Saturday, November 28, 2015

Jesus, my ex-boyfriend

Sometimes I read stories by former Christians in which they say they never had the sort of relationship with God that they thought they were supposed to.  De-converting just gave them permission to stop trying to hard to make a relationship happen -- they lost nothing.

But I think a big part of why I've put so much effort into this whole thing is that I did once have a relationship with God that was everything I could have wanted.  And it's the loss of that feeling of relationship that makes my current state so hard.

It started when I was twelve and had my "conversion" to taking my faith seriously.  I spent time in prayer daily.  Reading and reflecting on the Gospels, particularly at Regnum Christi events and activities, made me feel like I was getting to know Jesus more and more.  I had been so lonely before, and here I was learning that someone was always with me, someone who loved me unconditionally.  It didn't seem too much to change my whole life around for this.

Before long I'd received what I thought was my "call" to the consecrated life, and I responded . . . exactly how you'd expect a twelve or thirteen-year-old girl to respond: with enthusiasm and a lot of sentimental daydreams.  I wrote poems about being married to Jesus.  I drew pictures of myself in "consecrated clothes."  I even stopped wearing pants most of the time and stuck to skirts.  And I gave the brushoff to a very nice guy who was hanging around me, because I already had a boyfriend -- a better boyfriend.  And I no longer even desired any kind of sin, because why would I cut myself off from my best friend?

At boarding school, the whole Jesus-is-my-boyfriend thing was emphasized and encouraged.  We were discerning the consecrated life, i.e. marriage to Jesus, so naturally we were dating Jesus.  I took that very seriously, even when I wasn't as serious about the school rules.  Jesus loved me and wanted my whole heart for himself, so I refused to even think about other guys.  For the most part I did not need direct communication -- I mean, he created the whole earth, so flowers, trees, my favorite hymn in church, everything was a love note from him.  But on silent retreats sometimes I felt extra close to him.  (Pro tip: if you want the serious highs from "the opiate of the masses," go on silent retreat!  Bliss is not guaranteed, but you might get some.)

When I was told to leave, it was the direct contradiction of every communication I'd ever thought I'd received from Jesus.  It was impossible for me to believe that God had not really called me.  But it was also impossible to believe that he could call me and then not make it possible for me to answer.  I read Story of a Soul and was encouraged by St. Therese's persistence -- but all my persistence went for nothing, because they wouldn't take me back.  Finally my spiritual director told me that she was sure God's will for me was marriage, and that was it.  Jesus had dumped me.

I mean, sure, he let me down easy.  He said we could still be friends.  But who has ever been comforted by a let-down like that?  I wanted more, but apparently I wasn't good enough for him.  Prayer was never a comfort to me again, after that.  It was just a reminder of all the things wrong with me, the things I should be doing.  And guilt, for not being happy about the situation.  After all, Jesus still loved me.  He had still died for me.  But .... there was always that fact between us, that either I wasn't capable of understanding him, or he played me for a fool by leading me on with dreams he had never intended to satisfy.

See, Jesus had been a kind of terrible boyfriend, even from the beginning.  All the control in the relationship was always his, and he seemed to get off on keeping me guessing.  While I shared all my secrets with him, he remained uncommunicative.  Sometimes it felt like he wasn't even paying attention.  And the reality was, he had all these other girlfriends, and some of them were good enough for him to marry, but not me. 

So I eventually dropped talking to Jesus at all -- not knowing how to relate to him post-breakup -- and focused on God the Father.  But it didn't really help; God doesn't exactly act like the average decent dad either.  Now that I've been both a spouse and a parent, I can't see that God fits into those roles very well.  The relationship a person has with God is not truly comparable to any earthly relationship, because there is no healthy earthly relationship where one person has all the power and insists on keeping it that way permanently.  God is entirely different, and therefore it's difficult to know how to relate to him at all.

But now, I feel all the pain of that original breakup all over, because throughout it all, I had assumed that God did love me, I just didn't understand it and didn't feel it.  But if he wasn't there at all, through any part of it -- if all my fervent teenage love was poured out on nobody?

I guess it's how a catfishing victim feels -- they fall in love, in real love, and later find out that not only was their love not returned, but the object of their love never existed.  I was about to say "I can't imagine the humiliation," except I kind of can.

Up till this year, even when prayer was a struggle or downright painful and even when I spent all of my time feeling guilty for not wanting to talk to God more, I felt comfort in the idea that at least he was out there.  That if I needed to talk to somebody, I'd never be completely alone.  That whether or not I felt it, I knew for certain fact that someone did love me, did care, did notice.

It's not a certain fact anymore -- in fact, I'm uncertain enough that any attempts at prayer seem to hit the ceiling and fall back down, like Hamlet's uncle's.  (Make of that what you will, Enbrethiliel.)  It's the loneliest feeling in the world, and I don't know how to get used to it.  I'm in mourning, mourning for the truth I thought I knew, the relationship I thought I had, the love I used to be so confident in.  It's like losing a friend.

And maybe God's still out there.  Maybe he cares.  But I'm at a loss as to how his actions, or lack of actions, can possibly be consistent with caring about me.  And since I can't actually suspend judgment about whether he's there or not, I mostly imagine he's not.  There are times when I try to make the world settle back into the comforting harmony of God-breathed creation, but it just won't come into focus because I have too many reasons not to believe in it.

But the embarrassing thing is, even after all he's done to me, I'd still take Jesus back in a heartbeat if he showed up on my doorstep.  He's one of those guys you just don't get over.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Life is unsatisfactory

It isn't human nature to be contented. 

