Archive for the ‘religion’ Category

Why Religion is Bad: A Strawman

Family Guy is one of those TV shows I watch with guilty glee. I still giggle when I think of Stewie’s Tab commercial (“Just gettin’ my bronze on, baby”). However, I do admit that the show is an effective communicator of bad values.

This is no less true than last week’s episode entitled “I’m Joyce Kinney” where Lois reveals that she was in a pornography film in college. We’ll leave aside the rather explicit scenes of said film and focus on the bigger problem in the show: the church’s reaction when they find out.

Lois, an active member of what appears to be her mainline Protestant church, is reviled and ridiculed when she walks in on the Sunday following the revelation that she had been in a dirty film. Parishioners whisper as she walks by, culminating in the pastor looking down at her menacingly, declaring, “Lois Griffin, you are no no longer welcome in this church.”

As might be expected, Lois heroically overcomes the church’s reaction. She marches in next Sunday and states vehemently, “Who did Jesus hung around with? Mary Magdalene, who was a prostitute. If video cameras had been around then, she probably would have done a porno too! And if she did, I know Jesus would have forgiven her. Are you all better than Jesus? You all need to admit that I made a simple mistake. And here it is.” Everybody gasps and Lois shows her film to the entire congregation.

Those already biased against the religious will watch this and say this is exactly what is wrong with religion. Churches are filled with hypocrites, casting judgment on sinners while ignoring their own sin. But this is a strawman. In reality, few religious communities, even the most conservative and sectarian, would condemn Lois as the show depicts. Her repentance is clear, and her sin is far in the past. In many ways, she is not the [cartoon] person now as she was when she made the film. And practically every church in this country would recognize that.

Priests in their homilies constantly bring up the common complaint, “I don’t go to church because I can’t bear to sit with all those hypocrites.” The complaint is half-right. We are hypocrites, unworthy of bearing the name of Christ. But we are hypocrites who rest in the assurance that God is a merciful God, slow to anger and quick to forgive.

Family Guy wants to reveal Christians as hypocrites, but they do so in such an over-the-top way that it ceases to be realistic. But there is a lesson to be learned for Christians even in this relatively offensive show, a lesson Dominican Timothy Radcliffe makes better than I can. In What is the Point of Being a Christian, Radcliffe writes,

Even when Christian teaching seems clear and unambiguous, we must still be prepared to enter into the complexity of people’s lives as they struggle to discover what is right. . . . the truth is simple, but unless it is the simplicity that has passed through the complexity of human experience then it is a childish simplicity that we dimly glimpse in God. Those who feel that the truth of our teaching must be protected with denigration and violent attacks on others may well be insecure in their convictions, frightened to hear the other side in case they begin to doubt. It is precisely when we are most confident in the teaching of the Church that we should be most fee to listen and to learn, and to open our minds and hearts to those who have arrived at conclusions with which we agree (38-39).

Radcliffe goes on to quote the great Thomist Josef Pieper: “‘A friend, and a prudent friend, can help to share a friend’s decision. He does so by virtue of that love which makes the friend’s problem his own, the friend’s ego his own (so that it in not entirely ‘from outside’)’ (The Four Cardinal Virtues, 29). We have to become that other person, enter their imagination and share their dilemmas, before we share our teaching.”

It is a good lesson to be learned from a very bad episode of a show that, like us, has a lot of evil mixed in with the good.


Reflecting on the Divisions in the Catholic Church at the Fordham Conversation Project

My good friend Charlie Camosy (check out his blog No Hidden Magenta) helped organize and host the Fordham Conversation Project a few weeks ago. The FCP (which I heard him refer to in conversation as the “anti-conference”) was an opportunity for young, non-tenured Catholic theologians to come together to discuss the divisions in the church and the future of Catholic theology. I was honored to be invited to Fordham to participate.

The FCP kicked off with a keynote address by Peter Steinfels, author of A People Adrift, on the current sociological data on the 70 million American Catholics. The data doesn’t look good. For example, only 10% of Catholic teens say their faith is extremely important in shaping their daily life, as opposed to 40% of Mormon teens and 30% of Evangelical teens. One-third of the adults raised Catholic have left the Church, and three Catholics leave for each one that enters. Steinfels noted tongue in cheek that the problem of declining members wasn’t exclusively a Catholic problem: “If it weren’t for people leaving the Roman Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church would have died a long time ago.”

Steinfels went on to describe two opposing concerns in the Church: concerns of identity and concerns of inclusion. Those Catholics who emphasize more the former tend to want a smaller, more homogeneous church, while those who identify the latter want a larger, more diverse church. If we think of these two concerns on a supply and demand graph, argued Steinfels, the best place for the church is where the two lines meet.

The next day, we listened to Catholic reporter John Allen talk about two trends from his new book The Future Church: globalization and the rise in Evangelical Catholicism. Regarding the first, Allen and others are adamant that the Church is moving south, and that this new “southern majority” is going to bring big changes to the current Euro-American dominated church. First of all, southern Catholics (those who live below the southern hemisphere) tend to be conservative on sexual issues but liberal on social justice. They tend to be more biblical than European and American Catholics and they tend to place a heavy emphasis on the supernatural. Southern Catholics are also more likely to prefer an “incluturated” liturgical celebration that incorporates elements of their own indigenous culture. Clearly, these southern Catholics challenge our traditional Catholic stereotypes.

At the same time, in the US we are seeing a different trend which Allen calls the rise of Evangelical Catholicism. These Catholics are characterized by their efforts to revive a traditional form of Catholic identity (on Steinfels’ chart, these are the “identity Catholics”). Evangelical Catholics are likely to say the Rosary regularly, go to confession regularly, prefer more traditional forms of liturgy, and choose a religious vocation.

So essentially, we have two opposing trends in the southern hemisphere and in the U.S. What does this mean? It means that the church is in a state of tension. We might say that U.S. Catholics are tending to emphasize “identity” more while southern Catholics are tending to emphasize “inclusion.” It also means that the Catholic Church looks and sounds very different depending on where you are. So are we doomed? Is the Catholic Church a church divided?

I don’t think so, and if you want to see some of my thoughts on this, check out my comments on the National Catholic Reporter “Distinctly Catholic” site. To draw from some of Fr. Robert Imbelli’s remarks at the conference, I think that in light of all the negative sociological data on the Catholic Church, there is still hope, a hope that is based in an incarnational reflection on the global Church. Despite the vast differences in the church on specific matters of faith, politics, morality, and liturgy, the center of the Church is strong enough to hold it all together. That center is Christ.

The essence of the Catholic Church’s identity is not a specific liturgical form (though some forms may be better than others; I, for one, would like to see more acapella singing and fewer organs drowning out the feeble voices trying to offer up a suitable worship to God). Nor is the essence of the Church its Marian devotions, its emphasis on the sacrament of confession, its Catechism, or its popes and bishops. Don’t get me wrong, all of these are incredibly important. They may not make the Church, but they surely do make her strong. No, the essence of the Church is her firm, enduring, unchanging conviction that Jesus Christ, the only son of the one eternal and immaterial God, became flesh for our sake, living among us and dying as one of us so that in dying, He might defeat death and the power of sin that had enslaved humanity. The essence of the Church is that we believe that Jesus lives still and works with us still through His Holy Spirit, until that day when our work will be through, and we can join Jesus where he reins.

This does not mean that our differences are not unimportant, nor does it mean that everybody who calls themselves “Catholic” is right about everything he or she holds. But it does mean that our center is not ideology, but Christ, and through that Center, we can, God-willing, work with Christ to reconcile the whole world to Him.

The Fordham Conversation Project was a wonderful opportunity for theologians and teachers like myself to think about how we might do just this—maintain unity in the face of diversity while at the same time, working to speak and live the truth. Catholic theologians, like every theologian since the time of Augustine who invited the Donatists back in the fold despite their heresy and apostasy, have to figure out how to address and reconcile the differences that exist in the Church without letting those differences ultimately triumph over us.

