Wednesday, July 15, 2015

The problems I have with Catholicism

I've been trying to write this post for awhile.  My original intention was to write a separate post for everything on this list and then link them up, but I think instead I'll publish this first and then write separate posts on any topic that seems to garner some interest.

Please don't take this as a "why I left the Church" post.  I am still attending Mass.  I think it's equally inaccurate to say "I am a Catholic" and "I am not a Catholic" so I try to avoid saying either.  For all the reasons below, I think the idea that the Church is a trustworthy guide to truth is a dubious claim; but on the other hand, I'm way too attached to it to just walk out the door, so here we are.

Trigger warning: if my blog always throws you into a faith crisis, and you don't want to have a faith crisis, don't read this.  On the other hand, if you are already in one, you're probably not going to be able to help yourself.  Just don't blame me if it makes it worse.

1.  The Old Testament.  Just the whole doggone thing.  I was doing really well just reading it symbolically, until I found out that the Church is really pretty clear about what it means by inspiration.  Whatever is intended by the author, that's what the passage primarily means.  You can't say that a bronze age nomad wrote a text from his own point of view, and God made sure to make his own message come across in a symbolic way despite the nomad's ignorance.  No, we are supposed to believe that that nomad said (for instance) "God hardened Pharaoh's heart" but what he really meant was that God permitted Pharaoh's heart to be hardened.  And that really does not appear to be the case.  There are hundreds of problematic passages, each one easily resolved if you assume it's just a person's culture speaking, but impossible or improbable to interpret as what someone would actually say if God had revealed to them exactly what to write.

Are we honestly going to say that God was in total control of every word of the Bible, and it does say you should beat your slaves, but he never bothered to say that slavery was wrong?  I can't do it.  I could write a whole post on problematic Bible verses ... but I think you all know at least some of the ones I mean.  Just open the Bible at random and see if you can get through a single page without running into something that just doesn't seem like what an omniscient, all-loving God would say.  Or go here.

Of course you could believe that God did all the awful things attributed to him and just isn't what we would consider "good."  But then you're going to have to ask if it's good for you to worship somebody like that.

2.  The death penalty.  Oh, don't get me wrong, I agree totally with John Paul II's argument against it.  The problem is that it seems to go completely counter to the Church's prior teaching about it.  I'll throw out this link as an example, but there's lots more out there.  At one time, the death penalty was considered obligatory -- we have to put to death certain offenders.  Now we are told it's better not to.  It seems that if justice demands death for certain criminals, it would be unjust not to do so.  If it's better not to do it, then it never can have been a matter of abstract justice to do it.

3.  Women.  We now believe that women are complementary to men; no one exactly knows what that means, but it has something to do with women being equal but different.  However, that is not at all what the Church believed for the first 19 centuries.  And again, you have to ask -- if God was steering the boat, why couldn't he have revealed that little detail a bit sooner?  Instead, women are painted as unclean, sinful, and inferior in almost everything the theologians came up with.  It seems like God must not care very much about half of humanity if he didn't bother revealing that we are equal for all that time.

And I have tried and tried and tried, and I never did find an argument for the male-only priesthood that didn't, in the end, boil down to sexism.   Generally these arguments are predicated on a strict kind of gender essentialism that modern science just doesn't support.

4.  The Church's teaching about salvation without baptism has mutated past all recognition.  It used to be thoroughly understood that non-Catholics all went to hell.  Now we don't think that anymore.  I agree with the new way, but I can't come up with any valid explanation for the old way -- how it can have been anything other than infallible teaching that we have since abandoned.

Every time the Church pulls one of these, there's some schismatic/heretical group which refuses to accept the new teaching.  I don't understand this -- it seems to me that if you are part of a church that banks on never changing its teachings, and you believe it just did, that would disprove the whole thing and you might as well give up the idea that tradition is in any way meaningful.  But instead they believe that Jesus protected the Church from error up to (insert date) and then stopped.  That's absurd.  If God was speaking through the Church then, he must be now; since the two are contradictory, it follows that neither one can be from God.

5. Infallibility.  The Church makes a big, disprovable claim -- that anything defined infallibly will never change -- and it claims that sure enough, it never has.  But if you go through history, you can find lots of things that the Church was very sure about at the time (like "no salvation outside the Church" above) and later decided that it wasn't defined infallibly the first time, or that they didn't really mean it the way it sounds.  For the Church's claim of infallibility to be meaningful, we should know what is and isn't infallible.  Instead, there's a wide variety of opinion about what is or isn't.  If people assumed "pagans go to hell" was a sure thing for thousands of years, and now we think it's not, what else do we believe now that our descendants will abandon?  I have gotten into quite involved discussions with people about "is X teaching infallible" and the short answer is, nobody knows.

6. Hell, purgatory, and indulgences.  I have written before that I think it's incompatible with God's goodness for hell to be a place of God's direct punishment.  The more progressive view is that it's just a place of privation, where people who don't want to be with God go to be without him.  In that case, purgatory is where you go to prepare yourself to be with God.  The souls in purgatory aren't ready for God, and it just takes time for them to work through the things keeping them from him.  But if that is true, what in the world does an indulgence do?  Indulgences are about paying off a certain penalty.  Makes perfect sense if sin is like an overdraft at the bank, which someone else could pay off for you, but why does God have to treat sin like that?  Is God not free to waive purgatory with or without the indulgence?  And if he can waive it without the indulgence, why bother with purgatory in the first place?

7.  The Church's distinction between natural family planning and artificial birth control seems a little sophistical.  Why focus on individual acts instead of assuming union and procreation are the ends of sex throughout the whole of the marriage?  Most of the arguments I heard growing up against birth control also work against NFP -- stuff like "God will provide for another child" and "who knows, the child you conceive could be the one God plans to use in some special way."  So I always planned not to use NFP either, I was just going to have kids as they came, and that's what we did with the first three kids.  These days, I do understand the difference, and it's working okay for us so far.  But I've been hearing more and more stories from other Catholic couples about how they have been put in very difficult situations by this teaching: marriage taking a beating from excessive amounts of abstinence, very grave reason to avoid pregnancy, but if you sin you go to hell.  What exactly is the right choice then?

I guess I always assumed God just took care of this stuff.  I assumed you'd get good results if you followed God's will.  But from what I've seen in the lives of people I know, God doesn't take care of this stuff.  Sometimes -- even often -- Catholics pay a price for following the Church's teaching and don't get any benefit from it.  How can this teaching be true if it's harmful?

8.  The problem of evil and related paradoxes.  If God can do anything and cares about us, why did he construct a universe with so much suffering in it?  Also, if God wants us to know him, why not reveal himself more obviously?  And if God wanted us to be reconciled to him after original sin, why didn't he just do that instead of waiting centuries and then sending his son to be killed?  These questions have answers, but I've never considered the answers to be very good.  Any limitations put on God as part of the answer seem to cause a paradox: if God can't make us virtuous without suffering, or if he can't forgive sin without sacrifice, or whatever, who made the rule that he couldn't?  These things don't appear logically impossible.

9.  I always thought it was sufficient proof of the Church's divine origin that it triumphed over all the other brands of nuttiness circulating in the first few centuries -- Gnosticism, Monophysitism, Arianism, etc.  But it makes better sense to say that all of those sects had a shot at "winning," but the Catholic Church is the one that actually won, and history is written by the winners.  Writers who disagreed with the winning viewpoint were labeled heretics; many of their writings were destroyed under Constantine.

For instance, we were always taught that the form of the Mass was established by Jesus and used more or less the same (at least in the Eucharistic Prayer) from the Last Supper on.  And yet here are the words the Didache -- written close to the time the Gospels were written down -- includes:

"Now concerning the Eucharist, give thanks this way. First, concerning the cup:
We thank thee, our Father, for the holy vine of David Thy servant, which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever..
And concerning the broken bread:
We thank Thee, our Father, for the life and knowledge which You madest known to us through Jesus Thy Servant; to Thee be the glory for ever. Even as this broken bread was scattered over the hills, and was gathered together and became one, so let Thy Church be gathered together from the ends of the earth into Thy kingdom; for Thine is the glory and the power through Jesus Christ for ever."

 That doesn't seem even recognizable!  No reference at all to any belief in it being Jesus' body.  Did the Christian community not believe it was at that time?

10.  This one's not so much a problem as a lack of a solution: my one really rock-hard reason for belief was that Jesus rose from the dead, and we know he must have because his apostles died rather than deny him.  Right?

Actually there is no good historical evidence that any of them died as martyrs.  The "acts" of their martyrdoms were written centuries later; there is no reason to believe that they weren't just made up to give glory to people's favorite saints.  And if you take away that really solid piece of evidence, the possibility that one or more people were lying about the resurrection seems a lot more credible.  Given that, I can construct a plausible scenario for how Christianity could have gotten going without the resurrection.

There may be more, but those are the biggest ones.  You see it's not one issue but a multitude of issues.  Any one of these can be explained away a bit by saying "but that's the only weak point in an otherwise very strong framework!"  But with that many holes, and no really firm evidence to override them, it just doesn't look like a strong framework anymore.

I post this to invite argument.  If you think any of these points are incorrect, please feel free to try to convince me.  You know the drill: I would like to believe, so I am very willing to entertain your arguments, but I also am unconvinced that I should believe without evidence.


Kori said...

So these are my initial thoughts reading your post.

#3 - Two things - the Church has always revered Holy Men AND Women. What reputable theologians paint women as unclean, sinful and inferior? Can you give some examples and quotes? I'm probably not as well read as you are and I would like to have the context you have. Also, I don't think there needs to be an argument made for male-only priesthood. It is meant to be understood that the Priest is an alter Christus. Another Christ. Who was male. And had male parts. In persona Christi.

#4 and #5 - Extra ecclesiam nulla salus hasn't changed. There is no salvation outside the Church. Period. What has changed is the explanation of what that means. I concede that the passage in the CCC is wishy-washy, but the CCC isn't in and of itself an infallible document. It is a summery of infallible doctrines. And just because gravity exists doesn't mean I can always summarize it in a way that is easily understood - even scientists who have intimate knowledge of gravity don't always explain it in the same way. So is there disparity in the reality of gravity? No - just a different way to look at it.

Belfry Bat said...

So, having listed what this post is not... what is this post? Or rather, what is its purpose? Why are you ... well, reiterating yourself so?

Sheila said...

BB, I did say at the bottom, it's for the sake of discussion. With all these issues in place, people are free to shoot down whatever I'm wrong about.

Kori, here are some quotes:

St. John Chrysostom: "Among all savage beasts, none is found so harmful as woman."

St. Augustine: “It is the natural order among people that women serve their husbands and children their parents, because the justice of this lies in (the principle that) the lesser serves the greater . . . This is the natural justice that the weaker brain serve the stronger. This therefore is the evident justice in the relationships between slaves and their masters, that they who excel in reason, excel in power.”

Also this from Augustine: "Woman was merely man's helpmate, a function which pertains to her alone. She is not the image of God but as far as man is concerned, he is by himself the image of God."

