. Jesus is the one who warns us about Hell and warns us to turn back to Him. If we’re faithful to Him, we will carry out that mission on informing people of the danger and trying to turn them to the one who can save them—even if it makes us unpopular in the process. So when you call Christians “hateful,” ask yourself this: If we really hated you, would we go through all the discomfort of being hated by letting you know what we believe would benefit you? Does that make any sense? Something to keep in mind.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Yes, Jesus Does Love Us All...But Do We Love Him Enough to Respond?

Repent

This morning, I came across an interesting article that was shared on Facebook by Vatican Radio. It talked about mercy and repentance in regards to divorced and remarried Catholics. True to Facebook, a number of responses began taking up the same old refrain—that by withholding Communion from the divorced and remarried, the Church was refusing to show mercy to the repentant. As one Facebook poster put it, "If God forgives...why can't we human being forgive our fellow men who have repented their sins?” Such a response is common nowadays. Unfortunately, when our attitude is that of regretting that a conflict exists between us and the Church teaching without the corresponding attitude of wanting to make things right, it shows that we do not understand what we are even saying when we say “why can’t the Church forgive?"
 
It is important to ask, What does repentance really require? If we have a wrong idea on what it means then we will have a wrong response on what we must do. Of course it doesn’t help that the English language has taken a rich word in penance and reduced in such a way as to give someone the impression of something out of Monty Python...
 
 
Repent essentially comes from the Latin paenitentia, which has a meaning of “regret (for act); change of mind/attitude; repentance/contrition.” It’s literally the same meaning as the Greek metanoia. When the New Testament uses the word “repent” in our English translations, it is using different verb tenses of Metanoia. Since metanoia = paenitentia, a proper understanding of repenting for our sins means to regret what we have done, changing our attitude over what we have done, and showing that we are sorry for what we have done.
 
The Catholic concept of the Act of Contrition expresses the attitude to be present in repentance:
 
My God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart.
In choosing to do wrong and failing to do good,
I have sinned against you whom I should love above all things. 
I firmly intend, with your help, to do penance, to sin no more,
and to avoid whatever leads me to sin.
Our Savior Jesus Christ suffered and died for us.
In His name, my God, have mercy.
 
Amen.
So, when we do wrong, we have to ask ourselves—do we really want to put that sin behind us and are we willing to change our lives in a way that seeks to avoid that sin in the future to the best of our ability, trusting in God’s grace to help? Or do we have no intention of turning away from our wrongdoing and expect God and/or the Church to change their rules so we don’t have to change?
 
In other words, Jesus died on the Cross for us so we could be saved. It is indeed an action which shows that God loved us far more than we deserve and far more than we could ever hope to repay. But the fact that His action is one we cannot repay does not mean that the act is a “Get out of Hell Free” card where we do not need to respond to it. Ultimately it is a question of love. Jesus loves us…but do we love Him enough to be bothered to respond?
 
That’s the question. Many of us just want “cheap grace,” where we want salvation, but get angry if we point out that we are called to respond to it. That’s not love. That’s a sense of entitlement. Our Lord spoke of His kingdom as so valuable, that we ought to be willing to sell all we own (i.e. give up everything) to gain it:
 

44 “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure buried in a field,* which a person finds and hides again, and out of joy goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. 45 Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant searching for fine pearls. 46 When he finds a pearl of great price, he goes and sells all that he has and buys it. (Matthew 13:44-46)

So, why do we treat it like we’ll take it as a freebie, but won’t sell anything of what we have to gain it? What does that tell us about how much God really means to us?
 
We should think about that every time we think that a teaching should be changed to suit us, or think that God doesn’t really care about something He took the time to forbid. If we love Him, then let us show it in our actions. Because we need to remember that Jesus told us:
 

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven,* but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name? Did we not drive out demons in your name? Did we not do mighty deeds in your name?’ 23 Then I will declare to them solemnly, ‘I never knew you.* Depart from me, you evildoers.’ 

 

24 *“Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25 The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. But it did not collapse; it had been set solidly on rock. 26 And everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand. 27 The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and buffeted the house. And it collapsed and was completely ruined.” (Matthew 7:21-27)

Let us keep these things in mind when we are tempted to treat God’s love lightly.
 

 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Love and Hell

Hell is Not Contrary to God’s Love

One of the things people in modern times find hard to reconcile is how God can be love (1 John 4:16) and the existence of Hell. The general assumption is that Hell is an arbitrary, disproportionate punishment tacked on to a crime—something like shooting a person for jaywalking. Because of this, it is assumed that God, being “good” (in an undefined way) would not really send them to Hell for their own actions. Maybe Nazis, but not “good” people. I suspect this is where the whole “God doesn’t care about X!” attitude comes from.

But this is to miss the point about what Hell is about. It is not an arbitrary sentence to a crime like, “If you commit theft, I will punish you with Prison.” It is more like, “If you jump off of a cliff, you will die.” In other words, Hell is the logical consequence for choosing to do what goes against what God has called us to be. As Peter Kreeft put it:

Take as an example God’s command to Adam and Eve not to eat the forbidden fruit. If this is a positive law, it is like a mother threatening to slap her child’s hand if he takes a cookie. If it is a natural law, it means that if we eat the forbidden fruit of disobedience to God’s will, divorcing our will and spirit from God’s, then the inevitable result will be disaster and death, for God is the source of all joy and life.
 

