Wednesday, April 16, 2014

A Note on Men, Women, and Relationships

Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, purportedly said that after his years of research, he still did not know what women want! Perhaps that is a question best left for women to answer. What I can do is say what men want and need, and it is something that only the woman they love can fully provide.

There are many misperceptions regarding male needs. For example, here is an old joke that illustrates a stereotypical misperception regarding male sexuality:
A heading reads: “How To Impress a Woman.”
Beneath that heading: “Compliment her, respect her, honor her, cuddle her, kiss her, caress her, love her, comfort her, protect her, hold her, wine and dine her, buy things for her, listen to her, care for her, stand by her, support her, go to the ends of the Earth for her.”
That long list is followed by: “How To Impress a Man.”
And beneath that: “Show up naked. Bring food.”

As with most stereotypes there is some truth to this, but it is not fair or accurate to men. So what do men most want? Answer: To be admired by the woman he loves. Men need admiration. A man needs to be admired by his wife (for the sake of clarity, let’s keep the discussion within the context of marriage). More precisely, a man needs to feel that his wife admires him, looks up to him, and trusts him. A man needs the rush of knowing that if his wife believes in him he can conquer the world. One proof is that the most devastating thing a woman can do to her man is to hold him in contempt. That is so devastating to a marriage that, over time, it is often more toxic than infidelity.

Contempt is the same as public humiliation. It is so despicable a behavior that it is hard to describe effectively. We’ve all seen it at the mall: the brow-beat husband and father scurrying two steps behind the wife, drooping shoulders, carrying the diaper bag or purse or whatever – only rushing to fetch the minivan! Or the wife who only has criticism for her husband at their friend’s dinner parties, or the woman at church who says, “I have three children. Two I gave birth to, and one I married.”

Of course, this means that in order to gain a woman's love, a man must be admirable. Boys know this instinctively. Young men often reveal how much harder they work at something when they know girls are watching them. If a woman “falls in love” with a man she does not admire, that love will not last. Conversely, a woman can always fall in love with a man she has come to admire first.

To be admirable, then, a man needs to exhibit three qualities:

Like the legs of a tripod, all three are needed. A man who has strength, but no integrity (honesty) is simply macho; a man of integrity, but no strength or ambition is weak; a man with ambition, but no integrity is a crook.

To be admirable, a man must exhibit strength in the world and at home as a husband and father. That means making tough decisions, leading with certitude, sometimes saying “no,” and always doing so with the utmost kindness.

Likewise, integrity has to be a borne from the kind of honesty that imbues character. It comes from seeing the folly in something you’ve done, and wishing you could change it, but you can’t – you have to press forward with courage and resolve, and the conviction that you will never do it again. Then you will gain character, because, in the words of Danny Devito in The Big Kahuna, “honesty will reach out from inside and tattoo itself across your face.”

Ambition must not be confused with material success. Having ambition does not mean that a man is wealthy, but that he is a goal oriented hard worker who wants to improve himself. Plenty of men who earn relatively little are still admired by their wives because they have a work ethic that is not lazy, and looks to the future.

So as it turns out, everybody wins. Women get what they want, men get what they want, children get what they need – good homes and role models, and society gets what it desperately needs – men of strength, integrity, and ambition!

With the stage set, let’s talk about love . . . There are different, but equally necessary ways to feel, appreciate, and communicate affection.

The first is physical. Do you find the person attractive? Do you desire to be with them physically? Do you get a tingle on the back of your neck and a knot in your stomach when you are around them? Do you feel the weight of having to take labored breaths when you are away from them?

The second is heart. Does the person stir your emotions? This is different from what is described above in terms of physical attraction. Do you adore the person? Do you admire their character? Are they kind to you as well as others? Will you spare no expense and take great risks to be with them and to please them?

The third is intellectual. Does your mind accept and appreciate the person? Can you rationally say that this is the person you are meant to be with because your share values and you can communicate with them in an open and honest way about anything? That doesn’t mean you agree or you have identical views—it just means you can communicate the differences in a spirit of respect and in a shared values context.

