Saturday, July 31, 2010

Thoughts on the Inconsistent Protestant "Quasi-Catholic" Use of the Word "Altar" / Sacrifice of the Mass

By Dave Armstrong (7-31-10)

As an evangelical, we had little or no sense of the "altar" as a sacred place. I remember making arguments against Catholic friends that there was no such thing: that every place is equally sacred, because it is all God's creation. The terminology of "altar call" is a remnant of Catholicism.

If one thinks all places and spaces are equally sacred, then of course, the front of a church would be included in that. But this misses the point. God is omnipresent, too, but it doesn't follow that He is not present in a more profound way in the Eucharist and in a eucharistic chapel. Catholics believe in this sense of particularly sacred space precisely because we believe in the Real Presence and eucharistic adoration, and the Sacrifice of the Mass. The latter was vehemently rejected by all Protestants, save for a very few high Anglicans.

That is what "altar" -- literally speaking, is about. It hearkens back to the Old Testament sacrificial system, Jesus as the Lamb of God, the table of the Lord (vs. the table of demons: St. Paul). Once that goes, the notion of "altar" is gutted. "Altar" doesn't simply mean the place in front of the church where the pastor gives his sermon or where (in some churches) people come up to devote themselves to the Lord. It's much more than that. The term is still often used, as a carryover from Catholicism, but I think it is unfortunate because it entails a radical redefinition of what the word has historically meant.

It doesn't follow that we are saying that no Protestants think anything is sacred, etc. No! Of course not. I wasn't of that mind, and I dare say that few Catholic converts from Protestantism ever were, either. That's not the point. Protestants believe in sacred space when they go to Jerusalem. They wouldn't consider desecrating any of the holy sites. But in rejecting the traditional notion of the Sacrifice of the Mass, the altar goes, too, even if it is still called that.

Continuing Real Presence of Christ in a Catholic Church is why that space is sacred; why we genuflect; why we adore Christ in eucharistic adoration; why the sanctuary in front of the altar is a limited area during Mass, and treated with great reverence at all times.

That is not the case even in churches where the Real Presence is believed (traditional Lutherans and Anglicans), because they think the Presence ceases as soon as the service is over or after everyone receives communion. Protestants will respect the sanctuary area of their church but it is in a different sense; it's not because they think Jesus is truly present there in a very special way. He's only present in the sense that He is omnipresent in His Divine Nature. Since that applies to every place on earth and the universe, there is not all that much difference in the front of a church.

We see the Protestant aversion to altars in the sense I have described in, e.g., John Calvin, where he writes "we know that the altars do cease, the sacrifices are abolished, whereof there was some use in time of the law . . . " [see the larger quotation on Google Reader, p. 554: search for "altars"]

There is no question that the Calvinist tradition (out of which large portions of the Baptist tradition is derived) scorned altars, and acted consistently insofar as altars and other Catholic items were often destroyed by Calvinist iconoclasts. This was true in the church in Geneva where Calvin preached (St. Pierre or St. Peter). Hence a web page about the church noted:

    The Catholic cathedral of St. Peter became a Protestant church in 1536. John Calvin preached here from 1536 to 1564, and the cathedral became the guiding center of Protestantism. Like reformers all over Europe, Calvin's followers stripped Geneva's cathedral of its altars, statues, paintings and furniture. Only the stained glass windows remained. . . .

    The nave is generally austere but warm, with a pleasing mix of Romanesque and Gothic architecture. The austerity is due to the former cathedral's transformation into a Protestant Church in 1536. The Calvinists had little tolerance for religious images and any kind of excess, so they destroyed nearly everything but the bare architecture and whitewashed over the murals.

    Fortunately, there were a few survivors of all this destruction - the stained glass in the chancel and the wonderful Romanesque capitals in the nave, which depict both human figures and a variety of mythical creatures.

The Lutherans didn't do this. But the Calvinists did because they were iconoclasts, and part of that was considering an altar an idolatrous remnant of Catholicism. And that is because Catholics believed in the Real Presence and the Sacrifice of the Mass.

In an article about Calvin's influence on the English "Reformation", the following appears:

    Add to this, that, according to the said Heylyn, the order for removing altars, and placing communion tables in their room, was chiefly owing to the influence of Calvin. "The great business of this year (1550) was the taking down of altars in many places, by public authority: which, in some few, had formerly been pulled down by the irregular forwardness of the common people. The principal motive whereunto was, in the first place, the opinion of some dislikes which had been taken by Calvin against the (first) liturgy."

I even found a Baptist online who agrees exactly with what I am saying about how most Protestants view an "altar" in the full Catholic sense:

Baptist Altar-ations

In his post “Fads and Fixtures: The Seven Deadly Trappings of Evangelicalism,” Joe Carter writes that one of the fixtures he finds troubling is the “altar call.” While I too find the altar call methodology troubling, this brings up a larger question in my mind for my own denomination:

Why do so many Baptist churches refer to the front of the church as the altar?

I’ve heard this terminology used in countless Baptist churches, even from pastors who should know better. The last time I checked, transubstantiation was not on any Baptist confessions of faith that I know of. Baptists believe that Christ was sacrificed once for all. In the Lord’s Supper Christ is not continually sacrificed, as Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, and others believe. We don’t burn offerings, and I haven’t really ever seen any kind of elevated structure other than a pulpit.

It’s clear that in Baptist practice, the term “altar” has become synonymous with the front of the church sanctuary, but why do we retain the term? We’re Baptists, after all. We don’t do altars. Can any of you more studious church historians enlighten me?

The Baptist view, along with that of many other evangelicals, is that since Christ was sacrificed once, it does not need to be “re-presented,” as you say. His sacrifice was presented to us once for the ages. In our view, this “re-presentation” is akin to “re-sacrifice.” After all, we would argue, why is there a need for an altar if there is no sacrifice?

Baptist Ken Blue makes basically the same point:

    Having been saved and reared in Baptist churches all my life, it never occurred to me that much of what we do is steeped in tradition. We have borrowed these from Judaism and the Catholic Church. One of these is the so-called “altar.”

Brief Critical Comments on the Lack of Bible Reading of Far too Many Catholics

By Dave Armstrong (7-31-10)

Many Catholics, though they "get Scripture" by "osmosis" through the Mass readings, don't even sit and read Scripture. The New Testament is shorter than virtually any novel. I just don't see why any Christian would not read it at least once. The Church highly encourages this, and doesn't say that Catholics should learn Scripture only from attending Mass.

It's all the more absurd that this is the case, seeing that the same Catholics will get a four-year college degree and read and learn all kinds of stuff (or read hundreds of books and magazines: mostly fiction, it seems), yet neglect to read the Bible: the inspired revelation of God. That makes no sense. It has to do with priorities: what is important and what is most helpful in the spiritual life. If we want to solidly know Catholic theology, we'll have to read and study on our own. There is no way out of that, and no good excuse that I can see.

And I'm not saying (to make myself clear) that we all have to memorize Scripture and know exactly where everything is. No! I don't do that. I don't see the necessity (and I hate memorizing things, myself). We can look things up if we need to, with concordances and word searches. It's easier than ever now to do that. I'm just talking about sitting and reading the New Testament. Reading the Old Testament would be good, too, but at least the New Testament.

There are no good or sufficient reasons not to do it. My remarks were mostly directed towards Catholic folks who are readers, but read everything but the Bible, for some odd reason.

And if Protestants are programmed to read the Bible a lot, I say: "what better book for one to be programmed to read"!!!

I should add, too, that I never seriously read the Bible at all till I was 18 years old, so I was little different from many cradle Catholics in that regard, and can relate. But I wasn't hearing about it through the Mass.

Learning and loving the Bible was a completely acquired taste and a deliberate decision. It was made interesting to me by the choices I made: books, churches, friends, radio shows, research activities, talks with my fervently evangelical brother Gerry, etc. So I had to learn to do the reading, too. It wasn't by osmosis. I was in the evangelical world for 13 years, but I was a convert to that, too, and didn't grow up in it. Therefore, I think anyone can learn to love something if they put a little effort into it. Bible commentaries and books about reading the Bible can help a lot to spark and maintain that interest.

Friday, July 30, 2010

The Deconversion of Novelist Anne Rice: Straw Men, "Baby / Bathwater" Mentality, Sexual Liberalism, and Disposable Irrational Faith

By Dave Armstrong (7-30-10)

I don't read fiction and so this isn't "personal" to me at all, in terms of reaction or disappointment, etc. Anne Rice was as unknown to me as the man in the moon. I think I had heard her name before, but that's about it. But I note that her "reasoning" for her move fits the usual sad template all down the line.

