Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Prayer and providence

The post I planned to write today was a list of many issues I have with the faith which I was hoping y'all -- or the Catholics among you -- could shoot down for me.

But I reached one issue that I just can't get past.  Something I haven't believed for a long time.

I don't believe God plans or intervenes in my life.

I was raised to think he does.  My family strongly believes they've been guided by God.  Times we were poor and God provided, when we were facing a financial catastrophe and a check just came in the mail.  That, my parents said, was because they put God first in their finances.  They tithed, and so God made sure they were taken care of.

In boarding school I took this to a kind of ridiculous extreme.  Macaroni and cheese for lunch?  Proof that God loves me.  Broccoli casserole?  Proof that God wants me to sacrifice.  When my spiritual director told me it was God's will for me to go home, I believed her.  I was utterly torn apart and miserable, and I was convinced that God was doing this to me.  I wasn't angry.  I just took it as a sign that I wasn't good enough.  I tried as hard as I could and I couldn't make myself good enough.  But, well, God apparently wanted a different kind of person. 

Yes, as a friend pointed out to me recently, I treated God like an abusive boyfriend.  Like many abused girlfriends, I longed to get back with my "abuser" -- because it would be proof that I was good enough after all.  No one but the one who rejected me (not God here specifically, but Regnum Christi) could prove I was good enough.

Later, when I found out what a cult the whole thing was and how it had manipulated me, I made a new narrative for it.  It was my selfish will that had brought me there.  I wanted it, so I chose it, but I chose badly.  And that of course was because I was manipulated by other people, who were using their free will badly.  Not God's fault.  Not God's doing.  It was hugely reassuring to think that all that pain was not God's doing.

But then my mother told me that she was sure it was God's doing after all.  She hadn't had the money to send me, and then "miraculously" the money showed up, so it had to have been God's plan!

This ... upset me very much.  What kind of lunatic abuser does this to a person on purpose?  Even if it makes them a better person!  Still, why?  Is God's main concern to preserve our faith, to the point that he doesn't mind hurting us?  If so, why did he let me go to a place that destroyed my faith?  It's directly because of going there that I find it so impossible to trust anything!  Maybe half the girls I knew there aren't Catholic anymore.  Some attempted suicide.  Why the HELL would God allow that if he loved us?  I use that term advisedly.  I don't believe God would send people to hell because of damage other people did to them.  But wouldn't the simple answer be not to send them to the place where it happened?

So I don't believe that God works that way.  I can't, because it defies credibility.  Every single thing that happens has a cause.  That cause is one of two things: a person's free will, or the laws of nature.  The laws of nature can only be overridden by a miracle, and free will can't be overridden at all.  So when my parents got a check, that check was written by a person, and that person is the cause.  Not God.  The fact that it lined up with the money my family needed was just coincidence.

I used to explain the free will/laws of nature problem by saying God works in probability.  When there's a 100% chance it's going to rain, it'll rain even if you pray.  But if there's a 50-50 chance, God can make it not rain if he wants to.  And this is how I explained how God is in control of whether you get pregnant or not: there's always some chance involved and so God could just make sure the chance worked the right way.

However, I didn't understand that what we call "chance" is usually just a lack of knowledge.  There are complex causes behind everything, and we call it "chance" because from our point of view, it's not possible to know what will happen.  When we roll a die, there is a reason why it comes up six ... something to do with how you held it in your hand and what rotational force you give it and what air currents were going on at the time.  It's not "chance."  In science it's called chaos.

In the same way, if you don't get pregnant, there is a reason.  It's because you didn't have intercourse during the fertile time or because you aren't ovulating or because your hormone levels are too low or because your husband's sperm aren't healthy or perhaps you did actually conceive but the embryo wasn't viable.  There is a reason, every time.  And in my experience, healthy Catholic women get pregnant at fairly predictable intervals.  We say, loudly, that God chooses when we get pregnant ... and then we say "Why isn't so-and-so pregnant yet, her baby is two already!"  No one really believes that God is preventing them from getting pregnant, they assume that so-and-so doesn't want to get pregnant and is doing something about it.  Meanwhile your infertile friend might be given by doctors a 2% chance of getting pregnant, so God could make it happen if he wanted it, but she doesn't no matter how much she prays.

In my observation, God does not give babies to people who can handle them.  He gives babies to healthy women who have sex with healthy partners.  He gives babies to rape victims, to addicts, to women he knows will have abortions.  He knows who each child will grow up to be, and he allowed some pretty terrible people to get conceived.

Miscarriages just make things worse.  If God plans them, you have to say pretty terrible things like "God chose this because you were strong enough to handle it" (I have some counterevidence in the many people who can't) or "God didn't want this baby to live because it was going to grow up to be bad" (why doesn't he do this with all bad people?) or "God needed you to learn something" (why would God kill a child to teach its parents a lesson?).  But it's a very reasonable answer to say "This happened because you have low progesterone" or "There may have been a transcription error in the baby's DNA."  Can't blame God for that, except insofar as he made a universe where miscarriages happen.

Miracles are more of a problem than a solution.  I could accept that God can't intervene in the physical world -- either because it is too complex to intervene without messing it up (something I readily believe) or because this world is under the power of the devil.  But the reality is that God does intervene, if you believe in miracles, and some of these miracles are pretty convincing.  But what is the pattern?  What is the commonality among miracles?  Why does God do them?

He certainly doesn't hand them out often, because there aren't miracles every time people pray for stuff.  And he doesn't seem to mind terribly if good people suffer, because they do across the world and he doesn't give them all miracles.  You could say that he does miracles only to help people believe, but there are so many people who disbelieve -- people who really are trying, in good will, to believe and would if they saw a miracle.  Or you could say that he does them only when people have great faith, but I've known people with astounding amounts of faith pray for a miracle, expect to get it so thoroughly that they just assumed they would, and no miracle appears.

I actually have seen a miracle, so I won't blame my lack of faith on lack of miracles.  When I was in boarding school, a friend of mine was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease.  Slowly her vision got worse and worse, till she was legally blind.  She couldn't read or recognize faces.  Because she was pretty much a genius, she managed pretty well, but eventually she went home because the school couldn't really compensate well for her blindness.  Before she went home, though, she was blessed by Pope John Paul II.

Some months later, she woke up one morning with perfect vision.  She went to the doctor and had it checked -- nope, her eyes were still just as damaged as before.  No healing.  But she could read the chart.  I saw her again later, and we all tested her vision.  It was perfect.  A miracle, right?  But why her?

Was it to give her faith?  No, she had faith.  Was it to give us, or her family faith?  Nope, pretty much all fervent believers.  Was it because she had prayed for it?  No, she hadn't really.  She expected to be blind her whole life and didn't put much effort (so far as I know) in asking for a miracle.  She didn't, as Jesus tells us to in the Bible, really believe it was going to happen.

And why, if she was cured miraculously because of the papal blessing, didn't it happen right away?  Why months later, on a feast day which she considered significant (the Ascension) but not obviously related?

Jesus tells us if we get together with two or three people and ask for anything in the world, if we have faith, it will happen.  But we know this is not literally true.  Pope Benedict and Pope Francis both have faith, can't they ask for world peace or an end to hunger or something?

Okay, so let's assume God gives us intangible things only.  Of course this is non-disprovable and suspiciously handy, but let's assume it.  Perhaps when you pray for strength to deal with your problems, you get that.

And often I do.  However, when I don't, if I put an equal amount of focus and effort in but skip the actual prayer part, it seems to work just as well.  I know people who have prayed and prayed for strength to deal with their problems, not had any success, and then went on antidepressants and that helped.  You could say God provided the antidepressants (and indeed, what a wonderful world, that contains chemicals we can take to make us not feel sad!  thanks, God!) but people who don't pray also take antidepressants and feel better, which then gives them the strength and patience to tackle their problems.

And surely the one thing God wants more than anything is for us to believe, right?  He's rather insistent on that point.

Why then, when I pray for faith, don't I receive it?

Why, when my friends pray for faith, don't they receive it?

Why are there so dang many people who would like to believe, but can't?

I can accept the idea that God created an amazingly complex world, in which every single thing is connected to every other thing, and that he has made things work out in the best way he possibly can.  That's what I understand by Providence, that he made the world support life when it didn't have to, made humans arise when they didn't have to, revealed himself in just enough ways to make some people believe in him, and perhaps (by this course) he will save the maximum number of people it was possible for him to save.  Perhaps if God gave me faith I wouldn't be writing this wonderful blog, which will give faith to somebody God cares about more than me.

