Sunday, April 17, 2016

No Evidence For God's Existence?

In interacting with atheists on-line one of the most common lines you run into is the bold assertion that "There is no evidence for the existence of God" usually emphasized with all caps or exclamation points or something. It is a hard thing to respond to without being insulting. Think about it logically. They are not saying the evidence for God is insufficient. They are saying there is none. What is evidence? Evidence for something is data that makes that something at least a little more probable. It does not have to prove that thing. It just has to provide some weight towards that proof.

What is being denied is even the existence of very weak evidence. The vast majority of people in the world believe in God but not a single one of them has even the weakest piece of evidence for that belief. How do you respond to such a mind-boggling claim? It is even more amazing that many of these atheists assume all smart people would accept such a claim as obvious. If you respond by trying to explain how crazy their reasoning is then you quickly get into a name-calling exchange which has no value. So rational discussion ends up shut down. Ironically enough, atheists are actually a very hard people group to reason with.

This is what made Fr Robert J. Spitzer's book, The Soul's Upward Yearning, so refreshing. He goes over some very interesting thinking about what evidence there actually is for the existence of God. There have actually been some very good scholars that have looked at the question from many different perspectives. The book contains many arguments involving miracles and astrophysics and on and on. The one I want to focus on here is the human person's innate tendency to become religious. That seems to be the most obvious line of inquiry. If almost all humans in all cultures throughout all of history believe in God then you might want to ask why. Just assuming you are smart and all of those billions of other people are not is a bit of a stretch. 

The first thing that stuck me was how similar the different experiences and expressions were across cultures and throughout history. They looked 3 datasets. 
  1. The psychological belief in transcendence and significance
  2. The social structures around religious myths and rituals 
  3. The role of conscience in our consciousness and the demands it paces on us
Each of these 3 things have caused many people to conclude that God is real. These arguments are similar but not the same. When taken together they do gain strength because they reinforce each other. 

Again we have the modern culture looking at the same data and arriving at the exact opposite conclusion. They see religion in many cultures and throughout history but they focus on the differences and not the similarities. Sure there are some differences. Yet you have to ask what would you expect the data to look like if atheism were true and what you would expect the data to look like if theism were true. 

I think there is the assumption that if theism were true everyone would agree on the myths and rituals. Yet why should that be the case. If God is happy to let man approach Him in an imperfect way then that is what we would expect. Different people come up with different ideas. If God does not correct these ideas quickly and efficiently then they are going to hang around for many generations. Yet that is hardly a logical impossibility. Christianity, for one, accepts that God often works with people who believe bad theology. So God's failure to make the true religion obvious and undeniable is hardly evidence He does not exist.

The reality is God has done quite a bit to make the true religion obvious. We are just very thick. I know I was. Yet when I saw the truth of Catholicism I could not help but be overwhelmed by how strong the evidence really is. It really is the city built on a hill and still we somehow miss it. So God does a lot to point us in the right direction but he does not do enough for some. Giving us Jesus. Giving us the church. Giving His presence in our hearts and minds. If you look at the totality of what God offers us it is amazing. Yet it is not enough for us until one day we decide that it is. 

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Blogging

I wonder about blogging. I have been doing it a while and I like writing down my thoughts. I am just not sure what kinds of thoughts make the most sense. I have been blogging a lot of scriptural reflections lately. I like to contemplate scripture. Yet very few people read it. What is more, I am more sure people should read it. If folks want to read scriptural reflections I am thinking that mine are not the best use of their time. There are some very good biblical writers out there and my $0.02 is not worth much when the demand is pretty low.

Besides, people who are drawn by biblical reflections are typically already Christian. So you are not really encountering the culture or going our into the peripheries as Pope Francis likes to say. It is basically an inward focused activity.

You can get more readership by connecting with the pop culture. You can reflect on the latest news stories and movies and scandals and whatnot. The trouble is that takes a lot of effort. You need to be right up to date and on top of everything. I just don't have time to stay right on top of cultural happenings. I do like to reflect on movies and TV but I often don't see them until the public interest has cooled off a lot. I like it that way. It means I can pick and choose. It just means nobody is going to care much what I write about it after.

Then there are the arguments. I have argued with protestants quite a bit. I find it is hard to find any protestants who are at all interested in interacting with Catholic arguments. Many will argue with atheism because they know why they reject atheism and can express it in a compelling way. Most protestants don't understand why they are not Catholic. Why that is such a closed question in their minds. Engaging Catholic arguments just makes them uncomfortable. It does not lead to a productive conversation.

I do argue with atheists quite a bit. I don't do it here. It is quite hard to find places where charitable conversations with atheists happen. I know of a couple and I go there a lot. I like to show how Catholicism can stand up to the scrutiny of very smart atheist opponents. Of course, said opponents eventually loose patience. Catholicism is hard to argue with. It is relentlessly logical. If you don't want to become Catholic it can become quite frustrating. I thought so when I was a protestant. 