It is important to learn from these instances of deconversion from Christianity, so that we can prevent it from happening to others, and ourselves. The one who doesn't learn from history (and biography) is doomed to repeat it. When a famous person ditches Christianity (or Catholicism in particular) in public and gives "reasons" for it, then Christians need to show how and why they are not valid reasons, and speak up for our faith that is being dragged through the mud on grossly unfair and unjust grounds.

There are serious lessons to be learned here: along the lines of having an informed, reasonable faith (complete with apologetic knowledge as necessary), and of yielding up our private judgment and personal inclinations to a God and a Church much higher than ourselves. Faith comes ultimately by God's grace and His grace alone: not our own semi-understandings. Christianity is not "blind faith"; it is a reasonable faith. But there is such a thing as allegiance and obedience to Christian authority, too.

When reason is separated from faith or (on a personal level) never was part of it, "faith" (or the unreasonable facsimile thereof) is empty and open to Satanic and cultural attack, and we are tossed to and fro by the winds and the waves: a cork on the ocean of our decadent, corrupt, increasingly secularist and hedonistic culture. Here is Anne Rice's own announcements, from her Facebook page:

For those who care, and I understand if you don't: Today I quit being a Christian. I'm out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being "Christian" or to being part of Christianity. It's simply impossible for me to "belong" to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group. For ten ...years, I've tried. I've failed. I'm an outsider. My conscience will allow nothing else. (7-28-10)

As I said below, I quit being a Christian. I'm out. In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of ...Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen. (7-28-10)

1) She came back to the Catholic faith in a sort of fideistic way, rather than reasoning it through and using her mind, and exercising a more balanced, reasoned faith. Without the rational backdrop and understanding of why she believed and returned, she was on a foundation of sand. This is why apologetics is important. If we don't know why we believe what we believe, then later on there may be no reason not to cease believing, since reason had nothing to do with it from the start. If there is no rational reason to believe something, then there can be an ostensibly rational reason to reject the same thing that had no conscious reason for being believed in the first place. Hence, her own fideistic, entirely subjective report of her return to Catholicism in 1996, after having broken with the Church "violently and totally" at age 18:

In the moment of surrender, I let go of all the theological or social questions which had kept me from [God] for countless years. I simply let them go. There was the sense, profound and wordless, that if He knew everything I did not have to know everything, and that, in seeking to know everything, I’d been, all of my life, missing the entire point. No social paradox, no historic disaster, no hideous record of injustice or misery should keep me from Him. No question of Scriptural integrity, no torment over the fate of this or that atheist or gay friend, no worry for those condemned and ostracized by my church or any other church should stand between me and Him. The reason? It was magnificently simple: He knew how or why everything happened; He knew the disposition of every single soul. He wasn’t going to let anything happen by accident! Nobody was going to go to Hell by mistake.

(Called Out of Darkness: A Spiritual Confession, p. 183)

2) She obviously was a dissident all along, on many of the social / sexual issues (pro-abortion, homosexual "marriage", feminism, contraception, female priests). Like many libertarians and sexual liberals, then, she placed that allegiance higher than the Church, since she refused to accept and submit herself to Church teaching (which is part of the package and meaning of being a Catholic in the first place: we have an authoritative Church). There are millions like her out there. There is an old saying that "all heresy begins below the belt." She openly explains all this in her own words:

[citing the ELCA's decision to ordain noncelibate homosexuals] More good news in the story of rights for all gays worldwide. (7-26-10)
Her views will not please all of the devout. Rice favors gay marriage. She believes the church position regarding birth control is a grievous error that is not supported by Scripture. She repudiates what she sees as intolerant, "sex-obsessed" church leaders [Dave: this coming from a former hippie and author of porn and erotica!?], and says she does not find support in the message of Jesus for their focus on sexual orientation or abortion. She argues for a more inclusive church.
"Think of how the church bells would ring and the pews would fill if women could become priests and priests could marry. It would be the great resurgence of the Catholic Church in this country," Rice said recently, . . .

"He doesn't say anything about abortion," Rice said. "He doesn't say anything about gays. I abhor abortion too. But to make Christianity rise and fall on these issues is a great distortion of Christ's message." . . .

As Rice immerses herself in Scripture, many of the things she finds there do not jibe with the dictates of the Vatican or conservative Christians. Like many modern scholars of the Koran, Rice is pointing to her religion's holy book itself to criticize what she views as its misuse to justify long-held cultural practices.
For example, she said, there is no biblical dictate forbidding women to use birth control.
"I think that's a mistaken notion," she said. "There's a lack of vision about how much better the world would be if women could control their reproductive rights. We have all these street children in underdeveloped countries. We have to bring these countries into the modern era. I think the church has been sex-obsessed too long." . . .
As a child, Rice said, "I felt the love of God. I wanted to be a priest. When I found out that being a girl meant I couldn't be, I was so disappointed. I didn't understand why." . . .
Rice also viewed church dictates on sin to be harsher to women, though "I have never taken misogyny personally," she added briskly. "Most people hate women, including women. There are reasons: Fear of women, of the power to give birth." . . .
. . . her studies of the Scripture have convinced her that many church dictates were created by mortals, not God. . . . She believes the Vatican's birth-control ban too is a patriarchal anachronism. "It was an obvious advantage for men for women to be passive with regards to procreation," she said. . . .
Rice believes that conservative Christian politicians are distorting Christ's message by politicizing such issues as abortion. While abortion is "tragic," Rice said, "Millions of women are having abortions. They have control of their reproductive powers, and they do not want to relinquish that control. Abortion is at the heart of that, because it's at the core of women having control of who they are. I think it's killing. But I think it's a woman's choice."
Gay marriage, she said, "is another classic example. It can only strengthen our society to have gay people in committed relationships rather than going to bars."
(Anne-Marie O'Connor, "Twists of Faith: Anne Rice's vision of Christianity is reflected in her new book," Los Angeles Times, 26 December 2005)
3) She was a child of the sexual revolution: even being part of the Haight-Ashbury hippie scene in San Francisco. This affects one. So does years of being an atheist. When one thinks in a certain fashion for many years, it is very difficult to unlearn that and to be "deprogrammed." It takes a lot of repentance and grace. And so with a few difficult events or doubts, we can lose faith altogether:

When bestselling novelist Anne Rice was a good Catholic girl growing up in New Orleans, she dreamed of becoming a leader of the church. Instead, she abandoned Catholicism at 18 and stopped believing in God. She joined the Haight-Ashbury hippie milieu and evolved into the bestselling author who elevated the sexually ambiguous vampire Lestat to cult status. She wrote pornography under one pen name and erotica under another. . . .

When Rice went away to Texas Woman's University in 1959, she found that the church's rigid doctrine was at odds with the growing complexities of her new life. "My background was so sheltered it didn't seem to sit with the modern world," Rice said. "I felt I had to deal with my faith and reconcile it with the world around me. My childhood was very sex-obsessed and repressed. I felt when I accepted a world without God, I accepted reality, and stopped believing in illusion." . . .
Instead, she became fascinated with the existentialists, reading Sartre and Camus. She met Stan Rice, a poet, artist and atheist, and they married in 1961.
Rice's husband, who was on his way to becoming an acclaimed poet, enrolled at San Francisco State University, where he would eventually chair the creative writing department. They moved to the Haight-Ashbury, but when their apartment filled with hippies, "I was the square. All around me people were taking acid. I had no intention of ever taking it."

(Anne-Marie O'Connor, "Twists of Faith: Anne Rice's vision of Christianity is reflected in her new book," Los Angeles Times, 26 December 2005)

4) She wants to be a Christian in some sense (or so it seems: she is sending mixed signals) but not part of Christianity. This is an insult to other Christians, as if they are not worthy enough to hang around anymore. It's typical American individualism and refusal to be part of a community; anti-institutionalism. But it is also the uncharitable "holier than thou" / we know better" schismatic, ultra-sectarian and rigorist attitude seen through history in groups like the Donatists and Montanists:

My faith in Christ is central to my life. My conversion from a pessimistic atheist lost in a world I didn't understand, to an optimistic believer in a universe created and sustained by a loving God is crucial to me. But following Christ does not mean following His followers. Christ is infinitely more important than Christianity and always will be, no matter what Christianity is, has been, or might become. (7-29-10)

5) Note that it is not enough for her to cease being a Catholic. She is ditching any other form of communal, denominational Christianity, too. The examples of people expressing actual overt hatred or purported hatred that she cites are not Catholic ones (they are mostly Baptists). There are several liberal denominations where her liberal views would fit right in. But human nature seems to be given to extremes, so she ditches everything, throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The only good thing in this that I can see is that she is being honest and calling a spade a spade: she doesn't accept what the Catholic Church teaches, so she shouldn't be a Catholic, in that sense. She never was truly one in the first place, because she didn't accept the binding and obligatory nature of Catholic doctrines and dogmas:

"People are always going to misuse things. And some Christians are going to misuse Christianity. They are going to use Christianity to hit someone over the head because they frighten them or threaten them," she said. "We Christians have to get back to our roots as a people of love. Now we're associated with a religion of intolerance and hate. We have to come forward and speak about love."