But what I can't believe is that praying makes a lick of difference.  Either something is God's will, in which case he'll do it, or it isn't, in which case he won't.  Either way, evidence suggests God does what he pleases.

Maybe this is an okay thing for Catholics to believe, and maybe it isn't.  It certainly seems to contradict a lot of Gospel verses.

All I know is that last week, when I was driving in snow and started to skid, I reflexively prayed "God, let me not crash."  And before I'd even pulled out of the skid, I thought, "It is already determined whether or not I will crash.  My direction and starting velocity, coupled with the quality of my antilock brakes and the friction coefficient of the pavement along my trajectory, will result in me crashing or not crashing, and I don't honestly expect that God will make a miracle happen to affect that result."

Well, I pulled out of the skid fine, as I had pretty much expected to (I was going very slowly, because I was being careful) but my very next thought was, "This is not how the Faith is supposed to work."  I am supposed to rely on God to help me.  Instead I rely on my antilock brakes.  I trust them because they have given me reason to trust them, whereas God seems to have given me reason to believe he'd just let me crash.

The rest of the way home, I skidded a few more times (it was nasty out, I learned my lesson about how fast it gets slick when it's snowing and won't do that again) and I didn't pray, and I didn't crash either way.

I guess I just don't see the point in prayers for petition.  I didn't do them on purpose for a long time, except occasionally when people asked me to because I figured it couldn't hurt.  Lately I'm making a real effort to pray for faith, but I feel kind of stupid because I have no expectation it will help.  Which (if you've been paying attention) means it won't help.  Because I didn't believe it would help.  In short, if you don't already have faith, you're screwed.

If you have faith and read this blog, could you pray for me?  Because if I am wrong and it does work, I'd like some faith please.  If you do, please comment and tell me you did; it would make me feel better if nothing else.  I'm not testing God to see if he'll answer; I know that whether he exists or not he probably won't.  But there's something to be said for the comfort of knowing that, even here on the internet, two or three can still gather in his name and at least try.

Monday, February 23, 2015

An unpayable debt

Socrates defines piety as gratitude for an unpayable debt.  He points out that we all owe our existence to our parents, and therefore we owe them something; in parallel, we also owe debts to the state and to the gods.

When I look at my own existence, relative to the incredible vastness of the universe, I feel dwarfed.  I'm tiny.  I didn't have to exist at all, and it took an incalculable confluence of causes to bring me into existence.  If one tiny thing in the whole universe were different, I might not have been.

This seems to me a very important thing to reflect on.  In the Bible, the book of Job touches on this:

"Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements--surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning starts sang together,
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?"  Job 38:4-7

It's a reminder that we weren't there at our creation.  Even if it were possible to know everything about the universe, we still have to face the reality that we did not create ourselves.  We owe a debt to whatever did -- a debt which can't ever be repaid, because we can't create our creator in turn.

To me it seems clear that we ought to worship our creator -- even if you happen to believe that your creator is a vast, unconscious universe that can't hear you.  Simply on the grounds that you are a conscious, moral being, you have to accept a debt of gratitude to the universe, because if any debt exists, this one surely does.  And I believe it changes you, in a good way, to worship.  It teaches you not to be too proud, too sure of yourself, too ungrateful.  It teaches you to see the universe as a gift.

If I didn't believe in God, I would worship nature, just because it makes sense to me to worship something.  Someone with a healthy respect for nature -- understanding it as an infinitely complex, interdependent system -- isn't going to try to remake nature without hesitation.  They wouldn't genetically modify organisms without asking questions like "can we prove these are safe?" and "what happens if these get loose into the surrounding ecosystem?"  They wouldn't cut a tree without asking, "Can the forest replace the tree I'm cutting?"  They wouldn't take an antibiotic without asking, "What effect will this have on my microbiome, and is there a real need to do this?  Will this create resistant bacteria?"  Not that we should never splice a gene, cut a tree, or take an antibiotic -- but that we should try, as best we can, to calculate the possible results beforehand.  Nature is not simple; don't ever assume you understand it all.

I guess what I'm recommending is humble mindfulness toward nature.  Coupled with this is the understanding that we are one link in a vast chain -- the generation alive today received the earth from the generations that came before, and we want to hand it on to the next generation better than we found it.  What selfishness it would be to say (as some do) "the problems resulting from my action won't kick in until after I'm dead."  Your ancestors left something of the earth left for you; leave something for your descendants.

Likewise (it occurred to me the other day) we ought to have a similar respect for culture.  Culture is also vast and difficult to understand.  Only in retrospect can we see that over-irrigating Mesopotamia was the downfall of at least one civilization, that the invention of the heavy plow led to a population boom, that discovering the New World led to the deaths of thousands from smallpox and other diseases.  So we should look to the past and learn from it, and weigh our actions against their possible results.

That isn't to say we should never attempt to change either nature or culture.  G. K. Chesterton says that when we see something we don't see the point of, we should leave it alone until we do.  So if you see a gate across a road, you shouldn't say "I don't see the point of it, clear it away," because it might be keeping the cows in their pasture.  First find out why the gate was there, and you may find that reason no longer applies and you should clear it away.  But if there is a gate there, at some point someone had a reason for building it -- it should be presumed necessary until you find out it isn't.

In the same way, culture is a constantly evolving thing, and those aspects which last are usually adaptive in some way.  For instance, a stigma on extra-marital sex existed to make sure that all children had parents to take care of them.  Before throwing it out, maybe ask if we've come up with another solution to that problem yet, or if continence outside of marriage really is the best system available.  Or popular piety -- "superstition," as I often call it, because some of it is quite irrational -- is it possible that it works on a part of our mind that is less logical, and thus binds us to our moral code more firmly than rational arguments could?

If you know why these things exist and think you would manage better without them, be my guest.  But until you understand the complex interrelations of nature, culture, and your own mind (an inner space fully as ineffable as nature itself), perhaps it's best to be a little humble and accept what you've got.

This is one of the reasons why I continue to practice even parts of the Catholic Faith I don't fully understand.  The Catholic Church is an extremely fit adaptation to humanity and the world, by the mere fact that it is so popular (and it very well might be so well-adapted because it was designed, I am not trying to dispute that) and it might be well to ask, why does it work so well?

While I contemplate this question, it seems a very reasonable conclusion to stick with it.  Because deep in my being I have a very strong sense that it is wrong to break what you don't understand.

Friday, February 20, 2015

7qt - lightning strikes twice!


What are the odds that our washing machine would break and we would run out of heating oil in the same week ... TWICE?

Actually pretty good, if both have the same cause.

You may remember that our washer started smoking and our friends gave us a new one, which leaked at first but after some tinkering stopped leaking.  Well, the other day we went to wash some clothes in this new, not-broken washer ... and it started smoking.

After some thought, and differential diagnosis, we realized that the commonality between those two events was that it was bitterly cold both times.  Our washing machine is in an unheated, poorly insulated addition .... most likely some water had frozen inside its innards and stopped the whole thing from working.  The motor or pump or something was burning out trying to move water that was actually ice.

That makes me feel particularly terrible, because it means it's our fault for running it in low temperatures, and we must be dumb not to have thought of this (I mean, the water did run in okay!), and surely after the first time we should have figured this out!

On the other hand, it means that all we have to do is wait for it to get warm and then try it to see if whatever damage we did to it is reversible.

However, the forecast is NOT promising.  Perhaps we will be able to wash clothes again in March.  Certainly I'm not buying a new washer to put in our below-freezing laundry room so I can ruin that one too!

Unfortunately when I told the kids "the washer doesn't work" they seem to have heard me say "potty training is for chumps, poop in EVERYTHING."  So I am washing a lot of clothes in a bucket. 


A couple days after this I woke up to icy temperatures at four in the morning.  I worried the furnace must be broken, because no way could we have run out of oil already, but nope, we really did blow through 100 gallons of oil in a month. It's been COLD.

We called the oil company and they were miffed at us.  I guess a lot of people must be running out of oil at the same time.  It was Wednesday and they said they hoped they could get to us by the end of the week.  Yes, despite the forecast for four degrees overnight!  They figured we and our small children could just hang on till Friday.  They recommended we go buy some diesel and stick that in there.

The kids and I suffered through the day (how sacrificial!) and after work John went and got some diesel, so we were all right.  The oil truck finally came Thursday evening, to much rejoicing and gratitude. 

Only the heat failed to turn on after that.  Apparently diesel and heating fuel are different enough that the furnace had to be reset.  John was out all evening at a political thing, so imagine me running around feeding dinner to the kids, getting them ready for bed, and periodically putting my foot on the heat register to see if it was blowing .... and finding it wasn't.  I check the thermostat .... 65 degrees, it really should be kicking in by now ... 62 degrees, isn't this fast for the temperature to be dropping?  The windows are rattling and it seems like that wind is blowing right in, so I resolve I'm not going to wait for John, I'm going to go down cellar and see if it's just a button I can push or something.

