Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Is there such a thing as objective sin, or does it always depend on the situation?

Q:  I've been reading through your blog entries and I've noticed that a few times you draw on the point that people often want an overly legalistic definition of what sin is and isn't. That this is a flawed way of looking at it, because "[sins] are things that are not loving and so take you or others away from God", and that "people living by the rules miss the point entirely".

That makes perfect sense to me, but how then can one make a blanket statement that something is always a sin? Like if someone breaks into a families house in the middle of the night and the dad yells a choice selection of four letter words to scare the intruder away, he is doing it out of love for his family. 

That might be a bad example given your response to "Why is swearing a sin?", but the point I'm trying to make is that I don't see how there can be certain things that are always wrong, regardless of context. Given the right circumstances, is there not always a case in which something is not actually sinful?

Intuitively, that doesn't sound right to me. To say, "It doesn't matter what you do, as long as you're not opposing love by doing it" seems to me to be on the path towards moral relativism. By extension then, it doesn't matter what Church you belong to, as long as you're a good person, but I've heard this notion mocked more than once. And rightly so, Jesus was pretty clear about the necessity to all be one in Christ. 

I may have strayed from the point a bit here, but what I'm trying to get at is that I don't understand how love can be the only consideration in determining what is and isn't sinful. That sounds great and makes logical sense to me, but it seems very counter intuitive to what I've grown up thinking.

A:  This is a fascinating question, but one that I struggled to sum up in a single sentence for the title, so I doubt many people will read it!

I theology professor of mine once explained that every heresy is the overemphasis of one truth over another, while the truth always falls somewhere in the middle.  So, for example, some heresies emphasized Jesus' humanity, and ignored or denied his divinity, and others emphasized his divinity.  But the truth is he is both human and divine.

You use the example of 'four letter words', but I actually think that swearing is the perfect example of one end of the spectrum.  I don't use the 'f-word' our of respect, but I don't think it is inherently sinful, and think that when french people describe seals there's nothing wrong with using the 'ph-word'.  

So on one end of the spectrum you have people who want to declare that "Swearing is a sin" and then they want to define what precisely is a swear, and struggle to differentiate between ass as a swear referring to a gluteus maximus, and the innocent bible friendly term referring to a donkey.  So the most flexible man in the Bible is lot, who tied his ass to a tree and walked a mile.  I don't even think that within this context, I have sinned by using the term!  

Anyway, that is the legalistic end, and I think it is the end to which most of us err.  We want strict definitions on how far is too far and which words are swears and conditions for cohabitation and for wars.  And if it is not clearly defined we are frustrated.  But truth is, it is not clearly defined! Because moral life is a skill, not a list of rules.  Like in any other skill, say Basketball, there are rules, guidelines, and advice, all of which we have to function within.  But even if you do everything technically within the defined guidelines, you need to hone your skill before you can score!

At the other end of the spectrum are the 'relativists'.  These are the people who want to say that whatever they feel is right, is right.  This philosophy is very popular, because it is very tolerant and accepting. There seems to be a general movement in our culture to thinking that this is totally right, and that legalism, and so all rules, is very wrong.  You notice the irony even in saying that.  But the last thing people want to do is to be 'condemning', or to try to declare anything to be a sin.  Interestingly, people who adopt that philosophy tend to pretty readily condemn anyone they perceive as being judgmental. At the extreme ends of that spectrum are people who want to explain away things like the holocaust and say that it wasn't really wrong, and we can't judge what they did, etc.  Sure, there were extenuating circumstances, competing philosophies, but I would argue that it is important and even our responsibility to acknowledge that the holocaust was wrong.  I think most people intuitively agree with me.

So simply, are somethings wrong in every circumstance?  Sure. Torturing the innocent.  Sexually molesting a child.  I cannot imagine a circumstance where these things would not be wrong.

But I will go further.

Abortion is always wrong.  In every circumstance.  Now I don't judge the individual who has an abortion-  they may have had faulty information, a poorly formed conscience, extenuating circumstances. It is because of this that the responsibility of the Church is to provide good information, help form consciences properly, and provide for solutions to the extenuating circumstances.  When we say that something is wrong that does not give us licence to judge and condemn people.  It means that what they did was inherently, spiritually destructive.

Think of you spiritual health as being comparable to physical health.  Some things are ok in moderation, but harmful in excess.  Other things are always harmful.  And other things kill you.   The Catholic Church are the doctors who help identify the threats, and then treat the damage done by them.  Some things which are harmful in some situations- like lopping off a limb- are the necessary medicine in other situations.  But this requires judgement and expertise.

This is why it does matter which religion you believe in.  The Church has been given the Holy Spirit to help it identify the various threats.  So the Church isn't just guessing-  the Church has guidance and the guarantee of getting it right.  

If all you have to go on is instinct to from your conscience, I doubt that you would ever come to the conclusion that contraception is contrary to the dignity of human life and thus of sex, and so is wrong.  (Though some people do figure it out on their own).  The Church then has 2000 years of accumulated wisdom coupled with the guarantee and guidance of the Holy Spirit.  

What we need to do as individuals is first of all give our 'assent of faith' to the Church.  This means that if our own judgement does not align with that of the Church, we assume that the Church got it right instead of ourselves.  Under this we allow our consciences to be formed.  This means we hone our skills, learn how to apply the principals of morality to our daily lives. After that we "Love, but do what we will" as St Augustine put it.  

There isn't some rule book which you can just look up your particular moral dilemma in and get a hard and fast answer.  That's because God doesn't want people who are just skilled at following rules.  God wants people who are skilled at loving. 

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Is it wrong to live together before you're married?

Q:  My boyfriend wants me to move in with him.  This makes a lot of sense to me since I can’t stay where I am anyway, and we would save a lot of money, and will probably get married eventually.  But my Mom is mad about it, and says that if we move in together she won’t even visit us at our new house.  What’s so wrong about living together?

A: I actually got this question quite some time ago, so I hope the one asking is still interested in my answer!  I try to always answer according to the Churches teaching, rather than opinion.  So in order to make sure I got it right, I first read a letter on Cohabitation put out the American Catholic Bishops in the late 90’s.

From my read on it, there’s nothing wrong with living together per se…  but it is a really bad idea.  I find people always want really black and white answers, like “This is a sin, this is not a sin, this would be a sin if conditions A, B, and C were met, unless condition D applied.”  People keep wanting to reduce sin to some sort of strict moral code or set of laws, like the priests in confession will have some law book in which they can look up sins and the appropriate penance for them!  (Actually, at one point such books existed…)

To understand sin you have to understand that they are not strictly delineated, but are things that are not loving and so take you or others away from God, so some things are sins in some contexts and not in others.  Like the f-word is a swear in English, but when French sealers use the word phoque, it’s different.

The letter from the Bishops basically said that living together increases the likelihood of divorce (as studies have repeatedly shown), and that while there are good reasons to want to live together, they are not as good as the reasons to not!

