Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Family UnPlanning, Part One - Sex and Reproduction

In this review, J. Matthew Sleeth discusses a Christian argument for small families, based on the Golden Rule. My wife and I desire to have a large family, of not only biological children, but also adopted and foster, if God sees fit to bless us. We have also chosen not to use contraception. Naturally, I was interested in this opposing viewpoint, printed in a journal that I respect.

Sleeth argues that it's okay to use contraceptives for family planning purposes. I agree, mostly, that some contraception is an option for Christians, but I'll get to my perspective in bit. Sleeth summarizes the argument against contraception as thus:

Is the use of contraception against Christian teaching? I have heard many versions of this argument, but they all boil down to the same thing: Contraception is against God's law, since it interferes with the created purpose of sexual intercourse. In short, contraception is unnatural.
This is a straw man if I ever saw one, one that hits especially close to home. I believe that Sleeth has mischaracterized the argument against contraception and that he, ultimately, misses the point about sexual reproduction.

The Theology of Reproduction
Sleeth gets it backwards. Reproduction is not the "created purpose of sexual intercourse." Reproduction is the natural fruit of intercourse. Here, I'm summarizing an argument I first heard from James Houston, who was discussing the Trinity and drawing on writings of the Cappadocians and C.S. Lewis. In the beginning, God made human beings in his image. But why did God need to make anything? The Trinity is a self-sufficient community. God is the great "I AM." He exists because of himself, for himself, without need for prior cause, without need of anything at all, including human company. The pagan gods of the Ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman world needed human beings to make sacrifices, worship them, and honor their sacred places. YHWH transcends humanity.

So why bother with human beings, or a created universe for that matter? Because God is love, and love is expansive. It's like yeast, or a mustard seed, or good news that spreads and spreads, filling everything and everyone. The Trinity created the universe, and created us, out of an expansive love that sought more persons to love. God did not need to create us, or anything at all. He wanted to. We are wanted by God.

And we are made in his image. "Be fruitful and multiple in number" are God's very first words to human beings. We are to be productive like God - generating new persons to love. In the perfect marriage, children are created out of the love between 'adam and 'adamah. It is a joyful expansion of the love between the lovers. In a sense, children "proceeds" from the marriage. It is not a coincidence that emotional bedrocks of a marriage - the wedding, sexual union, and the birth of children - are part of a continuous whole.

To reduce the connection between sex and childbirth to a matter of mere purpose is like saying the created purpose of Jesus was to die on the cross. There's nothing incorrect, per se, with that statement, but it misses the mark entirely.

Next, the theology of children.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Church for Men

The AP recently ran this story.

DAYTONA BEACH - No hymnals. No pews. No steeple. No stained glass windows. And no women.

This ain't your grandma's church.

Organizers of the Church For Men say that guys are "bored stiff" in many churches today. "We try to make it interesting for them. We meet in a gym and we talk about issues that mess men up," said Mike Ellis, 46, the church's founder. The Church For Men meets one Saturday evening a month, drawing about 70 guys dressed in everything but straight-laced shirts and neckties. The service features a rock band, a shot clock to time the preacher's message and a one-hour in-and-out guarantee.

The article goes on to talk about hot rod events, fishing outreach, and one preacher's idea that men have "the attention span of a flea."

It is important, even Biblical, for Christian men to build relationships with other Christian men, to the glory of Christ. Our Lord himself modeled this for us by gathering the Twelve, and Paul's cohort of Barnabas, Timothy, Titus, Silas, etc., shows the mighty deeds that men working together can do for the Kingdom.

But is the church's problem that it asks too much from men and needs to cater their services so that men don't know whether they're at church or at home watching ESPN? I don't think so. First, the popularity of movements like Promise Keepers and writers like John Eldredge suggests to me that too many churches ask too little of their men. There's a great deal of work to be done in the Kingdom, and professional ministers can only do so much. God's call is for all of his people to do works of service, and the skills that men have in business, with their hands, in planning and entrepreneurship, in risk taking and boldness, are integral for much of that work. I have seen that with my own eyes.

Secondly, however, I worry that something is lost when we don't listen to God's call to humble ourselves like little children when we come to him. Men are prideful, and we don't like to leave our comfort zones. The problem, of course, is that the gospel is often uncomfortable. It's easy to dismiss something we don't want to do by saying it's "not for us." Our consumerist culture has taught us that our desires and our needs should be the most important thing to us. Many of these types of ministry try to put the gospel into a friendly, nonthreatening context, like fly fishing or sports cars. I know that these ministries have worked in many lives, and far be it from me to stand between God and another human being. At what point, though, does the context swallow up the gospel?

There have been many popular Christian men held up as examples for Christians. Many of them lived exemplary lives, while others "talked the talk" without "walking the walk." Only one person ever showed us how a true man lives, a true man made in God's image and obedient in every respect to God's will: Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, the Son of God. May all Christian men look to him for their example and endeavor to conform to his image.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

What is religion?

In London, a debate was held yesterday in which the motion put forth was "We'd Be Better Off Without Religion." Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens each took part on the "pro" side of the argument.

