Saturday, October 27, 2012

Why does God allow bad things to happen?

Q.  If God is all good and all powerful, why does he let bad things happen to good people?

A.  I think it would be naive to suppose that anyone could give an answer that is completely satisfying to this question.  You can never do so in a sensitive way to people's personal suffering, or in a way that adequately explains the intensity of suffering in the world!  Usually people say something about God's insistence on free will, and that suffering came into the world as a result of sin, but still I think people would object to a sinless person suffering, like an infant.  Another platitude is that "Everything happens for a reason", and so we may not see the plan of God, but it will all make sense some day, and if he allows suffering it is that some greater good may come of it.  This idea does have some scriptural basis "God works all things to the good for those who love Him", but I think there is a difference between God taking something bad and turning it into something good, and God sitting back and allowing bad things so that He can.  So maybe God allowed World War II so that humans would stop being so racist... but then why allow racism in the first place?

My sister put it like this.  What kind of loving father would sit back and watch as his daughter was raped and not intervene?  Again, if God did intervene it would take away our free will. And to be frank with you, I would not only intervene when a man was raping my daughter... I would even intervene when he was thinking lustful thoughts about her!  There are all kinds of ways that people hurt those we love, and if we could interfere, most of the time we would!  But this means that if I were God, I would not allow suffering-  but in preventing it, I would also take away free will. 

I have a suspicion that the answer to this question, and to many others, lies in a false assumption about God.  And that is that what God ultimately wants for us in this world, is happiness.  I do think God wants us to be Happy-  and I do think that we will be happy, when we get to Heaven.  I think God's original plan for us was to be happy-  in the garden, without suffering.  But when we chose to sin, we chose to live in a world where suffering was possible... and now what God really wants is for us to be holy.  To be restored to the righteousness and dignity that he originally intended.  I can almost imagine the conversation in the garden going something like this.

God "Adam, don't eat that apple"

Adam "But I want to"

God "But I gave you everything else.  The one condition of getting everything and being perfectly happy is that you have to receive what is given, and not take.  You can't be selfish."

Adam "yeah, but, I want to."

God. "I gave you free will, and you can choose what you want.  The question is, do you wanna call the shots, or do you wanna let me call the shots?  If I call the shots, I'll make sure that there is no suffering..."

Adam "I want to call the shots"

God "You would be choosing a world in which suffering is possible..."

Adam "Then I choose that."

Once suffering was possible, God stayed his hand.  Tectonic plates shift, earthquakes happen, tsunamis happen, famines happen.  Worse, Humans continued to choose to do things other than what God dictates.  Wars happen, rapes happen, structural injustice.

So how do we get back to the point where bad things don't happen?

"Thy will be done"

We adopt and attitude that says that whatever God wants is what I want.  Truth is, we are constantly making selfish choices.  God's mission for us is not that we would become happy, but that we would learn to love.  Remarkably when people suffer, this is an opportunity to love.  Even Jesus' obedience was made perfect through suffering.

I think the assumption that the ultimate goal of life is the "pursuit of happiness" is underlying many of the things we struggle with in Christianity-  like sexual morality and social justice and mass is boring and why do people suffer.  If on the other hand we ask the questions with the assumption that God's plan for us is to restore us to His likeness-  unite our will to His, all these things make more sense. 

That said-  I still think that if I was God, I would interfere a whole lot more in the world.  But I bet that if I spend my life uniting my will to His, instead of expecting Him to unite His to mine, I bet wisdom is to be found there.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

What are my obligations on Sunday for rest and to attend Mass?

Q:   I've been wondering about working on Sundays. I know the fourth commandment says to remember the Sabbath and keep it Holy, but what exactly does that mean? In a lot of places today employers won't hire you if you're unwilling to work Sundays, so are we then to restrict ourselves from all of these? Or is there something else we can do to "make up" for it?
 