Tertullian: "In pain shall you bring forth children, woman, and you shall turn to your husband and he shall rule over you. And do you not know that you are Eve? God’s sentence hangs still over all your sex and His punishment weighs down upon you. You are the devil’s gateway; you are she who first violated the forbidden tree and broke the law of God. It was you who coaxed your way around him whom the devil had not the force to attack. With what ease you shattered that image of God: Man! Because of the death you merited, even the Son of God had to die... Woman, you are the gate to hell."

Albert the Great: "Woman is a misbegotten man and has a faulty and defective nature in comparison to his. Therefore she is unsure in herself. What she cannot get, she seeks to obtain through lying and diabolical deceptions. And so, to put it briefly, one must be on one's guard with every woman, as if she were a poisonous snake and the horned devil. ... Thus in evil and perverse doings woman is cleverer, that is, slyer, than man. Her feelings drive woman toward every evil, just as reason impels man toward all good."

There's lots more, I'm always bumping into it when I'm reading medieval saints. I don't blame them for being products of their time; however, it seems to me God could easily have inspired them differently if he chose to. He didn't, which suggests he didn't really care that women could not own property, were considered the property of their husbands, couldn't testify in court, etc.

Regarding the priesthood, I agree that no further argument is needed, but even that argument presumes that the most important aspect of a person is their gender. Jesus was Jewish, 33, a carpenter, etc., but none of that actually matters. Having male parts matters -- even though a priest does not use them for anything. This was no puzzle at all to the early Church -- it seemed obvious that no one would want inferior women elevated to the priesthood -- but it is a puzzle to us, because we know now that women aren't actually inferior.

Sheila said...

Here is what the Church understood in past centuries about "no salvation outside the Church":

“There is but one universal Church of the faithful, outside which no one at all is saved.” (Pope Innocent III, Fourth Lateran Council, 1215.)

“We declare, say, define, and pronounce that it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.” (Pope Boniface VIII, the Bull Unam Sanctam, 1302.)

“The most Holy Roman Church firmly believes, professes and preaches that none of those existing outside the Catholic Church, not only pagans, but also Jews and heretics and schismatics, can have a share in life eternal; but that they will go into the eternal fire which was prepared for the devil and his angels, unless before death they are joined with Her; and that so important is the unity of this ecclesiastical body that only those remaining within this unity can profit by the sacraments of the Church unto salvation, and they alone can receive an eternal recompense for their fasts, their almsgivings, their other works of Christian piety and the duties of a Christian soldier. No one, let his almsgiving be as great as it may, no one, even if he pour out his blood for the Name of Christ, can be saved, unless he remain within the bosom and the unity of the Catholic Church.” (Pope Eugene IV, the Bull Cantate Domino, 1441.)

In the past couple of centuries popes started to make an exception for people who were ignorant, and that's how Vatican II put it: "Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience."

I understand the idea that it's a development of doctrine rather than a complete shift, but it sure looks like a complete shift. Certainly the faithful throughout the ages did not think there was an exception for ignorance. Their intense missionary zeal came from the idea that if they didn't get the news to pagans, they would all go to hell through no fault of their own.

Belfry Bat said...

I see; OK. Well. Still, it is rather broad-spectrum, and, I reiterate, reiterative.


Having known a broad spectrum of priest characters... it seems to me that whatever it is makes ordinatio sacerdotalis appear sexist indicates a misunderstanding of what the priesthood is, and what the particular honours adhering to priestly office are for. Most emphatically, a priest isn't due honour for the sake of his personal qualities (though we ordinarily prefer that the men we make priests were honourable characters to begin with), and a priest who lets himself enjoy such honours as if they are his is becoming distracted from his vocation.

The priesthood isn't a career opportunity, or civic office, but an extreme sacrifice of self; a priest preaching isn't supposed to be voicing his own opinions, but trying to understand and make understood the mind of the Church; and a priest offering the Mass or absolving sins, or a bishop conferring orders, isn't doing so for his own worldly benefit, or by his own merits either.

And on the other side of things, a man (or woman) who isn't a priest isn't lacking any thing due him, and especially isn't lacking anything needful for his salvation.

Sheila said...

I think you're missing my point, BB. My point is not that women are being treated unjustly by not being ordained*, but that any argument for WHY only men are ordained presupposes that there is some massive, obvious difference -- whether in how they can be the image of Christ or how they can perform priestly duties. It's pretty sexist to say, for instance, "women can't be priests because they'd never be able to keep the seal of the confessional," but it's VERY sexist to say "women can't be priests because you need male parts to be like Jesus." Do you see that?

Now it's *totally fine,* in my opinion, to just say (as the Church has said) "we don't know WHY Jesus picked only men, we just know that he did, and we can't change that." But that just raises the question, why did Jesus pick only men? What was he trying to say by that? That women aren't welcome to imitate him?

[*While it IS a separate question as to whether the male-only priesthood oppresses women, it's kind of a good one. Priesthood should be about service, but it also involves some decision-making. I've known priests who withheld the sacraments from people for trivial reasons, and while that's wrong and they're not supposed to do that .... a woman who can't get the sacraments is in just as much of a bind whether or not the priest is justified. I hear that we need to realize that the priesthood isn't about rule .... but should we then have women electing the pope? No way. Should women head up Vatican congregations? The pope has said no to that. And while there's much talk of a new "theology of women," every time an actual woman tries to write one, the bishops condemn it without even reading it. So .... what exactly are women in the Church to do? If we feel we are not being served in some way, what recourse do we have? None. Servant leadership is a wonderful idea, but when it includes no recourse for the people who aren't leaders, there is no way to keep it from turning tyrannical.]

kori said...

I'm on vacation, so my time and internet are limited, but I will read through the quotes you posted more carefully later. I have to say that one of them - Tertulian - I agree with. By woman was sin brought into the world and well, what he said. And then in the argument about why sex matters, if it doesn't then do you support transgenerism? If it doesn't matter what parts we have then we should be able to switch them at will, no?

Kapellmeister said...

I'm no longer sure about the wisdom of giving things full flesh on Internet comments, so here's some indications of where I would begin discussions of these points:

1) There's an old discourse on the hardening of Pharao's heart that has at various times been attributed to St. Jerome and to Pelagius (fun, right?); it makes an interesting exegetical point, namely, that more opaque passages of Scripture must be interpreted or understood in light of clearer passages. So, when God says, for instance, that He wills all men to be saved, this must immediately rule out possible interpretations of St. Paul that teach double predestination.

The read of the Old Testament for Christians has always been governed by this principle, esp. the old maxim, "quod in vetere latet, in novo patet." It's no shame to say that the New Testament is a much clearer revelation.

Also, I heard a rather brilliant fellow, just a regular guy from a local parish, give a talk on this recently, in which he argued that the strongest case for historical Christianity is actually to be made from the post-New-Testament fulfillment of Jewish Messianic prophecy by the Christian Church. After that, I felt like a twit for not spending more time in the Old Testament.

2) It is impossible to hold consistently that the death penalty is intrinsically unjust from a Catholic point of view. Hence, even in John Paul II's teaching, its application at times is even contemplated, which would never be the case with outright murder. Pope Francis' recent statements are troubling to the extent that they appear to suggest that the Holy Father does not personally admit the permissibility of capital punishment; for a real contradiction, he'd have to do something magisterial about it.

3) I've always wondered why people have a problem with a male-only priesthood, but seem to have no difficulty with the fact that God chose to become incarnate as a man, while affording the female sex no commensurate dignity.

Also, for most of human history (and I think our time is no real exception), I think choosing one gender for orders (and here it might be a right-side-of-the-road, left-side-of-the-road choice) helps ensure a sense of sexually-disinterested fraternity among clerics. Perhaps that's a pessimistic view of human nature, especially in this world of integrated workplaces, but I think the depth of friendship between clerics as it is intended to be is supposed to go far beyond a working relationship.

Kapellmeister said...

4) From St. Ambrose of Milan, culled shamelessly from the Internet:

"But I hear you lamenting because he [the Emperor Valentinian] had not received the sacraments of baptism. Tell me, what else could we have, except the will to it, the asking for it? He too had just now this desire, and after he came into Italy it was begun, and a short time ago he signified that he wished to be baptized by me. Did he, then, not have the grace which he desired? Did he not have what he eagerly sought? Certainly, because he sought it, he received it. What else does it mean: ‘Whatever just man shall be overtaken by death, his soul shall be at rest [Wis. 4:7]’?" (Sympathy at the Death of Valentinian [A.D. 392])."

I guess the only question is how implicit can that desire be? And that depends on the culpability of the ignorance of God's command to be baptized, I guess.

God is perfectly capable of working without us, but on the ordinary course of things prefers using human instrumentality to convey grace, to the point that He will not act immediately wherever it is possible for him to act through human mediation. Which I find fascinating.

5) I really think this is quite hard to discuss so abstractly, so I'm not going to try right now.

6) All evil is privation. Privation of God is the worst evil that can befall a man. Why does fire make that worse?

7) Have you read any of this on the topic?

8) On the Catholic view, God does not ask us to bear any suffering He would not bear Himself. That's enough for me, even if I don't always fully understand why. For me, Christ is the answer to the problem of evil and suffering, and the model par excellence of how God wishes our suffering to have a redemptive quality, to be a school of love for the will against selfishness, and an opportunity to love one another.

9) I wouldn't dismiss the Didache's Eucharistic prayers so offhandedly. A lot has been written about emphases in the Eucharistic ecclesiology of the early Church in recent decades, and the Didache's prayer over the Bread brings it out beautifully, namely, that the broken bread in many parts is One Bread, and by consuming this One Bread, the Church is made into One Bread. The Eucharist is the Sacrament of the Body of Christ not only because it literally is what Christ said it was, but also because it is the Sacrament that makes the Church into One Body. With respect to how full a record of the words the Didache actually preserves, there is always the disciplina arcani to consider.

As an aside, what's with the schizo modernization of some but not all second-person pronouns and the retention of archaic verb forms?

10) I would love to forward you the notes from that talk I heard on the Old Testament and the post-apostolic fulfillment of Jewish Messianic expectations by the Catholic Church. A very interesting apologetic angle that doesn't require belief in the testimony of very interested parties, authentic as the NT texts may well be.

Sheila said...

Yes, your answers are the standard ones I've heard before. I don't think in most cases they address the heart of my question. For instance, in the Old Testament, we have to assume that God was capable of revealing himself to the people of Israel to some extent, and yet was incapable for some reason of revealing some useful moral standards like monogamy or respect for innocent life. He was okay with the Israelites being *gravely* morally wrong for thousands of years. And sometimes the New Testament fails to make the OT clear, or it directly contradicts when both seem pretty clear. I had an argument about predestination with a fellow Catholic which seemed to make clear that even in the New Testament, predestination reaches unsolvable contradictions. There are passages that seem to very clearly mandate both viewpoints .... I ought to look them up now but I don't have the time. I will later if you want to continue this in that direction.

