Swimming the Tiber 1: Introduction and Definitions

On this Reformation Day, marking 499 years since Martin Luther set the snowball rolling on what would eventually become Protestantism, I have decided to begin a series on my own Counter-Reformation. You see, of late I have been feeling a conviction of the Spirit that I have been too taciturn about my faith. Part of that is wanting to avoid a misrepresentation leading to misunderstandings; I may well do the topic a disservice. Part of my reticence, too, is avoiding the modern trend of getting fired for expressing my beliefs too publicly, too loud, or too obnoxiously.

But those reasons fall flat when examined. Careful exposition on the reasons for my conversion is not bad presentation; and if someone will be offended by my conversion, they will likely be so regardless of what time I mention it. Most employers (some excepted) do not fire good employees on account of a mild expression of their faith, even if that faith contradicts the opinions held by managers and executives at that company (and since I do not plan to use slurs or other grotesque terminology, legitimate reasons for my firing are not likely to come up); and besides that, even if I am fired on these grounds, I shall “offer it up”–that is, I shall adhere to Colossians 1:24.

The astute and frequent site visitor may doubt my resolve in beginning a long series. You’ve likely noticed that I haven’t reviewed many books lately, and that my translations of Romans have been inconsistently timed. This slow-down is due almost entirely to my busy schedule: two toddlers (or a toddler and a baby, depending on how much denial I’m in about the passage of time), a full-time job, graduate classes in computer science, and my work on The Aegipan Revolution (sequel to The Chimaera Regiment). In all of that, I don’t really have time to read regularly (which is a shame).

“But wait!” you interrupt. “If you don’t have time to read, why would you have time for a new series of blog posts?” Good question! The answer is that I probably don’t. Taking this up will likely deter some other hobby, but that’s okay. Like my translations of Romans, I think this is important enough to let other hobbies (especially those that are the least productive) fall by the wayside.

What, then, is this series about? I have mentioned it obliquely already: my conversion to Catholicism. It will not follow exactly the route I did; my path from Southern Baptist to Catholic was non-linear, darting from one topic to another without logical progression, until finally everything fell into place in a moment of clarity. Instead, I will try to provide structure, building upon each topic to establish the next. I don’t intend to cover every possible objection to the Catholic Church (an endeavor that would surely take a lifetime), but only those which I had myself (and a couple that are tangentially related). Even so, assuming I can post these on a weekly basis (which is my current plan), this series will take me the better part of a year to complete.

Before I get started, let me quickly say that, if you want your apology from someone more intelligent, more humorous, more structured, and more precise, go out immediately and read St. Francis de Sales’ The Catholic Controversy, which is a series of letters he wrote to his diocese as it became Protestant around him. (He succeeded in converting a great many souls back to the Church, and this is the book I blame more than any other for my own conversion.) More than a few of the points I will present come directly from St. Francis’ work. (You can read my review of it here, if you want an overview. And if you don’t want to buy it, though I recommend you do–taking notes is optional, but probable–there is an English translation available online.)

The first step in any good discussion is an agreement of terms. Disagreeing on definitions is the largest hurdle in any conversation about theology and it is the one most often missed or ignored. Simply put, Catholics and non-Catholics do not use the same terms in the same way, and assuming that they do creates a false understanding of the others’ teaching. I am endeavoring, in this first post of the series, to lay out the terms on which Protestants and Catholics frequently disagree so that these misunderstandings are minimized.

(It is probable that I shall edit this post in the future when I think of more terms that need to be defined.)

to pray
To ask or request. Compare once-common English usage, “Pray tell!” in which the speaker asks that the listener provide more information on a subject. Compare archaism “prithee,” literally, pray thee, used by Shakespeare 228 times to have one character ask another something. In Catholic circles, does not mean “to worship.” (In Protestant circles, excluding usages as in Shakespeare, means almost exclusively “to worship,” and praying can only be done to God. This is a linguistic oddity more than a theological one; Protestants use “pray” for its original meaning so infrequently that laypeople are rarely even aware of that definition.)
to worship
As a general rule, Catholics mean the same thing as Protestants when they say, “to worship,” but sometimes, very rarely, they mean it in a literal way: “to apply the appropriate worth to” something or someone. With this usage, it can be applied to just about anything. Because of the rarity of this usage, I prefer never to engage in it, but in case you come across someone saying, “We worship X, Y, Z (not-God),” don’t automatically say it proves that all Catholics are idolaters. It’s just another linguistic alteration over time, and some folks haven’t caught up yet.
works
I will delve into the soteriological implications of “works” in a later post, but for now, suffice it to say that the term needs to lose its baggage for a good conversation. For Protestants, this word often means that you have fallen into a paganesque method of rote behavior, thinking you can build a stairway to heaven; for Catholics, this word mostly means “labor,” “effort,” or “action.” Attributing more meaning to it will confuse a Catholic and infuriate a Protestant.
holy / holiness
More than a few Protestant evangelical friends of mine have defied usage of the term “holy” in one direction or another. Either “holy” is something that only God is, and therefore we should not apply it to people of any stripe (no matter how good they may be), or “holy” is something all Christians are, and therefore we should not restrict it to certain people. For Catholics, “holy” (synonymous with “saintly”) tends to be held in reserve for both God and the saints. I will delve into the saints in a later post, but for now, suffice it to say that the saints are those “set apart” by God in heaven. Catholic doctrine does not preclude the definition used by Paul (meaning “the faithful” or “Christians in general”) in Romans 15; I Corinthians 6; 2 Corinthians 1; and other places, both in the New and Old Testament. But rather, it favors the definition used by Paul (meaning “the ideal” or “those delineated as holy by God” or “those by the side of God”) in Romans 1; 8; Ephesians 5; and other places. Which of these is the more appropriate meaning can be debated, but the modern usage of Catholics has more than a thousand years of history behind it at this point.
The Five Solas
These belong to Protestantism, and the five solas are: sola Scriptura (Scripture alone is the final authority on God’s plan for salvation), sola gratia (men are saved by grace alone), sola fide (that grace comes through faith alone), solus Christus (that faith is in Christ alone), and soli Deo gloria (creation gives glory to God alone). These are not uniquely Protestant, in that some can be interpreted through a Catholic lens and be entirely accurate (most easily the last), but especially the first is peculiarly Protestant (excluding Anglicans, whose three-legged stool of faith gives no primacy to Scripture). To read more about the five solas, here’s a randomly selected website.

