Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Belief Reasonable?

Is it naive to base any aspect of our lifestyle on belief? Is it appropriate to have a condescending attitude toward those who base their decisions on their beliefs? Are such individuals blindly following an authority who has concealed, evil intentions for the purposes of manipulating others?

Many people today partition thoughts and ideas into two categories: those that are “known” that are based on science and experimentation, and then those that are “believed” that are based on religion and faith.  However, it is clear that it is important that we understand the implications of this approach, and whether this is a good model for how we make decisions.  To understand the gravity of these implications, we need only look at how they effect people’s decisions regarding the most controversial topics that we face in our culture today, such as abortion, euthanasia, homosexual unions, and many others.  To offer an example, one person might say “I believe the life of your mother has intrinsic value. Based on this belief, if she were to be in an accident and need life support, it would be immoral to kill her.” Another person might say, “You cannot prove to me that your mother’s life has intrinsic value. She serves no benefit to society, so it is best to kill her.”

Let us consider in more depth, then, this distinction between “knowing” and “believing.” What things does one know, and how does one know them? If I were to ask you, “Do you know that the image that appears to be continuous on your computer monitor is a projection of the discrete, high-speed, serially-switching transistors on the graphics processor in your computer?” Most people would probably say “yes.” Or to consider a simpler case, “Do you know that the earth is round?”  Again, most people would probably say “yes.”  So how do we know these things?  The likely response is that one could take the computer into the lab and hook it to special equipment to see what is happening within it.  And one has seen pictures of the earth taken from space, so he claims that he can say with certainty that indeed it is round.  The same person might then claim that one cannot prove through experimentation that a human being has intrinsic value.

However, there are some grievous inconsistencies in logic here.  The first is that although one could take the computer into the lab to analyze it, the vast majority of people have not done so. Further, even if one did perform this experimentation, the results of the analysis would be based on several assumptions that the person would have to verify scientifically to remain consistent by his own definition of “knowing.” For example, how does one know that the lab equipment is working correctly? How does one know that the logic analyzer has not been tampered with to provide false results? (show pictures of earth) Regarding our knowing that the earth is round, how does one know that the pictures have not been fabricated, or that the camera with which they were taken was not malfunctioning? Hence, it seems that without rigorous scientific analyses, by the definition of most contemporary thinkers, there is still a component of belief behind these claims we make.

To this line of thinking, one will likely respond, “well, there are many other facts that I know from daily experience that are congruent with these about the processor and the earth’s roundness. I have seen processors get faster over the years from increasing clock rates, and I see the sun come up everyday.”  However, this reasoning again reveals inconsistencies in logic.  Consider that from daily experience, I also know that a human being has intrinsic value. When a person goes to a restaurant to buy coffee, he is generally polite to the waiter, and may even make friendly conversation with him - even if they have never met and will likely never meet again. So it is clear that we base such behavior on the belief that the person has value - that it is good to treat people as we would like to be treated. In a similar way, we believe that the facts people have told us about processors are accurate, and that the pictures of the earth from space are genuine, and we live our lives based on the assumption that these beliefs are true.

Now, in spite of our confidence in scientifically-based claims, consider that one cannot prove the claims about the processor or the earth based on the simple fact that neither is true. The transistors on the graphics processor do not switch serially, and the earth is not round - as recent measurements have shown it to be slightly pear-shaped. But the main point here is that for the vast majority of people, these things likely don’t matter anyway. Most individuals could probably go through their lives saying that graphics processors work in a serial fashion and that the earth is round, and they’d probably get along OK. But if one were to be rude to the waiter at the coffee shop - this will probably cause him more than a little consternation. Hence, it would seem that we should not concede that basing our decisions on beliefs is naive.  More concretely, I would go further to say that for one to reject the intrinsic value of the human person while accepting other claims - such as the earth’s roundness - by the reasoning that the former is believed while the latter is known is not only naive, it is also illogical and nonsensical.

