Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Creation Matters

'All the trees of the field will clap their hands.' Is 55:12

St. Thomas Aquinas instructs us that religion is our duty in justice towards God. Part of that duty, which is also squarely in line with Scripture, is stewardship of God's creation.

How can it not be offensive to God when you treat His creation with flippancy and disrespect? We are part of His creation, and by the very fact of being His creation, creation implicitly has value and is, as He said, "good." That our value as rational beings endowed with eternal souls is greater does not in any way mean that the rest of creation Has little to no value.

How do we worship God? We worship Him in and with His creation. The bread and wine that we offer are fruits of creation. Our bodies and, yes, even our spiritual nature, are His creation. The church buildings we erect, the altars upon which the Supreme Sacrifice is made present to us, the liturgical vestments and sacred vessels, our icons, statues, and flowers, even the human bodily nature of Christ that we participate in, is all God's creation.

We also offer sacrifices of the things we produce, whether distilled in the form of money or not. These are good things that God has created and given to us that we offer back to Him. Sometimes our sacrifice is to abstain from partaking in what is otherwise a good part of His creation, and what makes it a sacrifice is precisely that we are freely offering that which is good to God, rather than partaking of it for our own good. These are all forms of worship, doing what little we are able to do in our duty towards God.

We can also worship God through acts of charity, and that charity can be towards non-rational nature or towards being endowed with rational nature--or both. Because we are in nature, because we are created beings and part of creation, we are not freely distinct from it. If you firebomb the countryside in which you live, you will not be able to live there long (to provide an extreme but simple example). And so when we care for nature, we are caring both for God's non-rational creation and for other human beings as well.

I have heard folks be dismissive of Church leaders--including our Holy Father--who are vocally concerned with the environment. Most of these, I'll wager, either haven't read Laudato Si, or only read it cursorily with much prejudice--looking for excuses to dismiss, downplay, and ignore it. But a faithful Catholic ought to be receptive to the teaching of the Holy Father. I'll say that again: a faithful Catholic ought to be receptive to the teaching of the Holy Father.

One of the things that Pope Francis illumines greatly is the connection between how our abuse of the environment directly and negatively impacts many human beings, particularly the most poor and vulnerable in the world. Few U.S. Americans are faced the the horrors of abject poverty that come about through how we have not been good stewards of creation. So it's easy for us to dismiss such concerns, but they are real. You can learn about them easily if you look.

This isn't about raising the temperature of the globe a degree or two. This is real, directly observable badness that you can see comes about from abusive consumption and disregard for both nature and human life in and around areas whence we source our raw materials. Only willful ignorance can make one blind to it.

When Christ speaks of separating the sheep from the goats, He doesn't talk of who has this or that theological point perfectly in their minds, or whether or not we use incense or Latin in mass or any such thing. He speaks, rather, of how persons have treated the poor and needy among them. This is hand in hand with His statement that the second-greatest command is like the first--to love your neighbor as yourself.

It is like the first in that our love of neighbor and of creation is an extension and expression of our love for God in Himself. Our willing the good of God's creation is precisely love for God. It is how we pay duty and honor and respect to Him, in justice. That is why St. James can say that your faith is dead if it has not such works. Our charity towards God's created nature and our neighbor are the manifest stuff of our love of God and, ergo, proof of our faith in Him.

A focus on contemporary environmental concern is nothing more than this--a faithful response to Christ's instruction that we care for the poor and needy and a proper and good response to God's entrusting his creation to us, to be good and wise stewards. It cannot be rightly separated from sharing the Gospel in the sense of bringing people to faith in Christ.

As if to prove the importance of created, physical nature, God took that nature upon himself and divinized it. Further, he promises us a resurrection of the body and a New Jerusalem. We are not rarified spiritual beings or consciousnesses just loosely associated with our bodies, trapped by them and waiting to be freed. That is a gnostic error condemned since the earliest days of the Church. We are not beings of pure intellect either. We are, always have been, and always shall be beings intertwined with physical nature.

As Christians, we are not free to ignore or downplay the importance of stewardship and of loving God and our neighbors through it. The Gospel is not purely intellectual content, nor is living it purely a simple response of intellectual faith. We must live that faith out in the real world, and that includes caring for the rest of God's creation and our neighbor. This is by no means a "Modernist heresy," nor is it any less important than other aspects of the faith.

Where folks on both sides of the spectrum go wrong is when they create a false dichotomy between love of truth and love of creation and our neighbor. Language and human intellect are important and part of God's creation. So are our bodies, the things that our bodies need, and all of non-rational creation. We can give disproportional concern to both.

There's an old adage that every heresy is just taking some aspect of the faith to an extreme, and so far as I can tell, it seems to be true. It's an ancient tool of the Devil to trick us into becoming obsessed with one particular good to the exclusion of others and the balance of moderation.

Both areas of concern are areas calling out for attention. They always have been. We have always had spiritual darkness and error and heresy and a need for reformation and better instruction in the truths of the faith. And we have always had an insufficient care of the poor (and for most of us, our own bodies) and poor stewardship of God's creation.

