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.


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.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Three English Martyrs

I'm a member of the Ordinariate of the Chair of Peter, which is the American group for Episcopal/Anglican Christians who want to be reconciled with the Catholic Church, while retaining their distinctive heritage. You may have heard of (or noticed in my Warning Labels on the right) the Anglican Use; basically the same thing.* It was founded by Pope Benedict a few years ago, and includes Ordinariates in Great Britain, North America, and Australia: Our Lady of Walsingham, the Chair of Peter, and Our Lady of the Southern Cross, respectively. An Ordinariate is a little bit like a diocese, in that our Ordinary is our chief authority, and also a little like a rite, in that our liturgical, historical, and spiritual distinctives are, uh, distinctive -- we have our own character. (In terms of jurisdiction, we're part of the Roman Rite, which makes up the majority of the Catholic Church in this country, though our Mass is significantly different from the norm of the Roman Rite.)

Our Lady of Walsingham, one of most important shrines to the Virgin in England
from 1061 until 1538, when it was looted and burned under Henry VIII.

Today is a memorial in the Ordinariate (though not on the standard Roman calendar) dedicated to three sainted martyrs under Queen Elizabeth I: Margaret Clitherow, Margaret Ward, and Anne Line.

Saint Margaret Clitherow was a convert to Catholicism at the age of eighteen in 1574. She concealed priests in her house (a practice which her husband permitted despite his remaining a Protestant; one of his brothers was a Catholic cleric). 

However, in 1586, the hiding places were found out, and Margaret was taken to be tried. She refused to plead, and the practice at the time in these situations was to force the defendant to plea by crushing them with stones until they did so. She remained steadfast in her refusal to plead -- innocent would mean she had not hidden the priests, and guilty would mean she admitted herself in the wrong for doing it -- and was ultimately crushed to death (rather like Giles Corey, who was impressive enough to make a Cracked list by so doing). The day of her death was both the Solemnity of the Annunciation (March 25th) and, it so happened that year, Good Friday. The Queen, on hearing of the matter, wrote a letter to York, the home of the Clitherows, expressing her horror at their actions.

Saint Margaret Ward (whose family may have been recusants**) was a servant to an aristocratic family living in London around the same time. She heard of the maltreatment of an imprisoned Catholic priest, Fr. Richard Watson, and obtained permission to visit him; eventually, in 1588, she was able to smuggle some rope to him, and he escaped.

As his only visitor, she was arrested, and tortured by being kept in iron, hung by her hands, and flogged, but Margaret persistently refused to say anything about Fr. Watson's whereabouts. At her trial, she frankly admitted what she had done and rejoiced in it. She was offered a pardon if she would attend a Protestant service, but refused to do so, and was hanged on this day in that year.

Saint Anne Line was another convert to the Catholic faith: the daughter of a Puritan, she was disinherited for her decision. Her husband, Roger Line, was first imprisoned and then exiled for his own conversion. Anne was put in charge of a house for priests by its founder, an imprisoned Jesuit, and people gathered there to hear Mass.

In 1601, on Candlemas***, her operation was discovered due to the large crowd that came to celebrate the feast. Despite the fact that her health was so bad she had to be carried into the courtroom, she boldly defended her actions at her trial; before she was hanged, she declared to the crowd, "I am sentenced to die for harboring a Catholic priest, and so far I am from repenting for having done so, that I wish, with all my soul, that where I have entertained one, I could have entertained a thousand."

All three were canonized by Pope Paul VI, and are the only women among the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales (commemorated as a group on May 4th). Their memorial is, to my mind, particularly poignant now, while the Islamic State is exiling and murdering Christians in northern Iraq for no offense except their faith. That is exactly what happened to these three. Not one of them was accused of anything that could rightly be called criminal: they had done no harm to their neighbors, nor encouraged others to do so; indeed, because of their assistance in protecting priests and giving them means to escape imprisonment, it may be justly said that they were injured for objecting to injury rather than for inflicting it.