It is interesting and counter intuitive that divorce rates go up.  Maybe there is no causal relationship.  Maybe divorce rates are just higher among people who are willing to take moral risks.  But maybe the impermanent nature of the cohabiting relationship is brought into the marriage, and actually becomes a threat itself!

Part of the problem is that most people who want to live together are probably already sexually active.  If that’s the case, you have already chosen to go your own way, and to ignore the clear teachings of the Church on chastity.  Living together may exacerbate the problem, but the problem really is that you are sexually active, not the living together.  It’s like teens will ask questions like “If you are a man, having sex with a male prostitute, and he has Aids, is it OK to use a condom?”  Teens are surprised to learn that in that context, Catholics don’t care if you use a condom-  in fact it may be wise. 

This is because you are already abandoning the Churches teachings on sex-  that it is only moral when it is open to life and an act of love.  If it is impossible for the act to transmit life anyway, who cares if you use a condom?  I think the inclination to make Catholic morality a string of rules blinds us to the fact that they are all logical and have a common underpinning.

So if you’re sleeping together anyway-  living together makes it harder to break up, harder to repent from your sin, and put’s faith filled people in the awkward position of feeling like they are acknowledging the sin if they come over…  but the real problem is unchastity.

That aside-  what if you are in a relationship with someone and you are not sleeping together, and you intend to save sex for marriage?  Is living together wrong then?

Yes-  for two reasons.  One, it is the occasion for sin.  And two because it is the cause of scandal.  If you can live in the same house with someone that you are romantically involved with and somehow maintain appropriate physical boundaries, then you are much stronger than I ever was!  I know of at least one couple where they moved in together and wanted to save sex for marriage, but eventually gave in.  Don’t think there could be a problem?  I suggest you watch some old friends episodes, and I think you will quickly realize the pitfalls of living too closely!

Even in my situation today, I would never, say, share a hotel room with a woman besides my wife on a business trip.  Partly because of the temptation which would only increase if I got tired or intoxicated.  And partly because of the scandal!  Someone might discover that we were sharing a room, and draw the logical conclusion.  Not only would that be an issue for my marriage, I might very well lead them to sin.  There would be an implicit endorsement of sinful activity by the presumption that I am living a publicly sinful life!  We must not only be chaste, we must appear to be chaste.  If an engaged couple moved in together, everybody would assume what they were up to, and while people might not be scandalized in the same way as they were in the past, it would imply that you too are OK with premarital sex.

So the moral of the story is, that while there are many practical reasons why someone would want to live together, from a faith perspective it is bad for you and for the others around you.  We have a moral responsibility to avoid sin, the near occasion of sin, and the appearance of sin.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Who goes to Hell?

Q: Suppose I'm wrong. Suppose your son is wrong. I'm standing outside the pearly gates and St. Peter, or God Himself, gives me one chance to explain myself. What would I say except "I'm sorry--I got it wrong. I really tried. But I got it wrong. I saw all the different religions, each saying different things, all changing over time. It seemed just a part of human culture, not ultimate truth. I saw unnecessary suffering and couldn't make heads or tails of it, if you were good and all-powerful. It didn't make sense to me to posit something existing to explain existence: that gets it backwards. I'm sorry, God, that I didn't believe in you, but it wasn't malicious--I just--I just screwed up."
What would Jesus say to that? Would he send me to suffer forever? Do I deserve to be tortured eternally because I read Lucretius as a young man--the 2,000 year old Roman poet who professed his atheism before Christ ever walked desert sand? Because I looked at the ontological argument and found it wanting?
Or would he press me to Him and forgive me? And wouldn't I desire that forgiveness---?
If there is a God that would send me to Hell for making this mistake, I don't want it in my life. Nothing justifies torture. Nothing at all. And He would not be worthy of worship--or even respect. If He is merciful, then I will apologize. If I am right--and he doesn't exist--then I live my life as a free man.

A:  There are so many directions that I can go with this that I feel like I have to first create the outline of my argument, then elaborate on each point.  That way if you don't care about each individual point, you can skip it and get to the parts you do care about! Part of the reason that there are so many directions to go with it is that the question itself is loaded with misunderstandings.  So here's my argument in point form.

1. The nature of Hell:  It is not eternal torture at the hands of a vengeful God.
2. You don't go to Hell for being wrong-  this idea is the confused interpretation by non Christians of the confused oversimplification of the Gospel by Evangelicals based on the confused theology of Martin Luther who was responding to the confusing writings of saint Paul who was trying to dispel the confusion of the Pharisees.  I'll elaborate, but as you can probably guess, it might get confusing!
3. If you ask Jesus why people go to Hell, it's because of a failure to love.
4. Jesus `saves`us by making it possible for us to love through His Grace.
5. People can always reject love, which means rejecting God, but they cannot reject their own existence, so they will continue to exist eternally without love or God, and would in effect torture themselves for this choice.
6. Rejecting Christianity does not make you free.

Ok, so now to elaborate on each point;

1. The nature of Hell:  It is not eternal torture at the hands of a vengeful God.

I think that because so many people learn about the faith when they are children, they retain childish images of faith principals that are actually exceedingly profound.  They presume that their childish notions are correct, and so they reject the faith rather than rejecting their notions!  The devil is a fine example of this.  He gets portrayed in Bugs Bunny as a guy who lives underground and carries a pitch fork, or invisibly sits on your shoulder trying to persuade you to do Evil-  this imagery is laughable, but the theology behind it is not!

So people have this impression that God and the Devil have some sort of a pact, and that if you do not please God he will send you to Hell, the Devils domain, to be tortured for ever.  But it's much more like a marriage proposal.  It's like God says "I want you to live with me in perfect love forever".  Reject God, and you reject Heaven.  Hell is being without God forever.  So God never tortures you, nor commissions the devil to torture you.  If you think of Hell more as a state of being than as a physical location, you will go a long ways towards understanding what the actual teaching is!

2. You don't go to Hell for being wrong-  this idea is the confused interpretation by non Christians of the confused oversimplification of the Gospel by Evangelicals based on the confused theology of Martin Luther who was responding to the confusing writings of saint Paul who was trying to dispel the confusion of the Pharisees.  I'll elaborate, but as you can probably guess, it might get confusing!

Pope Francis warned us against being limited to simplistic formulaic expressions of the Gospel, but these are very popular ways of communicating the Gospel.  The trouble is if you limit yourself to it, the analogy is always lacking and raises more questions.  People have to come to basically understand that the Gospel message is that we can be saved from Hell simply by believing in Jesus, and that not believing in Jesus means we will go to Hell.  But guess what?  That idea is not expressly scriptural, neither is it found in Church history!  It's essentially promoted by modern, American Evangelicals with a modern, American world view.  So how did we get there?

Start with Luther.  Luther was the founder of Protestantism, and he introduced the idea "Sola Fide"-  that we are saved  by faith alone.  Luther was a monk, who feared that he would go to Hell because he could not get his vices under control, and he was reading Romans and Galatians, and he noticed how St Paul always talked about the effects of salvific faith and not works.  From this he concluded that all that is required is to believe in Jesus, and you will be saved, no matter what you do. Never mind the fact that James said "Faith without works is dead."  But Luther misunderstood Paul on a number of points.  What Paul was talking about were the legalistic works, like circumcision or not working on Saturday, upon which pharisees based their merit. He was also not talking about being saved from Hell!

