Monday, March 16, 2015

3 motives which drive the Saints

Q:  Hey Peter, I was wondering if you could make a book recommendation.  I was wondering if you knew a book about Saints or other people (any religion, non-religious, etc.) and their lives, beliefs and motivations.  I think they must be some of the most interesting people I have heard of.

A: I love the saints, and I am fascinated by them as well.  I suspect that my interest in them is similar to the interest that an aspiring athlete has to a great professional athlete who has excelled in their sport.  I take seriously the statement that “We are all called to be saints”, and hope to be one myself (though this has been my hope for 18 years now, and I certainly have not come close to that goal so far. I just have to trust in God’s mercy and grace and continue to hope!)

That said, most of the books I know about saints are biographies that share their inspiring stories, or maybe some theological treatises which outline their beliefs…  but I don’t know of very many books that delve into their inner workings and motivations!  The one book that comes to mind is “The fulfillment of all desire” by Ralph Martin, which is a book that I would highly recommend to any Catholic who wants to enter into the depths of prayer, but it is hardly a beginners book for someone who is not Catholic!

If people reading this blog have any recommendations, I would be happy to pass them on to the questioner!

Maybe someone should write a book.  Whenever I think that, I think “Maybe I should write a book”, but then that book idea has to fall into the cue of ideas behind the books I want to write on simplicity and on the rosary and stations and the novels I want to write.

But were I to write a book, I would likely tackle it something like this;

Outline the major motives and themes of the Saints, then throw some fascinating stories into the book that illustrate these points.  I think the major motives for the saints are union with God, love and humility.  Maybe also self improvement, but I actually think that is just a cynical observation of what saints are doing, and probably not the motive of real saints. Actually the book may need a whole section debunking the false motives that cynical people ascribe to the saints!

There seems to be a set of assumptions regarding motivations, which maybe go back to Freud’s idea that every action is motivated either by a desire for sex or for power.  The assumption that a lot of people have is that there must be a selfish motive for everything we do.  So why do people have children?  For a sense of fulfillment or joy or whatever- for some selfish reason.  The idea that there is any altruistic motive for doing anything is for many people a foreign concept. 

This question came to me on Facebook just as I was sitting down to watch “The Drop Box”, a movie about a pastor in South Korea who put a box in the wall of his church where girls and women who felt they had to abandon their babies could abandon them anonymously but the baby would still be cared for.   The pastor has taken in hundreds of babies, and passed them on to various organizations, but he and his wife are now raising 15 children themselves, many with serious handicaps.

Why would he do that?  Again cynical people seem to think the only answer has to be a selfish one- that he must be seeking attention or glory or be trying to ease his hurting conscience or something.   But I suspect that he’s doing it for love.

I have on occasion done things purely out of love. At those moments, I have sensed what it must be like to be a saint.  There is a sense of fulfillment and purpose and freedom in doing these things. However, no one would do it for that sense- at least not to the degree that the saints do it!

One day a man watching Mother Teresa as she cared for the sick and the poor said “You couldn’t pay me enough to do what you do.”  Mother Teresa looked at him and said “Me neither.”

What motivates Mother Teresa or Pastor Lee of Korea or Fr Damien who lived with the lepers in Hawaii?

None of the selfish explanations suffice for these people.  So there must be something else.

The Christian idea is that we were made originally to love.  (People even try to pin selfish motives on God, and ask “Why did God make us?” as if there must have been some sort of selfish motive. But he made us simply to love us!).  We were designed for love with each other and with our creator.  But we chose selfishness, sin, and chaos. And so now most of our desires are tainted by those things.  But Jesus’ death on the cross, the ultimate selfless act, was so that we could be restored to our original condition.   God does not just declare us holy, but rather he makes us holy, sanctifies us, which is a process which takes time and effort and cooperation with God’s grace.

Maximilian Kolbe said that sainthood is when your will is in perfect alignment with God’s will. You want precisely the thing that God wants.  You are motivated entirely by love, and not by selfishness. And the third point is of course that you do not want attention or glory, because you want humility, which underpins everything you do.  That’s why I say that even self improvement cannot be the real motive, since this turns into a form of narcissism.