The Freedom of Being “Tied Down”

Such beauty as emanates from the following op-ed is usually not found in the New York Times’ polemical pages. Fiction writer Josh Weil muses about bygones summer spent with his brother:

Ever since I was a kid, I’d lived for summer — and, until a few years ago, sharing it with my older brother was what brought summer to life. We used to crouch on the bank of the Deerfield River where it wound south of Vermont, taking turns blowing up our Kmart raft, bulge-cheeked and frog-eyed, our mouths on the inflation valves, dizzy and sputtering with laughter. We’d buckle on bike helmets, paddle into the rapids and spill.

If you’ve ever been hurled head-first into white water, you know the feeling: your world upturned, your hold on it spun loose, the current pitching you forward so fast you struggle to grasp what has happened to time. When you come up to breathe, the air is pure exhilaration.

As we got older, we hunted harder and farther for that feeling. The summer I turned 16 we found it in England, on the shoulder of the M-1 freeway — where we stood all grins and thumbs — when an honest-to-God Madonna impersonator pulled over, picked us up, slid her convertible’s top down and headed for Scotland, singing into the wind.

That night, we climbed a graveyard fence, spread out our sleeping bags and watched the rising moon’s pale light paint the valley below. A week after that, we woke to the hot breath of horses, their muzzles lipping our hair. We’d bedded down in a dark field only to find in the morning that it was a paddock. But there they were, and there we were, and so we rode them — bareback, beside the highway, whooping till we fell off. . .

But then his brother falls in love, and then gets married, and soon, Weil’s summers are spent trying to recapture that feeling alone while his brother passes the time with his wife and infant daughter.

Have you ever passed through a place with the knowledge that only the fields and forests will ever know you were there? Have you ever emerged from morning fog onto the cobblestone street of an ancient town and felt the stares of gypsy children waking in the square? Have you ever wondered how a ghost feels, wandering, invisible, through the world? I’ll tell you: free. Incomparably, immeasurably, free.

Weil’s summers are time spent in solitary freedom, and reading along, we envy him for it. That is, until Weil gets injured, requiring surgery, and is told he will never hike again. While convalescing at his brother’s house, he arrives at a striking discovery:

We went to the YMCA every week — me trying to regain my strength with lung-aching laps, my brother and niece splashing around in the kiddie pool. My brother kept bemoaning the big shoulders he’d lost along with the adventures that had built them. But, forced for the first summer of my life to stay home (or as close to a home as I ever had), forced to stay still, I could hear the thrill in his daughter’s shrieks, the joy in his low chuckle; I could see pleasure bloom on his face as he watched his wife gather black-eyed Susans from the flower beds. And I understood for the first time how my May-to-September hunt for freedom had cut me off from all the other things that summer could be.

Look: There’s my niece between the rows of cherry tomatoes, her hair like a dandelion puff, a pint basket in her hands. Beside her, my brother fills it. Later, at the kitchen sink, my sister-in-law will wash the fruit. My brother will pass behind her. Reaching back, she will slip one between his lips. I know she will because all that summer, that was how it was. And I, looking in, watched.

The Christian tradition is a long affirmation of how paradoxical “freedom” can be. Jesus tells his disciples: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23-24). The apostle Paul struggles with freedom constantly in his letters, particularly in Galatians: ” For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” But this means fully submitting to Christ, becoming, if you will, a slave to Christ. St. Ignatius struggled with this paradox as he, like Weil, lay convalescing and observed the remarkable happiness of the nuns around him, who seemed so constrained by the life they had chosen, and yet, at the same time, seemed most free.

Our consumerist world tells us that freedom is being able to do whatever you want whenever you want to. The paradigm of freedom is the man Josh Weil strove to become in those glorious summers of unattached, uncommitted bliss. This freedom is what Servais Pinckaers called “freedom of indifference.” But it isn’t true freedom. True freedom is, paradoxically, the ability to become the person God wants you to be. This is what Pinckaers calls the “freedom for excellence.”

I walked through a local mall today and reflected on these two freedoms. Around me at any moment were a dozen ads promising to fulfill all my dreams if I just purchased a particular outfit/appliance/gadget/cellular phone plan. These ads are a lie. For everything I purchase, my desires increase. That shirt I might buy would really be perfect if I got a new pair of skinny jeans. The skinny jeans would look ideal with a new pair of flats. And that belt . . .

The list goes on. And in the process of all that buying, we forget to notice how enslaved we are becoming to the fashion industry, to the advertising industry, to the mass media. Maybe this is what Weil was trying to escape during those blissful summers hiking in Scotland, climbing the pyramids of Egypt, camping under a bridge in Moravia. But even he realized the paradoxical nature of the freedom he thought he found, and the happiness that came from it. Each summer he had to try harder and harder to find the contentment and wonder each previous summer had offered. Each new adventure upped the ante. Until he couldn’t do it anymore. At 30, his body had broke. At 30, he had lost his freedom, and, it seemed, his happiness.

Except he hadn’t. Looking at his brother’s life as a married man and father, he discovers what he had missed. Freedom isn’t the ability to do whatever you want whenever you want. Freedom is the ability to be happy, not for a summer, but for the rest of your life. Freedom is the ability to be thrilled by the laughter of your daughter, or the ripening tomato on the vine, or your wife’s gentle caress. Oddly enough, it is when we are “tied down” that we are most free. It is “the freedom to love” and be loved in return, by our fellow humans and by God, that I think Pinckaers is referring to in his discussion of “freedom for excellence.”

But there’s a catch. Weil’s brother, in choosing the “simple freedom” that family offers him, is potentially, and probably, enslaving himself to a whole host of other things: mortgages, jobs, tuition, slip-and-slides. “Family life” so often becomes “suburban life” which is far from simple freedom and simple happiness. Weil’s essay aptly reflects this ambiguity:

By the end of August, I had healed enough to walk the family dog down by the river. I remember one time in particular: returning up the road toward the scent of grilling that came from my brother’s house. When I got there, nobody was outside.

I stood with the dog for a while, looking at the place where a Slip ’N Slide had been. My brother had let the plastic slide sit too long and now that he had taken it up, it had left its mark: a pale path of depleted grass running through the lawn all the way to the edge of the woods. Through the kitchen windows I could hear them — my brother, his daughter, his wife. Down there at the end of the trail, the trees were dark, tempting, unexplored.

And so the paradox remains. Weil recognizes the freedom that comes from being tied down, and also all the new ways in which that freedom will enslave him. As Christians, we recognize the factor missing in the formula: God. “Our hearts are restless until they rest in You,” says Augustine to his God. And so freedom is being “tied down.” But not to wives or children or houses. No, freedom is resting in God who alone satisfies all desire.

A Christian Response to Pew’s “Faith in Flux”

The “Faith in Flux” report from Pew Forum on Religion provides some pretty dire news for those who take religious identity seriously. About half of American–that’s right, half–leave their childhood faith at some point in their lives, and many who change their religion do so more than once.

The reasons people give for changing their religion – or leaving religion altogether – differ widely depending on the origin and destination of the convert. The group that has grown the most in recent years due to religious change is the unaffiliated population. Two-thirds of former Catholics who have become unaffiliated and half of former Protestants who have become unaffiliated say they left their childhood faith because they stopped believing in its teachings, and roughly four-in-ten say they became unaffiliated because they do not believe in God or the teachings of most religions. Additionally, many people who left a religion to become unaffiliated say they did so in part because they think of religious people as hypocritical or judgmental, because religious organizations focus too much on rules or because religious leaders are too focused on power and money. Far fewer say they became unaffiliated because they believe that modern science proves that religion is just superstition.

Catholics, according to the report, have been hit hardest by this trend. According to Pew, “Catholicism has suffered the greatest net loss in the process of religious change.”

