Saturday, January 28, 2012

Aquinas Regarding Contingency

Today is the feast day of St. Thomas Aquinas, someone I like to refer to as “scary-smart”. Anyone remotely interested in the topic of existence should give him a serious look.

Theologically, God is existence itself; not some being contained within existence like a ghost, a fairy in the sky or a flying spaghetti monster. This is the elementary blunder of most atheists. When asked His name, God answers, “I am that I am” (Ex 3:14), hinting that He is “being” itself. I think of the ocean as a metaphor. We generally don’t say there is water in the ocean. We are more apt to say the ocean IS water.
I especially like Aquinas’s theory of contingency as a proof for the existence of God. With help from other theologians that explain Aquinas, I describe contingency like this: Every effect must have a cause. We cannot logically trace back causes to infinity. We can logically trace back to a first cause, sometimes called an uncaused cause. A first cause, by necessity, would need to be simultaneously whole and non-composite, meaning totally self-sufficient and having no parts. Nothing is needed for its own existence, not even time or space and nothing can be added or taken away, not even knowledge or power (or else it cannot be the first cause). From this premise flows that there can only be one first cause which must encompass all knowledge, all power, etc, etc.
I struggled with the idea that we cannot logically trace back causes to infinity. I thought to myself, “why not?” Then I read a good analogy for it in a book entitled, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization by Thomas E. Woods Jr.
Suppose you are at a deli counter to buy meat and you are told to first take a number. You are then told that you must take a number in order to take a number and this process of taking numbers to take the next will continue to infinity. You will realize that you will never reach the deli counter. You then notice that others have meat in their cart from the counter. You conclude that the processes of taking numbers must have ended at some point, at least for those with meat. It logically could not have continued to infinity as evident by the meat existing in the cart.
Here’s another way to think about contingency. Everything receives its existence from something else. You are here because your parents met. A valley exists because a river flowed there at some point. Try to imagine a universe where everything is a receiver of existence and nothing is a sender. If you showed someone from the far past a television set and explained that it receives signals and turns them into pictures and sound, the time traveler can logically conclude that there must be, somehow, a “sender” of the signal.
Modern physics now teaches that space & time do not go back to infinity, but have a certain beginning point. It’s not well advertised that the Big Bang Theory was first proposed by a Roman Catholic Priest and scientist, Monsignor Georges LemaĆ®tre.

Monsignor Georges LemaƮtre meets with Albert Einstein
Both science and religion lead to the truth. Seems after all these centuries science is finally starting to catch-up to Catholicism…took’em long enough.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Pro Choice–The Moral Blind Spot

The March for Life on Monday will no doubt remind us that God is the author of life, but to pro-choice secularists this is an unconvincing pro-life argument. The reflex rebuttals are, “You have no right to impose your religion on others” and the familiar “Separation of Church and State.” At this point the dialog shuts down, but I find that secular arguments tend to re-boot the discussion.
When this issue is debated using only secular logic one wonders how supposedly educated people can be BOTH pro-choice AND recognize science, reason & human rights. In fact, this is such a harsh contradiction, one can see a need for a diabolical force to help the pro-choice movement along; something to help generate a moral blind spot.
I occasionally debate pro-choice proponents on public news forums. To be honest, they have quite a bit of difficulty breaking down the simple logic in the following post:
“Scientifically, human life begins at conception as an objective fact. To say the first stage of one’s life or one’s personhood begins at some other threshold of consciousness or viability is subjective; a matter of opinion. To declare something as important as this on something subjective is irrational, especially when something objective is available.
Pregnancy is a case where two human lives are physically intertwined. When forced to decide if one life should be killed (permanently) vs. another life to be pregnant (temporarily), the reasonable course of action based on priority is to spare the life, because the right to be alive is the derivation of all other human rights and has the highest priority.
Human rights are not a privilege conferred by government; they are every human being’s entitlement by virtue of their humanity. The right to life does not depend on, and must not be declared contingent upon, the choice of anyone else, not even a parent or a sovereign.”
Once past religious objections and into a human rights discussion we get immediately into this:
“What about the multitudes of women & girls pregnant from rape & incest?” As if this was the main reason abortions are sought.

And this one…
”What about all the women about to die or be maimed because they are pregnant?” As if pregnancy is a disease. As if pro-life means choosing the life of the baby over the mother.
The examples above are clearly exceptions, and basing common law on exceptions is absurd. To say unborn children MUST be declared “non-persons” because of rape, incest or danger to the mother is like saying oranges must be declared “non-round” because we have found some oval shaped ones. If a starving man steals a loaf of bread and we feel bad for him, should it then be legal to steal bread?
Stealing bread is wrong, oranges are round, unborn children are human, a human is a person...........and a person’s a person, no matter how small!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Only Say The Word

What power do words have? They can be powerless or have infinite power depending on the circumstances. Father Robert Barron made some poignant analogies that show how this relates to the Eucharist in one segment of his Catholicism series.

