Monday, March 2, 2015

A ... or B?

Ever been to the optometrist?  They make you look in that machine and swap out lenses: "Look at A.  Okay now look at B.  Which is better, A or B?  Here's A again.  Here's B.  Which is better?  Need to see them again?"

That is how I feel.  Here's the Catholic worldview ... here's an atheist or deist or Protestant point of view.  Which is clearer?  Which looks more like reality?

For so many years I wouldn't even look at lens B.  Wouldn't even think about lens B.  I was afraid that B was right, you see, and if I let myself look at it, I'd see it was true.  And I didn't want to see that, because as I keep saying, I want to be Catholic!

But not looking at B didn't make A any less blurry.  It was getting blurrier and blurrier, and I realized my unwillingness to ask the questions I had wasn't making them go away.  I had to be brave and look for the answers, even in places I didn't want to look, because faith doesn't come from a denial to think or look.  That denial just led me to a strong feeling the faith was false, because I suspected that just around the corner was a counterargument I wouldn't be able to answer.

So I started to look at A and B, in turn.  Which was clearer?  Which had fewer blind spots?  Which explained more of the reality I know?

I found that the B view was depressing.  Also that a lot of the people who hold it are not as nice as the people I know wearing A glasses.  So shouldn't that be good proof?

Periodically I gave up the eye test and said I would just stick to A.  But my prescription kept getting blurrier.  I said I would just stick to the teachings of the Church.  If I saw something I thought was wrong, well, I'd look it up and see if maybe the Church had room for my view too.

But then I bumped into "no salvation outside the Church," and really the best I could come up with is that the Church teaching has definitely changed.  I know there is an argument that it hasn't.  I just don't find it convincing -- and I'm not the only one, because plenty of modern schismatics think the new view contradicts the old one.  It isn't a disproof of the Church, but it's bad evidence to be sure.

I also ran into the teaching, dogmatically defined by a council, that God's existence could be known with certainty from the created world.  I don't find that so in my case, and to say "oh, if only you accepted Thomistic philosophy you would have certainty" isn't very helpful, since Thomistic philosophy has never made a whole lot of sense to me.  I've studied it, sure, but I always felt the first principles weren't all that self-evident.

Well, I figured, I don't have to understand it all.  One of two things is possible, either that the Church's infallibility isn't as strict as people say it is, or that I'm wrong, and I can deal with either.  I put away my catechism and conciliar documents and I was going to just read the Bible.  Surely a Catholic should be able to read the Bible!  But suddenly it was so full of contradictions.  The law won't pass away!  The law has passed away!  Offer me sacrifices!  God doesn't want sacrifices!  Stone adulteresses!  Go and sin no more!

Is it the same God in the New and Old Testaments, or not?  There aren't any Marcionites around anymore, who say each covenant is with a totally different God, but I can't really see why not, considering how very differently God acts in each.  I did some research and found that maybe the Old Testament is mainly myth.  So I figured, I can accept it according to the intent of the human authors, if they meant it as myth, I guess.  (Although even the moral of the myth is odd - is God really the sort of person who would demand a sacrifice of someone's son?  Or who would tell people "do not kill" and then demand that they kill quite a few different kinds of bad people?  Is morality unchanging, as the Church teaches, or does it rely on God's will at a particular moment, as the Old Testament seems to teach?) 

So I was down to the New Testament.  Can't read the Old Testament.  Can't read the teachings of the Church because they always seem to contradict.  I like the Mass, but it's only once a week.  I am trying to find out how to live an actual Christian life.  I don't want to study and argue, but I couldn't find a way to even live a Catholic life at all without stumbling on some controversy.  I couldn't walk away from the controversy without walking away from my whole religion.

Last week I was reading the Gospels and ran into that verse I posted yesterday.  Seriously?!  I mean, I knew that was in there, but I have been ignoring it for a long time and it wasn't hurting me before.  But, you know, once you come across a flaw in your worldview, you know you are following a flawed worldview.  You can't un-know this.  You can ignore it, and tell yourself there is surely an answer out there, but it eventually begins to bother you -- or it does if you're me.