Based on all of the above principles, here are ten questions that you should be able to answer affirmatively before committing to a serious relationship:

1. Are we best friends or becoming so?
It’s easy to get excited about a new person, but over time, friendship is the greatest bond between a couple. If your partner does not become your best friend, you will seek someone who will be, or drift apart. It’s the difference between infatuation and love.

2. Do we enjoy each other?
Actually enjoying each other’s company may actually be the single most important characteristic of a happy relationship. Sometimes “quality time” equals quantity.

3. Is there chemistry between us?
“Chemistry” is easy to recognize (and feel), but impossible to define. Within the context of your moral convictions, there should be a vibrant physical component to the relationship. After all, dating is not an interview for a platonic best friend. You should yearn for the other person when not with them!

4. Do we each have at least one close friend of the same sex?
If someone does not have good friends of the same sex, something is very wrong. A man who is always at odds with other men, and a woman who has nothing but drama with other women has internal issues that need resolution. It’s hard to explain. Experience has taught me this.

5. How does my partner treat others?
Watch how someone treats waiters, employees, co-workers, family members, and anyone else they come into contact with. Genuine kindness is important, and it cannot be faked. How they treat others now is how they will treat you later.

6. What potential problems do we have?
This is where dating becomes serious. Whatever nagging questions you may have won’t just go away on their own. You have three choices: Make peace with the problem; try to solve it through honest communication; or don't commit to the person. It is imperative to be ruthlessly honest with yourself! Listen to your gut, and DON’T try to change the other person! You won’t succeed, and they will resent you for it.

7. How often do we argue?
It is normal for couples to have disagreements, but it is a bad sign if you are arguing frequently while dating. That should be the easiest time to get along. If you argue, do you quickly make up? Do you LISTEN to each other’s point of view? Do you sincerely apologize after a fight? Do you fight about the same things over and over again?

8. Do we share values?
Opposites may attract in the beginning, but people who are alike stay together in the long term. The more you share, especially religious values, the better your chances are of having a good relationship. This doesn’t mean you have to think alike or agree all the time, but even disagreements need to fall within the respectful context of a shared value system.

9. Is my partner happy or unhappy?
I cannot exaggerate how important this is! If you are a happy person, do not think for a moment that you can make an unhappy person happy. Rather, they will make you unhappy! The chronically moody cannot be “cured.” Happiness is a moral virtue, and it’s played out by how we relate to others, not by measuring how many problems we have at any given time.

10. What do people I respect think of my partner?
If objections come, let’s say, from a parent you respect for reasons that are not easily dismissed, and if others you respect are unenthusiastic as well, you should take their objections seriously—and vice versa. They’re not trying to control your life; they care for you. And you need them.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The TEA Party's Self-Destruct Button

In 2009 I attended a Southlake TEA Party rally. It was fun, in a sort of, “So this is how wealthy white people protest?” kind of way. Even the handful of counter-protesters were, let’s say, charming. One guy, dressed like a clown, held a sign that read, “Ignorance is underrated.” I agree, metaphysically. After all, the Gnostics were the first Christian heretics. But I digress. The rally was a fun-and-games type cheerful environment that balmy April morning. But 2009 seems like so long ago now. The movement has evolved since then. In many ways I relate to the TEA Party’s critique of the fiscal excesses of the Federal government. I agree with the best American instincts that the movement represents – freedom, self-reliance, and limited government. But now they have a problem. Inevitably, the rebels become the authority—eventually. What then? There seems to be a civil war of sorts happening within the Republican Party. Ted Cruz represents a flashpoint in that struggle, and it’s latest front has “establishment” types lined up against TEA Party types like Cruz vis a vis a government shutdown over defunding Obamacare.

I remember the logical contradictions of those early days (2009). “Keep Govt out of my Medicare.” “Don’t Steal From Medicare to Support Socialized Medicine.” Really? When I first saw those kinds of signs I laughed out loud. What else can one do? It’s what I call a “piƱata of asininity.” But over the course of the past few years, those signs got me thinking. The inherent weakness of the TEA Party is that it rests ideologically on the fault line of a logical contradiction. During the 2012 campaign much was made over Romney’s “47 percent” comments, and people like Sarah Palin bemoaned the fact that 47 percent of Americans pay no Federal income tax at all. I scratched my head. The “TEA” stands for “Taxed Enough Already,” so isn’t it good that 47 percent of pay no income tax? And that’s INCOME tax. The 47 percent actually pay PLENTY taxes—social security, property, gas, sales, etc. To say that they are not taxpayers violates an essential rule of honest debate—first tell the truth, then give your opinion.

Those kinds of statements and anecdotes won’t destroy the movement; they just make the spokespersons look stupid. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since this kind of populism feeds on anti-intellectual sentiments and the eschewing of “elitism.” (notice the picture above?) So what contradiction will destroy the movement? There are two separate ideological strains running through the heart of the TEA Party. The first is Libertarianism. As a political philosophy, Libertarianism is pure. It believes in limited government. Period. Government exists only to protect the life, liberty, and property of the individual. Nothing else. In Ayn Rand’s Libertarian epic “Atlas Shrugged,” the hero, Galt, an inventor disgusted by creeping collectivism, leads the country’s capitalists on a strike. “We have granted you everything you demanded of us, we who had always been the givers,” Galt lectures the “moochers” who make up the populace. “We have no demands to present you, no terms to bargain about, no compromise to reach. You have nothing to offer us. We do not need you.” “Atlas Shrugged” was published over fifty years ago, but in the Obama era, Rand’s angry message is more resonant than ever before. At TEA party rallies and other conservative protests, you will find signs reading “Atlas Shrugs” and “Rand Was Right.”

The second strain is social and religious conservatism. These are evangelicals who have become politically active. I know these people. They are my “clan.” And trust me, they do not want limited government—they want government to enforce their brand of morality in what they believe is a “Christian nation.” These are the people who supported George W. Bush. And there lies the problem. Libertarians will readily say that “W” is the worst President this country has ever had!

So let’s run through the issues: War in Iraq? Social conservatives generally supported the war, and continue to support our military intervention in other countries. They love the military, and will lash out at anyone who does not “support the troops,” apparently giving no thought to the logical contradiction of supporting the troops while opposing the mission. Libertarians do not support the war, have a quasi isolationist view of military intervention, and generally see our invasion of Iraq as a military and diplomatic blunder. What about drugs? Social conservatives support the “war on drugs” and seek even tighter laws and crackdowns. This is a moral issue to them. Libertarians support the legalization of drugs, particularly marijuana. For them it’s cut and dry—it’s none of the government’s business what you put into your own body. Speaking of your own body, what about abortion? This is the hallmark issue of social and religious conservatives. Overturning Roe v Wade is a crusade. In the meantime, they attempt every way possible to make abortion more restrictive. There is no issue bigger than the rights of the unborn. Libertarians are pro-choice to the extreme. Its’ the woman’s body—what she chooses to do with it is between her and her doctor. Period. And then there’s the ubiquitous issue of gay rights, particularly gay marriage. Naturally, social and religious conservatives abhor the idea and fight it on every front. They claim to protect the “institution of marriage.” Well, not them, but the government. Again, libertarians do not balk. Their understanding of limited government says that it’s not the government’s business, and thus gay marriage is perfectly okay. Social and religious conservatives and libertarians are like oil and water—they do not mix!

The only thing keeping this alliance together at the moment is an irrational, fact-free hatred of President Obama. Social conservatives and libertarians must have a common enemy, and that enemy must be as insidious as possible. He has to be a “socialist.” He’s “the most radical president we’ve ever had.” He’s “anti-American.” He wasn’t even born here! Hatred of Obama is the glue that holds the movement together. But it’s a weak bond. I have seen this time and time again. Ultra conservative movements eventually self-destruct in an ideological explosion of bitter wrangling and in-fighting. This is not the new American Revolution. The Revolution happened when the majority of Americans twice elected Barack Obama.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Good Parents; Bad Kids

William recently turned six! He’s not a baby anymore—something he constantly impresses on my more sentimental instincts. It’s because I long for him daily. There is a searing, almost constantly panicked sense of missing out. But still, we are now faced with the daunting task of making him understand that temper tantrums won’t work because adults still run the world!