With #6 you seem to have missed my point entirely; namely, that if God can unilaterally excuse someone from purgatory because someone else got an indulgence for them, what kind of jerk is he not to do that for everyone?

With the problem of evil, your answer is one I've heard and I think it's the best available, but it doesn't actually answer the question. If, as a kid, I asked my dad "why won't you give me dinner?" and he responded "I'm not having any dinner tonight either" that would have been sweet and helpful, but it wouldn't answer the question. In fact there IS no good answer ... if God is all-powerful, he MUST be able to reduce our suffering. Perhaps there would be some things he couldn't take away (suffering caused by others' cruelty, the dissatisfaction a spiritual being is bound to feel in a material world) but it would be simple enough with a quick little miracle to get rid of natural disasters, diseases, that sort of thing. Or he could just do it every time we asked. The fact that he doesn't leads to the inescapable conclusion that our suffering is not really very important to him. That doesn't remove the possibility that he might love us in some sense, but not in the sense that any decent human does.

For #10, I think you're driving at the idea that the Gospels include fulfilments of NT prophecies. True enough, but that absolutely relies on trusting the word of the evangelists! Otherwise, what could be more natural than that some Jews, wanting to praise a teacher they liked, would mine their favorite prophetic scriptures and say their teacher had done all the stuff in there? Why would I believe that Jesus was born in Bethlehem under a special star unless I trusted the Gospels' veracity in the first place? (And if I did, the resurrection would absolutely be proof enough.)

Sheila said...

Kori, if you don't think what Tertullian said is sexist, then I don't know what I can even say to you. Adam and Eve BOTH ate the apple. Why assume that some of us inherit (in a sense) more original sin than others? Every man now living is a son of Eve as well as of Adam.

And as far as transgenderism goes, I don't actually care what people do in that regard. But it seems to me that if gender IS the most important thing about a person, then a person who feels him or herself to be "in the wrong body" would HAVE to change their body. After all, it's the most important thing about them. If gender consists in a bunch of spiritual realities as well as physical realities, then it follows there can be a mismatch. It's a person who thinks that gender is no big deal, that it's nothing other than a physical reality that has no bearing on one's mind and soul, who's most likely to say that the feeling of a transgender person of "being in the wrong body" is an illusion.

Kapellmeister said...


Thanks for the response. As to the Old Testament stuff & predestination, it's hard to discuss that kind of word-count without the specific points you have in mind; I'll let you decide whether that's a conversation worth having. Obviously the fact that particular Catholics you're having a discussion with do not have an answer does not mean that Catholicism does not.

As to #6, I intentionally only addressed your initial point excluding Hell as a place of direct punishment. I think your point about Purgatory only makes sense in light of that exclusion.

I think the soul of your discussion is in the Problem of Evil, because it is precisely to a world of suffering and apparent meaninglessness that the kerygma of the Gospel is addressed.

The argument you make is something like Epicurus':

1) God is almighty and all-loving.
[1a) By "loving" is understood a willingness to do whatever is in one's power to ensure the flourishing of the beloved.]
2) It is contrary to human flourishing to suffer.
3) God does not prevent suffering.
4) Ergo, God is either not all-loving, since if almighty he could prevent human suffering, or God is not almighty, since, if all-loving, he is clearly not capable of putting a stop to human suffering.

But God's preferred mode of self-revelation was not the Collected Works of Aristotle, nor even the texts of Scripture, but the living, breathing, suffering-with-us person of Christ Jesus and His invitation to faith.

The better analogy for God in Christ is that of the father who drinks the vile-tasting medicine in order to coax his sick child to take it willingly. To believe in the Gospel is to believe that (2) is not true, and to accept all suffering as medicinal.

As for the divine attributes, we would believe that God permits what He permits not in spite of His omnibenevolence, but rather because of it. He permits suffering because it is the best way for the most humans possible to flourish in an ultimate sense. Do we necessarily understand why or how? No. But what was the Lord's answer to Job? It was the question: Are you all-knowing? And the answer to that is of course, no.

I have always been particularly touched by the interview with the blind monk in "Into Great Silence," where he says,

"We must always begin from this principle, that God is boundlessly good, and that whatever He permits to happen, He permits for the best of our souls. When a man realizes this, the nearer he comes to God, and the happier he is.

"I thank God often that he allowed me to go blind. I am certain that he did this for the health of my soul."

For my part, I believe that God who wills the salvation of all, contingent on our free will, and who knows all futuribles, has chosen to make the Universe work the way it does precisely because it is in this version of the Universe that the most people will be saved.

People mocked Leibniz for believing that this was the best of all possible worlds after the Lisbon earthquake. But then, not dying in earthquakes is hardly the greatest good of human existence, is it?

Kapellmeister said...

My half-remembered translation of the blind monk from German subtitles does not do his witness justice. Here is the original:

Belfry Bat said...

Oh, I see. ... You must admit that that's an easy misunderstanding for me to have made...

No, I think (though it is of course conjecture) the difference is something stranger even than those stereotypes you mention: sacrifice, the shedding of blood for the sake of life, is something built into Woman's nature, both in a way we all know about and are sufficiently polite never to describe (and which may for all we know be an effect of the fall) but more closely even in the power of nursing infants — (there is a thread in Hebrew thought, you see, that doesn't distinguish between blood-the-vital-fluid and any other liquid naturally produced by healthy bodies)

The upshot of which conjecturing is that to impose upon a woman the work of the altar would be a denigration of her maternal nature, of the gift of holy sacrifice already implicit in her; and at the same time, for a Man to actually do the work of the altar properly requires an extra supernatural imprint.

SeekingOmniscience said...

"The better analogy for God in Christ is that of the father who drinks the vile-tasting medicine in order to coax his sick child to take it willingly. To believe in the Gospel is to believe that (2) is not true, and to accept all suffering as medicinal."

Let's examine what Ivan has to say on this.

"A well-educated, cultured gentleman and his wife beat their own child with a birch-rod, a girl of seven. I have an exact account of it. The papa was glad that the birch was covered with twigs. 'It stings more,' said he, and so be began stinging his daughter. I know for a fact there are people who at every blow are worked up to sensuality, to literal sensuality, which increases progressively at every blow they inflict. They beat for a minute, for five minutes, for ten minutes, more often and more savagely. The child screams. At last the child cannot scream, it gasps, 'Daddy daddy!' By some diabolical unseemly chance the case was brought into court. A counsel is engaged. The Russian people have long called a barrister 'a conscience for hire.' The counsel protests in his client's defence. 'It's such a simple thing,' he says, 'an everyday domestic event. A father corrects his child. To our shame be it said, it is brought into court.' The jury, convinced by him, give a favourable verdict."

There's a lot of physical, verbal, and sexual abuse of children in this world. Will you tell me with a straight face, Kapellmeister, that all the physical, verbal, and sexual child abuse that takes place in this world is "medicinal" for those children, and lets them attain some greater virtue that would have been otherwise impossible? In the face of great evidence that seems against what you say, what is the greater evidence that outweighs the counterevidence?

Here's a description of the Ik tribe in Africa: "There is no better or more heartbreaking example of the alienation of the human capacity to love than the story of the Ik tribe of Uganda. Colin Turnbull in his book Mountain People documents how Milton Obote nationalized traditional hunting lands as national park for European tourists, and prevented the Ik from hunting in their traditional hunting grounds. After a couple of generations of starvation conditions, the Ik, originally a cooperative, child loving tribe, became a group of selfish cruel people who don’t trust or help anybody. They would desert children at an early age and one story Turnbull tells is how after abandoning a baby to be eaten by wild animals the animals were hunted and eaten."

Turnbull wrote a large book about social breakdown under these circumstances, how humans basically lost everything but the desire to survive. He dedicated it to the Ik, "whom I learned not to hate." Was the suffering that happened to the Ik was medicinal, and intended to bring the Ik to greater virtue?

I could go on. Sure, some suffering makes people better. But to say that all suffering is--well, if you had really good evidence for the rest of Christianity, maybe one could swallow it. But there are no such arguments with which I'm familiar.

SeekingOmniscience said...

Sorry, Kapell, that was too much in your face. My bad, apologies.

Kapellmeister said...

I'm here to make apology for human suffering. I'd hardly be doing a good job if I got offended by some harsh words.

Catholicism is a religion whose emblem is a perfectly innocent man nailed to a piece of wood, there willingly, sure, but also unwillingly (willing only to suffer because He would not disobey His Father's will, and so remain innocent), who had to rip his sticky, scourged backside off of a splintering log and pull himself up by the nail between his wristbones every time he wants to take a futile breath, knowing that, no matter what he does, he is going to die at last by choking on his own blood.

Then there is the Resurrection, which is the pledge that such suffering will be wrought into something more glorious than ever could have taken place without them, and that all will be set right in the end. Not just for future generations, but for past generations likewise, those that no amount of present activism could hope to help.

Such things are either redemptive, or pointless.

But I think your challenge is quite weak. Christianity is not an anemic, nancy Gospel meant to reassure the soft and secure; it was quite deliberately proclaimed to a world rich in suffering, sickness, and death; a world of lepers, of thieves on crosses, of men suffering from palsy, of families whose children had just died, of women with hemorrhages, being stoned for adultery by their own neighbors, of people being extorted by greedy sellouts to an occupying hostile power, of the lame, the deaf, the dumb, and the blind.

I think many in our generation fail both to proclaim and receive the Gospel not for a glut of suffering (vicarious E-suffering does not count), but from a lack of it and an accompanying sense of urgency and gravity.

Kapellmeister said...

I guess I just don't see how the Problem of Suffering can be articulated without falling to God's reply to Job.

In essence, I hear a bunch of people claiming that if this is supposed to be the Universe that God made, they could have made a better one, pretty much on the basis that they cannot see the redemptive value in x, y, or z horrible suffering.

There was a king of Spain who was supposed to have said, "Had I been present at the Creation, I could have given the Deity some valuable advice." I just don't think anyone can reasonably claim the perspective to do so. God stands outside of time, viewing the totality of our being and weaving its course (while respecting our freedom) amongst the courses of countless other similar beings, in an effort to bring each of them to lasting happiness. That we can't always see how that's what's going on in each particular case is no surprise, really.

One of the easiest ways I've found to reconcile the problem of suffering with an omnibenevolent, provident God is to focus for a moment on what is most important to me: namely, me!

Nearly everyone values his or her existence very highly. But consider: both that you are and what you are are contingent realities that depend (in all likelihood) on the movements and minglings of peoples as a result of starvation, political unrest, and all manner of other suffering and death.

The very being that would pretend to stand in judgment of any maker of this kind of universe depends for its very existence on this kind of universe!

SeekingOmniscience said...

You didn't respond to the instances I gave. Are these instances of medicinal suffering or not? I'd be happy to look at the further arguments you gave, but you haven't defended the first claim you made: To believe in the Gospel is to accept all suffering as medicinal.

Job's response is simply: You're an idiot compared to me, and your arguments are worthless. This is a different response than the medicinal response. Are you switching to saying that "Suffering is mysterious, and God has a good reason for it, although as far as we can tell it isn't always medicinal"? Or are you still maintaining that it is medicinal?

