Sunday, March 1, 2015

A gaping hole I can't patch

In philosophy, either an argument works or it doesn't.  If every step logically follows the one before, it's a valid argument; if there is even one mistake, you'd better scrap the whole thing.

But when considering something large and complex -- especially one where there are differing opinions -- having acceptable steps isn't quite enough, it seems to me.  Because of course each viewpoint has worked out a set of steps that works for them.  However, each step might be stronger or weaker, depending on how much certainty one has about it.

Let me give an example.  Say I want to know if global warming is real.  (That's something I don't know, which I'd like to!)  I started out that search trying to find a fatal flaw in the argument of either side, but quickly I realized I'd get nowhere.  The arguments are just too complex for that.  Yes, some arguments of each side were flawed.  But of course one could discard the flawed arguments and find other pathways, because they are attempting to prove their point multiple ways.  What I wound up trying to see, in the end, was which viewpoint seemed to hang together better.  Which needed fewer leaps of logic, was more internally consistent, and required fewer "patch jobs" on its mistakes?  So when one side has a very clear explanation for all the facts which tidily accounts for all the other side's evidence as well as its own, I'm willing to believe that.  (With global warming, I'm still not convinced by anybody, for a variety of reasons.)

So, when considering Catholicism, I tend to alternate between zooming in on one argument or issue and then zooming out to consider the whole thing globally.  And in order to consider Catholicism, I have to consider alternate viewpoints.  In short, I'm asking myself, "Which theory accounts better for all of the available evidence?"

Like with global warming, I'm seeing lots of holes in both.  The holes all have patches (or no reasonable person would believe either) but the patches aren't equally satisfying -- some require believing very unlikely things.  Others are even worse: the same hole has half a dozen patches, and the theory's believers argue strenuously against each other's patches!

For instance, Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead, and atheists believe he didn't.  The Christian belief seems to me (on this one question) to be much simpler and clearer than the atheist one, because it requires believing one simple fact which explains all the evidence.  It explains why this one particular messiah claim outlived all the others, why it spread so fast, why its believers possessed such apparent certainty.  To explain these same facts without believing in the resurrection, you would have to patch together a number of theories, some of which don't seem likely.  So there are those who say that the disciples hallucinated the risen Jesus, that they lied and said they had seen Jesus, that Jesus' body went missing and they assumed he had risen (and wrote stronger evidence into their account than they really saw), that perhaps no one even thought Jesus had risen until decades later, or maybe there was actually no Jesus at all.  It seems to me they are still struggling to find a theory that accounts for it all, because each "patch" has its flaws.

But there is a big hole in the Christian view that's bothered me since I was maybe twelve or thirteen.  It's got no end of patches, but each patch is so flawed I am not really sure how to interpret it.

It's the collection of verses in the bible saying that the second coming was going to come within the lifetimes of Jesus' hearers.  Take this, from Mark 9: "And he said to them, 'Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.'"  Or after talking about his second coming, he says, "Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened" (Mt. 24:32).  Here's a collection of the verses I mean. 

Well, the first step is to put each verse in context, which I did, reading the whole chapter before and after each.  He's definitely talking about the second coming.  In some of them, he starts with the destruction of the Temple -- something that really did happen within one generation -- but says that immediately after, the stars are going to fall from the sky, the elect will be gathered together, and the Son of Man will come on the clouds of heaven.  And then he says that this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened.

I read this as a kid, probably the first time I read through the Gospels, and my response was "what gives?"  Did Jesus lie?  Was he wrong?  If he was God, he couldn't do either.

Certainly the apostles believed that he meant literally one generation.  The epistles are full of expectation.  There's hardly a single book in the New Testament that doesn't say the Lord will be returning soon.  Paul seems to assume that he and his hearers will still be alive then:

"Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.
  We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.   According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.   For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever." (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17)

There's lots of stuff like this.  Of course maybe they were wrong, and expected the second coming much sooner than it was going to come.  But we know why they expected it to come soon -- because Jesus said it would!  And one would assume, if they'd misheard him or misunderstood, it would have all been cleared up after the resurrection, when Jesus opened the scriptures to them, or after Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon them.

Some people (called preterists) say that these prophecies have all come true, and we just missed it somehow.  I don't really understand how that would work, though I'm trying to find out.  Mainly their sites are just brimful of proof that if they haven't come true, Jesus is a liar, and therefore they must have.  (This is exactly the sort of thing that isn't helpful!)  But I don't know what sort of reading you would have to force on the verses to make them describe something that did happen, immediately after the destruction of Jerusalem.

Matthew's version says this:
The sun will be darkened,
     and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky,
    and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’
Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth>will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory.And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other."

When did this happen?  How can it have happened without anyone noticing?  Especially since Jesus says, "As lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man."  Not something you could miss.

And then of course there's the number of verses pointing out that the day has not come.  Like this one: "Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters,not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come" (2 Thessalonians 2:1-2).

 So saying that Jesus' gathering of the elect to himself is the Church, or that him being lifted up was the Ascension, or whatever, seems to contradict what St. Paul thought about it.

In fact the "delay" of the second coming was a big problem among the early Church, so far as I can see.  2 Peter addresses it:

"Know this first of all, that in the last days scoffers will come [to] scoff, living according to their own desires  and saying, “Where is the promise of his coming?  From the time when our ancestors fell asleep, everything has remained as it was from the beginning of creation.” They deliberately ignore the fact that the heavens existed of old and earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God; through these the world that then existed was destroyed, deluged with water.  The present heavens and earth have been reserved by the same word for fire, kept for the day of judgment and of destruction of the godless.

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years; and a thousand years like one day. The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard “delay,” but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and the elements will be dissolved by fire, and the earth and everything done on it will be found out."  (2 Peter 3:3-10)

True enough, "soon" could mean something different to God than to us.  I don't have a problem with that.  But "before this generation passes away" is something that should mean the same thing to God as to us.

