Sunday, September 30, 2007

A journey through John - 4:13-14

"Jesus said to her, 'Every one who drinks of this water will thirst again, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.'"

This comes from a conversations Jesus has with a Samaritan woman who is drawing water from a well. The Navarre commentators remark:

"Our Lord's reply is surprising and really captures the woman's attention. Here is someone greater than Jacob, someone offering her water that will quench her thirst once and for all. Christ is referring to the change worked in every person by sanctifying grace, a share in God's own life, the presence of the Holy Spirit in the soul, the great gift which those who believe in him will receive.

"We worry about the future, we are full of desires to be happy and at peace; a person who receives our Lord and remains united to him as a branch to the vine (cf. Jn 15:4-5) will not only slake his thirst but become a well of living water (cf. Jn 7:37-39)."

We all yearn for satisfaction and fulfillment, and we don't need Jesus to tell us that the things of this world can provide us fulfillment that is only transitory, at best. If we're honest with ourselves, we know this from experience. This transience of satisfaction can be maddeningly frustrating and discouraging, but Jesus offers us hope with His extravagant promise of lasting fulfillment -- indeed, of eternal fulfillment. Is His offer too good to be true? There's only one way to find out, and that's to take Him up on it and get to know Him.

Saturday, September 29, 2007


Today was the Friends of the Seattle Public Library Book Sale, and I made out like a bandit! Jeanette and I grabbed 36 books for only $25.25! I'm pumped!

Friday, September 28, 2007

Why I am a Catholic, part 4 - Authority

I got to thinking about the need for authority when I read the other day that Mark Driscoll, the often controversial pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, had caused a stir recently by accusing several prominent figures in the Emerging Church movement -- namely, Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, and Rob Bell -- of espousing heretical beliefs. (You can listen to Driscoll's talk from the Southeast Baptist Theological Seminary's Convergent Conference here.) My question is this: Heretical by whose standards?

The point of this post is not to agree or disagree with Driscoll's specific conclusions about the hereticalness of certain individuals; rather, I will argue that, apart from the teaching authority conferred upon the Catholic Church by God, there is no solid ground on which to base a meaningful, objective understanding of what theological orthodoxy and heresy even are.

Many non-Catholic Christian readers are probably ready to call me a heretic right about now. "What's he talking about, 'no solid ground'?" they're thinking. "There's the Bible, and don't forget, 'All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness'!" To which I, as a Catholic, reply, "Amen!" But that's not the end of the story.

It's a little-known fact that the Catholic Church has quite a high opinion of Scripture. Consider these two passages from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which might be reassuring to other Christians:

"God is the author of Sacred Scripture. 'The divinely revealed realities, which are contained and presented in the text of Sacred Scripture, have been written down under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.'" (CCC 105, quoting Dei Verbum)

"The inspired books teach the truth. 'Since therefore all that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confided to the Sacred Scriptures.'" (CCC 107, quoting Dei Verbum)

The Catholic Church strongly believes, has always believed, and will always believe that the Bible contains the inspired, inerrant Word of God. Thus, she takes it seriously when the Bible gives us a word of warning, as it does in this verse written by Peter concerning the letters of Paul: "There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures" (2 Peter 3:16). Interpreting the Bible is serious business.

One of my favorite professors at Harvard was the Reverend Peter J. Gomes, a Baptist minister who claimed the distinction of having the longest title in the University ("Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church"). The recurring theme of his course The Christian Bible and Its Interpretation, which he repeated again and again in his inimitable, affected pseudo-British accent was this: "To read is to interpret."

We cannot help but interpret the Bible when we read it, and the Catholic Church is concerned that we interpret it correctly and not twist it (even inadvertently, in good faith) to our own destruction. The Catechism states:

"'The task of giving an authentic interpretation of the Word of God, whether in its written form or in the form of Tradition, has been entrusted to the living teaching office of the Church alone. Its authority in this matter is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ.' This means that the task of interpretation has been entrusted to the bishops in communion with the successor of Peter, the Bishop of Rome. 'Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it. At the divine command and with the help of the Holy Spirit, it listens to this devotedly, guards it with dedication and expounds it faithfully. All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith.' Mindful of Christ's words to his apostles: 'He who hears you, hears me,' the faithful receive with docility the teachings and directives that their pastors give them in different forms." (CCC 85-87, quoting Dei Verbum)

It continues:

"It is the task of exegetes to work . . . toward a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture in order that their research may help the Church to form a firmer judgment. For, of course, all that has been said about the manner of interpreting Scripture is ultimately subject to the judgment of the Church which exercises the divinely conferred commission and ministry of watching over and interpreting the Word of God." (CCC 119, quoting Dei Verbum)

It may seem the height of arrogance and presumption for the Catholic Church to claim the exclusive authority and ability to interpret Scripture authoritatively, but its position is actually one of supreme humility. The Church understands that by human ability alone no one could ever plumb the depths of the meaning of Scripture -- the Bible itself says that "no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one's own interpretation" (2 Peter 1:20) -- but that true understanding can only be achieved through the power of the "the Spirit of truth," who Jesus promised would guide the Church "into all the truth" (John 16:13). Indeed, Paul referred to "the church of the living God" as "the pillar and bulwark of truth" (1 Timothy 3:14-15).

The Church's divinely conferred ability to authoritatively interpret the Bible is necessary because the Bible's meaning is not always as crystal clear to us as most would like. The texts of Scripture can be subjected to a variety of interpretive methods which lead to a multitude of conclusions (sometimes diametrically opposed to each other) on a number of important issues. It is almost a cliche to note that in the 19th century American slaveholders used their interpretation of the Bible to defend the institution of slavery, while abolitionists used their own interpretation of the Bible to condemn it. Similar scenarios continue to the present day.

It seems to me that, apart from the interpretive authority of the Catholic Church, most issues of biblical interpretation boil down either to personal opinions, preferences, and presuppositions or to the temporary consensus of the majority. And that's fine, if all you care about is feeling good on a superficial level. If you are so inclined, you can artfully interpret Scripture such that it seems to affirm pretty much any personal belief you hold or practice you engage in. It's really not that hard, and it also means you never have to change your life, unless you decide you want to, at which point you can also change your interpretation of Scripture.

But if you believe that there is such a thing as Truth, and you believe that God has truly spoken to us in the words of Scripture, then it would seem logical that you would want to have the true understanding of Scripture as God meant us to have it, and not just your own fallible interpretation.

Now, it seems pretty clear to me that, for whatever reason, God has not chosen to guide each individual person who reads the Bible to a full and correct independent interpretation of it. This is obvious from the fact that when two honest, faithful people sit down to read the Bible, they often come to wildly divergent (and sometimes mutually exclusive) conclusions about what it means. Now, if we believe in the existence of objective Truth, we must conclude that at least one of these people is mistaken in their interpretation; and if we don't believe in objective Truth, then what are we wasting our time talking about the Bible for?

The fact that there is such a thing as objective Truth, and that the Bible is concerned with that Truth, is the reason that an authoritative interpretation of the Bible is so essential. The Bible deals with the most important subjects imaginable: who we are, who God is, and how we can know Him and share eternal life with Him. Those are questions we don't want to screw up on, and God doesn't want us to screw them up either. That's why He's given us a Church that He has promised to guide into all truth and to protect from error.

It may seem inconceivable to some that God would give the Catholic Church the ability to infallibly interpret Scripture. But why? Most Christians readily accept that God protected His chosen authors of Scripture from error in their writing; why should He not also protect His Church from error in its interpreting? Is the reading, interpreting, and living of God's Word really that much less important than the writing of God's Word?

There are about two billion Christians in the world, and if every one of them sat down with a Bible and tried to interpret it on their own, they would come up with about two billion different interpretations of it. The Bible is far too complex, far too rich, far too divine for man to solidly grasp on his own. Through our own private reading and prayer, we can indeed come to understand much of what God would have us understand in the Bible, but our interpretations will always differ somewhat from those of our neighbors, and it is an historical fact that those differences of interpretation lead to division, and that is not what Christ wants for His Church. The Catholic Church does not wish to stifle individual thought and personal study of the Bible; rather, the Catechism refers to the riches of the Bible as "inexhaustible" (CCC 129) and "forcefully and specifically exhorts all the Christian faithful . . . to learn 'the surpassing knowledge of Jesus Christ,' by frequent reading of the divine Scriptures" (CCC 133, quoting Dei Verbum). The Church merely seeks to carry out the responsibility God has conferred upon her and prays that Jesus' vision for a united Church in John 17:20-21 will one day be realized: "I do not pray for these only, but also for those who believe in me through their word, that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me."

Thursday, September 27, 2007

A journey through John - 3:30

"He must increase, but I must decrease."

