Friday, December 12, 2014

7qt: faith and rules


The other day I had a good conversation with an atheist.  Why is it that talking to Catholics makes me want to run away and be a Wiccan, but talking to atheists makes me glad to be Catholic?

Anyway, he says that believing in God is easy, but he just can't believe God is so particular about what we do.  Why does God care if we eat meat on Fridays or not?

To which I said, it's a sign of gratitude.  We did not create ourselves, we have no right to exist, and we did not create this vast world teeming with food for us to eat.  It's a sign that food is a gift, straight from God to us, and we don't have the right to eat what we want, when we want.  God loves for us to enjoy his gifts, but it's good for us to recognize that they are gifts by sometimes going without them.

There are other benefits to sacrifice, like the way specific sacrifices set us apart as a culture, and how they teach us to strengthen our will.  I think all rules, even the arbitrary ones, have a purpose.  We, as humans, aren't really able to conceive of love apart from action.  We love through our actions.  And actions from going to Mass on Sunday to feeding the hungry are all ways we are showing that we love God, that we worship him, that we are grateful to him.  The fact that we don't choose what these rules are is another part of the point -- if we sacrificed only those things we wanted to sacrifice, we would be making our own wishes the standard, and one of the most important things we humans have to learn is that we are not the standard.


On that note, torture's been hitting the news lately.  I suppose you can imagine how I feel about that.  Maybe I'm an exception, but I don't have trouble feeling empathy for my enemies -- I have empathy for everyone.  But some people have different temperaments and don't have a gut reaction against torture.  They feel it's justified.

In that case, I guess I can see what a benefit it is to have a church with hard-and-fast moral teachings.  No matter how you feel, no matter if you don't understand, you still have to obey.  No torture, no matter what.

I wish I could trust everyone's consciences to come up with the right answer all the time, but for various reasons our consciences don't always work right.  It may be how we were raised, or it may be just difficult to hear our conscience over how badly we want a certain answer to be true.  But having a church with a clear moral standard means we always have a guidepost outside of ourselves to refer to.

Unfortunately the same people who love the Church's rules when they're directed at the people they don't like, are suddenly turning into cafeteria Catholics where torture is concerned.  Or they say that sure, torture is wrong, but these are instances where the need is great enough that we just have to overrule the moral law.

That's actually even worse, because you're saying that the moral law can be overruled.  The whole point of having a moral law is that it can't.  The foundation of Catholic moral teaching is that you cannot ever do evil, no matter how grave the reason.

And risk of death has never been sufficient reason.  There was a saint's mother (I want to say it was the mother of St. Dominic Savio, but I could be wrong) who said she would sooner see her son dead at her feet than commit a mortal sin.

That's a hard teaching.  And there are ways you could spin it that are very uncomfortable to me.  But I imagine, as a mother, receiving word about one of my sons: "He was captured by the enemy, and offered the choice to torture another captive or be killed.  He refused and was brutally murdered."

Would I be heartbroken?  Yes.  But I would be so, so proud.


Okay, that's enough awfulness for one quick takes, don't you think?  Have an adorable picture:

 Michael put on that blue scarf and said he was Mary, so I figured we could just make a Nativity scene.  They stayed in character for about an hour after.  And who was I?  God, of course.  Not my easiest role.

In this one, I laid her down on that orange blanket.  She rolled over twice within a couple of minutes and ended up clear over here!


Marko math: 

Over dinner, Marko asked me, "If there were three kids, and three toys, how many could each kid play with?"

I was excited that he had basically invented division.  "I guess each kid could play with one toy each, right?"


"What if there were six toys, Marko?  How many toys could each kid play with?"

He thought about it a long time.  Stammered a lot.  Then finally he had an answer he was sure about.  "The one who was born first gets three toys.  The baby gets two toys.  And the one who was born second only gets one."

Um ..... well, it does add up to six, anyway!


I seem to have suddenly broke out into sunshine again, as far as having time for myself goes.  Sure, it's not much.  But I have found lately that Miriam is awake and happy for long enough most days that I can not only do laundry and dress myself, but sometimes bake a pie or spin!  And what's greatest is, I actually have the energy to do it.


I'm not going to tell you my Christmas plans .... but, supposing we did intend to drive halfway across the country with three kids, would we be utterly insane?

Probably.  The worst of it is that Miriam is actually sleeping so well and I'm afraid it will all be messed up if she has to sleep in an unfamiliar place.  But on the other hand, if her aunts could hold her while she sleeps ...... I could actually have some time with no one on me!  It would be wonderful!


