Saturday, January 30, 2010

Ideas Matter: Contraception and the Dignity of the Body

There are implications of the acceptance of contraception that are much more sinister than the acceptance of homosexuality (which I argued for in a previous post). It also attacks the dignity of the human body.

Genesis 1.28 says:
"God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground."

This verse, in the first chapter of the Bible, says two very important things. First, that humans are meant to reproduce themselves. And second, that humans are meant to rule the earth.

But I'm much more interested in what this verse does not say.

This verse does not say that we are meant to rule over our own selves.

--Added 2/13/10--
The New Testament puts this same principle positively:
"You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body." (1 Corinthians 6.19b-20)
--End of addition--

Traditional Christian theology teaches us that we as humans are composed of both body and soul. We are not just bodies, we are not just souls; we are both body and soul together. (Matthew 10.28, Genesis 2.7, et al.)
The human body is not a just a machine that our soul inhabits. It is not the case, as Rene Descartes thought, that the relationship between our soul and body is analogous to a captain and ship. 

Our body is part of who we are as human beings. 

Because of the presence of sin in the world, our bodies will sometimes have diseases and defects and will not function properly. Medicine is the legitimate attempt to correct these problems so that our body can resume its normal, proper functioning. True medicine, however, is not found in attempts at "improving" or manipulating the normal functioning of our bodies. This offends the dignity of the natural functioning of our bodies and reduces them to an instrument to be controlled rather than truly a part of us to be respected as a gift from God.

Contraception, especially oral contraceptives, does just that. Its sole purpose is to objectify and manipulate an otherwise properly functioning body to act as though it is diseased because the person has decided that it is a more efficient way of attaining their goals.

This signals a profoundly disturbing way of thinking about our rights over the human person.
The human person, which includes the body, is no longer something to be respected and honored as sacred with a dignity in its own right, but is now reduced to just another tool we can manipulate in our striving for efficiency.

This same type of thinking gets played out in many other areas from the generally more tame - such as unnecessary elective plastic surgery -  to the much more serious areas of abortion, doctor-assisted suicide, and euthanasia. These are examples of humans exercising dominion over the human person - a dominion that, properly speaking, only God has.

Of course, historically speaking, it no surprise that the contraception would be linked with such thinking.
In 1921, Margaret Sanger founded the American Birth Control League, which was later renamed Planned Parenthood. Sanger was an early 20th century proponent of what was called eugenics. Eugenics, which was very popular within academia, was the idea that the human race could be made better by allowing only those with good genes to procreate and discouraging or prohibiting in some way those with bad genes from procreating. People sometimes considered by eugencists unworthy of procreation included the mentally ill, those will low IQs, the poor, and non-Whites. The most extreme example of eugenics being carried out on a large scale was the Nazi Holocaust. But even in the US, many states enacted forced sterilization laws, with the government forcibily sterilizing thousands of people deemed unfit for procreation. This was defended as common sense, clearly reasonable, and people just using their minds.
Sanger herself was actually against the more radical measures of forcible sterilization and widespread extermination of those deemed unfit for procreation. She instead took the approach that the best way of limiting the number of offspring from undesirables was, among other tactics, to supply them with contraception.
At that time, there were federal laws, as well as laws in 24 states, that prohibited the distribution of contraception. Conservative morality had always deemed the use of contraception a perversion and it was reflected in law. Sanger was jailed and arrested many times for distributing contraception and fought fiercly against anti-contraception laws. Her efforts eventually culminated in the Supreme Court case Griswold vs. Connecticut in 1965 which famously first saw the "penumbras" and "emanations" of the 14th Amendment which guarenteed a "right to marital privacy", and therefore allowed the use and dissemination of contraception. Eight years later the Supreme Court cited this precedent in its ruling for Roe vs. Wade.

The term eugenics became unpopular following World War II. But its ideology has returned under the misleading titles of "choice" and "death with dignity".

The natural functioning of our bodies is not something we have choice over, for ourselves or anyone else.
We must respect the dignity of our bodies.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Ideas Matter: How Acceptance of Contraception Is Acceptance of Homosexuality

When one picks a flower, it does not wilt immediately. It often does not appear to change at all. And yet a change has taken place. Although it has not manifested it yet, the flower will eventually die. It has been uprooted from its source of nutrients and life.

In 1930, the Anglican Church's Lambeth Conference approved the use of contraception in limited circumstances.

This marked the first time in history that any Christian denomination taught that contraception was acceptable for use. Prior to this time, all Christian denominations - Protestant and Catholic - had universally taught that the use of contraception was intrinsically evil.

Over the next 30 years following the Lambeth Conference 1930 decision, most other Protestant denominations followed suit.

But Protestants not only accepted the use of contraceptives. Unwittingly, Protestants also accepted homosexual behavior. How is this the case?

