Friday, August 22, 2014

The Giver

John Zmirak thinks The Giver is the best pro-life film ever made. i would not go that far. In many ways I wish the movie was better. They have some action scenes that really don't create that much excitement. They have a romance that begs for a reunion scene that never comes. I can think of a few more holes but I don't want it to sound like it was a disaster. It is a movie that says something but it could have said it more powerfully.

The actors are top of the line. Jeff Bridges plays the title role and apparently has been trying to get this movie made for a while. Meryl Streep and Katie Homes both play minor roles. 
Spoilers follow

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Dismissing Atheism To Quickly

Chris Stefanick has an article about the emptiness of atheism.
One atheist I debated during a question and answer session after a talk I gave at MIT informed me that, “Life is very meaningful without God. It’s about wonder and discovery. And the fact that we get to experience it in this vast universe is a miracle.” (He retracted his use of the word “miracle” after I pointed out the irony.)
I agree with Chris, of course, and I generally like his stuff. Yet I thought he was a little quick to jump to some conclusions in this article. Atheists do have a problem with the emptiness people see in it. That is why you get statements like the one above. When Christians wax eloquent about the wonder and discovery of the spiritual life atheists will scoff. In fact, they take great delight in mocking such statements. So I find it ironic not just that he would use the word "miracle" but that he would go to any sort of touchy-feely argument at all. Atheists want to be the cold rationalists. Why is he departing from that script? Because he knows the accusation of nihilism is very damaging. 
If an atheist were to take his claim that there’s no God to its logical conclusion, he’d have to admit that human existence is meaningless. Something that’s unintended, or an “accident,” is always meaningless.
The trouble is this is false. An accident can be meaningful. Think of a football bouncing in a football game. It is a random event. Yet it has meaning. Why? Because the game has meaning and the accidental bounce impacts the game. So a random event is not automatically meaningless. An external context can give a chance event meaning.

So what about human existence? Could there be an external context that gives even accidental life meaning? There could. It does not have to be God either. You could imagine a world where God does not exists yet love and beauty and truth are real things that give context and meaning to human life. It would be meaning we just fluked into but now that we are here and have the chance to do something truly good or beautiful that could matter. 

Now this option has its problems for an atheist. Where did beauty and truth and goodness come from? Why do we seem ordered towards these things? Can their existence be proven scientifically? If not, then why is believing they exist less of a problem then believing God exists?

All these are good questions yet the possibility of a world with meaning and still no god is real and cannot be dismissed quickly. I think most atheists will want to believe in some of these things. For example, most believe knowledge is better than ignorance. The love science and will work very hard to learn everything about everything. Why? One can easily imagine that they might have more pleasure in life if they didn't bother. What if they knew that for sure? What if you were guaranteed that by remaining ignorant of science and history and whatever else you could have significantly more pleasure? Would it be worth it? 

I think this kind of reasoning can lead you to question your atheism. You are rejecting nihilism and really examining the other options. After examining them they either fall apart or they lead you to God. Either beauty means nothing or it means God is real. Yet that is not obvious. It requires a lot of reflection.

Stefanick does quote some materialist atheists. That is good. It shows he is not fighting a complete straw man. Yet examples of atheist materialists does not prove all atheists are materialists or materialism is the only form of atheism worth responding to. His conclusion:
How utterly empty it is to follow the premises of atheism to their logical conclusions. Thank God atheists are wrong. And because they're wrong, most people, even most atheists, would read Singer, Wald, Crick, and Russell and find their statements both repulsive and utterly inconsistent with their experience of reality. 
So what is consistent with the atheists’s experience of reality? In a word: God. If atheists experience love, joy, the attraction to goodness, and if they act altruistically, it’s not because of their philosophy that life is an accident and man is no more than a collection of molecules. It’s because they were created with a purpose, they have a soul that is drawn to goodness, they experience the inherent value of their fellow man, and ultimately, because they’re created in the image and likeness of God, just like you and me.
Again the logical jump won't be accepted and has not been really argued for. Either you are like Singer, Wald, Crick and Russell or you are being irrational to deny God. It is going to feel like a false choice to atheists. If you examine the alleged middle ground and try and show why it does not stand up to scrutiny then you have a chance. Just asserting it is not going to convince anyone except those already on your side.  

