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.

31 comments:

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

If "Faith as fact" is too troublesome, how about "Faith as gift"? A mysterious gift. Like Iluvatar's gift to men. =P

I'm going to comment now although this is hardly a proper response to your post, because I kept delaying my reply to your earlier one and that's why it never got posted.

Anonymous said...

Your brutal honesty is refreshing!

Anonymous said...

Sounds like the old controversy surrounding Pelagius. "Faith, like choice, is a gift of grace." Fine, but is that grace the set of conditions that permits us to believe, all the evidence that God has freely given, or is grace that conviction which irresistibly defies the lack of evidence?

Sheila said...

E, you know my issue with that description! I've been arguing predestination with someone else, and it turns out there are Catholics who in fact believe that God does give faith to some and not others, by working out the circumstances to be the ones that will lead them to freely choose him, and not doing that for others.

But even if this is a belief the Church allows (though it puzzles me that it could be!) it seems inconsistent with a God who loves everyone. Wouldn't he save everyone if he could?

Sheila said...

Anon #2, I wish I knew. You would think after two millennia of theologians puzzling on it, we'd have an answer by now!

Belfry Bat said...

I wonder if it's worth pointing out that V-I, in their definition, were following Aquinas, and that the extent of the certain conclusion is merely that all the universe we can see depends for its being upon the will of a free eternal rational good (of which there can be only one); and there is a particular argument: contingent things have causes, and the visible Universe is contingent.

Of course, one might doubt the first premise, but then one should also doubt engineers. One might accept the first premise but doubt the second (and this might make him a pantheist), but this will in fact quickly lead a really-rational person to doubt also the first premise (dual to the "scandal of specificity" --- why should only the rational and causal histories be real?).

=========

Since the title of the present post was "What is believing", the mathematician in me would like to suggest: believing X is the habit of using X as a first principle. Similarly, "faith" in X would be the habit of trusting X. (One can believe in tigers without trusting them.) This doesn't cover how one acquires such a habit, or whether one should.

=========

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

And it turns out that I probably should have waited and edited more before posting, because rather than "faith," what I meant was the state of never really knowing for sure, which is a condition as universal as death. Even those who get some extra help, like a heavenly visit, must deal with the possibility that they were temporarily mentally ill. =P

I'm wrestling with a version of that now because my grandmother did not die in a state of grace (which is putting it VERY lightly!) and I sometimes despair that she went straight to Hell. Who knew that the grace of a holy death was for your loved ones as much as for you? I recently read an article by someone whose grandfather got to make a final confession and to receive the Eucharist literally seconds before he died, and I envied the writer and his family for having a sense of certainty that I never will. They're still in the universal position of never getting to be absolutely sure, of course, but boy, are their bets hedged!

I've just replied to your last comment on my private blog, and what I said there seems to be relevant here, too. So forgive me for making you read it twice! For me, some people being naturally strong in faith while others aren't, doesn't mean that God loves the latter less, but that he wants the former to be strong for the latter so that the latter can also be saved. If you think about it, all of us are weak because we can't save ourselves and needed Jesus to do it; having that kind of love for each other is a logical fruit of believing that God has that kind of love for us. But the ways this belief has been acted upon aren't very popular these days.

Take the old pastoral norm of not letting laymen read the Bible on their own because not everyone's faith is strong enough to take it. Well, that turned out to be a prudent policy, inasmuch as someone who read the Bible on his own founded the most enduring heresy on the face of the earth! And to be perfectly honest, Sheila, this thought was what I pondered leaving under your previous post. For if reading the Bible alone is damaging your faith and distressing you, then you probably shouldn't be reading it alone. (Cue chorus of "Catholics are so anti-intellectual!" =P)

This isn't meant as a put-down in any way. It's just a reflection of my belief that there's no such thing as "one size fits all." Not everyone is cut out for the kind of exercises you're making yourself go through. I wonder if you're holding yourself up to the same sort of standard that the RC directors/guides imposed on you.

Sheila said...

BB, I understand that this was declared because the Council Fathers thought you could reason to faith along with Aquinas' arguments. I have studied them, and I just can't. Too much is assumed. I can reason back to an uncaused cause, but why must that cause be rational or good? How do I know we aren't sneezed from the nose of the Great Green Arkleseizure, as Douglas Adams suggests?

E, I am sorry to hear that about your grandmother. Certainly a very large part of why I am trying so hard is because it would be so upsetting to those who love me if I gave up.

I rather agree with the Bible not being for everyone. I tend to think it's because your average unstudied person is too prone to take it literally. However, I may be dead wrong about how I interpret the Bible (best I can understand, it's a condemned heresy, oops) in which case I'm no better than the peasant. Of course a big part of me whispers, "They didn't want people to read the bible, because one honest reading would show the whole thing to be a pack of contradictions which can't be reasonably resolved!"

But more likely it was so people wouldn't take some of the awful stuff in the historical books as a how-to.

Yes, you never really do KNOW. I'm not asking to know, but I would like to at least find it *credible.* Or to find the answers to these two questions: first, is it OKAY to go with stuff you believe so little? That is, from a non-Catholic standpoint, am I being a total idiot if I keep up with this stuff that I don't actually find credible? And the second is, from a Catholic standpoint, is my lack of belief -- some of which, I confess, is deliberate -- a sin, to the point that I am not really welcome in the pews anymore?

As to the question as to whether I have to put myself through all this, well, theoretically I don't, right? But I am driven to do so for whatever reason. It's like a conversion story from anything to anything, where they say "the questions just wouldn't go away," and "random coincidences just kept bringing up more reasons to change." Like the Hound of Heaven, but in reverse. (Yeah, yeah, I know what you're going to make of THAT one!)