Because ideas matter.

Traditional Christian theology understands marriage to have two primary purposes: the unity of the couple, and the procreation (and education) of children. These are seen to be intrinsic to what marriage is. Thus, marriage must, in principle, seek to bring together husband and wife as one and be open to bring forth children.
Sex, as the deepest and most intimate expression of married love, is the culmination of the marriage into one single act.  The whole marriage is, in a sense, contained in each sexual act.
The traditional view says that the unitive function and the procreative function are actually two sides of the same thing. The same act that unites the couple in love is the same act that can procreate. When the man and the woman fully express their fully true maleness and femaleness without reservation (aka the man does not intentionally withhold his semen and the women does not intentionally reject it), their love is not intended to end with them. That same expression of their love is meant to bring forth new people into their love. The couple's love is ultimately not only for themselves, but also for their children.
The unitive and procreative aspects are so linked that you cannot have one fully without the other. The openness to procreation is itself a part of the self-gift which unites the couple. When the couple intentionally changes the act to be closed to procreation, they are no longer giving fully of themselves and their unity is distorted.  On the same token, if a couple intentionally procreates with no unity of relationship, the act is degraded to mere mechanics and the educative (of the children) component of the overall procreative purpose of marriage will be hindered.

Now, this does not mean that every sexual act must actually result in a child.  The female body is designed such that it is possible for her to conceive at only certain times of her cycle.  But every sexual act must, intrinsic to the act intself, be open to the possibility of conceiving a child.

This then rules out all kinds of sexual behavior which intrinsically in themselves are not capable of both leading to unity and of procreating. These include but are not limited to homosexuality, heterosexual anal sex, masturbation, and the use of contraception.

When Protestant denominations decided to allow contraception, they had to fundamentally change their theology of marriage and sex to accommodate this new practice. In order to allow contraception, one has to say that the unitive and procreative aspects of mariage are not intrinsically connected to each other or to what sex is.
Procreation is then separated from what marriage and sex are about.
Marriage and sex are now primarily about the unity of the couple (though it's actually not possible without the procreative openness); having children is a separate decision.

It's not too diffiicult to see how this opened the door to acceptance of homosexual behavior, as well as many other types of behaviors that were once universally considered immoral among Christians.
If sex is intrinsically disassociated from procreation, sex that is not procreative becomes permissible. Anal sex between a man and a woman, as an example, has gained a wide range of acceptance among Protestants.
It's not that far of a jump to go from acceptance of heterosexual anal sex to homosexual sex.
In fact, historically, the term "sodomy", which nowadays has become a derogatory term that refers only to homosexuality, referred to homosexuality as well as heterosexual anal sex, masturbation, and the use of contraception. These were seen as just slightly different versions of the same problem, the problem being that all of these behaviors fundamentally distort the act of sex itself by the participators themselves intentionally changing to act to being not longer open to the normal possibility of procreation.

The flower was picked in the mid-20th century. Although we did not immediately see the acceptance of homosexuality and other anti-procreative sexual practices among Protestants, the door had been opened.
With all the fuss that certain Protestants, especially evangelicals, make over not wanting to accept homosexual behavior, they don't realize that they already did more than half a century ago.

For the Church's position in her own words on marriage, sex, and the family, see:

Humanae Vitae, an encyclical promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1968 that reaffirms the Church's position on contraception in light of the advent of the Pill:

Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan, a letter published by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops in November of 2009:

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Protesting the Protestants: When Theology Doesn't Matter

There is an interesting pluralistic trend among many Protestants today to regard theology in general, and thus often theological difference as well, as unimportant. 

Now, this isn't interesting because it's unique among 21st century people. It's not. (In fact, it fits quite well with secular culture!)
And it's not interesting because it's surprising based on their beliefs. It's not. (I argued that pluralism is a natural result of their belief in sola scriptura here.)

It's interesting because of why protestants exist in the first place.

On October 31st, 1517, Martin Luther nailed an open letter to the Archbishop of Mainz and and Magdeberg to the door of Wittenberg's Castle Church entitled "Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences", known today as "The Ninety-Five Theses".
After three years of dialogue, he was excommunicated. Then at the Diet of Worms, when asked to recant his beliefs, Luther famously stated, "Here I stand. I can do no other."

Luther took theology seriously - so seriously, in fact, that he was eventually willing to lead a major schism in the Church over it. The same is true of the other Reformers.

That's why the Protestant Reformation happened. That's why people broke off from the Church - because they took theology seriously.

