Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Bad Christians, Good Christianity

There exists today a modern brand of atheism that runs something like this: Christianity has long been a wicked influence on the world; it has been a tool of tyrants, has oppressed men and women (especially women) since its inception, has been an enemy of science, reason, progress, and tolerance.  It has caused men to rise to tyranny, yet made others too weak to fight tyranny.  It caused the crusades, the inquisition, the religious wars, as well as being a generally pernicious influence on human behavior.   

Such an atheism is not intellectually rigorous.  Its proponents, like the late Christopher Hitchens, typically know little about even science, less about actual history, and least of all about real theology.  Modern science developed in the Western world because of Christianity and not in spite of it.  Men, believing the universe to be the product of an orderly mind and not random chance, knew the world might be rationally investigated.  The positive effects of Christianity in history have been documented by various historians and scholars (1), as well as its positive effect on human behavior even today (2).

Nonetheless, the problem with the “new atheist” position lies deeper than a poor understanding of the positive effect of Christianity on the world.  The heathen’s argument runs something like this, “if Christianity is true, then Christians would be sinless.”  Since Christians are not sinless, Christianity must not be true.  It would be tempting to dismiss the heathen’s argument as an instance of the ad hominem fallacy.  Obviously to attack a person as a bad person is not to say that their beliefs are untrue.  But the argument is even worse than that.  

The atheist wrongly assumes that if Christians are bad, then Christianity must be bad, but, to argue that ‘if Christianity is true, all Christians would be sinless,’ is like arguing that if doctors existed there would be no sick people. Doctors exist, however, because there are sick people, and thank God they do.  Christianity exists because there are spiritually sick people, and thank God it does. G.K. Chesterton put it this way when he said, “when the world goes wrong, it proves the Church right.  The Church is justified not because her children do not sin, but because they do.”  Doctors exist because man needs cure from physical disease.  Christianity exists because man needs cure from spiritual disease.  A naturally sick man falls from the ideal of health and needs a cure.  A spiritually sick man falls from the ideal of moral goodness and needs redemption. 

I once spoke to an atheist who claimed that the high ideals and indeed, commands, including love of enemies and turning the other cheek (3) of Christianity were falsified because they were too hard to follow.   But this is clearly absurd.  That men do not perfectly follow high moral standards is not proof that the standards are bad, but that people are.  That many people fall short of health is not proof that health is a vain ideal, but that people are sick.  

Nonetheless, there was something right in the skeptic’s claim.  When faced with a moral ideal one cannot follow, he can only do one of two things.  He might abandon the ideal.  Certainly, this is a popular option in modern culture.  Faced with a difficult law, the skeptic denies the law.  Then, having denied God’s moral standards, man becomes nothing except a collection of appetites.  Hence, obesity rates are high, drug abuse, various forms of unchastity including contraception, premarital sex, and divorce are high.  

Still, there is one other option left to a person.  On falling short of high moral standards, he might react by denying the standards.  He might act instead, however, by seeking forgiveness.  He might decide that it were better to fail at following a high and holy moral standard than to be content with success at a mediocre one.  God can make saints from sinners, but He can do nothing with a man who rejects Him entirely, just as a good doctor can cure a disease, but can do nothing with a man who refuses treatment and even denies himself to be sick. 

(1) Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (1997).
Thomas Madden, “The Real History of the Crusades” http://www.crisismagazine.com/2011/the-real-history-of-the-crusades

(2) Arthur C. Brooks, Who Really Cares, (2007) 

(3). Christopher Hitchens for instance, ridiculed the idea of love of enemies say, “I’m not going to love them. You go love them if you want. Don’t love them on my behalf. I’ll get on with killing them, destroying them, erasing them. And you can love them. But the idea that you ought to love them is not a moral idea at all. It’s a wicked idea.” (emphasis mine).

Monday, July 16, 2012

On Modesty and Bikinis

This was a guest post for Elizabeth Hillgrove's "Bikini, Biki-no" series on Startling the Day. Thank you for hosting!

