Wednesday, December 9, 2009

What is Truth

I've been having a thought lately, spurred on mostly by C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters. In the very first letter, and in many of the subsequent ones, Screwtape tells Wormwood that it never occurs to humans (at least, present-day humans) to ask if something is true. They (we) ask whether it fits with the style of thought that we are used to, what progressed up to the idea in question and how it fits with our current lifestyle. In fact, you seldom hear anyone nowadays ask if the fresh piece of gossip is true, or if the most recent scientific findings are true, or if the latest historical publication is true. The main reason we don't question these things is because society requires a high degree of trust in order to operate. We must trust one another if we are to live together. At some point, we begin to take it for granted that people are telling the truth. At this point, lies quietly slip in and become difficult to kill.

The idea struck a chord with me and so I decided to try an experiment. Whenever prodded with a situation that called for my thoughts on this topic or that, the first question I would ask (if sensible) would be: "Is it true?" Please note that this question proves very ineffective for questions relating to taste, or personal opinions. It is meant for matters that turn on a moral question, or those that require one to search outside of one's self for the answer.

In a discussion with a friend, the comment was made that a mutual Catholic friend of ours was contemplating sending his son for first communion classes. This had raised something of a scandal with the "old church ladies" (a.k.a. a lot of gossip), because our mutual friend had not formally had a first communion himself. My friend said that if he encountered this behavior in his congregation, he would immediately leave and find a different one. It bothered me a bit that he was willing to change congregations so quickly, especially because he is a member of a non-denominational church. Leaving that congregation would essentially mean leaving a micro-denomination and moving to another one. It was even more troublesome that he thought that someone could and should abandon the Catholic Church in a similar manner.

This led to the big question: Is the Church true? Or, put another way, Are the Teachings of the Church true?

Thinking it over, there are only a handful of answers to this. 1) Yes; 2) No; 3) I don't know; 4) What is truth? Interestingly, it also sets up quite the stage for the questions that follow.

1. Yes, the teachings of the Church are true. - This leaves two options: to follow them or not. The first seems almost obvious; once one recognizes that the teachings of the Church are true, it seems only logical that one should follow them. However, there are still those that will choose, for whatever reason, not to follow them. Those in the latter group are the most pitiable of all people. They have seen and recognized the light, but have chosen the darkness.

2. No, the teachings of the Church are not true - This immediately begs the question, if the Church does not teach truth, why do so many people keep taking her teachings as their own? Or why when studies are done on human behavior, they conclude that humans should act in the same manner that the Church prescribes? The Church is not opposed to rational thought. In fact, informed Catholics will tell you that oftentimes that rational thought applied to the facts lead back to the Church, not away from it.

3. I don't know if the teachings of the Church are true - An honest answer, but more of a stage of development. One realizes that it is only a step on the path to one conclusion or the other. For example, it is perfectly acceptable to tell the professor that you do not know the answer the first time you are asked. However, if you are asked again at a later date, and continue to give this answer, you will fail your class. If the current answer is that you do not know, then the real question is whether you are you willing to find out? If one answers that they are willing to learn and test the teachings of the Church for themselves, wonderful. Such studies will soon place them into one of the preceding categories. If one refuses even to learn what the teachings of the Church are, that means they have preconcluded option 2 and will resist any attempts to sway them from that position.

4. What is truth? - Put another way, this is stating that there is no absolute truth. It is a denial that there is a right and wrong. No individual that is honest with themselves can accept this position for long. It is an easily contestable point, which C.S. Lewis and other philosophers and theologians have answered already; I will not repeat those points here, but I refer one that would take this stance back to option 3.

These are only my beginning thoughts on the subject. If I have missed something, or am off the mark, then I am open for correction.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Caving In

I just ran across this while reading some new blogs.

It makes me sad that we have come to an age where people don't seem to recognize the importance of anything anymore. Catholic universities are willing to set aside ancient teachings to join the popular crowd, or hide the name of Christ so-as not to accidentally offend someone who does not believe in Him.

