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.


TJW said...

This is very similar to the way some people behave when expressing their political beliefs. It's as though a part of their brain never matured beyond adolescence whilst the rest of it functions normally - someone can be a brilliant scholar but have a teenagers political outlook.

Tim Enloe said...

For me, having once been so deeply involved with the "anti-Catholics," deliverance only came about by a combination of three or four factors operating over several years.

First, I already had a pre-existing knowledge base greater than anything the apologists were giving me, and so over time I learned to process various claims they made through a broader, more eclectic intellectual filter than they themselves possess. I began to see certain large holes in their arguments, and certain seeming inabilities on their parts to answer reasonable questions coming from outside their own personal experiences and subjective beliefs, and those deficiencies in their views disturbed me enough to where I started running pretty much ALL their views through a critical filter.

One of the biggest problems with the "anti-Catholics" is that they generally don't read much that isn't written by their favorite apologists and / or scholars from their own tradition. They don't make an effort to read a wide array of books by a wide array of authors, or to try to connect ideas from one supposedly discrete "subject" with another so as to gain a bigger picture of the world. This creates an insulating effect on their minds, merely confirming them in their own subjective prejudices. Intellectually, it's important to "get out of the house" quite often, breathe some different air, put some different glasses on for a bit, smell the roses in another person's garden, so to speak.

Second, over the course of several years I was forced several times in my undergrad work to confront my own assumptions, account for them, and even modify them in the face of evidence I had previously not considered or had never thought about in quite that way before. Several times my "certain" views of things (which I held with that adolescent overconfidence you're speaking of) were deeply shaken by the demand from teachers I respected that I intelligently account for some stupid thing I had just said, and this helped teach me the value of paying much closer attention to foundations and reasons.

Third, as a result of undertaking a massive work of scholarly research to write my B.A. thesis, I had to stop spending so much time doing online apologetics. As I gradually pulled out of direct apologetics work, I began to realize that I didn't have to live every minute of my life in "crisis mode," imagining that the Faith and the Gospel were in constant, dire peril and needed me to defend them at all costs. I began to realize the folly of making 1 Peter 3:15 into some kind of "life verse," such that no matter what anyone said I had to be "ready to give an answer"--even when at the time they said the thing to me I might have not one earthly clue about the subject matter, and would have to go scrambling for books and articles so as to "give an answer" in a few days.

Fourth, I made an effort to respect several Catholics who had challenged my thinking at various points, and also actually got to know some Catholics in real life instead of just as disembodied Internet presences. I did crazy things like instead of listening to apologist accounts of what happens in Masses, I personally went to a Mass. And so on.

That's what did it for me, and I think some of those things might help others, too. But it's probably going to be one of those "long haul" things. It took me a few years, and even now I'm not entirely where I'd like to be (as witnessed by my recent spastic default to unexamined Evangelical assumptions about Scripture in the face of critiques of yours which I didn't even understand).

CrimsonCatholic said...

Bill Vallicella noted the phenomenon called "topical insanity." I would call this "topical immaturity," referring to that particular kind of irrationality characterized by emotional immaturity as opposed to a more general sense of delusion.

I think you're the textbook case of someone who is configured eventually to get past this sort of immaturity, which is why I've never really worried about you. I can trust you to think something through on your own and to revise your beliefs accordingly. If you don't understand, you ask questions and try to figure it out. Your critical instincts made you entirely unsuited to life in Neverland, and the hostility directed against you for basically undergoing a natural process of intellectual growth is the best evidence of that proposition. It's a long process, but you have the motivation to engage in that process, and that is good enough for me.

What I'd like to find is some way to channel the desire to evangelize Catholics along some critical lines. There's a natural tendency to gravitate toward Catholics because, as Fr. Pat Mullen put it to me, we "matter," for better or for worse. Since they are so motivated for an audience with Catholics, I wonder if it's not an opportunity to say "You want Catholics to listen? Here's how you need to articulate yourself." That seems to have been helpful for you even though you were self-motivated to some extent, and I wonder if it wouldn't work more generally.

Anonymous said...

Some months ago several of us were having a similar conversation as to the one here. My friend, in exasperation quiped (re James White)"The Masons must be paying this guy to bash Catholicism, because how could anyone seriously hold such logical inconsistencies in his religious view and spew such misinformed crap about the Catholic faith!"