A: This topic is one that has come up twice now in recent times, and to get the answer right I had to refer to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2184-2195. (http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/p3s2c1a3.htm#2192)
The reason it came up before was because of the Sunday obligation to attend Mass, and a student asked me if Hockey excuses him from this obligation. When you read the Catechism, the language about attending Mass is much stronger than that about resting, but both are listed as requirements! Basically, we should not commit ourselves to other activities if they will compromise our commitment to the faith. The CCC acknowledges that some people have to work on on Sundays- like poor people or people who work in restaurants- but states that they should put time aside for rest and family anyway.
Priests obviously have to work on Sundays, and so most of them take Mondays off. I used to do that as a Youth Coordinator, and I protected by day off jealously. God prescribed rest for us, because it is only with rest that we can grow in holiness. So instead of viewing this as a religious obligation, we can see it as a healthy lifestyle choice. It also happens to be the 7th Habit in Stephen Coveys famous "7 Habits of highly effective people".
So, I think that there is room for interpretation, and you need to make a choice for yourself with an informed conscience. (Most cases are like that.) Here is what I suggest; Apply for jobs that say you have to work on Sunday, and in the interview tell them that for religious reasons you require Sundays off. I suspect that in most cases they would not want to deny you employment for religious reasons. (Although I suppose if a Jew applies to work at a pig farm, but refuses to work with pigs, they will probably be denied employment) It would also witness to them about the importance of this Christian principal in your life, when our culture has largely abandoned it. I think it would be good for you to make reasonable sacrifices in order to have Sundays free, including financial sacrifices! If, however, you simply cannot find a job that allows for you to have Sundays off, then take one that does not. But do whatever is necessary to get to Mass on Sunday!
Again, that is just my advice- at the end of the day I think God wants us to make informed decisions in good conscience, so drawing your own conclusions would be a valuable exercise!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Why Catholics are Right.

Q.  How do you know Catholicism is right?
A.  I don't.  But I choose to believe.

This might sound like an unfair leap to make, to draw the conclusion that it is right without absolute assurance.  I think if we are going to be honest with each other, everyone eventually chooses what to believe.  We choose to believe that some things are moral, and some are not.  We choose to trust people who's opinions reinforce our own, and think other people are wacky or stupid. 

I myself struggle with my faith, some times a lot. I wonder if I am really right.  And for some reason I seem to be a glutton for punishment.  I invite Jehovah's Witnesses over, and try to get them to convince me that I am wrong.  I listen to the Thinking Atheist podcast, and visit www.skeptic.com, and look up what other people think about the strong Catholic arguments.... and I find that consistently people argue against an inaccurate portrayal of what Catholicism is, instead of the truth!  I am repeatedly disappointed, I guess because when they set up Catholic arguments to look like straw men, so they can easily knock them down, they make themselves look like idiots instead!  I want meat, an intelligent refutation to the things I believe.  I guess I am surprised that the anti Catholic rhetoric out there is so weak.  Atheists even openly acknowledge that their strategy is to mock Christians out of the marketplace of ideas rather than to engage us.

So, here I am, throwing down the gauntlet.  I invite atheists and whoever else wants to to read this article, and dissect it, and tell me why I am wrong.  If you find yourself unable to comment on the blog, then send me an email!

First off, I admit that there are some pretty compelling arguments for atheism. In time maybe I will write whole entries on each of these arguments, but I won't waste time here.  I think the following arguments are very strong;

If God is all good and all powerful, than why do bad things happen to good people?
Why does God authorize atrocities in the Bible?
Scientists believe that humans have been on the planet for 200,000 years.  So why did Jesus only come 2000 years ago?
Why doesn't God heal amputees?

Interestingly, these arguments all make certain assumptions-  like that God's ultimate desire for us is that we be happy, and that we are reading the Bible the way that we should (see Bible Reading), etc.  But none the less, these are things I struggle with and frankly I find quite compelling.

That said, I am totally convinced of the truth of Catholicism anyway.  Because the more I think about it, the more I think the facts play in Catholicisms favor.

First thing you need to know is that Catholicism sees no contradiction between Christianity and the Theory of Evolution... so that is not a problem.

