December 5, 2011

Yes, Reverend, What We Call It Matters

Notwithstanding the attempt of a local Protestant leader to dismiss the matter, it is important to call a Christmas tree by its name.

Posted by Justin Katz at 7:07 AM

October 24, 2011

The Catholic Notion of a Global Authority

Free marketers aren't being fair (or thorough) in their response to a Vatican document on global financial reform.

Posted by Justin Katz at 4:56 PM

June 21, 2011

Portsmouth Institute, "The Catholic Shakespeare?," Sunday, June 12

I've posted video from the third and final day of the Portsmouth Institute's conference on "The Catholic Shakespeare."

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:00 AM

By Contrast with Common Sense

It's stunning that some proposed reforms to RI's pension system weren't standard policy from the very beginning.

Posted by Justin Katz at 6:04 AM

March 11, 2011

Once Again Re: The Direction of Imposition

And on the conversation about separation goes.

Posted by Justin Katz at 9:08 PM

Re: The Direction of Imposition

Continuing the discussion about a prayer banner in Cranston.

Posted by Justin Katz at 12:29 PM

The Direction of Imposition with Cranston Prayer

Cranston atheists and the ACLU are projecting their desire to impose a belief on everybody else.

Posted by Justin Katz at 6:20 AM

February 5, 2011

Toward a More Optimistic Pessimism

Questions of optimism versus pessimism require context; one can be optimistic on one level and pessimistic on another.

Posted by Justin Katz at 9:33 AM

February 3, 2011

The Godlessness of the Gaps

If religion sometimes tries to fill the gaps of science with God, science strives often to coat the order of the universe with a faith-based chaos.

Posted by Justin Katz at 7:48 PM

When One Group's Ascendency Must Prevent Another's

Vitriol against RI's bishop indicates a fear and aggression that is much broader in its application.

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:00 AM

January 16, 2011

Grappling with Truth Isn't Easy

Love (compassion) and responsibility can be difficult to reconcile, in life, but the call to both requires that we try.

Posted by Justin Katz at 9:03 PM

January 15, 2011

The Point of Separation

Advocates of a "separation of church and state" just want to insert their guidance in the place of God's.

Posted by Justin Katz at 8:24 AM

January 8, 2011

The Predicament of Dementia

Dementia could be evidence for a particular interpretation of reality.

Posted by Justin Katz at 6:00 PM

January 3, 2011

In the beginning was the Word

If gravity is a consequence of the importance of information in the universe perhaps human consciousness drives our biological existence, not the other way around.

Posted by Justin Katz at 6:23 PM

December 16, 2010

Equivalence Beheaded

Death sentences for apostasy suggest (to me, at least) that concern about the sanity of the Iranian regime is not subject to relativism.

Posted by Justin Katz at 2:00 PM

November 28, 2010

A Strange Global Misunderstanding

It's weird that the world is still pretending that Pope Benedict changed the Church's position on condoms.

Posted by Justin Katz at 7:53 AM

November 14, 2010

Toward the Cave or Toward the Temple

It seems to me that atheists' assumption that they can be moral without religion owes a great deal to Jesus' eschatological teachings.

Posted by Justin Katz at 5:37 PM

Toward Order

The universe tends toward order.

Posted by Justin Katz at 1:04 PM

November 10, 2010

Some Structure in a Chaotic World

It's not surprising that growing convents are more traditional.

Posted by Justin Katz at 6:00 PM

October 26, 2010

An Open Door for Evil

Acknowledgment of evil remains a necessary means of combating it.

Posted by Justin Katz at 6:15 AM

October 24, 2010

The Universal Nothing That Is Something

Stephen Hawking recently proclaimed to be moving physics beyond the need for God, but some would argue that he's actually moved physics closer to God — at least the Christian concept of Him.

Posted by Justin Katz at 7:59 AM

October 21, 2010

Happiness by the Numbers

I'm skeptical that it's possible to divide happiness into categories of causes, from genetics, to circumstances, to personal relationships.

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:00 AM

October 15, 2010

Somehow It's Worse When It's Past, I Guess

Doesn't it seem that Western debates about translating the Bible centuries ago are considered more egregious than current examples of the same thing in Islam ?

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:00 AM

October 14, 2010

From Allah's Lips to the King's Ear

How exactly is it "liberalization" for the Saudi royal family to take more explicit control over the handling of Islam in their nation?

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:00 AM

September 18, 2010

While We're Condemning Threats

Do you suppose there will be any high-profile transreligion press conferences to decry the threat to kill a cartoonist? Not until those threats are made in the name of a religion other than Islam.

Posted by Justin Katz at 7:48 PM

September 16, 2010

Unidirectional Interfaith Statements

Doesn't it seem as if "interfaith community" statements always tend to take the Muslim side?

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:00 AM

September 12, 2010

A Judgmental Pendulum

Maybe modern Christians' difficulty is not so much with the tenets of their faith, but with the consequences of failing to live up to them.

Posted by Justin Katz at 9:02 AM

August 30, 2010

Self-Serving Accusations of Hypocrisy

William Lobdell blames the hypocrisy of Christians for others' loss of faith. I'd say the attacks of the likes of Lobdell bear more responsibility.

Posted by Justin Katz at 6:24 AM

August 15, 2010

In Favor of a "Demanding" Religion

"Demanding" religions thrive, and they aren't ultimately demanding so much as rewarding.

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:54 AM

August 8, 2010

Word on the Page

I'd suggest that it's kind of the point that the Bible is meant to be interpreted.

Posted by Justin Katz at 12:27 PM

August 2, 2010

Whitewashing Over Faith

It seems I've been hearing regular anecdotes about secularists simply omitting God from literary works that made reference to Him.

Posted by Justin Katz at 2:00 PM

July 31, 2010

Still Teaching While Catholic?

By way of a follow-up, the U. of Illinois religion professor fired for teaching his subject as if it might be true has been offered his job back, albeit with a dark lining.

Posted by Justin Katz at 4:14 PM

July 28, 2010

Teaching While Catholic

A Catholic professor fired for teaching Catholic thought as if it might be accurate provides a teachable moment... that emotion trumps intellect and "inclusivity" trumps interaction.

Posted by Justin Katz at 5:57 AM

July 25, 2010

Today's First Reading and an Early Revelation

Today's Old Testament reading, during Mass, makes me think that we're living in Sodom and are therefore called to be those few innocents on whose behalf the city will be spared.

Posted by Justin Katz at 4:00 PM

July 15, 2010

Time Traveling in Their Minds

Doesn't it seem as if those most eager to proclaim a particular breakthrough as definitive proof that religious believers are wrong already behave as if it's already been proven?

Posted by Justin Katz at 2:00 PM

July 7, 2010

Portsmouth Institute 2010 Table of Contents

Here's a table of contents of my coverage of the Portsmouth Institute's 2010 conference, on Cardinal John Henry Newman.

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:32 PM

June 26, 2010

Portsmouth Institute Conference on Newman: Patrick Reilly

Cardinal Newman Society President Patrick Reilly's Portsmouth Institute talk concerned Catholic institutions of higher learning.

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:19 AM

June 25, 2010

Knowing the World

Should universities seek to teach general thinking and knowledge or career-related subjects? I think the former, but that not as many people should incur the debt.

Posted by Justin Katz at 2:00 PM

June 24, 2010

Portsmouth Institute Conference on Newman: Edward Short

Edward Short's lecture during this year's Portsmouth Institute conference addressed Cardinal Newman's thoughts on American religion.

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:00 AM

June 20, 2010

A Perjurer Is Not Pure

Could both Jesus and the persecuting Jewish leaders have been innocent? I'm skeptical.

Posted by Justin Katz at 5:27 PM

Portsmouth Institute Conference on Newman: Fr. Richard Duffield

The Portsmouth Institute's after-dinner lecture on June 11 concerned preservation of Cardinal Newman's work on the grounds of his abode, the Oratory of St. Philip Neri.

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:20 AM

June 16, 2010

Portsmouth Institute Conference on Newman: Prof. Griffiths

The second lecture of the Portsmouth Institute's 2010 conference was given by Duke Divinity Professor Paul Griffiths, who raised the possibly dark/possibly hopeful conclusion that one cannot ultimately persuade through logical argumentation.

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:00 AM

June 15, 2010

Portsmouth Institute Conference on Newman: Fr. Rutler

I've posted video of Rev. George Rutler's speech opening this year's Portsmouth Institute conference, on Cardinal John Henry Newman.

Posted by Justin Katz at 5:21 AM

June 3, 2010

A Lament of Superficial Opposition

If only the New Atheists could come up with some good arguments.

Posted by Justin Katz at 5:40 AM

May 17, 2010

Legal, but Gone

Now that it's been deemed legal, the Mojave cross has been stolen. I can't help but see the act as emblematic of what some folks intend by "separating" church and state.

Posted by Justin Katz at 2:00 PM

May 3, 2010

Mainly a Question of Power

My Rhode Island Catholic column for April looked at Jesus' interaction with Pilate and its implications for power.

Posted by Justin Katz at 5:32 AM

May 2, 2010

How the Accommodating Institution Declines

Functional cultural institutions (like churches and marriage) face a continual tension to become more accommodating, but thereby less able to prove its own value.

Posted by Justin Katz at 1:04 PM

May 1, 2010

Rethinking Paul

Taken in context, St. Paul unequivocally pointed Christianity and Western Civilization in the direction of tolerance and compassion. Whatever those who trademark "tolerance" might say.

Posted by Justin Katz at 8:04 PM

Separation Doesn't Mean That One Silences the Other

The Supreme Court has ruled that a plain cross in the desert does not establish religion in violation of the Constitution.

Posted by Justin Katz at 8:12 AM

April 24, 2010

The Reaction, Not the Rejection, Is the Thing

Reading the story of Cain and Abel, again, reveals, again, how much Cain's predicament and temperament are ours.

Posted by Justin Katz at 1:51 PM

April 23, 2010

Handing Charitable Authority to the State

A subtly distressing aspect of government encroachment on religious charities' rights and activities is that religious individuals and organizations have advocated for the steps that have led to this point.

Posted by Justin Katz at 5:59 AM

April 21, 2010

Two Choices, Neither Science

If science fiction strives to apply real science to fictional situations, it still has to address the question of God.

Posted by Justin Katz at 2:00 PM

April 18, 2010

Zealots Never Sleep

The "national day of prayer" could disappear, as far as I'm concerned, but it is a bit unsettling that people would actually organize to bring about that disappearance through the judiciary.

Posted by Justin Katz at 4:00 PM

April 17, 2010

A Dangerous Fine Line in Blending Public/Private Education

In Indiana, Catholic schools are transitioning to status as charter schools, requiring them to shed their religious identities. That's the wrong way to preserve the institutions.

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:42 AM

April 9, 2010

Growth Rather than Radical Reworking

Not surprisingly, given my brand of conservatism, I see procedural similarities between how the Catholic Church should develop over time and how the United States should do the same.

Posted by Justin Katz at 2:00 PM

March 27, 2010

Welcoming the Young Artist to the Frustrations of Adulthood

What wonders can an artist make
when despot days drag him around?
Just live each day for its own sake.

You ask, as if to undertake
a change of fate with asking's sound,
what wonders can an artist make?

Though doubtful it's advice you'll take:
Make petty agonies profound;
just live each day for its own sake.

In artists' hands the rattlesnake
and wolf are metaphors spellbound.
What wonders can an artist make!

Long labor's stretch from first daybreak
is trial on which to expound.
Just live each day for its own sake.

Breathe in until, with fullness, ache
exhales itself as peace unwound.
What wonders can an artist make?
Just live each day for its own sake.

Posted by Justin Katz at 4:30 PM

August 19, 2006

Theopolitical Philosophy: Starting with "Yes"

Heather Mac Donald claims, in a piece that has set off a small tinderstorm in the Corner, that religious conservatives and secular conservatives are "temperamentally compatible allies." It is a matter of definition that we are intellectually so, but when it comes to temperament, I find myself wondering whether Mac Donald's own argumentation bears out her assertion.

For one example, consider the rhetorical trick (requiring not a little misreading) with which she responds to a believer's point that "something has to be fixed in place to assert something, and for religious people what is fixed is God." Mac Donald scoffs not at the notion that something must be fixed in order for any assertion to have any basis, but at the unmade claim that religious people, or even just Christians, have achieved "harmonious agreement" or "unanimity." It's easier, I suppose, to punctuate a misreading with references to "bloody sectarian wars" than to address a key argument against her secularism.

In her initial piece, Mac Donald writes, "Suffice it to say that, to many of us, Western society has become more compassionate, humane, and respectful of rights as it has become more secular." This point, which is obviously arguable on the specifics, logically leads exactly to the reason that we need something to be "fixed in place" in order to make reliably moral assertions. If we haven't a transcendent external something, then on what do we base our zealotry for being humane? The answer that Western society has often supplied over the past fifty years or so has been to raise the ideal itself (e.g., humaneness) to a transcendent level. But herein difficulty arises: Humane by whose standards and from whose perspective? What do we do about competing claims?

One need read no more deeply in the standard texts of this discussion than Chesterton's Orthodoxy to encounter the argument that such self-fixed principles have a way of working around to their opposites. Handed the dictate to "be humane," humanity finds itself underwriting the livelihoods of delinquents and catering to the emotions of small, discrete groups to the detriment of countless families that can no longer maintain close ties, either geographically or emotionally. (Never mind the underwriting's encouragement of soul-sapping dependency in its recipients and the catering's affirmation of destructive mindsets.)

Moreover, the mandate to follow mushy principles, largely on the basis of gut emotion, creates opportunity for nothing so much as demagoguery. This, it seems to me, is part of what a correspondent to Jonah Goldberg calls society's "totalitarian temptation." Swept up in the quest for Heaven on Earth, feeling the tantalizing proximity of a more humane world, we are easily manipulated for the benefit of a few.

Mac Donald counters the unattributed suggestion that "what makes Republicans superior to Democrats is their religious faith" with the assertion that "what makes Republican principles superior to Democratic principles is that they are based on a more accurate assessment of human nature." But politicians, by their nature, will follow inclinations where they lead, guiding the movement toward their own gain. Unrooted or vaguely rooted "political philosophy" may be adequate to guide the individual, but when individuals march together, philosophy tends to be trampled by desire. Consequently, we don't necessarily want our politicians to accurately assess human nature. (One could argue that Mac Donald's stated ambivalence toward the success of Republicans indicates that she objects to the party's readjustments meant to capitalize on just that assessment.)

Religion — specifically Christianity — grounds us across cultures and generations in soil that is neither so contradictory as human nature nor so apt as deified principles to send us tumbling of our own momentum into a totalitarian noose. It offers the most full expression of human nature to enable, as Chesterton puts it, the "lion [to] lie down with the lamb and still retain his royal ferocity" — his essential nature as a lion. Left to our own devices, humanity is prone either to bind the lion in wool or to thrust the lamb into battle.

Mac Donald could object that taking abstracts to the point of obsession, that susceptibility to mush-minded demagogues, and that one side of our nature's being sublimated to the other need not be the case in a Godless universe, and abstractly, perhaps she's correct. But it invariably becomes the case without a distant, unreachable pole star Who is only indirectly related to the particular issue before us, Whom we believe to have our best interests in mind, and Who ties all of creation into a meaningful whole.

"The claim that we are overseen by an omniscient, omnipotent God who also loves every human being and treats every human being with justice does not square with the slaughter of the innocents that I see every day," Mac Donald writes. While I am very sorry to hear that she must personally witness the slaughter of innocents daily, with no apparent hope for counterbalance or meaning (in which case, it's a veritable miracle that she's so even tempered), I must insist that her empirical laboratory is insufficiently broad to justify judgment against God. That innocents die, especially when slaughtered by human agents, only conflicts with the notion of a loving and just God if the materialistic view of the world is prior — if this life is all. In a world that Christians see as fallen, anyway, divine justice need not manifest, and divine love need not be fully expressed, within its boundaries.

Similarly, I cannot comprehend why Mac Donald sees "perhaps a tension in arguing simultaneously that Western individualism is a legacy of Judeo-Christianity while blaming our turn away from that religious tradition for our excess of individualism." As the individualism is a legacy of the religion, so is the religion a prerequisite of the individualism. Throughout such discussions between believers and unbelievers, evidence abounds that the unbelievers are almost willfully arguing against the logic of religion when what they really object to are the assumptions. And believers are not immune to their own version of this error. This is the split of faiths between those who choose each of the possible one-word beginnings: "yes" and "no."

Ultimately, therefore, I'm not inclined to disagree with Ms. Mac Donald: a given individual does not need God in order to arrive at any particular conclusion after picking and choosing from among the myriad priorities, principles, and predilections. Every lunatic in the asylum can attest to our ability to do such things. But humanity is a collection of individuals; creation is a construction of pieces. And it is at that level that God is much more clearly a necessity. I find that to be suggestive of His actual existence, but at the very least, those of conservative temperament should correctly identify — and not actively rail against — the advantages of encouraging our fellow man to start with "yes."

Posted by Justin Katz at 2:27 PM

May 27, 2006

The Philosophical Merry-Go-Round

"Merry-go-round" is an interesting term, almost like an advertising slogan: "This go-round will maketh you merry." In a more perfect world (e.g., one in which I could make my living thinking and writing), I'd chase the word's etymology around in its circle. A merry-go-round may also be called a "carousel" — once, a "playful tournament of knights in chariots or on horseback" — which is surely related (via French) to "carousal," or "carouse" — noun: "a drunken revel"; verb: "to drink liquor deeply or freely." It seems to me that much is presumed in calling such a ride a "merry-go-round"; some people might be more inclined to call them "sickening-go-rounds," a difference of opinion that can be carried through the language to the experience of carousing.

I began down this linguistic path because I don't know what Neil Sinhababu is talking about when he writes:

I throw out the beliefs formed by having some emotionally-driven attitude towards a state of affairs, and thus coming to believe that there's some objective goodness or badness out there in that state of affairs. All that's left is the goodness of pleasure and the badness of displeasure, which can be discovered without any emotions standing between us and our pleasure or displeasure. ... So the objective goodness of pleasure and the objective badness of displeasure are all we can know of objective goodness and badness.

How does one separate emotion from sensation in this way? If I find the sensation of a carousel pleasant, it will make me merry; if I find it unpleasant, it will make me unhappy. In the other direction, if I've some emotional reason to dislike carousels — say, for example, a resurgence of the fear that I felt as a child watching "Something Wicked This Way Comes" or of the alienation that comes to an emotional head at the end of "Catcher in the Rye — then I'll find the sensation, or the collection of sensations, to be unpleasant. If the absence of emotion is the determinant of objectivity, therefore, the impossibility of teasing apart one's experience of a merry-go-round into sensation and emotion would foil attempts to determine the objective goodness of the ride. Sinhababu claims that I can know that my "sensations of black are sensations of darkness," but what if black evokes comfort?

If you've similar online reading habits to mine, you'll know that Sinhababu makes these claims in the service of an argument against Matthew Yglesias's moral relativism (expressed here and here), so don't conclude that my disagreement with Sinhababu implies agreement with Yglesias. I agree with Sinhababu 's larger argument that we cannot "throw out the idea that there are objective facts somewhere, just because people keep forming their beliefs in wacky ways, or because there's a lot of disagreement, or because everyone is fighting over stuff." However, the seeds of his argument's defeat are sown into its assumptions, a fact that juts out particularly with his interjection of "sadly" here: "Emotional judgments from gut feelings, sadly, play an outsized role in determining many ordinary people's beliefs on issues where there are objective right and wrong answers."

Sinhababu would agree with me, I'm sure, that the reality of physical truths does not mean that there are no non-physical, or moral, truths. He might even agree with me that the existence of physical truth implies the existence of moral truths, inasmuch as both involve types of knowledge and proof of objectivity for one suggests the possibility of objectivity in the other. However, arguing on behalf of moral truths — "goodness and badness" — by teasing apart sensation and emotion and by invoking pleasure, places him in the position, if not of testifying for hedonism, of ceding the fundamental assumption of relativism: that emotions and preferences — the essentials of "self" — are fundamentally physical phenomena with no deeper significance than the physical circumstances that caused them.

The danger of this concession is evident in the very first comment to Sinhababu's post:

Some argue that a world without objective moral truths is unworkable. This is easy to sell because it conforms to common assumptions, but it doesn't stand up to much scrutiny. As Matt argued, you wouldn't be able to tell a world with objective moral truths apart from a world without.

How does the commenter know that "you wouldn't be able to tell a world with objective moral truths apart from a world without"? Only by believing that moral truths don't act in — or constrain — the world in the same way that physical truths do. I might as well assert that you wouldn't be able to tell a world with the truth of gravity apart from a world without it.

And this brings the conversation back to Yglesias:

The interesting point came, I think, in Jonah's second post wondering, "How are you going to convince others, to pick a nice progressive example, that gay marriage is a moral imperative or that torture is wrong without an appeal to conscience?" To me, this is just the point. Jonah's witnessed me engage in arguments with moral aspects in the past, and, indeed, we've debated various issues from time to time. There's no point in an actual moral conversation where adding "and my views are objectively correct!" adds anything to what's happening. Obviously, appeals to conscience are a part of argument. Equally obviously, conscience exists -- people feel guilty sometimes and have the capacity to empathize and people take advantage of these traits when arguing. I might say to someone, "Well, look, how would you feel if you were being told you couldn't marry your lover, that your relationship was going to be permanently relegated to second-class status, all because, hypothetically, recognizing the legitimacy of your love might lead to a decline in heterosexual marriage rates at some time in the future?"

That sort of thing is a classic of moral discourse, but obviously it doesn't "prove" anything. And that's generally how these things go. When you argue with people, you try to appeal to shared sentiments, point out alleged inconsistencies in the other guy's position, and so on and so forth. What underlies the possibility of discussion isn't objective moral truth but the fact that, say, Jonah and I have a vast stockpile of things we agree about and one tries to resolve controversies with appeals to stuff in that store of previous agreement.

Yglesias skirts the question of what it means for moral principles to be objectively correct, which is that acting in contravention of them will have undesirable consequences. It only adds nothing to claim "objective correctness" if that is where the explanation ends. If we explain how our moral view will objectively lead to a state of affairs from which our shared conscience shrinks, then we can advance the conversation toward moral truth. Turn Yglesias's example back on itself: how would a homosexual feel if our entire society were to collapse because countless children had been deprived of the stable mother-father homes that traditional marriage had previously fortified, all because he or she wanted a government stamp on his or her relationship?

Ultimately, we agree on matters of goodness and badness, on morality. We mainly disagree on the terms through which it is all considered. Even head-sawing Islamists (to use another of Yglesias's examples) would likely claim to be appalled at killing for the sheer pleasure of it, or even killing for no reason whatsoever. What they disagree about are the terms in which their own killings are performed and the consequences that they have for themselves and, indeed, the entire world.

There's a point at which all of these arguments collapse into inexpressibles of faith, of course. One can create imaginary figures to carry the torch of believing in pure selfish evil (e.g., that a private whim is worth global destruction). One can reject without consideration the factual arguments of others or attempt to redefine "good" so as to deny progression toward the worldly decay that is evil's indication. But to push the argument too deeply into abstractions of what people or cultures could conceivably believe is, again, to imagine a world in which belief is purely an illusion.

It is also, as Jonah Goldberg suggests, to leave one's self open to just accusations of inconsistency, or worse. And one of its consequences is the undermining of the moral certainty that is ultimately crucial toward moral — and physical — survival.

Posted by Justin Katz at 2:11 PM

May 24, 2006

Another Too-Perfect Letter

Not to troll the Providence Journal letters section for material, but this offering from Vance Morgan — philosophy department chair at the ostensibly Catholic Providence College — is just too perfect to pass up:

Dawn Cousineau, one of the Catholic faithful protesting The Da Vinci Code, was quoted in a May 19 news story ("Da Vinci Code draws small protest") as saying that the movie is "a Christ-bashing film."

At the heart of the book and the movie is the hypothesis that Jesus fathered a daughter with his wife, Mary Magdalene. The book and movie are entertaining fiction, hardly substantial enough to challenge someone serious about his or her Christian faith.

But I'm wondering which is more offensive to Ms. Cousineau's belief system: marriage or parenthood?

Ah, how clever of Professor Vance! It must take multiple degrees to hone one's ability to leverage a deliberately superficial misunderstanding as an expression of contempt. As if to say: "Nobody's insulting you, you ignorant papist."

One can only hope that the "Da Vinci Code as family-values film" spin dies with this edition of the Journal.

Posted by Justin Katz at 5:49 AM | Comments (2)

May 13, 2006

What, Me Censor?

An always-perceptive reader (involved professionally with the visual arts) emails:

Such a topic, censorship. The Church militant lies down like multicultural pussycat toward Islam but stomps its boots over a dumb read like The DaVinci Code.

No, censorship is not atrocity. But it provides cover for atrocity. If giving offense is criminalized [as thoughts have already been criminalized through hate-crime legislation] then Islam and its theological impetus toward violence is protected from examination and public rejection.

As previously stated, I do not support calls for Christians' pursuing "legal means" if read as "means that manipulate the law" (as opposed to "means that are legal"). That said, there's an undertone to free-speech arguments against Christian outrage as if to suggest that we can't let Muslims get away with their pressure because it will unleash the Christians. No doubt, this undertone is generally unintended (although there are surely secularists who fear losing ground in their campaign to push religion from the public square altogether).

The practical effects, therefore, of eminently safe outcries (including quasi-fictionalized revelations about Catholic conspiracies) against supposed Christian overtures toward theocracy, combined with a failure to treat Islam in like manner, combined with continued thrusts against Christians in Western government and society (e.g., adoption in Massachusetts) is the scuttling of internal compromise out of an inability to absorb an encroaching threat. I'd suggest that further strengthening our mechanisms for pluralism — which would mean increasing Christians' say in their own government and their own societies, largely via federalist principles — would be more apt to disperse the rising Islamist tide than further narrowing the public sphere would be.

For one thing, our system is ingenious in its ability to divert hostility into politics. For another — again — the Christians among us will understandably be less inclined to defend a society that deliberately insults and excludes them.

(N.B. — Certainly, Glenn Reynolds, to name one, is not included among those who have failed to treat Islam in like manner.)

Posted by Justin Katz at 9:16 AM

May 12, 2006

Double Vision, Professor?

It's been awhile since I've been active, so for those who don't know (or recall): for an easier-to-read layout, click "Turn Light On" at the top of the sidebar.

Now, I'm not saying that this square can't be circled, but explanation would seem in order from Professor Reynolds. Statement 1:

OF WINDS AND WHIRLWINDS: Now that the Muhammad-cartoon precedent has been set, we've got Christians calling for censorship of stuff that offends them. No surprise, there.

UPDATE: Chuck Pelto emails: "they won't be as effective as their Islamic counterparts ....until they start sawing off people's heads with dull knives." That'll come, if people keep caving to the Islamists. Fanatics learn by example.

Statement 2:

EUGENE VOLOKH LOOKS AT A TIME "When the idea of self-preservation was as jealously guarded from the young as the facts of sex had been in earlier ages."

I think the view that it's connected with a (somewhat degenerate) notion of holiness is right, too. Call it Christianity's poison pill.

I've expressed offense at the insistence that Christians will surely take the violent path of Islamic radicals once they come to comprehend the efficacy of the latter's methods. Does that mean I've taken a mild dosage of the poison? Or is reticence to forceful self-preservation only a "poison pill" when it means putting the West — as opposed to Christianity — at risk?

Perhaps conservative Christians ought to be clearer with their secular allies that their rhetorical and physical defense of the West focuses on preserving what is Christian about it.

The professor responds:

IT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN atrocity and self-defense, between resolution and fanaticism. That it's being missed even by thoughtful observers goes some distance toward proving my point.

I'm not so sure that Glenn has drawn the lines as starkly as he believes. Statement 1 relates to Nigerian Roman Catholic Cardinal Arinze's suggestion that:

Those who blaspheme Christ and get away with it are exploiting the Christian readiness to forgive and to love even those who insult us. There are some other religions which if you insult their founder they will not be just talking. They will make it painfully clear to you

As I've said, I'd want more context before trusting Reuters' interpretation of the Cardinal's intended prescription, but even so, would censorship be atrocity? What Glenn elides when he places such "legal means" on the same path as "sawing off people's heads with dull knives," it seems to me, is exactly the "poison pill" that he laments in statement 2: namely, "the desire for holiness, the belief in sacrifice, and a willingness to serve as the butchered victim acceptable to God."