America has its founding in the idea that all men are created equal. That does not mean that all ideas are created equal, nor all lifestyles moral. We are free to practice any religion we choose; we are not guaranteed a life free from religion, nor a right to never be offended. If you want to know how rare our actual rights are, take a walk through history, or areas of the world not dominated by Western thought. If you think you are being oppressed by religions in this country, take a look at what happened to Catholics in England after Henry VIII, or to Christians attempting to practice their faith in Egypt or Saudi Arabia today.

If it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the LORD, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve; but as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD. - Joshua 24:15

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Why Notre Dame is Important

There has been a lot of angry sentiments lately over the invitation of President Obama to speak at Notre Dame's commencement and receive an honorary doctorate. Pro-life individuals are upset because President Obama stands in direct and unapologetic opposition to Church teaching. Pro-choice people are upset because they can't understand what the big deal is and think that it is just to attack the president. If I may, I would like to offer a thought to those who feel that President Obama should be allowed to speak at commencement.

Imagine, if you will, that a local chapter of PETA is having their yearly banquet. It will be a time to recognize the work that has been accomplished recently and get excited about what is on the horizon. The banquet will have a keynote speaker and dedicate about one-third of their time to that speaker. The speaker is chosen purely at the discrestion of the chair of the banquet committee.

As the banquet nears, the keynote speaker is announced. It is a famous businessman, who is very popular and influential in the local area. His charismatic ways will get everyone excited and ready to do their best for next year. However, it is also well-known that he owns several food plants in the state, keeping animals in small pens and butchering them.

Naturally, several members of the PETA chapter, as well as some in the wider world of PETA, are upset about the choice of keynote speaker. They send notices to the committe chair that they don't like the selection because his views conflict with their own. The committee chair is unapologetic. He is very proud to have such a distinguished individual at their banquet and refuses to find someone else. Besides, this will be the perfect chance to show people that PETA is willing to have a dialog with people of differing viewpoints. He does not mention that no one else will be allowed to speak while the businessman is present.

Undeterred, the upset members put together a petition to show the committe chair that a lot of other people are angry about the selection too. Members of the national board voice their opinion too, but stop short of throwing out an otherwise very useful PETA organizer. Other people get angry at the first group because they think that it is an attempt to smear the popular businessman, who is even now saying that he wants more ethical treatment of animals. He hasn't done anything to change his operation, of course.

Now, back to the point. If this dispute seems ridiculous, that is only because of the double-standard with which we have learned to ignore. It is okay for people to demand that their view is respected. It is laudable to state your opinion clearly and often, even to the extent that someone is embarrassed or loses their job. That is, unless, your view is somehow connected to your faith. Then, you are marginalized and demonized for being "close-minded."

A few thoughts on acceptable behavior:
  • It is perfectly acceptable for an individual, or group, to express their dissatisfaction on any subject, provided they remain respectful.
  • It is perfectly acceptable to state that someone should not be given a platform to speak at an organization that has differences with that individual.
  • It is acceptable to declare that you are distancing yourself from an organization that is unable to determine whether it is more important to be popular or steadfast.
  • It is acceptable to boycott the event to demonstrate your displeasure.
  • It is NOT acceptable to stage demonstrations at the event itself. The person might stand against you in everything, but they are still due respect.
I hope that clears things up a bit. I recognize the analogy is not perfect, but if you wish to leave comments on it, please do. Also note that I am neither for or against the many aims of PETA.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Get With the Times

I've been hearing a lot of commentary lately from the media and public forums about the standings of the Church. Newsweek ran a few articles in the past month proclaiming the fall of Christianity, others profess loudly that the Church is outdated, or that it needs to adjust to our modern age.

Frankly, I'm tired of it. It would seem that many people do not understand the basis of religion. The purpose of a religion is to hold people to a standard and to remind them that there are things that do not bend to their likes or dislikes of the moment.