While the ranks of the unaffiliated have grown the most due to changes in religious affiliation, the Catholic Church has lost the most members in the same process; this is the case even though Catholicism’s retention rate of childhood members (68%) is far greater than the retention rate of the unaffiliated and is comparable with or better than the retention rates of other religious groups. Those who have left Catholicism outnumber those who have joined the Catholic Church by nearly a four-to-one margin. Overall, one-in-ten American adults (10.1%) have left the Catholic Church after having been raised Catholic, while only 2.6% of adults have become Catholic after having been raised something other than Catholic.

A lot of those Catholics leaving, around half to be more specific, are becoming Protestant, and most of those are becoming Evangelical Protestants.

Former Catholics are about evenly divided between those who have become Protestant and those who are now unaffiliated with any religion, with fewer now adhering to other faiths. Among Catholics who have become Protestant, most now belong to evangelical denominations, with fewer associated with mainline Protestant denominations and historically black churches.

Why are so many leaving? Pew gives a variety of reasons:

*the most common reason for leaving Catholicism cited by former Catholics who have become Protestant is that their spiritual needs were not being met (71%).
*A similar number of former Catholics who have become Protestant say they left their former religion because they found another faith they liked more; nearly six-in-ten of those who changed denominational families within Protestantism also say this.
*Nearly two-thirds of former Catholics who have become unaffiliated say they left the Catholic Church because they stopped believing in its teachings.
*Other reasons include dissatisfaction with the worship service, dissatisfaction with the clergy, and unhappiness about the teachings of the Bible.

In light of this data, Randy Harris, the renowned Church of Christ preacher and ACU professor provides a moving and compelling Christian response. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Church of Christ (also referred to as Churches of Christ), it is an evangelical and congregational Christian movement with three distinct markers: adult believer baptism, acapella worship, and weekly celebration of the Lord’s Supper. Other distinctive elements of the Church of Christ include a strong Biblical literalism, a conscious effort to restore first century Christian church as established by Christ, and a common sense post-enlightenment philosophical basis (with sadly no emphasis on metaphysics).

Randy Harris is perhaps the most famous preacher within the Church of Christ community, and if not the most famous, definitely one of the most talented. Look up his popular sermon “Jesus–God’s YES” on iTunes if you don’t believe me. However, Randy Harris also has a deep love for contemplative prayer, and at the Church of Christ university where he teaches, he is known as “the only Church of Christ monk.” He has also participated in Jesuit and Franciscan retreats. With all of this, it makes sense that he would get the question, “Why not just become Catholic?” And, in fact, he does get this question quite a lot, which he answers on his blog:

How can a contemplative mystic stay in Churches of Christ? Why don’t I move to Catholicism or Orthodoxy where mysticism is more at home?

The simple answer is I am a catholic with a little c. I am a part of the universal church of God which Jesus came proclaiming, so I can rightly claim those mystics as part of my spiritual heritage. To be Catholic with a big C in order to lay claim to Trappist, Carmalite, or Franciscan spirituality (all of which have blessed me!) requires a sectarianism that I have already rejected in wrestling with my own heritage. I reject both Catholic and Church of Christ claims of exclusivity. So I happily embrace my deeply flawed tradition rather than jump to equally flawed ones and I embrace all of those Christians through the ages who have taught me to pray. And as a matter of calling, I hope to make the mystical element a little bigger part of a movement that has been hyper-rational.

All of us who claim that our Christian faith plays an important part in our lives get frustrated with some of the specificities of that faith. Progressive Catholics get frustrated about the teachings on artificial birth control, the failure to ordain women, and the opposition to abortion. On the other side, more conservative Catholics bemoan the liturgical decline following Vatican II, the acceptance of female altar servers, and the widespread support within the Catholic community for gay marriage, legal abortion, artificial birth control, and a whole host of “mortal sins.” Evangelical Protestants are starting to realize that accepting evolution doesn’t have to undermine the Bible, and mainline Protestants are starting to realize that accepting everything is not the way to keep congregants in the pews.

No Christian church, and no Christian denomination can claim to be perfect, to adequately and accurately represent the church that Christ founded. But, as Randy Harris reminds us, all Christians are little-c catholics in a deeply divided church. Much of the discontent we feel, and much of the desire we have to seek out a better and more perfect church, one with better liturgy and preaching, one with a more Biblically-grounded faith or a more integral appropriation of the tradition, is a natural recognition of the deep divisions that exist within the Christian Church. The solution to those divisions, I am becoming more and more convinced, is not conversion. As a Catholic, especially in light of the realities Pew provides, I recognize that an emphasis on conversion is a losing game–for every Randy Harris we get, another 3-4 Catholics will leave. Rather, I think Christians who continue to take their faith seriously (I can’t speak to those who lose their faith) ought to, in most cases, stay put, to continue to worship in the tradition that has formed them and claims them, and to reform it from within. I think we also need to listen to others who stand on the solid rock of Christ, to discern the spirits of our faith, and integrate those elements of other Christian traditions we find to be true and good and holy.

Randy Harris is not a Catholic, but he is a Christian. And he is teaching hundreds of Church of Christ students and even more Church of Christ congregants a year to love and appreciate elements of the Catholic tradition, and more importantly, to call Catholics “brothers and sisters in Christ.” I think this is an excellent Christian response to Pew’s “Faith in Flux.”

Prayer and Contemplation

In the Commentary on Lombard’s Sentences, Aquinas took “prayer” to mean specifically the “petition for the things needed for this life.” In the Summa, Aquinas defines prayer as “an ascent of the intellect to God.” (II-II, Q. 83, art. 17). Both of these descriptions focus on the intellect. It is the intellect, especially as perfected by the virtue of prudence, which discerns what the needs of life are, and the intellect which inclines to God in prayer.

We are accustomed to thinking of prayer as a highly intellectual pursuit, a matter of thinking, discerning, and speaking. Accordingly, prayer is intentional. We might set aside time to pray, or designate a specific part of the house as a spot for prayer. However, more often than not, many of us find our mind racing or wandering to topics often unholy during our intentionally designated prayer times. Even when our minds do not wander, we might fumble around for the right words to say, or worry that our petitions and offerings of praise are inadequate. As a result, we may emerge from our times of prayer intensely dissatisfied.

One solution to this problem is to focus more attention on contemplative prayer. The contemplative Carmelite William McNamara described contemplation as “a pure intuition of being, born of love. It is experiential awareness of reality and a way of entering into immediate communion with reality.” Jesuit Walter Burghardt calls contemplation a “long loving look at the real.”

As a Dominican, contemplation was integral to Aquinas’ spirituality. What is wonderful about contemplation is that it is largely not an intellectual pursuit, but rather, a passionate, emotional, even intuitive endeavor. Aquinas writes, citing Gregory that “the contemplative life is to cling with our whole mind to the love of God and our neighbor, and to desire nothing beside our Creator.” He goes on,

Now the appetitive power moves one to observe things either with the senses or with the intellect, sometimes for love of the thing seen because, as it is written (Matthew 6:21), “where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also,” sometimes for love of the very knowledge that one acquires by observation. Wherefore Gregory makes the contemplative life to consist in the “love of God,” inasmuch as through loving God we are aflame to gaze on His beauty. And since everyone delights when he obtains what he loves, it follows that the contemplative life terminates in delight, which is seated in the affective power, the result being that love also becomes more intense (II-II, Q. 18o, art. 1)

He says later in the same question:

Although the contemplative life consists chiefly in an act of the intellect, it has its beginning in the appetite, since it is through charity that one is urged to the contemplation of God. And since the end corresponds to the beginning, it follows that the term also and the end of the contemplative life has its being in the appetite, since one delights in seeing the object loved, and the very delight in the object seen arouses a yet greater love. Wherefore Gregory says (Hom. xiv in Ezech.) that “when we see one whom we love, we are so aflame as to love him more.” And this is the ultimate perfection of the contemplative life, namely that the Divine truth be not only seen but also loved.

