Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Judgment and wrongdoing

In response to my suggestion that the Reformation was ultimately the product of evil acts, Tim Enloe replies:

Now I understand that it's much worse: in your view the Reformers were actually EVIL men inventing things from scratch to justify an EVIL program of OBVIOUS rebellion from God.

Because I think this stems from a serious error that has created conflict even among Catholic apologetics, this point bears some clarification. I don't think it is obvious, and I think you have taken me amiss because of a mistake that has caused similar conflict among Catholic apologists. One must distinguish objective wrong from subjective culpability. I don't think that what they did wrong was obviously wrong in the sense of some rationally self-evident mistake. They might well have thought that they had good reasons for what they did. Certainly, many people do things that appear to be right given the situation as it appeared to be that turned out not to be.

Take the Hiroshima situation that Dave Armstrong has discussed with other Catholics. I think Shawn McElhinney has articulated some good reasons why someone might have reasonably believed that it was absolutely necessary for the defense of innocent lives, so that it wasn't obviously contrary to reason to drop the atomic bombs in those particular circumstances. I also think that with the perspective of hindsight, one can recognize that there were other ways, better ways, to accomplish the end, so that while it was a legitimate matter of prudential judgment (since having nuclear weapons is not per se immoral, meaning that there are conceivable cases when they might be used), it was nonetheless unwise. One could speak of bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki as objectively evil acts of imprudence, not wrong in principle but in application to that set of concrete circumstances. They are mixed with particular goods, not in absolute opposition to moral principle. In another example, the papal curia also considered the invasion of Iraq imprudent, but given that it has been done, they do not recommend pulling out of the country either. In each case, the decision reveals the limitations of the ability of human beings to perceive the underlying order and reason, the good to which all things are ordered.

We can grasp truth in a truly meaningful way with respect to the universal principles of natures themselves, although we don't even grasp those comprehensively. Thus, for example, there are universal moral principles derived immediately from human nature that should be clear from human reason, like the prohibitions on the deliberate murder of innocents or same-sex "marriage." Absent some sort of cognitive defect, these require at least some culpable, directed effort to deny what people know immediately from their experience of humanity and natural reason, so the act of will behind them is more purely directed against good per se. But there are other cases where the matter may be self-evident only to the wise (requiring good habits of rational judgment) or not self-evident at all (requiring prudential judgment in the application). Even matters of intrinsic evil are not always "easy cases," since intrinsic evils as theft, deportation, and torture may require case-specific judgments in their very nature. In mixing with the particulars, our knowledge becomes less and less certain, our judgments more and more dependent on habit and practice, since we cannot entirely grasp all of the relevant circumstances according to universal moral principles. In such cases, there are natural human limits to what we can know of particular events and our capacity to act in those situations, so we are acting not directly against a principle but against the order of the goods in their particular circumstances. And only God fully knows the ways in which all things are ultimately ordered to the good. That is why free will and evil, and to some extent even the acting person himself, inevitably remain mysterious to us; they are matters that only God can comprehend.

So if you're the leader of Israel hearing the jeremiad, and you don't have Jeremeiah's experience of God, it likely requires far more virtue for you to heed God's Word even than Jeremiah. To let your nation be destroyed on the word of a prophet would require a level of trust that would be well beyond the grasp of most people, and it is entirely understandable why a ruler could erroneously rationalize rejecting the Word of God that came upon Jeremiah. And even Jeremiah himself would rather have been dead than to have to do what the Lord commanded him (Jer. 20), so his own perception of the good was limited in its own way. Those limited ways of thinking produce wrong answers in the objective sense, because our capacity to perceive the order of the universe is limited. If it's your son on the altar, do you bring the knife down on him?

In some ways, one feels compelled not to blame people for these sorts of errors. What can you expect, after all? They did what seemed good, and it probably was good in some limited sense. But it is evil nonetheless, contrary to the order of the universe though accidentally mixed with some good. We should surely have mercy on those who "do not know their right hand from their left" (Jonah 4:11), not in such a way that we deny the error, but that we acknowledge the error as the basis for their need of mercy. And these acts are evil because the entire state of ignorance and confusion is the result of the original sin, because our relationship with God is broken, and because we have often rejected even what opportunities we have. That's why sin is inevitable absent grace; we can't perceive goods in their particular integrity within the cosmic order. Only divine grace can place us in perfect conformity with the divine will that produces such cosmic order.

