Saturday, April 11, 2015

7 Easter takes

Yeah, it's not even Friday anymore, but I don't want to let yet another week go by without posting anything about our actual lives.  Too much interesting stuff is piling up to tell you!


First off, we are now a two-car family.  My parents helped out with buying the new car, which embarrasses me a bit.  I mean, I guess in my mind I thought having a second car would be proof that we had Arrived, and here we are with a second car we didn't earn.  But on the other hand, the kids are getting older and I want them to have some opportunities outside this house before they turn into recluses like their mother.

Probably too late for me, though.  I have this car and now I don't want to go anywhere!  Leaving the house is like asking for trouble: almost guaranteed, somebody will get in some kind of unexpected trouble, someone will have an accident or a blowout diaper, something that should have been in the diaper bag (spare pants, spare diaper, sippy cup, snack) won't be.  At home I have all my stuff available without having to pack, I can get stuff done around the house while the kids play, and everything in reach is stuff that's okay for touching so I don't need to spend all my energy on making the kids behave to a certain standard.  As I said the other day, if I didn't like being at home, I wouldn't have chosen to live there!  Home is my favorite place.

On the other hand, it meant I didn't have to drive John to the airport right at the worst time of day for unexpected naps, when he went to Italy earlier this month.  It means that I can do grocery shopping on a weekday when the place is empty, and spend the weekends hanging out with my husband like I'd much rather do.  It means that I can go to the craft store or the seed store and have that be the only thing I do all day, instead of jamming all the errands in on a busy Saturday.  So, you know, there are perks.  We've also been to the library and visited the friends who have generously had all the playdates at our house for years.

I am grateful, but I am reminding myself that having a car doesn't obligate me to use it when I don't want to.


 My family was here for Easter, and just left this morning.  I was so glad they came here, because I can't see going out there for awhile yet -- it was so exhausting last time.

Not that this visit wasn't exhausting too.  My family is indefatigable.  They wanted to see all the sights, and seeing all the sights while towing a combined seven kids is very tiring.  Some days I stayed home with my kids while my parents and siblings went hiking -- especially as Marko was sick on Monday and still convalescent on Tuesday.  Rotten timing, but you know, even when he's not sick he's a bit overwhelmed by the tornado of chaos that is my family.

It's hard to understand how I managed to emerge from a family like that.  But I swear, they were mellower when I was a kid.  It was just my big brother and I, reading books.  Sometimes we went to the park.  And now there are four kids, all of them are loud, and all of them are involved in a zillion things.  The whole mood of the family is different, even though my parents are the same.


Tuesday was Marko's birthday -- but since John was working late and Marko wasn't feeling well anyway, we celebrated on Wednesday.

Can you believe he is FIVE?  Wasn't he just four?  I thought four sounded like a big kid, but five sounds really like a big kid.  Five-year-olds are in kindergarten!

Of course that makes me feel worried ... is he really as advanced as a kindergartener?  Sure, he's smart and knows his letters and all, but I can't imagine him going off by himself for a whole day, or even a half day.  He rarely talks to grownups who aren't me . . . and I worry, it's because I don't expose him to many.  And then when I do, I mediate a lot, explaining him to them, because he doesn't say "hello, how are you," but "I'm the Doctor!"  I worry about my own ability to teach him how to interact with strangers, because I don't know what I'm doing either.  I've always been kind of awkward with strangers; I bluff my way through it but I wouldn't be surprised to find out I'm inadvertently rude.

Anyway, here's Marko, looking very five:

That is a piece of wood he's holding.  He wanted a picture with it.  I don't know why.


Here's is Marko's birthday present:

Little wooden pegs from the craft store, painted by me to look like Doctor Who characters.  From left to right, there's Strax, the Eleventh Doctor, Rory, Amy, a weeping angel, a Cyberman, the Tenth Doctor, and Rose.   A couple of them are going to his best friend the next time I see him.  Michael's already managed to lose the Eleventh Doctor, but I suspect he's inside the couch somewhere.  Marko has been sleeping with Amy Pond at night.  He also found a cardboard box and wheedled me into painting it like a TARDIS, which he's been flying his peg people around in.

I am very proud of myself ... and I also am fighting the temptation to order a big box of pegs and set up an Etsy store.  First, because I don't have time, second, because I got the idea from somebody else's Etsy store (they were selling them for $20!) and I don't want to steal their idea for profit.  But painting is lots of fun.  I like mixing the colors to try to match my inspiration pictures.

Certainly I have lots of ideas for the next birthday or holiday.  The kids definitely need an Ood.


Miriam is getting so big.  She crawls, she pulls to a stand, she lets go and plops onto her bottom without toppling over.  She eats lots of stuff, including stuff I said she was too young to have, but heck, when the big kids are eating muffins with gluten, egg, and dairy, I feel like a colossal heel if I don't give her one too.  Oh well.  She hasn't had any serious reactions, but she has been sleepless and cranky so perhaps I should try to get a week when she only eats things she's supposed to have and we could see how it goes.

This is how she sits.  I know W-sitting is supposed to be bad for babies, but what about Isle-of-Man-sitting?  (Does it make me a nerd that that was my first thought when I saw her sitting like that?)

I suspect it's just to give herself greater stability on the hardwood floor.  It hurts if she topples and bumps her head, so she's trying to have a nice wide base so she doesn't tip.

Lately she has wanted to be held pretty much always.  Her naps are 20-40 minutes and she doesn't take enough of them.  She wakes up a lot at night.  I don't think she's teething, but she might have an earache left over from the sickness all the kids had last week.  And then there's the fact that the boys will NOT be quiet while she's trying to nap, because they are also cranky and fighting a lot.

I'm hoping a few mellow days of not-much-happening will help settle everyone down.


Michael is ... well ... Michael.  Here he is holding an unusually large canary:

He'll be three in two weeks, can you imagine?  Hard not to spend all my time thinking, "But at three, Marko listened better!  Marko could have walked through a cave without touching all the stalactites!  Marko could sit at the table through a restaurant meal without throwing a fit because the food was too slow to arrive!  Marko slept through the night!"  They are different kids.  And though he's behind Marko on many things, he is also more open to new experiences than he was at this age, more imaginative, more affectionate, and less shy.  His tamper tantrums are massive, when he has them, but the rest of the time he's pretty chill.  He doesn't hold grudges.  And he's a better talker than Marko was at this age, because he uses his pronouns right.

John sums it up by saying, "Marko is like me.  Michael is like you."  And that's pretty accurate.  Michael likes food, dancing, hugs, and making up ridiculous stories that he swears are true but knows are false.  ("How did you get this scratch on your foot?"  "An alligator bit me, but I ate him."  "Where did you leave the Eleventh Doctor?"  "On the moon.")  Marko is picky, focused, a bit standoffish, and he gets very upset when people say things that aren't true.  When Marko was two and didn't want to get a nighttime diaper on, John would put it on his head.  Marko would wail "diapers are not for heads!  diapers are for butts!" and John would graciously agree to put the diaper on his butt instead.  Michael would not fall for that one -- diapers on heads seem like a great idea to him!  Marko threw a fit the other day because Michael wanted to put Strax in the TARDIS and Marko was certain that Strax never actually rode in the TARDIS.  (I said he did so, and Marko told me I don't know anything.  Yeesh.)  He screams and cries and hits when Michael insists his imaginary stories are true.  So I've been trying to explain ... daily ... that in this country we do not hurt people for being wrong.  People having wrong ideas doesn't hurt you.  The best you can do is hope they learn the right ideas someday.

They really could not be more different.  But I love them both, one because he's like me, and the other because he's like my favorite man.  It's all good.

So far Miriam is more like Marko was as a baby than like Michael, but time will tell.


Anyway, happy Easter, hope yours was great.  Mine was a bit of a disappointment... I was eager to go to church, hopeful that perhaps I would have some kind of spiritual experience that would make me feel a bit better about being Catholic, but Miriam was sick and so I didn't get to go to church at all.  Trying not to see this as a message from God that he doesn't want me.  More likely it was just the baby getting sick because she caught a virus from her brother.  And anyway I got Easter dinner with my family -- meatloaf shaped like a lamb, because a leg of lamb was THIRTY DOLLARS, daylight robbery if you ask me.  Well, no surprise, it was from New Zealand, that's a long way to ship of a leg of lamb.

Did you have a good Easter week?

Saturday, April 4, 2015


We've been talking in the comments lately about the problem of suffering.  But it occurred to me, a great number of religions and philosophies don't find suffering a "problem."  It makes perfect sense.

Don't know what I mean?  Let's go through the possibilities:

*If there is no God, suffering is not a problem.  Death and pain are necessary agents of evolution.

*If there is a God, but he doesn't care about or involve himself with humans, suffering is not a problem.  Just the side effect of happening to exist.

*If there are many gods, none of them all-powerful, and they fight with each other constantly, suffering would be a result of your god not having the power to win out over the other gods.

*In the gnostic view, suffering is caused by matter, and matter is created by the devil or a lesser being.  God cares about people, but he can't reach us as long as we are tangled up in matter.  

*Suffering is punishment for sin, or to encourage us to stop sinning.  The Old Testament holds this view a lot, and so does ancient Roman history.  Your army lost?  You must have lost divine favor because someone among you is breaking a divine command.  The Romans killed the Christians for the same reason the Israelites killed the Amalekites -- because they thought having impious people in their midst was triggering divine wrath.

*Christianity .... has no answer.  It insists on a God who loves every individual person infinitely, and is also all-powerful.  Why would an all-powerful person not prevent the people he loved from suffering?

Well, there are theories.  You could point out that some suffering is the result of human choices, which some certainly is, and talk about how God respects our free will enough to let us hurt each other.  Now I'm a parent and I don't let my kids hurt each other, even though I respect their free will, but perhaps God is different.  But still, that leaves suffering that isn't a result of human choices.

Or you could say that before the Fall there was no suffering at all.  This is what I understood growing up, that there were no earthquakes, floods, diseases, or whatever before the Fall.  Science can show us that's not the case, that these things have been around longer than people, but I revised the theory awhile back .... suggesting that, before the Fall, humans had the capacity to solve or avoid all that stuff.  We could cure our own bodies of sickness (in fact, we can now, only not predictably -- that placebo effect is awfully powerful) and predict coming natural disasters, like animals can.  So you can still blame all that on the Fall.  (I tell people this and they call it theological speculation, like that was a bad thing!)

