Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Isaiah 55:9 (Or, the Meaning of Life)

Today while studying, I realized that I am definitely not choosing my future career in an attempt to make myself happy, or because I think I will enjoy it more than anything else.  That's just not the guiding principle here.  If it were, I'm not sure what I would pick.

Is that bad?

I have chosen my future career because I believe that easing human pain has some greater significance than just what we see.   I believe it has meaning beyond the material world, because I believe people have meaning beyond the material world.
I've chosen medicine as the antidote to the dark moments when I cannot see why any of it matters.

If I give life a long, hard look, I feel often like it's not worth living.  It's just bits of happiness and bits of pain, and in the end it passes away into darkness anyway.
Many people feel that those bits of happiness are somehow worth something for their own sake, but I have a hard time believing that.  I seem incapable of simply enjoying them without them having some value beyond what is obvious.
The existentialists deal with this.  If life is meaningless, then why bother?

So my panicky antidote to the existentialist conclusion arises, that there simply must be some meaning.  From there, I usually jump directly to an axiomatic acceptance of the transcendent value of human beings, moving if pressed into a conclusion that "if God thinks we matter then we do".

How I get from "I don't want to commit suicide" to "human beings matter" is not clear to me.

But if human beings do matter, then meaning can be had by benefiting them in some lasting way.  Some people choose to do this through teaching, some through medicine, some through research, some through art, and some through reproduction.

So I try, and I don't think about the leap too much.  I'm afraid that if I do, I'll decide it's not warranted and... well, it's not going to happen.

But sometimes when I'm down, it's hard to muster the energy to make that leap.  Then the meaninglessness I feel starts breathing down my neck, and I shudder.

The glorious reality, however, is that whether I feel there is meaning does not determine whether there is.  Logically, a transcendent God can give meaning to our existence.  A God who is God is capable of exactly that, a fact that is true whether I feel it or not.

(A "God who is God" is defined in my mind by, "My thoughts are higher than your thoughts, and my ways are higher than your ways, says the Lord".  He is not a weak-sauce god who thinks as we do.  He is not a slave to our wants, to our beliefs, or even to our logic.  He is a God who created the logic that produced our world, which produced our brains through natural selection.  He is not of this world.  Higher than my thoughts.  Higher than my ways. This is a God who is God.)

And if he could give meaning to our existence, who can maintain that he hasn't done exactly that? He certainly believed he had.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

My Conundrum

Forgive me as I'm excruciatingly honest (and probably quite predictable).

My dear family members and many of my closest friends want, more deeply than anything, to find God, to know God, to learn about God, to become more like God.  Most have devoted their entire lives to understanding God more deeply.  My dear mother and I regularly have deep conversations about faith, and she's always so delighted by new insights that she or I have.  These devout people scour the Scriptures, pray fervently, and ponder mightily on matters of faith, because they have an insatiable hunger for the Truth.
And I love these people, my closest friends and dear family members.  I think of my precious grandmother, whose Bible has the look of an elderly Samurai's sword.  I think of my eager, beautiful young sister, who stuns me with her wisdom every time I talk to her.  I think of my dear roommates, who have rich spiritual lives I know I only barely see.

So I feel a certain declaration ripping at the seams of my soul, clambering forward, barely held back.  I want so desperately to communicate something deep and vital to them; sometimes I lack conversation topics because what I want to say overpowers everything else.
What I want to say is this:
My beloved, this is it! The Catholics are right!  We've found it!  This is what we've been searching for every day of our lives!  This is what we talked late into the night hoping to find!  This is what we searched the Scriptures to obtain!  Please, please, I beg of you, learn about this!  Consider it!  Ponder it!  Give this a chance, because finding the Catholic Church is very nearly the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to me!
This is the Church, the Church of God.  Here is the Body of Christ, living, present in the Eucharist.  Here is the "Peter Foundation" we joked about, the Steward of the Church, chosen by Jesus.  The Mass is Heaven on earth, the book of Revelation replayed every Sunday. Here is found the meaning of marriage, the meaning of human life, the meaning of faith. They know what the Bible is, understand where it came from and how to apply it.  My beloved, this is the Church!
 And to the many Catholics I know and love, my dear college friends who for years lived out their faith in front of me and I never knew it:
Never forget what you have.  You were born with this treasure, with what I would give my life to give to those I love.  When I approach the Communion Rite on Sundays but cannot receive, I hope so much for those who can to know what a wealth it is. Let such rich faith live in you; so many ache for what you have without even realizing it.
It's probably a good thing I don't have a way to communicate with everyone on earth, and that my shyness keeps me from actually announcing this to everyone.  I try to be devout, not zealous.  To me, zealotry is an odor, not the aroma we should be.