From the way that I hear arguments on the subject today, people believe that they are the first generation in history to recognize the teachings of the Church as difficult to live out in our lives. They somehow have gotten it into their heads that the purpose of religion is to make them feel good, or to entertain them and reassure them that they are good people. Let's be perfectly clear: Christianity has always been a difficult path to walk. This was true in the first century, the middle ages, the renaissance and we should expect nothing different today. There are very, very few who do exceptionally well in it; we call them saints.

Many arguments, if you push them further, lead to the statement that they don't like the Church telling them that they can't do, or forces them to do some action or another. Again, let's be perfectly clear and honest on the subject. The Church does not, and cannot, force you or restrict you from doing something. When was the last time a member of the clergy broke into your house and threatened you for committing a mortal sin? Any sin? What rights of yours were stripped away? Were you imprisoned?

At this point, I'm guessing people will say that they're told they're going to hell, or that they couldn't receive a sacrament until they'd been to confession and repented of their sin. Yes, you might have been told that you're going to hell if you don't repent. Please understand, it brings the Church no joy to tell you this. A true Christian wants you to get to heaven as much as they want to get themselves there. We are not graded on a curve, or against one another, but against the measure of right and wrong. By reminding you of your sin, the Christian hopes that you will repent of it and be saved.

Our generation needs to remember that something does not cease to be a sin simply because the majority of people cease to believe it is one. Our Church is not a democracy; the trends of the day should not sway teachings that are to be the very declaration of truth. We should also recall that the Church does not have the authority to reverse the moral law. God does not take a vote when He declares His law and, once declared, it is not open for debate.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Faith we can believe in

I was having a conversation with a very good friend a few days back, and we turned to the topic of religion, as we sometimes do (I don't really like the idea that certain topics are taboo). He mentioned that he could finally understand why people would accept harsh punishments rather than give in on what they believed to be right. The example that was used was from the Holocaust, where Jews would state that they were Jewish, even though there was rumor going around about what would happen to them.

I was thrilled that, finally, someone else that I routinely converse with seemed to recognize a key truth. Therefore, I was naturally disappointed a few days later when they said that they now had changed their mind. After some simple questioning, I found that the reason for the about-face was they were taking their new-found view to an absurd length, and a mutual friend had corrected them about the extremity. Unfortunately, that also undid the truth from the original statement; that there are some things worth standing up for. Eventually, our conversation rested on two scenarios, one mine and one from my friend.

My scenario was fairly straightforward. In certain areas of the world, it is still very dangerous to be a Christian. One day, a law official knocks on your door and tells you, in no uncertain terms, that they had discovered that members of your family were Christian. They do not know if you are Christian or not, so they are there to ask you. If you state that you are Christian, then you are under arrest and subject to severe treatment. If you deny that you are Christian, then you are free to go, if you fully disassociate yourself from your family members who are Christian and accept the fact that their future is not your concern.

My friend's scenario was somewhat different. You are in a country hostile to Christianity, but with no relatives outside of your household. Someone comes knocking on your door one day and asks if you are a Christian. They give you no reason for their questioning, and you know that they will leave you in peace if you answer no and nobody will question again. If you answer yes, then someone may come by later to arrest you.

Our discussion ended with a polite agree to disagree, but I'm still troubled. In the United States, we are often mocked for our beliefs, but seldom are we put in danger for them. It is easy for us to forget that there are areas, even today, where Christians are brutally murdered for no other reason than their faith. Ironically, they are often the ones who are doing good things for the community in which they are murdered. I am troubled because of the question that I asked of my friend: If you deny that you are a Christian in either scenario, are you, in fact, still a Christian?

The question is still relevant to us, who live in a culture that is openly hostile to the Christian ideal. Are we willing to stand up for our beliefs and risk tribulations, or are we better off keeping our beliefs secreted away, attempting to live our faith in private only? Are we ready to accept ridicule when Christ and culture part ways, or will we join in the throng demanding that the church modernize or die?

