Saturday, July 16, 2016

A string of thoughts on perplexing matters

I am always thinking and re-thinking matters. Like everyone else, trying, in my own limited way, to make sense of the world in order to live in it in a constructive way and, if I many be so bold, attempt to be happy while doing what I understand to be God's will. I feel that what I wrote about mercy (see "Let Mercy Lead"), while I reaffirm all of it, needs something else to balance it. It seems to me that one of the things our society clearly lacks is the ability to appropriately respond to evil. For one thing, as with the Orlando shootings, instead of pinning blame on the murderer, who was apparently about as messed up as a person can be, "conservative' Christians, of which he was not one by a long shot, bore the brunt of the blame in the aftermath. It's often the case that we simply fail to recognize evil, or refuse to call it what is (i.e., "jihadist Islam"- a form of violent Islamism that cannot be equated with the whole of Islam, but must be identified in order to be combated), lest we label anyone as being evil in the belief that evil is as evil does.

All of this hinders the proclamation of the Gospel. Increasingly it is difficult to denounce sin and invite people to repent. This ties back to something I wrote in my post on mercy: When people come realize how messed up they are and realize that they can't fix themselves, even if a person is resolved to be better, to do better, to live better, due to their skepticism about there being a merciful Savior who bore the weight of their sins and took away the eternal punishment due their sin, they still feel the guilt for past offenses, which often hinders their ability to turn over a new leaf. Due to this, they're skeptical that they can cooperate with what God is doing through Christ in setting world aright through penance, reparations, and seeking indulgences, etc.

It’s also easy to take to some form of activism. Let’s be honest, for most of us, our activism usually consists of several posts on social media, or some over-the-top, frustration-driven comments to family, friends, or co-workers and/or a blog post. If you follow the logic that doing anything is better than doing nothing, then activism of some kind is bound to follow. Is this to say we shouldn’t be concerned about justice? No! We should be very concerned with justice and with peace, as well as liberty. These concerns may lead us to speak up and speak out. We should do so in a calm, clear, and charitable way. But activism in and of itself usually proves futile and can still leave us feeling powerless and exposed, if not much more angry. Anger, while sometimes justified, is not a solution to anything at the end of day. All too easily, anger leads to hate and hate, as we see far too often, can lead to violence. We need avoid the risk of perpetuating the cycle.

One of the reasons I dedicated so many blog posts last year on universalism (see "Seeking clarity about heaven and hell", "What does the Church teach about hell?", and "One More Thought on Universalism") is that presumption-driven universalism is contrary to the Gospel. When the Church fails to properly form consciences there will be judgment, which is why James says everyone should not aspire to be a teacher (James 3:1). While I think they overdo God's judgment sometimes, I continue to read a number of Reformed blogs, like Erik Raymond's Ordinary Pastor. It's interesting to note that Raymond was raised Catholic in Massachusetts. After converting to Reformed Protestantism while serving in the Air Force, he now pastors a Reformed church he helped to plant in Omaha, Emmaus Bible Church. I am apply a lot of what Erik writes.

I also like Rosaria Butterfield, who was also raised rather devoutly Catholic. Sadly, according to her autobiographical The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, she bailed on the Church as a teenager when, shortly after her confirmation, she learned one of her best friends was having sex with one of the priests at their parish. After a number of years as a well-respected post-modern, feminist academic and living openly as lesbian, she, too, converted to Reformed Protestantism. It was Rosaria who reminded me of the importance of remaining immersed in Scripture. While the so-called young, reformed, and restless come in for a lot of criticism on a number of things, when it comes to politics, while not remaining silent on important, fundamental matters, like most life issues and even race relations, they don't let themselves bog down, they seem to grasp that politics are provisional. Instead, they tend to stick with preaching the Gospel as they understand it.



In all honesty, if I was a slightly less well-educated Catholic and not so suspicious about serious Calvinism's narrow conception of God's election, I sometimes think I could easily slip over to that side. In the end, I am more Lutheran than Calvinist. I don't find whatever Lutheran tendencies I have at odds with being Catholic. Like Giussani, being Catholic for me is the way I maintain the tension between Orthodoxy and Protestantism. My Lutheranism begins with a healthy assessment of my status before God and a recognition of the evil in my own heart, even after baptism I remain simul justus et peccator. But I reject forensic justification and, as a result, I have a different view of how God sanctifies us.