God be with you all, and for your faith that is like or unlike mine, thanks be to God.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Heart of the Thing

I had a spiritual breakthrough on Thursday.

Here it is.

Thursday, I was worrying myself sick over my homework and the perceived (and possibly real) inadequacy thereof.  I realized pretty quickly that I was not actually worried about the homework, but simply experiencing the raw fear that lives inside me.

When I was a child, I sometimes couldn't sleep at night, because I could vividly imagine enormous tigers lumbering down the hall toward me.  I imagined them looking, of all things, like one of my stuffed animals, which was sewn so as to sit on its haunches.  These sitting tigers would rock back and forth from one hip to the other, slowly progressing up the hall.
My family once took a dive on a submarine.  I cried the entire time because I was afraid a shark would swim very fast toward the port-hole, break it, and come bite my face.
I was terrified of escalators, with their metal teeth at the end, waiting to eat my sneakers and perhaps a couple of toes.  I knew it could happen; I'd seen a documentary once.
My parents say I have been afraid of things since I was born.

I realized years ago that a monstrous fear lives inside me, one that doesn't respond to logic.  I can often feel when my anxieties are concrete and factual, as opposed to when the fear inside me is just awake and moving.  But even concrete fears have the monster as their source, drawing power from it.  The simmering panic inside doesn't hear anything I say, from "that's not a likely outcome" to "nothing too bad has ever happened to you before."

Really, logic can do nothing against a fear like this.  Put simply, I could lose everything.  I could face horrible loss and tragic situations and a great deal of pain.  No amount of logic can vanish that possibility.  If I ever care about anything, I must fear the loss of it.
I see no escape.

But in the midst of my internal battle with the monster on Thursday, a quiet voice in my head asked, "Why do you concern yourself only with the far-fetched awful things that could happen and not with any of the far-fetched wonderful things that could happen?"

So can the antidote to my ceaseless fear be ... gratitude?  I've heard gratitude defined as being more aware of what you have than of what you do not.  My fear blows up when I am more aware of what I could lose than of what I could have.

Then I realized that the monstrous fear is born of a line of thinking that denies the existence of God.  It lives in an empty world full of death and devoid of meaning, pervaded by a preemptive pessimism, where everything I love is lost eventually.  In this world, hope for a better future, for a sense of meaning, or for a good and beautiful god is met with utter derision. My future is a matter of chance, and the odds aren't good.  I have only myself to trust, and the blind chaos.  We've seen how that goes.
The monster inside me comes from a part of me that doesn't believe in God.

But if I let my cognitive belief in God reach even to the lowest crevice, that fear is driven dumb.  Do I not believe that God can be creative enough, loving enough, good enough to hammer any loss into something wonderful? 

I don't have to see how that could work.  By definition, God's thoughts are higher than my thoughts.  It's inevitable, if he is God, that his actions (or his inaction) will baffle me some of the time.  His thoughts are higher than my thoughts!  His ways are higher than my ways!  If each of his actions makes sense to me, then I have known the mind of God.  By contrapositive, if I have not known the mind of God, then some of his actions will not make sense to me.
(Aside from that, our brains are a product of evolution.  A "logic fault" may indicate a real contradiction, or it may indicate simply that we're trying to work in a system for which our brains did not evolve, like a Euclidean-based computer throwing errors in a hyperbolic system.  Sometimes I think the reason I believe in God when so many of my scientist friends don't is that I'm a mathematics major, so I know how to believe in things I cannot understand, like i.)