Contemplation is, therefore, a lot like falling in love. Contemplation is the passionate discovery of God’s delightfulness. I say “passionate” because contemplation, like love, emerges from something deep within us, from our appetites which incline us, often unconsciously, toward the good and the beautiful.

Walter Burghardt writes that contemplation, understood as the “long loving look at the real”

means that my whole person reacts. not only my mind, but my eyes and ears, smelling and touching and tasting. Not senses utterly unshackled; for at times reason must temper the animal in me. But far more openness, far more letting-go, than we were permitted of old, in a more sever spirituality, where, for example, touch was “out,” because touch is dangerous. No one ever thought of reminding us that free will is even more dangerous. Or cold reason.

Contemplation is integral to the life of prayer, but it cannot be forced. Rather, we must cultivate a capacity for the contemplative life, even in the midst of our busy activities. Burghardt offers five suggestions:

First, seek out some sort of desert experience. This does not need to be some sort of long, drawn-out ascetic withdrawal from life, but rather, an experience that “brings you face to face with solitude, with vastness, even with powers of life and death beyond your control.” A desert experience is simply something that interrupts the routine of your day-to-day life in a way that makes you slightly uncomfortable and heightens your awareness and perception of the unfamiliar world around you.

Second, cultivate a feeling for festivity, the experience of doing something utterly lacking in utilitarian value. Closely related is the third suggestion: cultivate a sense of play. Both festivity and play are contrary to work. Watch children who spend hours playing dress-up or other games of make-believe and you will understand the spirit of festivity and play. Both are linked to a sense of awe and wonder: “Let your imagination loose to play with ideas–what it means to be alive, to be in love, to believe and to hope.”

Fourth, learn to let go, to not posses, to let experiences and things be ephemeral. Most of us are conditioned when we see something beautiful–a sunset, a flower, a cute puppy, or our own children–to take a picture. The contemplative life savors the moment but lets it pass.

Finally, make contemplative friends, friends who radiate wonder, whose sense of delight is finely tuned. I have a very dear Jesuit friend and colleague who has taught me more about the contemplative life than I could ever learn from study. He does his morning prayer in the woods and though he has seen the same herons lighting on the water in the early morning light for the last five years, he still does not fail to mention each sighting in conversation with awe and wonder. The word I hear most from him is “amazing,” which he usually says in a loud voice, eyes sparking, wide smile on his face. Nothing is too simple to be “amazing” for him, be it a Rush concert, a line from Aquinas or Cicero, a sip of single malt scotch, or a heron searching for fish in the shallow water.

This particular friend offers perhaps the best advice for cultivating the contemplative life: think about your life, think about those moments where you experience the most profound delight and the strongest affective pull towards God, and be more intentional about seeking out those experiences. If you find it in gardening, garden more. In running, run more. In looking at art, get a season pass to a museum. For each of us, the contemplative life will look different. But if we are to have a meaningful life of prayer, a life where we “pray without ceasing,” cultivating the contemplative life is indispensable.

And to my dear friend, Father Nick Austin, SJ, who is now preparing to return to England to continue his career in moral theology and parish life, I give you my thanks for all that you have taught me about the contemplative life. The world is thirsty for people like you whose entire being radiates in love for God. You, my friend, have chosen the best part, which shall not be taken away from you (Lk. 10:42).

Is Anger an Appropriate Response to Suffering?

In the last post, I said that I was going to do a series of posts on some of the thoughts I have been having related to the “theodicy” issue, or the problem of evil and suffering in light of the belief that God is all-good and all-powerful. In this post, I am going to use as my starting point a quote from Harold Kushner, who I mentioned in the last post wrote a very famous book on theodicy called When Bad Things Happen to Good People. In his effort to explain God’s involvement in the suffering humans experience on this earth, Kushner writes,

We can recognize our anger at life’s unfairness, our instinctive compassion at seeing people suffer, as coming from God who teaches us to be angry at injustice and to feel compassion for the afflicted. Instead of feeling that we are opposed to God, we can feel that our indignation is God’s anger at unfairness working through us, that when we cry out, we are still on God’s side and God is still on ours (45).

In this post, I am going to expound on Kushner’s provocative idea about anger from a Thomistic framework in order to determine the moral and theological significance of anger, and whether Kushner is right is saying that suffering should prompt anger.

We tend to think of anger as vicious or harmful. Somebody may say, “I didn’t mean to do X, but I was blinded by anger,” or “anger is wrong; I want to be a more peaceful person.” Aquinas is aware that anger connotes sinfulness. There is good reason for this. In Matthew 5:22, for example, Jesus claims that one who is angry with his brother is liable to judgment. In his discussion of anger, Aquinas asks whether all anger is contrary to virtue, to which he answers a resounding no. Anger, which is a passion, can be aroused according to reason, which makes anger in some situations virtuous.

So how do we determine if anger is virtuous (according to the standards of reason) or not? Aquinas looks at the object of anger, or that to which the anger is directed. He identifies two objects to anger: one is the injury that the person suffers, and the other is vindication (vindicatio) that the person seeks. The vindicatio is the justice that one seeks to exact against an perceived injustice. It is the way of making an injustice right. The vindicatio is an evil under the aspect of good. Denying a person his freedom for a number of years in punishment for theft, for example, could be a vindicatio because it is an evil (imprisonment) that seeks to rectify an injustice (the theft), thus rendering the vindicatio itself a good.

If a person seeks a vindicatio against a person who does not deserve it, for example, the anger would be sinful. If a person seeks too great a vindicatio, such as when a person repays an injustice with a much greater injustice (beating a child for spilling milk), such anger would be sinful. So anger is virtuous if a truly unjust offense occurs and the response is proportionate to the injustice.

What about Matthew 5:22 that says that anyone who is angry against their brother is liable to judgment? In light of scripture, how can Aquinas still say that anger can be virtuous? One way which Matthew 5:22 has been explained is using the person/sin distinction. That is, it is wrong to be angry against a person, but okay to be angry against a sin. Because Jesus is referring to the former in his condemnation of anger, it does not contradict the thesis that anger can be virtuous. This is the explanation Augustine used, claiming that one is properly angered at the sin of one’s brother, not one’s brother himself. Thomas disagrees with this, claiming that if a person is unjust, it is fitting and proper to be angry towards that person, granted that one’s anger is proportionate and the vindicatio sought is just.

The reason is that anger is that, according to Aquinas, has a two-fold object—the injustice, and the rectification of that injustice. An injustice is when a person is not given their due. The order of the universe which is in natural things and in the human will reveals that there is justice in God. God orders things and orders that they be in right relationship, and this is what is meant by God’s justice. Kushner is right in identifying that when we recognize that things or people are not in right relationship, we are participating in God’s justice.

Anger, then, because it is concerned with justice, is properly determined by relationships. In order to determine if anger is appropriate, one must be in some relationship of justice, that is, a relationship that is ordered according to God’s standards. This requires a little explanation. I cannot be angry against an inanimate object, for example, because the inanimate object cannot do me an injustice. I may stub my toe on my desk, but my anger cannot rightfully be oriented towards the desk. Nor can I be angry at a hurricane or a virus for the same reason. I may be hurt by these things, but they cannot be the object of my anger because they did not commit an injustice against me. Anger, for Aquinas, is really properly directed at people.

