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Sunday Sermonette: Past Due

This week, a dear friend reposted a discussion we had on Facebook five years ago. It had begun with an essay by a former priest, author, and Boston Globe columnist named James Carroll. In it, he made a sophisticated and subtle argument that whether or not Jesus bodily rose from the dead is irrelevant. The event must be understood as a transcendent resurrection beyond space and time and human understanding. It changed not the laws of nature but the minds of the disciples, who now perceived that death was the entry into the ultimate reality.

My friend wanted to know if I were still a convinced atheist. We batted the old ball around for a while.

My friend and I used to attend the same church and are from the same religious tradition. If, as it says in John’s Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” then maybe God can be found in the words. Our tradition has given birth to some of the most brilliant and insightful theologians who have ever lived. I am not worthy to loose the sandals from off their feet.

Nevertheless, there are some things I do know. I do know that Carroll’s assertion of an alternate transcendent reality where the resurrection really took place is sophistry. Claiming that the Resurrection wasn’t mere resuscitation and cannot be understood by such base and imperfect things as human senses or the human mind - it can only be seen with the enlightened eye - is just nonsense. It neatly dismisses the contradictions in the resurrection accounts in Scripture by inventing an alternate and utterly inaccessible and undetectable plane of reality.

Is this really the best defense of the central and single most important doctrine of Christianity? This idea was dismissed as gnostic heresy by the Church Fathers over 1700 years ago. As the Apostle Paul wrote, And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. (1 Corinthians 15:14)

At some point, aren’t we compelled to consider Paul’s words? Christ isn’t risen, all our preaching has been in vain, and our faith likewise. There is no evidence or compelling rational argument that the Resurrection ever took place. We’re just making it up out of wishful thinking, self-delusion, and social conditioning.

But that would be apostasy. The older we get, the harder it is to admit that we’ve been fooling ourselves. James Carroll was a priest and is still a Catholic. He wants to believe, even if it means building elaborate fantasies out of thin air.

He’s not alone. Christians have been making it up as they go along for two millennia now. You can see this in New Testament itself. First century Judaism had a couple dozen active factions, so it should come as no surprise that the new Jewish cult of Christianity began with factions and schisms of its own. Despite anathemas, annihilations and inquisitions over the centuries, there are now 38,000 denominations of Christianity, each claiming to be the One True Church. To be fair, most acknowledge that it is possible for members of some of the other denominations to be saved, but as the bishop said of the Church of England, “No gentleman would want to do it any other way.”

You can hear the ultimate result of twenty centuries of improvisation talking with Christians online today. It’s not about a historical event, it isn’t a creedal statement, it’s not a particular denomination or church. It is all about the personal, private relationship which the believer claims to have with God. Scripture may have contradictions, the historical record may be non-existent or flawed, the belief and practice of the church may have changed many times over the years, but it’s all OK. God is in my head, and that’s all the evidence I need.

We ended our discussion with the words of e.e. cummings from his poem, “i thank You Lord for most this amazing”

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any—lifted from the no
of all nothing—human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

We both love poetry and the search for meaning, but to me, that which is unimaginable must be doubted. Castles in the air are lovely, but there’s always someone who comes to collect the rent.

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Sunday Sermonette: In Praise of Unicorns

The cover of Time magazine this week reads, “What If Unicorns Are Mythical?”

I think we can all agree, all of us ordinary decent thoughtful people, that this is modern liberal intellectual claptrap. No such thing as unicorns? That’s just silly. Unicorns aren’t just something in fairyland, after all. They’re perfectly accessible to us in the here and now. You just have to have enough humility to believe.

Don’t just sit there smiling dismissively. This may be an unusual topic, but unusual topics are often the most important. Mature, well-dressed people on television agree. Proof of unicorns can be found in ancient holy texts.

Of course, there are people who live in a place with no unicorns, but they sentence themselves to that drab, joyless existence. They’re just too puffed up with their own pride, vanity, and selfishness to admit the existence of unicorns. It’s little wonder that no unicorn ever appears to such as them.

Unicorns play an vital role in the proper education of our young people, particularly our daughters. The promise that only a virgin may tame a unicorn promotes abstinence and morality among the young. What kind of sick liberal child-molester would want to discourage that?