John was the last of the apostles to die, living long past the destruction of Jerusalem.  Apparently a lot of people thought the end would surely happen before he died--enough that John felt the rumor should be addressed:

"Jesus answered, 'If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.' Because of this, the rumor spread among the brothers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?" (John 21:20-23)

And yet surely not long after John died, there was no one left who had heard Jesus' words still alive.  The promise was officially broken -- and I don't know what people made of that.  As far as I can see they just stopped talking about it.

 Another "patch" -- and this is the one I was taught when I first asked the question -- is that the word translated "generation" might also mean "race."  The Jews won't die out before the second coming.  To which I say, fine, that works, if indeed the word (genea) could be translated that way.  But it changes the meaning of all of Jesus' mentions of "this perverse and foolish generation" into a rant against all Jews.  Why isn't this the word the Bible translators choose to use?  And in every New Testament passage I could find in which the word "genea" is clearly one or the other, it's generation, not race.  Like this, in Hebrews 3, quoting the Old Testament (which was written in Hebrew):

"Today, if you hear his voice, 
   do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion,
    during the time of testing in the wilderness,
where your ancestors tested and tried me,
    though for forty years they saw what I did.
That is why I was angry with that generation;
    I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray,
    and they have not known my ways.’
So I declared on oath in my anger,
    ‘They shall never enter my rest.’"

Who was it who never entered the promised land?  All the Jews?  No, just that generation of the Jews.  That's why they wandered for forty years, to allow the wicked generation to die off.  Likewise we get "from generation to generation," "in generations past," or "fourteen generations."  The concordances don't show this word ever used to mean race.

And, of course, this patch doesn't work on some of the verses, like "some standing here will not taste death."  To twist it and say "he meant spiritual death" is a bit of a stretch, I think, but that's pretty much what you have to do if you want this passage to be literally accurate.

C. S. Lewis said it must be because Jesus, in his humanity, didn't actually know when his second coming would be.  After all he does say that only the Father knows, and not the Son.  But if he doesn't know when it will be, why does he tell them when, broadly, it will be?  The passage seems to read that he doesn't know the exact time, but he does know it will be within the lifetime of some of his hearers.

Honestly, the theory that seems likeliest to me is that the evangelists misrecorded this scene.  It was years later, maybe they didn't remember every detail.  But to convince yourself decades afterward that Jesus told you he was coming again with in a generation, if he didn't really say that, involves a level of error that most of us don't expect to see in the Bible.  The writers of the epistles seem to consider it an essential part of the message, repeated over and over.  If that's wrong (the question arises) what else could they have gotten wrong?

That's where I end; I have no further answers to this question.  But I am eager to hear what you think.  Pages upon pages of google results haven't given me any stronger answers than what I've given you, but if you can think of one, or answer my objections to the patches I've mentioned, I'd love to hear.  All I can say is, it's a very weak point in the whole Christian worldview, almost as weak as the explanations atheists use to get around the resurrection.

My prayer

My plan for Lent was to pray every day, and to that end I stuck the Te Deum to the wall to remind me to say it.  Some days that works well.  Other days it just doesn't speak at all to the things I'm thinking.  So on those days I say something like this:

If you're out there, I want to know it.
If you love me, I want to feel it.
If you came to earth, I want to believe that.
If you rose from the dead, I want to have confidence in that.
If you founded the Church, I want to have absolute trust in it.

And sometimes I add something along the lines of,

Please exist.  The world is better with you in it.
Either way I still love you.

I'm not angry at God for all my doubts.  Instead I wonder if this might be just the particular way in which I'm supposed to be glorifying him.  Didn't Thomas' doubt just give God the opportunity to offer more proof?  He still became a saint, after all.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The darkness

*trigger warning -- if you suffer from anxiety maybe you'd better skip this*

As a kid, I was pretty much a pantheist.  That is, I thought everything was conscious: animals of course, my toys, trees, even my own feet.  I talked to them and imagined they talked back to me.  For awhile I also believed I was psychic and could project my own consciousness outside my body to go find stuff out that was happening elsewhere.

(Take that, Catholics who say "children are naturally religious" and atheists who say "children are naturally atheist."  There are even kids who claim to remember what happened in their past lives.  Perhaps we could just say "kids are still hashing out their metaphysics"?)

Eventually I realized that these ideas weren't strictly true, because other people didn't believe them, but I still assumed them as part of my worldview.  That is, I understood that my toys couldn't hear me, but I constantly imagined they could and resisted any argument that they couldn't.  You know.  Make-believe.

My parents told me about God, of course, and I did believe, because why wouldn't I?  I don't think I put my pantheist worldview together with my Christian worldview particularly .... I just sometimes talked to God and sometimes to trees and sometimes to my multitude of imaginary friends.

I didn't need God.  I had my parents.  My parents would keep me safe and take care of everything, so I wasn't too fussed about God -- I didn't feel bad if I ignored him for awhile, and I didn't ask him for anything.

I can't remember when this changed, or if anything specific happened to make this change.  I just know that at some point, I no longer trusted that my parents could take care of me.  You see, there was this enemy they didn't know about, which I couldn't tell them about, and which they certainly couldn't protect me from.

I'll call it the darkness, but that's my contemporary word for it ... to me at the time, it was a huge dark shape, sometimes bat-like, which came to me at night and hovered over me with a sensation of tremendous weight.  It wasn't a vision .... it was just my personification, in my imagination, of a feeling I was having.  Just a strong feeling of blackness and evil and fear.

I lived with this creature for a long time.  It wasn't always there.  Just sometimes, I'd be distracted from what I was doing and there it would be.  It showed up when I was lonely, or when I'd done something bad, or when I'd seen something that troubled me.  It showed up during or after certain movies ... not the most scary movies, but the ones with troubling undertones.  Some music my dad had, and not other stuff.  Certain people who I had "off" feelings about.  It would all bring that sensation and make me frightened.

