Sunday, November 19, 2017

Silence


It took me a while to watch this movie. I had heard it was not that great. It the story of some Jesuit priests in Japan who suffer persecution and eventually apostatise. That is they give up the Catholic faith entirely and start working to oppose it. Such people did exist. They shocked Europe. Jesuits folding under persecution was unheard of. Yet we never really fully understood why. This movie offers one scenario I guess.

One thing that seems implausible about this movie is the priests never remind me of real Jesuits. Now the actors went to Father James Martin, a modern Jesuit, and tried to learn something of Jesuit spirituality. The trouble is modern Jesuit spirituality is very different from 17th century Jesuit spirituality. Modern Jesuits would apostatise in a New York minute. In fact, Father James Martin is know for arguing very liberal views. Some might say he has already come close to apostasy without much persecution at all. Just a little social pressure from the liberal academic elite and he folds like a house of cards.

These characters are like that. It does not take any pressure at all to get them to question their faith. They express very serious doubts very early in the movie before any real persecution has happened. Even the title of the movie, Silence, comes from there repeated confusion over God being silent. I have never heard a priest talk like they do. So the shock that is supposed to take place when the apostasy occurs is just not there. We more have the feeling of why are these spiritual weaklings being sent into this very hard assignment with no support?

The thing that really bothered me about this movie is how pro-persecution it was. There was this constant narrative that Christianity was causing problems for Japan and nothing good was coming from it. That Japan was totally justified in using torture and murder on a large scale to deal with this problem. That religion can be effectively stamped out by getting the leaders to publicly oppose the cause of Jesus. Even when you do this using the worst forms of torture those turned leaders will still be effective in opposing the faith.

This is scary in today's day and age. Atheism is on the rise and one wonders how quickly our society can forget about freedom of religion. We have a society where many talk about how annoyed they are that Christians seem to cling to their beliefs. How could we deal with that? Could western society turn to violence to try and stamp out Christianity. If you are looking for movies that try and suggest that then you will like this one. It is all about how great it is when the state bans Christianity. There is not a single impressive Christian in this movie. All the impressive characters are oppressors of Christianity.

These Jesuits make none of the arguments you expect Jesuits to make in this situation. So many lame objections to the faith remain unanswered. You look at a Jesuit like St Edmund Campion who articulated the faith so well under the persecution of Queen Elizabeth I. Even a Jesuit like St Francis Xavier who founded the Catholic church in Japan and deserves a movie much more that these guys.

One idea that goes unchallenged in the movie is that the brutally violent rulers who stamp out the faith will suddenly become nice benevolent rulers once Christianity is gone. That state sponsored torture and genocide will stop on its own and human rights will start to be respected because these people gave up their faith. Nothing could be less likely. Evil does just go away. The way to defeat evil is the encounter Jesus. Without Him government brutality would continue without limit.

The movie does show the heroic martyrdom of many Japanese Christians. It repeatedly points out that they are simple peasants. Suggesting the problem is the people who have planted such ideas in their minds. The people actually doing the killing are not seen as the problem. Yet the beauty of their faith still comes through. You wish for the priest to find such courage but he never does.

If they theory is right and the reason the priests apostatised was because their faith was really not the Catholic faith but actually a 17th century version of the modernist heresy. If such a thing is even possible. If that is what happened in Japan then it is a sobering warning of what could happen in the west. The worldwide Catholic church cannot be destroyed but major countries can have the church wiped out for centuries at a time. Could that happen here? Could our clergy become open to the idea that the Christian faith is not something we should die for but rather something we should be pragmatic about? That there might be a better strategy to improve society than offering the word and sacraments of Jesus Christ? You would hope that with so many more priests and bishops that at least some would stand up to the pressure. Still the conversations between the Japanese inquisitor and Jesuit priest are not that hard to imagine happening in the west with liberal priests and secular politicians.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Just Enough Religion

Today we focus on Matthew 25:1-13:
The Parable of the Ten Virgins
1“At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. 2Five of them were foolish and five were wise. 3The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. 4The wise ones, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. 5The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.6“At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’7“Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. 8The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’9“ ‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’10“But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.11“Later the others also came. ‘Lord, Lord,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’12“But he replied, ‘Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.’13“Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.
Here Jesus is giving us some final instructions and does so with 3 illustrations. Matthew 25 is the last chapter of the gospel before we go into the crucifixion and resurrection stories. So we are dealing with the final points of Jesus' teaching ministry. The 3 points are the stories of the 10 virgins, the talents and the sheep and the goats. All stories about people who seem to be on the road to heaven yet some of them make it and some of them do not. Do Jesus is giving us warning. Don't do these things. You might not receive the salvation you are expecting. 

