Saturday, November 24, 2012

Contradictions in Scripture, One - The Two Creation Stories

Every one knows the Bible is full of contradictions and mistakes.  Most people can't actually name any, but you know they're there.  It's just common knowledge.  Occasionally you will find someone who can give you examples.  For instance, they used to claim the Hittites didn't exist, they were a mythical people for the Israelites to overcome in their cultural stories.  I say "used to" because in 1876 George Smith discovered the Hittite capital of Carchemish and the Bible was vindicated.  Maybe that is a bad example.
      Here is one that is still used.  Matthew 5 has Jesus preaching His sermon on the mount.  Luke 6 has Him giving the same sermon but on a plain.  Maybe this is an error, but couldn't Jesus have given the same sermon twice?  Do you think i write each of my blog posts fresh for you?  The answer is no, i quite often write something somewhere else and then turn it into a blog post.  In fact, i did that just last week and i'm doing it again this week.  I have a number of friends who are pastors.  They all reuse their sermons.  If we all do this, why not Jesus?  Maybe this was His staple sermon and He gave it dozens of times.  Maybe this is a bad example too.
      Let's try a harder one.  A lot of people have pointed out "two creation stories" in the opening chapters of Genesis.  This raises the question; if Genesis had only one author, why did he tell the same story twice?  But even worse than simply repeating himself, he contradicts himself.  In the first story God creates animals first and people second, both male and female.  In the second telling God creates man first, then animals and then woman.  How do we explain this?
      Before i respond to that, let me discus Bible errors in general.  St. Augustine teaches that sometimes the Bible presents us with difficulties.  This is true, some are a lot harder to explain than the ones i'm examining here, there are some i honestly can't explain.  However, in faith, we believe all these difficulties, the apparent contradictions or mistakes, they all fall into one of three categorizes. 
  • Textual errors - The oldest books of the Bible are thousands of years old and before the moveable type printing press was invented they had to be copied by hand.  We do not believe that God kept the scribes from making mistakes in transcription.  The presence of copyist error in no way conflicts with the infallibility of scripture.  Most of the numerical discrepancies can be explained this way.  
  •  Translational errors - Unless you can reading ancient Greek and Hebrew, you are probably reading a translation.  You know, i'm sure those translators did the best job they could, but they were not divinely inspired.  (Not even the Douay-Rheims or King Jame Versions, sorry)  Sometimes, to resolve an apparent mistake, all you have to do is go back to the original text.
  • Reader error - Sometime its not the Bible at all, but rather the one reading it who is in error.  The two examples i already gave fall into this category; they were wrong to believe the Hittites were mythical and they may be wrong to assume Jesus never repeated Himself.  People who try to critic the scriptures on scientific grounds generally make this error.  As the Bible is not a scientific text book it would be wrong to interpret it as such.  Only truth claims can be wrong and not everything in the Bible is a truth claim; there are myths and metaphors and parables.  The trick is telling the difference.
      There are three stories told in the opening of genesis; the creation of the heavens and earth, the creation of man, and then the entry of sin.  The creation of the world goes from Genesis 1:1 until 2:3.  It shows the chronology of creation culminating in the creation of man and the institution of the sabbath.  In the second story we are told more of the creation of man and the sixth day; in Genesis 1 we got a summary, now we are getting details.  The third story then tell us what happened on that first sabbath, we hear the story of the seventh day.  Genesis 1 tells us the story of heaven and earth in chronological order, dividing it between seven days, presenting it from God's perspective, the perspective of the creator.  Genesis 2 and 3 go back and tells us the story of those last two days, the story of man, from man's perspective, the perspective of the creation.
      So, why the repetition?  Artistic flourish.  The author uses chapter 1 to establish an overarching theme, a venue for chapters 2 and 3.  Then in chapters 2 and 3 he relates it to us.  What of the chronological discrepancies?  They aren't really there in Hebrew.
      In English we are used to writing in chronological order.  If i were to say; i bought a vineyard, i purchased seed, and i planted it in my vineyard.  In English we assume this happened in the order specified; first i bough the vineyard, then the seed, then i planted.  In Hebrew this assumption is to a much lesser degree.  The same is true of ancient Greek and we can see a few examples of this in the opening chapter of Luke.  Luke tells a series of self contained stories which overlap each other. 
  • 1:26 - Elizabeth is six months pregnant.
  • 1:39 - In those day, when Elizabeth was six months pregnant, Mary goes to visit her.
  • 1:56 - Mary stays three months and then leaves.  (End of Story)
  • 1:57 - (Start of new story) Elizabeth gives birth to John the Baptist.
      Why would Mary leave Elizabeth at the peak or her pregnancy?  Did she stayed for three months and book it as soon as Elizabeth went into labor?  No, of course Mary stayed until after the birth.  Luke doesn't bother to expressly state this because the order isn't that important and he assumes you can figure it out for yourself.
      In fact, let's take a moment and reconstruct Luke 1:56 through 1:80 in correct chronological order.
  • 56a - Mary stays for three month
  • 57 - Then the birth of John.
  • 56b - Ok, now Mary can leave.
  • 58 through 64 - John's circumcision and naming.  In 64 John's dad speaks, blessing God.
  • 67 through 79 - So we have to jump ahead, to what Zechariah, John's dad, says.
  • 65 and 66 - Now we go back to the result of all this, fear and discussion.
  • 80a and Chapter 2 - Chapter 2 happens as 80a is occurring.
  • 80b and 3:1 through 3:14 - The opening of Chapter 3 tells how 80b comes about.
      Confused yet?  Maybe after working through my reconstruction? But if you simply go read Luke, you understand the intended order and it is not that confusing.  The author of Genesis 2 assumes you will read it in light of Genesis 1 and so he doesn't bother giving an exact order of events.  He simply expects you to assemble them correctly, after all, he already gave you the exact order in Genesis 1.