The other think I have done with some success is respond to other people's articles. Maybe I need to do that more. Find some things to respond to. I do think I need to be more positive. We will see.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Can We Trust The Gospels?

I have argued quite often that we can trust the gospels. I was convinced by the notion of apostolic succession. The notion that even in the early church the handing down of the faith from one generation of leaders to another was taken very seriously. That young potential bishops would spend a lot of time with older bishops and learn every aspect of the faith. A life to life passing on very much like what Jesus did with the disciples over 3 years. 

Now I have always known that many scholars have come to a different conclusion. I hate disagreeing with scholars. It feels to much like believing in a conspiracy theory. Yet two things made it less disagreeable. First of all, they all shared a strong aversion to the supernatural. That is an assumption they all get from modern culture. So they are not really independently arriving at wrong conclusions. They all get their bad starting point from the same place and all make the same mistakes and all affirm each other in their flawed way of thinking. 

Secondly, I found the theory they came out with to be quite unimpressive. They rejected traditional Christian teaching for sure but they didn't come up with any plausible way the story could have been created and become accepted by the church. This is especially true because the church did believe in apostolic succession and was geographically spread out. Both these features would cause any big changes to be noticed and talked about as they grew to become accepted. We don't see any of that.

Now I have read Brant Pitre's book The Case For Jesus. It is odd because it is almost too good. My biggest problem is discussing this with sceptics is getting people to accept that the scholars might be quite far wrong. Yet Dr. Pitre actually convinces me that the scholars have been much less worthy of respect then I have said. I had assumed that there was at least some evidence for many of the assertions they have been making. That the ideas they arrive at and defend make sense from a scholarly perspective given the philosophical assumptions they make. The trouble is that is not true. 

For example, the idea that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John almost certainly didn't write the gospels and their names were added later to what might have been put together at some other time by someone else. Now you hear this so much that you think there must be some evidence for it. That some early manuscripts must be missing the name of the author. That maybe one or two early church fathers might have suggested they were written at least in part by someone else. Something that could launch them into this great speculation about anonymous authors. 

Dr Pitre makes very clear that nothing of the sort exists. Every early manuscript clearly identifies the traditional author. None of them are nameless. None of them name anyone else. Moreover, the people who talk about the gospels, both Christians and opponents of Christianity never suggest the gospels were late additions or forgeries. They do say that about some gospels but those are the gospels the church rejected. So they dared to question allegedly apostolic writings like gospels attributed to Peter, Thomas and Judas. Yet they didn't question Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Go figure.
The trouble is these scholars have prestigious positions at ivy league schools and many of them claim to be Christian. How can you convince people they have gotten it so wrong? That they did not just added two and two and got 437 but actually added zero and zero. That is they didn't just overstate their case but they actually have no case. Not one data point pointing the the theory that they keep asserting is obviously true. How can anyone talk about such a fiasco without having people baulk and assume they must be the one off base?

Dr Pitre just calmly presents the evidence and lets people arrive at their own conclusions. By the time he quotes Bart Ehrman for the tenth time you wonder why he is still taking him seriously because he has been so far off base each time. Still he is very charitable and never questions motives or competence. 

Yet he is dealing with people who are interested enough in what he has to say to read a whole book. It is still quite a challenge to get people to even open their mind to the possibility. Thinking about many of the people I have discussed this with the stronger case becomes a harder sell because you need to believe something worse about guys like Ehrman.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Barabbas and the Thieves

Today we get the long gospel. Passion Sunday is when the church has us read the story of the triumphal entry before mass and then the 2 long chapters of the crucifixion account as the gospel. It makes it very hard to reflect on anything. You get information overload. Reflection is much easier with small sections of scripture.  

Still 3 characters stood out to me in today's reading. The character of Barabbas along with the 2 thieves that are crucified with Jesus. All 3 deserve to be crucified. OK, nobody really deserves crucified. It is an inhumane way to execute someone. Inhumane groups like ISIS still do it but no modern nation has death penalties close to this cruel. Still these 3 people committed crimes which they knew carried the penalty of crucifixion so in that sense the deserved to be crucified. 

Barabbas gets a reprieve from his death sentence. Jesus suffers the penalty that should have been his. In some way we are all Barabbas. In fact, his name means son of the father. Bar is son and abba is father. We are all sons of our father so we are all Barabbas. OK, some of us are daughters of the father but the point is the name really includes us all. We all deserved the punishment Jesus got. 