The story of the 10 virgins is quite simple. The foolish virgins have just enough oil to get them to the wedding banquet. The wise virgins have extra oil. They are virgins so they are not big sinners. They are waiting for the bridegroom so they are not without faith. Yet some of the virgins have just as much oil as they have figured out they need. The trouble is they miscalculate and end up missing out. It seems unfair.

You hear that a lot. People think they are doing OK with respect to religion and expect God will not condemn them to hell. After all they are descent people and they have not completely ignored religion. God is merciful. There is nothing to worry about. Jesus is suggesting there is something to worry about. The road is going to be longer and harder than you expect. If you think you will be OK you should think again. 

In fact, Jesus goes one step further. He suggests in verse 12 that these 5 foolish virgins don't know God at all. How can that be? It is not like they brought no oil at all. The trouble is they asked how little they could do and still be saved. How could they avoid hell and still live fairly normal lives. That is the wrong question. That is the question we ask when we don't really know God. When we know God we ask how much can we do. We ask if there is anyway I could show more love for God or help my neighbour more. That is a question that will totally transform your life if we ask it and really mean it. Yet it is what we ask when we encounter God. 

So in some ways the lack of extra oil is about faith expressing itself in works. Not expressing itself in doing some works but really expressing itself by dominating the life of the believer. It is precisely the kind of religion our culture refuses to accept. You can be Christian but don't be a fanatic. Spend you Sunday mornings any way you want but don't let it transform the way you look at the world. Accept what we accept. Be politically correct. Colour within the lines.

Personally we think that way as well. We want to be Christian but we don't want it to interfere to much with our fun. Do enough to get saved but you real source of joy is the things of the world. We get caught in that kind of thinking all the time. We don't really believe that. That is not our creed. Yet our hearts go there again and again. In some ways it is the root of all sin. 

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Price Of Atheism

What is important to you? The odds are if you become a consistent atheist you will have to rethink it. Does knowledge matter to you? Do you like to learn about science or philosophy? Knowledge means nothing if atheism is true. Does love matter? Are the people closest to you the most important consideration at the end of the day? If atheism is true then love is an illusion. What about art or music? Do you see beauty as something worth sacrificing for and pursuing with great intensity? If atheism is true it is just a strange curiosity of evolution.  What about meaning? Do you want to do something some day that really matters? With atheism is impossible even in principle for any human action or inaction to matter. What about goodness? Do you want people to say you always did what was right even when it was hard? That becomes incomprehensible with atheism.

Sure Christianity ask you to surrender everything. Yet Christianity gives you those things back again in a much better way. Knowledge matters because it is ultimately knowledge of God. Everything becomes reoriented towards God and gains meaning and significance. With atheism everything becomes reoriented toward nothingness. Really it becomes re-oriented towards your own brain but as a defect in your brain. Something that gave humans a survival advantage at some point in history. We got those things the same way we got our appendix or our baldness. It is just the way the genetic ball bounces. 

Satan offers us a deal where he takes our soul and offers us nothing in return. Really when we talk about a person's soul we are always talking about those things that seem to go deeper than physical reality. It is not that there are unrelated to anything physical but there seems to be more there. Atheism has to say sense we have is flat out wrong. They don't have evidence to prove it is wrong. They have to accept it because it comes with the metaphysical assumptions they have made. This is precisely what they ridicule Christians for when they say they believe something on faith. 

So atheism seems like it costs you nothing. When you go deep you find it costs you everything. Christianity is the opposite. It seems to cost you everything but after you embrace it you are much richer than you were before. 

