Mind of God

Reconciling Theism and Atheism

In his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, David Hume presents Philo as arguing that the disagreement between theists and atheists is merely verbal:

All men of sound reason are disgusted with verbal disputes, which abound so much in philosophical and theological inquiries; and it is found, that the only remedy for this abuse must arise from clear definitions, from the precision of those ideas which enter into any argument, and from the strict and uniform use of those terms which are employed. But there is a species of controversy, which, from the very nature of language and of human ideas, is involved in perpetual ambiguity, and can never, by any precaution or any definitions, be able to reach a reasonable certainty or precision. These are the controversies concerning the degrees of any quality or circumstance. Men may argue to all eternity, whether HANNIBAL be a great, or a very great, or a superlatively great man, what degree of beauty CLEOPATRA possessed, what epithet of praise LIVY or THUCYDIDES is entitled to, without bringing the controversy to any determination. The disputants may here agree in their sense, and differ in the terms, or vice versa; yet never be able to define their terms, so as to enter into each other’s meaning: Because the degrees of these qualities are not, like quantity or number, susceptible of any exact mensuration, which may be the standard in the controversy. That the dispute concerning Theism is of this nature, and consequently is merely verbal, or perhaps, if possible, still more incurably ambiguous, will appear upon the slightest inquiry. I ask the Theist, if he does not allow, that there is a great and immeasurable, because incomprehensible difference between the human and the divine mind: The more pious he is, the more readily will he assent to the affirmative, and the more will he be disposed to magnify the difference: He will even assert, that the difference is of a nature which cannot be too much magnified. I next turn to the Atheist, who, I assert, is only nominally so, and can never possibly be in earnest; and I ask him, whether, from the coherence and apparent sympathy in all the parts of this world, there be not a certain degree of analogy among all the operations of Nature, in every situation and in every age; whether the rotting of a turnip, the generation of an animal, and the structure of human thought, be not energies that probably bear some remote analogy to each other: It is impossible he can deny it: He will readily acknowledge it. Having obtained this concession, I push him still further in his retreat; and I ask him, if it be not probable, that the principle which first arranged, and still maintains order in this universe, bears not also some remote inconceivable analogy to the other operations of nature, and, among the rest, to the economy of human mind and thought. However reluctant, he must give his assent. Where then, cry I to both these antagonists, is the subject of your dispute? The Theist allows, that the original intelligence is very different from human reason: The Atheist allows, that the original principle of order bears some remote analogy to it. Will you quarrel, Gentlemen, about the degrees, and enter into a controversy, which admits not of any precise meaning, nor consequently of any determination? If you should be so obstinate, I should not be surprised to find you insensibly change sides; while the Theist, on the one hand, exaggerates the dissimilarity between the Supreme Being, and frail, imperfect, variable, fleeting, and mortal creatures; and the Atheist, on the other, magnifies the analogy among all the operations of Nature, in every period, every situation, and every position. Consider then, where the real point of controversy lies; and if you cannot lay aside your disputes, endeavour, at least, to cure yourselves of your animosity.

To what extent Hume actually agrees with this argument is not clear, and whether or not a dispute is verbal or real is itself like Hume’s questions about greatness or beauty, that is, it is a matter of degree. Few disagreements are entirely verbal. In any case, I largely agree with the claim that there is little real disagreement here. In response to a question on the about page of this blog, I referred to some remarks about God by Roderick Long:

Since my blog has wandered into theological territory lately, I thought it might be worth saying something about the existence of God.

When I’m asked whether I believe in God, I usually don’t know what to say – not because I’m unsure of my view, but because I’m unsure how to describe my view. But here’s a try.

I think the disagreement between theism and atheism is in a certain sense illusory – that when one tries to sort out precisely what theists are committed to and precisely what atheists are committed to, the two positions come to essentially the same thing, and their respective proponents have been fighting over two sides of the same shield.

Let’s start with the atheist. Is there any sense in which even the atheist is committed to recognising the existence of some sort of supreme, eternal, non-material reality that transcends and underlies everything else? Yes, there is: namely, the logical structure of reality itself.

Thus so long as the theist means no more than this by “God,” the theist and the atheist don’t really disagree.

Now the theist may think that by God she means something more than this. But likewise, before people knew that whales were mammals they thought that by “whale” they meant a kind of fish. What is the theist actually committed to meaning?

Well, suppose that God is not the logical structure of the universe. Then we may ask: in what relation does God stand to that structure, if not identity? There would seem to be two possibilities.

One is that God stands outside that structure, as its creator. But this “possibility” is unintelligible. Logic is a necessary condition of significant discourse; thus one cannot meaningfully speak of a being unconstrained by logic, or a time when logic’s constraints were not yet in place.

The other is that God stands within that structure, along with everything else. But this option, as Wittgenstein observed, would downgrade God to the status of being merely one object among others, one more fragment of contingency – and he would no longer be the greatest of all beings, since there would be something greater: the logical structure itself. (This may be part of what Plato meant in describing the Form of the Good as “beyond being.”)

The only viable option for the theist, then, is to identify God with the logical structure of reality. (Call this “theological logicism.”) But in that case the disagreement between the theist and the atheist dissolves.

It may be objected that the “reconciliation” I offer really favours the atheist over the theist. After all, what theist could be satisfied with a deity who is merely the logical structure of the universe? Yet in fact there is a venerable tradition of theists who proclaim precisely this. Thomas Aquinas, for example, proposed to solve the age-old questions “could God violate the laws of logic?” and “could God command something immoral?” by identifying God with Being and Goodness personified. Thus God is constrained by the laws of logic and morality, not because he is subject to them as to a higher power, but because they express his own nature, and he could not violate or alter them without ceasing to be God. Aquinas’ solution is, essentially, theological logicism; yet few would accuse Aquinas of having a watered-down or crypto-atheistic conception of deity. Why, then, shouldn’t theological logicism be acceptable to the theist?

A further objection may be raised: Aquinas of course did not stop at the identification of God with Being and Goodness, but went on to attribute to God various attributes not obviously compatible with this identification, such as personality and will. But if the logical structure of reality has personality and will, it will not be acceptable to the atheist; and if it does not have personality and will, then it will not be acceptable to the theist. So doesn’t my reconciliation collapse?

I don’t think so. After all, Aquinas always took care to insist that in attributing these qualities to God we are speaking analogically. God does not literally possess personality and will, at least if by those attributes we mean the same attributes that we humans possess; rather he possesses attributes analogous to ours. The atheist too can grant that the logical structure of reality possesses properties analogous to personality and will. It is only at the literal ascription of those attributes that the atheist must balk. No conflict here.