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Rock And The Keys

This weeks gospel is at the root of much disagreement between Protestants and Catholics. It has been much debated yet not really. I have yet to see a protestant really engage some of the most powerful reasons why their interpretation is untenable and the Catholic interpretation is correct. Most protestants ignore it or parrot arguments that have long been discredited. It makes the argument so on-sided it gets boring after a while. 
Jesus went into the region of Caesarea Philippi andhe asked his disciples,“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist, others Elijah,still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter said in reply,“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus said to him in reply,“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah. For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father. And so I say to you, you are Peter,and upon this rock I will build my church,and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven;and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly ordered his disciplesto tell no one that he was the Christ.  
It starts out with the most basic of theological questions: Who is Jesus? That question dominated so many church councils for centuries. Jesus does not tell us here how to answer that question. Rather He focused on who should answer that question. 

First Jesus asks what people are saying. What opinions of Jesus are out there? Everyone has a theory. Some make more sense than other. Yet they are all wrong. 

Then Jesus addresses the question to the disciples. Who do you say that I am? Peter is the only one who speaks. You are the Christ. The Son of the living God. He get is right. Yet how does he get it right? Jesus specifically said God gave Peter that knowledge supernaturally. Peter did not figure it out on his own or with the help of any other person. 

Why is that important? Jesus is teaching us how the new covenant is going to work. We can't trust what the crowds say but we can trust what Peter says. How do we know this? He says, "on this rock I will build my church." Note the future tense. He is not talking about the present question. He is talking about what will happen in the future. This is how the church is supposed to work.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

O Woman, Great Is You Faith

This weeks gospel is offensive. Jesus acts like a racist. What is going on?
At that time, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman of that district came and called out,“Have pity on me, Lord, Son of David! My daughter is tormented by a demon.” But Jesus did not say a word in answer to her. Jesus’ disciples came and asked him,“Send her away, for she keeps calling out after us.”He said in reply,“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”But the woman came and did Jesus homage, saying, “Lord, help me.” He said in reply,“It is not right to take the food of the childrenand throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Please, Lord, for even the dogs eat the scrapsthat fall from the table of their masters.” Then Jesus said to her in reply,“O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And the woman’s daughter was healed from that hour.
 Mat 15:21-28
Jesus is met by a woman who's daughter has a demon. You expect Jesus to just heal the daughter and move on. Yet He does not do that. First He does nothing. Then after the woman persists He points out that His mission is to the Jews and she is not a Jew. He even compares gentiles to dogs. 

So what happens? Does she get offended. If she does she does not show it. She accepts the analogy that she is a dog. Then she points out that even dogs get scraps from the table. 

That does it. Jesus totally changes his tone. He says her faith is great. He heals her daughter. Now He is being offensive to gentiles. Remember that Jesus has been commenting on how little faith people had. He did it last week after Peter walked on water and faltered. When dealing with Jews he never seems to have anything positive to say about their faith. Now this gentile gets such high praise? Matthew is writing to the Jews. They are going to notice this. 

Yet what is great about her faith? It is precisely her willingness to accept things from God that are offensive to her. She continued to pursue Jesus even when Jesus was less than responsive. She continued even when Jesus seemed to slap her in the face. She does not question the wisdom of God. She accepts her position and still begs for mercy. 

That is the key. She realizes that the offense Jesus might have given her does not change the fact that she is a sinner begging for mercy.  She does not have grounds to complain to God. God is still God. If something seems wrong to her then it must be her that is the problem and not God. Yet she does not give up either. She persists. She argues. She even grovels. 

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Peter Walks On Water

This weeks gospel is the famous story about Jesus and Peter walking on water. It starts with Jesus making the disciples get into the boat and leave without Him. Then He goes up into the hill by Himself to pray. Jesus sets it up. Then He prays until the 4th watch of the night. That is until 3 AM. He knows they are going to be in trouble. He prays for them. Yet He lets them experience the fear for a while. God does that. Even when He is going to save us He often does not do it right away. He wants us to face our fears. He wants us to make those desperate prayers. 

Eventually Jesus goes down to the Sea of Galilee and starts walking on the water. Now the disciples are afraid again. Not sure if they thought this was part of a death experience. If you are about to drown then why is a ghost scary? Anyway, Jesus calms them down and assures them it is just Him. 

Then something truly amazing happens. Peter asks Jesus to call him onto the water. Peter is a fisherman. He lived on that seas and had likely known people who died on that sea. He had been in danger of drowning that night. Yet he want to step out onto the stormy water. Why? Jesus is there. If it is really you then ask me to come. It can be a life transforming request. I remember praying this when investigating the charismatic movement. I remember praying it when investigating the Catholic church. If this is you Jesus then call me. 