The fear inside me may survive down there the rest of my life, or it may eventually starve and die.  But it's not suited for the reality I live in.  It's not suited for the presence of an utterly good God.  And now it knows that full well.

Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Okay, okay, okay...

... here I am again.

But I just found a piece of my personal history online:

Topics to Avoid at Thanksgiving Dinner

I found this article two or three years ago before Thanksgiving with my family.  The entire thing struck me as utterly ridiculous.  Who needs to be told this?  Having some fall-back conversation starters is always a good idea, but really?  Really?

But the whole thing goes over the top again with the last line.

After expounding upon topics not to discuss with your family at Thanksgiving dinner (health issues, your sex life), the article launches into a list of topics that are good to discuss with your family at Thanksgiving dinner:

  • Sports
  • The weather
  • Apolitical movies/TV shows
  • And when all else fails: puppies!

And that was when I lost it, where "it" is both my non-giggling state and any sense I had that this was a serious journalistic endeavour.

But hey, laughing at the article provided great conversation fodder for my family that Thanksgiving, and now when silence falls around the table, one of us inevitably quips, "So how 'bout them puppies?"

In Which Sarah Has Not Always Been Right

I found this article today, Biblical Evidence for the Perpetual Virginity of Mary, that really made me think.

When things I eagerly long for (like being a college graduate) so often entail things I'm not so thrilled about (like the reality of doing homework), such finds are lovely.  It's unspeakably wonderful to have the beautiful, rich faith I want so much to share be, in reality, so well-supported by Scripture.

I'm afraid that's all for tonight, because the reality of homework calls.

Even for that, thanks be to God.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

The Deeper Story (or, What Can We Know About Yeshua ha-Notsri?)

1) What is the meaning of human existence?

2) What is the meaning of death?

3) Is there more than the material world?

4) Who was Yeshua ha-Notsri...

Yeshua ha-Notsri is better known as Jesus of Nazareth.  What can we know about this person, from a purely historical point of view?

First of all, he was a historical figure.  
An enormous wealth of historical evidence exists that places him in Roman-occupied Israel in about 30 A.D.  Even barring the Gospels, other writers' mention of him is enough to establish his existence, by standards of historical scholarship.
  • Tacitus, in about 116 A.D., describes how the Christians followed one "Christus", who suffered "the extreme penalty" under Pontius Pilate, during the reign of Tiberius (Roman emperor from 42 B.C. to 37 A.D.)
    His report is quite disparaging towards the Christians, so it is unlikely that this was a later Christian interpolation.
  • Josephus, in about 93 A.D., wrote a famous passage known as the Testimonium Flavianum, which almost certainly has suffered Christian interpolation.  However, most scholars believe that part of the Testimonium is genuine, based on textual and stylistic analysis.
    For example, Origen wrote in about 243 A.D. that Josephus did not believe that Jesus was the Christ.  This casts doubt on the sentence, "He was the Christ" in Josephus' work, and probably dates the interpolation to later than Origen's time.  However, in the same work, Origen quotes Josephus regarding "James, the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ".
    So we have definite testimony linking this person Jesus, or Yeshua, to the one who was called "Christ" or "Christus" in Latin.
    We can with relative confidence accept the opinion of most secular scholars, that the basic factual statements of Josephus here are genuine: that Jesus amazed many people among the Jews, that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate, that he had a brother named James, and that a group of his followers survived after his death.
  • The Babylonian Talmud mentions a person who was probably Jesus several times, calling him Yeshua or Yeshu. The work is strikingly antagonistic toward Jesus and his family and followers, but it does offer some valuable historical data points.  Specifically, it describes the death of Yeshua during Passover, that he had followers, and that he was opposed by the Jewish rabbis.
  • Lucian, who was a noted satirist in the 100's A.D., wrote about the early Christians and their basic beliefs.  His satirical account describes Yeshua as a crucified teacher who had many followers.
  • (This one is mostly a point of interest, not a strong historical reference.) Thallus was a Samaritan historian from the 100's A.D. about whom only a little is known. He documents a mid-day darkness and earthquake occurring in Judea around the time of Jesus' death.  He attributes it to a solar eclipse. (Modern understanding of solar eclipses rules this out as an explanation for a three-hour darkness like that described in MarkMatthew, and Luke.)
    Unfortunately, this particular passage is known only as quoted by Julius Africanus, a Christian scholar from the 200's A.D.  It may not be genuine, which is why I only include it for completeness' sake. The passage is interesting in that if it is genuine, Thallus here provides an explanation for the darkness, rather than denying it.
These references are from a variety of different authors from different regions.  In science, experiments may be repeated dozens of times.  However, according to the norms of historical scholarship, the basic facts about Jesus' life are very well-established. The number and diversity of sources that support these facts makes them very solid by historical standards.
For comparison, only about eight ancient sources have written about Hannibal, who fought Rome in the First Punic War in the 200's and 100's B.C.  Some of them are contemporaries, but some were first recorded 200 - 400 years after the events.  The earliest manuscripts we have of them date later than that.
These sources establish Yeshua as a Jewish teacher who attracted followers, was opposed by the Jews, was crucified by the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, and whose followers remained together for at least some time after his death, despite persecution at times.

