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Yearly Archives: 2009
The emboldened words below are part of GRE vocabulary preparation. Do you know them? I have created sentences to give clues to their meaning.
After sitting under countless hours of polemical lectures in so many of his seminary classes, he began to find so much of evangelical theology to be banal and myopic.
The bevy of teenagers in public hang out spots made such spots unattractive for older adults.
Large and successful firms bilk thousands of clients with expensive fees for minuscule paperwork.
The blithe temperament of the bachelor came to an end the moment he and his girlfriend began to discuss drastic measures necessary for mere financial survival over the next 10 years due to large amounts of school debt and preconditions for successful careers.
No amount of bombastic campaigning could secure the small town governor a place in higher politics. He grew weary of the disagreeable bombastic tirades that were a part of the weekly sermons.
You would be incredibly naïve to trust that bonhomie was the default attribute of human beings or even a common feature of mankind. The more intimate you become with others who seem this way, the more you realize how deleterious their ways can be.
To be a boor is not the same as being a bore. Dr. Gallup is such a boor; he doesn’t even try to find anything agreeable in the writings of his interlocutors; but Dr. McNabb is a bore; his monotone lectures repeat everything we already read for class in our textbook.
The burgeoning scholar was now being published at will and able to be selective about which publishers he worked with.
It is said that Al Capone used to burnish his guns in public areas in broad daylight without fear of being arrested.
The emboldened words below are part of GRE vocabulary preparation. Do you know them? I have created sentences to give clues to their meaning.
The king knew the abeyance of anger would not last long, so he ordered his troops to build an army to invade the land and depose those who provoked the people.
Galileo was forced to abjure his Copernican position during trial before the Roman Catholic Church, making him a martyr of science in the eyes of subsequent generations.
As the party became flooded with more and more people, the couple absconded, hoping their friends wouldn’t notice they had left.
Fancy restaurants tend to serve abstemious meals for outrageous prices.
The accretion of the blister made me think my foot was infected; the accretion of tuition and the price of gas made it hard to commute to the University.
Although we were trying to be nice guests, the acidulous taste of the food made it hard for us to dine with the villagers. Although the policies of tolerance for the intelligent design theory were announced, they appeared to have been acidulously drawn up only after much controversy had put the spotlight on the injustices of suppression and persecution.
The student raised several questions about the professors proposition, but she responded with alacrity and eloquence.
The amalgamation of spices proved the point that spices which taste good individually may not taste well when mixed together.
Carey wanted to ameliorate her home, but because Jim didn’t know where the money would come from to pay for such an upgrade given the amount of debt they had yet to even begin to amortize, he was sad to hear Emily repine about her home.
After hurting his back, Travis took the anodyne and sold it to his friends once the pain went away.
Most conservative Protestants simply have an antipathy to anything that does not sound exactly like what they believe—even if it sounds very similar. Some evangelical institutions have an antipathy, therefore, for diversity.
The man’s ardor for his own innocence was enough to make some of jury suspicious.
The assailant was sentenced to seven months in prison while the victim was hospital bound for one month and suffered sustained injuries.
The newly weds put their pillows over their ears hoping to assuage the cacophony of sounds coming from the hotel room directly above their sweet.
While on the one hand the attenuation of Christian influence in the West has troubled many Christians, newer generations of less religious Americans and Europeans consider religious declines—especially of Christianity—as therapeutic assuagement.
Although it did not bring Hannibal’s army to a halt, the few Roman legions made aware of his invasion were able to assuage the attack enough to buy time for the Roman generals.
These auguries were taken seriously by the Romans and they influenced the decision making process in the senate.
Moreover, in addition to the fact that she had a large home on a most beautiful piece of land, her house was neither austere nor florid, but all furnishings were delicately selected to create an eccentric but pleasant atmosphere.
The long awaited book will arrive in stores April 2010.
When you hear a title like Your Church is too Small, it might sound like the latest book on church growth. But this would be far from the truth. John H. Armstrong’s forthcoming book is not so much about increasing membership in your local church (although his concern is ultimately for missions). It’s really more about increasing your church’s conception of membership in the catholic church (catholic with a lowercase “c”).
Armstrong exposes a weak spot in the church’s doctrinal fidelity to this creed: the unity of the catholic church. Do you remember the Apostles Creed? The one used by Protestant churches all over the world? The fullest creed we know of produced by the early churches planted by the Apostles before the imperial councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon?