It seems that a lot of good homes, dare I say “Christian homes” do not produce particularly good children. Why? There are people who blame TV violence, video games, rap music, divorce, the absence of fathers, bad schools, and poverty. But what about parents? What are parents doing wrong—especially well-educated parents in intact homes, with no financial worries? So, based on my own experience and thinking, here are some suggestions why good homes and parents sometimes produce bad children.

1) Goodness is Not Put First.
Most parents want their children to be good people; they just don’t make their child’s goodness a top concern. Parents are more concerned with their child’s being a brilliant student, a good athlete, or a successful professional. Would you rather have a kind child with average intelligence, or a brilliant child who isn’t kind? How much time to you devote to developing ethics in your child relative to developing other qualities? Do you monitor very closely how your child treats other people? What would your child say if someone were to ask them, “What do your parents want the most? For you to be happy, smart, successful, or good?” Most parents simply assume THEIR kids are good. Bad kids belong to other people. It is hard to raise a good student, but it is much harder to raise a good person. It is relentless, and requires attention to details. Why do I say this? Because the widely held belief that people are born basically good, and learn to be bad is not only wrong, it is dangerous. We are born morally neutral (innocent), but with tendencies towards both good and bad. Since we live in a fallen world, doing wrong comes easy. Goodness has to be cultivated. It takes as much time and effort as learning to master the violin, yet more parents give their children music lessons than goodness lessons. One more thing: there is a difference between goodness and following the rules. Turning your child into a morally blind automaton is not cultivating goodness!

2) Feelings Are Overemphasized.
I have observed parents give way more attention to how their child feels, rather than how they behave. If your child is a bully, don’t ask them, “What’s troubling you?” What your child FEELS may be important to you and the child, but the only thing that matters to the other 6 billion people on earth is how they ACT. We have to make our children understand that right actions trump good feelings, and that being upset doesn’t give them license to hurt other people. This runs counter to the almost religiously held belief that self-esteem is one of the most important aspects of making a responsible person. This is laughable. Children are born with nothing but self-esteem. They think the world revolves around their needs and wants – day and night! To be a good person, self-control is more important than self-esteem. Self-esteem has to be tied to good behavior, and it’s never too early to impress this on your child. If not, they grow up to be immature adults who throw tantrums whenever they feel uncomfortable or offended.

3) Parents Yearn to be Liked Rather Than Respected.
This one is hard for me. I feel like a complete hypocrite saying this. I’m Mr. “words of affirmation.” But my brain says that in the same way you cannot be an effective leader if you are afraid of being disliked, you cannot be an effective parent if you fear being disliked. This is especially hard for single parents (both men and women). It takes superhuman strength to be both mom and dad. It’s doubly hard to be both mom and dad in a disciplinary sense and still have your kids like you.

4) An Overemphasis on Micro-Goodness.
We have odd ways of defining what it means to be good, particularly in evangelical Christian circles. Goodness is very often expressed as trite moralisms. For Jesus this was like taking a speck out of someone else’s eye, while you have a plank protruding out of your own eye. It’s self-righteous and hypocritical. Jesus also accused the Pharisees of straining out a gnat, but swallowing a camel. We tend to blend into the culture in so many ways, so in order to be different, attention is focused on the trivial. We teach our kids that it’s okay to be captive to mass consumerism, as long as we don’t watch R-rated movies; it’s acceptable to pursue cozy affluence, as long as we don’t mow our lawn on a Sunday; it’s fine to be indifferent to systematic starvation around the world, as long as we don’t ever drink a beer. My point is that we need to teach our children that there are bigger issues of justice and morality in the world than counting "bad words" in a damn movie!! Of course, this is a judgment call every parent has to wrestle with, I'm just saying that good people understand that the world is bigger than their likes and dislikes and specific cultural expressions of morality.

5) The Belief in “Quality Time.”
This is a term we use to rationalize being gone from our kids a lot. I know. I use the term. When it comes to time with children I don’t think quality can be separated from quantity. Do we really think that parents who spend very little time with their kids can bond in an hour? Children open up to adults when they want to, which is usually only after a LOT of “non-quality time.” I know that most families are under enormous stresses and time constraints, so I hope this doesn’t sound too judgmental, but life is full of trade-offs. If you make good money working 60 hours a week, you may be able to buy your kids nice things, but you can only give them so much of yourself.