In a natural law ethic, virtue is its own reward and vice is its own punishment. Virtue is to the soul what health is to the body. It has its own intrinsic, necessary and unchangeable structures, such that all good deeds help the doer as well as the recipient and all evil deeds harm the doer as well as the victim.
 

The punishment of hell is inevitable, by natural law. Any human soul that freely refuses the one Source of all life and joy must find death and misery as its inevitable punishment.

[Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics: Hundreds of Answers to Crucial Questions (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 293.]

Essentially the Scriptural passages of Hell are not there as a threat, but as a warning. If we know that what we want to do goes against what God commands, and we choose to do that evil anyway, we are choosing something that will cause harm to our relationship with God. Because we have an immortal soul, it stands to reason that what damages our relationship with God will have consequences after we die.

Thus we see the concept of Jesus saying “This is the time of fulfillment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel” (Mark 1:15). Those who turn away from their sins and towards God with His help can be saved. Those who refuse to turn away from their sins have turned their face from God, and so long as they do so, they cannot be saved. When one thinks of it this way, we can see that the defensiveness of those who say “God doesn’t care about X!” really want things both ways. They want to be able to reject God when it suits them without the consequences of that rejection. But since Hell is a logical consequence of rejecting God, and not an arbitrary punishment, people who want the Church to declare certain things are not sins are actually wanting the impossible. 

What Follows From This

Once we understand this, then the point of evangelization and speaking out against sin is clear. In doing this, Christians are not being intolerant or judgmental. They seek what is good for others. As the future St. John Paul II put it:

This is a “divine” feature of love. Indeed, when Y [he] wants the good “without limits” for X [her], then properly speaking he wants God for her: God alone is the objective fullness of the good, and only he can satisfy every man with this fullness. Man’s love through its relation to happiness, that is, to the fullness of the good, in a sense passes as close to God as possible.

 

[Karol Wojtyła, Love and Responsibility, trans. Grzegorz Ignatik (Boston, MA: Pauline Books & Media, 2013), 119-120.]

To love someone is to desire their happiness through what is truly good—and that true good is God. To desire a “good” for the beloved that goes against what God has designed us for is destructive. So Christians, in desiring that all people be brought to Christ, is not being hateful in saying things are sinful and endangering the soul[*]. They love the sinner and desire their greatest good, which is their being in right relationship with God.

Being human beings and sinners, we recognize that we may express ourselves poorly. We may lose our tempers or become frustrated. These things do hide the love of God from those we are trying to show it to. Popes like St. John Paul II and Pope Francis have expressed apologies for this failing by members of the Church—including those who were in positions of authority.

But it is important to remember that despite these sins and failings which mar the message we give, the Christian message is motivated by love and not hate. That message is both a warning—that our sins alienate us from God, and a promise—that God loves us and wants us to turn back to Him. It is important to remember this and not lose sight of it when the messenger expresses himself or herself poorly.

_________________________

[*] Oh sure, I recognize (sadly) that there are people who miss the point of the Christian faith and think that hostility to the person who commits sin is the same as speaking out against evil. But Christianity, properly lived, rejects this because they recognize that we are called to love each other as Jesus loved us (John 13:34), and even when we think the actions of a person are wrong, we are still called to love the sinner.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

We Cannot Set God the Father and God the Son Against Each Other

Introduction

If I were to describe the behaviors of some Christians who support the changing long held Christian moral beliefs, the term modernist comes to mind—though not in the sense that radical traditionalists abuse as an epithet—thus stripping it of any meaning.

Modernism is defined as “a tendency in theology to accommodate traditional religious teaching to contemporary thought and especially to devalue supernatural elements.” In other words, modernism is an attempt to deny or downplay the inconvenient truths that God has commanded, but modern society finds objectionable. Thus, the Christian who tries to reduce miracles to fortuitous coincidences or tries to turn “thou shalt not” into “It is OK” is guilty of modernism.

Tragically, there has been a surge in the number of Christians who openly seek to twist the meaning of Christian moral obligations since Obergefell, and there seem to be a growing number of Christians who are willing to accept their arguments because they do not like the idea of of themselves or loved ones acting in a way that Christian belief calls sinful. It’s not for me to judge the culpability of the Christians who buy into the argument, but it is not being judgmental to say that these compromises are certainly against what God has commanded and that those Christians who confuse their compromising the truth with being compassionate. We need to remember that even when loving the sinner, we cannot compromise on the truth.

Jesus Is God and We Cannot Separate Him From God in the Old Testament

One common justification for rejecting unpopular moral teachings is done in trying to separate the God of the Old Testament from Jesus Christ in the Gospel. God in the Old Testament is seen as harsh and judgmental, while Jesus in the Gospel is seen as loving and non-judgmental. But that vision of the two are wrong for several reasons—the first of which is the very fact that it divides One God into two beings where one is considered bad, and the other good. That’s basically gnosticism.