In that passage, Rebecca West is referring to England's failure to foster courage for self-preservation even though "every day Germany and Italy were formulating in more definite and vehement terms that they meant to vanquish and annihilate" the nation. Arguably, Muslim activists and secularists are — each in their own way — formulating in more definite and vehement terms social and legal principles meant to vanquish Christianity from the Western public square (with the former doing so by more generally elbowing out Western culture).

Where resolution ends and fanaticism begins is certainly a moral question with which we all must grapple, and for Christians it is, if anything, made more difficult by the belief that self-preservation is not all. At what point is one being fanatical about self-preservation or, conversely, about self-sacrifice? Surely, the line will vary according to context, but it isn't obvious to me that Glenn is considering the material context (war versus censorship) rather than the context of the thing being preserved (the West versus Christianity).

Posted by Justin Katz at 9:59 PM | Comments (30)

May 7, 2006

Religious War: Courtesy Reuters, or Christian Catch-up?

Perhaps it's merely the juxtaposition of his thoughts with those that had been swimming through my head for my previous post, but I'm inclined to guffaw when Robert Bidinotto, a proclaimed Objectivist, issues such breathlessly italicized statements as this:

In other words, [Cardinal Arinze believes that] the government should bring in its armed officers to FORCE people to "respect" other people's religious beliefs -- specifically, belief in Christianity and Jesus Christ. Leaving aside the practical problems of compelling an emotion like respect -- and also leaving aside the ominous question of exactly what might be viewed as signs of "respect" or "disrespect" -- consider the other Orwellian implication: that government should take sides in matters of religion, and throw its coercive weight behind politically-favored belief systems.

But what else should we have expected? Given the virtually unanimous capitulation of Western media, politicians, publishers, and other "cultural leaders" to militant Islamists who demanded "respect" for Muhammad and Islam, on what grounds can these same "cultural leaders" now resist demands that Christianity be afforded the same "respect"?

More to the ugly point: What will happen to anyone who dares to criticize any of these religions, or their iconic leaders and symbols?

Personally, what I find noteworthy is that the Cardinal would be so bold as to allude to "some other religions which if you insult their founder they will not be just talking." African Christians — as any American churchgoer who has listened to visiting clerics knows — are keenly aware of what "other religions" are capable of. Pending further incidents, therefore, I'd say it remains a bit offensive for Glenn Reynolds to declare that Christians' resorting to "sawing off people's heads with dull knives" is only a matter of time.

Given the necessary Reuters bias filter, it remains a possibility, as far as I can see, that by "legal means" Cardinal Arinze meant "means that are legal," not means that "bring in [the government's] armed officers." But even so, if Bidinotto is correct that the Catholic Church is asking "that Christianity be afforded the same 'respect'" as Islam, how can he simultaneously see it as asking the government to "take sides in matters of religion, and throw its coercive weight behind politically-favored belief systems"?

In a culture in which Christianity cannot be taught in public schools with anymore than passing hints that it might actually be true and in which Church-related organizations are being driven out of such missions as providing adoptive homes, even as Islam receives the full minority-group handling, we must, at some point, cease to pretend that Christians are seeking the special treatment of a favored group.

Writes Eugene Volokh:

I had hoped that the Catholic Church had learned that it's wrong to try to use legal coercion to suppress religious views that one disapproves of -- and that no religion should have a legal right to be free from criticism or disagreement (or for that matter novels it dislikes).

Volokh has been remarkably fair-minded on church-state matters, so I've no doubt that he and I agree more than disagree across the board of such issues, and I do agree that a religious leader's urging "legal coercion" — as opposed to "coercion that is legal" — would be worthy of criticism. Still, while the Catholic Church has enough experience in the West that, as an institution, it ought to know better, we might mitigate matters somewhat by pondering whether recidivism would be a relapse or an acknowledgment that the old errors are now common practice — for secularists as well as other theists.

There can be little doubt that in both groups can be found people with a penchant for, in Cardinal Arinze's words, "exploiting the Christian readiness to forgive and to love even those who insult us."

Posted by Justin Katz at 8:36 PM | Comments (1)

January 16, 2006

Unimaginatively Appealing to Lower Instincts

Is there anything more... I can't think of the word... banal, unimaginative, predictable, hackneyed than the Newsweek quote trumpeted by the apparent har-har fest for atheists, The God Who Wasn't There?

Irreverently lays out the case that Jesus Christ never existed

Wouldn't it be more intriguing to "reverently lay out the case" or, alternatively, to irreverently lay out the case that He did exist? Nothing is as damaging to atheists' case as the inescapable impression that the drive to be irreverent precedes their conclusions.

Posted by Justin Katz at 6:46 PM | Comments (4)

December 26, 2005

The Nativity of the Christ

Sometimes monologues can entrance those who encounter them already in progress. Apart from whatever humor or passion (or both) the author and actor are able to impart, periodic evidence of the intended audience and the gradual accumulation of context can make the unfolding of the implied plot feel like a revelatory discovery — particularly when one encounters the monologue on the radio, which provides no additional clues than the tinctures of the voice.

Such was the case some Christmases back when, while walking the dog, I discerned that the man on the radio was supposed to be a farmer of some sort. In telling his wife (I assume) of a fantastical dream that he'd had just before entering their home, he realized that it had not been a dream. Indeed, he'd walked into their house to get some blankets because the messiah had just been born in their barn.

To be sure, the actor was of sufficient talent that I've sacrificed much of the effect in my retelling. The sense of wonder in his voice was palpable, and his giddiness was reminiscent — forgive my mind the easy comparison made both then and now — of Scrooge upon waking to a Christmas morn. And with that crescendo of elated drama came the thought that among the obstacles keeping moderns from faith in Christ is the excessively limited scope that the New Testament stories appear to have. It confounds expectations that so significant a person as the Son of God — God Himself — would be born into the world without the entire planet's shaking.

A few minutes' consideration will yield the conclusion that millennia are but moments to an eternal God, and the entire world has shaken, as it were, in response to Jesus' birth. Still, much as with a foggy, rainy day after Christmas, there's something not altogether satisfying about observing the feel of a special day fade as life goes on.

More minutes' consideration may bring the recollection that the story of Jesus' birth is hardly without action, what with the appearances of angels, Herod's slaughtering of innocent children, and the various other incidents. I wonder whether we've diluted the drama of Christmas in order to accommodate an intended audience of children and a preferred message of peace — even tranquility.

The cultural manipulations of the Christmas season have created a particular feel that I, for one, would be loathe to discard. The greed and overdoneness ought to be discarded, but the simplicity of good will and the plain striving for giddiness deserve preservation, at least as undercurrents. Nonetheless, I've no doubt that a new movie could become an instant holiday classic by presenting Christ's birth with all the cosmic drama and thematic emphasis that cinematic art is able to muster. The gore and gut-wrenching scenes of The Passion of the Christ would be out of place, of course, but the key idea would be a potent gift to our society: to bring Jesus to life for a society that no longer understands much of what its culture has handed down.

In the meantime, may Christmas carry sufficient significance for you that the feeling doesn't fade over the coming weeks and months.

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:05 PM | Comments (2)

November 21, 2005

Little Religious Wars

This — from an NPR commentary by Penn Jillette (of Penn & Teller) — is rich:

I don't travel in circles where people say, "I have faith, I believe this in my heart and nothing you can say or do can shake my faith." That's just a long-winded religious way to say, "shut up," or another two words that the FCC likes less.

Another way of figuratively using "two words that the FCC" dislikes comes to mind:

The skit, performed last week in Las Vegas, included Teller, dressed as Christ on a full-size cross, entering the room on a cart. According to the column, a midget dressed as an angel "performed a simulated sex act on the near-naked Teller." Penn, in a Roman gladiator costume, unveiled the scene by pulling away a "Shroud of Turin" that covered the cross.

So one side — presented always, in my experience, as a general representation of an unflappable caricature — insults by having confidence that its belief is correct. The other side, as Jonah Goldberg puts it, "actively enjoys mocking and condescending to people who believe in God."

In response to Goldberg, Andrew Stuttaford — who says of religion, "it's not a subject that worries me very much one way or the other" — asks, "Why does theological debate have to be muffled in cotton wool, euphemism and that feeble contemporary desire not to give 'offense'?" Not that wool and gloss ought to be items in every rhetorical toolbox, but I'd reply to Stuttaford that a prerequisite for "debate" is generally to avoid chasing the other side off with jeers.

For all Jillette's pleasant-sounding claims about wanting "to be more thoughtful" and "to treat people right the first time around," his disbelief in God apparently does not foster sufficient human sympathy of "I know you take this matter seriously." Instead, the sentiment is: "nothing you can say or do will be listened to."

Posted by Justin Katz at 8:05 PM | Comments (3)

August 19, 2005

Bias or Tone-Deaf Headline Writer?

Having been deliberate in ignoring the initial letter to the Providence Journal on the matter of women priests because it was basically a press release from a liberal Catholic group, I couldn't help but notice that bias and/or a tone-deaf headline writer ruined the Projo's attempt at balance. Tell me: which side do you think a letter with the following title supports?

This is why only men should be priests?

The author — whose point of view is generally taken for headlines — writes with an explanatory tone, not a questioning, hypothetical, or curious one. Adding a question mark to the title, at best, suggests the mainstream media's typical biased objectivity or, at worst, a naked and sarcastic incredulity.

The Providence Journal's editorial pages have been admirably balanced (considering their regional market). One hopes that heretofore subtle indications of a shift prove illusory.

Posted by Justin Katz at 8:47 PM | Comments (2)

August 3, 2005

To Stop Religious Terrorism, Permit Religious Politics

For my column — which will now be appearing every other Wednesday — I pondered the formation of London's homegrown Muslim terrorists: "Exploding Across Arm's-Length Tolerance." The bottom line is that the common thread that runs through the astute explanations — the root cause, if you will — is disengagement. And pushing religion, and the religious, away from politics and government will only exacerbate the problem.

Posted by Justin Katz at 8:38 PM | Comments (6)

June 6, 2005

Wrestling Through the Sunrise

With the necessary qualification that I'm responding only to a single essay by him, I'd suggest that Rabbi James Rosenberg of Barrington, RI, is attempting to align himself in a discordant way theologically for ulterior reasons at which I won't guess:

I am one of those who believe that "the search is an end in itself, without any hope or possibility of ever attaining the goal of truth" -- at least not "The Truth."

Nevertheless, I deny with every fiber of my being that I am a nihilist, that I subscribe to a philosophy of nothingness. Rather, I call myself a God-Wrestler. God-Wrestling is shorthand for my lifelong commitment to spiritual struggle, a struggle that transforms and liberates, a wrestling that renews and freshens and chastens. It is Jacob's wrestling to become Israel. It is what God demands of me day after day, even when I'd rather be fishing. ...

I know Jewish God-Wrestlers and Protestant God-Wrestlers and Catholic God-Wrestlers. Ours is the approach of seeking and asking, not of finding and learning the "correct" answers. We do not claim to know for certain what God requires of us, because for us Scripture is not "the Word of God" but rather the record of our ancestors' efforts to get close to God.

Whether he considers it the Word of God or not, surely Rabbi Rosenberg knows his scripture well enough to recall that Jacob's wrestling match only lasts until the dawn, at which point the stranger (i.e., God) tells him, "you have contended with divine and human beings and have prevailed" (emphasis added). Rosenberg's treatment of this passage is especially telling in context. If the Bible is not the Word of God, then it is available for perusal and elision — as a source for useful analogies and representations tweaked to fit.

One needn't delve into this particular exegete's preferences, however, to justify my opening suggestion. That there's more to the Rabbi's statement than theology is evident in the fact that even his short piece in the Providence Journal cannot sustain a consistent view. Writes the man who doesn't believe there to be "any hope or possibility of ever attaining" Truth:

I would suggest that there are many paths that lead to God, many ways of walking in faith.

What Rosenberg in actuality suggests is that there are many paths that lead around God — always on the nighttime side of the mountain. God-Wrestling is an activity that can only be pursued indefinitely while darkness persists. With the light that dawn brings, we are bound to begin learning about our opponent.

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:58 PM | Comments (14)

May 7, 2005

Another Both-And: Truth and Utility

Apart from qualities of intellect and literacy, what makes Andrew Sullivan so interesting to address is the fact that he's an excellent debater and, as such, is willing to take risks with his rhetoric. As when he approaches statism to declare the Constitution a "workable civil version" of religion, he's willing to give glimpses of cards that a more cautious man with his objectives might keep obscured.

The downside is the frustrated reaction that he can inspire in those who sense that his emphasis is on debate rather than intellect — that the principles under consideration aren't really open for discussion. Consequently, the statements that make up his arguments periodically give the impression of boxing steps rather than exposition. Once frustration has subsided, however, one can look to the areas around which Sullivan has danced to discover the heart of the matter. (Whether his contradictions and avoidance are deliberate or instinctive is a question of how much credit the reader wishes to give him, and it is one on which I vacillate.)

For example, in a recent response to Jonah Goldberg, Sullivan defines fundamentalism in relation to politics and dogma:

Just as Oakeshott very carefully allows a place within Western political thought for the politics of faith, so do I within what might be called conservatism. My worry is when that faith becomes fundamentalist, i.e. less interested in political arrangements than divine imperatives.

Yet, in the subsequent paragraph, he decries neocon cynicism as follows:

I have to say I'm not too enamored of outsiders backing fundamentalism in faiths they do not share for political purposes. But, hey, that's been the neocon position on religion for a long time: we don't believe it, but it's good for the masses.

In one breath, Sullivan worries that public faith is drifting from the political realm to the religious. In the next, he complains of those who treat religious groups as factions with which they may or may not be able to join for political purposes. But if the proper role of religion in the public sphere is to make "political arrangements" (a vexingly vague term in Sullivan's usage), then why would it be inappropriate for outsiders to encourage arrangements that suit them? Or, as Goldberg puts it, "Would Andrew support outsiders backing 'reform' in these faiths?"

The curiosity is that Sullivan — who believes that "it's best to leave religion out of" political questions of morality to maximize a freedom characterized by radical individualism — handles individuals strictly according to their roles within his political framework. Neocons "don't believe [in religion], but it's good for the masses." There are neocons, and there are religious people. Folks who fall within religious segments of the broader neocon category, as I probably do, will find Sullivan's analysis particularly discordant.

Because this separation is untenable beyond a very narrow range of argumentation, Sullivan must chase it across the boundary of religion, where it renders thus: The "central tenets" of religious groups involve faith in particular facts (e.g., that Jesus was the Messiah), but drawing social and political conclusions from those facts is "Evangelical fundamentalism and the creeping infallibilism of Wojtyla-Ratzinger." Apparently, it can be a matter of religious Truth that Jesus was the Word of God, but the implications of what He actually said must remain ever open for debate — within and outside of a particular "religious tradition."

Observers of modern society, generally, and Andrew Sullivan, specifically, understand that this distinction transfers all too easily to people's personal worldviews. What they believe is one thing; what they do is another. There are religious creeds, and there are personal preferences, and the former can only be said to be true to the extent that they do not infringe on the latter.

And here we reach the heart of the matter. Sullivan professes that his "first concern with any religious argument is: is it true? Not: is it useful?" What he does not explain is how one determines whether a religious argument is true or false. Long familiarity with his work leads me to think that his determination of Truth ultimately flows from his intuition and desires. Although I would join him in arguing that the faithful must incorporate these factors into their searches, I would suggest to Andrew Sullivan — as I would to the secular neocons whom he describes — that a religion's utility toward good ends is also evidence of its truth.

One point that Christians put forward in support of Jesus' divinity is His wisdom — that His teachings ring true, that His parables apply to our lives, that His instructions effect what He promises when followed. There is certianly space in this for ecumenism and "political arrangements"; others can act in accordance with the Truth of the Word without knowing (or admitting) that they do so.

There is also, we should all agree, room for the truth in politics. If a religion's prescriptions increase the measure of good in the world, then a rational society may very well be able to trace their functions in non-religious terms. Furthermore, a rational society founded in an ideal of pluralism can properly require advocates of one policy or another to do the work that such tracing entails. Only an irrational society would mark as invalid any policies that people of faith claim to be in accordance with God's will simply on the grounds that others disagree.

Posted by Justin Katz at 4:35 PM | Comments (2)

May 2, 2005

Both-And, a Balance of Powers

The following suggestion of Andrew Sullivan's, which I read in a piece by Jonah Goldberg, strikes me as surprising coming from a European and shocking coming from a Catholic:

[Conservatives of doubt] can point to the astonishing success and durability of the U.S. experiment to buttress the notion that the Constitution is a much more stable defense of human equality than that inherent in any religion. The Constitution itself has far wider support among citizens than any theological argument. To put it another way: You don't need an actual religion when you already have a workable civil version in place.

Readers will be aware that I'm a patriot in the conservative sense, but I have to ask: By what historical standard is two hundred years and change evidence of durability? People who live among monuments to their cultures that date back millennia might be hard-pressed to stifle a chuckle. Similarly, those whose religions are defined by documents and traditions with the same or longer heritage might wonder whether Sullivan is playing games with the terms that qualify something as durable. The question of success would be just as arguable (especially if we factor in the acceleration of social change over time).

In its jarring lack of doubt about its own premises, Sullivan's odd bit of argument by convenient assertion appears to be an attempt to tiptoe past an inconvenient factor in his assessment of the American people. Goldberg writes of the "both-and" (versus an "either-or") that defines conservatives as people who have both "skepticism about the new and faith in the old." But the self-contradiction inherent in Sullivan's blind confidence in doubtfulness lays bare a more fundamental "both-and": the Constitution may indeed have "far wider support among citizens than any [particular] theological argument," but that is only because Americans believe that — in one way or another — their theological arguments are, themselves, embedded within the Constitution.

This attitude manifests most directly in those who believe that (for example) "America is a Christian nation" as a Constitutional matter. Sullivan disagrees with that saying, no doubt, but he can't deny that those who agree with it are likely to be among the Constitution's supporters.

The less direct means of embedment — in my view, the proper Constitutional understanding — is that religious principles exist in the civil sphere as a function of the governmental processes that the Constitution lays out. This sort of support for the Constitution hinges on citizens' ability to shape their government according to their moral beliefs.

It is not enough to treat "moral appeals" simply as free speech — to be restricted to "crusades for personal salvation, evangelism, or social work, rather than... legislative change." To the extent that Sullivan is correct that the "purpose of the Constitution was to preserve the Declaration of Independence's right to 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,'" it must also allow them (as the Declaration continues in the very same sentence) "to alter" their government, "laying its Foundation on such Principles... as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

Andrew Sullivan is prominent among commentators throwing about the dark image of theocracy, but again, he seems to be playing games with terminology. Theocracy does not describe a particular set of policies — or even the moral authority that informs them. It describes the civil authority that determines them: those acting as God's explicit representatives. With democracy, on the other hand, all authority must filter through the people.

That Sullivan has now gone so far as to suggest that the Constitution establishes a "civil version" of — and replacement for — religion reveals how much closer those of his political persuasion are to theocracy than are the "conservatives of faith" whom they oppose. That zealots for individual license traverse a dim alleyway to tyranny is evident in their conviction that their preferred policies — from abortion to same-sex marriage — are subjects of Constitutional guarantee.

Even those supposed "theocrats" who would go so far as to argue for mandatory prayers in their local public schools don't argue that the judiciary ought to find that the Constitution requires them.

Posted by Justin Katz at 6:16 AM | Comments (94)

April 16, 2005

Marketing Is Meaning

(N.B. — I'm sure this has been done before and better, but it was easier to draw than to seek.)

Posted by Justin Katz at 12:57 PM

April 3, 2005

Echoes of Immortality

How much influence John Paul II had on my sense of the world is, I regret, absolutely impossible for me to say. Just as Ronald Reagan was the personified Mr. President for people of my age, Karol Wojtyla defined the character of The Pope. For me, however, the difference is that political conversation was in the air surrounding my family, whereas only the periodic intersection of politics and religion brought the latter within view of my unreligious youth. Indeed, it was only a few years ago that I began thinking of the Pope before Paul Anka and Reggie Jackson among people with whom I share a birthday.

This is all to say that the central emotion evoked by the passing of this man for whom the media has held a deathwatch for as long as I can remember is regret that I wasn't very aware of John Paul II while he walked the Earth. But as in everything, there is hope buried beneath such regrets: so much of Wojtyla's life and works are left for me, along with countless generations, to discover — fresh and alive, an echo, we can hope, of the immortality of which the man himself spoke on the Capitol Mall in Washington, D.C., on October 7, 1979: "Human life is precious because it is the gift of God, a God whose love is infinite; and when God gives life, it is forever."

A precious life to be sure. Pray for us, Karol Wojtyla, John Paul II, Holy Father.

Posted by Justin Katz at 2:43 PM | Comments (1)

March 26, 2005

A Source of The Passion

With all of the discussion of the specific acts included in Mel Gibson's The Passion, I'm a bit surprised more wasn't made of relevant aspects of the history of the investigation of the Shroud of Turin:

According to Barbet, the Shroud shows that prior to taking up the Cross, Jesus was subjected to two drastic forms of punishment. First, he was severely beaten with a stick about 1.75 inches in diameter. "Excoriations are to be found everywhere on the face, but especially on the right side." Barbet found "haematomas beneath the bleeding surfaces." The nose "is deformed by a fracture of the posterior of the cartilage." The marks show that the stick was "vigorously handled by an assailant standing on the right of Jesus."

After that, he was subjected to scourging by two men employing the well-known Roman "flagrum," a leather whip featuring small balls of metal or bone designed to tear the skin. Barbet finds more than fifty such strokes. "All the wounds have the same shape, like a little halter about three centimeters long. The two circles represent the balls of lead. . . . We may assume that during the scourging he was completely naked, for the halter-like wounds are to be seen all over the pelvic region, which would otherwise have been protected. . . . Finally, there must have been two executioners. It is possible they were not of the same height, for the obliqueness of the blows is not the same on each side."

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:58 PM | Comments (6)

March 24, 2005

Christians on Death Row Must Accept It?

Mark Krikorian's theology of death row strikes me as, well, debatable at the very least:

This is something that has long bugged me — any attempt by a supposedly remorseful murderer to overturn his death sentence ought to be prima facie evidence that he is not, in fact, remorseful. Part of remorse is accepting the fact that you deserve the law's punishment for your heinous crime — in fact, if you're a Christian, you deserve damnation, which you hope you will be spared by God's grace. As the penitent thief at Calvary rebuked the other thief who mocked the Lord, "Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss."

I'll say, first, that I know absolutely nothing about the case to which Krikorian is responding, so I can't presume or dismiss the sincerity of the criminal at hand. Even so, I can't help but think that those Christians who themselves oppose capital punishment on theological grounds would object to the suggestion that their particular understanding of God's will should be invalid for those actually at risk of death from the contravening policy. It's convenient for the criminal to have religious objections to the death penalty, to be sure, but that certainly doesn't prove that he has no true remorse.

Apart from specific religious-political issues, Mr. Krikorian's requirement for the remorseful seems a bit narrow — in part because he emphasizes remorse rather than repentance. In similar circumstances, wouldn't Krikorian want the opportunity to right some wrongs, do some good, before he faced his judgment? Nothing is gained by forcing the truly repentant man into a state of remorse that he cannot prove his sincerity by future deeds.

(N.B. — To be honest, I still haven't entirely worked out my opinion on capital punishment, but I take Krikorian's argument as evidence that justifying the policy might do more harm than good.)

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:16 PM | Comments (68)

March 12, 2005

Far Be It from Me...

... to judge the religion practiced by my co-religionists, but there's something I just can't fathom: Every Sunday, people around the world shuffle into Catholic Masses. They sit at the pews, listen to the homilies, and participate in the rituals. All of this is done, in most cases, with a statue, picture, frieze — something — with the image of the founder of the Church, the man whom we are to emulate in life, the God whom we are to love, Jesus Christ, hanging from a cross, having been tortured, scorned, and ultimately murdered in an excruciating way.

Now, I know this is hardly a rare perspective, but that knowledge makes it no easier to understand how folks can sit in those pews with this mindset:

I go to mass not to have to deal with problems, but to get a respite from them, so with the friction... it doesn't really make me feel on Sunday morning like getting up and going.
Posted by Justin Katz at 7:18 PM | Comments (2)

But Is It True?

This profound moment in Eric Johnson's conversion (to Catholicism) story makes concrete something that's been on my mind lately:

Surveying the Church's two-thousand-year record, I noticed another strange fact. No matter where it was, even under friendly governments and during peaceful times, she never quite managed to become respectable. Whenever a society thought it had domesticated the gospel, there arose a Francis of Assisi to shake the complacency of those who would relax and enjoy their comforts rather than serve others. The contemporary example of Pope John Paul II was foremost in my mind. How tempting it must be to show up in a foreign country, soak in the adulation of the masses, say a few innocuous platitudes, and fly off in a cloud of ersatz goodwill. Here was a man whose love for humanity was so great that he challenged whole nations to strive for a more perfect order and risk opprobrium for doing so. The sight of a leader who neither pandered to our worst impulses nor consulted opinion polls to mold his message was deeply impressive to me.

Was the pope the head of the one, true Church of Christ? After all, there are a lot of churches out there. How can anyone say that a particular church is the right one? And doesn't that mean the other Christians are wrong? The answer, say Catholics, is that most of what the other churches teach is true but incomplete. What is missing is a coherent explanation of how divine Providence works in the world. God took on human flesh to be a living sacrifice for us, and to teach us by word and example. He underwent not only the physical pain of death by torture, but also the spiritual pain of bearing the punishment for every sin that ever was and ever will be committed. Was it really so implausible, I reasoned, that the Lord would fashion an instrument to preserve the memory of Jesus' words and deeds and protect that memory by guaranteeing it would not become corrupted?

If the Catholic Church was not the true Church, it was a horrible monstrosity, because it presumed to speak with the authority of God but taught erroneously. Would a God of justice permit his name to be misused in this way for fifteen centuries?

Pondering all of this, I put down what I was reading. "My God," I thought. "I actually believe this stuff."

It doesn't matter whether one begins exploring the faith out of intellectual curiosity or emotional desperation. It doesn't matter whether one converts because or in spite of the Church's history. What matters is whether its teachings are true. All faults and successes must be filtered through that perspective.

A Catholic is a Catholic because of the Catechism, not because of a history book.

(Via Lane Core's Blogworthies)

Posted by Justin Katz at 3:43 PM | Comments (20)

March 5, 2005

Randianism over Art

Many of Cox & Forkum's cartoons are simply brilliant. But I'm not sure how they get from this reportage:

"While millions of people in the world struggle to survive hunger and disease, lacking even minimal health care, in rich countries the concept of health as well-being figures in creating unrealistic expectations about the possibility of medicine to respond to all needs and desires," said the Rev. Maurizio Faggioni, a theologian and morality expert on the Vatican's Pontifical Academy for Life.

"The medicine of desires, egged on by the health care market, increases the request for pharmaceutical and medical-surgical services, soaks up public resources beyond all reasonableness," Faggioni said. ...

Psychiatrist Manfred Lutz, a Vatican academic, hailed John Paul, who for years has struggled with Parkinson's, as "the living alternative to the prevailing health-fiend madness." ... "Precisely in the handicap, in the disease, in the pain, in old age, in dying and death one can, instead, perceive the truth of life in a clearer way," Lutz said. "The pope's message is 'suffering is part of life and has meaning," the doctor said.

To this cartoon:

Posted by Justin Katz at 4:51 PM | Comments (1)

February 28, 2005

Cultural Sacrifice by Proxy

Religious believers and non-believers — whether or not they know in which camp they reside — will have irreconcilably different approaches to a given issue. For the example in point: to a non-believer, a religious organization such as the Roman Catholic Church, just like any organization of any type, is its members and what it does. If the people and/or the actions are seen as corrupt, then the organization is defined by corruption. Believers, on the other hand, add a layer of import such that the visible practicalities of the organization are not the whole story. That could be good or bad — depending on what the believer actually believes in — but there's another dimension of consideration required when assessing corruption.

