Tuesday, October 30, 2012

I'm Not Voting for a Messiah

One of the things that impressed me about the German people in Metaxes' book about Dietrich Bonhoeffer is that many of them treated Hitler as a messiah figure. There were a lot of problems in Germany as Hitler rose to power, and many looked to him to solve them all. As Hitler began to do things that never would have been acceptable a few years earlier, many people looked the other way because they didn't want to oppose their Leader who would lead them to success and prosperity.

I know people who are disappointed and in some cases disgusted by the choices they have in the Presidential election. Neither candidate is someone that I can really look up to, but after reading about Hitler, I decided I am ok with that. Politics is a dirty game, and it is very rare to find saints in government. I wish that were not the case, but for the Christian, it should not be too surprising.

The Christian already has a Messiah, Jesus, and it is in him that we place our ultimate hope. However, as citizens in a democratic republic, we have a responsibility to participate in the democratic process. Our goal should be to vote the best that we can according to the principles that we believe are right. We will seldom have a choice that exactly matches what we believe is right, so we have to pick the closest one. Then after the election, we must support whoever is in power with our prayers.

Religious Liberty is Important

Religious liberty is protected in the United States by the First Amendment, which prohibits the Federal government from establishing a state church and restricting the free exercise of religion. However, I have seen discussion from people who resent that protection and want to minimize or eliminate it because they don't like what certain religious people and organizations are saying. In other words, religion is getting in the way of their secular agenda, and they would like it removed or at least stripped of any power to influence public policy.

I tried to make the case in my last post that everyone is religious in one form or another. Even if you don't like the term religious, I hope you will admit that you have some kind of an underlying world view, whether it is of a secular or religious nature, which affects the way you interpret events and make decisions. People who want to restrict religious liberty are in effect trying to force a particular world view on people, or render opposing world views ineffective. That is, they want to control the way someone thinks at a basic level, or if they can't do that, keep them from behaving in a way that is consistent with what they think.

I have heard people say, "it is fine for you to practice your religion, as long as you keep it in your church." This is like saying, "you are allowed to think however you like as long as you keep it to yourself and your small group of like-minded (and strange) friends."

Right now I'm reading Bonhoeffer - Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, by Eric Metaxas. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a young German Lutheran pastor who was part of a conspiracy to assassinate Adolf Hitler. One of the last things Hitler did before his death was order the execution of Bonhoeffer before he could be liberated by the Allies. I'm about half-way through the book right now, and WWII has not yet started. However, early in the book we see that one of the first things the Nazis did as they were gaining power was infiltrate and control the German national church. Unlike the United States, Germany had a national church, and the Nazis recognized that they could have great influence on the thinking of the German people by controlling religion. This forced Bonhoeffer and certain other pastors into a situation where their practice of religion became illegal, and they were characterized as dangerous extremists.

The reason religious liberty is important is that it is fundamental to freedom of thought and expression. When the government or some power group is able to restrict religious practice, they are developing the ability to restrict any opposition and are thus becoming tyrannical.

Therefore, even those who do not consider themselves religious should still be supportive of religious liberty as an important part of a free society. If you don't like what certain religions say, you should engage them in discourse and debate rather than trying to silence and restrict them.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

We're All Religious

I think that most people today believe that a non-religious approach to an issue is the only fair way to discuss it. For example, when the question of same-sex marriage is discussed, any argument that comes from any kind of religious source is not allowed in most discussions and debates. The fact is, however, that we all approach these kinds of questions from a particular religious point of view.

Religions make statements about the ultimate reality that undergirds the physical world in which we live. From this ultimate reality come ideas of good and evil which affect the decisions we make. It is impossible to make a meaningful decision without any idea of good and evil. I chose to eat Cheerios for breakfast this morning because oats are supposed to improve the health of my heart, and I think good health is a good thing.

Here is what I observe are the morals of many who approach issues from a non-religious point of view, which I will call secularism. Happiness and self-fulfillment is good, but suffering is evil. Equality is good, but anything that treats any class of people differently is evil. Love is good, but anything that interferes with the expression of love is evil. The only difference between secularism and any religion is that there is no supernatural basis for its beliefs. The only basis I've seen is that this is what a particular group of people agree is right. If you think a particular thing is good, and there are enough people who agree with you, then that's your basis.

