Tuesday, March 24, 2015

What is believing anyway?

I'm no slouch at theology.

As a kid it was my best subject.  My mom taught CCD and so I had all the answers.  We did religion every day in homeschooling and then I had CCD class on top of that, where I would be That Kid with her hand always raised with the answer.

In high school I learned about different mental skills.  My best skill was memorization.  My worst was analysis.  I didn't like picking stuff apart and I was lousy and making connections, but I was great at memorizing and spitting back massive amounts of information.  So no wonder religion was such an easy subject for me

But in high school, I learned how to analyze information and I slowly got better at doing it in my other subjects.  You ask questions.  You try to connect some of the information with other parts.  You find out if there are conflicts between different parts of the data.  You ask, "Is this true?  How do I know it is true?"

That is what you do with facts.  Facts are true or not true.  You can be very sure they are true, or suspect they are true, or know they are not true, and you should always believe what the evidence suggests.  Sometimes you don't have enough evidence to say for sure, and in that case you should withhold judgment. You shouldn't believe things just because you want them to be true.  These are all things I learned to do in other subjects, like science or history.

The trouble with religion is that it wants things both ways.  On the one hand, it claims to be fact.  You should be as sure of it as you are of fact, and act on it the way you would act on a fact you were sure of.  And it claims to be provable -- at least, my theology classes said so.  You could prove it philosophically, by a number of proofs of the existence of God, or you could prove it historically, by examining the evidence for Jesus' resurrection and the accuracy of the Gospels.  The Church claims (in Vatican I) that it is possible for human reason, unaided by the light of faith, to come to certain knowledge of God's existence.  That's a bold claim, and so it seems that you should be able to easily test it.  Try and see if you can come to certainty, and if you can't, well, the whole thing is false.

Except that the Church does not actually want you to do this.  Catholics I know don't want me to do this.  They say faith is not a matter of facts like any other facts, but a leap of faith, of trust in a person.  If I can't prove it like I can prove that the square of a hypotenuse of a right triangle is the sum of the squares of the sides, that's fine, I should still believe.  And if I look back and feel uncertain, like I am uncertain that George Washington chopped down a cherry tree, because the evidence is insufficient, I shouldn't suspend judgment the way I would about the apple tree.  I should still believe.  If I can't, I should at least try to.

But I am not sure I can believe in those circumstances; it's not like I can unlearn what I know about knowledge and how it's obtained.  I can't be a rational, skeptical reader when I read Julius Caesar's Gallic Wars, understanding his biases and looking for independent verification of his claims, and then turn that off when I read the Gospel of Matthew.  And even if I can, I can't quite believe that this is right to do.  Isn't it irresponsible to let an assumption masquerade as a fact, when you haven't verified it like you have with all the other facts in your head?

Let me confess: at this point I have better evidence that vaccines cause autism than I have for the Catholic Faith.  That is, I have some small evidence for it and a lot of reasons why not to accept that evidence, plus some apparent contradictions in the theory itself.  It's plausible.  But it's not even likely, as far as I can see.

Now if faith were a matter of plain fact, like whether vaccines cause autism, that would make me an unbeliever.  But it isn't that simple.

I'm not the first Catholic ever to look at the data and say, "I just can't prove this, or even prove that it's likely."  Lots of the ones who think this leave.  But quite a few people think this and stay Catholic.

I'm trying to figure out why.  And how.

Some people have told me it's just a leap.  You just decide.  But is it enough to decide "I will act as if this were true, even if I consider it the less likely option"?  I am willing to do this.  I like being Catholic.  I like its moral teaching and I like singing hymns and I like quite a few Catholic people!  Not to mention the dark sides: I do not want to upset my family and friends, I do not want to lose the respect of other Catholics, I do not want to run the risk (however small) of going to hell.

But it puts a crimp in my prayer life to try to talk to someone I strongly suspect isn't there or can't hear me.  I am not sure it's okay to receive the sacraments when you don't think they actually work.  I mean, according to the Church I'm a heretic on several counts, and heresy is a sin.  It seems dishonest to tell people I'm Catholic when of course they will assume that means I believe, and I don't.  And it's just plain bad decisionmaking to treat as fact something that you think is unlikely.  If I said, "I think vaccines probably don't cause autism, but I choose to believe they do, so I won't get any," you'd call me crazy.  Now most of what the Catholic Church requires is low-risk in the first place.  It doesn't hurt me not to eat meat on Friday.  But some things are high risk -- should I oppose gay marriage even though I have no real reason outside of Catholic doctrine to do so?  Should I tell the kids God hears their prayers even though it might lead them to the same sort of crisis I'm in, when they start to suspect he doesn't?  Should I give my life for it if the opportunity arises?  Wouldn't that be foolish, to do so for a mere possibility?