Coming from a (beginner's level) Theology of the Body perspective, I seek to point out the general reason and purpose of modesty, and how it fits into deciding on a swimsuit.
At times, when the topic of modesty comes up in discussion, it quickly becomes a debate over which gender bears the most responsibility. Should the most modest women walk around completely covered? Or, should the most honorable men walk around blind-folded? What about modesty for men? Should they be covered too? I think that this “responsibility debate” both dodges and underplays the real issue at hand, which is the intrinsic value of our bodies.

Our bodies are intrinsically valuable because we are human persons. The value of our bodies does not come from ourselves or from others. The value of our bodies comes from our creator, in whose own image we are made. To deny the dignity of our body is to deny God. Our dignity is directly derived from God, and without God, there is no source for human dignity.

It is appropriate to consider the proper treatment of our bodies in light of this very fact. Because our bodies have such value, Karol Wojtyla tells us, “the role of ... the means to an end determined by a different subject is contrary to the nature of a person.”(1) This means that the use of one person’s body by another for the purpose of pleasure or gain is contrary to the dignity of the person. We are told in Theology of the Body that the opposite of love is, in fact, not hate, but use. It is our responsibility not to encourage the use of our own body or that of another as a mere object. To do so is a profanation of the human body. Lust is the common name of that act of using the human body as an object.

What does it mean to use the body as an object? “Objectification” is defined (dictionary.com) as “to present as an object, especially of sight, touch, or other physical sense.” In this definition, the first emphasized sense is that of sight. I think one of the easiest and most clear means of presenting one's body as an object occurs in situations in which that body is scantily clad. Scant clothing automatically sexualizes the body, and invites others, people you don't even know, to use your body for pleasure. It makes the body into a tool for a purpose, a means to an end. Use is still use, even if it is visual rather than physical. Our bodies are too inherently dignified to be subjected to such a purpose.

Modesty is not about shame. It is not about being ashamed of our bodies, as if they should not be admirable. Modesty is about dignity and reverence. We are created in the image and likeness of God. Our bodies are so very admirable, that they cannot and should not be reduced to common usage as objects. When we clothe our bodies, we need to take this fact into consideration. Are we presenting our bodies in a way that conveys as well as engenders respect, or are we presenting our bodies as objects for use?

Modesty is not about whose responsibility it is to cover up or not to look. Modesty is a recognition and a declaration of one's own dignity; the sanctity of one's own body.  The holiest part of the Jewish temple was always veiled, not because of shame, but because of reverence.  Likewise with our bodies, which we cover, not by reason of shame, but by reason of reverence.  Fulton Sheen called it "reverence for the mystery" and lamented its loss in the modern world.  To present the body in a bikini may risk unveiling what should be hidden and inviting for use and profanation that which should be reverenced. 

(1) Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), 28.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Christian in Revolt

When in the first century AD, the Roman Emperor Nero smeared Christians with pitch and lit them to serve as nighttime torches or covered them in animal hides and set dogs on them, he was among the first to recognize Christianity as an intolerable religion, though many have recognized it as such since.  Christianity was the only religion that ancient Rome could not tolerate—and the Romans could tolerate everyone.  Numbers of conquered deities, Greek, Egyptian, Middle Eastern, made their way into the Roman pantheon, but the Nazarene carpenter who was God never rested there. 

Christianity was the only religion that a tolerant world could not tolerate.  It is the same in the modern secular world as the ancient pagan.  A tolerant world can accept everything and everyone, any religion, and nearly any deviation, but it cannot accept Christianity.  Today the Christian is attacked for his hostility to abortion and infanticide, as indeed he was in ancient Rome.   He is attacked as being too anti-woman (when in the past he was attacked for being too pro-woman); he is attacked for being backward, unprogressive, medieval, and out of keeping with the spirit of the modern world.   And so he is.

