Thursday, November 27, 2014

Our National Sin: What Racism Reveals About God and Man

Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, The First Thanksgiving (1915)
There's a side to Thanksgiving with which you might not be familiar: historically, this was a day in which Americans were encouraged to call upon God both in gratitude for His blessings, and to ask mercy for our sins.†

We see seeds of this in Lincoln's 1863 Thanksgiving proclamation, the source of the modern holiday, in which he reminded Americans of “the gracious gifts of the most high God, who while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.” It's clearer in prior Thanksgiving proclamations: for example, James Madison's 1814 proclamation of a day intended for “a devout thankfulness for all which ought to be mingled with their supplications to the Beneficent Parent of the Human Race that He would be graciously pleased to pardon all their offenses against Him.

In 1865, President Andrew Johnson proclaimed the third modern Thanksgiving by setting apart
a day of national thanksgiving to the Creator of the Universe for these great deliverances and blessings. And I do further recommend that on that occasion the whole people make confession of our national sins against His infinite goodness, and with one heart and one mind implore the divine guidance in the ways of national virtue and holiness.
So let's talk about one of “our national sins,” racism. Whether you're recounting to your kids the story of the first Thanksgiving, and have to explain what happened to the Wampanoag Indians; or explaining how President Lincoln made Thanksgiving a national holiday while fighting to save a nation and liberate a race of people from chattel slavery (which then-Senator Obama referred to “this nation's original sin”); or simply taking a break from Thanksgiving festivities to watch the news, only to see a nation in flames over the shooting death of Michael Brown, racism is an unavoidable reality.

I'm not going to write an essay explaining that racism is evil. I'm confident that you know this already, even if you struggle with racism personally. And in describing racism as “evil,” I use the term advisedly. We recognize - virtually all of us, anyways - that racism isn't just mistaken, or factually incorrect, but actually a moral ill. It why the Washington Post's Alyssa Rosenberg can casually refer to the racist as “a wholly bad person.” She doesn't need to explain or defend this association, because she can count on her readership sharing her sentiment.

Instead, what I want to explore is what we can learn from our moral intuition. If we're right that the racist (or, in any case, racism itself) is evil, what does this tell us about human rights, metaphysics, and God?

I. Why Racism is Evil: The Universal Equality of Man

Thomas Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence,
with Benjamin Franklin's proposed changes.
If you were asked why racism is evil, I suspect your answer would involve something about the idea of the universal equality of man. America was famously founded on the proposition that all men are created equal. At the time those words were penned, one race of Americans were being used as slaves, one race was being exterminated, and women and non-landowners had very little political voice. We weren't, as a nation, actually living as if our Declaration of Independence was true, nor have we always done so in the years since. But we really do believe those five words, and they've served as a veritable engine of social justice.

This notion of fundamental human equality is also the basis for international human rights law. Article 1 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.” And it is precisely this “recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family [that] is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.

This is why we rightly view racism as an evil. It strikes at the very root of our belief in the universal equality of man. For example, consider the white supremacist who believes that members of his race are superior because they're more intelligent than other races. That's not primarily a question about the latest social sciences on how well different racial groups perform on IQ tests, or how legitimate IQ tests are, or anything else. Underlying all this, we're confronted with a question of the foundations of human dignity. Is the worth of human beings something that can be determined by skin color, or by any sort of test, or by any of the countless other markers by which we can separate ourselves from one another? Because if all men truly are created equal, it's because our inherent dignity is rooted in something deeper, in our common humanity.

This idea of basic human rights owed to us simply due to our humanity, taken seriously, repudiates all manner of injustices, from racism to sexism to abortion. But it also points to a bigger reality, the existence of God.

II. Universal Human Rights, the Equality of Man, and the Need for God

Jacques Maritain
So most of us share these foundational beliefs about human rights and dignity. But atheist materialism can't get you to universal human rights or the equality of man. As Ross Douthat asked Bill Maher, “Where are human rights? What is the idea of human rights, if not a metaphysical principle? Can you find universal human rights under a microscope?”

The Declaration of Independence recognized this. Remember that the Declaration didn't suddenly make all men equal. Rather, it simply recognized that we already were equal, prior to the law. That's why the Declaration describes these realities in theistic and natural law terms: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

These aren't rights that are invented by the state or by the crowds; these are rights that we have inherently, rights which the state and the mob must recognize. If they came from the state, then they wouldn't be human rights at all, but civil rights. And what the state giveth, the state can taketh away. Obviously, corrupt states and corrupt men can violate human rights; the point here is that they can't repeal them. They're unalienable.

Indeed, the whole point of saying something is a human rights violation is that the victim had rights that the state or the masses ought to have respected. It's why slavery was wrong even when the government and the majority of people condoned it. And it's also why, when corrupt southern states imposed Jim Crow laws, and lynch mobs threatened the basic rights of African-Americans, there was a higher law to which African-Americans could appeal, above the level of the mob or the state.

The Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, one of the principal drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, recognized this, explaining that the “philosophical foundation of the Rights of man is Natural Law.” For human rights to exist in any meaningful way, they must be rooted in natural law, in something coming from before and above the level of the nation-state or the masses.

III. The Unsavory Alternatives

Segregated drinking fountain, mid-20th century America
Having said all of this, where does this leave the atheist? Not in a good place. In such a view, our fellow man is nothing more than a mere collection of material parts, none of which are inherently dignified. And he, like you and I, is ultimately nothing more than a cosmic accident. In such a world, how can he or we have any rights to begin with, except for the rights that the state or the masses decides to give us?

Human rights, as we've seen, can't be meaningfully grounded in the masses or in the state; after all, these rights are often needed precisely to protect us from the masses and the state. We need the existence of something like natural law, and law based on much more than instinct or the like. If natural law is just instinct, why ought we listen to it or obey it?

Likewise for the equality of all men. What exactly is the basis for this equality, if not our shared endowments from our Creator? Theists hold that our equality is ontological, related to the sort of beings that we are. We're each made in the image of God, and we're each endowed with certain rights and dignity, which we share in common. But ontology is blatantly metaphysical, and this particular belief appeals quite directly to God. Without that theistic appeal, the whole thing seems to fall apart.

The most you can say without God would appear to be that all men are of equal social utility. And of course, that's untrue, and obviously so. Some people are born with serious handicaps; others are born into extreme privilege. By any purely-material criteria, some people are born better or worse off than their peers. So, without any connection to the Creator, “all men are created equal” reduces to a meaningless bromide. It sounds nice, but deep down, we don't believe it.

Let's return once more to our port of departure, racism. If your view is that human dignity and human worth is rooted in our intelligence, our physical ability, our life expectancy, our freedom from pain (or conversely, our ability to feel pain), and the rest, the most that you can say is that you're only conditionally not a white supremacist. Tomorrow, some double-blind gold-standard study could come along showing that whites (or some other racial or ethnic group) outperformed their peers in these categories, and you'd be forced to that they have more dignity and worth than members of other racial and ethnic groups.

Such an absurd result reveals the poverty of atheistic materialism; it fails to account for our most basic moral intuitions, and it fails to explain how we can know that racism is a moral evil. Since we do know that racism is evil, we can know with equal certainty that our brother is more than a collection of purely-material parts. We should this day rejoice and be thankful to God for our shared human dignity, and we should take this chance to entreat His forgiveness for our individual and national sins, not least of which is racism.


†I am deeply indebted to Archbishop Augustine Di Noia, O.P., for his delightful homily at the Pontifical North American College this morning for his discussion of this dimension of Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Why Won't the Church Ordain Women?

Women's ordination has been in the news twice this week. The major story was that the Anglican Communion, which has allowed women to be ordained priests for some time now, has just announced that they will start ordaining female bishops. On this side of the Tiber, Boston's Cardinal Sean O'Malley caused something of a stir when 60 Minutes aired an interview in which he said, “If I were founding a church, I’d love to have women priests.