Within the field of Christian belief, with its roots in the New Testament, scriptural incidents can help to frame that assessment, and if we take the twelve disciples' portrayal in the Gospels as an indication, then the manifold flaws in the history of the Church are neither inexplicable nor invalidating. As if to provide a crystallization of this point, both Matthew and Mark note the same action of those who were with Jesus at his arrest: with the violence escalating, with the initial seizure that would begin the Passion, Jesus declared that it all must happen so that scripture would be fulfilled, and the disciples "left him and fled."

If nothing else, the religion that God sent this troupe of doubters and deniers to establish is clearly not one requiring perfection among entrants. The Church in which Simon Peter — arguably the most conspicuous doubter and denier of the lot — is held to be the prototypical pope ought not be expected to be the perfect representative of Christ on Earth, inasmuch as even membership in its hierarchy is not synonymous with sainthood. Rather, it is a body through which all of humanity — sinners that we are — can find our way to God in spite of our failures. The crucial question is: "Simon, son of John, do you love me?" Not: "Peter can you be perfect?" Will you try... not will you succeed.

So to those who see a pattern encompassing, for example, both acquiescence to the fad of castrati and the horrid handling of sexual abuse cases in recent decades, I say that they are correct. The human beings who make up the institutional Church are susceptible to the evils of their times, and the lamentable reality is that those human beings will often fail or fall short in attempting to further explicit ends especially in the direction of cultural gravity. Castrating boys was an excommunicable offense, after all, and employment of the men who'd been subjected to the procedure was hardly unique to the Church. Castrati were so popular that composers sometimes felt compelled to write them into operas for their own sake. More to the point, as inclined as we may be, in the conceits of our less candidly brutal era, to set ourselves above our ancestors, the impulse remains familiar:

Elevated to the position of stars throughout the 18th Century, castrati raised the art of singing beyond human limits. History has recorded the names of a number of famous castrati, who have become legendary in Europe, for example: Caffarelli, Farinelli, Porporino, Senesino and Bernacchi. They attained a level of popularity similar to that of the rock stars of our time. 18th Century groupies went so far as to wear medallions bearing the portraits of their favorite castrati, a fashion not dissimilar to the pins and T shirts fans of rock stars wear today.

How many girls in the modern age have been starved, surgically manipulated, and all but tortured for the excuse of beauty? How many boys have been pushed to exhaustion and misery on the slim hope of athletic success? How many children have been ridden to nervous breakdowns by the constant push to succeed academically — ever younger and covering ever more ground?

I do not intend to deny the organizational Church's errors (evils) or to absolve it of the need for recompense. Indeed, dealing with the Scandal has become a matter of intra-Catholic dispute, and there is much that I would advise be done differently. But in a culture that abuses children relentlessly — almost as a matter of principle — in ways with superficially noble objectives and in ways that cannot be cast otherwise than as licentious, travesties among clerics and in the hierarchy too easily provide the illusion of a redemptive proxy.

Rewriting history to unravel the Church from the developing Western Culture with which it was intimately entwined for so many centuries does not allow us to discard the darkness with the former and keep the blessings with the latter. We cannot expiate our sins by sacrificing those charged with tending the Shepherd's sheep. Believers and non-believers alike do well to recall that hypocrisy isn't among the cardinal sins; consistency makes no virtue of vice, and seeing the sins of others does not diminish our responsibility for those that we share, much less absolve us of our own.

Posted by Justin Katz at 2:18 PM

January 29, 2005

Illinois Establishes Religion

Rod Blagojevich, the governor of Illinois, better brace himself for litigation:

"What we're doing today is older than scripture: Love thy neighbor," the governor told the audience yesterday, according to the Associated Press. "It's what Jesus said when he gave his Sermon on the Mount: 'Do unto others what you would have others do unto you."'

As the refrain so often goes: what right do the executive and legislative branches of the Illinois government have to force their religious views on the people of that state? Surely the letter from the ACLU is already in the mail.

Well, perhaps a letter of congratulations. According to Bryan Preston, the ACLU supports this legislation, which:

... adds "sexual orientation" to the state law that bars discrimination based on race, religion and similar traits in areas such as jobs and housing.

... the bill's sponsor, state Sen. Carol Ronen, D-Chicago, is on record stating it should be applied to churches, meaning they would not be allowed, for example, to reject a job applicant who practices homosexual behavior.

Ronen said: "If that is their goal, to discriminate against gay people, this law wouldn't allow them to do that. But I don't believe that's what the Catholic Church wants or stands for."

As the governor apparently knows, one of the First Amendment's penumbrae covers the establishment of religious views when it involves turning scripture back on the people who actually believe in it. Most Christians would have others do unto them reasonable measures to turn them away from sin. Well, the government of Illinois is only too happy to oblige.

(via Lane Core's weekly Blogworthies)

Posted by Justin Katz at 7:28 PM | Comments (56)

January 25, 2005

More Weights on the Tightrope

Embittering personal experience has kept a story that's already old by blog standards among my bookmarks. Patrick Sweeney quotes from the AP summary of the circumstances:

A group of parents and parishioners are accusing the Orange County diocese of violating church doctrine by allowing a gay couple to enroll their children in a Catholic school.

The group has demanded that Saint John the Baptist School in Costa Mesa accept only families that pledge to abide by Catholic teachings. That would likely bar the men's two adopted boys from attending the school's kindergarten because of church opposition to relationships and adoption by same-sex couples.

School officials have rejected the group's demands and issued a new policy stating that a family's background "does not constitute an absolute obstacle to enrollment in the school."

Commenter John B. makes the best argument in the boys' favor:

Has anyone stopped to think that a Catholic education might be a vehicle to convincing this child that the homosexual marriage of his/her parents is morally wrong? Maybe it will even convince the parents (but I doubt it). The Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways.

Maybe a Catholic education and a set of morals might be just what this child needs now in his/her life.

I'll say, first of all, that this isn't one of those topics upon which people far removed from the situation can offer vehement conclusions. Inasmuch as the superintendent of diocese schools in this case is apparently a priest, the situation there seems to be somewhat better than my experience. In the system in which I taught for a brief time, the education wing of the diocese is more a loosely affiliated group, and as I painfully learned, the guiding principles are far more corporate than Christian.

Indeed, at least in the pre–high school grades, the teachers have no particular training in religion, often opting to fit in the religion lessons where they can, if they can. They've got no basis to answer any difficult questions that the children might have, and they have neither the background nor the diocese support versus the parents to be firm while teaching doctrines that might raise objections. (Lesson one for the unaware middle school teacher: divorce is a third rail.)

None of this is meant as an attack on the teachers, or even the administrators. The problem is that the schools are run more or less as public schools, but with prayer and far fewer resources. In this context, the question arises to rebut John B.: But are those boys, and their parents' apparent set of morals, what the other children need? The balance, as I've said, must be made at the more local level.

On the larger issue of Catholic schools' character, I'm probably not alone among blogosphere Catholics in thinking that they need to be stronger in their religious content. I'd go so far as to add the weight of market forces to this demand. High schools appear to be a different matter, but the lower schools — again, to my experience — lack the elite draw. Owing to a blend of Christian responsibility and a need to fill classrooms to the maximum, the children admitted are often those who've had difficulty in public schools, for one reason or another.

Without the strict codes of the parochial schools of yore, however, these students don't even come close to gaining in religious structure what they lost in taxpayer-funded services. Sometimes I've wondered whether the schools aren't continuing to subsist on the remembered impressions of parents and grandparents of what Catholic school was like when they were children. Neither the illusion nor the calculation can long remain.

Similarly the teachers. Pitiful pay is one thing within the context of a church community. The picture begins to change when they must keep pace with public procedures for certification and maintenance thereof that become law under at least the tacit assumption that public schools assist teachers in meeting the requirements. It changes further still when they are not treated as ends in themselves, but as potential sparks for lawsuits of one kind or another, to be cut loose at the first hint of trouble.

I'm drifting a bit — venting — but the point is that Catholic schools, at least in some cases, have traded away their character, whether absorbing the character of their well-to-do clients or emulating the better-financed public schools. If particular schools conduct themselves as fully Catholic institutions, take them or leave them, then I'd be persuaded that they can venture to admit those children who are in heightened, and sensitive, need of a Christian influence on their lives.

But in the environment that I describe, few teachers are going to present the Church's disagreement with the lifestyle of a given student's parents. Furthermore, schools that have faltered too far may find themselves, in seeking to accommodate such children, being pulled toward what the secular culture wishes they were, rather than what they ought to be.

(N.B. — Patrick posted follow-ups here and here.)

Posted by Justin Katz at 1:56 AM | Comments (1)

January 22, 2005

Beginning Somewhere

Well, I can certainly relate to this:

There is a saying that if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. The converse is also true. If God wants to make you laugh, he will tell you his plans for you. On April 4, 1999, at the Easter Vigil, I was received into the Catholic Church. Just a couple of years before that, if a prophet had told me that I would rejoice on entering the Church or that tears would stream down my cheeks as I went to my first confession, I would have told him that he was gravely mistaken.

I was at the apogee of my conservatism based on Randian positivism. To me, radical selfishness was the highest virtue. The pinnacle of individualism and being a self-made man were my highest ideals. The natural virtues helped to modify this idealistic positivism toward how I related with others, but it was not enough. My nose had long before achieved orbit as I looked down at those poor superstitious mortals who still believed in hunter-gatherer myths such as God.

Thus begins Jeff Miller's "conversion story." I find such pieces always worth reading — familiar and inspiring.

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:38 PM | Comments (1)

January 14, 2005

Toward Religious Armor in a Pill

Believers have long wanted science to return to an internal culture with proper respect for religion, but this isn't quite what they've had in mind:

Top neurologists, pharmacologists, anatomists, ethicists and theologians are to examine the scientific basis of religious belief and whether it is anything more than a placebo.

Headed by Baroness Greenfield, the leading neurologist, the new Centre for the Science of the Mind is to use imaging systems to find out how religious, spiritual and other belief systems, such as an illogical belief in the innate superiority of men, influence consciousness.

A central aspect of the two-year study, which has $2 million (Ł1.06 million) funding from the John Templeton Foundation, the US philanthropic body, will involve dozens of people being subjected to painful experiments in laboratory conditions.

Jeff Miller and his commenters have highlighted two disturbing aspects of the experiment. The first is the impression, the subjects' consent aside, that "scientists" are torturing Christians presumably with impunity. The second is to be found in this paragraph from the news story:

The study is considered of vital importance in the present world climate, given the role of religious fundamentalism in international terrorism. A better understanding of the physiology of belief, the conditions that entrench it in the mind and its usefulness in mitigating pain could be crucial to developing counter-terrorist strategies for the future.

The obvious implication is that those who think this study is "of vital importance" wish to discover "the physiology of belief" in order to reduce it to what might be seen as acceptable levels through scientifically developed techniques. But see if the impression doesn't deepen — and darken — while you ponder a question that Paul Cella posed to his readers:

What is preferable — that Europe continues on its path of secular nihilism, with the crushing weight of multiculturalism descending in an ever-drearier enervation; or that Europe becomes Islamic?

Perhaps we American theists, watching from the sidelines, have been too quick to assume that secular nihilism would passively prostrate itself to Islamic fundamentalism. We all understand secular nihilism (or whatever you prefer to call it) to be a faith in its own right — its greatest lack being the fortitude that positive* faith provides. It seems to me that the envisioned "counter-terrorist strategies" (whatever they are) could evolve to remedy this weakness in two ways: The mettle can be sapped from theistic faiths. Or it can be artificially generated in an atheistic faith, whether for political or military combat.

This is the stuff of science fiction, to be sure, but cultural clashes of continental proportions seemed, until recently, to be the stuff of historical fiction. Either way, maybe our culture's dabbling in surrealism was part of a divine plan to prepare us for the future.

* I use "positive," here, in the descriptive sense, opposite "negative," not in the sense of attributing value.

A graph of E.U. demographics that Dan Drezner posts on his blog gives some perspective about what the future holds for Europe — and not mitigating perspective.

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:09 PM | Comments (1)

"Organized Religion," A Euphemistic Umbrella

For a page layout that you may find easier to read, click "Turn Light On" at the top of the left-hand column.

Glenn Reynolds notes a post on Reason's blog about two events involving religious groups and offensive thespian productions. Thus chimes in Salman Rushdie:

The continuing collapse of liberal, democratic, secular and humanist principles in the face of the increasingly strident demands of organised religions is perhaps the most worrying aspect of life in contemporary Britain.

Frankly, I share others' concerns about laws that limit speech having to do with religion, and Charles Paul Freund's post on Reason was framed in context of the proposal of such a law in the U.K. We've recently seen, in Australia, what lies around the corner, and Christians no less than libertarians should be concerned.

That said, it seems to me that Rushdie's use of "organized religion" is euphemistic. Compare incident one:

Windows of the Birmingham Repertory Theatre were smashed and fire alarms set off, and the building was pelted with eggs. Some police officers were injured.

About 1,000 Sikhs from around the country had gathered in Birmingham's Centenary Square to protest against the play, which is set in a Sikh temple where rape, abuse and murder take place.

With incident two:

Christian protesters set fire to their television licenses outside the BBC's London offices on Friday as outrage spread over the public broadcaster's plans to air a profanity-laden musical. ...

Michael Reid, a pastor and self-styled bishop who organized the peaceful demonstration ahead of the airing on Saturday evening, called the musical "filth."

While we're defending freedom of speech from one angle, let's not blur lines crucial to the very same freedom from another angle. And let's not forget this consideration:

British viewers pay around 120 pounds ($225) a year for their color television licenses.
Posted by Justin Katz at 9:07 PM | Comments (5)

January 13, 2005

A World Without Pain, Part 2

Among the confounding aspects of the theodicy controversy is the likelihood that the people who claim that tragedy disproves God, or at least His goodness, would scoff if offered a world of utter comfort at the price of free will. In contrast, believers understand, even if we differ in specifics and even if the practice can be difficult, that the solution is to develop our sense of comfort such that we accept and submit to God's will of our own accord. Even in this mangling world, that perspective takes the existential sting (as distinct from the personal ache) out of tragedies.

Part of the mistake, I think, is in the urge to insist that there is blame to be attributed. What is, what exists, is ultimately good by definition. Not many theists would welcome the emotional response that would surely follow any statement that appears to minimize the palpable suffering of parents who've lost their children. If the statements are made thoughtlessly and under inappropriate circumstances, those emotional responses would be entirely justified. But such emotion isn't a response to religious understanding when circumstances allow a more contemplative exchange.

Sufficiently removed, it is not obscene to balance emotion with emotion. Here's a question to ask yourself: If it would have prevented the tsunami, would you have sacrificed your own children? Rare (and likely dishonest) are those parents who would say "yes." Nobody would expect such a thing; in fact, in some contexts we admire unyielding love in a parent. Yet, every event of history leading up to your birth allowed you to be — caused you, as God's child, to exist. In a manner of speaking, one could suggest that God puts up with the catastrophe to make you possible. Not just "a person." Not just a person resembling you in some particulars. You. That is a God of love.

Here's a question on the other side of the scales: If you could remove every difficulty from your children's lives, would you? Personally, I'd suggest that doing so would steal something at the core of your children's humanity. And we — both children and the parents who help to form them — are created in God's image, after all.

Of course, we can return to the mantra: God, if He is a God of love, could have created us without the pain. But we don't have a larger context of what God was trying to accomplish with this world — what, specifically, He is trying to create in us — in order to assess whether He's managing it with love and toward ultimate good. We are incapable of comprehending something so vast. I mentioned previously the possibility that the Western aid following the tsunami softened the heart of a future bin Laden. Well, imagine these possibilities piling up to take account of every single person — living, dead, and yet to be born — affected by the calamity. At what point do we cease to see opposing measurements of good and evil and see, instead, a process that, in its end, we can accept as definitively good?

Ron Rosenbaum asks whether God could have created "a better, less murderous human nature—consistent with free will." One implication of this question is to pit the notion of God's goodness against the notion of his love. In order to be good, in other words, He would have had to preclude the existence of everybody who has ever existed (minus two).

I, for one, cannot imagine what it could possibly mean to say that God could have created autonomous people who are shaped in some measure by pain without the pain. What's really being said here is that the complainers would have created a different world than God has, inhabited by creatures innocent of pain. It's a value judgment, not a statement pertaining to mechanism. (And, as above suggested, it probably involves idealistic values that the speaker himself doesn't hold.) I suppose, similarly, a molecule might object to some of particulars of its existence, but who would be moved by its claim that the Creator could have made mountains without molecules?

Ultimately, there may be no breaching the gap between those with whom I share an approach to religion and those who insist, with Rosenbaum, that theodicy has yet to break beyond "vague evasions." The gap may even be insuperably broad between myself and my fellow Christian David Hart, who would apparently see my theology as "odious" and "blasphemous." In the case of the latter gap, surely this is an instance in which "the many paths to God" ecumenism applies such that those willing to leave explanation alone to stand on faith and those drawing on faith to think through explanations needn't resort to insults.

Such debates, even when too heated, are themselves evidence of a perspective for which we must strive, even as we admit that intellectual understanding is no match for ponderous grief. If the greatest good lies in a greater understanding of God and a more fully appreciative comprehension of His nature, then that good can exist not in spite of our grief, but within it.

Posted by Justin Katz at 12:04 PM | Comments (13)

January 12, 2005

First Thoughts

Maybe it's just my current state of mind, but I'm really finding myself surprised by discordant theological statements lately. Particularly striking have been the "if you want a God like..." statements. Here's one from John Derbyshire:

All that kind of thinking trivializes God. It belongs to the category of thinking that A.N. Whitehead called "misplaced concreteness." It shows a dismal poverty of imagination -- reducing the divine to science fiction (or in the case of the "Left Behind" books, to a combination of sci-fi and spy thriller). The ID-ers' God is a sort of scientist himself, sticking his finger in to make things work when natural laws -- His laws! -- can't do the job. Well, if that's your God, I wish you joy of him. My God is much vaster and stranger than that.

I wonder: How would Derb respond to evidence that God had "stuck his finger in"? Would it lessen God in his view, or require Derb to enlarge Him in a new way? I ask because the first thought that comes to my mind when I hear specifics about the search for proof of design is that, even more, it would be proof of God's communication with us. Worked into His blueprint of reality — perhaps at the molecular level — would be a flaw (as Derb sees it) meant to act in the world in an entirely distinct way from the scientific mechanics: through its effect on us.

As the owner of a half-century-old house, I've found that the quirky fixes that I come across immediately make human intelligence real for me — of a particular human. A flawlessly operating heating system may be a marvel of ingenuity, but it can seem to be the product of an automated mechanical construction process. It's difficult to picture its designer. Come across something jury-rigged, however, and the thinking, feeling person is right there with you.

Just a thought.

Posted by Justin Katz at 5:01 PM | Comments (5)

A World Without Pain, Part 1

So... theodicy. What follows is neither in response to nor targeted toward those whom any recent calamity has directly affected; I can only pray that God will forgive me for my gnashing of teeth at events far less trying than the devastation that the tsunami and other events have wrought of late. Patrick Sweeney is right to say that understanding "why God allows the good to suffer and the wicked to thrive is not a comfort to the afflicted."

Rather, Patrick is half-right. Understanding will comfort; how could it not? What would be "stupid" is to attempt explanations in the midst of suffering. Nonetheless, the sowing of doubt continues apace, making it reckless not to pick up the other side. Therefore, it is to those sufficiently removed from personal loss for emotion not to be an insurmountable barrier that I suggest: If your vision of God is such that your faith can be shaken by the reality of catastrophe, then you'd best reformulate that vision, because your faith rests on an obvious fantasy.

Holding this view is part of why I've found my reading of essays, such as one by Ron Rosenbaum, to be reduced to pure exercise:

... it is an underappreciated scandal that, philosophically, the "age old question" of theodicy has not been satisfactorily answered without resort to vague evasions ("It's all a mystery," "We just can't understand God's plan," "It will allow good to manifest itself in the hearts of the survivors," "We live in a fallen world," "The dead are better off in heaven"). A failure that asks us to just have faith that it's all for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

Just 278 words into a 3,114-word piece, and Rosenbaum has already used the word "satisfactorily" twice in this way. When you disagree with a premise that's so firmly declared, the next few thousand words tend to resonate like an intellectual game. Rosenbaum repeats the favorite response that an all-powerful God could have made a world without evil, but in which human beings still had free will. The fact that, instead, God created the world that we inhabit supposedly presents believers with a conundrum that Arts & Letters Daily editor Dennis Dutton puts thus:

If God is God, he's not good. If God is good, he's not God. You can't have it both ways, especially not after the Indian Ocean catastrophe.

What Rosenbaum and Dutton are essentially asking for is Heaven on Earth as proof of God and His goodness. The impression that such declarations give — notwithstanding the confidence with which they are stated — is that the issue lies more with the speaker's feelings about pain and definition of good than with God's role. There's something commiserable about the urge to offer God a standard of goodness up to which He must live.

Often, particularly when the person providing an "objective" measure of good for God to follow is an atheist, the point is as Michael Novak describes it: "to get me to deny the reality of God." Again the sense of a game pushes up between the lines; I don't know what creeds Rosenbaum and Dutton follow, but the former insists that the question has never been "satisfactorily answered," and the latter asserts that it cannot be.

These exchanges can go around and around, and surely many a "taunter" (Novak's word) has batted away with glee every attempt of a believer to put his view into mutually agreeable language. Even Eastern Orthodox theologian David Hart provides a platform from which to swing, saying that "no Christian is licensed to utter odious banalities about God's inscrutable counsels or blasphemous suggestions that all this mysteriously serves God's good ends."

And so it goes. John O'Sullivan, perhaps wistfully, mentions in passing the possibility that American GIs' "visibility also reduces the hatred of the Christian West on which Osama bin Laden feasts" in Muslim parts of South Asia. The notion made me wonder how the anti-theodicists might dismiss a suggestion that the tsunami, by its generation of goodwill, may have turned around the view of, say, an Indonesian man who was on track to make bin Laden look like a cheap prankster. Probably they'd say that a God of goodness wouldn't have needed to slaughter the innocents in order to change one man's mind.

I could continue that particular thread by suggesting that what is possible, when it comes to human society, is muddled up with our thresholds for apathy and for holding grudges. But since these are meant to be examples in circular futility, I'll just throw out a couple more. What if I suggest that without pain there is no pleasure? Well, God could have created a world in which that wasn't true. That without fault and error, the universe would merely be a vast playground, not a place in which we could derive purpose? Well, God could have created a world in which that wasn't true.

It begins to seem that no answer is satisfactory mostly because what people really want is to live in a world in which the tsunami didn't happen, in which it could not have happened. That, my friends, would not be the world in which we live. And that, in turn, is why the argument is probably futile; either you accept that the world explains God, or you believe that God owes us an explanation — now — for the world in order for us to believe in Him.

(N.B. — due to length and hour, I'll continue this essay in a part 2 post tomorrow, as measured by breakes in consciousness.)

Posted by Justin Katz at 1:57 AM | Comments (4)

January 5, 2005

All from a Private Decision Amid Despair

I've been meaning to recommend this column by Chuck Colson for almost a month; I've just found it difficult to figure out what to quote as a sample:

With plenty of time to think, Jake [DeShazer] wondered: What makes people hate each other? And he also wondered: Doesn’t the Bible say something about loving our enemies?

He asked his jailers for a Bible and eventually got one. He read it with fascination, re-reading some parts six or more times. Then, ten days into his study, he asked Christ to forgive his sins. He remembers, “suddenly . . . when I looked at the enemy officers and guards . . . , I realized that . . . if Christ is not in a heart, it is natural to be cruel. . . . [M]y bitter hatred . . . changed to loving pity.” Remembering Christ’s words from the cross— “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”—he asked God to forgive those who tortured him, as well. ...

When the war ended, Captain Fuchida returned to his family farm near Osaka. Later, stepping off a train in Tokyo, he was given a copy of Jacob DeShazer’s booklet. Intrigued, he began reading the Bible. And despite his Shinto heritage, he accepted Christ as his Savior.

That's not the end of the miraculous part.

Posted by Justin Katz at 8:41 PM | Comments (2)

January 1, 2005

All You Need to Know About "2004 in religion"

Richard Dujardin has a long piece in today's Providence Journal titled "2004 in religion," and what a telling first sentence it has:

It was a year when many gay couples in Massachusetts rejoiced, being able to marry legally for the first time.

(In case you're wondering, the fact that, "with the help of religious conservatives, 11 states banned same-sex marriages" is held until the second to last sentence of the piece.)

Posted by Justin Katz at 5:52 PM | Comments (1)

December 30, 2004

The Intricacies of Love and Hate

In "The Virtue of Hate," from the February 2003 issue of First Things, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik contrasts two exhortations — one Christian and one Jewish — that seem to touch the heart of the difference between the two religions (emphasis in original):

Arguing that the newly empowered South African blacks readily forgave their white tormentors, Tutu explains that they followed "the Jewish rabbi who, when he was crucified, said, Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." ...

[At the climax of Yom Kippur, Jews] have spent the past twenty–five hours meditating upon their sins and asking for forgiveness. Now, they suddenly turn their attention to those who gave no thought to forgiveness, no thought to God, no thought to the dignity of the Jewish people. After focusing on their own actions, Jews turn to those of others, and their parched throats mouth this message: "Father, do not forgive them, for they know well what they do."

The understanding of knowledge and awareness is the pervasive difference. And it bears not only on the object of hatred, but also on the source of it; the hater should know well what he does, too, as Soloveichik indicates when he writes the following:

The message is that hate allows us to keep our guard up, to protect us. When we are facing those who seek nothing but our destruction, our hate reminds us who we are dealing with.

The disheartening implication of this — disheartening especially because I don't recall ever hearing it disputed — is that love alone is a blinding emotion. "Burning hatred, once kindled, is difficult to extinguish," and hatred "must be very limited [and] directed" — suggesting that it can be applied with circumspection. Love, on the other hand, is granted no such controllability, no such thoughtfulness.

Christian love is not, however, the romantic love of complete abandonment. On the same topic as Soloveichik, Jeff Jacoby writes:

It defies reason and upends morality to claim that God loves both Saddam Hussein and the innocent Kurds he gassed to death -- that He bestows His love on Osama bin Laden no less than on the 3,000 souls he butchered on 9/11.

The minimized possibility, in this, is that God's love is not an indulgent, all-permissive love. Good parents teach their children right and wrong, and they will be disappointed when a child goes astray and stern when imparting the lesson. Their love, however, is constant. The modern popular imagination can only resort to pleas of denial to explain parents' persistent love even for progeny who turn toward evil, but that is an indictment of the modern popular imagination, not of love nor of God.

Christian love between people is not worship or adoration; it is the desire to serve, to help, and one cannot help others without honestly acknowledging their true natures. That is the difficult challenge: not to hide truth, blinding ourselves to the inroads that evil has made in others so that we can love them, but to realize others' faults and love nonetheless. Thus, in loving our enemies, we seek to comprehend the cracks through which evil has seeped into them and to help them free themselves of it.

This will involve insisting on repentance and recompense (and let us not underestimate the pain of coming to terms with direct personal culpability for travesties). It will also require care not to invite them to further sin through naive benignity.

Hatred, in contrast, blinds by diminishing the role that the hated person plays in our prescriptions. Hatred is predictable, because it is grounded in the intention to harm rather than the intention help its object. Hatred makes those who harbor it vulnerable to any enemy willing to accept it with a shrug. Hatred also blinds those who would make it a virtue to important lessons. Soloveichik relates the following as an example of the way in which hatred "allows us to keep our guard up":

The rabbis of the Talmud were bothered by a contradiction: the book of Kings describes Saul as killing every Amalekite, and yet Haman ["the Hitler of his time"], according to his pedigree in the book of Esther, was an Agagite, a descendant of the Amalekite king. The Talmud offers an instructive solution: after Saul had killed every Amalekite, he experienced a moment of mercy, and wrongly refrained from killing King Agag. This allowed Agag a window of opportunity; he had several minutes before he was killed by the angry Samuel. In those precious moments, Agag engaged in relations with a random woman, and his progeny lived on to threaten the Jews in the future.

In the Catholic Bible, this scene is chapter 15 of the first book of Samuel, which would support an entire discussion on its own. For now, the relevant point is that Soloveichik is presenting it as teaching the lesson that more hatred of Agag in Saul would have prevented Haman from ever having been born. (Properly gauging hatred, it would seem, is a tricky matter indeed.)

