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Is It Live Birth or Is It Memorex?

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Last week I had a disagreement with my pastor over the nativity stories and their veracity as history at Bible study (a story for another day) that got me to thinking about nativity scenes and the old and tired battles about truth and the Bible. However, it never ceases to amaze me how people avoid facing facts in service to what they believe (and this includes you athiests out there, perhaps especially so given recent events). I think it has to do with our need to order our world and make it comprehensible, predictable in some way. I'm not judging whether this is bad or good, just the way it is often discussed in a less than honest fashion IMHO. So back to the nativity.

The discussion at Bible study turned to Christ's birth and I remember Father speaking of eyewitnesses, etc. I objected to this because there are lots of problems with claiming the birth stories together are eyewitness accounts and are therefore history, at least history of a sort. Even our understanding of the nativity as an amalgam of Luke and Matthew has issues. In the end, magi offering gifts to a babe laid in a manger is not a scriptural scene. In other words it's not in the Bible. Yet we see nativity scenes in front of plenty of churches and have kids play out Christmas plays every year, traditions that I think speak to a deep need to make the separate stories in Luke and Matthew make sense together and support our faith in a modern world.

And I'm OK with that as long as we are honest and up front about it. When a believer goes into spin mode in an attempt mask the simple fact that Jesus' birth is a historical mystery beyond the tradition that holds that he was born of a virgin in Bethlehem of Judea a little over two millenia ago, it's worse than an outright lie, it's a con job: an attempt to fool another person ( or oneself!) through trickery.

I know such language is harsh and unforgiving but we all know whose game lies and trickery is. It's important we don't succumb to such temptations to speak in half truths which are whole lies. It besmirches the Gospel which is so dear to us.

What Do You Believe Rob?

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A friend recently asked, "I sincerely would like to understand what makes a bright, educated, eloquent person believe in god and accept religion. Please tell me."

This is my answer:

"To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible."

"The truth of our faith becomes a matter of ridicule among the infidels if any Catholic, not gifted with the necessary scientific learning, presents as dogma what scientific scrutiny shows to be false."

--St. Thomas Aquinas

Faith is substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1)

"I believe in Coincidence like I believe in God. I know both exist but have never seen either."

--The Unit

Simply put faith is like love or the appreciation of art or one's morality. It is part of who you are and is not the product reason, rather the reverse. (Nor does the object of these human experiences change their essential nature. From a materialist reductive standpoint, a father's love for his son is completely in his head, just a collection of neuro-chemical reactions and bio-elecricity regardless of the reality of his son.) Faith is a human experience that is ineffable though we, like romantic love, spend many words describing it's reality. Religion is faith in practice and like anything else human, subject to our strengths, weaknesses, and limitations. And that is the plain truth.

So for me, Truth is accepting what Is as clearly as I can see it and refraining from letting my desires, wants, and biases cloud that vision. So the truth is I believe in God because I have experienced God. I have a modest spiritual capacity. I deploy religion to practice my spirituality and employ my faith because I am driven to do so. I do not subscribe to fideism, nor does my Church by the way. I believe that experience lies at the ground of all we hold True. The rest is mental exercise and commentary.

I am a Catholic because I found a spiritual home at St. Raymond of Penafort Church in Mt. Airy, Philadelphia. Otherwise, I would be done with organized religion as my wife and I were tired of lots of sizzle and no steak. Spirit: that's all that's Real to me. Otherwise you might was well worship Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny or Russell's Teapot for that matter.

Catholicism is enough for me because I know God intimately through it. I don't worry about ancient traditions, doctrines or dogma too much. (Maybe that makes me a bad Catholic in the Magesterium's eyes, but I'm not in this for them now am I?) A caveman and I start a campfire pretty much the same way and appreciate its reality despite vastly different understanding of its nature. So I'm less worried about the Trinitarian Godhead as monotheism, for example, and more worried about how my religion makes me a better persons and deepens my spirituality, i.e. knowledge of God.

Jesus, my Lord and Master, taught:

And I tell you, ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks, receives; and the one who seeks finds; and the one who knocks, the door will be opened...If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the holy Spirit to those who ask him? (Luke 11:9-10,13)


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On Worshipping at the Altar of Atheism

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I have a good friend who is a staunch materialist and enjoy a little back and forth with him about God. We don't debate since that's of little value. But in the course of our discussions I'm struck by how religious the arguments for atheism are and how absolute their proponents' faith is in only what can see, hear, and touch.