I don't think RC has anything to do with it, though. This is more of a Christendom problem ... too much theology education, too little devotion. It was always about the facts. When facts fail, I realize I have little else.

Belfry Bat said...

The thing about the Great Green Arkleseizure is that it describes not an uncaused cause but an unexplained and very complicated intermediate cause: something that can be somehow green and is somehow subject to sneezing. There's nothing eternal about anything under any aspect admitting something as involuntary as sneezing.

So, since you ask, can the uncaused cause actually be fundamentally capricious? Is caprice different from an uncaused contingency? And again, can the uncaused cause actually be careless, or evil?

... The impression I have of what you'll assent to and what you'll accept as a finished argument (or won't, respectively) is that you don't decide on what your first principles actually are. I can't tell if it's because you too much doubt everything, or if because you want too much to try every starting-point: have you perhaps too many desiderata to your thinking? Because if you start with nothing certain, it's very hard to get anywhere at all, while if you start with too many things "certain", you'll run into contradiction.

=====

I have to say, what always seemed to me the coolest thing about Christendom College was the cool young bloggers I read who went there. It's almost too bad that I'm having to refine my remote impression of the administrative and pedagogical culture of the place, but I don't think any less of those bloggers because of it.

Sheila said...

Well, don't judge Christendom just based on my own impressions of it. Certainly many of the most awesome people I know went there. I mean, regardless of any of its flaws, it attracts a certain type, and a lot of that type is totally amazing.

Where do you think first principles come from? If you just pick them, then they can't actually lead you to the truth. All they can lead you to is a series of conclusions -- which may or may not have any relation to reality.

Rather, I think I would agree with your statement that one should try them all. Then compare the conclusions back to reality. So, the one thing I know is that I have experiences of reality, so that proves that something, at least, exists. From there I can say, my senses are reliable, or they are not; and the experiences I have seem to fit better with the assumption that they are, than the assumption that they are not. And so forth.

If I were to assume an intelligent God who particularly likes humans, I would expect a very different universe than the one I see. I don't see why an all-powerful God should work so very hard to cover all his tracks, to make his existence plausibly deniable. It's pretty easy to work out the existence of gravitation or magnetism and be certain that they work; why should the universe have one more force to it, one that is intelligent and good, and yet THIS one should be impossible to observe in action?

The Great Green Arkleseizure is a joke, of course. Now it may be true what astrophysicists are postulating at the moment, which is that our entire universe may be emanating from some other universe, but of course that's irrelevant philosophically. But what about the idea that the "uncaused cause" is simply energy, quarks or what-have-you, a force which does create but does not particularly care what it creates, because it is not conscious?

Or you could imagine an intelligent God who created the universe according to the rules he picked, but again, does not care about humans, or perhaps is not even aware of us, because he's interested in some other aspect of the universe.

Because the evidence does not really look like what I would expect if the universe was run by someone who *did* care about humans. It's not impossible -- you could postulate that God doesn't care about earthly suffering but DOES care about continuing our consciousness after death, and so we wouldn't expect that God would get involved in the earthly reality much -- but that's not the number one conclusion that I think you would reasonably come to, looking at all the evidence. If I wanted to do an experiment to prove whether a rock was intelligent, well, I could never *prove* it wasn't. Because it could just be choosing to ignore me. But after a zillion tests to try and get to interact with me failed, the most *likely* conclusion would be that it is not intelligent.

So, not that you can disprove the existence of an all-powerful, rational, loving God, but that you can't "arrive with certainty" anywhere close to there. To say "you can arrive there if you accept these five premises which are based on nothing, but simply chosen" is not the same as saying you can obtain certainty.

Belfry Bat said...

The Quark Equation is closer to what I think you want to suggest, I think; but there's a big difference between the ideas "there's an equation that describes what quarks do" and "there are quarks". There didn't have to be quarks. The quarks didn't have to come in pairs, or bind in trios. I.e., the particular equation reifed, and the particular solutions of it, both are contingent things.

Anyways, just to circumscribe even more closely the limits of our particular observations: suppose we had a consistent theory that, as it so happened, predicted the cross-sectional statistics of all collider experiments at all energies; how would we know? There isn't any way to actually do all experiments, after all.

=====

On the opposite pole from the intelligent rock, let's suppose the Noisy God: if God the uncaused cause actually is intelligent and wants you to know him personally, how would you know it wasn't a trickster alien, or a trickster man, or a bit of undigested beef?

What do you expect of God-if-God-is, and why? And then how would you tell the difference?

=====

On the other hand, why do you have the feeling of God having covered his tracks? Some folk make much of the apparently well-tuned universal structure constants; after finding myself here at all, I'm pretty amazed that there seem to be any structure constants. There didn't have to be any. On The Other Hand, I'd be much more suspicious of a world in which the Cosmic Background Radiation Anisotropy (e.g.) were covered in Hebrew script, for instance, even if it only said "My beloved is mine and I AM hers".

====

Whether you like the first principles others argue from, even if you can't settle on many yourself yet, still you have some that you haven't made clear.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Well, here I am back to my usual semi-puzzled state when you explain how you see things. I may be in the minority in the world, but I don't at all see what evidence has to do with credibility. If anyone other than you were saying it, Sheila, I'd think it was just making excuses.

Both my mouth and my fingers go faster than my mind sometimes, and now that I've written the last paragraph, I wonder whether it's also true in your case. Though I DON'T mean it's your excuse for not submitting, but that it's something you say because you feel bad about a genuine lack of belief and only a sensible reason like this will help you to feel better about it. And I'm not being judgmental! Inasmuch as I believe that Faith is that four-letter-word you don't like, I don't hold it against you that you don't have it. But I also recall you writing elsewhere that if an angel from Heaven gave you good reasons to believe a certain idea that you find repugnant, even then you might not change your mind. So I don't think that evidence is as big a missing piece of the puzzle as you're saying.