(Anne-Marie O'Connor, "Twists of Faith: Anne Rice's vision of Christianity is reflected in her new book," Los Angeles Times, 26 December 2005)

Since some of you mentioned the Westboro Baptist Church in comments below, I thought I'd publish this recent news story about them [describing how they picket soldiers' funerals and tell parents their children went to hell]. This is chilling. I wish I could say this is inexplicable. But it's not. That's the horror. Given the history of Christianity, this is not inexplicable at all. (7-27-10)

6) She cites some expressions of hatred towards homosexuals as a reason to cease being Christian, as if this is representative of one-hundredth of all Christians. Throw the baby out with the bathwater. This is clearly an irrational, emotional move. Her son (novelist Christopher Rice) is a homosexual activist. He has stated:

Since then, "people have come up to me to express their sympathies and condolences, because they assume it goes hand in hand with homophobia, and I'm gay," he said, with evident amusement. But "in Leviticus, Jesus himself didn't say anything about homosexuality." [Jesus in Leviticus? Hmmm] . . .

"What people don't seem to understand is she explored the darker side of the spiritual realm because she thought there might be some truth there, not to hurt people. Even in her erotica, she says she went there to explore whether there was a spiritual dimension in the flesh. It's part of the same search."

(Anne-Marie O'Connor, "Twists of Faith: Anne Rice's vision of Christianity is reflected in her new book," Los Angeles Times, 26 December 2005)
That plays into this, too. It's a straw man:

    A) "Christians are the folks who hate homosexuals."

    B) Hating homosexuals is wrong and I want no part of it.

    C) Therefore, I have to cease being a Christian (or at least one in any institutional, communitarian sense).

But the false premise in #1 is the problem. Very few Christians of any stripe that I have ever met (and I've moved in many different Christian circles for 33 years) "hate" homosexuals or anyone else. So to use this as a pretext for abandoning Christianity is a cop-out. She is abandoning what she falsely thinks is Christianity / Catholicism:

The religious attacks on gays, to Rice, get to the heart of the flaws she sees in modern religion: the scapegoating of those deemed "sinners." Jerry Falwell's statement blaming gays, lesbians, abortion providers and feminists for the Sept. 11 attacks, she said, "was a dreadful thing to say. It's so crazy to say God will punish our enemies."

(Anne-Marie O'Connor, "Twists of Faith: Anne Rice's vision of Christianity is reflected in her new book," Los Angeles Times, 26 December 2005)

This shocking link [about some group that wants to execute homosexuals] was provided by a poster below. No wonder people despise us, Christians, and think we are an ignorant and violent lot. I don't blame them. This kind of thing makes me weep. Maybe commitment to Christ means not being a Christian. (7-27-10)

7) She rejects divisiveness and acrimony in the Christian community by being as divisive and acrimonious as she can: splitting altogether, publicly, with disgust, as if Catholicism and larger Christianity are all these caricatured things that she seems to think they are. She doesn't like divisive people and so she will divide from them. She dislikes intolerance, so she will be quite intolerant and dismissive and prejudiced towards some two billion Christians. This is the attitude of private judgment and sectarianism that is precisely opposed by the Catholic Church, and the very reason why we value doctrinal unity so much. It leads to communitarian unity as well when folks believe the same thing: just as the NT always envisioned the Church to be. But Anne Rice knows better, writing on 7-27-10:

Gandhi famously said: “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” When does a word (Christian) become unusable? When does it become so burdened with history and horror that it cannot be evoked without destructive controversy?

So her "reasoning" is: "Christians are terrible people. I'm much better than they are, so I need to separate institutionally from all of them, and no longer call myself by their name, so that I am not stained by their ignorance and hatred any longer, and can be an example of loving, truly Christian tolerance towards all people."

Makes a whole lot of sense, doesn't it?

Thursday, July 29, 2010

"No One's Perfect": Scientific Errors of Galileo and 16th-17th Century Cosmologies Rescued from Obscurity

By Dave Armstrong (7-29-10)

Why is it that one always hears about the notorious trials of Galileo and the errors made by (one faction of) the Catholic Church (on a sub-magisterial, sub-infallible level) about science in the early 17th century, but never about Galileo's own misguided dogmatism in some areas, and several flat-out errors? Some of those were held by Galileo even in the face of current superior research from other scientists and thinkers, like Johannes Kepler. The Catholic Church made a mistake; we've admitted it; we no longer deny the truth of heliocentrism, etc.

Protestants, by the way, are not without their own embarrassing errors in this regard. Luther, Calvin, and Melanchthon (and the later Calvinist Francois Turretin) all opposed Copernicus. Luther's successor Philip Melanchthon and even the renowned Lutheran theologian Martin Chemnitz were enthusiastic advocates of astrology (whereas St. Thomas Aquinas had opposed it 300 years earlier). Leibniz, the Lutheran philosopher (1646-1716) attacked Newton's theory of gravitation. Lutherans as a whole (at least as much as the entirety of Catholics, if not more so) were very slow to come around to heliocentrism.

But for some reason many of the more loudmouthed and absurdly overconfident advocates of (what they consider essentially materialistic) science and/or critics of Christianity are not so quick to admit that there is more than enough error here (hindsight is 20/20) to go around. Most Catholics in that early period of modern astronomy didn't get everything right, but neither did anyone else (including even the best scientists) get even some very basic facts of astronomy right. So why is one party excoriated, while the errors of the vaunted (and indeed brilliant) scientists are ignored, unknown, or suppressed, in a cynical effort at one-sided presentation?

The objective observer will note, I submit (upon a complete perusal of the relevant facts), that in most cases of supposed stark opposition of two competing ideas (especially ones as complex as those involved in science and philosophy), there is truth and error to be found on both sides. The reality of various conflicts in the realm of the history of ideas is not usually "good vs. evil." Just as individuals are radical mixtures, so are sets of ideas: with some falsehood mixed in.

Let me present, if I may, some basic facts:

Copernicus (1473-1543) erred in asserting circular orbits and in holding that the sun was the stationary center of the universe, with not only the earth and the other planets of the solar system, but also all the other stars, moving around it. He also believed that transparent rotating crystalline spheres carried the planets in their orbits.

Tycho Brahe (1546–1601) erred insofar as he was a geocentrist and held (Tychonic "geoheliocentric" system) that the sun and moon revolve around the earth, and the other five planets revolve around the sun: all in circular, not elliptical orbits. Also, in his system the earth did not rotate.

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) was correct in asserting elliptical orbits of the planets around the sun, at varying speeds (both notions having been foreseen by the Catholic Cardinal Nicholas of Cusa in the 15th century), but continued to err in thinking that the sun was the center of the entire universe. The idea that the sun was but one of innumerable stars, was strongly advocated by the mystic heretic and scientist Giordano Bruno (1548-1600). According to the Wikipedia entry, Bruno understood several aspects of cosmology that even Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Tycho neglected to see:

Bruno believed . . . that the Earth revolves around the sun, and that the apparent diurnal rotation of the heavens is an illusion caused by the rotation of the Earth around its axis. Bruno also held (following Nicholas of Cusa) that because God is infinite the universe would reflect this fact in boundless immensity. Bruno also asserted that the stars in the sky were really other suns like our own, around which orbited other planets. . . .

Bruno's infinite universe was filled with a substance—a "pure air," aether, or spiritus -- that offered no resistance to the heavenly bodies which, in Bruno's view, rather than being fixed, moved under their own impetus. Most dramatically, he completely abandoned the idea of a hierarchical universe. The Earth was just one more heavenly body, as was the Sun. . . .

Under this model, the Sun was simply one more star, and the stars all suns, each with its own planets. Bruno saw a solar system of a sun/star with planets as the fundamental unit of the universe. According to Bruno, infinite God necessarily created an infinite universe, formed of an infinite number of solar systems, separated by vast regions full of Aether, because empty space could not exist. (Bruno did not arrive at the concept of a galaxy.)

