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.