You could say, as Belfry Bat said the other day, that suffering is good for our souls -- that we are made perfect and ready for heaven by it.  Certainly in some cases that is so -- I think of my grandfather's deathbed conversion, which perhaps from his perspective made the immense suffering of his final illness worthwhile.  In others, I'm not so sure; suffering seems to pull people farther from God and goodness. 

Another theological speculation of mine is that God bound himself in a promise to hand over all authority over creation to men -- that he isn't actually all-powerful in the created world, because of his statement to Adam and Eve that they were to have dominion.  He meant, literally, they were in charge, and God isn't able to take back his promises.  The Fall damaged our ability to exercise that power, but if we were perfect, we ourselves could do miracles.  And sure enough, all miracles that I can think of have happened through the agency of a human being.  That also says something very intriguing about why God would have had to come as a man.  But in any event, since God has promised not to rule the world, and we are not able to do it competently, the world is in a state of chaos and disorder which God never intended.  (This theory, which I otherwise like, runs into a lot of problems with Scripture, and also raises the question why God set things up like that, foreknowing of course that we would fall.)

There's the time-traveler theory, as I like to call it.  You know how some people say we can't go back in time to kill Hitler because (theoretically) if we did, something worse would happen?  God, knowing all possible scenarios, has picked this one because it is the best possible -- accounting of course for all the free will choices he knows we'll make.  So he could snap his fingers and give me the gift of faith, but that would stop me from writing these inspiring blog posts (for instance) and that would prevent him from saving some other soul who's getting a lot out of them.  Or whatever.  This might not look like the best of all possible worlds, but from God's perspective, it is -- because it results in the maximum number of souls saved.  From this, we draw the possibility that he might allow some to be damned in order to save a greater number, which I don't much like.  But other than that, it's possible -- non-disprovable, in fact, because we don't know how many people God has saved, or how many he could have saved if he did things slightly differently.

There's the author theory, which resonated with me before I actually wrote any books (just like the good-parent theory worked well before I had kids).  In this one, we consider that an author who included no misfortune in his book would be writing a terrible book.  There has to be suffering to make it a good story.  The problem with this is, I don't love the characters in my books.  I like them a lot, but I know they're not real and so I suffer no pricks of conscience when I kill off their loved ones or afflict them with diseases.  If God sees us that way, it's reasonable, but it destroys one of our premises, that God loves us.

Beyond the solid theories, there are comforting additions.  These don't explain anything, but they might help a person feel better.

The first, of course, is that Jesus subjected himself to suffering, and therefore he certainly isn't an impersonal being in the sky who squashes us for fun.  ("As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods / They kill us for their sport," as King Lear says.)  Jesus was willing to take part in the sufferings we are prey to, which is a convincing show of solidarity.  It definitely does make us feel that God is not entirely ignorant or uncaring of what we go through.

The second is the thought that God will make it up to us in heaven -- that any suffering we undergo now is just a teeny tiny fraction of the joy we will experience in heaven, and from that perspective it will be all no big deal.  That is comforting, though hard to grasp from our current perspective.  Those who suffer terribly for years do not see their sufferings as "no big deal," and they struggle to imagine the sort of bliss that would make it up to them.  But I can see wanting to believe this -- especially if you believe, as I do, that a loving God would never condemn anyone to hell who could in any possible scenario, with all the terrible influences on them undone, accept him.

Did I get all the theories?

The point I'm driving at here is that it isn't an actual mystery, in the theological sense.  It isn't a clear formulation that just happens to be impossible to understand.  All of these are possible to understand, even if we're not able to follow all the intricacies of God's knowledge and choices.  And we can work to match these theories to the data -- ruling out any that contradict things God has said in Scripture, for instance (if this is, in fact, possible, seeing how very opposite to one another some of God's statements are), as well as any that don't match the world we know.  "Good people are rewarded on earth and bad people punished" can easily be dismissed, for instance, because we observe differently.  I also rule out "God gives suffering to those who can handle it," because that also contradicts what I observe.  Anyone can handle suffering if they have no choice --- unless, of course, they kill themselves, which some suffering people do.

But I think that it's important to try to work this one out and come up with some clear answers, even if these answers only come down to plausible theories, because believers have to be able to show that their belief system is, at the very least, possible.  Saying "it's a mystery" is not an answer; though of course it might accompany an answer -- "I don't know for sure, because it's a mystery, but here's one possibility."  But it has to be attempted, because it's the second-strongest argument against Christianity.  (The strongest, in my opinion, being the apparently bad things God does in the Old Testament, which all my attempts to resolve keep being labeled "heresy.")

What's your theory?

Friday, April 3, 2015

Holy Week

I love Holy Week.

My earliest memory of Holy Week was one year when my dad was out of town.  My mom set up a small table and we all sat on the floor to eat a "last supper" which I think was bread and wine, or crackers and juice, or something.  We might have washed each other's feet too.

Other than that we never did much about the Triduum.  On Easter we would often be at my grandma's house.  I liked her church and singing "Alleluia, alleluia, let the holy anthem rise."

But when it got really special was in boarding school.  I don't miss much about those days, but I miss Holy Week intensely.  It would start with the Mass of the Lord's Supper Thursday evening ... bells in the Gloria, the organ silenced afterward.  The chapel seemed all hollow with us singing a capella.  (Have I mentioned, we were very good singers -- everything was in three parts, always.  And the Holy Week hymns were beautiful: Man of Sorrows, Wrapped in Grief, Ah Holy Jesus, O Sacred Head Surrounded, What Wondrous Love Is This, and so forth.)