It was COLD out there.  I mean, WOW.  Wind just tearing through.  Our cellar entrance is outside, so I go through Marko's room, through the laundry room, outside, down the icy stairs, open the giant wooden cover, go down more stairs, unlock the cellar in the pitch black darkness, flick on the light, and start inspecting the furnace.  I have been told it has a reset button, but I don't see one.  Look on all sides, no button.  Cuss a bit to myself.  (This is me we're talking about, so I think I said "frick.")  I hear the kids crying upstairs so I go back up.

I try calling John, but get no answer, try texting, put kids into pajamas.  I stick the kids in front of a movie, give Miriam a toy, and go back down.  Still not finding a button.  Come back up to the phone ringing -- John calling me back.  He says there is a handle on the back of the furnace, pull it and the cover comes off, under that there is a red button, push and hold for three seconds.  I can do that.

I go back down, get under the cover, and there isn't just a button, but a whole array of stuff.  Since it's dark back there, I can't see anything red.  Just a bunch of shapes.  I just push on all of them, finally I find the dang button.  I push it and hold to a count of six just to be sure, and the furnace kicks in!  Hooray!  I close everything up, lock it, come inside ... and dangnabbit if that furnace hasn't somehow died or turned off or something!  Because what it is not doing, is blowing.

Too late to go back down, Miriam is wailing and she really has to be put to bed.  I put her to bed, she wakes up instantly because the bedroom is freezing. That means I have to handle Michael's bedtime (which consists of manhandling Michael into the bedroom and staying there until he's asleep) with Miriam in my arms. Not my favorite, but soon they are both asleep and I manage to put Miriam down this time.  Then I get Marko into bed, which requires a lot of whispered bargaining about how many stuffed animals he gets and how big a crack the door is left open.  I put on some fuzzy socks and start making myself hot chocolate because I am FREEZING, when John finally comes home.

He goes down to the cellar, pushes the button, it starts up and dies just like before.  But when he does that a couple more times, it finally works.  Apparently sometimes it has to be restarted multiple times.  I guess at least next time I will know what to do!

Despite my utter failure in getting the heat back on, I'm a little proud of myself for even braving our cellar.  It is a cold, dark, and scary place where there totally might be spiders. 

Today I am sitting with my feet on the heat register whispering, "I promise I will never take you for granted again!"

Because, seriously, one might be tempted not to be grateful for our modern conveniences, but when you have to be without them, you learn just how dependent you are.  Still.  Our dream house will have a wood stove AND backup electric heat.  Imagine Scarlett O'Hara saying "I will never be cold again!"


The funny thing is, I'm dealing with all this nonsense, and it's just not getting to me.  On Wednesday I was curled around a hot brick, wrapped in a blanket, and periodically getting up to agitate my bucket laundry load, and all I could think was "on the bright side, I'm exempt from fasting!"

But really, the kids have been great lately and Miriam continues to take actual naps (if not always as long as I'd like) and so I don't feel I have anything to complain about.  I would much rather wash laundry in the bathtub than have two children screaming to be on my lap at once.  The one is just hard work; the other is emotionally distressing, to say nothing of the sensory overload.  And you can brag about all the laundry you did, whereas it doesn't sound impressive to say "I accomplished nothing today because I was holding a cranky baby."  Even though it actually is exhausting.


Miriam is crawling now.  Have I told you that?  Last week she was hunching herself up onto her knees and then lunging forward.  Now she is army crawling.  It sort of depends on what she is wearing though.  Nudity works best, but in this weather, on our hardwood floor, I'm mostly keeping her in pajamas.

And she is fast.  I am already having to drag her away from Marko's paper when he's drawing on the floor.  Yesterday one of the kids left a bowl of sauerkraut on the floor and she grabbed it and started stuffing her face.  I am not sure whether she managed to swallow any or not.  (Can you say third child?)


That wouldn't be her first food, though, because we gave her green beans a couple of days ago.  She just looked so jealous of us, and she is about six months now.  I thought she'd never be able to get them in her mouth, let alone swallow any, but I think she did.

Really I should give some thought to what I want to introduce instead of randomly grabbing vegetables off our plates and giving them to her.  Probably egg yolk would be good.  My "parakeets" produce some really deep orange ones, so they must be healthier than store eggs.

Because if I don't give any thought to it, odds are good she's just going to trail along behind the boys, hoovering up animal cracker bits and apple cores.  Poor neglected baby.


Marko's doodle of the other day.  He asked me to spell "weeping angel."

What he wound up writing: MEEPING ANGELO.

You can see our friend Meeping Angelo in the bottom left, with big dark eyes and his hands over his face.


Michael and I have reached a compromise about nursing.  He only nurses once a day.  Once he's nursed once he can't nurse again till the next day.  So the instant he sees my face in the morning he starts demanding it.  If I want a glass of water first, or to go potty, there's all sorts of fuss.

The other day he was nursing, and started to hum ... I recognized the theme for the Daleks.

Pro tip: when your kid is able to hum, in tune, movie themes while nursing, it might be time to stop.

Then again, it was probably time to stop last freaking year.  Oh well.  Once a day costs me very little and it's apparently very important to him.  I wonder if I would have any luck telling him that three-year-olds don't nurse so he has to stop on his birthday?

No matter how I wean him in the end, it's going to take a lot of tears, I suspect.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Degrees of certainty

The trouble with being a well-catechized Catholic is that you know too many details, and all of these hang together.  For that reason, uncertainty about any minor theological point can discredit your entire religion.

I don't want to take that approach, because it seems to me quite likely that some stuff is true and other stuff isn't.  So I've spent some effort trying to sort out what things I believe, and how sure I am about each.  Some things, I'm very sure about -- including pretty much all moral issues.  I get my point of view on morals from my conscience -- which, for sure, is formed by having been brought up Catholic -- and I don't think I can go wrong following that guideline.  (And yes, I think that's the "Catholic thing" to do -- more than one pope has pointed out that conscience is always primary.)  Other things I do believe, but have a higher degree of doubt about them.

I believe:

That I did not create myself -- absolute certainty.  That is the one thing I can know for sure.  And from this follows a moral conclusion, that I owe a debt of gratitude and worship to whoever or whatever did create me. 

That the entity that created me is conscious -- near certainty, most days.  It's just a little too convenient, that the universe would have exactly the set of rules, the mass, the amount of energy, and so forth required to create the earth, life, and intelligence.  Those odds are vanishingly small.  The one doubt in my mind about this is because I know the tendency of humans to see design where there is none, because our brains are geared to recognize patterns.  For instance, we see faces just about everywhere.  When I was in boarding school I was convinced that I had found my name written in the marble tiles of the chapel floor.  Of course the marks on marble are random, but even random things can seem to form a pattern to a human eye.  But on the whole, the universe does look designed to me -- not in terms of seven-day creation (I believe in evolution) but in its system parameters.  A slight change in those parameters would have resulted in chaos or collapse . . . only this specific universe we live in could have exploded into such a complex, beautiful thing.

That this entity is concerned with humans specifically -- near certainty.  Like I said, what are the odds?  And why make us conscious, moral, religious, and attracted to beauty if He didn't mean to have something to do with us later?

That God has been attempting to interact with us throughout history -- pretty sure.  The story I get out of the Old Testament is of the idea of God surviving despite all kinds of threats from within and without.  There's this insanely complex and frankly weird legal code, which contains just enough "cultiness" to keep the chosen people separate from everybody else, and also the sort of symbolism that could make sense of the redemption.  The redemption is hard to explain in one-syllable words ... but God didn't try.  The only conclusion I can draw is that he really did take thousands of years to prepare a group of people who could understand it.

That most of the "historical" events in the Old Testament really happened -- highly doubtful.  Most historians, so far as I've read, believe the historical books straight up through the book of Kings were written centuries after the events they describe.  And that actually comes as something a relief to me -- it seems to suggest that they were never intended as a straight-up chronicle, but rather a legendary story.  Intent of the authors is important in interpreting scripture, right?  And since God's behavior throughout the Old Testament is strange, sometimes seeming cruel and unfair and other times plain self-contradictory, I'd much rather see it as somewhat mythologized from what God actually said and did.  I guess I describe my view as "God tried to explain himself to the Israelites, but they got pretty mixed up about what he'd said by the time they got around to writing it down."  I sure hope this is okay, because it's one of my main struggles ... I simply can't make myself believe a lot of those stories.  Other parts make God seem like an arbitrary, unloving sort of being -- not at all how he is described in the New Testament.

