Sunday, May 26, 2013

Cool Hand Luke and How to Win a Debate Against an Atheist

Up until sixth grade I was a bit of a bully. But that abruptly changed when I had my rear end handed to me by a country boy named Adam Johnson who used to drink "Tequila with his 'diddy' in the woods behind his house". I started the fight, but boy, he ended it, and subsequently ended my reign of terror. I bring this up as a metaphor to describe the way in which many people lose a battle, not because they are unable to win it, but because they fight the battle in the wrong way. Before Adam Johnson so kindly humbled me (I am truly grateful for his fine work), I had won my previous battles, not due to the fact that I was a particularly skilled brawler, but because I was athletic and had pretty good instincts. I was generally quicker and more agile than my opponents, and so I came out on top. However, with Adam Johnson I met my match. In fact, I met more than my match. Adam punched me about five times before I even lifted my arms. I was so dazed and disoriented, that the fight was over before it began. He didn't knock me out, but after a few minutes I basically hugged him like a boxer begging for mercy. The problem wasn't necessarily that I couldn't have won the fight (though it would have been difficult), the problem was I had fought him in a way that inevitably put me at a disadvantage. I was all arms. And so was he. But in a war of "all arms" he was far stronger and quicker than I.

In the same way, intellectuals like the recently deceased Christopher Hitchens, as well as other like-minded skeptics, may also have a similar kind of "upper body strength" when it comes to debate (see below). Yet in spite of all this, there is no reason that one should be humiliated like I was in sixth grade. To carry the metaphor a little further, if they keep hitting you up high (which is all the atheist and skeptic can really do), then go for legs. How do you respond to a stinging indictment of your beliefs? Well, you certainly don't do it by simply addressing each particular criticism, one by one. If your opponent wants to drag you into a hundred unrelated scandals, then don't try to match him blow for blow, for you will most certainly find yourself in the weeds. Rather, go for the "legs of his argument." I say this in particular for those who feel intellectually overmatched. It certainly isn't a bad idea to try and respond to one or two of their best objections in the hopes of getting a technical knockout, but why not try and get them on the ground as quickly as possible. Knocking their legs out from under them is the best way to bring the argument to equal footing- otherwise you must depend upon your natural skills for eloquence. Indeed, on the ground their greatest weapon (viz. their ability to deliver quick blows) is almost entirely neutralized.

To bring this back to practical terms, I present several basic ways in which you can "go for the legs" (i.e. take the offensive) when confronted with a litany of accusations like those above:

  • It is important to understand from the outset that there is, on some level, a built in disadvantage to defending the Catholic Church. Why? Because the Church holds such high standards for itself, it can be criticized anytime it fails to live up to them, while the atheist is given a pass precisely because there is no universally accepted standard for them. That said, if one simply exposes this inequity from the beginning, one may also be able to expose just how shallow and whiney folks are that demand great things from others but nothing from themselves. 
  • Don't allow them to bully you with accusations. Accusations are not arguments. Saying the Church started the Inquisition because it loves to torture people is not an argument. Saying the Catholic Church is cruel because of its teachings on sexuality is not an argument. Calling Catholic priests a bunch of pedophiles is no more rooted in sound reasoning than calling parents or school teachers a bunch of pedophiles because they are parents and school teachers. The point is you must not let them get away with superficial name calling. Accusations are to argumentation what heckling is to comedy.   
  • Always bring the discussion back to authority. In other words, upon what standard of morals does your opponent judge the Church? Darwinian evolution? Survival of the fittest? No, in all likelihood, he is criticizing the Church based on the best standard of morality available, namely that of the Catholic Church. Thus, don't let them simply just go about accusing the Church, make them explain where they themselves get the justification to do so.
  • Hitchens, and many others, like to invoke the Enlightenment, while simultaneously appealing to things which are decidedly not empirical, such as: morality, beauty, love, free-will, conscience, equality, etc. A good question to ask them is how they justify appealing to these supernatural principles when they themselves are only interested in debating what is rationally verifiable?
  • Church history may seem like the enemy in any discussion, but let me suggest otherwise. First, it is always good to make your opponent prove himself. Don't let him continually put you on the defensive. Might I recommend that you use the intellectual equivalent of a "rope a dope" when you engage in verbal sparring. Let them accuse away, and then make them prove that they know what the are talking about. If it's Galileo, then ask them for at least two other examples of the Church meddling in science. If it's the Inquisition, then ask them to tell you what they know about the Inquisition. In many cases, their knowledge will be limited at best. In the case of someone like Hitchens (who is a little more intellectually sophisticated), ask them to explain the origin of the Inquisition and why it was instituted in the first place. Many things have gone awry in Church history, but few things (if any) were from their outset corrupt.
  • Simplistic rants like the one above almost invariably include some accusation that the Church was always and everywhere against progress. The simplest way to refute this is to ask them the origin of just about every major institution in the West today. Why are so many hospitals named after saints? Where did the university system come from? Why were so many early scientists not only Catholics, but clerics in the Church. Where did the notion of charity beyond borders (and religion) come from? If the Church is so anti-woman, then why did so many women in the early centuries convert? If the Church is so ignorant and evil then why do so many people derive hope and refreshment from it today? On and on. Pretty much everything humane today can be historically tied to the Church.
  • Since child-abuse is such a topical issue let us address that one individually. Who would deny the horror of child abuse (except pederasts and a society like ours that was relatively silent on the matter until recently). Yet the question should be asked: why is it that we as a society are so disgusted by the idea of it in the first place? Is it because atheists throughout the centuries have demanded justice for little children? To the contrary, if you read St. Paul, or know anything about the sexual attitudes in the Mediterranean world during Paul's day, you know just how common the practice of pederasty was. The pagan world had no problem with man-boy love. Thus, it was only after the Christian Church gained influence that the behavior ultimately became taboo. 
  • Always look to return the discussion to first principles. If someone points to the evil and intolerance of the Crusades, press them on their knowledge of why the Crusades were launched in the first place. Whatever you want to say about the results, it was initially a war of defense. If someone brings up pederasty in the priesthood, bring the subject back to the original inspiration for the priesthood (i.e. imitating Jesus Christ). If someone regards the Church as intrinsically anti-Semitic, point out the Jewish roots of the faith (which by the way was the taunt of the Nazis about the followers of Jesus). There indeed have been those in the Church who have been responsible for anti-Semitism, but it is also true that the Church's doctrine regarding the spiritual equality of all human beings provides the only logical basis for an end to all discrimination. 
  • In the above video Hitchens ridicules the Church's idea of infallibility, and then expresses his hope that such an arrogant office would quickly come to an end. This is certainly ironic, especially considering that Hitchens and others like him are themselves a kind of self-elected official, ordained to stand above all of history judging it more scrupulously than any real pope would. Yet not only is Hitchens infallible on historical matters (apparently), he is impeccable as it relates to his own life. And so as a result I am always wont to say; "there but for the grace of Hitch go I". Behold the arrogance of the man who receives all of the wisdom and experience of the ages, and then roundly mocks and ridicules those who lived in prior ages because they do not have the same benefit as he. A little historical humility is never a bad thing.
  • Probably one of the most effective and easiest applause lines for atheists is to condemn the Church for what the Church herself already condemns in principle; "In Uganda priests are responsible for raping and killing this or that group of individuals. This is disgusting." Well, yes, it is. Thanks for pointing that out." The force of the argument comes not as a consequence of being an atheist or a skeptic, but from living in a Christian society that condemns certain behavior as immoral. Congrats you have merely plagiarized a Christian principle and then used it to accuse Christians. 
  • Oftentimes the Church is roundly criticized (as in this video) for teaching that there is such a thing as sin. However, I would argue that this practice is entirely practical. First, in order to have a moral basis for making any judgment whatsoever one needs a basic standard of right and wrong. And secondly, in order for there to be any possibility of reform and/or correction in religion (or anything else for that matter), there must be an idea of perfection towards which one strives.
  • Classic witch hunt rules here. If the Church admits to evil, she is condemned by her own words. If she hasn't admitted it, then she is evil for failing to admit it. All this from a man/group that doesn't believe that such a thing as evil exists in the first place.
  • If they accuse the Church of murdering millions of Africans because the Church doesn't believe that condoms will solve the Aids crisis there, then play dumb and ask the individual to explain how promoting widespread condom use is a solution to the crisis. Many times when people are forced to explain their position the weakness of their argument is exposed. The truth is it is easier to demand eloquence than it is to produce it. However, I have to admit that I have always found it rather strange that the same people who complain that the Church promotes overpopulation in Africa, are the same folks that complain that the Church is creating a holocaust there.
  • One final way to avoid getting "Hitchslapped" is by asking a simple question. This question has been around a while, but it is nevertheless still potent. If the Church is as thoroughly corrupt as Hitchens and others like to think, then how do you account for her longevity and resilience?" Remember we are not speaking here about some vague but popular idea that has been floating around for a millennia or two, we are talking about an institution running, uninterrupted, on the same principles she began with. To shrug off this question without offering a solution is simply to avoid the elephant in the historical room.