If we had a very good reason for thinking that there was a God and that he had said all suffering was meaningful, then we would also have good reason for thinking that apparently meaningless suffering was meaningful. But even in this case, cases of apparently meaningless suffering are *evidence* against God's existence, although not conclusive evidence. It's like the case of a man whom we judge (on some other evidence) to be very smart, but who acts (as far as we can tell) stupidly. If we have very good evidence that he is smart, we can ignore evidence that makes him appear stupid. But it still counts against our judgment of his intelligence, because if he acted stupidly long enough, we'd eventually decide he is stupid. Saying "he's just so damn smart that we can't evaluate him," doesn't work forever; it has to be backed up by something. Similarly, saying "God has an awesome purpose which sadly we can't see," doesn't work forever--it has to be backed up by evidence.

Belfry Bat said...

S.O., when you say "X doesn't work forever--it has to be backed up by evidence", ... maybe I'm being thick, but I'm not sure who has said "X" quite the way you put it there, and otherwise, it'd be nice to understand what you mean by "forver", "backed up" and "evidence". For the rest --- the "instances" you mention, and your asking whether/how they are medicinal is independent of Km.'s gloss of the Gospel as the proposition or promise that "all suffering is medicinal". We can take principles from either end: trust the Church and the Gospel as She reads it, and conclude that all suffering can be made redemptive, or look at suffering and try to work out what it means backwards. Just because you have chosen to start at one end doesn't make the other approach incoherent. Km. has proposed an answer your "instances", in a universally-quantified proposition. Perhaps you want him to analyze each case separately? Personally, I think the word "medicinal" has some useful and some distracting elements: not all medicines are good for all patients, and not everyone prescribing/dispensing medicines does so responsibly/to the good of the patient. ...

Belfry Bat said...

S.O. and Km., if we are going to put God's answer out of the whirlwind within a conversation about suffering, it would be propitious to mention what God was responding to: Job didn't merely complain "how wretched this is", or say "God, you did a most awful job here", but: Job cursed the day he was born. He didn't complain of particulars, but denied the goodness of creation itself. God's answer isn't, as S.O. puts it "I'm smarter than you", but "Only what is can be good"; it does get phrased very much in "what authority have you to determine the goodness of creation itself", but the point behind the rhetoric is that desire for non-being is self-defeating. Who isn't can't be happy, nor even aspire to happiness.

Kapellmeister said...


I'm saying that there is some suffering whose benefits we can understand in a more obvious way, and other suffering the response to which is faithful trust in the goodness of God, a faith that is invited by the scandal of the Cross.

Our responsibility to alleviate suffering should not be left out of these instances, however, as in the case of Ivan's jurors, or the colonial power over the Ik tribe.

Kapellmeister said...

So I would say that suffering is both mysterious and medicinal. Certainly the two cases you used, although it seems extreme, serve as a remora against human evil, since they show its ugliest consequences.

But the mystery of suffering is not unlike any other mystery of faith: the life of Christ provides a lens through which we are to view it.

When you provide an example of some horrible suffering being right now undergone in the world, I think of how the Cross appeared to someone who knew the innocence of Christ, but not His true identity. It was a gross miscarriage of justice, and an awful, painful, pointless death that apparently cut short a life that was doing tremendous good for others.

Now, such religion could easily devolve into worship of suffering for its own sake, which is why I find it tremendously important to the Christian understanding of suffering that the Gospel is so insistent on our going the extra mile to relieve it wherever we find it.

The argument is supposedly that human suffering, esp. the suffering of the innocent, is necessarily inconsistent with the omnibenevolence of God. My argument is, quite simply, that it is not, in the context of Christian revelation. Other evidence aside, this is not a point of counter-evidence.

SeekingOmniscience said...

"Certainly the two cases you used, although it seems extreme, serve as a remora against human evil, since they show its ugliest consequences."

Well, that's true. But this is also a different point. So you're saying that you think the existence of the suffering of other people is justified if it serves as an example that helps other people not be evil?

"The argument is supposedly that human suffering, esp. the suffering of the innocent, is necessarily inconsistent with the omnibenevolence of God. My argument is, quite simply, that it is not, in the context of Christian revelation. Other evidence aside, this is not a point of counter-evidence."

But there isn't a *way* you're explaining as to why it isn't inconsistent, unless I'm misconstruing you. You're just saying that Christ suffered as well, and it is a mystery we must see through Christ; that Christ's suffering was apparently pointless as well; and that Chris is the lens through which we must see all things. This is great as a call to personal reformation, but I don't see how it reconciles anything.

To say suffering is medicinal (and thus good for the one who suffers); or to say suffering teaches lessons for others (and thus good for them) is a way of trying to reconcile it. I'm able to engage with this as an argument. To say suffering is mysterious, but it isn't contrary to Christian revelation because it is mysterious, isn't something I can engage with. It just seems to be a command not to think about it any more.


What I meant , BB, had to do with claims of superior intelligence and claims that someone of ostensibly superior intelligence is making. When someone makes a claim that seems radically at odds with what I perceive in the world, then they may just know more about the world than me. But my trusting in such a claim is only reasonable if the evidence I have for their intelligence is much greater than the evidence I have that they seem foolish. So if someone shows they are very intelligent through one thing, it might be reasonable to still think they are intelligent after they seem to affirm something foolish. It makes much less sense to keep thinking that after they've done a million things that seem dunce-ish to me.

This is all an analogy, of course, with the claim that God loves us, can do anything, but is pretty much just cool with the world as it is.

Also, I'm wary of reading metaphysical claims re. Job & goodness of being into the Bible. I think Job just meant that he hated his life, not some grand overarching metaphysical thing. Who isn't can't be happy, but who isn't also can't be tortured.

SeekingOmniscience said...

"Just because you have chosen to start at one end doesn't make the other approach incoherent. Km. has proposed an answer your "instances", in a universally-quantified proposition. Perhaps you want him to analyze each case separately?"


Kapellmeister said...


Thanks again for a thoughtful reply.

We can say that quarantine is medicinal, though not beneficial to the patient quarantined, if disease is understood as afflicting or endangering a whole population, rather than just a single person.

Providence is such an interwoven thread, that if I dispense with individual suffering, I dispense with the example that it offers me, the opportunity for doing good that presents me, the possible positive consequences that it could bear, and so on ad ignorantiam.

I realize this especially as I look backwards in time and see on what suffering and adversity the good of my present existence rests.

It is also so interwoven and complex that, unless one were to achieve your stated intention, and actually to gain omniscience, it would be impossible to discover the reason behind any particular instance of suffering within the benevolent plan of God.

What Christ's sufferings are, then, is a revelation in a single case of an individual whose sufferings appeared pointless, but which were revealed not only to have a purpose, but also to be perhaps the single best thing that has ever happened to humanity, although no one could ever have seen it if not for that revelation. The revelation of God's purposes in this particular instance enables, indeed invites us to believe that all inscrutable sufferings are not permitted in spite of, but rather because of, God's all-goodness.

So, when you point out a particular instance of human suffering, I do not always personally have the insight into the very thickly woven fabric of human life, the timeless perspective of God, necessary to tell you just *how* allowing it is consistent with His omnibenevolence and providence. And when I remember that I would not have had the insight to see what good the Cross did, had not God revealed his purpose, I also become aware that, no matter how hard I think about it, I may never be able to come up with an answer.

So it is fundamentally in humility before my own invincible ignorance in this matter that I am bound to reply that, because of Christ's Passion, I possess faith enough to trust that God permits all of these things for a time for a good purpose, a medicinal purpose, whether for the benefit of those suffering or others (but that He does not abandon those suffering), or both, and that injustice will not prevail in the end.

I can also say that the same Christ who gives me this faith urges me to trust in the goodness of the God who permits this suffering, knowing that it is at least part of His purpose in permitting it that I should be able to grow in love of God and neighbor by relieving it wherever I find it.

I think the answer to the question posed by human suffering is neither complete and certain knowledge of all its purposes, nor despair, but faith. "God is all-good, and almighty, and He helps us."

It's not a cop-out for those of us who are, rather than seeking omniscience, content to be human.

Kapellmeister said...

For me, then, the appropriate response to the instances of child abuse you cited is not to rack God and curse this life, but to ask, "How can we stop these from ever happening again?" and to begin to do some good about it.

Suffering is a school of love, but so is relief of suffering, and so is having your suffering relieved by the generosity of others.

Belfry Bat said...

I don't know whether we think that Job wrote the story of Job, and even if he did it was not until some time after, so whatever Job meant when first he cursed his birth needn't be the literal meaning of the scripture, and certainly isn't why it is scripture.

I'm afraid I can't follow your attempt to clarify about "claims of superior intelligence" et.c.; whatever you are saying there still does not connect with the text of Job, and I can't see what else it might be about.

But why should we be wary of finding metaphysics in a book that talks so much about creation?

Sheila said...

Oh dear, walk away from the blog for a day and now there is too much to address individually.

Km, I think you are new here so you might not have seen my previous post on this topic: I should have linked it -- it might shed some light on where I'm coming from.

The answer you seem to be proposing is that the universe is complex and it is optimized for maximum salvation. You can't simultaneously maximize salvation AND minimize suffering, so we have suffering.

There are several problems with this, but I'll start with the personal one. My own sufferings have not been abnormally great, but they've been of such a kind as to cause me to lose my faith. If I never regain faith before I die, I will die in a state of sin, unfit for heaven. Which leads to two possible conclusions:

1. God loves humanity-in-general, but not me specifically. He's a utilitarian as far as salvation goes: salvation for the maximum number. He's okay with sending me to hell so long as two people go to heaven because of it. In that case, he isn't a terrible being or anything, but still, not exactly loving in the sense that I might wish.

2. God knows it's not my fault I've lost my faith, though of course there have been some of my own choices in there, he knows I would have made better choices in better circumstances, so he doesn't hold me responsible. He is able to *make* me fit for heaven despite my earthly circumstances not having made me so. In that case, why this whole fuss with suffering in the first place? If God can just say "in different circumstances she would have been holy, so she gets into heaven" why not just do that for everyone? For every person whose life of earthly happiness distracts them for the need for God, he could let them into heaven already because he knows it's not their fault they didn't find him.

Neither of these two possibilities is a very satisfying answer! And possibly that's why, though I find your answer compelling and once insisted it had to be true, the Catholic Church hasn't ever defined it to be true.

Modern psychology and anthropology are discovering lately that prosocial (or virtuous) behavior is encouraged by resource-rich environments, while scarcity tends to promote aggression. I have experienced this at home, curbing my kids' quarreling by getting them a few more toys and a lot more attention. Their behavior improved upon being reassured that there was enough to go around, they need have no fear of going without. A child raised in such an environment is permanently wired by these early experiences to be generous and empathetic. Children who are neglected and abused, however, will always find virtuous actions difficult. They are more aggressive (because they have always learned it was necessary to be on their guard), have trouble regulating their emotions, and so forth. So, on the whole, it seems to me that if God could have devised a world free from suffering, it would have resulted in more virtuous people.

