Collect


Collect for Hallowmas or All Saints' Day

O almighty God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord: grant us grace so to follow thy blessed saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those unspeakable joys, which thou hast prepared for them that unfeignedly love thee; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Five Quick Takes

I.

My current series has been getting difficult to write lately (turns out struggling with faith is hard -- who knew?), so I'm taking a bit of a breather before I continue. Since today is Michælmas -- the Feast of Saints Michæl, Gabriel, and Raphæl the Archangels, and therefore of one of my special patrons -- it seems like a fitting day to take off, and I have done.

Michælmas is rather special to me as an Anglican Use Catholic. Our calendar preserves a lot of elements that are no longer observed in the normal Roman Rite, or whose importance has been reduced; the Octave of Pentecost is one (Pentecost observed over a span of eight days instead of one, like Easter and Christmas), and this is another. The veneration of the angels doesn't seem to hold the same stature in Catholic spirituality that it once did, unless my observation is incomplete. I find the whole doctrine of angels fascinating, especially as a fan of both magical realism and sci-fi; the Second Choir seem especially apt to that kind of exploration (and C. S. Lewis essentially did just that in much of the Cosmic Trilogy): the Dominations who direct the Virtues, the Virtues who govern natural forces and bodies, and the Powers who observe and direct human history, all seem to me eminently suited to be understood, in terms of fiction, along the lines of transdimensional intelligences whose functions literally structure and energize the universe. Tell me that's not pretty cool.


They always seem to want to give him kinda girly hair for some reason, but still.
Michael the Archangel, Guido Reni, 1636.

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II.

I think that, among American believers today, probably the most aggravating part of being gay is the way people turn you into a mascot.


Honestly this just encourages me. A clear grasp of fundamentals is the first step in not being a raving dumbass, after all.

Some -- many -- don't, of course. But whether you're being rebuked for other people's sins, or fêted for imagined victory over sins that still plague you, all based exclusively on whose "side" you are perceived to be on, it's deeply disrespectful. It treats you as the symbol of a people-group, usually in such a way as to (seemingly) absolve the person thus using you of having to actually get to know gay people, or Catholics, or gay Catholics, or Side B folks, in general. And, not infrequently, they show no interest in actually getting to know you in particular either. A lot of Catholics talk about the need not to reduce people to a label but rather to respect their holistic human identity, but frankly, I feel far more dehumanized by being treated as an example than I do by a guy who isn't interested in anything but my body -- and whom I can't really judge in the first place.

It makes for a lot of mixed signals, too. I particularly feel this way dealing with Catholic groups and people who are opposed, even hostile, to coming out of the closet -- yet will say in practically the same breath that the Church needs people to model chastity. So, just don't let on that your example could be in some way relevant to the people you're (apparently) a role model for, is the desideratum?


You hide your face magnificently! Everyone will relate to the anonymous and therefore unverifiable
life you're "sharing"! Next up: How to speak so quietly that people give up trying to talk with you!

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III.

A huge mass of books were available at my parish yesterday after the liturgy -- from where, I don't know -- but they formed some rather intriguing combinations. Along with such excellent Anglo-Catholic works as Creed or Chaos? and The Mind of the Maker (both by the brilliant Dorothy Sayers) and a large quantity of prayer books, were the comparatively thematically irrelevant, like Cyrano de Bergerac, and the quite unexpected, like The Vampire Armand. It makes me wonder what people going through my library would think, seeing everything from The Prophet to Assuming the Position on one shelf. If, as some postmodern authors say, books talk among themselves, I imagine that library was a novel experience for them all.

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IV.

Another reason the problem of suffering has got me more worn out than usual is that, last month, I read the justly famous novel Silence, by the Japanese Catholic author Shūsaku Endō. It's a magnificent, and at the same time a brutal, read. In barely fictionalized terms (based on and incorporating several historical figures), it depicts the persecution of the Church in Japan in the seventeenth century. 


Kanagawa-oki nami-ura ("The Great Wave off Kanagawa"), part of the Thirty-Six
Views of Mount Fuji woodblock series, by Katsushika Hokusai, composed around 1830.

Christianity had been well-received at first, when St Francis Xavier visited the island nation in the latter half of the sixteenth century; indeed, he said that they were some of the finest people he had yet encountered, both in general and in terms of receptivity to the gospel. But imperialistic rumblings from the European Catholic powers, combined with increasing nationalism (and corresponding centralizing and xenophobic trends) under the Tokugawa shogunate, led the Japanese government to outlaw the faith, and to go on to carry out one of the most cruel and effective campaigns of religious extermination the Church has ever seen in her history. Two things that made it so effective were that it focused upon priests more than ordinary believers, knowing them to be the linchpin of the operation, and that it directed its efforts less toward martyrong people -- they found out early on that that was received as a glorious victory by the Catholics -- than towards making them apostatize, breaking the spirit of the infant Japanese Church and tearing up the roots it had formed.

