Saturday, October 4, 2014

Two ways of looking at the world

It seems to me there are two possibilities.

In one worldview, there exist both physical and spiritual realities.  The earth, the planets, subatomic particles, and humans' bodies belong to the physical realm; and God, angels, grace, and humans' consciousness belong to the spiritual realm.  Moreover, these two realms affect one another -- things you do in the physical realm can have spiritual consequences, and spiritual realities are supposed to be able to affect the physical realm as well.

For instance, in baptism, pouring water has the supernatural effect of bestowing grace and making it possible for people to enter heaven.  Confessing sins has the effect of removing a spiritual, invisible thing called sin.  Your physical actions produce conditions called the state of grace and the state of sin, and these determine what happens to you after you die.

But because these things are spiritual, you can't detect them.  I can't feel the difference between being in a state of grace and being in a state of sin.  I should have the spiritual gift of faith, but I don't notice that it makes it any easier for me to believe anything.

God has total control over both the physical and spiritual world, and yet in the physical world, we find that he doesn't normally intervene.  Plenty of things one imagines God would want -- sick people to be healed, natural disasters to be averted, and so forth -- do not happen.  Almost everything that happens in the physical world can be explained through physical causes, and it is possible that some things that can't now be explained that way will be able to be explained later, when we know more about the world.  But in a few cases, we say that God is intervening directly in the physical world -- miracles -- and in this case, a spiritual reality has physical effects one can detect.  We know about spiritual realities because of the physical effects they have.  Although we are "hybrid" creatures, both spiritual and physical, we can only detect physical realities with any certainty, because the only way we have to learn about the world is through our senses.

It's kind of mindboggling going through the world and imagining that we only can detect a small percentage of what is -- that unbeknownst to us, we are surrounded by angels, that God's presence is everywhere, that everyone we speak to is in a spiritual state that we can't possibly know.

But if I blink, I can just as easily see the world differently.

I can see a completely natural world, in which everything that exists is part of the physical universe.  Those things that we don't have a natural explanation for are simply things we don't yet understand, and further study could figure those out too.

Miracles can be explained away.  Perhaps someone was mistaken.  Perhaps a spontaneous cure was a long shot, but theoretically possible and someone just got lucky.  And perhaps a person's strong belief enabled them to heal themselves -- the placebo effect can be quite powerful.  After all, there are some random inexplicable healings that can't be attributed to saints.  There are faith healers in a variety of religions who have some success.  Perhaps there is a natural explanation we don't yet know.

And as for people's religious impulses, the human mind is one of the most complex and mysterious things out there.  It contains religious impulses, altruistic impulses, violent impulses, sexual impulses, and so forth.  Religious people choose to call some of these good and some evil -- and it is true that some of them have positive effects and some negative ones.  That isn't necessarily proof that following some of these will send you to heaven and following others will send you to hell.  The human mind is weird enough that we seem to be capable of convincing ourselves of almost anything.  You can write off visions and revelations to the same source.

Here's the thing, though: I don't find this view of the world upsetting, or depressing, or any of the things it's supposed to be.  I think the world would still be beautiful.  Nature itself is an amazing, complex, beautiful thing, even without the supernatural.  True, a universe like this would not care about me in the slightest.  This as taken as a reason not to believe in it, but I think that's irrelevant -- we should believe in what's true, and not believe in what is false, even if the false point of view seems more attractive or comforting.

And Catholicism is actually not that comforting.  Being a good Catholic, as I mentioned before, is not going to give you wealth or comfort or even happiness in this life.  It's not going to guarantee that horrible tragedies won't happen to you.  Tragedies happen at roughly an equal rate to believers and non-believers.  In fact, as my mother used to say,

The rain it raineth on the just
And also on the unjust fella.
But mostly on the just because
The unjust stole the just's umbrella.

In other words, following a religion may prove disadvantageous in this life, because we have to follow an inconvenient moral code that the non-religious don't have to worry about.  The only rewards for following a religion are spiritual ones -- that is, they are undetectable until after you're dead.

It kind of frightens me that there are such weighty consequences for something that's so dang hard to detect in the first place.


Enbrethiliel said...


