Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Lord Jesus wedded Himself to His creation, for He loved it, and it was wounded, even dead, and in need of the redemption that only He could offer. Now, God is with us!

"Holy holy holy" sing the choirs of angels in heaven, unless they're Latin Rite, in which case they sing "Sanctus Sanctus Sanctus!" Before the shepherds, the angels were seen singing "Holy holy holy" for when Christ deigned to become man, He sanctified all of creation. The veil between here and heaven was pulled back, and simple keepers of animals were caught a glimpse of what will be in store for us.

The magi soon came, bearings gifts of gold, for Jesus' kingship, and of frankincense, for His priesthood, and myrrh, in anticipation of His death. They came following a star, for we find God and find out about God if we look about for Him in His creation, but these magi were astrologers, not strictly scientific astronomers; we should not look too deeply into the signs God has given us to find things God did not put there.

Unless every jot and tittle is supposed to be edifying, from John 1:1 to regulations on the height of the railings on top of an Israelite's house.

What, you thought I was mature enough to let an opportunity like this one go? Okay, maybe this will seem better:

We should pray for everyone, that people come to understand one another, and more importantly, to be regenerated in Christ and come back to the Church.

I do mean that last part, though. Merry Christmas.

Just a little more and then I'm lightening up for a while....

I ran across some silly Bible history at an anti-Catholic website recently. They tried to answer some of the arguments posed in those "The Catholic Church gave the world the Bible" books that are out these days, but it wasn't apparent that they'd actually read them.

They started by talking about how God wrote the Old Testament (using the hands of men, I think they conceded) hundreds and thousands of years before the Church even existed. Yeah, true enough, but it's rather beside the point, as Rome never claimed authorship of all the books within. There was also a time of prophetic silence in the centuries before Christ, the argument continues, even though a few books accepted by every mainliner still get dated into the earlier part of the silence. Only the mainliners, though, apparently.

They then jump rather abruptly, touching on how the apostles wrote much as the prophets had along the way, to how the King James version was what God had in mind all along, or something, like a Christian Qur'an, and that most of Christendom sinned gravely and perfected their apostacy by going back to the Alexandrian manuscripts, even though the apotheotic edition was now available to them.

Their justification for rejecting the Septuagint canon in favor of the Masoretic was charming. Books like II Maccabees were left out because it preached (ever notice that preaching seems to be the one Fundamentalist sacrament? Altar calls and witnessing to the heathens specifically are important, but talking generally about Jesus seems to trump everything. I don't mean to belittle the Great Commission; it certainly helps explain the verbal/academic, faith-is-an-act-of-will lens through which they view grace and salvation, though) "unbiblical doctrines" like praying for the dead.

Unbiblical? Methinks this expert is begging the question. What makes something unbiblical? The fact that it doesn't show up in some other books that may or may not have already been declared canon? What else shouldn't make the cut, by that metric? Who gets to make the declarations? Why them?

Apparently we can't look to the Church Fathers for guidance, but only the actual apostles or whoever actually wrote the books in their names that end up being recognized as inspired. Patristic documents might be inspiring, but they're not inspired, so we can't look to them for guidance in discerning the canon any more than we can look to them for interpreting the canon.

Wait. Patristic writings might be inspiring, but they're not inspired? No, there's not a contradiciton here; they can be inspiring in the sense that reading and meditating upon them can be spiritually fruitful, but they're not inspired in the sense that God specifically guided their composition to become part of an anthology intended to guide the whole species until the end of time. Fair enough. However, if we shouldn't be relying on it for discerning what should be scriptural, we probably shouldn't be using it for other spiritually oriented purposes. Again, there's no contradiction here; it's what the patristic documents are for. You can't have it both ways.

