Being long

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“I’m waiting.  Will you be long?”

“Will I belong where?”

“With a sense of humour like that, you obviously belong in this family.”

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Misoge?

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“Mommy, you’re not really a masseuse, but you are sort of a misogynist, so could you please give me a back massage?”

What is religion (CBC vs. the movie)

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On my way home from the movie, Paul, Apostle of Christ, I started to listening to Ideas on CBC Radio. It was quite interesting to begin with, as Michael Enright talked to various philosophers about what is happening in society these days, such as the rise in populist and xenophobic politics and racism, and why this is, and where it could lead, and what can be done about it. And then, seemingly out of the blue, he started talking about how a large proportion of the population still believes that prayer changes things, explaining this as confirmation bias, and calling the continuation of religious belief a failure to get the message of the first Enlightenment across. I turned the radio off.

Afterwards, describing the incident to my family, I was exclaiming that religion is not like belief in magic or in horoscopes, but it’s about values: What is truly important? What is truly good? How should we live?

The movie did not show miraculous answers to prayer (except, maybe, Luke’s healing of the official’s daughter, but that was explained as his skill from his wide experience). Instead, it was about things like loving and forgiving your enemies, about courage in the face of death, about not turning to violence to solve one’s problems, about trusting people even at risk to the lives of those you care about, about trying to choose between escape to personal safety or staying in the city to continue to help widows and orphans, about hope, about new beginnings.

And yes, we’re all aware that there will be times when you trust someone and they betray your trust.  Even in the movie, facing death with courage did not help the Christians escape death.  And maybe Paul could have escaped by going with the group that broke into the prison. And it was entirely possible that the official’s daughter could have died, and this could have made the situation even worse somehow. Nobody is saying that doing the “good” thing will somehow “work” better than doing the “bad” thing. Confirmation bias would be if we noticed the times that helping one’s enemy, or trusting, or helping others, “worked”, and didn’t notice the times when it didn’t. But nobody is saying that it “works”, but rather that doing it is worth doing, whether or not it “works”.

Theological questions

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What are the burning theological questions of our time? I don’t mean “What are theologians discussing?” but rather, “What does the world need theologians to figure out?”

Here’s my personal short list:

How can an intelligent, scientifically educated, young person of today believe in God?

And why should they?

How can the Catholic church and the Eastern Orthodox be reconciled and reunited, with both of them remaining fully faithful to their own tradition?

How can the Catholic church and the Protestants be reconciled and reunited, with all of them remaining fully faithful to their own tradition?

How can the Trinity be explained to Muslims, without it appearing to be polytheism?

And, of course, keeping this context in mind, we still have the eternal questions, such as:
Why am I here?
How should I live my life? Why?
What happens after I die?
Who was Jesus, really?
How can I believe all this?

Homily notes

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I heard some good homilies over the last few weeks, and thought that I should make some notes so that I can remember them later.

  • Some people used to have the idea that wealth was a sign of God’s blessing, and that poverty was the fault of the poor person, perhaps as a punishment for their sins.  But throughout the Bible, the prophets emphasized that this was not so.  Often, people are rich because they are willing to do unethical things, and poverty might be a consequence of integrity.  On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with money in itself. The problems are when there is inappropriate use of money, and that is what Jesus got most angry about.  It’s funny, actually, that the Church is loud in its condemnation of sexual sins, while Jesus generally said not much more than something along the lines of “You’re forgiven, now don’t do it again”, but the Church is relatively silent about not using money properly (e.g. helping the poor), which Jesus condemned more than anything else.
  • Chastity is not really about refraining from having sexual relations (otherwise, married people would be pretty much automatically unchaste).  In fact, one is unchaste when one does fails to see the other person as a person.  For example, one can see only the desirable body, as in pornography or prostitution or casual sex.  But one can also fail to recognize a person by seeing only an ideal, instead of an actual person with flaws and good qualities and feelings.  Or a teacher can, for example, see a pupil as a troublemaker or a source of grammatical errors, and not see the actual person that each pupil is.  I suppose, one can also see a cashier as part of the machinery of paying for one’s groceries, not thinking very much about the fact that he or she is a human being.
  • The prophets insisted all through the Old Testament that God is with the poor.  One cannot go to heaven without a “letter of recommendation” from the poor, but the only way to get such a thing is to associate with them and to help them. Angels, and even God Himself, often appeared in the form of strangers. The new thing that Jesus brought in, though, is that God is actually in the poor person, where feeding the hungry person is, and is counted as, actually feeding Jesus himself, and neglecting the poor person is actually neglecting Jesus himself.
  • The story of the last judgement, where God separates the ones who helped him unawares from the ones who ignored his need, also has a second, more subtle, yet more important lesson.  Neither of the two groups did it consciously, or knew what they were doing.  They did not feed the hungry or visit the sick because Jesus could be in that person, they did it because they saw a hungry person and fed him or her just because it was the right thing to do.  If we feed the hungry because God will reward us for feeding the hungry, our action is worthless, because it is done from a hope of reward instead of out of love for the hungry person.  Jesus did not think much of people who were pious because of a hope of reward, or who refrained from evil only from fear of punishment, because even the pagans would do the same.  We have to do the right thing only for the reason that it is the right thing to do, motivated by love alone and not by hope of reward or fear of punishment.