The thing is, evidence clearly shows that Jesus lived and rose from the dead.  And he continues to work through the Church!  Again, I will probably have to write a whole entry on each of these topics to flesh them out, but here are the things that convince me that the Church is right.

The way the New Testament is written.  Read Paul or Mark or John-  you cannot believe that they did not believe what they said.  They did not make it up-  no one would make up the gospel of Mark, and have such a strange series of events and characters who wander into the story never to reappear, and do not really play into the narrative as a whole.

Apostles travelled as far as Spain, Iran and India to spread the news that Jesus rose from the dead, and 11/12 of them died for saying so.  They profited nothing.

2000 years of non contradiction by Catholic Popes on matters of faith and morals.

The Shroud of Turin.
The Miracle at Lanciano.
Incorruptibles. (At least 96 of them!)
Stigmatists like Padre Pio.
Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Mother Teresa.  Christopher Hitchens wrote an Article arguing that she was not really a saint.  The man was a genius, but his arguments remain weak. I suppose that if you buy the line that the only way to end poverty is to hand out birth control and provide abortion, than Mother Teresa certainly did not do her job. Mother Teresa is only one example of thousands of Catholics around the world sacrificing everything for love. No one else can make a comparable claim.

Saints. the Catholic Church has more than 10,000 canonized saints. That's just a number... until you realize that every year in Christianities history 5 more people were canonized.  Each one either lived a life comparable to Mother Teresa, or died for their faith.  And the canonization process includes unexplained miraculous phenomenon indicating the sanctity of the individual in question!   Miracles that past the test of the Devils Advocate! (the guy who tries to prove that the persons life is a sham... used to be an office in the Church.)

Skeptics will point out that such and such an incorruptible may have been embalmed, or that such and such a miracle does not stand up to scrutiny....  but I think skeptics ought to apply their critical reasoning processes to themselves as well as others.  Are they arguing that in the thousands of documented miracles in the Church that could not be explained by science and stood up to harsh scrutiny that all of them are faked?  The Church has been running this scam for 2000 years, and no body squealed?  This takes a greater leap of faith than to believe that some of them are real.  And only some need to be real to prove the package!

So, in my opinion, it appears that it is the skeptics, not the Catholics, who are deceiving themselves and being intellectually dishonest.  I've made a straw man for you to knock down-  show me a contradiction in Church teaching.  Duplicate the shroud of Turin.  Duplicate Our Lady of Guadalupe.  Bring the evidence to bear! 

This is why, despite the compelling arguments of the Atheists, I find myself trying to understand them within the context of Catholicism, rather than letting them lead me to reject the Church.  I choose to believe.  And I will live out of my conviction.



Monday, October 1, 2012

If prophets lived today....


Movie scene-  In modern ish times, with Obama not for political so much as comical reasons.
New York City
Basement of a skyscraper.
Samson is seen tied to two pillars,  He is blind, and hangs his head in shame.  His hair, which is regrowing, hangs in front of his face. President Obama enters,  flanked by two secret service agents.

“Ok, Samson, you’ve been here long enough.  Tell me, where are the other prophets?”
“I will tell you nothing.”

“We have ways of making you talk.”

“You can do nothing to me”

“We have Delilah…”

“That double crossing…. I thought I loved her once.”

A secret service agent interrupts “Never trust a Columbian.”

Obama grabs Samson by the throat.  “You and your prophets are the last piece of resistance between me and complete rule over this country.  I will not be denied my Obama Nation!”
Just then Moses enters. Obama turns “How did you get in here?  This is a non-prophet organization!”

Moses orders “Let my people go.”

Obama “You can’t order me around.  I am the supreme ruler!”

“I work for a higher power now”

“Don’t tell me you are working for Bush…”

“In a manner of speaking….  I am.”

“Arrest him!”

But then Moses lifts his staff.  Suddenly frogs come pouring in through every entrance.  Obama and his men are momentarily distracted, and at that moment  Samson flexes, pulling the chains inwards, and collapsing the columns he was chained to. 