6) NEVER humiliate your child. There are obvious ways to humiliate a child—ignoring them, telling them to be quiet, laughing at their mistakes, yelling at them in the grocery store, not taking their ideas seriously, and never apologizing when you are wrong. Some parents, out of a sense of pride, tend to treat their children like owned commodities rather than autonomous human beings. This too, is a form of humiliation.

Monday, February 04, 2013

In Defense of Situational Ethics

If God is the source of moral values, what is moral and immoral, therefore, transcends personal opinion or societal norms. Without the transcendent (or substitute “rule of law” if you are a secularist) individuals are then free to make up their own moral standards. Such moral relativism brings to mind a Hobbsian world of mayhem, because it means that murder, for example, is not objectively wrong. It's a matter of personal feeling, or societal norm. Most people do not confront these consequences of moral relativism because it is hard for decent people to realize that saying “I think murder is wrong” is as meaningless as saying “I think purple is ugly” under such a system.

However, there is one aspect of moral relativism that confuses many (particularly my fellow Christians, who believe in moral absolutes)—the assumption that situational ethics is the same thing as moral relativism. It is a mistake to argue that just as an individual’s determination of right and wrong negates moral absolutes, allowing situations to determine right and wrong also negates moral absolutes. This is a misunderstanding of the meaning of moral absolutes. A moral absolute means that if an act is right or wrong, it is right or wrong for everyone in the identical situation. This is also called universal morality.

But “EVERYONE” is not the same as “EVERY SITUATION.” An act that is wrong, is wrong for everyone in the SAME situation, but almost no act is wrong in EVERY situation. Sex in a loving relationship is good, but when violently coerced, it is rape. Truth telling is usually right, but if Nazis asked you where a Jewish family was hiding, telling them the truth would have been evil. Likewise, it is the situation that determines when killing is wrong. That is why the Ten Commandments say “Do not murder,” not “Do not kill.” Murder is immoral killing, and it is the situation that determines when killing is wrong. Pacifists argue that it is wrong to take a life in any situation. This is based on the mistaken belief that absolute morality means “in every situation” rather than “for everyone in the same situation.”

The key element in morality remains this: There is good and evil, independent of personal or societal opinion, and in order to determine what it is, one must ask, “How would God judge this action in light of context, situation, and motive?”

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Advent: A Celebration of Sacramentality

There are certain ineffable actions. A kiss, for example, is a physical act that communicates things that are impossible to fully put into words. The most important things in life are difficult to put into words. That’s why we have poets—to explore and probe the borders of language, and to create new metaphorical possibilities. If you have a wonderful experience—seeing a sunset, falling in love, hearing a symphony—whatever it is, you very quickly run out of adjectives to describe what happened. Words alone make us feel empty. The sacraments are like that. They are actions that communicate beyond words. Unfortunately, post-enlightenment rationalism has taught us that reality is an intellectual formula. We think that reality lies in words, when, in fact, the New Testament shows that it works the other way: “The Word became flesh.”

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God . . . The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” John 1

That is what Advent and Christmas is all about. Today is the first Sunday of Advent. The word means “coming” or “arrival.” The focus of the season is on the celebration of the birth of Jesus, and the anticipation of his return. Advent is more than simply marking a 2000-year-old event in history; it is celebrating the revelation of God in Christ whereby all of creation will be reconciled to God. That is a process in which we now participate, and the consummation of which we anticipate. We affirm that Christ has come in the flesh, that he is present in the world today through his church, and that he will come again in power. Advent is characterized by a spirit of expectation and longing. There is a yearning for deliverance from the evils of the world. We hope that God, who sometimes seems distant, will rule over all His creation in truth and righteousness. It is that hope that once anticipated the coming of the anointed one—the Messiah. That same spirit now longs for his return to come and set the world aright!

