Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Failed Experiment


"We are at the end of a tradition and a civilization which believed we could preserve Christianity without Christ, religion without a creed, meditation without sacrifice, family life without moral responsibility, sex without purity and economics without ethics.  We have completed our experiment of living without God." - Venerable Fulton J. Sheen

In a way, all of us are like scientists.  Our goal is to define, understand, and finally secure happiness in life.  Our lives are a continual process of experimentation; we form hypotheses about what we think will make us happy, and then we test the hypotheses.  Our laboratory is the entire world, and we have a wide variety of tools and instruments at our disposal.  There is great disagreement about which tools we should use, which methods we should employ, which hypothesis is correct, and how we should measure the success of our experiment.  The only thing that we all agree on is the goal of the experiment, happiness.  Can you imagine any other motive for doing something besides thinking that it will make you happy?  It's impossible – every good thing we can obtain or experience in life is considered good to the extent that it produces happiness.  We're familiar with the question, "What good are riches if they don't make you happy?" and, "Money can't buy you happiness," but nobody asks, "What good is happiness if it doesn't make you rich?"  This fact, that happiness is the end (purpose) of human life, is so deeply engrained in human nature that it seems unnecessary to even point it out.  And yet, acknowledging it is the first step in evaluating the choices we make in life.

Fulton Sheen said that "we have completed our experiment of living without God."  When he says "completed," he doesn't mean that we aren't still repeating the experiment, after all, he said that in 1933, and look how much further our culture has regressed since then!  Rather, he meant that we are fully aware of the results of our experiment – total failure.  Every time we try to root our happiness in something less than God, we are left disappointed.  "If I just made this much more money a year, if I could just afford this outfit, this phone, this car, this house, if I could just get this person to notice me, this person to like me, this person to respect me, if I could just change this one thing about myself, this one thing about my spouse...then I would be happy."  Sound familiar?  We all tell ourselves these things from time to time.  However, I believe that, in our deepest self, we all know they're not true.  How do we know?  Personal experience, along with the witness of the thousands of lives we encounter.  Regardless of whether or not Einstein actually said it, we're all familiar with the quote:  "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results."  There is also the very similar:  "If you do what you've always done, you'll get what you've always got."  Everyone agrees with these ideas, so what does this mean?  We're insane!  Perhaps not logically insane, but at least practically insane.  Peter Kreeft said this insanity of ours is for him a proof of the Fall and Original Sin.  Saint Paul was perplexed by this insanity in himself, which he writes about in his letter to the Romans:
I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate...I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do (Romans 7:15,19).
Take a moment to reflect on a time when you managed to forget yourself and live completely for someone else, whether it was listening to a friend who was struggling with something, or volunteering as part of a charitable outreach, or just doing a random act of kindness.  Remember how liberating and satisfying that felt?  Now think of what is probably (if you're anything like me) the more common reality, the times when you've been completely selfish, when you've made a decision based solely on the consideration of "What's in it for me?"  How did that make you feel, and how did that feeling compare with what you felt in the first scenario?  In my experience, selflessness has always brought me authentic, lasting happiness, while selfishness has given me only disappointment, dissatisfaction, and frustration.  I've observed the same results in the life of every single person I've ever met.  And yet, fully aware of what works and what doesn't, we deceive ourselves so that we can perform the experiment "one more time."  And the cycle repeats...

But wait, what happened to "survival of the fittest?"  Why do the qualities and virtues that we admire the most in others, and strive hardest to possess ourselves (humility, self-sacrifice, altruism, etc.) seem to be in direct opposition to the ones that provide us with the best chances for survival and flourishing on a biological level (pride, selfishness, and domination)?  Why does human nature seem more excellent to us the further it diverges from the route of personal advantage?  Why do non-Christians and even many secular people find Christ's teachings so true, good, and beautiful, when He so blatantly contradicts everything our culture tells us we need to be happy?  Why do we admire the saints so much if most of them were, by every worldly standard, failures?  I think all of these questions have one answer – our happiness lies in God alone.  Why do we repeat the failed experiment?  Saint Augustine found the answer:

You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you (Confessions)

If you feel restless, anxious, scared, discontent, dissatisfied, broken, or unworthy, or all of the above, know that you don't have to keep wandering around in a hopeless search for happiness.  Happiness is waiting for you, and He has a name - Jesus Christ.  He is more willing to forgive you than you are to ask for His forgiveness, and more willing to find you than you are to be found by Him.  He knows you more than you know yourself, and He loves you more than you love yourself.  He is waiting patiently:
"Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if any one hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me" (Rev. 3:20).
You have to answer the door yourself, no one can answer the door of your soul for you, and Christ isn't going to kick it down.  He's not the policeman bashing on your door, he's the lover who throws pebbles at your window.

Thank you very much for reading and God Bless you!

Under the Mercy,
Chris Trummer

Sources


Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britain). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version,                Catholic Edition. New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, 1994.            Print.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Sometimes Quiet is Violent: Finding Silence in a World Full of Noise


From time to time, we all find ourselves pondering the deepest questions in life, ones about what apologist Matt Fradd refers to as G.L.U.E. (God, Life, the Universe, and Everything).  Some people just call them the "biggies."  These questions include:

"What is the meaning of my life?"
"Is there a reason for my existence?"
"Does God exist?"
"What happens when we die, if anything?"

When asked for his opinion about questions like these in an interview, the atheist Richard Dawkins responded, "The 'why' questions are the silly questions."  It's interesting how the questions we have most wanted answered throughout human history, the questions that have provoked in us the most wonder and deep thought are the "silly" questions.  This is one of the tragedies of atheism – it forces you to abandon the hope that questions about ultimate meaning or purpose will ever be answered.

Just a few years ago, while I didn't consider these questions "silly", I feared them like a cancer diagnosis.  In our society, we have a prevailing tendency to engage in small-talk, to busy ourselves with lots of little things, and to fill every free moment with some form of entertainment, stimulation, or just plain noise.  This is telling of just how afraid we are to face these most important questions.  Blaise Pascal once wrote, "All of man's problems come from his inability to sit quietly in a room by himself."  Is that really true?  It certainly sounds a little extreme, but I believe there is great wisdom in it.  When Pascal says that our problems "come from" this inability, he means the inability proves that we are guilty of not being able to face our own mortality.  Perhaps you're thinking to yourself right now, "I'm not addicted to distractions or afraid to face the big questions in life – I don't mind sitting quietly by myself either."  If you are thinking this, I have a challenge for you.  Try it.  Try actually sitting in a room alone without your phone, lights, music, or any other source of noise for half an hour.  You'll probably find that it's not nearly as easy as it sounds.  If this does sound too difficult, try just turning off your car radio the next time you make a half-hour drive by yourself.  Ironically, there is a song called "Car Radio" by the band Twenty One Pilots that illustrates our addiction to distracting ourselves in a very powerful way.

The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard was very much aware of the human aversion to silence, even though he lived before the age of radio, cable television, the internet, YouTube, Netflix, and all the other technological distractions that we have today.  He once wrote:
If I were a physician, and if I were allowed to prescribe just one remedy for all the ills of the modern world, I would prescribe silence.  For even if the Word of God were proclaimed in the modern world, no one would hear it; there is too much noise. Therefore, create silence.
Do you know a person who constantly looks at their phone when you're trying to talk to them?  They might nod occasionally, saying,"Yeah...yeah...I know what you mean," but they clearing aren't paying attention?  If you're able to read this blog right now, then I'm sure you have experienced this, and you know how frustrating it can be.  When it comes to our relationship with God, we are often that annoying friend on our phone.  We rightly expect our fellow human beings to give us their full attention when we speak to them, but when we supposedly want to listen to our Creator and the Creator of the entire Universe, we rarely give the same consideration to Him.  Some people even do this intentionally, rationalizing their lack of effort to hear God, thinking, "If God really wanted to speak to me, then He could make Himself heard; He could drown out whatever noise there is in my life."  This is a dangerous attitude to have, because it is rooted in pride and basically amounts to telling God, "God, I want to listen to you but I'm only willing to do so on my terms."  If you refuse to approach God just because the way He ordinarily communicates with people doesn't completely make sense to you, then you're not even giving God a chance.  God is a package deal, like a spouse.  When you marry someone, your life should now be lived for your spouse, and your spouse's life likewise be lived for you.  If you wish to enter into marriage with a person, but are unwilling to change anything about yourself, your priorities, or how you spend your time, then you can't expect that relationship to be healthy or your marriage to last.  The same goes for your relationship with God.  