Obama ``Those were load bearing``

They all scramble outside the building before it collapses.  Moses and Samson join Elijah, Judah Maccabees, Elisha, Joshua, and others. 

Moses “Where’s Jonah?”
Elijah “He’s on an inside job.”

As the building falls behind them, Obama yells  ‘there they are!  Get them!”
Suddenly, the Prophets are being pursued by police and army and secret agents.  Moses leads the exodus, while Elijah is taken up in a whirlwind.  He calls for fire from Heaven.  A huge fireball consumes the army behind them.  Daniel yells “No!  Some of our people are back there!”  But Shadrack, Meshack and Abednego escape the fire unharmed.

As the prophets  retreat towards the Hudson, a number of skirmishes break out.  Samson fights using the Jawbone of a Donkey, while Joshua blows his horn, collapsing all of Wall Street, and Elisha calls for two bears who rip 42 of their enemies apart.
Cornered against the Hudson, Moses raises his staff, and the waters part.  But as they cross, they are suddenly confronted by a Massive army helicopter, hovering above the break in the water.  The Philistine 430 is nothing short of a flying tank, armed with automatic weapons and heat seeking missiles. The commander of the aircraft snickers when he sees his adversaries , with their long beards and dressed in bathrobes, carrying staffs for weapons.  It looks as though the prophets are trapped.  A young skinny David takes a stone and puts it into his sling, as movie goes into slow motion…..

How did Sola Scriptura undermine Scripture Reading?