 
That’s all for now. Look forward to more posts in the future. The first topic will be Sacred Tradition, and will involve the daunting task of disagreeing with sola Scriptura. This may seem a very challenging place to begin, but without it, much of the Catholic Church may be dismissed by those who ignore her historical authority.

Next Post:
The Rules of Faith >

Effective or Fallacious?

OrthodoxyOrthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A re-read is sometimes a wonderful thing. It’s especially useful when I have attained a greater depth of understanding for the work that I am re-reading. This book is one such case.

Chesterton’s work is rightly praised by Christian readers everywhere. His honest approach to the agnostic and atheistic arguments of his day is compelling and persuasive. His prose is entertaining, his thoughts illuminating, and his conclusions reasonable.

All of this, of course, is such to a Christian audience.

The only negative things I can think to say are these: Chesterton tends to simplify his opponents’ arguments; and he tends to ridicule his opponents themselves.

From a pro-Chesterton perspective, he is distilling opposing arguments to their root beliefs, pointing out that necessary (if unspecified) premises are false, and ultimately destroying the agnostic and atheistic conclusions by those means. From an anti-Chesterton perspective, he is committing either the reductio ad absurdum or the straw man fallacy.

From a pro-Chesterton perspective, he is treating his opponents’ ideas with the incredulity and disdain they deserve. From an anti-Chesterton perspective, he is committing the ad hominem fallacy.

Ultimately, I think the book works very well and succeeds where many other apologetics works have failed (in no small part because it is a chronicle of personal experience and not a work of apologetics)–but I can see how some of Chesterton’s then-and-now intellectual opponents would severely disagree.

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Novels, Announcements, and Manhood

This is the front.

This is the front.

First, you’re probably hoping for an update about something I’ve written. The Chimaera Regiment is pretty much finished. It’s all written. It’s all edited. Except for a few typos, the book is done. It even has a tentative cover (right), and a map, too (below). It has not, however, been published.

I'm a map!

I’m a map!

I know, I know, it’s terribly frustrating, watching me work. “When will it be finished?” you ask, “When can I read it?” Well, as you may recall, almost two years ago I began an ill-advised and sorely underfunded Kickstarter project, about which I am definitely not bitter. The goal of this project was to produce The Chimaera Regiment as an audio-book (I believe the kids these days call them “audio weblogs” or perhaps “pod-casts”), for which I myself would be voice and guide.

The long and short of it is that this plan forges onward, without the help of crowd-funding. I have less than half the book recorded, none of it edited, and completing all of that will take some time. (Frankly, it should take less time than will pass in its pursuit, but my time is at a premium, and some things take precedence.) It promises to be a grand adventure in roaring fun with a musical soundtrack specially composed to match. Look forward to it.

When the audio-book is complete (not only completed in terms of production, but completed also in terms of performance for the masses), then the book will be published, at which time, you can buy it and read it (in your own, boring voice). Since there are 19 episodes for the audio-book, that means that it will be (A) the rest of production time, plus (B) 19 weeks of release before the printed version (or Kindle version, for that matter) is available.

Certain contests may be result in certain contest-winners receiving signed copies early. Pretend you still have an analog radio, and that anything I produce will actually be on the radio, and then remain attentive to my station by avoiding the rotating knob on the front of your hypothetical radio-wave device. (“Stay tuned!” and “Don’t touch that dial!”)

With that out of the way, I come to my second bit of happy news: my wife is with child, and after the circuit of the days, she will bring forth a son. The joy of these times seems renewed every morning, and cannot be touched by the shadows of despair. I am ecstatic. And so, with my vast array of parenting experience (I have managed to keep the child alive for about sixteen weeks, which is more than a lot of fathers can say these days), I am endeavoring to comment on an issue that stands before our culture in a way that is very poignant:

Masculinity.

There have been a lot of books written about masculinity (especially in relation to Christianity). I’ve read plenty of them. There was Wild at Heart by Eldredge, A Young Man After God’s Own Heart by George, The Samson Syndrome by Atteberry, and probably a dozen others that I don’t remember now. You see, when I was a boy, I desperately wanted to be a man. That’s the dream, after all, of all boys: manhood. Whether we idolize our fathers or despise them, we want to be real men. And almost all of us differ on what it means to be a man. Most often, I hear two sides of this argument: “We have to stop feminizing men and attacking masculinity in this country!” versus, “The masculinity presented by society is too violent, and boys need to know that emotions are okay!”

In truth, these two positions are not opposed. As men, and as fathers, we must stand against the effeminacy of the modern man; but as men, and especially as fathers, we must stand against the violent tendencies that our high-spirited wildness seeks to engender. I recently saw a video posted on social media decrying the violence encouraged among the boys of society.

