Simulation theory, a response

So recently I stumbled upon a philosophic metaphysical claim that we are living in a simulation. This argument intrigued me because unlike other philosophical theories of existence, this one seemed to allow for a “god of sorts.” Afterall, if our world is a computer program, then there must be a higher being functioning as a programmer. It is important to note that this programmer need not have the characteristics of the traditional Christian theistic deity. In fact, it is more likely that the programmer is not omniscient, nor infinite. Thus if the simulation theory is true, then it will radically change our perception of God.

The Simulation Argument

So the argument that I will be working with is based on Nick Bostrom’s 2003 paper, “Are we living in a computer simulation.” In this paper, Bostrom makes three propositions:

  1. the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a “posthuman” stage
  2. any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof);
  3. we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.

Bostrom argues that one of these propositions must be true. He assigns probabilities to each of the propositions. “If there is a possibility that our civilization will make it the posthuman stage and they will run ancient simulations, how can we guarantee that we are not one of those simulations.”  In order to build his argument, Bostrom makes two assumptions.

  1. Mental states can supervene on physical substrates (The Assumption of substrate-independence)
  2. Current empirical information about computers indicates that at some point in the future we will have computers fast enough to convert planets into enormously powerful computers.

It is these two assumptions that I would like to explore and challenge.

The Response to the substrate-independence assumption

So I define mental states as the beliefs, desires, knowledge, thoughts, mental images, emotions, moods, perception, and sensations that occur in the mind. Bostrom wants to assume that these states that occur in the mind are entailed by the physical brain. In other words, if an identical copy of your physical brain could be made, then that copy would give rise to the same mental states. Therefore, a computer can stimulate the same mental states that a human brain creates. I deny this assumption and argue that mental states do not supervene on physical substrates.
I begin my argument by demonstrating that physical substrate cannot establish mental states. In order to establish this claim, I will be using the thought experiment proposed by Frank Jackson.

Imagine that you have spent your whole life in a black and white room. You have been told what colors are and you have been told that certain things have color. For example, you have been told that an apple is red, but you have never seen an apple. You also have all the physical knowledge regarding how the mind works. You know that certain c-fibers when activated produce ‘red,’ but this knowledge is all you have. Do you know what red is?

Most people intuitively know that you in the black and white room do not know what red is. Rather the knowledge of ‘red’ or any mental perceptions requires something more. This something more is subjective experiences. The idea that mental states contain some sort of subjective state is expressed in the philosophical term qualia. So qualia properly defined refers to the introspective nature of the mental phenomenon. The thought experiment above shows that even the most exact physical replica could not tell us what it was like for us ourselves to experience it. Since physical models cannot give rise to the qualia of a mental state, the substrate independence assumption is false. If this is false then our consciousness, as we understand it, cannot be stimulated. Since we want to retain that we are conscious beings, then our world cannot be a computer simulation.
Chalmers’ zombie argument is another way of disproving the idea that mental states can logically supervene on the physical.

  1. A zombie is a creature that is physically & behavorallly similar to you, but has no concious experience
  2. If mental states logically superviene on physical states,  then zombies would not be conceivable
  3. Zombies are conceivable
  4. Thus mental states do not logically superviene on physical states
  5. Mentals states are something above physical phenomena

If mental states are something above the physical, then, replicating the physical structure of the brain into a computer program will not create mental states. Thus it is impossible to replicate consciousness on a computer program. If this is impossible, then our brains cannot be simulated by a computer. Thus simulation theory is false.
One objection to the above argument is that the idea that we have phenomenological experiences (qualia) is illusionary. We only have the psychological experience ( Awakeness, introspection, reportability, self-consciousness, attention, voluntary control, knowledge, awareness”). However, the idea that our subjective mind is an illusion is counterintuitive to what people claim to experience, and thus the burden of truth is upon the person, who argues for its nonexistence.
Having attacked the first underlining assumption, the conclusion should follow that simulation theory is false. However, for those who accept the substrate-independence assumption, there is another assumption that one can attack. This argument attacks both 1. the idea that there can be a computer fast enough to convert the world, and 2. that we can make ontological statements from mathematical equations.

The assumption about computers.

 In order to understand why computers will never be able to truly stimulate the physical world, we must have a surface level understanding of quantum mechanics and Bells theorem. The first thing to understand is the difference between a particle and a wave. Particles, when thrown towards two slits, will either travel through one or the other slit. Waves, on the other hand, when encountering two slits travel through both. We can imagine throwing a stone into a lake of water. This action creates waves. Furthermore, we can imagine that these waves head toward a wall with two slits. The waves that emerge from each slit interfere with each other. This interference creates a series of peaks and valleys. Now imagine that there is a detector on the other side. This detector can reproduce this pattern. It is called the interference pattern and looks like this:

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We can also imagine that a person shooting multiple projectiles on the wall would create two strips on the back wall. Scientist performed such an experiment with electron particles.  This experiment is the double split experiment. However, the electrons did not create a two strip pattern like you would expect from a particle, rather the electrons created the interference pattern like a wave. The experiment was repeated, but this time the gun shot the electron particle one at a time. However, even then, the particle manages to behave like a wave and make an interference pattern. This would mean that the one electron is somehow going through both slits and interfering itself. The experiment was repeated, but measuring devices were placed at the beginning of the slits to determine which slit the electron traveled through. The electron started to behave like a particle and no interference pattern was observed. This seems to indicate that the behavior of an electron particle depended on observation.