1. I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.
2. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
3. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.
4. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.
5. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again.
6. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
7. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
8. I believe in the Holy Spirit,
9. the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints,
10. the forgiveness of sins,
11. the resurrection of the body,
12. and life everlasting.
NOTICE: The catholic church is “the” catholic church. It is singular.
So many protestant churches read this creed in their churches, but how much of this has just become thoughtless routine? Why does the teaching about “the holy catholic church” come after the article on the Holy Spirit instead of the article about Jesus? What is the catholic church? What did the early churches believe was included in this notion of a “catholic” church?
How often do ministers teach their people the notion of the catholic church? In my many years as a member of many different churches, I’ve never once heard this notion taught, much less have I been taught how this doctrine informs local church ministry. The only time I’ve ever heard reference to it in any church is when the Protestant pastor wants to clarify that their church isn’t Roman Catholic. They tend to reduce their exposition on this phrase “catholic church” down to a mere clarification that they are protestant, not Roman Catholic.
But is that it? Augustine’s polemical arguments against the Donatists leaned heavily on his belief in the one holy, catholic and apostolic church. Why?
This is a great part of what John H. Armstrong’s book is about. The church. The catholic church. The catholic church is so much bigger than your local church or even your denomination. This belief is important and should effect how God’s people work together in a secular age when the unity of all Christians is vital to the continuation of the Christian mission. Could Southern Baptists (or any other denomination) have such a huge impact on world missions without the unity and cooperation of their local churches? Of courses not. It’s their unity that enables them to fund such huge missionary projects. Unity, then, is vital for missions.
But Does the catholic church act more like a family or a dysfunctional family? Dr. Armstrong is not just concerned about ecumenical discussion (although he is actually a leader in many ecumenical dialogues). He is not just concerned about unity in belief (although this is important to him). Rather, he is more ultimately concerned with unity in mission.
I have been awaiting the release of this book for a long time. Although Armstrong has written many books, I believe this one is his manifesto. His life’s work of blood, sweat and tears for the sake of the Christian mission is bound up in this book. Your Church is Too Small also will tell his story, a story worth hearing (or in the case of his book, reading).
What did Catholics do when Protestants objected about the churches corruption and doctrine? Trent. That’s what they did. But did the Council of Trent actually do anything? Did it change anything? How was it implemented?
We have already summarized O’Malley’s summary of the council of Trent, using quotations from his article. Now we will look at a few things that took place after the council, and summarize O’Malley’s conclusion.
All this comes from John W. O’Malley’s chapter, “The Council of Trent: Myths, Misunderstandings, and Misinformation,” in Spirit, Style, Story: Essays Honoring John W. Padburg, S.J. Edited by Thomas Lucas. Jesuit Way Loyola Press: 2002, pp. 205-225.
Pius IV: Interpretive Precedent
“Pius IV, pope when the council ended, refused to listen to those advisers who entreated him to delay approval of the decrees or to proceed selectively by omitting or correcting some of them. He forthwith decided to approve and promulgate the decrees in their entirety. … By this act Pius … implicitly put the papacy forward as the chief interpreter and implementer of the Trent decrees and initiated the battle over who should interpret and implement them. Three rival claimants soon emerged” (221).
Sixtus V: Subsequent Papal Interpretation
The first of these rivals was the subsequent papacy itself. “Pope Sixtus V gave institutional grounding in 1588 by creating the Congregation of the Council, a bureau of the Roman Curia empowered to issue authoritative interpretations of Trent” (221). The Council enabled this sort of maneuvering “by commending to the papacy the publication of an Index, catechism, missal, and breviary” (221). Thus, while the pope approved of the council’s decrees, if there were any debates over what the decrees actually intended, the subsequent popes would set the standard for interpretation.
Phillip II of Spain: Royal Implementation
The second of these rivals were the Catholic princes like Phillip II who promulgated the decrees of Trent in Spain, but “made it clear that no important measures would be enacted without his knowledge and approbation” (222). Because of the religious wars in France, Trent was not officially embraced until 1615. By that time “the crown was … strong enough to protect its traditional prerogatives in many ecclesiastical matters” (222). In other words, it appears that O’Malley is saying that the royal implementations tended to be willing to allow for incomplete implementation in cases where the crown’s control would be limited by the decrees.