Chapter 3 of the Gospel of John contains probably the most well-known verse in the Bible, John 3:16 ("For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."); but I've chosen to focus, in this post, not on these words from the mouth of Jesus, but rather on those that John the Baptist utters in reference to Jesus: "He must increase, but I must decrease." These words, like those of Mary in John 2:5, are a challenge to all Christians.

The Navarre commentators note, "The Baptist knew his mission was one of preparing the way of the Lord; he was to fade into the background once the Messiah arrived, which he did faithfully and humbly. In the same way, a Christian, when engaged in apostolate, should try to keep out of the limelight and allow Christ to seek men out; he should always be emptying himself, to allow Christ [to] fill his life."

Like John the Baptist, we must be humble enough to know our true place. John was a big deal before Jesus began His public ministry -- people came from all over to listen to him, learn from him, and be baptized by him. When Jesus comes along, some of John's disciples seem irritated that "all are going to him" (3:26) now to be baptized, and they aren't getting all the attention anymore. The Baptist, however, responds to his disciples by saying, "He who has the bride is the bridegroom; the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom's voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full. He must increase, but I must decrease" (3:29). Far from lamenting his own sudden loss of esteem, John is joyful at the arrival of Christ, because his life and work has never been about himself, but about pointing beyond himself to "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (1:29).

It is so tempting, even when we are trying to serve God, to focus too much on ourselves, on how we are doing or what others think of us. (I know this from far too much personal experience.) But if we truly believe that Jesus is the Son of God, then we must pray for the strength to fight against our self-centered mindsets and affirm with John the Baptist, "He must increase, but I must decrease."

Something had to be done

Goodbye, Rex.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

A journey through John - 2:5

"His mother said to the servants, 'Do whatever he tells you.'"

This verse comes from the story of Jesus' famous water-into-wine miracle at the wedding feast at Cana, and it has a lot to teach us about the Christian life. Mary's words, "Do whatever he tells you," are not just for the servants. As the Navarre commentary notes, "These words of our Lady can be seen as a permanent invitation to each of us: 'in that all Christian holiness consists: for perfect holiness is obeying Christ in all things' (St Thomas Aquinas, Comm. on St John, in loc.)." If we truly believe that Jesus is the Son of God, how can we possibly do any less than to follow and obey Him? And yet, how often do I completely ignore His call? I'm a long way from perfect holiness, and clearly a long way from perfect faith.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

A journey through John - 1:14

"And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father."

For me (and, I would guess, for many Christians), this verse is so familiar that it's easy to pass right over its extraordinary message with hardly a thought: "'And the Word became blah blah blah,' yeah, tell me something I don't know." After 2,000 years, Christians have grown used to the idea that God became man in the person of Jesus Christ. It's a given. It's rote. It's our starting point.

I think we've lost, for the most part, a sense of just how earth-shattering this truth is. "And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us." This is God we're talking about, as John 1:1 reminds us. God became a man. God, the uncreated One Who created the universe out of nothing. God -- infinite and eternal, omnipotent and omniscient, infinitely superior to any person -- became a man. Any honest believer will have to admit, upon reflection, that this is almost unbelievable.

And many did, in fact, find it unbelievable. During the early centuries of Christianity, a number of heresies were put forth by people who just couldn't accept that God would actually become a man, that Jesus could truly be both man and God.

And yet it happened, John insists in this pivotal verse in the prologue of his Gospel. As the Navarre commentators note, "This is a text central to the mystery of Christ. It expresses in a very condensed form the unfathomable fact of the incarnation of the Son of God."

Monday, September 24, 2007

A journey through the Gospel of John

Over the next few weeks, I'm going to be working my way through one of the most beautiful books in the Bible, the Gospel of John. I've read through John before, but the Bible reveals new depths of meaning with each reading, and I believe John is an especially rich and rewarding book.

I'm going to be reading the Gospel of John in The Navarre Bible, which is "an edition of Sacred Scripture prepared by members of the Faculty of Theology of Navarre University, [and which] consists of the New Vulgate, the Revised Standard Version, and commentaries. The commentaries provide explanations of the doctrinal and practical meaning of the scriptural text, drawing on a rich variety of sources -- Church documents, the exegesis of Fathers and Doctors, and the works of prominent spiritual writers, particularly Blessed [now Saint] J. Escriva, who initiated the Navarre Bible project." I've heard that The Navarre Bible contains some of the best Catholic commentary on the Bible that you can find, so I'm hopeful that this reading will greatly increase my understanding of the Gospel of John and, ultimately, my understanding and love of God.