I have no idea what to do as far as opposing the IS goes, except to pray. Even as a pacifist I am inclined to despise the useless waffling of the government on the subject -- not because I want the state to resort to violence in defending the Christians there (I don't), but because I want them to do something rather than nothing. And who knows, perhaps some even among our officials are praying. But -- and although it is certainly not an answer to unjust suffering -- I take some small encouragement from the bravery of these women, who helped keep the Catholic faith alive during a time of senseless brutality, and recollect Tertullian's dictum: Sanguis martyrum semen Ecclesiae, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." When two thousand years of persecutions, here and there, there and here, have not managed to exterminate Christianity, the tactics of the IS do begin to look a bit pigheaded.****

Saints Margaret Clitherow, Anne Line, and Margaret Ward, pray for us.

*Basically. However, the Anglican Use is actually older than the Ordinariates -- it originated under St. John Paul II in 1980, as a pastoral accommodation for Episcopal communities that were joining the Catholic Church but wished to keep their clergy, some of whom, being married, would not normally have been eligible for Holy Orders in the Roman Rite. These communities, though they kept their own way of doing a lot of things, were received into full communion with Rome and incorporated into the local diocese (or so I understand). When the Ordinariates, which are relatively independent structures, came into being, some of the pre-existing Anglican Use parishes joined, while others remained attached to their local dioceses.

**Recusancy was a legal term, referring to refusal to attend Anglican services, which were mandated by law, beginning during the reign of Elizabeth I and lasting until their repeal in 1650 under Oliver Cromwell. Penalties for recusancy could include fines, confiscation of property, and even imprisonment; nonetheless, there were many Catholic recusants in England and Wales during this time, including a great number of families of the nobility -- notably the Howards, whose scion Catherine became the fifth wife (or at any rate consort) of Henry VIII, and the Mores, the family of the martyred Thomas. Yorkshire, from which St. Margaret Clitherow came, was one major center of underground Catholicism during the Tudor and Stuart eras.

***Candlemas is the Anglican name for the Feast of the Presentation, so called because it was on this feast that candles were traditionally blessed for church use. It has been preserved in the Anglican Use.

****To say nothing of being inconsistent with the Quran. The IS, or ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), has drawn fire from fellow Moslems of various traditions and ethnicities for precisely this reason. It is true that historical Moslem practice has accorded a second-class status, called dhimma, to non-Moslems living in Moslem countries -- which is perhaps not so very unlike the effects of anti-Semitism in Mediaeval Christendom, but that need not detain us for now -- but the Quran explicitly states that there is to be "no compulsion in religion" (Sura 2), and a hadith of the Prophet himself states that "Whoever killed a Mu'ahid [i.e., one granted a pledge of protection by Moslems, such as the tradition of dhimma grants] shall not smell the fragrance of Paradise though its fragrance can be smelt at a distance of forty years of traveling."

Monday, August 25, 2014

Loneliness and Dunbar's Number

I have, to my lasting regret, not raved much before about David Wong, novelist and esteemed author of many Cracked articles (like this one and this one). I bought his debut book John Dies At the End just shy of a year ago now, and have since read it five or six times, because it's that good. Thanks to my folks, I have now also received and read his second novel, This Book Is Full of Spiders. I'd been slightly nervous to get it, because I liked John Dies so much I was afraid he wouldn't be able to pull off something of the same magnitude again. I had the same fear when I heard that J. K. Rowling had written a second Harry Potter book: "Please," I thought, "everything about Sorcerer's Stone was so great, and so neatly resolved, it doesn't need this -- she's obviously been pressured by the publisher or someone into cashing in on its popularity with a cheap sequel. But just in case, I'll go ahead and read this Chamber of Secrets thing." Which I then liked even better than the original. Now, I'll admit that I still like John Dies better than Spiders, but the latter put up some fierce competition, and I have a feeling that it too might eventually assume a place on the Whiskey Shelf.*

