As we read Scripture, we should be very attentive when Jesus asks a question. In particular, we should understand that Jesus is posing the question to us as well. It is easy to treat the Gospels like a spectator sport and wait to see what the response is, but that is not the only way we should engage with the text. Not just the Gospels but the entire biblical narrative is our story, too. We are in the story, and the story is in us. (I have written on this topic more thoroughly here: 100 Questions That Jesus Asked and You Must Answer.)
Let’s ponder a question that Jesus asked in last week’s Gospel reading. (Note: I was at a meeting of the Catholic Bar Association in St. Louis, MO, this past weekend, and Fr. James Mason, the rector of Kenrick-Glennon Seminaryhelped me to appreciate a new level to this question.) The question comes in Luke 7, when Jesus is dining at the house of Simon the Pharisee. As Jesus reclined at table, a sinful woman came up behind Him; she washed His feet with her tears, dried them with her hair, and anointed them with expensive perfume. The text tells us that Simon thought to himself, “If this man were a prophet, He would know who this is and what kind of woman is touching Him, for she is a sinner” (Lk 7:39). A few moments later Jesus asks Simon,
“Do you see this woman?” (Lk 7:44)
Now, let the question linger for a moment and ponder its depths. There is more here than an inquiry as to whether Simon is aware of her physical presence.
“Do you see this woman?”
He does not. He sees a sinner, likely a prostitute, but he does not see her.
Whatever this woman’s sins, and they may be many, she is still a child of God. Something terrible must have happened in her life that she has fallen into such self-destructive sin. What a miserable life of forced intimacy! Has her poverty driven her to this? Was she disowned by her family? She has not lost her way entirely, however, for she has crossed paths with Jesus. Propelled by sorrow for her sin, she reaches for Jesus in the hope of receiving His mercy.
“Do you see this woman?”
We can be inclined to treat people the way Simon treated this woman. It is easy to forget that behind the many labels we can put on another person is a human being, a child of God, someone’s son or daughter, perhaps someone’s father or mother, perhaps someone’s brother or sister. It is a form of reductionism in which we focus on a single aspect of a person, forgetting the full, complex human being that exists.
For example, in the sin of lust, one reduces another person to his or her body for the purpose of one’s own sexual pleasure. Love regards the person, but lust cares only for the body. Pornography not only reveals too much, it also reveals too little; the body is displayed, but the person is not. I encourage those who struggle with pornography to ask for the gift of tears; to realize that what they are looking at is a tragedy. (Because the vast majority of those who fight this battle are men, I will word the rest of this paragraph from that standpoint, however, the message is the same for women who face this struggle.) The woman a man lusts after is a person, a child of God, someone’s daughter, perhaps someone’s mother, perhaps someone’s sister. Something has gone terribly wrong in her life. When she was a child she surely did not dream of this life. She probably wanted to find a good husband and have a family. Something tragic must have brought her to this place.
“Do you see this woman?”
There are many other ways we can reduce people and forget their humanity. We see that criminal or that member of the wrong political party. We savage many of our leaders and sometimes even their children. We look at others and see only their race or their sex or how they are dressed. Behind all these labels is a person who has a story. In my role as a priest, I have come to recognize that few of us ever really understand the struggles and sorrows of others. Many people carry burdens of which we are unaware. We need to remember this, especially when dealing with troubled people in our lives. Many of them are troubled for a reason. This does not always excuse their behaviors, but remembering this can help us to be more patient, more understanding, and less quick to condemn.
“Do you see this woman?”
Conversely, there are some people who insist that we reduce them and see them only in the light of a single aspect of who they are. In today’s world of identity politics, some label themselves as LGBTQ, some emphasize their race, some emphasize a particular disability, and others want us to see them only as victims of this or that. Why should I see people simply in terms of what sexually tempts them or merely as victims of “the system”? Are they not also free human beings? Are they not also children and siblings and parents? Are they not also lawyers and teachers and mechanics? Why do they insist that I focus on only one thing? When I am constantly confronted with labels or narrow categories, I often don’t ever get to meet the real people behind them. I don’t get to know if they root for my favorite team, or have a similar love for photography and music, or have had ups and downs in life similar to my own.
Simon the Pharisee looked at a woman and saw only a prostitute. What do I see when I look at others, especially the most troubled?