I can also blink and see the world very differently, so I know exactly what you mean! And yes, that alternative spiritual view has its own logic, beauty and kindness. If I had to slip back into that world, which you could say was my first home, it wouldn't be too difficult.

On the other hand, the Catholic world has been feeling like home for a while--for which I'm very grateful. I'm reminded of an uncle of mine, who emigrated to the US over thirty years ago and came back to visit last month. "Could you live here again?" his wife asked him. He answered: "All my years in the US now outnumber all my years in the Philippines, so no." Maybe it's just a matter of waiting things out.

This also reminds me of how utterly baffled I am by people who can't do this blink thing. At the start of the year, when I was blogging about State of Fear, I also happened to watch a video of Rupert Sheldrake, whom I guess we could call a parapsychologist; the video was his critique of modern science's dogmatic adherence to philosophical materialism. I liked it enough to livetweet his ideas and my comments, not imagining that they would give any offence--because who gets worked up over whether matter is all there is or isn't, right? =P Well, that little series got a long-time friend to message me, saying (and I paraphrase), "This is exactly why I didn't want State of Fear to win. I'm going to unfollow you for a while, until this is over."

I was stunned and remained so for a long time. Later, when he resumed following my feed, I asked him about it, and he explained that he found the tweets "belittling" and dismissive of what science is actually about. While I can understand that, I ironically can't also blink and see it. That is, I really have trouble getting why philosophical materialism can get people so attached to it that calling it a dogma and pointing out some holes in its view of the world would be so distressing. (I also wonder if my friend realised that he was helping to prove Sheldrake's point!) So I really have to wonder what he sees when he blinks and tries to imagine a world in which non-material forces hold some sway. It can't be as wonderful as my two main spiritual worlds--that's for sure!

Sheila said...

When I was younger, I really *couldn't* see it two ways. A purely physical world was utterly incomprehensible to me. I felt the existence of God and angels were obvious and required no proof.

But now I'm left wondering if I was wiser then, able to sense more than I can now that I'm older, or if I was just young and naive and convinced myself I was feeling things I wasn't.

Blame Regnum Christi for that, I suppose. I had so many "obvious" spiritual experiences, which later I found out weren't real. They were simulated for me, to the point that I was hearing as "God's voice" exactly what they wanted me to hear. I've learned just how easy I am to manipulate and so I mistrust everything I think and feel.

Which leaves me at a loss. There is basically no way for me to know anything, because there is no source I trust, including my own mind. I basically remain Catholic because there's no reason not to. Even though it does generally "make sense" to me, I feel like for all I know, it only makes sense because of the first principles I was raised with. So, how can I possibly be sure?

I see no way that this uncertain state of mind could possibly be fixed. I guess it beats being a staunch, unquestioning materialist, though .... because I feel that failing to question is worse than being unable to stop questioning. It's not what you don't know that can hurt you, it's what you know that ain't so, as my dad used to say.

Enbrethiliel said...


I'm a little down on "signs" these days. But mostly signs that other people get. LOL! Let me explain . . . If someone says, "I think I should be with this guy because I was praying about it and when I walked into [the Evangelical] church, the band was practicing the song that was on the radio during our first date!" I'm just going to roll my eyes--but out of view, to be as polite as possible. =P I also don't think it's a good thing to imagine that we always get direct telegrams from God telling us what He wants.

Now, there are times when I see something or hear something or even think something that gives me such a great feeling of consolation or the strength to keep hoping and moving that I can only call it a grace. But it's not a "sign" in the sense that it tells me exactly what to do: barring really extraordinary moments, God seems to want us to make our own decisions. Tradition and Scripture are enough for everyone to figure out what he should do; we don't need a step-by-step plan for our lives.

As for how I can be sure that all this Catholic stuff is even true . . . well, that comes down to faith being a grace that I was given rather than something I was able to work out for myself. I think that human reason and effort can come to accept all that follows from the precepts of Christianity as true, but not the precepts themselves. These really do seem to require something supernatural.

Ariadne said...

I decided some time ago that, when you really come down to it, you can't know anything for certain. Nothing can be proved beyond a doubt if you take away the first precepts everything depends on. In the end, all I have to rely on are my own mind and experience of the world, so I have to trust them.