Hopefully at least some of the above suggestions offer insight into how to approach a discussion that is laden with accusations against the Church. Like I said, one need not be a black belt in apologetics to force an intellectually impressive opponent to the mat simply by forcing them to defend their own position. In closing, I leave the following scene from the film Cool Hand Luke. I have always felt that in some small way it summarizes the inexplicable resilience of the Catholic Faith. To the eyes of the outside world it must really seem like the Church is forever getting Hitch-slapped, or going down in a sea of flames- and yet, in spite of all this, it is an indisputable fact that the Church is somehow the only one left standing in the historical ring.


Saturday, May 18, 2013

The Ungodliness of Christian Mercy: the Kermit Gosnell Edition

Last summer I devoted a blog post to the Aurora Illinois shooting, and in particular to the gunman James Holmes. The focus of that post was not on the shooting per se, but on the strange fact that we as a society go out of our way to safely detain someone who carefully went out of his way to annihilate everyone. My aim was not to laud this position so much as to point out how odd it is that we ourselves do not see it as odd. A more reasonable position actually would be to mete out the same justice that the gunman himself meted out when he opened fire on those defenseless moviegoers. Yet that is not what we did. The authorities went to great lengths to give this man the justice and mercy that he clearly denied others.

Whatever you think about this kind of justice/mercy, it is undeniable that without Christ such a remarkable approach to law and justice would be inconceivable. The only thing comparable to this unconscionable approach to law enforcement is the equally unconscionable suggestion that one should show restraint in wartime. In fact, there is even a criteria that the Church has developed over the last two thousand years as a means to determine whether a military action is considered "just" or not. And in the event that one does engage in war, there are even certain rules that if broken constitute "war crimes". But think about it this way: how strange is it to suggest that amidst all of the blood and chaos that surrounds war, that two enemies might actually regard certain behavior as "out of bounds?" Once again, such restraint can only be envisioned in a Christian ethos, though that very same Christian instinct also has a rather practical element to it as well. If two nations are going to fight, so be it, but God forbid that they preserve nothing of their humanity in the process, God forbid that they simply turn into mindless animals who fight for no other reason than the desire to maim and destroy a fellow human being.

Which brings me to the primary purpose for my writing this particular post. In another stunning example of the "ungodliness of Christian mercy", I present the "star" of the Pennsylvania "House of Horrors", the man who played judge and executioner for countless born and unborn babies (not to mention several women whose death he was responsible for). Indeed, the same man who mercilessly decapitated babies born alive as a result of botched abortions is now the beneficiary of the mercy he so callously denied others. He himself (through his lawyers) appealed to the judge for a stay of execution and because our justice system values mercy it was granted. Yet the very man who now demands mercy from the court, never once, it seems, let the cry of any baby move his heart to offer the same. So he is alive as a result of a set of values which he himself rejects- a remarkable conclusion wrought by the mercy of heaven and the pitiful irony of hell. If we were in a country like Saudi Arabia, Mr. Gosnell (I call him that because he is no doctor) would doubtless be decapitated, and perhaps since he killed so many, such a decapitation might be performed with the dullest of blades. Now that sounds more like good old fashioned justice to me.

However, just as Abraham's hand was stayed from slaughtering his son, so Christ has stayed our own hands from imposing on the criminal the same cruel and unusual punishment that he himself has administered. On the surface, this seems like madness, and in many ways it is a miscarriage of justice. But there is a method to God's "ungodliness". A society that simply returns horror for horror is not exactly above what it claims to abhor. Indeed, it is one thing for evil to befall the man who has done evil, and quite another to condemn wicked behavior by behaving in the same wicked manner yourself. How can a just man torture a wicked man and not in some sense become what he detests? Surely the man who seeks justice is better than the criminal, but how much better; especially when he attempts to carefully devise ways to drive another human man mad by inflicting excruciating psychological and/or physical pain upon him?

