A Mother’s Sorrow

Monday, 01-29-2018

 

Query:

My son lost his faith in college, if he ever had a faith to lose.  He says he doesn't believe in sin, which is quite ironic coming from a man very much against the injustices in the world as he sees them, and who thinks God (if there is a God, which there isn’t according to him) must be very evil.  When I try to describe to him my own salvation experience and the personal God that I know, he says it is the height of arrogance for anyone to believe God would know and care for him personally.  Nothing means as much to me as does the salvation of my own son, so I am reaching out for some wisdom.

Reply:

There are so many young men like your son, and it breaks my heart.  Is there anything you can do?  Yes, you can love and pray for him, as I am sure you are doing.  Is there anything you can say?  Yes, but don’t force the opening.  Let it present itself.  God will help you.

Unfortunately, your son would probably dismiss your conversion experience and your relationship with Christ.  The argument from experience is one of the most persuasive for those who have had it; that is why we use it.  But it is one of the least persuasive for those who have not had it, because people can imagine all sorts of things.  The novelist Philip K. Dick seems to have thought he was receiving messages of great importance from beings in orbit around the star Sirius.

Don’t be discouraged by this, because there are other things you might say.  When the opportunity arises, I suggest that rather than present your son with arguments for your faith, as I gather that you have been doing, you ask a few gently pointed questions about his own arguments against faith.  Just start him thinking.

For example, as to your son’s notion that it is arrogant to believe God could know and love us personally:  Doesn’t it seem much more arrogant to believe that He couldn’t?  Does your son think the problem is that God’s infinite mind is not big enough to pay attention to everyone at once?  Or that His mind is big enough, but His heart is too small?  You might put those questions to him.

Considering your son’s complaints about injustice, he might say that God’s heart is too small.  But as you point out, your son also denies the reality of sin, and he can’t have it both ways.  Either refusing to love is really wrong, or it isn’t.  So which does your son believe?  You might try putting that question to him too.

Suppose he answers that refusing to love isn’t really wrong – that the standard of good and evil is all in our heads.  Then he has no business using the injustice of things as a reason not to believe in God, does he?  Because according to him, there is no injustice of things.

But suppose he answers that refusing to love is really wrong -- the standard of good and evil is real and objective, and God doesn’t measure up.  In that case, he believes in some highest thing after all, some God above God.  So what is this God above God that he believes in?  How does he know about Him?  Try asking him that.

Don’t let him get away with saying something like “The source of the standard is us.   It’s a human invention.”  For if we are the source, then it is just in our heads, and he’s back to square one.

And don’t let him get away with saying something like “The source of the standard is evolution.   We just came out this way.”  For if we are the result of a meaningless and purposeless process that did not have us in mind, then the standard is utterly arbitrary.  That takes him back to square one as well.

But if the standard isn’t just in our heads, then we’ve learned of it from somewhere -- so where did we learn it from?  It would be interesting to hear his reply.

Remember, he knows what you think – or he thinks he does.  So let him do the answering for a change.

As I suggested, ask your questions gently.  They won’t clinch the case for Christianity, but they may stir your son to begin doubting a few of his doubts – some of the things that he should have been doubting, but hasn’t been.

For now, that’s enough.  Keep praying, and see what happens next.

 

Scrubbing Memory

Monday, 01-22-2018

 

Does the fad of removing historical monuments seem to you a strange new thing?  Think again:  It may be strange, but it certainly isn’t new, and not all historical reminders are made of bronze and stone.

During one recent semester I discovered that many of my students didn’t understand what the Thanksgiving holiday was about.  They knew it was supposed to emulate the feast of the Pilgrims, with their Indian guests, in gratitude for their first harvest in the New World.  But to whom were the Pilgrims giving thanks?  Some of the students had been taught, correctly, that they were thanking God.  But the other half had been taught only that they were thanking the Indians.

The Pilgrims, as we know, never gave a thought to divine matters.

The impulse to wipe away not only faith but the memory of faith is like the old practice among the Romans of damnatio memoriae, the condemnation of memory -- but with a difference.  Their keepers tried only to purge all recollection of traitors.  Ours try to purge all reminders of God.

Always the damnatio is odious.  Sometimes it is oppressive.  But sometimes it is laughably absurd.  Back in the day, when I was barely making a living as an assistant professor, a major textbook publisher offered me a contract to revise and upgrade its high school civics textbook.  As you might guess, I jumped at the chance.