Some say that they have a morality based on science, but science is incapable of making moral values. Science can tell us why we feel pain, but it can't tell us that pain is bad. Indeed, science tells us that pain is a survival mechanism. Science cannot even tell us that it is better to be alive than to be dead. Science can try to predict climate change, but it cannot tell us if it is good or bad. Costal cities might be flooded by rising sea levels, but is that bad from a scientific point of view? Does the universe care about New Orleans?

Others say that they use Philosophy as a source of moral values. This is better than Science because at least morality and ultimate reality are in the purview of Philosophy. However, Philosophy must address the claims of religion if it is to claim an answer for ultimate reality, and there is no philosophical consensus that has been able rule out religion and establish a secular moral framework with which we can all agree.

There were two important atheistic philosophies that inspired significant social movements. The first is the materialistic philosophy of Karl Marx, which was behind the totalitarian Communist regimes that arose in the twentieth century. The second was Friedrich Nietzsche's atheistic philosophy of power, which inspired Adolph Hitler's idea of an Aryan master race that was destined to rule the world.*

Today's secularist cannot point to a philosophical genius such as Marx or Nietzsche as a foundation for his views, but like both of them, he has chosen to reject a religious basis. In doing so, he has made a religious choice. There is nothing conclusive to demonstrate that his secularism is superior to any supernatural religion. Indeed, the novelty of today's secularism means that it is untested regarding long-term results. So, for example, since there is no history of any significant practice of same-sex marriage, we don't know what will result from it. I am not claiming that this is a conclusive argument against same-sex marriage, but I am claiming that there is no reason to automatically prefer the secular point of view.

We live in a culture with many different religious views; how do we decided which one to follow? Ultimately, we have to work something out that we can all live with if we want to maintain a free society. We have to have a conversation where all can participate. We cannot silence a voice because it is religious.

*See Eric Mataxes, Bonhoeffer - Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, pp 168-169.


Sunday, October 14, 2012

Deep Thoughts

In my previous two posts, I discussed apparent contradictions that people who oppose Christianity claim invalidates the truth of our faith. The first kind has to do with variations in the Scriptures, and the second has to do with apparent contradictions in our beliefs that can be solved for those seeking to understand by undertaking a little research to get all of the facts.

There are still Christian teachings, however, that appear to have contradictions that are not so easily cleared up. Indeed, most of the core teachings in Catholicism involve apparent contradictions such that we have a special name for these beliefs: mysteries. Protestant Christianity also has some of these mysteries, but I think it's safe to say that the Catholic and Orthodox traditions have the most.

Here are a few examples. We teach that there is only one God, but we also say that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. This is known as the Holy Trinity. We say that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully Human, not half God and half human, or some mixture of humanity and deity. We say that God is absolutely sovereign, and that everything that happens is according to his plan, but we also say humans have free will, and that their choices are truly free such that they are responsible for what they choose. We say that the little fetus in the womb of the Virgin Mary was the creator of the universe, including Mary, in whose womb he inhabited. We say that there will be a resurrection of the body, even for those whose bodies are completely decomposed, and whose atoms have been scattered and through the course of the food chain end up in other people's bodies. Catholics say that in the sacraments, material substances are used to convey spiritual benefits. Catholics also say that the bread and wine at the Mass becomes the body and blood of Jesus, even though to all appearances, including scientific analysis, they seem to still be bread and wine. Catholics also call Mary the Virgin Mother, as well as the Mother of God. Finally, Christians claim that God is almighty as well as ultimate goodness and love, but he also allows evil in the world.

Although Catholic theology has worked on these teachings for nearly 2000 years, and has come up with formulations that provide some measure of explanation, there is still an unfathomable depth to them that no human has been able to penetrate, and so they remain mysteries. I have heard many people express frustration because their questions on these topics to their pastor, priest, or teacher, have been met with the answer: "it's a mystery." While I'm sure in some cases the teacher should have made more of an effort at an explanation, in the end, it must still be said, "it's a mystery."

Why do we Christians put up with this nonsense? If the Christian God is real, why did he make his religion so difficult? Well, there are alternatives. Judaism and Islam reject the Trinity as well as the divinity of Jesus. I believe Islam also rejects human free will. I have read about people who went from Christianity to Islam precisely because the theology of Islam was much more rational and not so mysterious.

But Christianity, and especially Catholicism, has stubbornly held on to these mysteries when a lot of trouble could be saved by making some concessions. It's not that people haven't tried. The history of Christianity is full of various groups and individuals who have tried to simplify a doctrine in one way or another. Sometimes these simplified doctrines attracted a large following, but each time, a flaw would become apparent, either immediately or over time, that showed such a simplification took the Church away from the truth that had been revealed through Jesus Christ through the Apostles.