So let's talk about it. Why won't the Catholic Church just ordain women already?

I. Why Won't the Church Ordain Women?

François-André Vincent, The Greek Priest (1782)
One mistake that women's ordination supporters tend to make is starting off with the wrong question. I mentioned the Cardinal O'Malley interview, but it's important to give his fuller response to the question of women's ordination: “If I were founding a church, I’d love to have women priests. But Christ founded it, and what he has given us is something different.

Some Catholics have chided him for this answer, viewing it as a sort of passing the buck, as if the Cardinal is saying, “Don't blame me, blame Jesus!” I disagree. I think he's making an important point: before we get to the question of whether the Church should ordain women, we need to first know if the Church can ordain women. O'Malley's answer reminded me of something that I heard Cardinal Pell say recently about divorce and remarriage (the 2:03 mark here):
As Christians, we follow Jesus. And I could confess, I perhaps might have been tempted to hope that Jesus might have been a little bit softer on divorce. But He wasn't, and I'm sticking with Him.
Both Pell and O'Malley are making the same point. It's not a simple matter of what you or I would like. I might wish gluttony weren't a sin, or that eating an entire box of doughnuts weren't bad for my health, but my wishing it doesn't change reality. If I'm contemplating pursuing my dreams, I should probably know at the outset whether or not my dream is even possible.

So, the better, more fundamental question is: can the Church ordain women? And the answer to that is clear. Pope John Paul II invoked his authority as the pope to clarify that  the Church's teaching on the male-only priesthood is infallibly settled, and that the Church can't ordain women:
Although the teaching that priestly ordination is to be reserved to men alone has been preserved by the constant and universal Tradition of the Church and firmly taught by the Magisterium in its more recent documents, at the present time in some places it is nonetheless considered still open to debate, or the Church's judgment that women are not to be admitted to ordination is considered to have a merely disciplinary force. 
Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren (cf. Lk 22:32) I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful.
So the Church won't ordain women, today, tomorrow, or ever, because she can't.  That answer is perfectly clear, but I imagine it's not entirely satisfying. Why can't the Church ordain women?

II. Why Can't the Church Ordain Women?

Illustration of Jesus and the Apostles from the Siysky Gospel (1340).
A second mistake that women's ordination supporters tend to make is treating the Church as all-powerful, as if she can simply change dogma. But she can't, and Vatican II explicitly teaches that she can't:
This teaching office [the Magisterium] is not above the word of God, but serves it, teaching only what has been handed on, listening to it devoutly, guarding it scrupulously and explaining it faithfully in accord with a divine commission and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it draws from this one deposit of faith everything which it presents for belief as divinely revealed.
There are certain things that are just manmade policies within the Church, and those can be changed, if the circumstances demand it. But there are other things that are given to us by God, and we can no more change those than we can throw out the Ten Commandments. These are instances in which our only choices are to listen to Jesus and obey Him, or ignore Him and disobey Him.

As St. John Paul II made clear, women's ordination is one of those things that we don't have the power to change. Jesus was intentional about creating a male-only clergy. Ironically, a good place to see this is in the open letter to Cardinal O'Malley that Erin Saiz Hanna and Kate McElwee of Women's Ordination Conference recently issued, in which they said:
In all four gospels, Mary Magdalene was the primary witness to the central event of Christianity — Christ’s resurrection. In John’s Gospel, Jesus called on Mary Magdalene — a woman — to preach the good news of his resurrection to the other disciples. The Scriptures also mention eight women who led small house churches, including Phoebe, Priscilla, and Prisca. And, not least of all, Mary of Nazareth, who answered her vocational call from God and first brought Jesus, body and flesh, into our world.
Now, the details of these claims aren't right. Mary Magdalene witnesses the first of Jesus' post-Resurrection appearances, but she doesn't witness the Resurrection itself. Priscilla and Prisca are the same person, and while she and her husband Aquila let the Church meet in their home (1 Corinthians 16:19), neither she nor Phoebe are described as having “led small house churches.”

But those errors aside, Hanna and McElwee are pointing to something important: women play an important role in early Christianity. Jesus Christ is unafraid to interact with women, even ones with a bad reputation, like the Samaritan woman of John 4, who is initially shocked by Christ's boldness in speaking to her (John 4:9). The New Testament authors are nonchalant about the fact that it was Mary Magdalene who first witnessed the Resurrection Nor does this stop on Easter morning: both Acts and the letters of Paul reveal that women played important roles in spreading the Gospel from the very beginning.

Guernico, Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well (1641)
But in pointing this out, Hanna and McElwee show the impossibility of their own case. For Scripture is equally clear that none of these prominent women, not even the Virgin Mary, were ever considered Apostles or priests. Consider how the Women's Ordination Conference (that Hanna and McElwee represent) attempts to address that difficulty:
The decision not to include women among his twelve apostles says nothing about women as priests except that Jesus, as a Jewish male of his time, knew that the custom and tradition of his day did not allow women to assume leadership roles. By following the prevailing custom Jesus was not precluding a time when women, along with men, could be ordained. 
In other words, WOC's position is that Jesus didn't ordain women because He felt constrained by social norms that kept women out of leadership roles. But this excuse doesn't work, for three reasons:
  1. It's contradicted by everything about Jesus: His claim to be God was surely more upsetting to the social order than female leadership. Jesus regularly fraternizes with Gentiles, with women, with tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 9:10), even with lepers (Luke 7:22, 17:11-19). Christ is unafraid to embrace those on the margins of society, even when it outrages the Pharisees (Mt. 9:11). Where do we ever see Him sell out to appease the custom and tradition of his day”?

  2. There are several important women in the New Testament: Remember that Hanna and McElwee just finished telling us about several important women in the early Church. So Christ isn't afraid to give a voice to women. After all, it's the witness of Mary Magdalene who leads Peter and John to the Tomb (John 20), in an age in which women's testimony wasn't even admissible in court. And there are several other instances in which Christ bucked the sexist views of His culture.

  3. Women already had leadership roles in Roman and Jewish society. The final problem is that the WOC's position assumes that Romans and Jews would have been scandalized by female leaders. But the Romans had plenty of priestesses during this time period, and the Jews had prophetesses (cf. Luke 2:36), and the Gnostics (who tried to present themselves as Christians) had priestesses. So Christian priestesses wouldn't have been a scandalous or unheard of innovation. What would shock pious Jews would be for Jesus to open the doors of salvation to the uncircumcised Gentiles... but He does that.
So we're supposed to believe that Romans and Jews wouldn't accept women as religious leaders (even though they both did), and so Jesus basically sold women out? Is that even a plausible explanation of the Gospel?

The WOC has a second answer to Jesus' male-only priesthood: “For if women were to be permanently excluded then why not Gentiles?” But the difference here seems to be obvious. Each of the Twelve Apostles is Jewish because they represent the fulfillment of the Twelve Tribes of Israel (Matthew 19:28) and, as Jesus says to the Samaritan woman, “Salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). In other words, there's a theological basis for the Twelve being all-Jewish, to show the continuity between the Old and New Covenants. But the Apostles are also instructed to bring in the Gentiles, fulfilling the role prophesied of them in the Old Covenant, and so we quickly see Gentile clergy, but not female clergy.

There's a second reason to consider, as well. There likely weren't a lot of Gentiles in the pool to draw from: the earliest believers appear to have been all (or almost all) Jewish. Given that, it's unsurprising that the Apostles and earliest clergy were Jewish. But as Hanna and McElwee point out, there were a number of believing women who faithfully followed Christ from early on in His public ministry (Luke 8:1-2, Matthew 27:55, Luke 24:10, Acts 5:14, Acts 8:12, etc.). We must therefore treat Christ's creation of a male-only priesthood as an intentional act, and one that can't be written off a mere concession to culture.