The Christian does not get on well with the spirit of the world because he is in revolt against it.  He is in revolt against a world that proclaims the death of God either by the slow route of a secularism that denies Him a place in public (and soon private) life or by the quick route of atheism that denies God a place at all.  The Christian is in revolt against a world that proclaims the non-existence or irrelevance of moral values and duties, of good and evil, of right and wrong.  He is in revolt against the claim that some things are true for one man but not another, that good and evil are relative or subjective, and that there exist only shades of gray.  The Christian is in revolt against the claim of the atheist Richard Dawkins when he professes:  there is "no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference."

Thus the world is.  Thus it demands that Christians should be.  And thus, we will never be.

Now, we come to why Christianity is intolerable in a materialist culture, whether ancient or modern.  The world now, as then, told Christians to go along with the spirit of the world, to go with the flow, not to rock to boat.  But not only does Christianity want to rock the boat, it wants to capsize it.  Against a world that proclaims the death of God, man, and morality only one response is possible.—whole hearted and outright defiance.

The modern materialist or secularist looks on the suffering in the world and professes that what little hope there is for it lies in "slowly evolving social standards," vague notions of progress, the next scientific breakthrough, the next political leader or social program.  The Christian, however, looks on the suffering and brokenness in the world and sees hope for it not in vague notions of progress or evolving standards, but in judgment. 

The world may hold that right and wrong are subjective and relative, that there is no black and white, but only shades of gray.  Against this, though, the Christian proclaims that some things  really are right and some wrong, some good and some evil.  It proclaims that there are not only shades of gray, but that black is black and white is white and never the twain shall meet save on the field of battle.  Nor shall they hesitate or compromise until one lies defeated. 

 The world will not like this.  It crucified God who was also in revolt against the spirit of the world.  It beheaded St. Thomas More.  More told his daughter that he was "not the stuff of which martyrs were made," but when the command came, "In the name of the king, you shall do thus," Thomas More gave the only reply he could.  "In the name of God, I will not."  And the same is true today, when the United States government proclaims, through its HHS mandate, "in the name of Caesar, you shall do thus," the Christian can only reply, "in the name of God, we will not."  And woe to him who proclaims otherwise.  

Rather than have his conscience separated from his head, Thomas More preferred that his head should be separated from his body.  His head was something that could be taken from him, but his conscience was something that he alone could surrender.  Against that demand he rebelled, and his revolt was not only against the world that was, but for the world that might be.   May it be likewise with the Christian today. 

Friday, July 6, 2012

7 Quick takes Friday #3- 1st Anniversary edition

Thank you Jen at Conversion Diary for hosting. 

1. We spent the last week of June on vacation with my husband's family. We rented cottages at a lake. It was an enjoyable week. He and I went canoeing on the lake like 4 times! That was really fun. I had never been in a canoe before. I now want us to buy one. We even got up early to watch the sunrise over the lake on the last day. 

2. Unfortunately, the vacation did not really end pleasantly. On the morning of the last day (Saturday), my husband got bitten by a stranger's dog. It was not a bad bite; it is now almost completely healed (it will be a week tomorrow). It was an unpleasant and inconvenient experience, though. When we got home we went to the emergency room to have it checked, and he was given a tetanus booster shot and an antibiotic. And now we know he is (mild-moderately) allergic to penicillin.

3. Anniversary Day! July 2nd: Romantic morning trip to primary care physician to confirm the above allergy. Later on, movie/dinner date. We saw Snow White and the Huntsman, and it was pretty enjoyable. Then we went to Applebee's, where I was annoyed at how non-vegetarian their menu is. They were nice, though, and let me sub a veggie burger into an interesting chicken dish.

4. July 3rd: Historic anniversary trip to Valley Forge. We like going to historic places. We spent half of our honeymoon last year in Gettysburg. So this year we took a day-trip to Valley Forge and learned some interesting facts about the experience of the Continental Army during the summer of 1777-78. If I correctly remember what the ranger said, the only other revolutionary encampment that was made into a national historic park is Morristown, NJ.

5. The nice thing about our anniversary being July 2nd is that we get fireworks close to it. Last year, on our honeymoon, we went to an outdoor concert which ended with fireworks (and included the 1812 Overture!). This year we were able to see a local fireworks show from where we live.