Yet doesn’t God, as understood by theists, have to create and sustain the universe? Perhaps so. But atheists too can grant that the existence of the universe depends on its logical structure and couldn’t exist for so much as an instant without it. So where’s the disagreement?

But doesn’t God have to be worthy of worship? Sure. But atheists, while they cannot conceive of worshipping a person, are generally much more open to the idea of worshipping a principle. Again theological logicism allows us to transcend the opposition between theists and atheists.

But what about prayer? Is the logical structure of reality something one could sensibly pray to? If so, it might seem, victory goes to the theist; and if not, to the atheist. Yet it depends what counts as prayer. Obviously it makes no sense to petition the logical structure of reality for favours; but this is not the only conception of prayer extant. In Science and Health, for example, theologian M. B. Eddy describes the activity of praying not as petitioning a principle but as applying a principle:

“Who would stand before a blackboard, and pray the principle of mathematics to solve the problem? The rule is already established, and it is our task to work out the solution. Shall we ask the divine Principle of all goodness to do His own work? His work is done, and we have only to avail ourselves of God’s rule in order to receive His blessing, which enables us to work out our own salvation.”

Is this a watered-down or “naturalistic” conception of prayer? It need hardly be so; as the founder of Christian Science, Eddy could scarcely be accused of underestimating the power of prayer! And similar conceptions of prayer are found in many eastern religions. Once again, theological logicism’s theistic credentials are as impeccable as its atheistic credentials.

Another possible objection is that whether identifying God with the logical structure of reality favours the atheist or the theist depends on how metaphysically robust a conception of “logical structure” one appeals to. If one thinks of reality’s logical structure in realist terms, as an independent reality in its own right, then the identification favours the theist; but if one instead thinks, in nominalist terms, that there’s nothing to logical structure over and above what it structures, then the identification favours the atheist.

This argument assumes, however, that the distinction between realism and nominalism is a coherent one. I’ve argued elsewhere (see here and here) that it isn’t; conceptual realism pictures logical structure as something imposed by the world on an inherently structureless mind (and so involves the incoherent notion of a structureless mind), while nominalism pictures logical structure as something imposed by the mind on an inherently structureless world (and so involves the equally incoherent notion of a structureless world). If the realism/antirealism dichotomy represents a false opposition, then the theist/atheist dichotomy does so as well. The difference between the two positions will then be only, as Wittgenstein says in another context, “one of battle cry.”

Long is trying too hard, perhaps. As I stated above, few disagreements are entirely verbal, so it would be strange to find no disagreement at all, and we could question some points here. Are atheists really open to worshiping a principle? Respecting, perhaps, but worshiping? A defender of Long, however, might say that “respect” and “worship” do not necessarily have any relevant difference here, and this is itself a merely verbal difference signifying a cultural difference. The theist uses “worship” to indicate that they belong to a religious culture, while the atheist uses “respect” to indicate that they do not. But it would not be easy to find a distinct difference in the actual meaning of the terms.

In any case, there is no need to prove that there is no difference at all, since without a doubt individual theists will disagree on various matters with individual atheists. The point made by both David Hume and Roderick Long stands at least in a general way: there is far less difference between the positions than people typically assume.

In an earlier post I discussed, among other things, whether the first cause should be called a “mind” or not, discussing St. Thomas’s position that it should be, and Plotinus’s position that it should not be. Along the lines of the argument in this post, perhaps this is really an argument about whether or not you should use a certain analogy, and the correct answer may be that it depends on your purposes.

But what if your purpose is simply to understand reality? Even if it is, it is often the case that you can understand various aspects of reality with various analogies, so this will not necessarily provide you with a definite answer. Still, someone might argue that you should not use a mental analogy with regard to the first cause because it will lead people astray. Thus, in a similar way, Richard Dawkins argued that one should not call the first cause “God” because it would mislead people:

Yes, I said, but it must have been simple and therefore, whatever else we call it, God is not an appropriate name (unless we very explicitly divest it of all the baggage that the word ‘God’ carries in the minds of most religious believers). The first cause that we seek must have been the simple basis for a self-bootstrapping crane which eventually raised the world as we know it into its present complex existence.

I will argue shortly that Dawkins was roughly speaking right about the way that the first cause works, although as I said in that earlier post, he did not have a strong argument for it other than his aesthetic sense and the kinds of explanation that he prefers. In any case, his concern with the name “God” is the “baggage” that it “carries in the minds of most religious believers.” That is, if we say, “There is a first cause, therefore God exists,” believers will assume that their concrete beliefs about God are correct.

In a similar way, someone could reasonably argue that speaking of God as a “mind” would tend to lead people into error by leading them to suppose that God would do the kinds of the things that other minds, namely human ones, do. And this definitely happens. Thus for example, in his book Who Designed the Designer?, Michael Augros argues for the existence of God as a mind, and near the end of the book speculates about divine revelation:

I once heard of a certain philosopher who, on his deathbed, when asked whether he would become a Christian, admitted his belief in Aristotle’s “prime mover”, but not in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. This sort of acknowledgment of the prime mover, of some sort of god, still leaves most of our chief concerns unaddressed. Will X ever see her son again, now that the poor boy has died of cancer at age six? Will miserable and contrite Y ever be forgiven, somehow reconciled to the universe and made whole, after having killed a family while driving drunk? Will Z ever be brought to justice, having lived out his whole life laughing at the law while another person rotted in jail for the atrocities he committed? That there is a prime mover does not tell us with sufficient clarity. Even the existence of an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-good god does not enable us to fill in much detail. And so it seems reasonable to suppose that god has something more to say to us, in explicit words, and not only in the mute signs of creation. Perhaps he is waiting to talk to us, biding his time for the right moment. Perhaps he has already spoken, but we have not recognized his voice.

When we cast our eye about by the light of reason in his way, it seems there is room for faith in general, even if no particular faith can be “proved” true in precisely the same way that it can be “proved” that there is a god.

The idea is that given that God is a mind, it follows that it is fairly plausible that he would wish to speak to people. And perhaps that he would wish to establish justice through extraordinary methods, and that he might wish to raise people from the dead.

I think this is “baggage” carried over from Augros’s personal religious views. It is an anthropomorphic mistake, not merely in the sense that he does not have a good reason for such speculation, but in the sense that such a thing is demonstrably implausible. It is not that the divine motives are necessarily unknown to us, but that we can actually discover them, at least to some extent, and we will discover that they are not what he supposes.

Divine Motives

How might one know the divine motives? How does one read the mind of God?