So the Church won't ordain women, because she can't. And she can't, because Jesus deliberately chose a male-only priesthood. But that still leaves an important question: why would Jesus do this?

III. Why Would Jesus Choose a Male-Only Ordained Priesthood?

This brings us to the third (and in my view, the largest) mistake commonly made by women's ordination advocates: treating the priesthood as an occupation, rather than a vocation.

Cristóbal Rojas, The First and Last Communion (1888).
That's an important distinction. If being a priest is like being a surgeon, then it's inexcusable for qualified women to be excluded. And this occupational view of the priesthood can be seen in several of the rationales favoring women's ordination: for example, in treating the priesthood like a position of power (thereby “empowering” women), or as an individual's birthright. But, as Simcha Fischer has explained, if you think you're worthy of the priesthood, you're wrong. Cardinal Ratzinger said it best:
Furthermore, to understand that this teaching implies no injustice or discrimination against women, one has to consider the nature of the ministerial priesthood itself, which is a service and not a position of privilege or human power over others. Whoever, man or woman, conceives of the priesthood in terms of personal affirmation, as a goal or point of departure in a career of human success, is profoundly mistaken, for the true meaning of Christian priesthood, whether it be the common priesthood of the faithful or, in a most special way, the ministerial priesthood, can only be found in the sacrifice of one's own being in union with Christ, in service of the brethren. Priestly ministry constitutes neither the universal ideal nor, even less, the goal of Christian life. In this connection, it is helpful to recall once again that "the only higher gift, which can and must be desired, is charity" (cf. 1 Cor. 12:13; Inter Insigniores).
That's because being a priest isn't like being a surgeon. It's like being a father. In fact, that's the exact image that St. Paul uses to describe his priesthood several times (1 Corinthians 4:15; 1 Thessalonians 2:10-12; Philemon 1:10). It's also closely tied to the servant-leadership model to which the Jesus calls the Apostles in Luke 22:25-27. And being a father isn't something that you earn, or are due.

A woman can no more be called to be, or qualified to be, a priest than she can be called to be, or qualified to be, a husband and father. Likewise, a man is not called to be (or qualified to be) a wife, or a mother, or the Mother Superior of a religious order. Men and women are different, and fatherhood is uniquely masculine. This point is sometimes overlooked, sometimes denied, in modern society. So let's re-establish some basic facts. Men and women are different. Even our brains are different, differences that begin before we're born. Fathers and mothers are different, and at least some of these parenting differences are genetic in origin, not the result of simple social norms.

Scripture recognizes these complementary differences from the very first chapter. Genesis 1:27 says that “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” So both men and women are made in the image of God, but they're not the same. Sexual equality, but not sexual interchangeability.

And Christ uses our unique gifts and talents in special ways, and He calls upon the sexes for different things. Women alone are given the power to grow new life within their wombs. Men alone are given the ability to turn bread and wine into Jesus Christ. He established a Church in which the Church herself is described as feminine, and has an essentially-feminine (and essentially-Marian) spirituality and relationship to God (cf. Ephesians 5), but has exclusively-male clergy.

Conclusion

There's much more that could be said, particularly on this point, which I think is worthy of a deeper examination. For now, however, we've arrived at what I hope is a satisfactory three-part answer: (1) the Church won't ordain women, because she can't; (2) she can't, because Jesus deliberately chose a male-only priesthood; (3) Jesus deliberately chose a male-only priesthood because He created the sexes to be distinct, each with their own unique gifts.

Having said this, perhaps it's worth adding an important caveat. Over the last few decades, the hierarchy of the Church has been more intentional about listening to the views of women, and I think that this is an important development. Women often offer a unique perspective that men, including clergymen, lack. But this contribution is key precisely because men and women aren't the same. So for the same reason that it's heartening to see things like the Synod on Marriage inviting laymen and women to come speak, it's worth rejecting any push to treat men and women as basically interchangeable.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

From Abel to Zechariah: Did Christ Confirm the Protestant Canon?

Michelangelo, Zechariah the Prophet, Sistine Chapel (1512)
Did Jesus confirm the Protestant canon of Scripture in Matthew 23:35 and Luke 11:51? Several Protestants scholars have claimed that he does, and their argument is convincing... on the surface. For example, F.F. Bruce said:
It appears that the order of the Hebrew Bible which has come down to us is the order with which our Lord and His contemporaries were familiar in Palestine. In particular, it appears that Chronicles came at the end of the Bible which they used: when our Lord sums up all the martyrs of Old Testament times He does so by mentioning the first martyr in Genesis (Abel) and the last martyr in Chronicles (Zechariah). (See Lk. xi. 51 with 2 Ch. xxiv. 21).
To understand the force of Bruce's argument, you need to know that the Hebrew Bible isn't in chronological order. Rather, it's structured between the Law, the Prophets, and the other Writings. The last of these Writings is 2 Chronicles. So in Luke 11:50-51, when Jesus says “that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be required of this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechari′ah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary,” it looks like He's referring to this canon.

Until yesterday, I was convinced of this position (not that Jesus is endorsing the Jewish canon, but that He was referring to it). So, for example, back in 2011, I wrote:
In the Pharisees' canon (as in the Protestant canon today), the murder of Abel was the first murder, and the murder of Zechariah was the last, if you read the full Testament front to back. Zechariah's is not the last murder in either the Sadducees' or Hellenists' canon. In other words, Jesus is condemning the Pharisees using the Pharisee Bible, just as He condemned the Sadducees using the Sadducee Bible.
It turns out, I was wrong. So were F.F. Bruce and the vast majority of Protestant scholars on this point. There are three good reasons to think that Jesus wasn't alluding to the Pharisaic canon.

Problem #1: Wrong Zechariah

The first problem with Bruce's reading is only clear if you read the parallel account of this passage, in Matthew 23:35, which speaks of the righteous blood shed on earth, “from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechari′ah the son of Barachi′ah.

In an era before last names, these sort of genealogies helped to distinguish between different people with the same given name. And that matters, because it means that Jesus doesn't seem to be speaking about the Zechariah in 2 Chronicles 24, because that was “Zechari′ah the son of Jehoi′ada the priest.
The Prophet Zechariah [son of Berechiah], Ghent Altarpiece (1432)

Rather, Jesus seems to be speaking about “Zechari′ah the son of Berechi′ah, son of Iddo, the prophet,” the prophet of the Book of Zechariah, a few centuries after the murder of Zechariah, son of Jehoiada. Even that's a bit unclear, though: Jesus gives his father's name as Barachiah, not Berechiah. The Church Fathers were divided on who the Zechariah being referred to was (although interestingly, none of them thought that this was a reference to the Hebrew canon).

There's a common objection to this: Jesus refers to this Zechariah being murdered in the Temple. And we know from 2 Chronicles 24 that Zechariah, son of Jehoiada was murdered in the Temple. But the Old Testament never says that Zechariah, son of Berechiah was murdered at all, much less in the Temple. How likely is it that two prophetic Zechariahs would have met their fate in the same place?

Fairly likely, actually. Zechariah is a fairly common name during this period, and it was not uncommon for the righteous to be killed (which is what Jesus is pointing out in Matthew 23:34). More to our point, it turns out that the Jewish Targum (rabbinical commentary) on Lamentations says,
“Is it right to kill priest and prophet in the Temple of the LORD, as when you killed Zechariah son of Iddo, the High Priest and faithful prophet in the Temple of the Lord on the Day of Atonement because he admonished you not to do evil before the Lord?”
This certainly seems to be independent confirmation that “Zechari′ah the son of Berechi′ah, son of Iddo, the prophet,” was indeed killed in the Temple.