And remember, it’s not just this life we’re talking about. If you faithfully believe in unicorns in this life, you will have one of your very own in the next. A beautiful white one with silver hooves and a rainbow mane. Unless you’re one of those pitiable materialists who can’t believe beautiful things without reason or evidence. Those people can never get a unicorn after they die.



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Re-No-Vated!

It’s Done! The renovation that started ten weeks ago is complete.

Did I say ten weeks? This project really began at the end of December, 2014, when we first met with the contractor and began planning. Never has a project been so carefully planned down to the last tiny detail, thanks in no small part to the Unindicted Co-Conspirator. The main design of the kitchen ended up being done by the Unimpeachable One’s brother, who’s an architect. But every single element was discussed, debated, researched, x-rayed, microscoped, fluoroscoped, and double checked.

The job was managed by iKitchens, Etc. out of Falmouth. They were absolutely superlative - everything was carefully scheduled and professionally done. We could not be happier with the job they and their subcontractors (painters, plasterers, electricians, plumbers) did.

So, without further ado, the pictures.

Here's what the fabulous Eighties kitchen looked like from the table in the front window:



And here are a few shots of it now:







The living room before:



And a couple shots of now:





And the dining area.



Next job: painting the second floor, to be done by the firm of Yours Truly.
A friend of a Facebook friend posted this Heritage Foundation meme criticizing Bruce Springsteen for refusing to bring his act to North Carolina while their discriminatory anti-transgender, anti-gay law is in force. My friend made some good points, but had to withdraw from the discussion out of consideration for his work deadlines and blood pressure. Since the original poster is not a friend of mine, I couldn’t join the debate. Ah, well, that’s what a blog is for, correcting what’s wrong on the Internet.



The trouble with memes is that they’re short and memorable. It takes time and a lot more words to explain why this one is wrong. The best I can do is counter with another meme.



Now, for those who like their ideas with a little more meat on them, here’s what the friend-of-a-friend wrote (in italics), and why I think he’s wrong.

The larger issue is that Springsteen exercised his fundamental right to refuse to do business, or "associate", with people with whom he believed he had a fundamental difference of opinion.

The fact that this particular difference of opinion was that the people he was refusing to do business with also wanted to be able to refuse to associate with people that they fundamentally differed from is almost a textbook example of "irony".

If not "hypocrisy".

Unless you're in the health care, hospitality or a few other businesses that require special consideration, if you own a business, it is your right to refuse to do business with anyone for any reason. It's YOUR business, not society's business, or the community's business or (worst of all) the government's business.


This statement is deliberately misleading, but we’re hearing it a lot now in defenses of “Religious Liberties.” Why should a good Christian have to make a wedding cake for a gay couple’s wedding? Why should I have to do business with people of whom I don’t approve? There was a recent incident in Mississippi where the owner of a mobile home park who’d agreed to rent to a young lady and even invited her to his church evicted her when he discovered her husband was African-American. They could still come to his church, but they couldn’t be members. It’s his R.V. park, doesn’t he have the right to rent to whom he chooses?

The answer, of course, is no. The Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination by privately owned places of public accommodation. “Public accommodation” is a legal term which includes hotels, restaurants, theaters, health clubs and stores. The 1964 Civil Rights Act bans discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion or national origin. It has been expanded by the Americans with Disabilities Act to prohibit discrimination on the basis of handicap or disability, and over twenty states and many more cities have passed their own anti-discrimination laws that include sexual orientation. It is emphatically not your right to refuse to do business with anyone for any reason. There’s also not a breath of Biblical warrant for it. Nowhere does Jesus say that you shouldn’t rent your camel to publicans and sinners.

Musicians and other artists are not providing “public accommodation.” They have the right to refuse to do business for any reason. The other business that’s allowed to discriminate is churches. Discrimination is their stock in trade, after all.

And, in this particular case, if you're someone like Caitlyn Jenner, who I understand still has a complete set of "original equipment", then I don't want you in the ladies' room with my wife or daughter.

