Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Choosing a Faith

While not exhaustive, this is sort of the framework I have built in my own mind over the many years I spent looking at different religions, and a brief surface-level overview of why I believe what I believe:

As Americans we are individualistic freedom loving people. We want to make our own choices and decide what to believe for ourselves. But there comes a time when we must align ourselves with someone who we trust, someone with greater wisdom and faith than we have ourselves, who can give us some guidance. God understood that men needed guidance in the Old Testament times, when he sent the prophets. Jesus understood this when he gave his authority to the Apostles. God does empower men to speak for him, and when they are authentic, we had better listen.

Of course you must still make up your own mind, and decide things for yourself. This is true on a few levels. First, you obviously decide for yourself which person you listen to. You decide which faith is the most authentic, and most valuable to follow. Second, only you can decide how to apply general rules and principles in your own life. And third, you must decide for yourself on matters in which the church takes no clear position. Finally, there is an extent to which you will always be able to reevaluate your choice in who to follow.

One irony in the particularly severe modern aversion to letting someone else tell us what to believe is that instead of letting a proper authority inform our decisions, we let every wind inform us. Often this comes in the form of a child rejecting their wise parent in favor of another foolish child. Or it comes in a rejection of "organized religion" in favor of far more dubious beliefs. Most often it gives inordinate power to the information we all consume through daily life, the popular beliefs of our culture, the news, and entertainment. It is better that we choose carefully who gets to tell us what to believe than let our beliefs be blindly formed by the madness around us.

That said, making such a choice can itself seem to rely on little more than chance. There are a thousand religions we might encounter, and whichever ones we meet first (or at key stages in our life) are more likely to draw us in. We thus might do well to categorize religions, seeing their value on a whole, and then looking more closely at those with the greatest value. To me, even if they were true, the Eastern religions have little to offer. Hinduism and Buddhism both offer reincarnation, so we'd have another chance if we miss this one. Besides this, they tend to deny the reality of the world, while I have trouble believing in such a solid and consistent illusion.

Atheism is utterly unbelievable, requiring far more faith than I have. Agnosticism is a far more reasonable position than outright Atheism (most honest atheists will admit to really being agnostics), and I personally spent some time near its fence. But Agnosticism really offers its believer nothing. Further, I feel there is too much reason to believe in the supernatural to actually get up on that fence (If you are struggling with belief in general, I have some books which really helped me out with my doubts. I love Lewis's Mere Christianity, and found Kreeft's Handbook of Christian Apologetics very helpful).

The old natural religions like Shinto, the native American religions, druidism, and to an extent the religions of ancient Greece and Rome, must have a certain merit, appearing so similar in such diverse lands. But in my studies, it seems to me that what these religions are is a human attempt to reach the unreachable, to know the unknowable. They stem from the knowledge of God and sense of the supernatural which is in every human heart, but they have no revelation to make sense of it, so they use their imaginations to fill in the gaps. These religions really are just waiting for revelation to answer their questions (making neo-paganism ridiculous). The amazing thing to me is that monotheism actually can be discovered by human reason. Reading Plato, we see that before the Apostles brought monotheism to Greece, the philosophers had discovered that the many Gods of pagan Greece were not real. The reality they discovered through reason, was that there is one God, infinite in virtue, and the source of all good.

Thus, we are left with the monotheistic religions (of course there is much more to be said, and I have certainly oversimplified things, but these are my basic thoughts on the matter).

Judaism, while based in truth, is still waiting for their messiah. I find it very interesting to note that their sacrifices stopped shortly after the coming of Christ, as if in an unconscious recognition of Christ's final sacrifice. We see in Judaism an unfulfilled religion, a religion whose revelation and sacrifice ended with the revelation and sacrifice of Christ, but which is unable to recognize it. They are a faith that points to the true faith of Christianity.