Interestingly, a few decades after Jesus spoke about the death of Zechariah of Barachiah, yet another Zechariah was murdered in the Temple. Here's the Jewish historian Josephus, writing about the killing of Zechariah, son of Baruch in the Temple:
So two of the boldest of them fell upon Zacharias in the middle of the temple, and slew him; and as he fell down dead, they bantered him, and said, "Thou hast also our verdict, and this will prove a more sure acquittal to thee than the other." They also threw him down from the temple immediately into the valley beneath it.
So we have historical accounts of three separate accounts of Zechariahs getting murdered in the Temple. But these are three different men, with different geneologies, and separated from one another by the span of several centuries.

Problem #2: No Codices

The difference between a scroll, a codex, and an e-reader
(h/t New York Times)
When I raised the question of Matthew 23:35 and Luke 11:51 to my Scripture professor, Juan Carlos Ossandon, his response wasn't to turn to this question of the different Zechariahs. Rather, he pointed out that when we talk about the order of Books of the Bible, we're approaching the issue through modern eyes. We're used to having a single, nicely-bound Book (or a single app) containing all of the Scriptures.

The Jews at the time of Christ wouldn't have had that experience at all. Instead of a single book, they had various scrolls. That's why we read things like “Baruch wrote upon a scroll at the dictation of Jeremiah all the words of the Lord which he had spoken to him” (Jeremiah 36:4). But these scrolls contained just one, or at the most a few, of the Biblical Books. Which is why, when Jesus proclaims the word in the synagogue, He's handed, not the Bible, but “the book of the prophet Isaiah” (Luke 4:17).

It's the early Christians who pioneer the shift from scrolls to codices. A codex is basically a book: page after page of stylus, bound together in some fashion. The New York Times explains:
At some point someone had the very clever idea of stringing a few tablets together in a bundle. Eventually the bundled tablets were replaced with leaves of parchment and thus, probably, was born the codex. But nobody realized what a good idea it was until a very interesting group of people with some very radical ideas adopted it for their own purposes. Nowadays those people are known as Christians, and they used the codex as a way of distributing the Bible.

One reason the early Christians liked the codex was that it helped differentiate them from the Jews, who kept (and still keep) their sacred text in the form of a scroll. But some very alert early Christian must also have recognized that the codex was a powerful form of information technology — compact, highly portable and easily concealable. It was also cheap — you could write on both sides of the pages, which saved paper — and it could hold more words than a scroll. The Bible was a long book. [....] Over the next few centuries the codex rendered the scroll all but obsolete.
Once you have a codex, and are compiling a Bible containing all of (and only) the inspired Books, you start to determine things like Book order. But that question makes very little sense when you're dealing with independent scrolls: what does it mean to say that 2 Chronicles “comes after” Malachi, if they're not bound together as a single Book?

Problem #3: The Babylonian Connection

The third problem with treating Matthew 23:35 and Luke 11:51 as references to the Hebrew canon is that there was no Hebrew canon yet. Different groups of Jews had different canons, and the Old Testament used today by Jews and Protestants didn't really become the norm until after the time of Christ. And it appears to have first been popularized by Babylonian Jews who were unaware of the Deuterocanon, because those Books hadn't reached them yet.

That's not just the view of Catholic or secular scholars, either. Lee Martin McDonald is a Baptist minister, and served both as president and professor of New Testament Studies at Acadia Divinity College, as well as Dean of Theology for Acadia University, in Nova Scotia, Canada. He holds a Th.M. from Harvard University and a Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.

In his book The Biblical Canon: Its Origin, Transmission, and Authority, McDonald describes the rise of what we would come to identify as the Protestant and Jewish OT canon:
The Jews were probably influenced to adopt a more conservative collection of sacred Scriptures by Hillel, who came from Babylon and accepted only those writings that dated from roughly the time of Ezra and Nehemiah and earlier. Hillel was possibly unaware of other sacred literature until he came to Israel in the first century B.C.E., but by then he had likely already formulated his criteria for what was sacred and what was not. The Qumran literature is thus more reflective of what was widely welcomed by the early Christians who adopted the apocryphal literature as a part of their sacred Scripture collection, along with several books now classified as pseudepigraphal. 
It cannot be irrelevant that the earliest list of sacred books among the Jews (i.e., b. Bava Batra 14b-15a), which was subsequently adopted by the rabbis, comes from Babylon. This tradition dates from the middle of the second century C.E. at the earliest, but there is no indication that it received universal recognition among Jews at that time If it had, it would have been more widely circulated and known among Jews of the Diaspoa as well as in the land of Israel. As a result, the current canon of the HB [Hebrew Bible] and the Protestant OT [Old Testament] reflects a Babylonian flavor that was not current or popular in the time of Jesus in the land of Israel. 
So the modern Protestant/Jewish canon is actually a rupture with tradition. The Jews at the time of Christ would typically have considered more Books (including some or all of the Deuterocanon) as Scripture as well. That's the third reason we shouldn't read Christ as endorsing the Hebrew canon: it didn't really exist yet, at least in any widespread way in Palestine.

Conclusion

To summarize, there are three reasons we shouldn't read Matthew 23:35 and Luke 11:51 as endorsing, or even referring to, the Protestant canon: 
  1. It would require us to assume that Jesus is speaking about the Zechariah in 2 Chronicles 24 (“Zechari′ah the son of Jehoi′ada the priest”) when Jesus specifically tells us He means a different Zechariah;
  2. It assumes that the Jews at the time of Christ had Bibles with specific canonical orders, when they actually had scrolls; and 
  3. It assumes that the Jews at the time of Christ used what modern Jews and Protestants use, when they did not. 



Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Dark Side of Martin Luther

Yesterday was Martin Luther's 531st birthday, and today is the Feast Day of St. Martin. It seems like a fitting time to give an honest assessment of some of the darker parts of Luther's legacy, and consider their implications.

There's a popular Luther narrative that plays out a little like Star Wars. A humble son of the Church rises up to overthrow the Dark Side, the Evil Empire, the Roman Catholic Church, all while cominfg to see his true identity. We love an underdog story, so it's easy to root for Luther. And this narrative is an important one, both for Protestants (to show why the Reformation was “necessary”) and atheists (to show why Catholicism/Christianity/fundamentalism/religion is dangerous and evil).

But no matter how attractive it may be, this Luther narrative is a fundamentally false one. It relies on two sets of falsehoods: (1) distortions and exaggerations of the evils done on the Catholic side; and (2) a whitewashing of the real history of Luther and the early Protestants. I've addressed (1) before, and I'd like to address (2) head-on today.

The real-life Luther was a man passionately convicted of his own rightness, so convinced that he thought anyone who disagreed with him was either ignorant, stupid, or evil. It was this overconfidence that I would suggest is the root behind some of the shockingly evil things he advocated. I'm going to lay them out here, letting them speak for themselves, before considering the implications of these facts.

I. Luther's Darker Side: the German Peasants

A few years after Luther's break from the Catholic Church, the revolutionary momentum that he had helped to unleash culminated in a massive popular (and bloody) uprising called the German Peasants' War. I'll let James Stayer, a historian of the German Reformation, paint the scene:
Rudolf Schiestl, Peasant Warrior and Death, 1525 (20th c.)
When the Roman court stumbled into condemning Luther in 1520, many of the younger generation of German-speaking theologians and biblical scholars turned against it [Rome / the papacy]. Certainly there were elements here of German cultural rebellion against the Latinate clerical caste that had dominated northern Europe throughout the Middle Ages. [...] Now the revolt of German against Latin merged with a revolt of the commonrs against the clergy and aristocracy. Such a revolt was climaxed in wide areas of South Germany by the German Peasants' War of 1525-26. This so-called war united the unprivileged in towns and rural districts, and it was the high-water mark of the Reformation as a spontaneous popular movement.
Having accidentally sparked a bloody revolution, Luther was in an unpleasant position. He was quickly associated with the revolutionary peasants both by the peasants themselves (to expand their popularity) and by his Catholic opponents (to show the danger of his ideas). This lead him to respond to the revolution in two very different ways.

Initial Position: Call for Peace

Luther's initial response was to criticize both sides of the feud in his Admonition to Peace. To the Christian princes and lords, he wrote:
We have no one on earth to thank for this disastrous rebellion, except you princes and lords, and especially you blind bishops and mad priests and monks, whose hearts are hardened, even to the present day. You do not cease to rant and rave against the holy gospel; even though you know that it is true and that you cannot refute it. In addition, as temporal rulers you do nothing but cheat and rob the people so that you may lead a life of luxury and extravagance. The poor common people cannot bear it any longer. The sword is already at your throats, but you think that you sit so firm in the saddle that no one can unhorse you. This false security and stubborn perversity will break your necks, as you will discover.
(As an aside, notice how Luther is convinced that his opponents know that he is right, and just refuse to accept it: it can't be an honest difference of opinion or Biblical interpretation.)

But Luther also addressed the revolting peasants, admitting the validity of some of their arguments, but calling them to moderation:
Nevertheless, you, too, must be careful that you take up your cause justly and with a good conscience. If you have a good conscience, you have the comforting advantage that God will be with you, and will help you. Even though you did not succeed for a while, or even suffered death, you would win in the end, and you would preserve your souls eternally with all the saints. But if you act unjustly and have a bad conscience, you will be defeated. And even though you might win for a while and even kill all the princes, you would suffer the eternal loss of your body and soul in the end.
Later Position: Call for Massacre

Luther's Admonition to Peace was published in early 1525. Shortly after this, Luther toured the war-torn area, seeing both the severity of the peasants' actions, and the ineffectiveness of his own preaching. His admonition to peace having failed, Luther's new position can fairly be characterized as an admonition to massacre.

In May of 1525, he published a work originally titled Against the Rioting Peasants, the title of which was quickly changed to Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants, in which he called on everyone to kill the peasants, en masse:
Besides, any man against whom it can be proved that he is a maker of sedition is outside the law of God and Empire, so that the first who can slay him is doing right and well. For if a man is an open rebel every man is his judge and executioner, just as when a fire starts, the first to put it out is the best man. For rebellion is not simple murder, but is like a great fire, which attacks and lays waste a whole land. Thus rebellion brings with it a land full of murder and bloodshed, makes widows and orphans, and turns everything upside down, like the greatest disaster. Therefore let everyone who can, smite, slay and stab, secretly or openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him, he will strike you, and a whole land with you.
His new message was to offer the prospect of martyrdom to those fighting for the aristocracy, but only hellfire for all the slain peasants:
Thus it may be that one who is killed fighting on the ruler's side may be a true martyr in the eyes of God, if he fights with such a conscience as I have just described, for he is in God's Word and is obedient to him. On the other hand, one who perishes on the peasants' side is an eternal brand of hell, for he bears the sword against God's Word and is disobedient to him, and is a member of the devil. [...] Strange times, these, when a prince can win heaven with bloodshed, better than other men with prayer!
As Dr. Mark U. Edwards, Jr. notes, “Luther had his way” and the “peasants were brutally suppressed.” Estimates of those slaughtered range from 100,000 to 300,000.

II. Luther's Darker Side: the Jews

Another major problem in the world of Martin Luther was widespread Catholic suspicion and hatred of the Jews. This was a problem that Luther could hardly be ignorant of: his own church in Wittenberg had a Judensau: on the outside of the church, there was (and still is) an obscene carving of a group of Jews and pigs suckling at the teat of a pig, while a rabbi looks under the pig's tail.


Initial Position: An Impassioned Defense of Jewish Believers

In 1523, Luther published That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew, an eloquent denunciation of anti-Judaism. Luther lambasted the Catholic Jew-haters who he accused of both treating the Jews in a subhuman manner, and in driving them from the Gospel:
The Judensau at Wittenberg.
Our fools, the popes, bishops, sophists, and monks-the crude asses' heads-have hitherto so treated the Jews that anyone who wished to be a good Christian would almost have had to become a Jew. If I had been a Jew and had seen such dolts and blockheads govern and teach the Christian faith, I would sooner have become a hog than a Christian. 
They have dealt with the Jews as if they were dogs rather than human beings; they have done little else than deride them and seize their property. When they baptize them they show them nothing of Christian doctrine or life, but only subject them to popishness and monkery. When the Jews then see that Judaism has such strong support in Scripture, and that Christianity has become a mere babble without reliance on Scripture, how can they possibly compose themselves and become right good Christians? I have myself heard from pious baptized Jews that if they had not in our day heard the gospel they would have remained Jews under the cloak of Christianity for the rest of their days. For they acknowledge that they have never yet heard anything about Christ from those who baptized and taught them.  
I hope that if one deals in a kindly way with the Jews and instructs them carefully from Holy Scripture, many of them will become genuine Christians and turn again to the faith of their fathers, the prophets and patriarchs. They will only be frightened further away from it if their Judaism is so utterly rejected that nothing is allowed to remain, and they are treated only with arrogance and scorn. If the apostles, who also were Jews, had dealt with us Gentiles as we Gentiles deal with the Jews, there would never have been a Christian among the Gentiles. Since they dealt with us Gentiles in such brotherly fashion, we in our turn ought to treat the Jews in a brotherly manner in order that we might convert some of them. For even we ourselves are not yet all very far along, not to speak of having arrived.
I suspect that most people today would agree with Luther completely on these points: treating the Jews in such a vile way was both unchristian and counter-productive (at least, if one is actually concerned about their eternal salvation). As the Reformation was still young at this point, Luther is also visibly hopeful at the prospect that the Jews will respond positively to his reformulation of the Gospel.

Later Position: A Call to Destroy the Jews


As with the German peasants, Luther was quickly disappointed. The Jews didn't en masse convert to Lutheranism. So Luther turned against them, becoming increasingly antagonistic towards the Jews throughout his life. One of the last works Luther ever wrote was his 1543 book On the Jews and Their Lies, published just three years before his dead. The book is chock full of the standard anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and black legends about all the evil things the Jews allegedly do when Christians aren't around. This leads Luther, in Chapter 11 of the book, to present his Jewish problem:
What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews? Since they live among us, we dare not tolerate their conduct, now that we are aware of their lying and reviling and blaspheming. If we do, we become sharers in their lies, cursing and blasphemy. Thus we cannot extinguish the unquenchable fire of divine wrath, of which the prophets speak, nor can we convert the Jews.
Luther offered a seven-fold solution to his Jewish problem:
Johann Michael Voltz, Hep-Hep Riots (1819)
  1. First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them. This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians, and do not condone or knowingly tolerate such public lying, cursing, and blaspheming of his Son and of his Christians.

  2. Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed. For they pursue in them the same aims as in their synagogues. Instead they might be lodged under a roof or in a barn, like the gypsies. This will bring home to them the fact that they are not masters in our country, as they boast, but that they are living in exile and in captivity, as they incessantly wail and lament about us before God.

  3. Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.

  4. Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb.

  5. Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. For they have no business in the countryside, since they are not lords, officials, tradesmen, or the like. Let them stay at home.

  6. Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping. The reason for such a measure is that, as said above, they have no other means of earning a livelihood than usury, and by it they have stolen and robbed from us an they possess. [...] Whenever a Jew is sincerely converted, he should be handed one hundred, two hundred, or three hundred florins, as personal circumstances may suggest. With this he could set himself up in some occupation for the support of his poor wife and children, and the maintenance of the old or feeble.