If I learn anything important, or if I have a particularly interesting (at least to me) insight, I'll be posting about it, so be sure to check back here if you're interested.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Chicago Bears make me sad and embarrassed

. . . and Rex Grossman should be run out of town.

Religion and science

The October issue of First Things contains an article entitled "God and Evolution" in which Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J. presents an admirably balanced assessment of the relationship between religion and science. While the cardinal sees no conflict between Christian faith and evolution, he does critique what he sees as the overreaching of materialistic Darwinists who draw philosophical and theological conclusions from scientific data. A representative passage:

"Science can cast a brilliant light on the processes of nature and can vastly increase human power over the environment. Rightly used, it can notably improve the conditions of life here on earth. Future scientific discoveries about evolution will presumably enrich religion and theology, since God reveals himself through the book of nature as well as through redemptive history. Science, however, performs a disservice when it claims to be the only valid form of knowledge, displacing the aesthetic, the interpersonal, the philosophical, and the religious."

Truth and beauty

There's a nice piece in this week's National Catholic Register called "Benedict's Mozart: What the Pope Learned From His Favorite Composer," about the power of music to communicate religious truth. The piece includes an excerpt from a testimony Pope Benedict contributed to a book commemorating the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth last year:

“When in our home parish of Traunstein on feast days a Mass by Mozart resounded, for me, a little country boy, it seemed as if heaven stood open. In the front, in the sanctuary, columns of incense had formed in which the sunlight was broken; at the altar the sacred action took place of which we knew that heaven opened for us. And from the choir sounded music that could only come from heaven; music in which was revealed to us the jubilation of the angels over the beauty of God. …

“I have to say that something like this happens to me still when I listen to Mozart. Mozart is pure inspiration — or at least I feel it so. Each tone is correct and could not be different. The message is simply present. …

“The joy that Mozart gives us, and I feel this anew in every encounter with him, is not due to the omission of a part of reality; it is an expression of a higher perception of the whole, something I can only call inspiration out of which his compositions seem to flow naturally.”

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Mother Teresa on The Colbert Report

I just thought this was great. It's a recent segment from The Colbert Report on Comedy Central in which Stephen Colbert discusses Mother Teresa's dark night of the soul with Fr. James Martin, S.J. It's both funny and enlightening, and that's no small feat. Thanks to for highlighting the video.

Friday, September 21, 2007

My song is love unknown

I just felt like sharing one of my very favorite hymns, which is called "My Song Is Love Unknown." The words were written by Samuel Crossman, a 17th century Anglican minister, and the music is by John Ireland, a 20th century English composer.

It is just amazing to me how powerful the effect can be when beautiful music is combined with beautiful and true words, and this hymn is one of the most powerful I know. While reading or singing this hymn, I am often overwhelmed by its evocation of the almost unbelievable love for us that God demonstrated through the sacrifice of Jesus.

The words are below, and you can go here to listen to the music in a rather strange MIDI version. For some reason it sounds like a ghost is singing the tenor line, but it'll give you the idea. Anyway, please listen, read, and reflect if you like.

My Song Is Love Unknown

My song is love unknown, my Savior's love to me, love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be. O who am I that for my sake my Lord should take frail flesh, and die?

He came from his blest throne salvation to bestow, but men made strange, and none the longed-for Christ would know. But O my friend, my friend indeed, who at my need his life did spend.

Sometimes they strew his way, and his strong praises sing, resounding all the day hosannas to their King. Then "Crucify!" is all their breath, and for his death they thirst and cry.

Why, what hath my Lord done? What makes this rage and spite? He made the lame to run, he gave the blind their sight. Sweet injuries! Yet they at these themselves displease, and 'gainst him rise.

They rise, and needs will have my dear Lord made away; a murderer they save, the Prince of Life they slay. Yet steadfast he to suffering goes, that he his foes from thence might free.

In life no house, no home my Lord on earth might have; in death no friendly tomb but what a stranger gave. What may I say? Heaven was his home; but mine the tomb wherein he lay.

Here might I stay and sing, no story so divine; never was love, dear King, never was grief like thine. This is my friend, in whose sweet praise I all my days could gladly spend.

Eucharistic humor?

If you're looking for some very light and very funny reading, I might suggest Ant Farm: And Other Desperate Situations, which was published earlier this year by Random House and is written by Simon Rich, the son of New York Times columnist Frank Rich. (He was also one of my classmates at Harvard.)

