Saturday, April 07, 2018

Domestic violence and Calvinism

This article:

Jankowski, P. J., Sandage, S. J., Cornell, M. W., Bissonette, C., Johnson, A. J., Crabtree, S. A., & Jensen, M. L. (2018, March 22). Religious Beliefs and Domestic Violence Myths. Psychology of Religion and Spirituality. Advance online publication.

makes the following claim:

We examined select tradition-specific religious beliefs (i.e., beliefs, informed by and consistent with the Calvinist tradition within Christianity) and beliefs about hierarchical relating, complementarian gender ideology, and specialness and certainty, and their association with DVMA [Domestic violence myth acceptance]. Findings suggested that DVMs are defined by nonacceptance of out-group members, hierarchical relationships, and gender inequality. Furthermore, given construct validation evidence for the DVMA scale, the scale may be used as a measure of the extent to which an individual holds stereotypes and prejudicial attitudes that blame the female victims of male perpetrated family violence. As such, the DVMA scale may be used to assess intolerant beliefs, which could then permit practitioners to tailor prevention and intervention strategies to target specific religious beliefs that support violence myth adherence.

It was plugged by Arminian Scot McKnight and SEA:

Unless they actually read the article rather than the abstract, it says something about their ethics that McKnight and SEA promote an article without knowing the arguments used in the body of the article to support the defamatory conclusion. Let's examine the article:

For God so loved the world: A Calvinist Response to Richard Brian Davis

Friday, April 06, 2018

Did Jesus call himself God?

It is sometime said that while NT writers attribute deity to Jesus, Jesus never explicitly calls himself "God". 

i) People who say this would generally reject the deity of Christ even if Jesus explicitly called himself "God" in the Gospels. They'd say that was the narrator writing a script. Inventing a speech and putting that on Jesus' lips. Or they'd say that Roman emperors called themselves "god", so there's nothing that special about calling yourself "God" in the NT era. The designation could be used in a watered down or honorific sense. 

ii) Before Jesus begins making divine claims, it's necessary for him to lay the groundwork. Imagine, at the outset of his ministry, if he went around claiming to be the Deity. Most folks would either regard him as a blasphemer or madman. So he first needs to do things that will lend credibility to that claim. So often he says things that remind the observer of Yahweh, and that's backed up by doing things that remind the observer of Yahweh. By a later stage in his ministry, there's something "about" Jesus that now makes that comparison eerily and irresistibly plausible.

iii) From a tactical and psychological standpoint, implicit claims can be more effective than explicit claims. In the Gospels, Jesus says and does things that invite comparison with things Yahweh says and does. 

Instead of just coming out and saying, "I am Yahweh", he resorts to insinuations that leave it up to the listener to complete the thought. That's more effective because it draws the listener into the dialectic, forcing him to publicly recognize and affirm the implications of what Jesus said. 

That shifts the emphasis from what Jesus says to what the listener discerns. A tactic that involves and implicates the listener in the flow of argument, so that Jesus doesn't have to say that about himself because they say it about him, in response to broad hints and clues. Even hostile accusers draw that conclusion. It puts it on the listener, including the accuser, to articulate it. Even to accuse him of blasphemy, they must unwittingly cooperate with Jesus, play on his turf, by verbalizing and explicating the thrust of what he says and does. They confess that they caught the drift. 

So they complete the trajectory, the train of thought, that he initiated–which puts them at a psychological disadvantage if they then wish to extricate themselves from complicity in the conclusion. It's a tactic that throws his accusers off balance because they have to play his game. They have to enter the game and make a move or countermove. To engage Jesus they must take the bait. Accept that coercive dilemma. Now they're on the hook. 

If he said it all himself, they'd be able to maintain their distance, but to press the charge, they must finish his sentences (as it were). In the process, they become unintended evangelists. 

iv) In addition, it's more effective in winning converts. There's a cumulative impact to his words and deeds, where it gradually dawns on the observer that God is in their midst. Not just something they hear Jesus say about himself, but something they themselves perceive, as the evidence piles up. That's more powerful than just telling someone what to believe. 

Should Conservatives Be Allowed To Write For Mainstream Publications?

I Am Jazz

The alt white

There's been an interesting evolution in this issue. On the one hand, the cultural elites have deliberately marginalized white men through reverse discrimination (e.g. Bakke case), check your privilege, &c. It's both anti-male and anti-white. White men rightly resent that.

On the other hand, the alt-right seemed to be fueled in large part by festering resentment against Third World immigrants who are more competitive and successful than the natives. So it's as if alt-right Caucasians want quotas and affirmative action for white men. We've come full circle.