As Scott Carson points out, the real purpose of prayer is that we might have the perspective to will the good that God wills for in everything. Jesus's prayer at Gethsemane thus becomes more poignant, acknowledging His own weakness and His own inability to perceive the good in His own destruction. It is entirely natural for Him not to will His own death, and He truly does not will that destruction for its own sake. But He is willing to lay His life down of His own accord (John 10:18) for the good that His Father wills in everything, calling this the reason that the Father loves Him (John 10:17). It is that ability to will something for its own sake but to abandon it for the sake of the greater good that distinguishes heroic virtue from ordinary virtue. It is one thing entirely to will the good that you know, but it is another thing to will a good that one cannot possibly comprehend except on the strength of one's relationship with God, who transcends limitations. That's why self-defense is a good thing, but martyrdom for the faith is cause for sainthood.

Suffice it to say that I view the Reformation the same way. They acted out of mundane virtue, when supernatural virtue is what is required to do God's will voluntarily, so what they did was disordered and evil. There is cause for greater sympathy in that the Reformers believed they were being led by the Holy Spirit on account of some dubious prophecies that they shouldn't have followed. It was understandable given the apocalyptic mysticism that influenced them, but given the survey of Christian history, it seems to be inconsistent with the judgment of Tradition and the model of the Saints. I do not judge them harshly, because they were limited men and they acted in limited ways, as well all do without grace. But they did not display heroic virtue, and even their martyrdom was not sacrifice to a Christian calling, but only a mundane one. They were, in the end, probably the best sort of men that humanism can aspire to produce, but grace aspires even beyond that. Either their calling was not Christian or, if it was, they failed to heed it. It was in the end a humanist movement, and its fruit has been humanist fruit, for good or ill.

USPTO's move toward hell-on-earth averted

At the eleventh hour, a federal judge tells the bureaucrats to take a hike. Nice to know that the executive branch doesn't have an absolute license to tyrannically impose its will on the people. This is what the court system looks like when it's working properly. Too bad that doesn't happen more often.

Friday, October 26, 2007

An apology for apologetics

Recently, I've seen a number of Catholics taking what seems to be needless abuse for engaging in apologetics. What I would like to do is to clarify the purpose (or really, purposes) of apologetics in Catholic thought, because it seems that many people don't perceive these aims, and thus fail to see the point of the exercise. It is thought to be needlessly polemic, triumphalistic, unintellectual, or the like.

First, I consider it important to distinguish two classes of apologetics: apologetics of natural reason and practical apologetics. I distinguish these classes to separate not their methods but rather their objects. In both instances, one uses rational means to dispose someone toward the truths of faith. But in the former case, what is sought is to answer difficulties in rational thinking in essentially the same way that one answers any other sort of error or mistake. In the latter case, one is appealing to wisdom, judgment, and the principles guiding one's practical life to provide someone with a motivation or disposition to accept theological truth.

With respect to apologetics of natural reason, the goal is essentially to promote clear thinking about the subject regardless of its theological implications. It is not even essential that one address explicitly theological matters, except insofar as those matters are intrinsically grasped according to the particular science of one's interest. The operative assumption is that there is no such thing as "double truth," so knowledge is true no matter the means by which one knows it (although one does well to remember Scott Carson's warning about exactly what kind of knowledge one actually has before jumping to hasty conclusions).

I have found in my own experience that these apologetics of natural reason are perceived as more gentlemanly and genial, simply on the basis that one confesses the limits of one's own natural reason. Particularly for people who doubt the capacity of natural reason, this is frequently perceived as an admission that we all might be mistaken. That might be a bit misleading, because a Catholic theologian in the tradition of natural theology likely believes that he is not mistaken (and indeed, that the universe is ordered precisely so that what he believes could not even possibly be mistaken). But at least mistakes can be innocent in such a system, since obtaining truth is a difficult and laborious task and correcting error even more so. Consequently, even those who know the right answer will still need to undertake the effort to work through getting someone else's knowledge level to the same point, and that encounters all the typical complications of pedagogy. In the end, one can be innocently wrong.

This doesn't mean that apologetics of natural reason cannot be polemical if some religious belief happens to entail an error of reason. In those cases, it would be the case that someone would be arguing that no reasonable person should hold the belief and that every person that does is mistaken to do so. But since numerous reasonable people have held beliefs that were wildly mistaken without realizing it, this would at best be accusing someone of a mistake into which a large number of intelligent people had fallen, which seems less insulting. Some people will find even that suggestion offensive, as if the suggestion that a movement with as much history and as many adherents as, say, Protestantism could be based on some notion that is fundamentally (although not obviously) foolish were itself absurd. On the other hand, calling views with which one disagrees foolish is part and parcel of scholarly correction, and so long as one accepts the discipline, it is difficult to complain.