That the events in the New Testament happened -- reasonably sure.  Most everyone agrees by now that the Gospels were written before 100 AD, possibly quite a bit before, and the epistles were written even earlier.  That means that when they were written, there were eyewitnesses still alive who could counter inaccuracies.  I could not today write a book stating that President Eisenhower fed 5,000 people with five loaves and two fishes, because there are plenty of people around who could testify against me.  Basically no one denies that Jesus was a real person who really did have a massive following and was really crucified by Pontius Pilate.  There were no end of preachers and revolutionaries and prophets at the time -- Jesus is the one that everyone remembered.

That Jesus rose from the dead -- can't get around it.  That is to say, the idea blows my mind, it seems incredible, and yet I can't find an alternate explanation.  Why would all of those witnesses go to their deaths rather than recant?  I know how cults work.  I know how people can convince themselves of some crazy, crazy things.  I know about Jonestown and how all those people drank poisoned Kool-Aid because their leader told them to.  And yet, what you don't always hear is that many of them refused to drink it and were forced to drink it by others.  Some ran away into the jungle, which is why we know what happened at all.  And probably none of them would have drunk it if they hadn't all been together, egging each other on.  They had reason to believe their leader was telling them the truth -- that they would all be brainwashed by fascists if they didn't commit suicide first.

None of this holds true for the apostles.  They had time, alone, in prison, away from other influences that might hold them to their beliefs.  They weren't given sweet koolaid to down in a second ... they were tortured, set free, tortured again, locked up, over and over.  Each of them had a chance to deny Jesus.  Not one did.  Not ONE.  And they should have known.  Their founder wasn't on the scene to call the shots.  They were the leaders now.  They were in a position to know if they were lying.  Cult leaders don't go down with the ship, not when they have a choice.

That the Catholic Church is the descendant of the community of believers started by Jesus -- not much doubt there.  We do believe the same things the Church Fathers believed, a generation or two after Jesus, if it is also to be admitted that we believe a lot more things than they ever wrote about.  There is a direct line you can trace from any priest, to the bishop who ordained him, straight back to the Apostles.  (The Orthodox can do it too, I think, and some but not all Anglicans.)

That the Catholic Church is infallible -- some doubt.  It seems a bit circular to me.  The Church declared itself infallible.  If it didn't have the authority to do that, it couldn't give itself the authority just by saying so.  I admit that the idea of infallibility wasn't invented wholesale at Vatican I; it has a long tradition behind it.  But can it be entirely certain that everything from "when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers" to "where Peter is, there is the Church" was exactly the same thing as infallibility as currently understood?  Because there's just so much out there.  And it makes me very nervous to realize that whenever there's an apparent conflict, the answer is always "that was never infallible in the first place" or "it was never meant to mean that."  For instance, we now believe that there is no salvation outside the Church in a very difference sense than the one it was originally expressed in, but no one wants to admit that it's different.  There's no infallible list of infallible teachings, so everyone is free to believe in the set of teachings that they think is infallible.  It seems a little too hard to be sure you're not a heretic.  And the stuff that we're being taught now -- are we going to be told, centuries hence, that they didn't really mean it that way?

Infallibility is just one of those things that trips all my cult detectors.  What cult worth its salt wouldn't claim to be always right, if it thought it could get away with it?   And yet it's one of those culty things that is sort of required for any religious group to survive -- as Catholics will always remind you, look at the Protestants!  They don't have a central authority and so they splinter.  You can never be sure you have the right set of beliefs.  So doesn't it make sense that God would provide a way to stop this from happening to the Church?

But if you look at the vast difference between a liberal Catholic and a traditionalist Catholic, it makes me suspect that having an infallible pope hasn't actually stopped us from being divided.  Not just on unimportant stuff like whether Mary really appeared at Fatima, but vital stuff like "Does God punish the sinners in hell?" or "What proportion of people are saved?"  I know Catholics who think pretty much everyone goes to heaven and are able to defend that belief, and I know Catholics who think that hardly anyone does and are able to defend that too.

Is it just a balance we've struck here?  It could be, but it seems very odd to me that we have an infallible teaching about whether Mary was immaculately conceived (which doesn't even matter, so far as I can see) and not one about whether God cares more about believing the right things or about doing the right things.

Anyway, that's my attempt at a summary of what I believe and how much I believe it.  It's my determination that, if something is true, God desires me to believe it, and therefore I also want to believe it.  If I am wrong, I hope I figure it out.  From the best I can determine, this wish keeps me from being a formal heretic or dissenter.

Well, let's hope.  I do my best.

Monday, February 16, 2015


I remember talking with some philosophy people back in college about beauty.  What is beauty?  Is it objective or subjective?  Is beauty truth, truth beauty?  (No, Keats, I'm sorry, it's not.  Beauty is beauty and truth is truth.)

So I'm not a philosopher, but I am kind of obsessed with beauty.  Not my own beauty, so much, but beauty in general.  Maybe it doesn't seem that way because I can be awfully practical ... but part of that is because my standards for beauty are so exacting that I figure, best to stick with the beauty that comes naturally.

Here is my definition: something that is beautiful is something enjoyable to look at, listen to, or smell.  (Something enjoyable to taste is delicious, something enjoyable to feel is pleasurable or pleasant.  Hey, I don't make the rules.)  So beauty is the pleasure we feel when we look at [and secondarily, hear or smell] certain things.

What that means, to me, is that despite all the talk of the philosophy majors (sorry, philosophy majors) beauty is subjective.  It exists not in the object we find beautiful, but in the person who is enjoying it.  That's why we disagree about what things are beautiful.  I think red-orange is a gorgeous color, while some people hate it.  I think my friends are all beautiful, and yet for some reason no one's approached them for a modeling opportunity.  That doesn't make me wrong.  Their beauty exists, because I really do feel enjoyment when I look at them, but that isn't the experience of the modeling agent because he's looking for something of a more specific type.

We may not all agree on which things are beautiful, but we all agree on how the experience of beauty feels.  It is pleasant, but at the same time it may give us a sense of longing.  We desire to possess or experience more of the beautiful thing.  And yet many beautiful things can't actually be possessed or even indefinitely enjoyed, so we feel a kind of pain along with our pleasure, because we have a desire we can't satisfy.  Like Edna St. Vincent Millay in this poem --

"O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!
   Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!
   Thy mists, that roll and rise!
Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag
And all but cry with colour!   That gaunt crag
To crush!   To lift the lean of that black bluff!
World, World, I cannot get thee close enough!"
We want to .... what?  I want something, I know that.  When I was a kid, every time we drove by water, I would say "I want to swim in that!"  Because it was beautiful to me, because the sight of the beautiful water gave me a desire that I wasn't quite sure how to express.  Now when I see something beautiful, I often think, "I want to paint that."  I can't actually paint.  When I hear beautiful music, I wish I could play the violin. I just want something!

With a beautiful person, we often read this desire as just attraction.  And perhaps that's just what it is.  It makes perfect sense for us to feel pleasure in the sight of a person we could theoretically have babies with.  Evolution would select for people who like looking at healthy people of the opposite sex.  Or who like the taste of apples.  But why in the world would people want to look at sunsets, or flowers?  Is it just because we like colors?  But what's so great about colors, and why do we like some combinations of colors and not others?  Why is a gray ocean beneath a gray sky so pretty?

I would call it just an evolutionary glitch, like homosexuality -- some people are just going to have variations that aren't immediately useful for survival.  But for everyone to have this?  Every individual of every culture knows what beauty is, and has some things they describe as beautiful.  And there are some commonalities between these things, even though of course there is variation in people's different tastes.

One more odd thing about visual beauty -- it's the one desire we have that we can't seem to entirely hack.  We love sweet things, so we've made substances much sweeter than anything in nature.  We love having sex, so we've found ways to have sex without having to have babies if we don't want to.  We like babies' faces, so we've bred animals that stay that adorable their whole lives long. 

But the most beautiful art ever produced is imitative of nature.  Abstract art might have useful messages (at least, the artists and critics claim it does) but to the average untrained person, a landscape is just prettier.

There is no requirement at all that we should feel pleasure on looking at the universe we happened to be born into.  We would have survived just as well if we thought it was ugly, and if we built much prettier buildings the moment we developed enough civilization to do so.  You could argue we're just used to it -- but I grew up in a house, spent most of my infancy in a house, and still like nature better, at least as far as looks go.  And what about the stars?  The Hubble Space Telescope is constantly sending back pictures of faraway galaxies, things no one ever saw before, and yet we all agree they are beautiful.