Here’s the root of the issue. Because they hate and fear transgender people, they give free reign to his darkest imaginings. I don’t know about you, but when I go to a public restroom I don’t see anybody else’s genitals. Indeed, I go out of my way to avert my eyes, and I go restrooms with open urinals. If there’s only one toilet in a restroom, there must be a lockable door. More than one toilet must be in stalls. The only place a woman will see another patron is when both are fully clothed, washing their hands. Anyone loitering in a restroom with other intentions is breaking laws already in place. Just ask Senator Larry Craig or Congressman Jon Hinson. More Republican legislators have been arrested for sex acts in public restrooms than trans people.

No, this argument is based on the baseless and unwarranted fear that anyone who wants to change their gender expression is so depraved they must also be sexual predators. It’s the same argument some Christian conservatives are still making about lesbians, bisexuals, and gays. It’s hateful.

And it ends with a weak, chauvinistic excuse for homophobia and transphobia: it isn’t that I have a peculiar fascination with what’s under other people’s slacks and dresses, I just want to protect my wimminfolk from Caitlyn Jenner. This is the explanation given by politicians as they play to their Bible Belt base.

You want to know the worst thing that can happen when associating with transgender people? You might commit a social gaff by carelessly using the wrong pronoun. But they’ll usually forgive you if you correct yourself.

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Most Christians, when confronted by something truly nasty in the Bible, find some way to gloss over it. Take the passage in Deuteronomy chapter 20 where God commands genocide. It was the Old Testament, after all, that’s why we have a New Testament. Things were different then.

But the Biblical literalist will find a way to twist even a command that every man, woman and child among several tribes be put to the sword without mercy into something good. Here’s how noted Christian apologist William Lane Craig justifies it.

First, while he agrees these stories offend our moral sensibilities, Craig is quick to point out that we owe those moral scruples to a few thousand years of Judaeo-Christian heritage. I guess they just didn’t know better.

Besides, God is perfectly good, so anything God does has to be perfectly good by definition. It’s like that sign on the office bulletin board: “Rule 1: The boss is always right. Rule 2: If the boss is wrong, see Rule 1.” If God ordered the extermination of every Hittite, Amorite, Canaanite, Perizzite, Hivite, and Jebusite, with their wives, children, and livestock, it must have been good. To say otherwise is to entertain apostasy.

The problem, wrote Craig, isn’t that God ended the Canaanite’s lives. They were God’s lives to end. How long anyone lives or dies is up to God. The problem was that he commanded the Israelites to do his dirty work for him. Wasn’t this immoral?

No, because God decides what is moral by his divine command.

But what about those innocent children? Can anything justify their slaughter?

I hope you’re sitting down for this. I’ll quote directly:

Moreover, if we believe, as I do, that God’s grace is extended to those who die in infancy or as small children, the death of these children was actually their salvation. We are so wedded to an earthly, naturalistic perspective that we forget that those who die are happy to quit this earth for heaven’s incomparable joy. Therefore, God does these children no wrong in taking their lives.

So whom does God wrong in commanding the destruction of the Canaanites? Not the Canaanite adults, for they were corrupt and deserving of judgement. Not the children, for they inherit eternal life. So who is wronged? Ironically, I think the most difficult part of this whole debate is the apparent wrong done to the Israeli soldiers themselves. Can you imagine what it would be like to have to break into some house and kill a terrified woman and her children? The brutalizing effect on these Israeli soldiers is disturbing.


Those poor blood-soaked Israeli soldiers...



Craig ends his essay with a panegyric to God’s holy and loving nature.

I’m an atheist. I don’t believe this God exists. That’s a good thing, because if he did, it would be every human’s moral duty to oppose him.

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. - Richard Dawkins

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Sunday Sermonette: Special Treatment

Lately I've been feeling like I've gone back in time fifty years.  It seems that women are once again expected to be pregnant and in the kitchen, preferably barefoot.  I've heard Congresscritters and state solons getting up on their hind legs to say that women are not competent to make medical decisions without the government's compulsory help.  I've heard pundits claiming that the only reason women need contraception is to be sluts, and would they please video their sex lives so male voyeurs can enjoy it later.  And here's the best part:  All of these men are saying that it's not about abortion or contraception or insurance, it's about Religious Liberty!  Contraception is waging war on Christianity!