The book consists of 57 little vignettes, each about a page or two long. In my opinion, the pieces are hit and miss as far as humor goes, but the hits are well worth the price tag, and they get funnier with repeated reading.

One interesting piece is entitled, simply, "Jesus." It's not one of the funnier pieces in the book, but I like it because Rich, though he is not a Catholic, at least understands the radically literal meaning of Jesus' discourse in chapter 6 of the Gospel of John, even if he doesn't believe it. Here's the piece, in its entirety:

JESUS: Love each other, for love conquers all.
THOMAS: Praise the Lord!
JESUS: If someone attacks you, turn the other cheek.
THOMAS: Praise the Lord!
JESUS: Eat my body and my blood.
THOMAS: Praise the-- Wait. What was that last thing?
JESUS: Eat my body and my blood.
THOMAS: You mean ... symbolically?
JESUS: Honor thy father and thy mother.
THOMAS: Wait, hold on. Can we talk about that other thing for a second?
JESUS: What other thing? Turning the other cheek?
THOMAS: No, the thing you said after. About eating your body ... and ... your blood.
JESUS: What's there to talk about?

Beauty and majesty

So, my introduction to the state of Washington occurred a few weeks ago when I went on a five-day backpacking trip in the North Cascades with a group of friends. Overall, it was a great experience. Though the first couple days included such unpleasantnesses as hiking UP this . . .. . . in a pair of glorified sneakers and a poncho, the trip also gave me my first opportunity to wake up in the morning, roll out a tent, and see a view like this . . . . . . so I guess it was worth it. Also, this was one of the uglier plants we passed on the side of the trail:It's an incredible world God has given us.

P.S. The first two pictures are of Spider Gap and Glacier Peak (as seen from Image Lake), respectively.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Why I am a Catholic, part 3 - The Resurrection

I may be skipping a step or two in my explanation of why I am a Catholic, but this post is going to be about why I believe in the Resurrection of Jesus, from a purely intellectual standpoint.

For me, one of the most interesting pieces of evidence for the Resurrection is in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 28, verses 11-15. I like this passage because it does not require any real leap of faith from the reader on any level: you don't have to believe that it was written by Matthew, you don't have to believe that it was inspired by God, you don't have to believe that it's inerrant, you don't even have to believe that it gets the historical details of Jesus' life right, because the most relevant part isn't about the historical details of Jesus' life. The only thing you have to accept is that this is a piece of writing that dates from some time in the 1st century.

The passage comes right after an angel has announced Jesus' Resurrection to Mary Magdalene and "the other Mary" (I love that) at the empty tomb and Jesus has appeared to the two women and told them to go to Galilee and tell His brethren the news. It reads:

"While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sum of money to the soldiers and said, 'Tell people, "His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep." And if this comes to the governor's ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.' So they took the money and did as they were directed; and this story has been spread among the Jews to this day."

Now, the part I find so interesting is that last little bit: "and this story has been spread among the Jews to this day." Up to the time this passage was written, decades after Jesus had died, the story was still going around that Jesus' disciples had stolen His dead body from His tomb, the author claims. Now, I've been told I'm a fairly cynical guy, but I can't think of a good reason why the author would include this detail unless it were true. Biblical scholars all agree that the author of Matthew was a Jewish Christian writing for a community of Jewish Christians -- why would he sabotage his credibility by lying about an ongoing phenomenon that any of his readers could not help but verify?

So if we accept that the author of Matthew wasn't a raging liar (at least about current events), what this passage tells us is that even those who opposed Christianity and who certainly didn't believe in the Resurrection were still trying to explain an empty tomb! That Jesus was no longer in His tomb the Sunday morning after His Crucifixion was not disputed, even by those who sought to discredit Christianity. It was acknowledged as a fact and then explained away.

If even early opponents of Christianity argued from the premise that Jesus' body went missing from His tomb, it seems logical to me to believe that His body really did go missing from His tomb. The question we then have to ask is, why was it missing? Which story are we going to believe? Did Jesus' disciples steal His body in the night while the guards were sleeping? Or could it be possible that Jesus actually rose from the dead, that He truly was God?

To be honest, it's much more difficult for me intellectually to believe that Christianity was founded on a hoax that began with the disciples stealing Jesus' body from His tomb. Setting aside the question of whether the often clueless disciples could have pulled off such a feat, what could their motivation for perpetrating such a hoax possibly have been? If Jesus hadn't risen from the dead, if He really wasn't God, why would His disciples have started a religion that claimed that Jesus did rise from the dead and that He was God?