And while their reaction is psychologically understandable, America has always been a highly competitive society. Colonial American had an aristocracy. Royalty and noblemen. That's ascribed status. The best slots are reserved for the upper class as a birthright. 

But when we cast off the monarchy, that shifted the emphasis to achieved status. That means, for instance, that if, on average, Asian immigrants, first-generation Asian-Americans (second gen/third gen), East Indians, &c, outperform other ethnic groups scholastically, they ought to be represented in college admissions commensurate with their superior performance. That's the nature of a competitive system. It's like sports, which Americans worship. 

Of course, that raises the issue of a social net for those who can't compete at the same level. Not everyone can be a winner, however hard they try. 

From a Christian standpoint, it shouldn't be a pure sink-or-swim system in the sense that if you don't make the cut, you die, a la The Hunger Games. 

That's where the Christian principle of private charity comes in. Those with more ability should help those with less ability. 

But ironically, that's the "slave religion" mentality that Nietzsche and his alt-right epigones despise. 

Atheism and white nationalism

I don't agree with everything in this article. But it highlights an irony. You have atheists attacking evangelical Trump voters as "hypocrites", yet many alt-right Trump supporters are rabid atheists:

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Mixed nuts

I recently read The Lost World of the Flood (IVP 2018) by Tremper Longman & John Walton. It's like a can of mixed nuts. 

It's noteworthy that the two main collaborators, as well as one contributor, are all affiliated with the BioLogos Foundation, which is the flagship of theistic evolution.

1. This is part of an ongoing series: The Lost World of Genesis One, The Lost World of Adam and Eve, The Lost World of the Israelite Conquest, The Lost World of Scripture. 

Although it's not entirely fair to judge a book by its title, since a title is simpler than the content of a book, it is, nevertheless, misleading to frame the issue in terms of a "lost world" of Scripture, as if the Bible was a complete cipher until the advent of biblical archeology. 

The invention of writing

Christopher Hitchens had a stock objection to Christianity. He recycled this objection in multiple debates. He'd rehearse the antiquity of man on conventional dating schemes, then point out that for most of human history, God did nothing to prevent human suffering, and then, 2000 years ago, he intervenes in a Third World backwater.

As I've pointed out before, that objection reflects his theological ignorance. The purpose of the atonement was never to eliminate suffering, but to make it possible for God to justly forgive sinners.

But there's another issue. According to current archeological information, writing was only invented about 5000 years ago, in the ancient Near East. Suppose the atonement took place 70,000 years ago. There'd be no written record to copy and disseminate knowledge about that event. Writing is a medium of mass communication. Until the advent of writing, it would be impossible to accurately preserve and widely disseminate a public record of the atonement. And not coincidentally, the site of the atonement is also the site where written languages first evolved. Moreover, pictograms are ambiguous. It took longer to develop alphabetic writing systems. 

Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Broken truce

Here's one reason I think Pope Francis is so controversial within the hierarchy. Originally, the papacy condemned modernism, which drove it underground. But in the 20C it began to tunnel into the hierarchy. What you then had was an armistice between liberal and conservative factions. Popes, whatever their personal predilections, would appoint liberals and conservatives alike to positions of authority in the hierarchy. It was a win/win policy to forestall an ugly civil war. Throw a sop to both sides. Bribe the opposition with preferments. Both sides would gripe and vie for dominance, but both factions were represented in the Magisterium. They got their wings and epaulettes. 

By contrast, Francis has broken the truce. He openly and aggressively promotes his own faction while openly snubbing or demoting the conservative faction. Now you have real winners and losers. 

Quantum Catholicism

Some Catholics cope with Pope Francis by taking the position that even if he's a heretic, that's not too big of a deal so long as his heretical views are just his private option rather than dogma.

But of course, that poses a dilemma. What if Francis makes his heresies official? Then they cease to be heretical. Yesterday's heresy can be tomorrow's orthodoxy while yesterday's orthodoxy can be tomorrow's heresy. 

Catholicism is akin to theological voluntarism in that respect. According to voluntarism, nothing is intrinsically right or wrong. It depends on God's arbitrary fiat.

In Catholicism, something isn't heretical unless it's officially heretical. It's heretical if an ecumenical council condemns it. 

Catholicism is like Schrödinger's cat, suspended in a state of superposition where it's both dead and alive until someone opens the box and peers inside. 

Francis is a heretic until he make it official, at which point it becomes dogma. 

Why me?

