Summary of the Law (said at every Sunday Mass)

Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith: Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy soul, with all thy mind, and with all thy strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like unto it: Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.

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.


  1. Please do not cease writing. I may no comment often, but I love coming to your musings after a week adrift!

  2. Fantastic picture! It's one of my childhood nightmares, spiders where you feel most vulnerable.