I say faith because that is by definition belief in something impossible to prove. You simply can't prove a negative without, dare I say it, the infinite knowledge of God. (Props to Professor Michael Eric Dyson for challenging me on my fideistic acceptance of materialism.) But that's not the only reason why I call it faith.

The sheer arrogance of the likes of Bill Maher and Richard Dawkins is reminiscent of the Magesterium in times past and, to my regret, not so distant past. We know The Truth while the rest of the world is either deluded, stupid, or both. It's implicit in the ideology. Even well meaning folks can't seem to avoid it. One of the coolest people on this planet I know asked me "Why do you believe in God, Rob, you're so intelligent?" out of genuine curiosity. Except for his atheism, he is the opposite of Dick Dawkins. (Yes, I mean the pun). At Bible study/Church school, we are going through adult catechism over the next year. It's amazing how the ethos is identical insofar as the tendency of all too many to look down on the beliefs of others.

I love Truth and work hard at finding it but I'm not so prideful to claim it as my own. I have to be, like a good scientist would be, willing to accept that tomorrow's discovery will turn my world upside down else I have no faith, "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen."

And on that note:

I'm not an atheist and I don't think I can call myself a pantheist. We are in the position of a little child entering a huge library filled with books in many different languages. The child knows someone must have written those books. It does not know how. The child dimly suspects a mysterious order in the arrangement of the books but doesn't know what it is. That, it seems to me, is the attitude of even the most intelligent human being toward God.

--Albert Einstein


Trust, but Verify

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Finishing up a late night with a good book on Catholic apologetics.

Faith and reason are interdependent. One of the great secrets of the universe is that reason leans on faith every but as faith leans on reason. Rightly did St. Augustine say, "I believe that I may understand." It's not that people who lack Christian faith cannot know anything. But anyone who knows anything must first put faith in principles that are tacit, unproven, and unprovable. We have good reasons to believe such things. But we don't have proof. We believe that we may understand.

What We Have Seen and Heard, Part 2

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In the previous post we looked at out faith informs our culture and values. Now for a look at Sacred Scripture

African-American spirituality is based on the Sacred Scriptures. In the dark days of slavery, reading was forbidden, but for our ancestors the Bible was never a closed book. The stories were told and retold in sermons, spirituals and shouts. Proverbs and turns of phrase borrowed freely from the Bible. The Bible was not for our ancestors a mere record of the wonderful works of God in a bygone age; it was a present record of what was soon to come. God will lead his people from the bondage of Egypt. God wil preserve his children in the midst of the fiery furnace. God's power will make the dry bones scattered on the plain snap together, and he will breathe life into them. Above all, the birth and death, the suffering and the sorrow, the burial and the resurrection tell how the story will end for all who are faithful no matter what the present tragedy is.

For Black people the story is our story; the Bible promise is our hope. Thus when the Word of Scripture is proclaimed in the Black community, it is not a new message but a new challenge. Scripture is part of our roots; the Bible has sunk deep into our tradition; and the Good News of the Gospel has been enmeshed in our past of oppression and pain. Still the message was heard and we learned to celebrate in the midst of sorrow, to hope in the depths of despair and to fight for freedom in the face of all obstacles. The time has now come to take this precious heritage and to go and "tell it on the mountain." [emphasis mine]

The Bible is everywhere in our culture and community. Even a Muslim preacher can get a church full of Christians to stand up and clap with a little John 10:11-12 and some 2 Chronicles 7:14. Turns of phrase are so ingrained we can repeat them almost automatically when called out. The inevitable response to, "To whom much is given...," is of course, "Much is required." (Lk 12:48) These phrases are like inside jokes, incredibly pregnant with meaning. MLK said, "I've been to the mountain top...I have seen the promised land." Even Tavis Smiley's and Cornel West's Covenant with Black America has no meaning if you don't have a deep sense of the Bible.

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Rational Lies

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This weekend was a good one spiritually. Saturday, Bishop Steib from the Memphis visited and gave us a Word that had people rushing for his autograph. Today at Mass, Father gave a great homily on authentic Christianity. Both had me pondering on how I saw my own faith. Was it something I should defend against attack from the Jehovah's witnesses at my door on the one hand to the subtle (and often not so subtle) condescension of my atheist friends and the likes of Bill Maher on the other? For a long time I, in fact, thought so. Well, no longer. I am willing to evangelize and to explain, but I'll no longer defend. To do so is to accept the premise for attack. I don't apologize for loving my wife. Why in the hell should I for loving Jesus? Rationally, neither makes any sense.