Islam, I think, has fairly obvious origins. It was a fairly early deviation from Christianity, seeking to return it in some ways to a more Jewish style of monotheism. It is simpler than Christianity, without confusing ideas like "trinity" and "incarnation." It was founded by a man who was in some ways admirable, but was ultimately little more than a warlord. He was not a model of morality as was Jesus, suffering for his faith. His faith served him, gaining him wealth and power. He changed doctrines to apply specifically to himself (allowing himself to have more wives than he allowed the average Muslim). It still managed at one time to be a fairly good religion, though its current direction is dangerous. I mostly disregard it because of its founder.

Then there is the broad field of Christianity. We have here the one thing that really seems worth following to me. A loving God. A God who became man and died for us. Jesus Christ, who is the very model of righteousness, whose words were verified by countless miracles. Whenever I doubt, the greatest draw back to faith is this, I think of Jesus. I think of everything he said and did, and I know that it cannot be matched. Unlike Mohammed, he was a man who gained nothing and lost everything. He is the one worth believing.

Within the group of those who call themselves Christian, we have about 3 major historical groups (and many more theological groups within these). We have the ancient churches, the Protestant churches, and the modern prophetic sects.

There are only two major branches which can truly be called ancient: The Eastern Orthodox Church (which is actually a kind of collection of churches with strong similarities and historical ties), and the Catholic Church (the term "Catholic Church," meaning the "universal church," dates back at least to 100 AD). These two churches can claim historical pedigrees dating back to the Apostles themselves. Sadly these two branches were split in 1054 AD, but still they remain remarkably similar. To an extent these two churches, by their similarity, testify to each other's veracity, and clearly show how little their beliefs have really changed in the last thousand years. We can clearly see their centers, even to this day as being in the Mediterranean region (Greece, Turkey, Italy) which was evangelized by the Apostles themselves.

The Protestant churches broke from the Catholic Church in the 1600s. This was a scandalous time in the Catholic Church, where Popes, Bishops, and Priests were being lazy and sinful, odd theologies were being spread without much resistance, and people were getting fed up. This rightly led men to seek reformation in the Church. Some of these men (who we hear little about) remained faithful to Catholic teaching while opposing the abuses. Others took the abuses as a sign that the Church was fundamentally flawed, and needed a complete structural and theological overhaul. These ideas, combined with the always rebellious nature of man, and the nationalistic impulse of those who do not want morals dictated by "an Italian Prince," led to great wars and the rending of the Church which we call the Protestant Reformation. Showing extreme variety in belief and practice, Protestants were united by just a few major things: opposition to the Papacy, Sola Scriptura (belief that the Bible stands on its own, without need for interpretation by the Church), and usually Sola Fide ("Salvation by grace, through faith alone," a formulation that stood in contrast to the traditional Catholic formula of "Salvation by grace, through faith and works"). We see these churches as first originating in Northern Europe, away from the historic centers of Christendom.

The major prophetic sects appeared in the 1800s, originating out of the individualist Protestantism of America. Many people were disappointed by the current churches, and they were taught polemic accounts of the Catholic Church, and were led to believe that before the Reformation the church had completely apostatized. From this starting point many wondered if God might send a new prophet to restore the original Church. Out of this climate many arose, claiming to be the chosen prophet who would restore the Church. Here we see the roots of the Mormons, the Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Science, Seventh Day Adventism, and some smaller sects. Of these, only the Adventists retain enough of the Christian tradition to rightly be called Christians.

You see that I have not divided these groups so much by Theology as by historical origins, and basic historical views. Also, they are divided by their views on what constitutes revelation. What information has God given us. Let me sum up their positions:

Prophetic Sects
History: Jesus established a Church which died out. God sent a prophet in the 1800s to restore that Church.
Revelation: The Protestant Bible and the special revelations of their Prophet (Ellen G. White, Joseph Smith, Mary Baker Eddy).

History: Jesus established a Church (but a loose, possibly non-hierarchical Church). This Church persisted, but eventually became encrusted with man made traditions and illegitimate hierarchies which needed to be wiped away.
Revelation: The Bible Alone (albeit without the 7 deuterocanonical books found in the Bibles used by the ancient churches), as interpreted by the individual reader (theoretically guided by the Holy Spirit). Private prophesies cannot add to the existing deposit of the faith.