God’s people once cried out in oppression and anguish, “How long O Lord?” And then, when we least expected it, under the boot of oppression, in a night without light, came THE Light; in a world without hope, eternal hope was born; in the midst of despair, we heard the singing of angels. The spirit of anticipation during Advent, and the realization of incarnation during Christmas ought to imbue the church with a sacramental understanding of salvation. There can be no true spirituality without sacramentality. But what does that mean? What is “sacramentality”?

It means that all reality is potentially the bearer of God’s presence and the instrument of God’s salvific activity on humanity’s behalf. This principle is rooted in the nature of a sacrament as such—a visible sign and instrument of the invisible presence and activity of God. 

Christianity sees in Christ the full embodiment of God. Since God became human, then God is seen, touched, and heard in the context of human living. “He is the Image of the invisible God.” This is the principle of sacramentality. The church celebrates certain rituals (primarily baptism and communion) that make the saving presence of God tangible. They are moments of encounter with God that deeply affect our lives. Christ is present, LITERALLY, in baptism and communion in a sense that far surpasses anything conjured up by subjective remembrance. What we celebrate during Christmas is a tiny preface to this ongoing reality.

Most Evangelical Christians do not think in these terms, and it certainly does not describe my own church heritage. Leaving baptism aside for a separate discussion (regarding its efficacy), I was raised in a tradition that eschewed any “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist. It was done “in remembrance” of Christ’s death and resurrection. That’s remembrance ONLY. Anything beyond this radical Zwinglian understanding was deemed “too Catholic.” I currently attend a church where the Eucharist is celebrated once a month. While many of us would like to celebrate it weekly, that too has been deemed “too Catholic.” Sadly, this misses the point. Christianity affirms that God became human in the person of Christ, that we are receptacles of the Spirit, that the church, collectively, is the body of Christ on earth, and that Christ’s presence is mediated to us through real and tangible elements. Much of Christianity has become, in a sense, too spiritual. The obsession with spirituality that is disconnected from physical reality, and the preaching of salvation as a plan to escape this world is, at best, a reversal of what Christianity has always taught, and, at worst, a return to some early heresies.

But sacramentality embraces more than sacred rituals. It also promotes the idea that we live in a sacred world because it has been created by God. For this reason, every tangible element of creation from the natural environment to human persons provides an opportunity to encounter something of God’s presence. Understood in this way, the principle of sacramentality affirms that as we study and explore the human condition, as well as the natural environment, we are actually discovering more about the presence of God.

C.S. Lewis stated this brilliantly: “It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no 'ordinary' people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Good? Bad? Who's To Say?

A farmer named Sai Weng owned a beautiful mare, which was praised far and wide. One day this beautiful horse disappeared. The people of his village offered sympathy to Sai Weng for his great misfortune. Sai Weng simply said, “Good? Bad? Who’s to say?”

A few days later the lost mare returned, followed by a beautiful wild stallion. The village congratulated Sai Weng for his good fortune. Again, he said, “Good? Bad? Who’s to say?”

Some time later, Sai Weng's only son, while breaking in the stallion, fell and broke his leg. The villagers once again expressed their sympathy at Sai Weng's misfortune. Sai Weng again said, “Good? Bad? Who’s to say?”

Soon thereafter, war broke out and all the young men of the village, except Sai Weng's son, were drafted and killed in battle. The villagers were amazed as Sai Weng's good luck. His son was the only young man left alive in the village. But Sai Weng kept his same attitude: despite all the turmoil, gains and losses, he gave the same reply, “Good? Bad? Who’s to say?”

I have long said that destruction precedes creation; pain precedes joy; and loss precedes gain. In that spirit, here are some horrific tragedies that resulted in good things:

The Black Death
The Plague that utterly ravaged humanity, killing up to 60 percent of Europeans, and dropping the population of the entire world by 20 percent by some estimates. The Plague came in three forms. Bubonic was the most common and easiest to spot. Sufferers developed huge sores under the armpits, on the neck, and in the groin. Death occurred less than a week after infection. Pneumonic was the second form, and it infected the lungs. It also had a mortality rate of 95 percent, which seems impressive until you learn that Septicemic Plague, the third variety, had a mortality rate close to 100 percent. Much like attacking Bruce Willis on Christmas, if you contracted Septicemic Plague, your life expectancy was about a day!