After all, pleasure doesn't exist for its own sake.  It exists to drive us toward those things that are good for us -- whether food or water or companionship.  We know those things will be pleasing, so we seek them out.  But our brains can drive us just as efficiently with the desire for them, as with the pleasure of attaining them.  Or they can simply make us uncomfortable with the lack of them.

But even when you attain it, pleasure is always fleeting.  When you come in from the cold, sitting by the fire is wonderful, but after a few minutes you no longer notice it, and a few minutes after that, you're too hot and have to move.  Eating is fun, but you can't spend your whole life eating.  You can spend hours being hungry, preparing a nice dinner, and it doesn't take you more than half an hour to eat it.  Enjoyment is always more intense when it's a big change from something unpleasant -- eating when you're starving, coming inside when you're cold -- and without some amount of suffering to mix it up, you're not capable of enjoying anything very much.

Because we're constantly rushing through time, unable to slow it down, tiny moments of beauty and joy flash by before you can really appreciate them.  You can spend all year saving for a vacation, but the vacation's over in two weeks.  Just surviving takes a lot of your effort -- at least eight hours a day for most of us, even in this decadent modern age.

And at almost every moment we are alive, we want something that we don't currently have.  It's the nature of being human, to always want to stretch for something further than we possess.  We wouldn't achieve very much without this drive.  But at the same time, it spoils many moments that would otherwise be very pleasant.  The person who makes $20,000 a year feels he'd be perfectly happy if he only made $30,000, but when he finally reaches his goal, he thinks surely he'd be happier if he made $40,000.  We often put off our happiness for some later date when we have what we want, but there's always something we want.

I'm not saying all this to be depressing.  Life is mostly not too bad.  But it's unsatisfactory, which is why we all dream of a second life where we could actually be satisfied. 

I deal with this basic unsatisfactoriness in two ways.  First, I set my goals on things that don't fade.  Pleasure is the briefest of all possible goals to strive for -- you could spend your life chasing it and still be without it most of the time.  So I don't spend much effort on that.  But the satisfaction of a job well done lasts a good bit longer.  The knowledge that you love and are loved, that is something you can keep with you all the time.  And making an actual contribution to the lives of others is the longest-lived of all -- because it can last even longer than I will.  My whole life, it will never cease to be true that I brought three beautiful humans into the world and gave them all the love I could.  And I imagine it will always be a comfort to me to remember that.

The second way is just gratitude.  I refuse to delay happiness to some later date -- I will look around at the happiness that is already here and make a point to enjoy it and feel grateful for it.  It makes me sad that a flaming red leaf has to fall from the tree so very soon.  But it's less of a tragedy if I actually saw it and appreciated it before it fell.  Sometimes I get caught up in the things that I fear, the things that make me angry, the things that I want, that I can't see the good things around me right now.  But when I stop and notice my life -- full of small good things, free from want, overflowing with love -- I can't help but be happy. 

Life may be unsatisfactory -- perhaps it was meant to be -- but that doesn't mean it can't be good.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Conversation is a team sport

... And, like all team sports, I stink at it.

A good conversation is like a good basketball game -- everyone's passing the ball around like lightning.  The conversation moves fast but stays more or less on topic.  There aren't any long, awkward pauses but there are chances for everyone to get a word in if they want to.

See, I know what it looks like.  It's just that, exactly like in basketball, it always seems to move just a beat faster than I can follow.  If I ever get the ball, it's hard enough to remember to dribble it, much less simultaneously look out for an open teammate.  If you're not following the metaphor, what I mean is that I seem to have only two settings: talking and listening.  If I'm listening, I can't seem to speak up.  If I'm talking, I struggle to shut up.  I get on a topic and just go, while everyone's eyes glaze over.

I first noticed this in boarding school -- which was the first time in my life I spent large amounts of time in group conversations rather than one-on-one.  (As the youngest, I didn't talk that much at family dinners, and in school I was more listening to the conversation of the cool people.)  I would get very excited about the conversation topic and talk too much.  I didn't really notice until one of the consecrated pointed it out to me.  She said I should imagine I was above the table, looking down on myself and the others, and see if I noticed anything.  I think her point was to call my mind to one specific socially-awkward thing I was doing, but once I got in the habit of trying to imagine what I might look like on the outside, I got very embarrassed.  It didn't make me smooth, but I did talk less. 

Boarding-school conversations were very controlled: whether at break or at mealtime, there were always 3-5 girls and a consecrated.  Topics were pretty slim: pretty much just talking about our families or sharing anecdotes.  We couldn't talk about anything personal, because that should be shared with our spiritual directors; or about our health, because that's rude; or anything negative, because that's complaining.  I liked to talk about what we were learning in school, but most people didn't like that either.  And the consecrated usually did the directing of the conversation to make sure no one dominated it or talked about something they weren't supposed to.  It wasn't exactly good training in conversation-having, because it was a type of conversation never seen elsewhere.

For years after boarding school, I stressed out over how much I talked.  I figured it was a sign of selfishness that I tended to dominate the conversation, and yet once I got into a conversation I couldn't seem to focus very clearly.  Walking away from a conversation, I'd always think, "There I go again, being selfish."  You see, to my mind, talking is a selfish thing to do and listening is selfish, because everyone enjoys talking and listening is hard.  It was a huge relief to me to find out that some people would rather listen.