As I got older and learned more about the Catholic faith, I decided that this sensation/being was the devil.  And I decided that if I avoided sin and stayed close to God, it couldn't get me.  That isn't why I started getting more religious -- that was more due to conscientiousness, the feeling that it was wrong to be Catholic and take so little interest in my religion -- but it was something that I noticed as I started taking the faith more seriously.  If I was praying, if I was close to God, the darkness went away.  If I did something bad, sometimes it would come back.  Sometimes it came back anyway.

At boarding school it was pretty much gone.  Once in a blue moon there would be a night when I couldn't sleep and I would sense it ... but for the most part, I was never alone.  And God was everywhere, he permeated everything, so surely I was quite safe.

Afterwards, there have been sightings of it.  Not so vivid.  I don't think anything can be so vivid as the stuff you imagine as a child.  In Rome, when I felt overwhelmed by the sights and sounds, and most of all when we took our trip to Florence.  One night home for Christmas, after everyone had gone to bed, and I went into a downright panic.  I was sure the devil was with me in the room.  And because I wasn't sure I was in a state of grace, I had no confidence I could push the devil away.  I was probably 21 years old--this wasn't a childish fancy, but real, serious fear.

Anyway a few months ago, when I first had a day when I felt very strongly that perhaps the whole faith was a lie ... I spent a whole day with my old enemy.  Not so vivid.  But still so terrifying.  It felt like the floor could no longer be trusted to hold me, that the ceiling might fall, that I could die at any moment and then what?

I guess the fear, right now, is the fear that something bad could happen.  Our life on earth is a perilous venture.  People die all the time, for stupid silly reasons.  Children wander into traffic or they get diseases or they die in their sleep.  Crippling anxiety is kind of a feature of being a mother.  But there has always been the feeling that, well, I'm a Christian and so I shouldn't be afraid.  Call God to my side and the darkness will go.  But what if he isn't there?  What if I reach out in the darkness to grab the hand of the person I always thought was walking beside me, and he isn't there?

Hence the panic.  I am curious how atheists handle this reality.  Do they just train their minds to shy away from the possibility, learn to dismiss intrusive thoughts?  That's a skill I've been learning all my life, but sometimes it fails and it is so terrifying when it does.

But here's the real issue.  Based on my post yesterday, which is the summation of thoughts I've had for years, even if God is real, a sense of being protected is only a comforting fiction.  God will not prevent my children from dying.  He will not keep my husband from getting in an accident on the way home.  My effort can make a difference, but it is not possible to be careful enough.  You can half kill yourself trying.  And honestly heaven is not a huge comfort to me.  Heaven or no heaven, if something terrible happens to my loved ones, I still have my whole life to get through without them.

Why do humans turn to crazy superstitions, why do we clutch rabbit's feet and avoid thirteenth floors and black cats?  Because we are so, so afraid.  We'll grasp at any useful fiction to convince ourselves that we are safe.  I suppose I could go back to all my old imaginary friends, create an imaginary God for myself who in my constructed universe actually does keep me safe from the things I'm afraid of.  But I don't want that.  I want a God who will stand up in court.  I want God to be provable in a clear way so that I don't doubt him.  And then I want him to say, "Bad things may happen to other people, but you, YOU are safe."

He isn't going to do that for me.  Whether he can't or he won't, it's demonstrable that he doesn't.  God may be my savior, but he won't be my teddy bear.

Which means that from my reasons to want to be Catholic -- that I want the relationship with God I used to enjoy, that my community is almost exclusively Catholic, that its moral code is excellent -- I have to subtract the most gut-wrenching reason, which is that I don't want to be left alone before the winds of chaos.  There is no rational religion that could give me that, because rationally, there is nothing stopping terrible things from happening to me.

I am not sure what to do with this.  I've been pulling my mind out of the darkness all day today, and all of yesterday, again and again, but the black bat only comes around for another swoop at me.  I just don't know what weapon is going to work on it now.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Prayer and providence

The post I planned to write today was a list of many issues I have with the faith which I was hoping y'all -- or the Catholics among you -- could shoot down for me.

But I reached one issue that I just can't get past.  Something I haven't believed for a long time.

I don't believe God plans or intervenes in my life.

I was raised to think he does.  My family strongly believes they've been guided by God.  Times we were poor and God provided, when we were facing a financial catastrophe and a check just came in the mail.  That, my parents said, was because they put God first in their finances.  They tithed, and so God made sure they were taken care of.

In boarding school I took this to a kind of ridiculous extreme.  Macaroni and cheese for lunch?  Proof that God loves me.  Broccoli casserole?  Proof that God wants me to sacrifice.  When my spiritual director told me it was God's will for me to go home, I believed her.  I was utterly torn apart and miserable, and I was convinced that God was doing this to me.  I wasn't angry.  I just took it as a sign that I wasn't good enough.  I tried as hard as I could and I couldn't make myself good enough.  But, well, God apparently wanted a different kind of person. 

Yes, as a friend pointed out to me recently, I treated God like an abusive boyfriend.  Like many abused girlfriends, I longed to get back with my "abuser" -- because it would be proof that I was good enough after all.  No one but the one who rejected me (not God here specifically, but Regnum Christi) could prove I was good enough.

Later, when I found out what a cult the whole thing was and how it had manipulated me, I made a new narrative for it.  It was my selfish will that had brought me there.  I wanted it, so I chose it, but I chose badly.  And that of course was because I was manipulated by other people, who were using their free will badly.  Not God's fault.  Not God's doing.  It was hugely reassuring to think that all that pain was not God's doing.