After Mass we would sing Pange Lingua Gloriosi and process behind the Blessed Sacrament to the conference room -- which had been transformed into an altar of repose, decked with flowers.  From that moment until noon on Friday, we would take turns for adoration.  Adoration at night was always special -- getting woken up while everyone was sleeping, tiptoeing down to the dim, quiet altar for some alone time with Jesus.

Good Friday was silent, with a deep silence unique in the year.  Instead of being woken by "Christ Our King" and then standing by our beds to recite the Te Deum, we were woken by a knock on the wall and would pray in silence.  Down to the chapel to say our prayers in silence.  No directed meditation, now that was a treat -- we could pray in silence.   We spent the morning on housework, and then the only words of the day -- the Seven Last words.  Seven girls would offer meditations on Jesus' words from the cross, before the Good Friday liturgy, solemn and quiet.  We would receive communion one last time before Easter and then stand by as the altar was stripped.

I felt bereft, with Jesus gone from the tabernacle.  All year, we'd be in and out, paying visits to the Blessed Sacrament, and now he was gone.  I imagined how the apostles and Mary must have felt, laying Jesus in the tomb.  The rest of the day was empty, mournful.  We didn't even pray to Jesus, or at least I didn't.  Everything was addressed to Mary, because Jesus was gone.  Dead.

Holy Saturday passed the same way, hollow and sad.  More housework to do, to get ready.  A walk-through of tomorrow's procession.  Confession, if you wanted to go.  No Mass.  The chapel was an echoing space; we would start to genuflect and then cut ourselves off awkwardly.  Reach into the font, find it empty.

Then, as the sun went down, we would gather hopefully outside.  Father's vestments flapped in the evening breeze, picked out by the red rays of the sun.  The sacred fire in the brazier fought with the wind; it seemed it might lose out.  The incense grains embedded in the Easter candle, Christ yesterday, today, and forever, the numbers of the year etched on . . . hard to believe those numbers, wasn't it still 33 A.D.?

We would process into the dark, silent chapel, the candle being raised as Father chanted Lumen Christi.  Our own candles were finally lit and the Exsultet was recited.  As the lights blazed on, we could see the source of the delicious smell that had been wafting down from the altar -- floods of Easter lilies, tumbling down the steps.  Then the long, beautiful liturgy.  Every single reading was said, every psalm sung.  Every time I read those psalms, I hear the voices of those soloists, always the best singers in the school, singing those beautiful settings.  The whole of salvation history, picked out and summarized.  All so clear.  Then, at long last, the first Alleluia -- that one word, carefully not said for forty days.  We would sing it at the tops of our lungs.

But it never seemed real, it never seemed Jesus had returned, until the consecration, when he was at last present again in our chapel.  We received him with a sigh of relief, at last you are back.

The next morning was one of my favorite parts -- meditation, not only undirected, but not in the chapel.  We were given a handout with the appropriate gospel passage and set free to go pray where we wanted.  Lots of people stayed in the chapel anyway, but I always went outside.  Given the choice between a church and outdoors, I almost always will pick outdoors.  It was cold, cold and damp -- for though it felt like spring in the heat of those days, the mornings were chilly.  And I would read the passage, "Rising early on the first day of the week..."  How must they have felt, Mary and Mary Magdalene and the others?  Thinking it was all over, Jesus was dead, now this grim duty.  And then, he was gone, how dare they take even his body from us?  Mary Magdalene, later, walking alone in the garden.  Is that the gardener?  No, it is him, really alive after all!

After that, there was the Mass of Easter Day, and breakfast with all the best food.  I can't remember what else we did, because honestly that wasn't the best part.  The best part was leading myself through darkness, deliberately surrendering to grief, and then letting hope dawn again in my heart.  No joy without suffering.

Perhaps, within this description, is the answer to the question, "Why did you stay, even though you were being emotionally abused?"  Perhaps there too is the answer to that other question, "Why are you still Catholic, when you admit you don't believe?"

Because these things go deep, deeper than good reasons.  Cynically I can say, that's the point.  Religions bind you, bind you to each other and to the past.  That's why the world is so full of Christmas and Easter Catholics, of atheist Jews celebrating Passover.  We might not believe, but we remember.

It's all about the re-enactment, the re-presenting of an old story, a story of death and rebirth.  Certainly Christianity is not the only religion that does something like this in the springtime -- the earth itself dies and is reborn every year.  But for us it is more than a symbol, because we think it's something that actually happened.  And meaning can be drawn out of this one story forever.  Things like:

*Someone loved you enough to die for you, before you were even born -- your life was all foreknown and has meaning.
*That broken feeling inside every person, the knowledge that we are not what we should be, that we are at war with ourselves, comes from a primal Fall and it is all fixable.
*Death is not permanent, Jesus is the firstborn from the dead and you will rise from the dead too.
*True victory is not found in violence, but in what the world calls defeat.

It's a story that clings at the heart, to the point where it can hardly be disbelieved despite any amount of evidence.  In the words of Sister Joan Chittister, "It rings in our hearts like tines on crystal."  Perhaps the story so resonates because it is true.  Perhaps it was created because it resonates.  Or maybe it's just because I learned it as a child.  Does it matter?  It is a good story, one that I want to believe.