Unfortunately, no one bothered to define "religion," which frequently happens in these types of debates. No one bothered to differentiate one religion from another, either. This invariably leads to someone attacking "religion" on the grounds that it has caused horrible things to happen (the Crusades, 9/11), which leads someone else to defend "religion" on the basis that it has given us great works of art and philanthropy.

In (non)defense of religion
Christians should not attempt to defend "religion" unless the word is given meaning within a context. Often, "religion" is used to mean something like "a specific set of doctrinal statements and rituals observed by a specific group of people." In those cases, why should a Christian be required to speak on behalf of Buddhism or Islam? It's akin to asking a New Democrat to defend the divine right of kings simply because they are both "politics." Discussions of religion without boundaries, where a discussion about the dual nature of Christ suddenly veers off into a debate about Middle Eastern terrorism, as is typical of web forums, are worse than useless. Christians and nonChristians alike are guilty of these context-wrenching "drive-by comments."

We all have got religion
But that's only one definition of "religion." Another definition, which I prefer, is "one's view of ultimate reality." I strongly dislike attempts to separate "religious" beliefs from the rest of life, because our "religious" beliefs and presuppositions shape everything else we do, on a fundamental level. Atheism may not have specific rituals associated with it, but it assuredly affects life decisions just as much as traditional Catholicism.

One of the best recent comments along these lines came from, ironically enough, an atheist on a religion and philosophy web forum. She pointed out that, until the Enlightenment, the whole of life was considered part of "religion," making it impossible to distinguish "religious" motives from nonreligious. Criticizing events of the past because of "religion" therefore makes no sense, because everything in the past was based on "religion." I would extend this to current events as well. How can you glibly attribute something as complicated as, say, the troubles of Northern Ireland or the situation in the Middle East to "religion?" You might as well say that "politics," "geography," or "history" are to blame - such a statement says nothing.

I wish that the organizers of last night's debate had been so thoughtful about defining their topic.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Art, Vocation, and Making a Living

This blog post from the co-author of Freakonomics is a great starting point for a discussion of the connections between art, vocation, and money.

I think Dubner is right about there being a certain group people who see art and money as irrevocably divided:

This troupe of sneerers seem to believe that writing is art and that art comes from the soul and that the fruits of the soul shall not be bought.
This is definitely an attitude that I have encountered from time to time. This is also the attitude behind the concept of "selling out" - prostituting your art in order to make money. At the same time, American artists often daydream of landing a patron, along the lines of artistic patrons of the Renaissance. The patron, however, should not "interfere" too much in the artistic process.

In the world of philanthropy, donors are often surprised when they learn that employees of nonprofit organizations earn a salary, sometimes a substantial salary. Feeding the hungry or serving the needs of the world, it's apparently felt, is a purely altruistic endeavor. A salary clouds the purity of this altruism. Business, on the other hand, is viewed as a purely self-interested. Corporations don't improve the world - they are a necessary evil.

Why is there such a perceived discord in American culture between earning money and living out your vocation? I think clericalism within the church is largely at fault. The church has often taught the unBiblical idea that there are clergy who do the work of God and laity who support the clergy. Notice what this implies in terms of money and career:
  • Most jobs have nothing to do with God.
  • The work of the laity only provides money to support the clergy.
  • The clergy don't "earn" their money, but rely on the generosity of the laity.
  • There is no eternal value in the average job.
  • There is no monetary value in the job of the clergy.

Because art has often replaced religion in modern culture as a source of revelation and comfort, this same clericalism has bled over into the artistic world. "True artists" are set off from the rest of us, whose daily lives have nothing to do with art.

But what is money? Money is a symbol of value. How much is this cheeseburger/shirt/car/house worth to me? How much am I willing to pay this painter/doctor/psychiatrist/waiter to work for me? If someone's art is worth something, should you expect that people will want to pay money for it? Conversely, if you want to be paid for your art, wouldn't you want to create art that is worth something?

The problem comes when we see artists, clergy, and nonprofit workers who appear to be grossly overpaid. Poorly written pulp novels become bestsellers. Shysters fly around in private planes. Hospital CEOs make millions while sending collection agencies after the uninsured.

This should not be surprising. We live in a fallen world, and most of us will not see our true value on this side of heaven. But these inequalities do not negate the fact that the worker deserves to the paid for his work. All vocations have value. May the way we earn our living correspond to the work God has called us to.

Monday, March 12, 2007

The Argument Against Community, Part Three

Read parts one and two of this essay.

This is the longest section because I have found it the most difficult to articulate. In America, where "family values" are coveted by every social class and political party, it isn't easy to see why family might not be an inherent good. Nonetheless, the fourth argument against community in American culture is...

4) The priority of family. At first glance, family appears to be an ally of community. And in many ways, it is. Families are fundamental building blocks of community involvement and networking. People who are strongly invested in families are often also invested in community. Like a community, families connect individuals to a social network outside of themselves. They therefore play a similar role in the individual's life.