Anything that acts at all does it what it does ultimately because of what it is. This is an obvious point, like the point that the existence of something rather than nothing could not have some reason outside of being. In a similar way, “what is” is the only possible explanation for what is done, since there is nothing else there to be an explanation. And in every action, whether or not we are speaking of the subject in explicitly mental terms or not, we can always use the analogy of desires and goals. In the linked post, I quote St. Thomas as speaking of the human will as the “rational appetite,” and the natural tendency of other things as a “natural appetite.” If we break down the term “rational appetite,” the meaning is “the tendency to do something, because of having a reason to do it.” And this fits with my discussion of human will in various places, such as in this earlier post.

But where do those reasons come from? I gave an account of this here, arguing that rational goals are a secondary effect of the mind’s attempt to understand itself. Of course human goals are complex and have many factors, but this happens because what the mind is trying to understand is complicated and multifaceted. In particular, there is a large amount of pre-existing human behavior that it needs to understand before it can attribute goals: behavior that results from life as a particular kind of animal, behavior that results from being a particular living thing, and behavior that results from having a body of such and such a sort.

In particular, human social behavior results from these things. There was some discussion of this here, when we looked at Alexander Pruss’s discussion of hypothetical rational sharks.

You might already see where this is going. God as the first cause does not have any of the properties that generate human social behavior, so we cannot expect his behavior to resemble human social behavior in any way, as for example by having any desire to speak with people. Indeed, this is the argument I am making, but let us look at the issue more carefully.

I responded to the “dark room” objection to predictive processing here and here. My response depends both the biological history of humans and animals in general, and to some extent on the history of each individual. But the response does not merely explain why people do not typically enter dark rooms and simply stay there until they die. It also explains why occasionally people do do such things, to a greater or lesser approximation, as with suicidal or extremely depressed people.

If we consider the first cause as a mind, as we are doing here, it is an abstract immaterial mind without any history, without any pre-existing behaviors, without any of the sorts of things that allow people to avoid the dark room. So while people will no doubt be offended by the analogy, and while I will try to give a more pleasant interpretation later, one could argue that God is necessarily subject to his own dark room problem: there is no reason for him to have any motives at all, except the one which is intrinsic to minds, namely the motive of understanding. And so he should not be expected to do anything with the world, except to make sure that it is intelligible, since it must be intelligible for him to understand it.

The thoughtful reader will object: on this account, why does God create the world at all? Surely doing and making nothing at all would be even better, by that standard. So God does seem to have a “dark room” problem that he does manage to avoid, namely the temptation to nothing at all. This is a reasonable objection, but I think it would lead us on a tangent, so I will not address it at this time. I will simply take it for granted that God makes something rather than nothing, and discuss what he does with the world given that fact.

In the previous post, I pointed out that David Hume takes for granted that the world has stable natural laws, and uses that to argue that an orderly world can result from applying those laws to “random” configurations over a long enough time. I said that one might accuse him of “cheating” here, but that would only be the case if he intended to maintain a strictly atheistic position which would say that there is no first cause at all, or that if there is, it does not even have a remote analogy with a mind. Thus his attempted reconciliation of theism and atheism is relevant, since it seems from this that he is aware that such a strict atheism cannot be maintained.

St. Thomas makes a similar connection between God as a mind and a stable order of things in his fifth way:

The fifth way is taken from the governance of the world. We see that things which lack intelligence, such as natural bodies, act for an end, and this is evident from their acting always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result. Hence it is plain that not fortuitously, but designedly, do they achieve their end. Now whatever lacks intelligence cannot move towards an end, unless it be directed by some being endowed with knowledge and intelligence; as the arrow is shot to its mark by the archer. Therefore some intelligent being exists by whom all natural things are directed to their end; and this being we call God.

What are we are to make of the claim that things act “always, or nearly always, in the same way, so as to obtain the best result?” Certainly acting in the same way would be likely to lead to similar results. But why would you think it was the best result?

If we consider where we get the idea of desire and good, the answer will be clear. We don’t have an idea of good which is completely independent from “what actually tends to happen”, even though this is not quite a definition of the term either. So ultimately St. Thomas’s argument here is based on the fact that things act in similar ways and achieve similar results. The idea that it is “best” is not an additional contribution.

But now consider the alternative. Suppose that things did not act in similar ways, or that doing so did not lead to similar results. We would live in David Hume’s non-inductive world. The result is likely to be mathematically and logically impossible. If someone says, “look, the world works in a coherent way,” and then attempts to describe how it would look if it worked in an incoherent way, they will discover that the latter “possibility” cannot be described. Any description must be coherent in order to be a description, so the incoherent “option” was never a real option in the first place.

This argument might suggest that the position of Plotinus, that mind should not be attributed to God at all, is the more reasonable one. But since we are exploring the situation where we do make that attribution, let us consider the consequences.

We argued above that the sole divine motive for the world is intelligibility. This requires coherence and consistency. It also requires a tendency towards the good, for the above mentioned reasons. Having a coherent tendency at all is ultimately not something different from tending towards good.

The world described is arguably a deist world, one in which the laws of nature are consistently followed, but God does nothing else in the world. The Enlightenment deists presumably had various reasons for their position: criticism of specific religious doctrines, doubts about miracles, and an aesthetic attraction to a perfectly consistent world. But like Dawkins with his argument about God’s simplicity, they do not seem (to me at least) to have had very strong arguments. That does not prove that their position was wrong, and even their weaker arguments may have had some relationship with the truth; even an aesthetic attraction to a perfectly consistent world has some connection with intelligibility, which is the actual reason for the world to be that way.

Once again, as with the objection about creating a world at all, a careful reader might object that this argument is not conclusive. If you have a first cause at all, then it seems that you must have one or more first effects, and even if those effects are simple, they cannot be infinitely simple. And given that they are not infinitely simple, who is to set the threshold? What is to prevent one or more of those effects from being “miraculous” relative to anything else, or even from being something like a voice giving someone a divine revelation?

There is something to this argument, but as with the previous objection, I will not be giving my response here. I will simply note for the moment that it is a little bit strained to suggest that such a thing could happen without God having an explicit motive of “talking to people,” and as argued above, such a motive cannot exist in God. That said, I will go on to some other issues.

As the Heavens are Higher

Apart from my arguments, it has long been noticed in the actual world that God seems much more interested in acting consistently than in bringing about any specific results in human affairs.

Someone like Richard Dawkins, or perhaps Job, if he had taken the counsel of his wife, might respond to the situation in the following way. “God” is not an appropriate name for a first cause that acts like this. If anything is more important to God than being personal, it would be being good. But the God described here is not good at all, since he doesn’t seem to care a bit about human affairs. And he inflicts horrible suffering on people just for the sake of consistency with physical laws. Instead of calling such a cause “God,” why don’t we call it “the Evil Demon” or something like that?

There is a lot that could be said about this. Some of it I have already said elsewhere. Some of it I will perhaps say at other times. For now I will make three brief points.