I am not sure what to do for this Holy Week.  I can't make it to church today, not with these wild kids, and I'm dispensed from fasting.  Easter Vigil is definitely right out, as it has been for years.  I can't seem to read the Bible without analyzing it.  But still, I feel that I walk that path somewhere within ... suffering, death, rebirth.  The mystery of it.  What does it mean?  What does it mean to me?

So I sing hymns.  I think about it all.  I'll go to Easter Mass, though I probably won't make my Easter communion.  I wonder what I will do, when my family greets me with "He is risen" -- do I respond "He is risen indeed, alleluia"?  I do not feel any alleluias.  I cannot testify to his rising.  But I want to play my part in the story, somehow, if even it's only the part of the doubter.

A strange Holy Week, for me.  I hope it is a blessed one for you.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

What is believing anyway?

I'm no slouch at theology.

As a kid it was my best subject.  My mom taught CCD and so I had all the answers.  We did religion every day in homeschooling and then I had CCD class on top of that, where I would be That Kid with her hand always raised with the answer.

In high school I learned about different mental skills.  My best skill was memorization.  My worst was analysis.  I didn't like picking stuff apart and I was lousy and making connections, but I was great at memorizing and spitting back massive amounts of information.  So no wonder religion was such an easy subject for me

But in high school, I learned how to analyze information and I slowly got better at doing it in my other subjects.  You ask questions.  You try to connect some of the information with other parts.  You find out if there are conflicts between different parts of the data.  You ask, "Is this true?  How do I know it is true?"

That is what you do with facts.  Facts are true or not true.  You can be very sure they are true, or suspect they are true, or know they are not true, and you should always believe what the evidence suggests.  Sometimes you don't have enough evidence to say for sure, and in that case you should withhold judgment. You shouldn't believe things just because you want them to be true.  These are all things I learned to do in other subjects, like science or history.

The trouble with religion is that it wants things both ways.  On the one hand, it claims to be fact.  You should be as sure of it as you are of fact, and act on it the way you would act on a fact you were sure of.  And it claims to be provable -- at least, my theology classes said so.  You could prove it philosophically, by a number of proofs of the existence of God, or you could prove it historically, by examining the evidence for Jesus' resurrection and the accuracy of the Gospels.  The Church claims (in Vatican I) that it is possible for human reason, unaided by the light of faith, to come to certain knowledge of God's existence.  That's a bold claim, and so it seems that you should be able to easily test it.  Try and see if you can come to certainty, and if you can't, well, the whole thing is false.

Except that the Church does not actually want you to do this.  Catholics I know don't want me to do this.  They say faith is not a matter of facts like any other facts, but a leap of faith, of trust in a person.  If I can't prove it like I can prove that the square of a hypotenuse of a right triangle is the sum of the squares of the sides, that's fine, I should still believe.  And if I look back and feel uncertain, like I am uncertain that George Washington chopped down a cherry tree, because the evidence is insufficient, I shouldn't suspend judgment the way I would about the apple tree.  I should still believe.  If I can't, I should at least try to.

But I am not sure I can believe in those circumstances; it's not like I can unlearn what I know about knowledge and how it's obtained.  I can't be a rational, skeptical reader when I read Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars, understanding his biases and looking for independent verification of his claims, and then turn that off when I read the Gospel of Matthew.  And even if I can, I can't quite believe that this is right to do.  Isn't it irresponsible to let an assumption masquerade as a fact, when you haven't verified it like you have with all the other facts in your head?

Let me confess: at this point I have better evidence that vaccines cause autism than I have for the Catholic Faith.  That is, I have some small evidence for it and a lot of reasons why not to accept that evidence, plus some apparent contradictions in the theory itself.  It's plausible.  But it's not even likely, as far as I can see.

Now if faith were a matter of plain fact, like whether vaccines cause autism, that would make me an unbeliever.  But it isn't that simple.

I'm not the first Catholic ever to look at the data and say, "I just can't prove this, or even prove that it's likely."  Lots of the ones who think this leave.  But quite a few people think this and stay Catholic.

I'm trying to figure out why.  And how.

Some people have told me it's just a leap.  You just decide.  But is it enough to decide "I will act as if this were true, even if I consider it the less likely option"?  I am willing to do this.  I like being Catholic.  I like its moral teaching and I like singing hymns and I like quite a few Catholic people!  Not to mention the dark sides: I do not want to upset my family and friends, I do not want to lose the respect of other Catholics, I do not want to run the risk (however small) of going to hell.

But it puts a crimp in my prayer life to try to talk to someone I strongly suspect isn't there or can't hear me.  I am not sure it's okay to receive the sacraments when you don't think they actually work.  I mean, according to the Church I'm a heretic on several counts, and heresy is a sin.  It seems dishonest to tell people I'm Catholic when of course they will assume that means I believe, and I don't.  And it's just plain bad decisionmaking to treat as fact something that you think is unlikely.  If I said, "I think vaccines probably don't cause autism, but I choose to believe they do, so I won't get any," you'd call me crazy.  Now most of what the Catholic Church requires is low-risk in the first place.  It doesn't hurt me not to eat meat on Friday.  But some things are high risk -- should I oppose gay marriage even though I have no real reason outside of Catholic doctrine to do so?  Should I tell the kids God hears their prayers even though it might lead them to the same sort of crisis I'm in, when they start to suspect he doesn't?  Should I give my life for it if the opportunity arises?  Wouldn't that be foolish, to do so for a mere possibility?