In this similiarity, however, lies the danger. Because a family can look so much like a community, and because family life promotes so many of the same values as community life, family and community are often viewed interchangeably. This is a mistake. The two should be viewed as distinct. In fact, the family can frequently be the enemy of community.

What I am trying to say here must be carefully nuanced, because I don't want to imply that family is never beneficial to community life. The clearest example of the distinction between community and family, however, might be seen in a person who converts from the religion of his family (or the non-religion of his family) to another religion. At the heart of religion, or at least, at the heart of the Christian religion, is community. (More on this in future posts.) Joining the community life of the new religion will almost certainly require breaking away from full membership in family life.

For example, a man from a Christian family who becomes Jewish may no longer observe Christmas and Easter. He may choose to respect his family and celebrate with family traditions, but his heart will not move in unity with that of his family as it once did. Or, more radically, he may come to see these traditions as antithetical to his new beliefs, and wholely reject everything about his family traditions. The man's true "home" is now found with his religious community. He is, ultimately, an outsider to his family, and his family are outsiders to his community.

Even when one's family and one's community are mostly in sync, family can become the enemy of true community. The family is an extension of the self, so pride and selfishness are ongoing threats. In many cultures, family clans dominate social life. The families of Romeo and Juliet don't seem to be that different from one another. Yet, family pride - genetic pride - consumes lives and destroys community. How many churches have been damaged by a pastor's desire to "pass down" the pulpit to his son, as if a church is a family business? How many pastor's children have been scarred because their parents failed to negotiate the treacherous channel between family and community?

Imagine a religious order - ostensibly a community of faith dedicated to common values - but one to which several sets of siblings happen to belong. There may be many situations in which those siblings are asked to choose between family and community. If family is chosen often enough, then the community will splinter. This tension can be seen in the Gospels, when James and John (brothers) argue about who among the disciples will be greatest. Fortunately, the brothers among the disciples (not only James and John, but also Peter and Andrew) placed their community and the mission of God above family loyalties.

There are pockets of America where family is considered "sacred." Given the tensions between family and community, I don't think it should be surprising that, in these are same pockets, newcomers often have difficulty in making a home, and ethnic or racial tensions are often high. "Family values" do not necessarily include hospitality, justice, righteousness, or even love, the marks of true community.

Monday, March 5, 2007

The Argument Against Community, Part Two

Americans, by and large, do not live as if community is a major aspect of their lives. Why not?

Read part one of "The Argument Against Community."

3) The priority of the individual. The individual, after all, is what America is all about. It doesn't matter where you come from, who your parents are, what your social class at birth was. The American dream is that you can make yourself into whatever you want. If something isn't working for you, drop it and try something else.

Much of the power of community, however, comes from its demand upon the individual to submit his or her personal needs to those of the community. For example, a monastery is defined by its "rule." If each monk were to take the freedom to choose when and how he would observe the rule, the monastery would quickly lose its distinctiveness from the world around it. The monastic order would dissolve into a collection of unhappy individuals.

American culture has made individualism a virtue, to the point where many supposed Christians say without a second thought, "God would want me to be happy" - a statement without precedent in Christian scripture or theology - as an argument for their individualistic decisions. True community asks that an individual be ready at any moment to reject his happiness for the sake of the group. Many Americans call that a fool's game. The same men who weep at the sacrifices of firefighters or soldiers begin looking for an escape hatch when called to sacrifice their personal happiness for that of their family, town, or country.

Next, the final argument against community, the priority of the family.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Science, Faith, History, and the "Tomb of Jesus"

The Dallas Morning News religion blog has a strange quote from David Frankfurter of the University of New Hampshire about the current "Jesus tomb" controversy - no attribution as to the source, unfortunately.

It's remarkable that Christian groups are getting so hot under the collar about the implications of this. Scientific archeology can't touch religious tradition and conviction unless religions come to depend on science for their validity.
What a bizarre statement. The Christians opposing this "tomb of Jesus" nonsense are defending the historical truth of Jesus' death, resurrection, and ascension (and, of course, his non-marriage to Mary Magdalene). But Frankfurter's position makes sense if you view "science" and "religion" as two independent spheres of knowledge with little or no overlap. (The assumption, to the popular mind at least, is that "science" is "real" while "religion" is "helpful.")

The Unity of Knowledge
This is not what orthodox Christianity teaches, however. As the Nicene Creed begins,
I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
All of creation - heaven and earth, visible and invisible - is unified, because it was made by the one God. By implication, all of knowledge is integrated. The content of Jesus' sermons, the historical data of his birth and death, and the molecules forming his flesh are all part of the same, unified reality. We may not know all of that reality perfectly, but Christians, from the earliest days, have firmly connected their beliefs to the historical events of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection. As only one example from many, when Jesus' disciples were selecting someone to replace Judas as one of the Twelve, Peter said,
Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John's baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection. (Acts 1:21-22)
I am not at all sure what is so "remarkable" about Christians defending the reality of the event that forms the basis of our faith. Like the first disciples, we serve as "witnesses of his resurrection," through our religion, our science, and through every other aspect of our lives.