Archive for the ‘Theology’ Category


“As he showed them real hands and a real side, he really ate with his disciples; really walked with Cleophas; conversed with men with a real tongue; really reclined at supper; with real hands took bread, blessed and broke it, and was offering it to them. ..Do not put the power of the Lord on the level with the tricks of magicians, so that he may appear to have been what he was not, and may be thought to have eaten without teeth, walked without feet, broken bread without hands, spoken without a tongue, and showed a side which had no ribs.” (St Jerome, from a letter to Pammachius against John of Jerusalem 34, 5th century)

In a few weeks, they went from a broken group of disappointed men and women, hiding behind locked doors in an upper room, to fervent evangelists, ready to proclaim their faith out loud in the synagogue and the marketplace, and to die for it if they needed to do so.

To me, this seems strong evidence that they believed they had witnessed everything that Jerome talks about above. Their belief in the resurrection makes sense of the survival of Christianity past its early start as a persecuted minority favoured by the lowest classes. Does this ‘prove’ the resurrection? No, of course not. You are free to believe with the disciples or not to believe. Does it explain the reason for the resurrection? No, again. For that, we look to the Church, and 2000 years of meditation from devout, thoughtful, and intelligent men and women.

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Last week, Leah Libresco’s blog on Patheos, Unequally Yoked, made an announcement that has caused considerable discussion around the Catholic blogosphere – and, I gather, the atheist blogosphere as well. In her last post on the Atheist portal, she explains the moment (over the weekend before Easter) at which she realised that her thoughts and research had brought her to past a decision point. Then she tells us what happened next.

After I changed my mind, I decided to take a little time to make sure I really believed what I thought I believed, before telling my friends, family, and, now, all of you.  That left me with the question of what to do about my atheism blog.  My solution was to just not write anything I disagreed with.  Enough of my friends had accused me of writing in a crypto-Catholic style that I figured no one would notice if I were actually crypto-Catholic for a month and a half (i.e. everything from “Upon this ROC…” on) .  That means you already have a bit of a preview of what has and hasn’t changed.  I’m still confused about the Church’s teachings on homosexuality, I still need to do a lot of work to accept gifts graciously, and I still love steam engines.

Starting tomorrow, this blog is moving to the the Patheos Catholic channel (the url and RSS will remain unchanged).  Meanwhile, I’m in RCIA classes at a DC parish, so you can look forward to more Parsing Catholicism tags (and after the discussion of universalism we had last week, I think it will be prudent to add a “Possibly Heretical” category).

In more recent posts, Leah responds to those who have commented on the reasons she has given for her conversion. I haven’t had time to read all the posts yet, let alone the comments, but I’m very much struck by a comment that she quotes in Wednesday’s post. Scott, an atheist commenter says:

If I were a weird quasi-Platonist virtue ethicist, converting to Catholicism would probably be my next step too. And if I were a weird quasi-Platonist Catholic, perhaps I would feel a need to follow virtue ethics. And if I were a quasi-Platonist virtue ethicist Catholic, I might well follow it up by becoming weird. So that’s one local maximum / attractor. And I’m pretty happy as a reductionist atheist consequentialist, so that’s a good local maximum too.

That raises the disturbing possibility that I and a conservative Catholic might be equally smart, know all the same arguments, and just have ended up at two different local maxima. And that we may both be totally justified in rejecting all individual arguments against our positions, while the only genuinely convincing argument – the entire worldview of the other person – is too complicated to fit in our brains at once.

Yes, exactly. That’s some of what I was driving at months ago in posts about iceberg thinking and realm of meaning knowledge.

Leah says:

…it’s part of the answer to the “Why Catholic?” question that people want me to tackle.  I ended up pretty confident (for reasons that I’ll flesh out in other posts) that both atheism and Catholicism were local maxima in exactly the way Scott describes.  This is also the precis of why I didn’t just pick a nice religion like Deism or UU or certain Protestantism, as some commenters have asked.  I didn’t think they seemed coherent and consistent enough.

Yes, again.

We visited a newly atheist relative while we were up North. We stayed largely off the subject of religion till she raised it herself, and took offence when my beloved commented that we are all on our own journey. She indignantly proclaimed that she had reached her final destination; that her decision to leave the Church had been made on rational grounds after research into the basic facts. I don’t doubt for a moment that she made her decision only after long – and no doubt agonising – thought. Yet, as I pointed out to her, other people (myself among them) have carefully considered the same basic facts and drawn quite different and opposite conclusions. Who is to say that she is right and I am wrong (or, for that matter, that I am right and she is wrong)? At this point in our personal journeys, we are simply in different local maxima; standing – to use the analogy from Leah’s post – on different peaks.