Is there some other way to take the Faith besides as fact?  How do you relate to something which you think might be true, or which you choose to accept as a framework for the way you see the world even though you know it may not be factual?

I read things about symbolic language, but then I think, is the symbol actually symbolizing something real?  "I believe in one God" does not symbolize anything.  Either you believe in one God, or you don't.  "Jesus rose from the dead" is not understood by the Church as something symbolic either.  I read something the other day about "day language" (the language of science) versus "night language" (the language of poetry and religion) and I just kept asking ... but is it factual?  Does the image correspond to anything?  "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons" is night language, but it speaks to something true.  Perhaps something that can't clearly be said otherwise, but not something imaginary.  Whereas God is real, or he is not.  I can worship God as another name for my superego, as an avatar of the universe, as a creation of the world's group-mind, but the Catholic Church demands something different.

Perhaps I am too literal, too insistent that reality fit this paradigm of true/false.  I suppose the whole Western Catholic Church suffers from this disease, unable to accept a mystery without picking at it.  How can God be true God and true man? What are the relationships in the Trinity?  In what way is Jesus present in the Eucharist?  But all the talk of the theologians hasn't gotten us any closer; it's gotten us further, because the more carefully we define it, the less likely it seems to be true.

Unfortunately I don't know how to be any different.

However, last Friday I went to the library and grabbed a bunch of books from the shelves.  Memoirs of ex-Catholics.  Proofs of God from evolution.  I wanted to bring home the whole theology section, but I couldn't carry that and a baby too so I sort of picked at random.  There was one book that got me really excited, called In Search of Belief, by Sister Joan Chittister.  I had heard of her -- some super liberal nun that made people on "my team" mad -- but, heck, I can hardly get less Catholic at this point, it won't hurt me to read this book.

Right in chapter one I ran into this paragraph:

"It is a dangerous time spiritually, solved by some only by dismissing everything that once they accepted unquestioningly and now find incompatible with present reality or, conversely, by others by continuing to cling blindly to past explanations because present situations are more than they can absorb or integrate into an older worldview.  Both responses are understandable by both are lacking something of the breadth and depth of life.  One shuts out the mystical in favor of the obvious; the other shuts out reality and calls such anemic retreat from creation the spiritual life.  The rest of us, too cautious, too judicious, to take either extreme, find ourselves adrift and alone, trying to make a spiritual raft out the shards of shattered reason.  We flounder and we drift.  We avoid questions and doubt answers.  We hope against hope that someday things will all get clear again, even while we know down deep that if life continues on its maddeningly fascinating scientific way, more than likely they will not.  For appearances sake, we try to look as if nothing has changed, knowing that everything has changed.  We simply go on going on."

Yes.  Yes, I see myself in there very well.  So I'm reading along, hoping she'll have something helpful for me in there.  Maybe I can learn, as she seems to have done, a way of believing that doesn't require certainty.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The third possibility

Back when I was posting about the one verse of the bible that causes me the most trouble, I made a whole list of possibilities that this verse might mean.  But there was one possibility that I didn't list, not because it didn't occur to me, but because I believe so strongly that it is wrong.

That is, the possibility that Jesus just lied about when his second coming would be -- that perhaps he wanted us to think it was coming soon so we'd shape up, even though he knew it wouldn't actually do so.

I didn't bother with that, because the Church teaches that, on the one hand, Jesus is God, and on the other, that God can neither deceive nor be deceived.  So sooner than believe that Jesus lied, I'd ditch the whole religion, bible and all, and then of course I don't have to worry about that verse in the first place.

In the same way, I have treated my whole spiritual journey as a dilemma rather than a trilemma, even though there are actually three (or more) choices.