About that time Herod the king laid violent hands on some who belonged to the church. 2 He killed James the brother of John with the sword, 3 and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also. This was during the days of Unleavened Bread. 4 And when he had seized him, he put him in prison, delivering him over to four squads of soldiers to guard him, intending after the Passover to bring him out to the people. 5 So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church. 
6 Now when Herod was about to bring him out, on that very night, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries before the door were guarding the prison. 7 And behold, an angel of the Lord stood next to him, and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him, saying, “Get up quickly.” And the chains fell off his hands. 8 And the angel said to him, “Dress yourself and put on your sandals.” And he did so. And he said to him, “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me.” 9 And he went out and followed him. He did not know that what was being done by the angel was real, but thought he was seeing a vision. 10 When they had passed the first and the second guard, they came to the iron gate leading into the city. It opened for them of its own accord, and they went out and went along one street, and immediately the angel left him. 11 When Peter came to himself, he said, “Now I am sure that the Lord has sent his angel and rescued me from the hand of Herod and from all that the Jewish people were expecting.” 
12 When he realized this, he went to the house of Mary, the mother of John whose other name was Mark, where many were gathered together and were praying (Acts 12:1-12).

This illustrates the mystery of providence. Two apostles are arrested. God lets one be martyred while he miraculously liberates the other. No doubt the church prayed for both to be delivered, but God only answered one prayer and not the other. It's not because Peter was worthier than James Bar-Zebedee. 

Answered prayer is grounds for hope while unanswered prayer guards against presumption. Sometimes Christians ask "Why me?" when they endure some ordeal while others are spared. That's a natural question. But even apostles had the same inscrutable experience. 

Dark skies

For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep (1 Thes 4:14, ESV).

This is a fascinating little verse. Because it's rather elliptical, and the syntax is ambiguous, we need to be cautious about erecting a huge theological edifice on this slender foundation. That said, it's worth exploring what the passage may well mean.

The ESV gives a highly defensible rendering. Perhaps the best rendering. 

Assuming that's a good translation, several implications seem to follow:

i) Dead Christians (the "saints") are currently in the presence of Christ, wherever he is. We might say heaven, although Christ has a physical existence. Is it a state or a place?

ii) Be that as it may, the verse indicates that when Jesus comes back to earth, he will bring the saints back with him. The saints will accompany him from heaven to earth. They will be his entourage or retinue. 

iii) Assuming that's the correct interpretation, let's try to visualize that scene. First, you have the "mechanics" of transporting them from heaven to earth. Maybe they just appear out of thin air. Instant teleportation. 

iv) If they descend from the sky, we're talking about–what?–billions of the saints suddenly appearing overhead. If they're between the sun and the earth, they'd darken the sky. Likewise, if they're between the moon and the earth, on a full moon. So the sky might be black with the crowded figures of the saints, casting a vast shadow over the earth. 

Or if they're not between the sun and the moon, they'd appear to form a vast black cloud or flock of birds in formation flight. 

That alone will make the Second Coming a highly visible event. Imagine living on earth at the time. Imagine an unbeliever watching this unfold. 

v) Assuming this interpretation is correct, it's at odds with preterism. Some preterists think Jesus already returned, symbolically, in the Fall of Jerusalem. But of course, there was nothing corresponding to billions of saints suspended in midair, descending to earth. 

Phonetic spelling is theologically hazardous

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Glass men

The transgenderism of its time, and just as silly. Imagine speech codes based on glassy nouns and pronouns for humans who self-identify as glass.

O Magnum Mysterium

Mystery is a standard category in Christian theology, although different theological traditions have different theories regarding the relationship between faith and reason. 

Typically, what's mysterious and what's understandable are treated as opposites. Insofar as something is mysterious, it's incomprehensible–and insofar as it's incomprehensible, it's mysterious. And there are examples where that dichotomy applies. On that view, what's mysterious defies human reason. 

However, sometimes mystery and comprehensibility are reciprocally connected. Sometimes the same thing can simultaneously be both more and less mysterious. Let's start with a mundane example. Suppose I'm hiking on a scenic trail. I never did that trail before. I don't know what to expect, beyond it's scenic reputation. At the outset the journey is mysterious.

As I hike along the trail, I don't know what lies beyond the next bend or over the next hill. Once I get over the next hill and see it from the other side, it ceases to be mysterious in that regard. What lies behind is known, while what lies ahead is unknown. 

However, resolving each mystery creates new mystery. When I started out, I had no notion of what lay along the trail. No inkling how many hills I had to scale. 