I like the view from my peak, and I’m glad to the join the many others who welcome Leah up here with us.

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Those planning to attend the 2012 Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne this coming weekend might want to change their tickets to stay on for the event that follows.

The Reason for Faith Festival ‘invites you to join the public conversation on the questions’ the Global Atheist Convention raises.  Scroll down their page for some resources to add to your viewing/reading list.

Here’s one of them:

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In the last few days, as I’ve been packing boxes at Mum’s, I’ve been thinking about the faith, belief, knowledge discussion we were having before I went away. I still agree that these are three different things, but I still think that it is too narrow a definition of knowledge to insist on confining it to something that relies on empirical evidence, and I still think that the kind of heart knowledge (or realm of meaning knowledge, or iceberg thinking knowledge) that I’ve been trying to describe is poorly represented by the term belief.

I think I’ve got an illustration that might help to show what I mean. I have a husband that I love dearly, and he loves me and wishes only the best for me.

The second part of that sentence is a statement of belief: I believe that my husband loves me. I have reasons for my belief, but the evidence that forms part of those reasons could be interpreted in other ways. For example, he may treat me with affection because he has been programmed to do so, or because behaving in the ways he does brings him rewards. but I don’t think this is true; I think he loves me.

The last part of the sentence is a statement of faith: I have faith in his good will toward me. Again, I have reasons for my faith, but it is, none the less, faith – a decision on my part to interpret whatever he does in the light of my belief in his love.

The first part of the sentence is a statement of knowledge. It is knowledge in two different ways; one of which you can share as knowledge (through empirical proof), and one which you can only share as belief. First, I know I have a husband. I could imagine a scenario in which that knowledge was wrong (perhaps because I was delusional, or dreaming). But I don’t give any credence to such scenarios. The existence of my husband is – to me – a matter of knowledge. You’ve never met him, and can choose to think I’m lying or wrong. However, if your view on the matter was sufficiently important, I can provide empirical evidence for the truth of my knowledge by arranging for you to meet him. Second, I know I love my husband. In this second case, I could offer you various forms of evidence, but you might choose to interpret that evidence to mean something else. For you, my love for my husband is, and must remain, a matter of faith or a matter of belief. But just because you can’t share my knowledge doesn’t change the reality that for me my love for my husband is a matter of knowledge.

Finally, there is the question of truth. Where do faith, belief, and knowledge intersect with truth? I believe that the statement I made about my husband is true, every bit of it. It is a truth – the parts I can prove, and the parts I can’t. It is not, of course, more than a tiny fraction of truth.

I believe that – as Mulder says – the truth is out there. Sometimes, we may come close to apprehending truth in some way or another – some aspect of it, in any case. Mostly the human condition has to manage on small fractions of truth made up of a mixed up soup of faith, belief, knowledge, hope, and miscomprehension. I suspect that anyone who thinks that they know the truth – about God or anything else – has an inflated view of their own capacity and a deflated view of the scope of the question. The best I can hope for is to know a truth or two or three. And to keep on learning.

Thank you, by the way, for your good wishes and prayers for my Mum. She is much improved; so much so that the specialist we saw last Friday used the ‘m’ word. They made them tough in the 1920s.

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Darwin Catholic has been exploring the question: “What is faith and who has it?”

He’s following on from a discussion on Unequally Yoked, where Leah critiqued two common responses from Christians to the John Loftus challenge on defining faith:

Christian theists make two claims about faith:

  1. That atheists define the concept of faith wrong, and
  2. That atheists have faith just like Christian theists do.

So here’s my challenge: Define faith in such a way that it fulfills both requirements!

(Darwin has links to both Unequally Yoked and John Loftus, if you want to see the discussions.)

Darwin sets out “to suggest a few clarifying thoughts, though not a complete answer to the questions posed.” First, he gives the Catholic Encyclopaedia definition. Darwin comments:

…faith in this sense necessarily presupposes belief. I can hardly have faith in my wife’s love (as in, trust in its existence and steadfastness) if I don’t really believe that I have a wife or don’t really believe that she loves me. When Christians talk about “having faith” however, they’re pretty specifically talking about “having faith in God” — that combination of believing in God’s existence and of trusting in God to remain steadfast and trustworthy in His love for us.

So one sense in which Christians might say that atheists also “have faith” is that in which atheists perform a similar action (they believe in some thing and that it may be relied upon steadfastly) but in reference to different objects: loved ones, friends, science, progress, etc. Clearly saying one “has faith in” any of these things would carry somewhat different meaning, because these are different kinds of things, but arguably there is some commonality in the type of action which “having faith” in any one of these things might be.