Well, the ideas seemed clearer when I first heard them.  Maybe next time I should make my notes sooner after having heard the homilies.

Antony’s demons

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Saint Antony spent years in solitude, and it is mentioned that he battled demons. While it is possible that he fought against supernatural visions, or maybe hallucinations, it is also possible that this describes the sort of thing that we could understand even in modern times. He likely battled his own thoughts, which he recognized correctly as coming from the evil one, thoughts such as:

“You aren’t going to be able to do this. You aren’t self-disciplined enough to keep this up.”

“This isn’t going to make any difference. You’re just deluding yourself.”

“This isn’t even a good thing to be doing. Go and do something more important, instead of indulging in some kind of self-invented pretend piety.”

“You aren’t doing it right.”

“You are a sinner, and God won’t listen to you.”

Most of us do not consciously battle with literal demons, but I think many of us do have to battle with discouraging thoughts such as these.

Analogies

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Sometimes, analogies can help us understand things, by making us look at them from a different angle.

One analogy that is often used is comparing the universe to a book. A character may have have a life in a book, and he (or she) does things, and has things happen to him (or her), over a period of book-time. But then, there is an entirely different dimension of time, the real-world time since the book was published. In real-world time, all of book-time is simultaneous — the entire book, with all of its internal time, already exists as a whole. ‎And a character can be a good or bad character for hundreds or even thousands of years of real-world time, even if he only lived for a few years in book-time. And, in a way, it’s a bit like predestination, yet not like it at all, that the boy marries the girl or that the hero dies or that the detective solves the case or whatever the ending is — the entire book is already written, and the ending is already written. Maybe it could have been written a different way, but in the book as published, the ending is already determined, and re-reading the book won’t make it come to a different ending (unless it’s a choose-your-own-adventure kind of book). I think our time relates to God’s eternity in the same way that the characters’ book-time relates to the author’s and readers’ real-world time.

By the way, what does the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead mean in this analogy? It would seem to imply that there will be a sequel. Maybe it will be like an index of characters, describing each one?

The usual way that the book analogy is used is comparing God to the author of the book. If God the Father is the author as author, then in some ways God the Son is the author writing himself into the book as a character within the book, and maybe God the Holy Spirit is the author’s influence on every character of the book. Maybe the analogy needs work. But, in any case, I was amused some time ago, reading an atheist cartoon, in which the characters were making the point of how there is no God in their comic strip. Of course, there usually is no God character in any comic strip, i.e. in-universe, but the comic strip is an example of a universe where we know for sure that there is, in fact, an author. It may be disputed whether our universe has anything corresponding to an author, but a comic strip or a book most definitely does have one!

Remember that God is not one of the things that exist within the universe, along with other things that exist within the universe. He is the author of the universe itself, out of universe, as it were.

Another analogy that puts a different spin on it is to think of the physical laws of the universe, such as the speed of light, or that opposite electrical charges attract, or the inverse-square law of gravity, or conservation of energy, or Schrödinger’s equation. Or, maybe, don’t think of those laws themselves, but of the more fundamental laws which cause the laws of our universe to be as they are in our specific universe. Then think of what sorts of things can be predicated of God, and see that they actually make sense when predicated of the laws of physics. The laws of physics are eternal and unchanging, yet are the cause of everything, including everything which changes. The laws of physics are what created all of the stars and galaxies, but also what created every blade of grass. The laws of physics are present in every atom, yet they are not the same thing as the atoms themselves. The laws of the universe are what caused everything to exist, and to continue to exist, and if they ceased to operate, the universe would cease to exist. Studying physics does not benefit the actual laws of physics themselves, but it does benefit the student.

Of course, we can say other things about God (such as that He loves us, or that He is good, or that He is intelligent) which we can’t really say about the laws of physics, but surely all of the things we can say about the laws of physics, we should have no hesitation in saying about God. Or, on the other hand, maybe it would be a worthwhile study to think about what can validly be said of one but not the other. God is just — are the laws of physics just? (probably yes, but it may not be that simple). The laws of physics are impersonal — is God impersonal? (no, I don’t think so). The laws of physics don’t care about us — is that true of God as well? (definitely not). Like any analogy, it can only be taken so far, but sometimes even that is enough for some insight.