St. Charles Borromeo: Episcopal Implementation
The third of these rivals were charismatic bishops. This rival is best exemplified in St. Charles Borromeo, archbishop of Milan. He placed emphasis on “the right and duty of bishops to adapt, regulate, and even expand upon what the council had decreed” (222). After the council he held many synods with his clergy and with suffragan bishops also, and he eventually published the results of these meetings under the title “Decrees of the Church of Milan” (222). “This volume, along with some of Borromeo’s treatises on subjects like confession and ecclesiastical furnishing, became best-sellers among high churchmen and to some extent replaced the reform decrees of the council itself. But Borromeo often found himself at odds with a papal curia that viewed these developments with distrust and sometimes tried to obstruct them” (222). “Bit by bit … the impact of ‘Trent,’ already at least a step removed from the actual decrees, became evident” (222). In other words, certain bishops went beyond the council’s decrees in their interpretation and implementation. O’Malley thinks this has caused later historians to mistake the reforms of bishops with the reforms of Trent. They were not always the same. Of course the popes did this sort of thing too, which leads us to O’Malley’s conclusion.
“By the seventeenth century Rome had for the most part established itself as the effective interpreter of the council and, in responding to various pressures of the era, more and more presented the council as a systematic, complete, and exhaustive response to every problem. From Rome itself, therefore, sprang the myth still prevalent today that ‘Trent’ was comprehensive in its scope and exhaustively detailed in all its provisions” (223). Giuseppe Alberigo said: “Under the aegis of the council, Catholic theology in the post-Tridentine era closed a great number of open questions, which at Trent were indeed recognized as such. The effect was to put a blight on theological pluralism and to promote a false identification of the certainties of faith with theological intransigence” (223).
So what did the Catholic Church do after Protestants had year after year pointed to obvious corruption in the church? Trent. That’s what they did.
O’Malley teaches that although the Council of Trent published many decrees, the decrees can be boiled down to two areas: 1) denouncing Protestant doctrines (particularly Luther) and 2) reforming the “institutional” church. In our last post we looked at Trent’s doctrinal reforms. Now we look at the council’s ecclesiastical reforms.
All this comes from John W. O’Malley’s chapter, “The Council of Trent: Myths, Misunderstandings, and Misinformation,” in Spirit, Style, Story: Essays Honoring John W. Padburg, S.J. Edited by Thomas Lucas. Jesuit Way Loyola Press: 2002, pp. 205-225.
The Goal of the Reform
“The reform of the bishops and pastors had as its goal a more effective ministry” (215). “The most notable effect, perhaps, was that within a century bishops were, for the most part, resident in their dioceses and taking their pastoral responsibilities more seriously than before. They established seminaries and insisted on a new standard of deportment for the parish clergy” (222).
Only after a long “stand-still,” the suspension of all sessions, and the new appointment of Giovanni Morone as a papal legate (“who had recently been released from the papal prison”) was there significant progress made on reform (214). This is because “of the three offices in the church that needed reform, the papacy was first on just about everybody’s list,” but the pope wanted to have control over the reform of the papacy (214). Imagine that right?
Finally, “except for a brief and perfunctory bit of sumptuary regulation for prelates that in passing mentioned the cardinals, it was agreed that the papacy would have complete control of its own reform” (214). “Trent did not define the prerogatives of the papacy because, had it been able to do so, it would have in some measure tried to restrict them. This is another aspect of the Council of Trent that is little known or appreciated” (216). “The bishops at Trent realized that all their work would go for naught if it failed to receive papal approval” (221). It is important to remember that “none of the three popes under whom the council met during its eighteen-year history had ever set foot as pope in the council chambers” (221).
Pastoral Reform: Bishops and Pastors
“By the third period, under Morone’s leadership, it courageously passed a series of measures that aimed, as Jedin puts it, at transforming bishops from collectors of benefices into pastors of souls” (214). Trent forbade absenteeism (bishops or priests who were absent from their dioceses or parish) and pluralism (the practice of collecting revenues from more than one bishopric at a time and the practice of being pastor of more than one parish). These were the practices that enabled bishops and priests to collect lots of money while not doing any pastoral ministry. These were the practices that caused greedy people to aspire to ecclesiastical offices just for the sake of money. Therefore, this part of the council of Trent O’Malley calls a “moral miracle,” since “this meant reforming themselves where it hurt most—in their bank accounts” (214). These were the two “foundation stones” of the Tridentine Reform.