Darwin goes on to talk further about faith being an action. He suggests, if I am paraphrasing him correctly, that faith is an act of the will to construe the evidence in one way, and not another.

Take Darwin’s example of his faith in his wife. He suggests (in the comment stream) that if he came home to find his wife in bed with the pool guy, the evidence would be such that he would lose faith in his wife. But what if he was told by a neighbour that the pool guy’s car had been parked outside his house for an hour and a half – and he doesn’t even have a pool? If he has faith in his wife, he can construe this evidence in a number of ways – that the car was broken down, that his wife is investigating the feasability of a pool to present him with a coherent plan, that the pool guy or his wife or both brought their kids over to play. If he doesn’t have faith in his wife, he might imagine some other scenarios.

To me, the question is not faith in the existence of God. That there is a god or gods – some divine presence that underpins existence in this world – is not (for me) a question of faith, but a matter of knowledge. It’s iceberg thinking. It sits within what Gaita calls the realm of meaning, and what others have called Poetic Knowledge. It just is. God exists, just as the floor beneath my feet exists. To disbelieve would be to have no faith in myself, in my own senses, intelligence, coherence, and ability to interpret sensory information. And if I disbelieve God, then I might as well disbelieve the floor – one depends as much as the other on my physical and intellectual apprehension of what is.

(I know others have deduced ‘god’ from the world – there is a long tradition of such deductions. They might be said to have faith in that sense of belief.  I don’t have that kind of faith.)

The question about which I exercise faith is whether the god or gods I apprehend is/are the God of Abraham and Isaac, of Mary and Elizabeth, of Peter and Paul, of St Thomas and St Theresa. Now that is definitely a question of choosing how to interpret the evidence. Is God good? That’s another one. Is God interested in us? All of these are faith questions that make sense to me (and that I think I have provisional interpretations of the data for).

It may be that, in the future, I’ll find evidence that shows the evidence I’ve seen so far in a new light – a light that causes me to completely reinterpret my current belief structure. It has happened before. That’s why I became a Christian; it’s why I became a Catholic. I can imagine such a scenario. I don’t expect it to happen (any more than I expect to come home and find my husband in bed with the pool guy – and no, we don’t have  a pool either). However, I concede that my expectations may be confounded. If you go looking for Truth you have to expect to be surprised from time to time.

But if it does, it’ll give me a new idea of who or what God is, because I don’t have faith that God exists, though I do have faith in His goodness, His mercy, and His interest in this contentious and troublesome species of ours on this insignificant ball of rock in one corner of a not particularly spectacular galaxy.

So here’s the definition I would offer in response to John Loftus’s challenge: faith is a choice to interpret the available evidence in a way that supports your contention.

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I’ve read two posts in the last week challenging the idea that we are fundamentally souls who currently have bodies, as much popular piety appears to suggest.

David Schultz touches on the topic in his post: Is it the Church’s mission to ‘get people into heaven‘?

And Bad Catholic, in a post called How Descartes Ruined Sex, suggests that sex is made pallid, unappealling, and unhealthy by a philosophy that separates body and soul.


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I had tea yesterday with a great theologian,
and he asked me,
“What is your experience of God’s will?”
I liked that question –
for the distillation of thought hones thought in others.
Clarity, I know, is freedom.
What is my experience of God’s will?
Everyone is a traveler.  Most all need lodging, food,
and clothes.
I let enter my mouth what will enrich me.  I wear what
will make my eye content,
I sleep where I will
wake with the
strength to
all my mind can
What is God’s will for a wing?
Every bird knows

~ St. Teresa of Avila ~

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Tim Muldoon, in the fifth part of his series on Sex and Christianity, explores the link between sex and religion. Here’s part of what he says:

Catholics are sex- and God-obsessed in equal measure because they have, over history, tasted the depth of both of those expressions of desire. And they understand on some deep communal level, buried under centuries of tradition and the conspiracy (Latin “breathing together”) of shared desire, that getting sex right means a good deal toward getting God right, and that conversely getting sex wrong will almost certainly mean getting God wrong. For sex is never only about bodies, and the human grasp of God can never wholly abstracted from bodies. Ours is an incarnational faith, meaning that Christ’s taking on of human flesh meant everything that human flesh signifies. Christ’s transformation of that human experience means, among other things, the transformation of sex, too—not the abolition of it, not the running away from it, not the stingy finger-wagging in the direction of any talk about it. No: the transformation of sex from something merely titillating, exciting, endorphin-producing, into something that drives us closer and closer to sanctity, because through it we mysteriously reach out to others in love.