You can't do that to Christianity of course; and, I would argue, you can't do that to the Japanese, either. Deprived of priests for more than two hundred years, forced to trample upon icons of Christ and the Virgin to absolve themselves of suspicion, the Japanese Catholics maintained the faith in secret: passing on the teachings, reciting the prayers, and living in hope for the day when, they said, the fathers would return. And return they did: in the middle of the nineteenth century, when Japan was reopened and Christianity was legalized, the kakure Kirishitan or "hidden Christians" emerged, thirty thousand of them, with their prayers preserving fragments of the Latin and Portuguese the first missionaries had taught them, still clutching scraps of cassocks and rosaries kept safe from the authorities for generations; nearly all were received once again into the heart of the Catholic Church. It calls to mind Tolkien's stirring words from the tale of Eärendil in The Silmarillion: "Hail, the looked for that cometh at unawares, the longed for that cometh beyond hope!"


Mosaic of the Virgin and Child, in the Church of the 
Annunciation in Nazareth, donated by Japanese Catholics.

It's one of the most beautiful and astonishing stories in history, in my opinion. But Endō's novel is about the tragic beginning, rather than the eucatastrophic ending. It details the story of one priest, Sebastian Rodrigues, who has secretly entered Japan to sustain the Christians, and is struggling with his incomprehension in the face of God's silence, His inaction, while His children are suffering so mercilessly. Part of this is expressed in one of the "hard sayings" that is easy to miss: Jesus' words to Judas before the betrayal, "What you do, do quickly." That He should urge Judas on in this, one of the worst sins in history, is an intolerable thought to Father Rodrigues and ... ah, you have to read it.

Martin Scorsese has announced his intention to adapt Silence for the silver screen. If they fuck this up, I may just spontaneously combust, out of pure artistic wrath, right there in the theater.

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V.

I still haven't come up with a good reward for my patrons -- thank you all, by the way, I truly appreciate your generosity to me -- and I only have till the first before I start feeling bad. (Your cards were not charged for August, owing to a mistake I'd made in the set-up, which is why there was no reward this month.) I wish I could draw like Edward Gorey and make fun little gay Catholic anarchist pictures of things, in the style of The Gashlycrumb Tinies, but my odds of managing to do that between today and Wednesday seem, eh, slim. Well. I'll think of something.


A is for AMY who fell down the stairs
B is for BASIL assaulted by bears
C is for CLARA who wasted away
D is for DESMOND thrown out of a sleigh ...


Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Why I Am a Catholic, Part IV: The Real Rhino

I wrote, in my first post, that I think the atheism that refuses to believe in a God who could tolerate the evils and sufferings we do see in the world, is less like a snarky member of Anonymous, and more like the hero of James and the Giant Peach,* defying the monstrous Rhino that killed his parents and is coming after his friends. If you can't play the video or don't feel like clicking the link, the salient material is that the Rhino is coming at them, in a vulnerable position -- I mean, they live in a giant peach, which isn't exactly the Fort Knox of the vegetable kingdom -- surrounded with thunderclouds. James makes his friends climb up into the silk rigging that they've been using to fly the peach,** so he can provoke the Rhino to attack him on the peach and disconnect the silk and seagulls, flying his friends to safety. As planned, the Rhino charges at him, as he shouts, "Come out and show your face, you stupid beast! You're not even a real Rhino! You're just a lot of smoke and noise! I'm not afraid of you! I'm not afraid of you!"


Feeling that way about God seems to be to be linked in with the idea that God is directly responsible for suffering -- that He has specifically chosen the anguish of His creatures over some viable alternative. Or, to be blunter, that He does not merely permit death, but kills; does not merely allow pain, but inflicts it; does not merely suffer heartbreak to exist, but breaks hearts.

It'd be easy to say that none of these things is, in theological language, positively willed by God. When I was growing up, as a Calvinist, this explanation was so common as to be a stock answer, and I've found it to be pretty common among Catholics, too; for the philosophical problem of a good God who does evil things would seem to be insoluble and self-defeating. Holy Scripture, however, has no such scruples: I am the LORD, and there is none else. I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things.***

It is probably worth saying that, from a strictly literary perspective, the right approach to this verse (and some others like it) is to take the word evil in the broadest sense, signifying almost anything we would not want or like. However, since the import of the text is still one of the universal dominion of God, that doesn't help much. And neither, when you come to think of it, does the conciliating distinction between what God specifically wills and what He simply permits. A God who positively willed the gas chambers at Auschwitz, for instance, would be abominably evil; a God who merely allowed the gas chambers at Auschwitz may not be that, but it's still difficult to believe that He is both all-powerful and also the source and definition of all goodness, and even if He is, He's baffling. The faith that attempts to solve this conundrum in such a way that the difficulty no longer exists, in my opinion, has fundamentally failed to grasp the scope of the problem -- and, in trying to turn it into an intellectual exercise with an "answer," has fundamentally failed too to understand the real function of faith.

So where can faith go from here? I tend to think it can't go anywhere from here; it has reached a dead-end, and must turn around and retrace its steps. That is at any rate what I had to do, though I lingered in the cul-de-sac for a while, trying to convince myself that I was supposed to be there. (I'm speaking of the time I spent as a determinist, which I've written of in a little more detail in this post, for which I'd like to make a trigger warning.)

We return to the problem of pain in the world. And let's just start there. We don't start with an intuitive awareness of God; we're taught that He exists or persuaded that He exists. But we do start with the capacity to perceive that we live in a world full of suffering and evils.


For instance, the Deep Ones.

And when we take that as our starting point, the problem of suffering is not eliminated, but its relationship to the being and goodness of God is turned upside down. It becomes, not a question of starting with the goodness of God and trying to believe that all the awful things in the world are really expertly disguised blessings -- but of seeing those awful things, and asking whether it is still possible that the Being that is behind reality (the Uncaused Cause, the Absolute Mind, whatever you want to call it for now) is somehow on our side despite all of that.