The Early Christians and the Jews did not emphasize much the afterlife.  The word 'saved' in greek can also be translated "healed" or "freed".  The word kingdom used by Jesus and Paul most likely refers to the kingdom anticipated by the Jews, which would be here on earth, and not to Heaven or the afterlife.  The word faith does not mean intellectual assent, but trust-  kind of like if I say to my wife "I have faith in you" it does not mean "I beleive that you exist" but "I believe that you can and will do what you have said you would do."Read in light of this, Paul could have been saying "You are not healed by a lot of legalism, but by grace from Jesus.  Trust Him" This changes everything! 

So the primary point of the gospel is not that you are saved from Hell if you give intellectual assent to the teachings about Jesus.  The point of the gospel is that you are healed of your brokenness and sin if you trust Jesus and rely on the grace won for you.

3. If you ask Jesus why people go to Hell, it's because of a failure to love.

In fact, read the gospel of Matthew and nothing could be more evident.  When separating the sheep from the goats (people going to Heaven from people going to Hell) Jesus asks these questions-  when I was hungry, did you feed me?  When I was thirsty did you give me drink?.... Just as you have done it to one of the least of these, you have done it to me."  

We were created in God's image and likeness.  But due to sin, we are no longer in His likeness-  we are no longer perfectly loving.  The point of Christianity is to be restored to his likeness-  deified or sanctified- through the grace won for us by Christ on the cross.  That's why the Catholics that we look to the most as examples of this are people like Mother Teresa or Pope John Paul II or Pope Francis-  people who were transformed by love.

If this is the case, I think the people who should really be concerned about their salvation are the Rich Christians who believe in Jesus and in all of this, but legalistically give 10% of their wealth to the poor, while not really being loving, and spend their days judging those who sin sexually.  It was people like that that Jesus could not abide.  

4. Jesus 'saves' us by making it possible for us to love through His Grace.

I don't really understand how Jesus' death on the cross buys us graces- but I think the simplified formulas presented as a means to evangelize are sometimes misleading.  Every time we try to explain it, we only do so by allegory-  do not confuse the allegory for the truth!

5. People can always reject love, which means rejecting God, but they cannot reject their own existence, so they will continue to exist eternally without love or God, and would in effect torture themselves for this choice.

Love isn't love unless it can be rejected.  

6. Rejecting Christianity does not make you free.

I don't think anyone who thinks about it in light of what I said really thinks the non Christian is more free than the Christian.  Free to what?  Sleep around?  Look at porn?  Drink yourself silly?  Lie?  Cheat?  Spend your money selfishly?  All the things Christians call sins are limiting on our freedom, because they enslave us and make us function at a lower level.  The idea of Christianity is that we would be so transformed that these sins would hold no appeal to us, and we could function at the highest level-  always able to love without reservation.  It only feels like a restriction in the early stages.  Like the alcoholic, who sees that he is trapped and being destroyed by alcohol.  At first cutting out alcohol is a restriction, but once he is truly free-  at least in an ideal world- he can eventually enjoy a drink again without it enslaving him. The whole point of Christianity is to free you!  People who see it otherwise need to read Romans and Galatians again, because it was to people like that that Paul was really writing.

One last point.  The writer of the question acts as though he really sought the truth, but he 'found the ontological argument wanting.'  Frankly, if that's your excuse for rejecting Christianity, I would suggest that you have not really looked!  No one I know bases their faith on the ontological argument-  most people reading this have no idea what it is.  Don't think for a moment that you can come before the throne room of the almighty, all knowing God, and lay an argument that weak against Him.  If you want a stronger argument for Christianity, start with the historicity of Christ and the case for his resurrection... after all, that's what all of Christianity hinges on.  I dare you to read, say, the Gospel of Luke, and ask the question-  was this document written by a genuine witness, or was it a fabricated myth?  People who come to the myth conclusion as a general rule have not done the research.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Why has the Pro Life movement met with so little success?

Why is the pro- life movement continuing to argue to so little effect?  Why is it that in Canada even our most conservative federal party which has been in power since 2006 is unwilling to open any discussion which might associate them to our cause?

It is not because we are wrong.  We have long been convicted that abortion kills a human, and advances in science have only confirmed this conviction. The idea that it is not a human life is almost inarguable in any field of debate.  For this reason our opponents don’t bother to make that argument. 

I think it is because we market our message wrongly.  How do we sell the pro life message to our audience?  Remember that in a democracy for a change to happen a majority of people have to desire that change- at least theoretically.   So just pointing out the fact that we are correct is not enough.  People have to want to side with us.  I think in that battle much of what we do is futile, and in some cases even counter-productive.

We know that we live in a secular society, and that due to the popular interpretation of ‘separation of Church and state’ a majority of people, even religious people, think that a purely religious idea should not affect policies.  For too long we have tied our message so deeply to the Christian faith that people have interpreted it to be a merely ‘religious’ conviction, and as a religious conviction it cannot influence policy.  Advocates of abortion have used the label ‘religious right’ against us, and to great effect.

But even if we are aware that making our message a religious message is counter-productive, many of us are carrying religious assumptions into our debate!  Our message is essentially “Abortion is wrong because it destroys a human life.”  But that statement makes 2 essentially religious assumptions- that there is such a thing as objective morality, and that there is a particular dignity to human life.  If you assume a completely secular world view, it would be tough to defend either of those assumptions.  Ask yourself why you believe in objective morality, or in the inherent dignity of human life, and I think you will find these ideas are rooted in religious ideas.

Pro-lifers always challenge their opponents by asking “What difference is there between a born baby and an unborn baby?”  Whether their opponents can articulate it or not, the difference isn’t  in size, level of development, environment or degree of dependency.  The difference is that no one can empathize with a baby in the womb.  And empathy is the root of morality for a pure secularist!

I would put it to you that most people, who have the secularist assumptions whether they know it or not, determine which cause is just and moral based on empathy.  They cannot empathize with the baby-  but they can empathize with the mother.  If we are perceived as being unempathetic to the mother, then we are perceived as being nasty and immoral people.  And it is for this reason that we have gotten so little traction.

If my daughter got pregnant, and had an abortion, and went through all of the associated stress and guilt and shame… and you called my daughter a murderer, or compared her to a Nazi, or thrust an image of an aborted fetus in her face…. I would punch you in the head. (Ok, so I probably wouldn't actually punch you in the head... but I would want to!)  I think that as a movement we cannot afford to be the people that everyone else wants to punch in the head.

So I think we have 2 challenges before us in the fight for life. 1. We need to create empathy for the unborn child. 2. We need to demonstrate that the pro-life movement is the one that cares about the mothers.