Still, in a conversation with a lot of people, I struggle.  If it's a bunch of extroverts, I can never manage to participate at all.  I wait for an opening, open my mouth, and boom, someone else is talking.  Or I come up with something clever to say on the topic that was just under discussion, but by the time I get a chance to say it, we've moved on through three more topics.  The pace is too much and eventually I either tune out or wind up in a side conversation.  If it's a bunch of introverts, the pauses seem way too long and awkward so I jump in with something I think will be interesting ... but no one joins in so after awhile it's just me monologuing.  Which I don't even enjoy, and then I realize I'm doing it and get super embarrassed.  So I stop, and then silence falls, so I feel awkward, and off I go again!

With two people it's so much easier.  Sure, I still talk a lot, but as long as the person I'm talking with is willing to interrupt and redirect, I don't totally dominate the conversation.  Even if they're not, with constant practice I am getting better at remembering the sort of questions I should ask, like "How have you been?" and "What about you, what's your favorite Christmas carol?"  And having the nerve to let a pause stretch past when it feels awkward for me, which seems to be how long I have to leave to let other people marshal their thoughts.  I guess my awkward-pause timer is miscalibrated.  It helps that I have a few good friends to practice with.

But you can kind of see why I spend so much time on the internet.  Here, posting is considered the generous thing to do, and reading is more of a selfish thing because it requires less effort.  When you take the time to write a long, thoughtful comment on something, people don't say, "Hey, give other people a chance," because the beauty of the internet is that everyone has a chance.  My talking doesn't stop anyone else from talking.  It's a service, providing content for people to read -- or even not read, if they'd rather not!  Unlike in-person conversation, people can just skip straight past what bores them and I don't  have to worry about trying to interest everyone.  I can just interest a few people, and everyone else doesn't have to read it if they don't want to.

I don't know why conversation is so hard for me.  Maybe it's because I was brought up in a small family where most conversations were dialogues.  Maybe it's because there's something funky with my brain that makes focusing on that many things hard.  But the more I talk with people about it, the more people have said, "Me too.  I find group conversation hard, too."  Some of them clam up.  Some run their mouths like me.  Some people seem perfectly suave and then beat themselves up when they get home.  So maybe it's just that trying to talk to a bunch of people at once is hard, it's a learned skill, and we're all getting the hang of it.  It's okay and we don't all have to sound like the cast of Big Bang Theory, taking turns firing off witty repartee.  We can just talk, share stuff, enjoy each other's company. 

If people interrupt me because they find me boring, I don't mind a bit; and if they monologue for awhile about a topic no one else knows about, I really don't mind, because I'm interested in everything.  So maybe people don't find me such a bore as I worry they do.  Maybe they, like me, are much too busy worrying about how they're doing at it.  If you know me in person, let's make a pact: I'll try to make it a good conversation for you, you do the same for me, and let's not think the less of each other when we don't always succeed.  Talking is hard.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Erasing the grayzone

I've been reading up on ISIS lately, which I didn't do when it first started hitting the news because I was in such a bad place emotionally I couldn't handle it.  I'm doing it now because sheltering refugees is such an issue and I want to educate myself.

An interesting article, which I can't find now, described ISIS as opposed to the emigration of anyone from its territories.  Specifically, the writer claimed that ISIS wanted to "erase the grayzone" -- convincing people that there was no choice but to either apostasize from Islam or to come to their territory and join them.  They want Western nations to reject Muslim refugees and treat them badly, because this way people have to come join ISIS since there are no other options.

I'm not really concerned about arguing this point at the moment (who needs MORE blog posts about this controversy?) so much as considering the whole concept of erasing the grayzone.  I've written about this before, in my post on progressive religion.  It seems that whenever there is some sort of halfway house in religion, there are people who want to wipe that out.  Nonmembers see that halfway house as inconsistent and dishonest, and anyway, if there's an extremist version of your religion, then you're suspect even if you are more progressive than they are.  So they say "the real Islam is violent" and hope that this will get people to ditch the progressive halfway house and leave Islam.  Meanwhile the extremists hate the progressive version even more, because people are benefiting in some way from being attached to their religion -- keeping up traditions that are important to them, having spiritual experiences, and so on --  without doing the sort of heavy lifting the extremists are doing.  So they say "the real Islam is violent" in the hopes that people will want to keep the Islam, so they'll embrace the violence.

Basically, those little tricks that keep a person in a religion are being outmaneuvered by a strategy of "stay in the religion, but cherrypick the parts that I object to."  Extremists want to close this loophole so that people are forced to jump one way or the other.  Maybe most will jump away from them, but there will always be those who don't see that as an option.  They're attached to their religion, on the one hand: they've had experiences of God within it, they've dedicated a lot of their life to it, their family will shun them if they leave it, and of course they want to see their deceased loved ones someday.  But on the other, they've been shown there are some contradictions in their progressive compromise with their religion, while this extremist group has the real deal.  Well, if they want their religion, they want the real deal, right?  So they jump toward extremism.

The process of Islamic radicalization is familiar to me, because it's no different from the way you radicalize a Catholic, though of course the makeup of the radical version is luckily not so violent.  But I've watched people go to college and start attending the Latin Mass and then the next thing you know, they're arguing in favor of theocracy.  Or they start watching Michael Voris and pretty soon all their posts are about communion in the hand.  Heck, I was "radicalized" myself, when I got into Regnum Christi.  I already liked my faith, and here were these people saying that if I wanted to really live up to it, I should be spending every minute, every breath, to further Christ's kingdom.  It's convincing because it's true.  It actually follows.  If a religion is true, then extremism in defense of it is no vice.  Morality comes from God, so there is no moral law that can't be disobeyed if you can be convinced that God wants it.

