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Sex, Teens, and Christianity

It may be that Christianity confronts no more daunting issue than sex. This is because sex is one aspect of life that affects every human being regardless of any other distinction such as race, class, economic or social background. It may, therefore, not be a coincidence that sex is one moral issue about which much of Christianity is, quite simply, wrong. I admit that that is a sweeping statement, and if it is correct, one might ask, "How can this topic be addressed in a blog?" Clearly, a blog cannot fully address the issue, but it can provide a foundation for understanding and further discussion.

I suppose the first question to answer is what Christianity got wrong. Consider the newly released study indicating that fewer U.S. young people, ages 15 - 24, are having sex, a decline from 78% to 72% in the last decade. One response to the study, heard on National Public Radio, came from a young woman who stated she was not surprised because "there are more Christians and conservatives in this age bracket." Conservatives, perhaps, but Christians? Does sexual activity really determine one's Christianity? And if it does, what kind of Christianity are we talking about?

A significant part of the Christian right, considers anything having to do with the flesh as evil. By the way, these are the same people who think non-christians are going to hell. So I guess we cannot expect too much from them by way of dialogue. To be fair, though, this is not just a problem for the Christian right, or for other fundamentalist Christians. The Catholic Church does not have a stellar record on sexual theology, either. Nonetheless, from an intellectually open perspective, we must ask the question, "How does sex fit in with the Christian Faith?"

Tradition holds that most of Jesus' apostles were married. Certainly, we know that Peter was. At the same time, the best scholarship indicates that Jesus, himself, was not married. The same holds true for Paul, and possibly the Apostle John. Were any of these three sexually active? The very idea is anathema to most conservative Christians--at least as far as Jesus is concerned. Yet, there is no indication one way or the other. And if we wanted to try to make a guess, we should begin by looking at the teachings of Jesus himself.

Consider that of all the social issues Jesus addressed in his lifetime, of all the issues period, sex was not one of them. Jesus, simply did not speak about sex. Why, then, do so many Christians obsess about this most basic element of human existence? Certainly, if there were something intrinsically evil about sex, Jesus would have addressed it. He did not.

Admittedly, an argument can be made that hedonistic living can leave devastation in its wake. That would, in part, explain the over reaction of John Calvin and his brand of Christianity--a presumption that all flesh is evil and everyone, with a few exceptions, is predestined to hell. Another contributing factor seems to be a lack of understanding about the goodness of God, and certainly a total incomprehension, if not flat out denial, of the humanity of Jesus. For if God, in Jesus, chose to become human, then the flesh must fundamentally be good.

In fact, Jesus speaks directly to the goodness of life, stating in John's Gospel: "I have come that they might have life and have it to the full." No hedging there. Jesus's vision is one of a joyful life. When speaking about living in God's love and according to God's commandments, Jesus says: "I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete." That love and those commandments do not include abstaining from sex. Now, I do not mean to suggest that Jesus supported some kind of licentious living. Nonetheless, it is obvious that he did not consider sex a topic of significant concern.

It seems that the problem for many of today's Christians is not so much sex, in and of itself, as it is pleasure. Sex is enjoyable and some Christian churches, sorely lacking a theology of pleasure, have a problem with that enjoyment in the same way that they had (or still have) a problem with dancing, music, gambling, smoking, drinking. What's left to enjoy in life? Perhaps that is the reason they make a mockery out of politics and attempt to dictate every aspect of morality beginning with abstinence only education.

Now power is one area and issue Jesus did address. He castigated the religious leaders of his own time for their legislation: "They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them." He also cautioned his disciples: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you." Jesus condemns abusive power and control, but not a word about sex.

I suppose if sex was not enjoyable, specifically if it was an unpleasant experience, today's condemning Christians would not have a problem with it. In fact, they would probably command sex on a regular basis--especially if it made people feel even more miserable! I, for one, prefer Jesus' view of life--fullness and joy over misery and suffering. There is nothing inherently wrong with the flesh, and sex is something to be enjoyed, albeit responsibly.

If there are fewer teens having sex today, fine. That is their choice. It may even make them more conservative. It does not, however, define them as Christian. My fear is that many of these same teens will grow up to become tomorrow's conservative and intrusive legislators. Would that more of them paid more attention to what Jesus says about power, and in the process learned how to love and enjoy life--even through responsible sexual activity--rather than learn how to judge and condemn.
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Agnosticism and Religious Relevance

According to a number of recent studies, agnosticism is on the rise--at least in the United States and Europe. Pope Benedict XVI has centered his pontificate around leading Europe away from secularism and back to its Christian roots. The inevitable question must be asked: Is religion still relevant?

I was born and raised in a Catholic family and I have spent most of my adult life preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ. So I approach this question with a bias in favor of religion, specifically Christianity. Still, other religions and even non-believers make essential contributions to the traditional understanding of God. Ironically, agnosticism, in particular, has the ability to both challenge and strengthen traditional religion. While there may be any number of reasons for a person to choose agnosticism, I would like to look at two. I believe that understanding these is essential to appreciating the insight agnostics bring to a discussion of God.

