Monday, December 27, 2010

Can a believer agree with an atheist?

When one lives in a bubble of a particular faith, or of any mindset for that matter, it can quite easily happen that dialogue with those outside of that arena is limited if not absent. From one point of view, it is necessary and natural to congregate with those with whom one agrees. It is mutually beneficial, since the human being seeks like minded individuals who support one’s deepest convictions. Like attracts like is a natural law. The Church herself is a congregation of those who agree on the revelation of Jesus Christ once delivered to the apostles and handed down by and through the Church ever since. And for a variety of reasons, it is understandable that one may want to avoid conversations with those who are diametrically opposed to one’s deeply held beliefs.

On the other hand, when this is motivated by mere bias, fear or a sense of insecurity, there can be harmful effects, not least of which is a lessening of charity. Those who disagree are seen as enemies, rather than simply someone with a different point of view. I've experienced that animosity, from both sides.  But how would we find out which they are unless there is some opening up to a conversation? In sales, as I’ve learned, the best way to “bring someone around” to your point of view is to engage in conversation, asking open ended questions, and finding out what they truly think and believe before going for “the close”. Premature closing is bad in a number of situations. . .

I recently heard part of the “Tony Blair-Christopher Hitchens” debate on whether religion was a force for good in the world. Hitchens is dying of cancer, I think, and deserving of a level of compassion. But that doesn’t necessarily want me to ascribe to his atheism. His constant assault on Mother Teresa was shameful, to say the least and motivated by his hatred of all things religious. Of course, what he doesn’t know and may never appreciate is that it may have contributed to her holiness, as all Christians believe that persecution in any form can actually be God’s way of allowing a soul to be purified (to the degree that she needed it.). As I listened to what he had to say, I actually found myself agreeing with him on a number of points he made. The religion he described, held by not a few people, is rather disgusting, especially from a Catholic point of view. If I were to believe as he described religion, I would be the first to find it offensive. Fulton Sheen used to say there were millions of people who hated what they think is the Catholic Church. Very few really understand AND hate the Church.

Without going over every point he made, his description of, I’m assuming, Catholicism’s view of man as “created sick, and then ordered to be well” is a frightful criticism that should be leveled, if that were what the Church taught. God, according to his description, is “a kind of divine North Korea. Greedy, exigent, greedy for uncritical phrase [sic] from dawn until dusk and swift to punish the original since [sic] with which it so tenderly gifted us in the first place.” Who would willingly join that kind of a club? Of course, his erroneous parody is of course ridiculous, and garnered quite a bit of laughter from the sympathetic audience, who voted overwhelmingly for him at the close of the debate. Of course, I’m not sure that Tony Blair is the best spokesman for the Catholic Church. While I did not hear the last parts of the debate, Mr. Blair’s efforts were more like a Rodney King “let’s all get along” argument, fitting for parliament, but not exactly text book Catholic apologetics.

So I would agree with Mr. Hitchens if that were the truth taught by the Church. Yucky stuff, believed by quite a few Christian sects. No thanks.

Sadly, the doctrine about original sin, to get to this point, is not about a corrupt human being made so by God. Catholicism always begins with creation as the foundation, a creation that is good, very good in the case of the human person. Original sin is not stain in the sense of mud on a clean sheet. It is at its core a lack of grace that God granted originally but lost by deliberate choice by Adam and Eve for themselves and their children. Original sin describes the human situation when free will is used badly. Why do we find it easy to sin, even when very young? I remember my first sin. I was five years old, or a bit younger, and clearly remembering lying to my mother about not feeling well, since I didn’t want to sit at the dinner table any more. I went downstairs, and said to myself, “I just lied to my mother.” It was strange even at the time. Why does a child act selfishly over his toys when a younger sibling or another child arrives on the scene? Is not the human being created for generosity and sharing? What gives? There is a weakness to human nature that is not found among animals, generally. That is an effect of the original loss of uplifting and sanctifying grace. It may be no actual sin at all, especially in the very young, but does not lead to a spirit of generosity. Death, of course, is another effect of that loss. Why is there death? Because we have lost touch with the Creator of Life. Is there another explanation? Is it merely natural? If so, why do human beings philosophize about death? Animals do not do that. Something more is involved.