It isn't a profession that we know why this or that evil has been allowed; still less is it a pretense (and this is one of the reasons that I cannot abide those belief systems that deny the existence of evil) that horrible things have the same right to exist as lovely things. It is asking the question of whether the real Rhino, supposing that there is a real Rhino, is benevolent and compassionate. Like Albert Camus' picture of the Absurdist man, acknowledging what at any rate appears to be a meaningless and lonely universe, faith in God is precisely the choice to believe that there is more to reality than meets the eye, and that that more is absolutely good -- is, in fact, a Person who loves us. As I have said there is a romantic defiance in the best atheism, so there is a romantic defiance in theism, one that we mostly forgot during the high noon of Christendom and the evening of polite deism: the defiant belief that even under the ragged wreck of our loves and hopes, the deepest reality justifies those loves and those hopes, and has, finally, the power to make them triumph; and this deepest reality we call God.


Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, Giovanni Bassi, 1525

Why a God who loves us would suffer the world as we know it to exist is a separate question, and one that I rather suspect hasn't got an answer we can grasp. It may be that finite minds like ours couldn't ever grasp it in any meaningful way, though I'm inclined to doubt that; it is almost certainly true that, if we could grasp why God would allow evil and pain, we haven't got all of the facts we need. Either way, theodicy remains, in my view, repellent; and I don't think the Scriptures or most of the great saints, though they have "asserted eternal providence," have ever attempted "to justify the ways of God to men."

I do not so much admit as insist that this is not an "answer." I earnestly want an answer, and this isn't one; although taking this perspective may put us in a position where real faith is possible, the most this does is raise what I take to be the right questions.
It is a solemn and uplifting sight [in Job] to see those eternal fools, the optimist and the pessimist, destroyed in the dawn of time. And the philosophy really perfects the pagan tragic irony, precisely because it is more monotheistic and therefore more mystical. Indeed the Book of Job avowedly only answers mystery with mystery. Job is comforted with riddles; but he is comforted. Herein indeed is a type, in the sense of a prophecy, of things speaking with authority. For when he who doubts can only say 'I do not understand,' it is true that he who knows can only reply or repeat 'You do not understand.' And under that rebuke there is always a sudden hope in the heart; and the sense of something that would be worth understanding.****
But if, in going from the fact of anguish to faith in God, we are professedly only passing from mystery to mystery, why make the transition at all? Isn't faith, in that case, just wishful thinking? -- the insufferable, the saccharine choir of Look at the big picture and Everything happens for a reason and God never closes a door without opening my mouth, and all the rest of the sentimental bullshit told by people who don't get it to people who can't hear it?

This, I believe, is where we do turn precisely to reasoning our way through evidence. But it remains personal rather than abstract, because the evidence I propose to examine is that evidence which we call the Gospels, written by people about a Person who professed to be -- at the very lowest -- the perfect and utterly authoritative expression of that Absolute Mind which we have already spoken of. Its relevance to the distinction between faith and wishful thinking can be summed up in Its perfect and authoritative and, on a Catholic showing, divine cry, Why hast Thou forsaken Me?

But we'll get to that in the next post.


This series has been kind of heavy, so here's a puppy eating a cupcake by way of compensation.


*The disloyal, yet still very largely enjoyable cinematic adaptation. A number of features, such as this very episode of the Rhino, were added to the contents of the book. I object to that sort of thing, but the addition is a good piece all the same. And they certainly gave a satisfying portrait of Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker.

**Come on. If you didn't balk at a kid being friends with a gigantic grasshopper with an aristocratic English accent and a monocle, you've got no right to talk balk over a peach being suspended from spider-silk rigging and flown by seagulls.

***Isaiah 45.6-7. One could observe that it is immediately after this verse about God creating evil that the verse from which the blog Rorate Caeli takes its title is found, if one were inclined towards that kind of cutting, smart-aleck humor.

****G. K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man, p. 98.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Why I Am a Catholic, Part III: Apostate

In my last, I described my sojourn into apostasy. I had been intending to pass on from that and revisit it a few times later, but I feel it'd be better to camp there for a little while instead. (I've also changed the name of this series, accenting the personal angle that I feel must be taken with this -- accenting it for myself as much as anybody else, since I'm bad at that, but I digress.)

The apostate is something very different from the atheist who is sincerely convinced of atheism. I don't mean the person who has committed some concrete act of apostasy -- the burner of incense to the genius of the Roman Emperor, the signer of the Act of Supremacy, the one who treads upon the fumie. The one who does these things need not be surrendering to anything but the frailty of human nature, under torture or the threat of torture. Or conversely, they may do such things as these, or nothing at all, out of a sincere (if, in the Catholic view, mistaken) belief that God does not exist; or that the Absolute is so different from the Christian God that, for all intents and purposes, He does not exist.


Fumie (literally "things to step on") were used in the persecution of the Church in Japan: they depicted
Christ or the Virgin, and people were required to step on them. Those who objected were exposed as Catholics.