Furthermore, it required each bishop to 1) “hold regular synods with their clergy,” 2) “visit and oversee” more closely “their parishes and other institutions of the diocese,” 3) “show greater stringency in admitting candidates to priestly ordination,” 4) “to assure that confessors be properly qualified,” 5) to establish a seminary for the training of poor boys for the priesthood, 6) “to promote teaching on Sundays and feast days, setting the example themselves” (215).
The council understood the pastor’s function as consisting in residing in his parish, administering the rites and sacraments of the church, and preaching on Sundays and holy days. While the council dealt extensively with the reform of both the bishops and pastors, it did so largely through the bishops. “These are the ‘pastoral’ decrees of a council often not conceived of as pastoral. In time they had great impact on the way bishops and pastors functioned. … They illustrated beyond a doubt how episcopal the reforms of the Council of Trent were” (216).
“This purview excluded (except almost as a bothersome intrusion) the ministry of the members of mendicant orders like the Franciscans and the Dominicans. … At Trent the bishops passed measures that limited the pastoral prerogatives of the mendicants and that also tried to regulate various aspects of the life of members of all religious orders” (216).
There was a “decree insisting on the strict cloister of nuns, so that ‘no nun shall after her profession be permitted to go out of the monastery’ except with Episcopal approval” (217). It is extremely important, however, to remember that “this decree applied only to the nuns in the strict sense of the word (monialies—in today’s popular parlance, ‘contemplatives’), and did not apply to members of the Third Orders like Saint Catherine of Siena who, always depicted as wearing the Dominican habit, looks to us for all the world like a ‘nun’” (217).
“In its decrees and canons on reform the council set forth briefly its pastoral goals; it put teeth into them by the sanctions it threatened for noncompliance. … The council could hardly have proceeded otherwise. No realistic person thought exhortations would do the job, but in the long run such procedures reinforced ‘social disciplining’ as an ecclesiastical style” (217). Although articulated in juridical and disciplinary terms, “the council established a closer relationship between bishops and the parish clergy than was common earlier” (215).
:::: In our next post we will look at what happened after the council and draw some summarize O’Malley’s conclusions.
In our last post, we looked at the obstacles that prevented a Catholic council for so many years before Trent, the cooperation between Pope Paul III and Emperor Charles V that eventually made a council possible and the double agenda of the council that resulted from their agreement: denouncing Protestant teaching (Doctrine) and addressing corruption within the Catholic Church (Reform). In this post, we will look at the highlights of the doctrinal decrees of the council as summarized in John W. O’Malley’s article “The Council of Trent: Myths, Misunderstandings, and Misinformation,” in Spirit, Style, Story: Essays Honoring John W. Padburg, S.J. Edited by Thomas Lucas. Jesuit Way Loyola Press: 2002, pp. 205-225.
Two Issues: Justification & The Sacraments
“Despite their number and length, the doctrinal decrees deal substantially with only two issues: justification and the sacraments” (210). For example, “the decree on original sin, though published in its own right, surely needs to be considered as a prelude to the decree on justification” (211). “Under the rubric of justification” also, “the council made statements about predestination, about the kind of certitude persons might have of their salvation,” and related matters such as a brief statement on purgatory (213).
Also, because Luther, in attacking the Catholic position on the sacraments, had bolstered a “Scripture alone” argument, before getting underway with the Catholic understanding of the sacraments, the council was forced to deliberate on “the basis on which it would argue them” (213). This is why Trent initially decides on a canon (including the so-called deuterocanonical books that Luther rejected) and included as an authority, in addition to Scripture, “apostolic traditions” (213). Thus, although Trent dealt with many doctrinal issues, when understood in this way, the council was essentially attempting to address only two issues: justification and the sacraments. The other issues, such as authority and original sin, are addressed only because they are forced into the discussion by virtue of the councils desire to address Luther’s doctrine of justification and sacraments.