Additionally, if anger is to be justified, the right rectification must be sought. A child who commits a grievous fault–perhaps he hits one of his siblings–has committed an injustice which the parents, due to their relationship of justice with the child, have a responsibility to rectify. Perhaps they will ground the child, or require some sort of positive compensation to the assaulted sibling. However, the sibling who has been harmed is not in a relationship that allows him to seek the necessary vindicatio. It would be inappropriate for the sibling to ground his own sibling or to hit his sibling back. It would also not be appropriate for a stranger to punish the pugilistic sibling. Nor would it be appropriate if a child was the victim of an injustice committed by a parent to seek vindicatio. If a child is hit by a parent, the appropriate response is to appeal to a higher authority, like the police. In short, in order to seek a vindicatio, one has to be in the right position of seeking justice.

This is why we frown on vigilantes, or civilians who go out to seek vindicatios against injustices that are going unpunished. Because such civilians are not in the proper relationship of justice to the people whom they are punishing, they are actually committing an injustice in their actions in seeking a vindicatio that is not theirs to seek. Their anger is not virtuous, because the vindicatio sought is not virtuous.

Reasonable anger (and hence, virtuous anger) according to Aquinas is (1) prompted by an occasion of injustice, (2) directed at the perpetrator of injustice, and (3) seeks a just vindicatio to restore the injustice. If anger meets these three requirements, Aquinas would say it is virtuous.

So how does this play out regarding the theodicy question as Kushner sees it? First of all, the object of anger must be an actual injustice, not just something that makes us unhappy. Aquinas would not say it is virtuous to be angry if you, for example, get diagnosed with a terminal illness. This is not an injustice that should rightfully prompt anger. Moreover, there is no committer of an injustice towards which one can direct their anger. A more proper response would be sorrow at the fact that one is experiencing an evil, but not an injustice. But it would be proper to experience anger at a news story relating how somebody has been raped or murdered, or to be angered when you hear about the violence in the Middle East or Zimbabwe. Here, we do have an injustice, and perpetrator, which can be the object of our anger.

Second, the anger must be directed at the right person. If I read about what is going on in Zimbabwe and get angry at Robert Mugabe, my anger may be justified. If I read about Zimbabwe and get angry at black people, my anger is definitely not. Similarly, if I get angry at God when I hear about Mugabe’s egregious offenses against his people, my anger is not targeted at the right person. Such anger, according to Aquinas would not be justified.

Lastly, the vindicatio sought must in itself be just. If I decide that I am going to go assassinate Mugabe to stop his injustices, the unjust vindicatio thus renders my anger unjust. A more just vindicatio might be writing to the UN or raising awareness in this country by writing letters to the newspaper or marching in DC, or praying to God for the Zimbabweans who are suffering.

Kushner is right that we should feel compassion and sorrow for those who suffer. But I am not quite sure that an appropriate response to suffering is anger. Anger connotes that an injustice is being done that one can do something about. Sickness, death, and natural disasters are indeed evils, but they are not injustices. Such tragedies may be handled in an unjust way. Hurricane Katrina, for example, was not itself an injustice, but the subsequent way it was dealt with in many ways was.

This is not to say that Aquinas thinks we should remain Stoic in the face of suffering. He acknowledges that the passion of sorrow, which is the apprehension of some pain or evil, is a appropriate. When one is faced with a pain or evil, it may be appropriate to weep, to seek to remove or alleviate the harm, or even, as is the case with Job, demand answers from God. But for Aquinas, and I think he is right, it is not an injustice to experience pain, nor does God owe us any answers. The proper response to suffering, I would argue against Kushner, is not anger, but rather sorrow. The situations that concern Kushner, the death of a child for example, do not arouse God’s anger because no injustice is being done. God’s universe is still in order, even if we suffer.

But this is not the final word for Aquinas against Kushner, which will be the subject of another post on the issue. Aquinas, as a Christian, has not only a God that gets angry at injustice, as Kushner does, but also, a God who through the incarnation, is capable of suffering with, or feeling compassion and sorrow with his creation. And through the resurrection, Aquinas has a God who not only suffers with his creation, but has also ultimately defeated suffering in the grand eschatological scheme. Thus, for Aquinas, suffering should prompt not only anger if an injustice is done, or sorrow if no injustice is done, but should also prompt us to reflect on the God who loved us so much, that he suffers with us, and is himself ultimately the remedy to our sorrow.

Barth and Aquinas on Theology and Public Life

As part of my studies for comprehensive exams, I was reading an article by Ronald Thiemann from The Thomist (1986) on “The Significance of [Karl] Barth for Contemporary Theology.”  Thiemann is a Lutheran minister and professor at Harvard Divinity School who works specifically on theology and public life.

Karl Barth (1886-1968 ) was a Swiss Reformed theologian, and some describe him as the father of Neo-Orthodoxy.  Barth based theology on God’s revelation alone, not on history, or religious feelings, or most importantly, philosophy.  He is famous for his rejection of natural theology, which attempts to speak about God based on how God has revealed himself in nature or history.  For Barth, the only true knowledge of God is God’s own self-definition in Jesus Christ, as attested to by the Scriptural witness.  The only task of theology, therefore, is testing the church’s proclamation of God against God’s own self-revelation.  Natural theology differs from something like Barth’s revealed theology because it attempts to talk about using reason, rather than revelation, as God is found in the natural world, not Scripture or salvation history.

Thiemann claims that modern culture is characterized by the collapse of Christendom, and by a theological and moral pluralism in which belief in God can no longer be presumed.  Moreover, the antithesis of belief in God–atheism–has become a logical possibility for increasingly more people.  The challenge to atheism is met by many with arguments based on natural theology, rational arguments for the existence of God, or other arguments that try and argue for the inherent religiousness of every human being (Thiemann cites specifically David Tracy‘s transcendental argument and Schubert Ogden‘s argument on experience and language).  Because Barth rejects such arguments, he seems passé to those who want to find a positive role for theological discourse within modern pluralism.

As we have already said, Barth does not think that human reason can prove God’s existence or anything about God.  Because of the primacy Barth attributes to revelation, he claims that the necessary condition for our knowledge of God is God’s movement toward us, God’s revelation of God’s self.  Barth is not a fundamentalist, meaning he does not think that the revelation of God is contained exclusively within Scripture, which would no longer make him a hidden God.  Rather, we come to know God through another external reality, which is the exclusive vehicle for revelation, namely the person of Jesus Christ, to whom Scripture bears witness.

Barth insisted that correlation between Christian theology and the language of culture threatened the integrity of the Christian faith.  In Thiemann’s words: “Christian language does, in its own halting and piecemeal fashion, describe the reality of the world in which we all live, a world whose origin and destiny are determined by the reconciliation accomplished in Jesus Christ.  Insofar as the language does truly describe, its irreducible integrity and distinctive logic must be preserved.  Because that language describes our common world of experience, it must be related to other forms of human discourse, but the terms of that relation must always be ruled by the logic of the Christian gospel.”

Thiemann thinks that the situation of modern pluralism calls into question any attempt to ground the meaning and truth of Christian beliefs in any system outside the Christian faith.  He points to Barth, however, as an example of Christian theology may participate in the public square, “engaging the world of culture from within an integral vision of reality as formed by the Christian gospel.”  This does not mean rejecting science or philosophy or any other non-theological discourse, but it does mean placing  them at the service of Christian theology.

As a Thomist, I am sympathetic to much of what Barth is trying to do.  Part of his project, which I think the Barmen declaration reflects, is rejecting the idea that there are two spheres of existence for the Christian–a public and a private, a worldly and a religious, a faithful and a rational.  For Barth, the church does not serve the state, or science, or philosophy, nor does it change or water down its message in light of cultural pressure to do so.  The job of the church and the task of theology is to proclaim God as revealed in Jesus Christ.  To the extent that science and philosophy and other disciplines facilitate that goal, they may be used, but always as a means to theology’s end.

Thomas would agree with much of what Barth sees as the task of theology and its role in public life.  For Aquinas, theology is a sacred science which depends exclusively on knowledge revealed by God which “surpasses human reason.”  The knowledge that sacred science contains is essential to man’s salvation and must be accepted on faith.  Sacred science uses philosophy and the other sciences, “not as though it stood in need of them, but only in order to make its teaching clearer.  For it accepts its principles, not from other sciences, but from God, by revelation” (I, Q. 1, art. 5).  Aquinas’ theology, like Barth’s, is a revealed theology.