First, ensuring that the world is intelligible and that it behaves consistently is no small thing. In fact it is a prerequisite for any good thing that might happen anywhere and any time. We would not even arrive at the idea of “good” things if we did not strive consistently for similar results, nor would we get the idea of “striving” if we did did not often obtain them. Thus it is not really true that God has no interest in human affairs: rather, he is concerned with the affairs of all things, including humans.

Second, along similar lines, consider what the supposed alternative would be. If God were “good” in the way you wish, his behavior would be ultimately unintelligible. This is not merely because some physical law might not be followed if there were a miracle. It would be unintelligible behavior in the strict sense, that is, in the sense that no explanation could be given for why God is doing this. The ordinary proposal would be that it is because “this is good,” but when this statement is a human judgement made according to human motives, there would need to be an explanation for why a human judgement is guiding divine behavior. “God is a mind” does not adequately explain this. And it is not clear that an ultimately unintelligible world is a good one.

Third, to extend the point about God’s concern with all things, I suggest that the answer is roughly speaking the one that Scott Alexander gives non-seriously here, except taken seriously. This answer depends on an assumption of some sort of modal realism, a topic which I was slowly approaching for some time, but which merits a far more detailed discussion, and I am not sure when I will get around to it, if ever. The reader might note however that this answer probably resolves the question about “why didn’t God do nothing at all” by claiming that this was never an option anyway.

Zeal for God, But Not According to Knowledge

St. Thomas raises this objection to the existence of God:

Objection 2. Further, it is superfluous to suppose that what can be accounted for by a few principles has been produced by many. But it seems that everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles, supposing God did not exist. For all natural things can be reduced to one principle which is nature; and all voluntary things can be reduced to one principle which is human reason, or will. Therefore there is no need to suppose God’s existence.

He responds to the objection:

Since nature works for a determinate end under the direction of a higher agent, whatever is done by nature must needs be traced back to God, as to its first cause. So also whatever is done voluntarily must also be traced back to some higher cause other than human reason or will, since these can change or fail; for all things that are changeable and capable of defect must be traced back to an immovable and self-necessary first principle, as was shown in the body of the Article.

The explanation here is that things do have their own proper causes, but these proper causes do not have the properties necessary to be a first cause. Likewise, the very distinction of these proper causes from one another shows that they must be reduced to a one single principle.

This response is correct, but it is difficult for people to understand. People tend to assume that the objection is fundamentally valid, given its premises. Thus many atheists believe that they have a very good argument for their atheism, and many theists assume that there must be falsehood in the premises. And the ordinary way to assume this is to say that we do see things in the world that cannot be accounted for by other principles.

This leads to an undue zeal on behalf of God, of the sort mentioned in the previous post. There is the desire to say that something was done by God, and only by God; not by anything else. In this way the premise that “everything we see in the world can be accounted for by other principles” would turn out to be false. The Intelligent Design movement provides an example of this desire. The linked Wikipedia article approaches this with a very polemical point of view, but I am not concerned here with the scientific issues. It is very evident, in any case, that there is the idea here that it would be good to prove that something was done by God alone, and not by any secondary causes. In this way people are jealous on behalf of God: if it turns out that it was done by secondary causes, that takes something from God, and in particular it makes it less likely that God exists.

The truth is mostly the opposite of this. Although nothing can be taken from God, the purposes of creation are better obtained if created things contribute whatever they can to the production of other things. Thus the world is more ordered, and so more perfect simply speaking.

As an example, consider the case of the origin of life. Unlike the process which gave rise to the origin of species, abiogenesis is not an established fact. What would be best, were it the case? I do not speak of the truth of the matter, nor what we might wish to believe about it, but which thing would be better in itself: is it better if life arises from non-living things, or is it better if life is directly created by God? For someone jealous for God in this way, it seems better if life were directly created, in order better to prove that God exists. In reality, however, it is better if life comes to be in a certain order, with a contribution from non-living things, to whatever degree that this is possible.

This is not just a matter of wishful thinking, in one direction or the other, although that can be involved. Rather, in cases of this kind, the fact that one thing is better is an argument, although not a conclusive one, for its reality.

There are many other ways in which this kind of undue zeal influences human opinions, and recognition of the truth of this matter has many consequences. But for the moment we are on another path.

Contradicting You and Contradicting Myself

Perhaps the most blatant form of confusing the mode of knowing and the mode of being  is to argue, “I think that X is true. Therefore X is actually true.” It would be rare, of course, that anyone would argue this way so explicitly. However, it is not unheard of for someone to argue more or less in this way:

  1. I believe that X is true. You believe that it is not.
  2. If you were right, X would be false.
  3. But X is true.
  4. Therefore X would be both true and false, which is impossible.
  5. Therefore you are not right, and X is true.

This comes to the same thing as the original argument, since “but X is true” is simply being taken from “I believe that X is true.” Evidently, if X were false, X would not be true, despite the fact that the arguer believes that it is true.

On his website, The War Against Being, James Larson frequently makes arguments which amount to such attempted arguments by reductio. In a sense he puts this argument into the very title of his website: who is fighting a war against being and what does this mean? The beginning of his first article gives some indications:

It is conventional, contemporary wisdom that there is probably nothing more detached from reality, and nothing more inconsequential to the real events of this world, than is the study or promotion of the discipline of philosophy – and especially that highest branch of philosophy which is called ontology, the science of being. All that follows is meant to be a refutation of this “wisdom.” The road which I shall take will not, for the most part, be the technical world of the professional philosopher – this of necessity, simply because I am not one. There is an even greater necessity which hopefully will justify my presumption as a layman in treating of the metaphysical reality of being, and the war which has been and is being waged against it, and which now seems virtually universally victorious.

It might seem that there is a reasonable explanation for his title here. His opponents (“conventional, contemporary wisdom”) are against philosophy. But philosophy is about being. Therefore his opponents are against being.

This argument is not technically valid even given the premises, because even if philosophy is about being, someone who is against the use of philosophy is not necessarily opposed to being. And in any case, one of his premises is that “philosophy is about being,” and the position of his opponents, as he describes it himself, is that philosophy is “detached from reality,” and consequently, according to them, it is not about being. So “war against being” is a polemical description of his opponent’s position, and involves the assumption that his own position is actually true. In the end it comes to little more than this: “Some people disagree with me. But I am right, and my position truly describes being as it is. So those people are opposed to being as it is.”

At various points, Larson accuses his opponents of contradicting themselves. For example, in article 12 he says:

Our analysis of the writings of Joseph Ratzinger, up to this point, has revealed that he has subjected his theological and philosophical thinking to the influence of reductive analytical physics, and that this surrender has necessitated the denial of traditional Catholic teaching in three main areas: the denial of substance; the denial of the law of self-contradiction; and the denial of the nature of dogma as objective, unchanging truth.