Or to put it more succinctly (I hope!), the claims are unbelievable to you not because they lack evidence, but because you simply don't believe. If you believed, they would be believable, without any new archaeological evidence being necessary. And that's fine. Simply not believing is okay. You don't need a reason not to believe or a justification for your lack of belief.

(And now you may be thinking, "But the Church says that I have to believe!" If so, then it's replies like that which makes me insist that you have "the beginning of faith." Wanting to believe is a step in the direction of believing, rather than a step away from it.)

Incidentally, this is what I hoped I was able to tell you about the rosary last year. If you don't like it, that's no big deal. When you started asking, however, how the rosary was better and then pointing out to rosary-lovers that our reasons are full of holes (not that we really care--LOL!), it seemed to me that you were trying to make your dislike of it into something rational, to make yourself feel better for being the odd one out, when it was really as irrational as anyone's liking of it. (Welcome to the club! ;-P) It was in this, and not in your dislike, that I thought you went into an odd place. Not everything has to be justified and watertight.

To be continued . . .

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Now, I didn't go to Christendom (Surprise, surprise? LOL!), but my own serious formation came from what I now consider a very bad source: online Catholic apologetics, most of it written by converts. It was probably a necessary evil, because I really had no other resources or authorities, and at least those guys were orthodox . . . but the combative mindset of apologetics--in which you must have an answer to everything, because others are definitely going to attack you--dyed everything a horrible shade that took years to wear off. I remember the first blogger who got me to question it, with a post in which he argued that an elderly devout Catholic who is probably committing the sin of idolatry in her devotion to Mary should be left alone. Let Jesus deal with her; He will be merciful. To meddle in her life because orthodoxy is your ideal (or ironically, your own idol?) is what Stalin or Mao would do.

Long before I found the Catholic blogosphere, I was like that theoretical old woman, blending occult beliefs and Catholic beliefs. It was not because I was obstinate, but because I truly believed they were compatible and that the Church would come around someday. (Remember those journals I said I would destroy? I ended up keeping those with entries from after my "reversion." And it was startling to recall how long after returning to the sacraments I continued to refer to God by a certain occult name and to believe certain things about Jesus and Mary that would sell more books than Dan Brown.) Yet there was a sense in which this was okay: God had me safer in hand than any apologist looking in from the outside could ever imagine. And this is why I think that your lack of belief is also "okay": first in the sense that God's will for you is greater than those of your loved ones or even your will for yourself . . . and also in the sense that you don't have to tie yourself up in knots over it. Yes, people are coming at you left and right--but they don't really know anything about what you're going through--and no matter how clear you get in writing, they never will. Yes, that includes me. ;-)

Having said all that, how about this as another answer to your question: "Faith as personal encounter"? (If it sounds familiar, I'm riffing off of--or maybe even plagiarising [GASP!]--Pope Benedict XVI.)

Sheila said...

E, one thing that comforts me with the whole thing is the thought that I am only 28. I don't know how many years I have in front of me, obviously, but it is quite possible my spiritual journey is nowhere near finished, so the fact that I am in the middle of nowhere at the moment is to be expected.

If an angel appeared to me and said, "Jesus rose from the dead," I would believe him, obviously. (Perhaps this isn't obvious to you?) This is a place where I need evidence. But if an angel appeared to me and said, "God doesn't actually want to save everyone; although you want to believe, he has decided to deny you the gift of faith just because," I would not believe. I'd assume it was a bad angel. That was what I meant by that statement you keep bringing up. I will believe that God exists, based on evidence. I will not believe God is evil, or does not love me, on any amount of evidence because I just can't believe that and don't want to. That's why I say, some of my doubt is voluntary. There are things I refuse to believe, because I have a moral objection to them -- the idea that God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, for instance. That's cruel, to my mind, as well as deceptive, and I don't think God would do that. People tell me I have an idol in my mind I am worshiping instead of God, and I am angry at God for deviating from my standard ... but it's more that I feel it's simply impossible for me to have an *idea* of God which is better than the real one!

"The Church says I have to believe" is an issue, but not, I think, in the way you think. I feel that a Church that demands faith when faith doesn't appear to be something you can just switch on, is being a bit unfair. I'd feel better about the Church if it said, "This is what *we* believe, and you can join in to whatever degree you feel comfortable doing." But it insists that you try to make yourself believe.

Sheila said...

BB, I do agree that the rationality of the universe is probably the best evidence we've got. It's why the worst I get is generally deism.

But to answer your question about what I think a universe governed by a loving God would look like -- well, first I'd expect him to suppress all natural disasters and abolish all diseases. Perhaps he's got too a great a respect for human life and freedom to throw down lightning bolts on sinners, but he should show up with a miracle whenever asked to. Jesus promised that -- all we had to do was have faith the size of a mustard seed, plus have two or three gathering to ask in his name, and we could have anything we wanted. Why have no mountains been uprooted and cast into the sea? At the very least you should be able to prove statistically that those who pray have better results than those who don't -- Christians should be noticeably richer, healthier, and happier than others, after controlling for other variables.

If God doesn't care about earthly suffering, but only about people believing in him, why in the world doesn't he appear regularly in a pillar of fire? Why did Jesus ascend back into heaven after his resurrection, if he was not compelled to do so? Wouldn't it have made more sense to manage his religion in person? Think of all the souls that have been lost through the blundering of bad Popes. And how few would disbelieve if there was a 2000-year-old man who could do miracles available to ask questions of.

I'm afraid by saying all this I will seem like a complainer. Like I am angry at God for not fixing all the problems, all the time. I'm not; I feel there's no point in blaming God for, say, poverty in Africa, when I myself could be donating more to poor kids in Africa than I do. Pot calling the kettle black, you know. But if I were given divine powers, I would immediately start doing something about human suffering, and I don't understand why a God who is supposed to be more loving than I am would not do that. Or at least do something about the great majority of people who do not believe in him; if he really were concerned about that, it would be well within his power to fix it.

I take all this as counterevidence, because the world appears so much different than one would assume from a well-managed planet .... unless, of course, you assume humans are not particularly important in the grand scheme of things. If, to God, we're basically the knickknacks spiffing up the guest bedroom, it makes plenty of sense. But not otherwise.

Belfry Bat said...

I have to admit that I'm stumped as to the prevalence of Earth-crossing asteroids and our very wobbly tectonics; Yes, disease is a pain and bereavement is a wrench.

What I do know (imperfectly) is that all the water in our ecosystem fell from the sky (in Earth-crossing asteroids) as did almost all the copper, and silver and gold that are now able to use to adorn wedded hands and house our Sacramental Lord; that the Earth-shaped planets with currently-quiescent tectonics are Mars that has been cooked dry by the Sun, and Venus, which cataclysmically turns itself inside-out every few hundred million years... and in particular, (something you know closer, in a way, three times now, than I ever could), we humans are host to some particularly strange symbiotic endoretroviruses. Fancy that!

I'm certainly not going to suggest that the horrors of things going wrong in the natural world are justified by the parts their causes have played in our past; I'm only pointing out that the natural order, the very same consistent reliable natural order that points to a rational creator, within which order we physically move and have our temporal being, cannot itself rule out calamities.

Of course, I don't know why all of us here had our mortal beginning in the midst of these slings and arrows, I don't know that it couldn't have waited until the Earth's crust quieted down just enough and the solar system was tidied up.

But perhaps this whole physical order itself is unnecessary, and we might as well have been incorporeal creatures with direct communication amongst eachother... like angels, if you will.

And yet, even among the angels, (if angels there be), it seems some are unhappy. I don't know why, but that's the story.

If we're going to ask: why must needs Jesus have Ascended to Heaven instead of visibly dwelling on Earth forever, (not that I know a good answer), we might as well ask: why was not Mary the first daughter? And again, I don't know.

But as for supposing that a Millenial Earthly Kingdom would make belief easier, I think you underestimate Human stubbornness. It is reported that already during his Earthly life some suspected Jesus of demonic possession, and why should a man, as it seems, who does not grow old be sign of Divine work more than Diabolical? Unless, of course nobody grew old, in which case we might never notice.

Now, your expectation that Christians should have been "noticeably richer, healthier ... " ... that's simply apalling. (It's also a condemned heresy, but more than that, it's appalling) If it were Christians successfully petitioning for such miracles as you seem to think good, should they not help all in need alike? And in any case, we are first to leave behind lands and houses and family, to follow Him, before receiving again "an hundred-fold"; I certainly haven't managed the first bit, so I don't expect to see the last for a while to come.

=====

Sheila said...

I left house and land and family and all I got was this lousy damaged psyche. ;)

But yes, I do agree that God should help everybody and not just the Christians. The reality, however, is that he doesn't help anyone, in any visible way. I can very easily believe in a "watchmaker God" who carefully made the sort of universe that could come up with us -- just setting the operational perimeters of the universe could have (to a mind that could understand all chaos) necessitated our existence and all our suffering at the same time. Cancer and disease and death are the agents of evolution; after all, and earthquakes are just what you get for having a planet with a liquid core. So if there is a God, it seems he must be very hands-off.

But then, why miracles? If God is able to step in and heal 1% of the people who go to Lourdes (or whatever the percentage is) why not all of them? If he can cure this person of cancer, why not that person, when people prayed just as hard? Miracles ought to be much more common, it seems to me. The one miracle in my experience seemed to have been done rather sneakily -- a healing, but not noticeably connected to any of the praying or blessings. Was it just to make sure we could all doubt it if we chose to?

And, sure, some people are so stubborn they wouldn't believe if there were pillars of fire, but most of us aren't. We're happy to believe anything that has sufficient evidence. I believe in evolution and gravity and plate tectonics, no sweat, because there is evidence for those things. I would be very happy to believe in Jesus, but he chose to hide his incarnation in a time without very clear history, in a backwater of the empire. It was as if he were trying to keep his existence plausibly deniable!

I don't understand why he would do that -- in fact, nobody does. Some religions try to explain the problem of evil, but Christianity just says "it's a mystery." To me it's not so much a mystery as counterevidence. It could be accepted if there were enough positive evidence to overcome it, but I can't find anything of the sort.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

I've brought up that bit about the angel a couple of times because, honestly, my mind is still blown that you wrote it. You basically said that you'll only accept what you want to accept, because something that you don't want to accept can't possibly be true. That's a lot of authority to give yourself!

Having said that, your skeptical reaction to an angel's saying what you don't want to hear is actually the right reaction to any supernatural message, even one with great news. So inasmuch as I myself wouldn't trust an angel without running the message by my confessor first, I should stop bringing that example up! =P

I had a whole paragraph on how I understand the story of Abraham and Isaac, but deleted it because it would have been getting hung up on another example . . . and it was just my own opinion, anyway. Telling you why Genesis 22 feeds my faith doesn't help you if the same chapter feeds your doubt. But it's getting harder and harder to find middle ground where we do meet!