So I thought I'd resolve it, but wasn't able to.  There are resolutions, but they seem so unlikely!  Whereas the explanation that the whole thing was made up to prop up an end-times prediction seems pretty reasonable. 

A? .... or B?

The historicity of the Gospels, and specifically of the Resurrection, is my last bastion.  It's the hill I have to die on, because there's basically nothing else I actually believe in with any certainty.  If I'm convinced by it, I have to acknowledge all that flows from it, which is fine.  I mean, even if other parts of the Faith are unlikely, when you rule out the "it was all made up" theory, whatever remains, however unlikely, must be the truth.

So I'm researching that.  I do have a book, The Case for Christ, which is pretty good and I've read before.  The trouble with it is that it "proves" early on some premises, like the dating of the Gospels and Epistles, with evidence that doesn't seem very sound to me, and then uses that conclusion to prop up the rest of the book.  I thought I could use some more info, so I read this debate.  Certainly interesting.  I learned some things, like that we don't know for sure that Peter and Paul were martyred after all.  (Wikipedia backs that up.)  That weakens my argument unexpectedly.   And that Mark, which many think was the first gospel written, doesn't mention the resurrection at all, only that the tomb was empty, in the earliest manuscripts of it.

In the end, the conclusion I'm left with is that both A and B are a wee bit fuzzy.  You kind of have to pick what you think is more incredible -- that a person should rise from the dead, or that someone would lie (or get confused) and say a person had.  One seems against nature, the other against human nature, or what I know of it.

What if, getting to the bottom of the question, all you can say is, "Well, it's equally likely that Jesus rose from the dead and that he didn't"?  What kind of an answer is that to build a life on?  I need to know, more than I could possibly need to know any other fact of history.  It's all very well to say, "I'm as sure about this as about any fact of history," when I automatically discount "miraculous" stories in Julius Caesar or Herodotus.  And anyway no one expects me to pray daily to Julius Caesar and really believe he can hear me.

I don't want to keep studying this.  I'm afraid.  I know that it's possible more study could actually give me more answers, clear up the "A" lens so I can see again.  But it is also possible that the "B" lens is a lot clearer.  There's really no way to prove A, without running the risk of disproving A.  Any test that could prove A without disproving A, doesn't give you any additional proof of A.  (If you don't see that, Seeking Omniscience explains it well, I think.)

What would you do?  Keep plugging away at the Catholic Faith with minimal faith, knowing that you don't really believe much, but you have a suspicion that perhaps it might be true, and that will have to be good enough?  Or keep flipping back and forth between the lenses?  Read more arguments on both sides, see if any of them has a single fact I haven't heard.  Study the first century.  Date the whole New Testament.  Read the second-century Fathers. 

Is A better?  Or is it B?  Need to see those again?  Let's look at these facts with A on .... now let's look at them with B.  Which works better?  Which makes more sense?  Is A even possible, or does it contort the world beyond understanding? 

If it does, do I even want to know?  It's not like I want different glasses.


Anonymous said...

Dear Sheila,
I am very concerned as I read your blog, and I really think you are in depression, perhaps postpartum, I know there's a baby recently. Please seek counseling, a doctor, or the like.

Sheila said...

No, I don't think so. I've had mild depression in each pregnancy, and it clears up each time after the baby's born. I'm dealing with anxiety and sadness over my religious questions, as I think anyone would in my position, but I feel great about the rest of my life.

If you really want to help maybe you can point me to some good answers to my questions? I've been spending a lot of time on Catholic Answers lately, but I'll read anything you have.

Anna said...

If I were you I would try not so much to do more research as to keep plugging away at God i.e. follow your Lent plan of praying as well as you can. (Maybe your doubts are a chance to develop a closer personal relationship with God?)