  7. Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow, as was imposed on the children of Adam (Gen. 3 [:19]). For it is not fitting that they should let us accursed Goyim toil in the sweat of our faces while they, the holy people, idle away their time behind the stove, feasting and farting., and on top of all, boasting blasphemously of their lordship over the Christians by means of our sweat. No, one should toss out these lazy rogues by the seat of their pants.

In other words, burn down all the synagogues, burn down the houses of the Jews, deprive the Jews of their employment (and take all their money for “safekeeping”), and kill their rabbis and any Jews who leave home. Since the Jews weren't going to simply stop practicing their religion, Luther's proposal would require murdering an endless series of rabbis and their successors.

III. Germany's Darker Side?

It's probably worth mentioning the influence Luther's ideas had on the spread of German anti-Semitism and the rise of Nazism. No less a figure than William L. Shirer, in his famous book The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, draws a line from Luther to Hitler:
Synagoge of Siegen, Germany, burning during Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany (November 9, 1938) 
It is difficult to understand the behavior of most German Protestants in the first Nazi years unless one is aware of two things: their history and the influence of Martin Luther. The great founder of Protestantism was both a passionate anti-Semite and a ferocious believer in absolute obedience to political authority. He wanted Germany rid of the Jew and when they were sent away he advised that they be deprived of “all their cash and jewels and silver and gold” and furthermore, “that their synagogues or schools be set on fire, that their houses be broken up and destroyed... and they be put under a roof or stable, like the gypsies... in misery and captivity as they incessantly lament and complain to God about us” - advice that was literally followed four centuries later by Hitler, Goering and Himmler. 
In what was perhaps the only popular revolt in German history, the peasant uprising of 1525, Luther advised the princes to adopt the most ruthless measures against the mad dogs, as he called the desperate, downtrodden peasants. Here, as in his utterances about the Jews, Luther employed a coarseness and brutality of language unequaled in German history until the Nazi time. The influence of this towering figure extended down the generations in Germany, especially among the Protestants. Among other results was the ease with which German Protestantism became the instrument of royal and princely absolutism from the sixteenth century until the kings and princes were overthrown in 1918. The hereditary monarchs and petty rulers became the supreme bishops of the Protestant Church in their lands. Thus in Prussia the Hohenzollern King was the head of the Church. In no country with the exception of Czarist Russia did the clergy become by tradition so completely servile to the political authority of the State. Its members, with few exceptions, stood solidly behind the King, the Junkers and the Army, and during the nineteenth century they dutifully opposed the rising liberal and democratic movements. Even the Weimar Republic was anathema to most Protestant pastors, not only because it had deposed the kings and princes but because it drew its main support from the Catholics and the Socialists. During the Reichstag elections one could not help but notice that the Protestant clergy - Niemoeller was typical - quite openly supported the Nationalist and even the Nazi enemies of the Republic. Like Niemoller, most of the pastors welcomed the advent of Adolf Hitler to the chancellorship in 1933.
The idea that the Nazis were initially successful because of the groundwork that Luther laid is an intriguing hypothesis, and Shirer presents several strong arguments for it. But it's worth noting in Luther's defense that the situation is more complex than this. First, Luther hated Jews on account of their religion, rather than their race: he was willing to let the Jews live off of a tiny allowance if they would sincerely convert to Christianity. Hitler's opposition to the Jews was based more on racial lines, and so even a great many Hebrew Christians died in the Holocaust. Second, as alluded to above, anti-Judaism predates Luther. That said, it is undeniable that Luther recognized the dangers of this hatred of the Jews, and yet fueled the fires nonetheless.

IV. Why This Matters

The question of how much Luther is to blame for the Holocaust is an intriguing one, but I want to go a few different directions, instead.

1. The Sin of Pride

I mentioned before that Luther was so passionately convinced of his own rightness that he thought his opponents must necessarily be ignorant, stupid, or evil. This is the spirit consistently animating Luther's writings. When he's writing to someone who agrees with him, or who he thinks will agree with him, we get Dr. Jekyll. When he realizes that the other person actually thinks he's wrong, Mr. Hyde appears. We see it from the first with his writings to the papacy, sweetly promising to obey whatever the pope should decide, and then denouncing him as the Antichrist when the pope doesn't decide in his favor.

We see that play out time and again in the above passages: he's convinced that the Christian rulers who disagree with him secretly know the truth about the “Gospel,” but just refuse to acknowledge it. He's gentle to the peasants until he realizes that they're not listening to them; then he calls for their mass slaughter. Likewise, he defends the Jews, when he thinks that they're open to hearing his version of the Gospel; when he fails, he calls for their destruction, as well.

This has all the marks of the sin of pride, the sin said to have caused the fall of Lucifer. And none of us, regardless of Church affiliation, are immune from these temptations. It's so easy to fall into a mindset where your political or religious opponents are idiots or monsters. Let Luther's life be a cautionary tale in that regard.

2. Less Catholic, Less Christian

Martin Luther at the time of his death.
When Catholics point out that several of Luther's early writings sound pretty Catholic, the standard Protestant response (and a quite reasonable one, I might add), is that Luther wasn't completely reformed yet. Even after he went into schism, he spent another quarter-century slowly divesting himself of his Catholic beliefs. But what's remarkable is that, as Luther became less and less Catholic, he became less and less Christian. 

Compare the before-and-after you see above to see what I mean. There are countless other examples that point in the same direction, too. For example, Hosanna Lutheran Church notes that Luther's language in Against the Papacy at Rome Founded by the Devil, written in 1545 (a year before his death), was “the most vehement and vulgar Luther ever wrote. To accompany it Luther commissioned a series of political cartoons by Lucas Cranach defaming the pope and Rome.

The man praised for taking a bold stand for freedom of conscience was positively bloodthirsty towards those whose consciences disagreed with his own. And he became crueler and more bloodthirsty, the longer he spent away from the Church.

3. Was Protestantism Founded by a Saint?

This is one of the most important questions that I think we can take away from this: do we have any reason to conclude from the evidence that Martin Luther was a Saint?

Within the same year, 1525, he both cautiously encouraged the peasant's revolt as possibly of God, and called for everyone involved in the revolt to be killed, saying that they were all going to hell. Does that sound like someone being led by the Holy Spirit, or like those that St. Paul warns (Eph. 4:14) are “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the cunning of men, by their craftiness in deceitful wiles”?

I understand that even Saints make mistakes, and that even Saints sin. I get that, really. Nobody is expecting that Luther be perfect. But it does seem to me that there's a far cry from that platitude to saying that the guy who goes to his grave crying out for mass murder is a Saint.

I understand also that many modern Protestants feel no need to defend Luther (particularly if they're not themselves Lutheran). But I'd challenge this. It seems to me that question ought to be massively important for those defending the Reformation. If the Reformation was started by someone led by intellectual pride, rather than the Holy Spirit, why trust it?

Protestant ecclesiology tends to hold that the Church is only the collection of the saved (we Catholics disagree, but that's a question for another day). By this reasoning then, if Luther isn't a Saint, he's not even a member of the Church. So what does that make the denomination he started? How can Protestants count on someone outside the Church to reform and recreate the Church?

So these are the reasons that I raise these unpleasant bits of history. In doing so, I hope that I've been fair to Luther, while raising questions worthy of serious examination.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

How to Perfectly Know the Existence of God

St. Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologiae
It's common today to hear both believers and nonbelievers claim that the existence of God is ultimately unknowable, or at least unprovable. According to this view, we're left to take a leap of faith, or else to go with the option we think is more likely.

Classical theism rejects this idea completely. It claims to be able to prove the existence of God - to be able to prove, in fact, that He can't not exist. And what's amazing is that these theists seem capable of following through on this promise. There are several of these non-probabilistic arguments for the existence of God, but one of the strongest (and most misunderstood) is the argument from contingency. This is presented in St. Thomas Aquinas' Five Ways in the Summa Theologiae, although Aquinas actually gives a better version of the same argument in the Summa Contra Gentiles.