To say that we ought to neglect one in favor of the other is an improper response to the challenges facing us. It may be true that, individually, we can't respond equally well to all areas of need, but as a group, we surely can do much, much better.

God gives different people different gifts, and our faithful response to use these in service of him would no doubt, if we all fulfilled our God-given potential, leave us in a starkly better place than we are in now. St. Paul cautions us against presuming that "our gift" is better or more important than the others. We would do well to keep that caution in mind.

Because God may be calling you or me, personally, to focus more on living the faith through communicating the intellectual content of the faith does not mean that others (even most others) ought not to focus on living the faith through care of God's creation and the corporal needs of other human beings. Nor does it mean we cannot do both to various degrees in our lives. It may be (and seems to be so) that the Holy Spirit is instructing us, as a Church, to do just that through the teaching of the current Vicar of Christ.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Letter to Editor: Potential Formation of GSA at Fannin County High School

This is the text of a letter I sent to our local News Observer newspaper. There has been some controversy recently about a proposed GSA. I felt I had to respond to try to clarify what I believe are misrepresentations of Christian understanding in this area. It was published in the 30 October 2019 edition.


Dear Editor & Fellow Subscribers:

I read with concern the letter by Lane Bishop about the proposed Gay Straight Alliance at Fannin County High School, as well as the following letters by John Sugg and Rebecca McKevitt. While I agree that many Christians have (and still do) unjustly discriminate against those with homosexual tendencies, that does not mean there is not a just discrimination in these matters. We need to discriminate having deep-seated homosexual attraction from acting on it. It’s not a sin to experience homosexual attraction. It would be a sin to act on that attraction.

Mr. Sugg is right to point out that there are plenty of other sexual sins, and that we ought to have an equal concern to avoid those and to speak against them as the occasion presents itself. However, he is wrong to suggest that because Christ did not use the term “homosexuality” that He never spoke about it and thus somehow considered our sexuality and sexual behavior unimportant compared to other concerns like social justice. It’s not an either-or proposition. We are called to personal holiness and also to charity. The two cannot rightly be separated.

Christ did in fact touch on the topic of sexuality and marriage explicitly. Anyone who reads the words of Christ (for example, Matt 5:27-32) can see that He clearly presumes heterosexual relations when speaking of sex and marriage. And when the Pharisees tested Him in Matt 19, He said, “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.” (ESV)

So it is very clear that Jesus has a “traditional” view of sexuality and marriage and that marriage from the Christian point of view is between one man and one woman. It’s clear that no matter our subjective experience of our sexuality, that God has a definite purpose and plan in mind for human sexuality. We are male or female, and as far as sex is concerned, it’s intended to be expressed exclusively within a lifelong male-female mutual self-giving with openness towards the blessing of children. That is Christian marriage.

Mr. Sugg also rightly points out that we do not observe all of the Hebraic Law as recorded in the Old Testament, but that does not free us to willy-nilly choose our own morality. Most Christians make a distinction between ritual and moral law. Ritual law is always changeable, but moral law is immutable. And while the temporal (here and now) punishment for a given sin is changeable, changing or even removing the temporal punishment does not entail changing something that was morally illicit into something now morally licit.

As Christians, no matter what our stripe, we consider the entirety of Scripture to be the Word of God, not only the words of Christ. And all Christians up until very, very recently (historically speaking) have well understood that homosexual behavior is sinful, as is all extramarital sexual activity. That’s because Scripture is clear on the matter, as is Christian Tradition. Just because it may be possible to re-interpret Scripture to suit contemporary sensibilities does not make such eisegesis as viable an interpretation as what the Christian Church has held since day one. I have no doubt that the many pastors today who are complicit in misleading their flocks on this will be called to account on the day of judgment. (Jas 3:1)

None of this justifies hatred or mistreatment of those who believe they are or may be homosexuals. Proverbs 6:16ff names seven things that are an abomination to the Lord. A proud look. A lying tongue. A heart that devises wicked plans. And so on. I am sure most of us have been guilty of such sins and many others, and we no more deserve mistreatment or special condemnation than those who act on homosexual inclinations. The Good News is that Christ came to redeem us all, for all have sinned and fallen short of our calling to holiness. The right response to sin is repentance and throwing ourselves on the mercy of God, and urging others to do likewise. It is only by the grace of God that any of us are saved.

We need not fear having a GSA at our high school, should one be formed. As parents, if we’re doing our job right, our children will clearly know right from wrong in this area (which includes not mistreating those who are different from us). If we are counting on public schools to teach our children our morals, I think we will be in for a rude awakening. Especially at the high school age, we need to be equipping our children to bravely encounter a world that is often at odds with our morals and now more than ever needs strong, loving Christians who can compassionately share the truth of the Gospel without exchanging truth for a lie.


J. Ambrose Little

Friday, August 30, 2019

Why People Love False Christianity

Photo Courtesy of https://www.pinterest.com/pin/13792342584492054/
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.