Religion is not a Do-it-Yourself project, where having a relationship with God is some sort of quantifiable, calculable state that can be achieved by simply taking the proper steps and following the instructions.  God is a personal being, so we should approach Him that way.  This is why prayer is absolutely essential.  If you love someone, you want to get to know them, if you want to get know them, you have to communicate with them, and to communicate with them you have to give them your time and undivided attention.  How do we apply this practically to our relationship with God?  A good place to start is to find some silence each day, and give our overstimulated minds a break from the endless flood of noise that our technological age bombards us with.  This might mean setting your alarm ten or fifteen minutes earlier (gasp!) so that you can start your day off with some Bible or other book reading, quiet meditation, a rosary, or other favorite prayer of yours.  I can personally guarantee that you'll be surprised at how much your mood, attitude, and most importantly, spiritual well-being will benefit by offering God the first fruits of your day.  "But Chris, I am NOT a morning person, and what little time I do have is spent rushing around getting myself ready, my kids ready, my spouse ready, my dog ready, etc."  I completely get it.  What time of day are you at your best then?  On your lunch break?  Afternoon?  Evening?  Two in the morning when you're normally still on Facebook?  Regardless of what time you're available, we all can afford to give God fifteen minutes of our best time.  Too often, we put off our time with God until "When I get extra time."  Let's face it, something else will probably come up, or you'll just forget, so the time for God is going to have come from what most of us call "my" time.  Of course, the concept of "my" time is nothing more than a delusion – every second of our existence is a free gift from God!  One final and easy way to introduce healthy silence into your day is to simply turn off your car radio the next time you're driving and "just sit in silence."  If you feel like you can't part with your driving tunes, carefully listen to and/or read the lyrics of this song, "Car Radio," and reflect on what it may be that you're hiding from, or rather, who it may be you're hiding from, when you keep yourself buried in noise.

*Note:  This song, while it is by a band of Christian guys, is somewhat intense, so if you don't enjoy rap or rock music, you can instead simply read the lyrics here.

God Bless you and thanks for reading!

Under the Mercy,
Chris Trummer

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Hell: A Door Locked from the Inside












"I can't believe that a loving God would send people to hell."
"Why did God create some people if He knew they would reject Him and go to hell?"
"If God is all-powerful and all-good, then why doesn't He just destroy Satan and hell?"
"As long as you're a decent person then there's no way you'll end up in hell."
"Hell is just something the Church made up to scare people into behaving well."
"Hell might exist, but there probably isn't anyone there."

These are objections that I encounter all the time, and ones that are extremely common among non-believers, non-Christians, and even Christians. The objections are honest and fair for the most part, because the Christian concept of hell can be confusing and even seem contradictory to the Gospel message if one doesn't understand it properly. In this post, I intend to show that the Christian doctrine of hell is:

1. Logically necessary.
2. Consistent with Christ's message of love, forgiveness, and mercy.
3. Widely misunderstood by both Christians and non-Christians today.