Practical apologetics, however, are a different matter. Practical apologetics is quite intentionally directed at the person (or at least at a class of like-minded persons). It is more or less an argument why you personally, not some abstract ideal of a human being but you as a concrete individual with your particular experiences, should be motivated to question or doubt the adequacy of your own beliefs that might be obstructing your conversion. It is an aporetic approach that diagnoses real obstacles.

In many ways, this process resembles my wife's field: health education. There might be a nearly-unlimited amount of education available, but when it comes down to it, getting people to change their behavior based on the information is far more difficult than simply collecting and disseminating the information. One has to see a need, to feel a motivation, to perceive the importance, in order for there to be a change in one's life. One of Dr. Prejean's favorite models for this process is the transtheoretical model (TTM), also known as the "Stages of Change" model, which was developed by Prochaska and DiClemente. A brief summary of the stages illustrates how an effective change-producing strategy proceeds.

As in health education, practical apologetics often is received as unwelcome advice. It is often perceived as too personal or too judgmental, even if the person understands the reasons why someone means well. Suggesting that someone make better eating choices, stop smoking, or exercise is rarely welcome advice. And even if the advice is good, no one with any sense would pretend that rectifying that behavior is easy even if one knows the obstacles that one's current behavior presents to one's health. In practical apologetics, there is also the difficulty that the proper disposition of the will only comes through grace, which is an added complication even beyond the ordinary difficulties associated with changing behavior. These factors combine to make practical apologetics a task just as intensely personal, impossibly frustrating, excruciatingly tedious, and nearly thankless as any other effort to try to get people to change for the better. But when the harvest is not just the health of the body but the health of someone's soul, one can hardly measure success in any better way.

Perhaps the healthiest way (forgive the pun) to look at practical apologetics is seeing it as directed at the excuses people give for not being Catholic. It basically argues from the perspective that, given the hypothesis that the Catholic Church were who She claims to be, would your objection be legitimate, or would it be an excuse? Would it be a true doubt, a real demonstration of known contradiction, or is it a mere difficulty that can be solved? Can that hypothesis be so convincingly refuted that you are assured that it is false? Obviously, no argument in Heaven or on earth would suffice to show that the Church is who She claims to be, because what She claims to be is something beyond the grasp of human reason. But the question is whether someone can be so confident in whatever disagreements they have that they cannot possibly be persuaded otherwise.

In that sense, practical apologetics is not an attempt to create the reasons for conversion (which it could not do in any cases) but to attack the strength of those beliefs that create habitual resistance to conversion. Are you sure that the Fathers did not teach the dogmas of Catholicism, when those dogmas rightly understood? Are you sure the Reformers understood the Fathers or the Scripture better? Are you sure that their response was justified and that it was correct? Are you sure that your claim of divine authority for your beliefs can be sustained? Are you certain that the Church is not who She claims to be? These seem to be reasonable sorts of arguments for practical apologetics.

I suppose there are people who consider it a worse affront to their human dignity to have their bad habits criticized than for someone to keep their silence. But it is difficult to think that such people merely intend to lord some sort of triumphal superiority over others. More than likely, their own spiritual lives have been saved, they feel fortunate to have been saved from danger themselves, and they do what they do because they care about others' lives. In that light, I can even understand why Protestant apologists do what they do, although I wish they could be more realistic about it. For me, the analogy would be to people who fall for medical quackery because it "worked for them." That's all well and good, but it doesn't provide any real explanation of the effect or any good reason to justify the claims. I wish that Protestant apologetics could make some effort to engage in the sort of scientific argument that I described above. I doubt that it is coincidental that thoroughly unscientific arguments like intelligent design and presuppostionalism frequently gain traction in the sort of intellectual environment that routinely makes such arguments in the place of real justification. At any rate, I think there is no cause to cast aspersions on apologetics generally, but only on the irrational sort of apologetics that does not proceed in the reasonable way that I have outlined above.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

I expect I will have a disproportionate number of readers who will enjoy this site, which my sister pointed out to me. It's like with a twist: the more vocabulary words you correctly identify, the more rice the sponsors donate. And if you get three in a row right, the questions get harder, so it's challenging no matter what your current vocabulary level might be. Check it out!

Friday, October 19, 2007

Talking justification with a Protestant

I offered the following thoughts to a Protestant who was having difficulty following the theology of Orange and Trent on grace, works, and justification (typos corrected and link to previous discussion added):

I'll say this and then leave it be. I hope that it profits you to hear it. You once said that you rejected the idea that works could be both 100% God's and 100% man's, one of four options, because that option pertained to Christology and not justification.

In light of v. 2:10 and the rest of the book of Ephesians (espec. vv. 1:9-10, 22-23 and ch. 3), do you truly believe that Paul's doctrine of justification and Christian works is not Christological? And if the dichotomy between divine works and human works is false in Christ, why is it not false for those in whom Christ is working as well? Moreover, in the work of Christ, what cause do we have to boast of ourselves? (Compare Rom. 3:27 with Rom. 15:17-18, Gal. 2:20, Phlp. 2:13.)

Paul calls his teaching on grace in Ephesians his knowledge of the mystery of Christ (Eph. 3:4; see also Eph. 5:32). If, by that same Incarnational mystery, Jesus of Nazareth can be wholly man and wholly divine, why would we treat grace differently? Thence comes the Catholic theology of grace; the works of Christ are not properly ours, but only as a gift, mysteriously worked through the operation of grace by Christ Himself.The mystery of the Incarnation is beyond argument, so even if you are asking for one, I can't give it to you. Instead, I'm asking you to listen to that phrase "in Christ Jesus" in v. 2:10, and let it resonate with what you know of the Incarnational mystery. And then try reading Ephesians and 1 Cor. 15 once more. If the Scripture doesn't speak to you on this, then I very much doubt that anything I could say would help, so I'll shut up now.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Is the Protestant concept of authority vicious?

Shane Wilkins sets out to respond to the charge that it is. As I said in response to him earlier, I think he is only digging the hole deeper.

His conclusion of the first section shows that he has almost got to the point of the critique. He says:
In summary of this first section, The Catholic Moral Objection to Protestantism is that “protestantism is inherently vicious insofar as it destroys faith because it relies upon private judgment rather than submission to the divine authority of Pope and magisterium.”

I think it's correct up until the "rather than." There's no "rather than" involved, and if you look at the supporting material he cited, it should be relatively clear that there isn't. Private judgment is destructive of faith (as a cognitive faculty), period. Now, I don't think that is self-evident by any means, so I think it might be going far to say that believing otherwise is vicious. But it's necessary to back this reasoning up to the common assumptions he gave, because it's not clear that Shane sees the implications of his conclusion for his argument.

As to the first assumption:
(1) Everyone has a duty to believe the truth of the Gospel.

I assume that the purpose of this is to note that it is vicious (violates a moral duty) to deny divine truth. I'll concede that, although I worry that it might obscure some issues. In particular, I think everyone has a duty to believe the truth only insofar as he knows it.

(2) The original apostles, i.e. the Twelve and Peter, were faithful witnesses to the content of divine revelation and the New Testament is a reliable written record of their testimony.

This one is more troubling, because Shane evidently doesn't realize that this turns on the disputed point. Catholics believe that Protestants believe this through private judgment, which is erroneous. In fact, to the extent they know divine truths at all, it is only parasitically off the Catholic Church (through the gift of faith in baptism and the Scriptures). And they believe in such a way that inconsistently undermines their very basis for knowing them.

(3) Realistically speaking, you will never as an individual figure out what you ought to believe on your own.

This is true, but immediately misleading in the present context. In the Catholic view of divine truth, there's no "realistically" involved. You necessarily will not figure out what you ought to believe theologically on your own, because human nature is necessarily incapable of grasping divine truths apart from supernatural grace. The problem is worse in premise 4.

(4) You must depend on someone or something else to teach you the revealed truths you were incapable of finding out from the Bible by yourself.

Given that the Catholic view says that you can't find revealed truths at all, the premise looks equivocal at best. Indeed, a good statement of the disputed premise would be "You must depend on someone or something else to teach you revealed truths," period. That is certainly the Catholic teaching on grace. Our belief if that the only way you found out those things was parasitically off the Church, not on your own, and your mode of knowing them inconsistently undermines the very source from which you received them.

(5) Since God requires you to believe the right things, then he must intend on furnishing you with the means by which to come to believe the right things.

Certainly, I agree that it would be wrong to judge those without the means, and since we have no reason to think that God would widely or universally deprive people of the means to know divine truth, I think this is not an unreasonable expectation.

Let's skip ahead a bit to the argument:
And I think ecclesial authority works in the protestant context in a very similar way. Thus the protestant can affirm propositions (1)-(5) and can recognize the need or something like canon law and therefore one can also recognize the need for there to be authorities ex officio. Herein lies the rub: the Protestant understands these structures of authority as contingent and historic, supported by a pragmatic rationale; whereas the catholic views the authority structures of the church as necessary and divine institutions with an ontological rationale. For the Catholic, the church is infallible because it is divine.