To this conclusion, one might respond, “so there is a component of belief in my claim that the earth is round - so what? It is clear that when I say ‘the earth is round’ or ‘this is a car,’ this is very different from when you say that ‘bread changes to the body of Christ during the mass, and that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist.’”  And I will concede that there is a distinction to be made in the meaning of the word ‘is.’  As Catholics, we say that the accidents of the bread during mass stay the same. That is to say, if we take the bread following the consecration into a lab and analyze it, we would confirm that it retains the chemical composition of bread. However, the substance - that is, the essence of the bread - has changed to the body of Christ. One response to this statement that I have heard is, “well, this is the only case in which anyone would use the word ‘is’ in this manner. In every other case - such as the statement ‘this is a car’ - ‘is’ corresponds to a reality that is experimentally verifiable.”  However, to this I say, when a man makes the statement ‘this is a car,’ does he mean ‘is’ in the same way as when he makes the statement ‘this woman is my wife’? Certainly not.  Is there an experimentally verifiable phenomenon that renders the woman his wife? Perhaps the only imaginable response to this is that the wedding ring is such a physical reality, but certainly no one who understands marriage to any extent would try to argue that the ring is more than a symbol of the couple’s marital vows.

Hence, it is not through only laboratory studies or experimental verification that we get to the essence - that is, the true nature - of an object. Although experimentation is useful in its own right, it is necessarily subordinate to other aspects of human existence.  Basing one’s decisions in life on beliefs is not only not naive, it is quite reasonable. (show picture of maxwell’s equations, then ultrasound) Although in academic discourse one might attempt to refute the necessity of belief, each of our lives confirms the necessity of belief in all of our endeavors.

Note: if one can only know the truth through studying it under a microscope, does one not first believe that truth is findable through such means? So, <pause> how can it be logical to place scientific discovery ahead of belief, sense it would seem that the necessity of belief precedes even that?

Note: if it is thought within academic circles and among the members of the intelligencia that value is merely subjective because value can not be definitively defined through scientific study to arrive at an objective result which does not rely upon human interpretation, is not this too, simply a belief?

Note: is value, the value of human life specifically, perceived to not have intrinsic value because it is convenient to think that way, which negates all personal responsibility.  Or is value definable using other means? Say,"pause" the science of theology? Or is it that we choose to negate other sciences, other thoughtful endeavors, to reveal truth because it requires believing that other rigorous mental endeavors might actually lead us to truth and we would be equally obliged to accept those truths found.  Or, is it that we wish to do as we please and use empirical science in a manner that best supports our personal agenda?

Note: rights, responsibility, value and truth; are these words the boogiemen of intellectual hedonists? What do you believe?

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Morality and the Greatest Commandment

Many would agree that Christianity is very poorly represented in our popular culture. In news and entertainment media we’re constantly bombarded by a distasteful caricature of our ancient and beautiful faith. The idea of traditional Christianity as something outdated and unnecessarily moralistic has permeated our society.  Even among Christians, the idea of sin has become blurred and morality is not taken seriously. Why? Because the foundations of our faith have been obscured and undermined.  The media loves to parade out examples of Christian hypocrisy and talk about moral teachings which are incomprehensible to the secular world, but completely ignores the heart and soul of Christianity. This is the problem. What is the basis of the Christian life? What is the most important tenet of our faith? Let’s turn to Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus is asked this question.
“Master, which is the greatest commandment in the law?” Jesus said to him: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind.  This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second is like to this: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments dependeth the whole law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:36-40)
There we have it, the basis of the Christian life. If we love God with everything we are, the desire to live a righteous and moral life will follow and we will understand the importance and reasonableness of obedience and humility. Outside of this context, most other tenets of Christianity cannot be easily understood. Talking about the Church’s moral teachings outside of the context of a profound love for God is like talking about the rules of checkers outside of the context of having fun. We could turn up our noses in distaste that anyone would dare suggest we limit our checkers to diagonal movements across colored squares (this being the 21st century after all!), but completely miss the point that it is all for the fun of the game. Just so, when our culture focuses on the moral commandments of Christianity outside the light of the greatest and first commandment, their entire purpose is lost in translation. Let’s not let pop culture damage our faith as it casts aside the heart and soul of Christianity. We should take this opportunity to return to our foundations and remind the world why we believe in such crazy ideas as sin and righteousness. Many know and recite the traditional Christian prayer of repentance for sin called the Act of Contrition, but its traditional counterpart has largely been forgotten – the Act of Love. We should start our days with a prayer like this, and then it will make more sense to end them with an Act of Contrition.
O my God, I love you above all things, with my whole heart and soul, because you are all-good and worthy of all love. I love my neighbor as myself for the love of you. I forgive all who have injured me, and I ask pardon of all whom I have injured.
-Act of Love, traditional Christian prayer