Practically speaking, how do we do that? In part, I want to leave that with you.  If we as a pro life movement can start thinking about how to create empathy with unborn babies, and how to love women better, maybe we can get some momentum.  If you believe as I do that this issue is in many ways the trump issue of our times, than maybe we need to start putting more time and resources into the organizations that are meeting those objectives.  Groups that are making 3-D ultrasounds available, or groups that are showing support for moms, like Crisis Pregnancy Centres or the Back Porch, or groups that provide support to women who have had abortions, like Project Rachel.  There are so many good things happening in the pro life movement!

We are the ones who are standing both with the babies and with the mothers!  It's time to re frame the debate so that every politician, media personality, and public figure is proud to stand with us!  

Saturday, April 5, 2014

If God is omnipotent, can He create a rock that He cannot lift?

If God is omnipotent, can He create a rock that He cannot lift?  Does the existence of objective morality prove the existence of God? Is the anthropic principal proof for the existence of God?  Why is the universe intelligible?

I've been thinking about all of these questions lately, and I think I just stumbled on a single answer that deals with all of them...

The first question can be rephrased like this-  if God is all powerful, can he create a logical inconsistency?  Can he declare that 2 + 2 = 5?  I have long held that He cannot, but this is not a limit on his power, but a constraint that logic puts on reality.  As Tobias noted in "The Battle for Moriah"-  "Logic is the form of truth, truth is the matter of logic."  So logic and truth are interdependent!

As for objective morality-  a lot of people seem to argue that the fact that there is an objective moral law implies that there is an objective moral law giver.  So if you agree that the fact that Hitler shipped Jews to concentration camps was wrong, despite the fact that many Germans agreed with it, that even though cultural values can shift some things are wrong anyway-  than you agree that there is an objective moral law.  But the thing is, I don't want a God who dictates morality-  I want a God who is Himself subject to morality!  I don't believe that God can declare that genocide is right any more than He can declare that 2 + 2=5.  I know that I just opened a whole different can of worms, but I'm going to keep going...

The Anthropic principal is the idea that Earth seems so perfectly, uncannily suited for human life, it must have therefore been created for it.  The response is, of course, that human life sprang out of this environment, rather than the environment being created for us. But people can extend it further and talk about how actually all of the physical laws in the universe seem fine tuned towards the sustaining of life!  That if any law were off by just the slightest degree, the whole universe wouldn't work properly... and so we couldn't then exist.  Therefore God must have dictated the laws of physics so that everything could work. Naturalists, who don't believe in God, have had to address this extremely unlikely principal as well, and have posited that maybe there are actually billions of universes, in what is called the "Multiverse", and that since there are then only one of them would have to have the qualities necessary for life, and that one is, of course, the one we happen to live in.  But that is mere speculation, of course.

Then there's Einsteins famous quote "The most unintelligible thing in the universe is that it is intelligible."  Like what are the chances that life could evolve completely by accident, to a point where it could not only discuss these questions, but actually discover the answers?  

Anyway, I am not going to bother trying to prove the existence of God on any of these grounds right now.  But I think I had a cool insight- Jesus is the "Word made flesh".  In greek the word "Word" is "Logos".  As in "Logy" at the end of many scientific disciplines titles, (biology, anthropology, etc) or as in Logic.  So if Jesus is the Logic....

It says that all things were created through him. So then all things should be logical.  And they are!  And being created in His image and likeness, we have the ability to comprehend them.

But wait, there's more!

God the Father's proper name in the Bible is YHWH-  likely a derivation of the verb "to be".  In other words, his proper name is "Existence"  (hence I am who am.)

So everything that exists exists because the Father exists, and nothing could exist without the Father.  But because the Father exists, the son necessarily exists- hence eternally begotten by the Father, but is con substantial with the Father.... you can't have existence without logic.

Which makes me wonder if the laws of morality are like the laws of Physics or Math or Logic-  necessities of existence- and thus found in the Word?

But on the other hand, the Spirit is personified wisdom... maybe that is where the morality is seated?  This still gives it a necessary existence, that cannot be dictated.  That way morals just are what they are.  And the more we respond to the Spirit, the more our own will will conform to that of God.

But then consider that God is love-  what is morality if not love applied logically and with wisdom?

Which taps into another question.. about the nature or conscience.  Maybe rather than determining morality, conscience discovers it, and just as the mathematical part of our brain can compute better if it is trained, so our conscience has to be trained so that it can recognize the truth of morality.

I have a suspicion that someone could write an entire PHD thesis on these ideas-  but for now I will just submit them to the void and see what insights come back!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Free Money!

You don't have to read the Catechism of the Catholic Church for long before you start coming across phrases like "The Sacramental Economy" or the "Economy of Salvation."  What the heck is that?

The word "Economy" comes from a Greek word which means to manage your house, but the financial meaning can be a useful, although limited, analogy for understanding how salvation works.

I want you to imagine you've been given a project to do some good thing for the world.  You know, feed some poor people or build a school or restore a polluted beach. Something like that.  This is kind of like the deal with God the Father-  he created us to do good works.  He's the project manager.

But the thing is, you're saddled with all of this bad debt. You're buried in it, in fact, and there is no way that you could possibly get out of it.   You can't possibly even begin to do the work assigned to you, because you're just treading water-  and let's be honest, you're not going to make it.  So you declare bankruptcy.  In comes God the Son.  He accepts your bankruptcy claim, (confession) clears your bad debt,by paying for it himself, and gives you a fresh start.  That's what Jesus does when he redeems us from our sin.  And if you run into any more debt, he'll cancel it again-  just keep going back to Him!

So now all your debts are cancelled, you can get on with the project-  but you don't have any resources!  God the Holy Spirit steps in, and gives you an infusion of cash, in a lump sum called a sacrament.  In fact, he continues to give you these lump sums as often as necessary. This gives you what you need to continue working on your project.

Now here's where the analogy breaks down a bit... God the Father is the project director-  but he did not hire you.  You're not getting paid when you get your lump sums, you don't deserve it, you didn't earn it.  The Spirit is just giving it to you!  That's called grace, the free infusion that you need to get it done!  To fulfil what you were created to do!

Now, if there was bank that would cancel my debts and give me cash infusions whenever necessary to do awesome things... I'd totally go that bank.  That's free money.  And of course my response would be to tell everyone about that bank and invite them, sing it's praises, and I would be very grateful.  I guess if our response to God is anything other than adoration, praise and thanksgiving.... probably we don't understand how the economy of salvation is working in the first place!  Maybe we resent the project we've been assigned, and would rather just sit around.  Or maybe we aren't ready to declare bankruptcy yet-  we still think we can do it on our own, and hey, we have our pride!

But knowing that this bank is available-  let's not squander our resources.  the life that God has called us to-  of faith, hope and love- is possible because of what He has done for us.

Did Jesus come to abolish religion?

A few years ago a popular video was circulated called "Why I hate religion but love Jesus".    It was a spoken word poem, and was extremely well done.  A lot of people posted responses to it, including Catholics and Muslims, and the speaker, Jefferson Bethke, even wrote a book called "Jesus > Religion".  But since it keeps coming up in my circles, I thought I'd write a post about it.