Ok, so no one actually asked me that question, but since this blog is written in a question/answer format, I thought I would tackle it anyway.  This is a question that I have been thinking about for some time.  Every week for the past 2 months, Jehovah’s Witnesses come to my door and we have a chat about the Bible and what it means.  While discussing scripture with them, we keep coming back to the fact that Catholics do not read the Bible the same way that Protestants and Jehovah’s Witnesses do.   I knew what was wrong with how they read it…. I just couldn’t articulate before what was different about how we read it!
“Sola Scriptura” was one of the battle cries of Martin Luther when he effectively started the Protestant Church.  Since Jehovah’s witnesses are basically an off shoot of American Fundamentalism, they just took Sola Scriptura to it’s logical end.  The idea of Luther was that the Church did not have authority on doctrinal matters, and so the only authority was the Bible.  (Sola Scriptura means “Scripture alone”.)  Simple apologetics on this matter; the Bible does not teach “Sola Scriptura”, and therefore the principle is self refuting, since the only thing you can accept as an authority is the Bible.  The Bible does teach that there is a teaching authority, established by Jesus- namely, the Church.  CF Matt 16:17-20, 1 Tim 3:15, hold firm to traditions, etc. It could also be pointed out that the Bible does not contain a list of books which ought to belong in it, and that this was determined by the Church.  So to accept the authority of the Bible, you have to accept the authority of the Church- at least up till then!
At any rate, Protestants begin with this precept, and then interpret the Bible as they see fit, and presumably guided by the Holy Spirit.  Now if this method worked, it would be demonstrated by the fact that all Protestants drew the same conclusions. The existence of Jehovah’s witnesses, who do not even believe Jesus is God, have demonstrated how this method cannot work, since no one has come to a consensus!
Part of the difficulty comes in how to interpret.  Protestants are reputed to have excellent scriptural knowledge.  They can site chapter and verse, and play games of scripture memorization in their Sunday schools. This is partly because they have taken a lawyer like approach to scripture.  Lawyers need to apply the law, and need to be able to reference particular sections of the law to make their point.  Since every protestant denomination exists because of a discrepancy of interpretation from another denomination, each one needs to be able to quickly site, chapter and verse, the basis of their argument.
And so they read the Bible in much the same way as an American Lawyer would read the constitution… which is not how the Bible was ever intended to be read!  Ironically, this way of reading has greatly limited the actual truths being revealed in scripture, because you end up with Fundamentalists, so called because they reduced the faith to a set of fundamentals we can all agree on, to allow for debate elsewhere.   And our friends the Jehovah`s Witnesses will quickly point out that even those fundamentals, like that Jesus is God, or that Hell exists, are not clearly illustrated in scripture!  An apologist, seeing this point, would quickly refute me by stating all the verses that do seem to indicate that Jesus is God or that Hell exists… and indeed there are plenty… but Jehovah’s Witnesses have made a whole institution of denying the points based on the same reading of the same (essential) Bible!  And protestants themselves will argue themselves silly about whether the world was created on Oct 23rd, 4004 BC, or whether the rapture is coming, or whether it is the millennium yet.  Again demonstrating the failure of the principal, Sola Scriptura.
So how do protestants get it wrong? They treat the Bible as though it contained all theological truth, neatly laid out for the reader to grasp.  How, then, do Catholics read it?
The way it was intended to be read by the author! 
Bold statement, no?
Everyone agrees that some sections of the Bible are historical narrative, some are apocalyptic, some are poetry, some are letters, some parables, some are Exultant prose.  Even the literalist does not believe that God has feathers.  Different sections were written with a different end in mind.
But here’s the thing… no part of the Bible can be described as “Catechetical” or “Doctrinal” or “Creedal”.  Sure, there are sections of teaching… but usually they are parables or teachings about moral behaviour or wisdom.  The Bible makes no attempt to explain the nature of the Trinity, or of the Incarnation, or the nature of Grace or eternal life.  I dare say it does not even attempt to explain the history and age of the planet!  So, to read the Bible as though this was what it was attempting to do, is to read it in a way that was not intended. 
The Bible does not have to explain doctrines like purgatory or sexual morality, because it was written for and read by people who were members of the Church.  It was to be read in the context of a community that already understood these things.  Scripture in fact presupposed the teaching authority of the Church!
The Church chose which books belong in the Bible in much the same way as it chose which Saints can be acknowledged as being in Heaven.  In both cases, it is called the “Canon”.  The books in the Bible were deemed by Church Authorities (who incidentally believed everything that Catholics still believe today!) to be worthy of being read within the Mass.  This is why for 2000 years, the Church continues to read from Scripture at Mass, while neglecting the much more concise writings of St Augustine or the other Church Fathers, or St Thomas Aquinas, or even Pope John Paul II. 
But here’s the thing…  if John Paul II can write in a way much more contemporary and concise, and explicitly apply teaching principals, then what makes the Bible such a big deal?
The thing about Scripture is that it reveals God in a much fuller, not so doctrinal way, than how it has been reduced by people who want to use it to argue.  For example, Christians have always read the Bible through the lense of typology, where they read something in the Old Testament and see in it a “type” of something in the New Testament.  
So, Noah’s ark is a type of the cross.  The Passover is a type of the last supper and Eucharist.  The Ark of the Covenant is a type of Mary.  These things can be demonstrated from scripture, but not proven.   If you are forced to read the Bible like a lawyer, to prove your doctrine, you cannot find these deeper meanings! 
God is revealed in Scripture, between the lines, between the pages, through it all.  Reading sacred Scripture is an encounter with God, as he has been revealed and continues to be revealed. 
Catholic apologists sometimes fall into the trap of reading the Bible the way that protestants read it.  Not only is this a more superficial reading of the Bible, but it actually gives to protestants the precepts upon which they built their whole argument.
I too can explain from the Bible alone the majority of contentious teachings of the Church.  But I do not need to.  Catholics don’t go to the Bible alone precisely because we wrote it.  It was written within the context of what we believe. 
Practically speaking, if I get in a debate about this, I point out that we cannot have the Bible without accepting the authority of the Church that gave it to us.  Then I demonstrate that the Church already taught and believed everything Catholics teach and believe when the Bible was written.  Authority is everything.  Without it, if we’re just guessing, the Evangelicals are as likely to be correct as the Jehovah’s Witnesses as the Seventh Day Adventists…. And frankly the likelihood that any of them are right is extremely slim!
I would encourage all my readers to read scripture in prayer, and to come to know the God that is revealed through it.