Why, if the universe wasn't meant for us, do we feel on some crazy level that it was?  The evolutionists have never been able to explain this to me.

And when I think about it, the simplest conclusion is that it was made for us.  It was a gift.  A gift universe.

This is not a proof of the existence of God.  But I do think it's a hint

Saturday, February 14, 2015

By popular request

Years ago someone on here said that they hoped someday I would write John's and my love story.  I immediately thought "uh-oh!"  I mean, there is five years of stuff.  A lot of twists and turns along the way.  It could be a book.  That is, if either of us even remembered it all anymore!  Somewhere I have a file about the first year we knew each other ... and it's under a password ... which I have since forgotten.

But in honor of Valentine's Day this year, I guess I'll try for a quick summary.  Because our love story makes me smile.

When I arrived at Christendom, I knew pretty much nothing about guys, or about romance.  I had no older siblings who had dated, and I had been to an all-girls school.  So I mainly was thinking of Lizzie Bennett and Anne Shirley.  I thought the odds were good I would meet somebody in college -- that's where my parents met -- but I was resolved not to get married till after graduation, unlike them.  I figured I'd have lots of guy friends, over the years perhaps one would be a bit closer of a friend than the others, we'd start dating senior year, and sometime after we'd graduated and I had had time to be a grownup a bit, we'd get married.  I wasn't going to waste my time at college with a lot of drama and pining over guys!  Friendship first, I said.

I guess I kind of overestimated my own ability to be practical.  I may or may not have made it to October of freshman year without falling in love.

John and I met the second Tuesday of freshman year, at 7:30 in the morning, at the commons.  We were both early risers and had found ourselves in the dining room before the kitchen had opened, so along with some other people, we loitered around waiting for food.  John was entertaining everyone with his very silly and irreverent sense of humor, which somewhat offended me at the time.  He was the center of attention as usual, but I was picking up on some insecurity from him, and shy people draw me like a moth.  I felt it was important that I be friendly to him, so I followed him out when breakfast was over and walked with him to his first class.  (We had no classes in common, which in a small college like ours was actually very unusual.)  He told me about his family, which I found fascinating (I have always loved big families) and I just listened.

It became a habit, both of us arriving early to breakfast and chatting a bit.  He was very entertaining, and I grew to appreciate his twisted sense of humor.  We started hanging out between classes, sometimes just us and sometimes some of our other friends.  I thought he was a huge nerd and not very good-looking ... also he seemed ridiculously tall.  I already had a crush on another guy, so I didn't pay much attention to the friendship we were developing.

But it turns out that if you are single, and your guy friend is single, and you are spending almost all of your time together, you may find yourself a bit distracted.  There were a lot of moments when I found myself getting closer to him than I meant to.  Times I said to myself "I am not going to waste time talking to John today" and wound up hanging out with him for a solid hour listening to him talk about deer.  Times I tagged along to his soccer game, saw him madly running after the ball, and thought .... "Wait, this guy is actually hot all of a sudden.  I thought I wasn't attracted to him?"  Times he got mad or sad about something and I found myself thinking ... "He's not just a silly joker, he has Deep Feelings."  The time I asked him what color his eyes were, and he whipped off his glasses and stuck his face in mine so I could see them.  (At the time I thought he was coming on to me.  He wasn't.  It's just what he does, because there isn't a word for the color of his eyes.)

It became clear after awhile that I wasn't at all interested in that other guy, or any other guy, and was very much distracted with John.  My friends were always teasing me about it.  I gave it some thought, and decided okay fine, I was into John.  And since he probably was into me (I thought) that was just fine!

Well, the course of true love never did run smooth.  We spent a ton of time together, we went to a formal dance together, we talked about our deepest feelings and debated political systems, and yet he was sending some very mixed messages and I didn't really know what to make of it.  He seemed to be interested in me.  He certainly was willing to spend most of his free time with me, and had said I was pretty.  But when I accidentally let slip that I liked him, he didn't react well to it.  I think he was doing in earnest what I had meant to do -- he was just being friends.  And letting the cat out of the bag that I liked him had made him suddenly leery of me.

Time went by, there was all kinds of drama ... times when he or I would "break off" the non-relationship we had and avoid each other, only to bump into each other again (small campus!) and stick to each other like glue again.  I found myself wishing I wasn't interested in him so we could just be friends, but it seemed utterly impossible.  The chemistry was there even though both of us were fighting hard against it -- him, because he didn't want to be in a relationship, and me, because I knew if I let it show I'd scare him off!  I knew what everyone said: that if the girl likes the guy first, it never works out, that men like to pursue, that they hate being chased, and so forth.  And yet I had this feeling that John never would have "pursued" anybody, because that's not his way.

All of my friends told me to to stop hanging out with that guy because he would never like me.  But I felt that even if he never did like me back, it wouldn't matter because it was still a friendship that meant everything to me.  That was the one thing that kept me around even in the most intense despair, the thought that no matter what, I wanted to be friends with him for life.  At more hopeful moments, I thought, "He really does like me.  He just doesn't realize it.  He needs a girl like me.  I'll just stick it out .... sooner or later he'll come around."  I figured perhaps I could win the man of my dreams by sheer stubbornness.  I seem like a pushover sometimes, but when it really matters, I will outlast the competition.

After a long, long time, and some amount of me avoiding him because the whole thing was just too painful to me .... some of him getting hurt because I was avoiding him and weren't we friends? ... and me crying because dangnabbit, how was I supposed to get over a guy who wrote me sweet notes when I was feeling down and could make me laugh no matter how I felt? .... well, after lots and lots of this, he eventually realized that he did, in fact, like me back.

I still maintain he had liked me for at least a year before he admitted it.  But he fought it awfully hard.  He wasn't sure he ever wanted to get married.  His mother was against dating in college.  He liked the friendship we had and didn't want to mess it up.  You know.  So many reasons.

And through all of this there were insane amounts of drama because Christendom is a tiny, tiny school and if you're seen often with one guy, you're practically engaged.  If you then hang out with another guy, you're seen as a flirt.  Kind of hard to focus on "just friends" when every five minutes someone asks you, "Are you together?"  Because there is a policy against public displays of affection, there's really no way to signal to everyone if you are or aren't dating, so they just assume you are.  And that puts pressure on a just-friends relationship that isn't very helpful.

Once he did actually like me back, it still wasn't simple because my family believed in dating and his family believed in courtship and we both were pretty thoroughly aware that it would be a long time before we could even think about getting married.  So we sort of just kept hanging out, just without the drama of trying to pretend we didn't like each other.  Everyone just assumed we were dating, like they had before.  And I guess in some sense we were, expect we never went anywhere.  We had deep conversations about theology and the Battle of Gettysburg.  We fought sometimes, about things that made no sense to anyone else, and all of our friends would get very anxious and tell us to make up quick because we were making everyone unhappy.  We visited each other's families a few times, and our parents didn't quite know how to treat us because they weren't sure how serious we were about each other.

Then we graduated, and were "officially dating" for a few months, during which we rarely saw each other (he was working in Philadelphia and I was still in Virginia) and then we got engaged.  Our engagement was miserable, because it was long distance and we both suck at talking on the phone, but eventually it ended, we got married, and lived happily ever after.

Haha.  Not really.  We just kept going on like we always have ... having deep conversations, having silly conversations, fighting sometimes, making up lots.  Really it's not very different from the old days when we were "just friends."  Our relationship was always complicated and sometimes difficult, but at the same time I'd recommend that sort of thing to anybody.  Be friends first.  Friends are good.  But I'd also recommend stressing less about it than I did.  I didn't realize what we had was a slowly developing love story ... I thought it was a friendship doomed by unrequited love, and that made it less fun than it could have been.  But in retrospect it doesn't really matter, because it ended with us married and very happy to be together.

I like that we didn't know what we were doing.  I like that we forged our own way, which didn't fit any of the scripts of what a relationship was supposed to be.  I like that I learned early on to laugh off the advice of other people who told me, "You can't let yourself be dragged around by this guy, if he doesn't commit now, drop him!"  I like that the first thing I liked about him was his sense of humor, second his kindness, and third his incredible brain.  I like that we were the first and only ones for each other ... that the question throughout everything was "Will we be together, or not?" and not "This person, or another person?"  There was never anyone else, for either of us.  

We've been friends for over ten years now, and though we can't read each other's mind, we understand each other a heck of a lot better than anyone else does.  Neither of us is much like anybody else, although we're not much like each other either.  It's just that over all this time we've been learning to work with each other.  People see the dance; what they don't see is the hours and hours of practice that went into being able to dance like this.  We're far from perfect, but we're happy.  Ten years more, twenty years, thirty .... then, perhaps, we'll be real masters.