Love Requires Freedom

First, what do I mean when I say that the doctrine of hell is necessary? It's necessary because it is impossible for God to be loving without the existence of hell. Whoa, that sounds like a bold claim––why do you say that? I'll tell you. Christians believe that God created human beings with free will, meaning that they are free to choose what and whom they will love, and what and whom they will reject. If you reject someone, do you want to spend time with them or get to know them better? Certainly not. This freedom applies to God as well. God will not force anyone to accept and love Him. In fact, He can't force anyone to love Him, because love has to be a free choice by definition. "Forced love" is like a "square circle." If Heaven is God's love and presence for eternity, then how could anyone who rejected God be happy there? This is where the issue of free will arises. If a person dies in a state where they completely reject God and want nothing to do with His love or forgiveness, would it be loving for God to bring them to Heaven anyway? God would effectively be saying, "I know you won't love me but since I'm all-powerful and I know what's best for you, I'm going to force you to love me." Thats' not love, but tyranny, and God is not a tyrant!  Demanding that God bring everyone to heaven, with or without their consent, is like a bride reciting her vows because the groom is holding a gun to her head. In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis asks a question that cuts to the heart of this objection:
What are you asking God to do?' To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does. (Lewis 128).
The Problem With Universal Salvation

There is a theory with growing popularity, sometimes referred to as "universal salvation," which attempts to avoid the problem of hell by suggesting that upon death, God reveals Himself to the unrepentant sinner, who is so overwhelmed by God's Truth, Beauty, and Goodness that he cannot help but to love God and repent of his sins. This idea might sound comforting or reassuring at first, but take a closer look at it. If God were going to overwhelm every hell-destined person at the end of their life, so that they could be forgiven and be with Him in Heaven, then how would that affect the meaning of that person's life on Earth?  It would render it meaningless. Why? Take this example. Let's say you've made no effort during your life to seek God, to know, love, or serve Him, but instead you've actively rejected Him in all your thoughts, words, and actions. Eventually, one day you die, still obstinately refusing God's love. If God would, at that moment of your death, reveal Himself in such a way that you literally had no choice but to love Him and beg for forgiveness and mercy, then He would in doing so eliminate the meaning of every choice you ever made. If nothing you think, say, or do can ever override God's "overwhelming" effect on you at death, then no set of beliefs or way of living can be considered ultimately better than any other, since each produces the same effect––salvation. This raises another problem, related to the problem of suffering. If God was planning on overwhelming even the most evil people into loving Him at the end of their lives, then why didn't He reveal himself to them before they hurt, misled, corrupted, and even killed countless innocent people? If God could have simply "overwhelmed" Hitler into loving Him, then why didn't He do so before the horrors of Holocaust? The truth is, if God could somehow force people to accept Him, then waiting to do so until after those people spend their entire lives inflicting pain and suffering on others would be heartless indifference at best, and cruelty at worst.

The Hard Way and the Narrow Gate

I said that the doctrine of hell is perfectly consistent with Christ's message of love, forgiveness, and mercy. Many people who are not familiar with the Bible assume that most of the "hell stuff" must come from the Old Testament, which was of course all about the God of divine wrath, justice, and fury, right? Wrong! In fact, the vast majority of what we know about hell comes from Jesus Christ himself! If hell does not exist, or is at least nothing for us to worry about, then Jesus was either seriously confused or purposely trying to deceive people. Jesus tells us to enter through the narrow gate by the hard way and that "the way is easy that leads to destruction" (Mt 7:13-14). If everyone is eventually saved, regardless of whether they want to be or not, then Jesus' analogy of the "narrow gate" is a completely unnecessary warning. How could the gate that everyone passes through be described as "narrow," and the way that leads to it as "hard"? (Doesn't sound so hard to me!) Just a couple paragraphs later in Matthew's gospel, we hear what Jesus' response will be to those who plead with him during their judgement, after never trying to do his Father's will during their lives:
“Not every one who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers' (Mt 7:21-23).
Hell is Ultimately a Choice