That's not to say that it's always begrudging -- that people don't want to be radicalized.  Probably some don't.  But some of them feel frustrated with the way no one takes seriously the only thing in life that's supposed to matter.  Or they are attracted by the idea, sadly rare these days, of dedicating one's entire life to a cause.  It certainly appealed to me.  I hope that if I had been raised Muslim I wouldn't have been running off to join ISIS -- but I can't say for sure that I wouldn't.  When I was young and naive, I needed a cause I could believe in, and I guess I'm pretty lucky that Regnum Christi was as bad as it got.

I have mixed feelings toward grayzones in general, whether we're talking about Islam or anything else.  It seems an unsafe place for people to be; it may not be rationally justifiable, and the danger to radicalization is always present.  Often parents with a lax or progressive view find their children becoming more radical, either because they're turned off by their parents' lack of zeal or because they are receiving religious education from someone radical outside the family.  I can see why people would try to push for people to abandon even moderate Islam, just for this reason.

However, I think I'd have to come down on the side of defending the existence of grayzones, because there always has to be a safe place to land when you feel stuck between untenable choices.  People have to know that they don't have to give up their entire faith, which supports them and is inextricably entwined with their cultural patrimony, or else become extreme.  There should be, if possible, whole communities of people who are keeping the religion without the extremism, who can be counted on to provide rational defenses for the progressive way and to instruct children in it.  These can be places for people to go when they're moving away from extremism as well -- longing to quit radical religion but terrified of quitting the religion itself.

And that's why, despite my misgivings, I think the message of the West to Muslim refugees, immigrants, and citizens should be this: Yes, you can be a moderate Muslim.  You are welcome here and we will include you in our society.  You don't have to choose between your traditions and the blessings of liberty -- you can have both.

Oops, turns out I did talk about the refugee crisis.  Ah, well, I'm sure my views on the subject come as no surprise.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The three-step argument

Something Bat said in a comment on the last post reminded me of something that's bothered me for awhile.  It's the way Catholic apologetics is always done in three steps.  First, you prove the existence of God, philosophically.  Second, you assume that, given theism, Christianity is true.  And third, you assume that, given Christianity, Catholicism is true.

On the first step, I'm a little weak because, while I know the standard proofs for the existence of God, I know there's more to it than that.  Aquinas claimed to be able to prove that God was also one, good, eternal, omnipotent, and omniscient.  I'm not familiar with those arguments, and I'm interested in learning more, although I have to admit I don't have much confidence in Aquinas being able to convince me.  He tends to assume too much at the outset.

But most people seem to gloss over the difference between "proving that there is some eternal substrate behind the universe" and "proving there's an infinite being who loves me," simply saying that since most people in history have believed in the former, and that the former is reasonably certain philosophically, it naturally follows that the latter is true as well.  I don't see it -- I can come up with lots of different scenarios.  Perhaps matter/energy is the eternal substrate, or some physical thing.  Perhaps there is some eternal being apart from the universe, but it's a what, not a who -- it isn't conscious.  Perhaps there is one, but it's limited in some way besides time.  Perhaps there is a God, but he doesn't care about humans.  After all, there are countless kinds of things in the universe besides us -- God could have created the universe as a physics experiment, or because he wanted to create stars or nebulas or aliens.  Maybe he likes us fine but doesn't believe in interfering in any way.  I don't see that any of these are philosophically disprovable -- though I leave a caveat here that I've never seen a serious attempt to do so.

Okay, we haven't proved anything, but let's move on as if we have.  Given that God wants to reveal himself to man, is Christianity the right religion?  It might be.  It has a lot of adherents, so that's kind of promising.  Hinduism doesn't work if you've proven monotheism somehow, and Buddhism is nontheistic, so we can rule those out.  Islam isn't attractive to most Americans for a variety of reasons -- not least of which is that we've been raised on the idea of a nice God.  The evidence for Islam is very simple to go over -- the whole Quran was written by Muhammad, so either you trust that it was dictated by an angel, or you don't.  Christianity's evidence is somewhat more promising because it claims historical facts which ought to act as a backup to the theological claims -- though those are not as well-attested as one might hope.  Mormonism's claims are much better attested -- there are twelve sworn affidavits of people who claimed to have seen the gold tablets -- but Mormonism has problems.  First off, it assumes Christianity to begin with, so it doesn't get you past accepting those historical proofs.  And second, Mormonism has been pretty damaged by archeological finds.  So, among major religions, you're back to Christianity.

If you assume that someone rising from the dead is highly unlikely, you'd need very good evidence for it, and that evidence is not available.  But if you assume a God who wants to reveal himself exists, I suppose you could just say that the resurrection's not all that unlikely.  I mean, as religions go, Christianity is well-attested.  So I can see how people who philosophically prove God are going to want to go for Christianity.

The last step is to prove that, of all the denominations available, Catholicism is the right one.  There are some Bible verses to go on, which to me aren't all that convincing.  But there's a strong logical argument -- assuming God really wanted to reveal himself to people, he would have wanted to make sure we had something really clear to go on, which would let us know what to believe and do.  The Bible couldn't be it, because it's incredibly hard to understand and apparently contradictory throughout.  Anyway you'd want someone on the scene who could apply the teachings to each generation.  So, Catholicism makes sense in that way.  We can also go through all the other denominations and show that Catholicism is the one that is most similar to what the earliest Christians believed.

My only objection to this argument is that, even with the Church as a guide, it's still really hard to know what to believe and do.  How do you know what stuff is infallible?  What if you're mistaken about who the Pope is?  What if the Mass isn't valid?  That sort of thing.  Still, I find this last argument convincing enough that I haven't given any serious thought to Protestantism.