Is there some other way to take the Faith besides as fact?  How do you relate to something which you think might be true, or which you choose to accept as a framework for the way you see the world even though you know it may not be factual?

I read things about symbolic language, but then I think, is the symbol actually symbolizing something real?  "I believe in one God" does not symbolize anything.  Either you believe in one God, or you don't.  "Jesus rose from the dead" is not understood by the Church as something symbolic either.  I read something the other day about "day language" (the language of science) versus "night language" (the language of poetry and religion) and I just kept asking ... but is it factual?  Does the image correspond to anything?  "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons" is night language, but it speaks to something true.  Perhaps something that can't clearly be said otherwise, but not something imaginary.  Whereas God is real, or he is not.  I can worship God as another name for my superego, as an avatar of the universe, as a creation of the world's group-mind, but the Catholic Church demands something different.

Perhaps I am too literal, too insistent that reality fit this paradigm of true/false.  I suppose the whole Western Catholic Church suffers from this disease, unable to accept a mystery without picking at it.  How can God be true God and true man? What are the relationships in the Trinity?  In what way is Jesus present in the Eucharist?  But all the talk of the theologians hasn't gotten us any closer; it's gotten us further, because the more carefully we define it, the less likely it seems to be true.

Unfortunately I don't know how to be any different.

However, last Friday I went to the library and grabbed a bunch of books from the shelves.  Memoirs of ex-Catholics.  Proofs of God from evolution.  I wanted to bring home the whole theology section, but I couldn't carry that and a baby too so I sort of picked at random.  There was one book that got me really excited, called In Search of Belief, by Sister Joan Chittister.  I had heard of her -- some super liberal nun that made people on "my team" mad -- but, heck, I can hardly get less Catholic at this point, it won't hurt me to read this book.

Right in chapter one I ran into this paragraph:

"It is a dangerous time spiritually, solved by some only by dismissing everything that once they accepted unquestioningly and now find incompatible with present reality or, conversely, by others by continuing to cling blindly to past explanations because present situations are more than they can absorb or integrate into an older worldview.  Both responses are understandable by both are lacking something of the breadth and depth of life.  One shuts out the mystical in favor of the obvious; the other shuts out reality and calls such anemic retreat from creation the spiritual life.  The rest of us, too cautious, too judicious, to take either extreme, find ourselves adrift and alone, trying to make a spiritual raft out the shards of shattered reason.  We flounder and we drift.  We avoid questions and doubt answers.  We hope against hope that someday things will all get clear again, even while we know down deep that if life continues on its maddeningly fascinating scientific way, more than likely they will not.  For appearances sake, we try to look as if nothing has changed, knowing that everything has changed.  We simply go on going on."

Yes.  Yes, I see myself in there very well.  So I'm reading along, hoping she'll have something helpful for me in there.  Maybe I can learn, as she seems to have done, a way of believing that doesn't require certainty.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The third possibility

Back when I was posting about the one verse of the bible that causes me the most trouble, I made a whole list of possibilities that this verse might mean.  But there was one possibility that I didn't list, not because it didn't occur to me, but because I believe so strongly that it is wrong.

That is, the possibility that Jesus just lied about when his second coming would be -- that perhaps he wanted us to think it was coming soon so we'd shape up, even though he knew it wouldn't actually do so.

I didn't bother with that, because the Church teaches that, on the one hand, Jesus is God, and on the other, that God can neither deceive nor be deceived.  So sooner than believe that Jesus lied, I'd ditch the whole religion, bible and all, and then of course I don't have to worry about that verse in the first place.

In the same way, I have treated my whole spiritual journey as a dilemma rather than a trilemma, even though there are actually three (or more) choices.

1.  Either God is good, loving, and merciful, and the parts of the bible and facts of the visible world which make this seem like it isn't true can be explained away somehow,

2.  Or, Christianity does not work and I should abandon it.

But you see I skipped option 3:  God is not good, loving, or merciful, as I understand those words, and the confusing, inconsistent, or evil things he seems to have done are just part of who he is.

Not that I didn't think of it.  I think of it a lot.  I guess I felt, for a long time, as though I ought to hedge my bets against this possibility.  After all, there is no requirement that the truth will be pleasant or comforting.  No reason why the being that created us would share our standards of what good and bad look like.  Why shouldn't he do absurd things that make no sense, do things that contradict the moral standards his creations live by, make a certain religion the only way to be saved and then make it impossible for many of us to discover it?

Well, starting from absolute scratch, sure, there is no way to know this isn't true.  But starting within the Catholic faith, you absolutely can.  My bias against an evil or inconsistent God isn't "trying to put God into a box," but following what the Church tells me about what God is like.

And what does the Church say?  Well, it teaches that God is infinite goodness, that he loves each individual person, that he is unchanging, that he is never inconsistent or deceptive.

So, though I might have trouble measuring God up to my standards -- since of course my standards might be wrong -- I am always allowed to measure him up to his standards.  God does not change; if he says he is a certain way, or that he will do a certain thing, if we believe in him at all, we have to believe that.