I also think this illustrates an error that we make in Christianity when we evangelize-  we try to promote our religion by the joy and satisfaction and meaning we find in it, or by a longing for Heaven, or some people will even employ a fear of Hell. But we promote a philosophy that is fundamentally selfless by appealing to selfishness!  Jesus on the other hand invited people to take up his cross, to suffer, to serve, to give, to love, to die.  I suspect that even if someone does not agree with the Christian propositions, we all feel a certain resonance in the call to holiness.  This is precisely why Christianity is ‘good news’ and offers hope. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Why the biggest questions people ask to challenge Catholics don't make sense unless you already believe that Catholicism is true.

Wisdom-  Let us be attentive!

That's what they chant in Ukrainian Catholic Churches before a reading.  I'm always tempted to chant that at the beginning of one of my talks, but I've never done it yet.  Probably I will some day.

I think that when people think of wisdom, they think of someone like Master Oogway from Kung Fu Panda saying "Yesterday is history, Tomorrow is mystery, today is a gift- that is why it is called the present."  They want a succinct poetic and slightly mystical sounding sentence- a proverb I suppose- about some profound subject. But I always suspect that true wisdom is applied knowledge through the lense of experience with a natural ability to recognize truth.  Here's the problem with that.  I suspect that if someone is truly wise, than the wise things they say will not be understood by people who are not wise unless they have a minimum of the same knowledge.  So when a fool (ie: someone lacking wisdom) asks a hard question about Catholicism and the answer is a wise answer, the fool fails to understand the answer and they assume that their failure to understand the answer implies that the answer is either incorrect or incomprehensible, when actually the logical thing to assume is that your own ability to grasp the truth is limited, and that's why you don't get it.

For example-  I don't get quantum mechanics.  Or the theory of relativity.  Or string theory. I've tried to understand these things, but truth be told my understanding of basic physics is so limited that I can't really begin to grasp these applied physics.  And there are elements in these theories that defy logic in my mind-  but I am prepared to admit that the limitation is in my mind, rather than in the logic.  So rather than assume that these theories are false because I don't get them, I assume that my understanding is limited.

But I think that people should approach theology with at least the same level of humility.  Like the student in my office today who stated that Jesus work could have been just magic or the work of aliens, based on a really superficial understanding of the gospel story.  Or the Jehovah's witness who dismissed the trinity because if he went door to door he would get any number of contradictory explanations of the trinity and it is hard to grasp. Or people who reject the faith because they can't figure out how God could allow suffering or evil to exist, or why stories in the Old Testament make God look like an evil being, or why Catholics don't allow condoms in Africa or bless homosexual marriages.  People will dismiss Catholicism on any one of these grounds, and will ask a question as a challenge, and take the fact that Catholics are named able to answer the question in a succinct one liner that they will understand and be persuaded by as evidence that the Catholic Church does not have a good answer.

But-  the Church does have good answers to each of these objections.  I happen to know the answer to each of them- or at least I know a part of them. Each questions has an answer that you cannot plumb the depths of... but again, this is precisely what wisdom is.

St Augustine said "Theology is faith seeking understanding".  What this means is that before you can understand the Churches teachings on something deep and theological, you first have to have faith.  Many people would rather have it the other way.  They would rather already know have the answer to the questions before they will even acknowledge that there is such a thing as a God, or that Jesus was God, or so on. And the fact that they have not heard a satisfying answer to their pet objection will to them suggest that the whole framework is false. But the truth is that the answer depends on a sufficient understanding of the framework.

This realization came to me clearly when I gave a talk the other day about redemptive suffering.  "Why does God allow bad things to happen?"  is one of those questions that I think takes wisdom to answer-  a foundation of Catholic teaching accompanied by the experience both of grace and of suffering, and the ability to recognize truth.  I suspect that the answer to that question is so profound that no one can properly summarize it, but you have to be immersed in it.