Justification: The Necessity, Priority and Ubiquity of Grace
“Stung by Luther’s criticism that Catholics were Pelagians who believed that ‘works’ rather than grace saved them, the council insisted sedulously that justification was accomplished always and everywhere under the inspiration of grace; that the beginning, middle, and end of the process of justification was grace-inspired. One did not do what one could on one’s own so that grace would be given. All movement toward grace was done under the impulse of grace. ‘Good works’ were not good unto salvation unless they were grace-inspired. Thus, within the theological framework in which it formulated its decree, the council was resoundingly anti-Pelagian” (211). “The council interpreted Luther, however, as denying any human part in justification, as altogether eliminating human responsibility—relying on ‘grace alone.’ Anti-Pelagian though the council was, it also taught that in some mysterious way, human beings played a role in their own justification. Indeed they somehow ‘cooperated’ in it, though grace always held primacy” (211).
The Sacraments: There are Seven, They Were Instituted by Christ
“Luther had not only denied that there were seven but had also redefined the two that he saw as clearly taught in the New Testament: baptism and the Eucharist. The council decided to answer Luther point for point,” which made for a frustrating protracted treatment that took much longer than the council expected (212). Although “in the opening weeks of the council, the bishops decided that, as far as possible, they would frame their teaching in the language of Scripture and the fathers of the church and would eschew the technical language developed by scholastic theologians of the Middle Ages,” this goal was not as well attained in the doctrine of sacraments compared to the doctrine of original sin and justification (212). “The scholastic framework of matter and form, of the four ‘causes,’ and of similar categories is the first distinguishing mark of the Tridentine doctrine on the sacraments” (212). The council insisted on seven sacraments but made the qualification that they were not all “equal in dignity” (212). The chief argument here was this: “they have come down from [Christ] and the apostles to the present in an unbroken and undeviating tradition” (212). “No previous council had so repeatedly propounded such continuity and changelessness in the handing on of doctrine” (212).
The Ignorance of the Bishops About Luther
“Most of the bishops who assembled at Trent in 1545 had never read a word Luther wrote and knew only through hearsay what he supposedly had taught. Most of the theologians they called on to assist them knew little more” (210). The exceptions to this are: Girolamo Seripando (prior general of the Augustinian order) and Cardinal Reginald Pole, “one of the three papal legates who presided over the council in that first, crucial period” of 1545-47, when the decrees concerning justification were hammered out (210-11).
The “grab bag of decrees” at the end of the council included a decree “that handed over to the Holy See the publication of … an index of prohibited books” (in addition to a catechism, a revised missal and breviary) (217).
Veneration of Relics and Sacred Images
In the “grab bag” session “also appeared a decree commending the veneration of sacred relics and of sacred images. This decree was obviously meant to counter Protestant attacks on such practices” (217). It did, however, specify that superstition and lasciviousness is to be avoided in sacred images, “thus warranting some later attempts by churchmen to censor all religious art” (218).
Teachings on Purgatory
In the “grab bag” session there was also a reaffirmation of purgatory, basically reiterating the teaching of the Council of Florence, with this difference: there appear lengthy cautions about abuses of the teachings on purgatory.
The council confirmed the validity of indulgences, asserting that the power of granting them had been bestowed on the church by Christ. It also anathematizes those who either denounce them as useless or question their efficacy. As with teaching on purgatory, however, there appear warnings about abuses and an admonition that “moderation be observed.”
Although forbidding the printing of scriptures, Bible study notes, and theological books without ecclesiastical approval (and those without the author’s name attached), Trent does not condemn Bible reading in the vernacular as popularly believed. The council threatens that no one dare question the authenticity of the Latin Vulgate, however. “Finally, contrary to what often is said, Trent did not decree that the Mass must be celebrated in Latin” (220). “It is forbidden to hold that ‘the mass ought to be celebrated in the vernacular tongue only’ [lingua tantum vulgari]” (220). On this last point, “we have an excellent illustration of how the council began to be misconstrued and manipulated almost before the ink was dry, and thus of how ‘Trent’ began often to bear only a distorted relationship to what the council actually decreed and intended” (221).
In our next post, we will look at the decrees of the Council that addressed many of the areas of corruption in the Catholic Church that Protestants pointed to in order to justify their Reformation.
The following are summaries and excerpts from the following resource: John W. O’Malley’s article “The Council of Trent: Myths, Misunderstandings, and Misinformation,” in Spirit, Style, Story: Essays Honoring John W. Padburg, S.J. Edited by Thomas Lucas. Jesuit Way Loyola Press: 2002, pp. 205-225. The following is only a summary up to page 210. I hope to post more soon, eventually encapsulating his entire article in about three brief posts.