Galileo (1564-1642) disbelieved in Kepler's elliptical orbits of the planets, considering the circle the "perfect" shape for planetary orbits:

Galileo’s two main published works were Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in 1629 and Discourses and Demonstrations Concerning Two New Sciences in 1638. The first of these was fully ten years after Kepler published his third law of planetary motion, and twenty years after the publication of Kepler’s first and second laws, yet Galileo seemed oblivious to those developments – despite the fact that he was very familiar with Kepler’s works and had high regard for him (referring to him as “a person of independent genius”). Einstein described Galileo’s failure to take account of Kepler’s laws as “a grotesque illustration of the fact that creative individuals are often not receptive”. [source: "Math Pages"]

R. R. Reno referred to this error on 26 July 2010, on the blog First Thoughts (connected with the magazine First Things):
These days no educated person “acknowledges” Galileo’s heliocentric theory as “correct.” Galileo adopted Copernicus’s theory, which presumed lovely circular orbits, but that turns out to be wrong. Tycho Brahe painstakingly collected data about the positions of the planets in the sky, which was theorized by Johannes Kepler as eliptical rather than circular motion.
Interestingly, Kepler and Galileo corresponded, but Galileo insisted on defending Copernicus’ views. On this point, Galileo was mistaken, and not just because he did not have access to the scientific data and good arguments. He was, like many brilliant individuals, a vain and willful man.

Scott Rosmarin, in his article, "Galileo's Lapse - The Fallibility of Scientists" (29 March 2010), noted:

Johannes Kepler had provided plausible evidence that the planets move in elliptical, nor circular orbits, and not at uniform speeds, but variable speeds, depending on their distance from the sun. This seriously challenged the Copernican view. Galileo . . . simply rejected Kepler's view, clinging instead to the ancient belief that circular motion was "beautiful" and, therefore, privileged. . . . Galileo believed dogmatically in the Copernican view, not merely as a good starting hypothesis, or true subject to possible modifications, such as those offered by Kepler.

Galileo was also wrong in following Copernicus's (and Kepler's) view that the sun was the stationary center of the universe, with the earth and other planets of the solar system, and also all the other stars, moving around it. In this respect, he and Copernicus had hardly advanced beyond what was already posited by the ancient Greek astronomer Aristarchus (d. c. 230 B. C.). All three had merely moved the center of the universe 93 million miles from the earth, to the sun.

That is not all that different (knowing how large the universe is) from positing that the earth is the center. Both are vastly erroneous positions. But, oddly enough, we only hear about one error and not the other. Nicholas of Cusa (a Catholic Cardinal) and Giordano Bruno were closer to the truth in these respects than Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler. Truth is stranger than fiction.

Galileo, moreover, argued vehemently in his 1623 book The Assayer that the comets of 1618 were merely an optical illusion. The Wikipedia entry on the book states:

The book was a polemic against the treatise on the comets of 1618 by Orazio Grassi, a Jesuit mathematician at the Collegio Romano. In this matter Grassi, for all his Aristotelianism, was right and Galileo was wrong. Galileo incorrectly treated the comets as a play of light rather than as real objects. . . .

Although The Assayer contains a magnificent polemic for mathematical physics, ironically its main point was to ridicule a mathematical astronomer. This time, the target of Galileo’s wit and sarcasm was the cometary theory of a Jesuit, Orazio Grassi, who argued from parallax that comets move above the Moon. Galileo mistakenly countered that comets are an optical illusion.

The Wikipedia article, "Comet," observed that Galileo "rejected Tycho's parallax measurements and held to the Aristotelian notion of comets moving on straight lines through the upper atmosphere."

Furthermore, Galileo dismissed as a "useless fiction" the idea, held by his contemporary Johannes Kepler, that the moon caused the tides. He thought they were caused by the rotation of the earth. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Galileo comments on this notion and how it figured in the overall picture:

This argument, about the tides, Galileo believed provided proof of the truth of the Copernican theory. . . . Galileo argues that the motion of the earth (diurnal and axial) is the only conceivable (or maybe plausible) physical cause for the reciprocal regular motion of the tides. He restricts the possible class of causes to mechanical motions, and so rules out Kepler's attribution of the moon as a cause. How could the moon without any connection to the seas cause the tides to ebb and flow? Such an explanation would be the invocation of magic or occult powers. So the motion of the earth causes the waters in the basins of the seas to slosh back and forth, and since the earth's diurnal and axial rotation is regular, so are the periods of the tides; the backward movement is due to the residual impetus built up in the water during its slosh. Differences in tidal flows are due to the differences in the physical conformations of the basins in which they flow . . . .

One can see why Galileo thinks he has some sort of proof for the motion of the earth, and therefore for Copernicanism. Yet one can also see why Bellarmine and the instrumentalists would not be impressed. First, they do not accept Galileo's restriction of possible causes to mechanically intelligible causes. Second, the tidal argument does not directly deal with the annual motion of the earth about the sun. And third, the argument does not touch anything about the central position of the sun or about the periods of the planets as calculated by Copernicus.

Galileo (like Kepler) was an avid proponent of astrology (see "Galileo's Astrology," by Nick Kollerstrom). For example, he wrote in a letter to Piero Dini, dated 21 May, 1611:

If, therefore, of the inferior causes, those which arouse boldness of heart are diametrically contrary to those which inspire intellectual speculation, it is also most reasonable that the superior causes (if indeed they operate on us) be utterly different from those on which courage and the speculative faculty depend; and if the stars do operate and influence principally by their light, perchance it might be possible with some probable conjecture to deduce courage and boldness of heart from very large and vehement stars, and acuteness and perspicacity of wit from the thinnest and almost invisible lights.

(From Kollerstrom; Opere XI pp.105-116,111; translation by Mike Edwards)
Galileo drew up astrological charts for his two illegitimate daughters, and composed character-judgments based upon them. For his oldest, Virginia, he noted:

The Moon is very debilitated and in a sign which obeys. She is dominated by family relationships. Saturn signifies submission and severe customs which gives her a sad demeanour, but Jupiter is very well with Mercury, and well-aspected corrects this. (Ibid.)

Galileo was not always right in his controversies with the Church. Eminent philosopher and historian of science Thomas Kuhn observed:

Most of Galileo's opponents behaved more rationally. Like Bellarmine, they agreed that the phenomena were in the sky but denied that they proved Galileo's contentions. In this, of course, they were quite right. Though the telescope argued much, it proved nothing.
[The Copernican Revolution (New York: Vintage Books / Random House, 1959), p. 226]

I wrote elsewhere:

But the scientist (though basically correct) was overconfident and quite obstinate in proclaiming his scientific theory as absolute truth, and this was a major concern. Accordingly, St. Robert Bellarmine, who was directly involved in the controversy, made it clear that heliocentrism was not irreversibly condemned, and also that a not-yet proven theory was not an unassailable fact. Bellarmine actually had the superior understanding of the nature of a scientific hypothesis. Galileo was scientifically fallible, too. He held that the entire universe revolved around the sun in circular (not elliptical) orbits, and that tides were caused by the rotation of the earth. True heliocentrism wasn’t conclusively proven until some 200 years later.

Lastly, in my treatment of Galileo in my book, The One-Minute Apologist (p. 31), I dealt with the common notion that Galileo was tortured and maliciously handled by the Church:

In 1633 Galileo was “incarcerated” in the palace of one Niccolini, the ambassador to the Vatican from Tuscany, who admired Galileo. He spent five months with Archbishop Piccolomini in Siena, and then lived in comfortable environments with friends for the rest of his life (although technically under “house arrest”). No evidence exists to prove that he was ever subjected to torture or even discomfort until his death nine years later. Nor is there any evidence, as another myth goes, that he was deliberately blinded (he lost his sight naturally in 1637). Stories of Galileo’s “torture” are myths invented and proliferated by a strange alliance of (anti-Catholic) fundamentalist and (anti-religion) skeptics.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

"Vain, Repetitious Prayer": Jesus, by His Example and Teaching, Illustrates What His Condemnation Does NOT Mean

By Dave Armstrong (7-22-10)

[all verses RSV]

Matthew 6:7 And in praying do not heap up empty phrases [KJV: "vain repetitions"] as the Gentiles [KJV: "heathen"] do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words.

Sirach 7:14 Do not prattle in the assembly of the elders, nor repeat yourself in your prayer.