But I do think, despite my own lack of wisdom, that I have some insights based on Church teachings and a solid grasp of scripture.  My intention is to write a series of blog entries which explore these deep questions based on that foundation, and outlines the foundation in a way that anyone can understand.  This may take time.

Meanwhile, let me conclude by saying that when you ask a question and the answer to the question is unsatisfying, do no assume that the framework of Catholicism must therefore be faulty. Rather consider the evidence for Catholicism, and use it as the foundation to begin exploring the truly deep questions.

Monday, March 2, 2015

How do you do effective youth ministry?

I tend to think of youth ministry in largely marketing terms.  I think an error that we make in catholic formation is that we go straight to catechesis without first evangelizing.  This just makes the faith seem that much more boring and irrelevant.  Then we spend our time doing apologetics-  defending the church against objections that most people don't actually have.  I suspect that this only makes the Church look defensive, which in turn makes youth (and everyone) less likely to trust the church.

I see evangelization as being like Aladdin on his magic carpet and saying to Jasmine "Do you trust me?"  At some point the youth have to decide whether or not they trust God/the Church/youth minister enough to let go of what is safe and to jump onto the carpet.  So rather than arguing or coercing people into it, we need to entice them onto it.  We need to understand how people make decisions, and make them want to choose the faith.  Here is my strategy;

#1- Fun!  I get kids involved in the ministry through extremely fun games, with titles like Nerf Revolution, Communism, KGB, Alien Invasion, Zombie Apocalypse, Secret Service, etc.  These are large scale games then when kids hear about them, they want to come play them! 

#2 Funny! Then I make the formative aspects fun (funny) and interactive.  People respond much better to a talk if it is funny-  and being funny can be as easy as looking up some good pastor jokes, or adding puns into your presentation.  Someone who is laughing is making themselves malleable to the message.  This makes the message feel relevant.

#3 Relational.  Kids will come at first because they think it sounds fun, but they will continue to come if they feel like someone cares whether they do or not. 

#4 Inculturation. I invite kids to enough youth events, with enough different groups, that they begin to realize that Christianity is a whole subculture, and that they like it.  In doing this my hope is that youth will start self identifying as Christian.

#5 Experience of God.  The hope is that we will eventually bring the kids to a place where they can have an encounter with God. Usually this will take the form of a profound, and sometimes inexplicable emotional encounter.  When I say it like that, it sounds like we are emotionally manipulating people into accepting some precepts.  But the truth is almost every decision we make is based in emotion, and while we justify our decisions rationally often rationality takes a back seat to emotion. I heard a freakonomics podcast recently which likened the way we make decisions to the american political system.  We like to think that our reason is the Oval office, making decisions.  But really the decisions are made by our emotions.  Our Reason is just the department that makes the press release. So to motivate people we need to impact them emotionally.  

I think people critical of Christianity will jump on this,and say that I admit that I am trying to impact their decision by impacting their emotions. To that I say yes-  and I think everyone does it when they try to sell their ideology.  When i asked Catherine to marry me, I set up an elaborate day of quality time, beauty and romance. Was I manipulating her emotionally?  I suppose I could have just made a cold, calculated, reasoned argument for why she should commit her whole life to me. But I also suppose that that wouldn't have worked. God is asking people for a committed life long relationship.  Why not set the atmosphere? 

This is difficult to do at a one night youth group event-  instead we need to get kids to a retreat or camp where they can spend more time opening up.

#6 Discipleship. Finally, the end game is to turn the kids into disciples, who are committed to living out their faith long term, and living by it's precepts.  Key to this is regular prayer life, and service. Youth need to become evangelists themselves, so go on OLVC team, or NET, or become leaders within our home grown ministries. Then they will own the faith, and will no longer be mere consumer Christians. The key to Christianity is that it transforms us from being selfish, self consumed people, to people of love who live for others. At some point all Christians need top stop being Christian for selfish reasons and start being a force for transformation, or Christianity will die.

This sums up my strategies-  but obviously it doesn't apply only to youth ministry.  I think that any Christian that thinks that they are at stage 6, discipleship, should also be evangelizing, and I think most of these principals are true no matter who you are evangelizing to.