As Saint Paul says, “the free gift is not like the offense” (Rm. 5:15). When we take in the entire picture of history, and eternity, we see that God created the world for a purpose, not for his own greedy, exigent need for ongoing praise, but for us. We damage the world, individually and collectively. The tragedies and monstrosities of human history, made possible by some religious and some non-religious people and groups, are not according the plan. Even if God enabled and allowed for wars in his name, He is always moving humanity towards a goal of peace, found in Jesus Christ who suffered at the hands of the religious and the secular. Most religious wars were fought more for political gain than religious advancement. Some have been just, in the face of unjust aggression; many have been wrapped in religion as a cloak, rather than a just motive. No sane believer would want his faith used as such a cloak. And one should note that the most massive destruction of human life took place not too long ago in Russia, Germany and China, not in the name of religion, but for the advancement of a secular agenda. Does that make secular concerns as a whole to be evil? Hardly. So, not to engage in a peeing contest over numbers, the point is that the Catholic faith provides an answer to the “why” of living, and the “what’s next” question as well.

There is more that could be addressed in Mr. Hitchens attack on religion in general, and perhaps I will at a later time, but why give him more air time? Only to use his widely influential remarks as an opportunity to proclaim what Christ and Christianity and Christmas especially are all about: bringing to tired and worn out souls a reason for being, and living and being-there for others, of being a force for good in an otherwise damaged world.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Law of Attraction

When I first read about the Law of Attraction, in Napoleon Hill’s book Think and Grow Rich, I have to admit that I was skeptical. Not deeply so, but I was not completely sold on it from one book. Then I began to read and hear more about it. Every modern self-help guru and motivational speaker mentions this law in one form or another. My big question was whether this was true and after some time, I have become a true believer.
Most of the self-help crowd talks about it in terms of money and wealth. Just go back to the title of Hill’s book. Of course, he wrote the book during the depths of the depression, and explains that his reason for doing so was to give encouragement to those who were suffering under the dire consequences of the then-current economic circumstances. His intention was not as base as the title may seem to some, and he uses examples from other areas of life to make his more profound point, that our thoughts, combined with powerful emotions, are creative and bring into our life what we focus on. From a theological point of view, some of Hill’s observations are questionable, but there is much there that rings quite true. The Law of Attraction as he and others describe it is one of those things.

As I’ve read and studied about how best to make a life worth living, my self-reflection has indicated that I have very much been living under this law, and that it is found in the Gospel in a multitude of ways. “The measure you give will be the measure you get.” “Do not judge, lest you be judged.” “As you sow, so shall you reap.” There are many other examples. The point is that we get back what we give, in one way or another. The corollary is also true: If we give nothing, we get nothing. Think of the man who refused to invest his one talent. To get personal, my own life has come to its present point very much because of the way I had been thinking and I literally created my state from attitudes and beliefs that have been a combination of both constructive and destructive. But there is a way to make things better.

Saint Paul makes thought the basis of a sound spiritual life as he encourages the Philippians: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” The very word for “conversion” or “repent” that Jesus uses in the Greek, metanoia, literally means to change one’s mind. Jesus taught because He knows that our minds and thoughts are the key to authentic living in God’s truth. He used parables precisely to elicit an emotional response to accompany our thinking about what He taught. The story of the prodigal son is a brilliant example, if we return to it as if we were hearing it for the first time. A father’s compassion for wayward or stubborn sons is a theme that never loses its power to move one’s heart.

Many of the current gurus go off on some esoteric if not downright bizarre theories about the Law of Attraction, some of them not even remotely Christian. The fundamental truth is that it works, whether we want it to or not. What we can do is change what we focus on. On this, we all can agree. “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

Friday, December 17, 2010

Emmanuel -- God with us

     Have you noticed that Saint Matthew didn’t know about the ascension? Well, that’s ridiculous, since he was there, according to the other gospels. So, of course he knew about it. But he never mentions it. In fact, if you look carefully at the closing lines of his gospel, you will notice that Jesus speaks His final words, “Lo! I am with you always until the close of the age!” and then, that’s it. He doesn’t leave. But that’s the point that Saint Matthew wants to convey. Jesus remains with His Church. Matthew is simply conveying the point that he made in the beginning of his gospel.