When protestants today take the pluralistic attitude that theology doesn't matter very much - certaintly not enough to cause disunity among Christians - I have one question: So why aren't you Catholic? In other words, since you no longer seem to care about the reason for the existence of protestantism - theological difference - why not go to back to the Church that protestants split from? Remember that disunity is a serious place to be, especially if one doesn't have a good reason for it. Jesus' own words on unity:

"I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me." (John 17.20-23)

Such protestants must realize that they are no longer just protesting the Catholic Church, but also the protestant Reformers themselves. They are protesting the protestants! Actually, given the denominational splitting that has spiraled out of control among protestants to what's becoming an incalculable degree, they are most likely protesting those who protested those who protested those who protested those who protested the Catholic Church.
And they are left now with little connection to Christian history, whether that of the Catholic Church or the Reformation. They find themselves having more to do with 21st century post-modern secularism than anything Christian.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Revealed not Discovered: Christianity as a Religion of History

"I don't care."

Such a response is common from evangelicals when presented with the history of Christian doctrine.

"Contraception has always been considered immoral, even by Protestants until the 20th century."
"I don't care. I think people were wrong. I don't see it in the Bible."

This means that it's possible that all Christians from the beginning were wrong on an issue of central importance (such as theology of marriage) until Christians were enlightened to the truth in the 20th century and finally discovered the true meaning of Scripture.

Sadly, this mentality has several serious problems:

First, it shows pride, sometimes even a hero mentality.

But an even deeper problem is that it tends toward turning Christianity into a discovered religion rather than a revealed religion.
Some religions are claimed to be discovered by man.  People might meditate and discover truth about the universe.  This knowledge is then pooled together in some way.  New information is accepted, and the possibility of someone having been wrong is open.
Other religions are claimed to be revealed. Christianity is one such religion.  A person meditating on a mountain did not figure out that God is a Trinity and then tell the rest of us.  God, by his own initiative, revealed this truth about himself to us.  The person of Jesus is the pinnacle and fullness of God's revelation to man.  He is the eternal Word of God. (John 1.1)
When one dismisses Christian history entirely and is willing to believe a completely new doctrine that actually runs against the tradition, one begins to lean heavily on one's own ability, or at least one's own generation's ability, to discover new theological truth that was until then unknown. It must mean that God is still revealing, changing his mind, or that the Holy Spirit is so inactive in protecting God's supposedy definitive revelation in Jesus Christ that we need it revealed again.

Now, if history doesn't matter, what isn't up for grabs? In other words, if one is able to dismiss 20 centuries of teaching on one matter of theology, is there any piece of historic Christianity that one is not willing to dismiss? The Trinity? The dual nature of Jesus? Christ's atonement on the cross? Why? Who decides what makes the cut and what doesn't?

As a result, the word Christian starts to lose meaning. If truly everything is up for grabs, how do we define what Christianity even is? It becomes whatever a person who claims the title Christian wants to make it.

We are finite beings created by God.
We learn about God from God.
The work of theology is to better understand the revelation that God has given us, not to reinvent Christianity. When one claims that one has discovered the true meaning of Scripture on a particular issue that until then had not only been hidden but had been interpreted in the opposite way, it becomes difficult to justify such a view in light of God's history of revelation, which culminated and is completed in Jesus Christ.

History matters.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Baby Jesus and Crucified Jesus: Strength in Weakness

The baby Jesus in the arms of his mother Mary.
Jesus dying on the cross.

These are depictions of weakness.

I have heard Catholics accused of making Jesus look too weak to be our Lord by too often depicting him as a baby and as on the cross.
Of course, Catholics depict Jesus in all sorts of states of his life. But it is true that if you walk into a Catholic church, you will see Jesus on the cross in the front, as well as the stations of the cross, depicting Jesus' passion, on the sides of the church. There is usually a statue of Mary somewhere, and she is often holding the baby Jesus.  A large percentage of Catholic art seems to depict these two parts of Jesus' life.
These are indeed depictions of weakness.

But perhaps that's the point.

Philippians 2.5-8
Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God,
      did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
      taking the very nature
 of a servant,
      being made in human likeness. 

And being found in appearance as a man,
      he humbled himself
      and became obedient to death—
         even death on a cross!

1 Corinthians 1.27
God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.

Yes, those depictions might make Jesus weak from the perspective of the world. Jesus showed us a different kind of strength. Though being both God and man, he did not come in power - at least not the kind of power we might expect.  He came to us first as a tiny baby born in a stable "because there was no room for them in inn." (Luke 2.7)  And he ended his life in the most cruel and humiliating way - a death on a cross.
Of course, the story doesn't end there. Jesus came back! And the Catholic Church celebrates this every day, especially every Sunday, but even more especially during their 50 day celebration of Easter, which itself is preceded by a 40 day preparation period (Lent).

Jesus did not come to this world with avengence to destroy evildoers. He came with love to die for them. This is a strength that the world cannot understand.

John 3.16-17
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.

Romans 5.6-8
You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

The baby Jesus in the arms of his mother Mary.
Jesus dying on the cross.