Because they just couldn't let go, or admit they were wrong to hope that Jesus was the Messiah? On the contrary, nearly all Jesus' disciples had already abandoned Him before He was crucified. Peter denied three times that he even knew Jesus when the going got tough.

Because they wanted the great power that comes with founding a new religion? None of Jesus' disciples lived nearly long enough to see the Church grow beyond being a handful of tiny communities of believers.

Maybe because they were all a bunch of weirdo masochists. Maybe Jesus' disciples wanted to spend the rest of their lives toiling and suffering for no earthly gain. Maybe they thought it would be fun to be cast out of their communities. Maybe they liked being persecuted, jailed, and beaten. Maybe they'd always thought it would be neat to be murdered. And all for a hoax.

No, that doesn't make sense at all. The tomb was empty on Easter morning, and the only reasonable way to make sense of the disciples' post-Easter lives, in which they so willingly submitted themselves to great suffering, is to believe their story: that Jesus truly rose from the dead and that He truly is God and the Savior of the world. That is a truth worth dying for.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

An unexpected lesson from my Alma Mater

"Veritas, Christo et Ecclesiae," I am told by people who know more about Latin than I, means "Truth, for Christ and the Church." It may surprise you to find out that such a quaint and outdated phrase is the official motto of Harvard University to this day (no matter how much most people there would like to pretend it isn't). The motto was adopted in 1692, and although you usually only see the truncated form "Veritas" these days, I guess Harvard still hasn't quite shed all its religious history, because "Christo et Ecclesiae" is still there on all the university's official documents, even its diplomas.

It's a common misconception that Harvard was founded solely as a school for preachers. It wasn't -- it was simply founded as a school that understood the immense importance of the Christian faith and believed -- rightly, in my opinion -- that truth without a foundation in the One Who is Truth is incomplete truth, at best.

Here's a passage from Harvard's College Laws of 1642:

"Let every Student be plainly instructed, and earnestly pressed to consider well, the maine end of his life and studies is, to know God and Jesus Christ which is eternal life (John 17:3) and therefore to lay Christ in the bottome, as the only foundation of all sound knowledge and Learning. And seeing the Lord only giveth wisedome, Let every one seriously set himself by prayer in secret to seeke it of him (Prov. 2:3)."

Interesting, no? A Harvard professor would probably get fired for suggesting something like that these days, but that's the school's history and, judging from the unlikely endurance of its motto, I guess it's not so easy to shake.

Anyway, I like "Veritas, Christo et Ecclesiae," almost as much as I like another of Harvard's early mottos, "In Christi Gloriam" (To the Glory of Christ), and I'll try to write this blog (and live my life) with both those mottos in mind.

Catechize me

I've heard numerous Catholic commentators claim that, for the past couple of generations, there has been a serious deficiency in the religious education of Catholic children. They say that for about the past 40 years, most Catholics have grown up knowing hardly anything about the Catholic faith. As a product of Catholic religious education in the '90s, I can see why they're worried.

I think I was one of the lucky ones, relatively speaking. My parents taught me to say my prayers every night from an early age, my mom always brought my brother and me to Mass with her on Sunday mornings, and I was never allowed to skip a Wednesday evening CCD class. And by the time I was confirmed in eighth grade, I still had virtually no appreciation for or understanding of the Catholic faith!

I'm not sure exactly where the disconnect was. All my CCD teachers were wonderful, faithful people, and boy were they trying! But like I wrote once before, I remember hardly anything that they tried to teach me.

And I know I'm not alone. We never even sufficiently learned about the liturgy of the Mass, which became painfully obvious after my own Confirmation Mass. You see, I was assigned to read one of the Scripture readings during the Mass, and I cannot tell you how many of my fellow confirmees came up to me afterwards and complimented me for giving a good speech!

So yeah, if you ask me, something is lacking in Catholic religious education. My intuition is that what's missing is a combination of solid catechetical resources and sufficient time to use them, and that's a shame, because the Catholic faith is a beautiful thing, and children are being done a great disservice if that isn't being adequately conveyed to them.

I was once a good-looking man

Sorry, this doesn't really have anything to do with anything, but I just found this old picture from my senior year of high school which is by far the best picture of me that ever has been (or will be) taken, and I figured I'd do the world a favor and share it.