Labor Day makes me mindful of our interconnectedness; we need one another in order to survive. Consider how we are each called to contribute as well as how we benefit from the labor of others:
Even that simple can of corn you pull from the grocery store shelf has thousands of people standing behind it: from those who stock the shelves to the truckers who transport the product to the store; from the regional warehouse workers to the rail operators who supply the warehouse; from the farmers and harvesters to the granary workers. Then there are others such as those who supply fertilizers that aid in growth and those who developed innumerable agricultural technologies over the years. People also labored to build the roads and rails over which the products travel. Others supply fuel for the trucks, combines, and locomotives. Coal miners work hard to supply the electricity needed all along the way. Still others in banking and business take risks and supply the funds to run agricultural, transportation, and food distribution businesses and networks. The list of people who have worked so that you and I can buy that can of corn at the store is almost endless.
Thanks be to God for human labor; we help each other to survive!
As today is Labor Day in the United States, it seems good to reflect on some teachings about human labor from the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC). In the list below, the text from the catechism is italicized while my comments appear in plain red text.
1. Human labor precedes Original Sin and hence is not an imposition due to sin but rather part of our original dignity.
God places [Man] in the garden. There he lives “to till it and keep it.” Work is not yet a burden, but rather the collaboration of man and woman with God in perfecting the visible creation (CCC #378).
Note that our dignity is that we are to work with God to perfect creation. Adam and Eve were told by God to fill the earth and subdue it (Gen 1:28). Radical environmentalism often presents a far more negative view of humanity’s interaction with the environment. While we have not always done well in treating the environment, it is wrong to think of the created world as better without humanity’s presence. Rather, it is our dignity to work with God in perfecting nature. Note also the description of work as not burdensome prior to the advent of sin. Man and woman did have work to do, but it was not experienced as a burden. Only after Original Sin did work come to be perceived in this way: Eve would bring forth her children in pain and Adam would only get his food by the “sweat of his brow” (Gen 3:16, 19).
2. Human work is a duty and prolongs the work of creation.
Human work proceeds directly from persons created in the image of God and called to prolong the work of creation by subduing the earth, both with and for one another. Hence work is a duty: “If anyone will not work, let him not eat” [2 Thess 3:10]. Work honors the Creator’s gifts and the talents received from him (CCC #2427).
See again the emphasis on our dignity as collaborators with God in the work of creation and in perfecting what God has begun! Not everyone can work in the same way. Age and handicap may limit a person’s ability to perform manual labor. Further, talents and state in life tend to focus one’s work in specific areas. All, however, are called to work in some way. Even the bedridden can pray and offer their suffering for the good of others.
3. Work can be sanctifying and redemptive.
[Work] can also be redemptive. By enduring the hardship of work in union with Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth and the one crucified on Calvary, man collaborates in a certain fashion with the Son of God in his redemptive work. He shows himself to be a disciple of Christ by carrying the cross, daily, in the work he is called to accomplish. Work can be a means of sanctification and a way of animating earthly realities with the Spirit of Christ (CCC #2427).
In his mercy God has not forsaken sinful man. The punishments consequent upon sin, “pain in childbearing” and toil “in the sweat of your brow,” also embody remedies that limit the damaging effects of sin (CCC # 1609).
Sin has brought upon us many weaknesses and selfish tendencies. Work can serve as a remedy through which we are strengthened unto discipline, contribution to the common good, and cooperation with others in attaining good ends.
4. Work is an acceptable sacrifice to God.
[The] laity, dedicated as they are to Christ and anointed by the Holy Spirit, are marvelously called and prepared so that even richer fruits of the Spirit maybe produced in them. For all their works, prayers, and apostolic undertakings, family and married life, daily work, relaxation of mind and body, if they are accomplished in the Spirit—indeed even the hardships of life if patiently borne—all these become spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. In the celebration of the Eucharist these may most fittingly be offered to the Father along with the body of the Lord (CCC # 901).
5. To work is to participate in the common good.
Participation [in the common good] is achieved first of all by taking charge of the areas for which one assumes personal responsibility: by the care taken for the education of his family, by conscientious work, and so forth, man participates in the good of others and of society (CCC # 1914).
We work not only to benefit ourselves but also to contribute to the good of others and society in general. We do this first by caring for our own needs to the extent possible, thus not burdening others unnecessarily. We also contribute to the common good by supplying our talent and work in such a way as to contribute to the overall availability of goods and services in the community. We supply our human talent and the fruits of our labor to others, while at the same time purchasing the goods and services of others.