I've also read your reply to Bat, and I'm a little surprised that you find evolution credible. We have less evidence for that than for Jesus's rising from the dead! Adaptation, sure: that's common sense. But one species evolving into another is something that we've been taking on faith since Darwin brought up the fossil record. Especially after Piltdown Man and the other "missing links" were exposed as hoaxes! And well, saying that we can never observe evolution happening because we'd need the perspective of billions of years sounds like modern academe meets The Emperor's New Clothes.

SeekingOmniscience said...

The verse is about leaving house or land or mother or brother or etc, not about leaving house and land and mother and brother and etc. It's a bit less constraining.

---

Ah, so just to rephrase something Sheila said in the above, which I think is important: To say "It's a mystery," to some people, looks like it resolves an objection. "Why is there evil?" someone asks, "It's a mystery," someone responds and the first person says "Ah, ok, that's cool then."

But to an external observer, "It's a mystery" looks simply like a mental stop sign, not an explanation. The role it seems to play is to tell people "Don't think about this further." You don't explain anything by saying "This is a mystery," as far as I can tell. You merely prevent people from thinking about the issue in a critical way.

This is evident when one thinks about how anyone would approach someone from another religion who used the "This is a mystery" line. Suppose I told you I believed in the Green God Arkleseizure as well--and that I believe that he wishes for all gardened things to grow--that indeed, his terminal, ultimate value is for all gardened things to grow, and who (being sufficient in himself) has no desires except that gardened things grow. And suppose that I also thought him omnipotent, and able to do anything that he so desired. And then suppose I planted some herbs, said prayers to the Green God, and they all died of blight. This would seem, to most observers, to be evidence either that there was no Green God, that he was not all-powerful, or that he did not actually want things to grow. To say that this was "a mystery" would seem like a way of obfuscating without explaining anything--a way of ignoring the argument, and not actually addressing it.

I've never heard a way of addressing mysteries that seems to amount to more, on a practical level, than advice not to think about something. I've searched for a while. This seems to me something Catholics should be really really concerned about, but it's not something I've ever heard addressed in anything remotely like a systematic fashion.

-----

BB, it may be the case that things that cause problems in this world also have benefits. The question is whether those benefits would be obtainable without those problems. It seems to me hard to argue that omnipotence and omniscience couldn't have figured out a way to get those benefits without those problems, given that omnipotence and omniscience would have had the entirety of the laws of the physical universe and the entirety of the configuration of the physical universe to play with.

-----

Religious people act like prayers do something--when something they are worried about looms, they ask for prayers. So presumably people who are prayed for should get better at greater rates, and so on, which should be experimentally detectable. There is the counter-argument that God would not want to show himself, if we were trying to find if he was there through experience; but then again, there is the counter-counter argument that if God thinks belief in Him is really important He ought to be happy to let people who seek evidence find evidence for him.

-----

There are some good books on evolution that address it from the point of view of DNA as a record. The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Information for Belief, offers some of the excellent evidence (from a Christian) on how examining DNA provides really strong evidence for evolution. This makes sense to me from a computer programmer's perspective--but if you're interested more in morphological evidence, and a more general historical overview, Dawkin's Blind Watchmaker is a really nice introduction. (Dawkins is really excellent when he stays in his specialty.)

Belfry Bat said...

Dear SO; the point I am making isn't that the particular natural sufferings we bear in this world were instrumental to our good in particular ways, so No, the question isn't whether we can have what goods we do have without those particular sufferings. The point I'm illustrating (and it's a Theorem, about free moral agents interacting via a reliable medium) is that there isn't a way to systematically exclude suffering. God could incidentally exclude suffering; it would be (as Sheila remarks) a miracle, but it only takes one free creature choosing unhappiness to wreck that.

----

And the verse about leaving this that and the other is a lot more constraining than it sounds! Our Lord mentions Three things to abandon, which means perfect detachment from worldly desires.

====

Not to be one-upping you, Enbrethiliel, but there is better evidence for the Resurrection than for the life of Socrates! (The best evidence for the life of Socrates is the single Plato dialogue "The Apology", and references in contemporary playwrights making fun of him)

====

Sheila, again; one thing you keep returning to is that there is natural suffering in the world, and couldn't God just turn it off. Of course He could, if that's all that were needed; He only would if it were better that way. Would more of us find Heaven? Would the saints be holier? You see, that's not just a matter of keeping a copy of our consciousness after our bodies fail, but about the habits of our conscious selves (the "content of our character", if you will) and their quality, and whether they can endure the unmediated gaze of Goodness Itself. I'm not saying I get it, but at the least I can't be sure this is worse.

----

I recently read an interesting gloss on the phrase "this mountain be cast into the sea", that Jesus was speaking of the Temple Mount --- which temple was soon after torn down stone from stone and the hill was buried in sand and gravel whereon was built Aeolia Capitolina.

And on the matter of what Jesus meant when he said "ask and you shall receive"... First of all, the strongest form of this He spoke to the Twelve in the upper room, the same night he said "so often as you do these things..." which things I'm not empowered to do; anyways, later on, in the Epistles, Paul deals with exactly the kind of scandal you seem now to have taken, and he has to explain to them: (rough memory) "you ask and receive not, because you do not ask rightly". Again, I don't positively know what "rightly" means; I'm sure it's not a matter of rubrics, but I'm also sure it's no good asking God for something that isn't good, and sometimes what happens not to be good will surprise.

There are also plenty examples of Our Lord actively turning down plain requests; He wouldn't get involved in an inheritance suit, and he practically ignored a pair of men who wanted to meet him, and he said to Martha "no, I won't send your sister to help you in the kitchen"... It doesn't mean he was lying when he said "whatever you ask in my name you will receive", it means that that doesn't mean the first thing we want it to.

Belfry Bat said...