So I thought I'd open my Bible and see what God thinks about the battle of the sexes.

Let’s not bother with who Cain and Abel slept with - every schoolboy has tittered over that one.  

Let’s skip God’s sons and their fatal attraction to human girls.  Didn’t know God had more than one son?  Sure he did - it’s right there in Genesis.

And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them,  That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose.
(Genesis 6:1-2)

Human women are so desirable even God’s sons want them.  Heck, I could have told you that. 

Let’s start instead with Abram or Abraham, the mythical ur-patriarch, who was married to Sarai or Sarah.  Abraham was the ancestor of all pimps and lying weasels: 

And there was a famine in the land: and Abram went down into Egypt to sojourn there; for the famine was grievous in the land.  And it came to pass, when he was come near to enter into Egypt, that he said unto Sarai his wife, Behold now, I know that thou art a fair woman to look upon:  Therefore it shall come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see thee, that they shall say, This is his wife: and they will kill me, but they will save thee alive.  Say, I pray thee, thou art my sister: that it may be well with me for thy sake; and my soul shall live because of thee.
...
The princes also of Pharaoh saw her, and commended her before Pharaoh: and the woman was taken into Pharaoh's house.  And he entreated Abram well for her sake: and he had sheep, and oxen, and he asses, and menservants, and maidservants, and she asses, and camels.  And the LORD plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai Abram's wife.
(Genesis 12:10-13, 15-17) 

Abraham had a nephew named Lot who was an even bigger weasel.  When the men of Sodom threatened his guests, the visiting angels, what was Lot’s response?   

And Lot went out at the door unto them, and shut the door after him, And said, I pray you, brethren, do not so wickedly.  Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof.
(Genesis 19:6-8)

Rape my virgin daughters, but leave me and my guests alone!

After the destruction of Sodom, his trailer trash daughters, on at least two separate occasions, plied him with wine, had sex with him, and became pregnant by him. Please note that that the person reporting this was a man. “Dear Penthouse Letters:  God, was I drunk last night…”

Abraham’s son Isaac was also a weasel, using the same trick of calling his wife his sister to protect his own cowardly hide, regardless of what happened to her.  

And the men of the place asked him of his wife; and he said, She is my sister: for he feared to say, She is my wife; lest, said he, the men of the place should kill me for Rebekah; because she was fair to look upon.
(Genesis 26:7)

I'm only halfway through the first book of the Bible and the message is clear.  Bros before hos, man!

I guess it's understandable.  Who created these religions in the first place?  It wasn't women. But women are the ones who keep the churches going.  According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, women are more religious than men.

86% of women are affiliated with a religion.  79% of men have a religious affiliation.
66% of women pray daily.  49% of men do.
58% of women have an absolute belief in a personal God.  45% of men believe.
44% of women attend worship services weekly compared to 34% of men.

In almost every religion practiced in the world, women are marginalized, patronized, oppressed, subjugated, excluded, and exploited.  Whenever you look at the Taliban or at fundamentalist Christians, you can tell how devout they are by how badly they treat half of the human population.

There are exceptions:  the last Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church was a woman, Reform Judaism has female rabbis, and so forth.  But these are not statistically significant.

In every church I've ever been in, it is the women who do most of the work, and get the least credit or reward for it.

Back in 1981, as the Equal Rights Amendment was going down to defeat at the hands of Moral Majority Republicans and Phyllis Schlafly, I used to have this Mike Peters cartoon on my fridge:

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So very much has been done. The final plumbing is done, the final electric is nearly done, the completion of painting is almost done…

There are just a bunch of little niggly things remaining. The 50-amp power drop for the induction range is live and I’ve bought a small selection of really good cookware to use on it … but the range is still sitting in the living room, waiting for a couple strong men and a thing called an airsled to ease it into its niche. The vent hood has power and lights and I’ve plugged in the activated charcoal filters and grease catchers … but the top part hasn’t been installed yet. The new cellar door is lovely, but the doorknob hasn’t been installed yet. The under cabinet lights are installed and lovely, but the in-cabinet lights aren’t in yet. And so on and so forth.