These are depictions of weakness. And these are depictions of strength.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

How Sola Scriptura Leads to Pluralism

Sola scriptura leads to pluralism.

Sola scriptura (literally, Scripture alone) was a rallying cry of the Protestant Reformation: Scripture (the Bible) is the highest authority on all matters of theology.  More specifically, sola scriptura means that the Church, which was believed to have had the authority to interpret Scripture (and Tradition) definitively, did not actually have this authority. This means that the Reformers did not believe that there existed an authoritative interpretative body to interpret Scriptures for us. But this is no problem, they said, for Scripture itself is the authority.

But there is a problem: Scripture is a text. All texts require interpretation. It is not possible to just read a text or get at it's plain meaning.  Different individuals will have different perspectives, different levels of acquaintance with Scripture, and different backgrounds when excountering Scripture.

Even during the Reformation, different Reformers interpreted the Bible differently. Luther didn't fully agree with Calvin who didn't fully agree with Zwingli.

Someone must be some sort of interpretative authority or no one could ever believe anything the Bible says. When there is no authoritative interpretive body (such as the Church), the individual is left as the final interpreter of Scripture.

It might be easy to see how this leads to Pluralism.

Because different people interpret Scripture differently, with no authoritative body to which to make an appeal, Protestants have split over and over and over. Some put the current count of denominations in the world at 30,000. But of course this is merely division, not necessarily pluralism.

Christians who grow up in such an environment realize that this is a problem for them. What does the Bible say? How can I have any chance of interpreting it correctly when there are so many people who are smarter than me who have studied more than I'll ever be able to study who disagree on basic matters of theology? What does a person need to believe to be a Christian?

Christians also realize that such a large amount of disunity isn't good either. Christians should be united, right?

Protestants have two options: fundamentalism or pluralism. Either you think that your particular permutation of theology must the right one for no other reason than it's what you have gotten out of Scripture, or you concede that the points where there exist disagreement don't matter. Since fewer people today are willing to believe that their particular non-denominational church that was founded 2 years ago is the one true church, people often opt for the second option.

And so, too often today these problems are solved by conceding as unclear and therefore as unimportant any theological question that seems to have disagreement among people who call themselves Christian.
Few people, especially those of my own generation, have strong theological convictions beyond that we need to follow the Bible and we need to follow Jesus, (and even that is sometimes questioned).  Beyond that, they don't know. More than that, they'll probably think that you're an arrogant bigot for thinking too definitively that anything is true Christian teaching. It's okay if you have your opinion, but that's all that it is: your opinion. Don't try impose your opinions of what Scripture says on me. I don't think Scripture says that. And since we are both supposedly basing our beliefs on Scripture, we should be content to disagree and accept our different beliefs as different ways of seeing Christianity. Thus, it doesn't matter if you're Baptist, Lutheran, Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, or attend a non-denominational church. Hence, pluralism. (Just don't be Catholic, because that particular permutation is for some reason absolutely horrible...)

To be clear, I do not believe that the problem rests with Scripture. It is a result of sin that Scripture has become unclear for us. I also do not believe that no one is able to get anything out of Scripture. Many times, most of us agree on what Scripture is basically trying to say. But what do we do when we do disagree which, from experience, happens all the time? The Protestant answer has been to either split and/or say that that point of theology is no longer important.

Or did God have a better plan? If God was going to give humanity his final and complete revelation in Jesus Christ, would he not also have provided some means of safeguarding it?

It's a Religion AND a Relationship

'Christianity is not a religion, it's a relationship.'

Thus goes a common evangelical saying.

But is it true?
From my experience, especially because the word is contraposed with "relationship", by "religion" people often mean a system of rituals, pre-written prayers, and theology.
And it seems as though "relationship" refers to an exclusively personal, often internal, encounter with God.

If this is the case, then this saying is completely unbiblical.

Now, Christianity does indeed involve a personal relationship.  In John 15.15, Jesus calls us his friends.

But Jesus himself instituted rituals, the most obvious being baptism and the Eucharist (Matthew 28.19; Matthew 26.26-29. et. al.).  And these rituals are commanded by Jesus, not something to do if it 'works for you'.
In Matthew 6.9, Jesus says: "This, then, is how you should pray..." What follows is a pre-written prayer, commonly referred to as the Lord's Prayer. (Scripture does teach that other forms of prayer are acceptable, e.g. Romans 1.10, John 17, Psalms, etc.)
And regarding theology, Jesus taught that God's "worshippers must worship in spirit and in truth." (John 4.24) Truth matters.

Just as internal faith without external works is dead (James 2.26), external works without internal faith is useless. This is one of Jesus' primary problems with the Pharisees, calling them "whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean." (Matthew 23.27)

Christianity is a religion and a relationship.