The premise of his video is that Jesus came for a personal relationship with people, and that we get bogged down by religion and all of it's rules, and so we don't have a relationship with Christ.  He goes further and says that Jesus came to abolish religion.

I agree with almost everything that he says... but I think that he is fundamentally wrong in his premise that Jesus came to abolish religion.  In fact, Jesus said quite explicitly "I came not to abolish the law, but to fulfil it."  (The law and religion are almost synonymous to people who argue Jesus did away with them, but more on that later.)

Here's an analogy that I think helps to explain this phenomenon.  Imagine that you were a guy with a girlfriend or a wife.  You regularly bought her a dozen roses, maybe even weekly.  You remembered all the significant dates (anniversaries, birthdays, Valentines, etc) and lavish gifts upon her.  You tell her you love her, and keep your dates with her.  But really, you know and she knows that you're just doing all of this to keep her happy.  Your words are lies, your actions are lies, and you do it all because you feel like not keeping her happy is too painful, and frankly you know the routine.  To you all of these actions are just a "long list of chores" in the words of Bethke.

So one day you show up with your dozen roses, and the generic "I love you card" and she gets mad.  She tosses your flowers on the ground and says "I don't want your flowers!  I want your heart!"

I think that's basically the objection that Jesus was making to religious forms. God said "you honour me with your lips, but your hearts are far from me."  And as for the law and following a bunch of rules, he said "I want the law written on your heart."

So the real Gospel message is this-  by the grace of God we can be transformed so that our obedience to the law is not legalism and our religion is not empty ritual, but they reflect our love for God and for others. This is the fulfilment of the law that Jesus talked about!

It is foundational to a lot of protestant thought that we are saved by grace and not by works, meaning you can't earn your salvation.  As far as that goes it is true. You can't earn a relationship. But being in a relationship entails certain things.  And faith without works is dead.

This idea that protestants have comes from a deeper conversation, based mostly on Romans and Galatians and Luthers recognition that a lot of people had once again become like Pharisees-  honouring God with their lips, being white washed tombs, while their hearts remained far from God.  But Paul, who wrote the letters, was objecting to legalism which was huge with the Pharisees, and was also rejected by Jesus and John the Baptist.

But Jesus did not reject doing good works.  Read Matthew again, especially the Sermon on the Mount, or the separation of the sheep and the goats. It's all about the transformation of hearts and doing good works as fruit of that transformation!

So we could offer God teddy bears and flowers to express our love-  and frankly, if that is meaningful, it's probably OK. But we have rituals that are centuries old, loaded with significance, and... wait for it... instituted by God himself!!!

Sorry-  did God institute something He hates?

Read Leviticus, or the later chapters of Exodus, and besides the fact that you'll be bored to tears, you will recognize that God is establishing rituals and art and architecture that is loaded with meaning!  Jesus later takes those things, like the feast of Passover, and fulfils it by becoming the Passover lamb! (Last supper) And then he goes and says "Do this in memory of me..."  He institutes the ritual of the Mass.  And though that ritual has developed over the years, it is still foundationally the same as it was 2000 years ago.  Don't take my word on it... look it up.  Did the earliest Christians gather in an informal, religion free way, or did they celebrate a ritual which looks a lot like the Mass?

Some would argue that the book of Revelation is actually a description of the the Heavenly liturgy of the Mass and of the Heavenly temple-  the fulfilment promised by Jesus-  but that's a whole different blog entry!

Let's be honest, I don't know of any Churches that are without ritual.  If you have a weekly meeting with music, preaching, and then coffee... that's ritual.  If you meet at the same time every Sunday... that's ritual.  If you celebrate Easter or Christmas, if you play hymns, or the same songs more than once,  if you break out the fire tunnel and have everyone run through it while those on the outside yell "fire" and "power" and lay their hands on you... it's ritual.

So if Jesus did not abolish rituals, feast days, or the law... what exactly did he abolish when he abolished religion?

Back to my girlfriend or wife analogy.   Having rejected your flowers, should you therefore conclude that your girlfriend never wants flowers, never wants to hear "I love you", never wants you to acknowledge anniversaries? Or do you think maybe she wants those things as an outpouring of genuine affection rather than as an empty ritual?  

Jesus did not come to abolish religion, the man made invention.  He came, in part, to fulfil the religion founded by God himself.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

What does the Catholic Church teach about Chakras?

This question came to me in the context of a youth group meeting where we were talking about Harry Potter. I always let the High School students choose the topics that interest them.  I was explaining to the kids that though the Church has no official position on Harry Potter (it is easy to site sources both for and against it) there are many Christians who are wary about Harry Potter, because it appears to endorse witch craft and other occult practices.

One of my youth came to me with a question after the talk-  what does the Church teach about Chakras?  Now I happen to know that his mom is into those kinds of things, and I always hate to undermine a parents authority, but I decided to do some research and find out.

I am not an authority on this subject, and if readers have insights or sources that they recommend, I'd be interested to do more research and can make this a working document!

As part of my own research, I am reading the document "Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life".  This is the Vatican document that deals with New Age practices as a whole, and the title is a pun off the fact that New Age refers to the fact that we're moving out of the age of Pisces and into the Age of Aquarius.  The reader may be familiar with a catchy tune on that theme.

While this document focusses broadly on the dangers of New Age, I will just give my initial thoughts on Chakras here.

Chakras are energy centres located through the human body which channel life into our Aura.  If part of your brain shuts down when you read this language, I am with you.  I won't bog you down with a more detailed description of it, since that's all over the web anyway.  The idea of Chakras is rooted in Hindu spirituality.

Even while researching this stuff, a colleague looked over my shoulder and saw the diagram and asked what I was working on.  He believes in Chakras, and had some arguments for them-  like how you know someone is looking at you when you can't see them, or can sense someone behind you.

But I have to be honest, I am a skeptic.  I struggle to believe in things without scientific evidence.  Some people may see this as a contradiction, since I am a Catholic Youth Minister, but I've argued elsewhere for the evidence for Catholicism from a skeptical viewpoint, and I happen to think it is very compelling. I tend to think the scientific community is honest, and is seeking truth, and for the most part is not trying to quash the spiritual dimension of the world.  That there are skeptics who are skeptical as an avowed stance and will disbelieve anything spiritual despite the evidence... well, I don't think that's intellectually honest.

So when I consider something like Chakras, I immediately wonder what the scientific evidence for them is?  There is some evidence of course...  but it seems pretty shaky to me.  The consensus of the scientific community certainly does not appear to believe in these things.  If it is "energy", it should be measurable The immediate answer is "well, we don't have the technology required to measure this form of energy."  Maybe.  I believe that there are things that are by nature immeasurable by science.  I call those things "Spirits."

So if Chakra's are a spiritual reality rather than a physical reality, this gives me a different reason to be suspicious of them. As I said it is rooted in Hindu spirituality.  A lot of Hindu spirituality is in direct conflict with Christian spirituality- notably things like worshipping the destroyer. Within Chakra's themselves is a teaching about the "Kundulini Serpent" Chakra.  Considering the serpent in Christian spirituality is a symbol of Satan, I think it is obvious why a Christian would be suspicious of something that tries to tap into the energy and use it as a porthole to their aura...