I believe that God has great mercy and that He will forgive us if we ask. Perhaps that is why the question is so troubling. Is it better for one to deny Christ, then ask forgiveness and continue the Christian mission, or is it better to embrace Christ and accept what that means for your future? I have settled on an answer, but I am very curious as to what others think about it.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Symbology and everyday life

Another month, another post. Aren't I a slacker?

I've been wondering lately about a great number of matters, which might explain why I haven't written much. Things get all jumbled together and it gets difficult to post about one in particular.

I was thinking the other day about the various symbols that we have to represent ourselves. Most of us have something that we carry with us often, if not every day, to make a statement to the world about what it is that we believe or subscribe to. I suspect for many people, they don't think about these symbols too much, or how they are interpreted. I would encourage everyone to think a moment about what you have on your person, right now, that is making a statement.

Got something? Okay, now what does it mean? How are the people around you interpreting the message from your symbol? Is it common enough that others know what this symbol is, or what it commonly means? Are you aware that, right wrong or otherwise, others are making split-second judgments about you based only on these symbols? Given the opportunity, would these people find that you are not the person that your symbols represent? Do your symbols convey different messages?

That last one is very important, as people will oftentimes have a symbol that they wear out of habit that conflicts with one that they have at the moment. A cross on a chain worn over a t-shirt condoning violence. A promise ring worn with a low-cut dress. Examples abound in our world, from every creed, race, class and gender. This is not always because the people are hypocrites, in fact, I would wager this is very seldom the case. It is because we become so familiar with these symbols that we begin to forget that they are there. Instead of remembering why we took this symbol up in the first place, we have let it fade into the background. However, that is also the purpose of the symbols that we choose for ourselves; that others might see them and, instead of judging us as hypocrites, they might point out our symbol and remind us.

In addition to the style of clothes that I am wearing (a symbol in itself, although often less important), I keep four symbols on my person whenever I am in public, and nearly all the time in private. They serve two purposes: as a reminder to me of what I have pledged to do and a sign for others that I subscribe to a certain code. I found it very interesting that these four symbols, while from different origins and times in my life, all represent consistent beliefs. Thinking back, I have had different symbols that I used to identify myself through the course of my experiences. Over time, I might cover some of them here. A good excuse to blog more often.

Please feel free to comment on the symbols that you have in your own life. Why do you keep them, and what message do you hope that they to convey to those around you? If you had to describe yourself using only three symbols, what would you choose?

Monday, January 19, 2009

Checking Your Sources

A disturbing trend has been plaguing my attention lately. It began near the top of the year when atheistic activists began decrying the phrase "So help me God" in the presidential oath. However, given more thought, evidence of this trend can be found most places within modern life. The trend is simply, if there is no (consistently) documented proof, then the statement (or tradition, custom, etc) is invalid.

As a general rule, people today like having information. For most, a small article is enough, for others, many lengthy texts. For myself, I've found from experience that scanning articles is fine, but if something seems wrong or if there are holes in the arguments, then more research is in order, especially if I want to discuss the issue. The internet being the wonderful tool that it is, the source can often be found and most lingering questions put to rest. But what if the source is unavailable? What happens when the event happened a long time ago and the author is not available for comment? What does one do when the written record is interpreted differently by many scholars?

In times before our information age, people went to tradition. Religious traditions in particular are very rich, as they tend to last. Even those who disagree with a faith-based mindset have to agree that religions are steeped in tradition and enjoy longevity as a result. However, traditions related to national history are also very difficult to disturb. Why? Simply, because to tell people that their traditions need revising is to tell them that people they revere are mistaken or liars.

Until recently, this would be a horrible accusation to level against someone, especially against parents or other figures of authority. Lies have always carried with them a strong social stigma and rightly so. Someone who has a history of falsehoods obviously cannot be trusted and as such it is very difficult for them to operate in society.

However, this attitude has begun changing. After many political leaders and other public figures have been caught in one scandal or another, perjury seems almost cliche. The public has become jaded about our leaders, almost expecting them to lie. As a result, other long-held beliefs based in tradition are being opened to attack. If I can't believe what my political leaders are telling me today, why should I believe my historical leaders, or religious leaders?