Since last weekend, I feel I've blundered into an alternate dimension in which half the people think women shouldn't vote.  The argument goes like this:

"Women, on average, vote with the other party, or oppose things I believe in, so we'd be better off if they couldn't vote."

If you think that, you don't really believe in government by the people at all.  You don't believe in the principle of voting.  You don't believe in the marketplace of ideas, in which you have the ability to spread your good ideas peacefully.  Nope, you just want to disenfranchise everyone who disagrees with you.  In the end, what really makes sense would be to make yourself dictator.

Of course, some people really would rather be dictator.  But that's not going to happen, and neither is disenfranchising half the population.  Too bad for you!


SeekingOmniscience said...

So you don't mind if an atheist puts generalized epistemological quibbles in your comment section every now and then? I wondered if they're welcome or not.

The torture thing is odd, and tough. I think it tends to illustrate something about how humans approach moral issues, though. You remember how, in the Republic, one of the first definition of justice is something like "Give people what they are owed." And then they say "Hey, but then we would have to give a friend weapons that he had lent us, even if he was at that moment insane. And it seems just to not give him them." So they decide that can't be the definition of justice. And they kind of bounce around like this--first someone proposes a definition, then someone proposes a problem, the definition is refined to avoid the problem, then the process repeats.

But the problem is that after you come up with some particular definition of justice, some particular philosophy, by doing this back-and-forth and back-and-forth bouncing between words and your intuitions ("Is this it?" "No" "Is this it?" "Closer, but what about X case?" "Is this it?" "Almost, but what about Z case?" etc) then you take this as the canonical definition--this is what justice is. And so you can then bash someone over the head with it--when someone wants to do X, but X contradicts your definition, you say "Ah, but X is unjust. See, here's my definition of justice, so you know it's unjust." But if course, earlier you rejected other particular definitions because they contradicted your intuitions--but now you (inconsistently) expect others to abandon their intuitions because of your definition. And this becomes more evident when, later, someone points out a case where your intuitions contradict your accepted definition, people usually just modify the definition rather than change their intuitions.

This is all moral philosophy, not the teaching of the Church. But something similar happens, I think, in how people bounce back and forth between particular interpretations of Church doctrines and their intuitions which is basically analogous to the above. After all, everything can be interpreted, if you try hard enough; almost everyone seems to selectively apply really rigorous argumentative standards to positions they disagree with, and very lax ones to those they agree with. (A while back, I was having a conversation with a Protestant, giving a generalized sort of "You need the Church because the Bible is ambiguous" argument. She pointed out that, well, that just pushes the interpretation forward another level. I think she was probably right about that being a cruddy argument for Catholicism vis-a-vis Protestantism.)

Sheila said...

I don't mind a bit. My feeling is that if the words of someone who disagrees with me land me in the middle of a crisis of belief, it's probably a crisis I needed to have and would have eventually anyway.

I think we're back to your word "gut-ist." People trust their gut more than they trust the Church. So it's all about trying to get the Church to square with their gut -- something I try to do rather honestly, and which (it seems to me) some people do kind of hypocritically. That is, when the Church says something they personally don't like, they reinterpret it to square with their gut, but if other people don't like something, they tell them, "Just have faith, don't question this teaching." Everyone likes the Church as a tool for telling *others* what to do -- no one likes it when it tells *them* what to do!

And yet I feel there must be some objective truth here. Either torture is okay in some cases, or not. (I think not.) I think what sets Catholics apart, more than anything, is the feeling that for every question, there must be some objectively right answer. The Church is just not useful unless it can tell us what that objective answer is! And yet, like you point out, it doesn't always. Even if you reject your gut altogether, and agree you will accept whatever the Church says about everything, sometimes you will come upon multiple possibilities. In the Middle Ages, no one would have dreamed that the Catholic Church would ban torture!

So you have a few options. One is the Church followed the culture at all times, first by adopting the Roman custom of torturing anyone accused of a crime, and in modern times forbidding torture, but both times affected by people's gut sense of right and wrong--which has evolved over time. The other is that the Church only *really* holds one view or the other -- that, for instance, it really is banning it now, and its condoning torture previously was simply a lack of reflection on the topic, or on the other hand, it isn't *really* banning it now.