So why can't atheists see this? I mean the vast majority don't want to deny the importance of love and art and human dignity and whatever else. Why don't they see that rooting these things in the random processes of evolution is not going to give them the value they should have. Partly it has to do with a lack of philosophical training. People believe in human rights but they don't understand why they believe in human rights. It just seems clear to them. They don't see the connection to where we have traditionally said the human person comes from. All creatures are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. If there is no creator where do the rights come from? There is very little attempt to wrestle with such questions. There is no real understanding how not having a logic foundation for something will mean it can disappear any time it is challenged. 

The other reason is people just don't see Christianity as a viable option. They see it as anti-science and anti-sex and just not very respectable. They are wrong but it causes many to embrace atheism without any real reflection because they see not alternative. 

Saturday, October 14, 2017

What Do We Know For Sure?

I was talking with a protestant about theology recently. His reflection was around this question of what do we know is from God and what is just human opinion. He didn't say so but I think it was as it relates to the LGBT questions. How much of what we think is Christian comes from God and how much has just been mixed in with Christianity over time? Now where he went from this is into a more liberal Protestantism in order to avoid claiming to speak for God on matters where we are not sure we know what God really thinks. I can see his point. Nobody wants to assert a moral principle and get it wrong. This is especially true when said principle puts more demands on other people than it does on you. Saying sodomy is intrinsically disordered does create more challenges for a same-sex attracted male than it does for me who has no temptation in that area. So we only want to say that if we are sure we are right.

The other point I can really see is that we don't know many things for sure if we assume a protestant approach. We have the principle of Scripture Alone and we have many different opinions on what scripture really teaches. One can always assert that those opinions that disagree with yours are avoiding what is clearly taught in scripture. Sometimes that is true. Still accusing people of that is uncharitable and in many cases unwarranted. People can arrive at many different conclusions with sincere hearts and sound reasoning. Yes some are just playing games with scripture but just excluding those does not eliminate the problem. Legitimate disagreements are very numerous and very significant. 

So where does that leave us? Is liberal Protestantism the best answer? I found it untenable. You have to realize that this problem of uncertainty does not just apply to the question of the day. It applies to all questions. No matter what we are talking about we have some that see clear scriptural direction but we almost always have significant disagreement. Are there any exceptions? Certainly the list has grown a lot shorter during the last 50 years. If there is anything left where there is strong consensus you should not be surprised if even that breaks down at some point in the future. Differences of opinion about scripture are everywhere. If Christianity is to become agnostic on all these matters then that is quite a weakness. 

So when we declare scripture to be inconclusive where do liberal protestants turn? In practice they turn to the culture. What does society say is the right answer to LGBT questions or anything else? Why not? The culture is strong. If your faith is not offering you anything solid then you end up in the same position as an atheist. You listen to what most people are saying and you go with that. If you don't you are going to be in for a fight and who wants to fight when one is not sure they are right?

The trouble is your Christian faith ends up being quite useless. Again and again you end up in the exact position as the atheist. Jesus said we would know the truth and the truth would set us free (Jn 8:32). Yet we end up not knowing much truth at all. Is this really the way Jesus mean it to work? My conclusion was No. Jesus has provided a way to let us know the Word of God even when there is much disagreement. 

How do we get there? One way is to look at why people disagree about scripture. Mostly because they come from different traditions and bring different philosophical assumptions to the process of interpretation. Bryan Cross talks about that in this video as well at this website. Once we get that we can ask how Jesus tells us to avoid incorrect assumptions. Hint: it involves a role for the church. 


Sunday, April 16, 2017

Lenten Journeys

Catholic spiritual leaders often invite the faithful to go on a journey during lent. I did one this year from TMIY and it was very good. What strikes me now is that it is over. Why is that? The liturgical journey we are on is not over. We have 40 days of lent where we do penance and focus on our sin and our frailty. We need that. Sin runs deep in us and we need to take some serious time to deal with it. Yet that is not the whole story. Lent gives way to Easter. Easter is not just a party. It is a season of joy and victory. It is 50 days rather than 40. That is not just because we want to enjoy good things longer than we want to deprive ourselves of them. It is also because living the joy and victory is also a complex business. 