Enbrethiliel said...


What would I do? Did you really just ask me that? ;-)

To be honest (and serious), Sheila, I already flip back and forth between A and B a lot. Sometimes I throw in C and D, just for variety. And it really doesn't bother me that contradictory things seem equally likely, though I do draw the line in places.

My scariest "Is it A or is it B?" moment came when one of my best friends became convinced that what we know of the Holocaust has been, shall we say, greatly exaggerated. I read the sources that he suggested and was convinced, too. It felt like an eternity of darkness (because can you imagine what the world would be like if that conspiracy theory were true?), but it was probably just fifteen minutes. I snapped out of it when I told myself, "If it didn't happen, then what we know of St. Maximilian Kolbe and St. Edith Stein is a lie, and if it's a lie, then the Church is in on the deception, and I'm not going to believe that the Church is in on the deception."

Granted, that's hardly evidence. In fact, to my friend, who still holds the same stance, it's willful blindness! =P But it's mostly like the existence of extraterrestrial life. If there's life on other planets, so what? How does that change anything about our day-to-day life?

Having asked that, I suddenly remember the ancient astronaut theory that human life was created by aliens. Admittedly, that has greater implications to everyday life! I used to follow one of those theorists on Twitter, but unfollowed after he observed Easter Sunday by telling all his followers that the resurrection is just our mortal way of understanding what the "alien being" Whom we call Jesus actually did. Because I'll put up with anything but blasphemy. But again, I rejected his theory with no evidence. It just didn't fit the first principles that I had already accepted as true.

Another scary "A vs. B" moment, which actually reduced me to tears, was when the sedevacantists got me and I was certain that the Eucharist was invalid in my church . . . and in the majority of churches all over the world. My parish priest at the time heard me out and said, "Enbrethiliel, do you really think the Holy Spirit would let something like that happen?" And that was all that it took to yank me back. For the Holy Spirit wouldn't let something like that happen. QED.

Just for contrast, there's the fun "A vs. B" experience involving a Catholic historian who interprets Genesis literally. I love his literal reading of the story of Noah even more than the mystical reading of an influential German occultist--and that's saying a lot, because the uncanny parallels that the latter drew between his teachings and the Bible kept me out of the clutches of a Catholic charismatic group that I later learned was heretical. What he said made more sense than what they were saying, so I went with him. Again, nothing to do with evidence.

(May I confess that what puzzles me most about your searching is the weight that you give to evidence? Just because we can't prove something, it doesn't automatically follow that it isn't true.)

[To be continued . . .]

Enbrethiliel said...


[Continuation . . .]

Finally, why do I believe one thing and not another? Well, here's my answer, though I don't know how you'll like it . . . After I told you about my conversion, I tried to draft a blog post about it, and I came up with this metaphor: "It's as if I saw a gorgeous stranger across a crowded room, our eyes met and we felt a connection, he came toward me to introduce himself . . . and we remained together ever since." (Now do you see why I defend LAFS in literature? LOL!) All the other theories that I could believe are like other men whom I could leave my "husband" for. But although I see that many of them are decent, good-looking guys and that I'd definitely be as happy with at least one of them as I could be with the one I've got, I'm already committed to loving the latter, my soul isn't endangered by it, and I'm not about to lose the good by chasing after the perfect.

Sheila said...

If you want to use THAT metaphor, the Faith is the abusive husband I married when I was too young to understand, and who has spent all the time since either dragging me around and hurting me, or freezing me out.

Needless to say, I've abandoned that metaphor!

I guess part of the thing with evidence is that I don't think a loving God would come down to earth and then make the evidence he had done so impossible to prove, or to even demonstrate as likely. Why would he do that?

You see I am much more sure that God is reasonable and good than that he exists, if that makes sense.