1.  Either God is good, loving, and merciful, and the parts of the bible and facts of the visible world which make this seem like it isn't true can be explained away somehow,

2.  Or, Christianity does not work and I should abandon it.

But you see I skipped option 3:  God is not good, loving, or merciful, as I understand those words, and the confusing, inconsistent, or evil things he seems to have done are just part of who he is.

Not that I didn't think of it.  I think of it a lot.  I guess I felt, for a long time, as though I ought to hedge my bets against this possibility.  After all, there is no requirement that the truth will be pleasant or comforting.  No reason why the being that created us would share our standards of what good and bad look like.  Why shouldn't he do absurd things that make no sense, do things that contradict the moral standards his creations live by, make a certain religion the only way to be saved and then make it impossible for many of us to discover it?

Well, starting from absolute scratch, sure, there is no way to know this isn't true.  But starting within the Catholic faith, you absolutely can.  My bias against an evil or inconsistent God isn't "trying to put God into a box," but following what the Church tells me about what God is like.

And what does the Church say?  Well, it teaches that God is infinite goodness, that he loves each individual person, that he is unchanging, that he is never inconsistent or deceptive.

So, though I might have trouble measuring God up to my standards -- since of course my standards might be wrong -- I am always allowed to measure him up to his standards.  God does not change; if he says he is a certain way, or that he will do a certain thing, if we believe in him at all, we have to believe that.

The Bible and the Magisterium are two sides to the same coin; both can be relied upon if you're Catholic.  The Magisterium has accepted just war theory, for instance, so when God commanded the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites, I can safely say that must be myth of some kind -- because if it's objectively wrong to kill noncombatants today, God knew it was wrong then too.  Perhaps he guided the Israelites to make that sort of myth to emphasize the point that they should not let themselves be corrupted by paganism.  Who knows.  But I know he would not command genocide, because he has elsewhere told us that genocide is wrong.

That is my answer, such as it is, for why I don't bother giving the time of day to the idea that God is not good, not loving, or not merciful.  The Church has been very clear that he is -- and that he is consistent.  The medieval philosophers worked out that if God is infinite being, he is also infinite truth, goodness, and so forth.  St. Thomas Aquinas said that we can never understand what God is, but we can easily say what he is not.  He is not limited.  He is not ignorant of anything.  He is not bounded by time or subject to change.

And what that tells me is that God cannot possibly be inconsistent with himself.  He will not tell us one day that killing is bad, and then appear some other day and say that killing is actually good.

This makes things, in many ways, harder and not easier.  Because then all the many inconsistencies among the Old Testament, New Testament, Magisterium, and of course the evidence of our own senses are problems, not just to be put down to "God changing his mind" or "God lying."  The question becomes then, can we make peace between the conflicting stories and figure out something, anything, about what God is like?

Well, if I could, I wouldn't be here so often complaining about my lack of faith.  But one thing I do know, is that putting it all down to God not being as good as I imagined, or God being not only ineffable but irrational, is an absurdity which I don't see the point in entertaining.

Today is Pi Day, which is generally considered a joke holiday.  But I think maybe it should be a more serious one, because it brings to mind a very important reality, revealed in "the book of the universe": the universe, and whatever creator it has, is consistent and rational.  Measure all the circles you like.  You will never have the circumference equal four times the diameter, or three times, or three and a half, but always the same number -- π.  That gives me a wonderful sense of peace and security: the world may not always make sense to me, but it does make sense.  It's consistent.  It's not ruled by an angry being who changes his mind a dozen times a day; there are rules and some of them are possible for us to know.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Violence and Catholics

After admitting I am a hypocrite the other day, I planned to give a rest to Catholic stuff for awhile.  Because why should you all listen to me when I'm an admitted doubter?

However, one of the things I have never doubted, not even been tempted to doubt, is Catholic moral teaching.  I don't know if this is a grace, the way I was brought up, or just my temperament, but I have never looked at a moral teaching of the Church and thought, "The Church says x is bad, but I feel deep down that it's good."  There are things about which my conscience is a little stricter than the Church's teaching, but none where it's too lax. 

I just think it's a work of genius, no matter how you look at it.  Sin is objective -- guilt is subjective.  What a clever way to work it out that is neither relativistic nor unfair!  And I suppose it's what you would expect of an organization that's been pondering these issues for two millennia.  You get good answers.