The Bible and the Magisterium are two sides to the same coin; both can be relied upon if you're Catholic.  The Magisterium has accepted just war theory, for instance, so when God commanded the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites, I can safely say that must be myth of some kind -- because if it's objectively wrong to kill noncombatants today, God knew it was wrong then too.  Perhaps he guided the Israelites to make that sort of myth to emphasize the point that they should not let themselves be corrupted by paganism.  Who knows.  But I know he would not command genocide, because he has elsewhere told us that genocide is wrong.

That is my answer, such as it is, for why I don't bother giving the time of day to the idea that God is not good, not loving, or not merciful.  The Church has been very clear that he is -- and that he is consistent.  The medieval philosophers worked out that if God is infinite being, he is also infinite truth, goodness, and so forth.  St. Thomas Aquinas said that we can never understand what God is, but we can easily say what he is not.  He is not limited.  He is not ignorant of anything.  He is not bounded by time or subject to change.

And what that tells me is that God cannot possibly be inconsistent with himself.  He will not tell us one day that killing is bad, and then appear some other day and say that killing is actually good.

This makes things, in many ways, harder and not easier.  Because then all the many inconsistencies among the Old Testament, New Testament, Magisterium, and of course the evidence of our own senses are problems, not just to be put down to "God changing his mind" or "God lying."  The question becomes then, can we make peace between the conflicting stories and figure out something, anything, about what God is like?

Well, if I could, I wouldn't be here so often complaining about my lack of faith.  But one thing I do know, is that putting it all down to God not being as good as I imagined, or God being not only ineffable but irrational, is an absurdity which I don't see the point in entertaining.

Today is Pi Day, which is generally considered a joke holiday.  But I think maybe it should be a more serious one, because it brings to mind a very important reality, revealed in "the book of the universe": the universe, and whatever creator it has, is consistent and rational.  Measure all the circles you like.  You will never have the circumference equal four times the diameter, or three times, or three and a half, but always the same number -- π.  That gives me a wonderful sense of peace and security: the world may not always make sense to me, but it does make sense.  It's consistent.  It's not ruled by an angry being who changes his mind a dozen times a day; there are rules and some of them are possible for us to know.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Violence and Catholics

After admitting I am a hypocrite the other day, I planned to give a rest to Catholic stuff for awhile.  Because why should you all listen to me when I'm an admitted doubter?

However, one of the things I have never doubted, not even been tempted to doubt, is Catholic moral teaching.  I don't know if this is a grace, the way I was brought up, or just my temperament, but I have never looked at a moral teaching of the Church and thought, "The Church says x is bad, but I feel deep down that it's good."  There are things about which my conscience is a little stricter than the Church's teaching, but none where it's too lax. 

I just think it's a work of genius, no matter how you look at it.  Sin is objective -- guilt is subjective.  What a clever way to work it out that is neither relativistic nor unfair!  And I suppose it's what you would expect of an organization that's been pondering these issues for two millennia.  You get good answers.

Now I'm talking about what the Church teaches today.  The stuff in the Catechism.  There's lots of things the medieval church did and people believed back then which I disagree strongly with -- burning heretics, anyone?  But I put that down to just not having had as much time to think about it as they've had now.  Looking back to the very beginning, to Jesus, you can see that mercy is right in there.  But for a long time the Church didn't quite unpack that, because it's made up of humans and the pagan culture they were coming from was just not ready to deal with the idea of radical forgiveness.

I probably would be a total pacifist, except I can see, in the way the Church has formulated the three exceptions (the death penalty, self-defense, and just war), that same level of genius.  For those cases, those incredibly tough cases, where the innocent are being killed and it's not going to get better unless you meet force with force ... the church has developed rules for using force.  It has to be proportional.  It can only be used against an aggressor, not innocent bystanders or people you think might later do something bad.  (I.e.  You may not go back in time to kill Hitler back in art school.)  If you have another option available that is not deadly, you should use that instead.

Unfortunately, when you have exceptions, you have people pushing at them.  I have heard it said that the mere fact that there are exceptions makes the whole teaching optional.  "It's a matter of prudence," they say, which is Catholic code for "we don't have to listen."  But the Church has put down some very firm rules which you do have to listen to.  You look at your situation and see if it fits; that part is up to you, but you don't get to choose your rubric, because the Church has already given you that.

You see, I will agree that a person who has attacked a fellow human and has taken or is threatening to take their life forfeits their own right to life.  It is no longer intrinsically evil to take their life, because they've given up the right to it when they failed to respect that right in others.  But their life still has value.  If they are alive, it is because God sustains their life.  He keeps them in being, because if he thought they had no value, they would no longer exist.  He even loves them!  He loves axe murderers and rapists and genocidal dictators.  He died for them.  Do you believe that?

Of course we want them to repent.  I don't buy the idea that they are more likely to repent if they know they're getting killed.  I say better to give them more time; time can do what few other things can.  But anyway I think that's not our place; the moment of a person's death is God's choice, not ours.  If we can preserve their life without risking the lives of innocents, I think we should.

And anyway, consider: for a person to be put to death, another human being has to kill them.  Is it good for a human to get used to killing other humans?  Is it good for a doctor to have to administer a lethal injection?  How are they going to take their hippocratic oath seriously when we just ordered them, by law, to break it?  We have a strong natural revulsion against killing people.  Because of this, we train police and soldiers to lose that revulsion, by getting them to use human-looking cutouts for target practice and visualize killing people beforehand.  Do you think this is good for them as humans?  Will it make them more kind to their spouses, more gentle with their children?  Will it make them sleep easier at night and less likely to rationalize violence in cases where they could avoid it?