The last-mentioned denial – the denial that truth is immutable and non-evolving – is a direct consequence of the belief enshrined in the quote from Father Ratzinger which I offered earlier: “Revelation now appeared no longer simply as a communication of truths to the intellect but as a historical action of God in which truth becomes gradually unveiled.” This is in direct contradiction to the teaching of Vatican Council I:

“For the doctrine of faith which God has revealed has not been proposed, like a philosophical invention, to be perfected by human ingenuity; but has been delivered as a divine deposit to the Spouse of Christ, to be faithfully kept and infallibly declared. Hence also, that meaning of the sacred dogmas is perpetually to be retained which our holy Mother the Church has once declared; nor is that meaning ever to be departed from, under the pretext of a deeper comprehension of them.

The Oath Against Modernism contained the following affirmation:

“Fourthly, I sincerely hold that the doctrine of faith was handed down to us from the apostles through the orthodox Fathers in exactly the same meaning and always in the same purport. Therefore, I entirely reject the heretical misrepresentation that dogmas evolve and change from one meaning to another different from the one which the Church held previously. I also condemn every error according to which, in place of the divine deposit which has been given to the spouse of Christ to be carefully guarded by her, there is put a philosophical figment or product of a human conscience that has gradually been developed by human effort and will continue to develop indefinitely.

We can know with certainty that Joseph Ratzinger took this oath. We can know with equal certainty that he has violated it in its deepest meaning.

While one of his three denials is “the denial of the law of self-contradiction” (meaning non-contradiction), the third is “the denial of the nature of dogma as objective, unchanging truth.” In the following sentence, he equates this with “the denial that truth is immutable and non-evolving.” Notice that these are not the same: one can deny that dogma is objective, unchanging truth, without saying that truth is mutable or evolving. Larson’s equating the two does not seem to be accidental. Rather, the argument is that dogma is actually objective and unchanging truth: therefore saying that dogma can change, means that truth itself can change. This argument has almost the precise form of the original reductio we considered.

Later in the same article, Larson comments on Ratzinger’s position on science and faith, and on original sin:

Science, according to Joseph Ratzinger and the historical-critical method of exegesis, has shown us clearly the degree to which scripture is largely composed of human fabrications expressive of the theological-fictive or magical mindset of those persons who composed the scriptures. Because of the primitive intellectual state of these peoples, we are therefore required – in order to distinguish between what is truly from God and what is of human invention – to distinguish between form and content in any particular passage of scripture. Content can simply be defined to be the “spiritual” message which God wishes to pass on to us, while form is constituted by all the rest which is conditioned by particular historical circumstances, literary genres, etc.

Thus, in Faith and the Future, Cardinal Ratzinger applies this historical-critical method to the first 3 chapters of the Book of Genesis:

“The difficulty begins with the very first page of the Bible. The concept presented there of how the world came to be, is in direct contradiction of all that we know today about the origins of the universe….And the problem continues, almost page by page….in the very next chapter new problems emerge with the story of the Fall. How can one bring this into harmony with the knowledge that – on the evidence of natural science – man starts not from above, but from below, does not fall, but slowly rises, even now having only just accomplished the metamorphosis from animal to human being? And what of paradise? Long before man existed, pain and death were in the world. Thistles and thorns grew long before any man had set eyes on them. And another thing: the first man was scarcely self-conscious, knew only privation and the wearisome struggle to survive. He was far from possessing the full endowment of reason, which the old doctrine of paradise attributes to him. But once the picture of paradise and the Fall has been broken in pieces, the notion of original sin goes with it, to be followed logically, it would seem, by the notion of redemption as well.”(page 5-7)

It is certainly no wonder, therefore, that Cardinal Ratzinger, in his book In the Beginning…A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, labeled the term original sin as a “certainly imprecise and misleading term”, and then proceeded to describe it as something which is contracted after birth through our relationships with others, and therefore through imitation, rather than it being something inherited at the moment of conception through generation (see my article Point of Departure in Christian Order, March 2004).

While Larson should not be trusted in anything he says about Ratzinger, or about anything really, his description of Ratzinger’s position on original sin is especially inaccurate. Ratzinger actually says this:

Finding an answer to this requires nothing less than trying to understand the human person better. It must once again be stressed that no human being is closed in upon himself or herself and that no one can live of or for himself or herself alone. We receive our life not only at the moment of birth but every day from without —from others who are not ourselves but who nonetheless somehow pertain to us. Human beings have their selves not only in themselves but also outside of themselves: they live in those whom they love and in those who love them and to whom they are “present.” Human beings are relational, and they possess their lives—themselves—only by way of relationship. I alone am not myself, but only in and with you am I myself. To be truly a human being means to be related in love, to be of and for. But sin means the damaging or the destruction of relationality. Sin is a rejection of relationality because it wants to make the human being a god. Sin is loss of relationship, disturbance of relationship, and therefore it is not restricted to the individual. When I destroy a relationship, then this event—sin —touches the other person involved in the relationship. Consequently sin is always an offense that touches others, that alters the world and damages it. To the extent that this is true, when the network of human relationships is damaged from the very beginning, then every human being enters into a world that is marked by relational damage. At the very moment that a person begins human existence, which is a good, he or she is confronted by a sin-damaged world. Each of us enters into a situation in which relationality has been hurt. Consequently each person is, from the very start, damaged in relationships and does not engage in them as he or she ought. Sin pursues the human being, and he or she capitulates to it.

“Every human being enters into a world that is marked by relational damage,” does not speak about something that happens after birth, but something that happens at the beginning of one’s existence. Larson seems to seem speak of the end of the passage, but it is easy to see that Ratzinger is speaking there of personal sin, not original sin. It is simply wrong to say that he describes original sin as something acquired after birth.

It is not unreasonable to ask whether this understanding of original sin is consistent with the traditional doctrine. Larson, however, rather than questioning, simply believes that it is manifestly inconsistent with that doctrine. He goes on to say:

The third stage in the evolution of human thought, the one which we are in right now, and which has made necessary the “essentialization” of the other two historical periods of human spirituality and thought, is the “positivistic,” or scientific, stage. This is the stage which, according to Fr. Ratzinger, is the defining mentality of our age:

“It seems incontrovertible that today the mentality described by Comte is that of a very large section of human society. The question about God no longer finds any place in human thought. To take up a well-known saying of Laplace, the context of the world is self-contained and the hypothesis of God is no longer necessary for its comprehension. Even the faithful, like travelers on a sinking ship, are becoming widely affected by an uneasy feeling: they are asking if the Christian faith has any future, or if it is not, in fact, more and more obviously being made obsolete by intellectual evolution. Behind such notions is the sense that a great gulf is developing between the world of faith and the world of science – a gulf that cannot be bridged, so that faith is made very largely impracticable.” (Ibid, p. 4-5)

Because of this “gulf” which exists between the traditional faith and the world of science, Father Ratzinger informs us that the “plethora of definitions” which the Church has “accumulated in the course of history” has become a “burden.” The irreconcilable nature of such dogmas with the modern positivistic and scientific intellectual consciousness makes the traditional content of the faith “oppressive” to the modern believer. Thus we are faced with the supposed necessity of either setting aside these doctrines as historically provisional, or of engaging in a task of “essentialization” which seeks to determine what constitutes the “content” behind the “form” of such definitions, and therefore altering the traditional understanding of the terms used in these definitions. This, of course, is precisely what Cardinal Ratzinger did in regard to the terms “original sin” and “transubstantiation.”