There were 12 disciples. Only one asked to be called. Only one was called. The other often followed Peter after he had spoken. He was their leader. This time he is leading nobody. He is alone. Yet he walks on water. Somehow Peter does what only Jesus can do. By desiring to go to Jesus, in a way, He becomes Jesus. 

Then fear enters in. Peter starts to realize he can't do what he is doing. When he saw the wind he was afraid. Of course you can't see wind. Still he is no longer looking at Jesus and he begins to sink. People give Peter a hard time here. The truth is that anytime we try and do anything for the kingdom of God we are going to fail. It is not a matter of if but of when. We will get into a crisis. We will lose out faith. We will start to sink. We can say it won't happen to us but it will.

What happens next is most encouraging. Peter calls out to Jesus. Jesus immediately reaches out and grabs him. No letting him wait it out this time. Peter ends up where he wanted to be, with Jesus on the water. Isn't life often that way? Our worst fear happens and instead of disaster we end up closer to God then we ever were. We were not really afraid of falling. We were afraid of falling and not being caught by Jesus. That somehow Jesus would abandon us because we fell. That simple cannot happen. Not because our falls are not that bad. It is because Jesus is that good. 

Then Jesus asks the question He asks us all. O man of little faith, why did you doubt? He talks often about our faith being little. He does not address it personally to Peter but to anyone who happens to have little faith and has struggled with doubt. Why do we doubt? We don't believe it is really real. We doubt whether God is real. We doubt the church. We doubt His love for us. All the things we say we believe. When it really matters we can doubt them. 

Then Jesus simply gets into the boat and turns off the storm. Just to confirm for them that He was only using the storm to freak them out. They get it. They respond with worship. Worship is due God alone. Jews know that better than anyone. These Jews know that God just got in their boat.  

Monday, July 28, 2014

Love Like Jesus

This week's gospel is a familiar story. The multiplication of 5 loaves and two fish to feed 5000 men plus women and children. It starts with Jesus in mourning. Jesus hears about the death of His cousin. He withdraws to be alone. He has no home so He just goes off in a boat to try and find a place where He can mourn in peace. 

What happens? People find out about this. As soon as He steps off the boat there are vast crowds there. He has to be a little annoyed. Yet the gospel says He had pity on them. He cured their sick. 

We tend to try and set boundaries in ministry. We don't want our whole life to be consumed by it. We need some personal space. Yet Jesus does not enforce boundaries. He does not try and avoid rewarding this behavior. He has pity on them and heals them. It gets to be evening and He has every excuse to send people home and He says No. He wants to do more than cure the sick. He wants to feed everyone. 

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Why Does Christianity Produce Atheists?

A while ago on Strange Notions someone noted that modern Christianity is the first religion to produce a significant number of atheists. Before the last 200 years atheists were rare. Female atheists were almost non-existent. Even in the last 200 years we have not seen a lot of atheism in Muslim cultures or Buddhist cultures or Hindu cultures. The only cultures that have produced a lot of atheists is those where the dominant historical religion is Christianity. 

Why is that? What is it about Christianity and particularly modern Christianity that becomes a fertile ground for atheism? A key clue, I think, is to look at atheists. What kind of Christians do they typically resemble? Certainly politically they are left of center. They tend to be feminists. They tend to be environmentalists. Basically they are almost all pretty consistent liberals. 

There is such a thing as liberal Christianity. It does not have to coincide with liberal politics but it tends to. I am strange because I am politically liberal, except on social issues, and yet theologically I am not at all liberal. You find a few people like that but very few, most of us are Catholics. 

So what defines Liberal Christianity? Is it their willingness to question long standing traditional Christian teachings? Sort of. It is an undisciplined questioning of Christian teachings. Questioning is good. All Christians do that. But is there anything you won't question? The bible? The resurrection of Jesus? Sexual morality? Anything? The ultimate liberal would be willing to question any aspect of Christianity. There are very few of those. Most Liberal Christians have a few things they believe are solid. Yet the list is quite arbitrary. 

You might be able to see why liberal Christians and atheists have a lot in common. If you start questioning the basics of the faith then it just makes sense to question the existence of God as well. If more and more of your religion is based on human reason rather than divine revelation then why not go all the way and say it is all reason and no divinity is required?