Now people can overcome their bad upbringing and behave well, or ignore their good upbringing and behave badly. But most don't and God has to know this. Appealing to God's infinite knowledge doesn't help; those infinite things that he knows would not be contradictory to the finite things that I know.

All of this is not a *disproof* of the existence of a loving almighty God. If it were categorically proven that such a God existed, we'd all just have to assume that it must work somehow -- just as we have to assume gravity is real even though we don't know how it works. But given as God's existence is *not* categorically proven, this argument is a powerful piece of counterevidence. If the only way to answer it is to propose "facts" that are not only unseen and unproven, but contradictory with all the things we know so far, it's safe to say it's not strongly refuted.

Sheila said...

Re: Job -- the thing is, the book does give an answer to "why is there suffering?" The answer is that God was trying to win a bet with Satan. Job has no right to complain about this because, after all, he wasn't the one to create the universe.

Now if it's true that God earned the right to use us as objects for amusement or to show off to Satan with, just because he created us in the first place, then he isn't at all the sort of being I would describe as "infinite goodness."

If it's not true, I don't know why we are citing Job here. Either it's a credible description of what God is and does, or it is not, and there's some other rubric we're using for when the message is credible and when it's not. What is that rubric?

Belfry Bat said...

I see where that expression, "a bet with Satan" is coming from, I do get it; but, strictly speaking, if that's the set-up, then God has lost the bet halfway through the book. Or, from a different angle: if it is a bet, then what are the stakes?

Kapellmeister said...


Thanks again for the thoughtful reply.

I used to question all the time why God let me suffer the adverse effects of a couple of poor choices I made a ways back. I thought that I had learned my lesson years ago, and that it was just about time for the whole problem to go away. It brought me to the point of doubting the power of the Sacraments, the grace of God, the power of God, the rightness of the Church's moral teaching, and a whole host of other issues.

It may first interest you to know that it was through considering your questioning on this point that I received the light I needed to, please God, move past these problems.

And then, not a week ago, after having just received communion and having prayed (why I was moved to pray this, I do not know), that God would "let me speak to the person I needed to speak to," I was pulled aside by a person I haven't seen in two or three years, and was never terribly close to, who spontaneously asked me for serious advice on a very personal issue. And it was on account of my years of suffering this affliction, of coming again and again to the point of tears and utter despair, that I possessed at that moment the light to give him the counsel I did. He left the conversation hopeful and very satisfied with the answers I gave, and when I took the counsel I had given to confession, my confessor was satisfied with the responses and did not suggest I modify them.

You find yourself at this moment without faith on account of your sufferings. But consider the light you would possess and could be for others, if you came through your sufferings back to faith. And neither you, nor I, know quite why you suffer as you do, nor how your suffering is going to end, nor what light you may receive out of the clear blue heaven at any time. All you can see is how it is at the moment, but God sees the totality of your life.

My basic point in this whole matter is that, in the light of faith, we have reason enough to rejoice in our sufferings. But outside of faith, we do not have even enough evidence to make this kind of conjecture at all.

It does not provide a challenge to belief in itself, precisely because we can clearly see that, if God is as Catholicism teaches that He is, and is to be believed in, the very problem of evil disappears completely.

Kapellmeister said...

I think the studies of prosocial behavior merit a separate reply. I think nonetheless you know where it is going.

1) I am not comfortable to reducing the spiritual goods that God is seeking to mere external exhibition of prosocial behavior.

2) What ends tragically or incomplete on the visible stage may have been brought to perfection on the invisible stage. God's infinite knowledge absolutely may contradict our finite knowledge, since we attempt to reduce invisible realities to observable, testable phenomena, such as prosocial behavior.

3) Reversals. Many people who never cross the line into antisocial behavior are never made perfect, and never have an experience of their own faults and failures sufficient to make them desire perfection. But history is witness of many people who have turned around completely, precisely because they were permitted to go so far into antisocial behavior.

It's cradle vs. convert syndrome. You can be raised into a thoughtless life of pious humdrum that you never abandon, or you can be shaken to your core by a conviction of religious truth and cling to your newfound faith as a priceless treasure.

Once again, perhaps these points lack flesh, but they are indications of why I am initially unwilling to concede the point that single-heartedness is forged in the land flowing with milk and honey, even if pro-social behavior is.

Sheila said...

Well, Km, I definitely would like to be somehow led back into belief. I am not sure it's possible, but I'm not shutting the door on that. At the same time, you can see why I can't very well take the future as evidence!

Your other answer confuses me. You seem to be saying that a kind, generous, loving person isn't what God wants. Why in the world would he *not* want that? Why does he have such a preference for something different, something that requires suffering to get? It's almost as if we're saying, God doesn't want you to be happy, because if you were, you wouldn't want him. If I had a boyfriend with that attitude .... I think I'd dump him, you know?

Also: do angels suffer? If not, how can they be what God wants?

Kapellmeister said...


I'm certainly not asking you to use the future as evidence, merely to see that our mutual ignorance of the future prevents your use of present sufferings and their immediate effects as the sort of counter-evidence that renders the system incoherent.

I think the pro-social behavior criterion is focused too externally. As with cancer, spiritual disease like pride can hide undetected, slowly rotting away an apparently healthy exterior. Pride, complacency, illusions of self-sufficiency, are all afflictions of those who suffer little. They are also invisible to empirical testing and central to the Catholic understanding of moral integrity. Perhaps by cutting away apparently healthy tissue, God is removing an underlying rot.

Once again, we can't know, and that's just why this argument is no argument at all, unless you are willing to presume that you could have created a better Universe than this, with respect to these invisible realities, and on the basis of your own very limited experience living within it, categorically incapable of conceiving of any other Universe.

As to angels, the ones in Hell apparently suffer. The ones not in Hell stand in no need of medicinal treatment from God.

Sheila said...

"Once again, we can't know, and that's just why this argument is no argument at all, unless you are willing to presume that you could have created a better Universe than this, with respect to these invisible realities, and on the basis of your own very limited experience living within it, categorically incapable of conceiving of any other Universe."

Isn't this just an argument that the universe is completely incomprehensible to humans?

I can, very easily, conceive of better possible universes than this one. God could have prevented original sin from affecting Adam and Eve's children. He could have kept the snake from getting into the garden. He could have made his existence more obvious so uncertainty about it wasn't an issue for anyone. He could have made our bodies such that we could experience small amounts of pain (because that's useful for avoiding danger) but not excruciating anguish. There's so much he could have done! I might not have an infinite mind, but I don't think I need to to be able to say it would have been better!

Now you will say, "But it wouldn't really work, having the conditions you suggest and still getting as good results as God wants." Is he all-powerful or not? Surely he can find a way to rid people of pride without torturing them! If he can't do that, why not? Who invented the rule that this couldn't be done? It's not self-contradictory -- I can easily conceive of it -- so why can't he just say the word and make it so? Gosh, if I could teach my kids virtue without having to ever do anything unpleasant to them, I absolutely would! Why won't he?

Belfry Bat said...

I think I'm about to suggest that Leibniz's optimum optimism is overstated, or misguided, or distracting.

Some short observations:

Every creature, being not God, must differ from God in some respect. It might be in knowledge, it might be in power, it might be in will; in fact, any creature will differ from God in all of these ways. (Differing in will need not mean the creature wills anything that is wrong; it is sufficient that the creature's will be less specific than God's w.r.t. the whole of creation)

As a corollary, between any creature and God, an intermediate "closer-to-God" creature could consistently be imagined. And so there are consistent orders-of-creation that would, hypothetically, be better-off than ours is now. Heck, the same order with a different history could be better-off than ours is now!

But since the same will be true of any created order, that fact alone is not sufficient to refrain from creating according to a particular order.

- - -

But here is a closer question, since as you assert, your own sufferings are more spiritual than physical: why would it be good to limit the potential for spiritual anguish? More to the point, how would that be done? I mean, the usual word for someone who can feel only limited moral revolt whether over the sufferings of others or knowledge of sin in himself is "psychopath". And I know you don't want a world full of psychopaths.

SeekingOmniscience said...

Imagine, KM, that I wrote a computer program for you.

You try booting it up, and it takes 15 minutes. You try working with it, and find the UI counterintuitive and odd. You lose things you were attempting to save several times. You find it doesn't work with the familiar file formats. It doesn't obey what seem to be the tenets of good UI design.

However--you've heard that I'm a brilliant programmer, who writes wonderful programs that work as well as programs could possibly work.

At this point, you have two possible courses to take:
1) Decide that maybe the program is actually wonderful, and you're just not seeing how wonderful it is.
2) Decide that what you've heard about me is wrong.

The case is similar to the case of the world. We try working in the world, and find that child abuse is not (weirdly enough!) something that seems to promote virtue. It seems a net sink in the world. So is the kind of famine experience by the Ik. So are all sorts of other things. It appears to us yet more viscerally than bad program design does to a computer-user.

So you can decide:
1) The world is actually wonderful in all respects, and no one ever suffers pain that isn't useful to them.
2) The world wasn't designed.

Of course, if you have *no problem* saying that soldiers who suffer PTSD and kill themselves *actually* just missed wonderful chances to grow in virtue; that children who were abused could have come up like virtuous saints if only they hadn't ignored the grace God was giving them; and so on and so forth, because all of these are chances for virtue woven too thickly for our eyes to see, then you can say, as you repeatedly say, that this is "no argument at all."

But if you take that extreme epistemological attitude of humility, you'll always remain in the belief you were. If you were a Muslim who found apparent contradictions in the nature of God--you could think you just not grok the divine sufficiently. If you were a Mormon who thought the Mormon cosmology appeared metaphysically nonsensical--you could say the same thing: "I just am not in a sufficiently exalted position to criticize this teaching." This kind of humility isn't an attitude calculated to ever change your mind if you are wrong; it's an attitude that leads you to follow whatever system you grew up in. Maybe you're ok with that. But in practice it means that, because one cannot question the Infinite, one must always follow whatever teachings ostensibly come from the Infinite.

I admit I'm not perfectly knowledgeable (yet), of course. But I do know that I'm not willing to accept any standard of judgement that isn't a standard of judgment--a standard that would lead me to conclude that true positions are true and false positions are false. The kind of attitude of attitude you object detaches the standard of judgement from truth.

..BB, does the computer analogy help with what I'm getting at?

Belfry Bat said...

Re the computer analogy: the halting problem is well worth considering, as I've mentioned before.

Sheila said...

BB, I don't think this has to be the best of all possible worlds either. But if it is possible that God could have created a better world that didn't involve earthquakes, or atom bombs, or cancer, or child abuse, and he chose not to, what does that say about the kind of person God is? Why does he have such a preference for suffering? And given that it seems pretty clear from scripture that some people are damned, why did God still select this reality over a possible reality in which no people were damned?