The key word seems to be “dignity.” Human work proceeds from our dignity as collaborators with God in perfecting and completing the work of creation. Everyone can work and should do so in the ways possible for him or her, not merely out of a sense of duty but also because it is the essence of dignity.
To return to our opening theme, here are some lyrics from the song “I Need You to Survive”:
I need you, you need me.
It is God’s will that every need be supplied.
You are important to me, I need you to survive.
This is the final post in a series of three on some of the paradoxes of true freedom.
Many in the modern world view freedom in terms of being free from things and people, or from truths and norms. The Christian, biblical understanding, however, is that freedom is for something. In the first post of this series we discussed the paradoxical idea that true freedom is the capacity to obey God. In the second, we noted that true freedom cannot exist or be workable unless it is limited.
In today’s post we will discuss two additional paradoxes of true freedom. I will limit my freedom to write extensively and treat them only briefly so that you are free to get to your cookout sooner!
The third paradox of true freedom is that it often exists as a result of prior constraint.
I am free to play the piano today only because as a child I limited my freedom to go out and play, instead disciplining myself to devote considerable time to practice.
I am free to spend money today only because as a younger man I constrained my freedom to do as I pleased, instead working to earn money and then saving it rather than spending it.
I am healthy and in good physical condition today only because I have limited my food intake and exercised regularly over the years.
The final paradox that we will discuss in this series is that we are only free by becoming slaves and servants of God. This is related to the paradox we pondered in the first post (that true freedom is the capacity to obey God), but it develops the fruits of this obedience.
So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed (John 8:36).
Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free (John 8:32).
But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness …. When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life (Romans 6:17-20).
Live as free men, yet without using your freedom as a pretext for evil; but live as servants of God (1 Peter 2:16).
Conclusion: the absolute, detached freedom imagined by the world does not exist. Insisting on freedom without any connection to what is good and true does not free; it enslaves. True freedom exists within boundaries. Some things must be held constant and unyielding if there is to be freedom. Without rules, freedom breaks down and is crushed by anarchy, chaos, and power struggles. In the end, what makes us truly free is obeying the Father. Anything less is the slavery of sin.
This is the second in a series of three posts on the often-paradoxical characteristics of true freedom.
Another one of the seeming paradoxes of true freedom is that it cannot be had unless it is limited. Absolute freedom leads to an anarchy in which no one is really free to act. Consider that we would not be free to drive if there were no traffic laws. The ensuing chaos would make driving extremely difficult—and dangerous! The freedom to drive, to come and go, depends upon us limiting our freedom to drive however we please; we cooperate through obedience to agreed-upon laws of the road.
I am writing this post in English. I appreciate the freedom we have to communicate and debate. However, my freedom to communicate with you as well as your freedom to comprehend me are contingent upon me limiting myself by obeying the rules of English grammar, syntax, and semantics. Consider these “sentences”:
Horse gravy not trap if said approach acre world existential yet sweater fire.
What, can’t you read? You don’t understand? Clearly, when I exercise absolute freedom neither of us is really free.
So, the paradox of freedom is that we can only experience it by accepting constraints upon it. Without limits, we are hindered from acting freely.
Jesus and freedom – Here, too, is an insight into what Jesus means when he says, If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free (John 8:31-32). Note the use of the word “if” at the beginning. Jesus is saying that if we limit ourselves to holding to His teaching, we will be truly free. Limiting oneself, not merely doing what one pleases, is what unlocks the freedom that Jesus offers.
See how different this is from how many today conceive of freedom; they hold that the announcement of biblical truth threatens freedom! To such libertines, any limit is an attack on freedom. Jesus says just the opposite. The truth is a set of propositions that limits us to some extent. If “A” is true, then “not A” is false. I must accept the truth and base my life on it to enjoy its freeing power. The paradoxical result is that the propositions of the truth of God’s teaching do not limit our freedom so much as enhance it.
Image – Absolute freedom is not really freedom at all. It is a state of chaos in which no one can really move. Every ancient city had walls, but they were not so much prison walls as defending walls. One had to limit oneself to staying within the walls to enjoy their protection, but inside there was great freedom, for one was not constantly fighting off enemies or living in fearful vigilance. People were freed for other pursuits but only within the walls.