An important non-canon Christian source is the Didache.  The Didache was widely disseminated by 100 A.D., though it may have been written in whole or in part much earlier.  The Didache outlines important practices of the early church and is a very interesting document overall.  It was lost for centuries, then rediscovered in 1873.
For the purpose of historical inquiry about Jesus, its most important function is probably corroborating major parts of the Lord's prayer, and the Sermon on the Mount, and demonstrating that a group of Jesus' followers were worshiping him by this time.

Now I turn to the Biblical sources. These sources must be taken in light of their authorship.  However, honest scholarship demands that they cannot be simply discarded. Historians would examine the text, the corroboration, and the nature of the events described and decide what is probably legitimate and what is probably not.
For example, for many years, historians believed that The Iliad was fiction.  But archaeological discoveries have largely confirmed the existence of the city of Troy, the Trojan War is now an accepted historical event, and now most historians believe that the basic events described in The Iliad happened.

First, I note that the gospel stories agree with the secular historical story described above.

The next important point about Matthew, Mark, Luke-Acts, and John is that what we have today is almost without a doubt what was originally recorded, with very little significant variation.  
  • Textual comparisons of known versions of the New Testament show that two-thirds of the text is identical between the versions, with the only differences being spelling of names or single words.
    Of the one-third remaining, most are spelling or grammar mistakes.  "Few or none" affect any theological doctrine.
  • The versions of the New Testament we have today come mostly from the early Greek or Latin translations.  However, manuscripts have been found in a dozen or so other languages, with superb agreement between previously unknown texts and those in use for centuries. According to Wikipedia, if the Greek manuscripts were lost, the entire text would be present in these other manuscripts.  If these were lost, the New Testament could also be assembled from quotations by early Church Fathers alone.
  • Extant manuscripts number in the ten-thousands.