Aquinas, like Barth, also does not think that there is a realm of rational human existence, and a realm of faithful human existence.  Just as theology is the queen of the sciences, revealed knowledge is the height of all knowledge, and is the standard for judging all other knowledge: “The principles of other sciences either are evident and cannot be proved, or are proved by natural reason through some other science. But the knowledge proper to this science comes through revelation and not through natural reason. Therefore it has no concern to prove the principles of other sciences, but only to judge of them. Whatsoever is found in other sciences contrary to any truth of this science must be condemned as false: “Destroying counsels and every height that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:4-5).”

Theology for both Barth and Aquinas is the highest of the sciences, and the standard for judging all other human experience.  In the context of modern pluralism, especially in light of the rise of atheism, theology has a place only insofar as it does not compromise its integrity.  Both Aquinas and Barth think that the ability to participate in pluralistic discourse, therefore, is limited by the absolute and particular nature of the foundation of Christian life, which is God’s revelation.  No arguments for the revealed God of Christianity suffice.  No  philosophy can contain this God who has communicated himself in Jesus Christ.  Aquinas says on this note:

Sacred Scripture, since it has no science above itself, can dispute with one who denies its principles only if the opponent admits some at least of the truths obtained through divine revelation; thus we can argue with heretics from texts in Holy Writ, and against those who deny one article of faith, we can argue from another. If our opponent believes nothing of divine revelation, there is no longer any means of proving the articles of faith by reasoning, but only of answering his objections — if he has any — against faith. Since faith rests upon infallible truth, and since the contrary of a truth can never be demonstrated, it is clear that the arguments brought against faith cannot be demonstrations” (I, Q. 1, art. 8).

Christians are not called to withdraw from public life.  Neither Barth nor Aquinas would support the idea that Christians could not be judges or politicians or biologists or even soldiers.  Both Barth and Aquinas would agree, however, that this participation must always be Christian participation, and unapologetically so.  It means that Christ must be the standard of judgment for all things, even worldly things.  Both Barth and Aquinas would say, for example, that an allegedly Christian politician could claim that he agrees with his church’s teaching on the dignity of all human life, including the pre-born, but could still support pro-abortion as a public figure.  For both Barth and Aquinas, Christian existence has an integrity and continuity.  There is no public realm over which Christ does not have authority.

What Barth pushes stronger than Aquinas, however, due to his historical circumstances which are especially relevant today is that not only does the church not subordinate itself to or separate itself from culture, it also cannot assimilate itself into culture.  For Barth, the identity of the church could not have its locus in a particular Volk or political movement, like the rise of National Socialism in the 1930’s.  Barth vehemently opposed the German Christians who exalted Hitler as bringing salvation to Germany, and demanded that Protestant churches  should cooperate in national renewal under his leadership, not letting theological scruples prevent them from wholeheartedly supporting the project of National Socialism.  That people saw God speaking through Hitler must be categorically false, according to Barth.  God cannot be humanized in some department of history, nor does he speak in anything other than the one Word, Jesus Christ.

To bring this discussion to the practical realm, I cannot help mentioning my discomfort with the way Christian theology has been co-opted in support for Barack Obama.  Check out this blog as an example of what I am convinced is a widespread belief about Obama–he is the change we want to see.  MSNBC pundit Chris Matthews’s comment on Obama’s messianship have become almost legendary but they bear repeating: “I’ve been following politics since I was about 5. I’ve never seen anything like this. This is bigger than Kennedy. [Obama] comes along, and he seems to have the answers. This is the New Testament. This is surprising.”  Barth would undoubtedly see too many parallels between the Christian response to Obama in 2008 and the Christian response to Hitler in 1933.  He would probably call for another Barmen declaration in response.  Not because Obama and Hitler are remotely comparable as politicians (I don’t think they are), but because the Christian response to them is so similar.

There is only one revelation, and this is the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.  Any person, or philosophy, or thing that replaces Jesus as the fulfillment of truth, as the object of hope, as the standard of judgment is simply inconsistent with Christianity, at least as Barth and Aquinas understand it.

The church must bring its theological scruples to the public square and not allow itself to be co-opted for any other purposes not the purposes of God.  Nor should it water down its proclamation to serve worldly powers.  Theology is the rule and measure of worldly powers.  Theology  is the criterion of experience, not vice versa.  The public square, therefore, is not a non-theological square, nor is it immune to distinctively Christian critiques.  On this point, Barth and Aquinas would wholeheartedly agree.

Baptism: Initiating Christian Unity

I wanted to write a blog post exploring Thomas Aquinas’ treatment of baptism, partially in honor of today’s feast celebrating the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan by John the Baptist, and partially because Thomas treats baptism in the Tertia Pars (third part) of the Summa, which hardly anyone reads.  Moreover, I have been very interested in the possibility of Christian unity recently, maybe because I am a Roman Catholic marrying a member of the Church of Christ, and a good place to start is baptism, which is the sacrament of Christian initiation.

The Sacrament of Baptism

Baptism, Aquinas says, is outward washing which is a sacramental sign of inward justification (III, Q. 66, art. 1).  It was initiated at Christ’s own baptism, because it was at Christ’s baptism that the act of washing received the power to impart grace.  John’s baptism was different because it only pointed at the fulfillment of the meaning of washing, but did not actually confer grace.  John’s baptism simply pointed to Christ, but when Jesus entered the Jordan to be baptized, the  heavens were ripped open and the Holy Spirit descended.

The opening of the heavens has a threefold significance for Aquinas.  First, it shows that heavenly power would sanctify the practice of baptism.  Second, baptism is a practice of faith, and faith is about “heavenly things which surpass the senses and human reason.”  Third, Jesus’ baptism opened up the gates of heaven which had been previously closed through sin.  The opening of the heavens showed that the heavens were now accessible to the baptized.

So baptism is important, but the sacrament alone is  not enough for the believer to gain heaven.  Thomas says, “Now after baptism man needs to pray continually, in order to enter heaven: for though sins are remitted through baptism, there still remain the fomes of sin assailing us from within, and the world and the devils assailing us from without. And therefore it is said pointedly (Luke 3:21) that “Jesus being baptized and praying, heaven was opened”: because, to wit, the faithful after baptism stand in need of prayer” (III, Q. 39, art. 5).

Form, Matter, and Accidents

Like all sacraments, baptism has form and matter.  The form is the essence of baptism, the principle that makes it what it is.  The form points to the principle cause of the sacrament, which is God, and specifically the God Christians know to be triune.  So the form of baptism is the words “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit” which points to the source and purpose and end of baptism–the Trinity.  The matter is how the form is instantiated, and so the matter of baptism is water.  Matter alone is not enough to make a sacrament; the matter becomes something special when enlivened on the form.

There are lots of what Aquinas calls “accidents” attached to baptism.  These are the things that are not essential to the sacrament, though nevertheless important for some reason.  “Accidents do not diversify the essence of the sacrament,” Aquinas says.  This means that there are lots of things that one could do in the act of baptism that might vary, while not changing the essential nature of the act which is still baptism.

One of these accidents is how the water is conferred to the baptized, namely whether the baptized is immersed or sprinkled.  Catholics typically sprinkle water over the head, but they might be surprised that Aquinas thinks sprinkling is acceptable, but immersion is preferred because it more closely represents Christ’s burial and the idea that the baptized dies with Christ.  Thomas identifies a few circumstances where sprinkling would be acceptable.  These include a shortage of water, a huge number of baptismal candidates (we’re talking thousands) which would make immersion cumbersome, and the feebleness  of the candidate whose life might be endangered by immersion.  This last reason is why Catholics sprinkle, because they baptize infants, too small to be heartily dunked.  We’ll come back to this.