Warning: You may have a huge, invisible spider living in your skull. THIS IS NOT A METAPHOR. -- David Wong

Anyway, the reason I bring it up, aside from urging you all to go buy a copy of This Book Is Full of Spiders (and in all likelihood having some extraordinarily creative nightmares for a while), is that he cited a factoid that fascinated me. The town the book is set is has been quarantined following a zombie outbreak -- and, sidebar, it's worth noting that in a genre as old, popular, and market-saturated as zombie fiction, Wong still manages to produce something actually inventive and pretty scary -- and one of the characters is explaining something to the narrator:
"The restraint that governs human ambition isn't a lack of a unified language. It's Dunbar's number. Named after a British anthropologist named Robin Dunbar. He studied primate brains, and their behavior in groups. And he found something that will change the way you think about the world. He found that the larger the primate's neocortex, the larger the communities it formed. It takes a lot of brain to process all of the relationships in a complex society, you see. When primates find themselves in groups larger than what their brains can handle, the system breaks down. Factions form. Wars break out. Now, and do pay attention, because this is crucial -- you can actually look at a primate brain and, knowing nothing else about what species in came from, you can predict how big their tribes are. 
"... The salient issue here is that every primate has a number." Marconi gestured to the crowd gathering outside the fence. "Including those primates out there. Including you and I. Based on the size of a human's neocortex, that number is about a hundred and fifty. That's how many other humans we can recognize before we max out our connections. With some variability among individuals, of course. That is our maximum capacity for sympathy." 
I stared at him. I said, "Wait, really? Like there's an actual part of our brain that dictates how many people we can tolerate before we start acting like assholes?" 
"Congratulations, now you know the single reason why the world is the way it is. You see the problem right away -- everything we do requires cooperation in groups larger than a hundred and fifty. ... So every moment of the day we urgently try to separate everyone into two groups -- those inside the sphere of sympathy and those outside. Black versus white, liberal versus conservative, Muslim versus Christian, Lakers fan versus Celtics fan. ... 
"And here is the key -- those who lie outside the circle are not human. We lack the capacity to recognize them as such. This is why you feel worse about your girlfriend cutting her finger than you do about an earthquake in Afghanistan that kills a hundred thousand people. This is what makes genocide possible."**
This got me thinking, a bad habit that I've never quite been able to shake. The book of Acts records that, at the Ascension, there were a hundred and twenty disciples (probably a round number -- given for its symbolic significance as a multiple of twelve, that being the number that Scripture typically uses to signify the chosen people of God). This lies neatly within Dunbar's number*** for social groups, as if the primitive Church had been designed to experience itself first as a tightly-knit yet expansive community -- a Church that was catholic.

The narrative thereafter shows the various ways in which the Church expanded beyond its previous boundaries of both size and composition: first her numerical expansion after Pentecost; then the evangelization of the more-or-less (but, in most Judean Jews' opinion, distinctly less) Jewish people of Samaria; then the beginnings of the mission to the Gentiles in Syria; and then, with the conversion of St. Paul, the beginnings of an evangelization of the whole Mediterranean, and the crossing from Asia to Europe, arriving at last at the center of the Empire and what had been the symbol of everything the Jews -- including the Apostles themselves -- wanted to be freed from, both politically and spiritually: Rome. As if the Holy Ghost took the Church and told her, "Alright, we're going to radically change how you relate to literally everyone in the world. So start here, where you can comfortably handle the scale of what's going on. And now a step beyond that. And now, a while later, another kind of step, beyond the previous one. And now another."

We speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained
before the world unto our glory:which none of the princes of this world knew: for had
they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. -- I Corinthians 2.7-8

From one perspective, of course, the experiment failed; I don't know that Christianity is more divided against itself than any other religion, but it has shown the ill-effects of expansion: that dissolution of empathy and receptivity known, in theological language, as schism. From another perspective, the experiment was a considerable success: it will round its two thousandth year in just about twenty years more, with a continuation not only as a spirit but as a living institution at every point -- a historical fact peculiarly well symbolized (whatever one's theology of it) by the Papacy, which is the oldest continuous institution in the world.**** That the Christian religion has managed to continue to exist, and even to recollect itself from native corruptions several times, is an impressive feat, perhaps an unrivaled one.