According to O’Malley, there are two extreme views of the Council of Trent among Catholics: “that the council wrought all the bad things that Vatican Council II saved them from, or that it set forth all the good things Vatical II robbed them of” (205). Although Hubert Jedin left few stones unturned when he published the most comprehensive treatment of the Council in 1975 (four volumes long, only two of which were translated into English), “few English-language historians” have taken the time to read through them because “as the little girl said about the book on snakes, [Jedin’s work] tells people more about Trent than they could possibly want to know” (206).
For example, it is now clear that “Charles Borromeo, archbishop of Milan (1564-82) and great implementer of Trent, in effect rewrote the decrees by giving them a specificity and sometimes a rigor they originally lacked, and by supplying what he thought the council ought to have done but had failed to do” (206). “These interpretations were foisted onto the council and became Trent” (206). Because many historians have tended to focus on the implementations of the councils decrees rather than the council itself, “this new scholarship, for all its merits, has contributed to the tradition of ignorance and misunderstanding of the council itself” (206).
Obstacles to Trent
Obstacles to Trent were: 1) “The Vacillation of Pope Clement VII (1523-34), who feared that the council might depose him” (207), and 2) “The obstructive tactics of King Francis I of France (1515-47), who feared that a council, if successful, would strengthen the political hand of his great rival, Charles V, by eliminating in Germany the threat of civil war created by the volatile and often violent religious situation” (207).
Cooperation for Trent and the Double Agenda
“Two persons cooperated in bringing [the council] into being: Pope Paul III (1534-49) and Emperor Charles V (1519-55). …. Charles V, and his entourage hoped, for the sake of the peace of ‘the empire,’ that is, of Germany, that [the rift] could” be healed between Protestants and Catholics (207). “A practical man, he sincerely believed that the real problem was reform, and that the unreformed condition of the church had caused the Lutheran crisis. A reform of the church was therefore the precondition, at least, for resolving it” (209).
On the other hand, “The pope envisaged the council principally as a response to the doctrinal issues raised by Luther, issues that he and many others interpreted as just some old heresies in a new dress. … The condemnation would probably preclude any possibility of reconciliation with them, but Paul and many in his entourage thought that was a lost cause anyway” (208).
Thus, all the enactments of the council can be gathered under these two headings: 1) uprooting heresies and 2) reform of clergy and members. Charles V wanted reform to be dealt with first, while Paul III wanted to first deal with heresies, so the compromise was made: the bishops agreed to “deal with both doctrine and reform alternately: first a decree on doctrine and then a decree on some aspect of reform” (209).
Simplicity of the Council of Trent: Doctrine and Reform
“The council was far from being as all-encompassing as Vatican Council II tried to be. Under ‘doctrine,’ the council meant to treat only Protestant teachings. … In this regard Trent had Luther principally in mind” (209). The reform of the church “meant essentially reform of three offices in the church: the papacy, the episcopacy, and the pastorate” (209). In other words, the reform was aimed at “institutional church” (210).
“The council dealt of course with the laity and directed its efforts to the ‘reform of the Christian people,’ but it did so almost exclusively through directives for pastors” (210). The simplicity of the Tridentine doctrinal and reform agenda easily escapes students because the decrees and canons of the council are always published in chronological order,” thus the decrees seem like “an endless scattershot of rules, regulations, and prohibitions devoid of plan and vision” (210). “Nonetheless, Trent has, in both its doctrinal and disciplinary enactments, a remarkable and consistently maintained focus”: denouncing protestant doctrine and reforming the “institutional church” (210).
In our next post, we will continue to explore O’Malley’s understanding of the decrees of the council.
I remember when I was still a pre-teen, I used to get into fights with my older brother. And, of course, I had good parents who, being the good parents they were, would always make my brother say he was sorry when he did something mean to me. In a way, I guess you could say that was part of his “punishment.” He had to apologize. Sometimes we both had to apologize to each to each other at the same time in order to not get in trouble. We would tell each other we were sorry and, as if that wasn’t punishment enough (we weren’t really sorry), we would be forced to hug each other! For two kids who had been fighting all day and felt not an ounce of remorse for what we had done to each other, that was certainly an awkward moment. There we were, saying what we didn’t mean and acting like we meant it (by giving each other a superficial, awkward feeling hug).
What does this have to do with Thanksgiving? Well ….