But this is not the kind of apostasy that I am writing of here. The apostate in this sense is one who has been abandoned by God, or has felt compelled to abandon Him, and may or may not be an atheist in the rational sense at all. It's expressed, I think, in the song "Dear God" by XTC:
But all the people that you made in your image
See them starving on their feet
'Cause they don't get enough to eat from God
I can't believe in you
Dear God, sorry to disturb you but
I feel that I should be heard loud and clear
We all need a big reduction in amount of tears
And all the people that you made in your image
See them fighting in the street
'Cause they can't make opinions meet about God
...
I won't believe in heaven or hell
No sinners, no saints, no devil as well
No pearly gates, no thorny crown
You're always letting us humans down
The wars you bring, the babes you drown
That is not the voice of a philosopher, delivering his opinion that there does not happen to be a Supreme Being; neither is it the voice of a teenager who's trying to make his parents mad. That is the anguished voice of one betrayed.

St. Paul's mystery of iniquity is the perennial complaint of the apostate. If I may trust my own weird experience, it isn't simply a matter of having an extremely puzzling riddle to crack. That doesn't help, but it also isn't what's at stake -- God knows there is no shortage of nuts-hard-to-crack in the universe (indeed, as Lady Julian and science conspire to tell us, all that is made is a nut). What's at stake is how the nightmare anguish that exists in the world, in our own lives, can possibly be compatible with the reality of a God who is both good enough to object to it and powerful enough to stop it, and of whom it can't plausibly be maintained that it's none of His business. Why did I have to lose this man over a stupid mistake? How could You let this innocent little girl be tormented? Why did you let these people be gunned down at random by a maniac?

The fact that apostates often wrestle with the problem of evil, in public and in private (frequently in their work if they are artists of any kind), for many years after some decisive renunciation of faith, may be an ironic testimony to the doctrine that Baptism imparts an indelible mark upon the soul. Some of my favorite authors are those, like Flannery O'Connor and Shusaku Endo, whose work depicts, not a knock-down argument for regarding the difficulty as having a complete and satisfactory answer, but the difficulty itself as material for faith: as a part of the human experience that must be treated as legitimate and somehow brought to God, if coming to God is going to have any meaning. Not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh, but by the taking of the Manhood into God. And after all, we start with our own experience in a way that we definitely don't start with divine revelation; howbeit that was not first which is spiritual, but the natural, and afterward that which is spiritual.

Translated into more poetic language, the apostate's case might perhaps go something like this:
This is one thing, therefore I said it, He destroyeth the perfect and the wicked.
If the scourge slay suddenly, he will laugh at the trial of the innocent.
The earth is given into the hand of the wicked: he covereth the faces of the judges thereof; if not, where, and who is he?
... Let him take his rod away from me, and let not his fear terrify me:
Then would I speak, and not fear him; but it is not so with me.
My soul is weary of my life; I will leave my complaint upon myself; I will speak in the bitterness of my soul.
I will say unto God, Do not condemn me; shew me wherefore thou contendest with me.
Is it good unto thee that thou shouldst oppress, that thou shouldst despise the work of thine hands, and shine upon the counsel of the wicked?
... Thou knowest that I am not wicked; and there is none that can deliver out of thine hand.
Thine hands have made me and fashioned me together round about; yet thou dost destroy me. 
-- Job 9.22-24, 9.34-10.3, 10.7-8
Job is one of the most neglected books in Scripture -- the majority of allusions to it that I've seen have consisted in the single phrase I know that my Redeemer liveth, ripped from its original context and content, and slapped as a piece of sentimental uplift onto car bumpers and the dust-jackets of inspirational something or other. I can't think of anything more insulting. The fumie at least had actual icons on them. It'd be like taking a picture from Dachau that happened to have a smile in it, and using it to advertise sugarless gum.


But does your soul feel clean?
*ting*

For it is the whole point of the book of Job that God, when He confronts both Job and Job's comforters, offers no answer, no explanation. He gives no account of Himself. As Charles Williams points out in He Came Down From Heaven, God's reply mostly only plagiarizes things Job has already said in his storm of accusation directed upwards. There is no theodicy offered there.

Or rather, there is; it is that offered by Job's friends: Job is suffering because he has, in some manner, sinned, and must repent. Reading Job's outrage, and his abuse of his friends as well as his God, those of us who were raised in the Christian faith might be inclined to agree with them, having been brought up to believe that there are certain things one simply doesn't say to, or about, God. The Almighty's own response to Job's friends is as follows:
And it was so, that after the LORD had spoken these words unto Job, the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite, My wrath is kindled against thee, and against thy two friends: for ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right, as my servant Job hath. Therefore take unto you now seven bullocks and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you: for him I will accept: lest I deal with you after your folly, in that ye have not spoken of me the thing which is right, like my servant Job. 
-- Job 42.7-8

Job, Leon Bonnat, 1880

This is why I cannot and will not despise the apostate, the anti-theist. Those who do despise them have no business with apologetics. I think that no one, however virtuous, can truly grapple with the problem of evil and not understand apostasy. Christ Himself, mounted upon the cross, his face lifted up into heaven, demanded of that heaven, Why hast Thou forsaken Me?

God's effective silence to Job was matched by His absolute silence to His Son. That silence echoes down the corridors of history; it resounds like music in the human heart; deep calleth to deep in the roar of thy cataracts, all thy waves and billows are gone over me; hearts and sufferings coinhere, and at the heart of them all lies the Sacred Heart, still pierced, still bleeding, still burning. The silence was followed by the Resurrection? -- yes, but that was in the macrocosm. We, in the microcosm that we (idly enough) call "real life," cannot see that.

