Off for the holidays

There will be light or no blogging here for the next few weeks. Posting will resume in January.

The BBC’s anti-Christian bias

From the Daily Mail:

BBC executives have been forced to admit what critics have known for years – that the corporation is institutionally biased. …

Senior figures admitted that the BBC is guilty of promoting Left-wing views and an anti-Christian sentiment.

Read more about it:

We are biased, admit the stars of BBC News

Yes, we are biased on religion and politics, admit BBC executives

(h/t Shrine of the Holy Whapping)

The body and homosexuality, part 2

In the last post, I said that the physical resurrection really matters to Christians, and that treating it as a metaphor just won’t fly. That’s because the body, for Christians, isn’t just a tool exterior to ourselves that we use for a few years while we learn spiritual truths.Anatomy of a Male Nude, by Leonardo da VinciIt’s a part of our identity. The body and the spirit together make a human being.

This can all seem rather abstract and irrelevant, so I thought it’d be helpful to discuss how it matters in the context of moral behavior. I am taking the example of homosexuality (one of many examples I could have chosen) because this is a point on which, superficially, the Baha’i Faith and the Catholic Church seem to agree. But looking under the surface, we see that our two religions have very different rationales explaining our teaching.

The Bride of Christ

In Christianity, we believe that the Church is “the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). Jesus Christ established the Church as the way in which his presence and his teachings would continue on the earth. This is important for Baha’is to understand about Christian teaching. For Catholics (and for most Christians in general) we’re not just floating around with no guidance except for the text of the Bible, whose meaning no one can agree on. We have the Church – the bride of Christ, the mystical Body of Christ, the community of believers, Christ’s instrument for the salvation of all. Baha’is believe that God made a covenant with mankind, that he would never abandon them. Christians believe this too – and we believe God fulfilled his promise when Christ instituted the Church.

I’d like to focus on one definition of the Church I mentioned above – the Bride of Christ. We see this imagery a lot in the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments. For example in Hosea 2:19-20, God tells Israel

I will betroth you to me forever;
Yes, I will betroth you to me
In righteousness and justice,
In lovingkindness and mercy;
I will betroth you to me in faithfulness,
And you shall know the Lord.

Woman’s Head, by Leonardo da VinciOther passages can be found in Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the Psalms. The entire Song of Songs (also called the Song of Solomon) is a love song that has always been understood in the Jewish and Christian traditions to express the love between God and his people.

This theme continues in the New Testament. Jesus in several places in the Gospels refers to himself as the Bridegroom, and the imagery is repeated in Paul’s letters and in the book of Revelation. I’d like to bring attention to one of these passages, Ephesians 5:22-33. Here is part of the passage:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the Church and gave himself for it, that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious Church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that it should be holy and without blemish. So ought husbands to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself.

This association of the husband-wife relationship with the God-people relationship that we see throughout the Bible is very important in Catholic teaching, and has very deep ramifications.

First, it should be noted that marriage is not simply a contractual relationship, as it is regarded in secular society (and in Islam, for that matter). Marriage for Christians (particularly those in the Orthodox/Catholic tradition, which represents the majority of the world’s Christians) is a sacramental relationship. By sacramental we mean two things: it represents God’s nature, and it accomplishes God’s work. God, as we all know, is love. The marriage relationship is designed as a relationship of love, and thus manifests God’s chief attribute.

This statement, “God is love,” not unlike many statements in the Bible, has become a cliche in our culture and unfortunately it has lost most of its umph. So let me dwell on it for a moment. What does it mean to love? It means, in its highest sense, to desire the good of the loved one above all else. One who loves perfectly has no regard for himself, but will sacrifice all that he has and is for the loved one.

The primordial relationship

This brings me to the Trinity, a matter for which the Baha’i Central Figures have nothing but utter contempt. This is unfortunate, because I think their contempt blinds Baha’is from making an effort to understand it, and understand why Christians believe in it and what it means to them. In fact, part of why the Trinity matters to Christians is what it means for sex and marriage.

There are three persons in the Trinity – the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. They are the same in the sense that they are all God, but they are distinct in terms of their relationship with each other. It is the relationships among the three that I want to focus on.

Christ Carrying the Cross, by Leonardo da VinciThe Father loves the Son. He loves him perfectly and completely, pouring out all that he is for the Son. The Son reciprocates that love, completely and utterly. He also pours out in love and self-sacrifice all that he is for the Father. The Father and the Son are eternal of course, but their eternity is not static. It involves an eternal self-giving and self-sacrifice for the other. The love that the Father and Son share for each other is so complete and profound that it results in the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit can be understood to be, in himself, the love the Father and the Son share for each other.

This is a relationship that exists within God, and so has no beginning or end. This is a defining characteristic of who God is. He is not a static unity. He is a relationship of persons, who love each other so utterly that their identity cannot be separated. When we speak of the human being as created in God’s image, this is part of what we mean. We humans are social animals and desire community and love because we are the image of God, who is within himself interpersonal.