But Jesus shows even in the immediate context that not all repetition in prayer whatsoever is precluded, because two verses later He instructs them how to pray by teaching them the Lord's Prayer (the "Our Father"). Obviously, when He says, "Pray then like this," He clearly doesn't mean just one time. He means habitually -- and indeed many church services (like the Mass) regularly pray the Lord's Prayer: the most well-known Christian prayer of all.

The passage in Luke that contains the Our Father complements Matthew by making certain elements more clear. It shows us that Jesus is specifically teaching the disciples how to pray, by saying particular words. The phrase, "when you pray, say . . ." is almost like a formula for a regular practice of prayer. It's also notable because here the prayer is not in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, as in Matthew, but on another occasion (yet more evidence of its repetitious nature):

Luke 11:1-4 He was praying in a certain place, and when he ceased, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples." [2] And he said to them, "When you pray, say: "Father, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. [3] Give us each day our daily bread; [4] and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive every one who is indebted to us; and lead us not into temptation."

The intended repetition of the prayer is shown again by analogy in the same larger passage, with regard to the proper practice of fasting, where Jesus says, "when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by men but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you" (Matt 6:17-18a). This is obviously intended to be a regular practice as well: not a one-time thing.

Therefore, by direct analogy, if this practice regarding fasting is to be a regular habit, so also the Lord's prayer is a regular habit, and so it is repetitious, but it is not an "empty phrase" or a "vain repetition."

Protestants who argue that all formal prayer that repeats phrases are "empty" or "vain" in fact manage to overlook the entire deeper meaning and import of this biblical narrative, in context. Jesus is recommending and exhorting His hearers to a genuine, humble piety of the heart, as opposed to an empty, shell-like, merely external piety, intended to be seen by men in a spiritually prideful sense. It's a classic case study of taking something completely out of context and absolutizing it, in gross violation of legitimate hermeneutical principles.

This theme of genuine vs. sham piety is seen throughout the first half of the chapter (part of the Sermon on the Mount):

Matthew 6:1-6, 16 "Beware of practicing your piety before men in order to be seen by them; for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven. [2] "Thus, when you give alms, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. [3] But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, [4] so that your alms may be in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. [5] "And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. [6] But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. . . . [16] And when you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward.

The same general idea occurs again in Mark and Luke:

Mark 12:38-40 And in his teaching he said, "Beware of the scribes, who like to go about in long robes, and to have salutations in the market places [39] and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, [40] who devour widows' houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."

Luke 20:46-47 "Beware of the scribes, who like to go about in long robes, and love salutations in the market places and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, [47] who devour widows' houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."

It's not that all long prayers are condemned, anymore than repetitious prayers are, but that prayers made with a pretentious, prideful spirit (showing off in front of men; making people think one is "super-pious") are condemned.

Lastly, when Jesus states: "do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do," note that He is no longer talking about the Hebrew tradition of prayer (which quite obviously included much repetition, such as in the Psalms and priestly chants and prayers). He's not even talking about the Pharisees, because they weren't Gentiles. In other places (6:2, 5, and implied in context again in 6:16), He refers to practicing Jews, but now He mentions the Gentiles. Remember, this is before the Church was opened up to the Gentiles (after the day of Pentecost, after Jesus' death) and spread beyond the Jews.

Therefore, Jesus was referring to people like the pagan Romans and Greeks, and other non-Jews; people who had a different religion altogether. Thus, the KJV, NKJV, NEB , and REB versions use the word "heathen," and other translations (e.g., Phillips, TEV, Jerusalem, NIV) use the word "pagans" here.

It is not only a matter, then, of praying with "empty phrases" and "vain repetition" but also of praying "as the Gentiles / pagans / heathen do": in other words, of praying like those who practice an ultimately false religion. That element and the aspect of interior piety take the passage to a far deeper place than merely a discussion of repetition: let alone all repetition, as if God is condemning that.

Jesus then illustrates that He Himself is not opposed to all repetition in prayer, by the example of His own practice:

Matthew 26:39, 42, 44 And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as thou wilt." . . . [42] Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, "My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, thy will be done." . . . [44] So, leaving them again, he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words.

Mark 14:39 And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words.

The following passage suggests to me (though I wouldn't make too much of it as an exegetical argument) formal, liturgical (hence, repetitious) prayers, by the phraseology "the prayers" rather than simply "prayer" (as in Acts 6:4) or "praying":

Acts 2:42 And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (cf. Acts 3:1: ". . . going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour," which may be related).

Moreover, further repetition occurs in repeated intercession for the same person or persons. For example:

Ephesians 1:16 I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers,

Colossians 1:9
And so, from the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding,

Colossians 4:12
Ep'aphras, who is one of yourselves, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always remembering you earnestly in his prayers, . . .

1 Thessalonians 1:2 We give thanks to God always for you all, constantly mentioning you in our prayers,

2 Thessalonians 1:11 To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his call, and may fulfil every good resolve and work of faith by his power,

2 Timothy 1:3 I thank God whom I serve with a clear conscience, as did my fathers, when I remember you constantly in my prayers.

Here are examples of relentlessly repeated prayer requests:

Luke 18:1-7 And he told them a parable, to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. [2] He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor regarded man; [3] and there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, `Vindicate me against my adversary.' [4] For a while he refused; but afterward he said to himself, `Though I neither fear God nor regard man, [5] yet because this widow bothers me, I will vindicate her, or she will wear me out by her continual coming.'" [6] And the Lord said, "Hear what the unrighteous judge says. [7] And will not God vindicate his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them?

(cf. Lk 2:37: "She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day"; also 1 Tim 5:5: "continues in supplications and prayers night and day")

1 Thessalonians 3:10
praying earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith?

Two further examples from the Old Testament perhaps indicate (it's not absolutely clear, I grant) a single prayer being used repeatedly in one instance of praying:

Nehemiah 1:4-6 When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days; and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven. [5] And I said, "O LORD God of heaven, the great and terrible God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments; [6] let thy ear be attentive, and thy eyes open, to hear the prayer [singular] of thy servant which I now pray before thee day and night for the people of Israel thy servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against thee. Yea, I and my father's house have sinned.

Psalm 141:5 . . . my prayer [singular] is continually against their wicked deeds.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

"The Harvest is Ready": Advice and Tips Regarding Methods for Catholic Evangelism

By Dave Armstrong (7-21-10)

I wrote the following (by her request) to a zealous young Catholic lady who is a friend of my two oldest sons, and who is doing some street evangelism.

* * * * *

I did a lot of street evangelism all through the 80s, at the Ann Arbor Art Fair. I was an evangelical Protestant then, but I did go once or twice as a Catholic in the early 90s. It was always a great time and opportunity for discussion about theology and God.

Short, catchy, colorful, "not too heavy" literature is definitely best for initial contact. The visual aspect is very important to make someone stop and have curiosity.

I would highly recommend the "cartoon tracts" that were mostly written by my friend Dan Grajek. I wrote the text for about six of them. They are available from Grotto Press. I would say, either those, or others from OSV would work. Both are short and catchy and can help to start conversations. Or you could design one of your own if you have someone who can draw, etc. Anything that will get people to stop and talk.

The first thing I always stress is that everyone is different. We must always try to see where they are coming from first, and then hone in on that place and go from there. This is what St. Paul did on Mars Hill in Athens: he acknowledged the truth he saw in the pagans there, commended them for it, and then built upon it in order to introduce the true God and the resurrection. Paul said "I have become all things to all men." I've always tried to follow that approach in my apologetics. And always we have to be charitable and pleasant about it.

People appreciate if you listen to them and their concerns. It's human nature. We're all like that. They would rather be listened to than preached at. If you gently ask "probing" questions in a low-key, non-pushy, non-threatening way, a certain number of people will talk and even open up. It'll always be a small minority of the whole, but you will find some. I'm sure that has been your experience so far, right?

If you don't know something, don't try to pretend that you do. People admire it if we don't have an answer to everything, because they know that nobody does, and they resent "know-it-all" types. That's the negative stereotype of Christians and especially those who evangelize. We have to defeat and overcome that image. You can always say, "I don't know, but I can study that if you like and get back to you, or direct you to Internet pages where an answer is given."

I also try to avoid all "canned" presentations and like to be informal and spontaneous. This ties in to meeting people where they are at. No one presentation works for everyone. I never liked the "four spiritual laws" thing even when I was a Protestant. Too canned, too contrived, too formulaic (even though it had a lot of truth in it and was not a bad thing at all).