Those who claim that the truth of the gospel limits their freedom might consider the result of rejecting those limits. As we discussed in yesterday’s post, the libertine world, which demands to live apart from God’s truth, does not seem very free. Addictions, compulsions, neuroses, and high levels of stress are widespread in the modern West. We have seen the crumbling of the nuclear family due to the seeming inability of so many people to establish and keep a lasting commitment. An adolescent obsession with sex has led to promiscuity, sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancy, single mothers/absent fathers, and abortion. Greed and addiction to wealth enslave many in a kind of financial bondage; they cannot afford the lifestyle their passions demand, so they are deep in debt and still unsatisfied. The so-called freedom of the modern world apart from the truth of the gospel is far from evident. It looks a lot more like slavery. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says rather plainly,
The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to “the slavery of sin” (CCC # 1733).
In the end, the paradox proves itself. Only limited freedom is true freedom. Demands for absolute freedom lead to bondage.
This creative video features an interview that illustrates how we are free to communicate only within the constraints of grammar and the rules of language.
As Independence Day approaches, we do well to ponder some of the characteristics of true freedom, which is to be distinguished from the false notion of freedom espoused by many today. Today’s post is the first in a series of three on this topic.
Let’s begin by noting that most people in modern times speak of freedom in a detached sense. To them, freedom means the ability to do whatever they please with few if any limits. This libertine, often-licentious notion of freedom more often than not leads to addiction and oppression.
For many in the world, then, freedom is always from something, but for a Christian, freedom is always for something.
The Christian, biblical understanding of freedom is the capacity, the ability, to obey God. Pairing freedom and obedience seems paradoxical to many in the world!
Abusing our freedom by focusing it on sin leads to slavery and addiction to sin. Jesus said, Whoever sins is the slave of sin (Jn 8:34). Indeed, among the great struggles of this modern age is addiction. Freely indulging our desires to excess often leads to them becoming necessities that soon come to possess us.
Indulging sinful desires also facilitates a growing attitude that sin is inevitable and that the call to biblical morality is overly idealistic, even impossible. Yes, expecting people to moderate their passions and desires, to live soberly and chastely, and to uphold marriage vows or to live in perpetual continence if not married—all of which were a short time ago considered normal moral imperatives—is now seen as oppressive, triggering, bigoted, hateful, and sometimes even criminal.
This certainly doesn’t sound like freedom to me. Rather, these false notions put forth seem like they are coming from people who are trapped by their sinful drives. The language used bespeaks incapacity, sloth, and a kind of despair that demands that we define sin and deviancy down. In this way Jesus words are proved true: Whoever sins is a slave of sin (Jn 8:34).
St. Paul adds this:
So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardness of their hearts. Despairing and having lost all sense of shame, they have given themselves over to sensuality for the practice of every kind of impurity, with a craving for more. But this is not the way you came to know Christ … Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor (Eph 4:17-19, 25).
This is why the Christian notion of liberty and freedom is so important for us to get right: True freedom is the capacity, the ability, to obey God. In obeying God, we are truly free because each of us becomes the man or woman He created us to be. The very nature He gave us is perfected by the freeing obedience of faith.
What the world calls freedom is actually a licentiousness that approves many sins. It becomes a slavery that says, “I can’t, and I won’t.” It is a false liberty because it implicitly protests its inability to live out even the most ordinary moral norms and truths. It is a wolf in the sheep’s clothing of tolerance, diversity, acceptance, and false compassion. Liberty was not found in the fields of Woodstock or on the streets of Haight-Ashbury. The “Summer of Love” ushered in innumerable crosses: sexually transmitted diseases, single mothers/absent fathers, abortion, the hyper-sexualization of children, and recently the many cries of sexual abuse and harassment from the #MeToo movement. There’s no freedom here, just a lot of out-of-control behavior leading to sorrow, alienation, and even death through the horror of abortion.
Does this sound like freedom? Not to me!
Jesus counsels the remedy:
“If you continue in My word, you are truly My disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”… So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed (Jn 8:31-32, 35).
True freedom is found in the paradox of obedience to the Lord, who is Truth. Beware the false freedom that enslaves. Come to Him; obey Him through grace and find the true and glorious freedom of the children of God.