By the middle of next week, everything should be fine and done except for insulating the basement ceiling. The furniture we put in storage and the new furniture we purchased will be delivered a week from today. It’s funny, I’ve been patient for over two months now, watching everything progress at its stately pace, but now I just want it over with, damn it!

But it’s really, really lovely. Next time I post anything about this, it will be to show off pictures.

Sunday Sermonette: Blarney

Leprechauns are real. We Irish have known about leprechauns since the bright days of the Tuatha Dé Danann, when the fair folk came over the seas to Ireland’s verdant shores and burned their boats so as never to be tempted to leave paradise. I know leprechauns exist because my friend Mad Sweeney caught one by the light of the moon a few years ago. He said he did, and sure, Mad Sweeney is the most honest man in the pub. As further proof, Sweeney told me that the leprechaun gave him a gold coin if only Sweeney would release him. When I asked to see the coin, Sweeney took offense. Did I doubt his word? Was he not the most honest man in the pub, indeed, in all the county round? Besides, everyone knows fairy gold disappears by morning. We had another drink in praise of leprechauns. And maybe another to honest Sweeney’s health.

So there it is, proof of leprechauns.

I was thinking of this as I read the proof tor the existence of God that Father Dwight Longenecker published a couple days ago in an essay called The Resurrection and the Death of Atheism.

Fr. Longenecker begins by admitting that the the philosophical proofs for the existence of God are just mind games. Then he creates a straw man atheist to argue with, one who can’t answer the question “What kind of evidence do you want?” so has to answer for him: “Would you like forensic evidence? Documentary evidence? Archaeological evidence? Botanical and biological evidence? Would you like photographic evidence? Logical evidence? Historical evidence? Eyewitness evidence? Legal evidence?” In fact, all of these forms of evidence for the existence of God exist…

The chief proof that God exists is in miracles, he says. No miracles are allowed because a miracle would mean that there is a force that is outside of nature and therefore independent and greater than nature. If there is just one miracle, however — and we only need one — then nature is not a closed system and there is a force greater than nature and outside of nature.

Actually, a miracle wouldn’t prove that the being Christians call God exists, but it might prove the existence of the supernatural.

The proof that miracles exist, says Longenecker, is that almost two thousand years ago, Jesus rose from the dead. That’s it, atheists. Go home, you’re beaten.

Except, you know, that we have no evidence anything of the sort actually took place, except in stories written decades after the event by unknown authors, stories with absolutely nothing to support them. We don’t even have the original stories, we have copies of copies of copies of stories. When we examine the stories themselves, we find wide disagreement and contradiction.

Dan Barker put it best in his Easter Challenge, found in chapter 24 of his autobiography, Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist.

In each of the four Gospels, begin at Easter morning and read to the end of the book: Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20-21. Also read Acts 1:3-12 and Paul's tiny version of the story in I Corinthians 15:3-8. These 165 verses can be read in a few moments. Then, without omitting a single detail from these separate accounts, write a simple, chronological narrative of the events between the resurrection and the ascension: what happened first, second, and so on; who said what, when; and where these things happened.

Since the gospels do not always give precise times of day, it is permissible to make educated guesses. The narrative does not have to pretend to present a perfect picture--it only needs to give at least one plausible account of all of the facts. Additional explanation of the narrative may be set apart in parentheses. The important condition to the challenge, however, is that not one single biblical detail be omitted. Fair enough?

Go ahead and try. I did, several times. I really wanted to reconcile the Gospel accounts. The discrepancies are not just niggles where eyewitnesses disagreed on minor details, there are fundamental disagreements in the narrative. Don’t believe me, see for yourself.

“This challenge could be harder,” Barker wrote. “I could ask why reports of supernatural beings, vanishing and materializing out of thin air, long-dead corpses coming back to life, and people levitating should be given serious consideration at all. Thomas Paine was one of the first to point out that outrageous claims require outrageous proof.”

But Fr. Longenecker has proof that the accounts are genuine, and it’s outrageous. The apostles died for their faith, you see, and no one would die for a lie.

How does he know that? We know even less about the apostle’s deaths than we do about Jesus’s. All we have are pious tales from two or three centuries later.