I see quite a different point: Haman was born, and hatred to the point of utter genocide did not prevent it. And the solution is to hate more? This is merely one thread in the entirety of the Old Testament, of course, but perhaps subsequent history would have been entirely different had Agag been treated according to the modified rule that Christians follow. I find it thematically suggestive that Haman's rampage begins when the Jewish Mordecai is alone among the king's servants in refusing to bow to him; enmity begets exchanges of genocide.

Rabbi Soloveichik states that there is "no minimizing the difference between Judaism and Christianity on whether hate can be virtuous," and the more one considers it, the more the question seems to relate to elemental beliefs. From a Christian point of view, the most profound reality that those who killed Jesus "knew not" was that theirs was an act of deicide. Borrowing a phrase from Jacoby, "those who torture and murder without qualm, who are pitiless in the pain they inflict on others," ignore what is sacred in every human being. In charity, we hope that they know not the spiritual truth of what they do.

That charity, as an expression of love, is critical for our own well-being. In order to hate, no matter how under control we believe the emotion to be, we must also turn our eyes from the sacred in those whom we hate. For hatred's sake, we deny that, somewhere within them, God is part of their true natures. In doing so, we deny that He is necessarily part of our own.

Posted by Justin Katz at 9:00 PM | Comments (1)

December 28, 2004

Divine Inspiration in the Arts

One of my fortunate discoveries, this fall, after I'd come to the stunning revelation that not all music with an explicitly Christian message is saturated with a trying-too-hard unctuousness, was Who We Are Instead by Jars of Clay. A review by Mark Joseph that I'd read in early August was absolutely glowing, and it ended by pointing to another revelation:

Among these [fans], ironically enough, is U2's front man Bono, who recently noted, "I've had their version of the song 'Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet' in my car for a year now, and you know what — it never has failed me yet."

Not surprisingly, given my past, I'd never heard U2 described in a Christian context before I began sifting through the Christian neighborhoods of the blogosphere, but apparently the theme has been there all along.

In the time since I read Joseph's review of Jars of Clay, the more-famous of the two bands has released what is being declared its "most conspicuously Christian record," and I can't help but wonder if there's been a Christian music equivalent of what the business folks call "upward management." Is the mainstream, commercial success of such bands as Creed, Sixpence None the Richer, and Jars of Clay beginning to make it acceptable again for pop/rock stars to express their faith? To come out?

That may or may not be the case, but the possibility does indicate a damaging bifurcation of faith and public life that has spread across more aspects of society than music. In a review of a previous album by Jars of Clay, Mark Joseph noted the band's fight to be treated "in the category that describes their music (pop/rock), not the category that describes their faith (gospel)." For too long, now, there has been religion and there has been culture, and one could fully integrate with one by becoming a stranger to the other.

That reality detracts from both aspects of our society, and it would be a mistake to see it as the work of only one side. Doug Giles describes the issue from the other angle:

Since God is the self-existent Lord of the universe and accountable to no one, he could have made the world in which we live completely beige. He could have been a minimalist who only shops at West End. He's God and can do what he wants. Instead, God dumped a lot of unnecessary splendor on us, expressly for our enjoyment. And you know what ... this freaks out the altar-call-driven, number-crunching, pragmatic, no-taste Church-goer because it seems that such expenditure is a waste of time, space and energy.

It sounds oversimple to say it, but at least part of life's purpose is to live, and arts and culture enhance that experience. The opposing reflection of this truism is that arts and culture lose their force without meaning and lose their coherence when disengaged from philosophy. Religion and culture oughtn't be kept distinct any more than they ought to be self-consciously melded. Each is ubiquitous in a person's life, and if we return to the practice of peering through life where they overlap most visibly, we will surely bring about a renaissance in the decades to come.

Posted by Justin Katz at 6:00 PM | Comments (1)

Call Off the Culture War

Back when Janet Jackson's Super Bowl striptease and Howard Stern's usual antics inspired the Senate to increase the fines for indecency to a level at which media corporations wouldn't sniff at the penalty,* Jeff Jarvis began a post titled "The Daily Stern: Taps for the First Amendment" as follows:

TEARING DOWN THE BILL OF RIGHTS: Religious fundamentalists, organized as a Dumb Mob, just dealt a deadly blow to free speech in America with legislators, cynical hypocrites, as their henchmen and media standing idly by, the short-sighted quislings.

Jarvis titled another post, specifically about reaction to the Super Bowl incident, "Book burners." To this rhetoric, somebody who disagrees with Jarvis's general position might be inclined to respond thus:

There is no religous war in America. That ended more than two centuries ago. And now we enjoy the benefits of that struggle. We should be grateful for that and stop squandering it with squabbles.

I didn't write that; Jeff Jarvis did. When religious citizens insist on a standard of propriety in the public square, their expression is "the organized effort of one Dumb Mob." When the argument is over religious displays in the public square, both sides need to "grow up and count their blessings" — and quietly put their creches "anywhere else." If only we could all develop Jarvis's fine-tuned sense of what is "silly" and what is "ridiculous." (Disallowing "an instrumental version of a Christmas ditty" receives the first adjective, but what about disallowing the lyrics to be sung?)

In Jarvis's view, "we are fortunate enough to have a First Amendment that guarantees our freedom to worship... yet we squander that fortune, that blessing, with silly, egotistical, show-off squabbles." I wonder what religious freedom amounts to, though, if the extent of worship — of religious expression — is not an open question. Jarvis (a Congregationalist whose sect's expression of theism is not generally targeted for restriction) has an understanding of the church-state relationship that is not incompatible even with radical secularism. But what of those who disagree fundamentally about the appropriate roles both of religion and of the law? Is it squandering the fortune of religious freedom to insist that citizens have a right to make their religion visible in their public capacity, even when others strenuously disagree, or does it contribute to that fortune?

There is no more expedient way to kill religion than to treat it as a private taste, a fashionable sensibility. Religion dies from silence. Among my most startling discoveries upon opening myself up to the possibility of faith was that people actually believe that stuff. What's more, thoughtful, reasonable, intelligent people believe that stuff! How is it possible that I could grow up not understanding this in a country in which 96% of citizens celebrate Christmas? I'd say that the answer is not unrelated to the willingness of people in '80s–'90s Northern New Jersey to be accommodating enough to say "happy holidays" so as not to offend.

Jarvis makes a puzzling statement when he says "millions around the world would die -- yes, die -- to enjoy" our freedom of worship. I'd suggest that submitting to death would be a counterproductive approach to enjoying anything in this life. As for securing religious freedom — broadly speaking — for others, accepting death has what might be called an extramundane precedent. The more insidious danger to religion and expression thereof is that we'll all learn to keep our lips prudently sealed about God out of concern that "He would roll His eyes"... you know, if He really existed.

* Jarvis argues that the amounts are such that he "can be bankrupted for making what is, in fact, political speech." Putting aside the what and whether of political speech, a wry chuckle is in order with the application of perspective. According to the Washington Post piece to which Jarvis links, the fine had been $32,500; frankly, that's more than enough to bankrupt somebody in my circumstances.

If Jarvis wants to argue that such fines ought to be relative to the person or organization that violates a particular rule or that there ought to be an explicit procedure for seeking mitigation, that would certainly be a reasonable suggestion — one that I'd support. It mightn't even be adequate that Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT) added language to the penalty change in order to allow "the FCC to consider [smaller-market broadcasters'] size when assessing fines." But somehow, I think Jarvis would rather push for the removal of all fines than consent to making existing fines more fair.

Posted by Justin Katz at 12:53 PM | Comments (3)

December 22, 2004

Cross Purposes

Because it has a New England angle, I posted over on Anchor Rising my thoughts about the Vermont Veteran Home's removal of a plain cross from its property. Thought y'all might like to know.

Posted by Justin Katz at 8:18 PM

December 18, 2004

More Weight on the Rack

You know, there comes a point at which one is reluctant to reinforce faith to handle increased hardship and fear because experience suggests that God will merely pile on more. There's surely a flaw in that over-emotional theology... isn't there? It's too much a disguised hopelessness: feeling that circumstances will never improve because God is making one ever stronger isn't but so much different than feeling that circumstances will never improve because raw nature goes on churning.

I suppose the former implies that the believer will eventually be strong enough. But what could that possibly mean in comparison with God? Why must we be broken to be rebuilt? Why must the procedure that we undergo be so vague? How do we avoid convincing ourselves that better times, when they come, are a sign of our own weakness and, therefore, to be scuttled?

Yeah, I already know how to answer these questions if I choose to do so.

Posted by Justin Katz at 2:39 PM | Comments (1)

December 9, 2004

On the Agency of Satan

I'm glad to see, in the comments to a post in which I responded to some of his thoughts on cloning, that Phil Bowermaster takes others' speculation about the disposition of his soul seriously enough to take offense. I'm even more glad to hear that he now thinks that "there's plenty to regret" aboutthe post of his to which I'd responded. (However, I will note that the time for mitigation would have been when he republished it, or at latest when he saw the Instalanche heading toward him.)

The objection that he (understandably) maintains speaks to a difference of perspective that to Christians appears obvious, but to atheists and agnostics may seem obscure, nonsensical, or obviously false:

I am characterized as a monster, an advocate of slavery, a fiend who would casually redefine humanity to serve his own selfish purposes, and (if I read your last line correctly) Satan's agent here on earth. Not surprisingly, I take exception to these characterizations.

I won't respond on behalf of other readers, but Bowermaster is correct about the allusion in my last line — although he takes from it a connotation that I don't attribute to it. It seems to me a pretty clear consequence of life in a fallen world that each and every one of us is, at some point, an agent of Satan. To be sure, there are degrees, the worst being deliberate rejection of God for rejection's sake — self-aware enlistment with evil. I suspect such a thing is rare, and I don't think it's a suggestion that can be found in a fair reading of my post in Bowermaster's case.

In his case, the degree is akin to a grievous error. In seeking good, he inadvertently chooses evil. Real life, unfortunately, rarely presents us with the stark choice of a bluesman at the crossroads; rather, at some point, an error in motivation or in analysis steers us down the wrong path.

But we can always go back. There is no irredeemable evil. In this light, when somebody writes, as I did, that a particular line of advocacy "steers us toward playing" the Devil, it is a warning, not a condemnation.

The opposite end of the spectrum — the notion of "playing God" — falls to a similar difference in perspective:

At one point, only God had ever made a limb. Was it "playing God" to invent the first prosthetic leg? There was a time when only God had ever started a heartbeat. Was the first doctor who used electric resuscitating paddles "playing God?" And I can only assume that you think that in vitro fertilization is "playing God."

Well... yes, yes, and yes. But it was Bowermaster who treated the assertion that cloning "isn't playing God" as if that question were decisive. "Is," then no cloning; "isn't," then yes cloning. I was arguing from within his construction. As a matter of fact, in an important sense, I think we're called to play God. (We're created in His image, after all.) Forget limbs and heartbeats; when you uphold love for your children even when they appear to reject you, you're "playing God."

There's a point, however, at which playing God in a good way slides quickly to playing God in a bad way. At that point, doing as God does (potentially good) corrupts our thinking such that we believe we can claim the privileges of the divine (bad). In keeping with my previous post, one such claim is the right to "assert" dominion over the humanity of a twin whom one has created. The essential argument of many of those who oppose cloning is that the jump from deliberately creating life in an artificial fashion to asserting God-like control over its destiny is less a leap than a stumble.

I'd suggest that raising personal offense to the status of persecution is one of the ways in which modern society has eroded the barriers that keep us from such soul-slick turf. So I repeat: I'm glad that Phil cared to take offense, and I'm even more glad that he's "inclined to say let's go with [my] definition" of when life begins. But I'll still insist that harsh characterizations of his position are not so much a judgment as reminders of the one that is God's prerogative.

Posted by Justin Katz at 7:38 PM | Comments (14)

November 23, 2004

Hope for Hitmen

You've surely seen this already, but I just had to offer my own blog-style shake of the head:

"I'm trying to be a good Catholic," [Representative Barbara A.] L'Italien said. "But this should be a separate issue. Church should be a sanctuary for me and my faith and not have anything to do with my work."

As Jeff Miller says:

This attitude is really not so surprising. First we had the false dichotomy of church and state with the alleged wall of separation to prevent you from actually voting based on your faith. Now we have the separation of work and church. Her comment is just so laughable and devoid of reason. Would her excuse also go for a professional robber?

I'd add to Jeff's comments that L'Italien is a poster girl for more than the separation of church and X movement. Note the phrase "a sanctuary for me and my faith"; the more significant separation that's all too common in our society, in my mind, is not between church and state, but between faith and religion. L'Italien thinks the Church should support her faith, whatever that might happen to be. Attempts to direct that faith should be "a separate issue" from her relationship with the religious organization.

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:33 PM | Comments (1)

November 9, 2004

Love's Just a Superstition

Jonah Goldberg makes an excellent point in a column that's ostensibly about liberals' sore-loserism:

Love, in fact, is just as silly and superstitious a concept as God (and for those who believe God is Love, this too is a distinction without a difference). Chesterton's observation that the purely rational man will not marry is just as correct today, because science has done far more damage to the ideal of love than it has done to the notion of an awesome God beyond our ken. Genes, hormones, instincts, evolution: These are the cause for the effect of love in the purely rational man's textbook. But Maher would get few applause lines from his audience of sophisticated yokels if he mocked love as a silly superstition. This is, in part, because the crowd he plays to likes the idea of love while it dislikes the idea of God; and in part because these people feel love, so they think it exists. But such is the extent of their solipsism and narcissism that they not only reject the existence of God but go so far as to mock those who do not, simply because they don't feel Him themselves. And, alas, in elite America, feelings are the only recognized foundation of metaphysics.
Posted by Justin Katz at 9:31 PM | Comments (1)

As Close as You Can Get

Although it's been in my bookmarks for almost a week and a half, since last week's Blogworthies, a post by Fr. Jim Tucker is not something that I wanted to let slip through the cracks between the days. Fr. Tucker's key idea is that faith is a process, and we oughtn't take the fact that we find one aspect of living it impossible as an excuse to discard the whole endeavor. (He puts it more charitably than that.)

I recommend the whole post, but the second of three enumerated points stood out in particular:

Before talking about your dissent from the Church, lay out what you do assent to. Start with the Creed. Consider that, even though all the truths of the Faith are equally true, some truths are more central than others. To reject papal infallibility is wrong. But it's more wrong to reject, say, the Resurrection. It's wrong to reject the Church's teaching on divorce. It's far worse to reject her teaching on the Trinity. One's focus, then, should be on the center and only then move out to the perifery. A person should ask himself what doctrines he does believe, and why he believes them, starting with the central ones. He should ask himself how the Gospel impacts his life and changes his behavior. Only after all that should he start to highlight what he rejects and how he diverges from orthopraxy -- and what the reasons are for those divergences. I think a lot of people would be surprised by how much they do believe.

Starting from essentials is a good approach no matter the topic.

Posted by Justin Katz at 12:31 AM | Comments (1)

November 8, 2004

The Many Paths to Truth

Jeff Miller links to a short interview with NRO senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru. Since Ponnuru's writing generally falls more toward the analytical than the personal, the first question is likely of the most interest to those familiar with his work: You recently entered the Catholic Church. What was your religious background and what led you to become Catholic? Were you surprised by anything as you journeyed toward becoming Catholic?

Ponnuru: My father is Hindu, my mother Lutheran. I was raised without much religious instruction, except that of example. The process by which the Church drew me to her was long. It would be presumptuous for me to say that I myself entirely understood how the Holy Spirit worked here. To summarize the intellectual aspect of the process: I first came to see that many of the virtues the Church inculcates were good for people, and then to see that they were good for people because this was the way we were meant to live--and so forth until I saw that I now believed the Church's claims for itself to be true.

While it was certainly a precondition to my own conversion that I be able to affirm my faith in intellectual terms, it seems Ponnuru began with more of a foundation of plausibility. I had a huge mound of ideological and temperamental skepticism to surmount on my way to belief, so it was necessary for me to be forced into the realization of my deep, deep need for God.

My first irresolute step was to attend Mass with an openness to its possible effect on me. I'd gone before, but my attendance was securely bound in the excuse of courting my wife, with eyes fixed on the social aspects of organized religion. But on that too-bright spring day, I walked into the church as a church, not as a gathering hall.

As it happened, that particular building was being prepared to be the home of several parishes that were about to merge. There was scaffolding everywhere, planting its metal legs amid the pews and darkening most of the windows. A small, temporary cross hung above the alter from a metal beam.

I've no additional knowledge about Ramesh's conversion, but from what little I know about him, I can picture him gradually becoming convinced of Catholicism's truth. For many of us, though, life has to compel openness before we'll submit to the process of rebuilding.

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:46 AM

November 7, 2004

God in Minor Keys

A Googler who found her way to this site (search phrase: "john lennon atheist"), identifying herself as a thirteen year old, left a comment to this post about The Passion and conversion. She raised a common argument (with surprising longevity), so I thought I'd copy my reply into a post of its own:


The existence of pain and suffering tells us absolutely nothing about the existence of God. The fact that God isn't like an all-powerful over-protective mother doesn't mean that God just isn't. It does, however, give us clues about God's nature and what He might want of us.

As a fan of Kurt Cobain, you ought to have a tremendous sense of the truth that good things can come from suffering. Chances are that the attributes of his music that you like derive, to some extent, from what he was going through. This isn't to say that it is right to wish suffering on others to get good songs out of them, but even the most over-protective mother will force her child to suffer if the payoff is important enough. (Some kids would say school is that very sort of suffering.)

Suppose a young child has cancer. Would you blame her mother for putting her through the various painful therapies to cure it? At least according to my Christian view of God it simply isn't the case that His watching us die in this life is "like watching your beloved child slowly die before you." Death is a transition; what if life itself is the "magic potion" that you mention?

As for John Lennon's religious beliefs... I'd suggest, first, that turning to rock stars for advice on God is a bit like turning to somebody who lives in Manhattan for advice on preparing a farm for winter. That said, everything I've ever read on the subject would indicate that he was an atheist. (Just look at the lyrics to songs like "God" and even "Imagine.")

Interestingly, though, George Harrison — who was most definitely not an atheist, and who knew Lennon personally — wrote a song a few months after Lennon's death titled "All Those Years Ago." In that song, which is like a letter to Lennon, Harrison writes that "they've forgotten all about God/He's the only reason we exist." That line always struck me as odd, considering Lennon's own lyrics about God...

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:30 PM | Comments (2)

November 5, 2004

The Surprise Is That They're Surprised

On his new blog, Mystery Achievement, frequent St. Blogs commenter someguy links to a Chicago Tribune piece about the Vatican's dismay at discovering itself cut out of the loop in the congealing secular caliphate of Europe:

"Taking into account the Christian roots of the European continent remains fundamental for the future development of the union," [Pope John Paul II] told the pilgrims.

The omission is more than symbolic. Had the reference been included, the Vatican would have been able to challenge Europe-wide legislation that conflicted with its teachings as unconstitutional, said Marco Politi, the Vatican correspondent for Italy's La Repubblica newspaper.

Instead, the church fears that its teachings will be swept aside, even in countries where it still has influence, by the emerging new European bureaucracy.

As I suggested in my pre-election NRO piece regarding the USCCB's questions for Catholic voters, a "consolidated world government will not foster freedom and democracy, but rather will attract those with selfish designs." Indeed, a self-centered approach to reality is the hallmark of the broader trend described in the Tribune article:

The Vatican long ago surrendered authority over the largely Protestant nations of Northern Europe, which broke, often bloodily, with Catholicism in centuries past. Gay marriage is legal in Belgium and the Netherlands, and some form of same-sex union is recognized in several other countries. Britain is making huge strides in the field of embryonic stem cell research. Abortion and divorce are readily available in many European nations.

The prospect that such practices could take hold even in Catholic strongholds is being perceived by some powerful church figures as a threat to Christianity's very existence. In much publicized comments last month, Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, attacked what he called a "new holy inquisition" targeting Catholicism in Europe by groups "motivated predominantly by prejudice toward all that is Christian."

With sincere hope that this won't unduly offend Protestant readers, I can't help but wonder whether their progenitors in schism would have taken a different approach all those centuries ago if they'd had an inkling of the distant consequences. God speaks directly to each of us, to be sure. But disconnect a person's, or a people's, moral sense from an intrinsic common authority that, at the very least, forces us to argue with people who disagree with us, and it isn't surprising that personal desire will eventually be mistaken for that guiding Voice.

Perils exist in the other direct — history leaves no doubt about that — and my own Church is not without problems or culpability. Nonetheless, one need look no further than the Biblical exegeses of liberals in mainstream Protestant Churches for evidence of how dramatically human passions can distort divine revelations.

Posted by Justin Katz at 9:50 AM | Comments (15)

October 31, 2004

How and Why Catholics Should Vote

NRO has afforded me the privilege of sharing with its readers my answers to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' guiding questions for Catholic voters.

Even as a relatively long opinion column, my piece is obviously not complete; it's just an overview. Each question alone requires — deserves — not just an essay, but an entire extended discussion (such as St. Blogs has from time to time on various topics). To be honest, some of that effort will have to be expended reorganizing the questions. They seem organized according to political categories, which cut across the essentials of faith and practicality that must be addressed.

Well, let's get the conversation started. We've got two days...

(More realistically: two years.)

Some discussion has begun at Amy Welborn's blog.

Posted by Justin Katz at 1:09 PM | Comments (5)

October 22, 2004

What You Do in the Privacy of Your Own Shrine...

I've been meaning to link to a post by David Morrison about public displays of religion:

What strikes me about this controversy is the way that the folks on the side of hiding or banning the expression of religious faith appear to have assumed that human life or the human person can be split in this fashion. A person of deep and sincere faith cannot fully live their public life as though their faith does not inform their opinions or actions and a human community cannot long survive when, collectively, it abandons the very beliefs which many if not most of its members hold.

Very often, lately, it has seemed as if the demand made of religious citizens is that, while they may come to conclusions based on their faith, they must devise some other, non-faith-based routes to the same conclusions before they can give them voice. Certainly, if something is true, one ought to be able to approach its truth in a variety of ways, and no matter the certainty that religious faith might bring, bolstering one's confidence with additional reasoning is always worthwhile.

But one gets the sense that secularists are succeeding in pushing the standard for opinions founded in faith beyond a simple preference for additional arguments. It is as if, in their view, the religious aspect must be overcome — as something that, a priori, raises suspicion about the conclusion. Nevermind that there are multiple sociological, even biological, arguments for the protection of the unborn, for example. If they lead to the same policy position as do a person's religious views, then they are somehow invalid. It is "forcing your faith on others." Back to David:

Another problem with this approach is that it effectively makes millions of Americans who live with faith feel substantially disenfranchised from a public life in which they are supposed to be represented. Their reaction to this feeling of disenfranchisement is often a withdrawal from supporting the public life and a subsequent weakening of the overall society in which we all, whether we live with faith or not and no matter what faith we share, have a stake.

There is, to be sure, another way to react.

Posted by Justin Katz at 8:30 AM

October 19, 2004

I'll Have to Remember This Line

Lileks recently dipped into the deeper discoursive pool of faith, wrapping up with a line about religion that I've committed to memory:

It's almost a spiritual version of George Carlin's law: anyone driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone driving faster than you is a maniac.

The rhetorical application is made all the more delicious, of course, by the fact that it derives from George Carlin, of all people.

Posted by Justin Katz at 8:53 PM | Comments (2)

October 13, 2004

There's the Rub

Even rereading it in a blog post from 2002, I didn't think to mention the following perspective from Richard Dawkins, because it seemed relatively commonplace:

The word atheism sounds negative; let me call it rationalism. It is a rational view of the world where you stand up proudly, in your humanity, you look life straight in the face, you look the universe straight in the face, you do your level best to understand it, to understand why you exist, what the universe is about, you recognise that when you die that's it, and therefore life is very, very precious and you devote your life to making the world a better place, to leading a good life so when you die you can say to yourself I have led a good life. Now, that seems to me to be a worthwhile goal to put in place of the medieval superstition which is religion.

My response to such suggestions has generally been that it may be workable for a couple of generations — generations adequately inculcated with a subconscious sense of traditional morality. But over time, the cultural consciousness would increasingly realize that the concepts of a "better place" and a "good life" are ultimately malleable. Somehow the potential for countless moments of selfish indulgence is supposed to be a reasonable sacrifice for a single — final — moment of arbitrary contentment?

Now, I'm thinking that it may be too generous an appraisal to give such a moral foundation "a couple of generations" of viability. My reassessment comes in reaction to a Corner discussion (starting here that Mark Steyn sparked with his now-infamous column about facing grisly death defiantly. Wrote John Derbyshire:

Philip Larkin, who was an atheist, said: "...Being brave / Lets no one off the grave. / Death is no different whined at than withstood." In an age like this, when most people in the Western world don't any longer believe in life after death, that has strong appeal. Why not go out whining and pleading? What difference does it make, when all's said and done? My guess is that a majority of Westerners feel that way in their hearts; and a HUGE majority of those who are paid to form our opinions -- teachers, media folk -- do.

My guess is that Derb is correct that this is a common feeling, although perhaps not a majority one. It manifests, too, in the quiet desperation to maintain a semblance of youth and to chase centuries-long life as race dogs chase a mechanical bunny. But look at what we've got side by side: the philosophical position that one must live one's life with reference to its final moments, and the practical realization that, if life's all, then those final moments are to be cheaply traded for a meager chance to extend it.

When Nick Berg had his life torn from him in Iraq, I gave some thought to what I might do — at least what I'd plan to do — were I to find myself sitting before a camera, with Bronze Age madmen chanting behind me. Steyn suggests offering disinformation. I've decided that I'd declare as much of the Nicene Creed as I could push through my lips, and I suspect the effort wouldn't leave much capacity to pat myself on the back for having lived a "good life."

Posted by Justin Katz at 8:12 PM | Comments (5)

October 12, 2004

Separation of This Church and State

Along the lines of Spain's recent discoveries of what it means for a Catholic nation to elect socialists, some reports from within our own shores ought to make their way onto folks' watch lists. The first comes from WorldNetDaily, which does, to be fair, tend to pounce a bit too hard on such stories:

Bob Knight, director of the Culture and Family Institute, says if it becomes law the legislation could be used to "muzzle public discussion of homosexuality and even someday silence pastors."

Knight commented, "It's a very dangerous bill, because it adds 'sexual orientation' to hate-crimes law, and it greatly expands federal jurisdiction. ...

Wrote Knight in a WorldNetDaily column: "Homosexual activists have redefined any opposition to homosexuality as 'hate speech.' Laws already criminalize speech that incites violence. It's easy to imagine a scenario in which any incident involving a homosexual can be blamed on people who have publicly opposed homosexual activism."

The source and subject matter of that item suggest that, apart from overall opposition to hate-crime laws, it's just something on which to keep an occasional eye. In contrast, the source for the second item, Bill Quick, is not usually one to stoke Christians' fears:

During the next few weeks, multicultural trainer Afeefa Syeed will bring third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students from a Muslim academy in Herndon, Va., to nearby public schools to share the practices and beliefs of their holiest month, Ramadan.

Syeed and the children will present the call to prayer in Arabic, display prayer rugs and offer tastes of dates. In countless other classrooms across the country, similar efforts will be made to educate students about the time of fasting and spiritual reflection for adherents of the world's second-largest religion.

Ramadan, which likely will begin Oct. 15, depending on the sighting of the new moon, is making more appearances in public school classrooms, thanks to a series of new teacher training initiatives, an increased fascination with Islam and the assurance that schools, if careful, can educate impressionable children about religion without crossing a constitutional line.

Posted by Justin Katz at 12:31 AM | Comments (2)

October 3, 2004

The Larger Meaning of Meaninglessness

Much of my strolling time, in college, was spent pondering similarities that I intuited to exist between seemingly unrelated disciplines. Some were obvious — English and music or psychiatry, for example. Others seemed tantalizingly close, but running on either side of the wall between the languages that had been constructed to talk about each — music and physics, for example. Speculative fields will bear certain similarities when the speculators are all human, but what does one conclude when the line where ostensibly objective fields begin to cross into speculation looks very similar to the line where subjective fields converge, internally, into structures?

To answer such questions (without the shortcut of declaring all human works indecipherably flawed), one must reconstruct all of reality, and I began to suspect that, even in achieving that impossible feat, one would still be left with irresolvable questions. The impossibilities beyond what is impossible. However, as I've since discovered, one who works in the other direction — beginning with the Why and applying it to the What — faces a task that is both more fulfilling and more conducive to a logical approach.