Friday, December 10, 2010

Immaculate Conception(Part 1)

Today is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and so I believe it is worth it to talk about how the sinlessness of Mary is Biblical.  While the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is not explicitly outlined in the Bible, many hints and shadows of this inspired teaching can be found in the Old and New Testaments. If we do not accept the Apostolic authority of the Church's bishops, we may not find these Biblical passages to be sufficient, but it should at least be clear that the Immaculate Conception is consistent with the Scriptures.  Protestants usually bring out this passage on men’s sinfulness, “there is no man on earth so just as to do good and never sin”(Ecclesiastes 7:20) but when Protestants say this why is the fourth Commandment of honor thy father and mother forgotten?  Why then, would Christ not, to the fullest of His capabilities, honor His mother?  Remember, Mary's sinless state was achieved solely by the merits of her son, Jesus Christ.

Now let’s look at Genesis 3:15, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will strike at your head, while you strike his heel”.  To put this in context this is God talking to the serpent, or Satan.  If enmity is put between Satan and the woman that means there is a mutual hatred between Satan and the woman.  If Mary, the new Eve, sinned then what would be this hatred between Satan and herself.  There would be none!

Let us look now at Mary as the Ark of the Covenant.  We have to consider what made the ark holy.  The original ark was holy because of what was inside which consisted of the ten commandments, or the Word of God written on stone; the manna, or the miraculous bread which God sent; and the priestly rod of Aaron.  Mary similarly held within her the Word of God made flesh, the Bread of Life which conquered death, and the divine eternal priest, Jesus Christ.  The golden box which held in it the ten commandments, the manna, and Aaron’s rod represented a pure encasement for God’s Word just as Mary is pure without sin.  How else could Christ come into this world then by a sinless mother?  

So you see, in these few instances types of Mary in the Old Testament.  I wish I had more time to expand upon the reasons why Mary was born without sin.  The Immaculate Conception is Biblical and although it may not be explicitly stated in Scripture we still see Mary as being pure and without sin through these types.  I would like to leave you with the words of Ambrose,
"Mary, a Virgin not only undefiled but a Virgin whom grace has made inviolate, free of every stain of sin."
Ambrose,Sermon 22:30(A.D. 388),in JUR,II:166

Why the Nativity Matters

“And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him up in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7)

Of all the Christian feast days which have been observed by the faithful throughout the centuries, the feast of the nativity is perhaps the most widely celebrated. The name of the Holy Mass in honor of Christ’s birth, or Christmas, has somehow even become integrated into the winter celebrations of non-Christians. I guess the joy of the feast is just that infectious! Of course the problem is that, as the meaning of Christ and the Mass are slowly drained from Christmas, the holy day is becoming nothing more than an empty cultural shell. Not for Christians, though, because we know why the nativity matters.