I mentioned II Maccabees to someone I once studied with who mentioned that the particular "unbiblical doctrine" of purgatory was an equally silly Catholic invention, since the references to purifying fire seemed unconvincing. He seemed willing to consider that there could be an instantaneous, dramatic purification as one dies and enters eternity, but this interpretation was too different from the usual conception of purgatory, so I guess it didn't count. "There's a second Maccabees?" he asked me. I replied, "There are at least three, actually, although the others are even less widely accepted." Someone remind me what I'm supposed to learn about the Bible from someone even less informed about its history than I am.

Harumph. Most Jews were using the more inclusive Septuagint, which from what I understand actually has older credentials than the Masoretics, but they were wrong? Maybe the Church at large went apostate retroactively in the Greek speaking Jews, before Christ even founded the first congregation. What, am I going too far? Would I be the only one?


This past summer, there was an article in Newsweek about a woman who became a nun late in life. She was a widow with a few grown children, and allegedly joined some cloistered order, although she lived alone in a cabin or hut and met her neighbors several times a year. I don't know how all these things work; maybe it's normal. I don't remember them specifying the name of the order or anything useful, but who knows?

The next week, a few of the people who had written in to the magazine commented on the article about the nun. I only remember one in particular. The reader was, predictably, lambasting the Church, talking about how she would want no part with any religion that would do something so scandalous as to take a mother away from her family.

Let's all mentally roll our eyes together, here. No one forced this widow to do anything. Her husband was no longer alive for her to leave. Her children were no longer home for her to abandon. Yeah, I'd have mixed feelings, too, if my dad died and my mom entered a convent, so I would never or rarely see her again, but I'm an adult, so she would basically be free of her responsibility to me. I don't know if having some family would disqualify a candidate, but she wouldn't be the first widow called to religious God. Don't put my mom's, or this widow's, discernment on the shoulders of a bureaucracy, even the Magisterium. It's her choice. Choice is good, right?


It's interesting. At night my roomie puts on Fox News, where they've been talking about the war on Christmas, presenting some mix of factual and anecdotal evidence. During the day, I run into people who assert the war on Christmas doesn't exist. My personal opinion is that the war is an actual phenomenon that is being blown out of proportion, that the people who are trying to be inclusive of minority holidays (to whatever degree and from whatever motivation) are getting lumped in with the people who are trying to be exclusive of the majority holiday. I don't know what the proportions are, but I doubt the latter is lacking its Michael Newdows. You can't tell me that when Christmas trees, which are only used by people celebrating Christmas as a religious or secular holiday, are being renamed holiday trees under the vain presumption that nomenclature dictates nature (that a "secular Christmas" still bothers nonchristians and less compromising atheists); while menorahs are not being renamed holiday candelabras; there isn't any sign of at least a little hostility. To some, perhaps many, it seems reasonable that to openly celebrate and honor one tradition, another must be oppressed. It doesn't seem reasonable to me, but people don't ask for my opinion. I don't think they even read me. I'm willing to make room for explicitly honoring less popular holidays, but I also think there's enough room for everyone without having to take away from anyone else on this matter.

No, the war on Christmas exists, but perhaps it is a fiction rather than a caricature, like I originally thought, even though winter minority holidays are emphasized while Christmas is banned in both word and decoration in some venues. In an environment where grade schoolers are harshly admonished for just referring to Jesus but menorahs (not to pick on Hannukah, but I don't know anything about the traditions of Kwanzaa) and such this time of the year are permissible in public, maybe it's just a real war against religion outside the context of two consenting adults in their own home, or at least against the most popular religion around here. The war on Christmas, real or hypothetical, is but one battlefront.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

All-American Marxist Heaven

In a previous post I rather abruptly made this analogy and left it hanging. I should have elaborated, but that post was long enough already (or so I used to think) and I was tired.

I had alluded to how the notion that we're all equal in Christ resonated so well with the American principle that all men are created equal. Everyone gets essentially the same opportunity to start (well, philosophically), to make of it what they want according to their own desires and talents. As far as it goes here, it works for me, but it gets worse. Where things end, in my aforementioned friends' eyes, is the ultimate Marxist paradise, except that there is no more labor. Oh, and also, there's a God. Equality of outcome reaches its apotheosis in this heaven, where we're all tiny, unimportant people beholding the great Authority. Actually, I need to rephrase it. Next to God, we are tiny and unimportant, but the way my friends tell it to me, well, we're just still snow-covered piles of crap.