Friday, February 13, 2015

7qt - nap breakthrough!


I didn't want to post this too soon, lest I anger the Internet Gods* and jinx the whole thing, but Miriam has started taking actual naps.  Like, the in-bed kind.  For hours, that's hours with an s.

[*I do not actually believe in the Internet Gods.]

I wish I knew what I did.  I think she was just ready.  She'd been having progressively worse and less regular naps for some time -- falling asleep easily but then waking up after 15 minutes or so because I had to get up and deal with something, or because the boys made a loud noise.  One day she was starting to fall asleep on my lap, so I stood up and laid her on the couch to tie my wrap on.  (Unfortunately my mei tai, which is perfect in other respects, can't easily be put on without putting the baby down.) Instead of crying like I expected, she fell asleep on the couch.  Sadly I couldn't leave her there (too afraid she'd roll off) and when I picked her up she instantly woke up, but it inspired me to try putting her down next time.  After all, I figured, her naps could hardly get worse.

Well, her next nap I put her down and she slept fine!  At first she tried to lift her head up, which is the perennial issue when I put her down, but I stroked her head and she laid it back down.  So that's our new sleep trigger, head strokes.  I don't have to get her soundly asleep -- luckily, since it's basically impossible while also dealing with the boys -- just mostly there, lay her down, stroke her head, walk out.

Of course that leaves me with the problem I had before -- that noisy boys during baby naps are a near occasion of screaming for me.  It makes me steaming mad when they get in a stupid fight over some toy, screech, and wake her -- even more so now that she is old enough that she has pretty long awake periods before we have a hope of giving her another nap.  But she sleeps through rather surprising amounts of noise, all things considered.


At the same time as this, she seems to be changing her nap schedule.  Her old one was two naps of no more than two hours each (usually two hours in the morning and less in the afternoon) and awake periods of about two hours.  Lately both her naps and her awake time seem to be stretching out to three hours.  Which makes it impossible to fit that second nap in there without messing up bedtime!

For instance, here's what happened today.  She woke up at seven-fifteen.  I tried to put her to sleep at nine-fifteen but no luck.  Again at ten, no luck.  Finally got her to sleep at ten-thirty.  She woke up at one-fifteen (oh, bliss!).  But I immediately realized that if she stayed awake another three hours, that would be after four and there was no way she'd go to bed at seven with a four-to-five nap.  (Since the other kids go to sleep between seven and eight, getting her in bed first is  something I'm not really willing to sacrifice.  It is very hard to put a toddler to bed while holding a wakeful, babbling baby.)

So at three-fifteen I figured I'd put her in the wrap and see how that worked.  After half an hour of swaying she finally shut her eyes ... and Michael immediately through a massive fit and she woke right up.  That was it.  She went to sleep easily at seven, but surely that's not enough sleep for a baby?  She was pretty crabby a lot of the afternoon.

I wonder if I should be waking her from that morning nap.  What do you think?  Waking a napping baby seems well-nigh sacrilegious, but I'm willing to do it if necessary.


With all that extra time freed up, I'm like a new woman.  I have been Accomplishing Things.  I've written more on this blog (as you may have noticed).  I organized the boys' room -- they have bunk beds now, it's pretty spiffy.  And I've gotten back to my novel at last, thanks to a new USB keyboard to replace the one that Michael ruined.  I've finally edited those expository bits that seemed so awkward when I first wrote them a couple months ago, revealed a character's dark secret, and killed a druid.  Tomorrow I have to kill a good guy, which is sad, but he saw it coming and chose to sacrifice himself, so I don't have to feel too terribly guilty.  (When I wrote his death the first time, when I wrote this story's first draft a decade ago, I was tearing up the whole time I was writing it.  I hope I've learned more professional detachment since then!)

Now, I've realized that I am still not back to the level of getting-stuff-done I was at before Miriam was born -- I am still not making yogurt or sourdough and I am overwhelmed when I think of my garden -- but it'll happen.  Next step I think is Mt. Laundry.


If you haven't been reading the massive comment thread (around here, yeah, 30 comments is massive) on the argument for being Catholic post, I recommend it.  I think it's done, because I'm letting Enbrethiliel have the last word ... I can't think of anything yet to say that I haven't said.  I still think astrology is bunk, though, and I hope it's not hubris to say so.


Did you know that M*A*S*H is on Netflix now?  John and I are watching it together.  I have a vague memory of watching it as a kid, but I'm sure I must have missed all the jokes.  Anyway it's a really good show.  I've thought lately that modern TV is so good it ruins me on old shows .... but this one, it turns out, is good enough quality that it never seems dated.

The humor, of course, is most of the point, but I also like the serious bits.  Hawkeye, despite his chaotic nature, is a very ethical character.

John tells me that there were more days referenced on the show than there were in the whole Korean War.  Oops.  Glad that war is over . . .

Though, of course, can you call a war "over" when we still have troops there?  And of course North Korea is still in dreadful shape.

I hear Obama's sent an authorization for the use of military force to Congress, for a three-year campaign against ISIS.  I don't know how to feel about this, besides worried.  I hate ISIS as much as the next person, but I also remember how these "short" campaigns always go; it makes me leery.  Not much to do but hope and pray the best thing is done.


Lent is coming up.  Some people like Lent.  I am not one of those people.  I understand the general idea and am in favor of it, but the specifics always trip me up.  One year I gave up reading novels except for school ... for which I read Ayn Rand's book The Fountainhead and got very depressed.  Another year I gave up music, and that wasn't too bad, but I never listen to music anymore because it's overstimulating.  In fact, I can't think of much that I enjoy and still do, except for things I've resolved to keep because they're vital for my mental health.  (Facebook is one of those things.  It's my main connection to the outside world, I can't cut it off!)

I had it in my head to give up Netflix, since after all there are other nice things I can do in the evening, but when I remembered that John will be out of town for a solid week to go see yet another sister take the veil, my resolve wavered.  I've got to have something to do and the house will be awfully quiet after the kids are in bed.

I like the idea of adding something extra, but when I tried that the past few years, it always flops.  When do I have time to add something extra?  In the evening, theoretically, but I am already supposed to write in my journal during that time and I haven't done that in weeks.  My brain isn't in good shape in the evening.  I forget everything.  But in all the rest of the day, there's no time slot I can really rely on!

So all I have left that seems remotely practical are to give up sweets, which I'm due to do anyway, being addicted to them at the moment, or to tape up a prayer on the window behind the kitchen sink and try to remember to pray it as I do the dishes.  I'm thinking of the Te Deum; it's a favorite of mine.  Maybe I should do both, in the hopes that on any given day I will remember at least one of them.

Also open to suggestions if you can think of any that requires no time and no willpower.  (All my willpower is engaged in not being awful to my dear sweet boys when they wake up Miriam from her naps.)


I recently read some books by John C. Wright.  They were pretty good.  The Golden Age and its two sequels were completely utopian, but still interesting -- if you can imagine a book where basically all human problems are solved, and the conflicts that could still arise.  It begins with a character who has willingly deleted large chunks of his memory, but now wants to know what he forgot.

The other two, Count to a Trillion and The Hermetic Millennia, are about a vision of humanity rolling from one dystopian future to the next, while two immortal enemies fight amongst themselves about what that future is supposed to look like.  I should warn you that they are part of a series that isn't finished yet.

Both were very interesting, if maybe a bit difficult.  Very sciencey.  Oddly, though, they got me thinking a lot about religion, sociology, and politics.  If I had to hazard a guess, I'd wager the author is a Catholic libertarian.  Wikipedia tells me I'm right about the Catholic bit!

Friday, February 6, 2015

The stories we tell about ourselves

Back when I lived in Philadelphia, I was driving to work one day when I got behind a car with the license plate KT RUNS.  I thought, "That person must be named Katie and like to run."  So that got me thinking, what six or seven letters could explain me to others?

I came up blank ... there's just too much of me to put on a license plate.  For that matter there's surely much more to Katie than that she runs.  But running is the thing she wants you to know about her.  It's the story she tells herself, about herself.

We all have our things, those things we think are important about ourselves.  They might be our religion, our major, our occupation, our hobbies.  And people who don't know us well might use those as a shorthand for getting to know the whole of us -- "this is my Catholic friend," "that is my teacher friend," "this is the one that's into Doctor Who."  So at Christmas the Catholic friend gets a rosary, the teacher friend a coffee cup with a clever slogan about teaching, the Whovian friend gets TARDIS earrings.  It's our way of saying, "You are not just another friend to me.  I know you in your individuality, I know something about you."