The 2 thieves don't get a reprieve. They suffer and they die along with Jesus. One repents in the midst of His suffering and has the famous dialogue with Jesus in Luke 23:42,43:
Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”
As comforting as these words are emotionally and spiritually they don't relieve his physical pain and eventual death.  He profits from his suffering but he still suffers. The other thief profits nothing from his suffering. There is no indication of repentance from him. He does ask Jesus for help but in a mocking and faithless way.

It occurs to me that these are 3 ways we encounter suffering. We can be spared suffering by God. We can actually suffer and have that suffering lead to repentance and bring us closer to God. Or we can actually suffer and mock God for letting us suffer. 

With Barabbas, we are not told what happens to him. He goes free and Jesus dies in his place. Then what? We don't know. Yet that makes all the difference. Barabbas has a chance to change his life. Yet there is also a chance he doesn't. He might not even realize that it was God granting him this grace. Often it goes that way with me. I see God's hand in sparing me from suffering only much later. In the moment you just feel like you caught a break. You don't see it as a moment of grace that calls for a change in behaviour. 

People wonder why God allows suffering. The truth is that God rescuing us from our suffering rarely brings us closer to Him. It is when He walks with us through our suffering that we really embrace Him or we rebel against Him. Jesus literally walked with these two thieves in their suffering. He is every bit as close to us when we suffer. He is every bit as willing to open the doors of paradise for us. 

Then there is the last thief. He know who Jesus is and you would think at this point he has nothing to lose by asking for salvation. Yet he does not. Pain can do that. We can get angry at God and not be in any space for conversion. One of the many reasons not to leave conversion until your deathbed. We really need to know what we believe before we face death and then we can meet our moment. 

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Church and Hockey

Think of a hockey game. If you are one of those not bless to live in Canada think of basketball or soccer. You have a few players in the centre who could really use a break. Then you have the many in the stands who could really use some exercise. Pastors often use this analogy to complain about what is happening in their church. There are a few volunteers that are doing so much they worry about burnout. Then there is the majority who are doing very little and nobody can figure out how to motivate them. The many who could use some spiritual exercise are often watching the few who could really use a break.

I was thinking this analogy could be stretched a bit further. Why don't sports teams get somebody else to play who is less tired? Sure they are not going to invite the middle-aged, out-of-shape fan to come play but all sports teams have players who don't play much. Why don't they play? They are just not as good. A tired star is better than the guy on the bench who is fresh. The idea is to give the team the best chance to win. That means the best play and even the second best sits.

So why does the same logic not apply in church. Why is it not right to have a few superstars do the work? Won't you get better results if you have your A team in there all the time? The trouble is the goal is love. It is not winning or doing the best job in terms of communication or organizational skills. It is knowing God intimately and making Him known by loving in way only His grace enables us to do. This is not something we can leave to the professionals and a few key volunteers. It is the very centre of the faith.

The nature of love means we can't just scale things up. We have the technology to talk to more people and do music or drama at a larger scale. Technology does not allow us to love more people. It can lead to a very cold type of church leader. Not that they don't care but they want to budget their time for maximum impact. Yet love and efficient use of time don't go together easily. Often pastors who experience burn-out will talk about being in situations where they should care deeply and they just do not because they are so busy. 

Now when you talk about love people get confused. Sometimes it is a code word for a spirituality that never explicitly talks about God or at least avoids discussing the harder commandments. That is not the kind of love God calls us to. Jesus gives us a love that the world cannot give. The kind of love that is just being nice and never exhorting anyone to stop sinning and follow Jesus, that is the love the world gives. True love is wanting to be what God created you to be and wanting that for others to. Always respecting their right to say No but still making it clear you feel they are called to something better.

At least for Catholics the discomfort with God talk is one of the real inhibitors to them becoming more active in their faith. It needs to start in the family. We need to be very comfortable with talking about God in our homes. Then extending that to the wider church community, the family of God. When we get comfortable doing that then we are less likely to freeze up when the topic of faith comes up with the secular people in our lives. 

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Pope Francis and Emmaus

I know this weeks gospel is on the Prodigal Son. The thing is I just ordered a book on that parable. So I don't want to blog on it now because I have before and will likely again fairly soon. So I thought I would give you some thoughts from a conference I went to yesterday. The most interesting talk was on Luke 24:13-35, the story of Jesus' appearance on the road to Emmaus. This one of Pope Francis's favourite passages. 

The story starts on Easter Sunday with two disciples leaving Jerusalem and waling to Emmaus about 7 miles away. The Pope sees these as falling away Catholics. Jerusalem stands for the church. Leaving it is a bad thing. It is where the risen Lord is. It is where the apostles are. It is the centre of the faith and these believers want to leave it at a time of crisis. Not a good sign. Plus, the name of the town of Emmaus is a bit of a pun. It sounds like the joining of two Greek words meaning dejected one. So they are disillusioned and hurt. 