Another rationale for such punitive restraint is less for the sake of the criminal and more for the general welfare of society. Far from endorsing such behavior, the legal system at its best seeks to make a clear distinction between the behavior of the one who has utterly abandoned the highest morals ideals, and the one whose aim it is to uphold them. To witness sanity in the face of insanity is not only comforting (seeing as insanity is never described as such), but it re-enforces the notion that it is better to be above the horror than to become as small and detestable as what you are condemning. Let us also not forgot how hypocritical it would be for a society that permits abortion on demand to then claim false outrage at the man who simply carried out our twisted logic to its natural conclusion.

Lastly, such legal restraint makes sense, especially when you consider the longview of civilization. If retributive justice is the only way a society guarantees its citizens behave well, then you are not exactly creating a society that is founded upon real Christian freedom. In other words, people may avoid crimes as a result of the government's Draconian methods, but they are certainly not doing so based on a genuine desire for goodness. If fear is the only motivation for goodness, then you are creating a slavish people who are good, not "for goodness sake", but because their master threatens them with lashes. Moreover, in such a society, what chance would/could there be for genuine conversion and redemption. An eye for an eye can go on ad infinitum like some infernal game of Pong if you let it, but a justice system with real mercy built into it, lays the groundwork for the possibility of genuine healing. Whether on the battlefield or in the courtroom, there is no end to the potential "back and forth" unless there is some opportunity for magnanimity on the part of the court, and some room for rehabilitation on the part of the criminal. Mere retributive justice may prevent crimes in a superficial sense, but it certainly does not alter the mentality of the criminal. Indeed, such a society is founded on legalism and not virtue.  

So even while we continue to detest and loathe the behavior of someone like Kermit Gosnell, and even while we might want to dismember him in the same fashion that he dismembered all of those little ones, our faith requires us to show remarkable restraint. However "ungodly" such restraint may seem, it is far less ungodly than the alternative. Do we wish to live in a society that is less barbaric than its criminals, or do we prefer a justice system like the one in Saudi Arabia that still crucifies its criminals for things like armed robbery (see below)? Do we wish to live in Rome or Riyadh? Do we want Sharia law, or the Constitution? Or to put it another way, how much blood, torture, and death, would be required in order to offer full atonement for all of the crimes and wickedness that we see in the world today? Such a display would indeed look something like hell on earth. Thus, while justice is necessary, there is, thankfully, a tiny window of escape out of the asylum of pure justice, a trap door of redemption for a criminal and a world that seems only capable of seeing red.        



Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Schindler's List and What Scares Me Most About Judgment Day

When people think about judgment day images of fire, destruction, and worst of all, the wrath of God appear in their mind. On judgment day, they imagine, the "divine gloves" will be taken off completely, and thus no one will be able escape the dreadful fury of God. I do not deny that any of these things will happen, nor do I deny that I am terrified by the justice that is coming upon the world. Nevertheless, there is another kind of fear that overwhelms me when I consider judgment day, one that involves a very different order of trepidation. The event about which I speak is far from terrifying in the traditional sense, and yet has hell backpedaling for all of eternity. Indeed, it is in this same spirit that the Gadarene demoniac once cried out; "What have I to do with you, Jesus Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me!" If ever there were a man that existed for the purpose of taking away torment, it was Jesus. So why would the demon make such an outrageous claim? The answer to this question is at the core of what makes God and His judgment such a remarkably paradoxical event.

During every Catholic Mass, one prayer that is always recited [no matter what the occasion] is what is referred to as the "Sanctus" prayer. What is most interesting about this prayer, at least for our purposes, is that it combines two passages in Scripture that would seem on the surface to be utterly opposed. The first part is taken from the beginning of Isaiah Chapter 6. In this passage Isaiah finds himself caught up to the throne of God. When confronted with the glory of God he says; "Woe is me! I am a doomed man. For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people with unclean lips..." Amidst this terrifying vision, he hears the six-winged seraphs crying out "Holy Holy Holy... heaven and earth are full of your glory... Lord God of hosts (armies)". Bottom line:  if one of the great prophets of the Old Testament is terrified to stand in the presence of God, then common sense dictates that we too should be afraid of this moment.