But then my mother told me that she was sure it was God's doing after all.  She hadn't had the money to send me, and then "miraculously" the money showed up, so it had to have been God's plan!

This ... upset me very much.  What kind of lunatic abuser does this to a person on purpose?  Even if it makes them a better person!  Still, why?  Is God's main concern to preserve our faith, to the point that he doesn't mind hurting us?  If so, why did he let me go to a place that destroyed my faith?  It's directly because of going there that I find it so impossible to trust anything!  Maybe half the girls I knew there aren't Catholic anymore.  Some attempted suicide.  Why the HELL would God allow that if he loved us?  I use that term advisedly.  I don't believe God would send people to hell because of damage other people did to them.  But wouldn't the simple answer be not to send them to the place where it happened?

So I don't believe that God works that way.  I can't, because it defies credibility.  Every single thing that happens has a cause.  That cause is one of two things: a person's free will, or the laws of nature.  The laws of nature can only be overridden by a miracle, and free will can't be overridden at all.  So when my parents got a check, that check was written by a person, and that person is the cause.  Not God.  The fact that it lined up with the money my family needed was just coincidence.

I used to explain the free will/laws of nature problem by saying God works in probability.  When there's a 100% chance it's going to rain, it'll rain even if you pray.  But if there's a 50-50 chance, God can make it not rain if he wants to.  And this is how I explained how God is in control of whether you get pregnant or not: there's always some chance involved and so God could just make sure the chance worked the right way.

However, I didn't understand that what we call "chance" is usually just a lack of knowledge.  There are complex causes behind everything, and we call it "chance" because from our point of view, it's not possible to know what will happen.  When we roll a die, there is a reason why it comes up six ... something to do with how you held it in your hand and what rotational force you give it and what air currents were going on at the time.  It's not "chance."  In science it's called chaos.

In the same way, if you don't get pregnant, there is a reason.  It's because you didn't have intercourse during the fertile time or because you aren't ovulating or because your hormone levels are too low or because your husband's sperm aren't healthy or perhaps you did actually conceive but the embryo wasn't viable.  There is a reason, every time.  And in my experience, healthy Catholic women get pregnant at fairly predictable intervals.  We say, loudly, that God chooses when we get pregnant ... and then we say "Why isn't so-and-so pregnant yet, her baby is two already!"  No one really believes that God is preventing them from getting pregnant, they assume that so-and-so doesn't want to get pregnant and is doing something about it.  Meanwhile your infertile friend might be given by doctors a 2% chance of getting pregnant, so God could make it happen if he wanted it, but she doesn't no matter how much she prays.

In my observation, God does not give babies to people who can handle them.  He gives babies to healthy women who have sex with healthy partners.  He gives babies to rape victims, to addicts, to women he knows will have abortions.  He knows who each child will grow up to be, and he allowed some pretty terrible people to get conceived.

Miscarriages just make things worse.  If God plans them, you have to say pretty terrible things like "God chose this because you were strong enough to handle it" (I have some counterevidence in the many people who can't) or "God didn't want this baby to live because it was going to grow up to be bad" (why doesn't he do this with all bad people?) or "God needed you to learn something" (why would God kill a child to teach its parents a lesson?).  But it's a very reasonable answer to say "This happened because you have low progesterone" or "There may have been a transcription error in the baby's DNA."  Can't blame God for that, except insofar as he made a universe where miscarriages happen.

Miracles are more of a problem than a solution.  I could accept that God can't intervene in the physical world -- either because it is too complex to intervene without messing it up (something I readily believe) or because this world is under the power of the devil.  But the reality is that God does intervene, if you believe in miracles, and some of these miracles are pretty convincing.  But what is the pattern?  What is the commonality among miracles?  Why does God do them?

He certainly doesn't hand them out often, because there aren't miracles every time people pray for stuff.  And he doesn't seem to mind terribly if good people suffer, because they do across the world and he doesn't give them all miracles.  You could say that he does miracles only to help people believe, but there are so many people who disbelieve -- people who really are trying, in good will, to believe and would if they saw a miracle.  Or you could say that he does them only when people have great faith, but I've known people with astounding amounts of faith pray for a miracle, expect to get it so thoroughly that they just assumed they would, and no miracle appears.

I actually have seen a miracle, so I won't blame my lack of faith on lack of miracles.  When I was in boarding school, a friend of mine was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease.  Slowly her vision got worse and worse, till she was legally blind.  She couldn't read or recognize faces.  Because she was pretty much a genius, she managed pretty well, but eventually she went home because the school couldn't really compensate well for her blindness.  Before she went home, though, she was blessed by Pope John Paul II.

Some months later, she woke up one morning with perfect vision.  She went to the doctor and had it checked -- nope, her eyes were still just as damaged as before.  No healing.  But she could read the chart.  I saw her again later, and we all tested her vision.  It was perfect.  A miracle, right?  But why her?

Was it to give her faith?  No, she had faith.  Was it to give us, or her family faith?  Nope, pretty much all fervent believers.  Was it because she had prayed for it?  No, she hadn't really.  She expected to be blind her whole life and didn't put much effort (so far as I know) in asking for a miracle.  She didn't, as Jesus tells us to in the Bible, really believe it was going to happen.

And why, if she was cured miraculously because of the papal blessing, didn't it happen right away?  Why months later, on a feast day which she considered significant (the Ascension) but not obviously related?

Jesus tells us if we get together with two or three people and ask for anything in the world, if we have faith, it will happen.  But we know this is not literally true.  Pope Benedict and Pope Francis both have faith, can't they ask for world peace or an end to hunger or something?

Okay, so let's assume God gives us intangible things only.  Of course this is non-disprovable and suspiciously handy, but let's assume it.  Perhaps when you pray for strength to deal with your problems, you get that.