To see how the argument works, let's define two of our terms, and then lay out the two syllogisms that get us to a sure knowledge of the existence of God.

What Do We Mean by “Contingent” and “Necessary”?

For this argument to make sense, we need to define a few terms; namely:
  • Contingent beings are those being that only exist under particular conditions. They don't have to exist, and they don't always exist. Rather, they come into existence under particular conditions, and require certain conditions to continue to exist. Humanity, for example, requires air, water, carbon, and a whole host of other things. If any of these variables ceased to exist, so would we. In other words, contingent beings are things that could not-be. They exist, but only because certain conditions are met.

  • Necessary beings are the opposite. They exist necessarily. Or, if you'll excuse the double negative, necessary beings couldn't not-be. If there were some set of circumstances in which these beings could cease to exist, then their existence would be contingent, and they'd be up there in the first group. This means that necessary beings aren't capable of generation or corruption (that is, of being born or dying).
With that in mind, let's consider the two arguments that bring us to a sure knowledge of the existence of God:

Argument I: Something Necessary Exists
  • Step 1: We see in the world some things that can be and not-be. 
In other words, we see contingent things all around us. We see birth and death, both in the literal sense for organic matter, and in the metaphorical sense: we see galaxies come into, and go out of existence, for example.

This should raise a question for us: Why is there something, rather than nothing? After all, seemingly everything we see could not-be. Keep that question in mind.
  • Step 2: Everything contingent has some other cause for its being.
Under particular circumstances, a tree will exist. But if those conditions aren't there, the tree will never come into existence; or, if it already exists, it'll go out of existence. So, for example, if the soil temperature suddenly increased a thousand degrees, your tree would quickly blink out of existence. But this means that the tree isn't the cause of its own being. If it were, it could never not-be, and would exist necessarily, not contingently.

And of course, this point isn't limited to trees. It's true of every contingent being, including you and I, the cosmos, etc. So if you say that X is a contingent being, then some conditions (Y) must exist for X to exist.
  • Step 3: This can't go on infinitely. 
 Oculus Non Vidit, Nec Auris Audiuit (17th c.)
(“Eye has not seen, ear has not heard,” a reference to 1 Corinthians 2:9)
If X requires Y to exist, and Y requires Z to exist, you can't just draw that chain out infinitely. At some point, you must arrive at something that does exist, and isn't dependent upon something else for its existence.

Another way to approach this question: what conditions are necessary for you to exist right now? We're talking about the kind of conditions that you literally can't live without, here are now. And there can't be an infinite number of them, or you (and everything else) wouldn't exist.

The branch you're sitting on may be connected to another branch, but at some point, it needs to meet up with something grounded, like a trunk. You can't just have an infinite chain of branches dangling in the air. If literally everything is contingent, there's nothing capable of bringing it from non-existence into existence, or keeping it in existence.
  • Conclusion: There must be something necessary.
If there's nothing necessary, you end up with the logically-impossible infinite regress described in step 3. So there must be something that can't not exist.

Shrewd atheists will sometimes object at this point that this doesn't prove God. They're right; at this point, we've just shown that at least one thing can't not exist. That could be God, or gods, or angels, or a Demiurge, or matter, or mathematical laws... or more than one of these things.

So we haven't proven monotheism yet. But we've still made some headway: many of the popular atheistic cosmologies actually fail to clear this first hurdle: they assume a universe in which everything comes about under the right conditions, but don't have anyway of accounting for those conditions (or hold that those conditions require other conditions, and so on...).

To get from “something necessary” to “God” requires a second line of argumentation.

Argument II: God Exists
  • Step 1: Every necessary being either (a) has its necessity caused by something outside of itself, or (b) doesn't.
As Aquinas put it, “every necessary thing either has its necessity caused by another, or not.” 
 
What does this mean? Well, imagine a universe in which there were seven eternal angels. Incapable of being born or dying, they're in the category of necessary beings. But we're still left asking, why do these angels exist? The fact that they can't be born or die doesn't finish our inquiry, because it doesn't give an account of their existence. There could just as easily be a universe with a thousand such angels, or none.

So the necessity of these angels is caused by something else: some external cause must exist to account for their timeless existence. They're in category (a).
  • Step 2: If all necessary beings were in category (a), you would have an infinite regress.
This is a parallel line of argumentation to what we saw in steps 2-3 of Argument I. If everything depends on something else for its existence, how does anything exist?
  • Step 3: Therefore, not every necessary being has its existence from another. A necessary being exists who has its necessity through itself and so is the cause of the necessary being of any other necessary thing – which being all call “God.”
Sébastien Bourdon, Moses and the Burning Bush (1645)
Let's unpack those conclusions, one by one: 
  1. A necessary being exists who has its necessity through itself: In other words, Something not dependent upon anything at all to exist. This Something literally can't not exist, in this or any possible universe. (If its existence was contingent upon a particular type of universe, we'd be right back in the infinite regress problems detailed above).

  2. A necessary being who is the cause of all other necessary (and contingent!) things:  Everything else we've talked about -- you and me and all contingent realities, as well as all the necessary realities in category (a) --  depends, either directly or indirectly, on this Something to exist. In other words, if this Something didn't exist, everything would instantly blink out of existence.

  3. This Something is Unlimited Being: This is implicit, but I wanted to draw it out explicitly. When we're talking about Something that exists necessarily, and isn't determined by anything else, we're talking about Something whose being is necessarily limitless. (If its being were limited by some external cause, where does that cause come from?)

  4. This Something is what we call “God”: For those used to thinking of God as a created being, perhaps this seems like a big jump. But we've arrived at the existence of a Something that exists by definition, and exists as “pure Being” or “unlimited Being.” And that's the best definition of God, and the definition of God that He gives (see below).
What's brilliant about this is that we're not left with a probabilistic argument for God. We're not left saying, for example, “given how complex the universe is, it's 99% likely that it was designed by a deity” or something. Rather, we've concluded to a God that must exist, who literally can't not exist. And this conclusion both establishes God's existence, and starts to tell us something about Him.

Of course, it's important to realize the limitations of our approach. Necessarily, we're limiting ourselves to what we can know by reason alone. After all, it would be terribly circular to argue that God exists because the Bible says He does, and we can trust the Bible because God inspired it, etc.

That restriction really is a handicap, because certain things about God can only be known by revelation. For example, you could never arrive at the Trinity from reason alone. Indeed, if everything about God could be known fully by reason alone, there would hardly be any reason for revelation. So unaided reason gets us to the doorway, to see that there is a God. To find out more about this God, we need to let Him introduce Himself.

And quite fascinatingly, when He does so, in Exodus 3:14, it's as YHWH, “I AM WHO AM.” In other words, what we see in revelation corresponds perfectly to what we concluded to by reason alone: a God who exists by definition, and whose existence accounts for the existence of everything else in the universe.


--

By the way, I've cross-posted this both here and over at Strange Notions, a site dedicated to Catholic-atheist dialogue. Feel free to check out the comments there to see how this piece is received.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Two More Reformation Day Ironies

Martin Luther Jack-o'-lantern
For most Americans, today is Halloween. But for some Protestants, today is Reformation Day, the day to commemorate October 31, 1517, when Luther (allegedly) posted his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenburg church, sparking the Protestant Reformation.

But while it may or not really be the 497th anniversary of the posting the 95 Theses, it's certainly the fourth anniversary of my “Reformation Day Ironies” post, in which I point out some of the obvious and not-so-obvious ironies of the Reformation. Some of these are funny, while others are sad.