But why should it be so surprising that the subject of the most high God has aspects that are beyond human understanding? The most ordinary things around us are full of mysteries such that even the greatest scientists who have devoted their lives to understanding them still have unanswered questions. I have started reading a 400 page book on quantum mechanics, Absolutely Small by Michael Fayer, that attempts to explain basic things like why a cherry is red. His goal is to make it understandable to people who don't have the extensive training required to understand the math used in physicist today. According to the reviews, there is disagreement on if he has achieved his goal. If the redness of a cherry is so hard to explain, why do we expect simple answers to questions about the nature of the Creator of the cherry?

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

But, you Catholics say...

In my previous post, I dealt with the problem of contradictions in the Bible between multiple accounts of similar events, such as are found in the four gospel accounts. In this post I will deal with apparent contradictions within Christian beliefs, especially those specific to Catholicism.

I was listening to a call-in show on the local Catholic radio station where the topic had to do with confronting atheism. The guest was demonstrating the existence of God by looking at the Big Bang and other aspects of cosmology and physics. The show was only accepting calls that day from atheists, agnostics, and skeptics. One atheist called in with a long string of objections that went something like, "You Catholics claim to have an infallible Pope, but you are anti-science, you know: Galileo. And there's the whole clergy sex abuse scandal." In a matter of seconds he cataloged a list of common objections to the Catholic faith that all fall under a similar category. They are all beliefs that on the surface seem contradictory, but with some careful study can be seen to actually be consistent.

Here are a few of the issues that are commonly raised. I will only state the briefest of explanations, though I may venture a fuller explanation someday in my theology blog.

  1. The Pope is supposed to be infallible, but Popes have clearly made mistakes or have done evil things. In fact, the Catholic claim for Papal Infallibility is very limited. We do not claim the Pope is sinless or never makes a mistake. We claim that in a special circumstance of specific teaching on faith (what we believe) and morals (how we should live) to the Universal Church (not some specific case), the Pope speaks infallibly. People who have studied this doctrine have found less than a dozen times in the 2000 year history of the Church where they believe this has happened. Therefore, of the 265 Popes in the history of the Church, less than 5% of them have said anything that Catholics claim is subject to the Papal Infallibility doctrine.

  2. The Catholic Church claims to support science, but look at what they did to Galileo. The Galileo incident is very complicated, and reflects many human problems, including politics, fear of change, and personality clashes. Church authorities made mistakes, as did Galileo. There are plenty of reasons behind the trouble Galileo got into without positing that the Catholic Church is inherently anti-science.

  3. The Church claims to teach love, yet hates gays. The Catholic Church has a very consistent moral theology rooted in the idea that humans are created by God, and that God has revealed the best way for them to live. The most loving thing for the Church to do is to share these moral teachings so that people do not follow a path to self-destruction. This moral teaching touches on all aspects of life, but the area of sexual morality is one where the Church is at odds with changing values of the last 50 years. If the Church believes adultery, divorce, pre-marital sex, homosexual acts, and contraception are harmful to individuals as well as society as a whole, it would be unloving to keep this teaching a secret. In confronting these practices, Christians are taught to "speak the truth in love" (Ephesians 4:15). However, even when Christians take great care to be loving in their presentation of their beliefs, any opposition to all forms of sexual freedom is labeled "hate speech" or an attack on women, gays, or some other group.

  4. What about the clergy sex-abuse scandal? The scandal is a horrendous moral failure of individual priests and bishops, and exposed a system that was ill prepared to handle these kinds of problems. However, the scandal is not a result of Catholic beliefs, but is an example of what can happen when those in the clergy depart from Catholic beliefs. There are two reasons I believe this. The first is that the increase in incidents of abuse correspond with a weakening of traditional moral teaching in the seminaries. The second is that the proportion of abuse cases to clergy (at least in the United States) is no higher in the Catholic Church than it is in other churches or in state institutions that deal with children, such as public schools. I admit that the scandal in the Church is more serious because of the position of moral leadership that priests are supposed to uphold, but when looking for the root cause, the statistics do not point to this being a uniquely Catholic problem.

These are all cases where there is an apparent contradiction or problem due to an insufficient understanding of the actual circumstances or content of Catholic practice and teaching. A little bit of research into the facts can clear up all of them. In my next post, I will addresses the areas of Christian belief, Catholic and otherwise, that are not so easily cleared up.