But after the millionth teacher-themed gift, a teacher might think ... "But I'm not only a teacher.  Do they know anything about me besides that?"

So, when talking about identity, it's important to remember that no one fits on a license plate.  Even people who it seems are inviting us to put them on a license plate -- you know, the person who posts nothing but animal-rights articles on Facebook must expect that after awhile you will think of them as "my animal-rights friend."  But they are more than that, even though they are really and truly that thing.

That's kind of where I land when it comes to the word "gay."  Some Catholics say they are Catholic and gay and follow the Church's teaching about homosexuality -- that is, they are celibate.  Others say, "Catholics should identify as Catholic, not as gay."

In short, they are saying that if you are summed up on a license plate, Catholic should make the cut and gay shouldn't.  Fine.  But in the depth of who a person is, sexual orientation certainly is going to be part of it.  A person is Catholic, but they are also American or French, liberal or conservative, extroverted or introverted, straight or gay.  And that is also part of who a person is.  The better you know them, the more of their adjectives you're going to find out and learn to appreciate.

Further, some say that it's wrong for Catholic gay people to suggest that there is anything good about being gay.  If they say, for instance, that a homosexual orientation is in some sense a blessing, or if it has come with blessings, or that it's given them insight others don't have . . . that's bad, because being gay is only and exclusively being tempted to things that sinful.

But it seems to me, as an outsider in this discussion, that anything that is truly a part of you must be in some way accepted as good, given a good story.  If you hate a part of yourself, you hate yourself, and hating yourself makes you unhappy.

I am highly sensitive.  At the moment this is almost exclusively a burden.  I don't actually experience it as a super-power like some do -- I am not more observant than other people, that I can see, and while I am highly attuned to others' emotions, this is actually kind of unpleasant.

So I could say, "I have issues with sensory processing."  Which is possibly true.  However, if I think of it as a disability, it becomes something I am always trying to change and get away from, and since I can't, that leads to anger and frustration.  It's better for me to remind myself that 20% of the population is highly sensitive, so it can't possibly be a disorder, more on the realm of normal variation.  And this variation couldn't have been so widespread if it weren't useful in some circumstances.  It must be a special talent, even though I don't know how to use it well and am in a life situation where it causes me some grief.

I choose to tell myself a story about my brain and the way I experience life that is positive.  I could tell a more negative story and not be entirely wrong, but it's good for me to choose the story I have, because it is true and helps me accept the struggles inherent in dealing with my situation.

Likewise, I could use the term "cult victim" when talking about my experiences in Regnum Christi, but I prefer the term "cult survivor" because it focuses on my triumph.  I could also choose, as some do, not to use these terms at all because I feel I have gotten past the effects of my experiences.  To me, however, this would be less truthful.  Since it doesn't reflect how I honestly feel about it -- the way in which I try to use my experiences to guide my future action, and the way these experiences still do affect me -- it isn't helpful to me.  It rings false.  The best stories are both true and positive.  They make us feel we are strong, or capable, or heroic.

You can see how I've been working on this lately -- trying to find a good story about being a woman that can make me love it instead of fight it.  And in my spiritual journey as well.  I could say "I am not sure whether I believe in anything so I am kind of going with it for now."  And indeed I've had that attitude most of this year, suffering through church every Sunday, thinking the whole time, "I want to believe ... but I don't ... but I do ... I don't belong here."

A better story, for me, is this one: "I am on a spiritual journey, looking for God.  I believe he's at the end of it, whether or not he is anything like I was taught to think, and because he created this beautiful world for me, I am thankful to him and love him.  And because it seems to clear to me from this evidence that he is good, I am not afraid to find out the truth of what he is really like.  I don't know where to start my search, so I will start right where I am, as a Catholic, following the Catholic path of discipline, humility, and continual self-improvement.  I trust God that he will not be upset with me for doing this, and that if I am wrong and it matters to him that I'm wrong, he'll help me find the real answers."

So when I'm in church, I try not to fuss too much about whether I believe enough, or the right way, or whether believing is just brainwashing, and I just listen and try to learn something.  Maybe that something will not be what I am "supposed" to come up with.  That's okay.  Maybe I need to be a little less concerned with finding all the right answers, all of the time, and consider instead whether I personally am worshiping God, whether I am trying to be better than I am, whether I am on the path of a seeker that I am trying to be on.

Of course this is the wrong story, to a lot of people.  To atheists, it seems that I am willfully deceiving myself ... if I have doubts, I ought to start digging for answers.  And to Catholics, I should be believing more and doubting less.  Some even think the Church is better off if we clear the pews of everyone who isn't entirely sure they want to be there.  If one isn't sure of anything, why hang out in a church that has an approved answer to everything?

I can see how there's a side of doubt that may be sinful -- the ironic scoffer, the one who has the evidence but doesn't want to accept it.  But there's a side of doubt that is simply humble, saying that one can't ever be sure, that one is always subject to error.  I can't seem to believe this is wrong, even though everyone seems so sure that I ought to push through it and have the answers by now.

I don't like rationalism, even though I think that everything has a reason, because it seems to deny the reality that we live in a body, we have emotions and biases and sometimes reason is not a good friend at two in the morning.  I can believe things before my morning tea (like that my life is not worth living) that I readily disbelieve once I've gotten a chance to drink it.  Belief, perhaps, should be something beyond reason, not at war with it, but I think whatever capacity some have that lets them do this is broken in me.  I can't "just believe."  And the other option, to reason until you know for sure, seems impossible ... there is no end to the questions.  You think you have the answers, and then someone asks "What about the archeological evidence that Jericho was never conquered by the Jews?" and you're back to square one, you've got to do it all over.

So for me, instead, is the path of seeking and doubt.  It is not a comfortable place; how can you pray when you can't hear the other side of the conversation, when you wonder if there is another side?  But to own doubt about some things, and yet to feel certain that there is something out there worth worshiping and praying to, seems right to me.

What stories do you tell yourself about yourself?  Are they helping you, and is there a different truthful story that would be better?

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

An atheist argument for staying Catholic

This ... may or may not be helpful to anyone who isn't me.

Here's what it's for: it's for those times at two in the morning when I have somehow managed to reason myself out of everything I believe in.  But I am afraid to try to reason myself back into faith, because I am afraid that I'd only be brainwashing myself into believing.  I know from experience how easy it is to believe in things that you surround yourself with, so that that worldview makes more sense and you don't feel like questioning it.  So if I stop questioning my faith and start reading lots of Catholic stuff to try to convince myself it's true, wouldn't that be just deceiving myself?

This is the sort of thinking that makes sense at two in the morning.

So over time, I've come up with an argument for why, if one is an atheist, but feels that maybe one could believe again, it's worth the effort.  This isn't Pascal's wager -- it's not about acting as if you believe even though you don't.  It's about trying to think your way back into believing, if you can.

Here's how I see it.  Religion is useful.  Psychologists will tell you that having a firm belief-set and moral code can be very mentally healthy.  It keeps you from constantly questioning everything -- you don't have to re-reason everything every time someone asks you a question, because you have a consistent belief system that can be applied to various situations.  You also have the comfort of calling on the aid of a higher power.

Morally, it benefits all of society when people act with firm, altruistic ideals.  Sure, it may be beneficial to an individual to act selfishly, but if everyone acts that way, everyone will suffer.  So it makes sense for all people to act altruistically.  Also, it helps if their morals are consistent, not able to be swayed by one's emotions or reasoned out of at moments when one's reason is swayed by circumstances.  (I should remind you that I am highly pessimistic about the ability of humans to ever be objective, much less consistently objective.  When you're mad at your kids, it's so easy to convince yourself that yelling at them will "do 'em good" even though, in a calm moment, you believed it was harmful.)

A utilitarian moral system sounds rational, but it relies on the ability of humans to be able to know which moral choices are likely to prevent the most suffering and cause the most happiness, and no humans are actually in a position to know this.  And many of our moral choices are made under pressure, when we don't necessarily have the time to consider all possibilities.  For fallible humans, it makes sense to have a deontological moral code -- one that is rules-based rather than consequences-based, since we can't actually know the consequences.  So rather than ask ourselves every time, "Would killing my grandfather cause more happiness than it takes away?" (I mean, when you're mad at Grandpa, it might seem the answer is "yes" even though it isn't true), it's better to say "My morals forbid me from killing Grandpa."