The Silver Lining?
The birth of the modern world! Before the plague there had been massive overpopulation in Medieval Europe. Along with it came famine, poor sanitation, overcrowding—all of which helped to accelerate the progress of infectious diseases. Disease, starvation, and predators make up Mother Nature's three-pronged population control failsafe, and things had gotten to the point where it was going to be the Plague or lions!

The ensuing wave of death and horror set off a series of dominoes that would help create the modern world. First, the Plague left behind a sudden shortage of labor, thus landlords were forced to compete for workers by offering higher wages and better treatment. A lower population also brought cheaper land prices, more food for the average peasant, and a relatively large increase in income among the lower classes. Essentially, the Black Death brought about the end of feudalism, the establishment of capitalism, and was one of the major factors that ultimately caused the Renaissance.

Chernobyl Meltdown
Chernobyl is considered to be the worst nuclear disaster in history. It started when engineers at the plant wanted to see if, should power to the plant fail, they could keep the cooling pump system going from the reactors themselves. We can see how someone would be eager to break up the drudgery of life at a communist-run power plant, which probably consisted of hauling atoms back and forth in drab, gray wheelbarrows and standing in line for enriched uranium, but deliberately messing around with nuclear safety regulations just to “see what happens” seems to be taking it too far.

Two huge explosions blew off the reactor's roof, the highly radioactive contents were spewed into the atmosphere, air was sucked in which ignited carbon monoxide gas, and the reactor was set on fire for nine days straight. Because the Soviet Union couldn't be bothered to house the Chernobyl reactor in a concrete shell, as was standard, 100 times more radiation was released than in the Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombings combined!

The Silver Lining?
It ended the Cold War. Or helped to, anyway. What happened in the USSR, stayed in the USSR. Secrecy is what having a police state is all about. So at first, the Soviet authorities stuck to their communist policy of “ignore the disaster and hope it will go away.” The only problem was that you can't just explode a nuclear reactor and release a cloud of death in the process, and expect nobody to notice. Officials in Sweden raised alarm about the huge levels of radiation sweeping over Europe from Russia, and the Kremlin was forced to break its customary silence after 48 hours. Three weeks later, Mikhail Gorbachev finally commented, with unprecedented honesty. This is the point when, against the will of the hardliners, the light came shining in. Gorbachev was forced to be completely honest, and give journalists access to nuclear officials and doctors. And once the press was allowed to start tugging at loose threads, communism came unraveled. When the citizenry found out that bread lines were not “awesome,” this led to mass dissatisfaction that fueled the eventual end of the Cold War, and the Soviet Union.

World War I
Almost 60 percent of the soldiers who mobilized in 1914 wound up as casualties. They pulled off those numbers with bullets, and bayonets, and poison gas, and guys screaming in muddy trenches—the human experiments of technology and weaponry that strove for better ways to turn humans into a fine red mist.

The Silver Lining?
The Women's Rights movement. World War I was really the point where war made an abrupt transition from bunches of angry guys on horses to tanks and other mass-produced machines. War was becoming a contest of manufacturing capacity and that meant the assembly line worker became just as important as the soldier. It was around 1915 that Britain realized all their able-bodied males were off shooting at Germans, and started employing women in munitions factories. A year later, conscription sucked even more men off the production floor. It's true that most of those women would quit their jobs when the men came back home, but it was too late. They had escaped the kitchen, and would win the right to vote in 1918, and ultimately the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 came about because of the War.

The Crusades
The Crusades were an attempt to convert the world to Western Christianity, and unite them under the leadership of the Pope—and predictably ended in a giant pile of corpses. The West tried to conquer and hold the Holy Land (Jerusalem) for the entire medieval period! Usually, if something doesn't work for a couple of centuries, you should probably just quit. Both sides were bloodthirsty, cruel, and greedy; but the initial Christian assault took the cake with a particularly bloody, largely unprovoked conquest of Jerusalem that resulted in funeral pyres “as large as houses.”