Always stress the Bible with Protestants, and don't quote Catholic sources because it will mean little to them. Find something that is held in common (love of the Bible, trinitarianism, etc.), to show them that you are "a real Christian," and then you can slowly get into Protestant-Catholic differences.

With Catholics, often they will have some beef with the Church or big misunderstanding, and that is where you start in the conversation: address their biggest concerns. If they are nominal Catholics who know little, try to sense if you can what will spark their interest and go there.

With those who know nothing at all about theology, keep it basic (the gospel of salvation) and don't get into "Catholic stuff" yet because that has to come later.

Start slow with "heavy" theology and let the other person determine where the conversation will go and deal with their concerns.

Don't let (certain sorts of) people take you down a hundred different rabbit trails. Insist on covering one topic at a time before jumping into another. This is extremely important. Oftentimes, people use that technique when they want to merely quarrel and wrangle rather than seek truth and hear the whole reasoning for something. Atheists are notorious in doing this. Get them on one subject and do your best.

Pray before you go, pray for each other, and pray while you are there: that God will give you the right words to say at the right time, and in the right manner, for any given person. This can't be emphasized enough. You might want to fast and do some form of penance, too, the day before.

Have Internet sites and/or books that you can recommend to people who want to pursue it, and have contact info. for you (phone numbers or e-mails or Facebook pages, etc.) that you can hand out. Business cards work well for this purpose. That's supremely important, too, as a follow-up.

Know that ultimately it is the Holy Spirit Who will melt cold hearts and cause someone to positively respond. It is never ever merely because of apologetics. It's a supernatural work of grace. Our job is to simply be there as God's vessel: to "remove the roadblocks." But only God can move a person's heart. It's like the old saying, "you can lead a horse to water but you can't force it to drink." In a way that is very good for us because we don't have to shoulder that burden and worry about it. We just share in the best way we can and let God move in hearts that He has already opened: ones where "the harvest is ripe."

Again, I want to stress to the utmost that the message and method has to be specific to the person. It can't be "canned" (like a lecture). We have to meet people where they are at. The handout is what it is, but once we start talking we must approach it according to the perceived needs and wants of this one person. They'll appreciate that, and it will foster deeper discussion.

That's about all I can think of at the moment. I hope it was helpful. I wish you and your friends the very best and God's blessings as you go out and do this important work. I admire your zeal and willingness to advance the kingdom by sharing on the streets. Praise God that He gave you this desire! He will work through you, for sure. "The laborers are few."

* * *

For related reading, see an excellent collection of articles on Catholic evangelization at the Christlife website and "12 painless Ways to Evangelize" (Catholic Answers).

Reply to an Atheist About Jesus' Death on the Cross, Forgiveness, Apostasy and Deconversion, and Other Issues

By Dave Armstrong (7-21-10)

I am having this discussion with a woman on an atheist discussion board (who is asking lots of questions), but I don't have permission to post her words (or any from this venue that are not mine), so I have to post only my words. This accounts for a certain "jerkiness" of the text.

But I think that my comments pretty much logically stand on their own, without the interjections of an interlocutor. The following may possibly serve as sort of an "introduction to common atheist objections and thoughts on constructive atheist-Christian dialogue".

* * * * *

Why Atheists and Christians Should Talk to Each Other and Debate the Issues

I think a large part of the problem on both sides of the atheist-Christian discussion (to the extent that there actually is any at all) is that we too often call each other names and misrepresent each others' positions. Atheists think Christians are dumbbells and that the Bible is filled with absurdities and makes no sense. Christians, on the other hand, too often regard atheists as utterly rebellious, wicked folks who have no ethical principle. So it's "'stupid' vs. 'wicked.'" Political debates usually amount to largely the same dynamic. It gets very wearisome.

Both are ridiculous stereotypes, and if we try to get along together in this world and seek any common ground whatever, both sides need to get past that. I'm trying to do what little I can as one person to change the poisoned atmosphere. People talking to each other and trying to understand each other as human beings is where it's at. We have far more in common than I think most on either side realize.

Atheists will have to be with lots of Christians; especially in America, so it is in their interest to better understand them. Likewise, atheism is a growing movement, and Christians would do well to truly understand what makes atheists tick and what motivates them. Talk, talk, talk (and read the other guys' stuff), is the only way to do that.

I respect anyone who makes an attempt to grapple with important issues that face all of us, and who use reason to do so. That includes atheists. I have far more intellectual respect for an honest atheist (and I think most are that) than I do for an anti-Catholic Protestant who says I (as a Catholic) am not a Christian or a liberal Christian who plays around with Christianity and hardly believes what he purports to believe in the first place, or a raving fundamentalist who thinks that Christianity and reason and common sense and higher culture are almost mutually exclusive.

Respect for thinking and for ethics is what we have in common, so sure, I can respect an atheist insofar as those things are concerned. I don't have to take a position that they are all raving lunatics and simpletons (or wicked, etc.). There are people like that in both camps, to be sure, but to put everyone in one box is absurd and profoundly intolerant as well. We don't have to agree with a person to have a measure of respect for that person's overall view and his or her person.

With atheists I always try to stick to one particular subject at a time, because they love to "argue" 100 things at once, in an illusory appearance of "intellectual-superiority-by-10 million objections". When things get narrowed down, it is quite another story, and atheism becomes like the proverbial onion that is peeled down, revealing nothing at its core.

It takes a lot of patience on both sides to have the Christian-atheist discussion, and it can get very frustrating dealing with people who look at things very differently from the way we do. That works the same way whatever we believe. I have my moments when I get fed up, too, believe me. But I think it's a discussion worth having (i.e., the whole Christianity vs. atheism thing) as long as there is an atheist around who wants to keep talking and to keep it on a friendly level.

Some things bind most atheists together (as with any group). In other ways, they are different. Same thing with Christians. Atheists generalize about Christians every bit as much as Christians do about them. I have condemned lousy stereotypes on both sides.

The Dawkins / Hitchens mentality doesn't do anyone any good (not even atheists, I would submit): anymore than the "angry feminist" or "angry Marxist" or "angry black man" or "[materialistic] evolutionists fighting the ID folks to the death" impress anyone who is truly interested in the world of ideas and actual dialogue. There has to be a certain rudimentary calmness, charity, and tolerance.

Both sides gotta chill out and talk to each other and establish friendships if possible. And we can learn from each other about various issues. The approach to discussion and tolerance for opposing views and respect for reasoning and science and dialogue in general is the common ground that we have. It's becoming a lost art in our society (assuming if it was ever "found"), and I am frequently disturbed by that, myself. Civil discussion and seeking greater understanding of other viewpoints is what it's about. I like to be stimulated by opposition. I've made a whole apologetic career out of that.

People (of all stripes of belief) are so often reluctant to make any effort to understand a different viewpoint. That has to stop. Someone has to try to make an effort to change that in some fashion. Otherwise we are left with shouting matches, back-patting clubs, and mocking and belittling. I argue my positions passionately, but I fully agree, it doesn't have to be personal, and there is no need to demonize the other person and consider them a "bad" person just because of what they may believe.

Conversation in our society (and above all, on the Internet) has become so intolerant, trivial, or insubstantial, and often literally an insult to anyone with any intelligence or wits, that it's like finding a needle in a haystack to stumble upon some solid challenging dialogue and people actually using their heads for a change.

* * *

"Former Christian" Atheists and What They Knew and Didn't Know About Theology

The knowledge that any given atheist has of Christianity (and many claim to be former Christians) always has to be demonstrated. I don't simply accept one's word for it. I know far better than that. I've rarely met an atheist who truly understands Christianity to the extent that is often made out. Knowledge about theology and being a Christian are two entirely different things.

Instead I see lots of basic category and factual mistakes in atheist polemics against Christians. Occasionally a few truly understand what they rejected before they did so. Mind you, that is only my own experience as a Christian apologist and debater, but I highly suspect that it reflects the overall reality of the situation.

Most Christians are even more ignorant of atheism than vice versa. And many many Christians have a dim understanding of their own theological traditions, within Christianity (which is why they do such a lousy job of defending them or persuading others). Theological ignorance and "biblical illiteracy" is as common as dust. I think that is largely because we aren't usually taught religion in school (certainly not public schools), so people have to learn on their own and they choose not to do so, for the most part (unless they go to seminary or Bible school, etc.).

Just for the record, I have never been a Calvinist at any time, and have always believed that one can be a true Christian and later fall away from it (whereas their system requires them to assert that you have never been one because you aren't now). So I take your report at face value. But whether you had adequate reasons for rejecting Christianity and what in fact you thought you were rejecting is a whole 'nother ballgame.