      Looking for a fun project?  Go do with Genesis 2 what i did with Luke 1:56-80.  It will be fun.

 (My 'i's are left lower case by intention, to annoy the Grammar Nazis.  If you spot an error elsewhere, feel free to point it out.)

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Saturday, November 17, 2012

Why Jews Think Catholic Statues are Idolatry and a Catholic Response

 I recently had an awesome conversation with some Jewish friends on Reddit.  It started on the topic of morality and the law, corresponding to last week's blog post.  However, we ended up having a discussion on idolatry.  They seemed to think that Catholic use of statues constitutes idolatry.  I, of course, took the opposite position.
      We Catholics have our great thinkers, people who's contributions to the theological world seem to dwarf the works of most others, people like Saint Augustine.  Judaism has it's great thinkers as well and perhaps chief among them is Mosheh ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides.  Think Aquinas and Augustine rolled into one.  In fact, even we Catholics owe a lot to Maimonides for his influence on the scholastics, people like Saint Thomas Aquinas.
      Maimonides, this great philosopher and theologian, gives a definition of idolatry containing three parts;
  • to do an act of worship toward any created thing
  • to believe that a particular created thing is an independent power
  • to make something a mediator between ourselves and God
      I would not object to any of these three points in of themselves.  At their core, they give the same definition of idolatry Catholics receive from Thomas Aquinas, to give honor due solely to God to another.  Here then, there are two issues which must be raised in concern to the Catholic view of statues.  The first concerns statues of saints and the second concerns statues of God.
      I think it is fairly easy to show that none of these aspects of idolatry correspond to statues of saints.
  • There is no worship towards any created thing for we do not worship saints or their statues.  We honor the saints as we honor Moses or Elijah, or to a much lesser extent great sports players and war heroes.  Worship is for God alone.  
  • The saints are completely dependent on God, just as we are.  The saints are to God as the moon is to the sun.  They reflect God's glory, God's magnificence, they contain none of their own.    They are most definitely not independent powers.
  • The saints serve as examples and intercessors. They give us images to model our own lives after, in order that we might better enter into the service of God.  An intercessor petitions on behalf of another.  We on earth can serve as imperfect intercessors for each other by praying for one another.  The saints in heaven are perfect intercessors, for they are unimpeded by their own sin and now dwell within the true Holy of Holies, in the celestial temple.  However, they are not mediators, we have no mediator apart from God Himself. 
      Perhaps we are guilty of idolatry elsewhere, but hot here.  We do not worship saints, we do not see them as independent powers and we do not see them as mediators.  If this is the case for the saints themselves, how much more for their statues?