Often, I've simultaneously discovered, those who claim to do the former really do the latter, but couch their faith-dependent logic in terms implying objectivity. Theirs is a powerful strategy, and truth be told, it's taken me quite a while not to feel disoriented when I — as one who takes the theistic side of arguments — prove to be arguing from a position of less irrationality. Luckily, certain commentary has helped me to move beyond the disorientation.

In a more sane world, for example, the man who wrote the following would have his name rewritten in pencil on the rolls of scientists. In our world, Arne Jernelov is a professor and an environmental scientist for the United Nations.

Most religions embrace and promote certain notions about the meaning of life, offering the faithful reasons why we and all other organisms exist. Indeed, perhaps the fundamental definition of religious faith is the belief that life serves a (divine) purpose. Science, however, has always given a resounding "no" to the question "Does life have a higher meaning?"

The answer to that question, among scientists, ought to be, "Not my department." Try as he might (with unbidden parenthetical assumptions), Jernelov cannot disguise the degree to which he is correct that the "fundamental definition of religious faith" is tied up with the belief in purpose. Using an objective definition, that would include those who are resounding in their rejection of meaning.

Of course, Jernelov's piece is about a larger meaning that even fundamentalist atheists can embrace:

How do Schneider and Sagan reconcile the contradiction between what appears true of life -- that it organizes matter into increasingly complex creatures and structures -- and the notion that disorder should increase and order should be lost? Equally important, how can science see any meaning of life in the reconciliation of that apparent contradiction?

The bottom line is that the second law of thermodynamics rules and that the existence of life helps increase entropy. In other words, life promotes disorder. Some might think that this could be true only if the logical end of evolution and intelligent life were to be a nuclear explosion that pulverized Earth. But that is not what Schneider and Sagan mean. Instead, they make a distinction between matter and energy and say that matter organized in structures disseminates energy gradients faster than randomly distributed matter.

Entropy, the looming end of forever that quirky office workers quip serves as the ultimate perspective, is the meaning of life. Nothingness. The end of meaning is the ultimate meaning. Why do I get the sense that highfalutin scientists are only now catching up with collegiate stoners?

The serious point to be made, here, is that evangelists for atheism, masquerading as objective scholars, continue to confuse Mechanism for Meaning. Even if entropy is the deliberate end point of reality (or reality is the deliberate forerunner of entropy), the why is not answered. Moreover, for those who believe there to be more in Heaven and Earth than, well, Earth (or material reality), even proof that the distant future holds "an ultimate state of inert uniformity" would barely tell half the story. The less interesting, emotion-affecting half, at that.

Without basis to guess at the acumen of the Taipei Times's headline writer, one can only presume so much. Still, whether by incomprehension or a knack for pith, he or she has provided a perfect example of the faith involved in Jernelov's topic. The headline writer manages the accomplishment by taking the next leap of faith, giving the piece a title that is directly contradicted by the content, but in harmony with the spirit, of the essay itself:

Scientists explain the meaning of life (and we don't matter much)

It is only by the general mechanism of intuition that I say this, rather than through some scientific method, but it seems to me that the parenthetical clause once again reveals the article of faith. We don't matter much, ergo there is no God, ergo entropy is the meaning of life.

Posted by Justin Katz at 9:10 PM | Comments (23)

September 21, 2004

Seeing Truth Live-Action

Readers may recall that, when The Passion of the Christ first came out in the movie theaters, I thought Christian Canadian writer Michael Cohen's reaction to the film a bit drastic, even suggesting that he had transformed the movie into a cartoon. At the time, these statements of Coren's struck me in an indeterminately related way:

This is some pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic blood cult. It is populated with medieval-type caricatures, screaming out of context, laughing at suffering. ...

The flashbacks seem, with one touching exception depicting Jesus as a child, to be mere attempts to push Catholic eucharistic theology onto the audience.

Now, Rod Dreher has noted that Coren's tune has changed:

I still believe that this work should have been different in various ways. Yet now I have seen, or allowed myself to see, what lies at the very core of The Passion. The Eucharist. ...

The interspersing of scenes from The Last Supper and the institution of the Mass with the immense and intense suffering of Christ was irksome to me when I first saw the movie. Now these flashes of truth serve as chapters of explanation, each one shining a unique light on the events that surround them. ...

As I watched again, another reality embraced me, like the arms of a loving mother around an eager if sometimes foolish child. It was that Mary is not merely a background figure in a magnificent drama, but the divine conduit for salvation. In other words, she is sublime and perfect and with us forever. The mother of us all....

Mary weeps for her son. Her tears and His blood mingle to soak the world in hope and love. Within their grandeur all despair is smothered and all sin cleansed. Yes, I see it now. I see it so clearly.

To be sure, private home viewing inclines one to react to a film differently than watching it amid a crowded theater, and different aspects will emerge in each place. Still, I think there's something more profound going on, in Coren's case. I think his initial reaction was an outward manifestation of a deep recognition of Truth and emotional rejection of the requirement to rethink views around which his life had been built. (Andrew Sullivan is an exponentially more transparent example of this.)

Ultimately, the clarity that broke through the repulsion has cost Coren avenues of income and career advancement — an Evangelical writer and speaker who converts to Roman Catholicism is apt to lose gigs more quickly than he can find new ones that better align with his revelation. And Mr. Coren joined the Church in July.

Watching The Passion in my own living room, I wondered how it could be that people don't see the essence behind Catholic theology. In allowing himself to see, Michael Coren has illustrated what keeps others from doing the same: usually themselves and their interest in their particular circumstances.

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:54 PM | Comments (5)

September 18, 2004

Spiritual Espionage

In this week's Blogworthies, Lane Core links to a short piece in Envoy Magazine describing an ambush movie designed to suck in Catholics far enough to rattle their faith based on an erroneous formulation of their Church's view of Mary. As it happens, the false assertion that Catholics worship Mary is something about which I warned my class this week; as it also happens, I've been thinking about some Protestants' approach to evangelizing Catholics.

About a month ago, I received an email from the hopeful editor of a prospective Christian periodical in a region other than my own. His intention was merely to make contact, with a view toward having me write for him if his project came together. Of course, I suggested that I would be interested, but something in his note led me to mention that I'm Roman Catholic. This part of his reply, although he stated that all would be fine if we focused on matters about which we agree, provoked my eyebrows to lower:

I have a couple of christian friends that are catholic, their reason for staying was to reach other catholics.

It's possible that I'm reading too much into his decision to qualify his Catholic friends as Christian, but the idea of their "staying" within the Church makes me wonder how deliberately deceptive they are. Unless the editor mischaracterized his friends' objective, it would seem that they are infiltrating the very Church itself — their church itself — so as to lead people away from the religion that they had thought themselves to be bolstering by befriending the lurking Protestant cell.

Excuse the obvious turn of phrase, but is nothing sacred? I've made it a pillar of my belief system that Truth can be conveyed — must be conveyed — honestly. If you must deceive to convince, then you aren't pointing the way to Truth. Somehow I must have missed the passage in the Bible in which Jesus commands the apostles to convert others through deceit and espionage.

But the various anecdotes do raise questions. Periodically, one comes across a Catholic for whom the hierarchy can do nothing right — for whom, in fact, the hierarchy's support counts against a certain political or theological position. Some clearly long for a lost era of the Church, pre-Vatican II. Others may be undercover Protestants. Perhaps the countersign to discern which is which is to invoke the name of the Blessed Mother in yet another manifestation of our secret ways, our surreptitious signs and symbols.

Posted by Justin Katz at 7:02 PM | Comments (6)

August 24, 2004

Wheat in a Land of Milk and Honey

It's clear that Jeremiah Lewis and I aren't going to iron out our underlying differences of spiritual understanding discussing — on blogs — the ingredients of the Eucharist at Roman Catholic Mass. Therefore, I'm not going to get into the doctrinal debate with him. I do, however, respect Jeremiah's thought and writing, with which I more often than not agree, so I want to offer something by way of reply to his latest post on the issue.

He still hasn't argued against the tradition of requiring the Eucharist to be made of wheat in the way that Christ argued against the use of qorban to skirt around a Commandment. For all of his Biblical exegesis, Jeremiah manages no more than to suggest that Scripture doesn't provide any direct instruction that Communion must be accomplished with wheat bread. Well, fine. I'm certainly not going to jump into the midst of our differing approaches to the Bible. I will, however, note that one of the contingencies to which I made reference was belief "in the divinely sanctioned necessity of an institutional Church that collects and passes along the wisdom of thousands of years, under the direct guidance of God." The point still stands that the practices of the Church oughtn't be attacked as a proxy for the core beliefs if Christians are to work together in this crumblingly secular world — not to mention saving each other's soul.

If Jeremiah disagrees with the Catholic approach to religion — which is very thorough, very structured, and, yes, sometimes "highly involved and doctrinally complex" — then he ought to address that topic directly. Frankly, should he do so, I'll cede the right to reply to other Catholics who have more knowledge and experience arguing over the degree to which we can rightly presume to know what is and isn't important in the Bible and why and how. I suspect that the broader discussion will revolve around the "having it both ways" approach evident when Jeremiah writes:

This begs the question: does Scripture require us to imitate, to the minutia of each detail, the Communion supper as first celebrated by Jesus and his disciples? Be imitators of Christ: does this mean in every manner and every symbolic and physical action, or does this Scripture point to a life of spiritual obedience, likened to Christ's obedience to God in all things?

Well, do Catholics have to produce "minutia of each detail" to prove the necessity of wheat? Or do they have to let go of Biblical example to get at the real spiritual lesson? And if the latter, how do they determine what symbolism and physical actions spiritual obedience requires?

Even before we could begin hammering away at such questions, though, it seems to me that there's a deeper disagreement — one that may not be possible to resolve through discussion:

Yet Christ's power and redemption is not a physical, chemical process. The bonds of the physical were indeed broken when Christ rose again, defeating death and securing us a place beside the Father. Had Christ ministered and died in Asia, his Last Supper may very well have been a rice cake.

Isn't Christ's power and redemption physical? Did He break the bonds of the physical? Every Gospel but Mark tells of some form of physical contact on Jesus' part after the Resurrection. Indeed, Jesus' physicality was necessary to convince Thomas that He had risen. "Touch me and see," Jesus says in Luke, "because a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you can see I have." He then asks for something to eat. The physical remains important. Does Jeremiah expect himself to be resurrected without some sort of chemical activity?

As for a Christ of the Far East, all I can say is that God surely could have become man in a land of rice. But He didn't, and I see nothing in Scripture that gives Jeremiah license to suggest that the time and place of Christ's coming was as inconsequential as the presence of gluten in the Eucharist.

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:15 PM | Comments (8)

August 23, 2004

Of Men and Rice

Maybe it's being a convert with so much left to learn, or maybe it's the place in the religious discussion in which I'm called to stand, but it still tends to surprise me when people feel compelled to comment on the narrow doctrinal/ritual practices of other Churches, as Jeremiah Lewis has done here:

Given that [eight-year-old Haley Waldman] does know what Communion means and believes that Christ has saved her, what is the difference between a wheat wafer or a rice wafer? Is one clean and the other not? Is one more holy than the other? The Church has made it about the bread, not the body--exactly as the Pharisees had done with their Corban rules of holy washing, of clean and unclean foods, of daily life, of spiritual life.

When Jesus said "Do this in remembrance of me," somehow I doubt he was thinking "gluten-only bread, please". The Pharisees in the Catholic Church would do well to consider that.

Although Haley's mother is apparently mounting a campaign against the requirement that the Eucharist contain some measure of wheat, I'm not sure what makes this story worth the Associated Press's time to begin with. Perhaps both Jeremiah's conclusion that the recipe ought to be a non-issue and the self-assurance of religious insight by which he allows himself to cluck his tongue about the matter are so pervasive throughout our society, including in the media, that the story is salable.

For lack of time, I'm not going to pursue the thorough research necessary to trace the doctrinal conclusion about wheaten bread through history, but two points are relatively obvious to make. The first is that, even accepting that legitimate arguments could be made against the tradition, Jeremiah hasn't found them. The specific lesson of the passage from Mark 7 that Jeremiah cites has to do with spiritual cleanliness's being an internal quality, not something that can be ingested through a lapse in physical cleanliness. Jesus' other example, corban (or "qorban"), is something set apart for God, so the warning is against human rules that offer loopholes from Commandments. The reality that calling dibs for God, so to speak, isn't a legitimate way to avoid helping one's parents doesn't mean that nothing can be put aside for Him.

On the general matter that human traditions oughtn't supplant divine doctrine, well, the fact that one can teach "as doctrines human precepts" does not mean that all taught doctrines are human precepts. As Jeff Miller put it, those who invoke the Pharisees in attacks against the Church "tend to forget about the opposite of the Pharisees -the Sadducees who followed no rules but whatever suited them." Could a legitimate Mass be celebrated with popcorn and beer?

That leads to the second point: this is a doctrine that the Church takes very seriously. There are a variety of direct reasons for this; there are scriptural foundations, such as Jesus' use of wheat as a representation of the spiritual yield of one person's death (e.g., His); there are related historical ties to the Church, such as St. Ignatius's acceptance of martyrdom on the grounds that he was "the wheat of God." (The author of Pontifications suggests that the answer is as simple as recognizing that Jesus spoke the words "this is my body" over wheaten bread at the Last Supper and links to further discussion on Jimmy Akin's blog.)

Underscoring all of the reasons, however, is the belief in transubstantiation. If one believes that God is literally present in the bread — a God who, as man, declared himself to be the "bread of life" — and if, further, one believes in the divinely sanctioned necessity of an institutional Church that collects and passes along the wisdom of thousands of years, under the direct guidance of God, then one ought to be very reluctant to force or demand changes to satisfy personal difficulties. (Especially when there is a ready accommodation, such as receiving communion through the other species in which it is offered, wine.)

Many people, including (I gather) Jeremiah, don't hold such beliefs, and they are perfectly free not to. Nonetheless, in such cases, it seems to me that attacking the practice is really just a way to avoid discussing the weightier matters that reach our core beliefs about God and our place in relation to Him. Raising those weightier matters exposes, of course, the great many extremely personal conclusions, behaviors, and emotions that grow from our religious faith, so there is an understandable aversion to doing so, especially in the breezy medium of blogs. But in our secularized, deeply corrupted society, aren't we Christians more alike than different? If so, don't we owe each other the respect — the concern for each other's soul — of addressing the beliefs, and not the practices that follow from them?

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:37 AM | Comments (9)

August 22, 2004

A Needed Reminder

I'm reading at Mass tomorrow (or, more accurately, later today, which happens to be our fifth wedding anniversary), and the passage from St. Paul couldn't be more relevant:

Brothers and sisters,
You have forgotten the exhortation addressed to you as children:
"My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord
or lose heart when reproved by him;
for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines;
he scourges every son he acknowledges."
Endure your trials as "discipline";
God treats you as sons.
For what "son" is there whom his father does not discipline?
At the time,
all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain,
yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness
to those who are trained by it.

So strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees.
Make straight paths for your feet,
that what is lame may not be disjointed but healed.
Posted by Justin Katz at 12:39 AM

August 16, 2004

The Enemy Underneath

As a general matter, I'm inclined to agree with Nicholas von Hoffman that one ought to be suspicious of bipartisanship, "because 'bipartisan' really means a put-up job, a behind-the-scenes deal, something in which the fix is in between the two political parties," as he puts it in the New York Observer. However, any consonance is snuffed out with his closing paragraph, which is stunning in its sudden revelation of the declaration toward which all that came before seems to have been built:

Much of the [9/11] commission's writing revolves around misunderstanding Muslims or presuming to understand Muslims on the thinnest of evidence when some effort might have been spent understanding ourselves. Less attention should have been paid to Muslim "extremism," which is hardly an undiscussed topic in the United States, and more devoted to Judeo-Christian extremism. Christianity is a one-god-one-truth-and-we-Christians-own-it type of religion. Leaving aside abstruse arguments over the separation of church and state, a more immediate danger to the peace of the world is an America whose policies are controlled by the intolerant spirit which lurks in this religion and from time to time dominates the civic life of its practitioners. You don't have to be a Muslim to wonder if the highly organized Christian elements in the United States hold the levers of power and drive policy. It sticks out all over this report, which seems to neutral, agnostic eyes as a battle plan by one religion to destroy another. That's all fine and well, but when holy wars are fought, there is hell to pay.

Ah yes, those "neutral, agnostic eyes," when this species of agnosticism clearly stands, if not as atheism, then as a strong faith that everybody else is wrong and oughtn't behave as if they might be right. This is not to say that I believe von Hoffman to have assessed the global culture war correctly. In fact, I'd suggest that his adherence to the dogma asserting Christian intolerance (while Islam is merely misunderstood) taints his analysis.

Chillingly, a correspondent happened to bring von Hoffman to my attention shortly after I'd come across Barbara Nicolosi's comments after researching for a screenplay about the Spanish Civil War:

The divisions in Spain which set up the war were very complex, but the real crux came down to secularism vs. Christianity. Fueled from the social Darwinism of the universities, the intellectuals in Spain went around for a few decades before the war insisting that religion was anti-modern and an enemy of progress. For many of these folks, "Christian" became a hated adjective, synonymous with ignorant. The greatest fury was directed against the moral authority of the Church. How dare the Church constrain anyone in any way with the outrageous suggestion that some things are good and other things are evil?!

In the elections of 1931, the secular side finally obtained some power, and within days, a disgusting and violent attack on the Church was unleashed. Over 100 churches were burned and gutted. Mobs desecrated cemeteries, convents, seminaries and religious schools. Priests, nuns, and anybody displaying religious devotion were assaulted.

Then, the laws started coming. A call was made for "complete separation of Church and State"...which, on the lips of secularists always means stomping all over the citizenship rights of religious people. The Church was forbidden to operate educational institutions. Church property that was not directly connected to the maintenance of the members of a religious institute was confiscated. No fault divorce was legalized. All cemeteries were secularized. (What is it with Spain and cemeteries? So much of the rage of the secularists was directed at cemeteries. They really got off on exhuming dead nuns and priests and desecrating the bodies. Something in the air maybe? Somebody help me...). There was other stuff too, like suppressing the Jesuits and withdrawing clerical wages.

What's next when "intolerance" becomes the marker of lessened humanity, a gap for the crowbar of restriction? I suppose defining "intolerance" is next, then defining it again, and again.

Posted by Justin Katz at 6:05 PM | Comments (4)

Lovers of Gray Demand Black and White

Since the American Bar Association's attempt to force its not-so-nuanced worldview on the rest of the country has come up, this would seem worth noting:

In order to permit Catholic and other faith-based health-care providers to remain religious while serving critical public functions, state and federal legislators have often provided "conscience" protection that permits religious-based health-care providers to opt out of programs or treatment that they find objectionable. For example, even though they often treat patients receiving Medicare or Medicaid, religious-based hospitals are permitted by federal law not to provide abortion services or referrals.

It is this core exercise of religious conscience — and the government's accommodation of it — that the ABA finds so objectionable. Citing studies with titles such as "When Religion Compromises Women's Health Care: A Case Study of a Catholic Managed Health Care Organization," the ABA argues that the religious practices of Catholic health-care providers, both individual and institutional, deny needed health services and information to patients, especially women. Its singles out certain Catholic health care-providers, such as Fidelis Care New York, a Catholic health-care system that provides Medicaid services to the residents of 33 New York counties — services that might otherwise not be available were it not for the faith-based outreach. What crime has Fidelis committed that merits the attention of the nation's bar association? It refuses to provide certain "family planning services" to its patients or refer patients for such services — services that contravene the core teachings of the Catholic faith.

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:23 AM

Rolling Over Speed Bumps Can Be Addictive

Marty McKeever took the plunge and answered the question, "How will marriage be destroyed, and what part will gay marriage play?" The post was certainly worth Marty's effort to write, and it's worth others' effort to read. However, apart from recommending the essay, something that an opposing commenter, Scott, wrote tied with another aspect of the larger debate that I've been meaning to mention. The following blockquote spans two comments, at the ellipsis, the first part directed at Marty, and the second to another commenter, Jim Price:

If you do not like gay marriage, then don't marry a man. Instruct your kids not to marry the same sex. ...

Grit your teeth all you want Jim, in the end, I win.

Your morals aren't mine, you see, thats your problem. You see the world in black and white only. I'm smart enough to understand gray.

Whether or not you like it, I will be married, to a man and in the end you'll be a George Wallace footnote.

Its harsh but its the truth Jim.

You can type on a message board until your fingers turn blue but I will win, and you know what, heterosexual marriage will survive. I'm sorry you're not smart enough to see through the fundraising doomsday scenarios that you've been fed but keep sending those checks to James Dobson if it makes you truly happy.

You're a speed bump, not a wall.

The personal insults and active belittling of his opposition suggest to me a mindset that won't stop at the equilibrium of "you do your thing, I'll do mine." Indeed, most of Scott's comments to the post at hand include some reference or other (in aggregate) to "the unwashed simpletons in flyover country." The rhetoric may be of mutual liberty, but the language is of the sort that brings into question the worthiness of the other side to possess their share. To the extent that those people continue to have power in one form or another — whether influence or property — in a post–same-sex marriage world, it's easy to imagine Scott and his ilk thinking it not overbearing to impose correction of their errors.

For further exploration of this point, we can turn to no less un-stupid a person than Eugene Volokh:

But in any event, one should acknowledge that the "It doesn't hurt you, so why should you object?" argument omits an important point: The broad array of gay rights proposals would restrict the liberty and equality of those who oppose homosexuality -- and this array is more of a package deal than we might think, since the more proposals the gay rights movement wins on, the easier (generally speaking) it would be for it to win on other proposals.

We might be able to envision a regime of optimal liberty, where the rights of both homosexuals and those who oppose homosexuality are equally respected -- many libertarians, for instance, would do so by distinguishing restrictions on government action from restrictions on nongovernmental action. But even if we can identify a point that we ourselves endorse, that point may as a practical matter be politically unstable, so that if the gay rights movement gets to that point (wherever the point is), it will in practice end up also getting more, and cutting into the liberties of others.

The Marriage Debate blog post that quotes from Volokh's entry also links to his follow-up entries, which branch in different directions. It would seem that there are aspects of grayness quite apart from the dubious accuracy of Scott's assertions about heterosexual marriage's future.

Indeed, the claim of a reasoned complexity of perspective among those who advocate for further normalization of homosexuality is beginning to appear as an easily removed robe. And perhaps those opposing the process can be forgiven for wondering whether the American Bar Association let the cloak slip a little, and prematurely, when it proposed changing its ethics policies in order to ban judges from joining groups that "discriminate" against gays. As the relevant commission leader, Mark Harrison, put it, the object is to "make sure that judges aren't viewed as bigots." What groups would make such a view possible is up in the air. The National Guard? The Boy Scouts? The Catholic Church?

Volokh dubs it "pretty sad" that "[m]aybe we do have, as a practical matter, a choice between a regime that suppresses the liberties of homosexuals and benefits those who don't approve of homosexuality, and a regime that benefits homosexuals and suppresses the liberties of those who don't approve of homosexuality." Sadder still, in my view, is that society's choice between these two paths is appearing more and more likely to be made not on the basis of which tilt is ultimately better for future generations, in the complicated summation of effects, but which group has the power and will to force the wheel and make of the opposition a speed bump — rather than a legitimate marker of a speed limit.

Posted by Justin Katz at 9:43 AM | Comments (15)

July 26, 2004

A Natural God

This cartoon, by Dan Lacey of Faithmouse, is a bit dated in its specifics, but its message remains relevant:

The view that actuality is destiny pervades our culture, as a balm of simplicity for dealing with life's problems. Theologically, it's Oprahfication, tangling in knots with the merest tugs of thought. If the fact that God created one's desires (supposing that's how it works) renders those desires inculpable, how does one determine the direction of growth? If God made us whom we are meant to be, whom ought we to become?

Reader Mike S. directed my attention to a piece by Gina Dalfonzo about the infantilization of Christianity — about Churches' attempts to be "seeker-friendly":

As Vicky Thompson, the author of Jesus Path: 7 Steps to Cosmic Awakening, recently told the Detroit News, the new trend is "saying not that Jesus is my savior, but He's my best friend and buddy. . . . We have a huge population of unchurched people [in America], but often, they aren't leaving spirituality behind. They still have a desire to feel a spiritual connection, but on their own terms. They're embracing Christ, but from a different viewpoint." A church that believes it has to water down its message so that people can find Christ "on their own terms" is the kind of church that, in trying to please everyone, winds up pleasing no one.

That last sentence, if I'm reading Dalfonzo's meaning correctly, is misdirected. It isn't so much that taking pieces of what each person wants creates a whole that answers nobody's needs, but that our "own terms" aren't adequate ones through which to find Christ. The sciences invent words and languages for a reason; although it is helpful toward learning heady concepts to associate them with something a bit more tangible and a bit more comprehensible, such analogs are merely examples that must be left behind to truly understand the ideas before us.

I can't help but think it has something to do with an underlying sense, even among the most spiritual, that religious stuff just isn't real in the sense that scientific stuff is. As I've written before, the idea of "Jesus as my pal" makes Him more a reflection of ourselves than of Truth. A soothing story. But if God is God, His demands aren't always going to align with our whims, and He isn't always going to be comprehensible. If He "is who is," then He isn't what might be thought of as the "soft spot" of Nature, the ever-relenting comfort in a harsh reality.

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:06 AM | Comments (4)

July 2, 2004

True or Not True

By way of another great Blogworthies post from Lane Core, I came across some thoughts by Father Shane Tharp that relate to various discussions that have been going on hereabouts:

During the discussion of the Catechism, the topic came up about whether or not other religions are going to go to Heaven. Of course, I reiterated the Church's teaching concerning there being no salvation outside the Church, adding the notes about invincible and inculpable ignorance. This really bothered several people in the class. One woman in particular was just horrified that the Church could teach this. That all of these well-meaning people could be excluded from Heaven just because they don't hold the full picture of faith. And the rest of the class trotted out the same tired arguments, like a God of Love wouldn't send someone to Hell, e.g. That was when what was bothering me finally had a face.

For most folks, faith equals someone's opinion. If the revelation of God amongst Christians of every stripe can be confused into a galamafrey of different creeds, then that's okay as long as you are sincere. But that's the problem. Just because you sincerely believe something doesn't make it true. If I sincerely believe that arsenic is not poisonous, that doesn't mean I will be spared a trip to the emergency room, depending on how much I ingest.

Religion isn't a means of finding the sacred in what we already believe, but of moving what we believe toward what is true. The arsenic analogy can be taken a step further. Even if, in our delusion, we ingest it, we have the opportunity to accept treatment once we've entered into a sort of digestional purgatory.

So too, we may have the opportunity to admit that, even in sincerity, we were wrong. But that doesn't mean that it wouldn't have been better to be right, particularly inasmuch as the examples that we embody influence others who must make the same choice.

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:41 AM | Comments (2)

June 30, 2004

Shrinking from Death

In the way ideas and life seem often to interact, it just so happened that the very week that I began to find a profound thread in the still-jumbled topic of radical life extension, I witnessed the birth of my second daughter and received news that an acquaintance (not close) of about my age was diagnosed with an aggressive form of leukemia and immediately lost her summer prospects to similarly aggressive treatment.

To be sure, while looking through glass at a roomful of newborns, a parent would prefer to have more pleasant thoughts in his head than this:

There will be progressively fewer children around, but we'll get used to that just as easily as we got used to wearing these absurd rubber contraptions whenever we have sex just in order to avoid having too many kids once infant mortality wasn't culling them any more.

That absurdly disturbing prediction is one aspect of what life will be like in a world of "indefinite lifespans," according to Cambridge University biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey in an interview with Glenn Reynolds. Perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that a man who believes that children and condomless sex are of equal social significance can nonchalantly declare that life, for an immortal society, "will be very much the same as now... except without the frail people."

Upon reflection, the unpleasant dissonance of such thoughts while pain-faced women shuffled past, with rattled men hovering around most of them as if ready to, at any instant, dive for a catch, was an echo from my self-loathing atheist days. Since we are all doomed to die, the dark thought went, it is ultimately birth that kills us; parents bring their children into the world condemning them to a life spent in knowledge that, eventually, they will cease to be. But what if we come to believe that birth into this world does not require death from it? Well, then we get this sort of thinking:

my universal response to all the arguments against curing [aging] is simple: don't tell me it'll cause us problems, tell me that it'll cause us problems so severe that it's preferable to sit back and send 100,000 people to their deaths every single day, forever. If you can't make a case that the problems outweigh 100,000 deaths a day, don't waste my time.