[pb_vidembed caption=”” url=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hc45-ptHMxo” type=”yt” w=”480″ h=”385″]
It was not terribly long ago that I was a boy, and – mostly from my peers – I kept hearing about how I should behave, especially around women. Most of their advice was, of course, terrible, and I saw that even then. I heard a lot of the comments echoed in the video above, and when I was teaching high school, I heard even more. The fact of the matter is that these comments are pervasive and perpetual, and they don’t only come from fathers. Perhaps they once did, but now, they are spread by peer groups, father-figures like teachers and principals, even mothers whose husbands and baby-daddies left them for less fertile pastures, so to speak. Society as a whole perpetuates the notion of the violently authoritative man. Only the violent man gains respect, because respect and fear are seen as one and the same.

But to be respected, a man must be loved; to be respected, fear must never enter the equation, because perfect love casts out all fear. You cannot beat respect out of another man; violence only elicits fear, and fear only resembles respect among the cowardly. No amount of violence can create respect in a man who is not cowed by his fear. A man like this has courage, and stands for himself – but more importantly, he stands for others. A man who deserves respect is not the one with the biggest stick, but the one with the strongest shield.

So certainly, we must teach our sons not to respond with violence when they are emotionally slighted. Such behavior is inherently unmanly; it is an expression of the fear that someone else could humiliate you, the fear that you have no control – but the truth is that adherence to this behavior, like all sin, is to cede control. In allowing violence to take over, you place your will beneath the fire in your heart.

Ironically, effeminacy is caused by the same thing – except the feelings in charge are seen as feminine, such as tenderness and sorrow. From the perspective of the modern man, there are three emotions: happiness, sadness, and anger. Happiness is what people would have if the world were perfect; sadness is feminine; and anger is masculine. From this perspective, when a boy is sad, he is seen as effeminate; when he is angry, he is seen as masculine; when he is happy, he is seen as naïve. Since he is a boy, the modern man sees feminine as bad, masculine as good, and naïve as foolish; the only emotion encouraged is anger, and uncontrolled anger begets violence.

That is not to say that effeminacy is a figment of the gangster’s imagination. On the contrary, many of those opposed to violence make the same assumptions, only they call sadness “tenderness.” Tenderness is feminine, anger is masculine, and happiness is foolish, because the world is a hard place. Since anger leads to violence, then masculinity is bad, so femininity must be good, and all boys should be encouraged to let their tenderness control them. And it’s true – when you make your will subject to your tender emotions, you will not be violent. But you will also not be manly. Instead, you will cower when threatened, and when someone attacks you or your friends, you will be defeated without contest. And every time a teacher punishes a boy for fighting back against a bully, s/he perpetuates this problem – after all, the bully still hears about how he must be masculine, angry, and violent at home, but now the bullied learn that even self-defense will be punished.

We see here two sides of the same coin: allow your anger to control you, and you will be “masculine,” which means violent; allow your tenderness to control you, and you will be “gentle,” which means effeminate. The real solution is to attack the root of the problem: we’re still flipping the same damn coin.

Violence is not the answer; neither is pacifism. The right answer is the victory of the will. Do not let baser things rule that which was designed to rule. When your urges command your decisions, you have already lost – regardless of which urges are in command. If your violent urges rule, then you will be violent; if your tender urges rule, then you will be effeminate.

But if your will rules, you will be a man.

Our violent tendencies can be dangerous, but when tamed, they can protect the ones we love from harm. Our tenderness can weaken us if left uncontrolled, but when harnessed, it can lead us to lay down our lives for those we love – both literally and figuratively. It is not enough to die for your family; first, you must live for them.

I pray that these are the lessons I will teach my son about masculinity.

Innovation and Ideation

Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of InnovationWhere Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There’s a lot of material to discuss with this book, and I have gone off on several tangents in my rather extensive notes. As a result, this book review is only complete here, on my blog, where the more religious comments will not distract folks who are simply looking for a book review.

First, general comments: I like the book. I rented it from the library at my office, but I am considering purchasing it because of the wealth of information it supplies–especially information that is inordinately useful for an author of science fiction. The development of ideas is a crucial study for anyone who wants to suggest what future ideas will be; I think that I have benefited well from reading this book, and especially recommend it to anyone interested in the history of ideation or its possible future (i.e., science fiction). (It’s also good reading for anyone looking to form an environment that promotes innovation–you know, the intended audience of the book.)

There are very few typographical errors; I can only recall two, but I do not have the quotes or page numbers on hand. The book is very well-written; Mr. Johnson has no trouble formulating his prose. Now on to more specific comments:

Perhaps the first thing you’ll notice when you start this book is that it spends a lot of time talking about evolution. Mr. Johnson’s argument is that ideation (the development or “evolution” of ideas) is largely similar to biological evolution (as are cultural and social development). I, personally, have no training in the field of evolutionary biology, so I can hardly comment on these issues. Many people agree with them, many others don’t. From what little I do know, he does not misrepresent the point, and it plays well into his subject matter (i.e., he’s not mentioning it to be confrontational, but rather, he has good reason to do so in the context of his book).

One of the great things about this book is that it highlights the way great story ideas coalesce–especially notable is the “Slow Hunch” chapter. Frequently, I don’t come up with the best novel idea ever in a flash. I come up with a good idea, and then I let it sit for a while and think about other things. Eventually, another idea–whether one I’ve had recently or very long ago–will collide with it, and I’ll have an even more complex, more gratifying story. For every one of the ideas I have (which I fully intend to write, sooner or later), this has happened at one point or another. I’ll think, “This song is inspiring. I should write a story that incorporates some of these ideas.” And then I’ll hear a saint’s life that lines up with that idea precisely. I’ll read someone else’s work, or postulate theories about the end times, or read a non-fiction book about French pirates in 18th century New Orleans, or devise a science fiction universe with my best friend, and things will come together to form a solid book idea. It’s great.