Why I am a Catholic, part 2 - Faith

We all have to believe in something. We all have to have faith in something. It's inescapable. If you are a normally functioning human being, you have faith in something, whether you think you do or not. Even if the very idea of faith makes you laugh or cringe, you've still got it.

To be clear, I'm talking about faith here as it is defined by Merriam-Webster Online in definition 2 B (1), which is, I believe, most relevant to this conversation and which defines faith as "firm belief in something for which there is no proof."

Now, the two things I most frequently see cited by non-religious people as being opposed to faith (by which they typically mean religious faith) are science and reason. (This is, I believe, a false dichotomy -- I see no real conflict between religious faith on the one hand and science and reason on the other -- but I'll accept it for the time being.) But my argument is that even those who claim to live and see only by the lights of science and reason -- even the most hardcore -- still have faith.

They have faith precisely in science and reason. Now remember, faith here is a "firm belief in something for which there is no proof." Is it possible to prove -- prove -- that either science or reason works? Is it possible without resorting to a circular argument? Can you demonstrate that the scientific method is reliable without running more experiments? Can you defend any line of reasoning without resorting to further reasoning? Eventually you have to believe in something that can't be proven. And that's faith.

Please understand that this is not me railing against science and reason -- I love science and reason. My point is simply that we all have to have faith in something, whether we like it or not, and that having faith is not only not irrational, it's necessary.

As for me, I've chosen to put my faith not only in science and reason, but ultimately in Jesus Christ as He has revealed Himself through His Church on earth. And I'll get more into some of the reasons why I've decided to put my faith in Him a little later.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A novel thought

A somewhat interesting article in The New York Times Tuesday called "Is ‘Do Unto Others’ Written Into Our Genes?" contains a suggestion I never thought I'd see from someone in academia:

"In defense of his views, Dr. Haidt said that moral claims could be valid even if not universally acknowledged."

Why I am a Catholic, part 1 - Truth

Basically, I am a Catholic because I believe that Catholicism is true.

Just to be clear, what I don't mean by this is that Catholicism is true for me. This is because religion is about more than just me -- it's about the objective nature of reality. The facts of the universe are what they are whether I believe them or not. That's what I mean by objective. And Catholicism, like any religion, makes claims about the objective nature of reality that are either true or false regardless of whether I -- or anyone else -- believe them, agree with them, or like them. Thus, it wouldn't make any sense (nor would it be intellectually honest) for me to say that Catholicism is true for me but not necessarily true for someone else. It's either true or it isn't.

And like I said, I believe that Catholicism is true, and for good reasons, I think. I'll have to go into what some of those reasons are a little later.

Shameless self-promotion (sort of)

If you have any interest in good a cappella music, you should check out this CD by my old a cappella group, Harvard's Under Construction (the virtues of which I extolled in my last post). I had a large hand in recording and producing this CD, so I can (and will) vouch for its quality. Just go here and click on "media" if you're curious. You can even listen to a sample of my solo on the first track.

The tale continues . . .

So, to pick up where I left off in my last post (which, incidentally, was also my first post), as I started out at Harvard in the fall of 2003 I was looking forward to deepening my Christian faith in a decidedly non-Catholic context. When my parents dropped me off at school, they visited the Harvard Catholic Student Center and reported back to me that it was very nice. They also gave me several fliers they had picked up about the Catholic Student Association, which I quickly made a point of losing.

I decided to try out Christian Impact (Harvard's chapter of Campus Crusade for Christ) basically because they were the first Christian group I saw at the Freshman Activities Fair and because they hosted a barbecue, which seemed promising. After a few Bible studies and a large group meeting, however, I didn't really feel like I fit in there, and so I quietly stopped attending and slipped into a semester-long period of total spiritual apathy. I didn't go to church, I didn't really pray, and I sometimes had to actually speak or write the words "I AM A CHRISTIAN" just to try to reassure myself.

I am firmly convinced that God came to my rescue at the beginning of my second semester of college by leading me to audition for Under Construction, Harvard's Christian a cappella group, which really ended up defining my college career. In UC, I found a loving and dynamic group of incredibly faithful, thoughtful, intelligent Christians for whom the call to follow Christ was a constant reality. My time in UC strengthened my faith and my desire to spend my life serving God more than any other single experience in my life thus far.

Through the members of UC, I was also introduced to the Harvard-Radcliffe Christian Fellowship and Highrock Church, both of which helped me to grow in love and knowledge of God.