At any rate, there is a very strong desire to reconcile differences in different faiths and come up with one uniform truth... and while that desire can seem admirable, if Christianity is correct about the very different realms of Good and Evil, then it is a dangerous thing to try to say they are all one, as is claimed by Hinduism, and Daosim, etc.

I wish I could give a stronger answer on this.  In truth I think not only Chakras, but yoga, acupuncture, and a number of other practices which invoke these same ideas, are to be avoided. I am well aware that this is an extremely unpopular viewpoint, and that I am ignorant in these regards, but I am not ignorant in regards to Christainity, and I think their assumptions are not reconcilable with the values of Christianity.  In fact I think these practices are rooted in presumptions that are occult, in that they call on spiritual powers besides God, atheistic, as they reduce God to an impersonal force, and may even idolatrous.

I do not want to go so far as some have done as to call these practices 'demonic', but I do have to ask the question-  if it is not a physical or psychological reality, then is it spiritual?  If it is spiritual but not rooted in a Christain understanding of God... then precisely which spiritual reality is it rooted in?  There are certainly some red flags here.

Here are a couple of quotes from the Catechism, that don't address Chakras specifically, but related ideologies.  Certainly some food for thought!

2117 All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one's service and have a supernatural power over others - even if this were for the sake of restoring their health - are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion. These practices are even more to be condemned when accompanied by the intention of harming someone, or when they have recourse to the intervention of demons. Wearing charms is also reprehensible. Spiritism often implies divination or magical practices; the Church for her part warns the faithful against it. Recourse to so-called traditional cures does not justify either the invocation of evil powers or the exploitation of another's credulity.

2126 Atheism is often based on a false conception of human autonomy, exaggerated to the point of refusing any dependence on God. Yet, "to acknowledge God is in no way to oppose the dignity of man, since such dignity is grounded and brought to perfection in God...." "For the Church knows full well that her message is in harmony with the most secret desires of the human heart."



Friday, March 14, 2014

How do you address the Mormon teaching about the Great Apostasy?

Actually, The conversation went like this:  (My lines are the bit in blue)

As you can see, it took place on Facebook, and by the end my student gave up on me and went to the Deacon!

But actually, Mormonism is a topic I am very interested in.  (Mormons are more properly referred to as Latter Day Saints, but they usually don't find the term Mormon offensive, and it is more efficient, so I will stick to that term).

For people who are unfamiliar with the subject, the "Great Apostasy" is the teaching that Christianity started out right, but somewhere in the Early Centuries it went off track, and started teaching 'false' things, like the Trinity, etc.  Centuries later, Joseph Smith was praying in upstate New York, and was wondering which of the Christian Traditions was the true one, and an Angel appeared to him and told him about some buried metal plates which had unknown scriptures on them.   When he dug up the plates, and translated them, he discovered an unknown history of the North American 1st nations, as well as of Jesus, and of course doctrinal implications.

So basically the Great Apostasy is the way that Mormons explain that Christianity went wrong, and even the scriptures passed down in Christianity may have errors in it.

The thing about the teaching is that if Mormonism is correct, than of course the teaching of the Great Apostasy is necessarily correct.  If Mormonism is wrong, well, arguments can still be made about the evolution of Christian doctrine, but it can't be conclusively proven one way or the other.  (Evidence available to us now, but not available to Joseph Smith, suggests that the Early Church taught much more consistently in line with modern Catholics than with modern Mormons.

So the question is-  is Mormonism true, or is it a man made religion?

I love having the Mormon elders to my house to discuss things, and recently had them coming on a weekly basis.  Eventually though they replaced one of the missionaries, as they are apt to do, and for some reason the new recruit was very defensive, and felt that I was too adversarial and that I wasn't interested in talking to them but only in Mormon bashing. It's too bad, because the missionaries who came to me before him did not seem to have that impression, and I try not to be that kind of person!

I tried to take the Mormons up on their challenge of reading the Book of Mormon while praying that God would reveal to me if it was true.  I really, sincerely did this.  Mormons have this idea that God will reveal truth to you by giving you an accompanying peace with a revelation.  A lot of Christians who beleive Jesus is God also hold this idea, but they come to opposite conclusions.  I admit I am suspicious of my emotions as a basis on which to determine truth, but I tried the experiment anyway.  And I avoided reading any other material on the subject, but just tried to see for myself if the Book or Mormon seemed to hold up.

The thing is that one of the major Mormon claims is that "all" (or one Elder adapted this to "Most") of the First Nation people are descendants from a few Israelite families who came over in a boat about 600 years before Jesus.  When I discovered this, I said to the elders "I'm not trying to set you up here, I really don't know the answer to the question...  but I bet you that geneticists have looked into this without any anti-Mormon bias, and that there is a prevailing theory as to the heritage of the First Nations. Can we look it up?"

Interestingly the missionaries at my house did not seem versed in Mormon apologetics, because they agreed, and had nothing clever to say about the fact that First Nations seem to be descendants from Asians who crossed a land bridge over the Bering Strait.

And this became a theme as I was reading.  There were references to concepts and materials that were unknown in North America before Columbus, and some that were even unknown to Israelites in 600 BC!  Horses, steel, satin....  even the fact that the people who came across were called "Jews" though that term does not appear to have come into usage until after the exile, and was a derogatory term for descendants of Judah.  I also thought that the fact that

All this I knew on my own, without doing research.

Since then, I have done research.  And on every verifiable claim made by Mormons, the evidence seems to point to Mormonism being a fabrication.  In fact, many of the ideologies which informed the Mormon faith were very consistent with popular thought in 19th century USA.  Speculation about the heritage of the first nations, and where the lost tribes of Israel got to, and how and when the world would end, how to interpret the book of Revelation, and false archaeological claims, anti-Catholic sentiments, racist sentiments, and the fabrication of religions as a type of con like people travelling and selling snake oils...  these ideas were all common place. If you were to try to imagine a religion being invented in 19th century USA, you'd probably come up with something like Mormonism.  On the other hand there is no other culture in history that would have brought those ideas together on it's own.  It looks very much like a product of it's times!

This is just speculation on my part, of course, but I would challenge the reader to look into it.

There's a lot of low hanging fruit about Mormonism and especially it's foundation years, the translation of the book of Mormon from an unheard of language into the precise form of English used in the King James Bible-  considered authoritative in 19th century USA, though people didn't speak like that at the time.  Or the book of Abraham. Or other things I won't even bother to mention.

The point is that when you check the verifiable information from the book of Mormon, it can be almost decisively proven false.  I wonder how long Mormonism will stand up against the age of the internet, where all of this information is available to them?

Other religions do not have nearly so many verifiable claims, having not 'faked', in my view, a historical document.  For Catholicism when I check a verifiable claim-  like say, the Stigmata of Padre Pio or the Miracle at Fatima or Our Lady of Guadalupe-  in my biased opinion the evidence comes up strongly in favour of believing in these things.  But for Mormons the evidence is very decisively not in their favour.