Then Jesus comes up and walks beside them. He engages them in conversation. He asks them to explain their frustrations. They are kept from recognizing Him. 

The Pope sees in this a model for what we are to do. Always begin the conversation by listening. You don't do this primarily to get information although that might be a side benefit. Jesus listened quietly as they accused Him of being completely ignorant of what happened on Good Friday. They needed to talk. He needed to listen as an act of love. We need to do that to. Spend more time loving and listening before we say anything. In fact, it is sometimes better if they don't recognize us as orthodox Catholics. Jesus approached them just as a fellow traveller rather than right away as a teacher.

Then when He does speak He speaks bluntly. His first line is, "How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken." So He is not just about affirmation. There is a point where lack of faith and lack of obedience need to be identified. How else can anyone realize they need forgiveness? We often do need to be blunt because the human mind tends to get defensive and subtle criticisms don't penetrate. We need to very plainly say a significant part of the issue lies with them. This requires courage especially in our society where it is considered impolite to contradict anyone on religion.

Yet Jesus does not stay there. He goes on to explain at length the ways the Old Testament is about Him and about the crucifixion and resurrection. He does a bible study with them. The greatest bible study ever! That is He starts with a part of the faith they do accept and draws them into parts they are having trouble accepting. This requires patience and a good understanding of the faith. 

Then he looks like He is going further. They invite Him in. This is important. Once you have opened the topic of religion and made your case for the faith then it is still up to them whether or not to continue that conversation. Always be prepared to give people time and to even give people the right to say No. 

The speaker here suggested that maybe these two disciples might have been a married couple. An interesting thought. He suggests it from the fact that they lived in the same house and that Cleopas might be the Greek version of Clopas who is mentioned in John 19:25 as the husband of one of the women at the cross.

Once they invite Jesus in based on the word then they are ready for the sacraments. Their hearts might burn when we share the scriptures with them but they will really know Jesus in the breaking of the bread. That is very important. Sometimes we feel if we warn them off some of the bigger sins in life that is enough. We need to lead them all the way back to hunger for the mass. 

Monday, February 29, 2016

Grace For the Good Kids

I was reading a reflection on St Augustine's confessions. It is quite a compelling story the way he tells it. The amazing mercy of God stood out because St Augustine was such a big sinner. Then he made one more note. That was that even those of us who are fairly well-behaved are indebted to the grace of God because it was only by grace we avoided sin. I think he quoted St Therese of Lisieux who thanked God for protecting her from sins before she committed them. It reminded me of a story of John Knox watching the execution of a serious criminal and reacting with, "There but for the grace of God go I."

It did strike me because it is so easy to forget that. It is so easy to look at some people making bad choices and you making good choices and think God must be so pleased with me. The trouble is a good understanding of God's grace is needed not just for initial conversion but for any stage in the spiritual life. The temptation to make it all about your effort is always there. Even in prayer, prayer is supposed to be about acknowledging out dependence on God yet even that can become self-centred when you start to think of how many prayers you have said. 

This week's gospel from Luke 13:1-9 contains some of that. People are complaining about suffering as we are prone to do. Jesus responded by pointing out how much we all deserve to suffer and how we should be amazed not that some dies but that any live. He then goes on to indicate that for many the reason they have not been destroyed yet it not because they are doing great but because God is giving them more time to repent. Even so, that time is finite and destruction will come. 

Jesus follows this with the parable of the fig tree. It uses the measure of fruitfulness. The fig tree looks fine and healthy but does not produce fruit. The first thought is to destroy it. Then the servant pleads for one more year. He will give it every possible chance to produce and if it does not do so it will be removed. 

It makes me wonder how many people are in church every Sunday and receiving many graces from God but not producing any fruit. We think they are living Christianity in a boring way but at least these people probably won't commit any mortal sin they don't confess so they will probably end up in heaven. Yet Jesus does not seem think that way. He knows we all need God's grace to remain free of mortal sin. If we remain fruitless that grace can be taken away. It is like the luke warm believer that get spewed out of God's mouth.
We need to remember that producing figs is not something difficult for a fig tree. It will do it if there isn't anything preventing it from happening. So we need to honestly ask why we don't produce fruit? Is it because we really don't believe God is worth the time and effort? Is it because we don't want to be seen as too religious? Is it because we don't think it will lead to great joy?  What ever it is we need to deal with it. 

Jesus talks about digging around the tree and putting manure on it. Are you willing to cooperate with that grace? Are you going to let Jesus dig around you and put manure on you? OK it won't really be manure but it will mean embracing some things many will refer to as BS. Is that OK? 

We are not expected to do great things but we are expected to let God make us into the awesome person He created us to be. When we start working with God instead of against Him then producing fruit will be as natural for us as producing figs is for a fig tree.