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.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For instance, the Deep Ones.

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

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

Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, Giovanni Bassi, 1525

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


  1. I want to prod you. I hope that's ok.
    ...there's something, here, that I want to make sure you see. It is most clear, most biting, here: "and all the rest of the sentimental bullshit told by people who don't get it to people who can't hear it?"

    You've obviously come up against bullshit and been hurt by it. So have I, so have people I know. I tend to roll my eyes at what seem to be "easy" answers, or pat and meaningless feel-good sayings, but then I am an arrogant bitch, something I am trying to fight, and have been fighting my whole life.
    ...if my struggle against my arrogant tendencies has taught me anything so far, it is that assumptions are dangerous. With "those who don't get it" you are making a broad, sweeping, and cruel assumption. You do not know the hearts of others, nor could you. You do not know what they have seen, where or why they have found the meanings they claim, or what is at the root of what they say.

    You may disagree with them, you may call them out on failed logic, you may tell them that their words are ineffectual to people of a different mindset or experience, but what you must not do (at least, if you consider Charity a duty) is despise or denigrate them.

    So, I will put forward this question: Perhaps the people you refer to really do not "get" your perspective, or the perspective of many others, but is it not also possible that they do "get" some aspect, something that makes sense from their perspective, that you do not get?

    What if, even though they fail to see something you see, they yet see something you don't? At the very least, they deserve the same benefit of doubt that you are asking they give to those with whom they don't agree. I believe, as you seem to, that God is complex, and beyond our ability to dissect and fully comprehend. It makes sense, at least to me, that different people are able to see, or have revealed to them, different aspects of His nature. It's important to listen to those differences in all seriousness, just as we should listen, in all seriousness, to beliefs outside our faith. We may still reject what is said/believed by others, but at least we will have respected their beliefs enough to actually reject them.

    Also, that is a crazy-awesome puppy.

    1. Isn't it, though?

      I'm quite sure that there are a great number people who strike *me* as being insufferable, who yet have insight into God that I do not. And, for that matter, I'm more than willing to recognize that the difference between my grit-laden and sarcastic outlook on spiritual matters on the one hand, and what I find a syrupy, pious cutesiness on the other, is very largely a question of taste and personal style -- not a question of real spiritual depth. To take St Therese for an example, it has taken me a while to like her and, with that, to be willing to get to know her, partly because the side of her that I most often and most emphatically saw for a while was the Precious Moments side; but it never (so far as I recall) crossed my mind to suppose her to be of any less sanctity or brilliance on that account -- she just didn't happen to appeal to me, until I had seen more to her, partly by happy accident.

      What I particularly had in mind, though, was not simply the sugary style that I so dislike. That, though it obviously isn't for me, is of course no sin. What I was thinking of was:

      1) Those people who are, literally, driven away from Christianity (in however small a degree) by getting the impression that the Church does, should, and wishes to consist in only such people. It is well to have a diversity of tongues, if only lest the catholicity of the Church be obscured by a parody her unity -- which, sadly, does happen.

      2) Certainly there are people who recite trite phrases, not because they imagine them to be helpful, but because they were helped by them. And I'll admit that I have been greatly helped by many truths that I have here proclaimed inadequate *by themselves* to constitute an answer or to bring comfort. But there are those -- whose victims many, perhaps most, of us have sometimes been -- who are perfectly willing to play Job's comforters, using stock phrases that would do less than nothing even if they did understand their meaning from within, and even willing to scorn and punish people for whom these phrases don't do anything. The idea that such-and-such a formula would help if the person listening to it just had real faith, whether implied or outright expressed, is the animating malice that is my real target; and for that kind of self-righteousness, I'm inclined to think no language is too harsh: "For they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers."

      Of course, no one is immune to that temptation, and I can utter no rebuke to sins of self-righteousness that is not a rebuke to myself. I hope, and also think, that I have grown up a lot since then, but, within a few years of my first conversion experience as a child, I was about as insufferably self-righteous as a person can get without being immediately strangled by anyone in a two mile radius.

      It may well be that I was overly harsh, too. It wouldn't be the first time, I am sorry to say. But I was careful to observe the principle of not naming anyone whom I consider guilty of such a sin; I said what I thought of the sin, but not of the sinner: it is, as you say, beyond my rights and my powers either to read hearts or to claim that I do. I would hope that a post like this can afford worthwhile material for conscientious reflection; but that is every reader's responsibility, and I can't pry into it.

    2. I do not disagree. The damage done by that kind of religious myopia is everywhere, and yes, I've been guilty of it, too... often on the flip side, because I have found comfort in things that others consider cynical. Joy is something I didn't really believe in until a few years ago.
      Different people do need to hear different voices, and I'm glad yours is one of them. We need you speaking.

      I'm not criticizing your post, either. I think it is powerful and effective. I just wanted to be sure you weren't wearing blinders in that one area, as so many are. Everyone has blind spots, and most people seem never to realize it. The behavior you are criticizing (and rightly so) is often caused by that kind of blindness.

      Self-righteousness is one thing, blindness another, I think. It can be hard to know when to speak out of one's own experience, and when not to, but when someone speaks out of self-righteousness, that overconfidence makes their words far more damaging and dangerous. They don't have the humility to realize they have spoken wrongly, or to apologize for having done so. The idea that what is good and Godly and helpful in one situation, can be evil, ungodly and damaging in another, hasn't occurred to everyone. It's something that needs to be discussed.

      Sorry, now I am thinking out loud. I will leave it, though, as it may be relevant. You've made me think, and reminded me, as I need to be frequently reminded, to pray that I will know when to keep my mouth shut, and when to speak.

      Again, it's a powerful post, and a powerful series so far. I'm glad to have found your blog.