Friday, August 30, 2019

Why People Love False Christianity

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I awoke this morning to this headline: Why People Hate Religion. Oh boy. So in the spirit of the headline, though admittedly with far less clickbait power, I am writing about why people so love false Christianity.

You see, it’s because it doesn’t challenge them. It doesn’t make them feel uncomfortable. It doesn’t call them to repentance. It tells them that whatever they already believe and whatever they feel is good and to be embraced. It tells them that if something or someone challenges them, then that thing/person is to be shunned as evil.

The religion this guy suggests is precisely that flavor of “Christianity.” “I’m okay. You’re okay. As long as you’re not a Trump supporter, or even a social conservative.” “Jesus was just this nice guy, ya know?” It is a reductionism of Christianity to secular humanism—using religious terminology that is void of theological and soteriological content. Just “be nice and be nice to people” is all this version of Christianity demands, which is all that secular humanism calls for.

The NYT article author, Timothy Egan, says, ‘Archbishop Thompson says he tries to be “Christ-centered” in his decisions. If so, he should cite words from Christ condemning homosexuality, any words; there are none.’

Oh really. How about Matt 19:3ff:

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” (emphasis mine)
In Christ’s only explicit teaching about marriage, he very clearly says that it is a lifelong, sexually exclusive union of male and female. If Christ were the sexually-progressive person our contemporaries try to make him out to be, he surely would have been careful to avoid being clear that Divinely-instituted marriage is between a man and a woman. (And not only that, that "binary" sexuality is also of Divine origin.)

But let’s not stop there, because the suggestion to "cite words from Christ” for any Christian teaching is fabulously ignorant on its face. While on this planet, Jesus went to great lengths to make it clear that he considers himself to be the eternal Son of God, as Pope Benedict XVI so compellingly showed in his wonderful book, Jesus of Nazareth. And that has been unalterable Christian dogma since the beginning of our Faith. (It was precisely this claim that got him into such hot water with his Jewish contemporaries.)

Christ is, as the beginning of the Gospel of John makes evident, the eternal Word of God. Christian theologians have ruminated on this doctrine since the earliest times, and why that is particularly significant, in our context here, is that the entire canon of Christian Scripture is “The Word of God.” This means, through simple, syllogistic logic, that the entire canon of Scripture is "words from Christ." Christ, being the eternal and incarnate Word of God, therefore speaks directly through all of our Scriptures—not just the quotes attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. And there is plenty in the Word of God about sexual morals (including about homosexuality but by no means limited to it), all pointing toward what Christ was saying—that our sexuality is only rightly expressed within the bounds of that lifelong union of man and woman.

Simply put, if you do not believe that Christ is the eternally-begotten Son and Word of God, you are not a Christian. End of story. There can be no debate on this point. You can cite the words from Christ all you want, but you do not hold the Christian faith.

Furthermore, that same Word of God teaches that the Church is the pillar and ground of truth (1 Tim 3:15). That same Word of God teaches that Christ anointed his apostles with the power to forgive and retain sins (John 20:22-3). That same Word of God (in John 16:13), quotes Christ telling those same Apostles that when he did give them the Holy Spirit (by breathing on them as recorded in John 20), that the Spirit would lead them into all truth--even after Christ in his human person left the Earth. That same Word of God is where we find Christ anointing Peter as the rock upon which he would build his Church and conferring on him the power of loosing and binding (Matt 18:18-19).

And so, not only is the truth from Christ expressed in more than just the "words from Christ" attributed to him in the Gospels in Scripture, that truth is also to be found in the Church that Christ founded upon Peter. It is in that Church--when submitting ourselves to the authority granted by Christ to his apostles--that we are led into all truth through the charism given by Christ to the apostles and their successors. It is in the Church that we can rightly understand the Word of Christ, the Eternal Word of God.

And so we come to the teaching of the Church, which is supremely clear on these matters, not only on matters of morality (sexual or otherwise) but also on what the content of the Christian faith itself is. All of this is comprehensively but approachably explained in the Church's Catechism. Our bishops, with all their warts and flaws (some of which are direly serious), are our pastors, our shepherds. Under the headship of Peter's successor, they are the inheritors (not due to their own personal holiness but due to their office imparted by the laying on of hands) of the Apostolic charisms that Christ imparted, and it is in our union with those successors of the Apostles that we find the fullness of the Christian faith.

All of that is a somewhat long-winded way of saying that when judging what is or is not the Christian faith, and judging what is or is not part of the Christian approach to morality, one can't just consult the quoted words of Christ. Egan's version of Christianity is wholly insufficient and, in places, just plain wrong, especially in his following the notion of "be nice" as our primary guiding principle.

To be fair, he is right in some respects, as well. Part of Christian morality is to help the weak and the poor. (One can't help but wonder if he'd extend that principle of help of the weak to the not-yet-born.) He and the sister he quotes are right, in as much as our guiding light in the humanitarian work that we do is that we recognize the image of God in each person--no matter what condition they are in, no matter their developmental stage, no matter their mental or physical capabilities.