Immediately I was presented with a long list of objectives which I had to achieve.  One of them was to explain to the students the language of the Declaration of Independence:  “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.”

Okay, I thought, I could do that.  By a self-evident truth, the Framers meant a truth so obvious that it didn’t need to be proven from other truths.  “Men,” in this context, meant both human sexes.  Although not all human beings are equally strong, smart, or handsome, all are equal in human worth.  This gives them rights that not even the government can destroy or take away.  The reason we have these rights, and possess this worth, is that we were made that way by God.

Stop!  “You can’t say ‘God,’ said my editor.

“But that’s who the Framers meant by the Creator.”

“But you can’t say ‘God.’”

“How can I explain the language if I can’t explain the words?”

He replied, “Can’t you say ‘good’ or something?”

To those who walk through the valley of the shadow of suds, I say fear not the bristle brush.  Laugh to scorn the directors of sanitation, for like a certain other famous potentate, they cannot bear to be laughed at.  What they think but a smudge on your face to be removed by their ministrations is the rubicund glow of hope itself.  Who ever knew red cheeks to grow pale by being scrubbed?

Tell your friends about this blog

 

Doubleplusgood Ducktalkers

Monday, 01-15-2018

 

In the Year of Our Lord nineteen-seventy, I graduated from high school and matriculated in paradise.

Or so it seemed for a while, because every second person at my university fancied himself a socialist, just like me.

Maybe not just like me.  It was confusing, because there seemed to be so many different kinds of socialists:  The SWP, the IS, the YPSL, the SDS, even a few sure-enough Maoists, peddling their newspapers and trying to look like industrial workers.

Each kind of radicalism had its own buttons.  That was confusing too.  One popular button demanded “Free Huey.”  What was Huey?  Was it slang for marijuana, like “Mary Jane”?  I’d met some people at an antiwar march who thought the government should provide free marijuana.  It took a long time to figure out that Huey was a who, not a what.

In fact it was difficult to get people to explain anything.  I tried asking a fellow in my dormitory who was sporting an IS button how the beliefs of his International Socialists were different from those of all the other organizations.  He didn’t understand me.  I rephrased the question.  He still didn’t.  I tried again.  A light came into his eyes.  Faster than I could take them in, he shot off three or four slogans, like bullets.

The only one I still remember is “All power to the people’s soviets.”

Never mind that there weren’t any people’s soviets.

It was heresy, I know, but I couldn’t help thinking of Party members using Newspeak in George Orwell’s 1984.  Newspeak, you remember, was a compressed version of English, developed by the State to make critical thought impossible.  In the Orwellian world, people who could chatter it swiftly and proficiently were called “doubleplusgood ducktalkers” because they sounded like more like ducks than like people.

I thought of that fellow again the other day as I was talking a walk through my neighborhood.  Buttons are out among students, but yard signs are in among hipsters.  This one has been sprouting like mushrooms:

IN THIS HOUSE, WE BELIEVE:

BLACK LIVES MATTER

WOMEN’S RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS

NO HUMAN IS ILLEGAL

SCIENCE IS REAL

LOVE IS LOVE

KINDNESS IS EVERYTHING

Having matriculated, as I said, in the Newspeak world, I humbly attempt to translate these sentiments into English.

Black lives matter.  What this doesn’t mean:  That black lives matter.  Of course they do.  What it does mean:  That if you don’t think rioting is a good way to protect black lives, you’re a racist who thinks they don’t matter.

Women’s rights are human rights.  What this doesn’t mean:  That women are human.  Of course they are.  What it does mean:  That unborn children aren’t, and if you think these babies are, you’re against women. 

No human is illegal.  What this doesn’t mean:  That it should never be illegal to exist.  Of course it shouldn’t.  What it does mean:  That if you think any form of border control is allowable, your view is tantamount to genocide.

Science is real.  What this doesn’t mean:  That well-conducted science can discover some things about the real world.  Of course it can.  What it does mean:  That ideologically influenced science should be accepted without question, so if you ask for better evidence, you’re opposing science itself.

Love is love.  What this doesn’t mean:  That love should be respected.  Of course it should.  What it does mean:  Everything motivated by sex is good, and if you have any reservations about that, you’re against love.