Okay, so apart from any flaws in the individual arguments, I still see a great big problem.  And the problem is that no single one of these steps is certain.  It's my opinion that no human being can ever be certain of anything, though we can get extremely close.  But humans tend to overestimate how sure we are.  I can't remember the exact numbers, but I believe there was a study showing that when people said they were 100% sure of something, they were right 80% of the time.  That should incline us toward humility about our judgments.

And the further trouble is this: the more steps you take, the more uncertainty is compounded.  If step two relies entirely on step one, and you're 90% of step one, and 90% sure of the connection between step one and step two, then you are more like 80% sure of step two.  The uncertainty compounds with each further conclusion you draw.  Yet it seems we are expected, when following this argument, to round up with each step.

Then, of course, that big rounding you do when making the "leap of faith" -- you might be 90% sure or you might be 50%.  Heck, you might be 2% and people will still say you shouldn't take the risk.  And at that point you round up and act like you are completely sure.  You should give your life for this conclusion.  And you shouldn't keep looking into it or be open to change based on new information.

It doesn't seem like good sense to me.  But, as I so often lament, the Church requires it.  Keeping an open mind, from a Catholic perspective, is like keeping an open marriage.  It's a relationship and you're betraying it if you go checking up on other possibilities.  And I can't exactly object to this point of view, but I think that at the moment this way of looking at it comes into play, the idea that the whole thing is based on fact and sound reasoning goes out the window.  Even if the initial facts and arguments were reasonably valid, rounding up like this is not rational.

Now, it's a choice that you make and you have the right to make it.  But believing is not knowing -- it's choosing to act as if you did.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Felt experience of God

Melinda Selmys is always writing such great stuff.  This time she wrote, "The existence of God can’t actually be proven or disproven on the weight of the evidence that is available to us."  Which had me nodding -- that was basically the conclusion I've come to, but I'm very surprised that a Catholic would agree with it.  After all, Vatican I did declare otherwise, and anyway -- it puts you in kind of a bind, doesn't it?  How are you supposed to know what to do?  Melinda agrees:

"What we’re left with is fundamentally a choice between two equally rational and equally unprovable belief systems. This is why the debate routinely goes nowhere: because the very nature of the question is that such that it’s impossible to finally resolve or settle it one way or the other. . . . The problem is that we can’t make this decision lightly. Literally everything depends on it. How we live. How we understand morality. How we perceive ourselves and our role in the universe. How we seek to fulfil our fundamental thirst for meaning and purpose. How we relate to others. How, and whether, we avoid making a date with a bathtub and a razor."

My inescapable conclusion is that, if God particularly wanted to be known by us, there's no way he'd leave us in that sort of bind.  Melinda has somehow come to the opposite conclusion, based, I think, on some spiritual experiences that she had.

But she does point out that many people do have some kind of "felt experience of God," and that is sufficient argument for them at least to believe in it.  But she also claims that many atheists have the same experience but don't believe.  I wonder if this is true, and if so, how.

I've certainly heard of the idea that we have some interior "God sense" which allows us to be sure God exists.  I know Alvin Platinga and John Henry Newman both wrote about it -- though their work is too lengthy for me to get through right now, I've read summaries.  And certainly I know people who claim they have some interior certainty which requires no proof.  I just have never heard any answer to the questions that I have on the topic: first, how does a person know whether to trust an interior feeling about something; and second, how is a person supposed to believe if they don't have such a feeling?

I used to feel pretty sure that God existed.  Not that I had any rational proof, I just had always been taught that he did, and saw no reason to doubt it.  And when other people talked about doubt, I shrugged -- I had never spent any time worrying about the question.  The image of God that I had was overwhelmingly positive -- he was kind, merciful, loved everyone, generous.  I was not afraid of God.  I mean, he understood I was trying to do the right thing, and for the moments that I didn't -- well, he knew I was a kid.  My mom spent a lot of time praying for people to go to heaven, but I wasn't fussed about it.  I figured everyone God wanted in heaven would go there, and if anybody did go to hell, it would be people so unrepentantly bad that there wasn't any point in praying for them.  God, to me, was a perfect combination of my mom's loving gentleness and my dad's power -- someone who could be counted on to be understanding with me, and also kick the butt of anything scary and bad.

Regnum Christi left this image mostly intact, but I did get some of other people's attitudes rolled in: like my director's way of making you feel small, and another woman's way of being generally disappointed in you.  I thought God was probably awfully disappointed in me, because I was so bad all the time.  But there was a lot of stress put on how much God loved me -- how he loved me before I was born, died for me, stayed awake all night watching me sleep, and really truly would rearrange the fabric of reality to give me my favorite breakfast in order to reassure me that he loved me.  It would have been hard to doubt the existence of someone I spent that many hours a day talking to.

But there came a time, as an adult, when I was confronted with other people's inner vision of God.  It seems obvious to me that if you know someone, you can predict their future behavior pretty well.  You can say that this would be out of character, but that would definitely be something they'd do.  And it was odd to me that so many people -- all Catholics! -- had such utterly different predictions of what God would do.  I was sure he would never send someone to hell for not being baptized, but other people thought he might.  I knew he would not approve of, say, the Crusades or the Inquisition, but some people said he would.  And I realized that when you argue one interior reality against another, you have no grounds for argument.  You need to find some sort of external evidence.  And, of course, once you take my inner idea of God and compare it to the idea of God you get from the bible, on the one hand, or from the created world, on the other, you end up with three very different ideas -- so different as to be incompatible with one another.