Which brings us back to verification. If something is documented, then at least we have some "proof" that we have not been lied to through the centuries. Best to check that several sources exist, just to make sure that one wasn't a mistake. We modern people often rely on scraps of information to "prove" large theories, or discount important points that, at the time, would have been considered as common or base knowledge, not something that needed to be spelled out for posterity. Somehow, a written record, something that can be seen and touched, makes the past and its traditions real. Without that evidence, those traditions are completely invalid, unless someone can take them on faith.

Interestingly enough, the only area where physical, historical evidence is not accepted as evidence that the tradition is valid is in the area of faith. People on both sides of a religious debate can attain a great deal of information that proves or disproves their points, but those who counter them are seldom moved. The birth of most religions is so far removed in history that there are only a rare few individuals who can even comprehend such a large span of time. The traditions of those religions got to the present somehow; the believers will say from a particular source, the non-believers from a misconception that got out of hand.

In the end, people either believe or do not believe in traditions, religions, or whatever else, for their own reasons. Maybe the opposition conflicts with their worldview. Perhaps the person is a natural skeptic, or naturally trusting. For those who must have everything empirically or scientifically proven to them, faith is a mystery, mere arguments for validity need not apply. For those of faith, proofs are nice, but are not required.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Aaaand, we're back

Welcome, everyone, to the year 2009 AD.

After some time off to research and decide where I want to take this little site of musings, I'm finally back to writing again. In truth, I've had so many different subjects that I've had difficulty deciding what to write about.

I've been musing a lot lately on a particular question and I'm curious if anyone else has some insights on it. So far, net searches have been unfruitful. I want to know what a pro-choice person can say to someone who is dealing with a miscarriage.

To be perfectly clear, I'm not saying that pro-choice people are bad. I'm not saying that they're unintelligent or uncaring. I just don't know what they can say to someone (a friend or co-worker) that is trying to cope with a miscarriage.

The most common statement that I've seen so far is a pro-choice person stating that, if abortion is outlawed, then miscarriages will become legal issues, with possible criminal charges. They like to cite this article to emphasize the point. Again, I want to be clear. In cases where a woman miscarries, it does not and should not involve the police. However, it should involve a doctor and, depending on the woman's age, her parents or spouse. And the situation where a fetus, clearly identifiable as human, is flushed into the sewer should be disturbing to anyone. Many funeral homes and charities will donate to a proper burial for miscarriages (I've known a number of people who've needed that service).

Another argument is that one in four pregnancies ends in miscarriage. This is citing a statistic, not what is a morally acceptable way to proceed with any particular pregnancy. The argument continues by declaring that because God does not protect all pregnancies to term, we shouldn't have to either. This objection is flawed on a number of levels. It is like saying that, because God allows people to contract diseases and die from them, we are morally justified if we inject people with those diseases with the intent that they die. God does things for reasons that are far beyond what we can know, and we are not exempt from any morality if we rationalize our position with "well, God does/allows it."

Others point to Exodus 21:22-25, or other biblical verses to state that God is most definitely pro-choice. This argument is largely based on poor translations. Going directly from the original Hebrew, the real meaning is much more clear:
22 And if men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart, and yet no harm follow, he shall be surely fined, according as the woman's husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23 But if any harm follow, then thou shalt give life for life
In other words, if the woman gives birth prematurely, but the baby does not die, then there is a fine. Should the baby die, more serious consequences will follow.

Ultimately, the argument arises that, in the case of the miscarriage, the baby was wanted by its mother/family, but in the case of abortion, the "fetus" was not wanted for some reason. Reasons for abortion will be covered in another post at a later date, as it is a very large discussion. Personally, I find this a very poor argument, not only from the strength of persuasiveness, but also due to what it says about the value of life to a staunchly pro-choice person. Again, they are often wonderful and caring people. The general conclusion I draw from such arguments is that they do not understand what it is that they are arguing for.

I simply must become somewhat better at posting here. That can be a New Year's resolution.