I think we must pause at this moment to understand the broader implications of these teachings. Any truly “sensitive” Catholic, if he accepts the truth of Joseph Ratzinger’s analysis and conclusions, should feel betrayed not only by the Church but also by God. This betrayal is multi-leveled. The Bible, which for two thousand years was considered to be inspired and a totally reliable source of truths on all levels of man’s existence is now shredded of virtually all meaning except the symbolical and the allegorical. Catholic dogma which was the absolute sure foundation of faith, and especially catechetical instruction of the young, is now to be essentialized, even to the point of self-contradiction. But even more importantly, the entire traditional understanding of the epistemological structure of the human intellect has now been negated.

Larson believes that Ratzinger has “altered the traditional understanding” of transubstantiation and original sin. And he describes this as “Catholic dogma which was the absolute sure foundation of faith, and especially catechetical instruction of the young, is now to be essentialized, even to the point of self-contradiction.” Note the point about self-contradiction. In reality, there is nothing contradictory in Ratzinger’s account of original sin, whether or not it is consistent with the traditional doctrine. If the traditional account contains mistaken elements, and Ratzinger’s account corrects those elements, this is not a contradiction unless you assume that those elements are also true. And this is the attempted reductio, “If you were right, X would be false. But X is true, so X would be both true and false. Therefore you are not right.”

Larson is arguing in a similar style when he says that the “structure of the human intellect has now been negated.” He continues:

At the core of all traditional Catholic understanding of both Who God is and also the nature of man, lies the fundamental Biblical idea that man is created in the image of God with an intellect and will that truly reflect, through the analogy of being, God’s intellect and will.

St. Thomas is very specific in this regard. He writes:

“We must needs say that the human soul knows all things in the eternal types, since by participation of these types we know all things. For the intellectual light itself which is in us, is nothing else than a participated likeness of the uncreated light, in which are created the eternal types,”(Pt. I, Q. 84, A.5).

The world of St. Thomas (and therefore the world of traditional Catholicism) is a trustworthy world, because it is a world in which man – his senses, mind and heart – are intimately connected to and reflective of Who God is, and also basically reliable in their knowledge of His creation. It is under such conditions of reliability and correspondence to an objective order of Truth, that trust truly takes root, and hope flourishes.

The world of Joseph Ratzinger, on the other hand, is one in which the disconnect between the human intellect and objective reality and truth is a fundamentally proven fact of historical evolution. It is one in which there is little harmony between human perception and objective reality. The obvious logical conclusion of postulating such a world is that God created man with an intellect oriented towards delusion – towards the perception of shadows that mask reality.

We were led by God and His Church for 2,000 years to believe in creation ex nihilo, in the unique creation of man with a spiritual soul, in an original Paradise free from death and sin, in original sin, in Noah and his ark, in the divine inspiration present in every word of scripture, in sanctifying grace, and in transubstantiation. We are now told these are the “forms” of particular stages in the evolution of human consciousness which must be abandoned or essentialized because they were only provisional expressions of truths which always go beyond the ability of the human intellect to grasp. And it is in the midst of this world of delusions that Fr. Ratzinger asks us now to forget about God and reality as being knowable, and informs us that our new form of faith is not to be founded in knowledge, but rather in trust (we shall examine this point in a moment). One is left with the inevitable question: Why should a man or woman trust such a God?

It is hard to see what Ratzinger has said, even according to Larson’s polemical understanding, which can be taken to imply that “God created man with an intellect oriented towards delusion.” And here we perhaps implicitly have what I characterized as the most blatant form of confusing thought and reality, “I think that X is true. Therefore X is actually true.” Larson’s true argument, it seems, is something like this: “If Ratzinger is right, then I am mistaken about many things. And that means that God must have created me with an intellect oriented to delusion.” When he says, “The world of St. Thomas (and therefore the world of traditional Catholicism) is a trustworthy world, because it is a world in which man – his senses, mind and heart – are intimately connected to and reflective of Who God is, and also basically reliable in their knowledge of His creation,” Larson really means to say that he himself is basically reliable in his knowledge of God and the world. Since God created him with an intellect oriented to truth, it follows that “I believe X. Therefore X is true,” is a good and reasonable argument. And if it turns out that he was wrong about X, it follows that God did not create him with an intellect oriented to truth.

Let us be clear, then. Saying that you are mistaken does not mean that I am contradicting myself, if I do not accept your position in the first place. I contradict you, not myself. Likewise, opposing your positions and policies does not mean that I am waging a “war against being,” if I do not think that your positions correspond to being or reality in the first place.

 

Ratzinger’s Response

Ratzinger  begins to respond to the difficulties he has raised:

So now we still have to ask: Is the distinction between the image and what is intended to be expressed only an evasion, because we can no longer rely on the text even though we still want to make something of it, or are there criteria from the Bible itself that attest to this distinction? Does it give us access to indications of this sort, and did the faith of the church know of these indications in the past and acknowledge them?

Let us look at Holy Scripture anew with these questions in mind. There we can determine first of all that the creation account in Genesis 1, which we have just heard, is not, from its very beginning, something that is closed in on itself. Indeed, Holy Scripture in its entirety was not written from beginning to end like a novel or a textbook. It is, rather, the echo of God’s history with his people. It arose out of the struggles and the vagaries of this history, and all through it we can catch a glimpse of the rises and falls, the sufferings and hopes, and the greatness and failures of this history. The Bible is thus the story of God’s struggle with human beings to make himself understandable to them over the course of time; but it is also the story of their struggle to seize hold of God over the course of time. Hence the theme of creation is not set down once for all in one place; rather, it accompanies Israel throughout its history, and, indeed, the whole Old Testament is a journeying with the Word of God. Only in the process of this journeying was the Bible’s real way of declaring itself formed, step by step. Consequently we ourselves can only discover where this way is leading if we follow it to the end. In this respect—as a way—the Old and New Testaments belong together. For the Christian the Old Testament represents, in its totality, an advance toward Christ; only when it attains to him does its real meaning, which was gradually hinted at, become clear. Thus every individual part derives its meaning from the whole, and the whole derives its meaning from its end—from Christ. Hence we only interpret an individual text theologically correctly (as the fathers of the church recognized and as the faith of the church in every age has recognized) when we see it as a way that is leading us ever forward, when we see in the text where this way is tending and what its inner direction is.