It ceases to be the nature of life that causes death. Rather, those who prevent, or even impede, the search for the Fountain of Youth become the cause of death. So thoroughly does this frame of mind set in that de Grey feels justified in sweeping away all objections. It isn't even a matter worthy of moral consideration. It isn't even a question. The next step in this logic would be, for example, to state that a presidential administration that stands in the way of funding for such research is thereby sending 146 million people to their deaths, owing to the four-year delay.

This — one needn't be a theologian or novelist to see — is a fanatical religion awaiting adherents. Not only are the claims of other faiths soul-destroyingly wrong, but they are ridiculous superstitions to believe. (To the Orthodox Intellectual, superstition is the sign of the infidel.) "Once [people] realise that we may be able to reach escape velocity within 20-30 years, all these silly reasons people currently present for why it's not a good idea will evaporate overnight." Although I believe de Grey dramatically overestimates the number of converts that he can expect from other religions, I've no doubt that many among the irreligious, or mildly religious materialists, will rush to the laboratory-table alter. When its promise draws near:

The only way to have a sense of proportion about this period is to remember that it'll be the last chapter in what we can definitely call the War On Aging -- people worldwide will readily make the same sort of sacrifices that they make in wartime, in order to end the slaughter as soon as possible.

In context, de Grey is talking about the "staggering" cost of providing "rejuvenation therapies" to everybody, rich and poor, but money isn't the only sacrifice that people make during wartime, and the "War On Aging" won't be purely against a fact of nature. If people are willing to kill to secure a salvation that they must take on faith, how much more extreme will their drive be when salvation is from the necessity of death? Imagine the rabid desperation of people who think there's a clock to beat before eternal life becomes eternal oblivion. Even if nobody stands directly in the way of the research, the pent-up desire will make for a powerful weapon, no matter the ulterior motive for wielding it.

If de Grey's comments are any indication, passions will further be stoked through hints of utopia. Beyond the optimistic view that "adult education" will be adequate occupation to make "life never get boring" (which, if it does nothing else, stands as an example of the academic's myopia), de Grey further prognosticates:

Another important difference, I'm convinced, is that there will be much less violence, whether it be warfare or serious crime, because life will be much more valued when it's so much more under or control.

Broadly speaking, to begin with, will life in fact be "much more valued"? My experience has been that things under our control are more apt to be taken for granted. By this, I mean that the fact of life going on and on will be the norm; people will keep a white-knuckle grip on their own mortality, but the sense of life's preciousness will dull. When natural causes take the lives of the young, we ache more not necessarily because a higher number of years have been lost, but because the death was less to be expected. What our collective view will be when death is never to be expected may not be as easy to predict as it would seem.

It could be that the end of natural deaths will mean that people who don't value others' lives at all will gain control over them; murder may become much more frightening a threat when its outcome isn't inevitable anyway. Violent people, inasmuch as they can be understood in a general way, don't seem to care whether their victims are 20 or 80, so the length of life deprived is not a deterrent. Moreover, a certain dementia will surely be exacerbated when people all ages have a teenager's sense of mortality. And who will risk his own life to save others' when the sacrifice is eternity?

Warfare only translates these difficulties to a grander scale. Won't tyrants perceive this new weakness? When one can tally infinite years in a currency of pills, the barrel of a gun or, for that matter, blockage of the medication will see a rise in premium. Experience and history both teach that people will always exist who do not value life; the advantage of that distinction will only increase to correspond to everybody else's clinging to it.

It may be, I'll concede, that violence will become somewhat less alluring among the general population when it is more a reminder, rather than a distraction and defiance, of lingering mortality. Still, one need only look around modern society to see the possibility that killings would simply become antiseptic and, therefore, forgettable. After all, even now, we kill those with the most life ahead of them and call it a "procedure."

Having laid all this out, I finally come to the aforementioned thread of profundity, and although it has the darkest implications, it also brings a whiff of hope. The apostles of this new religion have found a mythology and symbolism in Nick Bostrom's piece in The Journal of Medical Ethics called "The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant":

Once upon a time, the planet was tyrannized by a giant dragon. The dragon stood taller than the largest cathedral, and it was covered with thick black scales. Its red eyes glowed with hate, and from its terrible jaws flowed an incessant stream of evil-smelling yellowish-green slime. It demanded from humankind a blood-curdling tribute: to satisfy its enormous appetite, ten thousand men and women had to be delivered every evening at the onset of dark to the foot of the mountain where the dragon-tyrant lived. Sometimes the dragon would devour these unfortunate souls upon arrival; sometimes again it would lock them up in the mountain where they would wither away for months or years before eventually being consumed.

That brought to mind another dragon, one who brings forth a beast from the sea and heals the beast to rule over men, who precedes a great whore of a city as well as another beast, an echo of the dragon, about whom it is said:

The beast, which you saw, once was, now is not, and will come up out of the Abyss and go to his destruction. The inhabitants of the earth whose names have not been written in the book of life from the creation of the world will be astonished when they see the beast, because he once was, now is not, and yet will come.

To be honest, I can't help but feel that the modern version of the quest for eternal life on Earth is yet another hopeless endeavor. We don't know what we don't know. Will we get far enough that people will be astonished at a return of death? Or will the prophets of this new religion work enough miraculous signs to enthrall some number of people to wreak another shameful era for humanity and then fade away into history?

Whatever the case, my religion suggests that catastrophe must precede salvation, and that we must eventually choose between either:

Behold, I come like a thief! Blessed is he who stays awake and keeps his clothes with him, so that he may not go naked and be shamefully exposed.


They overcame him
by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony;
they did not love their lives so much
as to shrink from death.
Posted by Justin Katz at 7:51 PM | Comments (10)

June 29, 2004

Redefining and Refusing Nature

Increasingly, the comments to my posts make for better reading than the ramblings to which they append. Such was most definitely the case with yesterday's post about the lack of Christian and conservative engagement in the same-sex marriage battle. The comment debate's interest is largely attributable to the response of Chuck Anziulewicz, and although I'm not sure from whence he came, I'm glad he found his way here with sufficient concern to express his disagreement.

Disagreement on this topic tends to wear a circular rut in the discourse, and tempers rise with each lap. However, Chuck's latest volley stands as evidence that this needn't be the case — that a bit of civility and consideration can move the worn topic to another level. Meriting a spun-off thread, Chuck writes:

As for my life with my partner Greg, I think God understands my heart, mind, and motivations better than any self-appointed moral guardian, and for Him to summarily condemn the joy we have in our commitment to each other seems completely illogical by any remotely human standard.

I am committed Greg, as he is to me. We are both Gay; our mutually shared sexual orientation is as fundamental to our emotional and biological makeup as liking food. We were fortunate enough to have been introduced to each other five years ago (June 29, 1999) by friends who felt that we would be compatible, and sure enough, we are. Since we both take a rather conservative approach to love and relationships, we are monogamous and avoid situations in which we might be tempted to stray. Greg is my love, my life, and my inspiration; he seems to feel the same way about me.

HOWEVER: For the more conservative Christians, none of this matters. There are no moral distinctions to be made between promiscuous Gay men as opposed to couples such as us. It's all simply wrong, wrong, wrong. The Scriptures, they inform me, are clear on this matter: That no matter how righteously I conduct my life, if I remain unapologetic for maintaining my committment to my spouse, God will most assuredly damn me to an eternity of withering punishment.

To avoid this, I am told, Greg & I must end our relationship. We need to put an end to our love for and committment to each other. Gay relationships are simply out of the question, case closed. My spiritual redemption is at stake.

MY CHOICE: Either to continue to do well and good by my spouse, to continue to do everything I can to ensure Greg's happiness and the joy we share in each other's company ... OR to avoid the eternal torments of Hell.

Since the latter of the two seems rather selfish, I'll stay with Greg, thank you very much. No Supreme Being comprehensible by me would punish what we have together. And any God that would punish us because we have chosen to honor our love and committment to each other is not a God that I would wish to ally myself with.

This view of God, although common, resonates like an odd blend of New Age relativism and Book of Judges rejectionism. It's a romantic cliché, in our times, to say such things as "if this is wrong, I don't want to be right," but Chuck might as well have refused to "ally" himself with a notion of biology that renders exhilarating free falls dangerous.

His conclusion is embedded in his premises, so he doesn't adequately weigh the possibility that those "conservative Christians" are actually right. If God is not a therapeutic intellectual device to be constructed, but rather an aspect of reality to be understood, then Chuck's choice could be cataclysmically false. It isn't between ensuring Greg's happiness and feeling the promise of Heaven. Instead, in fulfilling his apparent definition of worldly "well and good" for Greg, he condemns them both.

But that isn't the whole story; Chuck and Greg can secure both the joy that they "share in each other's company" and salvation. They just have to develop a relationship that isn't sexual. Why that should be so — why the seemingly simple pleasure of physical gratification should be an intimacy too far — I don't know. I'm not making up God on the fly to accord with my prejudices, but interpreting revelation, experience, and thought.

We'll probably all agree that love and commitment aren't bad, in God's eyes. Per se, they are unmitigatedly good. However, that's precisely why distortion of their expression is so objectionable. Who would knowingly reject God if sin were tied to sharp, immediate pain? If one believes, as I do, that Hell is self-inflicted, who would choose it if he didn't think he was pursuing something pure, like love?

"Ally," in Chuck's usage, means nothing less than a refusal to believe in God as most Christians believe Him to be. If Christians are right, and if we see God as the One who is rather than the "one I choose," then Chuck has made himself an example — the logic — of how expression of homosexuality expands toward rejection of God, the choice of Hell.

Posted by Justin Katz at 8:51 PM | Comments (36)

June 18, 2004

Newdow Wants the Outside In

I've forgotten where I came across the link, but I wanted to note Samuel Huntington's exploration of atheists' outsiderness in America:

Although the Supreme Court did not address the question directly, Mr. Newdow got it right: Atheists are "outsiders" in the American community. Americans are one of the most religious people in the world, particularly compared with the peoples of other highly industrialized democracies. But they nonetheless tolerate and respect the rights of atheists and nonbelievers. Unbelievers do not have to recite the pledge, or engage in any religiously tainted practice of which they disapprove. They also, however, do not have the right to impose their atheism on all those Americans whose beliefs now and historically have defined America as a religious nation. ...

... if increases in non-Christian membership haven't diluted Christianity in America, hasn't it been supplanted over time by a culture that is pervasively irreligious, if not antireligious? These terms describe segments of American intellectual, academic and media elites, but not the bulk of the American people. American religiosity could be high by absolute measures and high relative to that of comparable societies, yet the secularization thesis would still be valid if the commitment of Americans to religion declined over time. Little or no evidence exists of such a decline.

Unfortunately, it is the folly of fanatics that they insist that reality conform to their own preferred history, present condition, and future state.

Posted by Justin Katz at 4:11 PM

June 8, 2004

Don't Encourage the Wackos

Although the reasoning is sound, albeit approached from a different angle than I take, a point that Eugene Volokh and Cathy Young make about the cross on the L.A. county seal indicates a lamentably pervasive sentiment. Volokh writes:

Cathy Young has a very good column on this in the Boston Globe. "When secularists go after a tiny cross on a county seal or Christmas decorations at a firehouse, they lend substance to the 'religious persecution' complex -- and play right into the extremists' hands." Indeed.

Note the two groups placed in opposition: secularists and extremists. One might similarly say that, "when religious people advocate for mandatory, prominent crosses on every county symbol or Christmas decorations in every public building, they lend substance to the 'separation of church and state' complex -- and play right into the extremists' hands." If the extremists on one side are portrayed merely as impractical secularists (and run no less prominent an institution than the ACLU), are religious people wrong to be concerned about their activities? Put differently, if the persecution is, in fact, lent substance, does reaction to that substance really represent a complex?

Such biases according to worldview are natural, and I'm certainly guilty of them myself, but that doesn't mean that they aren't worth pointing out and, perhaps, correcting. Young does refer to "secularist zealots," but immediately thereafter, she describes the following "exaggerated perception [that] is exploited by religious extremists who really would like to undo the separation of church and state":

Many Americans today believe that secularist forces in this country are implacably hostile to all things religious, particularly Christian, to the point of wanting to purge our culture and our history of all traces of Christianity.

Exaggerated? Only if everybody on Young's side is taken to be objective and reasonable by default — no matter what over-zealous moves they make.

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:23 AM | Comments (1)

June 2, 2004

What Ought and Oughtn't Be Obvious

In keeping with the snowballing theme of difficulties in communicating across certain divides, the rainbow-sash communion rejection debacle provides another example:

Rainbow Sash Movement spokesman Joe Murray was among those denied communion in Chicago. He said members wearing the sashes should be seen no differently than a uniformed police officer or Boy Scout seeking communion.

"What we saw today in the cathedral is discrimination at the Eucharistic table, and that shouldn't be happening," Murray said. Those denied communion returned to their pews, but stood while the rest of the congregation knelt.

Police officers and Boy Scouts who wear their uniforms to Mass are not thereby challenging a core moral teaching of their Church. Such a challenge is exactly the purpose — not just an incidental implication — of the sashes. The objective of drawing attention to the activists and what they are doing at that particular moment of the Mass indicates that their focus is skewed. That they would disagree suggests that the gulf is wider than simply what can be traced by the surface issue.

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:37 PM | Comments (1)

May 30, 2004

Time for Anonymity

No matter what you know, it's who you know
No matter how great you are
You got to know somebody
That knows somebody
Who knows somebody
That is somebody
So run and tell somebody
To finance somebody
So they can pay somebody
To push somebody
You have to trust somebody
You have to trust somebody
So why not trust the Maker
He will help you make it

Convoluted as the route from one to the other might be, the song "Ladder of Success," by Ted Hawkins, came to mind when I finally saw Return of the King last night.

One aspect of The Lord of the Rings' climactic scene, emphasized thereafter, that the movie really highlighted for me was the degree to which everything ultimately came down to two characters and the strength of their friendship. We tend to see our own lives in close-ups, and when the camera is focused on Frodo and Sam struggling up Mt. Doom to dispose of the ring, it is easy to believe that the fate of Middle Earth rests with them. When the camera hovers over the crowd of warriors who have made bait of themselves as a distraction, and one sees Mt. Doom off in the distance, it is quite a bit more strange to think that the real action isn't with the king, or the soldiers, or the company wizard.

A similar sense, although much more profound, followed me from the theater when I saw The Passion of the Christ. From the point of view of our globalized world, it's striking how small in scope were the worldly events involved with Christ's coming, death, and resurrection. There's no mention in the Bible, or elsewhere, that every person in the world looked up at the sky — or something — with knowledge that a major event had just happened in the world. Surely there were a great many people even in Jerusalem who had no idea why the Earth might be shaking.

It may sound self-contradictory, but to expect such an instant global effect is to put abnormal limits on God. God, it ought to be clear, has time. Specifically, He has time to wait for the spark of Christ's coming to compound into broad flames of belief. I can imagine an apostle staggering through the streets after the Passion, or striding through them after the Resurrection, and wondering, "Is it possible that none of these people bustling about with their lives know what has just happened?"

Well, yes. It is possible. Probable. God has time.

He also has scope — defines scope. This divine measure of the extent and breadth of events' importance speaks to our own perspective within the limited reach of our actions. A few months ago, a much older friend of mine suggested that she had only recently realized that not everybody can be Mother Theresa. I took the comment to be an equal reference to the amount of good done and the amount of notoriety received. A parent, for example, cannot abandon his or her children to roam the world doing good, and even those who are free to do so will not likely gain worldly fame for their deeds.

During a period when I believed in a vague sort of fate, I half-jokingly fretted that my role in the world might be to cut off some guy on the highway, snapping the final straw, sending him into a frenzy during which he would kill some random woman, who would say something profound on her deathbed, which would affect her son in such a way that, when he became President of the United States, he would institute some policy that averted war. At my most selfish (in my bachelor days), I outlined a story about a failed musician whose child went on to become famous. The story would have been constructed as an expression of tragedy.

In the Christian view, however, God doesn't create human beings simply to be means to another end. Not one of us is merely a bumper in a cosmic machine of events, there only to reflect the sphere of significance in a meaningful direction. So, we oughtn't fear to accept that hints of reality's purpose may not arise directly out of our actions. It may be that momentousness, according to humanity's conception, touches our lives only at a distance. In the mechanism of society, it may be that any given person's manifest role is only to finance somebody to pay somebody to push somebody so that somebody else might make it.

But to God, we all exist in close-up — where it is easy to believe that what we do affects the fate of the entire world.

Posted by Justin Katz at 2:16 PM | Comments (2)

May 24, 2004

Watch Maker and Gatekeeper

Marc Comtois quotes from a review of a book about American secularism:

For the past few years a friend of mine in the Midwest has been engaged in a war of words in the columns of a local newspaper. Every so often someone writes a letter to the editor claiming that the United States is a Christian nation and that, as the formula goes, "freedom of religion doesn't mean freedom from religion." In response, my friend writes a letter pointing out that the Founding Fathers tended to be deists, not Christians. They saw God as, essentially, a watchmaker. He created the universe, wound it up and then stood back to let it run. If Franklin, Washington, Jefferson and Paine had a religion, it was a faith in reason, not in the Bible.

Marc (an historian himself) agrees, for the most part, but insists:

...the true intent of the 'separation of church and state' was to permit citizens to practice their religion freely without fear of governmental prosecution. Implicit in this is the right to not practice any form of religion. The effort to divorce ourselves from the importance of religion to our national heritage may indeed point to the secularization of our society. . . Our Founding Fathers, whether they be Deists, Congregationalists or Catholics, would have never imagined that the clause 'separation of church and state' would have been perverted in such a way. Not in their wildest dreams.

To some extent, I think the sides in this dispute are talking to each other from separate boxes. I think I've done more reading and thinking than writing on this (see the end of this piece for some of the writing), but it has seemed to me that secularists cut out the half of the American deists' beliefs that is more directly relevant to our society today. Whatever their beliefs about God's involvement in this world, they largely seemed to believe in judgment and in soul, from whence derived morality and the presumption of an ethical foundation on which to place freedom.

In a sense, God was not just a watch maker, but also a gatekeeper. What modern secularists have done is to add to the idea that God doesn't meddle in our affairs the completely distinct and insidious notion that He doesn't care what we do.

Posted by Justin Katz at 7:32 AM | Comments (5)

May 21, 2004

An American Exodus

I've been meaning to note a post on Catholic (?) Kerry Watch:

The greatest scandal is not that CINO politicians, like Judas before them, have sold Christ out for the electoral equivalent of 30 pieces of silver, but that so many heirs of the Apostles, like Pontius Pilate, are washing their hands of the blood of the innocent lest Caesar be discomforted.

As for the response, in particular, the American Life League's recent ad campaign, as Flannery O'Connor once observed, when the world is deaf, you have no choice but to shout. Indeed, if uncompromising defenders of life are folks on the fringe, if defenders of the Faith of Our Fathers are a remnant, let us then shout all the louder, and may our cries, please God, join those of countless victims whose silent screams call out to You for justice for, in this lost world, we have no other hope.

The attempts of certain pundits and propagandists to paint their opposition as "fringe" — as if those who don't take the easy way of joining the crowd are less likely to be correct — brought to mind a line from Exodus 23:

Neither shall you allege the example of the many as an excuse for doing wrong, nor shall you, when testifying in a lawsuit, side with the many in perverting justice.

Some Bibles translate that as "do not follow the majority when they do wrong." Ancient advice and instruction remains relevant throughout the ages exactly for the reason that it is so hard to follow.

Exodus 23 also offers some guidance should the Church be attacked, for its efforts, through its tax-exempt status:

Never take a bribe, for a bribe blinds even the most clear-sighted and twists the words even of the just.
Posted by Justin Katz at 3:56 PM | Comments (1)

May 6, 2004

Morality, Religion, and Politics in Black and White

Andrew Sullivan is right about the significance of any American Catholic Church action to make a policy of denying Communion to "pro-choice" politicians:

Cutting off people from the sacraments is a drastic step for the church to take; taking on almost all one political party and a hefty swathe of another in a democracy as large and influential as the United States would be a political Rubicon for the Catholic church.

Unfortunately, he doesn't stop there:

I wonder if, under theo-conservative logic, the withholding of the sacraments should be restricted only to public officials. Why not any lay Catholic who publicly dissents from Church teaching on matters of faith and morals? Why not pundits, writers, and, er, bloggers? And why just abortion? Why not those who express enthusiastic support for the death penalty, which is clearly condemned by the Vatican in almost all cases? Why not those who oppose the Federal Marriage Amendment, which is all that keeps us from sliding into the end of civilization, according to National Review? What are the exact lines of demarcation here? I ask, because purges rarely end where they start, and it would be good to read a thorough piece detailing who should be thrown out and who would be allowed by the bishops to stay.

These scattershot litanies of rhetorical questions are certainly a potent weapon. They tempt one into their mire because each point lends itself to easy response, yet they take time to wade through, and lead only to the conclusion that the writer doesn't really care to hear the answers, anyway. For the initial "who else" theme, suffice to say that it's quite a bit simpler to comment on the views of public Catholics, and that the opinions of Catholics who are federal legislators can be more directly and calamitously put into action.

For the "what next" theme, perhaps it will do to suggest that leniency, as well, rarely ends where it starts. What are the lines of demarcation for that? Ought a politician who proposes legislation permitting the post-birth abortion of children who exhibit signs of homosexuality be permitted to take of the Eucharist? As Amy Welborn puts it, "The problem with this is that without nuance, any effort immediately gets boiled down to a checklist." One would think Sullivan's penchant for nuance elsewhere, not to mention his Christian foundation, would overcome the tendency of libertarians to demand universally applicable rules.

The conclusion exposed through whittling the rhetoric down is that Sullivan doesn't fundamentally acknowledge the depth of the Church's opposition to abortion. "I see every reason for the church to make a positive case loudly and often about the moral gravity of abortion." A positive case about moral gravity? Encouraging positive action to oppose the killing of demonstrably innocent human beings indicates an "impulse to publicly shame, purge and purify religion"? To be fair, I suspect abortion isn't Sullivan's primary topic, here; rather those (we) damnable theocons are.

This suspicion finds support in Sullivan's subsequent and related piece on The New Republic's Web site. Most obviously, in attacking Robert Novak et al., Sullivan drops the inclusion of both political parties from his assessment of what the Church is doing:

Catholicism cannot be simply translated into being a Democrat or a Republican, a liberal or a conservative. It is about faith and morals, not about partisanship. It is also about a stance toward human beings that concedes that we are all human, all sinners and all capable of error. Sincere politicians who differ on conscientious grounds on some matters of faith are not always being bad Catholics. By carefully weighing the issues, by finding the difficult link between their private faith and their public duties in a secular, multi-faith democracy, they are often being good Catholics in a complex modern world.

It's interesting to note that Sullivan believes politicians to be capable of a careful balance on issues that the Church apparently cannot muster. But since the reference is to an ideal, sincere politician, I suppose such an attribute might be found in him, as well. The matter of partisanship comes up again when Sullivan quotes Novak quoting Deal Hudson as saying, "Anytime our leaders allow the life issue to be made one of many issues provides cover for Kerry's effort to attract Catholic votes." Sullivan explains the statement as follows:

The premise of Hudson's remarks is that all traditional Catholics have to vote for a pro-life Republican (since the Democrats are institutionally committed to abortion rights). Any other position must be condemned by the hierarchy and in the most painful personal way--by denying the sacraments to the individual concerned.

Contrary to the parenthetical, Hudson said nothing about Democrats' institutional commitments. If the party position were the determiner, then why would a particular Republican have to be pro-life? Politically concerned Catholics understand not only that an individual is responsible for his own actions, but also that it is critical to insert into institutionally hostile groups believers who will witness to the proper attitude. Sullivan's reinterpretation isn't a small matter. Most profoundly, it allows him to elide from demands on a politician to demands on voters. He concedes that Kerry doesn't appear to be taking a careful, "reluctant" approach to resolving political and moral demands, but in contrast, he presents the Church as acting in a way that it is not:

For the Church to start picking political candidates would be a death-knell to its ability to be a trans-political religious organization. Separating the Church from electoral politics is in fact a defense of Catholicism from the depredations of politicized religion that has so infected the Protestant right, which is now a de facto branch of one political party.

Nobody in the hierarchy (that I've seen) has declared Kerry unfit for office or insisted that his Catholic supporters should cease to take Communion. Sullivan, lover of nuance to complexity that he is, reduces the options for everybody (except politicians) to two: either the Church must offer consequence-free suggestions, or it must act specifically against any politician who differs with any of its teachings, from capital punishment to "regressive tax policies"; either Catholic voters must place abortion in the same category as every other social issue, or they must use abortion as an unadulterated litmus test.

The latter point allows him to go one step further and, by lumping abortion in with capital punishment, pull President Bush into the dispute. In the context of the actual question with respect to handling John Kerry, this makes absolutely no sense. Bush is not Catholic, and Catholics are not being told how to vote. At most, conservatives in the Church are suggesting that Kerry oughtn't be allowed to portray himself as a Catholic in good standing — some for political reasons, yes, but also because Kerry's activities and the Church's silence about them has the effect of distorting what its moral position is. (And if Catholic voters could only vote for Catholics in good standing, Bush would be out of the running from the start.)

This distinction between endorsing a policy and endorsing the endorser of a policy comes up again (and not just by Sullivan) with respect to Rick Santorum's support of Arlen Specter. I'm as disappointed as anybody in the sequence events in Pennsylvania, but I've been bewildered by the currency that statements such as the following from Sullivan have had:

Didn't Santorum effectively urge voters to support someone who favors abortion in some cases against a candidate who opposes it in all circumstances? Shouldn't the Vatican be refusing to grant the sacraments to Santorum because of his deviation from the official all-or-nothing line? Wasn't he giving voters Catholic "cover" for voting for an abortion supporter?

First, it must be noted that "all or nothing" is Sullivan's insistence; for the Church, it's closer to "for some, under certain circumstances." Second, he glosses over the degree to which a point that he makes toward his own position applies to that of his opponents, as well. If a politician can vote in support of abortion given a larger context of issues, surely voters can vote for a politician despite a given policy disagreement. I'd argue that voters — once removed from the actual issue and twice removed from an actual abortion — have considerably more room for judgment.

One gets the impression that Sullivan believes only politicians can be trusted with balancing difficult factors. Or else, that actions that have political ramifications must be taken for political reasons and aligned with the rules of politics, even when they are founded in religion. That approach to life and society strikes me as neither Christian nor American.

Posted by Justin Katz at 3:20 PM | Comments (1)

April 25, 2004

"It wasn't the Ten Suggestions that came down from the mountain."

The title of this post is a line from Rev. William Murdoch, director the New England Province for the Anglican Communion Network, with which Providence Journal religion writer Richard Dujardin ended a piece about Rhode Island Episcopalian parishes seeking a link to the Anglican Communion other than the U.S. Episcopalian Church. One-third of Rhode Island (Rhode Island!) parishes are apparently interested. That minority in Rhode Island is, however, part of a global majority:

"We are at a situation where 31 of the world's 38 Anglican primates already declared themselves out of communion with the U.S. Episcopal Church," said the Rev. Canon Jonathan Ostman, rector of St. John the Evangelist Church, in Newport.

As a Rhode Islander, I'm mostly happy to find evidence of good sense among my fellow citizens:

Geoffrey Milner, a member of St. Mary's Church in Warwick, nearly broke down in tears, saying that he was doing this for the sake of the children, recognizing that for them to attain eternal life they must be given the armor of truth, not the "nice feel-good stuff" that is not going to save them.

"This is only the tip of the iceberg," said the Rev. Mark Galloway, rector of the host church and the only priest in the entire delegation of priests and lay deputies from New England to vote against Robinson's ordination at the General Convention last summer in Minneapolis.

Since the convention, he said, he's been berated and labeled a bigot, even though he and his wife have a homosexual friend they once took into their home and he has welcomed homosexuals into his church. It is gotten to the point, he said, where the marginalization of those opposed to the latest cultural trends has become a fait accompli.