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To me, one of the most compelling reasons to believe in a spiritual world teaming with non-corporeal created beings is the sheer fecundity of the physical world.

Non-life takes an uncountable number of forms, from stars to cliff faces to snow flakes. And life is even more variant. Every environmental niche we know has one or more species – estimates suggest up to 100 million species on this planet alone. And that variety is compounded by the differences between individuals within species.

Why would a God who created such a rich physical world not create an equally rich non-corporeal world? And if there are more dimensions than the few we are conscious of, why should they not be burgeoning with their own life forms?

Of course, such ecosystems may be right alongside us, and totally undetected and undetectable.And about non-sentient non-corporeal beings I have no comment to make apart from noting I see no reason against them.

However, when it comes to sentient non-corporeal beings, the human story, and the Judeo-Christian story, is full of reports of ‘leakage’ from that reality to this; of non-corporeal beings showing themselves in a corporeal seeming – perhaps by directly affecting the mind of the viewer (since often the viewer is in company, and the others see nothing).

What we know about such non-corporeal beings doesn’t necessarily accord with the caricatures of halos and wings (on the one hand) and horns and a tail (on the other). There are stories of bright lights, of multiple eyes, of wheels within wheels, and other manifestations. In my own experience, it has been a matter of sensation rather than vision – a sense of overwhelming comfort; a bottomless dread.

However, if they can affect our minds in such a way that we ‘see’ them, then it seems to follow that most of us would cloth the ‘seeing’ according to our own preconceptions.

CS Lewis and Madeleine L’Engle, among others, have put this concept into fiction, writing about angelic beings we can’t perceive until they change their interface with our physical universe to make themselves detectable. In Perelandra, CS Lewis describes how two energy-beings (the eldils who personify Mars and Venus) present themselves to do honour to Venus’ new king and queen:

The very faint light—the almost imperceptible alteration in the visual field—which betokens an eldil vanished suddenly. The rosy peaks and the calm pool vanished also. A tornado of sheer monstrosities seemed to be pouring over Ransom. Darting pillars filled with eyes, lightning pulsations of flame, talons and beaks and billowy masses of what suggested snow, volleyed through cubes and heptagons into an infinite black void. ‘Stop it… stop it,’ he yelled, and the scene cleared. He gazed round blinking on the field of lilies, and presently gave the eldila to understand that this kind of appearance was not suited to human sensations. ‘Look then on this,’ said the voices again. And he looked with some reluctance, and far off between the peaks on the other side of the little valley there came rolling wheels. There was nothing but that—concentric wheels moving with a rather sickening slowness one inside the other. There was nothing terrible about them if you could get used to their appalling size, but there was also nothing significant. He bade them to try yet a third time. And suddenly two human figures stood before him on the opposite side of the lake.

They were taller than the Sorns, the giants whom he had met on Mars. They were perhaps thirty feet high. They were burning white like white-hot iron. The outline of their bodies when he looked at it steadily against the red landscape seemed to be faintly, swiftly undulating as though the permanence of their shape, like that of waterfalls or flames, co-existed with a rushing movement of the matter it contained. For a fraction of an inch inward from this outline the landscape was just visible through them: beyond that they were opaque.

Whenever he looked straight at them they appeared to be rushing toward him with enormous speed: whenever his eyes took in their surroundings he realized that they were stationary. This may have been due in part to the fact that their long and sparkling hair stood out straight behind them as if in a great wind. But if there were a wind it was not made of air, for no petal of the flowers was shaken. They were not standing quite vertically in relation to the floor of the valley: but to Ransom it appeared… that the eldils were vertical. It was the valley—it was the whole world of Perelandra—which was aslant. He remembered the words of Oyarsa long ago in Mars, ‘I am not here in the same way you are here.’ It was borne in upon him that the creatures were really moving, though not moving in relation to him. This planet which inevitably seemed to him while he was in it an unmoving world—the world, in fact—was to them a thing moving through the heavens. In relation to their own celestial frame of reference they were rushing forward to keep abreast of the mountain valley. Had they stood still, they would have flashed past him too quickly for him to see, doubly dropped behind the planet’s spin on its own axis and by its onward march around the Sun.

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Blessed John Henry Newman answers Mr Badger’s question about which part of the reality of God we are meant to reflect:

God has created me to do him some definite service:
He has committed some work to me which he has not committed to another.

I have my mission – I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next.

Somehow I am necessary for his purposes.
I have a great part in his work; I am a link in the chain, a bond of connection between persons.
He has not created me for nothing.

I shall do good. I shall do his work: I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, while not intending it, if I but keep his commandments and serve him in my calling.

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