Now I'm talking about what the Church teaches today.  The stuff in the Catechism.  There's lots of things the medieval church did and people believed back then which I disagree strongly with -- burning heretics, anyone?  But I put that down to just not having had as much time to think about it as they've had now.  Looking back to the very beginning, to Jesus, you can see that mercy is right in there.  But for a long time the Church didn't quite unpack that, because it's made up of humans and the pagan culture they were coming from was just not ready to deal with the idea of radical forgiveness.

I probably would be a total pacifist, except I can see, in the way the Church has formulated the three exceptions (the death penalty, self-defense, and just war), that same level of genius.  For those cases, those incredibly tough cases, where the innocent are being killed and it's not going to get better unless you meet force with force ... the church has developed rules for using force.  It has to be proportional.  It can only be used against an aggressor, not innocent bystanders or people you think might later do something bad.  (I.e.  You may not go back in time to kill Hitler back in art school.)  If you have another option available that is not deadly, you should use that instead.

Unfortunately, when you have exceptions, you have people pushing at them.  I have heard it said that the mere fact that there are exceptions makes the whole teaching optional.  "It's a matter of prudence," they say, which is Catholic code for "we don't have to listen."  But the Church has put down some very firm rules which you do have to listen to.  You look at your situation and see if it fits; that part is up to you, but you don't get to choose your rubric, because the Church has already given you that.

You see, I will agree that a person who has attacked a fellow human and has taken or is threatening to take their life forfeits their own right to life.  It is no longer intrinsically evil to take their life, because they've given up the right to it when they failed to respect that right in others.  But their life still has value.  If they are alive, it is because God sustains their life.  He keeps them in being, because if he thought they had no value, they would no longer exist.  He even loves them!  He loves axe murderers and rapists and genocidal dictators.  He died for them.  Do you believe that?

Of course we want them to repent.  I don't buy the idea that they are more likely to repent if they know they're getting killed.  I say better to give them more time; time can do what few other things can.  But anyway I think that's not our place; the moment of a person's death is God's choice, not ours.  If we can preserve their life without risking the lives of innocents, I think we should.

And anyway, consider: for a person to be put to death, another human being has to kill them.  Is it good for a human to get used to killing other humans?  Is it good for a doctor to have to administer a lethal injection?  How are they going to take their hippocratic oath seriously when we just ordered them, by law, to break it?  We have a strong natural revulsion against killing people.  Because of this, we train police and soldiers to lose that revulsion, by getting them to use human-looking cutouts for target practice and visualize killing people beforehand.  Do you think this is good for them as humans?  Will it make them more kind to their spouses, more gentle with their children?  Will it make them sleep easier at night and less likely to rationalize violence in cases where they could avoid it?

It does not appear to me that it does.  When I see yet another story about a police officer shooting someone who turned out not to be a threat, I see the excuses rolling in right after.  But the cop was scared.  But the person could have been a threat.  But cops are sometimes shot by criminals.  And it's all true.  But when it comes down to it, you or I would not have drawn and fired a gun because we wouldn't have been carrying one.  And if we had, we would have hesitated.  Because we've never killed anyone, never imagined killing anyone, don't want to kill anyone.

We, as a society, have sacrificed that hesitation in the minds of our soldiers, our police, and yes, some of our doctors.  We have chosen to make them the ones who don't hesitate.  Sometimes that goes wrong, of course.  It's the price we pay.

The price for killing someone, anyone, is high.  We should only do it when there is no other choice.  In the case of the death penalty, in America today, there always is another choice.  That's why I'm against it.

And I'd go further and say that, as a culture, we need to stop glorifying violence so much.  Guns don't make you tough, and they're not a guarantee of safety.  Too many times a gun is treated like a security blanket -- that just having one means that someone won't break into your house and shoot you.  I have chosen not to own or use a gun, because I am aware that I would hesitate, and any attacker could easily overpower me.  Now I could spend time training, visualize killing an attacker, overcome my natural hesitation to use violence.  But why would I do that, when it's already a struggle not to lose my temper with my own kids and hit them?  I have to be a mother 365 days a year, for eighteen years per kid.  I might have to shoot an intruder one time.  And that motherhood job is much harder.  It requires me to always, always stop myself before acting aggressively or even defensively, because I could hurt my children.  It requires me to have my defenses down and be soft ... which, I'll be honest, is a daily battle.