But in criticizing Christians for standing by the morals of the Faith that are not in line with popular secular culture, he is dead wrong. Perhaps the most fundamental principle of the Christian faith is the universal call to holiness. We are all called to be holy all throughout Scripture--it is the overarching theme. We are all called to repent from our sins and conform ourselves to the will of God (Romans 12:1-2). We know the will of God by his revealing it to us in creation, in His person, in Scripture, and within the guidance of His Church. Just being whomever we find ourselves to be is not a Christian way of life; it is the way of the world. No matter what our sins and inclinations are, we are called to take up our cross and follow Christ--and God gives us the grace to do that, especially through the Sacraments, especially through baptism, confession and reconciliation, and the Eucharist.

This personal, individual, on-going conversion is so often overlooked, particularly by those who want to change Christianity to fit our popular culture today. The Christian faith is completely opposed to the notion that whatever we feel, whatever we are inclined to do, is OK as long as it is not harmful to others. Furthermore, our Faith is wholly opposed to the notion that harm means challenging someone, that is, telling someone that, "no, 'you do you' is not OK," that there are in fact objective morals and objective truth, a standard of living to which all are called, no matter what our genetics and upbringing and social context, that we are all bound to respond to that universal call to holiness as best as we are able.

Sure, we Christians can and often do screw up, both in our responding to the call as well as in how we communicate it, but the call remains. And we are bound, as Christians, to share the whole Gospel--not just the parts that feel good and are acceptable to our contemporary cultures. We are bound to help the poor and weak and also correct the sinner, in addition to doing our best to conform our own selves to God.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Ascension Thur-Sunday

It's Ascension Thursday again, and with that comes the yearly opining about the fact that most dioceses in the U.S. have moved its observation to the following Sunday, and how it'd be soo much better for us all to observe it on the actual day.

I do get it. In an ideal world, society would be arranged in a way so that observing holy days would not be problematic at all. I wish we lived in that world, but of course we don't. There are reasons that the Church has allowed bishops to move the observance.

Here's something worth considering, or so I think. Absolutely no precept prevents anyone from going to mass on Ascension Thursday, even if the local diocese does not observe it then. And nothing prevents you (as an individual) from praying the Office for the Ascension on Ascension Thursday. So why is it so important to people to make Ascension Thursday a holy day of obligation for everyone else?

I know I'm getting soft in my old age, but I've gradually come to recognize the superior wisdom of the Church in many of the "relaxing" changes made over the last 60 years (and the relaxations before that). Here's what I see as the wisdom in moving mid-week holy days of obligation to Sundays:

  1. More people who might not otherwise make it will make it, just by the fact of being in church on Sunday--more people de facto get to celebrate the feast day.
  2. Nobody--particularly those with rigid work schedules--has to be put in the position of missing an HDO and worrying (justified or not) that they are sinning--or actually sinning.
  3. Those who like me will do the necessary to go don't have to make special arrangements with schools and/or drag the whole fam to relatively inconveniently timed masses.
In short, our society has made it progressively more difficult to observe holy days during the week.

Now, if there's a compellingly good reason not to move it, so be it, but if we can accommodate and move, I say do it.

I've noticed that there is some rigorist/traditionalist notion that making things harder and more inconvenient makes them somehow better and more desirable. I think this notion stems from spiritual pride--particularly in the cases where one looks at others and thinks ill of them ("they're just lazy/not devout enough") for not being inclined to take up the same, more rigorous forms of devotion. I don't think most people who feel this way are even particularly conscious of it, but I suspect if they examined their consciences, they may find it is so. I know for myself, I have progressively become more aware of such tendencies in my own life over the years.

As for myself, I've decided to submit my judgment to that of the Church. If She says that, in our current cultural milieu, this or that is or is not required, I'll follow it. I won't try to make up new obligations for others that She doesn't give us. I may (and actually do) take additional devotions and even obligations upon myself, both personal and as a lay Dominican, but I don't think everyone should do those, much less that they should be enshrined into canon law.

This is not to say that "doing the minimum" is a good aspiration by any means, only that I think we should not "tie up big burdens that are hard to bear and lay them on others' shoulders." (Matt 23:4) It's one thing to challenge and inspire people to be better by the excellence of one's own life, quite another to try to insist that they be better (and think ill of them when they aren't).

The reality is that we are all called to be perfect as Christ and the Father are perfect (Matt 5:48, Jo 10:30). That's a tall order that none of us is able to achieve of our own accord (Ro 3:10,20). The obligations of the Church walk a fine line between inducing us towards living up to that ideal and creating opportunities for yet more sin. St. Paul wrote about how the Law, in a sense, created sin (Ro 7:7ff).  He also wrote about the grace and freedom we have in Christ--that it is not our perfection that makes us perfect but rather the merits of Christ being attributed to us through grace (Ro 3:24, passim). Does that mean we should sin more that grace may abound more? "Absolutely not!," he answered emphatically (Ro 6:2). And yet it remains that our fundamental orientation under the New Law is towards grace and perfection in Christ, not of our own works--lest anyone of us should boast (Eph 2:9).

So I think the Church, while Her various laws and precepts have changed over the years, is wise to minimize those which may inadvertently lead to yet more sin. And besides, surely there are plenty of ways to encourage and lead people to greater holiness than ecclesiastical law?

P.S. One of my Facebook buddies suggested the idea of simply making it not an obligation but still observing it on Thursday. That's not a bad idea, in my book.