On the other hand, something that I think Mr. Johnson does not devote enough attention to is the formative and inspirational power of others’ literary works. His focus is primarily on inculcating an environment of liquid networks, where information flows freely and people share data, to produce the largest “adjacent possible” and lead to the greatest innovations. What he does not acknowledge (or at least not explicitly) is that a liquid network can form within a single mind, not just between neurons, but among the great minds of history. Theology, philosophy, science–all can be formed, adapted, expanded by studying people who have been dead for a century or more. He might relegate this to the contemplative life for which no one has any time anymore (a lament he makes when wishing that we could all spend our lives focused on developing ideas, as Darwin and Berners-Lee could), but even with a family, there is always enough free time to engage in study and contemplation… You just have to choose that over, say, watching another movie on cable or hitting “next episode” on Netflix or Hulu. Time is about choice, not constraint. Most people do not actually lack free will regarding their daily activities.

He does discuss the value of reading when it comes to the exploration and collision of ideas (pp112-113), but this is in brief. His main focus is the exploration–moving beyond the confines of daily activity–and the lament that most people don’t have time for reading. Again, make time. Also, he praises the web for its capacity to make connections (and responds to arguments that the Internet reduces serendipity by hyper-focusing everything); this is his true ideal for reading, that people find topics randomly and search for more information, not that they pursue the ideas of the ancients. It’s a component, but not a very large one. Perhaps he would argue that it’s excellent to use literature to formulate and combine ideas, but it is an incomplete architecture that does not afford every opportunity for liquid networking, slow hunches, and random connection.

Long story short, I really enjoyed this book, and I highly recommend it for purposes of (A) creating an environment that encourages innovation, (B) studying ideation in a historical narrative and imagining what may come about in the future, or (C) better understanding viewpoints that are certainly widely held among people with whom you disagree (supposing you disagree with the content of the book). Read on for more exploration of the subjects and my many digressions on matters of religion.

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Now, to my focus on religion:

I did develop a notable complaint from a very small comment he made at one point. He suggested that monastic orders in the time between the Fall of Rome and the Renaissance “controlled” information in a manner that was too ordered (no pun intended) to allow for innovation; this is his reasoning for the apparent lack of innovation during that time frame. Ignoring for a moment that innovation did not cease during that time, I thought it important to note that these methods also protected information and innovation from the clutches of the barbarian hordes, who would surely have been too chaotic to produce innovation. Barbarians of the era had no interest in liquid networks or ideation of the scientific or classical varieties. Khan’s empire produced some fine military innovations, but nothing on the order of the Renaissance or the Enlightenment.

In the same vein, he does include the perfunctory (and essential, for such books) statement about Galileo–whose “research posed a significant security threat to the established powers of the day” (p226). I suppose he’s not wrong when he writes, “Classifying two hundred good ideas into four broad quadrants certainly makes it harder to learn anything specific about each individual innovation” (also p226). He seems to know very little about the history of Galileo.

The fourth chapter of the book discusses chaotic coincidence, or serendipity. The goal of a liquid network, and especially one firing ideas chaotically across its expanse, is to formulate new ideas in ways that ordered, logical thinking could never attain. The Catholic Church has a great history of this; Thomas Aquinas, for example, baptized the work of Aristotle in a way that no one though prudent or even plausible before him–especially since Muslims like Averroes had claimed Aristotle as their philosophical predecessor. The eternal and seminal Logos, the creative Word, the Trinity, the Incarnation, the homoousios, the resurrection–every theological and christological idea has roots in other philosophies, other theologies–in innovation and chaos. And if heresy isn’t chaotic, nothing is–this production of alternate paths and ideas among bishops and priests and religious and laity produces exactly the sort of environment that led to the strongest theological foundations of our faith. Even moral and anthropological clarifications came by these means; the fundamental understanding of human life from conception to natural death would not have been formulated without the pushback from society that claimed the acceptability of eliminating inconvenient persons. Even the scientific development of prenatal study is tied to this very issue.

Far be it from me to suggest that we should encourage heresy and abominable immoral practices, that our understanding of our faith may increase (Romans 6:1). But as with sin and grace, we should not flee these “opportunities” offered us by society; we should not sully our faith, obscure our position, or hide the fact that we disagree with what society has claimed. If the President of the United States declares that we must pay for the deaths of human beings who have committed no wrongdoing in society, let us take up the mantle of Justin Martyr, and explain to him–in his own terms, by his own logic and belief–why he is wrong and cannot do this thing. After all, Justin convinced the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius to lessen his persecution of the Christians. (We must also keep in mind, of course, that Marcus Aurelius’ empire saw Justin executed. We will not always be on the winning side when it comes to society’s persecutions.) If groups of the faithful declare that homosexuality is as viable and natural a relationship as orthosexuality (from orthos, meaning “right” – cf. orthodoxy, orthopraxy), we address their argumentation clearly and accurately; nothing is gained by going off half-cocked and rambling on these issues in interviews. And we must always remember the Church’s response to heresy, historically: excommunication. People who teach these things must be removed from among the faithful–not because we seek to stifle the liquid network, the flow of ideas, or the innovative power of chaos, but because universities don’t hire astronomers who hold a terracentric view of the universe or physicists who teach that fire rises because it’s trying to reach the source of the fire element (the Sun). There are chaotic and creative ideas, and then there are just plain wrong ideas. Heresies fall in the latter category, and must be excised.