But more to the point, so what if they were martyred? We’ve seen plenty of people die for a lie. Millions have died for lies told by their leaders, and there are countless examples of those who died for their religious beliefs. Just read the history of the Mormon church in this country - it’s more contemporary than any of the accounts of apostolic martyrdom. Count the examples within our own lifetimes: The People’s Temple of Jonestown, the Solar Temple, Heaven’s Gate, the Branch Davidians in Waco… Every day people die as a consequence of unfounded belief, from those with treatable illnesses who believe in homeopathy and colonic irrigation to those who believe they’re sober enough to drive home from the pub. That people died for it doesn’t make it true.

Fr. Longenecker’s nails his argument home with this:

You remind me that I spoke of botanical, biological, historical, forensic, photographic, scientific, physical archaeological evidence for the resurrection?

That would be the Shroud of Turin, and an article much longer than this one
.

The Shroud of Turin, unequivocally demonstrated to be a medieval fake almost 30 years ago? The Shroud that radiocarbon dating proves was created between 1260 and 1390 AD? That’s your botanical, biological, historical, forensic, photographic, et cetera proof that Jesus rose from the dead?

Have another drink, now, Sweeney me lad. Tell me again about that leprechaun.

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Sunday Sermonette: Patron of Cuckolds

Yesterday was the feast day of the unhappiest saint in the Roman Catholic canon: Saint Joseph, step-father of Jesus. As Rodney Dangerfield said, he just don’t get no respect. Other saints have hagiographies that magnify their every virtue and accomplishment, but not poor old Joseph.

His feast day falls during the forty days fast of Lent, though the Church did finagle things so that his day would be moved back if it ever fell during Holy Week. Here in Boston, it’s too cold, so San Giuseppe won’t get his feast in Italian-American enclaves like the North End until the warm summer months (when the tourists are here).

At the height of the Cold War, the Church created another day for Joseph on May Day, the Feast of Joseph the Worker, to counter communism and organized labor.

Virtually all we know of him comes from Scripture and pious legend. This puts him head and shoulders above most saints - he actually has a mention in the New Testament. But it doesn't help.

It starts with a lengthy genealogy in Matthew 1:1-17. All the begats from Abraham down to Joseph. Which would make sense, except for the small matter referred to in verse 18 - Joseph wasn't Jesus' father.

Luke waits until chapter 3 to get into the genealogy of Jesus, and runs it backward all the way to Adam. Trouble is, it doesn't match Matthew's chart of begats, and again, it's irrelevant - Joseph wasn't Jesus' father.

Holy Mother Church really doesn't have a patron saint of cuckolds, but if they did, it would be Joseph. You all know the story. Joseph was betrothed to Mary, but before they slept together, Mary turned out to be already knocked up. God did it, she claimed.

That's about all we know of Joseph. He vanishes from the picture after Jesus is found in the temple at age 12, lecturing to the rabbis.

So the pious faithful made up the rest. They say he was a carpenter, but that's not quite accurate. The word in Greek is tekton, which means artisan. If he was a carpenter, he would have been a finish carpenter of fine furniture.

They make him out to be the most dutiful and uxorious of husbands, but there's a problem. While the Bible clearly says that Jesus had brothers and sisters, the Roman Church denies them in order to keep Mary a perpetual virgin. There aren't many men who would be happy married to a woman who is bound and determined to keep her virginity. In fact, by law and custom, such a marriage would be invalid.

So the Church makes poor Joseph not just a cuckold, but an old, impotent man. Old, so he can die quietly off-scene and be out of the way before Jesus begins his ministry, and impotent, because who else could live with a beautiful young woman like Mary and not claim his marital privilege? (The Church rejected fables from the third and fourth centuries that made Joseph out to be a widower who'd had many children before meeting Mary, and who then lived to 110 years of age.)

Guido Reni - St Joseph with the Infant Jesus - WGA19304

Look at religious art - Joseph is often portrayed as an old man leaning heavily on a staff, a sign of his lack of vigor. The staff often has lilies growing from it, emblematic of his chastity. (The picture above is by 17th century artist Guido Reni.)

He is patron of, among other things, foster parents, carpenters, workers in general, and as James Joyce put it, "patron of the happy demise of all unhappy marriages". He is saint to whom you pray for a peaceful death.