It does not appear to me that it does.  When I see yet another story about a police officer shooting someone who turned out not to be a threat, I see the excuses rolling in right after.  But the cop was scared.  But the person could have been a threat.  But cops are sometimes shot by criminals.  And it's all true.  But when it comes down to it, you or I would not have drawn and fired a gun because we wouldn't have been carrying one.  And if we had, we would have hesitated.  Because we've never killed anyone, never imagined killing anyone, don't want to kill anyone.

We, as a society, have sacrificed that hesitation in the minds of our soldiers, our police, and yes, some of our doctors.  We have chosen to make them the ones who don't hesitate.  Sometimes that goes wrong, of course.  It's the price we pay.

The price for killing someone, anyone, is high.  We should only do it when there is no other choice.  In the case of the death penalty, in America today, there always is another choice.  That's why I'm against it.

And I'd go further and say that, as a culture, we need to stop glorifying violence so much.  Guns don't make you tough, and they're not a guarantee of safety.  Too many times a gun is treated like a security blanket -- that just having one means that someone won't break into your house and shoot you.  I have chosen not to own or use a gun, because I am aware that I would hesitate, and any attacker could easily overpower me.  Now I could spend time training, visualize killing an attacker, overcome my natural hesitation to use violence.  But why would I do that, when it's already a struggle not to lose my temper with my own kids and hit them?  I have to be a mother 365 days a year, for eighteen years per kid.  I might have to shoot an intruder one time.  And that motherhood job is much harder.  It requires me to always, always stop myself before acting aggressively or even defensively, because I could hurt my children.  It requires me to have my defenses down and be soft ... which, I'll be honest, is a daily battle.

And when I hear the shouts for blood -- for the blood of terrorists, for the blood of ISIS members, for the blood of the guy who shot a cop recently -- I think, who are we?  What does it say about us, that we want this so badly?  Can we possibly be seeing a person with God's eyes and loving him with God's heart, if we want revenge on him so badly?

Humans are wonderfully adaptable creatures.  We can adapt to violent circumstances and become more aggressive, or we can adapt to safety by becoming gentle.  But we can't adapt ourselves to hate without hurting our capacity to love.  That's why, in Doctor Who, the Doctor doesn't carry a gun.  Not because he never kills -- sometimes he has to.  But he knows that to carry a gun means that you are always carrying with you the possibility of killing, the readiness to kill.  For a man with that much power, if he let himself be changed that far, he would become a monster.  The gun would become the solution for everything.

I think that, in the way we talk in America, especially on the more conservative side, we have let the gun become the solution for everything.  No one can seem to think of another solution.  We don't think of the possibility of peaceful resistance, or diplomacy, or rehabilitation.  Just of fighting back.  And the one thing no one even gives a moment's thought is that sometimes, it could be better to die than to resist.  Isn't that exactly what Jesus did?

Well, that's what I think anyway.  You don't have to listen to me.  Just throwing that out there.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The case for hypocrisy

Hypocrisy is bad, right?  Strictly defined, it's trying to impress people with the appearance of virtue while inwardly being a rotter.  And no, I'm not really going to argue for that.

But I think we tend to feel an uncomfortable feeling like we're being hypocritical whenever we notice a difference between our outsides and our insides.  Here I am preaching charity and I was just a jerk to my kids!  Here I am in church when really there are scads of atheists who are better people than me!  Here I am sharing an article about poverty when in reality I don't really give much to charity!  It feels bad.  It feels fake.

And it's true that this feeling should inspire us to clean up our insides to match our outsides.  But is there anything good about dropping the exterior stuff in order to match our inner awfulness?

When I was in boarding school and correspondingly way too obsessed with sin, I was afraid to make a visit to the chapel because I suspected I secretly only wanted to go so that people would see me and think I was holy.  But then I thought, maybe this line of thought is just an excuse because I don't want to make a visit.  How do I know I have an honest intention?  What is the better thing to do?

And I made a decision, back then, for how I wanted to live my life, and it is summed up like this: Never let fear of hypocrisy stop you from doing a good thing.

Yes, it's a bit dishonest to let people think you're better than you are.  But sometimes our search for "authenticity" just makes us stop doing good things that we actually wanted to do.  There's only so far you can parse your own motives -- I learned at that time that I am capable of reading horrible motives into any conceivable action I could possibly take.  At some point you've got to just make a decision, and rather than worrying that some actions are hypocritical, you should just pick good actions.

If I feel too hypocritical about that, I just make it a point to be honest: YES, I am sometimes a jerk to my kids.  SURE, I don't give much to charity.  But it is a good thing that I'm able to recognize that peaceful parenting or charitable giving are good, and maybe talking about them will help me do better at them.

So this is kind of the conclusion I've come to, for the present, about faith.  I don't think I have any faith to speak of, because faith should include thinking it's true and I can't seem to think it's true without evidence.  I'm saying this now, to fend off the charge that I'm being dishonest when I act like I think it's true, even though I only think it's sort of plausible, tops.

But here's what it comes down to: I want to be Catholic.  I want to go to church.  So I am just going to DO IT.  Hypocrisy and all.  If God is real, I can't help but feel he appreciates the effort, and if not, he's not going to mind.

Do you think that's hypocritical of me?  Is the fear of hypocrisy stopping you from doing good things?
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