We image God in a special way in marriage, because it is within marriage that two people make a life-long commitment to each other. In a marriage, you give all of yourself to and for your spouse. You give your wealth and your time, you sacrifice bad habits, you compromise on your personal desires, because you value your spouse’s well-being above your own. If the husband sacrifices all of himself for his wife, and the wife sacrifices all of herself for her husband, then they image God. The most personal and intimate way in which the husband and wife give themselves to each other is through sex.

The reason sex is so intimate and personal is that it involves our bodies. If you give someone money, for example, you’re giving them something outside of yourself. Since Christians regard the body as a part of the person herself, and not something distinct from herself, we regard the things we do with our bodies as being of special significance, because our bodies are us. If you give your body to someone, you are literally giving yourself to that person.

Sex and creation

Studies of Embryos, by Leonardo da VinciNotice that it is in this union of bodies, i.e. union of selves, where new life begins. It is no coincidence that sex and reproduction are connected. You don’t have to believe in God to see the connection; it’s obvious just by looking at the natural world. We Christians happen to believe in God, and we believe God made the connection between sex and reproduction for a reason – because it is an image of God’s nature.

God could create human beings however he wanted. He could make them grow on trees, or sprout out of the ground like dandelions. He could certainly do all the creating by himself. But he doesn’t. He chooses to take us as his partners in the act of creation. He invites two of his children to join him in creating a new person. This is a profound gift, and also a profound responsibility. And he delegates this power to us through the sex act. He designed sex as the way we participate in God’s creative power.

One of the worst lies ever told about Catholics was that we believe sex is dirty. We don’t believe that. God forbid! In fact, we believe the opposite. Sex is holy. Sex is a sacred act, and to perform it with impunity is to commit sacrilege.

There are many ways in which you can show love for someone else. The sex act is different because that is how new persons are created. That is why homosexual sex is not allowed in Catholicism – because it is a joining of bodies (joining of selves) without creation.

I mentioned above that we are created in God’s image. That includes our gender. Our femaleness or maleness is in God’s image. Genesis 1:27-28 says,

So God created man in his own image;
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

Then God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply…”

We are the image of God all the time, but we are the image of God in a special way in the marital embrace, because it is there that we are the image of God as Creator. Our bodies are therefore just as much the image of God as our spirits are.

So for Christians, the body is an intrinsic part of the human being. To bring us back to the Resurrection, the fact that Jesus rose from the dead in the body is an essential part of our faith. The Resurrection is how we are brought into eternal life. God created us as a spirit-body duality, and it is through this duality – both our spirits and our bodies – that we image God. And it is in the entirety of our being as humans – both our spirits and our bodies – that we will enjoy eternal life.

The body and homosexuality, part 1

Many Baha’is may wonder why Christians make such a big deal about the physical resurrection. It may seem irrelevant to what really matters in religion – worshipping God and serving others. The Baha’i explanation, that it was a spiritual event, may seem more applicable to us today, since we can experience the same spiritual resurrection in our own lives.

I’d like to take a moment to give a concrete example of how the physical resurrection is an integral and necessary component of our faith and practice as Christians. I’ll use the example of homosexuality.

Both the Baha’i Faith and the Catholic Church forbid homosexual behavior as morally wrong. We also both insist that we must love the person who has an inclination to commit homosexual behavior. In other words, we love the person but we condemn the act. So in this respect Baha’is and Catholics are in complete agreement.

What is interesting is that we come to this agreement from very different directions. It appears, in other words, that the philosophical underpinning for our positions is different.

In recently rereading the Baha’i compilation Homosexuality I found several themes, and I’d like to call attention to a couple of them.

One theme is that homosexual behavior is against our nature. This is found in several quotes from Shoghi Effendi, such as this one:

No matter how devoted and fine the love may be between people of the same sex, to let it find expression in sexual acts is wrong. To say that it is ideal is no excuse. Immorality of every sort is really forbidden by Bahá’u’lláh, and homosexual relationships He looks upon as such, besides being against nature.

Why is it that it is against nature? Presumably God could have created us differently, right? Why did God create us in this way?

My questions presuppose that the Baha’i Faith takes a voluntarist position on morality – that something is right or wrong simply because God wills it so. This is what I believed as a Baha’i, based on many passages where Baha’u’llah insists on the divine prerogative. For example

Were He to pronounce water to be wine or heaven to be earth or light to be fire, He speaketh the truth and no doubt would there be about it; and unto no one is given the right to question His authority or to say why or wherefore. Whosoever raiseth objections will be numbered with the froward in the Book of God, the Lord of the worlds. `Verily He shall not be asked of His doings but all others shall be asked of their doings.’

Recently I came across this article that says the Baha’i Faith doesn’t necessarily teach theological voluntarism. That’s news to me. If anyone can expand on that, I’d love to hear it.