In his discussion of exaptation (cf. adaptation; “exaptation” is the use of an object or body part for a purpose totally removed from its original function–feathers originally grown for warmth became useful for flight, for example), he explains that this principle is key in rebutting intelligent design, because it is precisely the random nature of exaptation–the accidental discovery that your blanket, when asymmetrical, provides lift and improves flight speed–that makes macroevolution not only possible, but obvious. He goes on to explain, though, that human beings use exaptation as engineers; Gutenberg combined a wine press and movable type (among other things), invented long before he came along, to produce copious numbers of duplicate texts. While fortune plays a significant part in both scientific and cultural advancements (see his previous chapter on error), exaptation occurs frequently by intention and by design.

In a way, he’s unintentionally arguing against himself. It is an easy leap to go from saying that human beings design via exaptation (which involves many inventors with small pieces of the whole picture), to saying that Creation is the inventive process of a single eternal designer; the intermediary steps, so lauded by atheists as evidence of error in an inerrant God, would be the necessary movement through the adjacent possible. Intelligent design, though despised by so many on both sides of the origin argument, at least seems to stand on its own in the face of scientific principles. Whether it is right or wrong, of course, I cannot say.

Inevitably, this reminds me of one of the great failings of the Protestant approach to theology–the notion of individual, indiscriminate spiritual guidance. Is it possible that the Holy Spirit can speak to anyone, anytime, about anything, with perfect clarity? Absolutely. Does it happen as often as people claim it does? Probably not. I noticed this phenomenon most acutely on a social media network recently; someone had linked to an interview about a book by a prominent non-Christian on the identity of Jesus. The issue that came up was the discussion (by the author of the book) of christology and Christian theology. There was an argument in several comments that the author lacked the appropriate education and training, because his educational field was almost entirely unrelated to that subject; their suggestion, of course, was that his estimation of Christian theology was weak in its very foundation, because he had only had rudimentary training in the field. To this, their opponent in the argument echoed (with no small amount of incredulity), “‘Appropriate’ education?”

The implication here is that there is no such thing as “appropriate” education in theology. Anyone, apparently, can muse about the nature of God, and cannot be wrong. This is a fundamental flaw in argumentation. I cannot write a thesis on neurobiology without study. I cannot write a thesis on neo-Keynesian economics without study. I cannot write a thesis on symbolism in 16th-century Italian mannerism without study. Yet, for some reason, I am not only allowed but encouraged to write a thesis on theology, christology, soteriology–without a whit of preparation? Without reading one iota of the vast array of works which came before me? I must simply “feel” what is “right” and jot it down, and I shall be hailed a visionary, one of the elite, an academic master?

This is foolishness.

If I must attend school and study brains before I can do a lobotomy, if I must attend school and study finances before I can advise the President on his economic policies, if I must attend school and study art history before I can become the world’s leading expert on old paintings–then I must attend school and study theology before I can lead the faithful to a right understanding of God. And it occurs to me that if I want to be the best leader of the faithful, I must study under the most erudite, the most intelligent, the most well-versed teachers–those who have dedicated their entire lives to this singular pursuit, giving up all else but their love of God and neighbor.

But I digress. As I will do again very shortly.

Some of Mr. Johnson’s comments and suggestions sound suspiciously like leftist politics, but he reinforces repeatedly that he is not advocating political leanings at all, nor is he advocating the abolition of intellectual property laws. The “fourth quadrant” (non-market, non-individual innovation) allows for financial gain and free innovation; the flow of information benefits society, and a person attains individual benefits via recognition, attribution, financial reimbursement or salary, and more. The only thing incompatible with innovation, according to Mr. Johnson, is top-down bureaucracy, where the Leaders tell the Peons what to do, when to do it, and how to get it done.

This has notable implications for religious institutions. On the one hand, Protestant churches are all about individual liberty–even the ones that have their own top-down hierarchy, like Anglicanism or Presbyterianism. After all, without individual interpretation of Scripture, those denominations would never have come to be–and we know from our political science studies of these United States that individual liberty is to be prized above all else. So Protestantism seems to be at the forefront of innovation in the spiritual sphere, clearly outclassing Catholicism, which–from the outside, at least–appears to be ruled by a tyrannical monarch who has set himself up as God’s mouthpiece, especially when there are so many stories in the news about how “Catholics want this” or “Catholics don’t want that,” and it’s just the mean Pope and his crony bishops who keep it–i.e., abortions, contraceptives, universal ordination, universal matrimony–from “Catholics.”

But it is among Protestants that we see the divergent, chaotic, self-serving arbitrariness that is the very opposite of Truth. (To be fair, insofar as the Catholic Church has allowed a freer sense of liturgy, prayer, and faith, especially since the Second Vatican Council, those same elements are present therein, although rarely to the same degree.) People journey in every direction, seeking their own benefit and their own good, without consideration for reality, genuine weal, or Truth. I don’t want children, because I would have to quit work and stay home, and that would make things difficult for me right now. It’s okay to contracept, because God taught us to be good stewards, and more mouths to feed would be inconvenient and challenging. It’s unfair that anyone should be kept from any position in any field for reason of personal identity, rather than technical capacity, and gender does not alter technical capacities for anything. It’s unfair that someone should be told that they cannot marry the person they love, because marriage is about joining two people who love each other, and sexual orientation is obviously as natural and random as hair color or height. Theology is irrelevant and should be replaced with an emotional bond between us and Christ, who is our friend and brother, because “theology” is what stodgy old white men talk about, and we need to be relevant to modern generations.