Maybe I'm getting my Protestants mixed up. When we go to heaven, we put on the righteousness of Christ like a robe to cover our crappiness so we look good enough for heaven, despite still being crap. However, while we're here, we're saved, born again or baptized, and no longer guilty of sin, except for spontaneously generating it all the time because of our fallen nature. Am I crossing mutually incompatible schools of thought?

Suffice it to say I prefer to believe that we will be de facto perfected in the next world, if we are only de jure perfected in this one, than to believe heaven's going to be filled with a bunch of jerks like me who just seem to be good because we can only see God in them, or at least God can only see Himself in them, and maybe we won't be able to see anyone else at all. I'm not sure on that point. In fact, with this interpretation, I'm not sure I even see the point. God's complete and self-sufficient; before we came along, He contemplated Himself. Now, we're here to share in Him, not just observe His greatness. Even if it takes some kind of conditioning on my part to appreciate or tolerate or to be allowed to witness His greatness, if that conditioning doesn't accomplish any more than obscuring the spiritual wounds we did to ourselves while we were alive (oh, they say the Cross is supersufficient, even infinite in grace, but any transformation this side of the grass may well be invisible, and any transformation on the other side is by definition insubstantial), such that all we get is to sit in our eternal cubicles to look up and join God but not each other in telling him how great He is; then it seems a lot less loving than to totally repair our depravity so that we may actually share in His love to our greatest extent. God is not diminished when a soul recognizes how well another reflects God, in addition to admiring God's reflection in them. My wife is not diminished by me loving her or by her loving me, or by exulting that our children (I hope and pray) have been raised well, above and beyond merely praising my wife for having raised them well; if our love is healthy, we can love each other without confounding our priorities about children or a home or what have you; and if all I'm able to do is write her fan mail, even if I get to deliver it in person, it's a whole lot less than being married to her.

It puzzles me. To hear them talk, it's like taking this assumption of equality to pathological levels is the perfect marriage of let-no-man-boast theology and good old American equality, but when we get to heaven, it's all Marx's workers' paradise without any work, a bunch of identical souls all worshiping the Authority. What's going on here?

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Streamlined Christianity and egalitarianism

Fundamentalism, as we should all be aware by now, is the philosophy or movement that emphasizes getting back to the basics, or fundamentals, of (in this case) Christianity. Some groups are merely circumspect about the utility or truthfulness of some matters of faith they consider to be non-core, and some positively reject everything they consider, by whatever metric, to be extraneous, let alone erroneous. I appreciate the zeal that so often seems to accompany fundamentalism, but the ways in which it seems to knock off some of the asperities seem kind of peculiar. Then again, I'm Catholic, so I don't really feel the urgency to keep things mostly plain and simple (I submit that, as a rare exception, fundamentalist eschatology is anything but simple), nor should I really be one to talk about what seems peculiar to an outsider.

Lately I've been thinking back to my time with the mostly-Evangelical Bible study and the many lunches I had over beers with a former colleague, an SBC type who believed temperance should mean being temperant rather than abstinent of things that were not actually sins or vices. Most of our discussions weren't too out there, but like I said before, there were a few times I had to stop and think. It didn't register as much more than culture shock at the time, but now that I'm slightly better educated, some of my friends' stances seem odder than before.

One of them is pretty straightly derived from sola fide. Some of the folks were taking it alarmingly seriously; it's not that I would expect them to be lukewarm or anything, but I'm just not sure how they get from "We can do nothing of merit without Christ" to "We can do nothing at all" (puppets of good or sin, qv). I mean, it is, ultimately, the most minimalist (can I put those words together?) intepretation, but I don't see how you can accept their proposition without having to eventually write off the rest of the Bible as being superfluous. Someone can probably give me a reasonable answer, I suspect...I wonder now how much of my incredulity was due to me mistaking their zeal for a more mature understanding of their faith than I had of mine.