I don't actually want to be made incapable of spiritual angst. I just think it would have been incredibly simple for God to give Fr. Maciel a heart attack at 20 before he raped all those boys, swindled all those philanthropists, and driven so many people away from the Church? Then when some other 20-year-old dies suddenly, we say "it must have been God's will, it must have been for the best." What benefit to that death can possibly equal the benefit that would have come from killing Maciel? I might not know all ends, but that one seems pretty obvious.

If God could make a better world without the flaws of this one, then he is personally responsible for every child that is abused, every person who is raped, everyone who dies of starvation or disease. If any other person who claimed to love me periodically hurt me (while claiming they'd make it up to me later), I wouldn't hang around them another minute.

How can we justify worshiping God if he does such bad things? What makes it okay for him to do them, if you assume he could get even better results without them?

Belfry Bat said...

So, you want a world in which no-one lives long enough to seriously harm anyone else?

Belfry Bat said...

But, ... in case I've been unclear, "If God could make a better world without the flaws of this one, then he is personally responsible for [all the evils his creatures choose]"...

W.r.t the heavy, what I've been trying to explain is that the particular flaws of this world are not relevant: any world in which different people can think and act freely and choose independently is a world in which people can become enemies.

W.r.t the [bracketed]: what are Maciel and his army of accomplices resposible for, then? Or, if anyone does a good thing, should we thank them? If in actual fact God is personally responsible for the good thing, too, perhaps it's better to say a silent prayer of thanks and leave the "good" person alone.

Kapellmeister said...

A lot of meaty replies!


But why can't you teach your children virtue without unpleasantness? Does that perhaps follow from the kind of creature humans are, or have become?

And if so, then wouldn't a better universe in the respects you've mentioned threaten either our existence as the kind of thing we are, or of the possibility of our nature achieving its end?


That's the Catholic Encyclopedia argument; I certainly agree that there is a metaphysical truth in the argument; every universe, not being God, will fall infinitely short of Him, and consequently stand in potency towards apparently infinite "improvement." Which is why I prefer to think that God has some certain optimum in mind in the creation of one particular universe over another; no universe that is not God Himself could be optimal in every respect.


I feel as if I've been stuffed with straw.

A computer program has a single or a few clearly-defined ends, against which I can judge its success or failure. What is the purpose of man, however? Or the Universe? And think of how the answers to those questions actually change in light of the claims of Christian revelation.

A better analogy would be Penderecki's Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. Just to hear the piece, without knowing what it was, would be a disturbing experience for someone not a musical savant, and could be taken as an artistic failure quite easily. It is not beautiful in the ordinary sense of that word, extremely jarring and harsh, and leaves one deeply unsatisfied. But simply knowing the title of the piece sheds sufficient light to allow even a musical illiterate to appreciate it at a certain level.

Which takes us to the second straw-man: My argument has never been, and will never be, that all matters of religion require epistemological humility. But this one does. Our response to the problem of suffering, unless we are satisfied with a merely visceral reaction to suffering itself, is a religious conclusion, not a religious premise. It will be determined by our acceptance or rejection of a particular understanding of the nature of the Universe and its Creator on the basis of points that are actually arguable.

Sheila said...

BB, if I saw someone pointing a gun at you, and failed to intervene, and the person shot you ... he would be responsible for shooting you, because he shot you. But I would also be responsible, because I could have prevented it and didn't. There isn't a limited amount of responsibility to go around for each crime. Like my mom used to say, "Who left the milk out on the counter? EVERYONE, because you all walked by and saw it and didn't put it away!"

Km, I think I could actually train my children with no unpleasantness at all if I had infinite time, knowledge, and energy. Very often I'm able to do a fabulous job teaching them something with no tears. But because I'm limited, sometimes they're cranky because I didn't get them to bed on time last night (my fault) or I have to send them to their room instead of talking things over because I am busy nursing the baby (my limitation) or I yell at them for making a mistake because I didn't know it was an accident (my ignorance). In almost every case where I'm forced to make things unpleasant for my kids to teach them something, I can imagine a way I could do it better without any suffering, if only I weren't as limited as I am.

It seems with all arguments in favor of Catholicism, we have to assume the truth of Catholicism to make it work. This one more than any: the ONLY answer is an appeal to mystery. True, an otherwise flawless system could potentially have a mystery in it that we would just have to accept. But I don't see that there is sufficient proof to assume that. Given that this is a universe that doesn't at all look like we would expect a universe created by a loving, all-powerful God would look, there should be either a really good demonstration of why that is, or else a really solid proof that it really is that way. The Catholic Church refuses to tell us why it is -- presumably because every possible reason has some big logical flaws, so in the end it has to appeal to mystery.

Instead, even for people with faith, the mystery of evil and suffering is really, really hard to accept and cope with. For people who aren't starting from the assumption of faith, it's impossible.

Belfry Bat said...

I'm not sure I'd really encourage you to interfere with random gun-wielding figures, nor hold you responsible when you didn't interfere — but the reasons aren't commensurate with the question of personal responsibility of God in any given question.

Not that I want to be repetetive, but: the way you seem to want things to work, we'd have people just dying, quite irregularly, and neither for medical reasons nor because of anything that has happened but for reasons of a counterfactual: there would be no Reason in the created order of things. And this is hugely important because human beings can only be responsible for what they do if the world works reasonably. The world you keep asking for is one in which people's actual choices — Maciel's evil choices, your parents' uninformed choices, your own naive choices — have no natural consequences. Anyone who is about to choose evil, in your proposed universe, is prevented from doing so whether by dying early or being detained by an angel.

What God tells us he wanted is: a world in which there is no evil because everyone chooses and loves goodness.

Sheila said...

So you're saying that it is more important for God to let you hurt other people than for him to protect people?

I could understand God letting a murderer murder someone because he knew the victim would go to heaven and the murderer would later repent and go to heaven. But I am sure many souls have been lost over Maciel's abuse and the man himself died cursing God. What exactly does God want then? The salvation of souls? Apparently not! What he wants is a completely independent system that looks exactly as it would look if he weren't there.

I think personal responsibility is great. I can imagine buying a hamster for my kids when they're a little older. I wouldn't remind them to feed their hamster. It's possible that they would forget and the hamster would die. I would allow that because I think the lesson would be worth the life of a hamster.

But I cannot imagine allowing my children to KILL EACH OTHER so that they learn "actions have consequences." I imagine a psychological study, a group of kids playing alone in a room with one wall made of one-way glass. "I can't see the adults running this study," one kid says, "but I know they're there." Well, that's very reasonable. Why wouldn't there be adults? But when a fight breaks out between some of the kids, and one picks up a weapon which was left in the room and kills another, and the adults STILL don't rush in ... I think it would be reasonable to assume one of two possibilities: either there's no one there at all, or the supervisors of the experiment are monsters.

And fine, yes, one can conceive of a God whose intellect is so far above our own that he doesn't particularly care about individual humans, but cares about the perfection of the system he's set up. But I won't call that good. And that also means that I call BS on any person who claims that "this person died for a reason" or "God has a special plan for your life." Because if he actually were planning things, he would do a much better job! If the beautiful structure of an atom is proof of design, the utter chaos of the world we live in is the proof of a lack of it.

Kapellmeister said...


Applying Belfry Bat's point to your parenting analogy:

Would your infinitely knowledgeable, powerful, timeless parent also be the ultimate helicopter mom, and not allow her children to learn from their mistakes and failures? Is the avoidance of all unpleasantness really worth depriving your children of an experiential knowledge of their own limitations, or of the driving fire to succeed that only failure can sometimes set up under a person?

The way you have framed this argument, the burden of proof cannot be on the Catholic Church to tell you why such-and-such a suffering happened to a particular person. How could we know, believing as we do that there are as many causes and purposes to Providence as their are members of this interdependent web we call humanity?

You've attempted to find a way to evidence-based falsifiability of claims of the Catholic Church; proving a negative by proving a contradiction. It is a great approach for what you're trying to do, but the responsibility of making the case is on you: if some particular suffering is supposed to be intrinsically incompatible with an all-good God, that should be demonstrable. And if it is not demonstrable, although your emotional response to the suffering may be very strong, you have to admit that it is no argument at all towards the point you're trying to make.

After all this time, I am unclear:

1) How we can know what a Universe made by an all-good God would or would look like.
1a) The parenting and programming and shooting analogies each fail; parenting because it relies on a presumption about what an all-wise, everlasting, almighty parent [and therefore God] could do, and so begs the question; programming because a program has one or a few knowable goals on which it can be judged, whereas the point of the Universe is not clear; shooting because, within the context of the analogy, being shot represents a kind of lasting harm, whereas physical suffering may not.

2) That a Universe made arbitrarily free of suffering would not rule out either our existing as the kind of creatures we are, or of our attaining our end, at least consequent to the decision of some of us to act in bad faith.
2a) I can see that even my individual existence depends on quite a bit of human suffering, and do not know what other goods, whether of nature or of grace, more valuable than the ones lost by those suffering, might also ride of human suffering.

3) Why the restitution promised by the Resurrection does not remove this problem at least theoretically from the system of Catholic belief, even if there is still an emotional question to be worked out by individuals.
3a) Especially since, arguments from lasting spiritual goods aside, the Resurrection promises a kind of physical restitution as well.

Kapellmeister said...

P.S. - I see you replied to my first point. I wonder, though, if the consequences God allows to happen are not informed by a power to restore what was lost that you lack.

Belfry Bat said...

With regard to your psychological study with the oddly-lit half-mirror: the analogy you want isn't children harming eachother, but children chasing one another out of the study room. after which, there may well be good study-design reasons for not re-introducing the chased-out subjects...
But getting back to how actions, choices, have consequences: I didn't mention learning the fact of it; yes, God wants us to learn it, because learning it is necessary for being good rational animals, but learning it isn't the point of it: the absoluteness of the natural order is part of the substance of responsibility, part of the substance of freedom. Without it, there isn't responsibility, and there isn't freedom.
You assert "I am sure many souls have been lost over Maciel's abuse". I don't know how you can feel sure of this. The only soul you know close enough is your own, and you are yourself so insistent on the subject of goodness that I can't imagine that you are lost. Furthermore, you live still!

Let's say this another way: one of the names of God is "goodness itself". To be damned, one would have to die while an enemy of goodness. So, you claim to feel certain that "many souls have become and died as enemies of goodness over Maciel's abuse" --- does that sound true?

S.O. said...

I don't think that I am strawmanning you.

I mean, given this--

1) God is almighty and all-loving.
[1a) By "loving" is understood a willingness to do whatever is in one's power to ensure the flourishing of the beloved.]
2) It is contrary to human flourishing to suffer.
3) God does not prevent suffering.
4) Ergo, God is either not all-loving, since if almighty he could prevent human suffering, or God is not almighty, since, if all-loving, he is clearly not capable of putting a stop to human suffering.

--we're disagreeing over (2), or over some refinement of (2). I hold (2a) particular kinds of suffering are contrary to human flourishing and we'd be unqualifiedly better off if they were eliminated. You hold (~2a), which to convert, is that no kinds of suffering are contrary to human flourishing, in the context of God's providence.

