Sunday, January 26, 2003

I can't imagine God would care about that

I'm sure you've all heard this argument, usually in the context of disagreements with the Church about contraception, divorce and remarriage, homosexuality, or even such issues as the necessity to confess sins to a priest, obligatory Mass attendance, and fasting in Lent. Lukewarm Catholics will almost invariably claim that their god couldn't possibly care about such trivial issues. Given the state of Catholic education in the last thirty years, it is probably true that their god wouldn't care. But, unfortunately, the god that has been taught is a far cry from the living God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Let me give a few examples, taken from Scripture, that show that God indeed does care about these things.

Contraception: does Jesus actually speak about contraception? No. But he doesn't speak about lots of things. We cannot infer from the fact that Jesus says nothing about X to the conclusion that X is permitted. Jesus said nothing about embezzling or drug abuse, but we can be sure that he doesn't support either activity. But take a look at what he says in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 and following). Jesus takes as his point of departure various parts of the Ten Commandments. He starts by explicitly saying "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have come not to abolish but to fulfill." Those who speak as if the Old Testament God was mean and had lots of rules, but that these rules are all gone now that we have Jesus, do not understand. Jesus takes these rules and gives their fulfillment. He takes the prohibition of murder and extends it to be a prohibition of insults. He takes the traditional doctrine of "eye for eye, tooth for tooth," which was a Mosaic improvement of the law of vendetta ("Death for an eye, death for a tooth.") and fulfills it by saying that we must love our enemies and do good to those who hurt us.

What does he say about adultery? "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall not commit adultery.' But I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart." He takes the traditional law that prohibited sex outside of the bond of marriage, and extends and fulfills it to prohibit even fantasy about sex. Now, given the general trajectory of his thought, to take the Mosaic proscriptions and make them tougher, ask yourself this question: would Jesus approve of using chemicals, devices, and little bits of rubber to turn the sexual act within marriage into a mere exercise of lust, a lust which he speaks so strongly against in the Sermon on the Mount? If you think he is lax, or wasn't serious, look at the words that follow: "If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into Gehenna." What is contraceptive sex except lust within marriage? Rather than mutual self-gift, respecting the fertility of both members, sex becomes a mere shadow, a mockery. It might as well be masturbation. Of course, if you want a specific case of God dealing with a contraceptor, look at the story of Onan in Genesis 38. Perhaps God does care about this stuff.

(This prohibition surely also applies to homosexuality as well, which by its very nature is ordered to lust, since the act itself cannot be fruitful. Further, Paul reaffirms Old Testament prohibitions in Romans 2 and throughout his letters.)

Divorce. Jesus is similarly clear on this issue. Look at Matthew 19. Jesus is quite clear; the "except for immorality" exception must be interpreted as having to do with invalidity of the marriage from the start, given the apostles' strong reaction. Look at what they say: "His disciples said to him, "If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry." The disciples see his teaching on divorce and remarriage, and think it is so tough, not lax at all, that they don't think anyone should ever get married. Note this very well: Jesus doesn't correct them! Yes, it is better to remain unmarried for the kingdom, but not everyone gets this gift. Now, given what Jesus says clearly here, do you think he would approve of divorce and remarriage? Would he think it was fine, or would he care about it? If you think Jesus doesn't care about divorce, you haven't read what he says about it.

Confession: "why does God care if I go to confession? Can't I just say I'm sorry directly to God? Surely God wouldn't care!" This objection is common. For some reason it is very offensive to people to have to go through the formality of seeking out a priest for absolution. But their discontent is nothing new, and was shared by an Aramean named Naaman many years ago. He suffered from leprosy, and looked for a cure. The text is from 2 Kings 5: Naaman came with his horses and chariots and stopped at the door of Elisha's house. The prophet sent him the message: "Go and wash seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will heal, and you will be clean." But Naaman went away angry, saying, "I thought that he would surely come out and stand there to invoke the LORD his God, and would move his hand over the spot, and thus cure the leprosy. Are not the rivers of Damascus, the Abana and the Pharpar, better than all the waters of Israel? Could I not wash in them and be cleansed?" With this, he turned about in anger and left. But his servants came up and reasoned with him. "My father," they said, "if the prophet had told you to do something extraordinary, would you not have done it? All the more now, since he said to you, 'Wash and be clean,' should you do as he said."

Naaman is proud, and doesn't want to accept the gift of God because he has to go through the indignity of washing in the dirty Jordan river. Being cured of his leprosy will require him to lower himself, to get rid of his pride, and to take the advice of a smelly Hebrew prophet. He is about to refuse, until his sensible servants say, in effect, why are you lookinga gift horse in the mouth? Go wash, stupid!

Now look at the case of confession--it promises the forgiveness of sins. What is the cause of sin, if not pride? Pride is the real disease of the soul that needs to be rooted out. It damages one's pride not at all to mutter a quick "I'm sorry, God," and then to congratulate oneself on being forgiven. Rather, one must do some kind of self-abasement. We must become smaller in order to be forgiven our sins. The very act of driving to the church, standing in line, kneeling, and saying "bless me father. . ." requires that I admit my own failure. The beginning of forgiveness must be "I am the greatest of sinners." Otherwise, the pride remains, and forgiveness can't happen. God may not care so much about the details of the confessional box, but he cares very much, I am certain, that you as a penitent make some act of abasement. Note that Jesus never forces miracles on anyone: they have to ask. Going to the confessional and confessing to the priest is how we ask.

Further, note that by canon law priests are forbidden to absolve their accomplices in sins against chastity; how then, could you absolve yourself of your sins, which is what you do if you try to avoid confession.

I was going to write in more detail about the issues of Mass attendance, and fasting, but given the general trajectory of Jesus' thought on the Mosaic law, do you really think Jesus doesn't care about these things? Yes, there are ritual observances and dietary restrictions from which we are absolved, but never in the Old Testament will you find a moral teaching that isn't reiterated or amplified by Christ. So, if we are commanded to keep the Lord's day holy, it is certain that Jesus would wish you to do so as well. After all, Jesus fulfilled his requirements, worshiping in the temple and synagogue as Jews were required to do. If it was good enough for Jesus (who is God, by the way), then it is good enough for us. (That goes for fasting, as well, obviously.)

No comments: