Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Easter

O Almighty God, who alone makest the minds of the faithful to be of one will: grant unto thy people, that they may love the thing which thou commandest, and desire that which thou dost promise; that so, among the manifold changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed, where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Why I Am a Catholic, Part V: The Impossible Is More Believable Than the Improbable

"And what makes you think that?"

"It's not entirely clear to me yet," replied Dirk with a frown. "Most of the ideas I have at the moment have to do with things that are completely impossible, so I am wary about sharing them. They are, however, the only thoughts I have."

"I'd get some different ones, then," said Kate. "What was the Sherlock Holmes principle? 'Once you have discounted the impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.'"

"I reject that entirely," said Dirk, sharply. "The impossible often has a kind of integrity to it which the merely improbable lacks. How often have you been presented with an apparently rational explanation of something which works in all respects other than one, which is just that it is hopelessly improbable? Your instinct is to say, 'Yes, but he or she simply wouldn't do that.'"

"Well, it happened to me today, in fact," replied Kate.

"Ah, yes," said Dirk, slapping the table and making the glasses jump, "your girl in the wheelchair* -- a perfect example. The idea that she is somehow receiving yesterday's stock market prices apparently out of thin air is merely impossible, and therefore must be the case, because the idea that she is maintaining an immensely complex and laborious hoax of no benefit to herself is hopelessly improbable. The first idea merely supposes that there is something we don't know about, and God knows there are enough of those. The second, however, runs contrary to something fundamental and human which we do know about. We should therefore be very suspicious of it and all its specious rationality."

-- Douglas Adams, The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, p. 132

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Earlier in the series, I've explained my brief time as an atheist, and why I returned to theism. What it amounts to is that, rightly considered, theism means a belief that existence has a basis, and that this basis is not random chance or mere abstract forces, but an Intelligence that can impart not only order but consciousness to the rest of existence; that, further, this Intelligence is good, is indeed the origin and standard of goodness, and that It is capable of turning even the horrific evils that we see in the world to good purpose.

But there's a catch in there. Granted an Intelligence that caused the minutely articulated order of the universe, is there any particular reason -- other than what we'd like to believe -- to suppose that this Intelligence is, in any meaningful sense of the word, good, rather than malignant or (more probably) indifferent to man? Is there a reason to be a theist as Jews, Christians, and Moslems are theists, rather than (in Nietzsche's phrase) believing that the divine is beyond good and evil, or adopting a pantheistic view characteristic of Hinduism and many forms of paganism?

There are philosophical reasons for this, notably St Thomas' argument from degrees of goodness; but I'm not sure I'm competent to explain the arguments, and in any case they aren't what persuaded me. I took a sort of shortcut.

As I was sitting, a newly (re-)minted theist, in that church service, watching the Communion plate passed from person to person, I considered the story of Jesus -- not as sacred Scripture but as simple history.

Now, people will tell you that the Gospels are terrible history, that we have no idea what the originals were like because they've been recopied and recopied like a game of telephone, and so forth. This belief is given credence by the skepticism of some New Testament scholars and popularizers (some of them clergymen), like the Jesus Seminar, Reza Aslan, or Bart Ehrman. And it is pretty much the opposite of true. Not only is there practically no serious scholarly dispute about the contents of the New Testament in its original manuscripts,** they are literally the best-preserved documents from the ancient world in existence. There is no competition. The mere number of manuscripts useful for translation is staggering: the Iliad, which has the next best manuscript tradition, survives in about two thousand manuscripts, while the New Testament survives in more than five thousand. A man who applied the popular skepticism about the New Testament consistently to ancient literature as a whole would have to be content to know nothing before 1450.*** I could go on; if you're really interested in the subject, I warmly recommend Bruce Metzger's The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration.

But of course, the fact that the New Testament has a good manuscript tradition doesn't say anything about the veracity of its portrait of Jesus. Granted that what the evangelists and apostles wrote is substantially what we have today: were they telling the truth?

Looking at their subsequent careers, which mostly involved being harassed, ostracized, hounded from place to place, and in most cases ultimately murdered, I have difficulty with the proposition that they were carefully lying. What for? They got less than nothing out of it. And saying that they were reporting things relayed to them as if by a game of telephone doesn't do any good: we are talking about eyewitnesses here, or, at the furthest remove, people who have themselves spoken to eyewitnesses, as St. Luke says in the introduction to his own work. The kind of details you find in the Gospels -- St. John's particularly -- are too exact, and in many cases too incidental, to be the work of an irresponsible rumormonger. This isn't the kind of thing that can be dismissed as having been built up by  accumulation and exaggeration over time (especially not when set beside the gossipy Gospels, purporting to recount other incidents in the life of Christ and especially His childhood, that the Church dismissed as forgeries and which do read like imaginative frauds); it's there right from the beginning. They might possibly have been insane, though if they were, it was an oddly unanimous type of insanity, and one that inspired a movement that was (among other things) a lot more humanitarian than most lunatics manage to be.

So what kind of Jesus do they depict? A fascinating personality; one that fascinates largely by being rather confusing and cryptic. Attractive -- but not always clear, and often not even comforting. He was given to making remarks that were not only bewildering, but extremely off-putting: as when He said that He spoke to the people in parables not (as I believe we like to think today) because they were engaging and accessible, but for exactly the opposite reason: that seeing they may see, and not perceive; and hearing they may hear, and not understand; lest at any time they should be converted, and their sins should be forgiven them. Or when He says to the man he has just announced as His high steward, who has spoken up to object to the idea of His being seized and executed, Get thee behind me, Satan: thou art an offense unto me. Or when, as often happens, He heals someone of an affliction, and then sternly warns them not to tell anybody.

The exact significance of every detail of the story need not detain us, and would certainly be beyond my powers to elucidate anyway. What is important for our purposes is His claim to be God: made in no uncertain terms in the Temple itself on one occasion, and implicitly on many others, such as His practice of forgiving other people's sins -- as though He were the primarily offended party in every case -- or of referring to Himself as in some sense God's Son, as though He and God were of a kind.

Now, if you're not God, then pretending to be is as a rule a stupid and terrible decision, and turns out terribly and stupidly. And, given that He wound up being nabbed in the middle of the night by a hired mob employed by the Church,**** tried on charges of blasphemy and irreligion, and gibbeted, it could certainly be seen as having turned out terribly for Jesus. The thing is, for Him to stick to His story when He knew (as He obviously did) what the consequences would be, He'd really have to be no mere fraud, but crazy.

One of the oldest surviving icons of Christ, dating to the sixth
century, from the Monastery of St. Catherine on Mt. Sinai.

And crazy doesn't work for Him. Cryptic, yes. Weird. But not crazy. He was too clever: not just in the sense of being intelligent (which lunatics often are), but in the sense of being humorous, shrewd, and creative. And when you read the Gospels, you get the sense, too, of a mind that has a quality that madmen never have, a sort of open-air freshness and expansiveness that the claustrophobic, one-idea obsessiveness of a maniac can't imitate at all. That this open-air quality can be pretty bracing doesn't alter that.

Having thus eliminated the improbable, I found it my only logical choice to believe in the impossible thesis that Jesus was, in fact, God.

And if that's the case, then (as my old pastor said) Jesus is not like God: God is like Jesus. The Deity whom we arrived at before, the ordering Intelligence whom we would like to believe is benevolent, but of whom we can guess so little, is -- still mysterious? certainly, but -- tender-hearted, forgiving, compassionate; demanding, hard as nails sometimes, yet strangely winsome in His challenge to joyful abandon; a fascinating oddity, a compelling teacher, witty, wise, seemingly inexhaustible in His energy; in short, to my mind, the sort of God who would be worth worshiping. On those terms, I can not only believe in the simple existence of a god. I can place my faith in God.

*Earlier in the novel, the character Kate meets an incessantly muttering girl in a mental institution who, it is explained to her by the doctor, is reciting stock market prices, exactly twenty-four hours out of step with their announcement. The doctor himself takes the view that it must be a memory trick, while conceding that the girl has never been found to study newspapers, copy things down, or in fact do anything that would account for her knowledge.

**I say serious scholarly dispute because you will find people like Dan Brown who don't know the first  thing about manuscript criticism but write about it anyway. Or rather, they know the first thing about it, but not the second; a perennial problem among laymen who deal with complex and specialized fields, and over which genuine scholars are always tearing their hair, often while doing the same thing in to the experts in some field they don't understand themselves.
     You will also find those scholars who will insist indignantly that there's plenty of dispute about the original text of the New Testament, and go on to start talking about how the Archinimical family of manuscripts has a comma in II Hooligans 45.19, while the Freneticist family of manuscripts has a semicolon there instead. Though I am pedantic enough to find that sort of question interesting, I am not deeply moved by it at a philosophical level.

***I find it interesting, and odd, that people are so enchanted by the mere fact of printing as opposed to writing. It's certainly easier to make identical copies by printing, and that does help; but it is just as possible to look at an original or older copy in either medium, and neither prevents mistakes or deliberate lies being introduced at the very beginning. And electronic media like texts and memes have certainly not given us cause to believe or to hope in a higher level of literacy -- though they have admittedly given us many opportunities for charity to cover a multitude of sins.

****I use the word Church here for two reasons. One is that the ancient Greek word ekklesia, rendered "church," is the same word used by Greek-speaking Jews of that era to describe the Judaic religious community (it literally means "assembly"): it was evidently chosen by the primitive Christian community to describe itself, in continuity with Israel's own understanding of itself. The other reason is that, spiritually, Israel at that time was the Church -- i.e., God's chosen and covenanted people -- and the same pattern of behavior can be seen in the Church throughout history as was seen in Holy Week: the whole range, from Judas to St. John, exists in every age.

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