Ancient Churches
History: Jesus established a Church which was meant to have a clear hierarchy, and which persists until this day.
Revelation: The Bible with interpretation guided by legitimate authority (theoretically guided by the Holy Spirit), and to some extent "Oral Apostolic Traditions." Private prophesies cannot add to the existing deposit of the faith.
An interesting thing to note is the way these churches seem to seek holiness and authentic belief. The ancient churches do it by a slow, difficult, and continuous process of internal renewal, much like a man does within himself. The Protestant churches do it by splintering and rejoining. Thus Protestant churches are constantly torn apart and reformed by warring factions. This creates energetic and united groups of believers, but it also creates endless division.

Oddly enough, in many of the prophetic churches, they see the endless divisions of Protestantism as a fatal flaw, thus they try to reestablish a stronger hierarchical structure, pointing to some innate recognition of the necessary structure of the ancient churches. Of course, being based on false prophecies, and born of purely human imagination, they cannot establish a hierarchy with legitimate authority.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Against the Adventists

The following is a (slightly edited) copy of a letter I sent to a friend who just started attending a Seventh Day Adventist church:


I hear you're looking for a new church, and that you're currently attending a Seventh Day Adventist church.

I want to at least put out the invitation to join me in the Catholic Church, the Church I believe history shows to be the original Christian Church, the one most likely founded by Jesus Christ himself. Trust me, I know such claims sound arrogant and frankly obnoxious. They sounded that way to me when I heard people say them in the past. But I gradually came to believe the claims were true, and I can provide historical and Biblical citations to back them up.

Invitation concluded, I don't expect you to actually take me up on the offer... for a few reasons:

1. I was married to a Catholic girl for about 5 years before I even considered that her centuries old church might have something valid to say in its defense.

2. Catholic parishes don't tend to have the sense of community common to Protestant churches. This is for a variety of reasons, primarily though it is because they are large and because they don't have adult Sunday School.

3. Americans are thoroughly educated in a mixed secular/Protestant culture, and taught secular/Protestant versions of history, in which the Catholic Church has an exaggerated role as "bad guy."

4. Following from #3, the media, while generally having a liberal slant, also has a strong history of having an anti-Catholic anti-hierarchical slant (consider the absurd number of stories on 20-year-passed accounts of priests involved in sexual abuse compared to the number of stories about school teachers involved in similar situations, despite the fact that public schools are far more dangerous for children than Catholic churches).

These things make it hard for most people to really even give a thought to the Catholic Church. But just pause for a moment and wonder if there might be something to the Church which produced the monks who hand-copied the Bible for over a thousand years before the printing press. If there might be something to the Church that evangelized Europe, much of Asia, and the Americas. There is hardly a Christian country in the world which was not first evangelized by the Catholic Church. Just something to think about.

That said, I still expect you to end up in a Protestant church, if only for the ever-important support of the community.

So, I just ask that you look for a more orthodox branch of Protestantism. I am sure your Adventist church is full of loving and wonderful people. But you should try to find a group of wonderful people who are backed by a better history, better worldview, and better theology. Seventh Day Adventism (SDA) is characterized by a sort of paranoid conspiracy theory, and it was founded during the Prophesy craze of the 1800s that also brought us the Mormons and Christian Science.

They believe that the Catholic Church is the "Whore of Babylon," and that the Pope is the Antichrist. These ideas are not uncommon in Protestantism, but SDA takes it a step further. Some believe that every secret society from the Masons to the KKK is really controlled by the Catholic Church (which is funny since both those organizations are virulently anti-Catholic). Their official teaching even goes further in believing that all the other Protestant denominations are really just pawns of the Catholic Church, bearing the "Mark of the Beast." What is this great evil that Catholics and Protestants are all conspiring together on? Eating babies? No, gathering for worship on Sunday! The horror. We dare to fulfill God's commandment to "honor the Sabbath" on the day of the resurrection instead of on the Jewish sabbath (Please note that these are not just accusations, most of my info on SDA is based on direct quotes from the religion's founder Ellen G. White and from SDA books I own).