Oh, about Mysteries, SO, you're very right: "mystery" is widely misunderstood, and does get used as an excuse sometimes. But when we say something is a mystery, it should mean not that we mustn't think about that thing, but rather that one has to wrestle with it; which also means we should have careful training and spotters and not do it too much alone.

SeekingOmniscience said...


Ah, that seems extremely dubious about the life of Socrates being less certain than Jesus' resurrection.

Aristophanes, Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle are sources for Socrates life. We have writings from all of them which are not about Socrates—we do not have writings from the authors of the gospels and the epistles which are not about Jesus. So counts as points in favor of them, because it decreases the chances that they are themselves mythical, and also decreases the chances that all of their writing was unduly motivated. All of them write from a variety of perspectives—Aristophanes makes fun of Socrates, Plato alternates between laud and using him as a mouthpiece, etc—which, again, gives you multiple independent perspectives lacking from the NT, all of which was written (according to those who believe it) by people who thought that the subject of the NT was God. Aristophanes’ work was, so far as I recall, written while Socrates was still alive, which can be said of none of the gospels. So I really have no idea why you think we can have more confidence that Jesus rose than we can that Socrates existed.

More generally, though, we should have a very high prior probability attached to the idea that someone might exist and talk about right and wrong and about the gods with people. I've seen this kind of thing happen in my life; there are similar cases in other cultures of similar things happening; there's no intrinsic implausibility to the idea. On the other hand, though, I should have a low prior probability attached to the idea that someone rose from the dead; I've never seen this happen; all similar things I've heard of from other cultures seem very dubious; there's a great, great, great deal of intrinsic implausibility. This is leaving aside internal scriptural problems, of course.

That's leaving out a bunch. Even so, it seems clear I would need proportionately far more more evidence for the resurrection than for the life of Socrates.

SeekingOmniscience said...

I'm familiar with the C.S. Lewisian point. I concede that some suffering is probably an inevitable consequence of having a medium through which we communicate. By no means, though, does this mean that permitting extraordinary suffering is a necessary consequence of having a medium through which we communicate. If you're God, you can establish higher-level laws of nature which depend directly on people's subjective states just as easily as the blind laws of nature we have now, which completely ignore people's subjective states. It could easily be a law of nature that torturing people is impossible, if laws of nature weren't like they are now--which of course, if there is a God, they wouldn't need to be, because if there is a God the whole universe and its parameters depend on nothing but His establishment.

I think the more important point, though, is whether this avoidance of suffering--whether through ad-hoc natural laws or miracles, which come to the same thing int he end--would be better. That’s what you seem to say as well. So for now I'll drop that.

Some suffering is good and useful and improves the moral character of those who suffer it, generally speaking. Some of it isn't. People who get abused as children generally do not improve in character because of it. People who suffer serious nutritional deficiencies or kinds of low-grade poisoning become more violent. I could go on like this for a while--that really bad things often have really bad effects is a pretty easy point to prove, and I could easily bring up more emotional examples than these--but the general idea is that, while some suffering is useful, a pretty hefty chunk of it isn’t. So most humans think that it would be good to stop this hefty chunk of suffering.

Thus, if I were able to stop that chunk, you’d think I was a I was a bad person for not stopping that chunk. Imagine if you found out that I could see everything going on in a 100 mile radius around me. Imagine if I could also render anyone unconscious in that radius. Now suppose I am smart enough to handle all this while simultaneously doing whatever I want with my life. But suppose I don't feel interested in stopping murders, child abuse, etc--I just let them keep going. You would think I was a bad person. I would be a bad person. So also with God, etc.

---

Finally, with mysteries.

To say one must wrestle with a thing... doesn't tell you much about it. It is, again, prescriptive, and regards the attitude you should take towards a thing, rather than descriptive. I should wrestle with linear algebra, if I want to accomplish many of the things I want to accomplish. Yet if I were to apparently present contradictory statements about a particular system of equations to you, and you were to point that out, you’d be really dissatisfied by my saying “Well, I want you to wrestle with this for a while.” Wrestling with linear algebra means, when faced with an apparent contradiction, to say “Either some of my data is false or I have made a mistake in reasoning."

And all I can see is that people have wrestled with issues like God's triunity and simplicity, or the principle of predilection and freedom, or the problem of evil, or scriptural inconsistencies, for many centuries without coming to anything like a satisfactory answer. At some point, one begins to wonder if they all made mistakes in reasoning—or if, instead, the data they were trying to reason about was just false or confusing. This includes those who have careful training--those who have the most careful training merely seem to offer the most unintelligible answers.

Belfry Bat said...

Dear SO,

It's funny, I hadn't mentioned Lewis here... Yes, I know he runs a similar argument, but it isn't Lewis, it's Gödel and Turing who first elucidated the issue.

Thank you for finding the names of the Greek playwrights I mentioned; as I say, contemporary references who weren't necessarily fanatics of Plato's degree; there is, of course, another Plato dialogue in which Socrates concedes victory to his interlocutor; but the rest could easily have been polished, and needn't have been about a real person. But the Apology... in any case, what I really mean is: there actually is enough good evidence for Socrates (without his body, btw) but there's more, more complete and more contemporary, and much much stranger, about Jesus' public life, death, and resurrection.

Socrates before Athens' judgment is proud and grumpy; Jesus before Pilate, in three fairly independent synopses, is either madman or divine.