In a previous post on 03-Sep-2010, entitled "Multi-Universes and God" I took issue with a position physicist Stephen Hawking posits in his new book, "The Grand Design". As noted in the post, he argues for spontaneous creation based on gravity and in the process dismisses the need for a creator. My response suggested that while possibly negating certain concepts of God, Hawking's argument does not negate the need for the Bible's "creator" God. After all, the Bible is a book of faith. As such, it tells us that God created the world, but leaves open to scientists to determine the actual process of creation. That having been said, I can appreciate the developments within physics and other disciplines that lead many scientists to conclude that there is not or may not be a God. I can also appreciate the observations they bring to a discussion of God, that actually deepen faith. And since science and religion are not in competition with each another, I believe that the paradoxes will ultimately be resolved, but the dialogue must continue, for there is much that science and religion can teach each other. However...

There is another source of agnosticism that, while easier to comprehend, is more difficult to engage. The difficulty in addressing this particular agnosticism is that it is rooted in religion itself. More precisely, it is rooted in the way that religion is often presented. Indeed, there is a strong Christian component at work here and it is counter-productive. For the very people who want Jesus to be the center of life are the ones who are relegating Christianity to the periphery and, potentially, obscurity.

Every generation needs to find relevance. We look for it in work, in politics, in social structures and in religion. It is what we seek in our personal and inter-personal lives. But the Christian religion, despite its foundations, is failing on this front. Church authorities in various denominations proclaim the faith in such a way that it is anything but relevant. When a religion adheres to ancient belief systems without trying to bring them into harmony with the modern world, that religion has no claim on the mind or heart. This leaves thinking believers floundering about in a vain search for meaning within their religious traditions. When they don't find it, what options remain?

In Catholicism, the great 20th century movement to update the Church known as the Second Vatican Council is on the verge of being consigned to the dustbin of history. Vatican II accomplished exactly what it set out to achieve: a renewal through which the Church could read the signs of the times and merge the faith of our fathers with the reality of modern life. The Council began its changes by issuing new translations of the prayers for the Mass and the sacraments--changes that both God and humans could understand. Following that, Vatican II developed religious practices and teachings that discerned the divine presence in the secular. The Council outlined the role of religion in one of its seminal documents, "The Church in the Modern World". Slightly more than forty years later comes Benedict XVI. On the heels of John Paul II, he is attempting to roll back Vatican II's changes and direction, apparently oblivious to the fact that he cannot also roll back society or the world. By divorcing the divine from the secular, the Catholic Church actually give voice to agnosticism.

Besides disassociating itself from the secular, there are other ways in which the Church is sinking into irrelevance. These include its worship. Like the Second Vatican Council itself, the changes begin with prayer. Every element of a living faith is first of all based on the ability to communicate with the divine. When people in the pews are unable to speak in natural cadence, forced instead to use stilted formulations, God becomes distant and unreachable, not imminent and approachable. Never mind that these translations are supposed to be closer to the original Latin. There is a reason Latin is a dead language. This is not a hopeful or effective way to communicate with or relate to God. History will not look favorably on English-speaking bishops who surrendered the beauty of their language to the authoritarianism of Rome.

Perhaps because God is becoming more distant in the pews, there is now a renewed interest in demonic possession. More than 100 bishops and priests attended a conference on exorcism in Baltimore this past weekend. The organizer, Bishop Thomas Paprocki is a reasonable man, sounding neither hysterical nor hyperbolic when speaking of possession and exorcism. He organized the conference so that dioceses around the nation could be prepared, and he emphasized that an essential element of that preparedness is being able to distinguish between mental illness and demonic possession of God's people. Yes, you read that correctly and it is just as bizarre as it sounds--demonic possession of God's people.

R. Scott Appleby, a highly respected scholar at Notre Dame suggested that the action of the bishops makes perfect sense. By emphasizing that the Church deals with the supernatural, he said: "It's a strategy for saying we are not the Federal Reserve and we are not the World Council of Churches. We deal with angels and demons." It is not clear if that is his own perspective or if he is simply observing the actions of the bishops. In either case, it is hardly convincing, and more than just a little embarrassing.

Fr. Richard Vega of Los Angeles, President of the National Federation of Priests' Councils suggested that there might be a rise of exorcism requests in the United States due to the migration of Catholics from Africa and South America--people, he says, who are more in touch with the supernatural. Correct me if I'm wrong, but if people who are more in touch with the supernatural need all this exorcism, then either their concept of the supernatural is seriously defective and tends toward magic, or the Church's concept of the supernatural neglects and minimizes God's love and care for his own people. It is fairly easy to see how this kind of nonsense might lead one to the conclusion that there is no God.

For myself, I still believe in Jesus. But I suggest that all believers speak about agnostics with more respect. After all, we might be the reason they don't believe.
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Updates

I have updated the Questions - A from the Q & A section. I have also corrected the link problem that caused both Questions - A and Questions - B to link to the identical page. Sorry for the error.
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More Update Sections

In order to provide sufficient time for readers (especially new readers) to catch up on the recently posted questions and answers, I have added a second "Recent Questions" category. One is "A" and the second is "B".

I have also added yet another new category, called "Church and State"
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Web Update Sections

Two new categories have been added to the Questions and Answers page: "Religion and Science" and "Catholics, Protestants and the Pope". The first one will offer answers to questions that deal with issues of science and religion, specifically in areas where there appears to be some conflict. The second page will answer questions about the difference between Catholics and Protestants and the role of the Pope in Catholic life.
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Updated Sections

Website Updates: Recent Questions section in "Questions and Answers" (8/24/10). Homily added in Funeral section on "Homilies" page (8/24/10)
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Updated and Newly Designed Website

My newly designed website is now up and running. Thanks to the generous work of Charity Tran Happy, and her html skills, the problems are fixed and everything is working according to plan. I hope it provides some valuable information.
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