If electron particles behave like water or sound waves, then they can be measured mathematically. A wave function is a solution to the mathematical equation that can tell you the probability of the location of an electron before it is measured. It can never tell you the precise location of the electron particle since the particle has wave-like properties. One consequence of the wave function is that it gives rise to the idea that prior to measurement the particle can be in two or more places at once. This is known as quantum superposition. A second consequence is entanglement. A wave function has the ability to describe a system of particles. When these systems of particles cannot be broken down into individual particles, the particles are said to be entangled or linked together. When two particles are linked together, they have opposite values. So if particle A and B are entangled, when particle A is up, particle B is down. When we measure particle A, we can know B without measurement.  This holds true even if the particles are separated long distances. For example, imagine particle A is on the earth and particle B was on the moon. There is a scientist that measures particle A and finds that it is up, Particle B is measured as down every time. It was suggested that, rather than the particles sending information faster than the speed of light, thus falsifying relativity, there must be some hidden code within the electron that makes the entangled pair have opposite values.
Bell’s theorem disproves the idea of hidden values. Bell uses mathematical probability come up with Bell’s inequality. It states that when dealing with photon particles at different angles through a polarized lens, the likelihood that the angle would match is 33% if there are hidden values. If Quantum Mechanics is right, the likelihood would be 25%. For example, if we have three angles A, B, C and we measure a single photon through both A and B, the likelihood that they match is at least 33%. However, when an experiment was conducted, the matches occurred 25% of the time. This means that there are no hidden values governing the behavior of quantum particles.
Proponents of the simulation theory claim that since electrons and other quantum particles do not exist until measurement, it functions similar to a video game. In most video games, the graphics do not render until the player is in the location. They argue that the fact that electrons do not have precise locations until measurement shows the actions of a computer saving disk space by not rendering until observed.
My objection is that computer systems have hidden values or codes that tell the computer when to render the graphics. Quantum particles, on the other hand, do not have hidden values as proven by Bell’s theorem. Therefore, in order to duplicate our world accurately, a computer would have to produce all possible quantum superpositions and then collapse those superpositions upon observation without hidden values. Bostrom acknowledges this, “Simulating the entire universe down to the quantum level is obviously infeasible unless radically new physics is discovered.” (Bostrom, Nick). Since Quantum physics cannot be simulated, it seems very unlikely that we are in a simulated world.
Lastly, Bostrom makes the mistake of making a metaphysical claim based on mathematical principles. The Wave Function is a very accurate mathematical solution able to predict the behavior of quantum particles, but the mathematical equations does not entail anything about reality. It does not entail an idealist metaphysical claim on reality. There have been plenty of quantum interpretations that support realism. Just because the Wave Function appears to collapse upon measurement does not mean that reality only exists through observations.
The simulation theory, while intriguing, fails to support the various assumptions that it relies on for its argument to be sound. Thus, God remains still a mystery.

References

“A Ridiculously Short Introduction To Some Very Basic Quantum Mechanics | Plus.Maths.Org.” Plus.Maths.Org, 2018, https://plus.maths.org/content/ridiculously-brief-introduction-quantum-mechanics.
Bostrom, Nick. “Are We Living In A Computer Simulation?.” The Philosophical Quarterly, vol 53, no. 211, 2003, pp. 243-255. Oxford University Press (OUP), doi:10.1111/1467-9213.00309.
Halvorson, Hans. “What Does Quantum Mechanics Suggest About Our Perceptions Of Reality?.” BQO, 2018, https://www.bigquestionsonline.com/2015/02/24/what-does-quantum-mechanics-suggest-about-our-perceptions-reality/.
lacewing, Michael. “The Philosophical Zombie Argument.” S3-Euw1-Ap-Pe-Ws4-Cws-Documents.Ri-Prod.S3.Amazonaws.Com, 2018, http://s3-euw1-ap-pe-ws4-cws-documents.ri-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/9781138793934/A22014/dualism/The zombie argument.pdf.
Nida-Rümelin, Martine. “Qualia: The Knowledge Argument.” Plato.Stanford.Edu, 2018, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/qualia-knowledge/.
“Physics In A Minute: The Double Slit Experiment | Plus.Maths.Org.” Plus.Maths.Org, 2018, https://plus.maths.org/content/physics-minute-double-slit-experiment-0.
Schneider, David. “Bell’s Theorem With Easy Math.” Drchinese.Com, 2018, http://drchinese.com/David/Bell_Theorem_Easy_Math.htm.

