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.


Belfry Bat said...

On the subject of infallibility and shifting understanding...

There's something of a belief that the infallibility of the Petrine ministry (or something like it) previously rested upon the High Priesthood in Jerusalem, to which (I think the Gospel of John?) alludes, when Caiaphas suggested "it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation perish not". And there's a tradition in reading this text that, properly understood, what Caiaphas said was prophtic: it is better that the Son of Man lay down his life than Man be lost to sin; but his intended meaning was (the very wrong) "it is better for us that we murder one man than to let the empire murder all of us".

Similarly, just because we have a different gloss on something a Pope wrote in frustration with Henry IV Rex Romanorum doesn't mean that what we now understand by it isn't part of why the Holy Spirit let him write it.

But yes, history is messy and mysterious!

Enbrethiliel said...


I wonder whether the current understanding of "Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus" is mostly ecumenism taken too far. I'm reminded of Father Malachi Martin addressing callers on the radio: he would diplomatically admit to non-Catholic callers that it is 100% possible for non-Catholics to perform exorcisms, but then he always concluded, whether the caller was Protestant, Jewish or even agnostic, that someone who is being harassed by demons should contact the exorcist of the (Catholic) archdiocese where he lives. One caller was getting almost comically frustrated, because Father Martin would say one minute, "Yes, of course it's possible that you performed a successful exorcism on your friend," then say the very next minute, "If you meet someone else with that problem, apply to the archdiocese." (LOL!) When I brought this up with a friend who is a fan of Father Martin's writing, my friend said to remember that Father Martin worked for a long time in Rome, where priests learn to lay down the law with extreme tact.

As for "EENS," well, I admit that the current interpretation is different! I also know of several writers who think the same way, but since they ascribe to the old interpretation rather than the new, they're hardly popular. I'm less hardcore and haven't really minded the idea that people outside the Church can also be saved. (It appeals to my sneaky universalist side. =P) But now I see that it brings me back to that other idea that God's actions are chaotic and He Himself is unknowable--which is what I had to admit was heretical in our last discussion.

Also, I recently talked about this with someone else, who surprised me by saying that he wishes the Church hadn't capitulated to fashion when it comes to limbo, because he happens to have several unborn children there. But he is further consoled by the possibility that the unbaptised babies and virtuous dead who came after Christ receive the same opportunity for salvation as the virtuous dead who came before Him. To say that the former are more doomed than the latter is to make the harrowing of hell an evil rather than a good--and since this is an act by Jesus Himself, that would be impossible.

Sheila said...

I do not care for limbo; it might be a nice place but if *I* can't go there, that means I never ever get to meet two of my sisters! Much better to believe that God might "harrow hell" a second time for all of them. Or that they have some other route to salvation. Limbo was the attempt to wiggle out of a corner the Church had painted itself into -- on the one hand, no one can be saved without baptism, and on the other, no one is ever punished unless they committed actual sin. Hence the idea of hell without the punishment.

John's explanation to me is that, although *we* are bound by the Church's limitations, God is not ... he can go outside the "usual way" when he knows it's necessary. I explain suffering on this earth by understanding that God doesn't desire it, but his hands are tied -- you can't have a world like we have without some degree of suffering. But where salvation is concerned, I can't imagine his hands could possibly be tied, except insofar as he HAS to respect the will of those who reject him. But there's no law that says he can't save a person whom he knows would have chosen him if they had known about him. Merely that we, being human, can't presume on that. We are still supposed to baptize, even if God has a way around that if necessary.

From what I know of God, though, I tend to assume all unborn babies go to heaven. How could he be less merciful and loving toward them than I would be?

Enbrethiliel said...


I think that unborn babies get a special pass, too, though I'll probably never be able to prove it! Outside of the womb, however, all bets are off. And you already know I'm a fan of the "bathroom baptism."

SeekingOmniscience said...

I am not a historian, and I feel uneasy doing history. That being said, is an interesting perspective on the historicity of the resurrection and on the possibility of lying Apostles. (Although, atm, given that the the stories that the Apostles never recanted seem like they could be legends, that simpler option seems more realistic to me.) Although I would admit the historical evidence for Christianity does in fact, to me, seem to supply real evidence for Christianity--just evidence insufficient to move one's marker for "probability of truth" past 50%, or whatever it means to believe.

I think it's worth pointing out I think a big part of the difference between my point of view and yours (whether this is a vice or a virtue on my part or yours) is that I'm not as willing as you to lose some pieces of what have historically been denominated Christian belief while holding on to others. For instance, I'm pretty sure that -- while big chunks of the OT have always been seen as metaphorical, by say, Augustine -- you go further than many Church Fathers in discarding the OT. If that weren't an option (as it doesn't seem to be, to me) than you'd be in more of a pickle. Again, I'm not meaning this to be a criticism -- I just think this is more or less the difference between "atheist / agnostics" and "liberal Catholics" (if you don't mind me using the tag). (And, imho, why in some ways atheists / agnostics and liberal Catholics are closer to each other than liberal Catholics are to Trad Catholics -- the former pair are at least willing to say We Have a Problem with particular things handed down.)

Re. the entity responsible for the universe as concerned with humans: [insert dialogue from Ivan in the Brothers Karamazov relevant to this topic.]

Sheila said...

I did read that book a long time ago, but I don't remember ... really any of it.

Yes, I think it is fair to say that I am not part of the traditionalist contingent that says it all stands or falls together. I see that some parts of the Faith have more evidence for them than others. It seems possible to me, for instance, that St. Augustine and Origin were onto the right idea (there is no WAY we can take all of the OT literally) while being too influenced by the Jewish origin of their religion to be willing to question so far as I am about its accuracy.

Imagine the possibility that Jesus did die and rise again, and that the community of disciples he founded were mixed up on some particulars. (I mean, we KNOW they were, they were convinced the end times would happen any minute and that turned out to be false.) Is it so unlikely as all that?

Sheila said...

Read the link you shared -- not really that convincing. For one thing, it doesn't give a mechanism for either Jesus' witnesses or those of the Book of Mormon. And in the comments some really big differences are pointed out.

Which is more likely, that there was a massive conspiracy of making up evidence ... or that a group of people who really did know something got some details wrong? Seems we have no end of historical parallels for the latter.

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