There is a stereotype regarding men and women that says that men like to solve problems while women like to seek sympathy and see a problem as a way to relate. OK, there is some truth here, but it is more of a vague tendency than a strong trait, and there are exceptions on both sides. The video below depicts the stereotype quite humorously.
But there is a human problem, shared by most of both sexes, wherein people seek relief more so than healing. Healing takes guts; it requires courageous change and often involves difficult choices. Many would rather seek quick answers than face the deeper issues that often drive their struggles. Thus a person may want relief from anxiety but not want to look at his lack of faith, or the unrealistic expectations and perfectionism that may drive his anxiety and low self-confidence. Many would prefer to take a pill to solve their problems (ignoring the potential side effects) instead of looking at the lifestyle choices that often underlie their issues.
We all need some sympathy, but we also need to be summoned to examine how we contribute to our own malaise. Consider that as you enjoy this humorous video.
Note: This is the second of a two-part series. Part one is available here.
At its root, anthropology considers what human beings are and how they have interacted with one another and the world around them over time. While many think of anthropology as a secular study of cultures from ancient to modern day, I propose that there is also a Christian anthropology, one that considers who and what the human person is based on God’s revelation in His word and through our bodies. Indeed, our body is a revelation from God, and by and through it He teaches us.
This essay (consisting of both today’s and yesterday’s posts) is not a complete discourse on the topic. Rather, I selected certain teachings rooted in Scripture and the nature of our bodies that apply particularly well to moral issues of our day. In yesterday’s post we considered a few basic points; today we conclude with a few more.
Each human being exists because of a sovereign, loving act of God.
It is a biological fact that a unique human being comes into existence at the moment of conception. The DNA in that single-cell embryo contains all the instructions needed for it to develop, over the next twenty years or so, into an adult.
However, Scripture indicates that although we come to exist at a specific moment in time, God has always known and loved us: The word of the Lord came to me saying, ‘Before I formed you in the womb I knew you’ (Jer 1:4-5). Scripture also praises God saying, For You formed my inmost being; You knit me together in my mother’s womb. I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:13-14). Hence, each of us is specifically intended by God.
This makes every human life sacred. No form of unjust killing can be justified under any circumstances. Each of us is the result not merely of biological processes or human decisions but a sovereign, loving act of God. Our lives come from God and belong to Him. Therefore, abortion, murder, and suicide (including physician-assisted) are grave evils that we must combat. Even capital punishment must be opposed except in rare cases.
Our body is not our own.
A common assertion today is we can do whatever we like with “our own body.” However, Scripture reminds us, You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore, glorify God with your body (1 Cor 6:19-20). Yes, Jesus redeemed us; He purchased our salvation at the price of His own blood and His own life!
Hence, our bodies are not tools to simply use as we please. Neither are they canvases on which to display tattoos, cuttings, piercings, and the like. We are not to degrade them by using them for excessive or illicit pleasures or to lure others into sin. I do not wish to divert this post into a debate about tattooing and piercing. While such things are not wholly excluded by Church law or Scripture, anything that deliberately, dramatically alters the appearance of the body we received from God is surely problematic. (The nearly permanent quality of such alterations is also concerning.) Such excesses are far too common today, at least in the U.S.
Because our bodies belong to God, we should ask ourselves, “Is God pleased with the way I regard, treat, and make use of the body He has given me?”
There is a nuptial meaning to the body.
We do not exist by ourselves nor only for ourselves. We are contingent beings and, as such, depend on our parents for our existence. Although we exist for our own sake and thus have intrinsic worth, we also exist for others. Our very body speaks to the most fundamental relationships of marriage and family. Simply put, there is a part of our body that is for another. The male and female reproductive organs are designed for each other. This is biologically evident, though sadly some have lost their way and refuse to acknowledge it.
The denial of the purpose of our body’s reproductive organs is manifest in the approval of homosexual practices that “close the sexual act to the gift of life [and] do not proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity” (CCC # 2357). It is also manifest in certain heterosexual practices that close the sexual act to the fruit of life and/or use the sexual organs in disordered ways, ways in which they were not intended to be used.
To restate, there is a nuptial meaning to the body. Our body says to us, “I am for another.” Most of humanity realizes this truth through monogamous marriage. A man leaves his father and mother, seeks a wife, clings to her, and the two become one flesh (cf Gen 2:24). Thus, through the husband and wife, completing and complementing each other, a new member of the human family is created. This is the most common realization of the nuptial meaning of the body.