After a discussion of the history of Israel and its understanding of creation in relation to that of Babylon, he says:

I just said how, gradually, in confronting its pagan environment and its own heart, the people of Israel experienced what “creation” was. Implicit here is the fact that the classic creation account is not the only creation text of sacred Scripture. Immediately after it there follows another one, composed earlier and containing other imagery.

Here he is referring to Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 as distinct creation accounts.

In the Psalms there are still others, and there the movement to clarify the faith concerning creation is carried further: In its confrontation with Hellenistic civilization, Wisdom literature reworks the theme without sticking to the old images such as the seven days.  Thus we can see how the Bible itself constantly re-adapts its images to a continually developing way of thinking, how it changes time and again in order to bear witness, time and again, to the one thing that has come to it, in truth, from God’s Word, which is the message of his creating act. In the Bible itself the images are free and they correct themselves ongoingly. In this way they show, by means of a gradual and interactive process, that they are only images, which reveal something deeper and greater.

One decisive fact must still be mentioned at this point: The Old Testament is not the end of the road. What is worked out in the so-called Wisdom literature is the final bridge on a long road that leads to the message of Jesus Christ and to the New Testament. Only there do we find the conclusive and normative scriptural creation account, which reads: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made” (John 1:1, 3). John quite consciously took up here once again the first words of the Bible and read the creation account anew, with Christ, in order to tell us definitively what the Word is which appears throughout the Bible and with which God desires to shake our hearts. Thus it becomes clear to us that we Christians do not read the Old Testament for its own sake but always with Christ and through Christ. Consequently the law of Moses, the rituals of purification, the regulations concerning food, and all other such things are not to be carried out by us; otherwise the biblical Word would be senseless and meaningless. We read all of this not as if it were something complete in itself. We read it with him in whom all things have been fulfilled and in whom all of its validity and truth are revealed. Therefore we read the law, like the creation account, with him; and from him (and not from some subsequently discovered trick) we know what God wished over the course of centuries to have gradually penetrate the human heart and soul. Christ frees us from the slavery of the letter, and precisely thus does he give back to us, renewed, the truth of the images.

The ancient church and the church of the Middle Ages also knew this. They knew that the Bible is a whole and that we only understand its truth when we understand it with Christ in mind—with the freedom that he bestowed on us and with the profundity whereby he reveals what is enduring through images. Only at the beginning of the modern era was this dynamic forgotten—this dynamic that is the living unity of Scripture, which we can only understand with Christ in the in the freedom that he gives us and in the certitude that comes from that freedom. The new historical thinking wanted to read every text in itself, in its bare literalness. Its interest lay only in the exact explanation of particulars, but meanwhile it forgot the Bible as a whole. In a word, it no longer read the texts forward but backward—that is, with a view not to Christ but to the probable origins of those texts. People were no longer concerned with understanding what a text said or what a thing was from the aspect of its fulfillment, but from that of its beginning, its source. As a result of this isolation from the whole and of this literal-mindedness with respect to particulars, which contradicts the entire inner nature of the Bible but which was now considered to be the truly scientific approach, there arose that conflict between the natural sciences and theology which has been, up to our own day, a burden for the faith. This did not have to be the case, because the faith was, from its very beginnings, greater, broader, and deeper. Even today faith in creation is not unreal; even today it is reasonable; even from the perspective of the data of the natural sciences it is the “better hypothesis,” offering a fuller and better explanation than any of the other theories. Faith is reasonable. The reasonableness of creation derives from God’s Reason, and there is no other really convincing explanation.

There were two difficulties that Ratzinger originally raised. The first was, “Why wasn’t that said earlier? Evidently it must have been taught differently at one time or else Galileo would never have been put on trial.” The second was. “If theologians or even the church can shift the boundaries here between image and intention, between what lies buried in the past and what is of enduring value, why can they not do so elsewhere – as, for instance, with respect to Jesus’ miracles? And if there, why not also with respect to what is absolutely central – the cross and the resurrection of the Lord?”

His response to the first is that it was in fact said earlier, in a way. It is implied in the Old Testament itself insofar as it describes creation in various ways, such as in the seven days of Genesis 1, but also as a single day, as in Genesis 2:4 and elsewhere. And it was implied by Christians insofar as they read Scripture in reference to Christ rather than simply as it is in itself.

This is a good response insofar as it goes, but something more is needed, because this does not explain why Galileo was put on trial, as he puts it. His explanation for this seems to be that people forgot the correct way to read Scripture: “Only at the beginning of the modern era was this dynamic forgotten… As a result… there arose that conflict between the natural sciences and theology…”

There seems to be something true about this, but also something missing. St. Augustine would almost certainly have disagreed with those who condemned Galileo. On the other hand, it was not people of the sixteenth or seventeenth century who came up with the idea that the texts of Scripture should be mostly read in a literal historical fashion, and assumed to be true in that way. For example, I quoted in a previous post a passage where Lactantius says that we know pretty much exactly how old the earth is, because Scripture tells us. And his was not an unusual opinion. So while it may be true that the condemnation of Galileo happened in part because of a lack of theological awareness, it is also true that to some extent “it must have been taught differently at one time.” Even Ratzinger’s reponse, then, can only be understood in the framework of the development of doctrine. Yes, Scripture itself has implications for how Scripture should be read; but it took time for people to develop a fuller understanding of these implications, and this development took place not only during the time of the Old Testament, but also during the time of the New.

This leads right to Ratzinger’s second difficulty, because it is precisely the fact that we modify our way of interpreting Scripture that gives rise to the “disquieting consideration” that theologians might end up modifying our understanding “also with respect to what is absolutely central – the cross and the resurrection of the Lord.”

Ratzinger does not seem to have returned explicitly to this particular difficulty, but he has given a response in an implicit way. In essence, this seems to be that “we Christians do not read the Old Testament for its own sake but always with Christ and through Christ.” Everything is to be interpreted in light of Christ. Consequently we cannot reinterpret what happened to Christ himself, because there is no light in virtue of which we would be able to do that, but we can reinterpret other things. This gives us a way to say that the cross and resurrection are “absolutely central” and cannot be reinterpreted, but to allow such reinterpretation in other matters.