Can words actually change reality?

If you are a baseball fan sitting behind home plate declaring a runner to be “safe”, it means nothing, no matter how loud you shout or how sure you are. If the umpire says he is “safe”, then he is safe and his team scores a run, regardless of what you saw or what you think you saw. The umpire has the authority.

If an ordinary citizen walks up to you and says “you are under arrest”, it means nothing. If an on-duty police officer did the same thing, then you are under arrest. Even if you did nothing wrong, your reality has now changed.
These analogies from Fr. Barron made me think of another:
If you are out to dinner with your boyfriend or girlfriend and you both say “I do” with the intent to be married, you are still not married. If you say “I do” in the context of a wedding in front of the proper authority, then you are married. Although you may look the same and act the same as when you were single, you are now married. There is a difference; reality has changed.
What does this have to do with the Eucharist? This is my body; this is my blood. When God says something IS, then it IS, regardless of what we say, see or taste. In fact, if there was some physically measurable change with the bread and wine, it would contradict Church teaching.
When Jesus says to do this in remembrance of Him, we obey. Jesus has the proper authority and he passed it on to his apostles, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21). This verse begs a question; how did the Father send Jesus? With all the authority in heaven and on earth (see Mat 28:18). I'd say that’s an impressive amount of authority to pass on. What say you? 
In the new Mass translation we use the words of the centurion who said, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word, and my servant will be healed” (Mat 8:8). The centurion understood how authority works and knew that Jesus’ word was enough to save his servant. He did not need to see something extraordinary or be shown further evidence. We ask for our soul to be healed at Mass instead of our servant. Our words are a bit different, but our faith needs to be the same.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Clay Man

I have often laughed at the cartoon character Larry Boy, who mis-quotes Matthew 23:12 as “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exhausted.”  While the original text reads “exalted,” the meaning of this passage can be lost if one does not have an authentic understanding of the word “humble.”  In the religious education class that I teach, I always try to show the nature of God by telling this story.  

“Let’s say I give each of you a ball of clay and you choose to make a clay man.  You form arms and legs and a head.  You may imagine this man walking around and moving about your desk.  Now you are done.  What will you do with the man?”    I wait until a brave boy in the class speaks up and says “Smash him!”  Of course he does.  It’s natural for at least one of the kids to say that.  Then I hit them with, “God formed people out of clay, so YOU are that clay man to God.” The stunned looks and silence is gratifying.

Think about it.  God, simply in his role as creator, is perfectly within his rights to create and destroy his works.  Every atom in the universe is his stuff after all.  He created each one out of nothing and by all common sense has the right to do with it as he wants. Okay, so let’s extend the metaphor.  What if you could bring your clay man to life?  You can talk to him, play with him and make a place for him to live.  The next question I ask is, “But would you LOVE this man?  Would you adopt this man?”  They answer “No.”  But God does that for us.  He invites us to be his children and elevates us to divine sonship, making us heirs to his “stuff” (and it’s all his stuff).  

“What if the man were to say ‘I don’t need you.  I am fine on my own.  I like where I live but I really would rather not have to deal with you.’?   You might decide to smash the clay man then!  What does God do?  Does he smash us?   Does he reject us and un-adopt us?  Nope, he gives us the separation we ask for, but will not un-adopt or forsake his clay people.   He invites us to return to him.

Some of the kids protest, “But he HAS to do that.  He made us!”  I remind them that they are just clay people, made out of his stuff at his pleasure.  We have no right to demand anything.  In fact, everything we have, see and are are not our own!  It’s all HIS stuff!  

Seeing creation and the world and ourselves in this way is seeing reality as it is.  That is the meaning of the word “humble.”  It is not to put ourselves down.  It is not a way to manipulate God into giving us a higher status.  It is to see ourselves as we are.  The origin of the word means  "on the ground," from humus "earth."   We need to see ourselves as earthy, or clay, beings.  God exalts us from our original clay to divine beings.  He breathes in us a living spirit and joins the earthy to the heavenly.

And yet we exalt ourselves.  Exhausting!