I'm not actively trying to misrepresent you, and you have not explicitly said ~2a in the form I put it above. But every time we've gone over suffering, you've emphasized that even the most apparently pointless is actually very pointful. So I think you agree with that. No?

Everything since has been an elaboration of this. For instance, re. the computer program--well, I'm not going to say I know what actually constitutes (in all detail) such formal nomenclature such as "flourishing." And so I won't say that I know what the purpose of man is (in all detail) although if I had to give an answer I'd give one like MacIntyre's--to live in a community seeking the truth and helping others. So sure, I don't know *all* that.

But I will say I know what constitutes (in a little detail) some of the kinds of thing which seem to diminish human flourishing; and these I've enumerated before; and these you've said I'm in no position to *actually* conclude they diminish human flourishing. To support this (that one cannot know) you've brought up the suffering emblematic of Christianity, namely that of Christ. If you are Christian, this (apparently totally meaningless) suffering was actually meaningful, which (reasonably enough) means that other apparently meaningless instances of suffering might actually be meaningful.

There's a few ways to deal with that response. One way is by saying that I don't really see the point of Christ's suffering, in this sense--I can't think of why Christ needed to suffer for God to forgive man's sins. Surely God could have done so anyhow? What good is punishing someone who didn't sin for someone who did? Theologians have argued Christ's death wasn't even necessary--no one really knows why it was necessary, if it was necessary. So that opens a can of worms.

S.O. said...

But another way to approach this is to just be honest and say that many instances of human suffering seem worse than Christ's. If Christ died for all men, he died as someone superbly well disciplined, with all the virtues; someone who knew that he would be raised from the dead; and someone who knew his suffering was the central fixture of all humanity. Contrast that with (again) someone like Genie, who was kept in isolation for the first 13 years of her life, beaten by her father when she made any noises, and never acquired language because she didn't have the necessary formative experiences as a child. (She was further abused later in life, when shuffled through a series of foster homes.) She never acquired all those virtues; she had no expectation of anything but further suffering, and of no glorious resurrection; and she had no capability of understanding that such suffering may have had meaning. If you asked me to contrast Christ's experience with that experience--well, Christ's doesn't actually appear to be the ultimate in human suffering.

So appealing to Christ's suffering doesn't really make sense, because (1) I don't see the manner in which it is meaningful, and (2) in any event it doesn't seem to be the ne plus ultra of human suffering.

To return to the point a few paragraphs before, then: You've said all these analogies fail, because we don't know the purpose of life / the universe, like we know the purpose of programs: "the point of the Universe is not clear." To which I'll response--well, I'm not sure about the point of the universe. But I'm pretty sure I don't care about any point of the universe, which doesn't have to do with the experienced flourishing of human beings. So if there is some grand, architectural structure God made the universe to fulfill, which unfortunately crushes individual human beings beneath it because their individual flourishing would be contrary to this great crystal structure, I have a simple response: This means God is evil. For God to construct the universe with that it mind means that God's idea of goodness simply runs contrary to human ideas, because if *I* were to ignore human lives for the sake of some non-human ideal, you'd say I was bad, and you'd be right.

I think this constitutes an answer to (1) and to (3) above. As far as (2) goes--we aren't arguing for a universe arbitrarily free of suffering. We're arguing for a universe different than the one we got, with some suffering constrained. Or, at the very least, we're arguing that it seems really, really weird to argue that a universe constructed by a God who loves us appears in all respects to be just the same as a universe in which we just happened.

Sheila said...

Seems like we've reached the point of the discussion where we start to go in circles: I am pretty sure I've adequately answered all the new objections raised in the past few comments. But I must have been unclear somehow, so I'll try again.

BB, is it not the case that some people do, according to Catholic teaching, go to hell? (I know there are some who believe all men are saved, but the general opinion seems to be that some people do go to hell, and the Bible says it's a lot. So do some private revelations which get a lot of esteem.) In that case we are not faced with a little temporary suffering, but a very real possibility of eternal suffering.

Now you'll say, of course, that people *choose* hell, but would they choose it in different circumstances? Can it be that a person is damned who could have been saved in different circumstances? Of course one might say that God, knowing they could be saved in different circumstances, will let them into heaven anyway -- that he can somehow make all the damage in their souls right with a long enough span in purgatory. But in that case why this whole messy tangle we call human misery, if God can fix our life experiences afterward?

And, in fact, it seems to make perfect sense to me that God could easily create the sort of souls he wants without all this tangle of misery and suffering. He could give us challenges that would shape us without breaking us, freedom to make choices that's constrained just enough to keep us out of danger, opportunities to love one another that rely on creating things for one another rather than easing suffering for each other. Again with the parent analogy: there are parents who claim to respect their child's freedom by not child-proofing their houses, by not holding them back from touching the stove or falling into the fireplace .... but the child is actually LESS free, because they can't explore their environment without getting hurt. Do you think that there should be no government, because it's so important that men should be free that it's okay to let them kill each other? If a good government stops people from hurting one another without taking away their humanity, a good God could do the same. If death is no big deal to God, damnation surely ought to be, and yet we are told some do go to hell. Isn't that proof he failed at his stated goal, that all men should be saved?

And yes, there are some people who seem completely eaten up by anger and bitterness because of what Maciel did to them. Also some who were led into sin by him -- taught to use the structure he set up to hurt and manipulate others. There are other Legionaries who have molested more boys, and it appears they learned this sin from Maciel. Sin doesn't just hurt people -- it deforms people, and it leads others into sin.

Sheila said...

Km, I *know* I said earlier that I don't think the question of suffering is a disproof of God. I don't think proofs are exactly possible in theology, because a true proof has 100% certainty on every step. Am I 100% sure that a hypothetical world with no suffering would be better than the one we've got? No, but it seems highly likely to me that it would be. And you can't say "but if God's true then we know it must be," because that's the thing we're seeking to find out. Both scenarios -- a world that isn't optimized for human flourishing because there is no all-loving creator, and a world which is because there is one -- are theoretically possible. But one is a lot more likely than the other, because the world we live in looks exactly like one would expect for a chaotic, purposeless world, but it does not look exactly like one would expect for an organized world that had someone actually taking care of it.

If we were to look at the world objectively and dispassionately and ask ourselves, "What can we know about the person who created this?" we would reach conclusions about it based on the world itself. Stuff like "God must want there to be conscious creatures, because there are some," and "God must not care if humans suffer, because he makes no effort to prevent it." So if you want to argue something different -- that God does care or that God is loving despite this, or whatever -- you are going to have to overcome the improbability of the scenario. Also the improbability of any answer to the other nine issues in this post, which we haven't spent much time on. What evidence could be adequate?

Belfry Bat said...

It's sometimes said we don't have the specific names of any of the damned, but this isn't sufficiently precise: all the fallen angels are damned, and we have a name for at least one of them. On the other hand, Iscariot was a suicide, but I've never heard of a Definition confirming that he was finally lost.

It is frequently reported in private revelation that "many" human souls are damned as well, but it becomes less specific. Private revelation, on the other hand, is not in the same category as Revelation — and if you ever think you're receiving private revelation yourself, it would be your duty to subject the content of it to careful doctrinal review! "If another, or we ourselves, or an Angel from Heaven should report to you a gospel which contradicts that you have already recived, anathema sit".

Yes, I will say that people choose hell (or else they choose Heaven); yes, poor example is poor example, and scandal is scandal; but only a person can choose his own choices! Maciel and his accomplices have made it easier for some people to choose what they know to be reprehensible; that doesn't alienate the choice from the person choosing.

On the other side of things, of the bitter and vengeful... one can't be categorical, and I don't mean to offer any false hope, but it seems possible that good people who now find they can't be happy with the Church or in the Church don't actually see the Church anymore, so that it doesn't make sense to say they are against the Church, even if someone else might use those words to describe the same thing. It's like a nervous person jumping at shaddows or a car back-firing. (... do cars back-fire, anymore? ...). Since the object of revulsion isn't the real Church or goodness, properly speaking, that's something about the actual which God can sort out, in Time or after it.


You make frequent mention of "what would have happened otherwise", which is alright for a writer trying to tune a narrative for whatever purpose, and it can make a fine plot for Dr. Who, but I don't think it makes for good metaphysics. I'm not sure it is meaningful to discuss what God knows about an uncreated contingency.

Sheila said...

Jesus did say that it would have been better for Judas if he'd never been born. So that's usually taken as evidence that he went to hell, and the tradition's overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that he did. There has been some debate on the question, and I always took the position that hopefully nobody or almost nobody is damned, but I am well aware that the vast majority of Catholics living and dead disagree with me.

I know that a person's choices are his own, but if God actually CARED about us being saved rather than damned, it seems obvious that he would arrange things to maximize each person's chances of being saved. If he wouldn't do that, we have to say that God's goal is NOT actually to save people, but some further goal which explains why he doesn't save everyone who could be willing. Like if I let one of my kids run out into a busy street and be killed, we could no longer say that my number one goal was to keep my kids alive. Sure, it was his choice -- but it was also my choice, because I let it happen.

Here's a question for you: do you think more people would go to heaven if there were no original sin? Because God did let the serpent into the garden, didn't he? And he did allow sin to be transmitted from Adam and Eve to their children, something which seems in no way logically necessary. Are you going to say that we're better off with a weak and sinful nature which is less capable of resisting temptation than the one God created us with? In what way are we better off? Obviously we would have just as much freedom -- presumably more, because we would have more willpower -- because Adam and Eve were in such a state and were still capable of choosing wrongly.

If you don't think this conversation is meaningful, by all means abandon it. I think it was your "side" that argued that, despite the really obvious flaws of the actual world, other potential worlds would be lacking in some respect. If you ditch that argument because we can't meaningfully talk about it, we are left with this: this world has flaws in it from the viewpoint of human flourishing, whether we're talking about salvation or about suffering or any other indicator I can think of. Given that, it seems absurd to say that it was created by a being whose main goal is the flourishing of humans, AND that he is capable of accomplishing all his goals.

Belfry Bat said...

Do let's be clear about where the different uses and mentions of counterfactual have been made, and which is which. You proposed a mechanism for allowing God's justice and mercy to work more closely together, invoking an idea "God knows X would choose better if he hadn't been abused", as well as an idea "God knows that Y would choose some-horrible-evil if he lived longer, so He could bring him to Judgment now before Y finally falls"; those are the counterfactuals that I'm saying don't make sense. Justice (and mercy) properly refer to what is, what has been done. A man who dies young is prevented from later sin, but also prevented from later heroism; if you want God to both foresee the future sin and prevent it, you either ask God to contradict himself, or you ask for all our future actions to be bound by the past: that we really are not free.

But you've also asked why isn't creation structured better for saving people, to which there are the two partial answers: we don't know that it's bad at saving people, and there isn't a systematic way to make a fall-proof world of free moral agents --- and it is in the latter reply that counterfactual histories/natural orders got mentioned: note, though, that no particular counterfactual was considered, but all of them at once.