      In concern to statues of God, it gets a little more complicated.  On the first two points we come out smelling like roses.  A statue of God is not a mediator between us a God, it is meant to lift our eyes to heaven, similar to the serpent Moses crafted in the desert. (Although distinct in that the serpent lifted eyes to heaven in a more literal fashion while the statues in Catholicism do so in a more figurative fashion.)  A statue of God is not a mediator, it is not even an intercessor, it is more like a sign post, and a sign pointing the way to Chicago is not a mediator between me and the windy city.  Similarly, a statue is not an independent power.  By virtue of the fact that the statue is made in the image of another, it cannot be independent of the other's power.  A picture of me is valuable to my mother because it bares my image.  If it did not bare my image it would be of no value at all.
      At first glance it seems that the issue of worship should be simple as well.  It is the one God Himself who is being worshiped and not any created thing.  Idolatry is literally "image worship" and the image is not here being worshiped, directly or indirectly.  Catholics recognize that no statue can represent what God actually is, for God cannot be limited to any physical form.  Statues and other images can only display an aspect of who God is and even then only imperfectly.  They are sacramental signposts, not objects of worship.
      However, it is not that simple.  For Maimonides, the use of any image in worship is idolatry and we do use images in worship.  By the definition of Maimonides, Catholics are idolators.  To get around this is one would have to refute the very definition given by this great Jewish thinker.  I am a 25 year old Catholic graduate student with a blog.  I do not presume to critic such a mind as Maimonides.  I leave that for those with greater credential than I. 
      If a person were to try and refute this position, perhaps they could start by pointing out all the times God is described by analogy throughout the scriptures; God as a shepherd, God as a potter.  Both of these images are employed in prayers, times of worship.  If it is permissible to use literary images in the directing of our worship, why not a picture or a statue?  I do not see any real difference.  Much more would need to be said before one could call this a true refute, but perhaps there is a hole here.

      More importantly, when one who is versed in Thomistic philosophy reads Maimonides, it is not difficult to see parallels.  One of the things Maimonides taught was that Abraham came to know God as the final cause.  He saw his neighbors worshiping these created things and realized there must have been something greater than them to create them, there must have been a first cause, an uncaused cause, an unmoved mover.  Perhaps Aquinas was more of a thief than we realize.
      There are only two things of which i am certain; i am certain of my own existence for to me this is self-evident, and i am certain this God of Abraham exists for if i exist there must have been something prior to me to cause my existence.  Catholics and Jews disagree on a lot, but on this we agree; we agree that our God exists, and we agree on who He is.  He is that which is and from Whom all else came.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Morals and Ethics and Politics