Dear Catholic church, a letter from a lonely young adult

Dear Catholic church,
I am a single 27-year-old female, who doesn’t know her place in the church. I am not sure where to go to for guidance, love or support. I am too old for the college crowd but too young for the 30-40 age group. Is there a place for me? Yes, you say enthusiastically, “come to theology on tap.” Yes because nothing fosters authentic relationships like beer and a motivational speech. Don’t get me wrong, I like theology on tap, but it doesn’t speak to me on a deeper level. It doesn’t help me connect with people, who will be lifelong friends. At most I get a drinking buddy for the night. It also doesn’t help me get plugged in elsewhere. If I’m lucky, I go back to a parish with a somewhat functioning young adult group; if unlucky, I go back to waving at people my age from across the pew.
Maybe one day I’ll work up the courage to talk to him or her, but why me. Yes, I know that we are called to be the change we want to see in the world, but I feel like it is unfair to expect me to foster my own community. I’m an introvert and can be socially awkward at times I know I’m not alone in this. I also know that I’m not alone at Mass; I see you and desire to talk to you, but I’m scared. Scared to break the unspoken rule that we all decided to uphold; the rule that says that we should never talk to anyone at Mass. That the ultimate goal is to get in and out as fast as we can. So out of respect for sacred silence, out of respect for the idea that mass is not a community club, I will stay silent. However; If I can’t meet people my age at mass, when can we meet?
Maybe I’ll meet people when I volunteer; that sounds like a good idea. The only problem is that most of the volunteers are older people, who have been in ministry for 10 to 15 years. They like doing it this way; they are comfortable. They don’t want a young thing like me coming in and messing it up or introducing technology they don’t understand. There’s no room for creativity or risk. Let’s just keep doing it the way we’ve always done it. We will complain that young people are unreliable because heaven forbids we were late to the meeting by five minutes. Maybe we had to take care of our kids or you know work. It would be nice if church meeting met after 7pm, but I guess that is too late for the older folk.
One thing young people have that older people don’t is awesome retreats and conferences. We get together once a year and have these crazy Catholic concerts with awesome praise and worship music, good speakers and good fellowship. The only problem is I want to be encouraged more than once a year. I want to have these amazing experiences in my local parish or diocese. I want to have it on a monthly bases. The crazy thing is that I know that such experiences exist.
I know that down in Atlanta GA they have monthly XLT for youth as well as young adults. I know in Dallas they have a ministry called 635 strictly for Young adults. I know that there are other wonderful opportunities in college towns. For instance, when I was at Yale, there was a ton of Catholic stuff to do and plenty of ways to meet people. However, I think it is unfair that my ability as a Catholic to meet other Catholics depends on my geographical location. If we truly are the universal church, then we should have a universal focus and a universal vision to help support young adults. Not just college students, but also those, who have graduated.
Sincerely
A lonely lost Catholic young adult

Help, I've fallen and I can't get up!

You have seen those commercials before. They usually come during daytime television, where an old lady has fallen, usually in the bathroom. After that montage, an old man comes un the screen and says, “you need life alert.” Life alert is a necklace that one can wear with a button that can be pushed in case of emergency. At the end of the commercial, the old lady is smiling, and says, “thank you, Life Alert.” This product may save you from a physical fall, but what happens when you fall spiritually? I think initially it is easy to say well, go to confession. While I most definitely agree that confession is Life Alert for the soul, I think that to say confession is the answer too quickly dismisses the fear and shame that surrounds failure.
I know that in my own life I have battled with sins of omission or not doing the things I should. It reminds me of Romans 7:19, “19 For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” I have felt like Paul in that I want to pray and spend time with Jesus. More importantly, I want to make my mark in the world. Now I want to do these things to bring glory to God. Here’s the secret though, God doesn’t care about what we do so much as why we are doing it. It’s not that God wants us to sit on our butts and watch Netflicks. However, what God wants is our love. The question I’ve been asking myself is why does God deserve our love. Yes, he died for us on the cross, but how does this love manifest itself. Yes, God chose to die for me, but why?
I had radically encountered God’s love in the past, But the past month is the first time I question this love. I was miserable because of it. I didn’t understand why God loves us and why we praise him. I had told myself that God deserves praise because he gives us a purpose. However, after praising God I still have no clue what my mission in life is, furthermore, it seems that God works miracles in other’s lives, but not mine. It seemed pointless and I resigned to a “why bother” stance regarding my faith. I was going through the motions. I felt a sense of shame and guilt that kept me from doing more than the bare minimum. This was the “I’ve fallen” moment.
On 9/14, I attended a Steubenville Encounter Atlanta conference for Young adults (it was great and full review coming soon). What stood out to me was the concept of falling in love with Jesus. Joel Stepanek set the tone during his talk on The Breath of God. He read from Ezekiel chapter 37. He remarked that at some point we had experienced the breath of God or we wouldn’t be at the conference, but now we are dried bones. We have deprived ourselves of the breath of God because the world has made us feel apathetic. He talked about how when things are beyond our control, we either turn a blind eye or we attempt to make a difference. We cannot escape from the vicious cycle unless we have the Holy Spirit or breath of God in us. Through the various talks, I realized that I was, in essence, doubting God’s love and goodness.
That night, I went to reconciliation. After confessing, the priest tried to tell me that God loved me. He used beautiful metaphors, but on the inside, I wanted to scream, WHY, HOW DO YOU KNOW? Instead, I let the truth wash over me, knowing full well that it didn’t resonate or connect. After that, we had adoration, before adoration, the MC, Chris Stefanick, had us get into groups of 4. We were to announce in our group the lies that the devil says and to pronounce the truth about who God says I am. It is at this moment that everything clicked. What I do or say does not dictate who I am, God does. God loves me as his creation and he declares that “I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” God would not have created me if I was not worthy of being created and for this alone I owe him praise.
Sometimes we can get blinded by the mission and forget the why behind it. I truly believe that I am in a session of rejoicing in the present, and not worrying about the future or filling my vocation. Rather let me be content to rest at the feet of Jesus and let him lead me in the dance of life.
 

What is wrong with religious​ education?