Which means that that referral to the macrocosm, to the Resurrection, cannot really be used as an answer. That reality left its evidences upon history; and I do think that Pascal was right, when he said that there is enough light for those who wish to see as there is enough darkness for those who don't. But to place one's faith in the Resurrection and in the universe that it signifies is precisely an act of faith -- it is not simply the obvious and reasonable thing to do, ever.

That, I think, was my mistake. Not only as a child, but for years afterward, and even in my conversions from atheism to Christianity and from Christianity in general to Catholicism in particular. I never fully grappled with the fact that the act of faith was an act of faith -- that is, trusting a Person, not simply accepting an idea -- not of following a chain of reasoning to its logical end. Following that chain did put me in a position to make an act of faith. I don't regret that. And, while it's impossible to know whether I would have made the same decision if I had grappled with that question during my conversions, I think I might have done. But it has left me to grapple with that same problem now.


Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, Gustave Dore, 1855

I don't believe there is any irreverence in such a struggle; My servant Job hath spoken of Me the thing that is right. Returning to Charles Williams:
No pot -- so far -- has asked questions of the potter in a voice the potter can understand; when it does, it will be time enough to compare pots to men. The criticism is not aimed at Saint Paul, who dropped the phrase in the midst of a great spiritual wrestle, not as a moral instruction. But it has been used to often by the pious to encourage them to say, in love or laziness, 'Our little minds were never meant ...' Fortunately there is the book of Job to make it clear that our little minds were meant. A great curiosity ought to exist concerning divine things. Man was intended to argue with God.*
And how is any of this an answer to apostasy or an argument against atheism? It isn't; that's very largely the point. I believe Christians must accept and respect the fact that, for some people, the problem of evil is an insurmountable objection to God's existence -- the problem of evil as experienced in their own lives. And not accepted and respected as some sort of condescending indulgence of the weakness of others, either. The brute fact is, unless our own heart's been broken the same way theirs has, we don't know what we're talking about.

While, if our own hearts have been broken, we should know better than anybody that faith is a mystery. I don't honestly know why I'm not an atheistic apostate. The brain-breaking problem of how God could allow the suffering that exists in the world, I can't answer; the pain I've suffered, the pain I've caused, in my own twenty-seven years, I don't know what to do with that. Sometimes I understand why I believe, but those times, I couldn't express it in words: I could point at Him, but nothing else, not really. I could pile up arguments this high, putting someone in a position where Catholicism is intellectually possible and even plausible; and without the gift of faith, given mystically, it's not going to matter.

None of which is a reason to waive the rational element in the discussion. It's just a reason to put it in its place.
O LORD, thou hast deceived me, and I was deceived: thou art stronger than I, and hast prevailed: I am in derision daily, every one mocketh me.
For since I spake, I cried out, I cried violence and spoil; because the word of the LORD was made a reproach unto me, and a derision, daily.
Then I said, I will not make mention of him, nor speak any more in his name. But his word was in mine heart as a burning fire shut up in my bones, and I was weary with forbearing, and I could not stay. 
-- Jeremiah 20.7-9

*He Came Down From Heaven, p. 30.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Case for the Catholic Faith, Part II: Enigma of the Absolute

A title I chose not least because it's the name of a kickin' song by the sadly neglected band Dead Can Dance. But I digress, and I haven't even started yet.

I wrote a first draft of this post -- running through a very few of the standard arguments in favor of the existence of, if not the Christian God in particular, at any rate a God or Supreme Being or Absolute -- and showed it to some friends, because I had a vague yet nagging feeling that something was the matter with it. The upshot of that was, I'd gone through my chosen arguments well enough, but it didn't matter, because I wasn't risking anything in what I'd written. I wonder whether that isn't why apologetics, intellectual or otherwise, are so often ineffective: people can usually tell, sooner or later, when you're not really opening up, and people hate things that are fake -- hence, for example, the popularity of zombies: something that looks human but isn't, and whose danger justifies taking out our hatred of fake things upon it. If I'm going to write about faith, let's go for a living faith instead of an undead faith.



So, I want to try for a more personal approach. A big part of my own experience of faith has certainly been its intellectual element, both in converting and in continuing to believe; but that itself takes place in a broader, human context. So, instead of laying out arguments that I think are convincing, I'm going to talk about arguments that convinced me, and why, and how.*

It's pretty easy to sum these arguments up briefly, as a rule -- syllogisms are like that far oftener than you'd think -- and that's true even in the life contexts that they came in for me. So I've mostly only expressed them here as they occurred to me, rather than including the counterarguments, variations, and so on. Anyone who wants to raise them is welcomed and encouraged to do so in the comments.

I've spoken before, briefly, about respect for atheism. This is partly because I think serious thought deserves respect, and that assuming someone has not thought seriously simply because they disagree with you is asinine. It's also because I used to be an atheist for a very short while, and not only was it (in the long run) a major advance for my faith, I also couldn't help but notice that it wasn't Christian sneers that brought me back any more than it was mere juvenile flippancy that wrecked my faith in the first place.