And when I hear the shouts for blood -- for the blood of terrorists, for the blood of ISIS members, for the blood of the guy who shot a cop recently -- I think, who are we?  What does it say about us, that we want this so badly?  Can we possibly be seeing a person with God's eyes and loving him with God's heart, if we want revenge on him so badly?

Humans are wonderfully adaptable creatures.  We can adapt to violent circumstances and become more aggressive, or we can adapt to safety by becoming gentle.  But we can't adapt ourselves to hate without hurting our capacity to love.  That's why, in Doctor Who, the Doctor doesn't carry a gun.  Not because he never kills -- sometimes he has to.  But he knows that to carry a gun means that you are always carrying with you the possibility of killing, the readiness to kill.  For a man with that much power, if he let himself be changed that far, he would become a monster.  The gun would become the solution for everything.

I think that, in the way we talk in America, especially on the more conservative side, we have let the gun become the solution for everything.  No one can seem to think of another solution.  We don't think of the possibility of peaceful resistance, or diplomacy, or rehabilitation.  Just of fighting back.  And the one thing no one even gives a moment's thought is that sometimes, it could be better to die than to resist.  Isn't that exactly what Jesus did?

Well, that's what I think anyway.  You don't have to listen to me.  Just throwing that out there.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The case for hypocrisy

Hypocrisy is bad, right?  Strictly defined, it's trying to impress people with the appearance of virtue while inwardly being a rotter.  And no, I'm not really going to argue for that.

But I think we tend to feel an uncomfortable feeling like we're being hypocritical whenever we notice a difference between our outsides and our insides.  Here I am preaching charity and I was just a jerk to my kids!  Here I am in church when really there are scads of atheists who are better people than me!  Here I am sharing an article about poverty when in reality I don't really give much to charity!  It feels bad.  It feels fake.

And it's true that this feeling should inspire us to clean up our insides to match our outsides.  But is there anything good about dropping the exterior stuff in order to match our inner awfulness?

When I was in boarding school and correspondingly way too obsessed with sin, I was afraid to make a visit to the chapel because I suspected I secretly only wanted to go so that people would see me and think I was holy.  But then I thought, maybe this line of thought is just an excuse because I don't want to make a visit.  How do I know I have an honest intention?  What is the better thing to do?

And I made a decision, back then, for how I wanted to live my life, and it is summed up like this: Never let fear of hypocrisy stop you from doing a good thing.

Yes, it's a bit dishonest to let people think you're better than you are.  But sometimes our search for "authenticity" just makes us stop doing good things that we actually wanted to do.  There's only so far you can parse your own motives -- I learned at that time that I am capable of reading horrible motives into any conceivable action I could possibly take.  At some point you've got to just make a decision, and rather than worrying that some actions are hypocritical, you should just pick good actions.

If I feel too hypocritical about that, I just make it a point to be honest: YES, I am sometimes a jerk to my kids.  SURE, I don't give much to charity.  But it is a good thing that I'm able to recognize that peaceful parenting or charitable giving are good, and maybe talking about them will help me do better at them.

So this is kind of the conclusion I've come to, for the present, about faith.  I don't think I have any faith to speak of, because faith should include thinking it's true and I can't seem to think it's true without evidence.  I'm saying this now, to fend off the charge that I'm being dishonest when I act like I think it's true, even though I only think it's sort of plausible, tops.

But here's what it comes down to: I want to be Catholic.  I want to go to church.  So I am just going to DO IT.  Hypocrisy and all.  If God is real, I can't help but feel he appreciates the effort, and if not, he's not going to mind.

Do you think that's hypocritical of me?  Is the fear of hypocrisy stopping you from doing good things?

Friday, March 6, 2015

7qt - mostly pictures


Today is a good day to write a post that isn't about theology.  For a change.  I don't exactly enjoy studying theology (or philosophy, or history), so having to do it (because hello, my soul is important) is kind of a drag.  Also my house gets messy when I spend the baby's whole naptime reading different theories of the dates of New Testament books.

So today I didn't do much of that and I did a lot more cleaning.  And that was actually really nice.