One of my passions is learning about what makes successful youth ministry.  Thus I really enjoyed my time attending the pathways retreat put on by the diocese of Richmond. This retreat was designed to help train Catechist to better serve young people. The ultimate goal, of course, is, “to empower young people to live as disciples of Jesus Christ in our world.” During my time at the retreat, the one thing that was clearly emphasized is that 1. Religious education is a lifelong process and 2. that young people learn better through direct action rather than verbal memorization.  Thus, it seems that if we are to reach the young person, we must engage them not as an instructor or teacher, but rather as a facilitator on a journey.  Given this goal, I have come to realize that there are certain pitfalls that Catholic Religious education has fallen into:

1. teaching the textbook

I currently am a 7th-grade catechist. My teacher manual is cumbersome and big. To its credit, it does suggest certain activities to do, but most of the lessons revolve around reading out of a textbook. Likewise, my teachers manual is so vast that it is practically impossible to do every activity suggested in the hour I have with them; not to mention the fact that I am also required to go over the Sunday reading with them. It can be quite overwhelming. During the pathways retreat, we were introduced to the concept of The hierarchy of truthsThis is the idea that not all truths taught by the Catholic church are equal and that some are more essential than others. The top three essential truths are 1. the four gospels, 2. The Mass, and the Creed. Hence if the kids leave with nothing else, but an appreciation for those three things, it will take them very far. I am not saying don’t teach what is covered in the textbook, but don’t be a slave to it.

2. sticking to lecture-style catechist

Most religious education still takes place in classrooms rather than open areas. This can make it hard to prepare the meeting space that lends itself to discussion and facilitation. It can be easy to slip into lecture mode. It especially doesn’t help if your textbook requires vocab words to be taught and a self-assessment to be taken. It is very hard to make words like deposit of faith or magisterium engaging. However, if you lecture the whole time you make CCD very boring and the information doesn’t stick. In fact, if you asked my students what the definition of Magisterium is, none of them will remember, but I guarantee that they will remember the skit we did.

3. not involving the parents or forming relationships

This is a big one. During the pathways retreat, I learned that, despite teenage rebellion, parents are the number one influence in the child’s life. Furthermore, teens are most likely to stay Catholic if they have formed relationships with people in the church. Therefore, it is crucial that the parents are on the same page and that the kids have a good relationship with you or a fellow catechist. This is definitely an area where I, as a catechist, could improve. Just recently I had the following exchange:

Mother of X: Hey, I just wanted to let you know that x has band practice and won’t make it to class on certain Tuesdays.

Me: ok, you know there’s always edge nights on Sunday, X could go to that on the weeks he won’t be here, that way he won’t miss a thing.

Mother: Well, we are out of town on some weekends, but we will look into it. Although it shouldn’t be a problem since he isn’t preparing for anything in the church.

Now I don’t blame this mother in that the benefits of band practice seem more tangible than the benefits of CCD or youth ministry especially since there is no sacrament to check off.  However, I am not sure why she tells me about his absence. Maybe to avoid judgment or make her feel better, not sure.  What I do know is that in those few moments I should have offered to look at the schedule and to give PREP at home to him. This allows the mother to see what is being taught in class and hopefully the benefit of it, but more importantly, it gives the student the opportunity to still learn.

4. not emphasizing the Kerygma

well before we can emphasize the Kerygma, we must first know what it is. Kerygma is the proclaiming of the good news of Jesus Christ, which is that even though we are sinners, God sent his only son, Jesus Christ to save us from our sins, he was crucified and died but rose again conquered death. He ascended into heaven and now sits at the right hand of the father. He desires to deliver you from your sins. It is the basic gospel message. The problem is that it is all head knowledge and not heart knowledge. We need to accept and believe for ourselves and not just recite. Too much of catechesis takes it for granted that the students wholeheartedly believe this statement, which is simply not true.

5. Not letting go of the old way of doing things

The problem is not really points 1-4 in that most church youth ministers are aware and have easy fixes. Lifeteen and Edge programs being the front-runner. The problem is the unwillingness of the Church to admit that classroom-based CCD no longer works. Also, they fail to admit that teens leave the Church with a lot of head knowledge, but no heart knowledge of who Jesus Christ is. Ultimately they become students instead of relational disciples of Christ.
In conclusion, religious education has problems because it is not something that can be taught but must be something lived in order to be life-lasting. In order to be lived, it must be experienced relationally.

The mask we all wear

Does your inner monologue reflect your outward persona? In other words, do your thoughts reflect what you tell others, or do you project a certain image to others in your appearance and speech that does not reflect how you are actually thinking and feeling? Lately, I felt a bit of a disconnect between these two things. I feel that I need to disguise my thoughts from the real world; to wear a mask so to speak, The reason for this disconnect is simple, I am ashamed of my thoughts.
Lately, I have felt hopeless. I am not sure where this sense of hopelessness is coming from, but I can’t help but feel that nothing matters. In response, I have felt paralyzed. However, I feel like I can’t express these emotions or thoughts because people wouldn’t understand. They’ll tell me to get over it or be strong. Sometimes I fear that they’ll suggest that I feel this way because I lack ambition or drive. The solution is simple, just get out and stay busy. If I stay busy, I won’t have time for introspection. Yet thinking about my open schedule, in the end, makes me feel more hopeless and alas the vicious cycle continues. Thus, instead of opening up about my feelings, I just bottle them and either avoid talking or pretend to be busy. It’s a shame because I think I would be much happier if I could be myself instead of trying to be what I think the other person wants to hear.
I used to admire people, who were always happy. However, I’ve come to realize that happiness is a mask as well. Appearing happy can give the illusion of control. It keeps a person from being authentic. When asked how they are doing, the biggest lie people tell is that they are, “doing good.” The reality is that we are all struggling with something and we yearn to know that we are not alone. We yearn to be heard.
One of my favorite songs is Believe in Dreams by Flyleaf. One line, “For now Is it worth it to be sad If it’s harder to be glad To be alive,” stands out in particular. Sometimes it is hard to be glad, but it is also taxing to be sad and it is easy to be stuck in a vicious cycle. As the song reaches the chorus, it suggests that even though, “I wonder where do I belong
Is it here,” that I must continue to believe in my dreams and be able to express them to others how I feel.
In short, I think that we need to be more honest with. ourselves and with others as well as not be afraid to live our dreams. By believing in our dreams we can push through the sad hopelessness the pervades our modern society. By daring to be authentic we can strip off the mask that we wear and can encourage others to do the same.
 