In short, I wouldn't really debate the Apostasy itself.  It's true if Mormonism is true.  It's not if Mormonism is not.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

How the Pinocchio Story is similar to the Gospel Message

Luke 11:29-32

New International Version (NIV)

The Sign of Jonah

29 As the crowds increased, Jesus said, “This is a wicked generation. It asks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah. 30 For as Jonah was a sign to the Ninevites, so also will the Son of Man be to this generation. 31 The Queen of the South will rise at the judgment with the people of this generation and condemn them, for she came from the ends of the earth to listen to Solomon’s wisdom; and now something greater than Solomon is here. 32 The men of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and now something greater than Jonah is here.

Jesus said that he would give the "Sign of Jonah", and in another place he says just like Jonah was in the Belly of the Whale for 3 days, so he would be in the earth for 3 days.  I think the story of Pinocchio is a neat allegory for Christianity. Think about it.

In Pinocchio, Gepetto makes a puppet, but he doesn't just want a puppet, he wants a real boy.  So the Blue Fairy gives him freedom, and a conscience.

God created us, but created us in His image and likeness, so not like puppets, but with free will, and a conscience, guided by the Holy Spirit.

But Pinocchio abuses his freedom, get's caged, then turns partway into a donkey, and is lost to his father.

We abuse our free will, sin, get trapped in sin, make Jack-asses of ourselves, and get cut off from our Father.

The Father goes after the Son, but in the process he gets consumed by a whale.

God comes for us, but in the process he gets killed, as in the sign of Jonah.
The Blue Fairy prompts Pinocchio to seek his Father, appearing as a white dove with a crown.

The Holy Spirit also appears like a dove, and prompts us to seek after God.

Once Pinocchio gets swallowed by the whale and escapes, he is restored, and then made into a real boy, by the Blue Fairy.

Only once we enter into the death and resurrection of Christ can God complete the good work begun in us by letting the Holy Spirit sanctify us back into what God wanted us to be all along-  his children, in his image and likeness.


Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Do you believe everything the Church teaches?

Q:   Do you believe everything the Church teaches?
A: Yes.

Or I should say "yyy-e-sss", to emphasize my reluctance.

I get asked this question all of the time, and people even have a hard time believing me when I say Yes.  After all, do I not think for myself?  Isn't some of what the Church teaches ridiculous and obsolete and, well, wrong?

When people choose to believe everything the Church teaches, that's called giving their "Ascent of Faith."  When I was in High School, I came to believe in the truth of Jesus and of Scripture, because I was involved in a number of protestant youth ministry programs. But I had serious doubts about the specifically Catholic Stuff. I thought the Church was sexist for not ordaining women and I was uncomfortable with honouring Mary since it was not clearly scriptural. But as I examined each issue one at a time, I found that other issues like the Eucharist or Confession were clearly defined in scripture.  And particularly, I found that the arguments for the authority of the Church, such as the one in Matthew 16, were compelling.

I actually find it very difficult to understand how you can trust the authority of scripture without first trusting the Church who compiled it.

I eventually came to the conclusion that  the Church really was inspired by God and protected from error, as they claim.  Once that happened, things I struggled to understand, like doctrines on Mary or sexual ethics, fell into line.  It was like I realized that if I disagreed with the Church, it was probably me who was wrong, and not the Church.

This is a very counter cultural idea, when you think about it, but I also think it is self evident.  As everyone knows, we are all products of our culture and are unable to think outside of culture-  so true, objective reasoning is in a sense impossible. When you look at the rapidly changing cultural values, and the things that we seem to think are correct today that never before in history were held to be correct, this is very telling. Our values and ideas are so informed by this, that while in Germany during WWII it was reasonable for people to think that Jews were less than human, we now almost universally agree that this notion is wrong.

So, suppose I could decide what teachings I would accept and which I would reject.  Besides the fact that this would make me the final authority on truth, which strikes me as extremely unlikely....  Which teachings would I reject?  There's a few, but I'll just point out 3.

1.  Guardian Angels.  That teaching seems silly and irrational to me.

2. Hell.  I get it, I can defend it, but I hate it. Jehovah's Witnesses, Luther, Rob Bell-  they've all found ways within the Christian context to eliminate Hell, or at least diminish it's impact.  I would probably do the same if I could.

3. Homosexuality.  Many people don't get this teaching at all-  but I easily understand how it is necessarily rooted in the logic of sexual ethics, and the dignity of human life. But I still don't 'like' it.  My preference is to jump on the band wagon and just celebrate everybody's love for each other, regardless of form!

So yeah, if I could control truth, or pick and choose my beliefs, I'd change all three of those teachings!  The thing is, just because I hold certain preferences, it doesn't make the thing correct.  Any spiritual authority that would just change and shift it's teachings according to the cultural norms is clearly not an authority at all.  I have no reason to think that the cultural values that are prevalent right now just happen to be correct.

In fact, thee are many other established facts that I would reject on the same basis-  except that they are not up to me.

1. Quantum Mechanics-  at the Quantum level there are things that you cannot observe without impacting them, or that can be in 2 places at once, etc.  That just seems silly and irrational to me.

2.  Children being born with heroine addictions.  I hate that.  It's so unjust.  But again, just because I hate an idea, it doesn't mean it is not true.

3.   I can't think of a good example about homosexuality, about something that I really wish were true but it's not, because homosexuality is such a sensitive issue that every example I think of might get misconstrued, and I might get accused of likening homosexuality to something which goes beyond my analogy.  But surely, you can agree that simply because I want to believe something, this does not make it so.

In the Life of Pi, the reader (viewer) is challenged with the question of which version of the story they prefer, and of course most people agree it is the fantastic one.  I do think we can choose what we believe to some degree-  but I'm not prepared to just hang up my brain and only believe the things that appeal to me, or that I can understand.  If I could understand everything the Church taught, this would be indicative to me that the Church had invented it all!  (It is so strange the argument that if Christianity is correct it should be understandable.  I hardly understand anything in science, but my failure to understand it has no bearing on it's validity!)

In conclusion, I believe everything the Church teaches, precisely because I trust the Church in its 2000 years of non contradicted history protected by the Holy Spirit more than I trust my 35 year old opinion.

Monday, February 24, 2014

What are some practical ways that we can live simply and fight against materialism?

Q:  I think it's time you write a blog entry about materialism.  I am really struggling with finding a balance in my life which I know you have wrestled with on a much larger scale.

A: I actually did write a lengthy blog entry about this some time ago, at What is our responsibility to the Poor? In that entry I look specifically at what the Church teaches and why we should live simply.  Simplicity is a virtue, so we could always just live it for it's own sake, but as St Paul wrote "If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing."  (1 Corinthians 13:3).  Suffice it to say, Church teaching has been consistently that we ought to "Live simply so others might simply live." (Mother Teresa)   And I cannot think of a moral principal more clearly and repeatedly insisted upon in scripture than that.  It is certainly more clear than sexual ethics, which is everybody's favourite topic when discussing Catholic morality.