The three of us got quite a chuckle out of this comment. I have to admit that it did get me wondering for a second or two before dismissing the idea.

Tim Enloe said...

A big part of the problem is their subjectivistic view of religion generally speaking. A recent thread on James Swan's blog featured some people claiming that none of the Catholics on the thread could be "children of the Lamb" because of the things they were saying about justification. Of course it goes without saying that the people saying this were quite certain that they were themselves "children of the Lamb." Not only did they know their own spiritual state pretty much infallibly, but they knew that of the Catholics as well. How did they know? Shhhhhh! Don't ask, don't tell!

This is because for the Evangelical qua Evangelical, the defining mark of being a "real Christian" is a personal conversion experience that you can articulate clearly and somehow relate to coming out of "darkness" and into "light" on the basis of "believing the Gospel." For non-Reformed Evangelicals, this means walking an aisle and saying "the Sinner's Prayer" (or, "asking Jesus into your heart"), after which you start exhibiting a radically different kind of life focused on personal Bible study and church attendance and pietistically shunning "the world." For Reformed Evangelicals, it means having a clearly definable "biblical" view of justification, with all the attendant rants against "works righteousness" and "synergism" and so forth. "Believing the Gospel" means attaining to the correct theology of justification and making sure you don't slip away from it in of a hundred insidious ways that can sneak up on you just like THAT.

The key thing is that for the Evangelical mind, religion and all its proofs are essentially subjective. Even the things they will hold up as "objective," like their exegesis of Romans 5 and Galatians 2 and James 2 are really subjective, as you've masterfully shown in your various posts regarding biblicist "idealism." People who "love truth" just know what truth is, and since truth is what Evangelicals say it is there's no need to take anything else seriously. Don't try to tell them what Catholic documents mean--they can read black and white words on a page, and it's all so "clear" that you're either wicked for believing such "false Gospel" drivel or else you're being "dishonest" about what your communion "really" teaches.

The problem with all of this is that there's no public standard of rationality or hermeneutics by which their claims can be judged. If they say the Council of Trent "contradicts" Galatians 2, it just does and that's that. "What do you mean I have to know a couple of things about Scholastic philosophy to even understand Trent's language? It's right there in plain English, just like my own personal copy of the Bible, and I can read and compare things and figure out the Truth without any of that irrelevant man-made tradition stuff." If they say you believe in "sola ecclesia," you just do, and it doesn't matter whether you'd articulate your own belief that way or not, or even if you'd bring to bear numerous rational arguments against the assertion.

No matter what you say it's "sophistry," because they KNOW what is true and you can't say anything to change their subjectivistic impression of objective truth. They KNOW what "Rome" teaches, and they KNOW that when it's "compared with" the "plain meaning" of Scripture it falls utterly short. No amount of requests for justification of their belief matter--it's all obvious. "R.C. Sproul said it, I believe it, that settles it." And at the very last, they KNOW the state of your own soul better than you do. After all, just look at what you believe about "the Gospel." What further proof could be required that you're not a Christian, that you don't like Scripture,

Bottom line, I don't see how you can get them to care about articulating themselves better to Catholics. The more Evangelical they are, the more they will filter Reformation and Catholic claims through a purely subjectivistic grid that has no significant connection with the outside world. Eventually they'll have nothing to say but what White recently said when he said that his only desire is to be used as an instrument for the Holy Spirit to bring the elect to Christ. Nothing else matters--no appeal to common humanity, no request for adjudication by common standards of public discourse, no intellectual obligation to justify their views. "My sheep hear my voice and a stranger's they will not follow," "They went out from us because they were not of us," and so on, and so forth.

I'd like to believe it's not hopeless, but it's hard. In a very real sense with these folks there is no intellectual version of the preparatio evangelii upon which you can make an argument that will hit something common to you both.

Anonymous said...

These words of yours, Tim, are truly frightening. How in the world does a person get to this point that you have described?

These people seem to have erected a very convoluted defence mechanism designed to keep reality from rearing it's ugly head into their lives. They seem constitutionally incapable of honestly acknowledging their own presuppositions nor of how subjective they are being. I am no pschcologist, but sometimes I wonder if, oh boy her goes, fear plays a part here rather than imaturity.

CrimsonCatholic said...