Now that we have, hopefully, had some success in controlling our passions and dealing with the sin in our life the question of how to best use that freedom from sin. Consider these words of Jesus from Luke 11:
24“When an impure spirit comes out of a person, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ 25When it arrives, it finds the house swept clean and put in order. 26Then it goes and takes seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that person is worse than the first.”
Jesus is explaining one danger of just focusing on fighting sin. When we win the battle against sin we can have a bit of a spiritual vacuum. If we don't fill that with virtue and positive activity then other vices or even the same vice can come back. The church gets this. That is why the journey does not end with Easter. It ends with Pentecost. Really it needs to continue into ordinary time because it is only when our ordinary life is changed that we know a permanent improvement has happened.

Yet almost all the lenten journey stuff you see ends when the 40 days is over. The 40 days is not followed up with a 50 days that prepares you to launch into something really big and exciting. It is like we are done. We don't see Easter as a victory that changes the game in our favor but rather as something that ends the game. We keep saying we are a resurrection people but don't really think deeply about what that means. It does not help that Pentecost occurs at the beginning of summer. Churches are more interested in taking a break at that point than challenging people to start something new.

Now a lot of lenten programs get this. Then know that just focusing on sin and penance is not complete. Yet rather than add an Easter portion to their journey the incorporate much of that into lent. The trouble is the two parts of the journey need to be separated. Often we find one part easier than the other and we do that part well and neglect the other. Two spiritual seasons for two different aspects of growth makes sense. Yet we don't do it. People are willing to put out effort for the lenten season but they don't want to do much for Easter. 

So what does Easter look like? Think of the disciples on the first Easter. Jesus dies. Jesus rises. There is immediate joy. Yet it is hard for them to figure out what is next. Jesus stays for a while and totally convinces them He is really alive. The He commissions them. Then He leaves. We go through the same sort of thing. We die during lent. If we did it right we rise again with new life. Yet what does it mean? 

First of all, it should strengthen our faith. When we embraced prayer, fasting and alms-giving we ended up not losing our life like common sense would indicate but gaining a richer life like Jesus promised. That is experiencing the truth of the gospel on a very personal and practical level. Often we end up breaking bad habits we once thought were unbreakable. Like the old song says, "You ask me how I know He lives, He lives within my heart." That kind of power acting inside our hearts should blow us away as much as seeing Jesus rise blew away the disciples.

Secondly, it should put us in touch with our spiritual gifts. When we rid ourselves of sin we don't lose our identity but we become who we are truly meant to be. We start to enter into the intimate communion with God we were created for. Think of the church in Acts 2 and the detachment they experienced from earthly goods and their hunger for the word of God and the sacraments. 

Anyway, this is getting long. My point is that lent is not the end of the journey. It is step one. Often it is the hardest step. Still when you get it right you want to keep going.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

God is Love

As Christians when we thing about the words God is Love we tend to think of them as a statement of theology. 1 John 4 boldly states that God is love. In the face of all the pain and evil we see in the world it is a pretty audacious claim. One that changes the way we approach life. Still I have been thinking of it a bit different. I have been thinking of God is Love as a statement of philosophy. That is that we cannot have a coherent notion of love unless we believe in God. Christians can talk about the mystery of love forever. When they ponder it they often talk about what happened on Good Friday and Easter as the best example of unfathomable love. 

Atheists are in a very different place. They believe in love. I mean they believe in the human experience. How could they not? Yet when they try and go deeper and explain exactly what it is, where do they go? They go to brain chemistry. They go to evolutionary biology. We have certain responses to certain stimuli because they created some survival advantage for us at some point in our evolution.  That is what we call love. We value love not because it is inherently valuable but because of the random events of our evolution. We enjoy love for the same reason a shark enjoys killing. We evolved that way. 

St John Paul II said man cannot make sense of himself unless he gives himself away in love. I think most realize this is true. Yet is it a feature or a defect? An atheist would be forced to say even that meaning is an illusion. It is just that the feelings evolution gave us with respect to love are strong but they are not any more meaningful because they are strong. A Christian would say it is meaningful because when you love you connect with God. This is because God is love. So love can be meaningful if there is a God to make it meaningful. If there is no God then it can't be despite the fact that it really, really feels meaningful. 