Believe in Dreams by Flyleaf

My visit to the Church of Nativity

On the weekend of September 9-10th, I made a trip to Timonium, Maryland. I was there to experience The Church of Nativity. This church is somewhat famous or infamous depending on who you talk for being the subject matter of the book, Rebuilt written by Father White (more on him later). The book outlines questionable methods used by the church to rebuild into the thriving parish it is today. I’ll admit that at one point in time I was a huge fan of this church. Thus when I found out that they’d be opening a new building on September 11th, I decided to make a special trip.
I was very excited to visit the church especially since I felt like I was an honorary member. I knew people, who attended due to joining an online small group ( a decision I had made because I wanted something to help me spiritually grow without any leadership role). Thus I was also excited to connect with them in person as well.
Having attended in person, I finally feel qualified to judge the experience. I do have mixed feelings on Nativity has a whole.
So the first thing I would like to say is that this church is beautiful and the online pictures do not do it justice. However, if you are a fan of traditional cathedral style architecture then you will hate it. When you come up to the church, you are greeted with a white stone sign with the churches name engraved in it. There is a curvy road, which leads up to the parking lot. In between the road are trees and flowers. The first part of the building you see is the glass coffee shop. Then you see the main doors and as you head out of the parking lot you see the old church, which has been converted into a children’s wing. Once inside, you see a white brick wall with a cross carved into it. To the right of the front doors is a bench. Next to the bench is a stand and video screen, which says next steps. After passing that you enter into the coffee shop.  I would later learn thåt to the left of the main entrance is guest services.
I arrived at 9:50am for 10:30am Mass. We were greeted by parking lot ministers. These volunteers were very good at their job. They told the person driving me that I could get dropped off and that they would have a spot open in 15 minutes. So I texted my small group leader, Sue, and had her meet me outside.
She met me outside and we proceeded into the building. Now here’s where things got interesting. Nativity’s claim to fame is their radically welcoming environment. However, walking into the building I didn’t notice any greeters. I am not sure why but I suspect several possibilities.  First, I was with someone I knew and seemed to know what I was doing and second, Mass was not over yet and thus the greeters were not out yet. Third, there may have been some confusion regarding where they were supposed to stand and greet since it was a new building with multiple entrances. Even though these are all possible excuses, it still feels odd. First of all, if the volunteers wait until Mass is over to do their job, then why are the parking ministers already directing traffic? Second of all, even if I am in a group and seem like I know the place, I still deserve to be treated the same as someone new. In fact Father White in the book, Rebuilt, mentions that the inspiration for the hospitality team stems from his visit to Saddleback Church, where he was greeted so warmly, he entered the building not once, but twice.  I also find it hard to believe that the greeters would not have been trained regarding the entrances and exits of the new building. It may seem that I am being overly harsh since most Catholic churches don’t make greeting a priority at all. However, when you write a book about it and do several T.V. interviews on how to have a welcoming environment, I expect a level of excellence that goes above and beyond the normal. I guess I have abnormally high standards due to my experience at nondenominational churches.
So after chilling with my small group while waiting for my other friend, Andrea to park the car, Sue convinced me to go ahead into the sanctuary and wait for Andrea so that I could have a good seat. By the way, Andrea says that she wasn’t greeted either. We headed into the sanctuary, which is located right behind the white brick wall. There were doors on either side of the wall. In front of the door, I see my first greeter/usher. They were passing out a pamphlet. I didn’t take one, but I could see that it had a map.  Once inside the doors to the left, I notice a silver dish with holy water. I bless myself, as is custom. Sue meets me and she says, “you found it, I was looking for it.” We head down the center aisle. The sanctuary sort of slopes down and is curved, but not completely circular. Above the main pews is a white balcony. There is a cut out in the front pew for someone in a wheelchair. I take that spot with my chair. To my left is the baptismal font. In front of me is the altar. It is wooden dark brown. On the base of the altar are carvings of religious figures. Behind the altar is a white jeweled box, which I am guessing is the tabernacle. Surrounding the tabernacle is candles and a wooden carving of Mary and Joseph. The altar is light with stage lights. To the far left and right of the altar platform or stage are two screens. Underneath the screen is a camera crane, which I guess it is used to record the Mass. I thought that it would be more distracting than it was. The lectern is to the right of the altar. The drum set was off to the side. The service started with a video. At first I thought it was an announcement video, but instead, it was a voice reciting scripture about the importance of church. Then the band came out. To my dismay, the band was on the first-row step, not necessarily in front of the altar, but to the left and right of it. I don’t quite understand the placement of the band. It is my major critique, especially since a brand new sanctuary can easily be designed to have a side space. If intentionally left out then it shows that the church prioritizes a view of the band rather than the altar. If unintentional, then it shows a lack of Catholic architectural understanding by the designer.  If the church wants to prioritize the band, then why spend money on a new altar design.
As much as the placement of the band frustrated me, I must say that the music quality is excellent. I still maintain that the Catholic Church would do well to invest in quality music. Andrea compared my old parish to this one’s music style by saying, “if a parish is going to use contemporary music and instruments then the need to invest and go all the way or the need to stick with traditional hymns; your parish tried to straddle the middle line and it didn’t work.” I think that modern instruments can work, but you have to always be mindful of tone. Nativity’s worship team does tone well in that a Eucharistic song is not upbeat, but slower and meditative. I also enjoy the modern twist on Latin chant; it actually sounds really good with an acoustic guitar. As far as style goes, I am not sure all modern contemporary praise and worship is the way to go. I wouldn’t mind hearing some older hymns occasionally.
The Mass itself was pretty standard. There were a few things that bothered me. First of all, I am not completely sold on the idea that the reader should be the same person or that they should be paid. On one hand, it gives it a sense of quality, but on the other hand, I feel like it loses the human element to it. For example, when she got up to read and the light shined on her face, I could shake the sense that I was watching the performance of the mass and not the mass. The lack of children or any noise for that matter made it super easy to concentrate, but also made it feel artificial. Second of all, the Eucharistic ministers felt irreverent at times. I am also a little unsure about when they received the consecrated Eucharist since they never received it from Father White.
I would be remiss if I omitted my thoughts on Father White. I feel like he is a great speaker and gives a great homily. However, I do get a general sense of aloofness from him. This began during the administration of the Eucharist. He administered the first few to parishioners but then decided to sit down and chat with the altar server. Second of all, he did not do the final blessing or process outward but rather retired to the sacristy. Lastly, when Sue asked if I could meet with him, Jackie, one of Father White’s helpers, said that he would try, but most likely not since he was tired and didn’t want to be mobbed by the crowd. At the risk of sounding ungrateful, I was able to get a blessing from him, but the gesture felt empty and cold considering he did not approach me in a friendly demeanor. I hope that maybe he was just having a bad day and tired. Andrea said it best, “this church is his baby, he conceived it, he birthed it, and now he needs to rock it.”
There are a few last details that I’d like to comment on. One positive thing is that I really did enjoy how the narthex and concourse were uncluttered and spacious. There weren’t a million different ministries trying to grab my attention as I walk out of the sanctuary. There weren’t multiple fundraisers going on. It was nice. On the negative, I am not sure I liked how the cafe was set up. If the cafe was a place for people to fellowship, I believe it defeated that purpose by having mass live-streamed. If the purpose is overflow space then food or drink should not be sold in that space. I personally liked the idea of it being a fellowship hall.
Overal I want to like Nativity, but in their pursuit of excellence, they may have unintentionally created a Mass that comes across as a production rather than something personal and human. If I lived closer, I would definitely go back if for nothing else than to experience good music and receive a good homily; however, I would hesitate to endorse it wholeheartedly due to a little bit of irreverence and impersonalness.
Should Mass be a production? If not, what should Mass be like? Can we pursue quality and still keep the humanness of Mass?
 