I'd resist the temptation to psychoanalyze the causes. It's possible that people deny reality because they are afraid of reality, but there are plenty of people who aren't afraid of reality who nonetheless operate as if oblivious to it in some or another respect. Probably the most common is that they are just interested in knowing enough to serve their own purposes (just like you don't learn automotive engineering before driving a car), and they bring that same heuristic approach to everything. The extension of "good enough" beyond the area of its application is a pretty common mistake, but a mistake nonetheless.

CrimsonCatholic said...

BTW, Tim, thanks for the comments. I think you've assessed the situation in your last paragraph about as well as it can be stated.

Dave Armstrong said...

I think there is a lot to this thesis. It's elegantly simple; it seems to explain a lot, and it is a fresh approach.

It occurred to me that anti-Catholic vs. Catholic dynamics are analogous to the "generation gap" (as they said in the 60s when I was growing up. "Don't trust anyone over 30" (which really meant "don't trust anyone born before 1940 or so"). "Don't trust any Catholic enough to be able to learn anything from them." It fits, doesn't it?

It's the "us vs. them" mentality. Catholics MUST be wrong because, well, they are the "them." it's demonization of the opponent. It is a result of 500 years of more or less deliberate smearing propaganda. This is the milieu into which anti-Catholics are thrown. It's far more than simply intellectual.

Now, I think presuppositionalism ties into this, because of its unique features. Whoever doesn't agree with the axiomatic presuppositions are out. Catholics do not. Even many Arminians (and/or Protestasnt evidentialists) do not, and so you see the never-ending Calvinism vs. Arminianism wars, with much nonsense on both sides.

Us vs. them. We are automatically out of the fold. And that can't help but produce a marked intellectual bias against us, such that it precludes true dialogue.

I'll have to think about it more, but at this point I tend to think of it as mainly an intellectual deficiency, fed by incipient prejudices against Catholics, received with one's mother's milk.
But the "adolescent: analogy fits in well with the know-it-all tendencies, subjectivism, distrust of the outsider, etc.

Also, a factor that I have analyzed before, is the role of the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity. This necessarily colors how a Calvinist (at least an anti-Catholic one) views others. We're not only wrong, but manifestly evil. It truly is black vs. evil in the very starkest terms.

All this baggage is present going into a debate. But then add on the manifest ignorance and elementary logical shortcomings (why they are there would require yet another theory, I suppose), and you have the makings of a dialogical fiasco. I know; I've been through this probably two hundred times or more with these people. It is always the same; if not in the first attempt, overt the long run, without exception.

My present opponent, "Saint and Sinner" is also a young earth creationist (as is "Turretinfan" and Steve Hays: also active anti-Catholics and presuppositionalist Calvinists). This is very much an anti-intellectual and "us vs. them" mentality as well. And it colors biblical interpretation. I realized how profound the influence was in seeing two statements, by S&S and TF:

"Due to my philosophy of science, Instrumentalism, I allow Scripture to speak for itself, and so, I am a YEC."

"Instead, we see modified old earth creationists holding to ever more erratic views of the text of Scripture, as they attempt to remain popular with the scientific crowd."

Note that the second remark isn't even about evolutionists, but about fellow creationists. Scary stuff.

Now, how do we achieve good dialogue? I don't think it is possible, myself. I think the only way to break through all these molding factors is by a miracle of grace. We would have to save one of these people's lives or do something profoundly moving towards them, or they have to see somethng profound in us that leads them to believe that we really are Christians, so that they would approach us in a whole different light.

And generally that can only be done in person, in "real life", not on the Internet. There is exceedingly little chance of achieving any constructive progress through dialogue (words on a screen) alone. The only way, IMHO, is if various factors are at work in the anti-Catholic's life away from the computer screen, to weaken the anti-Catholic extreme presuppositional bias.

Dave Armstrong said...


"black vs. evil"

It's fairly obvious that I meant either "good vs. evil" or "black vs. white." I know I had both in my mind, so I wound up with a "compromise" that made no sense. LOL

CrimsonCatholic said...

Reproducing my comments on Dave's blog...

Good observations. I have a couple of thoughts.

On the logical fallacies, I don't think that a separate explanation for why they do it is really necessary. If you aren't critical of your own ideas, you make mistakes, and you don't realize you are making mistakes. It's that simple.