And often I do.  However, when I don't, if I put an equal amount of focus and effort in but skip the actual prayer part, it seems to work just as well.  I know people who have prayed and prayed for strength to deal with their problems, not had any success, and then went on antidepressants and that helped.  You could say God provided the antidepressants (and indeed, what a wonderful world, that contains chemicals we can take to make us not feel sad!  thanks, God!) but people who don't pray also take antidepressants and feel better, which then gives them the strength and patience to tackle their problems.

And surely the one thing God wants more than anything is for us to believe, right?  He's rather insistent on that point.

Why then, when I pray for faith, don't I receive it?

Why, when my friends pray for faith, don't they receive it?

Why are there so dang many people who would like to believe, but can't?

I can accept the idea that God created an amazingly complex world, in which every single thing is connected to every other thing, and that he has made things work out in the best way he possibly can.  That's what I understand by Providence, that he made the world support life when it didn't have to, made humans arise when they didn't have to, revealed himself in just enough ways to make some people believe in him, and perhaps (by this course) he will save the maximum number of people it was possible for him to save.  Perhaps if God gave me faith I wouldn't be writing this wonderful blog, which will give faith to somebody God cares about more than me.

But what I can't believe is that praying makes a lick of difference.  Either something is God's will, in which case he'll do it, or it isn't, in which case he won't.  Either way, evidence suggests God does what he pleases.

Maybe this is an okay thing for Catholics to believe, and maybe it isn't.  It certainly seems to contradict a lot of Gospel verses.

All I know is that last week, when I was driving in snow and started to skid, I reflexively prayed "God, let me not crash."  And before I'd even pulled out of the skid, I thought, "It is already determined whether or not I will crash.  My direction and starting velocity, coupled with the quality of my antilock brakes and the friction coefficient of the pavement along my trajectory, will result in me crashing or not crashing, and I don't honestly expect that God will make a miracle happen to affect that result."

Well, I pulled out of the skid fine, as I had pretty much expected to (I was going very slowly, because I was being careful) but my very next thought was, "This is not how the Faith is supposed to work."  I am supposed to rely on God to help me.  Instead I rely on my antilock brakes.  I trust them because they have given me reason to trust them, whereas God seems to have given me reason to believe he'd just let me crash.

The rest of the way home, I skidded a few more times (it was nasty out, I learned my lesson about how fast it gets slick when it's snowing and won't do that again) and I didn't pray, and I didn't crash either way.

I guess I just don't see the point in prayers for petition.  I didn't do them on purpose for a long time, except occasionally when people asked me to because I figured it couldn't hurt.  Lately I'm making a real effort to pray for faith, but I feel kind of stupid because I have no expectation it will help.  Which (if you've been paying attention) means it won't help.  Because I didn't believe it would help.  In short, if you don't already have faith, you're screwed.

If you have faith and read this blog, could you pray for me?  Because if I am wrong and it does work, I'd like some faith please.  If you do, please comment and tell me you did; it would make me feel better if nothing else.  I'm not testing God to see if he'll answer; I know that whether he exists or not he probably won't.  But there's something to be said for the comfort of knowing that, even here on the internet, two or three can still gather in his name and at least try.

Monday, February 23, 2015

An unpayable debt

Socrates defines piety as gratitude for an unpayable debt.  He points out that we all owe our existence to our parents, and therefore we owe them something; in parallel, we also owe debts to the state and to the gods.

When I look at my own existence, relative to the incredible vastness of the universe, I feel dwarfed.  I'm tiny.  I didn't have to exist at all, and it took an incalculable confluence of causes to bring me into existence.  If one tiny thing in the whole universe were different, I might not have been.

This seems to me a very important thing to reflect on.  In the Bible, the book of Job touches on this:

"Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements--surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning starts sang together,
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?"  Job 38:4-7

It's a reminder that we weren't there at our creation.  Even if it were possible to know everything about the universe, we still have to face the reality that we did not create ourselves.  We owe a debt to whatever did -- a debt which can't ever be repaid, because we can't create our creator in turn.

To me it seems clear that we ought to worship our creator -- even if you happen to believe that your creator is a vast, unconscious universe that can't hear you.  Simply on the grounds that you are a conscious, moral being, you have to accept a debt of gratitude to the universe, because if any debt exists, this one surely does.  And I believe it changes you, in a good way, to worship.  It teaches you not to be too proud, too sure of yourself, too ungrateful.  It teaches you to see the universe as a gift.

If I didn't believe in God, I would worship nature, just because it makes sense to me to worship something.  Someone with a healthy respect for nature -- understanding it as an infinitely complex, interdependent system -- isn't going to try to remake nature without hesitation.  They wouldn't genetically modify organisms without asking questions like "can we prove these are safe?" and "what happens if these get loose into the surrounding ecosystem?"  They wouldn't cut a tree without asking, "Can the forest replace the tree I'm cutting?"  They wouldn't take an antibiotic without asking, "What effect will this have on my microbiome, and is there a real need to do this?  Will this create resistant bacteria?"  Not that we should never splice a gene, cut a tree, or take an antibiotic -- but that we should try, as best we can, to calculate the possible results beforehand.  Nature is not simple; don't ever assume you understand it all.

I guess what I'm recommending is humble mindfulness toward nature.  Coupled with this is the understanding that we are one link in a vast chain -- the generation alive today received the earth from the generations that came before, and we want to hand it on to the next generation better than we found it.  What selfishness it would be to say (as some do) "the problems resulting from my action won't kick in until after I'm dead."  Your ancestors left something of the earth left for you; leave something for your descendants.

Likewise (it occurred to me the other day) we ought to have a similar respect for culture.  Culture is also vast and difficult to understand.  Only in retrospect can we see that over-irrigating Mesopotamia was the downfall of at least one civilization, that the invention of the heavy plow led to a population boom, that discovering the New World led to the deaths of thousands from smallpox and other diseases.  So we should look to the past and learn from it, and weigh our actions against their possible results.