The Silver Lining?
America! With all the travel between the Islamic and Western worlds, the Christians were bound to pick up something useful. The exposure to Islam gave the west the foundations of modern science, medicine, and architecture. Yeah, pretty useful! The need to transport and supply huge armies also led to improved trading in Europe, and helped to kick-start the Renaissance in Italy, which further shaped modern art, science, music, and philosophy. Oh, and one more thing. Eventually, due to the rising Ottoman Empire in the East cutting off Western trade with Asia, Europe was forced to find alternate trading routes, which ultimately led to Columbus discovering America. Attempted medieval genocide—Good? Bad? Who’s to say?

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Sacramentality Part 2: Treasure in Jars of Clay

I have wanted to post this for some time. Actually, I wrote it a while back, but because many will say that I have a vested interest, I held off posting it. The truth is I may well have a vested interest, but that doesn’t make it less true. There are still valuable lessons to be learned from the church’s history. I think the Donatist controversy of the 4th century still informs so much of our church life today.

The primary disagreement between the Donatists and the rest of the early church was over the treatment of those who renounced their faith during the great persecution under the Roman emperor Diocletian (303305). The rest of the church was far more forgiving of these people than the Donatists were. The Donatists refused to accept the sacraments (baptism and communion) and spiritual authority of the bishops who had fallen away from the faith during the persecution. Many of these church leaders had gone so far as to turn Christians over to Roman authorities and had handed over scriptures to authorities to be publicly burned. These people were called traditors (“the lapsed”). These traditors had returned to positions of authority after the persecution, but the Donatists proclaimed that any sacraments given by these Christians were invalid. So, if someone who had betrayed Christ and the church during the persecution baptized you, that baptism was not valid.

In A.D. 311 Caecillian was elected as bishop of Carthage by three area bishops. However, Caecillian, as well as Felix, one the three that elected him, was accused of handing over scriptures to the authorities during the persecution. A council of North African bishops met and elected a new bishop, Majorinus, to replace Caecillian. Majorinus soon died, and was succeeded by Donatus. Now here’s what happened: The church’s official position was that those who had lapsed during the persecution (denied Christ or handed over scriptures to the authorities) were to be forgiven and reinstated in the church – even to positions of leadership. Donatus and his followers believed that those who had denied Christ could never be forgiven. Only he and his group were the “true church,” and anyone who had lapsed during the persecution could not administer baptism or communion – and, furthermore, anyone who was baptized by one of the lapsed had received an invalid baptism.

The Donatists held that all sacraments administered by those not of their sect were invalid. So by their sinful act, such clerics had rendered themselves incapable of celebrating valid sacraments. This position is known as ex opere operatis - Latin for “from the work of the one doing the working,” That is, that the validity of the sacrament depends on the worthiness of the minister conferring it. The larger Christian position was (and still is): ex opere operato – “from the work having been worked.” In other words, the validity of the sacrament depends on the holiness of God, the minister being a mere instrument of God's work. Because of Augustine’s influence on the church the Donatists were eventually deemed heretical.

Okay, so what can we learn? Baptism and Communion are valid because they are channels of God’s grace, and are NOT dependent on human qualifications. This is a big difference between the Catholic Church and Protestant Churches. Evangelical churches in particular, have in many ways reverted to the Donatist position. That is, more weight is placed on the knowledge, qualifications, character, personal credibility, integrity, purity, and moral authority of the minister than in the imbued grace of God working through the minister. Remember how Paul spoke of the messenger as a “jar of clay”? – weak, broken, flawed. Protestant, evangelical churches do not practice this functionally. Too many people put way too much weight in the purity and moral authority of the minister. When some people discover that he is human – weak and sinful, their faith is tried, even shattered. Why? Don’t put your faith in people, put your faith in God. A person can’t bear up under the pressure. When a Catholic priest fails morally, his bishops protect him. When an evangelical Protestant minister fails morally, his bishops and parishioners no longer believe that he is “qualified” to minister, despite his many other qualifications (education and skills), and even a life that bears witness to God’s grace and the power of confession and repentance.

This may not be heresy, but something is very wrong when people and churches put more faith in the moral qualifications of a person than the ability of God to minister His grace through broken and sinful people. It is out of whack, and not consistent with what the church has believed and practiced as a matter of policy for the past 1700 years! Is the treasure in a jar of clay, or is the jar of clay the treasure?