I have struggled to get the kids to clean up after themselves for a long time.  Marko never wanted to.  Michael did for a short phase and then he got too distractable.  It happens the same way every time:

Them: We want duplos!
Me: No, that will make a big mess.
Them: We'll clean them up when we're done!
Me: Well, okay.  (Hours later)  Time to clean them up!
Marko: It's tooo haaaard.
Michael: I'm not done with them!

Every. Stinkin.  Time.

So I wasn't getting out any messy toys for them, because I always wind up being the one to pick them up, but then they start grabbing my kitchen utensils, pulling books off the shelves, etc. and it's just as bad.

And Miriam joins in, too!

Last week I just didn't even want to deal.  I let them pretty much trash the house, knowing of course that it only meant misery for me in the future, but cleaning is (marginally) easier than policing them, so I just pretended I didn't notice.

Then around 3 pm, I said, "Look.  This place is messy.  I really don't want to clean this mess.  I'd rather watch Doctor Who.  Here's the deal.  If you clean this up with no help, we'll watch some."

It took them like an hour, because they kept getting distracted, but eventually they really did clean it up, with no help other than my direction.  And we watched a classic episode with the Fourth Doctor, which was great.  (The second it ended they started screaming and it woke the baby from her nap.  Oh well.)

So that is my new cleaning-up hack, and it works well when I'm willing to invest in it.  They have to want it bad enough to do something that they find very challenging, because cleaning is, well, not something they've done much of before.  I figure when they get better at it, it will be less of a big deal.  Maybe.


My other clean-up hack combines with a no-snacking hack.  They ask for food a lot, you see.  And half the time I'm half sure they're just bored.  But just saying "no" leads to lots and lots of whining, and you know, maybe they really are hungry!

But if I say, "I really don't feel like getting up.  Especially since I'm going to have to clean up all those blocks.  When those blocks are cleaned up I'll get you a snack" -- they usually make an effort to start cleaning up.

Then, of course, they get distracted (mind of a goldfish!) and start playing with the toys instead.  So I don't have to get them a snack.

I think I just explained how I use my messy house to avoid feeding my children.  Learn from the master, guys.  Someday you may learn to be as terrifically neglectful as I am.


Citrus is something you're supposed to introduce later, right?  She just found this peel and was really excited about it.  Who could say no to that face?

Answer: not me, apparently


She thinks she can pull herself up now.  She can't, except to a kneel or sometimes a very drunken slouch unto something low.  Then she falls and bumps her head on our hard floor.  Poor baby.  Unfortunately it doesn't stop her. 


She navigates a forest of boy legs effortlessly.  It's as if she were born to it.  For their part, they forget she's there and I'm always diving at them to stop them from stepping on her.  Especially since she's never where you left her anymore!


That face!  Don't you just want to squish her?!

Monday, March 2, 2015

A ... or B?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A? .... or B?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 1, 2015

A gaping hole I can't patch

In philosophy, either an argument works or it doesn't.  If every step logically follows the one before, it's a valid argument; if there is even one mistake, you'd better scrap the whole thing.

But when considering something large and complex -- especially one where there are differing opinions -- having acceptable steps isn't quite enough, it seems to me.  Because of course each viewpoint has worked out a set of steps that works for them.  However, each step might be stronger or weaker, depending on how much certainty one has about it.

Let me give an example.  Say I want to know if global warming is real.  (That's something I don't know, which I'd like to!)  I started out that search trying to find a fatal flaw in the argument of either side, but quickly I realized I'd get nowhere.  The arguments are just too complex for that.  Yes, some arguments of each side were flawed.  But of course one could discard the flawed arguments and find other pathways, because they are attempting to prove their point multiple ways.  What I wound up trying to see, in the end, was which viewpoint seemed to hang together better.  Which needed fewer leaps of logic, was more internally consistent, and required fewer "patch jobs" on its mistakes?  So when one side has a very clear explanation for all the facts which tidily accounts for all the other side's evidence as well as its own, I'm willing to believe that.  (With global warming, I'm still not convinced by anybody, for a variety of reasons.)

So, when considering Catholicism, I tend to alternate between zooming in on one argument or issue and then zooming out to consider the whole thing globally.  And in order to consider Catholicism, I have to consider alternate viewpoints.  In short, I'm asking myself, "Which theory accounts better for all of the available evidence?"