However, the second part of the prayer is the polar opposite of the former. "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in Highest." This particular verse is taken from the beginning of the passion narrative in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Yet what makes this part of the prayer particularly incommensurate with the previous lines is the fact that at this moment in Scripture God is anything but imposing. He comes not on the back of a giant warhorse, but meekly and humbly on a preposterous animal known as a donkey. If he had ridden into Jerusalem on the back of a duck-billed platypus it could hardly have been more at odds with the Isaiah passage.

This is the God from which the demons run, and the one that I fear most on judgment day. For it is not God's "muscles" that will have us retreating back into the dark of night, but rather his towering tenderness. And it is not his unwillingness to forgive us that will provoke a certain sense of despair within. To the contrary, it will be our unwillingness to forgive ourselves for all the things that we will never again have the opportunity to do (on His behalf). One might wonder how this all works and/or looks in practical terms. And perhaps were it not for a most exquisite scene taken from the film Schindler's List, such a phenomenon might seem incomprehensible. But thanks to the movie, along with an exceptional performance by Liam Neeson, we can catch a glimpse of what it might look like. Yes, there are some who hate God because they hate goodness itself. Yet there are others, I think, who when faced with his incomparable beauty will be tempted to despair for a different reason altogether. These individuals will be tempted to cast themselves down, not because of their hatred of God, but because they will be unable to justify standing in His presence for even one moment longer. They will see all the ways they could have and should have served Him, and find themselves utterly crushed when they realize that they can never go back and change those things. Hence, on that terrible day, it will not be God's vengeance that will provoke us to run from His beneficent arms, but rather a moment of divine self-recrimination, a moment wherein we, alongside Oscar Schindler, cry out from the depths of our being; "I could have done more!" May this sentiment and scene haunt us in such a way that we are inspired to avoid (in as much as it is possible) a similar fate.                      

Thursday, May 2, 2013

What I Learned from Mick Jagger About Sex

In the video below Mike Myers and Dana Carvey play Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, respectively. The sketch attempts to depict what the pre-wedding conversation might sound like if Jagger were to seek advice from his buddy, Richards, on how to approach his wedding night. At the time of the sketch, Jagger was about to marry model Jerry Hall who happens to be the mother of two of his children, and a woman who he had been dating/living with for close to thirteen years. What makes the clip particularly amusing is that- in spite of Jagger's sexual history- the SNL crew envisions a rather shy and humble Jagger looking for a few final nuggets of wisdom before he "takes the plunge".

As a teacher, whenever I ask my students why premarital sex is not only immoral but a bad idea on a practical level, they generally tell me that sex before marriage makes the wedding night seem "anti-climactic." The fact that this is a double entendre is probably lost on most of them, but for those who are aware of its double meaning, a deeper significance can be gleaned. Whether in movies, sports, songs, or sex, in order for there to be a satisfying conclusion, there must be a necessary build-up. The best things in life require some level of patience and preparation in order to reach a desirable end. The diabolical opposite of this is the demon of immediacy, which seeks to front load pleasure, while simultaneously stealing it on the back end. Without the appropriate build-up/denouement, life would be a series of  Christmases without Advent, "straight As" without studying, choruses without verses, a championship without a season, a punchline without any context, and a wedding night for a couple who has never experienced anything even approaching chastity.

Being more cynical than my students, I have never really found this argument to be a particularly compelling one (at least as a means of convincing others). But after watching this SNL clip one cannot help but to see how tragic and pitiful the man is who attempts to find romance and intimacy after such a sordid history. Ironically, by presenting Jagger and Richards in such an innocent way, the lie of premarital sex becomes even more pronounced. We are constantly informed by our culture that living chastity is at its best useless and naive, and at worst dangerous. But how naive, and perhaps even dangerous, is it to think that there are no consequences for deferring the wedding vows, while maintaining the wedding night (I would argue that such a "deferral" quite often leads to a permanent one)? Furthermore, how difficult would it be to have a romantic spirit on your wedding night if you had already been living with someone for thirteen years and had two children with them? I am not saying that there is no possibility that good could come out of this situation- only that it is much more difficult to envision anything resembling a "romantic night of bliss" after the history they had already shared together. If ever there were an anti-climax this would be it. One might even wonder if on a night such as this there were any climax at all. Not surprisingly his marriage to Ms. Hall did end in divorce in 1999 when it was discovered (surprise surprise) that he had fathered a child with a Brazilian model. Indeed, it does not strain credulity to suggest that if a man doesn't learn chastity before marriage, it is certainly less likely that he will learn it afterwards.