That isn't to say we should never attempt to change either nature or culture.  G. K. Chesterton says that when we see something we don't see the point of, we should leave it alone until we do.  So if you see a gate across a road, you shouldn't say "I don't see the point of it, clear it away," because it might be keeping the cows in their pasture.  First find out why the gate was there, and you may find that reason no longer applies and you should clear it away.  But if there is a gate there, at some point someone had a reason for building it -- it should be presumed necessary until you find out it isn't.

In the same way, culture is a constantly evolving thing, and those aspects which last are usually adaptive in some way.  For instance, a stigma on extra-marital sex existed to make sure that all children had parents to take care of them.  Before throwing it out, maybe ask if we've come up with another solution to that problem yet, or if continence outside of marriage really is the best system available.  Or popular piety -- "superstition," as I often call it, because some of it is quite irrational -- is it possible that it works on a part of our mind that is less logical, and thus binds us to our moral code more firmly than rational arguments could?

If you know why these things exist and think you would manage better without them, be my guest.  But until you understand the complex interrelations of nature, culture, and your own mind (an inner space fully as ineffable as nature itself), perhaps it's best to be a little humble and accept what you've got.

This is one of the reasons why I continue to practice even parts of the Catholic Faith I don't fully understand.  The Catholic Church is an extremely fit adaptation to humanity and the world, by the mere fact that it is so popular (and it very well might be so well-adapted because it was designed, I am not trying to dispute that) and it might be well to ask, why does it work so well?

While I contemplate this question, it seems a very reasonable conclusion to stick with it.  Because deep in my being I have a very strong sense that it is wrong to break what you don't understand.

Friday, February 20, 2015

7qt - lightning strikes twice!


What are the odds that our washing machine would break and we would run out of heating oil in the same week ... TWICE?

Actually pretty good, if both have the same cause.

You may remember that our washer started smoking and our friends gave us a new one, which leaked at first but after some tinkering stopped leaking.  Well, the other day we went to wash some clothes in this new, not-broken washer ... and it started smoking.

After some thought, and differential diagnosis, we realized that the commonality between those two events was that it was bitterly cold both times.  Our washing machine is in an unheated, poorly insulated addition .... most likely some water had frozen inside its innards and stopped the whole thing from working.  The motor or pump or something was burning out trying to move water that was actually ice.

That makes me feel particularly terrible, because it means it's our fault for running it in low temperatures, and we must be dumb not to have thought of this (I mean, the water did run in okay!), and surely after the first time we should have figured this out!

On the other hand, it means that all we have to do is wait for it to get warm and then try it to see if whatever damage we did to it is reversible.

However, the forecast is NOT promising.  Perhaps we will be able to wash clothes again in March.  Certainly I'm not buying a new washer to put in our below-freezing laundry room so I can ruin that one too!

Unfortunately when I told the kids "the washer doesn't work" they seem to have heard me say "potty training is for chumps, poop in EVERYTHING."  So I am washing a lot of clothes in a bucket. 


A couple days after this I woke up to icy temperatures at four in the morning.  I worried the furnace must be broken, because no way could we have run out of oil already, but nope, we really did blow through 100 gallons of oil in a month. It's been COLD.

We called the oil company and they were miffed at us.  I guess a lot of people must be running out of oil at the same time.  It was Wednesday and they said they hoped they could get to us by the end of the week.  Yes, despite the forecast for four degrees overnight!  They figured we and our small children could just hang on till Friday.  They recommended we go buy some diesel and stick that in there.

The kids and I suffered through the day (how sacrificial!) and after work John went and got some diesel, so we were all right.  The oil truck finally came Thursday evening, to much rejoicing and gratitude. 

Only the heat failed to turn on after that.  Apparently diesel and heating fuel are different enough that the furnace had to be reset.  John was out all evening at a political thing, so imagine me running around feeding dinner to the kids, getting them ready for bed, and periodically putting my foot on the heat register to see if it was blowing .... and finding it wasn't.  I check the thermostat .... 65 degrees, it really should be kicking in by now ... 62 degrees, isn't this fast for the temperature to be dropping?  The windows are rattling and it seems like that wind is blowing right in, so I resolve I'm not going to wait for John, I'm going to go down cellar and see if it's just a button I can push or something.

It was COLD out there.  I mean, WOW.  Wind just tearing through.  Our cellar entrance is outside, so I go through Marko's room, through the laundry room, outside, down the icy stairs, open the giant wooden cover, go down more stairs, unlock the cellar in the pitch black darkness, flick on the light, and start inspecting the furnace.  I have been told it has a reset button, but I don't see one.  Look on all sides, no button.  Cuss a bit to myself.  (This is me we're talking about, so I think I said "frick.")  I hear the kids crying upstairs so I go back up.

I try calling John, but get no answer, try texting, put kids into pajamas.  I stick the kids in front of a movie, give Miriam a toy, and go back down.  Still not finding a button.  Come back up to the phone ringing -- John calling me back.  He says there is a handle on the back of the furnace, pull it and the cover comes off, under that there is a red button, push and hold for three seconds.  I can do that.

I go back down, get under the cover, and there isn't just a button, but a whole array of stuff.  Since it's dark back there, I can't see anything red.  Just a bunch of shapes.  I just push on all of them, finally I find the dang button.  I push it and hold to a count of six just to be sure, and the furnace kicks in!  Hooray!  I close everything up, lock it, come inside ... and dangnabbit if that furnace hasn't somehow died or turned off or something!  Because what it is not doing, is blowing.