It's a funny phenomenon to me to think of simply running out of sympathy based on the size of a group. Running out of time, energy, patience, all of that I understand from within; and I suppose that if Dunbar's number just signifies that, practically speaking, we can only manage to know so many people, it makes sense. But it very much seems as though -- whether for pragmatic reasons or for some darker cause -- what it means is that, after that threshold, we just know too damn many people, and start not merely saying "I haven't got the resources to do you justice" but in fact saying "You don't deserve for me to do you justice."

That's super weird to me. I don't know whether it's just because it's weird to anybody, or because I've dealt so much with loneliness throughout my life, or what. But it's strange, and it's tragic. It's perfectly true that that is what allows genocide to happen, and what allows us to be so callously inattentive to, or contemptuous of, others' sufferings -- particularly if those others are far away, or look or dress or speak or behave in ways that we do not recognize or do not like, or are simply a very large group (it being a curious but, it seems, generally acknowledged phenomenon that it's easier to mourn sixteen people than sixteen million).

I wonder, too, whether there is a reverse to which Dunbar's number is the obverse: whether there is some number of people we need to know intimately, a number of relationships beneath which a person simply can't function without their humanity begin to fracture. Of course, there will always be variability. And there will always be periods when we need solitude: some people need much more solitude than others, and some people even have vocations for the long term to be recluses or hermits, though even they tend to gather visitors and disciples, not infrequently against their will. But I wonder whether there is an opposite to Dunbar's number nonetheless. It'd be entertaining if that number should happen to be three.

Or -- and this is at least as likely, based on the data at my disposal -- loneliness is just A Thing That Happens, like many Things.

Now, I'm fairly fucked up, as a person: to give you the idea, about two weeks ago now, a friend of mine, a guy I've known and respected and liked for years, asked if I was going to be at the writers' group we both go to, and when I told him yes and he said he was glad because he'd been hoping I would be there, my knee-jerk reaction was to think, Did I do something wrong and he wants to talk to me about it? Did I borrow something and he needs it back? Do I owe him money? (I borrow money approximately never.) Not something like, Oh, this person likes spending time with me, how nice. That is a hypothesis that I generally only arrive at after several minutes, though I've learnt to try positing it earlier on, if only out of a spirit of adventurous experiment. So my own way of experiencing and contemplating loneliness may not be typical, or indeed noteworthy for its sanity. But, judging from my own life and what the people I know and trust the most say, loneliness does just kind of come and go in waves, even under the best circumstances, even when all of the affection that we need is being supplied by family and friends.

My suspicion is that this is one of the signs that we were made for something more and other than human company. Loneliness is kind of like being hungry; I wonder whether perhaps it is being hungry, for God. This also is Thou, neither is this Thou, as the saying goes: God is known through every created thing, and yet He is not nor resembles any created thing. And as painful as it often is -- and it's been biting especially deep of late, for whatever reason -- there is also a strangely clean feeling to loneliness sometimes. Something that faintly resembles the feeling you get when you look up at the sky on a day when there isn't a cloud in sight, and just stare into the deserted blue.

I do think it rather interesting that the saints, the great paragons of supernatural love, have made use of both methods -- solitude on the one hand, and society far beyond Dunbar's number on the other. In a woman like Lady Julian of Norwich, we find a recluse, immured from the world as if already buried (neither is this Thou), yet whose overflowing charity and grace still guide and inspire Christians to this day.

"The Holy Ghost never urgeth any thing against charity, for if He were
to do so, He would contradict His own nature; for He is all charity."