My point in telling you all this is to point out that Catholicism is not really down with the idea of religion coming from an interior intuition.  If you feel that God is one way, and the Church says he's something else, you have to ignore how you feel and go with what the Church says.  But you can't very well do that if your only reason for belief in the first place is an interior intuition.  Just as some people can't disbelieve in God, I can't make myself believe in the version of God that it seems the Catholic Church is describing.  [Edit: My point is to say that intuition is either a reliable source of knowledge or not.  If it's unreliable, it can't be used to prove God exists, if it's reliable, it should be allowed to judge revelation as well, which the Church does not accept.  A Catholic may find that his intuition conflicts with revelation, and therefore he must acknowledge that intuition is not an infallible source of information -- it was in error at least once.]

So it seems we should take our interior intuitions and subject them to some sort of rational inquiry.  Turning to the philosophical grounding of "basic belief" that I've read up on, let me give some examples.  The writers I've read explain a "basic belief" as something you're sure of, but don't know how you're sure.  For instance, you spot a face in the crowd and you think, "That's my friend Joe."  Or you hear a rustling in the woods and catch a glimpse of motion and say, "There's a deer in there."  Or you hear someone singing and you immediately intuit what words they are saying -- you grasp their meaning without performing a conscious analysis.

My issue with this is that one's intuitions may sometimes be wrong.  For instance, you think you spot Joe but when you get closer, it's a stranger.  Or you were taking aim at the "deer" when you spot some blaze orange and realize it's a fellow hunter.  Or you look up the song lyrics and find you were dead wrong about what they were saying.  My brother and I were awful at this when we were kids -- when we thought we heard certain words in a song, we were just incorrigible about it.  Isn't it true that when you interpret a lyric one way, it always sounds like that to you?

There was one song I remember arguing about ("Angry Young Man," by Styx) where I thought the line was "you're killing yourself" but my brother heard "you're kidding yourself."  We argued for some time.  But there was no basis for argument, since it was an intuitive belief.  We listened to the same few seconds over and over again, and all we could say was, "See?  SEE?  It totally says what I thought it did, how can you not hear that?"  That's kind of how a lot of debates on religion go.  I thought God was like X, someone else thought he was like Y, a third person felt there was no God, we have nothing to go on because we all had a strong intuition about it.

So when we want to reach greater certainty about our intuitive "basic" beliefs, we have to use a rational methodology to work it out.  The first step is identifying the sense-information we're working from.  You are usually able to do this just by slowing down and thinking about it: "It's the rustle in the woods that makes me think of a deer.  That man's nose is just like Joe's.  I hear a consonant sound in the middle of this word that sounds like an L."  A more complicated, expert intuition might be something like a doctor saying, "These are the exact symptoms I always see when someone has cancer."  Already we have a little problem -- intuition is trained by past experience.  You can recognize Joe's nose, an L sound, or a cancer patient because you've experienced these things a lot of times.  With God, there may be no initial sense-knowledge you can go on -- just a feeling of certainty.  Or perhaps there are many small disparate things that feel like proof -- like me getting my favorite breakfast just after a really great prayer session, a friend I'd prayed for getting better, the existence of my favorite holly tree, and a hundred other small things that seemed to map into a pattern of God caring about me.  (And just as someone's suggestion about a song lyric makes you hear it, I also had my religious education to prompt me to draw that conclusion from those facts.  Otherwise I might not have, I suppose.)  And like Joe's nose or the sound of an L, it is possible for those things to exist without the pattern that I intuited about them being real.  My ability to grasp a pattern and assume an answer isn't evidence -- the original facts I started with are the evidence.

The next step is to attempt to gather more information across different modalities.  I heard the rustle in the woods, so I look toward it and try to see what's out there.  I think I see Joe, so I say "Joe, is that you?"  I go online and look up the lyrics to "Angry Young Man."  (They back up my brother, in case you're interested.)  I notice a pattern of symptoms that look like cancer, so I order some tests.  Where God is concerned, I can examine evidence for God and information about what God is supposed to be like in order to see whether the particular idea of God that I hold has any evidence for actually existing.  At this point I will have more to go on, which should either reinforce my original intuition or contradict it.

The third step is to compare notes with others.  I can ask if other people see a deer, if they recognize Joe, or what words they hear when they listen to the song.  If their experience agrees with mine, I have a lot more certainty about my intuition.  If not, I have to consider the possibility that I misheard or leapt to conclusions.  In the case of religion, the ideas people have about God are so wildly different that I had to accept that my own vision of God was highly unlikely to be accurate.  Not only do Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, and atheists feel just as sure about their own intuitions as I did about mine, but fellow Catholics didn't even come up with roughly similar answers.  And they were able to support their view with doctrine and scripture, whereas all I had was an interior feeling.  I was forced to conclude that I didn't know God, not really, despite all those hours of prayer.  After all, I knew perfectly well that God never spoke to me outright -- I just had a feeling that he would like or do certain things.  That's no better than anyone else's feeling that says the opposite -- both are insufficient to conclude anything; we need facts.

Now, when an intuition is disproven, it may or may not disappear.  I now hear the word "kidding" instead of "killing" in that Styx song, but I still see faces in outlets even though I know outlets are not people.  There's a guy at church who gives me one double-take after another because he looks so much like my brother.  I know my brother would not be at my church.  And if I study the guy's face, I recognize that some details aren't the same.  But with the tail of my eye, I still think I see him.  So perhaps it's just that simple, when atheists have some feeling of a divine presence despite not believing.  I know that in my case, I don't.  Once I realized that special breakfasts happen pretty much at random, that there are biological explanations for trees, that the infinite forgivingness of my version of God looked a lot more like my mother than the God of the Church or the Bible, I stopped seeing God anywhere.  There were fewer and fewer things out there that looked like God, and then there were none.  I can't force that intuition back, because it was based on facts and the facts have been shown either to be mistaken or to have other explanations.