I still don't know quite how it happened, actually. I was maybe eighteen or nineteen. It was during a retreat in Ocean City with Campus Crusade, which might have been embarrassing if I'd still been able to feel anything. I was sitting in the conference room we had in the hotel -- I guess there were maybe a couple hundred students there, more or less, but I'm bad with guesstimations -- during one of the worship sessions. I used to feel weird in those pretty frequently; sometimes I could get into them, but more and more I felt out of place, and looking around at everyone who was into it just made things worse, like I didn't belong. (Also, sometimes the songs were shitty, but that was a separate problem.) But I was trying to pray, and looking around, and trying to pray some more. I felt tensed up, like I was trying to hold something together in my hands. In one strange moment, I realized that what I was trying to hold together was my belief in all of this; and then I suddenly felt tired, and just let go. And my faith was gone.

I got up, almost physically numbed. I had been a Christian -- a goody-two-shoes choir-boy -- for as long as I could remember: baptized at six months old, raised on the Bible and The Chronicles of Narnia and The Hiding Place, trying to evangelize my friends as an eight-year-old, listening to "Adventures in Odyssey" before bed. And now none of that was anything at all. I trudged back up to the hotel room and sat down on one of the beds, staring. I felt nothing. I thought nothing.

A couple of my friends came up later. I didn't like to tell them because I knew they'd be upset, but I didn't know what else to do. I can't remember what I said exactly; I just remember them sitting there with me, praying, crying. It was all meaningless to me. Literally everything was. I was half-expecting, when I went to sleep, not to wake up -- that I, or all of existence, would just sort of dissolve, and then there would be nothing and no me to notice the nothing. I was a little freaked out by that, but only a little.


The next day was Sunday, and we started on our way home. I still didn't feel much. I was wondering, vaguely, what my life was going to be like now. I had been intending to go into ministry of some kind, as a pastor or a writer or something. Well, I could still write; I couldn't really think of much that I still wanted to write about, but I could easily be an editor, maybe a critic. And there was nothing stopping me now from getting a boyfriend, or even from sleeping around with any guy who took my fancy and was willing to be taken by it, as it were, so that at least simplified things.

We started the drive home through the Delmarva Peninsula, surrounded by farm fields -- tobacco, I think. My friends stopped at a church on the way. Partly out of habit, and partly to keep them company, I went in. I don't remember the service much: it was unremarkable, the standard pop Protestant affair. It felt odd not to join the prayers or the singing. I thought some more about what I might do with my life.

But then came time for Communion. And I wanted to take Communion. It may have been the first actual desire I'd felt since the previous night. I tried at first to brush it off: it's habit, it doesn't mean anything, atheists don't do that. But the desire didn't go away. So I started to think.

There was a miraculous clarity in that moment. I had never thought the matter through because I wanted the answer before then; only in order to show how to get to the answer that I already had. And my emotions were still so dead that they seemed to have no power to distort my judgment. It struck me, too, how quickly I was able to go from one step to the next -- I didn't feel weighed down or confused by feelings or desires, I just wanted the answer. The real one.

Okay. Was there any reason to believe in a God, of some kind, just to start with? Well, here I was thinking; I was a mind. That didn't seem like something I could seriously dispute; I was a Classics major, not a Philosophy major.


And mind, consciousness, doesn't come from nothing, because nothing comes from nothing. Nor does it come from matter, because matter is unconscious -- that'd be the same as coming from nothing. My existence as a mind seemed to call for some sort of explanation. So there had to be a conscious mind that brought mine into being.** And of that prior mind, either it had to be self-existent itself, or it had to depend on a source for its own origin; and so on.

The idea of an infinite regress of caused minds was something I instinctively found ridiculous. And it seemed also to violate Ockham's Razor, the rule of thinking that the simplest explanation should be preferred to all others (or, as my father rephrased it, "Don't make shit up"). One had always struck me as being a simpler concept than infinity, so the idea of one absolute Mind won out over the idea of an infinite regress of minds twice over.


I always assumed that an Absolute Mind would have a monocle.

The service was continuing around me. Okay, so there was presumably some sort of God, whether it was the Christian God or not. And it was, following the argument, the self-existent source of minds -- of all minds, I assumed, though I suppose there's no particular reason there couldn't be multiple self-existent minds. But so far, I knew of one.

How about reasons for supposing that this Mind was, specifically, God as Christians understand the word?


*People who, like me, are deeply boring, may recognize the argument I went over with myself that day as being basically a form of the (somewhat oddly named) cosmological argument, one of the five classical arguments for God's existence formulated by St Thomas Aquinas -- though in his work, he meant them more as explanations of what is meant by the term God without referring to special revelation. It has some relationship to the argument from consciousness (used by C. S. Lewis in Miracles), the teleological argument (which has been given a degraded for by Creationist popularizers), and the kalam argument (which originated with Spanish Moslem scholars and made its way into Christian thought through Aquinas' friend St Bonaventure). The influence upon me of Lewis' own, generally very reliable, popularizations of the major philosophical definitions, explanations, and arguments in the apologetic sphere is probably quite transparent to anyone who has any acquaintance with his work, so I haven't bothered to notate it.

**I don't recall whether I considered, at the time, the possibility that I was a self-existent mind. Not perhaps the, but a god, as it were. I wouldn't have found it credible then, and I don't find it credible now, for a number of reasons, of which two spring to mind: first, I sleep -- there are literally interruptions in my consciousness on a regular basis, which suggests that I am not a self-existent or absolute consciousness; and second, I'd think that if I were a self-existent mind, I'd know it.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

A Case for the Catholic Faith, Part I: Go



I've been wanting for a while now to set forth an answer to the question, "Why be a Catholic in the first place?" Partly because I have a difficult time answering that question. I find that faith, for me, is more and more precisely faith, and not simply the consequence of a chain of reasoning with a small and simple step of trust at the end of it. That's not to say I've started to find my faith irrational; not in the least; but, in the face of the uncertainties and still more the suffering that faith can involve us in, the nature of the problem has changed.