 

Let's try to think creatively

The title of this blog post is a reference to the viral youtube sensation, Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared. If you haven’t seen it, the basic set up is that three child like puppets are stars in a children’s program, where they interact with animated objects, who teach the children a lesson. However, the lesson usually takes a turn towards the dark as the puppets are taught not to question anything. In the first episode, a notepad attempts to teach the puppets how to be creative. The notepad says things like green is not a creative color. When the puppets attempt to create on their own, bad things start happening. It ends with the notepad instructing the puppets to never be creative again. While the meaning of this series is up for the viewer to decide, most people agree that at its most basic, Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared is a satire about children’s television programs and the mob mentality it creates. The video criticizes the idea that 1. There is a correct way of thinking when it comes to creativity and 2. The idea that children should not think creatively for if they did, dangerous consequences would result. Creative thinking cannot be taught and it does not fit one style. Yet I feel that the Catholic Church is failing to cultivate an atmosphere necessary for creativity to survive. With the exception of a few parishes, the Catholic Church needs to hire a market manager.
 
This problem became very clear to me when I began working as an outreach intern for New Creation Catholic community. Even though they are not a parish, I believe they have the same problems as most Catholic parishes. First of all, they did not have a functioning website. The information was outdated and never updated. To quote Father White, “an outdated website signals ‘out of business'” Why then do so many Catholic parishes not care about the way their website is designed, or the information put on it? Case in point, http://staugustineparish.net is the website of the parish I grew up in. First of all, it is not visually pleasing. Second of all, it is not very organized or interactive. For example, while it does do a decent job at displaying information, most of the information ends with ‘contact so and so.’ Well, what happens if I’m new and don’t know who that is or what if I want to know more about what your community looks like? There are no pictures and nothing to attract me.
 
Compare that web page to this one: http://st-ann.org/home. At the top, I am greeted with mass times, reconciliation, and giving, which is all the information I need as a newcomer. Below that is a slide show with pictures and a read more buttons. This technique is visually engaging. Below the slide show are boxes with pictures and categories. The new here category makes me feel welcome. Below that is a weekly calendar and under that are pictures of parish life and social buttons. The calendar helps me see what is going on and the pictures help me get a feel for the community. While the design is not perfect, it is much better.
 
One way The Catholic Church of St. Ann is able to communicate efficiently is that they’ve hired a Communications/Multimedia Director. This person handles all communication for the parish, which includes the website, the bulletin, social networks, and media. In most parishes, this job is delegated to the Parish Secretary. This person is usually an older woman, who is more familiar with bookkeeping than web design. Yet I am sure there are creative people sitting in the pews, who would love to help design a website or an engaging bulletin.
 