Now, when we consider morals from the point of view of self-interest -- our strongest instinct, though as I've said before not our only one -- it may seem that it's a good idea at times to make exceptions to our moral code.  A person who agrees not to cheat, in the hopes that people will not cheat him, might still cheat if he knows no one else will find out about it.  This is a net negative for society.  So for a strict moral code to work even when people are being driven more by self-interest than altruism, it is necessary for there to be rewards and punishments for following or not following the moral code.  Hence any religion that's morally useful is going to have an afterlife where we suffer the consequences of our actions.  This ties self-interest to moral behavior.

(The idea of the afterlife is also very useful in keeping people from abandoning the religion -- if a person is uncertain as to the truth of his religion, he will stick with it as long as he fears retribution for not doing so.  This is one of the reasons why traditional religions that focus on hell seem to be better at keeping their members.  However, this argument is actually a net negative when it comes to convincing me to stay Catholic.  I don't want to distract from my argument by explaining why, but perhaps you can guess?)

Now there are lots of religions that fit this description, so why be Catholic?

Well, firstly, the moral code of Christianity is superior in many ways to other religions.  Jesus, whether you believe he is God or not, came up with some very radical ideas which turned out to be very beneficial: love your neighbor, love your enemy, return good for evil, give up your life for your friends.

Love your neighbor is not too radical -- altruism has always been respected.  But Jesus' view of what it means to love your neighbor is radical -- it suggests putting another's good far above your own, even to the point of death.  Altruism is great for the success of humanity -- no wonder Christianity was so immediately successful.  They helped widows and orphans, gave out of their substance to the poor, and generally treated each other well.  Who wouldn't want to be a part of that?  So despite persecution, the early Church won converts hand over fist.

And love your enemy, do good to those who curse you, and so forth?  That is truly radical; I can't find anyone else in the ancient world who said this.  Returning good for evil halts the cycle of retribution that causes so much war and evil in the world.  Of course, Christians throughout history haven't followed this teaching very well, but it's still a good teaching.  If you abide by it, you personally might suffer -- that's the scary part -- but the benefits to society are wide-ranging.  I am not sure that the modern world could have reached such a level of peace and cooperation as it has without adopting at least the ideal of this rule.  And yet this rule is almost impossible to live by if you think you will never be rewarded for it.  Why give up your life to an unjust aggressor instead of hitting first?  Well, because you will go to heaven if you do.  Having less fear of death -- seeing as fear is a primary motivator for aggression -- is an excellent thing, especially if it is coupled with a good moral code.

Christianity also comes with the idea of a kind and loving God who is always willing to listen to you.  And that has helped people through all kinds of tight spots.  Humans need to be loved unconditionally; it seems that we can't love anyone else until we have first been shown love by another.  And that's a terrible thing for those children who aren't loved by their parents, because they have not been loved enough to be able to give love.  Belief in a God who loves them unconditionally can help.

The Catholic Church has extra advantages over other brands of Christianity.  It has a vast richness of both philosophical and mystical texts which can appeal to a wide variety of people.  It is reason-based, so you don't have to check your brain at the door; odds are, if you have an idea about some part of Catholic teaching, there is someone equally bright who has struggled with it as well.  It has a genealogy readily traceable back to the original apostles, and it doesn't rely entirely on Scripture -- which, if you've read some of the confusing bits of the Bible, you know is very handy.

It also has a sacramental life.  These sacraments create sacred space; they appeal to all the senses and give weight to what we believe.  Holy water, chrism, the Eucharist ... all appeal to us on a level other than abstract reason, making it easy to participate.  Scientists can join right in with mentally challenged people; it doesn't require brilliance.  Children can get something out of it.  Our brains are not biological computers; they operate on a variety of conscious and subconscious levels, so appealing to more than one of these is good.

Confession is an extra special case -- because what it symbolizes, it truly is.  Non-Catholics might joke about it, but in reality, it is pretty impossible to go into a dark box and say your sins out loud if you're not really sorry for them.  And yet you have to, to be right with God.  No pretending all is well, or imagining God is maybe okay with it even though you're not really sorry.  Nope.  Own up to them, call them what they are, and promise out loud that you won't do it anymore.  I daresay the rest of the world could use to do this more.  A big part of Catholic spiritual life is continual self-improvement -- you're never "saved," you're never "done."  Did this one good thing?  Okay, now do more.  It's a clearly mapped out path for always making yourself into the person you want to be.  I'm sure that is more likely to produce good results than an ideology that says you are fine just as you are, even if it is less comfortable.

And all those "silly rules"?  Well, some of them aren't so silly.  Considering how children suffer from divorce, having a prohibition against it does make sense, although some people suffer from that prohibition.  Annulments help, but in some cases someone might have their marriage fall apart through no fault of their own, be denied an annulment, and not be able to get married again in the Church.  So the rule might be bad for individuals -- but it can be beneficial to a community, because it prevents some divorces and creates a culture where divorce is not acceptable.  And the prohibition on birth control is useful, because it's preserved the understanding (which the rest of the world lacks) that sex is sacred and results in babies.  That leads to people taking it a lot more seriously, and considering it does very often result in babies even when people are using birth control, taking sex seriously is (in my mind) a good thing.  It is even arguable that the prohibition on masturbation is useful in the same way -- it teaches people from adolescence on to respect the sexual power, to take it seriously, and to learn to say no to it as necessary.  When I hear about husbands who pressure their wives for sex even when they're sick, or cheat because they were away from their wives for a week and couldn't get sex any other way, I ask myself .... shouldn't they have learned this by now?  Learning to be the master of your impulses is a lesson that everyone owes it to themselves -- and everyone else -- to learn.

For the rest, though?  Fish on Fridays, Mass on Sundays, that sort of thing?

There are two answers, one more spiritually useful and one more practical.  The first is that sacrifice is a crucial component of worship.  We exist in a world we did not create; we did not bring ourselves into the world and we will not decide when we leave it.  It makes sense that we should honor that reality.  For instance, every meal you eat, it is good to remember that no one owed you this meal.  It is pure gift from your creator that you were born on a planet with abundant food, in a country that doesn't suffer from starvation, into a family that could afford to buy dinner.  Dozens or even hundreds of people may have worked to bring this food to you.  So say grace, be thankful.  And yes, occasionally sacrifice eating what you want in favor of something you didn't choose -- eat fish on Fridays.  The same with Mass -- who made you into a healthy person who is able to leave the house?  You?  No.  So one day of the week, do what you didn't choose, because the fact that you are even able to choose is a gift.  Reminding yourself in these concrete ways that it all is a gift will help you remember to be grateful -- and gratitude is psychologically healthy and pays off in increased happiness, say the scientists.

The other answer is that rules are socially binding.  They force us to really commit to a group instead of hanging out on the fringes.  They help us form a tie with other people following the same rules.  And they discourage us from leaving, when we've gone through all this trouble to follow the rule.  I would even say (and this is more from my own experience than anything else) that the more a group's rules intrude on your daily life, the more useful they are.  If you aren't allowed to drink alcohol, and you are always invited to drink alcohol, one of two things start to happen: either you feel bad having to go without among your friends, and automatically remind yourself of your commitment to your religion, and thus strengthen it .... or you cut ties with your secular friends and form social groups with other people of your religion so you won't be the odd one out when people are drinking.  Either way, you have increased your bonds with your group.  The invention of Mormonism's "sacred garment" was genius.  You can't ever not be thinking of how Mormon you are.  It's on your underwear!  Scapulars, rosary rings, and medals fit in here -- a constant reminder of your religious commitment, so it's not just a Sunday activity for you, but who you are.

And why is that a good thing?  Well, it helps you to form a dense, strong community with your co-religionists, and it also strengthens your commitment to your moral code.  I am not arguing here at all that vaguely sitting around in a pew is going to do you any good.  I think that a flourishing spiritual life in which you truly believe and really practice your faith will do you good.

So, at moments of doubt, I remind myself of all this.  And I think, if I believe in the Catholic faith, and I happen to be wrong, what might happen?

Well, I might be encouraged to be charitable those around me.
I might find some comfort from it.
I may encourage others to try the Catholic faith, and they too might be helped by it.
It is possible that I may take part in some of the good works of the Church, like feeding the hungry.
I will not use my religion as a way to be nasty to other people who don't follow it, because I truly do not believe that is what Jesus would do.
I will definitely encourage other Catholics to stay away from the toxic pitfalls of religion -- that is, using it just as something to feel superior to others, starting religious wars, and so forth.  In this way I can help improve communities of Catholics.
When I die, I'll just die and I'll never know I was wrong.  But if, somehow, I could know .... would I regret a life lived like that?
No, I would not.

So I say a little prayer, hoping it gets where I sent it, and go to sleep.
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