The joy of this season for us is not the fleeting joy of materialism and warm sentiments, but the true and everlasting joy of reconciliation with God. In the person of Jesus Christ, fully man and fully God, humanity and divinity entered into perfect communion. There is much that is inherently mysterious about the incarnation, despite the valiant efforts of two millennia of brilliant theologians, but the significance of this event is inescapable. There is now no question that God understands our trials. No matter what state of life we find ourselves in, no matter what depths of suffering we sink to, we know that almighty God has been there and intimately understands.
Not only did Christ give us a personal connection with God, but He was born to be a sacrificial victim for us. In the nativity, the way was opened up for us to salvation from the corruption and death we see all around us.   Let’s not forget that all of this could not have come to pass were it not for the cooperation of a humble young woman who was to be the Lord’s mother. The Early Church Father Irenaeus said:

“Thus, the knot of Eve’s disobedience was loosed by the obedience of Mary. What the virgin Eve had bound in unbelief, the Virgin Mary loosed through faith" (Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3:22:24 [A.D. 189])

Mary is called Theotokos, a Greek word which means God-bearer or the Mother of God. Through a mysterious action of God’s Holy Spirit, she immaculately conceived a child who was God Himself. While this was a singular event in history, we are all called in a certain way to the role of Theotokos. This point was made by Pope Benedict XVI, in his recent book “Light of the World”.

“The birth of God was one of the major themes for the Church Fathers. They said that God was born once in Bethlehem, but that there is also a very significant and profound way in which he must be born again in every new generation, and it is to this, they thought, that every Christian is called.” (Pope Benedict XVI, “Light of the World”)

Let’s be God-bearers this Christmas, as we celebrate the most important event in human history. Through our example, we should show the world the non-violent, sacrificial love of Christ, who entered the world as an infant in a manger and conquered it from the cross.

Keys to the Kingdom

To understand Apostolic Succession in the light of the Catholic Church we must first understand this key phrase, “the keys to the kingdom”.  This phrase shows up only twice in the Bible yet it packs a great amount of significance.  Let’s first look at Matthew 16:19, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven.  Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”  This sounds like the passing of authority from Christ to Peter.  Now let’s look at the verse before, Matthew 16:18, “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”  When Christ changes Simon’s name to Peter he is calling Simon rock.  That is the literal translation of his name.  So we can see in these two verses Christ passing authority.  Now let’s look at the other verse concerning “the keys to the kingdom”.

Let’s look back to an oracle in a deep dark corner of the Old Testament in the book of Isaiah.  In Isaiah 22 we see the passing of authority from Shebna to Eliakim.  In Verse 22 it reads, “I will place the key of the House of David on his shoulder; when he opens, no one shall shut, when he shuts no one will open”.  We can see that Christ, the Heavenly Davidic King, referenced this historical verse as his setup for his church.  To further this point let’s look at the previous verse in reference to Eliakim it reads, “I will clothe him with your robe, and gird him with your sash, and give over to him your authority.  He shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah”.  Again we see the passing of authority from an authority head to their successor.

This sets up Apostolic Authority and Succession.  We should be immensely
grateful that Christ gave us a leader of our Church which, “the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against” for if we did not have a leader we would be left with chaos.  Christ left us with a united Church to stand until the “day of the Lord”.  The lack of unity is what causes Protestants to have so many “churches” where one person who disagrees can go and start their own church.  Does this make sense?  Is this Biblical?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Does the Universe Need to Exist?