As for free will (which seemed to be overlapping with mere knowledge, to make matters worse) being the catalyst to salvation, I don't see how it could work, either. Now, since my friend is coming from an adult baptismal tradition, I can understand his lack of appreciation for the efficacy of baptism being predicated by an act of faith rather than reason. I reminded him of the demons, who know better than any of us the truth of our faith, that Christ is Lord and He died for our sins, but maybe I shouldn't be basing my arguments on epistles of straw.

Another matter is the notion that all sins are equal. The hierarchy of sin isn't something I understand particularly well, although the explanation I was given when I was young, with the criteria of gravity, knowledge, and consent, does make sense to me, for what it's worth. I've heard some people say heinous sins are no worse than mild sins, sometimes (but not often) claiming that since Jesus has forgiven all our sins, it doesn't matter what the quantity or quality of our misbehavior is, which I'd be willing to admit as a half truth.

What my friends were claiming, however, was the opposite, that every sin, no matter how small, accidental, or coerced, is enough to consign us to hell, which I'd also be willing to admit as half true.

I'm bothered by this zero-tolerance policy toward, alternately, judgment and clemency. Naturally, we shouldn't lose sight of either the greatness of the gift of the Cross or dire need for the Cross, but it seems to be a hard lens to view the world through. I'm not saying they should conform to societal expectations, either, but in the case of my friends, at least, there seems to be some mental dissociation going on. They claim it's appropriate to penalize criminals in proportion to their crimes, but stick a pen in your pocket at work for convenience and then go home without remembering to return it to your desk drawer, and you may as well be raping babies. They don't act like it's the same thing, but they'll say it with a straight face. Both infractions are equally damning, I can sort of understand, but what shocks me is how far they'll bend over backwards to insist that nothing else matters, that the sin-or-intellectual-acceptance-of-Christ dynamic is so important that everything else is so trivial by comparison--everything--that we should actively shun it. Want to live a better life because Jesus or the Holy Spirit so inspired you? Great, fine, He loves that stuff. Prefer to keep on keepin' on as you were before? Fine, He's got ya covered either way; as your good works while unsaved were filthy rags, your sins now smell like roses, except to the rest of us.

Obviously, though, we don't count, as we're not allowed to judge actions any more than we're able to judge souls, or something, except to say that we're all passively accruing sin at all times through our own faults. Yeah, I don't get it either.

Someone once shared this analogy with me: our sins against each other are like incurring debts on the order of pocket change--pennies and nickels. Our sins against God, on the other hand, would be more like on the order of millions of dollars (or infinite dollars, but you get the idea). We can kind of make up or write off the offenses we commit against each other, but we have no way of [fully] paying our debt to God. Okay, I suppose not, but if you can't pay a five billion dollar fine for hitting your wife because you can't even afford the one million dollar fine for cutting a guy off in traffic, then the distinction might be moot, but it's not meaningless.

I guess if there's only one punishment, then the nature of the act that brought it on you is a little less than important, but it's awfully heavy-handed to refuse to pick up a tool for self-examination, in the interest of appearing equally (or rather, indistinguishably) sinful with everyone else. I thought at first that this "judge yourself and everyone else as guilty, less ye be Judged by Him Who Is" was simply a case of underdeveloped theology, like I suggested seven paragraphs up, but I see it elsewhere: depictions of heaven as an endless sea of anonymous saved sinners, dirty and incredulous looks when I tell people that I enjoy the occasional cocktail but do not struggle with alcoholism.