Another accident Aquinas addresses is whether the baptized need to be immersed or sprinkled three times.  I had never really thought about this question until the priest doing pre-Cana with my fiancé and me informed us that my fiancé had only been immersed once, which was not consistent with the form of baptism which requires trine immersion or sprinkling.  This meant we had to get a “disparity of cult” dispensation because the Catholic Church did not recognize the validity of his baptism.  Turns out, Aquinas would disagree “since the Trinity can be represented in the three immersions, and the unity of the Godhead in one immersion” (III, Q. 66, art. 8).  Moreover, the matter of washing is an accident, which does not change the validity of the sacrament, only its licitness.  He does say that trine baptism is now universally recognized by the Church, and baptisms conducted otherwise would not be consistent with the ritual of the church, though they would nevertheless remain valid.   As a good Thomist, I don’t think the “disparity of cult” dispensation was appropriate.

What about rebaptism?  Aquinas says that there is only one baptism for the remission of sins.  Here, because so many Christians practice rebaptism, it is worth quoting Aquinas in full.

First, because Baptism is a spiritual regeneration; inasmuch as a man dies to the old life, and begins to lead the new life. Whence it is written (John 3:5): “Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, He cannot see [Vulgate: ‘enter into’] the kingdom of God.” Now one man can be begotten but once. Wherefore Baptism cannot be reiterated, just as neither can carnal generation. . . Secondly, because “we are baptized in Christ’s death,” by which we die unto sin and rise again unto “newness of life” (cf. Romans 6:3-4). Now “Christ died” but “once” (Romans 6:10). Wherefore neither should Baptism be reiterated. For this reason (Hebrews 6:6) is it said against some who wished to be baptized again: “Crucifying again to themselves the Son of God”; on which the gloss observes: “Christ’s one death hallowed the one Baptism.”  Thirdly, because Baptism imprints a character, which is indelible, and is conferred with a certain consecration. Wherefore, just as other consecrations are not reiterated in the Church, so neither is Baptism. . . Fourthly, because Baptism is conferred principally as a remedy against original sin. Wherefore, just as original sin is not renewed, so neither is Baptism reiterated, for as it is written (Romans 5:18), “as by the offense of one, unto all men to condemnation, so also by the justice of one, unto all men to justification of life.”


“Men are bound to that without which they cannot obtain salvation. Now it is manifest that no one can obtain salvation but through Christ; wherefore the Apostle says (Romans 5:18): “As by the offense of one unto all men unto condemnation; so also by the justice of one, unto all men unto justification of life.” But for this end is Baptism conferred on a man, that being regenerated thereby, he may be incorporated in Christ, by becoming His member: wherefore it is written (Galatians 3:27): “As many of you as have been baptized in Christ, have put on Christ.” Consequently it is manifest that all are bound to be baptized: and that without Baptism there is no salvation for men.”

The Christian tradition and the Scriptural witness are clear, as this above quote makes clear, that baptism is an essential part of the Christian faith.  No interior change of heart suffices–you must be baptized.  Doesn’t mean that God can’t save  a person without baptism, but perfect conversion to God belongs to those who are regenerated in Christ, by baptism.  Thomas relies heavily on the example of Christ to back up this point.  If Jesus, who had no sin, saw it fit to be baptized and it was at this event that the heavens opened up to him, so too should we see it fit to be baptized.

What about children?  This seems to me a big sticking point in the practice of baptism between different Christian churches who disapprove of the practice of baptizing infants, as Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and some others do.  Aquinas justifies this practice first with the words of Paul: “For if, by the transgression of one person, death came to reign through that one, how much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and of the gift of justification come to reign in life through the one person Jesus Christ.  In conclusion, just as through one transgression condemnation came upon all, so through one righteous act acquittal and life came to all.”

When Paul says that condemnation came to all, Aquinas takes him to mean everyone, regardless of age.  Infants come into this world marked with the sin of Adam.  Infants come into this world burdened with the punishment for sin, which is death.  Infants come into this world already needing salvation.  And when Paul says that acquittal and life come to all through the one righteous act of Jesus, Aquinas takes him mean that everyone can gain new life through baptism into Christ, regardless of age.  “Our Lord Himself said (John 3:5): “Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” Consequently it became necessary to baptize children, that, as in birth they incurred damnation through Adam so in a second birth they might obtain salvation through Christ” (III, Q. 68, art. 9).

More generally, Aquinas thinks that the saving act that happens in baptism is an act of God, not an act of the believer.  Baptism is necessary because human beings on their own cannot achieve salvation, but rely exclusively on God.  In light of this, it makes no sense to Aquinas to say that only believers should be baptized.  Aquinas doesn’t think that we even can believe, apart from grace.  Faith is a gift, not an achievement.  In order to make it more likely, therefore, that children grow up in faith, baptism is necessary.  He says “it was fitting that children should receive Baptism, in order that being reared from childhood in things pertaining to the Christian mode of life, they may the more easily persevere therein; according to Proverbs 22:5: “A young man according to his way, even when he is old, he will not depart from it” (ibid.).  For the same reason, Aquinas thinks that baptism should be offered to the mentally ill, those lacking in reason who cannot make a rational statement of faith.  “The little child is made a believer, not as yet by that faith which depends on the will of the believer, but by the sacrament of faith itself,” which causes the habit of faith” (III, Q. 69, art. 6).

The Effect of Baptism

Baptism takes away sin, both original and actual.  It is the initiation of a new life, a life of faith.  Baptism also frees the believer from the punishment of sin, which is death, because just as we die to Christ, so too do we rise with him.  Baptism also confers grace  and the virtues of faith, hope, and love onto the baptized.  This means that the baptized have a diminished concupiscence (proclivity to sin) so as to no longer be enslaved by sin.  In other words, Aquinas thinks that baptism makes it easier to be good, because baptism unites us into the body of Christ, and so we become part of Christ’s good works.  He writes, “so from their spiritual Head, i.e. Christ, do His members derive spiritual sense consisting in the knowledge Of truth, and spiritual movement which results from the instinct of grace. Hence it is written (John 1:14-16): “We have seen Him . . . full of grace and truth; and of His fullness we all have received.” And it follows from this that the baptized are enlightened by Christ as to the knowledge of truth, and made fruitful by Him with the fruitfulness of good works by the infusion of grace.”

Most importantly, as so many Christians heard in the reading from Mark 1 today, baptism rips open the heavens.  The gates of heaven, once closed to human beings because of sin, are now opened through Christ’s baptism and his passion, death, and resurrection.  This is why it is so clear that baptism is the work of God, not man, because man could never open those gates on his own.  We depend on Christ for our salvation, not our own efforts.  And we accept the great grace of baptism in obedience in order gain the grace necessary to join him in eternal life.  All Christians are called to be baptized, and I see no better place than this sacrament of Christian initiation to lay the foundation for Christian unity.

Religion as a Virtue

“There’s probably  no God.  Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.”  So says the advertisement placed on over 800 buses in England as part of the atheist bus campaign, featured in this New York Times article.  The ad campaign was initiated to respond to advertisements sponsored by this website, quoting John 3:16 and listing the website.  The website, I think, is what is often called a Roman Road website, which my esteemed fiancé addresses in this blog post.

My intention is not to talk about atheism or the problems with the Roman Road mentality (which my fiance does a very fine job addressing), but rather to talk more generally about what religion is, which I hope may clear up some misconceptions between atheists and Christians.

Aquinas says that religion is a virtue which is characterized by giving due honor to God.  Because religion is about “giving what is due,” Aquinas includes it as a virtue of justice, which is defined as the habit “whereby a man renders to others what is due to them by a constant and perpetual will.”  When I repay a loan, I am giving what is due to a person, which is an act of justice.  When I punish a misbehaving a child, I am giving what is due, which is an act of justice.  When I give God gratitude and worship, I am giving God what is due, which  is an act of justice.