The universe: everything that physically exists. From galaxies to human beings to quarks, we’re learning more about how it all works every day, but here’s a question that the modern world has put on the back burner: does the universe need to exist? I’m not talking about beginnings or physical causes, I’m talking about necessity. Even if the universe has always existed, which science does not support, does it need to exist? In this context, if something is necessary, it must happen. If something is unnecessary, it may or may not happen, depending on external factors. If left to itself, it will not happen, so if something unnecessary happens, then its occurrence must be contingent upon something else. I’m not talking about physics here, but let’s consider an analogy using physical forces in place of existence with the same definition of necessity.  If I let go of a book, does it need to fall? Well, it could fall or it could not fall depending on the forces applied to it, so it’s unnecessary. In this case, it does fall. Why? Its falling is contingent upon the force of gravity. If a book is sitting on a table when I let go of it, it doesn’t fall. Why? Because the normal force of the surface counteracts the force of gravity, so it’s as if there are no external forces applied at all. Falling is not necessary for the book, but contingent, and so it simply won’t happen unless an outside force compels it to fall. This analogy with physical forces illustrates what I mean by necessity and contingency. Shouldn’t it be the same way with existence?

Does the universe need to exist - was there absolutely no possibility of the universe not existing? Everyone with whom I’ve discussed this question, atheist and theist alike, has given the answer “No, the universe does not need to exist.” Now we must ask the question: then why does it? A self-professed atheist and naturalist once told me “the universe doesn’t need to exist, it just does.” While this response may sound almost profound on the surface, a more careful examination of the logic will reveal its fatal flaw – it is intellectual suicide. Let’s return to my analogy with physical forces and consider this answer. If I drop a book, does it need to fall? “It doesn’t need to fall, it just does.” This signals the death of scientific curiosity. This answer demonstrates an unwillingness to pursue the matter any further.  If modern man applied this dead-end logic to science as he does to philosophy, imagine the stagnation of material progress we would experience. Yet the question “does the universe need to exist?” is much more transcendent, important, and poignant than any question regarding physical forces, because it is ultimately linked with the question of who we are and why we’re here. Does the universe need to exist? There seems to be a consensus that it does not, which means that the universe’s existence is contingent. Remember, the universe is everything that physically exists; so if the existence of everything that physically exists is contingent, then there must be something beyond physical existence upon which it is contingent! There’s your proof of the supernatural!

Thomas Aquinas says “Therefore we cannot but postulate the existence of some being having of itself its own necessity, and not receiving it from another, but rather causing in others their necessity. This all men speak of as God.” That’s why we exist, that’s where our meaning and value come from! Why does this necessary being exist? Because it must, that’s the point, since if all existence was unnecessary then nothing at all would exist. That’s why there can’t be an infinite string of unnecessary beings causing the next one’s existence. Infinite contingency is still contingency. There are other philosophical principles which can lead us to understand other characteristics of this necessary being based on logic alone, but I have only covered one today. I’m not trying to say that this one philosophical principle alone can prove the existence of the revealed Christian God with all His unique characteristics; I’m only demonstrating that the possibility of His existence is philosophically sound and answers important questions which cannot be effectively answered otherwise.  Is this simply a “God-of-the-gaps” theology? Well, only if the law of gravity is a “science-of-the-gaps” principle. Have you seen gravity, held it in your hand? No, we only know of its existence because of its effects. We accept gravity because it makes perfect sense of otherwise unexplainable phenomena.  If you are not also an “a-gravitist”, then you should have no excuse to be an “atheist”.
Thanks for listening, God bless!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Evidence for the Resurrection of Christ

Today we shall speak on the topic of Christ’s death and Resurrection.

    We will now attempt to demonstrate why Jesus had to have died and risen from the dead.  Based on the fact that the New Testament and the Christian faith exist, regardless of whether or not they are the truth, there are only five ways in which some would answer the question, did Jesus die and rise: The first is the swoon theory or the theory that Jesus only appeared to die and then staggered out of the tomb; the second is the conspiracy theory that the Apostles purposefully deceived the world; the third is that the Apostles hallucinated and therefore were deceived themselves; the fourth is myth, that the Apostles mythologized Jesus’ life and death; finally we have Christianity, that Jesus died and Jesus rose.
    First we will demonstrate why the swoon theory is inconsistent with the facts. Remember, this theory assumes that the Gospels are genuine accounts. If Jesus did not die then why did blood and WATER pour from Jesus’ side when the Romans pierced his heart, meaning his lungs had collapsed? Why did the centurions not break his legs, which they always did to quicken the death of those still alive?  Finally, if the Romans had not killed him and he was only “mostly dead” in the tomb then how could a half dead man move a stone that took several centurions to move in the first place.  I say impossible!!!