As a Roman Catholic, I'd say that this is just further evidence that the most significant divide in Christendom cuts across denominations. Only time will tell if these trends represent a stage on the way toward a small-c catholic Church, as chunks of every individual Church fall into the roiling sea of the secular culture's ideological demands.

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:44 AM | Comments (13)

April 19, 2004


Along with introducing the Catholic (?) Kerry Watch blog, Lane Core notes Phil Lawler's column pondering the significance of a Kerry presidency for the Catholic Church:

According to the American Spectator, Kerry's campaign staff is considering a plan to set up a situation in which the Senator would be denied Communion-- with plenty of reporters and cameras on hand to record the event. Evidently, some Kerry strategists feel that the incident would increase their man's popularity-- at the expense of the Catholic Church.

If Kerry goes through with this stunt, of course, we'll know exactly how seriously he takes his faith, since he would be risking his soul for the sake of a few votes.

Perhaps it's my newfound optimism talking, but my sense is that Americans' patience for the Rebel Without a Qualm shtick is wearing thin. Among those who could be persuaded either way, the stark difference between the quietly faithful George Bush and the loudly dissenting John Kerry will give distinct impressions, and I think more people will go with the former (viewing this factor in isolation). Of course, people like professed Catholic Margo Chaires are probably beyond persuasion:

I believe that the American Roman Catholic Church ought to lose its tax exempt status for being in violation of the Internal Revenue Service Code.

As it happens, I believe the American Roman Catholic Church ought to refuse tax exempt status — or at least threaten to make a show of doing so. The Church is not without political strength, in this regard; in Massachusetts, for example, it devotes more resources toward what can be considered charitable causes than any organization other than the state government. Powerful exemplification of injustice is easily within reach.

But the pressure to conform with the expanding requirements for government approval is mounting, while the dramatic power of withdrawing one's bucket from that well is decreasing. Mine is a limited view of the situation, but I think, as a Church, we're experience the unfortunate coincidence of losing options to exert political and cultural influence and having leaders unwilling to stand up to the challenge. It's going to be a rough half-century if we don't find it within us to overturn some tables.

(While we're at it, kicking the benches out from under the dove-peddlers would seem appropriate, at least to this hawk.)

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:07 PM | Comments (2)

April 10, 2004

In Anticipation

Psalm 104:27-30.

All of these look to you to give them food in due time.
When you give to them, they gather; when you open your hand, they are well filled.
When you hide your face, they are lost. When you take away their breath, they perish and return to the dust from which they came.
When you send forth your breath, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.
Posted by Justin Katz at 4:07 PM

April 8, 2004

Senator Pontius

Mel Gibson's portrayal of Pontius Pilate in The Passion of the Christ is one of those reflective topics that tells one more about a reviewer than about the film. Consider, for example, Andrew Sullivan:

Pilate and his wife are portrayed as saints forced by politics and the Jewish elders to kill a man they know is innocent.

More than anything, this sentence highlights one of modern politics' most potent weapons: the passive voice. Can politics force one to do evil? Sullivan believes that Pilate is absolved of blame because he acted merely according to the demands of his role.

Father Raymond J. de Souza begs to differ:

That such conduct would be considered admirable reveals serious moral confusion. The evangelists likely did not doubt that they were painting a damning portrayal of Pilate. His conduct is not that of a man consumed by rage or overpowered by events. He is cool and in control of himself. His compromises are not capitulations. They are careful calculations; calculations in which the fate of an innocent man is no more than dust on the scales.

Far from mitigating it, the contemplative acquiescence to evil is the sine qua non of culpability. Perhaps it could be argued that sacrificing Jesus was an expedient means to the arguably good end of minimizing the risk of broader bloodshed. Even skirting the complicated Catholic demand that we never do evil that good might come of it, with effort, a reasonably intelligent person could think of other means to the same end. They may have required more effort and been more difficult, but morality isn't generally a simple, easy matter in a fallen world.

So yes, it's certainlyrevealing how people see Pilate, and Fr. de Souza is correct to dub him as the patron politician of our day: "He was clearly personally opposed to the crucifixion." But he had to separate his own private beliefs to the objective demands of his office. How lamentable that we have excised the necessity of morality from the parts of life where its lack can do the most damage, albeit at the smallest apparent personal cost.

"Apparent" being the operative word.

Posted by Justin Katz at 6:32 PM

April 7, 2004

Foretastes of the Future

Phil Lawler mentions a line from the Passion according to Luke that nearly caused me to lose my place reading the "Voice" part during Mass on Sunday:

Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep instead for yourselves and for your children for indeed, the days are coming when people will say, "Blessed are the barren, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed."

That seems an appropriate entry into the discussion of the day.

On a tangential note, Rev. Donald Sensing quotes from a Pew Research study that purports to find an increase in anti-Semitism over the past seven years, somehow related to The Passion of the Christ:

A growing minority of Americans believe that Jews were responsible for Christ's death. Roughly a quarter of the public (26%) now expresses that view. This represents a modest but statistically significant increase in the number holding this opinion when compared with a 1997 survey by ABC News which found 19% feeling this way. But a solid majority of Americans both then and now (60%) continue to say that Jews were not responsible for the death of Christ.

Sensing wonders if this is "a cloud around this silver lining." Here's my comment:

Hmm. A 7% increase in "yes" responses over seven years, and a film released two months ago is to blame?

Frankly, that rise in numbers could be merely the result of people's knowing more about the entire debate, no matter which way they fall. (Note that "don't know" responses have fallen 5% over the same period.)

My phone rings and a surveyor asks me, "Were the Jews responsible for Christ's death?" Well, first of all, the "were" makes it possible to respond as if to "were the specific Jews responsible." As a more theological matter, I might find myself unwilling to say "no, the Jews were not responsible," believing as I do that we all were and are.

So, on most days of the week, I'd likely be included in that 26%. My supposedly implied anti-Semitism will surely come as a surprise to Grandpa Katz.

Commenter Tom also wonders if the relentless slant of the media and the elite against Israel and, more generally, Jews mightn't have something to do with any actual anti-Semitism that the study uncovered.

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:02 PM | Comments (1)

April 6, 2004

Opening the Door with Passion

Christian fans of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ haven't had a whole lot to say about the film's release in the Middle East. Some have thought to suggest that any Muslim anti-Semitism centering, for a time, on the film didn't issue from, but subsumed, it. Perhaps others haven't let the topic tumble away because Gibson-haters haven't given reason to believe that they'd be persuaded by such arguments.

Dave Gudeman, quoting an email from somebody who saw the movie in that region, looks past the domestic dispute and makes a point that ought to have been among the first suggested:

The person writing this email is a Christian who believes (as I do) in the power of the Gospel message to change lives. But even if you don't believe in this, there is reason to hope that this will have a positive effect on Muslims. If nothing else, it will make some of them curious about Christianity, and therefore about alternatives to the hate-filled religious teaching many of them have had to live with. Now that they have the internet, the only thing keeping those people in their insular world is lack of curiosity, so if we can make them curious then a large part of the war has been won. In addition, this film may help to break some of the harmful stereotypes that Muslims have for Christians and Jews. They will see that there is more to Christians than the Crusades and the US Marines. And surely someone is going to have to notice that Jesus was a Jew and that he forgave the people who crucified him.

The message of the Passion can, of course, be distorted. Methodist Minister Don Sensing is skeptical about the substance of Dave's hope largely because Islam has already developed an answer to divert the power of Christ's story:

In fact, Islam recognizes Jesus as a great Muslim prophet, the greatest Muslim prophet after Muhammed, I recall. Many Muslims believe that Jesus will return to judge humanity under the authority of Allah. Jesus is the only prophet to whom Muslims ascribe the working of miracles. ...

At very best, The Passion might plant a seed, but without further nurture it is unlikely to blossom.

"At very best"? Surely the movie will find some good soil, even in a land braced against the scattering of Christian seeds. The Reverend is correct to caution against the expectation of immediate mass conversions, but those are the sort that spring from "rocky places," anyway. Putting his comment in the terms of the parable, Dave's mention of the Internet could be seen as indicating the broad availability of good soil for those who seek it.

Sensing elides Dave's sentence about the power of the Gospel message, and I'm curious why. In so doing, it would seem he also elides a potential answer to his worry about Who will provide further nurture. To be sure, we ought to guard against hope's becoming unreasonable expectation, but perhaps that caveat ought to fall short of skepticism.

Meanwhile, Christopher Johnson points out that a more subtle, more Western door is (re)opening in England:

Record numbers of secondary schools are "converting" and becoming Church of England schools to fulfil parental demand for Christian values and better discipline. Since 2002, eight previously secular schools have become Church schools and three more will convert this year.

Just to avoid misunderstandings before any arise: by wondering aloud about Rev. Sensing's elision, I didn't intend to insinuate anything whatsoever about his faith or approach thereto. I have high respect for him, and I consider it more than likely that he would be able to address the question cogently. In other words, I really am just curious.

Posted by Justin Katz at 8:14 PM

April 5, 2004

On This Date

Well, 4/4/4 passed without comment on this blog, I'm sorry to say. On top of general busyness, we had an eight-year-old's birthday party to attend. And before that I had to recover from reading the "Voice" part of the Passion at Mass. One thing that Mel Gibson's movie did for me was to fill in some of the blank canvas around the words that I was reading as I, as Peter, denied Christ and, as Pilate, declared Him innocent but handed Him over anyway.

Putting us in those roles — with the entire congregation saying, "Crucify Him! Crucify Him!" — may be among the most profound ceremony-driven reminders of our place in the universe. As Jeff Miller suggests in a post marking five years as an inducted Catholic, the Church calls us not because we are perfect, but because we are the opposite:

I will never forget that night five years ago when I was received into the Church and first received Communion (licitly). Walking back to the pew I realized that I had truly spent forty years in the wilderness and had entered the promised land. My reading in Church History and listening to Catholic radio especially Catholic Answers prevented me from some idealistic church where all Catholics had halos and the Mass was always conducted reverently. If the Church would accept me than other suspicious characters could slip in also. So while I am greatly thankful for being in Christ's Church on earth I always remember St. Paul's words about persevering to the end.
Posted by Justin Katz at 7:09 AM

April 2, 2004

Jesus: More than Just a Friend

Providence Journal contributing editor M.J. Andersen has, by observing reactions to The Passion of the Christ, come across the conflicting trends between believers in what I've previously counterpoised as Metrosexual Jesus and South American Prison Jesus. Somehow, I'm not inclined to disagree with Andersen's observation that the former is more simplistic:

In a recent New York Times essay, Prothero speculates that Gibson's Jesus, and his film's immense popularity, could signal a return to a Jesus from whom Americans are more estranged. Gibson's suffering man-god may be harder to comprehend than the admirable guy many Americans thought that they had come to know.

Probably without realizing it — for reason of the piece's focus on Jesus — Andersen touches on what the two trends ultimately represent. The less comprehensible Jesus is, well, God. "Jesus as pal" is not (or, at least, might not be). The latter, being (above all) likable, is more prone to reflect that which we like, particularly in ourselves. The former will sometimes decree realities that conflict with our preferences.

This one difference, however we wish to phrase it, carries through the entirety of those beliefs and impressions that constitute a worldview. And the line between the two distinct camps cuts across denominations, which explains what Andersen seems to consider a mystery: that American Protestants are "flocking to the movie" even though "Gibson is a conservative Catholic who rejects the liberalizing reforms of Vatican II" and whose "focus on the physical agony of Jesus flows directly from Catholic devotional tradition." The line between Catholic and Protestant isn't any longer (or is less and less) the single greatest dividing line in Christendom.

Posted by Justin Katz at 2:03 PM

March 31, 2004

Psalm 127

Among my favorite psalms:

A song of ascents. Of Solomon. Unless the LORD build the house, they labor in vain who build. Unless the LORD guard the city, in vain does the guard keep watch.
It is vain for you to rise early and put off your rest at night, To eat bread earned by hard toil-- all this God gives to his beloved in sleep.
Children too are a gift from the LORD, the fruit of the womb, a reward.
Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children born in one's youth.
Blessed are they whose quivers are full. They will never be shamed contending with foes at the gate.
Posted by Justin Katz at 6:45 AM

March 29, 2004

Academics Discovering Benefits of Organized Religion

The historical storyline that American schools and culture taught many Gen Xers was the Zinnesque one that history is one long example of oppressors (usually white men) using traditional organizations to suppress everybody else. Thus, organized religion was wholly iniquitous, with very little by way of benefit for participants; marriage was a lopsided relationship not unlike servitude for all women — even if they didn't know it to be true. The happy side effect worldview, for academics, is that they can discover the reality of a social dynamic from the early 1900s as if recovering long-lost documents from prehistory.

My fellow Aquidneck Islander, URI history professor Evelyn Sterne has written a book along these lines with respect to the Catholic Church in Rhode Island:

"We think of the Catholic church as a conservative institution and in many ways it was; it was against birth control for women and against an attempt in the 1920s to pass an Equal Rights Amendment," says Sterne.

"On the other hand, the church provided an institution where women were encouraged to become active in public life," said Sterne. "For many women the church was the only institution it was acceptable for women to belong to. Women were seen as society's moral guardians, a natural extension of the role they played at home.

The religious vision of equality that makes Sterne's "on the other hand" misplaced is just different (better, I'd say) than the flat one with which feminists have squashed our culture. The Church's sociological positions — on everything from birth control to labor unions — don't issue forth from an animus against women, but rather a sustained effort to work toward a society that acknowledges and strengthens that which makes us fully human — fully woman and fully man.

I should note that I don't intend my general scorn for academics to taint my reaction to Sterne; we ought to applaud her willingness to challenge intellectual presumptions. However, this manifestation of those presumptions is worth a wry smile:

"Church wasn't just a place to worship," said Sterne. "For women, who were seen as the moral guardians of society, church was an acceptable place to go to get outside the stresses of family life and meet with other women. Women pushed the church to get involved in public life."

Now, I'm confident that the role of women in the Church has been a crucial part of maintaining and guiding the effort, but wasn't it... well... Christ who pushed the Church to get involved in public life?

Posted by Justin Katz at 1:45 PM | Comments (2)

March 21, 2004

Culture War from the Inside Out

On the very same day that a Seattle-area United Methodist church steps onto what may prove to be the path to internal discord that the U.S. Episcopal Church has blazed, the Washington Post profiles another congregation of the same Church across the country in Maryland in reaction to this finding:

Late last year, a commission convened by Dartmouth Medical School, among others, studied years of research on kids, including brain-imaging studies, and concluded that young people who are religious are better off in significant ways than their secular peers. They are less likely than nonbelievers to smoke and drink and more likely to eat well; less likely to commit crimes and more likely to wear seat belts; less likely to be depressed and more likely to be satisfied with their families and school.

The article, which I found via Amy Welborn's blog, is well worth reading, despite its length, but something odd creeps in at the bottom of the third html page (of four):

Some girls in the study group don't challenge the Bible or church teachings. Kimbrey, however, is a questioner, and her questions are taken seriously, she says. One discussion she remembers centered on the ordination of gay clergy. Wendy Brubaker, her Bible group sponsor, said gays shouldn't be ordained but Kimbrey argued that "all sins are equal in God's sight." She isn't convinced that homosexuality is a sin, but if it is, she argued, "you can't judge a person just by the sins you see." The church unknowingly ordains ministers who commit abuse and other acts condemned by the Bible. Why should homosexuals be excluded?

The next page picks up:

"I won the argument," she says proudly.

Ah, pride! According to the telling of Post writer Laura Sessions Stepp, Kimbrey really does seem to be a fantastic kid, but two questions come to mind. Did none of her Bible-study peers think to suggest that the problem lies in the degree to which this particular sin is worn as an impregnable, unimpeachable identity? One suspects that open abusers would be somewhat less welcome than even open and active homosexuals.

The second question is why, in a piece about the benefits of religion, Ms. Stepp devotes so much (unbalanced) time applauding a girl who refutes it on this particular issue. To ask this question is to answer it, and the answer carries through to the last individual profile of the piece, a twelve-year-old girl who gets the final word:

Wicca, a form of pagan nature worship, could be the answer, she says. Because "in Wicca, you have a goddess and a god. God will still be there for me."

Thus, the preadolescent sage assists la journaliste sophistiquée in assuring the reader that — while the formula currently eludes the experts — the benefits of religion may yet be distilled away from organizations that insist on tradition, dogma, and stuff.

Posted by Justin Katz at 7:02 PM | Comments (7)

March 19, 2004

St. Joseph on Modern Sociology

One will often hear, as if it stands as its own evidence, that "the only reason" people hold a particular opinion is because of religion — "it's in the Bible." I hereby resolve no longer to allow such an objection to pass without demanding an explanation of what that means to the person making it.

A basic endeavor of religion — and a basic tenet of Christian understanding of God — is to make universally comprehensible what is incomprehensible. This has tiers, of course, from the actually incomprehensible to that which requires centuries of research to understand. Not everybody has the time, interest, and surplus gray matter to trace statistics and follow sociological theories; paradoxically, everybody can understand what sociologists don't yet believe themselves able to admit that they know. Why shouldn't the simply understood distillation of millennia of religious thinking be admissible?

This came to mind — perhaps somewhat obliquely — upon reading David Morrison's post about St. Joseph:

But St. Joseph maybe among the Saints I most want to pull off his place beside innumerable altars and bring down into the pews. Not, heaven forfend, because I want to besmirch him in any way at all, but because we need him more actively with us, as an advisor, as an example, as a encourager, as a disciplinary voice. Because if there is a crisis that in the American family today, and this might to families across the first world, that stands head and shoulders over all the others (and the others are pressing as well) it is the crisis over men not knowing, understanding or working to be Dads.

Despite fashionable assertions to the contrary during the past few decades, the importance of fathers is beginning to find its way into research conclusions as if it's a new idea. But there it is: right in that old, all-too-dismissible Book. Do children need a father? Well, even the Son of God needed a dad to teach him how to be fully human.

Posted by Justin Katz at 9:55 PM

March 12, 2004

Mathematical Revelation

After a bit of discussion about The Passion of the Christ, the Passion of Christ, and Christianity, Scott of Demosophia writes:

I suppose I could say I've taken this about as far as I can short of some sort of revelation that's based on my particular "Rosetta Stone." Even there, though, I'd be concerned about what the cultists call "magical thinking" if the insight didn't synch up to a deeper, but objective, truth. In other words if the faith that leads me to this deeper truth also necessitates that I conclude 2+2=5 I'd get a kick out of it, but probably wouldn't change my mind about anything. I'd just figure the universe is a little... odd.

I'd suggest that it doesn't necessitate "magical thinking" to believe that 2+2 could equal 5 — just a little depth to the terms. The belief system would require only a tradition of symbolic language and/or a faith in some unseen, perhaps unknowable, realm of perspective. Christianity offers just such a belief system, one in which marriage makes 1+1=1 and the Trinity makes 1+1+1=1. For Catholics, belief that 1+1=1 is also represented in transubstantiation of the Eucharist, with one aspect being accident (the bread) and the other being substance (the Body).

The particular abstraction of 2+2=5 is arbitrary and similar to the "omnipotence gotcha" about squaring circles and making 1+1=72 that I solved here. In some ways, 2+2=5 is more difficult, but here's an attempt at answering abstraction with abstraction. Suppose by 1 we mean a single arch, and that addition joins them thus:

With this procedure, we would add 2 and 2 as follows:

It's true that we've got four arches; however, those four arches are supported by five columns. As I argued in part five of my "theory of everything" series, in a religious context, these sorts of contradictions can be seen as algorithms. To solve the one at hand, you need a whole lot more information than is included in the statement "2+2=5": you need to define the labels for the left side, the labels for the right side, and the process for solving it.

In a basic view, this could be seen as a sort of code. Imagine scripture said that "the cup of God lies where two added upon two equals five." In searching for the Grail, you are led to the Colosseum. Given some defined starting point, perhaps the cup would be somewhere in or around the far support of the fourth arch.

Less novelesque, it could be a statement of some sort of property of God or of nature. Not long ago, I saw a TV special about the far reaches of physics that told of an experiment seeking to collide two particals in such a way as to cause the disappearance of a gravitron (or something like that; I'm fuzzy on the details). In a similar vein, suppose two joined particles collide with another such pair and cause the appearance of some sort of fifth particle.

The point isn't that one must believe every bit of religious dogma simply because a moderate degree of imagination could come up with possible solutions. The point is that it doesn't invalidate a belief system that it requires one to leave open the possibility that a seeming contradiction isn't, ultimately, a contradiction.

Posted by Justin Katz at 12:24 PM | Comments (1)

March 5, 2004

The Hatred of Jews

Ramesh Ponnuru makes some points with which I agree, but I think he had the same problem I do. It's hard for a Christian — wishing to be respectful — to know what to say about Charles Krauthammer's take on The Passion of the Christ. This, for example, takes exactly the opposite message from my assessment:

The most subtle, and most revolting, of these has to my knowledge not been commented upon. In Gibson's movie, Satan appears four times. Not one of these appearances occurs in the four Gospels. They are pure invention. Twice, this sinister, hooded, androgynous embodiment of evil is found . . . where? Moving among the crowd of Jews. Gibson's camera follows close up, documentary style, as Satan glides among them, his face popping up among theirs -- merging with, indeed, defining the murderous Jewish crowd. After all, a perfect match: Satan's own people.

If somebody asked what Satan's presence in the crowd might mean, I would think it quite obvious to suggest that it was an indication that he was acting through the crowd. That it was his presence in the world that riled them up and led them astray. That's basic Christian theology; God loves all people, and while we are culpable for our own sins, it is more the culpability of falling to Satan than originating evil. In fact, although I didn't make a mental note of it, I'm pretty sure that this very presence of Satan struck me as a deliberate attempt to divert blame from the Jews. I thought it much more a direct association when he appeared at the scourging with that baby-thing that looked (to me, anyway) like it had the same face as the head Roman torturer.

Consider what Krauthammer is insisting, however. At what point, I'm compelled to ask, does a Jewish man's concern about anti-Semitism begin to indicate that he, in fact, is anti-Christian in the same deplorable, selective, hateful way? I mean, look at this, particularly coming from a famed "neoconservative" (a group among whom I tend to count myself):

Muslims have their story: God's revelation to the final prophet. Jews have their story: the covenant between man and God at Sinai.

Christians have their story too: the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. Why is this story different from other stories? Because it is not a family affair of coreligionists.

Christianity is alone among the monotheistic religions in having a "religious story" that "involves other people"? What religious texts has Krauthammer been reading? I'm more inclined to argue than to claim offense, but that, one can objectively say, is extremely offensive. Not the least because it's wrong. Christ came from among the Jews to form a new covenant with them, and to open up the "family affair" to everybody, regardless of ethnicity. In that context, this expands on Krauthammer's erroneous claim:

Because of that peculiarity, the crucifixion is not just a story; it is a story with its own story -- a history of centuries of relentless, and at times savage, persecution of Jews in Christian lands. This history is what moved Vatican II, in a noble act of theological reflection, to decree in 1965 that the Passion of Christ should henceforth be understood with great care so as to unteach the lesson that had been taught for almost two millennia: that the Jews were Christ killers.

The early history of Christianity was of persecution. Very early on, and throughout Gibson's movie, all Christians are Jews — ethnically and religiously. Worse, Krauthammer is essentially calling Christianity, right down to its core, an illegitimately hostile religion, which was only corrected by clarification in the 1960s.

In its way, that's a legitimate claim, from a certain perspective. But making such a broad assertion in one of the nation's major newspapers seems to me much more of an "act of interreligious aggression" than Gibson's movie. If there's any interreligious friction arising from the release of this movie, excuse me if I can't come around to seeing it as originating with Christians.

Posted by Justin Katz at 3:13 PM | Comments (4)

March 1, 2004

A Quick Thought on Jesus

I've been thinking about the ways in which Mel Gibson sought to make Jesus into a hero, which points to a theological matter that is all too easy to forget: He was human. Because we consider Him to have been God, it is easy for Christians to see Him as sort of going through the motions. We let an idea that is clearly mistaken according to the Gospels seep in — that Christ could see the big plan in its entirety.

Actually, it may overstate the case to say the idea is "clearly mistaken"; there are degrees to which that's a valid debate, but it does have the adverse effect of dehumanizing Jesus. So, when He stomps on the snake at the beginning of The Passion of the Christ, I was inclined to forgive the cinematic cliché as an attempt to remind us that Jesus, the man, was indeed human, with doubts and fears to overcome, and thus capable of being heroic, of giving us that "go get 'em" feeling.

However, this point gets caught up in non-Christians' misunderstanding of believers' reaction to the movie. If we take Christ as a hero — the captain of our theological team — then seeing him beaten so badly might prick our protective instincts or, worse, our lust for revenge. But that's not really what Christ is to a Christian. He's God! How could we possibly feel like big brothers to Him? Our theology (or most branches of it that I know anything about) emphasizes thanking Him, making requests of Him, begging for His forgiveness.

I just realized that, at no point in the movie, did it occur to me that the apostles should try to save Jesus amid the confusion of his march to Calvary. When the soldiers (I think it was them) mocked Him, saying, "Come down off of your cross," one knows that legions' coming over the hill to save Him would have been doing grave harm. It would be wholly foreign, then, for us to leave the movie theater declaring, "You can't do that to my messiah!"

Just had to mention that thought.

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:29 AM | Comments (1)

February 26, 2004

A Passionate Disagreement

Having not seen the movie, I'm limited in the extent to which I'm able to comment, but I have to get a few thoughts about reaction to The Passion of the Christ out of my head so other thoughts can flow while I walk the dog.

Although I'm surprised that John Derbyshire linked to it with approval, I'm not surprised by Christian Canadian writer Michael Coren's thoughts on the movie. Coren's review brings to mind previous indications of a cross-denomination schism. On one side are believers in what Rev. Donald Sensing calls "Metrosexual Jesus." Put simply, these are people who don't believe that religion should ever make anybody feel badly about themselves, no matter what they insist on doing. Doctrine should change with the times to accommodate the people living in them, and the softer, gentler side of Jesus is taken as license to do so. Does he have a speck in his eye?, they ask the righteous. Well, what of the plank in yours? If the accusation were turned on the person judging another for intolerance, and if the accuser could be made to address the complaint directly, I can only assume a relativist fog would arise, in which the speck/plank comparison changes with perspective such that everybody else's eyes have specks while yours, if you are judging, will always have a plank. Or something.

On the other end are people who believe in what might be called "South American Prison Jesus." These are people who take religion as they have found it, realized that they will sin and be judged, and move on from there. Of course, it is healthy for these folks, among whom I count myself, to realize that Christ's forgiveness does await... if we repent. But the point is that the religion is real. Evil must be faced, particularly within ourselves.

So, based just on a quick look at his column and his Web site, I'm guessing that Coren's closer to the Metrosexual Jesus crowd than he is to the South American Prison Jesus crowd. And it makes sense to me that such people will have a soul-deep dislike of Mel Gibson's movie. This is particularly true of those with the aesthetic sense suggested by his Web site. (If you visit it, make sure to stick around long enough for the music to kick in.) It is even more particularly true of a person likely to write the following:

This is some pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic blood cult. It is populated with medieval-type caricatures, screaming out of context, laughing at suffering. ...

The flashbacks seem, with one touching exception depicting Jesus as a child, to be mere attempts to push Catholic eucharistic theology onto the audience.

Putting aside sectarian prejudice, one line strikes to the heart of the matter: the movie "is also so, well, so anti-humanity." That's, well, sort of the point. Humanity brings this ugly sin into the world. It's cliché to say, but Coren, almost by his own admission, wants the "majesty and pathos" without the scourging. As I understand Gibson's intention, it isn't, ultimately, as much a movie about Christ as about us, what we did, and about what we must acknowledge having done. We, I needn't remind Coren, have not yet been raised up into majesty.

One way not to acknowledge this is to throw out decoys that have the tangential benefit of making us feel oh-so-compassionate and full of pathos. A big one in this case is anti-Semitism. Yesterday, Michael Graham wrote in the Corner:

I don't know what the reviewers who see even a hint of anti-Semitism are looking at. While the Jewish leaders certainly aren't heroes, several members of their ranks step forward to defend Christ and denounce the way he is treated. The battle over Jesus isn't Jew vs. Christian in this movie. It's Jew vs. Jew, with both factions doing what they believe is right.