While it is never my place to judge the state of another person's soul, it is important for us all to remember that we will answer for ourselves someday. What we do with our lives matters. But fear of judgment should not be what drives us. Rather, we should be driven by love of God and neighbor. While God is mercy, he is also justice. We're not sinners in the hand of an angry God, we're sinners in the hand of a merciful and wholly just God. These days I find myself wondering what saints, what signs and wonders, God will send to remind us of this. All of this reminds me of how well C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien dealt with these matters in their imaginative writings. But this is likely due to the fact I am currently reading Joseph Loconte's A Hobbit, a Wardrobe and a Great War, a book I recommend highly.

Oddly enough, Lonconte, too, is another person who slowly rejected the Catholicism in which he was born and raised and has become a committed Protestant. He also wrote a book on John Locke, God, Locke, and Liberty: The Struggle for Religious Freedom in the West, I'd like to read. One of the points Loconte makes over and again, a point that did not originate with him and he is not the only one who makes it, is that liberal democracy, such as we have throughout the Western world, requires an underlying conservatism, which I take to be an understanding of what it is required for liberal democracy to work and for people flourish living in liberal democratic societies. Of course, critics of the liberal democratic state often and rather convincingly point out that there is nothing inherent in liberal democratic constructs that guarantee the required underlying conservatism. Chief among the features of this underlying conservatism is the very often neglected, when not ignored, principle of subsidiarity. This brings us to the rather uncomfortable reality of the importance of faith, perhaps a unique form of Christian faith and the values that arise directly from it, for such a form of government to succeed. Articulating the relationship between the Church and the state is another complex and highly contested matter. Separation of Church and state can easily lead to the Church being wholly subordinated to the state, which is why, as Pope St. John Paul II noted, after the right to life the next most important human right is religious liberty. Such an arrangement, at least one in which the importance of religious liberty is recognized, can also free the Church to exercise its prophetic role in society.

In light of this many worry about the collapse of Christianity in the United States. It is a valid concern. According Ed Stetzer, a Christian researcher (see "Churches in America- Part 3"), the Christian demographics that are collapsing are cultural and congregational Christians. The former don't typically go church, at least not regularly and consistently, and the latter have done so, not as a matter of faith and conviction but out of a kind of inertia.

According to Stetzer, convictional Christians today make up as much of the population, roughly 25%, as they ever have. That's nearly 81 million people. As anyone cognizant of these matters would be quick to point out, 81 million convicted Christians by no means comprise a political monolith. This is as true among Evangelicals and among Catholics as it is between Catholics and Evangelicals. By now it goes without saying that Western civilization is in crisis. By crisis I mean a time when difficult and important decisions must be made. It seems clear with the Brexit, with the Republicans choice of Trump and Sanders fairly successful insurgent campaign, as well as with similar challenges to long standing parties in Europe, that in many quarters people are ready for serious change, not necessarily revolutionary change, but comprehensive and radical (in the true sense of the word, returning to the root) reform.

Like many, I am torn between the left and the right. When it comes to economic matters, international affairs, and what we typically refer to as social issues I think there needs to be some rapprochement, or a popular electoral uprising that insists on one. In the U.S. we seem content, in light of our on-going failures, to remain bellicose. Instead of learning the lessons of Iraq, we seem to keep making the same mistakes in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere. Nobody will ever convince me that the phenomenon of ISIS would've happened without us making these blunders. But then ISIS helps us to remain perpetually at war, something Orwell warned about. There can be little doubt we have a rigged economy that results from our elected officials being in the pocket of big business and international corporations by-and-large having their way in the world. On the other hand, our intent to undermine marriage, to deny our femininity and masculinity, and to consider sexual liberty the highest echelon of human rights, also takes its toll, not least of which because it attempts to force all of us live a lie. Then there is our increasing indifference to human life from abortion, to the death penalty, to assisted suicide (the word "assisted" being key, its an effort to make others complicit in something intrinsically evil), to euthanasia. If you truly believe that human beings are created in the image of God, then I cannot see how you can glibly reverse the fundamental axiom that essence precedes existence without reaping the whirlwind.

We need to become far more familiar with the common good and what constitutes it. But we should not confuse it with the utilitarian concept that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. As we read in the Catechism: "In keeping with the social nature of man, the good of each individual is necessarily related to the common good, which in turn can be defined only in reference to the human person" (par. 1905). If you want to know more about the common good, I encourage you to read the Catechism of the Catholic Church 1905-1912.

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