----

I'm afraid I can't tell what you're getting at, in pointing out that "one must wrestle with _" is, as you call it, "prescriptive". Why is suggesting a helpful attitude to a thing bad? You were complaining earlier that "mystery" was used as a poor excuse for complete intellectual passivity, which is why I said, on the contrary, mystery requires engagement. What else do you want? There isn't space or time here to go over all the fruits of the suitable wrestling on all mysteries; have you a particular mystery that we're not already discussing that you want to wrestle with? The mystery of the Trinity One God is not the same mystery as the Incarnation, is not the same mystery as any of the Sacraments, is not the same mystery as what happened to D.B.Cooper. One can accept them, by will, and one can also think seriously about all of them. The serious thinking, done carefully, makes us better thinkers and perhaps even better people. (Yes, even thinking seriously about what happened to D.B.Cooper, whether it really happened or was an urban legend from the get-go... but it's not as profound as the others).

I also don't know what you mean by "satisfactory answer". I'm sure you don't mean "short snappy answer", much like how (contra the then-too-young Fermat) there isn't a short snappy explanation of why positive naturals (x,y,z) don't solve xⁿ+yⁿ=zⁿ unless n=2. Of course it is also easy to find lots of people who wrote silly or apalling things about them all, so if you approach the question from a history-of-philosophy point of view, or from a textual criticism point of view, (surprise!) you won't ever actually engage in the wrestling indicated, and will find a multitude of conflicting responses. You might become a fine historian or textual critic, though.

Sheila said...

Mysteries drive me crazy. Not because I don't think it's possible for there to be things that transcend my ability to know them -- of course there are! But mysteries fall into a few different categories, which can be explained differently. A "mystery" which is an apparent contradiction -- like "God is completely just and also completely merciful" or "God is one and three" -- is really just what I would call a tension. It's a paradox which explains things better than a non-paradoxical explanation could, because it pulls us in different directions. God's infinite justice and mercy are meant to pull us from leaning too hard on one side or the other. We could phrase it non-paradoxically, "God always acts with the right balance of justice and mercy." (Of course that pushes back the question, what is "right," and leads to arguments like we've had here where I say, "But God couldn't do X because it wouldn't be merciful!" and the response is, "But he certainly wouldn't do Y, because it wouldn't be just!""

So that sort of mystery doesn't trouble me really, it's just a way of putting things. Ditto the Trinity and the Eucharist -- things can be one and three, or bread and God, in different respects, and the understanding is that this is what is happening, though we might not fully understand what those respects are. It's not truly a contradiction.

But a mystery like suffering, or how Jesus' atonement works, is really not a *mystery* so much as simply unknown. These are puzzles in need of further study. Like SO suggests, one of the ways we could resolve these puzzles is to throw out one of the premises. Certainly the Catholics here don't want to do that, but they have to acknowledge it's a weak point, a bit of counterevidence which must be countered by strong positive evidence.

Taking Socrates -- I don't really *believe* in Socrates, is the thing. I assume he lived. But if I found one of the accounts of his life included miracles, I'd naturally toss that tidbit out because it would seem like hagiography. When studying old historical accounts, we all do this constantly -- I don't actually believe that the sheeted dead did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets before the assassination of Caesar, for instance, even if it's well-attested, because I don't think that dead people roam around before major disasters!

And that's before you get onto the fact that the synoptic writers definitely had each other's work in hand when they wrote theirs, so they can't be considered independent accounts. Even John, whose account is so different, wrote long enough after the others that it can be assumed he had copies.

What we don't have is a single attestation of Jesus' resurrection from a person who doesn't like him. For obvious reasons, I suppose, but that's what it would take to be as well-attested as Socrates, if even we don't insist on a better standard of proof for miracles than we have for other things.

Sheila said...

But back to the mystery of suffering. It doesn't seem the answer should be something beyond our understanding, so if God just told us what the reason was, we should be able to grasp his answer. Only he hasn't given one. Most of the Old Testament says that suffering is because of sin -- God is punishing Israel when it's bad and rewarding it when it's good. It doesn't take much time on earth to prove that theory wrong, so we get Job. The message there seems to be that suffering is a test and we'll get more rewarded after we pass it -- but anyway, we have no right to ask because we didn't create the world. Fair enough, but it doesn't back up the "loving God" idea. Killing off someone's kids to see if they'll curse you isn't behavior I would call evidence of love.

Jesus' answers weren't very conclusive either. There's that blind man, blind "that God may be glorified," which makes sense, but what about all the blind people who aren't cured? Why doesn't God cure them all and make himself that much more glorified? And part of the answer seems to be that Jesus will be returning soon and make it all up, but then he didn't do it.

I could much, much more easily believe in a religion that said God was impotent in the world of matter but would make everything right in the next life, because that at least does not contradict the available evidence. I just think that in all these generations of theologians, someone should have come up with an answer to suffering that was in some way credible. I like the idea of suffering shaping our souls and making them better, to the point that I find it odd the Church has never endorsed it, but SO has a point that this is not always the effect of suffering. Sometimes suffering does exactly the opposite. You can put that down to free will -- saying God cares more about the free will of the abuser than about the good of the child -- but only sometimes. Sometimes, it really is the lightning strike or the cancer that turns someone wrong. And sure, they might have had the choice to do better despite that suffering, but God knew that wouldn't be what they chose, and he still allowed it.

I heard this parable the other day, which seems to sum up the matter: There were three brothers. One lived a good life, one lived a bad life, and the third died before birth. After death, the first went to heaven, the second to hell, and the third to limbo. The brother in limbo asks God, "Why didn't you let me be born so I could go to heaven?" God replies, "You would have done evil, so I let you die before birth to save you from hell." So the brother in hell demands, "Then why didn't you let ME die before birth?!"

There isn't a moral, but you see the puzzle it places God in. How do you fit evidence of meaninglessness into a framework that believes in a loving, all-powerful God?

Sheila said...