Suppose the trail has ten hills. Thus far I had to climb three hills. So I now know the trail has at least three hills, and I now know what's on the other side. From that vantage point I see a fourth hill. But I couldn't see the second hill until I got over the first hill, I couldn't see the third hill until I got over the second hill, and so forth. 

Suppose I approach the fourth hill. What lies over the fourth hill is a new mystery, because I didn't know before I got to that point that there even was a fourth hill. S the known creates the background for the unknown. What I now know creates the context for a new mystery. It's because of where I am, in relation to what lies ahead and behind, that each discovery resolves one mystery while it opens up new vistas of mystery. More unexplored terrain. 

Or suppose I began my hike at the other end of the trail, moving in reverse direction. In that event, mysteries unfold in a different order. And the view is different.

Or take reading a novel. Initially, you may have no idea what to expect. The more you read, the more you understand, in terms of plot and characters up to that point in the story, but the less you understand because you don't know where it's heading. That sparks curiosity about what happens next. There are no surprises in terms of what you already read, but that's the setup for new surprises when you turn the page. So mystery and perception play off of each other in a dialectical arrangement. 

If something is a discrete, finite object of knowledge, then it may be possible to exhaust everything that can be known about it, since there's only so much to be known. In that case, understanding nullifies mystery. The better I understand, the less mysterious the topic. 

But in many cases, answers to old questions raise new questions. There are some questions we don't think to ask because, at that stage of inquiry, we don't know enough to ask them. Questions imply ignorance, but by the same token, they require some background knowledge. You have to know something to know what to ask.When you learn something, that may resolve an old mystery, but it may also raise new questions that weren't possible before you knew more about the subject. 

In addition, even if something is a finite object of knowledge, yet in a world where everything is directly or indirectly interrelated, even finite topics may be inexhaustible when you begin to consider how they fan out into other topics. In the study of nature, understanding one thing is a never-ending journey, because each thing is interwoven with other things in a vast tapestry that's continuously woven.  

Then you have domains like pure mathematics, which are infinite in all directions. If you have mathematical aptitude, as you study problems in math, you may solve them, but progressive understanding eliminates some mysteries by advancing you into ever deeper stages of mystery. You have to know enough to appreciate new problems in math. 

To the extent that we grasp God's nature and ways, our understanding opens doors into new corridors of mystery. There's less mystery insofar as we know more than when we began, but there's more mystery insofar as our comprehension at any given stage makes us aware of things that are perplexing in relation to what we now know. As we gain understanding, that changes the frame of reference, which, in turn, exposes us to new puzzles and brain teasers. That process gets going in this life but carries over into the next life. And everlasting safari of exploration into the undiscovered country of God's fathomless nature and imagination. 

To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant

To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant

Cardinal Newman's catchy one-liner is a popular slogan among Catholic apologists and evangelical converts to Rome. But I'd like to consider that slogan in context.

1. The oft-quoted slogan comes from his celebrated Essay On the Development of Christian Doctrine. That, however, was issued in two different editions (1845; 1878), 33 years apart. Newman revised his original essay, and it can be instructive to compare the two different editions. It would be a useful exercise for someone to display both editions in parallel columns, to facilitate comparison. For instance, unless I missed it, the slogan doesn't appear in the original edition of Newman's essay, but only in the revised edition. 

"Ecclesial deism"

I'm going to revisit an old argument by Bryan Cross:

Ecclesial deism is the notion that Christ founded His Church, but then withdrew, not protecting His Church’s Magisterium (i.e., the Apostles and/or their successors in the teaching office of the Church) from falling into heresy or apostasy. Ecclesial deism is not the belief that individual members of the Magisterium could fall into heresy or apostasy. It is the belief that the Magisterium itself could lose or corrupt some essential of the deposit of faith, or add something to the deposit of faith, as, according to Protestants, allegedly occurred in the fifth, sixth, and seventh ecumenical councils.

i) Bryan begins by coining an ominous sounding label, but when he defines it, "ecclesial deism" is just a fancy, misleading label for the belief that God doesn't protect the pope from heresy/apostasy, or "ecumenical councils" from heresy/apostasy. Of course, when you put it that way, when you spell it out, there's nothing disturbing about that denial for anyone who's not a member of Bryan's sect. It just means non-Catholics don't believe God protects his denomination from heresy or apostasy. But that's hardly "deistic". Does Bryan think it's deistic that God doesn't protect Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Anglicans et al. from falling into heresy or apostasy?  