My feeling is that the Church has been developing over time, as more and more of Jesus' message has been adopted and applied to more things, and most of all as people's gut sense has adapted to a Christian world (by having been taught these ideas at a young age and seeing them reflected in the surrounding culture). So the Church has actually learned over time that torture is bad, and people have finally come around to the point where our gut sense (at least, most people's gut sense) can understand that torture is wrong.

Sheila said...

However, little as most people like to admit it, our gut sense may be wrong and is not universal. That's what makes it unreliable as an ultimate judge of morality. After all, conscience comes from three places:
1. Empathy, or the altruistic impulse -- the set of emotional reactions that lead us to put the good of the group over our own good (this is stronger in some people than in others, but I think we all do have it)
2. Upbringing -- the things our parents taught us were right and wrong
3. Reason . . . which can't tell us the goal we should strive for, but which can tell us if certain actions are or are not consistent with the goal. For instance, reason can tell us if a certain action respects human dignity, if we already believe in human dignity, or whether it is likely to result in the greatest good for the greatest number, if that is what we want.

Point #2 varies greatly throughout time. Socrates' upbringing was very different from mine, and as a result our gut instinct about right and wrong might not always coincide. And one of us must be right. If only we had an objective standard by which I can prove that I am right and that Socrates is wrong! (Because, after all, that's what I want, right? I'm not going to admit that it's okay for Athenians to have sex with young boys.)

Unfortunately, the Church isn't going to be able to do that any more than anybody else. Even though our consciences are incompatible and some of us must be wrong, no one is willing to be the one to admit it's us that's wrong, and change. The most the Church can do is encourage small changes in people, or encourage some of us to adopt a moral standard that we don't actually believe in, but which doesn't contradict our gut. (Birth control is like this for a lot of people -- they don't see why it should be wrong, but they're willing to take it on faith because their gut doesn't *require* birth control. But I, having been raised Catholic, have a sense of emotional revulsion at the very idea, even though I can't explain why.) If it pushes too hard for change, people will either explain away the part they don't like, or leave the Church.

It seems to me an unavoidable limitation in the power of religion to teach anything. Perhaps the slight inconsistencies in the Church's teachings and practices over time is an effect of this -- since, after all, the Church is made up of people.

But I think the general consensus of people worldwide that torture is a bad thing -- to the point that we have global treaties on it and such, and that this CIA thing is such a scandal -- is a result of a progression of understanding that starts with Jesus. When Jesus says that people have intrinsic worth, that we must return evil for good, that we should love our enemies (aka treat everyone as ingroup), and people actually take this to heart and gradually change, the ripples of effect go beyond Christians and into the surrounding culture (since most of us were raised by Christians, or our parents were) to the point that more and more people's gut impulse believes these general ideas and subsequently is repelled by the very idea of torture. So I could say that many atheists are adopting Christian ideas, while some Catholics are stuck in ancient Romans ones, because the gut of some non-Christians has been shaped more by Jesus' teachings than that of some Christians.

tl;dr -- I'm right and everybody else is wrong, QED.

The Sojourner said...

I'm going to ignore all the theological discussion and just say that Marko's idea of division cracks me up. That poor middle child always gets the shaft, huh? :D

Sheila said...

Yep. Luckily for Michael, he's kind of a bruiser and very good at advocating for himself (aka grabbing WAY more than his share of toys). So more often I am defending Marko against his little brother than vice versa.

SeekingOmniscience said...

Sorry to take so long responding. I went on a trip to NYC for an atheist Solstice celebration, because the holidays get rather lonely otherwise. Then I got sick from staying up too late talking to people, because apparently every time I stay up past 2:00 I get sick. And now I'm probably alright again, mostly.

I thought that was a good summary of places whence we get morality--particularly the identification of reason as merely something that can tell us that particular means are effective in getting to particular goals, but doesn't tell us the goals... Hume also said that.

And I don't know if I should argue about torture, or what the Church says, because at this point I don't know if I'm really a moral realist. I'm glad the Church shaped people's guts against torture, in any event, if it was the Church who did it. But I don't really know what I mean when I say "X is wrong," or what other people mean when they say that, if that makes sense. So I think I'll be quiet.

On a slightly different topic: Ever since you said that there are no atheist Mother Teresas, I've been thinking about it. I'm probably sometime going to write a blog post on the topic, if you don't mind, titled "Atheist Mother Teresas" or some such. The issue shouldn't actually bother me, because atheism or Christianity are true or false regardless of whether they cause people to be charitable or not--but it's an interesting point, and one that's seized my attention.

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