Last week i wrote on sin, you can find that post here.  This week i would like to consider morals and ethics.  How are they different?  How are they the same?  Do i have the right to force my morals or ethics on others?  If Mitt the Mormon missionary mused on his Mormon morals, would they be mere Mormon musing of a Massachusite monarch?  (Also, is that joke now dated?)
      Morals and ethics differ in their source material.  Morals are based on a set of beliefs, like a religion.  Ethics are based on a philosophy which is in turn based on a set of beliefs.  In the end all ethics are a form or morality, but not all morality qualifies as ethics.  This is analogous to how all politicians are tiny bloodsucking animals, but not all tiny bloodsucking animals are politicians.  (Also; All french are cowards but not all cowards are french, all Catholics breed like rabbits but not all rabbits are Catholic (some are Jewish), you get the idea.)  Morals and ethics both find their foundations in a belief set.  For morals this belief set could be divine revelation, or alien transmissions, or the deluded ravings of a mad man living in a cave.  These are not all equal in validity, but they are all sufficient for the foundation of a moral code.  Ethics must find their footing in a person's foundational assumptions, those basic beliefs that inform our worldview, that is, the way we view the world.
      Something is subjective if it only applies to a singular individual or group.  Something is objective if it applies to everyone.  An example most of us can relate to is temperature.  A guy would generally find 72  degrees (22.2C) to be a little on the warm side.  If a member of the opposite gender, your mom, sister, or girlfriend, walks into the room she will ask why it is so cold in here.  Our perception of 72 degrees is subjective because it depends on the person; be it warm, cold or just right.  However, it is an objective fact that the room is indeed 72 degrees.
      Because morality is based on an individual's beliefs, there is such thing as subjective morality.  However, most morality is objective.  It would be objectively wrong for me to hunt down that person who cut me off in traffic the other day and burn her house down.  There is no real doubt here.  (sadly)  I would say there is nothing objectively wrong with consuming alcohol, so long as it is done in moderation.  A cold Yuengling after a hard day's work (or while watching anime on Hulu) is a very nice thing.  However i have friends who think all alcohol is of the devil and it is a sin to consume any.  (They would like me to give it up, but since i'm already going to hell for being Catholic, i don't see why i should surrender my Rum and Cokes.)  For the sake of argument, we are gong to say i'm right and alcohol is a good thing; it's not wrong for me and thus not objectively wrong.  However, it would be wrong for them to consume alcohol as it would be a violation of conscience.  Thus we have subjective morality.  It is morally acceptable for me to drink a Long Island Ice Tea but would be morally wrong for my puritanical Baptist friends.
      Ethics are never subjective.  They are objective by their very nature.  I can be right in my ethical claims and i can be wrong in my ethical claims, but there are no ethical claims which apply only to me.  In fact, the absolute nature of ethics allows us to distinguish subjective morality from objective morality.  Burning down that lady's home would be ethically wrong.  This is how i know it is objective morality.  If we can back up our morality with ethics then it is objective morality, universal truth.  Subjective morality can have no ethical footing.
      This brings us to our core concept, politics.  The role of government in Catholic thought is two fold, according Pope Pius XII, "to safeguard the inviolable rights of the human person, and to facilitate the performance of his duties, is the principal duty of every public authority."  The government has the authority and obligation to defend basic human rights.  In addition, as every right correspondes to a duty, the government can and should enforce the performance of those duties.
      The role of morals in politics seems simple.  Subjective morality has no place in the public sphere.  Just as you are under no duty to obey my morality and i have no right to force my morality upon you.  Most everyone believes their morality is of the objective type.  Even people who say all morality is subjective will admit that murder is universally wrong, i.e. objective.  I often hear people say it is wrong to force your morality on others, thus making a claim on universal, objective morality.  In practice we all believe our own morals are objective, otherwise we wouldn't hold to them.  However, who is to say who is right?  Morals should not be legislated as it is simply presumption to assert my morality as superior to yours.  I can and should strive to convert you to my way of thinking, and you should do the same for me, but i cannot and should not use the government as a way to force my beliefs on you.
      Ethics are the complete opposite.  Ethics inform us of our human rights and of our duties.  Ethics tell us what we cannot do and what we must do.  They are those universal truths for which government exists.  It is not only acceptable that the government enforce ethics, the government fails in its very purpose when it fails to do so.  I can make a moral argument against homosexual activity, but i cannot make an ethical argument against homosexual activity.  Who's rights are being violated?  What duty is being ignored?  I must therefor conclude that it would be inappropriate for the government to legislate against homosexual acts.  The truth is, i cannot make a half decent moral argument against abortion.  However, ethics tells us that the right to life is the most foundational of all rights and we have a duty to defend human life no matter the age or location of the person.  The ethical arguments against abortion are thoroughly sufficient to merit a universal ban.
      My arguments against contraception are moral arguments, based in my religious beliefs.  It would be inappropriate for me to try and ban contraception with the arguments i currently posses.  However, the opposite is also true.  Just as it would be wrong for Catholics to force our views of contraception on others, it would be equally wrong for them to force their views on us.  For example, by forcing us to purchase contraception for them, directly or indirectly.  It is ethically wrong to force people to act contrary to their own moral beliefs.  Each one of us has a right to conscience and to violate this right is a serious abuse of government authority.
      Human beings are political creatures by nature.  Whenever we form groups we form ways of governing those groups.  Even among a group of friends they will have a mode of decision making.  As political creatures it is important for us to understand the role of government.  We must understand why it is in place, what it can and cannot legislate.  When the founding fathers put forth the declaration of independence they also put forth three ethical claims; that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.  At times we are called upon to lay down our lives to secure the liberty of another.  At times we are called to lay down our liberty for the happiness of another.  We can never enslave another for the sake of our own happiness.  We can never kill another for the sake of our own liberty. 