So "ecclesial deism" is at best "papal deism" or "prelatial deism". But even that's silly. It's hardly deistic to deny that God protects Bryan's preferred denomination.   

ii) Apropos (i), Protestants don't believe Christ founded the Roman Catholic church, but then withdrew, not protecting the Roman Magisterum from falling into heresy or apostasy–since we don't believe the premise. We don't believe Christ founded the Roman Catholic church in the first place. So it's not as if he first founded the Roman church, then subsequently withdrew, not protecting the papacy or Catholic church councils from falling into heresy or apostasy. Once you recast Bryan's claim from the viewpoint of an outsider (non-Catholic), his prejudicial characterization becomes manifest. 

iii) Notice the bait-n-switch, where he begins with Christ's church, then substitutes the Roman Magisterium. Of course, Protestants don't classify the Apostolate as a Magisterium. There never was a continuous teaching "office" in that sense. 

iv) Bryan is a selective "deist". He's deistic about everything except the Magisterium. 

v) Protestants like me don't believe that God withdrew his protection of his people from apostasy. To the contrary, God preserves the elect from apostasy.

From a Reformed perspective, there's a sense in which the church is indefectible. Not in reference to a teaching office, but in the sense that God preserves his elect from damnable heresy. The Spirit is active in the life of his people. Of course, individual Christians can and do fall into error, but God doesn't allow the Christian faith to be extinguished. It continues from one generation to the next until Jesus returns. 

John 3:16 teaches limited atonement

"John 3:16 Teaches Limited Atonement" by Prof. James Anderson.

Monday, April 02, 2018

Ecclesial consumerism

I'd like to revisit an old argument by Bryan Cross:

In our contemporary culture, church-shopping has become entirely normal and even expected. Not only when moving to a new location, but if a person has some falling out with a pastor or other individual or family in his church, or even if his church-experience starts seeming dull or dry, he visits and tries out other churches, determining which one best suits his preferences. He might consider the kind of community they offer — how welcomed and wanted they make him feel. He might consider the kind of child care and/or Sunday school they offer, the quality of the preaching and music, the driving distance, the ethnicity or degree of ethnic diversity, the average age and culture or tastes of their members, the opportunities available to contribute with his own talents and gifts, whether they have home groups that he could join, and what sort of moral and theological doctrines they hold, what their views are on various social issues, whether they share or at least do not disapprove his political and economic views, etc. He weighs all the various factors and tries to decide which church best matches what he (and his family) are looking for in a church. He might even make lists of all he is looking for in a church, and see which church comes closest to meeting all the criteria.

i) There was a time in European history when Roman Catholicism was the only game in town. Moreover, to publicly question Catholic tenets was an invitation to be tortured to death by the religious and/or civil authorities, so there was a powerful incentive to keep your head down even if you entertained private doubts.

ii) In addition, for devout Catholics, it's not just a set of beliefs but an all-encompassing way of life. Daily devotionals like the Rosary. A religious calendar littered with saints days and novenas for the occasion. Catholic art, music, novels. Prior to Vatican II, Catholic education K-12, plus college–back when students were systematically and unashamedly indoctrinated in Catholic dogma. Everyone within your inner social circle was Catholic.  A complete, off-the-shelf package. That's how it used to be–less so now. That conditioning produces tunnel vision–so that any alternative is inconceivable. For those deeply immersed in Catholic culture, a break with Catholicism requires a radical paradigm shift.

That insular experience has parallels in 19C Germano-Lutheran immigrants and Dutch-Reformed immigrants who lived in close-knit, communities where everyone continued to speak the original language, retain old-country customs, &c. And it has parallels in other ethno-religious communities, viz. Judaism, Mormonism, Hinduism, Buddhism. Not just a belief-system, or even primarily a belief-system, but a whole prepackaged subculture. 

iii) By contrast, America is a marketplace of ideas. There's nothing that resembles default sectarian national tradition. Rather, America is religiously and ideologically pluralistic, with the result that many Americans do compare and contrast the religious options, and they often choose a religion or denomination based on a set of ideas rather than a cultural package or distinctive way of life. Since the American experience disrupts homogenous religious enclaves, theological ideas are what's left. There is no overarching sectarian culture. That's been broken up through confluent waves of diverse and divergent immigrant groups. 

Once inside, converts may deepen their religious practice to make it a more pervasive feature of their lives, but the entry-point concerns a set of doctrines. That may be inclusive of a complete, off-the-shelf package, but they're usually exposed to more of that after they begin attending a local church, reading the theological literature, or social networking with like-minded members of that religious persuasion. 