    Let’s look at the hallucination theory. It would really be silly to think that Jesus’ Apostles were merely seeing hallucinations of Jesus.  When hallucinations happen they only happen to a single person and they only last a short amount of time.  The Gospels portray Jesus appearing for forty days to many people, eating with the Apostles, and then rising from them.  Also, if it was merely a hallucination then why did the Jews not present Jesus’ body?  They did not, nor did the Romans and remember the tomb of Jesus was heavily guarded so how could the Apostles have stolen Jesus’ body? And now we have arrived at the conspiracy theory.

    A slightly better argument than these past two is that the Apostles purposefully deceived the rest of the world.  Let’s consider how likely this is. First of all, what could possibly motivate a person to die for a deception which they themselves invented? Remember there were twelve Apostles and many more disciples, many of which died for proclaiming the power and resurrection of Christ, something of which they claimed to be eye witnesses. I believe Blaise Pascal puts it best, “The human heart is singularly susceptible to fickleness, to change, to promises, to bribery. One of them had only to deny his story under these inducements, or still more because of possible imprisonment, tortures and death, and they would all have been lost. Follow that out."(Pascal, Pensees 322,310)   Thanks, Pascal. Beyond the complete lack of a motive for such a massive and brilliantly orchestrated lie, we also have the difficulty of the body, the stone, and the Roman Centurions. Furthermore, there is the difficulty of lying to people in the same Geographic location and time period in which the fictional events were supposed to have occurred. As the list goes on, the probability of this theory drops like a stone.

    Perhaps the best and most popular argument against Christ’s Resurrection in our day is that the Apostles benevolently mythologized Jesus’ life, perhaps to romanticize the memory of a wise but non-miraculous teacher.  Let’s see how this argument stands up.  The Gospels as we can see are written in a completely different style than mythology, not to mention the epistles. There are many details which would not have been included in a mythologized account. For example, why would a mythological account of the resurrection depict women, who had a very low social status, discovering the empty tomb? Also, why are there no historical records of a non-mythologized and non-miraculous Jesus? Furthermore, the New Testament explicitly says it is not mythological in 2 Peter 1:16 (“We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty.”), so if it is mythologized, then it is deceitfully so and we are therefore back at the conspiracy theory and all its problems. Another point is that there is not enough time for a myth to develop. The Gospels, Epistles, and Revelation were finished by 90 A.D. so there would have been eye witnesses who would have been able to discredit these myths.  Again, no one would have died for it. Therefore Christ’s Resurrection could not have been a myth.

    So, we can see that only one possibility is left: Jesus died and Jesus rose. There is no other way around it.  If Jesus died and rose then that means Jesus is God and King and therefore we must obey his teachings.  If Jesus didn’t die and rise then I might as well stop speaking on this subject as it would only be in vain… but because Jesus did rise from the dead and conquer all of the sin, negativity, and murderous cruelty the world could muster, I will proclaim his name above all.  God bless

Now we would like to end with a quote from Dr. Peter Kreeft:

“The answer is not obscure,” Dr. Kreeft says for those who follow this logic out to its conclusion, “traditional Christianity awaits them, complete with adoration of Christ as God, obedience to Christ as Lord, dependence on Christ as Savior, humble confession of sin and a serious effort to live Christ's life of self-sacrifice, detachment from the world, righteousness, holiness and purity of thought, word and deed. The historical evidence is massive enough to convince the open-minded inquirer. By analogy with any other historical event, the resurrection has eminently credible evidence behind it. To disbelieve it, you must deliberately make an exception to the rules you use everywhere else in history. Now why would someone want to do that?”