Too late to go back down, Miriam is wailing and she really has to be put to bed.  I put her to bed, she wakes up instantly because the bedroom is freezing. That means I have to handle Michael's bedtime (which consists of manhandling Michael into the bedroom and staying there until he's asleep) with Miriam in my arms. Not my favorite, but soon they are both asleep and I manage to put Miriam down this time.  Then I get Marko into bed, which requires a lot of whispered bargaining about how many stuffed animals he gets and how big a crack the door is left open.  I put on some fuzzy socks and start making myself hot chocolate because I am FREEZING, when John finally comes home.

He goes down to the cellar, pushes the button, it starts up and dies just like before.  But when he does that a couple more times, it finally works.  Apparently sometimes it has to be restarted multiple times.  I guess at least next time I will know what to do!

Despite my utter failure in getting the heat back on, I'm a little proud of myself for even braving our cellar.  It is a cold, dark, and scary place where there totally might be spiders. 

Today I am sitting with my feet on the heat register whispering, "I promise I will never take you for granted again!"

Because, seriously, one might be tempted not to be grateful for our modern conveniences, but when you have to be without them, you learn just how dependent you are.  Still.  Our dream house will have a wood stove AND backup electric heat.  Imagine Scarlett O'Hara saying "I will never be cold again!"


The funny thing is, I'm dealing with all this nonsense, and it's just not getting to me.  On Wednesday I was curled around a hot brick, wrapped in a blanket, and periodically getting up to agitate my bucket laundry load, and all I could think was "on the bright side, I'm exempt from fasting!"

But really, the kids have been great lately and Miriam continues to take actual naps (if not always as long as I'd like) and so I don't feel I have anything to complain about.  I would much rather wash laundry in the bathtub than have two children screaming to be on my lap at once.  The one is just hard work; the other is emotionally distressing, to say nothing of the sensory overload.  And you can brag about all the laundry you did, whereas it doesn't sound impressive to say "I accomplished nothing today because I was holding a cranky baby."  Even though it actually is exhausting.


Miriam is crawling now.  Have I told you that?  Last week she was hunching herself up onto her knees and then lunging forward.  Now she is army crawling.  It sort of depends on what she is wearing though.  Nudity works best, but in this weather, on our hardwood floor, I'm mostly keeping her in pajamas.

And she is fast.  I am already having to drag her away from Marko's paper when he's drawing on the floor.  Yesterday one of the kids left a bowl of sauerkraut on the floor and she grabbed it and started stuffing her face.  I am not sure whether she managed to swallow any or not.  (Can you say third child?)


That wouldn't be her first food, though, because we gave her green beans a couple of days ago.  She just looked so jealous of us, and she is about six months now.  I thought she'd never be able to get them in her mouth, let alone swallow any, but I think she did.

Really I should give some thought to what I want to introduce instead of randomly grabbing vegetables off our plates and giving them to her.  Probably egg yolk would be good.  My "parakeets" produce some really deep orange ones, so they must be healthier than store eggs.

Because if I don't give any thought to it, odds are good she's just going to trail along behind the boys, hoovering up animal cracker bits and apple cores.  Poor neglected baby.


Marko's doodle of the other day.  He asked me to spell "weeping angel."

What he wound up writing: MEEPING ANGELO.

You can see our friend Meeping Angelo in the bottom left, with big dark eyes and his hands over his face.


Michael and I have reached a compromise about nursing.  He only nurses once a day.  Once he's nursed once he can't nurse again till the next day.  So the instant he sees my face in the morning he starts demanding it.  If I want a glass of water first, or to go potty, there's all sorts of fuss.

The other day he was nursing, and started to hum ... I recognized the theme for the Daleks.

Pro tip: when your kid is able to hum, in tune, movie themes while nursing, it might be time to stop.

Then again, it was probably time to stop last freaking year.  Oh well.  Once a day costs me very little and it's apparently very important to him.  I wonder if I would have any luck telling him that three-year-olds don't nurse so he has to stop on his birthday?

No matter how I wean him in the end, it's going to take a lot of tears, I suspect.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Degrees of certainty

The trouble with being a well-catechized Catholic is that you know too many details, and all of these hang together.  For that reason, uncertainty about any minor theological point can discredit your entire religion.

I don't want to take that approach, because it seems to me quite likely that some stuff is true and other stuff isn't.  So I've spent some effort trying to sort out what things I believe, and how sure I am about each.  Some things, I'm very sure about -- including pretty much all moral issues.  I get my point of view on morals from my conscience -- which, for sure, is formed by having been brought up Catholic -- and I don't think I can go wrong following that guideline.  (And yes, I think that's the "Catholic thing" to do -- more than one pope has pointed out that conscience is always primary.)  Other things I do believe, but have a higher degree of doubt about them.

I believe:

That I did not create myself -- absolute certainty.  That is the one thing I can know for sure.  And from this follows a moral conclusion, that I owe a debt of gratitude and worship to whoever or whatever did create me. 

That the entity that created me is conscious -- near certainty, most days.  It's just a little too convenient, that the universe would have exactly the set of rules, the mass, the amount of energy, and so forth required to create the earth, life, and intelligence.  Those odds are vanishingly small.  The one doubt in my mind about this is because I know the tendency of humans to see design where there is none, because our brains are geared to recognize patterns.  For instance, we see faces just about everywhere.  When I was in boarding school I was convinced that I had found my name written in the marble tiles of the chapel floor.  Of course the marks on marble are random, but even random things can seem to form a pattern to a human eye.  But on the whole, the universe does look designed to me -- not in terms of seven-day creation (I believe in evolution) but in its system parameters.  A slight change in those parameters would have resulted in chaos or collapse . . . only this specific universe we live in could have exploded into such a complex, beautiful thing.

That this entity is concerned with humans specifically -- near certainty.  Like I said, what are the odds?  And why make us conscious, moral, religious, and attracted to beauty if He didn't mean to have something to do with us later?