Like with global warming, I'm seeing lots of holes in both.  The holes all have patches (or no reasonable person would believe either) but the patches aren't equally satisfying -- some require believing very unlikely things.  Others are even worse: the same hole has half a dozen patches, and the theory's believers argue strenuously against each other's patches!

For instance, Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead, and atheists believe he didn't.  The Christian belief seems to me (on this one question) to be much simpler and clearer than the atheist one, because it requires believing one simple fact which explains all the evidence.  It explains why this one particular messiah claim outlived all the others, why it spread so fast, why its believers possessed such apparent certainty.  To explain these same facts without believing in the resurrection, you would have to patch together a number of theories, some of which don't seem likely.  So there are those who say that the disciples hallucinated the risen Jesus, that they lied and said they had seen Jesus, that Jesus' body went missing and they assumed he had risen (and wrote stronger evidence into their account than they really saw), that perhaps no one even thought Jesus had risen until decades later, or maybe there was actually no Jesus at all.  It seems to me they are still struggling to find a theory that accounts for it all, because each "patch" has its flaws.

But there is a big hole in the Christian view that's bothered me since I was maybe twelve or thirteen.  It's got no end of patches, but each patch is so flawed I am not really sure how to interpret it.

It's the collection of verses in the bible saying that the second coming was going to come within the lifetimes of Jesus' hearers.  Take this, from Mark 9: "And he said to them, 'Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.'"  Or after talking about his second coming, he says, "Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened" (Mt. 24:32).  Here's a collection of the verses I mean. 

Well, the first step is to put each verse in context, which I did, reading the whole chapter before and after each.  He's definitely talking about the second coming.  In some of them, he starts with the destruction of the Temple -- something that really did happen within one generation -- but says that immediately after, the stars are going to fall from the sky, the elect will be gathered together, and the Son of Man will come on the clouds of heaven.  And then he says that this generation will not pass away until all these things have happened.

I read this as a kid, probably the first time I read through the Gospels, and my response was "what gives?"  Did Jesus lie?  Was he wrong?  If he was God, he couldn't do either.

Certainly the apostles believed that he meant literally one generation.  The epistles are full of expectation.  There's hardly a single book in the New Testament that doesn't say the Lord will be returning soon.  Paul seems to assume that he and his hearers will still be alive then:

"Brothers, we do not want you to be ignorant about those who fall asleep, or to grieve like the rest of men, who have no hope.
  We believe that Jesus died and rose again and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.   According to the Lord's own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of the Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep.   For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever." (1 Thessalonians 4:13-17)

There's lots of stuff like this.  Of course maybe they were wrong, and expected the second coming much sooner than it was going to come.  But we know why they expected it to come soon -- because Jesus said it would!  And one would assume, if they'd misheard him or misunderstood, it would have all been cleared up after the resurrection, when Jesus opened the scriptures to them, or after Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon them.

Some people (called preterists) say that these prophecies have all come true, and we just missed it somehow.  I don't really understand how that would work, though I'm trying to find out.  Mainly their sites are just brimful of proof that if they haven't come true, Jesus is a liar, and therefore they must have.  (This is exactly the sort of thing that isn't helpful!)  But I don't know what sort of reading you would have to force on the verses to make them describe something that did happen, immediately after the destruction of Jerusalem.

Matthew's version says this:
The sun will be darkened,
     and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky,
    and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’
Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth>will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory.And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other."

When did this happen?  How can it have happened without anyone noticing?  Especially since Jesus says, "As lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man."  Not something you could miss.

And then of course there's the number of verses pointing out that the day has not come.  Like this one: "Concerning the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered to him, we ask you, brothers and sisters,not to become easily unsettled or alarmed by the teaching allegedly from us—whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter—asserting that the day of the Lord has already come" (2 Thessalonians 2:1-2).

 So saying that Jesus' gathering of the elect to himself is the Church, or that him being lifted up was the Ascension, or whatever, seems to contradict what St. Paul thought about it.

In fact the "delay" of the second coming was a big problem among the early Church, so far as I can see.  2 Peter addresses it:

"Know this first of all, that in the last days scoffers will come [to] scoff, living according to their own desires  and saying, “Where is the promise of his coming?  From the time when our ancestors fell asleep, everything has remained as it was from the beginning of creation.” They deliberately ignore the fact that the heavens existed of old and earth was formed out of water and through water by the word of God; through these the world that then existed was destroyed, deluged with water.  The present heavens and earth have been reserved by the same word for fire, kept for the day of judgment and of destruction of the godless.