6. We were really glad to hear that Fulton Sheen was declared Venerable. Yay!!

7. We saved two cupcakes from our wedding in our freezer all year and ate them for our anniversary. They were a bit stale, so maybe we didn't seal them well enough. My husband's family saved a bunch that we sent them home with, and those survived very well. So it can be done.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

HHS, Contraception, and Religious Liberty

Some friends and my wife and I wrote this several months ago with the intention of publishing it as an op-ed in a newspaper.  The two newspapers to which we submitted it declined it, so I post it here for the Fortnight for Freedom.

The Obama administration has recently decided to force Catholics to violate their consciences and religious beliefs by requiring that they provide coverage for contraception and sterilization procedures.  An outcry has rightfully arisen against a powerful and highly secular government that has targeted the unpopular beliefs of a religious minority.  Equally disturbing, however, and more overlooked, is the fact that this government has now claimed the final authority over the human conscience.  

 States have claimed authority over the human conscience before, when an equally secular and hostile to Christianity Roman empire required Christians to burn incense to Caesar, when Henry VIII tried to force Thomas More to approve his divorce and remarriage, or when Stalin sought to purge religious freedom from his empire.  There was no room for individual freedom of conscience; the only freedom was the freedom to act and think as the state commanded, the only conscience the state conscience.  

The human right to religious freedom, however, and a person’s right to follow his religion and conscience is undeniable.  One could only ever hope to justify trampling this right by claiming that contraception is so absolute and necessary a right as to overrule the right of freedom of religion and conscience. Consequently, the government and its defenders argue that contraception is a matter of necessary medical care as well as a matter of women’s rights and health. Yet, it is very clearly none of these things. 

At least three problems exist with the claim that contraception is a right.  First, the claim that contraception is necessary medical care is highly doubtful.  The purpose of medical care is to correct diseases or disorders and promote the proper and healthy functioning of the human body.  Contraception certainly does not do this.  Fertility is not a disorder and pregnancy not a disease.  In this way, contraception actually interferes with the natural and healthy functioning of a woman’s body, causing her reproductive system to become disordered. 

Second, there is no argument from necessity, only personal desire.  A person may strongly want to have sex and strongly want to avoid pregnancy while doing so, but there is no logical inference from this to the claim that contraception is necessary.  Two “wants,” however strong, do not equal a need and personal desires, however strong, do not make a right.  Though it may be necessary to avoid pregnancy for serious medical reasons (though such situations are rare), it does not follow that there exists a right to contraception.  In this case one may either practice abstinence or a sophisticated fertility awareness method such as the Creighton, Marquette, or sympto-thermal models.  

 Third, there is no right to enjoyment of a thing (sex) and avoidance of its natural consequences (pregnancy).  The natural end of sexuality is reproduction, whether a person may wish to acknowledge it or not.  To say that one has a right to have sex and avoid pregnancy is like saying one has a right to overeat and not gain weight.  

Nonetheless, Catholics do not seek to impose their beliefs on anyone.  We simply object to being forced to pay for or provide coverage for something we consider to be immoral. It is gravely insulting to suggest  that our consciences can be assuaged by the cheap accounting trick that the current administration has styled as an “accommodation.”

Under the guise of science and women’s rights, the government has launched a short-sighted attack on religious liberty and freedom of conscience.  It has begun by attacking an unpopular Catholic doctrine, but it will not end there.  By the same logic, it may force Christians to pay for or provide abortions, attack the Jewish practice of circumcision, require burning incense to Caesar, and end with either state control of religion, or its ban from both public and private life.

The government now decrees that one must render to Caesar that which decidedly does not belong to Caesar at all, one’s conscience.  Bribery by the state of those governed in exchange for political power is an old and hallowed political tradition.  Roman emperors appeased the populace with bread and circuses; modern politicians seek political power through the offer of government grants, earmarks, and other inducements to individuals and groups.  Today, the state turns to a new prize.  Offering “free” contraception, it seeks not only political power, but authority over the human conscience.  If the American conscience can be bought for so mean a price, the end of American liberty may be at hand.