That being said, I have never found it difficult to believe in spiritual realities, in things beyond the physical realm. It's always seemed very clear to me that the physical world cannot be all there is. I can't explain why, but it just doesn't fit.

For me, the purely materialistic worldview would be desperately depressing, maybe even impossible to live with. In difficult times, my faith has literally been the only thing that kept me going. Without it, there would have been no point in trying. For me, the moral code is a small price to pay for hope and joy and the belief that God loves me. And if I am somehow wrong about this (which I don't believe at all), then I am okay with that because it made me a good person and brought so many good things to my life. What do I have to lose by believing? Nothing at all.

Sheila said...

I can't stand it when people search for signs. They want a Bible verse or a rose from St. Therese or something, and it feels to me as though they want to force God to make their decisions for them, because they don't want to take responsibility. I prefer the attitude of Mariette in the novel Mariette in Ecstasy (you might enjoy it!). She says that some days she asks God what he wants of her, and he says, "Surprise Me!" I think God wants us to use our own brains.

The trouble with this, though, is that if I only go on what I come up with myself, with my own brain, how can I be said to have any faith at all? Real faith would go out on a limb, believe the incredible. Is there anyone alive today who really has enough faith to be *certain* -- who would do what they believed God wanted, even though their own reason and conscience were screaming not to? Or does God simply not work that way? (I can think of an example, which really shook me when I heard of it -- persecutors who threatened to martyr, not adult Christians, but the Christians' *children.* Could I let someone kill my children rather than deny my faith? No. I could not. Would God really expect that of anyone?)

If faith is a grace, all I can conclude is that I don't have it. That I once apparently had it, and it's just gone, not through any fault of my own that I know of. And how is that fair? Would God take that grace away from me, and then condemn me for not having it?????

But perhaps in the end faith is a decision. You have to choose to accept the evidence, even though no evidence of the spiritual could really be completely conclusive, to the point that you would have no choice but to believe. (I used to think it was possible to reason out completely so that you could be certain of God's existence, but an apologetics book told me no, a leap of faith, a decision to accept this explanation over other possibilities, is always required. And that shook me more than anything I'd ever heard .... I always assumed that somewhere, there was an argument that a sufficiently smart person could really be sure of. I trusted that even if *I* couldn't figure it out, other people had, and I could rely on that.)

But I thought (after days of existential angst) .... well, if it's a decision, *that* I can do.

Ariadne, I used to feel just the same -- that spiritual realities were just obvious, no need to prove it. I wish I still felt that way.

For you, it seems faith helps you through the hard times. For me, faith is easy when things are going smoothly, but when they're not.... I keep feeling that it would be easier not to believe in God than to believe he was allowing this stuff to happen to me.

Enbrethiliel said...


Sheila, I think that you do have the grace of faith. You wouldn't still be a Catholic or be concerned about these things if you didn't. But if you compare the artificial, "synthetic" feelings that Regnum Christi engineered for you to what you have now, I'm sure that the latter seems a bit flat by comparison. Not because it's fake or lesser, but because you're still healing from the RC experience.

The main reason I'm so down on "signs" is that I have a personal history with the occult, which is all about signs! And I can see that relying on them is very much an abdication of free will. Wanting to discern the will of God in something is well-intentioned, but it ultimately means that you don't trust God to make things all right no matter what you do. And yet we have been sure since the Resurrection that making things all right no matter what we've done or will ever do is exactly what God does! If we aim for what our reason and conscience tell us best, then being part of the Mystical Body of Christ will supply absolutely everything that is lacking. Even in the case of the Christians who had to deny their faith in order to save their children.

But about those roses from St. Therese . . . A few years ago, I was really depressed about the possibility that I might never find someone to love that a friend said, "That's it. I'm starting a novena to St. Therese for you tonight and you're getting a rose on Tuesday [which is the last day]." And guess what? I got a rose that Tuesday! LOL! But yeah, that was a while ago and it could have been a complete coincidence. Nevertheless, whenever I think that I should just throw in the towel on marriage, I remember the rose . . . and also a Bible verse about God redeeming "the years of the locust" (although I never received that as a "sign") . . . and I hope again.

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