In fact, Gibson uses a moment in the Crucifixion to all but declare Caiaphas and his allies "Not Guilty!" for the death of Christ. It's not subtle in the least, and the fact that most reviews I've read skip this moment indicates to me they're doing their part to keep the unfounded controversy alive.

Let me be perfectly clear: There is no way to honestly say this movie is either anti-Semitic or promotes anti-Semitism. That is simply not true, and people who have seen the film and make that claim are being dishonest or ignorant.

To be entirely honest about my own biases, I expected Andrew Sullivan, if he said anything substantive, to relate the movie to his central cause. That seems to me a perfectly normal and understandable reaction. But this, I did not expect:

Is it anti-Semitic? The question has to be placed in the context of the Gospels and it is hard to reproduce the story without risking such inferences. But in my view, Gibson goes much further than what might be forgivable. The first scene in which Caiphas appears has him relaying to Judas how much money he has agreed to hand over in return for Jesus. The Jew - fussing over money again! There are a few actors in those scenes who look like classic hook-nosed Jews of Nazi imagery, hissing and plotting and fulminating against the Christ. For good measure, Gibson has the Jewish priestly elite beat Jesus up as well, before they hand him over to the Romans; and he has Jesus telling Pilate that he is not responsible - the Jewish elite is. Pilate and his wife are portrayed as saints forced by politics and the Jewish elders to kill a man they know is innocent. Again, this reflects part of the Gospels, but Gibson goes further. He presents Pilate's wife as actually finding Mary, providing towels to wipe up Jesus' blood, arguing for Jesus' release. Yes, the Roman torturers are obviously evil; yes, a few Jews dissent; and, of course, all the disciples are Jewish. I wouldn't say that this movie is motivated by anti-Semitism. It's motivated by psychotic sadism. But Gibson does nothing to mitigate the dangerous anti-Semitic elements of the story and goes some way toward exaggerating and highlighting them. To my mind, that is categorically unforgivable. Anti-Semitism is the original sin of Christianity. Far from expiating it, this movie clearly enjoys taunting those Catholics as well as Jews who are determined to confront that legacy. In that sense alone, it is a deeply immoral work of art.

Some of this requires one to see the movie, although modest replies are obvious: Making an issue of the amount of Judas's payment? See Matthew 27:6 and 7, but particularly 9. The Jewish priests rough Jesus up? See Matthew 26:67, Mark 14:65, and John 18:22.

For now, what jumps out the most, however, is the line, "Anti-Semitism is the original sin of Christianity." To illustrate why I picked up on that specifically, I offer another citation — Sullivan's Love Undetectable, page 19: "The loathing of each group [gays and Jews] is also closely linked to fear, and the fear is fanned, in many ways, by the distortion of a particular strain in Christian theology."

Mike Potemra offers his thoughts on the matter:

Now, I saw this movie, too, twice, and I was especially on the lookout for signs of anti-Semitism or an overstress on Jewish guilt. I didn't see it—and I think if Andrew hadn't been angry at the film on other grounds, he wouldn't have seen it either.
Posted by Justin Katz at 10:37 PM | Comments (4)

February 25, 2004

Discrimination in the Name of Openness

It is reasonable to anticipate that, should gay civil marriage come to be, the next push will be to force religious institutions either to perform gay marriages or to disconnect from the ability to grant civil marital status as part of religious ceremonies. Nonetheless, I didn't think it worth worrying about anything specific — such as the loss of tax exemption — because I largely agreed with Eugene Volokh:

He said churches could raise a "significant constitutional defense" to keeping their tax-exempt status. He noted, for instance, the Catholic Church has faced criticism for years because it doesn't ordain women as priests.

"Churches, quite clearly, have the right to marry or not marry whoever they please," Volokh said. "Maybe somebody could sue them for discrimination in marriage, but the churches will certainly win."

Of course, even on this basis alone, one could suggest that they'll maintain the right to marry whomever they want, while losing the public recognition of those ceremonies. But the SCOTUS ruling regarding discrimination against students in Washington state just because they'll pursue religious studies does much to push Volokh's confidence toward religious folks' worries. Here he is on the Washington scholarship case:

The result, I think, genuinely is the discrimination against religion that people have complained about (sometimes wrongly, but here rightly) -- not just exclusion of either pro-religion or anti-religion messages from the government's own speech, but a regime where the government may discriminate against private religious institutions and programs, but may not discriminate in their favor. Now this is a wrong that is indeed worth amending the Constitution over.

Rick Garnette says that the court "has authorized discrimination by state actors against those who take their religious faith seriously." Prof. Bainbridge positions the ruling in opposition to the frequent calls for the courts to "protect minorities from the 'tyranny' of the majority," a sentiment that gay marriage advocates have voiced to justify pushing their cause through the judiciary.

Put it all together, adding in suppression of free religious speech in Canada and action against the Boy Scouts in the United States, and the circumstances seem to justify moving from vague suspicion into open concern. Volokh suggests that the discrimination against religion is "worth amending the Constitution over," but I wonder to what rallying cry he would tie such a movement. The U.S. Religious Scholarship Protection Amendment?

Too many people have been wooed by specious arguments about "separation of church and state" and convinced that it requires the very discrimination that Volokh decries for a general religion-protection amendment to gain traction. Similarly, too many fair-minded and reasonable people with faith in the law, such as Mr. Volokh, are misidentifying the trends and motivation behind them and underestimating the extent to which judges don't share that faith — or at least believe themselves to be its main prophets.

Increasingly, it seems to me that marriage, and the amendment to protect it, represent just about the strongest conceivable position from which to push back on this attack on the Constitution and, ultimately, on freedom. The FMA would not only slow the tide, but it would also break justifiable pleas for equality from advocacy with less-noble intentions. And, as I've said, when the ripples settle down, when the right circumstances are achieved, it can be repealed.

Posted by Justin Katz at 4:09 PM | Comments (2)

Separation Means Suppression, Apparently

And the elite delegitimization of religion as a worthwhile pursuit continues:

The Supreme Court, in a new rendering on separation of church and state, voted Wednesday to let states withhold scholarships from students studying theology.

The court's 7-2 ruling held that the state of Washington was within its rights to deny a taxpayer-funded scholarship to a college student who was studying to be a minister. That holding applies even when money is available to students studying anything else.

I don't know the specifics of this case, but it would seem relevant to ask whether a student seeking a healthy education in secular humanism and the genius of Marxism would have similar difficulties procuring tax-payer dollars.

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:55 AM | Comments (3)

February 17, 2004

The Light of Conflict

But then, perhaps my differences with Rev. Sensing grow from the differences of faith and religious understanding that led us to different denominations. Tom of Disputations argues that Catholics have a particular view of the self and the self's place in society that accords with my disagreement with Sensing:

There are ways in which American culture and Catholic culture contradict each other. I have in mind, not the old know-nothing ideas like American Catholics taking their marching orders from Rome, but, in a word, division. In American culture, people are divided into different parts: the professional; the social; the political; the religious. That's nonsense in Catholicism; religion isn't something you do on Sunday, and you are literally the same person at work as at home.

Since there are conflicts between Catholicism and American culture, a Catholic should expect to be conflicted in American culture. He should also expect to be a source of conflict. If he is neither conflicted nor a source of conflict, he should ask himself whether he's doing something wrong.

Similarly, although one area of life blends into another, there can be no true, stark separation between religion and government. If the relationship isn't a source of conflict, it suggests an imbalance that will ensure a desiccated society.

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:27 AM

Constructing the Christian Ghetto

The day after fretting that the form of the gay marriage movement suggests that "America is one generation at most away from true tyranny," Methodist Rev. Donald Sensing seeks to disengage his Church from the general culture:

Instead of getting the state out of then wedding business, I would rather see the church get out of the wedding business.

This is heresy, of course, not in the sense of violating theological-doctrinal standards, but in the sense of crossing a deeply-embedded, socio-religious more. There still remains in American society a strong sense that you are "supposed" to get married in a church by a cleric, even among couples who never otherwise darken a church's door. A lot of times an engaged couple with no active religious life seek a church wedding just to make mom and dad happy, and/or because they want a traditional photo album of wedding pictures.

You can read my lengthy response in Sensing's comments section, if you'd like, but I think commenter Tom Cohoe succinctly captured an aspect of Sensing's "solution" that represents further danger:

Your last post on this subject ended with the thought that tyranny was close. Instead of retreating into the defense of the interests of your church, I think you should fight for the salvation of marriage for the benefit of the whole society.

Marriage works — and it does still work — because it fits well as a sort of interface between so many distinct and separated aspects of life. It connects one generation to the next, one family to another, man to woman, the private family to the public society, and (although libertarians will wrongly decry it) religion to the government. Removing the religion-government link — in our society, as it is constructed — will cause the other links to burst, as well.

Worse yet, it is a fool's delusion to believe that the newly extended church-state barrier will hold. Homosexuals are not simply seeking legal rights that, for the most part, they can already secure through other means. They will chase down withheld approbation wherever it remains. In this, they are perhaps representative of secularists more generally. Moral and religious absolutes are strong and true banners when carried forward into cultural conflict, but they make for irresistible flags to capture when safeguarded like treasure within sectarian walls.

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:19 AM

February 14, 2004

Touched by the Spiritual

As one whose faith is primarily a function of reason and intuition, I'm fascinated by indications that people actually directly experience the spiritual in a supernatural way. Victor Lams spotted a story about Catholic exorcists' seeking to involve secular professionals:

Corriere della Sera indicated that the collaboration between priests and medical professionals in cases of possible possession has become common in Italian dioceses. Father Gabrielle Amorth of the Rome diocese-- who is probably the world's most famous exorcist, as the author of a notable book on the topic-- told the newspaper that he would not consider any case without first receiving a report from medical professionals. Among other things, Father Amorth said, a medical evaluation is necessary to determine whether an individual would be prepared to withstand the physical rigor of an exorcism.

Dr. Salvatore DiSalvo, a psychiatrist who has worked with exorcists in Turin, disclosed that the contributions of medical professionals can go far beyond a preliminary screening for symptoms of pathology. The process of an exorcism can sometimes continue for months, he said, and doctors can become involved "in many situations where psychic troubles and evil presences are manifested."

Now, I'm sure skeptics would have themselves a good, knowing chuckle about the idea that exorcists want to involve "real" professionals in their activities. However folks on that side might react, it seems to me they might form a better idea of the mindset of religious people if they considered what it means for exorcists to seek holistic solutions rather than battle over healers' turf.

My own religious view is such that religious claims are not threatened in the least by partial, or even empirically complete, secular explanations and treatments; such is the overlap of the physical and the spiritual. Too often in the modern West, however, it is denied that there is room for each approach to be informed by the other.

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:25 PM

Asking the Right Question About The Passion

Chuck Colson writes on the controversy surrounding Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. Taking his cue from the Newsweek cover story, Colson addresses the question of "Who Killed Jesus?"

The answer is obvious to anybody truly receptive to it, and that might be the problem:

So enough of this foolish controversy. My advice to Christians is that you make it abundantly clear to your friends and neighbors that we are the ones responsible and then take them to see the film. Let them experience the passion and explain to them why it was necessary for Jesus to go to the cross. And be ready with a biblical answer for your Jewish friends who hear all of this propaganda, most of it stirred up by professional activists.

Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, says that it is not who is to blame that really has everybody up in arms. The media elite know that if people see this film, the right answer to the haunting question "Who Killed Jesus?" will be clear. What strikes terror into the hearts of the media elite is that people might once again be convicted of sin, repent, and come to faith in Christ.

In other words, the more frightening question is: Why did He have to die?

Posted by Justin Katz at 11:00 PM | Comments (1)

February 10, 2004

The Cross-Denomination Schism

Calvin Presbyterian minister Graham Standish describes a rift that Christians (and others) probably take intuitively to be correct:

Have modern Christians become a people of two faiths divided by a common Bible? Looking at the increasing division among Christians on so many topics, it's hard not to think so. At a time when the walls dividing denominations from each other are crumbling, a new wall is rising -- one dividing Christians into two competing camps. In one camp are evangelicals, and in the other camp are progressives.

And, to be sure, I've found myself forming connections that cross denominations, but that characteristically unify us in opposition to other factions within our respective Churches. Where his observation begins to go off is with Standish's undue sympathy for the "progressives," leading him to feel split:

On the issue of homosexuality, each side claims that it is being true to scripture. And both are right if you consider the basis of their beliefs. For example, Great Commissioners are clear that the Bible condemns homosexuality, and they are right. Although the Bible doesn't deal much with the issue of homosexuality, when it does, it condemns it.

Still, Great Commanders are right in reminding us of the biblical command to look first at the log in our own eye, rather than the speck in another's, for prejudice is a sin; and that we who are without sin should cast the first stone, for all of us are sinners. They remind us that we are not to judge, but rather to love those who have been judged and persecuted. ...

The sad thing, whether we are talking about Christianity or politics, is that there are far too many of us who are stuck in the middle of the conflict. Like children of divorce we are increasingly being asked to choose one or the other, when really we love both.

However, as Methodist minister Donald Sensing points out, this is a false dichotomy. Drawing from a study that is, admittedly, somewhat dated (1978), Sensing rephrases evangelical (Great Commissioners) and progressive (Great Commanders) as born again and ethical, respectively:

The researchers wrote they expected the ethical Christians would score higher on the Social Interest Survey, motivated primarily by Christ's ethical teachings. It was not so. "The born again group scored higher in social interest in both age groups studied, even though they are primarily committed to the person of Christ and secondarily committed to the ethics [of Christ]. These results support the notion that born again commitment fosters greater internalization of Christian ethics" ...

... Other significant points this study uncovered were that born again commitment is more likely to mature over a person's life than the ethical type and that "an intense, mature and personal religious commitment fosters a sense of purpose in life and a greater concern for the welfare of others."

The distinction that the 1978 study picked up has expanded into a wide division. On one side are those who see their faith as mainly a prescription for living — a sort of wellness plan. If socially progressive movements, such as the acceptance of homosexuality, are seen as making people feel better about themselves, then justification for them must be found in scripture and tradition. Unfortunately, as Sensing notes, one hardly needs formal religion for this purpose, and one certainly doesn't require belief in the Son of God.

The other side is obscured by being called "evangelical" and "born again." These terms aren't, strictly speaking, accurate; born agains needn't have been born again, and evangelicals needn't be Protestants who emphasize preaching. Conservative Catholics, for example, are semantically excluded. What I see as being the real quality that defines this second group is that they — we — emphasize the "realness" of Christ, and the palpable quality of our faith. We define our ethics according to what we consider to be the true nature of reality, a Truth that requires study and discernment, as distinct from emotion and intuition, every bit as much as any science.

Thus, Standish's "progressives" and Sensing's "ethical Christians" are akin to political liberals who seek to cure symptoms, to change racial employment statistics by force of quota, for example, without pursuing policies to demand the development of responsible behavior. The poor deserve welfare, and sin must be redefined for the sake of self-esteem.

To the extent that we on the other side see welfare as an impediment to the discovery of self-worth and self-esteem as an illusory distraction from spiritual salvation, there can be no reconciliation of these views. And to the extent that we root our conclusions in scripture, tradition, evidence, and logic, the gap in the very languages that we speak cannot help but expand.

Posted by Justin Katz at 3:47 PM

February 7, 2004

More Walls than One

You may have come across Steve Kellmeyer's piece about the misguided notion of a strict separation between church and state — as opposed to other potential walls — but if you haven't read it, it's worth your time:

Why did Jefferson think this wall of separation was needed? Because the American Revolution happened two hundred years too soon. Thomas Jefferson was a well-read man, but he was completely ignorant of evolutionary theory. How could he be otherwise? It wouldn’t be invented for another fifty years. He knew Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, but knew not a thing of what Marx would write twenty years after Jefferson died. Besides, Jefferson was the man who re-wrote the Gospels by taking out all references to miracles. He didn't believe in them, you see. He thought Jesus was a nice moral teacher, but not God. C.S. Lewis was not yet a gleam in his father's eye, so Jefferson was unaware of the Liar, Lunatic, Lord argument, and he wasn't smart enough to figure it out for himself.
Posted by Justin Katz at 4:28 PM

January 30, 2004

The Miracle Physics

Although I'm much delayed in noting it, Rev. Sensing had a worth-reading post on whether explanation disproves a miracle:

The fundamental understanding of "miracle" in Christian thought - and I'm pretty sure in Jewish thought, too - is not primarily supernaturalism (though that's there, to be sure), but the way that God's will is worked in the affairs of nature and human affairs, what America's founders, for example, called God's providence. So that the parting of the Red Sea might have occurred through natural causes disturbs this notion not a whit, because nature is under the dominion of God. Hence, I see no problem with Prof. Volzinger's observation that "God rules the Earth through the laws of physics."

As I explained in parts III and (more) IV of my "theory of everything" series of essays, timing and odds are really the relevant measures of a miracle. That makes direct sense, doesn't it? Perhaps people believe that they can imagine miracles that "defy the laws of physics," but I don't believe it's possible even to do that much.

The reason people err in this way has more to do with the understanding of laws of physics than of miracles. Whether or not something accords with the laws as we know them, if we can perceive that something, it must manifest in the physical world. Therefore, there will be a proximate cause (a change of velocity, a shift of atoms, a condensation of molecules, etc.), and since we will then know that the thing actually happened, it will, by definition, be allowed by the laws of physics.

Posted by Justin Katz at 2:32 PM

January 20, 2004

Voted into Heaven

Patrick Sweeney writes on politicians and religion:

If these men and women are sincere in their claims to believe and profess the Catholic faith, then they acknowledge that at the end of this life they face neither a poll nor the Supreme Court but another judge.

It seems to me that evil has won the game when the one inadmissible factor in a decision is a leader's religious belief. (Of course, God is often cited, but only with the tacit understanding that His approval isn't decisive — or even more than a public endorsement.) Consider this JFK statement that Patrick quotes:

Whatever issue may come before me as President--on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject--I will make my decision in accordance with these views, in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.

How could it ever be possible for defying God to be in the national interest? And in what is your conscience rooted if not your religious belief? This is the sleight of hand whereby a politician builds an illusion of morality into a fundamentally amoral policy.

A President could certainly follow the rules of his office without reference to his faith inasmuch as the decisions require no judgment. But Americans don't want a President to be a paperpusher, an automaton; they want him to be a leader.

It speaks ill of our system of government that those who run for office have such difficulty saying what is so obviously appropriate and inescapable:

I will administer my position within the bounds and structures of my office, but when my duties require me to apply moral judgment, I will follow those religious dictates by which I've formed my conscience. However, where it is not given to me, in my public role, to express my conscience, I will concede what I believe to be right for the greater good of the rule of law and the blessing that is our representative democracy.

The whole thing — politics and government, that is — is hardly worth serious comment, though. None of it means anything, and all such declarations and promises are applied only as convenient... for the most part.

Posted by Justin Katz at 1:55 PM | Comments (3)

January 19, 2004

An Invitation from God

Of course, sometimes we're intended to "turn temptation away," in Lileks's words:

As I have noted from time to time, I’m a Lutheran Deist. By some peculiar coincidence my concept of God flatters my own conceptions of the universe; imagine that. If I were king of the forest, and I set this blue-green ball up to follow my dictates, I would have made the night sky inky black - if you want the bald apes below to follow your lead, don't give them stars; they;ll only make up stupid stories. But the night is alive; there are a billion blazing stars above. A challenge? A warning? A promise? We don’t know, but they are so very tempting. And we are notoriously bad at turning temptation away. Haven't you ever looked up at the great dark beyond and felt you were being drawn from where you stood, carried into something greater? Every night the sky is an invitation. Who can look up and see nothing but a roof?

As I've written at length, I believe it may be the case that we're meant to turn away from this very temptation... at some point. We're not there yet, though, as far as I can see, so onward Christian astronauts.

Posted by Justin Katz at 10:07 AM

January 17, 2004

A Harder Charity

The defining benefit of being a Believer is the view that the universe means something; there's a purpose, or at least a higher level to reality than our everyday aches, pains, and pleasures. For the Christian believer, this benefit is infinitely enhanced through our being intimately connected to this Purpose and our confidence that it all works out to our eternal elation — if we allow it to.

The entire universe is designed in such a way that this acceptance must be a choice. We are so designed that it must be our choice, individually. Even in the height of tranquility, human beings can reject God, while even in the pits of suffering, in flames, or on a cross, we can turn to Him. Often, comfort makes faith more difficult, while those who suffer in faith are blessed.

So here we have a single choice that is personal, individual, and of central import in our lives. Bringing people to the proper understanding is the single most charitable task we can undertake. In fact, it is so central and so important that we are positively obligated to further others' faith. It is more important than ensuring that the poor have warm coats in winter. More important than feeding poor children in distant countries. More important, even, than protecting the unborn.

Unfortunately, faith is not something that we can donate to others. We can never give it as a gift; we can only move others toward it and walk them around it in circles until they see it for themselves. And as it happens, accomplishing this requires warming and feeding them and turning them toward the choice of life. It involves, in short, every facet of our interactions. Thus — where the ambiguous design of the world intersects with our individuality — our everyday aches, pains, and pleasures come to represent the purpose and the higher reality.

I bring this all up, here and now, because people are forgetting to ask themselves whose souls they are looking to save when they act. "Preaching to the choir" may be useless, but when the saved seek only to save each other, the result can be catastrophe — weighed down by the fact of salvation, rather than elevated by its pursuit.

What reward is there for loving those who love you — for convincing those who already agree? Will you save your family by shunning those who have forgotten what family is for? Will you save yourself from corruption by closing your ears to those who mistakenly call it virtue?

Whose soul are you looking to save?

When somebody with whom you periodically agree raises a matter of disagreement, it can serve no purpose to send him away to express it to others who will be sympathetic. Deroy Murdock sought to turn the principles of social conservatives — with whom he shares cause in other areas — around on them. The response should be what? "Get out; you and I cannot coexist"? For my part, I think it is better to listen and to reply with credulity — or good-natured incredulity.

When Catherine Seipp skips through the over-scented roses and titters, it wastes opportunity if we push her to the door and add insult to the stench of sin. Who, in our company, will be seduced by the smell? The problem with communication is that it requires listening. We can either seek those on the other side out and berate them where they control the guest list, or we can invite them out of their insulation. This doesn't mean that we allow them to bring samples of their smut, but if we don't hear their arguments, we can't know what to leverage in order to convince them to stay with us.

Worse: if we fear even their words, then some among us, or between, may be intrigued, having gotten the impression of a phantom strength. If we have the stronger argument and the greater Truth — let alone a Divine Will actively working through us — then it is in our interest to connect with those whose values repel us. Don't we believe that we'll win, ultimately? Of course, we do; we have no reason to say, "Get out of here with those questions," as if we fear that we lack for answers. The answers are there — although they slip from us, if we never have cause to recite them, and they are lost to those who never hear.

This goes on through layers of subtlety and degrees of disagreement. Sometimes we have to shock or offend people into asking new questions of us or (better) of themselves. Sometimes tentative encouragement is needed. We can never give up, though. It may be that one just cannot address the needs of another — whether for reason of time or of temper — which is to say that a break is necessary. But if we aren't letting the land lie, then we ought to stoke its fertility.

This is why I found it unconscionable for Mark Shea to encourage his readers to go out of their way to harm the dreams — the livelihood — of Joseph D'Hippolito. Yes, if Mark believes that Joseph has dangerous ideas, he ought to address those ideas. But if Mark saw a "facade of sanity" in Joseph's article, there must be some understanding of sanity there with which to work. (To be clear, I don't believe that it was a facade.) In our capacity to influence each other toward better thinking, we have to offer encouragement when the direction is true. Mark and his reader instead made it clear that Joseph was damned, in their eyes, either way.

We aren't on this Earth to allocate our brethren into categories of damned and undamned. It isn't even our place to predict an outcome. Why should people who would give murderers every chance to repent discard hope with those who are willing to engage in debate? Our shared room is less a "big tent" than a tabernacle. The purpose of the former is to gather for battle. The purpose of the latter is simply to be present, and it isn't for us to decide who enters.

I can't claim to have the key to the aforementioned eternal elation, but I suspect that our entrance has less to do with the speed or directness of our approach than with the number of people — friends — with whom we arrive.

Posted by Justin Katz at 12:51 AM | Comments (9)

January 14, 2004

Making Repentance an Attractive Option

Michael Williams has directed my attention to a post that he wrote back in November (emphasis in original):

Why, then, do many Christians see homosexuality and homosexuals as particularly evil? Theologically, we shouldn't. The real difficulty, however, is that although most of us acknowledge the wrongfulness of our many lies, thefts, and boasts, many people deny the wrongness of homosexuality. Our culture glorifies many types of evil, but individually we mostly agree that greed, slander, gossip, and the rest are bad and that we should not participate in them. However, when it comes to homosexuality, many people argue that it's not wrong at all; and unless we are willing to confess the evil of our actions, God will not forgive us. We must be willing to submit ourselves to God's dictates on right and wrong, and we must be willing to agree with him when he condemns our actions.

I'll quibble with the statement that "God will not forgive us" in an addendum, but Michael's right on target here. Unfortunately, as our society currently stands, there are many who believe that it constitutes "hate speech" to say — privately or publicly, humbly or aggressively — to somebody, "Umm, excuse me, but I just wanted to make sure that you're aware that what you're doing there is a sin."

Michael's comments reminded me of Christopher Johnson's explanation of the difference between Peter, Paul, and Augustine and Episcopalian Bishop Vicky Gene Robinson: the first three repented. And that, really, is the point — even if we Christians lose sight of it from time to time. When it comes to the sins of others, our objective ought to be to lead them toward repentance, which is a tedious and often-lapsing process.

It is sometimes effective to snap people out of frames of mind through harsh reaction to their behavior. I'd go so far as to suggest that the extent of the invalidation of shame and stigma in modern Western culture has proven harmful, not only in the behavior that it lets slip, but also in the form of authority to which we appeal to address the problems that arise (e.g., expanding government). But homosexuals have, for the most part, already built a response to abrasive condemnation into their worldviews. They have made shamelessness into a fashion and stigma into a trophy. They are not alone in doing so.

So, even as we hold firmly to the lines that cannot be crossed — such as gay marriage — we oughtn't lose perspective about our goals and the best ways of accomplishing them. I don't have the answers, and I'm not voicing the caution in response to anybody in particular, but I thought it worth saying — if only for my own benefit.

As sectarian subtext, the conversation represented by this post is between a Catholic, a Baptist, and an Episcopalian, so differences of belief about God's forgiveness may or may not be theological (if they are, in fact, differences of belief and not just differences of phrasing).

On the phrase "God will not forgive us," Michael linked to 1 John 1:9: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." However, taking into account the entire chapter, the emphasis is clearly on our action:

8If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.

Thus, I think it would be more accurate to say that, unless we confess, God cannot forgive us because we don't believe that we need to be forgiven.

Posted by Justin Katz at 2:54 PM | Comments (2)

January 13, 2004

Putting the Sin in Its Context

While it is reasonable to expect that unique and unfamiliar sins will gall all the more, I think David Morrison makes some great points about the Catholic Church's and Catholics' reactions to homosexuality. In the flow of things, we're reaching the point at which it is becoming important to fold homosexuality into the "whole panoply of human sexual failures [that] exists today":

The Church needs to both reiterate and explain her teachings in regard to divorce, premarital sex, contraception, masturbation and pornography and adultery as well as homosexual acts. ...

It's not that the Church is just out to say no to the range of sexual temptations that exist. Rather, the Church offers a vision of the human person and human life that is more holistic, deeper and ultimately filled with joy and genuine goodness than can be offered by any sinful alternative.

In one aspect, such an approach would be refreshingly conservative; in another, it would be redeemingly radical. It is difficult to shake the sense that liberal religious seek to legitimize homosexuality in part to keep the legitimacy of their own sins from coming into question. On the opposing side, there sometimes seems to be a reluctance to follow the logic of admitting that homosexual behavior is — to risk pinching some nerves — only a sin. Is consensual gay sex really worse than adultery? I don't think so.

There are groups and there are individuals, David among them, who put many heterosexuals to shame in their efforts to live as their religion teaches them. Surely, it would be beneficial all around to hold them up as examples rather than to offer them a sort of suspension of condemnation. Even more surely, it is detrimental all around to tell those whose efforts go to self-justification that they're okay, just so we can continue to tell ourselves that we're okay.

Posted by Justin Katz at 1:11 AM | Comments (3)