Thanksgiving = the giving of thanks. Giving of thanks to who you ask? Who else could we thank for having family, friends, and lots of food (and so many other things above and beyond what we need)? It would have to be God. Who else would it make sense to thank? No single person, not even both of my parents combined, are the sole source of all that is precious to me in my life. I could only thank them for certain things. But with one swift bow of my head, I can thank God for everything, knowing that if it wasn’t for his creative hand, I would not exist, much less have all the things I enjoy about life. It just happens to be that I live in the most free (as far as I can tell) and richest nation in the world, and grew up in a middle class family (i.e. not “poor”). If I was born, say, in northern China, I would probably not have been exposed to Christianity in the way I was here: maybe I would be a atheist.
So … what does this have to do with the story about me and my brother? Well …
Giving thanks with your lips is one thing. Giving thanks from your heart is another. Just like you can say “I’m sorry” and not mean it, or hug someone even while you are hating their guts, so you can “give thanks” on Thanksgiving, and not really mean it. You can go through all the motions with your family and still not feel very thankful. Giving thanks to God without actually being grateful is something like telling your brother you are sorry for calling him a @#$*%, then as soon as you are out of the sight of your parents, calling him a @#$*% all over again and laughing about it. When we are young, we give apologies when we don’t really feel sorry because it’s expected of us from our parents. When we get older, we can give thanks when we don’t really feel very thankful (if at all) because it’s expected of us from our culture.
This Thanksgiving, I hope you don’t find that the corporate prayer moment where your family pauses to pray to God before the meal as the “awkward moment” of the holidays when everybody goes through the motions of thanking God even though they don’t really feel very thankful. Thanksgiving, without a focus on God, is likely to have only a miniscule chance of engendering a heightened sense of gratitude in our hearts for all we have. How thankful a person is always can be seen best in his or her actions. Are we thankful for our life? Then let’s not do things that destroy it. Are we thankful for our salvation? Then lets not do things that hinder our walk with Christ. Are we thankful for our religious freedom? Then let’s make the most of it for Christ and reach out to those who need the love of God. Are we thankful for the abundance of food we have? Then let’s not become gluttons and overeat. Are we thankful for our wives and/or husbands? Then lets treat our spouses with more patience and forgiveness. Are we thankful for God’s grace? Then let’s show lots of grace to others.
The following is a mixture of my own thoughts and thoughts from “The Moral Course of Thinking” in Gathered for the Journey: Moral Theology in Catholic Perspective, ed. David Matzko McCarthy and M. Therese Lysaught. Grand Rapids: Michigan: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007. pp. 1-19.
Two of the most popular approaches to ethics in modern philosophy are utilitarianism and deontological ethics, both of which are normative theories. Normative theories of ethics are those that offer a principle as the key criterion by which actions are determined to be good or bad.
The more common of these two approaches today is probably utilitarianism. The strength of this view can be seen, for example, in the influence of ethicist Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University. As one of the leading ethicists of our day, his paradigm for ethics is thoroughly utilitarian. It leads him to some very counter-intuitive opinions about what is right and what is wrong. He argues, for example, that killing handicapped infants is the best thing to do if the parents will have a second infant who has the prospects for a happier life (Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993. pp. 181-91). How does he come to such a conclusion? In order to understand this, you would have to have a basic understanding of the utilitarian philosophy of ethics.
What is utilitarianism?
“Utilitarianism is the moral doctrine that we should always act to produce the greatest possible balance of good over bad for everyone affected by our actions” (9). By this criterion, actions considered by themselves are morally neutral—it all depends on their consequences as to whether they are good or bad. Apart from consideration of such consequences, actions are neither blameworthy nor praiseworthy.
Because of this criterion, it is often the burden of utilitarian thinkers to convince their readers—against their better intuitions—that the reason we call certain desires or actions “good” or “bad” is not because they are bad in themselves but because we associate good or bad consequences with such actions. Thus, we come to think of them as good or bad actions, when in reality, the actions are not good or bad, but are widely believed to have good or bad consequences. (NOTE: In a previous post, I showed how one utilitarian took on the ambitious task of convincing his readers that the desire to torture other human beings is not wrong).
At this point, I need to make a qualification. Many people (myself included) would probably incorporate some degree of utilitarianism in their criterion for ethics. For example, although I personally believe that certain actions are inherently wrong (apart from evaluation of their consequences), I would still allow for the degree of wickedness to increase or decrease depending on its consequences.