I remember a good friend asking me essentially why I was a man of faith, "You're so bright," he said. He went on with the usual old saws about how religion is good to get your through a tough time or if your are weak mentally or emotionally but not for the serious minded and intelligent. And I explained, patiently, where I was coming from.

Such thinking is ironic to me. It demonstrates a strong faith in one's senses. If a man born blind denies the existence of color, what argument could convince him? His senses tell him nothing about the existence of color. In fact, every argument that I know of made to convince him could easily be employed to "prove" the existence of God!

Faith like love or art is a part of the human experience that is not subject to argument. It is ineffable and undeniable for those who experience it. To quote St. Thomas Aquinas:

To one who has faith, no explanation is necessary. To one without faith, no explanation is possible.

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Out of Context

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My Mom and I were talking this morning about the Bible, of which I am proud to say she has become quite the student. We got on about how people interpret it and the necessity of knowing the context of Scripture in order to truly understand it. We also spoke ruefully how people will refuse to do that homework, esp. if it might threaten their understanding of Scripture. I found it is ironic that my Mom learned this from a converted Catholic biblical scholar.

I related to her how that argument plays out among my Protestant friends: not well. I'm frequently told that because I take the time to understand its socio-historical context, I might know about the Word but I don't know the Word. In other words, don't let the context change the "true meaning," i.e. their understanding of its meaning of Scripture. My challenge to that is this: how can you understand anything written or said when it is taken out of context? If you are incredulous, just look at the healthcare "debate" and those infamous death panels.

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What We Have Seen and Heard, Part 1

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Very soon a Black Catholic Bishop named Steib will be coming to speak to my parish about a pastoral letter on evangelization he co-authored titled "What We Have Seen and Heard." Because my parish is considered to be one of the 800 or so in the country that are predominantly African American, we are reading the letter in preparation for his talk, discussing it and it's implications amongst ourselves. It has been very fruitful so far and I have been reflecting on it daily. The letter is pretty long so this will be a serial post. Let's begin.

Part 1 of the letter is titled "The Gifts We Share" and talks about our call as black people to share our gifts. It enumerates them all. The first is our culture.

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How Far Would You Go to Save a Life?

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The first sign of corruption in a society that is still alive is that the end justifies the means.
–Georges Bernanos

Abortion is a hot button issue mainly because both sides care a great deal about the things they see themselves protecting: a woman's control over her own body, her self, her personhood; an unborn child's right to simply live. I don't mean to answer that question here in this small space. (What hubris that would be!) I do intend to state where I am in all of this and that is in a state of moral dilemma. I see both sides as protecting things that are worthwhile, even essential.

To put it as succinctly as I can, I am a pro-lifer unwilling to save lives by any means. I have always had moral problems with abortion and pro-choice arguments to the contrary have only solidified that position. I am not, however, a contraception-is-abortion pro-lifer. I don't think RU-486 is an "abortion pill." I tend to follow those in the medical profession who won't perform abortions on unborn who clearly can feel and react to what is happening to them. In that, I find it cruel and inhuman.

But what has always given me pause in supporting it's legal ban, is the truth in what I am doing, i.e. via the state, usurping power and control over the most intimate parts of a woman's body. An act very similar to rape. But to put it in more palatable terms, it is violating the physical person of one individual for the sake of another in our society. And that is something that the majority of the Pro-Life movement does not acknowledge, at least that I can see. We would recoil in horror if the state required people to donate bodily tissue, a kidney for example, in order to save the lives of others. It goes against many of our core principles surrounding human rights.

So yeah, I would ban abortion in a heartbeat (no pun intended) if I could do so if the means were justified unto themselves. But until I live in a world of artificial wombs and a society that stands ready to take responsibility for the children that will result from our actions, I remain in my moral Catch-22.

Whose Religion Is This, Anyway?

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Whose Religion Is This, Anyway? | The American Prospect:

"The tension of being an Orthodox dove is partly sociological. Most Israeli Jews with whom I could pray don't share my political views. Most Israelis who share my politics do not understand why I enter a synagogue. More basically, the presumption of the society in which I live is that one cannot be an Orthodox critic of the occupation. That matching up of the political divide and the secular-religious one is a mistake. For a religious dove, however, there is an additional dimension to the argument about territories, settlements, and peace: The stakes are not only the future of one's country but also of one's religion."

(Via The American Prospect.)

I find myself in the same situation with my Christianity and homosexuality. It's why politics is bad for religion. Every political idea starts to become an article of faith. You can't have absolutism with equivocality without giving evil has an opening.

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