How do I demean the alcoholic by saying that my weaknesses are different? Granted, it wouldn't be the best tactic in trying to help an alcoholic, but if there was none around for me to even potentially alienate with a comment that could possibly be twisted into "That kind of thing could only happen to you," then what's the harm? I could say something about violence or pornography, but alcohol alone tends to be the least forgivable sin in some of these circles to which I'm tangent. Does it really seem healthy to anyone to try so hard to frame yourself in egalitarian and "humble" terms that you end up completely divorced from reality? I've actually had exchanges go much as follows:

Me: With alcohol available at many of my friends' houses and every decent restaurant in town, I'm glad I don't have a drinking problem.
Other: *hostile stare*
Me: What? Did I say I don't have other issues to contend with?
Other: Like pride?

Ooh, walked into that one, didn't I? I'll be the first (or in a case like the above, second) person to admit I have some ego issues, but they don't have anything to do with me trying to be realistic.

It's not merely "recognizing the natural consequences for risky behavior" instead of casting the first stone. Adding a little brandy to my eggnog is not starting down the path to the Dark Side: it will not forever dominate my destiny. It could, if I were predisposed and just started replacing more and more eggnog with brandy, but I'm not and I won't. It's not like refraining from eating meat in front of uncertain vegetarians to avoid scandal; it's like being expected not to eat cake in front of a diabetic, or not to eat red meat in front of a Catholic on Friday. Oh, if I were drinking in front of an alcoholic, I might be ratifying a near occasion to temptation, but just talking about the problem?

It puzzles me. To hear them talk, it's like taking this assumption of equality to pathological levels is the perfect marriage of let-no-man-boast theology and good old American equality, but when we get to heaven, it's all Marx's workers' paradise without any work, a bunch of identical souls all worshiping the Authority. What's going on here?

Monday, December 05, 2005

Remembrance is not Symbolism

I don't think it's necessarily metaphor, either, but my point is that a sacrament is not less than a metaphor.

We set off fireworks on Independence Day to commemorate or symbolize the artillery used during the Revolutionary War, but fireworks are still explosives.

The turkey, stuffing, cranberries, and whatnot are symbolic of the feasts we read about when studying the first celebrations of thanksgiving in the New World, but turkey, stuffing, cranberries, and whatnot themselves constitute an actual feast.

Saying a ritual starting with bread and wine represents a ritual that started with bread and wine strikes me as disingenuous. If you want to say the bread represents the flesh and the wine represents the blood, well, you've got a decent place to start, but then you've got all those "This IS my body, this IS my blood" lines to deal with right out of the gate....

Thursday, December 01, 2005

What's "torture?"

I'm troubled by the notion that torture is wrong and we should never use it. Not that I disagree, mind you, but I see a lot of rhetoric about how it may be necessary, with counterarguments like once it's approved for extraordinary circumstances it will eventually become acceptable for the most trivial of transgressions; and rhetoric about how we must maintain a zero tolerance policy toward torture, with counterarguments that there is no apparent provision for stopping short of putting prisoners up in five-star hotels, or better yet, refraining from detaining them at all.

I'm sure there are some folks out there who can make sensible compromises, who acknowledge the evil, the unacceptableness, of torture, without becoming lost in the opposite error of equating everything more dire than mild annoyance to brutal abuse. However, I haven't seen them on any talking heads shows, or elsewhere in the MSM, and I haven't found them in the blogosphere yet. I'm not terribly surprised, what with prisoners in this country, who actually have convictions to their name, suing over the lousy selection of cable TV channels in their penitentiaries.

That we're even having this debate suggests to me that we haven't slid far down either slippery slope, at least yet, and I take some comfort from it. The little coverage I've seen hasn't been very constructive; it's not even clear that most of the folks on either side even recognize the valid concerns that the other has...well, by "most" I mean the noisy people who take it upon themselves to speak for those of like mind. The quieter ones probably have a more balanced attitude, but I wouldn't put a lot of money on them having a really clear philosophy or workable standards the whole civilized world could follow. No, I don't have a solution either, other than following my gut, but without fixating on the problem, the problem should still be clearly defined before we get ahead of ourselves.

We're probably to a point where we can try to move forward now, though. Any takers?