Nevermind that your child is a complete and unique human being, as scientific studies continue to conclude with each passing year. Nevermind that limiting the self-gift of love cheapens your marriage and robs both you and your spouse of the divine blessings that matrimony offers; nevermind, too, that a little self-control goes a long way toward good stewardship when your family is actually imperiled. Nevermind that gender obviously alters technical capacities–there are general tendencies that deter women from accomplishing certain tasks, and general tendencies that deter men from accomplishing certain tasks, true, but more than that, no man is capable of bearing a child. (The hypothetical notion that medical science may one day produce a surgical procedure that would allow men to do so not only smacks of transhumanism, but demands a severe and unnatural process all for the sake of pretense.) Nevermind that marriage is not about joining two people who love each other (it has more do with a sacramental union of two individuals with God in an active love so strong that it must propagate itself, though even that is an insufficient description); and nevermind that not all natural orientations and inclinations ought to be followed. (It is the typical Christian argument to liken a natural predisposition toward homosexuality to the same toward gambling, or greed, or violence, but consider even personality quirks–it is unacceptable in common society to have a short temper, to be audibly proud of one’s accomplishments, to ignore the plights of others, and so on. All of these behaviors are “natural,” yet none of them are considered good and healthy, except by those who propose denying ethical strictures of all kinds.) Nevermind that theology is essential to a proper understanding of Christ and His identity–an identity which one must believe upon in order to be saved; most importantly, how can you love that which you do not know, and how can you know that which you do not study? Theology is the study of God, and leads us to knowledge of Him, and that knowledge engenders in us a deeper love than any emotional experience can. We need to teach this to modern generations, not pander to their whims.

Granted, not all Protestant communities espouse these beliefs, and many still oppose them, but the trend toward self-interest is essential to the Protestant way of life. Every time someone disagrees with his church leaders, he goes and starts a new church, placing himself (or someone who agrees with him) at the head of it. This is how there came to be so many denominations, most of which denounce all the others as heretical. The allowance for individual study and interpretation, without a method or mechanism for correcting the mistaken, produces generation after generation of “Christians” who believe some of the most outlandish moral theology heard since the Gnostics and Manichaeans and mystery cults of the first half-millennium Anno Domini. Many Christians remain steadfast in the faith, but many fall away, into hedonism, into paganism, into agnosticism and atheism and nihilism. This is the challenge of the modern Christian: how to support individual liberty, individual study, and individual interpretation–thereby allowing the sort of “fourth quadrant” thinking that Mr. Johnson has–without allowing such egregious errors as abortion and euthanasia.

The difference between theology and more measurable studies in this regard is evidence. In science, when you claim that the earth is flat or there are four (or five) elements, your observations (or those of your intellectual descendants) will prove you wrong. Theology, however, is not easily observed, and like linguistics, semantics, and other “softer” studies (i.e., the humanities), most observations can be twisted to fit an ideology that you already hold. What distinguishes theology even from the humanities is that such twists of belief are often not supported with logic, or reason, or explanation, but with divine revelation. But, “It’s this way because God says it’s this way,” only works for Apostles and prophets, and as Scripture makes it clear, both can be misled. How many times, in the Old Testament, was one prophet opposed by many others? Elijah, Jeremiah–how many more? Do you think that every one of those misleading prophets was motivated by greed, or self-interest? Isn’t it more likely that some of them were simply misled themselves? After all, God and His angels are not the only ones seeking our attention on spiritual matters. Unless we have been given the spiritual gift of discernment, how can we be sure whether a spiritual insight is divine revelation or demonic manipulation? (And no, just saying, “I have the gifts of prophecy and discernment!” does not qualify you to declare your own beliefs as incontrovertible law.) As for the Apostles, recall the case of Judas Iscariot–he walked with Jesus for three years, just like Peter and John and James and the rest, and yet he fell prey to greed. Some posit that he was also attempting to force Jesus’ hand, to compel him to take up the mantle of warrior-Messiah. Regardless of his motives, he was clearly misled, and he was about as close to Christ as any man could come.

Is it reasonable, then, to claim that you, Random Person, are infallible in matters of faith and morals?

Or does it make more sense to bring your innovations, your studies, your interpretations, before the Holy Church, the Body of Christ, the Bride of Christ, subject to His will and guidance, and seek to grow your understanding by open and honest discussion of the ideas with others? The one who reads the Bible, determines an individual interpretation, and writes a book declaring it to be the truth is like someone claiming to invent a new technology in a vacuum, as though no one else had a hand in it; and beyond that, this same person is now claiming that no one could possibly improve upon his invention. It makes no sense. The Church does not oppose the development of ideas. Despite the infamous tales of Galileo and Hus and Luther, their ideas played instrumental roles in the formation and reformation of the Church. Galileo’s science, which followed in the footsteps of Copernicus’ work, was never condemned by the Church (despite what modern representations suggest), but was actually encouraged and supported, especially by Jesuit scientists of the era. Hus and Luther proposed radical alterations to the practices of the Church, and while it may be said that their situations were mishandled by bishops and the papacy, it cannot be said that they had no effect. The so-called “counter-Reformation” was accompanied by broad reforms of Catholic practice, including the abolition of several things Luther opposed directly. Luther, however, could not contain his vitriol, and quickly moved from, “These are problems in the Church,” to, “The Pope is a heretic and a villain, and his Church is a farce,” and other things far too vulgar to print here. (His infamous description of the Book of James is but a small taste of his irreverence.)