For priests and for religious brothers and sisters who live celibate lives, the nuptial meaning of the body is realized in a spiritual but real way. Religious sisters are espoused to the Lord, the bridegroom of their souls. Priests and religious brothers take up a spousal relationship with the Church, the bride of their souls. Priests and brothers are not bachelors nor are sisters “single women.” No, each lives in a spousal relationship.
What about members of the laity who never marry? Here, I would argue, a distinction must be made. Because there is a nuptial meaning to the body, there is no vocation to the single life per se. However, those who are currently single (including those who may remain that way permanently), may by that state be available to serve the Lord and the Church or community in a more substantial way. For such individuals, the nuptial meaning of the body is expressed through that vocational service.
Marriage has its structure because children both need and deserve the stable presence of their father and mother in their lives.
God did not design marriage arbitrarily. He set it forth as one man for one woman till death do them part, bearing fruit in their children (see Genesis 2:24-25). He did this because that is what is necessary and best for children. Marriage by its nature is oriented to having children. The Lord’s first command to Adam and Eve was, Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it (Gen 1:28).
Obviously, there must be a father and a mother for a child to exist at all, but beyond the conception of children there is the necessary work of raising them. Children need to have their parents reliably present in their everyday lives so that they can depend on them and trust them. Further, a child needs a father to learn the masculine genius of being human and a mother to learn the feminine genius of being human. This is necessary for the proper and best human formation—psychologically, spiritually, and emotionally. Even an unbeliever should be able to see this. The structure of marriage is not an arbitrary arrangement by God for us to toy with at will.
Sadly, we have done just that. We casually separate what God has joined. God intends for children to be conceived in the sexual union of a husband and wife pledged to each other for life. Having sex and having children are inextricably linked to Holy Matrimony, yet today we have largely separated them. As a result of minimizing the relationship between sex and marriage, there are many marriages without children (by choice) and many children without parents married to each other. We do this through sins and misbehavior such as fornication, adultery, divorce and “remarriage.” The current practice of refusing to favor a married heterosexual couple over a single mother, a single father, or a same-sex couple when placing a child for adoption also severs what God has joined. As a result of all these things, fewer than half of children today grow up in a traditional family.
While children might lose their mother or father through death, to intentionally subject them to anything other than being raised by their own parents is a grave injustice.
The common objection to this teaching is this: “Are you saying that a single mother, a single father, or a homosexual couple cannot raise a child just as well as a married (heterosexual) couple?” The answer is, “Yes, that is exactly what we are saying,” for all the reasons stated above. Some will respond with horror stories that occurred with this or that traditional couple, but atypical occurrences do not alter general norms, and “hard cases make bad law.”
God intends sex, marriage, and children to go together. Having sex naturally leads to having children; this is biologically demonstrable.
Sex, intimacy, and procreation belong together and should not be separated.
Contraception, the artificial prevention of conception that naturally results from human sexual intercourse, is an attempt to sever the connection between sexual relations and having children. Even if not every act of sexual intercourse can result in a child, the bodily truth is that sexual intercourse is directed toward having children. That sex is also pleasurable and may be a sign of love and intimacy does not set aside this point. God joins pleasures to the things that are most necessary for us so that we do not neglect them. For example, the purpose of eating food is to nourish the body. It is also true that eating is pleasurable and sharing meals promotes camaraderie. This does not, however, mean that the primary purpose of food is something other than bodily nourishment. God joins pleasure to food because eating is necessary for our survival, thus they are to be together, not separated.
As an analogy, consider a person who was not particularly interested in the nutritional aspect of food, but rather just liked the pleasure of eating and/or keeping company at feasts. As a result, he would eat and drink to excess, vomit it all up, and then return for more. We all wince at such a horror. This is because eating has a purpose that is being trampled upon in favor of lesser aspects. The proper end, bodily nourishment, is subverted when a person eats to excess and merely for pleasure.
This is precisely what contraception does when it severs the relationship between sex, intimacy, and procreation. We would be similarly aghast at a couple who had sex without any love between them, merely for the purpose of making babies for profit (e.g. selling them for adoption or for use as laborers). This makes the same point: sex, intimacy, and procreation belong together and should not be divided as separate pursuits. Every child deserves to be the fruit of the intimacy and shared love of a stably married father and mother.