And here's the thing. I can attend a Catholic Church by using my will. I can follow the commandments and all the rules, no problem -- I agree with them all anyway. But I can't *believe* something I don't think is literally true, and I don't think things are true unless I have some reason to think they are true. I might make-believe them. I might enjoy imagining them. But that is not believing, and what the Church demands of me is that I *believe.*

I wonder if anyone is confident enough to say, "Keep digging, I promise there's evidence in there somewhere!"

Or are most Catholics just here because they like it, and not because they think it's true either?

Rebekah said...

Hello again. I commented on your previous post with some thoughts on the end times issue, which has also been bugging me. I wont repeat them here.

But what I did want to say is do keep prayerfully digging! If it is really bothering you and you feel in your heart it needs to be sorted out now, then it seems to me that this is not the kind of thing that can be just swept under a rock and left there to fester.

What sort of evidence are you after, by the way? I ask because there are different kinds. For example, as a literary historian (but not a Bible scholar!) I'm very happy with how the New Testament documents stack up as reliable manuscript traditions; how soon after the events they made the transition from orality to writing (not forgetting that oral cultures have their own techniques for recording events anyway), how many copies or fragments exist, etc. I'm also convinced by the contents of the gospel narratives themselves. They don't read like cynical constructs written after the fact to shore up the authority of the early Church leaders, because, let's face it, none of the disciples come off very well; bumbling is a generous way to describe them. And the "character" of Jesus, well he doesn't read like any fictional creation I've ever encountered. He really is something else entirely. And for me, that's something I cling to.

Can I also suggest that if you feel able, you do read and re-read the Old Testament at some point, perhaps with some kind of study guide? Now may not be the time when you feel that is what you need, of course -- there's some pretty unpleasant stuff in there, particularly to do with the life people lived back then. But I've been greatly surprised by how the same God emerges from both old and new Testaments. For example, he doesn't actually make Abraham sacrifice Isaac, but provides the lamb himself (and Abraham himself was calmly expectant that God would do that: Gen 22:8), an illustrative substitute that prefigures Christ. And there you have the same God as the New Testament, stepping in to provide us with the sacrifice. I also think people see the Old Testament God as always wreaking vengeance, but so much of the OT is God saying "come back to me, stop doing vile things to each other, I love you"; even to people who aren't Israelites (Jonah is my absolute favourite OT book, followed closely by Job). Conversely, Jesus is hardly meek and mild: he's the man who took a whip to the money changers in the temple, and called people "vipers."

Of course, I'm sure you don't need me to tell you that by definition faith will always involve an element of hoping in things unseen (Hebrews 11:1), and it seems that there are times in the lives of most Christians who think deeply about their beliefs when all they can do is hold on and hope for the best. But Paul himself pretty clear that literal truth is also vital: "if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith" (Cor 15:14).

There's lots of good books about all this as many Christian thinkers have written about their struggles and researched the facts. There's nothing wrong with needing to understand things further and to learn more about God and his word. Can your priest suggest some things to read perhaps?


Enbrethiliel said...


What you say here about will and belief is exactly where I was once upon a time. And what helped me was someone arguing that the will precedes the intellect. If we have good will and are indeed seeking the truth, we will be able to find it and to believe in it. (Full disclosure: he was arguing that invincible ignorance is no excuse.)

I think you're definitely sincere in your searching, but I've also seen you reject things just because you don't like them or because they stir up bad associations. Your history makes this perfectly understandable, but it may also mean that you now have a handicap when it comes to faith. That's not fair, of course, and I understand your anger at the idea that God willed it for you and your need for God to be a certain way. But what if you're trying to fit Him into a mould that He's too big for?

I think it's admirable that you're trying every "hack" that you can, like skipping the pesky dogmas and going for historical evidence. But I'm personally not optimistic about this route, which I see as a kind of cousin to Sola Scriptura: if Jesus had wanted us to rely only on a book, He would have written one Himself; and similarly, if He had wanted us to rely only on history, He would have ensured an archeological record. What He has left is a Church with apostolic continuity. But that just puts you back at square one, doesn't it?