In fact, there is a group called Catholic Creatives, which consists of a collaboration of “Catholic designers, filmmakers, photographers, creative thinkers, artists, entrepreneurs, and others working to bring the gospel to the world in fresh, beautiful ways.” One objection is that parishes have limited resources to work with and that it is expensive to create a beautiful project. I use to think similarly until I started designing for New Creation. I discovered plenty of drag and drop interfaces for websites and if you know a little bit of code, WordPress.org is a free option. Likewise, canva.com is a great place to design anything, but they do have templates for beautiful church bulletins.
 
The church needs more organizations like Catholic Creatives and parishes need to put more time and effort into creative marketing. It might be dangerous, even disastrous at times, but it is much better than to not think creatively.

Finding God in the darkness

An explanation for why there was no post on Monday.

Psalm 139 verse 11-12 If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,  and the light around me become night, even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.

Have you ever experienced complete spiritual darkness? A time, where your world is falling apart and you have no hope? You may even ask, “where is God?” I, unfortunately, know this feeling too well and experienced it again recently. Last week I spent four days in the hospital because I had three blood clots in my leg. One might say that those four days were the darkness, and if it were my first time lying in a hospital bed I might agree; however, the hospital was a sweet relief to the agony of the days prior. The lonely nights spent shivering with a low-grade fever and in excruciating pain staring at the wall wondering if I was going to die. When you are confronted with the reality of death, two very different emotions come to the surface: fear and relief. Fear because I was afraid for who I’d leave behind, my family, my friends, and even people I hadn’t talked to in years. Fear because of the nagging question, “Am I ready?’ Jesus tells us so many times in the gospels to be ready, but how can you be sure? I remember thinking about the small sins that I had committed and had not gone to confession for such as cursing out the HP customer service people. I think the Friday night before. going to the hospital, I prayed that Jesus would have mercy on me, not because I feared punishment, but because I desperately wanted to be with him in heaven. Hence,  the feeling of relief that comes from knowing that death brings an end to pain, suffering, and tears. The idea that I’d finally see Jesus face to face. Yet despite this desire, I furiously did not believe that my life was meant to end; I believed that God still wanted me to do more for his kingdom. It is in this moment that I encountered God and that the darkness became light. My prayer became less about my needs, wants, and fears. Instead, it became about God, “I trust that You, God, have a plan for me and though I may not understand it, it will work out for good because You are good.”
CS Lewis said, “pain is God’s microphone.” I believe this to be true. Through pain, God can speak. In my pain, God wanted my unwavering radical trust, not just in him, but in the teachings of His Church. Let me be very clear, God is not the author of our pain; He does not create it. Rather pain is the result of our fallen world. For the Earth, itself groans in anticipation of redemption (Romans 8:22-24). However, what the devil intends for evil, God can use for good and pain is one of those things. The ordeal has me utterly convinced of the Catholic truth regarding contraception.
You see, from the time I had started my Period until now, I had been on all sorts of types of Birth Control. I had justified it based on the idea that I was not sexually active. Taking of Birth Control for any other reason other than contraceptive purposes is not a sin. I was using it to regulate my period. However, the blood clots in my leg were a direct consequence of taking Birth Control coupled with a sedentary lifestyle. This led me to ask  a question, “is the risk of blood clots and death comparable to the benefits received from controlling a natural process using artificial means?” The answer I believe is no. My mom said it best with regards to her menopause medicine, “there is a 5% chance of breast cancer, why would I take that chance just to regulate a natural process.” However, as finite beings, we understand physical tangible consequences, but fail to understand spiritual consequences. Yet if we rephrase the question, “is the risk of separation from God comparable to the benefits received from controlling a natural process using artificial means?” The logical answer should still be no; however, for me to fully understand and embrace that truth, I needed God to allow darkness to cover me and then make it light.

Let's​ talk about #charlottesvile

Saturday, August 12 began like a normal morning for me. I woke up, ate breakfast, listened to some praise and worship music, and checked twitter. I was bombarded with tweets about race and interracial marriage and #charlottesvile. I was surprised that Charlottesville was trending on twitter. I found out quickly that there had been a riot that Friday evening on the grounds of UVA by the neo-nazi party and the Alt-right. They were protesting the destruction of a Robert E. Lee statue. More fundamentally, they were protesting what they thought was an encroachment on the “white people’s way of life.”  At the time of writing, one person has died and multiple people have been injured. By the time this blog post hits on August 21st, I suspect that #charlottesville will have been replaced by the next greatest tragedy and the incidences in Charlottesville will have been studied (to use the president’s words) ad nauseum. So rather than trying to analyze the how and why this tragedy happened, I’d rather talk about a trend I noticed by people using the #charlottesville.
If you look at the tweets with the hashtag, most of them appeal to this sense of other. For example, this tweet by Bernie Sanders:


In this tweet, Bernie Sanders labeled the white nationalist group as displaying racism and hatred. While this is undeniably true, fixating racism and hatred on one group of people ignore the fact that these attitudes are inherent in all of us. Other tweets blamed the president himself.
https://twitter.com/lucasbros/status/896563770176135168
 