Contraception facilitates the violation of the norm Let no one separate what God his joined (see Matt 19:6). The legalization of contraception in the U.S. has led to the explosion of promiscuity and all of the accompanying woes, including sexually transmitted diseases, teenage parents, children raised in single-parent households, and the horror of abortion, which has become the “contraception of last resort.” All of this has gravely harmed or even killed millions of children. Some argue that it is perfectly fine to separate the procreative dimension of sex from its pleasure or its promotion of intimacy, but in separating what God has joined we have reaped a harvest of misery and death. Contraception promotes the exaltation of the pleasure and intimacy of sexual intercourse unmoored from its purpose: the serious business of having and then raising children within a stable marriage. The worship of pleasure and intimacy unmoored from their purpose has led to the unbridled lust we see today.
There will always be more to say about Christian anthropology, but allow the points made in today’s and yesterday’s posts to paint the bigger picture: God has set forth an understanding of the human person both in Scripture and through our very body and soul. We do well to take heed of what He teaches.
Anthropology is, most simply, the science or study of human beings through time and space. Different specialties focus on the analysis of biological/physiological characteristics and the examination of societies/cultures. In the religious sense, anthropology deals with the origin, nature, and destiny of human beings.
In our times there are many moral issues emerging from viewpoints that diverge widely from our given nature, both physical and spiritual. Numerous false notions (e.g., “transgenderism”) have arisen that either disregard or even deny physical data. Other errors involve ignoring the clear evidence of humans’ spiritual nature, which so distinguishes us from animals.
A Christian/biblical anthropology, however, sees the created order—and the human body in particular—as revelatory. The body is not just accidentally or incidentally present. No, the body is a revelation because through it, God speaks to us of who and what we are and what we ought to do. To this revelatory quality of the body God adds His own words in Scripture, leading to the emergence of a Christian anthropology.
In this essay I would like to review certain aspects of this Christian anthropology. This is by no means a complete or systematic treatise. Rather, it touches on certain key points that address modern errors. The order of these observations is not a perfect progression, but I have tried to progress from basic to more complex points.
We are the union of a body and a spiritual soul.
We are not merely our body nor are we merely our soul. We are the union of the two. Gnostic and dualistic anthropologies seek to divide body and soul or to indicate that a person is only his body or only his soul. Although we can distinguish body and soul intellectually, in reality they are so together as to be one. It is much like the flame from a candle. Although one can distinguish the light of the flame from its heat, one cannot put the heat over here and the light over there. They are so together as to be one. It is like this with our body and soul.
What is the soul?
On one level the soul is the animating principle of any living thing. Hence, even plants and animals have souls. The soul is related to the mysterious principle we call life. Although we casually use words like “life,” “death,” “living,” and “dead,” life is a mysterious reality. Imagine that in one hand I hold and acorn and in the other a stone. From a great distance they may even look alike. However, the acorn has the mysterious spark we call life while the stone does not. If I plant each in the ground and water the area, the acorn responds: first a shoot emerges and eventually a mighty oak tree. In contrast, the rock will do nothing no matter how long I wait; it does not have the mysterious spark called life. Neither does it have the animating principle we call the soul.
If the mysterious quality called life is taken away, the plant, animal, or human “dies.” Because the life that organized him/her/it is gone, the body or what is left falls into disorganization and decay. The force we call “life” and what we call the “soul,” are deeply mysterious.
What makes the human soul unique?
The human soul is different from that of animals and/or plants in that it is a spiritual soul. Scripture says of man, In the image of God He created them (Gen 1:27). It also says, Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed the breath of life into [Adam’s] nostrils, and the man became a living being (Gen 2:7). To no other creatures are such attributions made. To say that we have a spiritual soul, that we have the breath of God within us and are made in His image, is to say that we have intellect and free will. It is our dignity to unite two orders of creation, the material and the spiritual, in our one person. Angels are pure spirit. Animals, though possessed of a soul (an animating principle), have no spirit and are thus material. Humans, however, unite the spiritual and the material. This is our glory and it is the central reason why our body will rise one day, gloriously transformed, and be restored to our spirit.