In spite of its top-down bureaucratic appearance, the Catholic Church as a whole allows much more freedom of thought than folks give it credit for–but at the same time, it seeks to eliminate errors among its members. Protestant denominations, on the other hand, support individual freedom so completely that they allow error and sin to pervade Christendom, lest they seem too intolerant or restrictive or, Heaven forbid, Catholic.

 

*You may have noticed that I previously used a horizontal rule to separate the “normal” review from the digressions. I originally had the same set up in this post, but was forced to change it due to a bug in the WordPress software that causes very long posts with the horizontal rule HTML tag to disappear. If they ever fix this–it’s been a problem for at least two years–I’ll fix the formatting to be more consistent.

“If Protestantism Is True,” Part Deux

Recently, I wrote about a book entitled “If Protestantism Is True,” by Devin Rose. Even more recently, Mr. Rose replied to my review with comments of his own. This is the exchange that followed:

Nathaniel,

In fact, most people – especially religious and spiritual people of the evangelical Christian variety – think in purely emotional terms.

Yes, and that’s a problem. Mormons feel the bosom-burning and think Mormonism must be true. People have to learn to reason, and my book encourages them to do that. So it is not that I “didn’t realize” Evangelicals are often emotion-driven but that appealing to emotions is not the right way one should go about discerning where God’s truth is found.

The book does not engage with genuine issues, but mocks straw men.

This assertion is false as I will demonstrate by responding to your criticisms.

He emphasizes over and over against a series of arguments from origin, implying or claiming that if someone accepts the teachings of one person or group (such as Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, or the Anabaptists), that someone must accept all other teachings of that person or group as well.

Of course Protestants pick and choose what they believe, but my point is that it is ad hoc to pick and choose one thing from an authority while rejecting another. Protestants look to the Reformers as authorities, accepting various doctrines based on their authority, yet when confronted with other teachings of the Reformers, they reject them because they are too Catholic, or seem unpleasant, etc. What I do in the book is to help Protestants realize where their particular beliefs first originated (say, for instance, purely symbolic communion championed by Zwingli), so that they can think critically about how and why they came to accept that belief.

Beyond that, he also lacks studious knowledge of Protestant theological doctrines. Some Protestant groups, for example, support prima Scriptura, the idea that Scripture is first among theological authorities, and that all other (potential) authorities must be measured by it.

It can and has been shown, deductively, prima Scriptura is really sola Scriptura and sola Scriptura reduces to solo Scriptura–that is, under Protestantism, that the individual is the ultimate interpretive authority of the Scriptures. So it is not that I “lacked studious knowledge of Protestant theological doctrines,” but rather that prima Scriptura is a semantic illusion that really reduces to sola Scriptura.

Regarding public revelation’s closure, you said:

Clearly, he hasn’t read Revelation 22:19 or the many relevant interpretations thereof.

I have read that passage, and the book of Revelation as a whole, many many times. That passage in Revelation is referencing the Book of Revelation itself. As the previous verse states: “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll.” Note, “this scroll” and the plagues recounted therein. A similar thing is said in Deuteronomy 4:2 yet no one thinks that subsequent inspired books that were written violated that command. It was specific to that part of Deuteronomy.

So again, you are quite mistaken, both about what I have read and in how well I understand Protestantism.

In one place, he is quick to point out that the Scriptures did not exist as such until long after the death of the last Apostle – and yet, in another place, he acts as if John knew that his letters would become sacred Scripture, and that Apostle neglecting to include information in that letter meant that Tradition must be true.

Please cite where I “point out that the Scriptures did not exist as such until long after the death of the last Apostle.” I assume you are referring to some part of the canon of Scripture chapter. But I have never said the Scriptures didn’t exist–of course they existed the moment they were written–but it did take the Church centuries to discern the complete canon.

The Apostle Paul wrote four letters to the church in Corinth, yet Scripture preserves only the first and the fourth (which we now call 1 and 2 Corinthians). If the Church left certain apostolic writings out of the canon, might it not be that God intended for a certain sermon to be left out? So may go a Protestant counter-argument.

You don’t understand sacred Tradition. Those sermons are lost to Protestants, but they are not lost to Catholicism, because their content was absorbed as part of sacred Tradition, through the local Churches that read the letters.

Ironically, Mr. Rose concludes his book by encouraging his readers to follow the Protestant model of authority, and decide for themselves where the fullness of truth resides.

You make an error here. The difference between choosing to become Catholic or Protestant does NOT lie in the fact that a person uses his intellect to study and research the data to make a decision. We as rational beings cannot help but do that, and we should do that, because that is how God made us. So my recommendation to study and decide is not the Protestant model of authority. The Protestant model of authority is making oneself the ultimate interpretive authority of Scripture (and indeed, choosing which books to accept as inspired in the first place). The difference between becoming Catholic vs. remaining Protestant is what is discovered (or not) in the search. The person who becomes Catholic discovers the Church that Christ founded, the living Church that even today is guided by God “into all truth.” The person can submit to this Church as he submits to Christ, believing that Christ will only lead him to truth and good. The person who does not become Catholic fails to discover anything outside of his own opinion about what is the content of divine revelation. He thus remains his own ultimate interpretive authority.

Finally, note that the book was written for both Catholics and Protestants, and many have remarked to me how helpful it has been in their lives, even those who have not (yet) become Catholic.

God bless,
Devin

I replied:

Dear Mr. Rose,

I appreciate the time and effort you have applied in critiquing my response to your work. As a writer myself, I understand how important it is that others view one’s work accurately and do not twist it for their own purposes.