I was simply reserving judgment as to what you understood and what you did not understand about Christianity (in terms of doctrines and apologetics). Lots of folks make lots of claims. I used to be a Protestant and was an apologist as a Protestant. I believe I had a very good grasp of that belief-system before I moved on to Catholicism. But of course, some of my Protestant friends deny that I did (some even saying that I was never a true Protestant or a Christian at all). It's only natural to suspect that.

One must exercise a healthy skepticism, while avoiding cynicism. I am going by my experience of looking over many atheist deconversion stories and noticing that very often what was rejected was not truly what Christians believe, but rather, a straw man or at best a misconception.

I can't say that is true in your case unless I see your rationale and what you believed when you were a Christian, and how much you truly understood. But I suspect that there are some straw men there because that has been my universal experience in analyzing deconversion stories.

On the other hand, it is always possible that one does truly understand Christianity and rejects it with that full knowledge. Those are the ones that we would say are in distinct, serious danger of quite possibly being damned, because their culpability is greatly magnified. But God makes that determination in the end, not any human being.

If you read a bunch of atheist books and don't read Christian counterparts, where would you expect to end up? We are what we eat. Loss of faith is a complex process. What did you read during your deconversion process? I'm curious. Did you read defenses of traditional beliefs or just atheist and liberal Christian stuff? If the latter is all you read, then it is no surprise that you turned out to be a "product" of those ideas.

I can understand many atheist objections and rationales for their loss of faith on an emotional plane, but I don't think that is a legitimate reason to abandon Christianity (but you would expect me to say that, right?!).

Most Christians don't know why they believe what they believe. Oftentimes, they don't even know what they believe. It's easy to then become dissuaded, if things happen, or various arguments come up, and influences send us in another direction. It all comes down to "what is truth?" and how we can determine that. Pontius Pilate asked the right question, but unfortunately he didn't do the right thing.

I would think that atheists would want to read the best treatments on both sides before deciding the question against Christianity.

Are you saying you knew very little about the Bible most of your life? If so, why, then, did you give me such a hard time when I questioned how much you knew as a Christian?

Atheists in discussion often ignore questions asked of them, such, for example, what books they read during their deconversion process from Christianity, or how much of the Bible they were familiar with. Yet they will expect us to relentlessly answer everything in the finest detail. I get impatient with ring-around-the-rosey after a while. Serious discussion involves both parties answering questions, and not utterly ignoring them because they may reveal too much about what one knows or knew about something. It's a two-way thing.

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Theistic "Proofs" For God's Existence

I haven't tried to actively prove God's existence around here because it is usually of no effect with an atheist anyway. The task for the apologist is usually to remove 10 billion roadblocks that atheists throw up: problem of evil, miracles, Bible so-called difficulties (I recently compiling a big list of resources on those), etc. So I concentrate on these things with atheists. First things first. The objection always has to be dealt with before moving on to positive reasons and evidences for a belief-system.

If you want to see the arguments I find most convincing, myself, I would recommend reading Alvin Plantinga (regarded as the premier living Christian philosopher), William Lane Craig (particularly on the Kalam cosmological argument), and John Henry Cardinal Newman (An Essay on the Grammar of Assent -- available online). Read Michael Behe on Intelligent Design for an updated version of the classic Teleological / Argument. Peter Kreeft is a superb Catholic and General Christian apologist (he is a philosopher by trade). I would especially recommend his commentary on Pascal's Pensees.

My own arguments of various sorts (including theistic ones) are available to read on my Atheism and Agnosticism and Philosophy and Science web pages. They are too involved to briefly present.

Generally speaking, folks aren't argued into Christianity (or Catholicism). Change of mind or conversion is an extraordinarily complex process. I have experienced it several times myself (to secularist practical atheism, to evangelicalism, and to Catholicism). Many of you have as well, into or out of Christianity. It's far from just a matter of argument. Things appear plausible for many many reasons. I think I can achieve a lot more here by simply trying to show that Christianity is a reasonable worldview than in making particular arguments that usually accomplish nothing, anyway. The big hurdles gotta be cleared away long before that (Christians are infantile, gullible dolts, against reason and science, and so forth).

The notion of an eternal concept is not confined to God. Things like logic and mathematics could also be regarded as things that simply are: that cannot not be. The philosophical assumption of what "God" means is more like a deist notion, not the full-fledged biblical Yahweh (which requires another set of evidences entirely).

I don't claim that I can absolutely prove anything. I am saying that the theist knows (in faith, but not irrationally) that there is a God by many ways, including internal knowledge that -- so we would argue -- is innate in human beings. You wanna know why we think that? I recommended reading Alvin Plantinga and John Henry Cardinal Newman. You're either interested in that discussion or not. If you are, then I would hope you want to read the best that Christianity has to offer. If not, then this very discussion is meaningless and a waste of time for you.

It's not a waste of time for me because I believe I am conveying true ideas and a positive message.

For an excellent overview, see: "Two Dozen (or so) Theistic Arguments" (Alvin Plantinga, the greatest living Christian philosopher).

I think the Cosmological Argument is a good, solid theistic argument, but it is not the final reason I believe in God. I do first and foremost because it is innate knowledge: a "properly basic belief," as Alvin Plantinga puts it. As I ponder various theistic arguments, I discover that they are reasonable and plausible, too, but they weren't the initial reason why I (or most people, I submit) believe in God. Plantinga made a famous argument that we believe in God on the same basis that we believe in other minds (a thing that can't be absolutely proven, either). He's a brilliant thinker and writer. Anyone would enjoy reading his stuff.

My goal is to suggest to the atheist the best sources I know of for major things like theistic arguments. If you are truly interested in seeking that out, you will go read them. Your choice. They do far better than I do (philosophers, archaeologists, and other academics). I haven't had the time to fully delve into the theistic arguments in the depth I would like to. I have too many other things to do: like defending the Catholic Church and the Bible.

As I have said repeatedly, I'm not here to try to prove the existence of God. I think that is a very complex question and there are many many reasons for it. These are not given to short presentation. Atheists rarely if ever respond to such arguments, anyway, so I generally don't pursue that with them. It's a futile effort. I decided to spend time (in what I argue with atheists about) mostly dealing with garden-variety objections and with analysis of deconversion stories. Those involve particulars and facts that can rationally be dealt with, and one can stay on a subject.

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Axioms and Unprovable Presuppositions in Science / Scientific "Faith"

There is a great deal of acceptance of axioms within science or any philosophy. And that is not all that unlike having "faith." It's a matter of definition. You and everyone else must accept many things that you can't prove.

That particular idea (uniformitarianism) cannot possibly be proven. It is unfalsifiable precisely because it is not science per se. It is required in order to do science, however. This is the point. As I have shown in my recent papers, in order to do science, folks must accept several unprovable axioms. This is one, and so is mathematics. Your argument is epistemologically naive, in the sense that you don't realize or recognize what is entailed in doing science in the first place. All systems of belief are built upon unproven axioms at some point.

One fundamental question is the existence of everything in the universe and how it all got here. It's here now. Christians and other theists say that God created it, and created the potentialities in matter that allowed it to be as it is (including possibly evolution). You guys say there is no God, but the stuff is still here, so it had to get here somehow. You make the creative process atoms (initially helium and hydrogen, according to the accepted Big Bang cosmology). Helium and hydrogen had the potentiality to create all there is. Therefore, the atom is, in effect, regarded as omnipotent in a fashion quite similar to how Christians view God.

There are all kinds of atheists who say that God is not necessary at all in order for science to explain everything. The older Darwin said the same thing. So they see that God is irrelevant to science, and that, for working purposes, materialist atheism is true. But of course there are all kinds of unproven axioms that lie behind that approach and science itself, as I have been writing about.

The atheist is (generally) a materialist; therefore, he has to explain the universe and everything in it by materialist principles. He cannot do so. He has to exercise at least as much faith (I say, a lot more) to believe what he does, than the Christians does.

A spherical earth was posited by the medieval scholastics without incident. Heliocentrism was introduced by a Catholic canonist (Copernicus) with the blessing of the pope. Even the Galileo incident is vastly misunderstood. I have written about it. In fact, in some ways, St. Robert Bellarmine got things more accurate in terms of present-day science, than Galileo did.