In 2011, I noted that Reformation Day:
(1) is celebrated by making graven images of Reformers who hated images;
(2) is intended to Christianize a “pagan” holiday, yet is celebrated by many of the same Evangelicals who refuse to celebrate Christmas for fear that it’s a Christianized pagan holiday;
(3) avoids celebrating “evil” [Halloween] by celebrating evil [schism].
In 2012, I added two more to the list, describing how Reformation Day:
(4) celebrates a document damning Protestants for rejecting papal authority over Apostolic Pardons.
(5) celebrates a movement that, despite its name and initial, failed as a reform movement of the Catholic Church. [After all, if Protestants thought that it had succeeded, they would be Catholics].
Last year, I added the most recent two:
(6) Reformation Day is a Protestant Man-Made Accretion Protesting Man-Made Accretions.
(7) Reformation Day celebrates the supremacy of the Bible by commemorating an event the Bible condemns.
Without further ado, here

Irony #8: Reformation Day honors St. Paul's teaching in 1 Timothy, 
by celebrating Luther's violation of St. Paul's Teaching in 1 Timothy.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Kattrina Luther, 1526
Okay, that's a pretty specific heading, so bear with me. Ligioner Ministries has a piece up right now celebrating Reformation Day, and celebrating Luther in particular. One of the key reasons they praise him is that he “lifted the unbiblical ban on marriage for the clergy and by his own teaching and example radically transformed the institution itself.

To what are they referring?

Martin Luther was an Augustinian monk, meaning that he took a vow of celibacy before God. Katharina von Bora was a Benedictine nun who took the same vow of celibacy. But after breaking away from the Catholic Church, Luther married Katharina, in violation of both of their pledges, and he encouraged other Protestants to do the same thing.

Ligioner thinks that this is praiseworthy because requiring a pledge not to marry, in their view, amounts to an “unbiblical ban on marriage” of the kind that St. Paul warns against in 1 Timothy 4:1-3. So, the argument goes, Scripture (and more particularly, 1 Timothy) are affirmed by repudiating these unbiblical vows.

There's only one problem with this view. In 1 Timothy 4:1-3, St. Paul is referring to the heretical sects (particularly, Gnostic sects like the Encratites) who actually forbade marriage., on account of their view that marriage, and the body, and the entire material world were evil. Out of this same rejection of the material world arose their objection to eating meat. One of the earliest Christians, St. Clement of Alexandria, recorded several of the specific views of these sects in his Stromata:
[The] Hylobii neither inhabit cities, nor have roofs over them, but are clothed in the bark of trees, feed on nuts, and drink water in their hands. Like those called Encratites in the present day, they know not marriage nor begetting of children. [...] And the Hyperboreans, Hellanicus relates, dwelt beyond the Riphæan mountains, and inculcated justice, not eating flesh, but using nuts. 
Catholicism, in contrast, has always believed that marriage is holy, even a Sacrament. We celebrate marriage, the body, and the material world.

Okay, actually, there are two problems with this view. The deeper problem is that in the very next chapter of 1 Timothy, St. Paul declares condemned those who violate their vow of celibacy. In context, he's discussing what's called the Order of Widows, an institution in the early Church in which widows were taken care of by the Church. These widows pledged celibacy and devoted themselves to service for the Church. It's a forerunner of the sort of religious orders that would arise later, of which both Martin and Katharina were members. Here are Paul's instructions to Timothy for how to run the Order of Widows in 1 Timothy 5:9-12,
Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband; and she must be well attested for her good deeds, as one who has brought up children, shown hospitality, washed the feet of the saints, relieved the afflicted, and devoted herself to doing good in every way. But refuse to enrol younger widows; for when they grow wanton against Christ they desire to marry, and so they incur condemnation for having violated their first pledge.
By marrying, these widows are violating the pledge that they made. And Paul doesn't say, “Hey, great! Let's celebrate violating this pledge, because of what I just said about not forbidding marriage!” Instead, he condemns them for marrying in violation to their vow.

 If only the folks at Ligioner had read one page further in their Bibles, they'd realize that what Luther did was damnable, not laudable, and that he violated 1 Timothy rather than affirming it.

Irony #9: Evangelicals Decide Halloween is Pagan;
Create Something Far More Pagan in Response.

Trick-or-Treater
Reformation Day is celebrated in different ways, and for different reasons, by different sects of Protestantism. But one of the other reasons for its popularity is because many Evangelicals are convinced that Halloween is evil, and has pagan roots. Brad Winsted, in a guest column for the Christian Broadcasting Network, explains this theory:
Even a cursory look at the origins of Halloween will reveal satanic rituals played out in trick and treating, jack-o-lanterns, witches, ghosts, the dead and on and on. If you've ever taken time to research any of these Halloween practices you'll see the satanic background from the Celtic tribes of Scotland and Ireland.

So, should we retreat into the basements and attics of our homes, turn out the lights and hope that our ghoulishly dressed neighborhood children will pass us by? Our children would probably get the idea that the reasons for retreating are not sufficient to deny them activities every child loves -- dressing up and eating candy!

Well, how about a Reformation Day party at your church? I know that many churches have a "Harvest Day Celebration" or other such event where kids get dressed up as Bible characters and the fellowship hall is full of games to keep the kids off the streets. But I'm suggesting going a step further. Let's make it a day where we can learn more about our Reformation roots.

October 31 celebrates the day that the Reformation in Europe began with Martin Luther posting his 95 theses on the Wittenburg church door, leading to a firestorm response in Germany. Why not use this occasion for a celebration of our Reformed heritage. And yes, this can be fun for the kids too!

Why not have a celebration at church where all get dressed up as characters from the Reformation (I've dressed up as John Calvin, Martin Luther, a peasant, and even John Tetzel (the salesman of those infamous indulgences)?
The actual history is much more complex; Halloween is All Hallow's Eve, the night before All Saints' Day, and doesn't seem to have anything to do with a Celtic pagan festival occurring on this date (and indeed, there's question about whether such a festival even existed).

But leave all that aside. For the sake of argument, I'll just accept the core of Winsted's history, such as it is: October 31st was a pagan holiday (part of a three-day festival called Samhain). Christianity has papered over the pagan roots of the celebration, but still preserves many of the core features: treat-or-treating and the like.

Again, I realize that this is probably bad history, but the problems are much deeper than just that. Winsted seems to think that proves it's all a big satanic ritual, and that by dressing up as the forces of darkness, Christians are endorsing what these demons stand for. But his own plan for Reformation Day involves him dressing up as John Tetzel, the notorious seller of indulgences whose abuses led to Luther writing the 95 Theses. He's replacing Halloween with a holiday that works the exact same way, only less fun.

Think about it this way: Winsted's theory is (a) that the Christian Halloween is descended from an earlier pagan holiday on the same day, and (b) that this makes Halloween satanic. But his solution is to replace it with Reformation Day. Of course, a few centuries from now, some Evangelical will discover that Reformation Day is descended from a “satanic” holiday on the same day (Halloween), and this whole strange cycle will start over and over again, like a hamster spinning in its wheel.

They're reappropriating October 31 as a holiday to protest Christians allegedly appropriating October 31 as a holiday. And in both cases, they're keeping the fun, non-heretical parts, like dressing up in costumes. But that's exactly what they're accusing pagan converts to Christianity of doing. So their plan is to do the very thing that they just described as satanic. Baffling.

But there's a deeper irony, which is this: while Halloween is of Christian origin, there really does seem to have been a pagan holiday sometime in the autumn called Samhain... which was, as you might have guessed, a harvest festival.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that Evangelicals are pagans on account of having Harvest Day Celebrations. Unlike Winsted, I recognize that two different religions can celebrate holidays on October 31st without it being some sort of satanic plot, and that holidays can be, and frequently are, culturally reappropriated. But I am saying that the Harvest Festival / Reformation Day that Winsted proposes sounds a lot more like Samhain than a bunch of third-graders trick-or-treating as characters from Frozen.