And at that point the whole idea of "basic" belief has nothing to offer me.  I don't have that kind of belief.  And that leaves me back with my objection to Melinda -- why would we be left in that sort of a bind?  Why would some of us have very clear intuitions that there is one God, and some feel just as strongly that there are many, and some have no belief that there is any?  What does that say about God, that he would leave that situation as it is, when he's just as capable of zapping us all with belief as he is of providing any more tangible proof -- like leaving the burning bush burning all these years, so that anyone who wanted could go look at it, or keeping the Red Sea parted, or leaving the pillar of flame standing in the middle of St. Peter's Square?

One answer I've been offered is that all people really do have this belief, and atheists are just either self-deceiving or outright lying.  All I can say to that is, I know I'm not lying, and if I were self-deceiving so well that I don't know that I know, that's not practically any different from not knowing.  I still don't know the right thing to choose.  We all have scads of vague ideas floating around our heads, things we half-believe, like thinking that the earth stands still and the sun rises.  We know that isn't what happens, but we find ourselves thinking of the world that way.  But how would we know which of these vague ideas ought to be trusted and which are not?  I can't go along with that one.

The only remaining conclusion I had was that perhaps God does not care as much about belief as he does about some other value -- right action, perhaps, or just our existence.  This seems to be what Melinda thinks.  I just can't believe this and be an orthodox Catholic, because the Church is pretty clear that God does want to be known.  And that leaves us back with the same old question -- why so hidden?  Why make it so hard for anyone to know for sure?

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The bad-guy dilemmas

When I was a kid, I gave a lot of thought to what it means to be a bad guy.  Every show had at least one, but I couldn't understand how that would be.  After all, doesn't everyone want to be good?  My biggest question was this: do bad guys know they're bad?  If they do, why don't they change and become good?  And if they don't know they're bad, how do I know I'm not one?  Also, how come the good guys always win despite being handicapped by stricter rules?

There are actually a lot of important questions raised by bad guys -- that is, the ethics of fighting.  You want always to be sure you're on the good-guy side.

The first answer I have worked out is that bad guys fall into two categories.  The first are the bad guys who are truly immoral -- they make bad choices that you or I would hopefully never make.  They are accustomed to ignoring their consciences, or they have none, and so they do things which would be considered wrong by any rational moral standard.  Most likely they are aware that other people would consider their actions wrong; but even if so, they probably have some sort of excuse for why they think their actions are necessary.  It's important to remember that evil is never undiluted -- it is quite possible that a bad guy  enjoys mass-murdering innocents and also is devoted to his family.  After all, evil is a lack of goodness, which we can't live without -- to even survive as a human being, we need some level of goodness, or some person with whom we share kindness.  Those who lack that are going to have a hard time being successful even as bad guys.

The other type is "bad guys" who aren't actually bad, just on another team, so to speak.  As kids, we're accustomed to thinking of the New York Yankees as "bad guys," because we want to beat them, but they're not actually bad.  This is intensified by the way humans naturally separate others into in-groups and out-groups.  A fellow nation might have strong in-group morality and be, in general, very admirable, but hate your guts.  In that case it's still reasonable to fight them, because they'll destroy them if you don't, but at the same time they're not really bad in the same way that the first type are bad.

So you could have a situation where you think you're good and the other side is bad, but they think the same about you.  After all, you're trying to destroy them too!  The best moral systems should have ways of preventing this -- in fact, that's a lot of the point of morality, finding ways to make sure we don't spend our time on destroying one another when we could be working together.  This will benefit all of us.  So there are the Just War Theory, the Non-Aggression Principle, and the Roman's rule never to start a war.  However, these seem to be broken often.  No one wants to bind themselves to never fire the first shot, because they want to strike out pre-emptively and gain an advantage.  Or, like the Romans did, they try to make it look like they're fighting a defensive war when they aren't.  If you break these codes, no matter how noble your reasons are otherwise -- guess what, you're the bad guys.

There we see the first Good-Guy Handicap: if you are evil, you don't need to give the other team the benefit of the doubt; but if you're good, you have to give them a chance, which they might take advantage of.  But it's best for everyone if you do it -- it can prevent needless conflicts.  Like all challenging moral decisions, it has the potential to cost you, but it benefits everyone.

The second Good-Guy Handicap is mercy.  According to the superhero code, you can kill your enemy while fighting with him, but when you have him subdued you have to put him in jail instead.  Then the Joker escapes from jail and starts killing again, obviously, which we all could have predicted and boy doesn't it stink to be the good guys?

This is why Catholic morality is finer tuned than the superhero code.  It leaves room for killing someone who won't stop being a danger -- in short, it allows the death penalty.  I'm not a huge believer in it, but the Joker is an obvious exception.  So is Magneto.  But other than those cases, I think the law of mercy is a good thing too.  You don't want to waste the life of someone who might be valuable to your side later.  So you use the amount of force it takes to subdue the person -- it would be foolish not to -- but no more.  It shouldn't be too much of a handicap.

The third Good-Guy Handicap is liberty.  This is important anytime the conflict is fought by teams or nations.  A democratic country isn't quite as efficient at fighting the enemy as a totalitarian one, because some people don't want to fight and are going to have to be forced to do it.  And an anarchist paradise would fare the worst, because there is no method at all to force anyone to defend the nation at all, or even to pay others to.  You can sit comfortably back of the front lines and let other people do it for you, and according to the Non-Aggression Principle, everyone has to let you do it!  This is my main reason for saying that some form of government is always going to be necessary.