Shane states the point admirably here, and indeed, I couldn't come up with a better argument for why Protestantism would be vicious. For on the Catholic reading of (1)-(5), absent the supernatural source of authority, one has no way of knowing divine truth in the first place, which precludes any such thing as a practical need or rationale for authority. Ontologically speaking, his affirmation of (1)-(5) is out of order, because he presumes knowledge of divine things to judge the practicality, but he has no source to know them. And practically speaking, he never had a good reason to render judgment on (1)-(5) in the first place; in an "epistemological crisis," as Shane put it, he should have reserved judgment and remained agnostic.

Shane seems to believe that the Catholic Church doesn't resolve the "epistemological problem" merely by making the claim, but the problem here is that Shane has no way to resolve the epistemological problem even in principle. If there exists a divine institution with an ontological rationale, it is certainly capable of resolving the problem, and it isn't irrational to believe that it does exists and did resolve the problem. Indeed that is what Catholics believe to be the case. And that's where I think Shane's criticism comes back to bite him as follows:

And herein lies my beef with the catholic church. For if my catholic interlocutors have agreed with me that one ought not always to submit to the Pope, then the burden is on them, I think, to show how viewing the church as a divine source of revelation encourages (or at least does not hinder) the development of the virtue of critical discernment of the individual believer. The protestant view, the church as contingent, (ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda) I think does encourage that development. I’m not asserting the superiority of protestantism over catholicism, because, just as I think catholicism can tend towards producing the vice of naïveté in its laity, so too the protestant church can tend towards producing that vice of hubris or presumption in its laity. The virtue lies along the mean. But I do not hold that catholics are invariably naïve or that protestants are invariable presumptuous. Indeed, it seems to me that catholicism in its better moments and protestantism in its better moments look more like one another than we oftentimes suspect.

Why on earth would one look to a church to teach one a natural virtue like how to walk the mean between skepticism and naivete? One can learn that from one's parents, one's school, and the like. The question is not how the Church teaches it, but what the practice of this virtue leads one to conclude about the Church. And here it just gets ugly for the Protestant, because the problem for the Protestant isn't that he is too skeptical, but that he is too credulous. Therein lies the hubris of private judgment. He is believing something that he couldn't possibly know for certain for no good reason but simply because it seems right to him to do so.

The Catholic refuses to believe anything unless forced to do so by certain knowledge, which is exactly what the practical man ought to do. Regarding divine truths, there's no practical reason to render judgment unless one is certain, so the logical thing to do is to wait until one is certain. The Catholic is simply affirming that something outside himself causes him to be certain, so that he was no longer capable of withholding judgment. There's no epistemological problem, because the Catholic refuses to judge until he receives certain knowledge from something having the correct ontological structure to give that knowledge. Certainly, the basis for that knowledge is incommunicable, just like the belief in the Trinity is incommunicable. But interiorly, what the Catholic is affirming is the presentation of certain knowledge of the divine by the instrument of the Church.

So the Catholic critique of the Protestant is not that he is too skeptical, but that he is not skeptical enough. We don't believe he has any reason to believe that Scripture is divine revelation or that he has certain knowledge about God. We believe he should have exercised better judgment, but instead, he believed something before he knew it to be the case, on a subject about which no one should ever render judgment without certainty. We believe he has been reckless, elevating his own confidence to the level of divine authority. He doesn't know whether he is wrong, but he believes anyway, and if that is not hubris, it is not clear to me what is.

Shane has repeatedly asked me what exactly the epistemic advantage of Catholics is, and while I can't communicate that, I can at least point out the difference in consequence. When we describe our belief, we do not describe it as the resolution of an epistemological crisis or uncertainty by faith. Rather, we describe it as the absence of an epistemological crisis, so that we could no more deny having received the divine truth than we could deny the experience of our own senses. And we encourage anyone who does not even believe he has such knowledge to reserve judgment. If you don't think you can match the Catholic conviction in this regard, don't commit, because it is imprudent to believe something is divine for less than that.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The argument that wasn't

Shane Wilkins at Scholasticus answered a comment I had made at Michael Liccione's blog. "Answered" might be a bit strong a term, as he has (at least to my way of thinking) been talking past Catholic views from the beginning, including my own.

I'll start with the beginning and the end, where Shane says:

In response, let me just note two things: first, I've never made the argument that catholicism as such implies a vice (although clearly I think one is capable of submitting to papal authority in a vicious way). What I'm trying to do is to show that protestantism does not imply a vice, contrary to some catholic detractors. It would also be a secondary goal of mine to show that protestantism and catholicism are on the same plane, epistemologically speaking.
I don't think I've ever claimed that all submission to authority ex officio is naive.

This is connected to the foregoing point. I did not try to prove that submission to authority ex officio is inherently naive just because that isn't what I believe. (My object is not to prove catholicism false.) Rather, I took it as sufficient to note that submission to authority ex officio is not always virtuous. (Which I take to be an utterly non-controversial point.) If this is the case, then once again, the onus lies on the catholics to show why submission to the Pope's authority (which is ex officio) is always virtuous. If I were trying to prove catholicism false, then yes I would have to prove that in all cases submission to the Pope's authority is vicious. As it turns out, that isn't the conclusion for which I'm arguing, and therefore I don't have to make that claim.

I would settle for ANY case in which submission to the Pope's authority is vicious, because you haven't done that either. Rather, what you described yourself as doing was showing the non-controversial point that submission to authority ex officio is not always virtuous, which does not prove that submission to any particular human authority is not always virtuous and far less that submission to the Pope ex officio in the relevant manner required by Catholic dogma is not always virtuous. Since the disputed claim is precisely whether submission to the papacy is always virtuous, it begs the question to say that it isn't. To date, you haven't even given us an argument to think that it isn't, nor have you made any effort to answer the Catholic reasons for thinking that it is.

I'm not sure why the onus is on me to prove the church isn't divine. One would think that a casual glance over the history of the church would make it seem extraordinarily difficult for you to prove that it is. In fact, there is no way in which you could prove it to a neutral third party. Belief in the divinity of the church comes by faith not by intellectual demonstration.

I didn't say that the onus was on you to do that, unless you are actually attempting to answer the Catholic view (I admit to being unclear as to what a "neutral third party" has to do with it). But if you are attempting to answer the Catholic view, then it would appear fairly clear that your argument that submission to the Pope in particular can be vicious turns on a disputed premise. As to what that disputed premise is, I can move to the middle of Shane's reply.

But if you have to take the authority of the church on faith, then in what sense is catholicism superior to protestantism, or for that matter the JWs or Mormons? In fact it isn't. We're all in the same fix--we have insufficient evidence to establish the conclusion which we accept on faith.

If we were all in the same fix, then none of us should believe any of them. That's a bit brutal, but so is the natural prohibition on idolatry: you can't worship what you do not know for certain is God. The entire point of Catholic faith is that the divine action of the Church is the cause of all our knowledge of divine things. And the rejoinder to everyone else is "what divine action is the cause of your certain knowledge of divine things?" If the chain terminates on someone's subjectivity, I don't buy it. The JWs and the Mormons didn't receive their apostolate from someone laying hands on them who received it from someone laying hands on them, etc.; they claim to have been inspired directly by the Holy Spirit. You appear to have the same notion of faith as some sort of internal disposition that you think the Holy Spirit gave you. Not good, particularly if you admit that the little bug in your ear is talking you into believing things that you know you don't have sufficient evidence to believe.

Your comment makes it seem that you agree with me 'epistemologically' but disagree 'ontologically'. However, the distinction is incoherent. What access do you have to ontological realities apart from through your knowledge of them? If you say, 'by faith' then you are right back on the same plane as the JW's and everybody else.

One could summarize the Catholic view relatively easily: the Church is the cause of my knowledge of revealed things as revealed. And this notion that we're all in a epistemological crisis because a bunch of people are making claims is, at least as far as I can tell, complete nonsense. The answer is obvious: you believe none of them, until you have actual knowledge that one of them is true. That's not an epistemological crisis, because from the practical sstandpoint, you have no need to make a decision. Sure, we believe all sorts of things on insufficient evidence, because we have to do it. But no one forces you to be religious. There's no practical reason compelling a judgment on insufficient evidence about knowledge of God, because practically speaking, knowledge of God isn't necessary. Consequently, it's imprudent (and dare I say vicious?) to render judgment on a claim prematurely. The Catholic Church caused me to know, so I judged. What caused you to know certainly, so that you were compelled to judge?

Thursday, October 04, 2007

The Mystical Doctor on revelation

The principal reason why in the law of Scripture the enquiries that were made of God were lawful, and why it was fitting that prophets and priests should seek visions and revelations of God, was because at that time faith had no firm foundation, neither was the evangelical law established; and thus it was needful that they should enquire of God and that He should speak, whether by words or by visions and revelations, or whether by figures and similitudes or by many other ways of impressing His meaning.

But now that faith is founded in Christ, and, in this era of grace, the evangelical law has been made manifest, there is no reason to enquire of Him in this manner, nor for Him to speak or to answer as He did then. For, in giving us, as He did, His Son, which is His Word -- and He has no other -- He spoke to us all together, once and for all, in this single Word, and He has no occasion to speak further. And this is the sense of that passage which St. Paul begins, when he tries to persuade the Hebrews that they should abandon those first manners and ways of converse with God which are in the law of Moses, and should set their eyes on Christ alone: In the old days God spoke to out fathers in many ways and by many means, through the prophets; now at last in these times He has spoken to us, with a Son to speak for Him (Heb. 1:1). And this is as though he had said: That which God spake of old in the prophets to our fathers in, in sundry ways and diverse manners, He has now, at least, in these days, spoken to us once and for all in the Son. Herein the Apostle declares that God has been, as it were, dumb, and has no more to say since that which He spake aforetime, in part, to the prophets, He has now spoken altogether in Him, giving us the All which is His Son. Wherefore he that would now enquire of God or seek any vision or revelation, would not only be acting foolishly, but would be committing an offence against God, by not setting his eyes altogether on Christ, and seeking no new thing or aught beside. And God might answer him after this manner, saying: If I have spoeken all things to thee in My Word, which is My Son, and I have no other word, what answer can I now make to thee, or what can I reveal to thee which is greater than this? Set thine eyes on Him alone, for in Him I have spoken and revealed to thee all things, and in Him thou shalt find yet more than that which thou askest and desirest. For thou askest locutions and revelations, which are the part; but if thou set thine eyes upon Him thou shalt find the whole; for He is My complete locution and answer, and He is all My vision and all My revelation; so that I have spoken to thee, answered thee, declared to thee and revealed to thee, in giving Him to thee as thy Brother, Companion and Master, as ransom and as reward. For since that say when I descended upon Him on Mount Tabor, saying "This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye Him" (Matt. 17:5), I have left off all these manners of teaching and answering and I have entrusted this to Him. Hear Him; for I have no more faith to reveal, neither have I any more things to declare. For if I spake aforetime, it was to promise Christ; and if they enquired of Me, their enquiries were directed to petitions for Christ and expectancy concerning Him, in Whom they should find every good thing (as is now set forth in the teaching of the Evangelists and the Apostles), but now, any who would enquire of Me after that manner, and desire me to speak to him or reveal aught to him, would in a sense be asking Me for Christ again, and asking me for Me for more faith, and be lacking in faith which has already been given in Christ; and therefore would be committing a great offence against my beloved Son; for not only would he be lacking in faith, but he would be obliging Him again first of all to become incarnate and pass through life and death. Thou shalt find naught to ask of Me or to desire of Me, whether revelations or visions; consider this well, for thou shalt find that all has been done for thee and all has been given to thee, -- yea, and much more also -- in Him.

St. John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book II, Ch. 22, sect. 3 (Peers translation).

For a similar idea expressed by St. Thomas, see Sum. Theol. II-II, 1, 7.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Oh, Grow Up!

It recently occurred to me that the real problem with with anti-Catholics isn't that they are blinded by hatred or that they are intellectually incapable of grasping concepts. I suppose the cause was the recent posts by Scott Carson on the subject of teenagers and the Principle of Adolescent Posturing that triggered it. I suspect that it hadn't occurred to me before because I am the parent of two young children. Having very young children tends to create a sharp dichotomy between "kid world" and "adult world," not to mention between "pre-parent life" and "post-parent life," so you tend to forget those carefree days when helpless human beings weren't depending on you for their very survival. Consequently, you tend to forget about that awkward middle stage of being not-quite-adult in one's thinking, kind of a semblance of rationality without actually being cognitively mature. But now that I have taken a bit of time to recall some of my experience as a TA and some of the silly things young people did (and the things that I did at that age), the diagnosis seems embarrassingly easy to make.

I think there is a bit of internal logic to this situation. What I consider to be the clearest defining characteristics of adolescent thinking are (1) a unjustifiable degree of confidence in one's own knowledge, particularly vis-a-vis authority figures or people with demonstrably more experience, and (2) making one's subjective state of mind the standard of reality. (See this example offered by Dr. Scott Carson.) Given the historical affinities of Protestantism with certain medieval mystical views regarding a spiritually elect group of individuals led by the Holy Spirit to usher in a new age of purity and holiness, it is probably no coincidence that this would be a problem. It certainly was for the Franciscans; St. Bonaventure had to work diligently to rein in those tendencies in the Order, and there was never any lasting success. But as with the case of the Franciscans, I don't consider the cause for Protestants hopeless by any means; there is just a clear need to offset these tendencies for any sort of intellectual progress to be made. Dr. Carson highlights those concerns as well with regard to sola scriptura.

Alas, it has been my experience that anti-Catholics (and by this I mean people who endeavor to show that Catholicism is not Christian) exemplify the worst of this tendency. They are incorrigible in their misinterpretations of Catholic dogma, they vastly overestimate their competence in academic fields and their grasp of relevant issues, they assert purely subjective beliefs as justifications, they have an inordinate concern for the regard of their peer group, they rely uncritically on authorities they admire while inconsistently rejecting those who conflict with their subjective preferences ... I could go on, but I'm sure you can all come up with many examples once you look for them.

I think it's particularly bad in the case of presuppositionalists (imagine a teenager who believed that he had been told by God Himself that he was right and that his parents didn't know anything!). I can provide a little anecdote from being a TA at Harvard. I was relating a bit of my background to a student who was curious about how I ended up as a vector calculus TA as law student. I explained that I had gone to A&M and UT Austin in physics before I decided to go to law school, and she said "Oh, that must have been fun! You got to take it easy at a state school before you came to Harvard." By then, of course, I had taught enough classes that I could take it in good humor; my gentle rebuke was "I'm pretty sure the laws of physics are the same at A&M and Harvard, and physics homework is harder than law school no matter where you are!" But it illustrates how immaturity can skew your intellectual perspective. This girl was barely eighteen, coming out of a world where her entire world revolved around where you went to college, so she just naturally assumed that being at Harvard was the end-all, be-all of education without really bothering to critically question whether that belief was based on reality.

The funny thing is that Calvinists even joke about the "Cage Stage" for new converts. Problem for the rest of us is that, at least with respect to understanding other views, they never grow out of it! Because they've constructed an idealistic wall based on their subjective beliefs, they don't have any way of getting feedback from reality outside of their peer group. They'll simply apply the same subjective filter to whatever they read or learn, discounting what conflicts with their subjective beliefs and using the rest to rationalize whatever they already believe. Adolescence is a natural state of growth, provided that it serves the purpose of getting you to take responsibility for your own knowledge and to critically revise your beliefs. But if you never do that, then you end up like those pathetic guys who never mature past high school.

My question, and it is a serious question, is whether there is any constructive way to deal with it. Dr. Carson points out that it doesn't really seem that rational discussion or punishment is the right alternative. As he says "Granted, I want him to act civil, but my hope is that such goals can be accomplished over time by reasoned discussion, good role modeling, and effective teaching. When you coerce behavior the behavior does not become a virtuous habit of mind of the sort that Aristotle claims is a necessary condition on moral goodness." But I'm just not sure what form those sorts of things take when you're dealing with an adult acting like an overgrown teenager in terms of intellectual responsibility. My response of late is to ignore it or laugh it off, since I have finally realized why it is that these guys are so woefully inadequate at actually dealing with the Catholic view. On the other hand, I can't help but think that there are lot of people in this situation who could probably use some kind of guidance and a lot of Catholics who would like to help them.

My thought is that the only real strategy is to put the focus back on the person himself. He's the one who has to work through it, so maybe the right strategy is to say "Look, forget that I'm a Catholic, forget trying to respond to my view, and just focus on explaining to me why it is you believe what you do." Maybe if we can just persuade people to go through the exercise of starting from the ground up and trying to build a convincing case, it would be a good exercise. Though not as harsh, it's the practical equivalent to "Go to your room, and think about what you've done!," which seems to be a good strategy for adolescents. I think if they started to think hard about why anyone should follow their beliefs, they'd be a little better equipped for dialogue with Catholics (or at least to be released from the cage and allowed into conversations with adults). Granted, the last time I made a request along those lines, the only response I got was that it would be "exceedingly hard," but maybe if we could get people to at least take a stab at it, some good would come of it.

It seems pretty clear to me that we're not reaching these folks, and while I completely agree that this is to some extent due to them being unreasonable, parents don't give up on teenagers going through their unreasonable stage. Instead, there is an approach tailored to responding to them on their level, which isn't going to be the same as the rational discussion you might have with other adults. I think it's a real quandary on how to do that, and I'd like to know people's thoughts on the matter.