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Alleged "Bible Difficulties"

I believe the Bible is the inspired revelation of God. There are some difficult passages to understand, as we would fully expect (many have to do with literary forms, that atheists habitually confuse or are ignorant of). Why should that cause anyone pause? Any field of thought has difficulties to work through and mysteries. There are also many explanations and hypotheses about all these. The explanations for all the supposedly "horrible" things atheists talk about have made perfect sense to me. I don't struggle with it. Whatever difficulties remain to be solved in Christianity pale next to what one must believe in a consistently thought-out atheism.

Various explanations have been given for that [the two biblical accounts of Jesus' birth]. I haven't studied it myself, personally. In the alleged "biblical difficulties" that I have dealt with, myself (and I've done a good twenty or so, maybe more), I've never found one that was insuperable. Quite the contrary. I believe that is most likely the case here, too: once it is examined closely. One doesn't have to solve every conceivable difficulty (real or imagined) in order to rationally espouse a belief. Scientists certainly don't know everything, either, yet they believe things without knowing every jot and tittle. So why is it that Christians are always judged by a different standard: as if any individual person has to personally resolve every single proposed "Bible difficulty" or else be required to give up their faith, since it is supposedly hopelessly irrational??

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God and Suffering

God didn't give us evil and sufferings. We brought them on ourselves by rebelling against Him. The devil and his angels rebelled before mankind did. That is the origin of evil (and suffering). This is what Christians believe. You don't believe it, but please at least try to understand what we believe before setting out to knock it down.

Most people have endured plenty of suffering. Much of it we bring on ourselves; other sufferings have little or nothing to do with our actions. It is pointless to blame God for either, I would argue. They simply aren't His fault. God didn't, e.g., cause the Nazi Holocaust. That was the stupidity (and evil) of people. World War II could have been completely prevented if the powers that be in England in the 1930s had heeded Churchill's persistent warnings. But they didn't. They wanted to play games and pretend that Hitler could be reasoned and bargained with. So we got what we did because of human stupidity and fantasies. It could happen again if we aren't careful, with stuff going on like the Iranian and North Korea nuclear programs, etc.

And the atheist wants to use that as an example to blame God for, when we human beings had the perfect ability to prevent it if we hadn't had our heads up in the clouds (or in the dirt) in self-delusion?

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God's Forgiveness and How it is Given and Received

Any sinner who has done anything whatever is able to be forgiven if only they repent of their sin. In Catholicism, they need only make a good confession. If a sinner doesn't repent of his sins, then obviously he won't be forgiven, will he? The one thing follows logically from the other:

Repentance ---- Forgiveness

No Repentance ---- No Forgiveness

You don't have to forgive a person who hasn't repented; indeed, I would say it is impossible to do so because one requires the other by nature. What we have to do (in the Christian worldview) is be willing to forgive should a person repent; no matter how grave his or her sin was.

This is the idea behind Catholic confession. One has to truly repent and be sorry for their sin; otherwise absolution cannot be given. It's in some Protestant circles that this notion is distorted: as if we give a blanket forgiveness to everyone regardless of whether they are sorry. No. We have to be willing, but we can't do it till the person truly repents (and that means not only ceasing the sin but changing their ways). God doesn't forgive, either, if a person doesn't repent, or spurns His grace. That's what judgment and hell are about. God honors the free will of men, even to reject Him.

If a person repents, we forgive him or her. Have you not done anything bad in your life? It's only a matter of degree. We all have faults and sins and bad things that we have done. If we hadn't been forgiven (by people and by God) we would be in bad shape indeed. We need only look into our own hearts. It's always difficult to forgive, but if we don't, we are the ones who suffer, in bitterness.

We are forgiven if we repent and accept God's free gift of mercy and grace. I always compare this to a prisoner who receives a pardon from the governor. He is free in one sense when the pardon is given. But he has to cooperate with it and walk out of the prison; then it is appropriated. It's the same with God and us. The grace for salvation is there, but many folks will reject it. It's their choice. The choice has consequences. It doesn't have to be as it is, but if a person goes down that path, then it leads ultimately to eternal separation from God, which is a horrific thing. In any event, God doesn't force us to follow Him. That has to be our choice: made in cooperation with God's enabling grace (which is Christian theology, so that it is by grace, not works, that we are saved).

We bow before God, as our Creator (especially in receiving His forgiveness), just as we show deference to the President or a king or an otherwise great person. Everything has an analogy. If there is a God, obviously He is far greater than we are, and so we honor Him, because He is a wonderfully good, merciful, just God.

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Jesus' Death on the Cross: Required of a Capricious, "Bloodthirsty" God, or Sublime Voluntary, Redeeming Sacrifice Out of Love?

Jesus' death makes perfect sense, even from our human perspective. Sin and rebellion against God cause great damage to the cosmos: a disruption. God has set things up so that suffering (as a result of man's general rebellion against God: what Christians call the Fall of Man) can help others and can be turned into ultimate good. When we willingly suffer, it helps other souls (just as Christians believe prayer also does). It is put to good use. This is made plain in the Bible in many passages.

[for those -- particularly Christians -- interested, I outlined the biblical data on this sort of thing (especially regarding the Apostle Paul's life and suffering) in my paper: Lenten Meditation: The New Testament on Suffering With Christ . On the larger notion of suffering in the Bible, see: Reasons for Suffering and Encouragement and Hope in the Midst of It: A Biblical Compendium.]

The idea, then, is that when God becomes a Man and decides to voluntarily suffer and die on behalf of mankind, this has infinite value, and can potentially save all of mankind (each person has to freely accept the free gift of grace). We often hear complaints that God is distant and doesn't care for us, so why should we care about Him, since we can't "relate" to such a Being? He doesn't even have or show any sympathy, let alone empathy (so atheists will tell us).

So that is one objection to Christianity. Yet when God takes on our own suffering and experiences it in the worst way (all voluntarily), that is also mocked as meaningless. As usual, nothing can please the atheist. God always has to be wrong. We know better than God.

What Jesus did for us is not all that different - in one sense - from the notion of self-sacrificing heroism in war or catastrophes or epidemics, etc.: some person is willing to take a risk of life and limb to help others. Sometimes they die in the process (e.g., the firefighters during 9-11). Everyone recognizes the valor in that, and respects such actions. They can sometimes help hundreds or even thousands of other people.

Well, then, if God decides to become a man and suffer and die for us, it has all the more value, and by acknowledging and accepting this, it is sufficient unto not just continued physical life, but eternal life and salvation.

[footnote for Christians: God had revealed the notion, all through the OT, that sin brings about suffering and a cost. Lambs had to be sacrificed in order to atone for sin. People had to sacrifice and pay some sort of cost. So Jesus continued that Jewish tradition. He was the Lamb of God, Who takes away the sins of the world (book of John). For much more depth on this topic, see: Catholic Encyclopedia: "Doctrine of the Atonement"]

We say a great deal of the sublimity and magnificence of Jesus' atoning death is that it reveals to us a God Who shares our sufferings and understands what it is like to be human. What is so difficult to understand about that? Would you think it was absurd and ridiculous if I jumped in front of a speeding car to save you and was killed in so doing? Would you regard that as a meaningless act or would you be appreciative and thankful that I had done it? If the latter, why all these negative observations about Jesus' sacrifice? You have taken some of the most beautiful aspects of the faith and made them somehow ugly and absurd. I don't see it at all. It's all in how you look at it.

It's not "bloodthirsty" at all for God to willingly take suffering upon Himself. We don't say the firefighters of 9-11 were some kind of oddballs or nuts because many sacrificed themselves in saving others. So why does the Christian God (believe in Him or no) have to be mocked at the very point where He is shown to be the most beautiful and compassionate? I find it very strange thinking. One can disbelieve the fact of this (Jesus' atoning death) if they wish, but you go beyond that and despise the very notion that Christians believe, as if it is a wicked thing, rather than a sublime one.

It's true that God could have forgiven us without the cross. The cross was not intrinsically necessary. He didn't have to "circumvent" anything. But that is how God chose to do it, to identify with us, and to show that all sin has a cost. Jesus Himself was killed because of sin. He had done nothing wrong.

The question is what "such a God" you are talking about. I don't see that any of this would be something that would turn me against God. I serve Him because He loved me and died so that I could have joy in this life and eternal life after I die. I seek to share the joyous Good News with others, so that they can experience the joy and peace from God that I have found. Somehow you feel exactly the opposite. I'm very curious as to why that is, as long as you're willing to share. I like to hear people's stories.

I think you don't want to believe in God, because you have defined Him as this arbitrary, capricious, irrational tyrant. If I thought God was that I wouldn't want to, either. The question is whether He has revealed Himself to be that. You misinterpret even what the Bible teaches (apart from the fact of whether you accept it or not).