Monday, September 22, 2014

Daily Mail Christianity

I often think to myself what I would do if a female Church of England minister asked me to donate her one of my kidneys. It's one of those little hypotheticals that we often use to test the limits of our morals, our orthodoxy and our understanding. There are lots of these hypotheticals about which are brought up to challenge the way we think, often to expose the fault-lines of belief and tolerance.

 We've all seen the type:

  •  What would a priest have done had one of the September 11th terrorists come to confession before committing his acts? Should he have told the police?
  • Is Richard Dawkins right to tell a mother to abort an unborn baby with Down's Syndrome? Easy? What if that child was incompatible with life?
  • Is it right to deny birth control to a poor nation to control the size of the population?
  • Is organ donation right or, given that it necessarily involves the brain death of the subject, is it a near occasion of sin?

These are fine and challenging questions, worthy of careful consideration and investigation. One tool that theologians use is St Thomas Aquinas' rule of double effect.

However, it does seem that there are Christians out there whom one might regard as Daily Mail Christians. For my readers outside of the British Isles, the Daily Mail is a newspaper whose general approach to the news is... how shall we say?... reactionary. The situation becomes a bit like that of a non-rational creature with a given response when a certain stimulus is applied. With some Daily Mail readers, one can apply the stimulus "immigration" and be met with the answer "Not in my back yard!" I wish I could say that this is a parody, but there truly are people out there like this.

The human mind has evolved with automatic, emotional and rational centres. The automatic centre is often called the reptilian brain and seems to be devoted to basic stimulus-response decisions. Hungry = search for food: Frightened = release more adrenaline, et c. The Limbic system, in the current scientific theory, seems devoted to the emotional side, where our feelings and reactions are processed. Finally the outer and largest part, the neocortex, seems to be related very much with how we process rational thought. All three parts of the brain involved as we take in information from the world around us, and then make decisions based upon that information.

If we have three parts to the brain, then God has clearly intended us to have three parts to the brain (though I confess that I am using a rather simplified model) and, if the brain is used to process the data received, then surely all three parts are needed. This means that we need to approach big problems from the gut, the heart and the head all in conjunction with each other - all three need to be involved i n the process. Anglican Catholics might liken that to the use of Scripture, Tradition and Reason, the three-fold chord that binds our personal faith with the faith of our Fathers.

Removing one part of the brain from the thinking process does produce problems. The gut reaction is always immediate; the emotional reaction follows close behind as the situation sinks in; the rational part necessarily lags behind as it ponders the details more thoroughly with detachment and logic. One of the problems with the modern milieu is the search for quick decisions. For these, the emotional system is most dominant in our rationalisation and offers a quick response. However, quick responses are not always reliable. Likewise, a decision arrived at without the colour from the emotions loses a great deal of the humanity. In one episode of Star Trek, the ever logical Mr Spock was confounded by his use of logic when dealing with human problems. In one notable stand-off, his response was that of a chess player, while Kirk solved the problem as a poker player.

For the Christian, particularly the Conservative Catholic, it is all to easy to resort to the classical Catholic reasoning unthinkingly. Yes, there are answers and precedents from theologians and doctors of Divinity and saints. On many issues the teaching of the Catholic Church is clear and true. Yet too often, it has to be said, we Catholics can go straight to the standard answers without really listening to the question, particularly when that question involves the well-being and health (both in body and soul) of an individual.

There are some dreadfully complex moral questions out there. While the Catholic Church does indeed possess the keys to the kingdom of Heaven, as I've written before, it does not possess any key to the Abyss. This is of vital importance. Does the Church possess all knowledge of God's will? No, because the ways and means of God are beyond human scrutiny. Does the Church possess any knowledge of God's will? Yes of course. We know that Jesus Christ is the Way the Truth and the Life and that means literally extra ecclesia nulla salus. Is the Church visible? Yes it is. Does this mean it is completely visible? Only to God. Can we categorically say, then who is in Heaven and who is not? Clearly not. There are some who cry, "Lord, Lord" who will not enter the kingdom of Heaven.

And what of sin? The Church MUST speak out against sin. Of course it must! The will of each person is not enough to bring them into Heaven, they must know God and they must see what God is not. Since sin (presumably) affects each of us (though I can only categorically say that I definitely am a sinner), the Church must speak out on issues that are unjust and contrary to the will and law of God, and that run counter to the covenant which He has with us. Yet, there are situations on which the Church has only the eyes of humanity and not the eyes of her Master. The eyes of the Body of Christ are in the Head, are they not? Yes, the Church does have knowledge on what sin is, but it does not have the full knowledge of particulars, nor full knowledge of the will of God. Since the Church does not possess full knowledge of the will of God whilst it is militant, this means that there must exist situations in which the Church simply cannot pronounce "sinful" one way or the other. It cannot possess all the information.

This is where the Church must be so careful and speak with the heart in conjunction with the gut and the intellect. Sometimes, Church Authority must have the humility to remain silent on specific cases. Further, true Church Authority must only ever pronounce in true love. It cannot pronounce simply from the rule book. While it is good for the Church to take up arms of protest, it must first seek to offer something. It is naive and ridiculous for the Church to campaign loudly against prostitution if it has nothing to offer those who are slaves to necessity.

How might that conversation go?

Church:       An end to prostitution!!

Prostitute:    I need the money to fuel my addiction to heroin.

Church:       Well you shouldn't have got addicted to heroin in the first place. Now stop being a prostitute and corrupting our city's morals.

I don't need to say how silly and unrealistic that is. It's a straw man through and through, but it does illustrate a point. The Church and the World have different morals. What is legal in the World is not always the will of God, and vice versa.  Prostitution may be legal for the world, but it nonetheless is a sin against the body and the self. Yet, condemnation and voluble protest from the Church is not what is going to save prostitutes. That argument cannot be won, unless there is some mechanism that the Church can provide that will be able to release such a person from that slavery - and that means material as well as spiritual.

The Church provides such a valuable resource in Confession to absolve the penitent of all sin. That authority is promised to the Church. It works, it works effectually and it works effectively. Thus anyone struggling with guilt will find such assurance of the love of God in the confessional. However, what does the Church do about the material needs? How does the community of the Church rally around any one who has been caught in prostitution? How will it meet the needs of a prostitute wrestling with addiction?

There are plenty of organisations out there to help. They will be the first to demonstrate the need for less judgementalism from the Church and others who might revel in the "holier than thou" attitude. If we're going to protest loudly against gay marriage, then we need to ensure that we have a way of ensuring that gay couples can be loved for who they are and that any true love that they may have for their partner is recognised. If we're going to protest loudly outside an abortion clinic, the we're going to have to make very sure that we have some concrete, practical, loving, supportive and generous help for each of the women who may be considering using that place. If we're going to protest loudly against birth control, then we are going to need to find away to help any family to support any additional little mouths that arise from the decision not to use birth control.

It does stand to reason. Our Lord God Himself came to save. He protested loudly against the sins of humanity, the sins of the scribe and pharisee, the sins of the world. Yet, He showed us very clearly that we need to put our money where our mouth is. He did something about that sin. He did something about all the people whose lives were blighted by sin, not by empty reaction or impotent rhetoric, but by loving action. He condemned the sin AND saved the sinner. He demands no less of the Church. We may not have His eyes, but we have His heart. If we're truly the Church, then if we make an decision without engaging the heart as well as the gut and the brain, then we're empty and foolish.

We should not be Daily Mail Christians, spluttering our tea when we read of the latest "outrage" doing the rounds. We should be out there, making a real difference with the love Christ gave us.

So, would I give up a kidney for a female Church of England minister? What do you think?

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