O Lord, thou hast deceived me, and I was deceived, begins the lesson from the Eleventh Sunday After Trinity.* Not the kind of language we are used to hearing in the Scriptures. But it is by no means absent, as a glance at the weeping prophet, or Job, or Ecclesiastes would tell us: and I think our approach to the Scriptures, and correspondingly to God, is rather deficient within the Church. I think that is also one of the reasons our apologetics are often so utterly ineffective. Being religious, we want the sort of God that appeals to and makes sense to a religious person -- a tidy, predictable God, whom we can control through right thought and right behavior -- in a sense, a moralist magician's deity. God can use anything, even religion; but religion itself is not God. The worship of holiness rather than of God is without doubt the deadliest of all spiritual poisons, something I know only too well from worshipping holiness, treating the means to God as an end in itself.


Caiaphas, being the high priest that year, said unto them, Ye know nothing at all, nor 
consider that it is expedient that one man should die for the people ... And this spake 
he not of himself: but being high priest that year, he prophesied ... -- John 11.xlix-l
Christ Before Caiaphas, Duccio, 1308-1311

The thing is, God made man in His own image, and human life is the product of man. The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath; or, to apply the maxim to the present discussion, it is religion which serves the needs of man, not man who serves religion. Now, one of the needs of man is precisely for real contact with a real God. But humanity is a much messier affair than most religious people tend to be comfortable with, and our account of reality -- or, translated into philosophic terms, our apologetics and theology -- has to do justice to that, or it isn't worth much.

So, in writing such a defense (or explanation) of Catholicism, I'd like to avoid a few things that, I feel, are characteristic errors and even sins on the part of Catholic apologists. For instance:

1. I'm not going to explain away the sins of the Church. I do think that the Catholic Church gets a much worse rap than she deserves, partly because of the extreme ignorance of history that our culture gets from many sources, and not least from history classes. But when factual corrections and social context and the like have done all they can -- and they can do something -- the brute fact remains that Christians, sometimes at the highest levels of the Church, have done some unambiguously horrible, indefensible things. I don't propose for one moment to justify any of that by a shabby, triumphalistic revision of Catholic history. That is at least as wrong and irrational as the radical, anti-Christian revision of history that makes the Church guilty of every bad thing that has happened in the West since Constantine, if not more so.


All the same, though, fun fact: Galileo was never condemned for heresy, and the reason 
he was tried had as much to do with the fact that he was kind of an asshole as it did with his 
scientific assertions. He was still treated unfairly, but there's no time to explain that now.
Galileo Before the Holy Office, Joseph Nicolas Robert-Fleury, 19th cent.

To put the same thing another way, I do propose to explain Catholicism, which I hope will in itself explain why someone would believe it; but I don't know that there is any explanation for Catholics. Certainly there is no more defense for Catholics than there is for anybody else.

2. I'm not going to decline the philosophical problems that Christianity creates. In The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis noted with great intelligence that Christianity (and indeed most forms of benevolent theism) creates the problem of pain rather than solving it. If there were no God, or if God did not care about us or had no power to help us, then the problems of suffering and of evil would not exist: they would be one hundred percent explicable in terms of the stated premises. It's when we posit an almighty, omniscient, and loving God that these things become mysterious. They are not, perhaps, more agonizing on that account; but the agony they have anyway is quite enough to be getting on with, to put it mildly. And the simplistic answer that "It'll all be set right in the end" is, frankly, insulting. I think that is what Charles Williams was getting at when he wrote, "Most Christian answers to agnosticism seem not to begin to understand the agnosticism; they seem to invoke the compassion of God. In Kierkegaard one gets the sense that God does not understand that kind of compassion."

That's not to say that I have satisfying answers for all, or indeed any, of the philosophical problems that Christianity involves us -- me -- in. I believe it for other reasons. And of course, the problem of pain is only one among those problems. But if I haven't got an answer, I'm going to man up and say so, and say why I believe anyway; and the answer will not just be "Because," even if the answer is "I don't know." No one can make the smallest progress in the mind or in life without starting with honesty.

3. I'm not going to mock non-Catholic belief systems, especially atheism. There are admittedly atheists whose case for atheism, in my opinion, betrays an extremely shallow understanding of Christianity and even of logic -- Richard Dawkins springs to mind: expert though he may be in biology, I've yet to encounter an argument of his against theism that I found in the least compelling. The New Atheists in general seem, from my admittedly limited reading, to be of the same cast.** But, on the other hand, the atheists I've actually met have tended to be not only much pleasanter people than Dawkins, but not infrequently have had better reasons for being atheists; and some whom I have not met, like Penn Jillette or Camille Paglia, have been respectable and respectful thinkers whose atheism I correspondingly respect, though obviously I think they're quite wrong. Poking fun at another belief system can of course be done good-naturedly; but I don't feel I see that very often from Catholic apologists, whereas I do feel I see an awful lot of mere sneering. I don't think this is wise, or fair, or loving. Nor, it must be said, is it the example set by the authors I most respect, such as Pope Benedict XVI, whose writings display an abiding respect for atheism in particular (along with categorical disagreement).