The questions about original sin, they are indeed very interesting! Part of my difficulty in considering the question is: I don't know what original sin itself actually is; I mean, I know the doctrine of it, and trust the Church's word that it is a fact, but the underlying mechanism — what it indicates about the nature of creation and human generation, I don't know.

In particular, I don't know whether original sin is a positive thing or an incompleteness — analogically, retroviral infections can be heritable, and they are positive things (something added); on the other hand, an incomplete gene transcription is also heritable, and definitely not a positive thing.

However, things we are told: something important about original sin is corrected in baptism, that valid baptism is not at all difficult, and that many of the baptised nonetheless seem to fall.

Really, though, I just don't know. I don't mean to "cop-out".


What's this about "side"s? I'm not trying to win anything.

Sheila said...

Really, you're not trying to win my soul? I was flattered that you were. ;) But what I meant was, Km and you seem to be defending the possibility of a good and omnipotent God, while S.O. and I consider this to be doubtful in this discussion.

No one knows what original sin is; no one knows how baptism works or what the redemption was all about either. This is frustrating to me. But let's talk about what we do know: concupiscence is an effect of original sin, which is not removed through baptism. If you baptize an infant, he is still inclined to sin; he isn't in the state of original grace that Adam and Eve were in. The will is weakened, the intellect is more fallible.

I can't think why God would leave us in such a state. If he can get rid of the sin, why not the concupiscence? Why not remove both the sin and the concupiscence from all of us -- or, if it's a privation, provide what was lacking?

The argument from ignorance is frustrating. True, I can't say the universe isn't optimized for salvation unless I know whether or not any souls lost in the current reality would also be lost in a hypothetical one. However, like I said, scripture does say that few enter by the narrow gate, and many take the wide road to damnation. That sort of thing. Is it really so hard to convince rational beings to choose eternal happiness?

"A man who dies young is prevented from later sin, but also prevented from later heroism; if you want God to both foresee the future sin and prevent it, you either ask God to contradict himself" -- are you suggesting that God himself can't ever know what Might Have Been? I would assume he could! The second part of this sentence ["or you ask for all our future actions to be bound by the past: that we really are not free"] I don't understand at all; perhaps you could rephrase it?

Belfry Bat said...

[ hee! ;v) ] I'm hoping you and God can win your soul together. 'Tis too weighty a matter for me.

There is, you know, the parable of the tritici and the zizania — while the expansion on it given in the Gospel is mostly eschatology, the parable itself hinges on a reminder that sometimes the apparent way to "fix" something breaks what you're trying to fix.


Back to "what might have been" — to say God knows what might have been absent some direct intervention, is to say that there is one particular might-have-been that everything in the world aren't going to get away from, but I don't believe that is the case; catching a falling glass is a fair direct intervention against a foreseeable breaking of glass, but glass and floor usually don't themselves have choice in the matter. While humans are bad at being "random", I don't believe we are so free of choice as glass and floor.

Sheila said...

But I thought God was the loving father who would catch us when we fall.

You see that's the trouble: I have a longing for a God that is more loving than the one the Catholic Church tells me of. However, there is no evidence that this more-loving being exists. I don't really feel inclined to settle for a God who doesn't care if we are hurt but is mortally offended if we don't worship him. I don't understand what a being like this could be like; but using the best of my ability to understand the intentions of a person by their actions (the closest any human can come to understanding anyone else) the mind I detect behind God's words and actions (as visible in the natural world and in scripture) is not loving. Interested, perhaps, but not loving.

Belfry Bat said...

There seems to be some disparity between what you and I understand the Catholic description of God to be like (Deus Caritas Est!), and between what you and I perceive of God's actual caring — as I've said before, even within your posted autobiographics, we have different ideas of what God does to protect you. And I don't know how to bridge those particular differences.

(... what, incidentally, would it mean for God to be mortally offended?)

Back when you really started this series, I tried to remind you of the other Names for God: Goodness, Source Of All Being, Perfect Beauty... I know you have trouble with the Bible, but I think the trouble comes from approaching it backwards: you want to find out if God is really good, and so you Test Him in the Bible; if instead you started with confidence in the primacy and creative power of Goodness, and took the Bible as a tale of What Goodness Requires through thousands of years dealing with many many people who usually tried to ignore goodness... You might have found that more fruitful, I think.

Or, what is praiseworthy, if not goodness itself?

Sheila said...

I have tried a lot of angles. There is "assume the Bible is true, then figure out God's character from that," and there's "assume God is infinite love and goodness, then ask if the Bible can then be possibly true." Or I could ask, "Is the universe I live in managed by either ultimate-love-God or Bible-God?"

What you seem to demand is that I should start by *assuming* that God is infinite love and the bible is true. But on what grounds should I do so? This is like asking Galileo, "ASSUME the sun revolves around the earth and see if you can force the cosmos into that model" instead of asking him "how does the cosmos move?" You might come up with an answer, but you're not likely to get the *right* answer if everything is assumed from the outset.

Starting with confidence is something you kind of have to have faith to do. I don't have confidence, so I have to try to find out the answer so that I can then be confident in it.

I understand how people make the jump. They think God is good and loving -- because they want him to be -- and if he is, it makes sense that he'd reveal himself, and Christianity is the most loving of the possible revelations. But it's still not a great fit. Premise 1 is at odds with a great deal of the Bible.

But why assume that God cares about humans in the first place? The only two reasons to believe that are A, because you want to believe it, or B, because the Bible says so (which is begging the question). Is there another reason to believe this?

Belfry Bat said...

I certainly can't demand that the bible-as-you-instinctively-read-it is true; it's not an easy book and I don't think it's supposed to be easy. It's not written for historians, because it's not written by historians; it's more like a collection of exercises and puzzles, than a collection of vignettes (ignoring which, I think, may be part of why 'most everyone reads the Tower of Babel wrong).

To your last paragraph — axiomatically: Goodness cares about humans, because humans have an awareness of and capactity for goodness.

Sheila said...

The trouble with interpretations of the Bible's "bad bits" is that none of them seem to avoid the two possible pitfalls. The first is to interpret a passage in a way that is clearly not what the author can possibly have meant -- the Church says the meaning intended by the human author is the literal meaning. And the second is to fail to make it moral despite all that explaining -- you know, the explanations that include stuff like "there might be a good reason for genocide" or "slavery is not opposed to the natural law." I do not accept these; I think most people who consult their conscience instead of an inspired book would agree with me.

When I was battling with the Scriptures myself, a few months back, I kept falling into pitfall number one, and you kept pointing that out to me while falling into pitfall number two. Now, by calling it a "collection of exercises and puzzles," you seem to be falling into pitfall number one yourself. Genesis might *possibly* be intended that way, but the historical books seem pretty solidly to be intended as history. And the Church's tradition has always been to interpret them as literal history, too.

I do not find your axiom compelling. Moral goodness is the sort of behavior that is right for humans to do. God (if he is the God of the Church and the Bible) is not that. And if he is, instead, some sort of philosophically provable "infinite being," again, I see no reason to insist that he should care particularly about humans' idea of morality. Morality for a bonobo is to mate with everything in sight. Morality for a wolf is to tear out the throats of other creatures. God created them that way, but that doesn't mean God himself is that way.

Belfry Bat said...

In the second pitfall, I don't think I ever said that genocide fit within the natural law, or that slavery did; I think it's well within the reach of possibility that there are no genocides, as we understand the word, described in the Torah; and though the word slave is used, it doesn't mean within Israel what slavery was or is (e.g.) in the American South.

In the First pitfall... did I say "there is no history" in the bible? I said it wasn't written for or by historians, which means that to try to get at the historical facts through the Bible is in places difficult, and furthermore a distraction. And again, when we speak of "the" author, it isn't sufficient to understand this as the first individual who told the story, or who originally scratched a tablet or inked a scroll: these scriptures were not only written, but collected and sifted; there are lots of texts from the same region and the same times written in similar registers which are not taken as Inspired. All of that Human work is part of the authorship which underlies the "literal" meaning. (Benedict XVI has bold things to say about the Septuagint translation, calling it a "distinct and important step in the history of revelation"; what meaning did they write in, I wonder?)

About axiomatics... I'm not convinced that bobonobos do philosophy or aim to be good; we can't call what we see them about their morality, it's simply their instinctive habit and built into the way bonobos get to be more bonobos. Wolves tear animals to bits because that is the means they have to eat: it isn't that they've pondered the meaning of wolf life and agreed to perfèct this means to the end of wolfishness; humans form ideas about what makes a healthy wolf or an attractive wolf --- and also, by the way, devise ways to feed wolves-as-dogs without drawing quite as much bovine adrenaline.

We humans can and do wonder about human nature, and what is necessary for human flourishing (not to mention canine nature and what is necessary for canine flourishing). We can contemplate goodness-itself, not merely good-for-humans (or merely what would make me chillax and grinny right now). Behind these varied objects of study, there is a unifying principle, and that is Goodness.

Sheila said...

I don't think I believe in an underlying principle of Goodness. I think Goodness is an inner-space concept as I talked about recently -- something that all humans know about and understand, but which is only meaningful in reference to humans. (The proper philosophical term for this, I recently learned, is "intersubjective.") Unlike animals, we can think about the choices we make, but like them, there are rules that govern our lives -- things that serve the common good for us. We're just smart enough to think about these rules, and use reason to come up with rules that are more helpful. But I just don't understand what Goodness would even mean, applied to a non-human non-limited being. Certainly the sort of goodness I expect out of my fellow humans is not at all reflected in the actions of God, because a being who was good like good humans are good would have dealt with the whole suffering problem already.

I am tempted just to copy-paste whole articles here about Biblical genocides and slavery, but that feels like cheating. Let me just say: quibbling about the word "genocide" is irrelevant. When God orders people to wipe out an entire tribe and leave no women, children, or even infants alive, you can call that what you like and it will never become morally right. And God *did* order this with the Canaanites and also the Amalekites. I find it repugnant that Christians of all stripes feel the need to justify this by saying that it somehow wasn't so bad or was justified for good reason, because KILLING BABIES IS WRONG no matter what the reason! The Church backs me on this.

And as for slavery, I suppose it looks in some ways different from the American South, but the Bible does state that a man's female slaves are acceptable sex objects for him. At no point does it even imply that the female slave would have any say in this whatsoever. So I don't really feel the evil of slavery relies on a comparison to the antebellum South. Treating a person as a possession is always wrong, and it is clear that the Bible does understand slaves to be possessions. (Debt slaves who were freed every jubilee are perhaps a separate case, but foreign captives do not seem to be subject to the same protections.) The book of Sirach (33:26) says "for a wicked servant there are racks and tortures." And that's pretty standard for slaves throughout history -- if you have the right to own a person, it's understood that you're going to beat them. What else would be expected to happen, when a person has no legal protections?

If God were at all behind the words of the Bible, it seems it would have been very easy for him to say "don't beat your slaves" or better yet "don't have slaves." He didn't. I thought he was concerned about moral behavior! How can he leave an important thing like that out?

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