Habits are differentiated according to their objects.  The theological virtues (faith, hope, and charity) have God as their object while the moral virtues have a natural or human good as their object.  The object of temperance, for example, is pleasures of touch.  The object of fortitude is the arduous good.  The object of religion is “reverence to one God under one aspect, namely as the first principle of the creation and government of things” (II-II, Q. 81, art. 3).

The moral virtues are about the moral good according to human, not divine standards.  The acts conducive to the development of the moral virtues are in accordance with the dictates of natural human reason.  So Aquinas, by listing religion as a moral virtue, is saying that religion is a natural, human virtue, not something supernatural.  He says, “the good to which religion is directed is to give due honor to God.  Honor is due to someone under the aspect of excellence: and to God a singular excellence is competent, since He infinitely surpasses all things and exceeds them in every way.  Wherefore to Him is special honor due: even as in human affairs we see that different honor is due to different personal excellences, one kind of honor to a father, another to the king.” (I-II, Q. 81, art. 4).

What Aquinas is saying here is really quite remarkable–religion is something everybody should practice, not just select people who believe in God.  Moreover, religion is not about our human state of mind, but about giving God what is due to him as God.  Good, or virtuous religious practice does not give God worship in order to avoid Hell, as this Roman Road website suggests, and atheists often assume.  Virtuous religious practice recognizes God as the giver of all good things and believes he should be given gratitude and honor as a result.

So what about the Atheist Bus Campaign’s claim that all those religious people should “stop worrying and enjoy life?”  Or what about the Australian atheists who wanted to advertise for their point of view with the appeal “Atheism: Sleep in on Sunday mornings.”  You get the impression that atheists are the happy, carefree ones and religious people are uptight, paranoid, and miserable.  Aquinas would disagree.  “the direct and principal effect of devotion is the spiritual joy of the mind . . . Caused by a twofold consideration: chiefly by the consideration of God’s goodness, because this consideration belongs to the term, as it  were, of the movement of the  will in surrendering itself to God, and direct result of this consideration is joy. . . Secondarily, devotion is caused by the consideration of one’s own failings; for this consideration regards the term from which man withdraws by the movement of his devout will, in that he trusts not in himself, but subjects himself to God” (II-II, Q. 82, art. 4).

Good and virtuous religion, whereby God is praised and adore as the supreme principle of all being, and the giver or all good things is not a burdensome act, according to Aquinas, but one which humans are meant to enjoy.  This is consistent with his idea that virtue is not just when we do good acts against our inclinations, but when our inclinations align with good acts: “we must allow that sorrow for things pertaining to virtue is incompatible with virtue: since virtue rejoices in its own. On the other hand, virtue sorrows moderately for all that thwarts virtue, no matter how” (I-II, Q. 59, art. 4).

Most of us, however, do not have the virtue of religion.  It is hard for us to wake up on Sunday mornings, we do get bored in church, and we almost always have other things to do besides pray.  Almost all virtues are difficult to develop at first.  It is hard for an alcoholic to be temperate towards alcohol, there is always an excuse to not justly give money and time to different charitable activities as an act of justice, and judging by the divorce rates in this country, lots of oaths are being broken.  Yet it takes virtuous acts like keeping promises and giving money to the poor to develop the virtue of justice.  It takes virtuous acts of moderation towards food, drink, and sex to develop the virtue of temperance.

My point is that most of us are not virtuous people and so we find it difficult to do virtuous things.  But Aquinas’ psychology says that the more we grow in virtue, the easier it is for us to continue to act virtuously.  So also is the case with religion.  We start off practicing religion because it is our duty, but as we revere and honor him, “our mind is subjected to Him; wherein its perfection consists, since a thing is perfected by being subject to its superior” (II-II Q. 81, art. 7).  As we become more religious, we become sanctified, or made holy,  whereby we give God not only what He is due in worship, but also as we refer to God “the works of the other virtues.”  In like manner, “man by certain good works disposes himself to the worship of God” (II-II, Q. 81, art. 8).

So religion and other good acts are related in Aquinas’ systems because religion itself is a virtue.   And virtues dispose their owner towards more and more good acts.  So don’t sleep in on Sunday mornings, but look at going to church and worshipping God as just another part of enjoying life, and more importantly, as part of becoming a better person.  And above all, remember that in the end, the worship you give isn’t about you and what you are getting out of it, but about what you owe God.

Thomas Aquinas’ Views Featured in TIME Magazine

I am delighted with the feature article for the most recent Time Magazine.  I love it when an article substantiating everything Thomas Aquinas said 800 years is considered “news.”  The Time Magazine article is all about happiness, which I talked about here in my article on beatitude as providing the foundation of Aquinas’ ethics.  This article, however, is not so much about ethics but rather, positive psychology, which I also talked about here.

Positive psychologists are interested  not just in what makes us depressed, but also in what makes us happy.  Or as Martin Seligman, the new president of the American Psychological Association, describes the goal of positive psychology: “It wasn’t enough for us (psychologists) to nullify disabling conditions and get to zero. We needed to ask, What are the enabling conditions that make human beings flourish? How do we get from zero to plus five?”  Seligman and others like Edward Diener, Ray Fowler, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi have been pushing scientific studies to determine what makes us happy, but for a Thomist, the conclusions are not news.

Turns out, wealth doesn’t make us happy.  As described by this accompanying Time Magazine article, scientific research indicates that people with above-average incomes are not much happier than others and that loss of wealth is usually only accompanied by a short term loss in happiness, if overal happiness is affected at all.

But Aquinas already said that happiness did not reside in the acquiring of wealth (I-II, Q. 2, art. 1) because wealth is meant to serve something else like the satisfaction of needs.  Even wealth that buys us not just what we need but all the things in the world that we may want does not satisfy our insatiable human appetites, as Aquinas explains:

in the desire for wealth and for whatsoever temporal goods . . . when we already possess them, we despise them, and seek others: which is the sense of Our Lord’s words (John 4:13): “Whosoever drinketh of this water,” by which temporal goods are signified, “shall thirst again.” The reason of this is that we realize more their insufficiency when we possess them: and this very fact shows that they are imperfect, and the sovereign good does not consist therein.

Positive psychologists are also discovering that education, fame, goods of the body, and even pleasure don’t make us happy.  All of Question 2 of the Prima Secundae, however,  is dedicated to proving this exact fact.

Positive psychologists have also discovered that friends are conducive to happiness.  Aquinas derives this notion from Aristotle, making this insight even more ancient:

If we speak of the happiness of this life, the happy man needs friends, as the Philosopher says (Ethic. ix, 9), not, indeed, to make use of them, since he suffices himself; nor to delight in them, since he possesses perfect delight in the operation of virtue; but for the purpose of a good operation, viz. that he may do good to them; that he may delight in seeing them do good; and again that he may be helped by them in his good work. For in order that man may do well, whether in the works of the active life, or in those of the contemplative life, he needs the fellowship of friends (I-II, Q. 4, art. 8 )

Religion also seems to make us  happier, which I talked about here.

But it also turns out that even the happiest people are sad some of the time.  According to Aquinas, this is because the happiness of this life is only imperfect happiness.  True happiness consists only in contemplating the Divine Essence, which is the only sort of happiness that cannot be lost.

Like I say, I am delighted that positive psychology is confirming all of these great Thomistic insights.  As valuable as positive psychology is, however, it can only tell us about imperfect happiness, which by its very nature will always be a little dissatisfying.  Maybe those like Martin Seligman and Edward Diener who are on the quest for happiness will, in their dissatisfaction with what positive psychology concludes, lead others to the theology of Thomas Aquinas which concludes that “final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence” (I-II,  Q. 3, art. 8).