What I am optimistic about is that if you keep looking, you WILL find the truth and that it will be solid under your feet. But since this also depends on your not rejecting it just because it reminds you of your past, perhaps you can break your prayers down into baby steps, and instead of asking for belief at this point, ask for discernment.

Sheila said...

I think that if you will to find the truth, you're likely to find it. (Mistakes are always possible.) But if you will to find out that the sun goes around the earth, for instance, you're not likely to.

What if the Church actually is wrong? Do I seek the *truth,* and run the risk of finding that out, or seek confirmation, and run the risk it will fail to satisfy because deep down I know I'm not looking for the truth?

Relying on continuity seems very unreliable to me. You want me to take it on trust from someone ... who took it on trust from someone ... who trusted somebody ... and were ALL of those people good judges of character? Were NONE of them, perhaps, pathological liars or crazy?

Reading up on the details we know for sure about the first century is even worse. Rebekah, I have a book (The Case for Christ) which makes just the arguments you do. I found some of the arguments a little doubtful, some evidence not quite fleshed out, so I started fact-checking it .... and found there's plenty of evidence that goes the other way. Like the dating of the Gospels, it could be as early as 20 years after Jesus' death, or as much as 60. I can't find good evidence proving it either way. None of them say which eyewitnesses they interviewed. We know they borrowed from each other. And we also know there's scads of similar hagiographic stuff -- apocryphal gospels, acts of various saints -- which are just as vivid, but not true.

Yes, there is room for belief. But the case is just so much less ironclad than I had thought.

Thanks for the encouragement though, and I am continuing to research at present. Right now I'm looking into miracles ... those, at least, are closer to the present so more information should be possible.

E, you touch a nerve saying I want God to fit in a box! I do ... but in my defense, it was partly because the Church told me he would. I mean, God is supposed to be somewhat rational and consistent. Not like Islam, where what God wants at any given moment is what is right -- God's justice is unchanging. God's goodness underpins the whole universe and is in all of our hearts ... we should be able to see good in what he does.

Maybe I am wrong .... but if I am wrong, God is a lot more capricious than I thought, and that makes me unhappy. Why does he say in one place that a sinner's children will be punished to the tenth generation, and later that only the sinner himself is punished and the children aren't? If he loves people in other nations too, why does he have the Israelites wipe out the Canaanites instead of converting them? This isn't just beyond me, it's incomprehensible. You can't read the Old Testament (not ALL of it) and get a really coherent picture of God. At least I can't, and I have read nearly all of it.

Belfry Bat said...

Oh dear, but there are too many people here.

Dear Sheila, you did not "marry" the Faith when you were too young to understand; you tried to join the Regnum under Legion (just before it all fell apart, funnily enough), before you were strong or wise enough to discern, and God tried to get you out; he allowed you, like Job, to fall ill, as a sign to your family that all was not well, and He even tried telling you through your directors at the school, to whom you had undertaken some form of obedience.

Now, I don't know why you seem to have developed such a Lutheran attitude to scripture, but none of us has by ourselves sufficient intellect to parse and understand the Scriptures — because they are not merely intellectual exercises. Intellect itself is insufficient. They are part history, part prophecy, part poetry, and they starve in absence of Tradition. You are too grown up now to nurture fantasies of being able to understand these texts without people, especially without the Church who has kept them. Don't run to more outside writings, whether books or websites. Find a worthy person you trust, with authority to teach, and make an experiment of not exerting but listening.

In short: God seems actually to speak to you more loudly than to many others, and right now he seems to be telling you that you're trying too hard to rely on your own smarts. Take a break!

Rebekah said...