 That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, --That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Understanding Sin as Tangent

Generally, I avoid the term sin.  This is not because i find the topic distasteful, but because most people don't know what sin is.  They see it as arbitrary divine judgement.  For them, sin is the violation of some supernatural legal code.  Just as crime results in prison, sin results in damnation.  It's cold and impersonal and alienating.  When they hear us say they are sinning they simply hear us passing judgment on them.  Although i will not shy away from talking about sins, generally, i will avoid the term.  It just confuses the issue and pushes people farther away.
      However, this is based on a misconception of God, of His relation to us.  God is not a power hungry tyrant, He is not an impersonal and wrathful judge.  He is a loving Father, and He created us with a purpose.  To understand sin, we must first understand this purpose and our relation to God.
      There is a meaning to life.  We were created for the greatest good of all, complete union with God, in which we find true happiness and ultimate joy.  We enter into this union through love, through the true self-gift.  This is not something we do, but rather something we allow God to do.  All you really contribute is your yes, when you say yes to God and offer Him the entirety of yourself.  So long as i pursue my own good, i will never find the ultimate good.  So long as i am looking out for myself and pursuing my own happiness, true joy and fulfillment will forever evade me.  So i let go, and offer myself to God.  I allow him to love me and to love the world through me.  In giving myself to Him, i receive Him in turn, and find the purpose for which i was made.
      There is this path, its narrow and steep, but when we travel it we travel with God, towards our true purpose.  This is the path of salvation.  God neither forces us to walk it nor to remain on it.  There are many other paths to choose from, often times they seem more appealing, but they do not takes us anywhere we really want to go.  They are tangents, leading us away from our true ends.  We walk the path of salvation so long as we pursue God, the ultimate good.  We leave this path and pursue the tangents when we choose lesser goods over God, temporal good over eternal good, personal good over the good of others.
      God does not send anyone to Hell.  If He did, he would be a monster, creating man simply to subject him to eternal torment.  God sends no one to Hell.  Each and every soul who arrives in this destination of the damned is there of their own free will, their own volition.  They refused God when He offered them salvation, when He offered them Himself.  The souls in Hell said no when God offered them Heaven.
      When we place our hope in anything apart from God it will eventually fail us.  We pursue lesser goods but they don't satisfy us.  They may grant us a momentary escape from the miseries of life, but soon they fade.  We seek them out again, but this time we need more to get the same feelings, and again they fade.  Soon it does not matter how much we get, our desire cannot be satisfied.  We desire a fulfillment which can only be achieved in finding our meaning, our purpose in being.  We all hope in someday finding that purpose, but the longer we seek it in vain the more our hope fades, until it finally dies, and all we are left with is despair.  Hell is not a place like Pittsburgh or Milwaukee, it is a state of being, it is the complete absence of a meaning only God can provide.  Hell is the complete and utter despair resulting from a life of self-gratification.
      Sin aught not to be seen as a legal term, divine or otherwise.  Our true fulfillment is found in union with God, and God desires that for us.  However, He gave us free will so that we could choose for ourselves.  We have the power to choose against God, to reject Him.  We can take actions that impede our union with God, that separate us from the ultimate good, that lead us on the path towards the misery of despair.  This is the essence of sin.  This is what we aught to mean when we refer to it.  Sin is that which separates us from God, from the ultimate good, from the purpose of our being.  It consists of those things which are spiritually harmful to the individual who does them. 
      God desires that which is best for us, which is union with Him.  Sin harms us by separating us from Him and binding us to the world.  Nothing in creation is evil in of itself.  Food is good, sex is good, music is good, everything is created good.  The problem comes when we prefer these things to God.  Again, God sends no one to Hell, it is not something God subjects us to, it is something we subject ourselves to.  But why?  Why would anyone choose Hell over Heaven?  It is because of the high cost of Heaven.  In order to gain paradise, we must be willing to give up everything.  All the goods of creation are distractions we must be willing to sacrifice.  No human being can do this alone.  It is only with God's aid that this is possible.  Even then we all will fall short on occasion.  Sins are those things which tie us to these lesser goods and distract us from God.
      When we do something that leads us away from God, we are choosing against Heaven.  When we stop pursuing God and go off on these tangents, that is sin.  When God tells us to give to those in need and avoid murdering our neighbors, it is because He desires what is best for us.  I could rightly say that contraception is a sin, but most people would hear something like; contraception makes God angry and now your going to hell.  This understanding would not only be unhelpful, but it could even lead people away from Christ and His Church.  So rather than give scandal, i say contraception harms you as a person, it impedes your true happiness and hinders your relationship with God.  Far less offensive, much more informative, and yet I have said the exact same thing in both cases.  For that is what sin does and why it is so bad; it harms us as people, impedes our true happiness and hinders our relationship with God.
      Sin is a tangent, because it distracts us from the real purpose of it all.