This is a place where the atheist has to make a choice. Either to believe, on faith, that love is meaningless despite his feelings or to stop being an atheist and say there must be something more than the material world. The other choice is to simply live the contradiction and not think about it too hard. The last choice is obviously the easiest. Yet if atheists pride themselves on anything it is their brutally honest rationality. Some have taken the second option. Jennifer Fulwiler is the name that pops to mind. 

So love implies God. To say God is love you would also have to say God implies love. Does it really? Certainly people have believed in God's that didn't always love. Yet if we that love is the highest human value and acknowledge that it is that way because God made it so. Then would we not be justified to conclude that God must be love? Fr Robert Spitzer actually takes it a step further and suggests that God must be the greatest possible lover. That the Christian God should be seen as possible and even probable because it paints God as the greatest lover in giving His son to die for our sins. 

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Mary at Cana

Just reflecting on John 2:1-12. The wedding feast in Cana:
1On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, 2and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”
4“Woman,a why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”5His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
6Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.b7Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.
8Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”They did so, 9and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside 10and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”
11What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
12After this he went down to Capernaum with his mother and brothers and his disciples. There they stayed for a few days.
The first thing that strikes me is the opening lines. A wedding took place. Jesus's mother was there. Why is Mary mentioned first? You would expect John to start by saying Jesus was there and then follow with Mary and the disciples were also there. He does not. He tells the story like Mary is the main character with Jesus and the disciples playing supporting roles. Still he does not mention her name. She is referred to as Jesus' mother and, by Jesus, as "woman." So the emphasis is not on her in isolation. Her relation to Jesus and the fact that she is a woman are in focus.

Jean Vanier remarked about this passage that Jesus could have kicked off his ministry in a lot of ways. He could have gone to the temple. He could have focused on prayer or on scripture or a bunch of other things. Yet he starts by taking them to a party. A party where there a wedding being celebrated and wine being consumed. It is a joyful occasion. A celebration of love.

Yet the joy is not born out of a denial of sin. Where is the sin in the story? There are 6 20-30 gallon jars of water for ceremonial washing. What were they washing themselves from? Sin. Why so many large jars? This household seems to have frequently called to mind their sins and asked God to forgive them. It was they way they lived.

Still the theme of joy is here. Joy that is natural human joy. Yet human joy is finite. The wine runs out. Jesus provides an abundance of wine measured in the same jars that show their desire for holiness. Jesus provides a better sort of joy that becomes evident when the superficial joy runs out.

Yet Jesus does not just do this. He seems reluctant at first. Mary tells Him the problem. She does not ask him to do anything. His response seems strange. It actually parallels some of the things demons say to Jesus (Mt. 8:29; Mk 1:24 and 5:7; Luke 4:34 and 8:28). Sort of acknowledging an authority but suggesting that authority does not apply here. Like Jesus was saying I would normally do what you ask out of respect for you as my mother but not this. Mary accepts it but still does not give up. Really there is no other instance of Jesus seeming to say one thing and do another like this one. Like we are meant to see Jesus have his heart softened by his mother's intercession. Apart from her impact on Jesus we see her impact on the servants. She tells them to obey Jesus. Having Mary intercede is not an alternative to obeying Jesus. We have to do both.

Yet what about that word "woman?" Jesus refers to women that way a few times. It is not disrespectful. Yet nobody else in Greek literature refers to their mother that way. Jesus does so consistently. Why is that? As a protestant I was taught that meant Jesus thought of her as an ordinary woman and not as His mother. That would make Jesus less than human and in violation of the command to honour His mother. Maybe rather than making Mary less than His mother He is making her more than His mother. Maybe He is connecting her with all womanhood. Certainly that is where the early church fathers went. They connect this with Gen 3:15 and call Mary the New Eve.

Jesus is actually presented here as a bridegroom messiah. Some more liberal theologians have used this passage to suggest Jesus was married. The bride and groom are not mentioned here and the one time the bridegroom is addressed by the master of the banquet we are aware that he should be saying this about Jesus. Remember there is a lot of Old Testament talk about the Messiah as Israel's spiritual husband. John is drawing on this and Mary is standing in for the church which is the bride.