Sadly, there is a tendency today to equate humans with animals. Some say that humans are merely smart apes and that there are other creatures (e.g., dolphins) just as intelligent as we are. This is demonstrably false. You will know something by its fruits; you can see a cause by its effects. Humans are vastly different from all the other animals, even the highest primates, and this is evident in the effects we produce. While our bodies resemble other animals (especially mammals) in many ways, the similarity ends there. If the animals are just like us, where are their cities and farms? Where are their universities, libraries, and museums? Where is their art, their literature? Where are their legislatures where they pass laws or their courts where they hold one another accountable? Have they traveled to the moon and back? Have they learned and then handed on their knowledge to later generations? Where is their technological progress—or any progress at all, for that matter? Why are animals really no different than they were thousands of years ago?
Clearly there is a vast difference between human beings and other animals. This can be seen in the way we live and what we do, and in what they do not do.
Morally speaking, reducing humans to the state of animals not only robs us of our dignity but also our freedom, because it says that we are merely at the whim of instinct.
A common error today regarding the unity of body and spiritual soul is claiming that one is not one’s body but rather only one’s thoughts and feelings.
This is common among proponents of transgender and/or homosexual ideology. A certain man might say, “I am actually a woman.” A normally observant person would likely retort, “No, your body indicates that you are a man.” Yet, in transgender ideology, that observation is dismissed by saying, in effect, “I am not my body. My body has nothing to do with what or who I really am. I am my thoughts and feelings.” This amounts to a denial that our bodies are revelatory.
In homosexual ideology a similar error is encountered. A biological assessment makes it clear that the male and female reproductive organs are designed for each other. Further, an exit is not an entrance. Here, too, they dismiss the body as being of no relevance. This is pure Gnostic dualism: the body is of no account; one is only spirit, only thoughts and feelings. In such a world, what matters are intentions and thoughts; what the body teaches or indicates is of little account. This is an error because it dismisses the reality that the body presents to us.
The opposing but equally untrue claim is that one is only one’s body.
This is materialism and it denies the existence of soul. In this view, a person is merely a collection of chemicals and interactions between them. We only do what the chemicals and nerves “tell us” to do. We have no spirit and thus no free will. Because human behavior is said to be merely the result of physical interactions over which we have no control, there is no such thing as right or wrong. The absurdity of such a claim can be illustrated in this way:
Materialist: “You are just matter, a mere bag of chemicals.”
Believer: “I think that is dead wrong and an unfounded claim.”
(The materialist then becomes angry at the believer’s refusal to accept his claim.)
Believer: “Why are you angry? I am just a bag of chemicals and my behavior is just the result of the random firing of synapses. I am only saying and doing what those forces are making me say and do. Hence, I am not a responsible agent and your anger is unfounded.”
Obviously, the notion of right and wrong and of being accountable for our actions only makes sense if we have a spiritual soul that is able to rise above the effects of chemical reactions or nerve impulses.
We come in (only) two kinds.
In the creation of the human person, God says, So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them (Gen 1:27). There are not dozens of different sexes/genders, as some assert. In fact, until recently, the word “gender” was used almost exclusively as a grammatical term (in some languages, nouns, adjectives, verbs, and/or pronouns have a gender) while the word “sex” referred to the classification of organisms as either male or female. (If you doubt me, look in a dictionary that was published any time prior to the last ten years or so.)
Yes, we are either male or female, and it is God who designates this and creates it. Our bodies reveal to us our sex, as designated by God. There is no need for a lengthy study of this matter; it is quite evident from a simple look at the body.
Some object that there are people born with both genitalia or who are ambiguously equipped, but the existence of such abnormalities does not indicate that there is a third (or fourth or more) sex. It does not follow that every anomaly indicates a different kind of human being. For example, some babies are born missing an arm; from this we do not conclude that there are two different sorts of human beings, those with two arms and those with one.
Therefore, given God’s teaching that we are either male or female, any acceptance of “transgender” ideology is inimical to Christian anthropology. It rejects what God has revealed to us in our bodies and what He teaches us in His written word. We must refute claims that there are more than two sexes/genders and insist that people accept the reality of what God has done. There is no such thing as a female “trapped in a male body” or vice versa. Neither can one “transition” so as to “be” the opposite sex. No matter how many surgeries one endures or how many hormones one takes, no matter what sort of clothing one wears, one’s sex cannot be changed. It is written in every cell of the body. One does not simply declare one’s sex nor can one change it. No, each person must humbly accept his or her sex from God, who is Creator and Lord.
In tomorrow’s post we will look at some other principles of Christian anthropology and relate them to errors of our day.