The next point is that the gospels (and Acts) were written within 50 - 100 years of the life of Yeshua, according to secular and Christian historians. Pauline Epistles appeared somewhat earlier, some by 25 years after Jesus' death in 33 A.D.  
Particularly, 1 Corinthians was most likely written in 53 - 57 A.D.  1 Corinthians is significant because it contains an important confession of faith, believed by many to be an early creed.  Read it, then please, let no one continue with the idea that belief in the resurrection developed legendarily over time. Other Biblical passages and non-canon sources demonstrate that belief in the divinity of Yeshua was also fully present by this time.
For comparison, other ancient sources are usually 200 or more years removed from the events described.  Many are more than 500 years removed or even 1000 years removed.  Examination of these sources shows that legendary embellishment does occur, but not within the first 300 - 500 years.  I'm particularly thinking of the legends about Alexander the Great.
I also note that legendary material about Jesus did develop, and was refuted by believers at that time as incorrect.  I'm thinking here of the Apocryphal gospels. These gospels do contain the marks of legendary development, particularly in the case of the "Gospel of Peter".
I won't get into the archaeological support for Luke-Acts, but it is significant. If you're interested, email me or do a quick Google search.

To be clear, I am not demanding that anyone agree with me about what this means.  However, I believe that any free-thinking individual must come to terms with what happened concerning Yeshua ha-Notsri in Israel twenty centuries ago.
In summary, the reason I am compelled to this faith? 
According to every historical document known, Jesus was tortured to death by the Romans.  But within only 20 years of his death, his followers were loudly proclaiming that he had risen from the dead and that he was God, despite a strongly monotheistic background in a religiously-based society.  This occurred despite all previous Jewish understanding about the Messiah. They continued to proclaim this fervently, despite Roman and Jewish opposition.  Except for Judas and John, all of the original apostles eventually died for their belief in the resurrection of Yeshua ha-Notsri. People sometimes die for things that aren't true.  But no one dies for a belief he knows isn't true. 
One simply must account for this situation in some intelligent way. 

Now, the really pertinent question at this point is #3: is there more than the material world? 
Basically, if there is nothing besides the material world, then Yeshua actually rising from the dead is out of the question.  Some other explanation must be found.

But if that's the route we are taking, we must admit to ourselves that we are barring anything non-material, axiomatically and from the beginning.

Every religious belief system accepts some things axiomatically, as fact and without proof.  Most of them  accept something like, 
A spiritual world that is not necessarily scientifically measurable exists.
Agnosticism says, 
One ought not believe in what he does not know.
Atheism says, 
Nothing exists beyond the material world.
Like any axiom, we may choose to accept the one that leads to the most meaningful combination of conclusions.  For example, geometry gets very boring if we do not accept axiomatically that points and lines can exist.  We can't mathematically prove that they do.  We just accept it.  
If you don't start with some axioms in describing the world around you, it gets very boring.  For example, in my personal belief system, I once started with, 
The experience I think I'm having is, in fact, happening.  If it is not, I can pretend it is.
Really, I have absolutely no way of knowing that.  But I decided to accept without further questioning that I am actually interacting with the world I think I see.  I also accepted without further questioning that "logic holds in the material world" and "it is not true that logic never holds in the spiritual world, if one exists". (Logic may hold at all times in the spiritual world, but I know even less about the spiritual world than I do about abstract algebra, which isn't much.  Thank God that I don't have a test on the spiritual world coming up in two weeks...)

So we know that we must accept some things without proof.  I'm not judging what you decide to accept. But please, as a favor to me, do not accept that the material world is all there is and then arrogantly announce that you're being purely logical.  That drives me crazy, and I've seen too much of it.

So there is my deeper story, and how I have dealt with the story of Yeshua ha-Notsri.

Be blessed. Thanks be to God.  

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Sex and All His Friends

Since I noticed that no one has ever said or written anything on the topic of sex, I thought I should contribute something.

The Catholic ideas about sex are one of the most contentious issues in all of Catholic theology and morality.  I remember telling myself that even if (in some bizarre possible future) I became Catholic, I would be a "liberal" Catholic who quietly disregarded Church teaching on sex.

Like many Catholic teachings, the teaching on human sexuality is baffling if considered piecewise.  It only makes sense when considered as part of the entire body of Church teaching.  The practices only make sense when viewed in light of the relevant ideas behind them.