E, the one thing I refuse to believe is that God is not loving. I keep being told this is stubbornness and pride on my part, and I believed it for awhile, but I addressed it in a recent post -- the Church TELLS me God is loving. Also that he would never deceive and that he desires all men to be saved. So there is really no point at all in my attempting to be Catholic while allowing for God being unloving, deceptive, or wanting some to be damned.

It's a load off my mind, of course, because I didn't want to live in a universe ruled by such a being, but I did feel the need to refute it because there are so many people who tell me "Your expectations of God are stubborn and make yourself the standard." God's own words about himself are the standard.

So my rejection of the hypothetical angel really IS just testing the spirits. There should be no true contradiction between any of God's words or actions (though there may, as I pointed out above, be tensions, and BOY are there!) so it is reasonable for me to reject any theory, interpretation, sermon, or angel that includes flat contradiction like God being unloving or not wanting all to be saved.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Happy Easter, Sheila and everyone! I just got back from Easter Vigil. =) One of the readings was about Abraham and Isaac, so of course I thought of you, Sheila. ;-)

I wonder how much of ourselves we put into our readings of Scripture. When you first brought up Abraham and Isaac, I thought about suggesting that you were projecting too much of your own emotions onto them and that they probably handled God's odd demand and mysterious reprieve just fine. On the other hand, my own interpretation (which I haven't checked out with any theologians) is also full of my own shtick: I think Abraham and Isaac bore that burden not just for themselves, but also for the whole world, and that it was necessary in order to prepare the whole world, starting with the Jewish people. And what is more loving (to me) than that?

As I said, the first time I wrote all that out was only to delete it, because: a) I think it's a waste of time to argue about what's loving and what's not (everyone really sees things differently); and b) this is your big issue and not mine. Nothing I say really matters, not because you're "stubborn," but because working out your faith isn't my job. (Aren't you glad about that? LOL!) All we're really doing here is taking turns saying, "Well, this is how I see X and that is how I see Y," and puzzling each other.

Now, I could talk about this stuff all day (because I love the sound of my own voice =P), but as I said on my other blog, I don't want to offend you, frustrate you, or lay too much of a burden on you. And since I don't seem to be helping, I wonder if that's what I'm doing instead. =(

Sheila said...

Nah, I like talking about this stuff, and you ARE listening, which is a perk.

My problem isn't with what Abraham felt about it, but just the intellectual question -- how can God do a thing like that and still be a God who can neither deceive nor be deceived? He deliberately misled Abraham into thinking he wanted a human sacrifice ... and then the Catholic Church goes and tells us that God is Truth itself and couldn't deceive in the smallest way. I don't exactly *mind* lying -- it's not enormously morally offensive to me in the way the massacres in the Old Testament are -- but the Church tells me God wouldn't tell even the smallest white lie or willful deception.

Now I *can* accept that story's typological meaning, no problem, but then we get into the question of whether the literal meaning is history or myth. If I say myth (and I do), people argue, "But even so, a true myth ought to show God as he really is."

Is that how God is -- a trickster? The Church says no.

I would say maybe 10% of my issues with the Faith are emotional. The rest are intellectual, so who knows -- maybe arguing will help.

I must say, though, it's odd to go online on Holy Saturday and find that people elsewhere are on Easter already. Here the sun just went down ... vigil at our local church starts in twenty minutes, but I can't go. :( Happy Easter slash Holy Saturday!

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Well, in fairness, God did want a human sacrifice of a son by his father! But it was to be in a form that no one in the world could ever have anticipated, until Jesus revealed the truth to us. Could the new Passover with Jesus as the sacrificial lamb have happened without the incident with Abraham and Isaac? Sure! But I daresay that it helps us immensely to have an "Oh, so THAT is what it means" dimension. Revelation didn't just happen; it fit a plan that God had been laying out for some time.

I'm not sure if the main reason I don't mind the idea of a "trickster God" is just my shady background or a legitimate, if verbally clumsy reflection of Catholic understanding. Do you remember when you said that you and John wouldn't be doing the Santa Claus thing with your children? I agreed with you in the combox of that very post . . . only to have second thoughts immediately afterward. My cognitive dissonance turned into a post on my own blog which defended the Santa Claus "play" as a tried-and-tested way to teach children about God and about charity, reaching them through their imaginations and innocence. When they finally learn the literal truth, of course there is pain . . . but growing up is itself painful, and what this "play" does is give that natural pain a Christian channel in which to flow.

Of course, whether or not the Santa Claus "play" still works in the modern world is another issue! I may decide "to hack" it by doing the less famous (at least outside of Spain) Three Kings version instead . . . or even forego the fantasy element altogether and bet everything on the lights of St. Lucy's day. (Check back with me later when I actually become a parent and find that all my good intentions have frazzled away! =P)

Anyway, this is why I don't mind a "trickster" element in religion. It's not deception as much as it is presenting the truth in a way that we can understand and appreciate. Like an allegory that takes several years "to tell"--and which is acted out rather than just told like a story. The allegorist isn't lying when the story is being told, because the story presupposes the revealing of the literal truth.

So going back to Abraham and Isaac . . . this may be another X/Y situation with you and me, but I don't think that God was lying to Abraham. He was asking Abraham to play a game with Him. (That sound you just heard was distressed squeaking from a million theologians. =P) Yes, I know that human sacrifice of one's own offspring is not at all "fun," but I also think that Abraham and Isaac had the extraordinary levels of grace necessary to handle this important revelation.

Sheila said...

And THIS is the sound of me spluttering....

I don't do Santa because I don't want to destroy my credibility with my kids. And I can't see why God would do differently, not if lying is actually impossible for him.

But your version is just so alien to everything I think, I can't quite answer you. *headscratch*

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...