On the utility of dialogue for others, I suppose there is some, but I think it might be worth simply dismissing those points that don't pretend to be arguments or that proceed from obviously false or unsupported premises from the Catholic view. I'm concerned that work expended on these points is counterproductive both in terms of providing any additional value for the reader (who can likely see the vacuous nature of the argument simply by pointing it out) and in terms of raising the quality of the opponent's arguments above the schoolyard level. Those concerns are what I really had in mind in pointing out the situation.

CrimsonCatholic said...

Seems Paul Owen has come to the same conclusions. I tune into Reformed Catholicism from time to time to see what he, Tim, and Michael Pahls have to say. His response to Kevin Johnson seems to be in the same spirit:
"What I find especially strange Kevin, is that as of late you seem to bend over backwards to avoid uncharitable interactions with Reformed Baptist bullies (who have next to no sympathy for or mature understanding of Catholic Christianity) who stalk the internet looking for new victims to chase around the playground. Yet we share far more precious truth in common with FV folks, and many Roman Catholics for that matter, than will ever be the case with these theological pugilists. Why is it you are so concerned to keep these unpleasant personalities on side, whereas you have no hesitations about offending people with whom we share much more in common? I think there are a lot of people who would benefit if you could explain yourself in light of this concern."

Dave Armstrong said...

Speaking of adolescent behavior, here is "Saint & Sinner's" latest comment and my reply, posted to my blog:


It looks like S&S is setting the stage to ignore my paper and avoid defending his own positions:


Here’s Dave’s attempted rebuttal [link to my long reply]. I would encourage everyone (who has the time!) to read my post [link], write down the specific points/arguments/counter-arguments that I made, read Dave’s post, and see if he actually responded meaningfully with anything I said. Good luck!

Voluminous writing tends to obscure the real issues, divert the topic elsewhere, and make one’s opponents look like they said something they didn’t.

Also, here [link] is Turretinfan’s analysis of Dave’s ‘rebuttal’.


I'm of a mind at this point to end my participation in this sham "dialogue" if he goes ahead and ignores my reply. That would amply qualify this as a Pauline "vain conversation", as far as I am concerned. My patience with this runaround with anti-Catholics and their intellectual cowardice and lamebrain excuses for same is just about at its end by now.

Shane said...

In response to Tim Enloe's last post, I would encourage the catholic not to give up on Evangelicals. I went to an evangelical college and I witnessed a bit of that negative evangelical sentiment towards catholicism that you are talking about. But evangelicalism is quite a broad phenomenon and even at my college there was broad support of a professor who was fired for turning catholic.

In the larger scheme of things, I think evangelicals offer many more opportunities for ecumenical dialogue than any of the older mainline protestant denominations precisely because your statement that:

"The problem with all of this is that there's no public standard of rationality or hermeneutics by which their claims can be judged."

is wrong. There is a public standard--exegesis. Whatever you might think about evangelicals, they do listen very attentively to arguments about the Bible. In my opinion, historical-critical exegesis is the method and means of ecumenical conversation. You want to prove Luther wrong about justification, turn to the exegesis. I think the 'New Perspective on Paul' has more or less shown that Luther's interpretation is fatally flawed, ergo I think evangelicals are much more amenable to the catholic perspective on justification than they would have been say 40 years ago.

If you'd like more corroborating evidence, see the series of books edited by Chuck Colson and Richard John Neuhaus entitled "Evangelicals and Catholics Together".


Shane said...

That isn't to say, of course, that any particular evangelical might not be an idiot or impervious to argument. I've met several of those too.

Tim Enloe said...

Shane, I was speaking of broad Evangelicals--low church, anti-credal, Bible-Only, historically-disconnected, subjectivistic Evangelicals. Crimson is talking about these, too, under the label "anti-Catholics."

I agree with your point that there are some Evangelicals who have it together and who can be reasoned with. But "exegesis" needs to be qualified if it's to serve as a standard of differentiation. There are those who actually care about real exegesis, and who can, say, pick up a volume of Wright without spazzing out because "the Gospel" is supposedly coming under fire. Then there are those for whom "exegesis" simply means "What my own brain can comprehend based on a positivistic use of grammatical rules." Both of these views are found amongst "Evangelicals," so it really depends on what one means by "Evangelicals." I meant the type that Crimson is talking about. Sorry to be unclear.