Catholic teaching about sex includes:

  • Reserving sexual intercourse only for marriage
  • Defining sex as vital to a marriage
  • Staunchly reserving marriage: 
    • For one man and one woman, who are capable of having sex, who know what they're doing
    • To last until the death of one of the partners
  • Declaring that sex fundamentally is for bonding and making babies; pleasure is a side benefit
  • Declaring that any practice that separates or perverts that purpose is wrong (masturbation, sex while using contraception, in vitro fertilization, et cetera)
Raised as a devout Christian, I believed strongly that sex was only for marriage, pretty strongly that marriage was only for heterosexual people, and sort of that remarriage was wrong.

But I had no problem with birth control, and as a future career woman, rather liked the idea.  The Catholic stance is that sex while using some contraceptive is wrong.  The idea behind the practice is that sex is not for pleasure; sex is for producing children and bonding with one's spouse.

I had a few real objections, but most of my beef with this teaching was a strong sense of, "But I don't wanna..."
(You have my full permission to read that in the whiniest nasal tone you can manage, because my inner self was doing exactly that.)

Now I see that my biggest objection was my rebellion! I didn't like the idea that sexual pleasure was not the goal, because I wanted that pleasure for myself.

But slowly, I began to let go of what I wanted.  I began to let go of the idea that God created sex to make me happy.

One of the first things that happened surprised me the most.  My body insecurities started to go away.  (If you're a 60-year-old man, that probably is not that big of a deal.  But for a twenty-something college girl in modern America, this is a BIG DEAL.)

I still watch my weight carefully, because I know it's a struggle for me.  I still want to be slender and attractive, but now I want it more on the level of "it'd be cool if I could juggle", not as an obsessive need.

If I plan to marry someday, and see sex as a goal in its own sake, then it matters whether I'm the sexiest I can possibly be.  But if I see sex as simply a gateway to bigger blessings (a close relationship with a husband, the gift of children), I realize that I am not an object to make my future husband happy!
I've heard that many times, but it never stuck when the bigger idea behind it (that sex is a goal in itself) did, in fact, objectify me in precisely that way.

Additionally, the sexualized advertising and media out there has lost its gloss for me.  Touting sex for its own sake was okay when I thought of sex as primary existing for pleasure, with the small qualification that you had to be married.  But now I see sexualized clothing, advertisements, and television and feel mostly confusion, similar to what I feel when I read about people building things out of cheese.
Building structures out of cheese misses the point of cheese.
Pursuing sex for its own sake misses the point of sex.

The sad thing is, the point of sex is absolutely glorious and beautiful.  God uses human bodies to house his act of creation, and gives parents the wonderful gift of being direct participants in the process of creating a human being.  
J. Budziszewski points out that the power of creation belongs to God alone.  Humans simply recombine old things in new ways.  Only God truly creates new things.  It isn't creation when you mix sugar with tea to make sweetened tea.  It isn't creation when we build a skyscraper or write music or draw things.  God made the bricks, the tools, the instruments, the paper, and even structure, sound, and color.
And yet God accomplishes his true creation of a new human soul through the sexual interaction of human parents.  
Additionally, God uses a simple biological urge to draw human spouses close to each other, so that they can share a bond neither of them shares with anyone else.

This is the Catholic picture, and it is glorious.  But the unexpected fruits of it in my own life have surprised and delighted me. Thanks be to God.

An Announcement

This post is significantly different from all others I have made.

But I feel the need to shout something to the world, so here goes.

I'm going to medical school!

The match results came in on Tuesday, and I matched to the school I really wanted.

I also ran the numbers and realized that I'll be roughly $130,000 in debt in four years and still have 3 - 5 years of making $50,000 per year while working 80 hours a week in residency.  This is roughly twice the recommended amount of debt I should take on with the salary I can expect to earn even after residency, as a practicing physician.

But that's not what matters here.  God has been good to me; I marvel often at how the blessings of heaven are poured out on my head.
I'm doing what I really want to do, and I'm tremendously excited about the school, the hospital where I'll be training, and the city itself.

Thanks be to God.