In fact, if we profess to be believing Christians, there are some principles we must accept…in fact, to deny them makes us heretical:

  • We believe in One Triune God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—who has existed eternally.
  • Therefore Jesus has always been God the Son.
  • From this it follows that one cannot divide God into separate beings or claim that what God taught, Jesus repudiated.
  • Once we recognize this, the Christian cannot use the “Jesus never said anything about X” argument without (knowingly or not) denying the Triune and eternal nature of God.

It is important to recognize these facts, because, after Obergefell, people are trying to bully Christians into abandoning their moral objections to “same sex marriage” by saying “Jesus never condemned homosexuality.” To make that claim, one has to either deny the Trinity or deny the authority of Scripture when it disagrees with one’s personal behavior. So, let’s look at that next.

The Authority of Scripture is God and We Do Not Have the Right to Overthrow It

Protestants and Catholics both recognize the authority of Scripture, though they have different ideas on what that authority means. Generally speaking, we hold that the Bible was divinely inspired, while making use of the talents of the human authors, so that it is free of error. The Catholic Church, in the Vatican II document Dei Verbum, describes it this way:

11. Those divinely revealed realities which are contained and presented in Sacred Scripture have been committed to writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. For holy mother Church, relying on the belief of the Apostles (see John 20:31; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19–20, 3:15–16), holds that the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself. In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him2 they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted.4

 

Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation. Therefore “all Scripture is divinely inspired and has its use for teaching the truth and refuting error, for reformation of manners and discipline in right living, so that the man who belongs to God may be efficient and equipped for good work of every kind” (2 Tim. 3:16–17, Greek text).

So, we have to realize that since God inspired the authors to put into the Scriptures what He wanted put there, we are not free to simply pick and choose what we think is out of date. We have to understand the context of the words and the culture which the author shared with the original audience. We also have to understand that, despite the fact that the human authors wrote over a period of thousands of years, God inspired all of it, and we cannot simply pick out a section to support what we would like to be taught.

The Jewish Law and Divine Accomodation

What causes so many misunderstandings is the fact that we forget that everything in the Bible ultimately points to Christ. In the Old Testament, this means laying the framework, building the nation where Jesus can be born. This brings us to the concept of Divine Accommodation—that in teaching us, God moves from the simplest concepts to the more complexas we grow more able to understand (See Galatians 3:23-24). He had to prepare us for receiving Christ by creating a framework. In Christ, the Law is fulfilled. That doesn’t mean the “thou shalt nots” can become “it’s OK if you want to do it.” But it does mean that the elements of the Law which were pointing to the fulfillment of Christ can be set aside—the ceremonial law, dietary law and legal strictures on what to do to transgressors—but the moral obligations of God’s teaching remain. This is what Acts 15:1-29 was affirming in saying that the Gentile Christians were not bound to keep the Law and why St. Paul took so stern a stance against those who tried to implement the circumcision and kosher laws.

What we need to keep in mind is, the legal codes of the Jewish Law were not the sudden imposition of barbarism on a genteel people. They were restrictions on how the Jews could behave in comparison to how their neighbors behaved. Yes, reading the laws of Exodus and Leviticus may sound offensive to our ears. But when one compares them with the neighboring nations, those nations did worse things on a regular basis. In other words, God wasn’t giving the Jews free rein to run wild. He was forbidding them from running wild.

Moreover, once you look at Jesus teaching the crowds “You have heard it said…but I say unto you…” He actually takes the law to a higher level. It’s not enough to avoid doing evil. We have to avoid harboring it in our hearts. So, when critics try to cite the other laws in Leviticus to deny the condemnation of homosexuality, they haven’t refuted the Christian moral teaching…they’ve merely shown they do not understand how God gradually brought His teaching to us, turning us away from evil and towards good as our minds could comprehend it. Christ is the final fulfillment of the Law. There won’t be any further revelation beyond Christ (contra the Muslims and Mormons)—we’ll just apply His teachings to new situations. In doing so, we will never see God’s teaching go from “X is a sin” to “X is not a sin.” If it ever appears to be otherwise, it merely shows we have misunderstood the essence of what was condemned.

To discuss each of the issues would take too long and cover too much ground. For example, I do not have the time to discuss St. Paul discussing Sin, Law, Gentiles and Jews in the Epistles to the Romans and Galatians. Suffice to say, if you want to know how Christians view the relationship of the Old Testament legal code in comparison to the teachings of Christ, you need to study what Christianity teaches on the subject and not merely assume that the Church must have gotten it wrong just because you don’t understand it. That’s an argument from ignorance fallacy.

Conclusion

It is vital to remember, that we cannot try to set God the Father against God the Son, the Trinity against each other to justify our own behavior. Nor can we try to set one part of the Bible in opposition to another. There is no conflict between Father and Son because God is Triune. There is no conflict between Old and New Testament because God inspired both. When a conflict appears, it is actually a conflict of our own understanding.