In any case, as regards homosexual behavior, although Shoghi Effendi is quite adamant that it goes against human nature, I can’t find anything in the Writings that explains how. In fact, based on what I know about the Faith’s teachings, I don’t see why it should particularly go against our nature. The Writings teach that human beings are essentially creatures of spirit. Our bodies are not part of who we are. They are instead tools that we use for a while as we grow spiritually. Furthermore, after we die we have no gender, since the categories “male” and “female” are biological and thus pertain to our physical bodies only.

So I would think the Baha’i Faith holds that homosexuality is not intrinsically opposed to our nature. Or to use Baha’i jargon, it is a social law rather than a spiritual law. (I’m open to correction on this point, especially considering the way in which Shoghi Effendi discusses it, which I’m not sure how to fit in the larger Baha’i belief system.) In any event, the Baha’i Faith definitely teaches that homosexual behavior is wrong. Why would that be? This excerpt from the Universal House of Justice looks like it might give an answer…but then it doesn’t.

As to why Bahá’u’lláh forbade the expression of sexual love between people of the same sex, this question relates to the broader and more fundamental question of the purpose of the laws of Bahá’u’lláh and of the Bahá’í teachings on sexual morality The laws do not represent a sterile and inhumane legal code, but rather the divine prescription, a definition of how an individual must act in order to achieve true freedom and spiritual happiness in this world and the next.

The House of Justice then quotes Baha’u’llah where he says the Prophets of God are physicians, and no one should question their prescriptions. But there is no mention as to why it was necessary for Baha’u’llah to give this particular prescription.

The only explanation I’ve been able to find is this one, again from the Universal House of Justice:

Bahá’í teachings on sexual morality centre on marriage and the family as the bedrock of the whole structure of human society and are designed to protect and strengthen that divine institution. Thus Bahá’í law restricts permissible sexual intercourse to that between a man and the woman to whom he is married.

So the reason God forbade homosexual behavior is to promote social stability. I have no argument with that, as far as it goes. But that’s just it – that’s as far as any explanation goes (unless there’s a Writing I haven’t come across).

So in short, from what I’ve been able to learn over the years, the Baha’i Faith teaches that homosexual behavior is wrong, that God forbade it with our best interest in mind, but there is no clear explanation as to why it would be in our best interest. There seem to be two possibilities: (1) It goes against our nature. But then that begs the question as to why it is against our nature, of which there appears to be no explanation. (2) The family is the bedrock of society, so in order to promote the stability of society, marriage has to be defended. It could also be a combination of these two. Either way, what it ultimately comes down to is divine fiat – God said so, so that’s how it is.

The Catholic Church also believes that God forbade homosexual acts, but we also believe that there’s a reason for the prohibition that we can know. We believe that everything God wills, he wills because of the nature of who he is, and he wills the good for us based on the nature of who we are as human beings. So by understanding what our nature is, we understand why homosexual behavior is wrong (i.e. counter to our own well-being). The fact that we humans are a body-spirit combination is fundamental to this understanding. I will go into this in greater depth in part 2.

Resurrection pie

In a comment on my previous post, Michael suggested a possible reconciliation of the Baha’i and Christian understandings of the Resurrection of Christ. He suggests that after Jesus died, he still had the power to show himself to people in a physical form. So all the resurrection appearances in the Gospels can be understood as the bodyless Christ materializing a body in order to meet a need in a given time and place, like proving to the disciples that he was still alive in the spirit, and at the same time not just a ghost.

For Christians, what’s important is that Jesus rose in the flesh, that his spirit and body were joined at the Resurrection for all eternity. This is a fundamental verity of Christianity. The stories in the New Testament are simply meant to illustrate this truth.

If you present a different definition of the Resurrection, one that rejects the Christian teaching that Jesus rose in the flesh, then you’re replacing our belief with yours. Saying that Jesus was a spirit projecting a physical form temporarily is not the same thing as saying he rose again in the flesh.

What’s more, there appears to be an underlying assumption that what Christians really care about is the text of the Bible, the words of the Bible. So the way to teach Christians is to show them how the words of the Bible can be reinterpreted to corroborate the Baha’i teachings. But this is not how Christians’ faith works at all, and I think it results in Baha’is not understanding where Christians are coming from.

Let me try to give an analogy. Let’s say you really like apple pie. Your friend tells you he’s baking you an apple pie for your birthday, and you get really excited. Then you take a bite, and there aren’t any apples. You’re like, “What’s the deal?” He says, “Oh, I thought I’d put a new twist on my apple pie recipe. I used peaches instead of apples.”

This is what you’re doing in your attempt to reconcile our religions. You take out the Christian filling and replace it with Baha’i filling.

What makes an apple pie “apple pie” is not whether you call it apple pie. It’s whether there are apples in it. Likewise, what makes the Resurrection of Christ a “resurrection” is whether the body comes back to life.

You see, Baha’is are missing the point when they redefine the Resurrection of Christ. They keep the word, but they give it a new meaning, and this is supposed to reconcile the religions. As if all the non-Baha’is in the world believe in words instead of meanings. Christians believe in the meaning of the Resurrection: Christ rose – body and spirit – and by joining ourselves to him, we participate in his eternal life – body and spirit.