Introit for the Third Sunday in Lent

Mine eyes are ever looking unto the Lord, for he shall pluck my feet out of the net: look thou upon me, and have mercy upon me, for I am desolate and in misery.
Unto thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul: my God, in thee have I trusted; let me not be confounded.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

Friday, May 10, 2013

All Roads Lead To, Part II: The Blasphemous Saint

For Part I, go here.

I am eliding much of my history for the sake of clarity. Human lives are jumbled together, like adventures in Neverland, and it is only by examination or preoccupation that we come to notice its patterns -- patterns that are really there, but shy and retiring. I started building the Castle (discussed in my last) when I was fifteen; work continued, with a few important modifications, for the next two or three years.

Considering how rationalistic I was, and how much motivation I had to abandon Christianity as a left-leaning gay man, it may seem odd to some readers that I didn't become an atheist. Actually I was an atheist for about twelve hours; but my reasons for that were irrational -- not the sort that would likely interest a lot of atheists: my faith just fell away from me for that short space. I didn't know why then, and I don't know why now. My equally unexpected journey back into the faith might possibly interest them, not because of any interest in Christianity on their part, but because the return journey was rational; my abrupt conversion to atheism was, if you will, entirely mystical.

I'd like, though, to stop and examine atheism for a moment. Its contribution to the human conversation is important. The habit displayed by many Christians, of talking of atheists and their disbelief in God as though both were intellectually contemptible is disgusting to me, as well as exhibiting a shocking blindness to the history of thought; while the charge of desiring to justify immorality by their atheism is not only a violation of Christian charity, but a slander on the real conduct of the atheists I, at any rate, have known.* I'd therefore like to situate it in a more appropriate mental atmosphere for what follows.

Most atheists for the past couple of centuries have been scientific materialists; i.e., they have believed that no world exists except that which is known through our five senses and can be analyzed mathematically. The implications of this worldview, sometimes called scientism, are profound, and subtly affect the religious as well as the irreligious -- I think it's why so many devout believers tend to scoff at the Catholic view of the sacraments -- but these implications need not detain us. The psychic, spiritual, and divine planes are by this scientistic view taken for granted to be non-existent, on the grounds that the sciences show no evidence of their existence. Why only the sciences are allowed to demonstrate anything, I cannot answer for; it has not been demonstrated by science.

I personally find scientism totally incredible, chiefly for the logical reason set forth by the biologist J. B. S. Haldane: "If my mental processes are determined wholly by the motion of atoms in my brain I have no reason to suppose that my beliefs are true ... And hence I have no reason for supposing my brain to be composed of atoms." But it's worth noting as an example that Haldane, an atheist himself, was not deterred from his atheism by his rejection (in this quote, anyway) of scientism. The commonplace belief that departing from scientific materialism amounts to converting to Christianity, is a fantasy. The human mind is capable of more than two categories of beliefs.

I think that the real and vigorous case for atheism lies elsewhere. It has sometimes been said, almost casually, that the problem of evil is the only real argument against the existence of God. It does happen to be the only convincing one that I know of. The arguments for the existence of God, and why they convinced me, are something I will get to later.

When I say that the problem of evil is a real argument against the existence of God, I mean it. I have difficulty at times believing that God is real; more often, that He is good.

C. S. Lewis says, in Miracles, that a certain author's apologetic "nearly admits parodying in the form 'You say that the behavior attributed to the Christian God is both wicked and foolish: but it is no less likely to be true on that account for I can show that Nature (which He created) behaves just as badly.' To which the atheist will answer -- and the nearer he is to Christ in his heart, the more certainly he will do so -- 'If there is a God like that I despise and defy Him.'" Theodicy, i.e. the attempt, in Milton's phrase, "to justify the ways of God to men," is too lightly undertaken. I have come back and back to the book of Job this year, and it is the saint at the center of the book who cried out in apparent blasphemy; and the three friends who had assurance without sanctity and theology without wisdom -- against them the divine anger burned, and Job was made their intercessor. Spe Salvi** says in para. 42, "The atheism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is ... a type of moralism: a protest against the injustices of the world and of world history. A world marked by so much injustice, innocent suffering, and cynicism of power cannot be the work of a good God. A God with responsibility for such a world would not be a just God ... It is for the sake of morality that this God has to be contested." The sentimental defenses of God, that invoke His compassion upon the suffering seemingly without noticing that He could after all put a stop to it at any moment, are despicable; the more philosophical defenses of God, that make Him a sort of Chessmaster, may be more credible but do not cease to horrify.

What then? Is there no defense to be lodged for God?

Well, we might consider that. According to the Bible, in all human myth and history together, God has suffered Himself to be cross-examined twice: once by Job, and once in the small hours of Good Friday. On the first occasion, He replied only in irrelevant and terrible riddles; on the second, the riddles were a little less terrible -- "Are you saying this of your own accord, or did someone else tell you this about Me?"

But the question that Pilate raised then -- "What then shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?" -- remains; or, to put it in His words, "Who do you say that I am?" When the question is not one of defending God from others, but of what charges of existence, or non-existence, or irresponsible existence we may choose to level against Him, in the privacy of our own spirits: then the matter changes.

I ultimately decided to leave the mystery of iniquity a mystery, for four reasons.

1) I did examine the arguments for the existence of God, and, in total, found them persuasive. Whatever problems might follow from that, I would deal with on their own terms; the conclusion that God was real was inseparable from the rules I had set myself to think with, combined with the data I had available.

2) I did ingest some of the intellectual theodicies I poured such scorn upon earlier in this post, and, at the time, found them comforting and satisfying. It's been a long time since I thought they were anything like a complete answer; but to the extent that the problem is intellectual, an intellectual response is appropriate, and they were consistent arguments. Those, I shall treat of in a later post. But I must admit, one part of that partial defense was the honest recognition that I couldn't wash my hands of the mystery of iniquity. They were soiled with it; any charge I leveled against God had to include myself, for things I knew I'd done that I knew had no excuse. This did not eliminate the moral question, but it did eliminate the knee-jerk assumption that I had the moral high ground.

3) I was still a Christian nearly all this time. And there, in the middle of Christianity, was the crucifix. A bleeding Deity, a dying Deity; a Deity who died with a complaint on His lips that God had abandoned even Him. Beyond my belief in His personal presence at every point in time and space, such that He suffers every pain ever inflicted -- even beyond that, there hung the God-Man, crying out in anguish with the language of an atheist. An answer to the problem of evil? No. But did I find a Divine Passion answerable? Also no.

4) This last reason was really more of a wager; like Pascal's. Whatever else is true, the world always has been full of the most terrible suffering. I could choose either to believe that it had a meaning that I did not understand, or that it had no meaning. It was Christianity, or at any rate religion, that offered the possibility of the first; it was scientific materialism in particular, and atheism more generally, that offered the second. Given the choice, I would take meaning.

Once again this was not an argument, properly speaking. But, like the crucifix, the concrete sign of contradiction, of which this wager between contraries was an abstract shadow, it gave me the space to stop and listen more closely to the arguments proper.

*This is not to say that I have not known atheists sometimes to be jerks. That, however, is a separate problem, and jerkdom is notable for being open to all creeds.
**Spe Salvi, or Saved In Hope, was the second encyclical of then-Pope Benedict XVI, issued in 2007.

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