But still, it seems like the Rebels are always at a disadvantage against Darth Vader, and England against the Nazis, because they don't have the advantage of total power over their own people.  Surely North Korea puts more of its effort toward its military than South Korea does, so won't North Korea surely win?

Well, it hasn't so far, and there are some good reasons for that.  First is that total power can be as much of a handicap as liberty can -- because you're spending all of your energy forcing your minions to work for you when they don't want to.  You're putting down rebellions left and right.  And second, you never get the heart of people you're forcing to work for you.  The good guys are pouring their all into what they do because they care about what they're fighting for, while the bad guys are slacking off because they don't care, or making nervous mistakes because they're scared of being Force-choked by Vader.

And that's where you see the biggest Good-Guy Advantage: working together.  If you have good morality, you work well with your teammates.  You trust them not to betray you, because you're good guys and you don't lie.  You put your all into the cause, because you're fighting for it voluntarily.  You put yourself in danger to save your captain, because he treats you well and you truly care about him.  Bad guys don't have that.  They never have that.  If they did, they'd be good guys!  And that's why, in books, they're always careful to show our bad guys doing bad things, so that we know they're bad.  It's just that sometimes they don't show the obvious results -- that they will lose because they lack the advantages of morality.

Now, that applies to the truly bad guys.  The other-team type bad guys have all the great morality that we have.  However, it seems that in a case like this, there's a chance for peace.  And that's why we need out-group morality -- that is, a set of moral behaviors for negotiating and respecting the other team, so that they will do the same to us.  We need the Geneva Convention and the laws of war and treaties.  We've reached some great advances in this regard -- at this time in history, the major developed countries of the world are all, if not friendly, at any rate not at war with one another.  It's really important never to treat an other-team enemy like Absolute Evil -- because they really aren't bad and they might come around to your side sometime.  (For instance, bombing Hiroshima was treating the other team like absolute evil -- a huge mistake.)

* * *

Okay, so if this is the way good guys and bad guys work -- why is fiction not more appreciative of these nuances?  It seems that most of the books I read describe the bad guys as at a level of absolute badness that's downright unbelievable.  The bad guys are constantly being gratuitously bad for no reason, and yet this doesn't seem to cost them.  Their minions are often pretty loyal, despite being treated like garbage, and despite busy evenings of torturing kittens, the villain has plenty of time to read up on battle strategy.  And there's no explanation as to why this villain is so bad anyway.  What does he want?

I think that all bad guys need to have a motivation which is believable -- something that they want that's good.  Say, the ancient glory of their nation (requiring, of course, genocide of everybody else) or the triumph of their religion (and conversion by the sword) or perhaps they're overwhelmed by fear and so they're hoping to purchase their safety by conquest.  It's got to be a good enough reason to recruit others to their cause, or else they won't be much of a challenge for the combined power of the good guys to beat.

Second, we need to see from the very beginning that badness is not the equal and opposite of goodness -- it's simply a defect.  Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series is bugging me about this lately.  The Dark Lord and his minions seem ... kind of good.  I mean, sure, there are random bad bits so that we can believe they're the bad guys, but they cooperate surprisingly well.  The Darkfriends are loyal in part because they have made oaths and keep them.  Also because the Dark Lord offers eternal life, which isn't a bad thing to want.  Meanwhile the good guys can't seem to trust one another -- they're always fighting amongst themselves because they don't know they're on the same side.  That's getting better, now that I'm on book 5, so this isn't a criticism really.  I'm just saying -- it's not believable for badness not to be a handicap, because morality is actually helpful in aiding cooperation.

And third, we need to recognize that in real life, we don't come up against many truly bad guys.  There's the occasional psychopath and even more rarely one who rises to power over others -- your Hitlers and Stalins and so forth.  But in life we are much, much more likely to meet the other-team sort of bad guy.  And if we're trained on a lot of fiction that focuses on absolute evil, we forget how to deal with a garden-variety enemy.

I've been talking to the kids a lot about this lately, because they enjoy a show called DinoTrux.  It's kind of the worst of preschooler television, with annoying music and stupid jokes and so on, but it works pretty well as a moral tale.  Initially all the DinoTrux (trucks in the shape of dinosaurs -- I KNOW)  don't work together and so they live in fear of the bad guy, D-Structs.  A hero character, Ty, gets them to team up, and of course their combined efforts are always enough to beat D-Structs, even after D-Structs gets a henchman whom he constantly bullies.

It's a good jumping-off point to talk about bad guys.  For instance, why doesn't D-Structs ever win?  Because he doesn't have friends to help him.  Why doesn't he have friends?  Because he isn't nice to the other DinoTrux.  What do you think would happen if he tried working together with the others?  They would be nice to him and share their ore with him.  Everyone would have enough and things would be easier if there were no fighting.

We also talk about how the people we meet in real life are not like D-Structs -- they are usually nice people, but maybe scared that we'll be mean to them, so we need to let people know we are friendly.  And if someone is bad, we need to find ways to help them be good, like getting grown-ups involved or staying away from them until they agree to be good.  If we're constantly fighting, we don't accomplish very much.  It's only by working together nicely that we all can get what we need.

These moral lessons are going to be more complicated as the kids grow up, but I do know one thing: I don't want them just watching and reading a bunch of fictional stories and absorbing those moral lessons mindlessly.  We're going to talk things over, compare to real life, and come up with the best moral answers.  Because I want my kids to grow up to be good guys.
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