So, motivated to live according to these principals, what are some practical things that we can do?  I'm no financial genius, and I don't know where the balance lies between paying off a mortgage and investing and giving to the poor and saving for retirement. Although for the latter this parable always comes to mind;

“The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. 17He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’
18“Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain.19And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” ’
20“But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’
21“This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.” (Luke 12:16-21)

What I would suggest however is that we discipline the way we spend our money, with a mind towards giving more to the poor. (I'm going to discuss here my personal finances, opening me to all kinds of criticism, but I think talking about real life helps when addressing practical matters.)  

I have essentially 2 ideas on how to live simply.  I tried to think of a third one, because that's a preacher and memory thing to do, but I only have 2. 

1.  Budget.  This is good financial advice anyway, because it will prevent you from impulse buys.  But decide ahead of time how much you should spend on groceries/month, how big a house you need, if you really need 2 cars, etc, set a budget, and live by it.  The real kicker for me was when we decided to budget luxury items.  Catherine and I set our budget at $100/month each.  Please note that this is $100 we spend on things we don't need, but want, despite the fact that $100 would feed, school, clothe and house a kid in Africa for 3 months. So I am well aware that this is an extremely selfish standard.  None the less, it has proven effective.

The reason is that so much of what we would spend our money on is luxuries!  Not just entertainment and restaurant food-  but a second vehicle, vacations, home theatre, cable fees, internet charges, renovations, furniture, etc.  We recently bought a new van, and realized we can't plug my iphone (work phone, so hold the accusations)  into the new car stereo.  We really like listening to podcasts on road trips-  especially Paws n' Tails for the kids. So, we decided to buy a new car stereo.  Yup, it came out of luxury budget.  And because of that, we can't afford the cross country skis we wanted. Or the roof rack so I can bring my bike camping.

You see, as soon as you budget how much you will spend on luxuries, you start thinking about all of your purchases.  Catherine and I do allow a little flex here and there, and are not scrupulous about it. But it makes a huge difference!  Fr Scott McCaig CC always says "Exterior discipline leads to interior conversion."  I absolutely believe this is true, and it has become for me a guiding principal.    

2. "Thou shalt not covet..."  It's funny that the way Catholics break down the commandments, the last 2 are both about coveting.  Because, our whole economic system, and indeed our culture is built on coveting.  Coveting just means wanting stuff.  How often do we see an ad for something and suddenly decide that we want it?  Take a drive and look at houses from the 50's.  How can they have been satisfied with so little back then?  Now we "need" so much!  Partly, it's because we compare our standard of living with those of everyone around us, and are not happy unless we have "as much as".

I work in a school, and all of my co-workers (teachers mostly) have much nicer houses than I do.  Naturally, since they all have better paying jobs.  But this creates a false standard for me, makes me wish I had a bigger house, and a nicer yard, and a play structure for the kids, and a hot tub, and a second car....  and could go on vacations where they vacation... you get the idea.  We covet because we compare, and Pride is in there.

At some point living simply reversed my pride on me.  (If I sound self righteous, it's cause I am, though I'm working on that!)  At some point I started being proud to live cheaply.  "Everything you see in this room I aquired for free!"  I would brag while sitting in my living room with a friend.  And it's true-  it is extremely easy to get everything for free if you just have standards lower than everyone else's!  Electronics, toys, furniture... Even most of our clothes have been free or 'nearly free'.  (There's a second hand store in town where nice jeans will go for a buck.)

I suspect that the biggest source of our coveting though is advertising. It is so obvious that advertising makes you want things you otherwise wouldn't want, it almost doesn't bear saying.  You can't entirely avoid advertising-  but you can give it a good run!  Catherine and I happen to not like TV, so that part was easy.  We also don't think a cable or internet subscription are a worthwhile expense on our luxury budgets.  Especially when you can go to the library, ask for any movie you want, and they bring it in for free. We have Brave right now, and are waiting for Despicable Me 2.

So I guess my second word of advice is stop watching so much advertising, and stop the culture of flattering and congratulating everybody for making big purchases!  

Frankly, who cares if your clothes are second hand and your house is out of date?  People all over the world are starving to death!!!  We need to break this culture of coveting!

So, those are my 2 practical suggestions.  I have found that by trying to live simply, we keep finding more ways to simplify our lives.  We just put in an offer on a mobile home.  A lot of people are going to think we're stupid for that, and it's not a good investment, and we have to sell a lot of stuff to fit into it.  But out mortgage costs will be less than our present rent, and our mortgage will be paid off in 5 years, and you know what?  That means in 5 years we will have about $1000/month freed up to give to the poor.  By my logic, built on 'seek first the kingdom of heaven'  and 'store up treasures for yourself in heaven' and 'look at the birds... they know their heavenly father will look after them.  You are worth much more'.... I could go on... by my logic, based in my faith and a desire to love, this is a good choice.     

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Is it wrong for an unmarried guy and girl to sleep together, if all they are doing is sleeping?

Q:  Hey Peter, I was talking to a friend the other day and somehow the question of whether or not it's okay for guys and girls to sleep together, provided that's all they do (No idea how that came up). My first reaction was "well that's obviously not okay", but then when pushed for an explanation I couldn't come up with a good one. It always kept tying back to "they're probably not just sleeping", but if that actually was all that they were doing, I couldn't say why it was wrong. Is there something obvious that I'm missing here?

A: The obvious answer is that we are not only to avoid sin, but also the near occasion of sin.  Presuming the 2 people are attracted to each other and have a sex drive, 'sleeping' together is the occasion of sin, and making yourself vulnerable is in itself a sin!  Imagine if I just 'slept' with some woman other than my wife, but told her 'we were just sleeping.'  I think she would have good reason to object! 

People tend to have an overly legalistic idea of sin and what is right and what is wrong.  They think that the Church or Christianity functions like a court system, where there are certain prescribed sins, but if there's no actual rule against a thing, then it must be OK.  People are like this all over culture, actually.  They think that if it's not illegal, it must be OK.  They'll do something rude, and if you object they'll say "It's a free country.  That's not illegal."

Laws are in place for people who are inclined to break the laws-  in other words, people with no real character.  Christianity is actually about freeing people from the law-  giving people the character and the tools they need to live holy lives. Basically, to get out of the system.  So it's not about rules at all.  When people reduce sexual ethics to a bunch of rules, they inevitably call them "arbitrary" or "religious" rules.  They equate it to things like the Jewish prohibition of pork.

But it is really not like that at all!  Sexual morals exist because of the dignity of human persons, the dignity of sex, and the fact that the greatest sex is an act of love which creates new life.  

So the question is really about character, not about rules.  No, there's no rule that says that people shouldn't sleep together.  Or live together. Or that French kissing is wrong. Or at what age people should begin dating, and if courting is preferable to dating, etc, etc.  But God doesn't want us to live according to a list of rules-  ready Galatians or Romans or Hebrews, and it becomes clear that this is exactly what Jesus came to free us from!  God wants us to have 'the law written on our hearts.'  To make choices out of love, not legalism.

So... there's no rule.  But people living by the rules miss the point entirely.