I would like to add that Christ gave his apostles the power to "bind and loose," and using this authority the Church began Sunday worship before the New Testament was finished (see Acts 20:7, 1 Corinthians 16:2, Colossians 2:16-17, and Revelation 1:10). You can read more about the Sabbath vs. Sunday controversy here:

Read a Catholic overview of Seventh Day Adventism here:

In the end, you have to consider the two very different views of salvation history which the Catholic Church and the Adventists present.

Catholic View: Jesus established His Church as a "pillar of Truth"(1 Tim. 3:15), and though it has faced many difficulties from within (bad laity, bad Bishops, bad Popes) and persecutions from without (Nero, Stalin, etc.), it has persisted in preserving the truth and sharing the Gospel throughout the ages.

Adventist View: Christ's original Church was overcome by Satan and more-or-less disappeared, leaving behind a false Church (which for some reason persisted in spreading the Gospel, and reproducing the Bible). After 1,800 years of darkness, God sent Prophet E. G. White to lead his people back into the light.

Honestly, I cannot see the Adventist view as corresponding at all with a God who wants his people to know him, nor can I see Jesus as being so abysmal at establishing a Church.

I hope to hear from you. Please ask me any questions about Catholicism that you might have. I will be more than happy to answer you. I can give you citations for any claims I have made. And I would delight in telling you about the Early Church Fathers, successors of the Apostles, who as early as 100 AD were teaching clearly Catholic doctrines.

I have always viewed you as a part of my extended family, and it would be great if you would join my Church family, but I'd be happy to hear from you either way.

God Bless,
Nathan Cushman

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Death Penalty

I'm going discuss my personal views on the death penalty, but first lets see what the Catechism says. I believe my views are in line with the Catechism, but I'm open to correction.
The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people's rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and the duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people's safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party.

Assuming that the guilty party's identity and responsibility have been fully determined, the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor.

If, however, non-lethal means are sufficient to defend and protect people's safety from the aggressor, authority will limit itself to such means, as these are more in keeping with the concrete conditions of the common good and more in conformity with the dignity of the human person.

Today, in fact, as a consequence of the possibilities which the state has for effectively preventing crime, by rendering one who has committed an offense incapable of doing harm—without definitively taking away from him the possibility of redeeming himself—the cases in which the execution of the offender is an absolute necessity "are very rare, if not practically non-existent."

In a country like America there is hardly a need for the death penalty. Crime rates in America have not actually gone up with the decreased use of the death penalty (from any statistics I've heard). But I have very particular views on when it should be used:

1st: The death penalty may be necessary for more murder cases in third world countries, where prisons may be less of a viable option.

2nd: In a country like America, with secure prisons, the death penalty still must be kept as an option for severe (and murderous) crimes against our justice system itself, or for people who are dangerous even while in prison. By this I mean the murder of witnesses, jurors, judges, or police officers involved in your case should result in the death penalty. Also, leaders of criminal or terrorist organizations may be too dangerous to hold, because their followers may commit crimes in order to seek their leader's release.

3rd: Reserving the death penalty for the murders most harmful to our justice system may help serve as a deterrent for those who are facing a life sentence and might otherwise feel they have nothing left to lose.

4th: the death penalty should be reserved for cases where a person is convicted not just because there is no reasonable doubt, but only when guilt is abundantly clear. I have heard too many disturbing cases of (mostly Southern) prosecutors who cared more about convictions than about guilt, and callously sent men they believed to be innocent to prison.

For these reasons(and possibly others), I believe the death penalty needs to be kept on the table, but that it needs to be used rarely.

It's also important to note that this is considered a "life issue," so I want to quickly add that the Church sees legitimate uses of the death penalty as possible, but does not approve of any case of abortion. The killing of a criminal and an innocent child are very different matters. This has been the teaching of the Church since the beginning.