Actually, I was thinking that even 60 years is a good time between events and their written record! As people of a written culture it is easy to forget that those from oral cultures have mnemonic devices and are used to preserving important accounts in oral form. We think writing is best, but Socrates was wary of writing and worried that a shift towards relying on writing would weaken the power of memory and the mind (from _Phaedrus_). But these are things I find reassuring, and you may need to investigate further the same or different lines.

I've not read _The Case For Christ_ but I note that it's written by a journalist, not a Bible scholar. An old, but more scholarly investigation is F.F. Bruce's _The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable_. It is a short book but he does present alternative views and includes a section about other documents that could have been included in the canon but weren't. I've seen something more recent, but I can't remember what it was called. I think for myself I will also have a hunt around.

On the subject of God telling the Israelites to wipe out the other nations in the land, yes, that is something I baulk at. It is worth noting that in Genesis 15:16, God tells Abraham that he is waiting because "the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete." It may be preferable to think of God and the Israeites gently converting the nations of the land and weaning them away from their child sacrifices, but I suspect for the time and culture of the day that was probably not realistic. (Reminds me a bit of the joyful bringing of Western democracy to certain nations today, who simply don't want it). Who knows how God will judge individual Caananites in the final reckoning. One of the similarities between old and new Testaments that I have noticed is the sometimes unfathomably of God in the Old and of Jesus in the New. Reminds me of Mr Beaver's quote in the the _Narnia Tales_, when asked about Aslan: "Who said anything about safe? 'Course he isn't safe."

I hope none of this sounds like I think I've got all the answers, or that I think I've some sort of authority to tell you what you absolutely ought to do. Ultimately, I'm not suggesting that anyone should rely solely on the power of their own mind in isolation to understand these questions. I believe that by grace the Holy Spirit helps us to understand scripture, and that by grace we have many centuries of Christian writers and tradition to draw upon, together with the Church here present on earth, the community and the sacrament. I'd definitely second the call to work through your questions with someone you trust, if, as it seems from your blog posts, this is something that is troubling you greatly.

Sheila said...

I certainly have been reading the tradition. I'm lucky enough to have quite a few theologians on my friends list and in my networks, so I know what they think.

Invariably they fall into two types: those who answer "God can do whatever he wants, he's God, and if he orders genocide, genocide can't be intrinsically evil" (which I disagree with -- how can killing one unborn child be intrinsically evil and not killing a whole nation full of children?) or those who answer, "Ignore those parts, I do." Or they say that they've worked out their own interpretation, but it's against the traditional one.

Tradition fails me on much of the Old Testament, just as my intellect does.

I have not found anyone who both submits entirely to tradition and also doesn't defend atrocities. Perhaps there are some out there; no one I know though.

The Old Testament doesn't break things for me; I *can* read it as myth or perhaps garbled or biased history, although that's not traditional, and of course I have the choice not to read it at all. So I read Psalms and ran into "blessed is he who smashes your little ones' heads on a rock." So I ditched that and was reading Sirach ... found a nice little bit about care for the poor ... but then on the facing page there was advice to torture disobedient slaves. How is ANY of it useful if the only way of telling the stuff I should and shouldn't listen to is by picking the stuff that is morally acceptable to me already? Is it fundamentally the word of God, or not? If it is, should I ignore my conscience in favor of what it says?

Bat, I can make a lot more sense of God if I understand him as a father. A father, you don't have to be old enough to understand. He takes care of kids too. Even dumb ones who want to fly across the country because they read a Bible verse. ;)

SeekingOmniscience said...

I like the analogy a lot--it's a pretty good way of addressing how different worldviews can obscure / illumine different parts of the world. Or basically how they can cause you to / prevent you from seeing parts of the world.

I feel like your model of what I would say here is probably pretty accurate, so there's probably little point in saying anything because you already know what it would be.

Nevertheless, I will say that I think your stubbornness in research is praiseworthy and to-be-imitated (you could have called that); and that I'd be interested to know what conclusions you come to about miracles (ditto). I'd offer to lend you my books on the Shroud, but I think I left them in WV.

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