With that in mind, I intend to clarify what I have said, especially in those areas where I may have been more personal in my remarks than focused on the content. (Please bear in mind that, by now, it has been some time since I read your book, and my memory is a faulty thing.)

*

I completely agree with your assessment of the problem of pathos-based philosophy. It is neither the most efficient nor the most accurate means of determining truth. But given that so many are enrapt by that method, it behooves us to engage them on a level they comprehend. “Be all things to all men,” as St. Paul writes to the apologists and evangelists that follow him. We may present a profound and coherent logical argument for the Catholic Church, but if our audience speaks only in emotion, we have accomplished little. That, in essence, was my objection: I am concerned that your treatment of the subject matter is more logical than that from which the average reader may benefit.

*

In my experience, both as a Protestant and in conversation with Protestants, those who think about their faith enough to accept one teaching and reject another do not make that assessment on any basis of authority. That decision comes, rather, from a judgment of the theory or position as it relates to the beliefs they already hold. For those who operate in this manner, an appeal to authority is quite meaningless, since they hold to no authority but their own. I am certain that, for those who adhere to the teachings of Calvin or Luther (or their intellectual descendants) as taught and without variation, yours is an extremely effective argument. But that does not apply, as I have seen it, to the majority.

*

Logical reductionism may very well present prima Scriptura as sola Scriptura, and sola Scriptura as solo Scriptura. The same methods may also reduce agnosticism to atheism, and atheism to nihilism, but no agnostic will appreciate such an argument. Again, my concern is that apologetics should approach readers where they see themselves, not only where we see them. I do not disagree that prima Scriptura and sola Scriptura are functionally similar, if not identical, but there are many Protestants who disagree with that notion; it is better, I think, to acknowledge that and work with it than to dismiss it out of hand.

*

On the closure of public revelation, two quick points.

First, I am not arguing for the Protestant interpretation of the passage in Revelation, but pointing out that it exists. In your book, you declared (without even mentioning the passage in Revelation) that Protestants have no Scriptural basis for claiming the closure of public revelation, but a Protestant familiar with that doctrine would be quick to bring up Revelation 22 (as I did). It would have been better, I think, to address that possible interpretation (and point it out as fallacious) than to pretend it does not exist.

Second, as to whether there are any who believe Scripture ended with Deuteronomy… I am not certain that they based their belief on Deuteronomy 4:2 (although it would surprise me if they did not), but I do know that many Biblical scholars hold that the Sadducees limited their canon to the Torah (thereby eliminating certain doctrines to which the Pharisees adhered), both on the authority of Josephus and on evidence regarding their beliefs in the New Testament. I do not argue that either Protestants or Sadducees are correct in this regard, but I will not hesitate to point out that they certainly believe it.

*

I confess that I have misplaced the page reference for the earlier of those two assertions. I want to clarify, however, that neither your work (nor my representation of it) asserts that Scripture did not exist, but rather that it was not, in public view, the corpus of Scripture held today (which is quite accurate). The issue I took with this was that if there was no New Testament, then John could not (or should not) have presumed that every letter he wrote to one (little-C) church would be canonized. The argument that his obviation of certain teachings proves Tradition is a viable support of the doctrine, but not very convincing to those who disagree with it.

*

Curiously, you make my point for me here. Protestants, as a rule, do not understand the doctrine of Sacred Tradition. Their argumentation, therefore, falls along the lines I have indicated: if such-and-such written by the Apostles wasn’t good enough for Scripture (in their vision, the ultimate measure of faith), then the “lost” sermons are equally irrelevant. The Catholic position, on the other hand, is that neither the sermons nor the letters were lost, but that everything beneficial and productive was retained in Tradition.

There is a fundamental disconnect between these positions, allowing Protestants to produce counter-arguments such as the one I have postulated–a counter-argument against which you prepared no defense in your book. (That cannot, of itself, be judged, since no one can predict all possible counter-arguments to one’s position, and if you tried, your book would never end. But I thought this one particularly poignant.)

*

On the close of the book: the Protestant model of authority is to make oneself the ultimate authority on everything. My point, though not well-established, was that in order to become Catholic, Protestants must sacrifice that authority and submit to the authority of the Church. In order to make that judgment, however, they first must utilize the very authority which they must abandon. It is a paradox, a mystery, and exactly the sort of method I find agreeable in the God Who chose to die so that death itself may die.

I apologize for characterizing that as a judgment on you.

*

My only comment on the issue of audience is that the introduction of your work might have been more effective with a clear declaration of your audience; if only there had been a statement in an early chapter, explaining that you were writing to both curious Protestants and doubtful Catholics, I think many of my objections would have been softened. My frustration was that, lacking a declared audience, Protestants alone were the apparent audience, and that led to some confusion and irritation on my part, and for that, I apologize.

I apologize, too, for the personal rancor reflected in several of my remarks in my original review. I admit that I often become overzealous in my comments, which may lead to hurt.

Finally, I want to express how overjoyed I am that your work has brought others closer to Christ. There is, in my estimation, no greater praise than that your efforts have benefited an endangered soul, and I rejoice with you that you have received such praise.

Sincerely,
Nathaniel Turner

And, graciously, Mr. Rose replied,

Nathaniel,

That is a gracious response, kind and charitable. I see the validity in your points and agree that the book could have been better in those regards. Specifically, you are right that many Protestants do not care a wit what Luther and Calvin say, even if many of their beliefs stem directly from those men.

God bless and thanks again!
Devin