Kindness is everything.  What this doesn’t mean:  That we ought to practice the virtue of kindness.  What it does mean:  That if you don’t agree with all of the preceding slogans, you must be full of hate.

 

Would Dropping This Class Be Faithless?

Monday, 01-08-2018

 

Query:

I'm a Christian at a community college in Michigan.  When I registered for classes I thought I'd like the "Bible as Literature" course, but it didn't work out the way I expected.  From the rude things the teacher has said, I think he must be an atheist.

The teacher made it a point of saying that this is not a religious class, and we should set our religious beliefs aside.  I was okay with that because I hadn't intended to force my beliefs on anyone.  I was even okay with him calling the Bible a "revelation myth" because I understood that the class isn't about whether it's true.  But I did have a problem when he began claiming that the Bible isn't true and that evolution is.  I'm not sure that I am well enough equipped to defend my faith against someone like him, and besides, I've been told by the teacher himself -- as well as friends who have taken his class -- that he is intolerant of Christians who voice discomfort about his comments.

I don't feel that I should have to take this kind of disrespect from a teacher.  But here's what worries me.  Would dropping this class show a lack of faith in God's ability to carry me through the experience?

 

Reply:

Your letter is difficult to answer because you describe one problem, but you pose your question as though you have a different problem. The problem you describe is that your teacher simply rejects your religious views.  The problem you imply is that he treats them with disrespect, perhaps even attacks them.  Let's consider some of the possibilities about what you are actually facing.

Suppose he says, "This is not a religion class, and I expect you to put your religious views aside.  Now, of course, the Bible is in error about many things."  This is a double standard, so it would be appropriate for you to respond, "You said that you want all of us to set our religious views aside. But aren't you expressing a religious view about the Bible? Fair is fair; shouldn't that view be set aside too?"

Suppose he says, "People who believe the Bible are ignorant, and we won't take their views seriously in this class."  This is disrespectful, so you should say something like "Sir, you said this is a class on literature, not religion.  However, to call religious believers ignorant is to express a religious view, not a literary view.  Not only that, it's insulting.  I don't mean to be disrespectful, but how is insulting us part of teaching literature?"

Or suppose he says "Genesis isn't factual; evolution is."  In this case the problem is that you don't yet know what he means!  One thing that needs clearing up is what he is denying, so you might ask, "Sir, are you claiming that there isn't any Creator, or are you merely suggesting that the biblical account of Creation is something less than a technical description of how God did the job?"  Another thing that needs clearing up is what he means by his terms, so you might ask, "Sir, what do you mean by evolution?  Are you merely claiming that living things developed gradually, or are you making the very different claim that it happened by pure chance, without any guidance from the Creator?"

Remember that the issue isn't your feelings, but the teacher's lack of objectivity.  If the only thing your friends could think of to "voice" to him was their "discomfort," no wonder he didn't take them seriously.  Give him a reason to do so.  Suppose you were a math teacher and the students "voiced their discomfort" about differential equations.  Would you consider that a reason to skip that chapter?

We come at last to your question.  Would dropping the course show lack of faith in God's ability to carry you through the experience?  That would depend on why you dropped.  Consider three possibilities.

1.  If you dropped because you were afraid that your teacher's atheism might be right, then yes, that would show lack of faith.

2.  If you dropped because you doubted whether such a bigoted teacher could teach you anything, then no, that wouldn't show lack of faith.

3.  If you dropped because you just didn't want the hassle of learning how to challenge the professor's claims, then that wouldn't show lack of faith, but it would certainly show spiritual and intellectual laziness.

So how do I advise you?  Examine your motives for wanting to drop!

Book:  How to Stay Christian in College

 

Comfort for the New Year

Monday, 01-01-2018

 

Though in early adulthood I suffered strongly from acedia, the “oppressive sorrow which so weighs upon man’s mind that he wants to do nothing,” today I am almost always cheerful.  This cheerfulness, a product of faith and hope, is not native to my temperament, since I am predisposed to a certain melancholy in which the sense of the fall of man and the feeling of things passing away are very strong.  Unless he is careful, such a disposition can make a person a crashing bore, and some people would say that I am one.