At the other extreme, as it were, we have a figure like Blessed Mother Teresa: untiring and unresting, having traveled halfway around the world (from Albania to Ireland to India) for no other purpose than to pour herself out for others, herself secretly brimful of the darkness and pain of the Passion, yet giving every single person a smile, a prayer, a touch, making some gesture of love however small, for the sake of loving every person as Jesus -- loving Jesus in every person (this also is Thou).

"We think sometimes that poverty is only being hungry, naked and homeless. The
poverty of being unwanted, unloved and uncared for is the greatest poverty."

And the extremes meet, as any introvert who's attended a party knows well. (As Joey Prever put it once, "Everybody came over! It was great! That was three hours ago! They won't leave!") Not only can company be solitude, whether said company is in excess of a hundred and fifty people or not. It's also true that solitude can be company: not just that solitude is a relaxing break, but that there is a quality in solitude that can be as enriching and positive as a supportive, affectionate friend. It isn't always there; or, more likely, I'm not always tuned in enough to notice it. But hey. That could mean that -- just as, by training or talent or Divine grace, some people exceed the Dunbar number and care about more than a hundred and fifty people -- so too, maybe, the opposite of the Dunbar number, under the same conditions of nature or of grace, might be zero.

Hmm. This will require some beard-stroking, and possibly a raised eyebrow.

*For those not already acquainted with my personal blend of bibliomania and alcoholism: I was tired of having to get up and walk all three and a half feet from my desk to my bookshelves whenever I needed to reference something while writing, so I took an old wooden whiskey crate that I liked and makeshifted it into a bookcase for the works I use most frequently, whether for use or pleasure. Books on the Whiskey Shelf are accordingly those I most highly esteem. Most of them, other than John Dies At the End, are books that I've been familiar with for several years at least and read many times over. (Because I arranged them alphabetically by author, this means that Assuming the Position: A Memoir of Hustling is sitting right next to The Silmarillion, which I imagine must be a novel experience for both of them.)

**This Book Is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don't Touch It, pp. 295-296.

***Dunbar's number has been disputed, with some scholars setting it significantly higher. A generally accepted range, according to infallible Wikipedia, lies between 100 and 250.

****Unless the claims of the Japanese Emperors are true, in which case they predate the Bishops of Rome by about 660 years. Which I admit would be pretty awesome.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Five Quick Takes


I am feeling tired and lazy, so, even though it's been more than a week since I wrote a real post, I'm going to also not write a real post right now. You're welcome.

In the spirit of not doing things, or at any rate of not having ideas, I have been thinking hard about what content to make as a special thank-you for my Patreon sponsors, and frankly I'm stumped. About the only idea I've had thus far is to video some kind of pencil-mounted-puppet show -- thus demonstrating that a preoccupation with puppets is not the exclusive preserve of left-wing liturgical nutjobs, but in fact a temptation common to all wicked men. If you have any suggestions, patrons, I welcome them; otherwise, you're probably getting a puppet show.

Why yes, I did discover this Zoidberg meme years behind the rest of the internet.