For example, it’s a bad thing for a man to rape and beat a woman (regardless of consequences), but it’s even worse if as a result of the brutality, her unborn daughter is killed and the rape victim who survives gets AIDS. This makes the crime much, much worse.
I also believe that consequences are built into the very logic of why we label actions as inherently right or wrong in the first place. For example, adultery is wrong because it hurts the person who gets cheated on, creates the risk of irresponsible baby-making, introduces the risk of STD’s into an otherwise risk-free marriage (if both entered into that marriage without any STD’s). Adultery is always an injustice, and it is wrong in itself. Yet, at least a great part of the reason that it is always wrong (regardless of context) is due to its destructive consequences. I happen to think the dichotomy between actions as inherently right or wrong verses their being right or wrong based on consequences is a bit overdone.
With this caveat on the table, then, let me proceed to distinguish what I call the utilitarian factor (incorporation of consequences into one’s ethical thinking) from utilitarianism. While some might consider it a good thing to keep consequences in mind when making moral choices, utilitarianism has the burden of claiming that such criterion be the exclusive grounds for judging the merit of all ethical action. On the basis of this distinction, then, I will sometimes refer to utilitarianism as exclusive utilitarianism.
What’s wrong with utilitarianism?
McCarthy and Lysaught rehearse some of the standard criticisms of utilitarianism, for which I have given my own articulation and creative names. They run as follows:
1) The Inevitability of Arbitrariness—It has no way to objectively determine the nature, importance, and value of consequences. To put it another way: How do we know what are “good” and “bad” consequences? What consequences count most? Whose opinion of what are “good” consequences and what are “bad” consequences counts most? Failure to give coherent and rational criterion for answering such questions spells decisive defeat for the whole theory of exclusive utilitarianism. It seems to need something else to help it out. That is why I personally think that the utilitarian factor is legitimate when considered as part of the picture, but exclusive utilitarianism always leads to arbitrary judgment of consequences, and therefore arbitrary ethics.
2) The Contrary Intuition—It often undermines our common sense and moral intuitions, often demanding certain actions that rub our conscience the wrong way. For example, what if I knew I could cheat on my wife with my female boss without her ever finding out in order to get a raise, which would have “good” consequences for my family (less financial stress, my wife could cut back to part time to spend more time with the kids, the kids could benefit from more parental care, I could save more money for the kids for college, etc.)? My gut tells me: Don’t do this, it is wrong, wrong, wrong. But utilitarianism tells me it’s like a math problem (good consequences = good action).
3) The Omniscience Requirement—Sometimes it is impossible to know the totality of the potential (much less the actual) consequences of one’s actions. Sometimes what looks to us to be a disaster turns out to be a blessing in disguise. We get fired only to later realize that the new job we attain as a consequence pays better and is more enjoyable. On the flip side, sometimes we think something is going to turn out great, but in the end is a big let down. If these small scale experiences in the lives of ordinary people demonstrate how difficult it is to know the consequences of certain actions—how much more difficult must it be for people whose decisions effect an entire nation (e.g. the President) to judge the full weight of the consequences of their decisions?
I agree with McCarthy and Lysaught that these criticisms are decisive and that the wide variety of contrary opinions to the same ethical questions among exclusive utilitarians “makes clear that the theories are not doing a good job accounting for what actually shapes moral judgments” (12).
Since The Enlightenment, unaided reason so often attempts to bypass the God question and arrive at “neutral” criterion for judging right from wrong through autonomous reason (without trying to bring “religion” into the question). In my opinion, The New Enlightenment is this: The Old Enlightenment has proven to be bankrupt for ethical foundations. Maybe the God question is relevant after all.
If you’re an atheist and you thought Doug Wilson’s arguments for Christianity were weak, or found yourself disappointed with degree of substance portrayed in the Collision Documentary, or you’re a Christian and likewise were disappointed, I suggest that you will find much more satisfaction listening to a more sophisticated/academic debate between atheist Gordon Stein and Christian scholar Greg Bahnsen. It’s not as flashy and entertaining as The Collision, but if you are a true intellectual and can carefully follow arguments, you will find it much more satisfying of a debate. In fact, this debate has since been often referred to simply as “The Great Debate,” without any further qualification.
For a more recent alternative, try listening Daniel Dennett (renowned militant atheist) argue with Alvin Plantinga (retired head of the philosophy department at Notre Dame).