Moreover, I feel that such sneering misses the real quality of atheism at its best. I've frequently found it to be of a high moral tone -- sometimes higher than the Christian faith it has rejected, and sometimes it has rejected that Christian faith precisely on serious moral and intellectual grounds (despite the continual, slanderous assumption that atheists can have no basis for behaving morally, and therefore don't). And still more than that, there can be a romance, even a heroism, in the defiance it often embodies. Far from being mere teenage contrariness, I think that, in that atheism which refuses to believe in a God that could allow the evil we see in the world, we see something more like this:


I don't think that the real God is like the Rhino, of course. But if I did, I can only hope I'd have the nerve to talk that way.

And that is something that many of the greatest apologists understood. Many people are so taken with the arguments of Lewis or Chesterton or Pascal or Aquinas against atheism, that they fail to notice that these were men to whom atheism was not merely a childish rebellion against obvious good sense, but a serious intellectual possibility worth answering seriously. Failure to appreciate atheism this way does not indicate superiority or spiritual depth. It is a weakness. If you can contemplate the evil in the world without understanding why someone would want to be an atheist, then frankly, you may be a heartless dick.

So what exactly do I propose to do? Well, I'm going to set out why I personally became a Christian and ultimately a Catholic, and why I have remained one, from an intellectual perspective. I'm explaining it intellectually because that is the dimension that's influenced me the most; but I don't imagine that that will be decisive for more than a very small minority of people, because only a very small minority make their decisions in a predominantly intellectual way. That's actually a good thing, because humans aren't and weren't meant to be brains-in-a-vat.*** Angels are pure intellect, or so most Catholics believe, but men are not: we are incarnate creatures, with bodies and emotions and all the messy trappings and entanglements that those imply. Nonetheless, one element of the human experience is precisely intellectual, and, since I feel most equipped to address that element, I'll do so.



In doing so, I'm going to be taking a few things for granted. If you, dear reader, do not take these things for granted, well, I really haven't the first idea what to say to you: you're welcome to read the series anyway, naturally, but I expect it'll come across as a sort of philosophical objet d'art, rather than a set of persuasive essays. Anyhow, my assumptions -- things that I don't propose at any point to support, but will simply start with them in play -- are these:

1. I assume that logic is reliable. I assume this because you literally cannot think without it. If A = A is not always true, then fuck all.

Now, this is not the same thing as saying that common sense is reliable. Common sense may be defined as the things we expect based on logic and experience, and it's fine as far as it goes, but it isn't synonymous with the law of non-contradiction. For example, some people make much of the fact that light sometimes behaves like a particle and sometimes like a wave, saying that this is a contradiction in reality. The only thing to be said in reply is No, no it isn't. It's very unexpected and unlike other things, and that, while inconvenient and kind of freaky, is fine. But stuff we don't expect or understand is not in violation of the law of non-contradiction, which is what I mean by logic. The fact that it may defy our intellectual ego is neither here nor there.

2. I assume that the senses are basically reliable. Not absolutely so, obviously; but here again, if we didn't make this assumption, we could not function in the world. A corollary of these two assumptions is the assumption that scientific observation is basically reliable as far as it goes, though I don't know that I'll be referring to that thesis all that much -- my own analysis of Christianity is primarily philosophical, psychological, and historical.


Science!

3. I assume that history can, to some extent, be discovered. Another way of phrasing this would be that I don't believe that mankind in general has been suffering from a massive compulsion to lie for the last few thousand years. A lot of the arguments against Christianity that I've encountered, especially those opposing Catholicism (from both Protestant and non-Christian sources), seem to rely on the premise that lots of people lied about things for approximately no reason in particular, for centuries. This is not technically impossible, but I don't propose to spend any time dismantling it. That may make me naive, but I haven't the energy to be otherwise if that is the case.

This is not to say that I trust everything I read. I have read too much history to trust history textbooks, for example. That's part of why I have posited, here, that history is discoverable rather than known: making allowances not only for those periods and places for which we have no records, but for the fact that people do sometimes tell lies and make mistakes.


Some mistakes being worse than others.

So, that's basically what I plan to do: go from the ground up, be as fair-minded as I can, and lay out exactly what Catholics think as accessibly as possible. I am coming from a specifically Anglo-Roman perspective of the Catholic faith, and doubtless won't do full justice to the East, but I will do my best not to present things in exclusionarily Roman, still less post-Anglican, terms. I may also continue explaining why I don't use this or that argument, or do so differently, mostly because I want to do justice to unbelief -- partly because of my own experience of it, and partly in imitation of the honesty of Pope Benedict in his Introduction to Christianity. If this is about finding truth, rather than just winning, then doing justice is the first necessity.

Here goes!


*Both the lectionary and the numbering of Sundays in the Anglican Use are different from those in the standard form of the Roman Rite. The lesson is the technical name for the first reading.

**Other examples would be Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens.

***I figure this is the proper pluralization of brain-in-a-vat. I suppose it's a little odd to imagine several brains all suspended in one large vat, but then again I suppose it's no odder than imagining one brain suspended in a vat (because, really, why?). In any case, brain-in-a-vats sounded stupid, and brains-in-vats has a dissatisfying rhythm to me.