Is it any wonder?

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Sunday Sermonette: Unaided Reason

Ask a Christian how they know God exists, and you’ll hear a lot about faith. Martin Luther preached that we are saved by faith alone, using as Scriptural warrant the verse, “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.” (Romans 3:28) He ignored the other verse, “Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” (James 2:24), but that’s Christianity for you.

If you ask a Catholic priest, you may get get a different answer. They believe that God’s existence can be known by unaided reason. Faith is still required, of course, but reason will get you most of the way. They believe this thanks to the bloke I mentioned last week, the sage of the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas.

Saint Thomas Aquinas’ masterwork was the Summa Theologica, a huge and unfinished work of over 3,500 pages written between 1265 and 1274. In it lies the reasoning behind virtually every point of Western Christian theology. The best-known part is the two pages in which he lays out the Quinque Viae, the Five Ways that prove the existence of God to the unaided mind. These flawed and long debunked arguments are cited by believers to this very day. The following are quoted directly from a Catholic summary of the Five Ways.

The first and more manifest way is the argument from motion. It is certain, and evident to our senses, that in the world some things are in motion. Now whatever is in motion is put in motion by another, for nothing can be in motion except it is in potentiality to that towards which it is in motion.… Therefore it is necessary to arrive at a first mover, put in motion by no other; and this everyone understands to be God.

Something had to light the fuse on the Big Bang, and we call that something God. This is an argument from ignorance. Not an ignorant argument, that’s something else. “We don’t know how the cosmos came to exist, therefore God.” Why not transcendent creation fairies? Why not the touch of the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s noodly appendage? Or even “I don’t know?”

The second way is from the nature of the efficient cause. In the world of sense we find there is an order of efficient causes. There is no case known (neither is it, indeed, possible) in which a thing is found to be the efficient cause of itself; for so it would be prior to itself, which is impossible.

This is an argument from incredulity - Aquinas can’t believe in an infinite regress, so arbitrarily calls a halt to it and calls that point “God.”

“Something cannot come from nothing,” cry the apologists. Why not? Can you demonstrate it? (See Lawrence Krauss’ lecture and book, “A Universe from Nothing.”) The query “Who made the universe” is invalid - it begs the question that there is a person behind it.

The third way is taken from possibility and necessity, and runs thus. We find in nature things that are possible to be and not to be, since they are found to be generated, and to corrupt, and consequently, they are possible to be and not to be…. Therefore we cannot but postulate the existence of some being having of itself its own necessity, and not receiving it from another, but rather causing in others their necessity. This all men speak of as God.

All men? Not me. I call this tautology “George.” George isn’t laden with the cultural and mythological baggage of millennia that the word “God” is. God is presupposed, which topples the entire argument since its premise is unknown and probably unknowable. Just because you believe doesn’t make it so. As with the first argument, the Flying Spaghetti Monster is just as valid a presupposition.

The fourth way is taken from the gradation to be found in things. Among beings there are some more and some less good, true, noble and the like.… Therefore there must also be something which is to all beings the cause of their being, goodness and every other perfection; and this we call God.

Wouldn’t the god being defined here also have to possess the maximum possible degree of evil? Of course, the whole thing fails in the second premise. Just because degrees of extent exist does not mean that maximum degrees exist. If that were true, then Pegasus exists - the maximum of extent of horse, with wings! Is the argument any different if we end it “and this we call Superman?”

The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world … some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.

Finally, Aquinas gives us the argument from design. It assumes that the cosmos has a purpose, and it’s us. Isn’t it wonderful how we evolved to breath oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide on a planet whose atmosphere contains just those gases? It’s the sort of concept one might expect from the 13th century, but we know better. The cosmos is utterly indifferent and wholly inimical to our form of life, save for tiny and statistically insignificant environments. Approximately 15% of this planet is habitable. Every other place in the solar system will kill you very quickly.

What would a non-directed, non-designed universe look like? I’d wager it would look an awful lot like this one. The hidden and transcendent god bears a striking resemblance to the non-existent god.

The priests who told me that unaided reason could be used to prove the existence of God were wrong. But unaided reason does a pretty good job of proving that God’s existence is very, very improbable.

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