However, dispositions are also gifts to be used, and if I lost mine, I would miss it.  I tend to be more acutely aware than most people of how things go awry in our culture.  Now and then, the memory of the many ways in which I have personally gone awry provides some small insight into the travails of others.  I don’t object to the description of the world as a “vale of tears”; it seems to me refreshing, because honest.  The acknowledgement of sin does not burden me.  I would be burdened if there were no cure.

The note of joy has been much stronger in my life since becoming Catholic, largely because the Church takes suffering so seriously.  When my wife and I were preparing to be received into the Church, we participated in the customary sequence of classes for converts.  Catholics are just as interested in conversion stories as Evangelical Protestants, and one evening, during the break, we exchanged our tales with another couple in the class.

The husband had been a teacher in a Protestant seminary.  The two of them told us that they first began to consider the Catholic Church after their son committed suicide.  What turned their thoughts to Catholicism was neither his suicide, nor their grief for him, but the reaction of their friends to their grief.

It was not that their friends did not sorrow for them; they did.  But to spare their feelings, their Protestant friends never mentioned their son at all.  It was as though he had never existed.  By contrast, their Catholic friends were not afraid to speak of him.  The couple was consoled.

They began to wonder whether the Church understands something about suffering that their own tradition did not. 

She does, and She starts teaching it early.  A child in Catholic school who falls down and hurts his knee is comforted, of course, and encouraged to get back in the game.  But he is also encouraged to offer up the pain to Christ, who suffered for us, so that he can be more like Him.

To the world in general, this is madness.  Most people think victory over suffering comes from either ignoring it or defying it.  Yet according to the Church, the victory over suffering requires embracing it.  All Her thoughts of resurrection and rebirth begin with the bloodied Savior.

These seem to me to me tidings of joy.

 

Would We Have Known Him at His Birth?

Monday, 12-25-2017

 

 “We are very apt to wish we had been born in the days of Christ, and in this way we excuse our misconduct, when conscience reproaches us.  We say, that had we had the advantage of being with Christ, we should have had stronger motives, stronger restraints against sin.

“I answer, that so far from our sinful habits being reformed by the presence of Christ, the chance is, that those same habits would have hindered us from recognizing Him.  We should not have known He was present; and if He had even told us who He was, we should not have believed Him.  Nay, had we seen His miracles (incredible as it may seem), even they would not have made any lasting impression on us.  Without going into this subject, consider only the possibility of Christ being close to us, even though He did no miracle, and our not knowing it; yet I believe this literally would have been the case with most men ....

“We think heaven must be a place of happiness to us, if we do but get there; but the great probability is, if we can judge by what goes on here below, that a bad man, if brought to heaven, would not know He was in heaven .... He would see nothing wonderful there.”

-- Blessed John Henry Newman,

Parochial and Plain Sermons,

Volume 4, Sermon 16

 

The Last Days of the Republic: A Screenplay

Monday, 12-18-2017

 

It sounds like an idea for a motion picture, doesn’t it?  A historical melodrama.  You could call it The Last Days of the Republic.

By the end of the twentieth century, it was already routine for federal agencies to implement their own agendas, irrespective of the instructions of Congress or the executive.  Courts treated the federal Constitution like silly putty.

By the second decade of the twenty-first century, criminal prosecution of political opponents had become a tool of public policy.  The consequences of losing an election might be greater than losing the election.

The top ranks of the IRS, the FBI, and the CIA had all been weaponized.  A generation earlier, Mr. Nixon had tried this sort of thing with the IRS, but ultimately failed.  The lesson drawn by his opponents was that one must make sure to succeed.

The weakness of the movie is that it is almost too crude for fiction.  So protective of Mrs. Clinton are her investigators that Mr. Comey, cast as FBI director, drafts a letter exonerating her of security violations before the investigation even begins.  So hostile to Mr. Trump are his investigators that Mr. Mueller, cast as Special Counsel, authorizes modes of collecting information from the GSO which even the politicized courts have consistently ruled both illegal and unethical.

Other cinematic flaws are that the story is convoluted, it relies on an implausibly high number of what Leninists used to call “useful idiots,” and none of the main characters are sympathetic.

Movies depend on suspension of disbelief, but that sort of thing can be taken only so far.

Can the Empire be routed?  Can the Republic be saved?  Like a Star Wars movie, the script ends with a cliffhanger.

Hollywood loves sequels.  In real life, they are more difficult to pull off.