I am not a Trump supporter and I didn’t vote for him. I am not a fan of the speech he gave addressing the Charlottesville riot. For the record, I thought his appeal to the economy was a scapegoat, an excuse not to talk about the real issues. Trump may have given them a voice, but racism existed long before Trump ever became president. However, once again, Twitter posters were quick to point fingers at people other than their own inherent racial assumptions.
Before I reach my conclusion, I want to clarify that I condemn all acts of violence regardless of the reason or motivation. The person, who drove their car into a group of protestors, deserves to be held accountable to the full extent of the law. I also want to express that racism and discrimination are wrong. 
Rather than search for who motivated the acts of violence, what I want to address is what was not being said under #charlottesvile. I did not see a call to repentance even among Christian groups. Racism and hatred are rooted in fear. Perfect love cast out all fear. Thus the only appropriate response is, not to search for someone to blame, but to recognize the monster living in all of us; to recognize that we are one step away from becoming the racist violent protestors.
Condemnation behind a computer screen of particular people can only increase the divide that already exists. If we are Christian, we are called to a much higher and harder standard that of love. We must love those, who persecute us,  turn the other cheek, forgive because they know not what they do. If this is the standard that Jesus calls us to adopt, then we should not point fingers, but strive to see the person. Neo-nazis are people, hopelessly misguided and utterly wrong, but people none the less. Condemn racism, discrimination, and white supremacy, but don’t just condemn the Nazis, and forget about the societal structure that makes racism possible.
My heart goes out to the people of Charlottesville. This is a tragedy that should not have happened. We must condemn racism and discrimination. We must stand for the truth that everyone is a person that deserves equal treatment. However, in the same breath, we cannot condemn a group of people any more than we can condemn ourselves because all of us have seeds of evil in us. We have all contributed to racism and systematic oppression.
For discussion:
1. why was the police presence so light in this case, but not in the BLM protest? Doesn’t this indicate societal assumptions about race?
2. In times like these, how do we remember God’s goodness and love for all of us?
3. How can we turn the tide on systematic racism without resorting to violence?
 
 

Let's talk emotional manipulation

One day last week I wasn’t feeling good. I had a lot of things I wanted to get done, but instead of doing any of them I sat at the kitchen table playing mobile games on my phone. What makes mobile games so addicting? The short, non-complicated answer is that these games were made to trigger the dopamine receptors in the brain so that you would get a reward response. Game makers know how to market their games in order to be addicting. They do this because their ultimate motive is to make money. So they use techniques to emotionally manipulate you into buying the game. These techniques include among other things lights, sounds, and instantaneous rewards.
Also on Sunday, July 30th, I took a non-denominational friend to the Wave. (don’t freak, I went to Mass on Saturday night). First a little background. The Wave is a local megachurch mainly in the Hampton roads area; however, it is branching out into other parts of Virginia. The main campus is located on Great Neck Road,  Virginia Beach.  It was one of the first churches I ever attended and it is where I made my first public declaration of faith. Admittedly I am a bit nostalgic for this church even though I now know better.
When we drove up to the Wave, we were greeted by parking attendants. We asked politely where the handicapped spots are located (the visible ones in the front are taken). The parking attendant told us that there is more handicapped parking on the side. We went there and sure enough, there was one spot left. We headed inside, but not before my friend started taking pictures. I asked, “Are you taking pictures of the building.” “Yes,” my friend replies, “I’ve never seen a church look like this.” Previously my friend had remarked that the church looked like a car sales company. The building is two stories high and the front is cover in glass and the sides are white. No religious imagery at all. The only sign that is indeed a church is the words, “Wave church” above the building. We went inside. There is a lobby area. In front is a giant information desk and to the left and right are couches for people to sit including a newcomers lounge. We passed the information desk and entered into the sanctuary, which in actuality is a large auditorium. In front of the auditorium is a large stage and above the stage are three large screens. One look on my friends face and I could tell that she was overwhelmed, but excited. She took another picture, this time of the stage. The service began. An upbeat song began to play. People were jumping up and down and waving their hands. The songs were accompanied by smoke and stage lights After about 30 minutes, there was the offering message and an announcement video. Then we were told to greet one another and say that “they sang  like an angel.” After that, the message or sermon started.
Regard the message, I really enjoyed it. It was titled, “crashing through walls” and centered around James 1:2, and James 1:12. The pastor talked about the importance of endurance and how you can’t get anywhere without it. I want to take a moment to ask a question that I would have asked the pastor myself if given the chance. Where does endurance come from?  If it is necessary for the Christian life and it is the result of our own effort then how are we saved by faith alone like they profess to believe? If it comes directly from God then why do we need to work through trials at all?
Despite those questions, which didn’t come to me until later, there was a moment where I almost got sucked in. It was towards the end of the sermon, where the pastor said, “I want everyone to raise their hand and repeat after me, ‘I have decided to follow Jesus, no turning back.'” It is in that moment that I was once again swept away. I experienced an emotional high. I had been manipulated to feel certain things in that moment and everything had led me up to that point. The music, the lights, and the message were all designed, just like mobile games, to make me make that declaration to follow Jesus.  It is designed to get me to come back every Sunday so that I can get my fix for the week. The strategy is highly effective as thousands of people pour in every Sunday.  The question remains if church is reduced to an emotional experience, what happens when I, the consumer, am no longer moved? Can the gospel or good news be reduced to marketing tactics? Even if it can, should it be?
Catching Foxes podcast recently said that the greatest sin in youth ministry is emotional manipulation. They talked about how the goal of the minister should be about forming relationships and not be solely motivated to help kids encounter Christ. As I think back on my past experience at the Wave, I think that the greatest problem is that the Wave’s motivation is to seek the lost and to help foster an emotional encounter with Christ. These motivations are not intrinsically bad, but it creates a watered down product that ultimately shallow and worldly.
Christianity is much more than a worship band, stage lights, and lounge chairs. It is about sacrifice and reverence; two characteristics that the marketing business world can’t understand.