     When the angel comes to Joseph in the dream, after telling him not to fear to take Mary as his wife, he states that “his name shall be called Emmanuel, which means, God with us.” Throughout his gospel he describes the Lord as present to the people to whom He preaches and whom He heals. He is already present at the moment Joseph comes into the picture (in Matthew’s gospel). He is there for the Magi. He shows up at the Jordan to be baptized by John. He arrives in Galilee of the Gentiles as the Light to those in darkness. The same idea continues throughout the gospel, Jesus present to the sick and infirm, to the poor and those who seek.

     That Matthew does not describe the Ascension of Jesus is his way of demonstrating an unstated element of the faith: Jesus is still here, and will always be here. Most of our difficulties come from thinking the Lord is absent, far away or inaccessible. Either we are weak in believing that He is here for us and with us, or we would rather not have Him here, since we are aware of our own lack of conformity to His will. Either way, we cannot escape the Lord. There is no place where we could hide from Him. But if we are truly dedicated to being His followers, then neither weakness of faith nor moral sickness can keep us from Him who is and will always be God with us, Emmanuel. And that’s the beauty of Christmas!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Retreat before being fired upon. . . .

I found this story online.  Quite amazing that the Red CROSS would find Christmas embarrassing.  When will the "cross" be removed?

Saint Nicholas, pray for us!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Striking at Error

The assault on Christmas is widespread. Christians need to accept the fundamental fact that until the end of time there will always be those who oppose the message of the Lord Jesus Christ. If we are surprised by such attacks, we are missing the point. Many of the people who should have embraced Jesus while He lived on earth rejected Him. “He came unto His own creation and His own received Him not.” It’s not a difficult logical, or philosophical, or religious matter to understand that there are those who embrace Jesus and those who reject Him.

In the early 4th century, the priest Arius (why are the most dangerous heresies started or maintained by priests?) denied the divinity of Jesus. Arius’ position was that Jesus was a great creature, a noble creature, the best of creatures, but still, a creature, a “post-God” fashioning by the eternal God. His ideas spread like wildfire. Across the Eastern Church, his theology took off and dragged a multitude of believing Christians into his error. Whole sections of the Church became Arian, with persecutions abounding depending on which group was in charge in any given area.

At the Council of Nicaea, called by Emperor Constantine, the matter was debated and eventually “solved” by the issuance of the Nicaean Creed, proclaiming Jesus to be “God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God, Begotten, not made; consubstantial to the Father.” No ambiguity there. My favorite story from that council has to do with Saint Nicholas of Myra, in modern day Turkey. He is credited with maintaining the full Christian faith in the divinity of Christ in his diocese. Known eventually as Santa Claus, St. Nicholas was a model Bishop, in true teaching and in pastoral charity. While at the council, as Arius was expostulating on his heresy, Bishop Nicholas could take it no longer, hearing his Lord defamed. He rose from his seat, crossed the council floor, and slapped Arius across the face. “Ho-ho-ho! Arius, you’ve been a naughty boy!” Whack!

While Nicholas was subsequently imprisoned for his action, and stripped of his episcopal insignia, it was a slap heard round the world. Arius was condemned, and his teaching rejected. Saint Nicholas, by the way, saw a vision of the Blessed Mother with the Child Jesus while in his cell. They returned to him his insignia because of his love for them.

Unfortunately, Arius’ heresy had taken root in the minds of many and can be credited with being one of the contributing factors to the rise and growth of Islam. Where the divinity of Jesus is left in doubt, any upstart can start claiming a more “direct” line to God.

I would hope that the Spirit that enlivened Saint Nicholas to keep the faith, and to strike out at error, will be within all who believe in Jesus Christ. Why be timid when such a great matter as the central doctrine of the faith is under attack? While violence may not be the best approach, a determined defense and a devoted offense must be part of the game.