But do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years; and a thousand years like one day. The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard “delay,” but he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar and the elements will be dissolved by fire, and the earth and everything done on it will be found out."  (2 Peter 3:3-10)

True enough, "soon" could mean something different to God than to us.  I don't have a problem with that.  But "before this generation passes away" is something that should mean the same thing to God as to us.

John was the last of the apostles to die, living long past the destruction of Jerusalem.  Apparently a lot of people thought the end would surely happen before he died--enough that John felt the rumor should be addressed:

"Jesus answered, 'If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.' Because of this, the rumor spread among the brothers that this disciple would not die. But Jesus did not say that he would not die; he only said, "If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you?" (John 21:20-23)

And yet surely not long after John died, there was no one left who had heard Jesus' words still alive.  The promise was officially broken -- and I don't know what people made of that.  As far as I can see they just stopped talking about it.

 Another "patch" -- and this is the one I was taught when I first asked the question -- is that the word translated "generation" might also mean "race."  The Jews won't die out before the second coming.  To which I say, fine, that works, if indeed the word (genea) could be translated that way.  But it changes the meaning of all of Jesus' mentions of "this perverse and foolish generation" into a rant against all Jews.  Why isn't this the word the Bible translators choose to use?  And in every New Testament passage I could find in which the word "genea" is clearly one or the other, it's generation, not race.  Like this, in Hebrews 3, quoting the Old Testament (which was written in Hebrew):

"Today, if you hear his voice, 
   do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion,
    during the time of testing in the wilderness,
where your ancestors tested and tried me,
    though for forty years they saw what I did.
That is why I was angry with that generation;
    I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray,
    and they have not known my ways.’
So I declared on oath in my anger,
    ‘They shall never enter my rest.’"

Who was it who never entered the promised land?  All the Jews?  No, just that generation of the Jews.  That's why they wandered for forty years, to allow the wicked generation to die off.  Likewise we get "from generation to generation," "in generations past," or "fourteen generations."  The concordances don't show this word ever used to mean race.

And, of course, this patch doesn't work on some of the verses, like "some standing here will not taste death."  To twist it and say "he meant spiritual death" is a bit of a stretch, I think, but that's pretty much what you have to do if you want this passage to be literally accurate.

C. S. Lewis said it must be because Jesus, in his humanity, didn't actually know when his second coming would be.  After all he does say that only the Father knows, and not the Son.  But if he doesn't know when it will be, why does he tell them when, broadly, it will be?  The passage seems to read that he doesn't know the exact time, but he does know it will be within the lifetime of some of his hearers.

Honestly, the theory that seems likeliest to me is that the evangelists misrecorded this scene.  It was years later, maybe they didn't remember every detail.  But to convince yourself decades afterward that Jesus told you he was coming again with in a generation, if he didn't really say that, involves a level of error that most of us don't expect to see in the Bible.  The writers of the epistles seem to consider it an essential part of the message, repeated over and over.  If that's wrong (the question arises) what else could they have gotten wrong?

That's where I end; I have no further answers to this question.  But I am eager to hear what you think.  Pages upon pages of google results haven't given me any stronger answers than what I've given you, but if you can think of one, or answer my objections to the patches I've mentioned, I'd love to hear.  All I can say is, it's a very weak point in the whole Christian worldview, almost as weak as the explanations atheists use to get around the resurrection.

My prayer

My plan for Lent was to pray every day, and to that end I stuck the Te Deum to the wall to remind me to say it.  Some days that works well.  Other days it just doesn't speak at all to the things I'm thinking.  So on those days I say something like this:

If you're out there, I want to know it.
If you love me, I want to feel it.
If you came to earth, I want to believe that.
If you rose from the dead, I want to have confidence in that.
If you founded the Church, I want to have absolute trust in it.

And sometimes I add something along the lines of,

Please exist.  The world is better with you in it.
Either way I still love you.

I'm not angry at God for all my doubts.  Instead I wonder if this might be just the particular way in which I'm supposed to be glorifying him.  Didn't Thomas' doubt just give God the opportunity to offer more proof?  He still became a saint, after all.
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