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Bill O’Reilly, Rick Santorum & Artificial Contraception

I was struck last night by some comments by Bill O’Reilly about the Catholic Church’s teaching on artificial contraception while interviewing Senator Rick Santorum on Fox News. Rick Santorum was defending his statement that states have the right to ban artificial contraception. He thinks they should not do it, but he feels they have the right. Bill O’Reilly, who is Catholic, went on to say some interesting things……..
98% of Catholics don’t follow the teaching: What’s the point here? If 98% of the people in the 1700’s thought slavery was OK, then it must have been OK. If 98% of people think you should jump off a bridge, you should do it.
It’s like eating meat on Friday: Abstaining from meat on Friday is a simple church discipline, not a moral teaching. The only sin in eating the meat is disobeying the authority that Christ left on earth. “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven….” (see Mat 16:19).
It’s a man-made doctrine; Jesus didn’t say it:  Contraception, abortion, homosexuality, euthanasia, cloning, etc. were not an issue of controversy for the Jewish people in Jesus’ time, so it makes sense that He would not talk about it. Further, if Jesus said nothing about these things, we must conclude they are all OK?
Sometimes we need to step way back and look at the big picture. Jesus founded a Church, not a book. If there really is a God and He really cares about us, He would make sure we have a way to know what is true and what is not true, in terms of what to believe (faith) and how to behave (morals). He would not leave us orphans. He would give us an authoritative Church to guide us; One Holy, Universal and Apostolic Church (Catholic means universal by the way).

Monday, January 2, 2012

Centering Prayer and God's Embrace

We received hundreds of hits from the National Catholic Register when they recently linked their website to The Weak Eye post, so I wanted to write a follow-up.
One of the comments on the post was from a Dispensing Optician who mentioned that a patch is often used to cover a strong eye in order to help a weak eye "catch-up". She went on to explain that when our secular eye seems to be dominating with its many colorful distractions, we should sometimes cover it up and try to see purely through the eye of faith. This is a perfect segue into something called Centering Prayer as a way to close or quiet our physical self (body & mind) for the sake of our spiritual self (soul).
We often give ourselves up to vain and wandering thoughts that toss our mind here and there, wearing down the soul and the body, wasting our time and strength. This prayer style strongly relates to Psalm 46:10 which tells us to “be still and know I am God”. I read this verse as more of a command than a suggestion.
To learn more about Centering Prayer, I recommend a book called Open Mind, Open Heart by Thomas Keating or go to the Contemplative Outreach Website. In April 2011 I was privileged to have an article I wrote call God’s Embrace published in their e-newsletter:
God’s Embrace
I’ve been practicing Centering Prayer since early 2008; up until then most of my prayer could be described as some reflection on God, but mostly trying to talk to God in terms of thanksgiving, praise, contrition, or petition. I was never really satisfied with speaking or reading formal prayers.
At some point I picked up on the idea that we should talk less and listen more. I was also intrigued with Psalm 46:10 “be still and know I am God”. But how does one listen? What do we listen for? How can we be still? Physical stillness during prayer seemed like common sense, but being mentally still never crossed my mind (no pun intended). Still waters run deep, but my prayer life before Centering Prayer may have been described as a babbling brook, kind of shallow.
Around this time, a member of my men’s group described Centering Prayer and contemplative prayer during a group session. He described a way of just being still with both body and mind in God’s presence. One learns how to surrender and let go of the things we hold on to, even thoughts, feelings and emotions. In this prayer, God can infuse gifts into you or work in you beneath your level of awareness, simply because you are still and open to His presence. It sounded like something I was seeking for years, but didn't know it.
My first attempts at Centering Prayer resulted in overwhelming feelings of peace difficult to describe. I was pretty impressed. I would very much look forward to the next prayer session in order to get those feelings back again. Since I was basically doing nothing, physically or mentally, I concluded that the source of what was happening had to be outside of myself. After a while, these intense feelings of peace subsided. I thought I was doing something wrong, but I understood better after reading Thomas Keating’s Open Mind, Open Heart where it says “True lovers want to be loved for themselves more than for their embraces. So it is with God. He wants to be loved for His own sake, for who He is, beyond the experiences of absence and presence.”
Of the three signs from St. John of the Cross to help one identify if one is being called by God to this prayer form, I most relate to the third one, which describes a positive attraction or taking pleasure in being alone with God, without making any particular meditation. I’ve had feelings like this since I was a boy. I can recall just wanting to be alone, outside, peacefully reflecting on God and nature. Other kids would find me and ask me to play. When I refused, they asked “Aren’t you bored?” As a young boy that could not describe just wanting to be in “The Presence”, I responded in the only way I knew how. I answered, “I like being bored”. You might imagine the laughter that was had at my expense.
I still like “being bored”, although an awareness of God’s presence cannot be boring. Since we know a tree by its fruits, I could not say Centering Prayer has had any real meaning unless fruits were evident. In my everyday life, I’ve had a heighted awareness of both the presence of God as well as my own sin. I’m more able to let go of negative thoughts, feeling and emotions, even something as simple as a bad mood.
I’m often struck by how paradoxical Centering Prayer can be. It is the simplest thing in terms of just being still, but unbelievably difficult to not engage any thoughts for a significant amount of time. Once deep in the silence of the prayer, however, I would describe it as an experience of God’s embrace.  To use an analogy, imagine what it is like to be hugged by someone close to you; it’s an exterior experience. Now try to imagine if someone could actually hug you from the inside, if that is even possible to imagine. To date, it’s the best metaphor I can think of.