I never knew you. These are the words that some people describe as the saddest words in the bible. They give me the chills, because they capture that horrifying moment when a person finally realizes that the time for turning back is over, and that death has transformed their temporary response of "Maybe God" or "Not yet God" into a permanent "No God." So, how is all of this exclusion and damnation consistent with Christ's message of love, forgiveness, and mercy? All three of these Divine gifts have to be accepted. Loving God is meaningless without the option of hating him, receiving forgiveness is meaningless without the option of refusing it, and God's mercy is meaningless without his justice. Without the freedom to be a Hitler, there is nothing great or admirable about being a Mother Teresa. This fact, that going to hell is ultimately a free choice, is why C.S. Lewis described hell as "a door locked from the inside." While the people in hell are certainly not happy to be there, and obviously can't enjoy the suffering of being eternally separated from God, they would be even more miserable to be in God's presence in Heaven. This is difficult to understand, like trying to understand a person's decision to end their own life––it breaks our hearts and boggles our minds. However, the difficulty we have in trying to understand it and the heartbreak that it makes us feel is surely a positive sign, one that shows we are still striving to know and love God more ourselves. Some people reject the idea that going to hell is ultimately a choice, and instead insist on the idea that hell is some kind of eternal torture chamber where people are sent against their will. This mentality seems to arise from an emotional or even revengeful response to the sin and injustice in the world. However, we cannot possibly know the dispositions or motivations of other people, regardless of how immoral their conduct may seem, and it is certainly neither our right nor to our benefit to fantasize about what punishment we feel must be necessary to satisfy God's justice.

Why the Downplaying of Hell?

The abundance of Christians today who seriously downplay or even deny the doctrine of hell is evidence that the doctrine is greatly misunderstood.  I believe that the three greatest contributors to this widespread misunderstanding are:

1. An overly-literal interpretation of the imagery of hell found in Scripture.
2. The comical or childish portrayal of hell and final judgement in modern literature, television shows, and film.
3. A lack of good catechesis and preaching on the doctrine of hell during the last fifty or sixty years.

Who is Satan?

I won't go into depth on each of these issues now, because a book could probably be written on each, and I suspect (and hope) that most people are probably already aware of their influence to some extent. I will mention one especially common misunderstanding though, the identity of Satan. Many people seem to understand Satan as being God's arch nemesis, as Lex Luthor is to Superman. This is totally inaccurate, because is gives the impression that Satan is in some way on the same level as God, which is absurd. Satan is an angel, a spiritual being created by God, who rejected God because of his pride and so was cast out of God's presence. He was once known as Lucifer ("light-bearer"), and was the greatest among the Seraphim, the highest choir in the hierarchy of angels. The Hebrew word seraphim literally translates to "burning ones," because the Seraphs are so close to God that they are constantly on fire with His love. Since Lucifer was the highest in heaven (among the created beings), and chose to turn away from God, his fall from Grace was the greatest fall possible. As the saying goes, "The bigger they are, the harder they fall." Satan is therefore not some creepy guy in red tights with horns and a trident whom God has raised to the rank of "torture master." He does not "reign" in hell––he is the lowest, most pitiable, and most miserable one, because he has lost more than anyone else who might be there. At best one could say that he is the chief rebel. God is uncreated and infinite and Satan created and finite. To God, Satan's rebellion is like a three year-old having a tantrum and hitting Daddy, except Satan is even less of a threat. Of course, I use this analogy to describe the relationship between God and Satan––not the relationship between Satan and other created beings, like us, among whom he still has great power and influence.

In conclusion, I hope my thoughts on this crucial doctrine have shed some light on it and sparked interest for further reading. Speaking of further reading, it would be a great disservice to the reader if I did not recommend reading C.S. Lewis' book The Problem of Pain, or at least the eighth chapter, which is on hell. Also, I highly, highly recommend The Handbook of Catholic Apologetics, written by Dr. Peter Kreeft and Fr. Ronald Tacelli, S.J., not only for its chapter on hell (Chapter 12), but because it is in my opinion a must-have for all Catholics. God bless you, and thanks for reading!

Under the Mercy,
Chris Trummer




Sources:

Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britain). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition. New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, 1994. Print.

Lewis, C.S. The Problem of Pain. 1940.