There's no point in Bryan bitching about that situation, because that's the situation in which most Americans find themselves. The religious traditions are scattered and splintered. So seekers have no alternative but to go church-shopping. No sectarian tradition enjoys social hegemony. So there's no alternative to surveying the options. And that may involve mixing and matching the best (or perceived best) of two or more preexisting traditions. 

iv) Moreover, that's a good thing. A person's religious affiliation shouldn't simply be a cultural given. To be randomly born into a particular religious package is not a good reason to be an adherent. That's the luck of the draw–which doesn't reliably select for truth.  

So we do need to give some consideration to the religious options. It can be a coarse-grained rather than fine-grained consideration. 

If we worship in a community or organization that is custom-made to our own tastes, desires, self-perceived needs, and interpretations, there is a sense in which what we are worshiping is something made in our own image, and thus self-worshiping, even as we sing praise choruses describing how much we love Jesus. 

That can be a problem, but contemporary Catholicism is no exception to that problem. At least since Pius XII, the church of Rome has been pandering to modernity. Bryan always talks about an idealized theological construct rather than the empirical church of Rome. 

Ecclesial consumerism carries with it a crucial theological assumption. The church-shopping phenomenon presupposes that none of the churches is the true Church that Christ founded. 

That's a misleading way to frame the issue. Low-church Protestants like me believe that Jesus founded "the church", but the church he founded is an essentially decentralized rather than centralized body. A church defined by Word and Spirit, which is portable. You find the church embodied in Christians. The church is lived out in Christians. 

In short, only if Christ never founded a visible (i.e. hierarchically unified) universal Church, or that Church ceased to exist, does ecclesial consumerism become an option.

Agreed. Jesus never founded the Roman Catholic polity. 

…the Catholic believes that the Catholic Church is the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church founded by Christ, and whose bishops assembled in ecumenical council at Nicea in A.D. 325 and again in Constantinople in A.D. 381 to state the Church’s faith concerning herself with those very words, “one, holy, catholic and apostolic.” 

Appealing to the Nicene marks of the church is circular inasmuch as that pivots on the authority of ecumenical councils.

For the [well-catechized] Catholic, the identity of the Church is not determined by her conformity to one’s own interpretation of Scripture. Rather, one’s determination of which interpretation is authentic is determined by the teaching authority of the Church Christ founded. 

And how is the identity of the church Christ founded to be determined? Not by appeal to Rome, since you can only appeal to Rome on the prior assumption that Rome is the church Christ founded. Since, according to Bryan, Scripture can't be the tiebreaker, what is? 

Can't be the church fathers since, by Bryan's lights, their authority is determined by the church Christ founded. Moreover, your determination of which patristic interpretation is authentic is determined by the church Christ founded. So where do you break into Bryan's tight, Tungsten-steel circle? Unless, at a preliminary stage of the argument, he has an authority-source (or evidence) that's independent of his ecclesial candidate, he can't get going. 

In my experience, Bryan always commences his discussion of Catholicism with key assumptions taken for granted, as if that's already been established. Bryan's view of Catholicism is like an axiomatic system in which the first principles are arbitrary postulates. 

 “What I like ultimately has nothing to do with why I am a Catholic. I’m Catholic because I believe the Catholic Church to be the one, true Church that Christ founded, and all other churches to be sects or schisms from her.”

And Protestants like me return the favor by classifying Bryan's adopted denomination as a schismatic and heretical body which broke with the NT exemplars. 

Sunday, April 01, 2018

The future of Catholicism

I was not born a Roman Catholic, but neither did I join the Catholic Church as an adult. My family was Episcopalian in the beginning, and as a child I received a certain amount of religious information–distinctively strange formation, in some cases–in various Protestant circles, Mainline and evangelical and Pentecostalist. Then I became a Catholic as a teenager, along with my family, in a shift that I welcome but that was impelled more by mother's spiritual journey than my own. So in the world of cradle Catholics and adult converts, groups that are often contrasted with one another and occasionally find themselves at odds, I belong to the little-known third category in between. 

As a result I share something with each group, while lacking something each enjoys. Like other converts i did not recite Hail Marys as a child or experience the church as a deep ancestral inheritance, bound up with blood and class and ethnic patrimony. Instead, I made an intellectualized religious choice, reading the books that converts tend to read and deciding the things that they decide, choosing Catholicism because its claims were more convincing than the Protestant churches of my youth.

But I did so while I was still half a kid, under strong maternal influence. Which meant that I also had elements of the cradle Catholic experience–a devout Catholic mother, confirmation classes with other teens rather than the adult-oriented conversion program, an after-school job manning the desk in my parish's priory, a hormonal adolescence and the attendant Catholic guilt. And it meant that like all cradle Catholics I have no way of knowing for certain if I would have chosen the church simply on my initiative, independently of family influence. My intellect says yes, but my self-awareness raises an eyebrow–because I have a strong interest in religious questions but relatively little natural piety. I can imagine myself lingering in the antechamber of a conversion, hesitating to pass inside.

When I went out into the world, to college and then into journalism, where my identity as a Catholic become important to my writing, this in-between feeling took on a new cast. In the secular world, my faith made me a curiosity and sometimes an extremist: I was a real live Catholic, not the lapsed or collapsed or Christmas-and-Easter sort that populate so many campuses and newsrooms, and what's more I had actually chosen to join the faith, deliberately signed on to all the strange dogmas and strict moral rules. And even if my friends and colleagues noticed that I didn't always live by them, I at least went to mass every Sunday and spoke up for something called "orthodoxy" in my writing, which was enough to make me seem like a zealot–the friendly sort, the kind you could have a beer and enjoy an argument with, but a guy with pretty strange ideas all the same.

But then if I went among my fellow true believers, both those who had converted and those cradle Catholics who were committed theologically as well as tribally, I was always conscious that my secular friends were wrong, that I wasn't much of a zealot after all, that I lacked something required for the part that I had been assigned in my professional life. My fellow serious Catholics seemed to have sincerity and certainty where I had irony and doubt. They went on retreats and knew whose feast day it was and had special devotions and prayed novenas; I was always forgetting basic prayers and Holy Days of Obligation. They seemed to approach the dogmas and rules as a gift, a source of freedom, a ladder up to God; I wrested with them, doubted them, disobeyed them, constantly ran variations on Pascal's Wager in my head. They joined Opus Dei or attended Latin Masses; I was often at a 5PM guitar mass, hating the aesthetics but preferring the schedule because it fit my spiritual sloth.

Sometimes I felt as though my conversion was incomplete, awaiting some further grace or transformation. At others I felt that I belonged to a category of Catholics that used to be common in Catholic novels and Catholic sociology, but had been abolished somewhere in the 1970s–the good bad Catholic or the bad good Catholic, whose loyalty was stronger than his faith and whose faith was stronger than his practice, but who didn't want the church to change all the rules to make his practice easier because then what would really be the point? 

This meant that, unlike many Catholics I known who were loyal to the church as a community but doubtful of its doctrines, I did not want this tension to be smoothed away by understanding priests and broad-minded theologians; indeed, the conflict between what I professed and how badly I fell short was part of what made the profession seem plausible, because a religion that just confirmed me in my early-twenty-first-century way of life couldn't possibly be divinely revealed. No, I wanted the church to be the church, to vindicate its claim to be supernaturally founded by resisting the tides and fashions of the age–

–but at the same time I didn't want that resistance to go too far, and actually forge the smaller, purer, Benedictine-monastery church that the most traditional and countercultural sometimes envisioned as Catholicism's future. Because I wasn't sure that such a church would have room for a Catholic as doubtful and slothful and erring as myself.

There is a tendency to see conservative Catholics, especially the sort who convert from more loosey-goosey faiths, as rigid people craving stability, traumatized by Protestantism's disorders or fear of modernity's pace of change. No doubt I have some touch of this condition; I am, for instance, a child and grandchild of divorce, with views on the sexual revolution colored by watching multiple layers of my family peel apart. But in many ways my experience is almost the opposite. I am temperamentally quite comfortable with the ways of modern life, and like my transcendentalist New England ancestors I think I would do pretty well at weaving together a personalized form of faith. So I have always appreciated Catholicism because it doesn't fit my personality, because it unsettles and discomfits and destabilizes the also-rigid-in-their-way patterns of secular existence, because without it I would be too self-confident in my ability to run my own life, too disinclined to pursue works of charity or mercy when there are works of ambition to pursue instead.

My temptation is not to imagine myself some perfect saint passing judgment on erring sinners and brazen heretics. Rather it's to romanticize my feelings, like a character in a Graham Greene novel, as some sort of existential wrestling match, rather than the rather ordinary and squalid sinfulness they are.