That God has been attempting to interact with us throughout history -- pretty sure.  The story I get out of the Old Testament is of the idea of God surviving despite all kinds of threats from within and without.  There's this insanely complex and frankly weird legal code, which contains just enough "cultiness" to keep the chosen people separate from everybody else, and also the sort of symbolism that could make sense of the redemption.  The redemption is hard to explain in one-syllable words ... but God didn't try.  The only conclusion I can draw is that he really did take thousands of years to prepare a group of people who could understand it.

That most of the "historical" events in the Old Testament really happened -- highly doubtful.  Most historians, so far as I've read, believe the historical books straight up through the book of Kings were written centuries after the events they describe.  And that actually comes as something a relief to me -- it seems to suggest that they were never intended as a straight-up chronicle, but rather a legendary story.  Intent of the authors is important in interpreting scripture, right?  And since God's behavior throughout the Old Testament is strange, sometimes seeming cruel and unfair and other times plain self-contradictory, I'd much rather see it as somewhat mythologized from what God actually said and did.  I guess I describe my view as "God tried to explain himself to the Israelites, but they got pretty mixed up about what he'd said by the time they got around to writing it down."  I sure hope this is okay, because it's one of my main struggles ... I simply can't make myself believe a lot of those stories.  Other parts make God seem like an arbitrary, unloving sort of being -- not at all how he is described in the New Testament.

That the events in the New Testament happened -- reasonably sure.  Most everyone agrees by now that the Gospels were written before 100 AD, possibly quite a bit before, and the epistles were written even earlier.  That means that when they were written, there were eyewitnesses still alive who could counter inaccuracies.  I could not today write a book stating that President Eisenhower fed 5,000 people with five loaves and two fishes, because there are plenty of people around who could testify against me.  Basically no one denies that Jesus was a real person who really did have a massive following and was really crucified by Pontius Pilate.  There were no end of preachers and revolutionaries and prophets at the time -- Jesus is the one that everyone remembered.

That Jesus rose from the dead -- can't get around it.  That is to say, the idea blows my mind, it seems incredible, and yet I can't find an alternate explanation.  Why would all of those witnesses go to their deaths rather than recant?  I know how cults work.  I know how people can convince themselves of some crazy, crazy things.  I know about Jonestown and how all those people drank poisoned Kool-Aid because their leader told them to.  And yet, what you don't always hear is that many of them refused to drink it and were forced to drink it by others.  Some ran away into the jungle, which is why we know what happened at all.  And probably none of them would have drunk it if they hadn't all been together, egging each other on.  They had reason to believe their leader was telling them the truth -- that they would all be brainwashed by fascists if they didn't commit suicide first.

None of this holds true for the apostles.  They had time, alone, in prison, away from other influences that might hold them to their beliefs.  They weren't given sweet koolaid to down in a second ... they were tortured, set free, tortured again, locked up, over and over.  Each of them had a chance to deny Jesus.  Not one did.  Not ONE.  And they should have known.  Their founder wasn't on the scene to call the shots.  They were the leaders now.  They were in a position to know if they were lying.  Cult leaders don't go down with the ship, not when they have a choice.

That the Catholic Church is the descendant of the community of believers started by Jesus -- not much doubt there.  We do believe the same things the Church Fathers believed, a generation or two after Jesus, if it is also to be admitted that we believe a lot more things than they ever wrote about.  There is a direct line you can trace from any priest, to the bishop who ordained him, straight back to the Apostles.  (The Orthodox can do it too, I think, and some but not all Anglicans.)

That the Catholic Church is infallible -- some doubt.  It seems a bit circular to me.  The Church declared itself infallible.  If it didn't have the authority to do that, it couldn't give itself the authority just by saying so.  I admit that the idea of infallibility wasn't invented wholesale at Vatican I; it has a long tradition behind it.  But can it be entirely certain that everything from "when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers" to "where Peter is, there is the Church" was exactly the same thing as infallibility as currently understood?  Because there's just so much out there.  And it makes me very nervous to realize that whenever there's an apparent conflict, the answer is always "that was never infallible in the first place" or "it was never meant to mean that."  For instance, we now believe that there is no salvation outside the Church in a very difference sense than the one it was originally expressed in, but no one wants to admit that it's different.  There's no infallible list of infallible teachings, so everyone is free to believe in the set of teachings that they think is infallible.  It seems a little too hard to be sure you're not a heretic.  And the stuff that we're being taught now -- are we going to be told, centuries hence, that they didn't really mean it that way?

Infallibility is just one of those things that trips all my cult detectors.  What cult worth its salt wouldn't claim to be always right, if it thought it could get away with it?   And yet it's one of those culty things that is sort of required for any religious group to survive -- as Catholics will always remind you, look at the Protestants!  They don't have a central authority and so they splinter.  You can never be sure you have the right set of beliefs.  So doesn't it make sense that God would provide a way to stop this from happening to the Church?

But if you look at the vast difference between a liberal Catholic and a traditionalist Catholic, it makes me suspect that having an infallible pope hasn't actually stopped us from being divided.  Not just on unimportant stuff like whether Mary really appeared at Fatima, but vital stuff like "Does God punish the sinners in hell?" or "What proportion of people are saved?"  I know Catholics who think pretty much everyone goes to heaven and are able to defend that belief, and I know Catholics who think that hardly anyone does and are able to defend that too.

Is it just a balance we've struck here?  It could be, but it seems very odd to me that we have an infallible teaching about whether Mary was immaculately conceived (which doesn't even matter, so far as I can see) and not one about whether God cares more about believing the right things or about doing the right things.

Anyway, that's my attempt at a summary of what I believe and how much I believe it.  It's my determination that, if something is true, God desires me to believe it, and therefore I also want to believe it.  If I am wrong, I hope I figure it out.  From the best I can determine, this wish keeps me from being a formal heretic or dissenter.

Well, let's hope.  I do my best.
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