Between UC, HRCF, and Highrock, I was fairly well entrenched in the Evangelical Protestant Christian culture and mindset. I attended Catholic Mass only very rarely, and I wouldn't have identified myself as really a Catholic if you had asked me. And yet I never totally disbelieved many of the Catholic teachings that Protestants traditionally reject. With respect to Christ's Real Presence in the Eucharist, for instance, I could say to myself, Why couldn't He be there if He wanted to be? Though I still didn't come close to fully understanding many Catholic teachings, I never rejected them outright.

Nor, for some reason, was I ever able to formally renounce my Catholicism. While some of my friends were becoming members of Highrock, a church that I loved, something inside of me always held me back, telling me not to give up my Catholic identity so easily. Though at the time this little voice seemed to be nothing but a nuisance, today I am deeply grateful that it was there.

It wasn't until the spring of my senior year that I felt any serious tug back towards the Catholic Church. I don't remember precisely when it started, but God tugged hard! All of a sudden, I felt strongly convicted that the Catholic Church was where I belonged. I started going to Mass on weekday mornings, stopping in St. Paul's Catholic Church in the afternoons to pray, listening to Catholic radio, and reading Catholic books. During Lent I made my first confession since the eighth grade. I was back in full force, as they say.

I suppose this is still just the beginning of my story. Ever since God pulled me firmly back into the Catholic Church, I've had a strong desire to help others to experience the incredible depths of truth and beauty that I've found here. Perhaps that's what this blog is about. I'm quite sure that's what my life is about, and it's just getting started.

Monday, September 17, 2007

In the beginning . . .

I suppose it's obligatory for every new blog to start off with an inaugural post in which the blogger awkwardly introduces himself to the rest of the blogging world (or to no one, as the case may be). In any case, here's my awkward introduction. (I'm off to a strong start, I think, using three forms of the word blog in my first sentence.)

Just to cover the basics, my name is Kevin Birnbaum, I'm 23 years old, and I just moved to Seattle with my wonderful fiancee, Jeanette. I'm originally from the suburbs of Chicago, but I spent the last four years at Harvard, from which I graduated in June with a degree in English and a minor (or "secondary field," in elitist-speak) in religion.

At this point, I'm not sure exactly what this blog will become. (Dormant, quite possibly, after I use up my entire store of thoughts in the first week.) But I felt compelled to at least start writing a blog about Catholicism and being Catholic because 1) I like to write and 2) I love Catholicism and being Catholic.

I didn't always love Catholicism. I was born and raised a Catholic, but I'd say my position with respect to the Church for most of my early life was characterized largely by ignorance and indifference. I attended CCD classes all through grade school and junior high, but I don't think they really took. The two things I remember most about my years of religious education are:

1) getting caught cheating on a test about the Ten Commandments, and

2) not being permitted to read aloud for the class a story I had written about cannibalism, and subsequently standing up and yelling "You're all gonna burn!" repeatedly for the remainder of the hour. (This got big laughs for the first twenty minutes.) (Sorry, Mrs. Kilker!)

I'm sure I believed in God back then, but He never seemed all that important, at least compared to the Chicago Bulls. And I certainly didn't have anything resembling a personal relationship with Him.

This started to change during my freshman year of high school, when I became involved with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, a non-denominational group that emphasizes fellowship, praise, Bible study, and prayer. For the first time, being a Christian began to seem real, immediate, and exciting. (I'm sure it's just a coincidence that it was around this time that the Bulls stopped winning NBA championships.) I finally had, as they say, a faith that was my own.

As my Christian faith was growing, however, my patience with the Catholic Church was wearing thin. By the end of high school, I had a mental list of grievances against the Church, almost all of which I can no longer remember. One major issue I do remember was my disenchantment with certain elements of the Catholic liturgy, especially the following exchange:

PRIEST: Lift up your hearts!
PEOPLE: (In a dull drone, usually.) We lift them up to the Lord.
PRIEST: Let us give thanks to the Lord our God!
PEOPLE: (Even more zombie-like.) It is right to give Him thanks and praise.

To me this seemed almost scary, like something out of a dystopian novel where everyone had been brainwashed by some totalitarian theocracy. No one even knew what they were saying, let alone cared! Stuff like this convinced me that something was seriously wrong with the Catholic Church.

So when I left for college I decided that I would no longer be bound up with the Catholic Church, and that's basically how things stood for about three-and-a-half years. Anyway, I think that's more than enough for no one to read right now, so I'll save the rest of my life story for a little later.