Most accounts of recent Catholic history suffer from a kind of inevitabilism. When they're written from a secular or liberal perspective, there is a sense that, of course, eventually the church will simply have to make all the reforms that recent popes have resisted, that those Catholics who believe some teachings simply cannot change are on the wrong side of religious history, that a kind of liberal Christianity is the destination to which Catholicism will sooner or later arrive. When written by conservative Catholics–and this was especially true during the heyday of John Paul II–there is a sense that wherever Rome has spoken, the argument is sound, the case is closed, and all the apparent tensions and contradictions within the global church will be resolved by the operation of the Holy Spirit, and smoothly, without the kind of chaos that has engulfed Catholicism in some of its ancient and  medieval crisis. 

This book is not inevitabilist. It is conservative, in the sense that it assumes the church needs a settled core of doctrine, a clear unbroken link to the New Testament and the early church, for Catholicism's claims and structure and demands to make any sense at all. If the church is just a religious tribe with constantly evolving views, a spiritual party in which the party line changes with the views of the  ecclesiastical nomenklatura, then for all the good works and lovely paintings and clever arguments the whole thing seems like a high-minded fraud, a trick upon the masses of believers, Philip Larkin's "Moth-eaten musical brocade". 

But at the same time, more than many conservative Catholics I think the recent history of the church should instill a certain amount of doubt about what exactly constitutes the Catholic core, where the bright lines lie and where they might be blurry, and what the church can do without touching doctrine and dogma to accommodate the modern world. And more than many, my doubts encourage me to envision scenarios–schisms and ruptures and striking transformations–that a certain kind of Catholic tends to rule out as impossible.

"To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant," wrote John Henry Newman, the nineteeth-century Catholic theologian turned Catholic convert and then cardinal, who will make further appearances in these pages. I believed this when I became Catholic, and I believe it still. But to go deep in church history, I have found, in trying to wrestle with this era of Catholic division  and debate, is to find reasons to doubt all of Francis era's competing visions for the church: the conservatives' because the church has changed in the past more than they are often ready to admit, the traditionalists' because the church has needed to change more than they seem ready to allow,  and the liberals' because it is hard to see how the church can change in the ways that they envision without cutting itself off from its own history and abandoning its claim to carry a divine message of unchanging truth. 

So where does this leave us? With uncertainty…This is a hinged moment in the history of Catholicism, a period of theological crisis that's larger than just the Francis pontificate…

Finally, there are Catholic readers who will find this book's critical portrait of a sitting pope to be in appropriate, impious, disloyal….But the major duty I assumed wasn't to the pope, it was to the truth the papacy exists to preach, to preserve, and to defend. I became Catholic because I thought that Catholicism had the most compelling claim to being the true church founded by Jesus of Nazareth…Here is a story about my church, my half-chosen and half-inherited faith, a story that has added to my always ample doubts… Ross Douthat, Changing the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism (Simon & Schuster 2018), "A Personal Preface".

Omniscient chess computer

Freewill theists typically think "theological determinism" (i.e. absolute predestination, meticulous providence) makes God blameworthy and human agents blameless. Many or most freewill theists define libertarian freedom as access to alternative possibilities. Let's go with that definition. 

Suppose I'm playing computer chess. Suppose the computer is omniscient. It can predict which move I'll make even before I decided what to do next. As a result, the computer doesn't wait for me to make up my mind. Rather, it moves the chess piece to the square I was going to select. 

Once a move is made, it can't be unmade. Once a move is made, it's too late for me to make a different move. I now lack the freedom to choose an alternate course of action. The computer took that out of my hands. Yet it always makes the same move I was going to make. If I lose the match, whose to blame–the computer...or me? 

Suppose the computer always wins because it knows in advance what I will do in every situation, then takes advantage of that information to stay three steps ahead of me. Is that cheating? Does that nullify the value of my libertarian freedom? 

The Fruit Of Jesus' Cross And Resurrection

"For the noble things which publicans and fishermen were able to effect by the grace of God, these, philosophers, and rhetoricians, and tyrants, and in short the whole world, running ten thousand ways here and there, could not even form a notion of. For what did not the Cross introduce? The doctrine concerning the Immortality of the Soul; that concerning the Resurrection of the Body; that concerning the contempt of things present; that concerning the desire of things future. Yea, angels it hath made of men, and all, every where, practice self-denial, and show forth all kinds of fortitude." (John Chrysostom, Homilies On First Corinthians, 4:6)

"It is too small a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved ones of Israel; I will also make you a light of the nations so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth….If he would render himself as a guilt offering, he will see his offspring, he will prolong his days, and the good pleasure of the Lord will prosper in his hand. As a result of the anguish of his soul, he will see it and be satisfied" (Isaiah 49:6, 53:10-11)