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I am rereading Pope Benedict XVI's Introduction to Christianity, and I just can't do justice to it. The first time I read it, my reaction was primarily, I have read A Thing written by A German Academic Theologian, followed by finding something that seemed more accessible, like theoretical astrophysics. The second time, it clicked, and I loved it. And this third time, it's speaking to me even more deeply. His grasp, and vivid communication, of the act of faith -- the act of entrusting oneself to the invisible -- is helping me through a very strange and difficult period with my own faith right now, if only because it makes the difficulty less strange. Entrusting yourself to anyone or anything is, after all, a risky business, and, like any coward, I don't like it. But, like it or not, it is a problem posed to us not only by Christianity specially, but by simply being a human. To quote His Holiness (from pp. 55-57):
God has come so near to us that we can kill him and that he thereby, so it seems, ceases to be God for us. Thus today we stand somewhat baffled before this Christian "revelation" and wonder, especially when we compare it with the religiosity of Asia, whether it would not have been much simpler to believe in the Mysterious Eternal, entrusting ourselves to it in longing thought; whether God would not have done better, so to speak, to leave us at an infinite distance ... 
[I]s it still permissible to believe? Have we not a duty to break with the dream and to face reality? The Christian of today must ask himself this question; he is not at liberty to remain satisfied with finding out that ... an interpretation of Christianity can still be found that no longer offends anybody. When some theologian explains that "the resurrection of the dead" simply means that one must cheerfully set about the work of the future afresh every day, offense is certainly avoided. But are we then really still being honest? ... Let us be quite plain about it: An "interpreted" Christianity of this kind that has lost all contact with reality implies a loss of sincerity in dealing with the questions of the non-Christian, whose "perhaps not" should worry us as seriously as we want the Christian "perhaps" to worry him. 
If we try like this to accept the interrogation of the other side as the everlasting self-questioning of our own being, which cannot be reduced to a treatise and afterward laid aside, then, on the other hand, we shall have the right to observe that here a counterquestion arises. We are inclined today as a matter of course to suppose that only what is palpably present, what is "demonstrable," is truly real. But is it really permissible to do this? ... [O]r is ascertaining perhaps only one particular method of making contact with reality, one that can by no means comprehend the whole of reality and that even leads to falsification of the truth and of human existence if we assume that it is the only definitive method?
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Please, nobody tell me why Fifty Shades of Grey is popular. I am begging you.

Though I guess, if we're lucky, we might get one of these out of it:

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The terrible thing about being a writer, at any rate of fiction, is that you have to make things up. Of ideas, Douglas Adams said something like, "You can't go and rave it up in a field whenever you need one, so you just have to sit there and think of the little bastards. And if you can't think of them you just have to sit there."

I'm running into precisely this problem with the second installment of a three-part (of course) story that I'm working on, about Victorian vampires (sure) as understood through the lenses of Catholic theology (lolwut?) and esoteric alchemical symbolism (I give up). I have the characters, and about enough plot to sustain perhaps six chapters of actual action, which would be fine if the previous installment weren't something more like twenty chapters.

However hard it may be to believe, this is not only confusing when you don't understand it, it's also boring when you do.

So I have to find a way of making a whole bunch more things happen, and worse, I have to find a way that isn't cheating -- not just throwing arbitrary difficulties at my characters, but actually structuring the story so that it produces a plot that, well, takes more time.

I may have had a point when I started this take, but apparently it was not a very compelling one.

Which may not bode well for the story. Oh dear.

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After a Mass at the Basilica of the Assumption a week or two ago -- it's only a few blocks from my house, so I go there fairly regularly -- I spoke with the priest, asking him to pray for me because I was having (and continue to have) difficulty in discerning my vocation. He told me that that was related to not knowing myself adequately, and I have to admit that that makes a good deal of sense. Of course, being an introvert with a tendency to obsess over identity, I always feel that way, but it seems like it's actually objectively true here in particular. I think one of the tough things about vocations (and, coincidentally, something I don't consistently encounter when I read or hear encouragements to consider priestly and religious vocations) is that they grow from within: they are not arbitrary impositions on God's part, but flowerings of the inner character that He implanted within us in making us.

That's not to say that they develop perfectly and with no input from our own free will. Our free will is as organic as our inner character. But I suspect that one thing that makes discernment harder than it needs to be, though it will always be hard, is the tendency to think of it as trying to discover a secret God is keeping from us, rather than of trying to discover our natural place -- natural to us because He crafted our nature for that place, and vice versa.

The other thing that makes it hard is our hard hearts. That is, not just sins, but our tendency to sin, our tendency to divert our attention from God to anything else, or even to nothing at all. The fact that we are naturally drawn to God as creatures made in His image does not wholly counteract that. Earlier today, my roommate was trying to reattach the cover on his wing mirror, which had been knocked off, and gotten slightly warped in the process. Try as he might, it wouldn't quite fit in the way it was supposed to, even though it had of course been constructed for the specific purpose of fitting there. Human brokenness is like that. My brokenness is like that.