The problem with this response is that in the end it seems to say little more than, “If we ended up doing such a reinterpretation, we would no longer be Christians.” This may be the case, but it does not necessarily imply that it will not happen. In fact, this is precisely the reason that the consideration is disquieting in the first place.

There is a second part of Ratzinger’s response that implicitly bears on this difficulty, and this is his suggestion that if we read Scripture properly, and in the light of Christ, then there will not be any tension between science and theology:

As a result of this isolation from the whole and of this literal-mindedness with respect to particulars, which contradicts the entire inner nature of the Bible but which was now considered to be the truly scientific approach, there arose that conflict between the natural sciences and theology which has been, up to our own day, a burden for the faith. This did not have to be the case, because the faith was, from its very beginnings, greater, broader, and deeper. Even today faith in creation is not unreal; even today it is reasonable; even from the perspective of the data of the natural sciences it is the “better hypothesis,” offering a fuller and better explanation than any of the other theories. Faith is reasonable. The reasonableness of creation derives from God’s Reason, and there is no other really convincing explanation.

Ratzinger has said that the basic point of Genesis 1 is that God created the world. Here he is saying that if you read the Bible in this way, and without making all sorts of other concrete claims that turn out not to be true, this is a reasonable understanding of reality and does not conflict with science.

The statement here is simply about creation, but if we take this with reference to the second difficulty, the implication is that once we read the whole of Scripture in the light of Christ, all the tension between science and theology will be resolved fairly easily. But something is missing here. “God created the world,” is in fact a metaphysical statement and surely does not conflict with science, as he says, and it is quite reasonable. But reading the whole of Scripture in light of Christ requires, as he also says, maintaining more or less the Christian understanding of the cross and resurrection. And saying that Christ rose from the dead is not merely a metaphysical statement. It is also a historical claim, and there is no reason in principle why such a claim could not conflict with scientific knowledge applied to history.

Of course none of these considerations could possibly show that the difficulty is right, and that one necessarily has to end up reinterpreting the idea of the resurrection. But on the other hand, there seems something lacking in Ratzinger’s response. Something more needs to be said.

Image and Reality

A number of the issues we have discussed can be considered in parallel. There are significant differences between them, but we have given three situations where there was one understanding, at least in the early Church and sometimes later, and after time there was a different understanding. The three issues are the genre of Genesis, the time of the end of the world, and the number of the saved.

The cases differ significantly. In regard to Genesis, it is fairly certain that it was interpreted mainly literally throughout most of Christian history, but there were also some exceptions, at least for some passages. There are literary reasons for supposing that it should not be interpreted in this way, and I presented some of them in the linked post, but in practice the change in understanding came about because the facts were inconsistent with supposing that it was a literal historical account. Fr. Harrison objects exactly for this reason: according to him, it is completely unreasonable to change your understanding of the text to conform to the facts. Nor is the change universal; many ordinary Christians and Catholics would still understand the text in a historically literal way. But this is surely not the current understanding of the Magisterium, nor is it objectively reasonable.

In regard to the time of the end, it is likely that the understanding that it would be soon was nearly universal in the early Church, but this cannot be demonstrated with certainty, since this understanding had to change very quickly in order to remain in conformity with experience. The changed understanding itself would thus be universal, although some take this farther than others; thus James Chastek in the linked post argued that the Second Coming is something that happens after human history has already been concluded, but not everyone would say this.

In regard to the number of the saved, the issue was surely much less important. Christ himself at least on one occasion seems to have refused to answer the question: one should not be concerned about how many are saved, but to strive for salvation. And the idea that most people are lost was surely not universal. Origen for example argued that all will be saved. And likewise, I have given only the example of Pope Benedict XVI currently arguing that most people are saved, while it is not clear how common this opinion is. Nonetheless, I have included this because of significant similarities. The Catholic doctrine of the Last Judgement implies that there is a deep truth behind the human tendency to divide people into good people and bad people. According to the doctrine, people will in fact be divided in this way, and the division will last for all eternity. But the human tendency is a bit different. As I suggested in the linked post, people frequently tend to make such a division on the basis of religion and politics and similar matters. Democrats might say that Republicans are heartless evil people; Christians might say that atheists are sinful and immoral people who have rebelled against God. Such a division is sometimes even taken so far that it is incorporated into a person’s idea of religious doctrine: thus for example some people hold a rigid understanding of the idea that there is no salvation outside the Church, and some Muslims say that all non-Muslims go to hell.

In this sense, the natural human tendency is surely deeply flawed. Just because people do not agree with you, or just because they do not belong to your communities, does not mean that they are evil people. If anything, it is obvious that most people are not deeply evil. On the one hand, this provides ammunition for people who would engage in Bulverism against the Christian doctrine; they can say that the doctrine may simply be a result of this flawed tendency. On the other hand, it provides an argument in favor of Pope Benedict XVI’s position, and in fact it is more or less the argument that he makes. This is why I have included it: Christ said certain things, which understood in a fairly simple way seem to imply certain things about the time of the end and the number of the saved. Likewise, Genesis says things which similarly can be taken to imply certain facts about the history of the world. Over time, everyone realized that what seemed implied about the time of the end, simply could not be the case. Many people realized that what seemed implied about the history of the world could not be the case, and at least some people realized that what seemed implied about the number of the saved is unlikely to be the case.

These surely differ in their doctrinal weight. The number of the saved is probably unimportant in a doctrinal sense, even if it might be important to us personally. The other two seem somewhat more important, but it not difficult to argue that such changes do not involve the substance of any doctrine. As I have said previously, one would not describe a contradiction as such as a development. So “the world will not end soon” cannot be a development of “the world will end soon,” but it would not be unreasonable to say that Christians went from one to the other through an improved understanding of the meaning and history of the Church, even if it was one that was forced upon them by the facts. In this sense, it is not unreasonable to understand all of these things in conformity with Newman’s idea of development of doctrine.

But something seems missing here. All of the facts may be consistent with Newman’s idea, but that does not mean that they are not consistent with anything else. And if anything, they seem more suggestive of the hypothesis that Newman rejects, that “Christianity has ever changed from the first and ever accommodates itself to the circumstances of times and seasons,” and which seems to imply that Christianity is not supernatural. To a non-Christian, these facts look like the early Christians were just ignorant, and their ignorance was overcome through the normal progress in the knowledge of truth. And to the extent that they received their religion from Christ, and even to some extent apparently these specific ideas, it looks like Christ was ignorant as well.

Pope Benedict XVI discusses a similar situation in his homilies on Genesis, published as the book In the Beginning:

These words, with which Holy Scripture begins, always have the effect on me of the solemn tolling of a great old bell, which stirs the heart from afar with its beauty and dignity and gives it an inkling of the mystery of eternity. For many of us, moreover, these words recall the memory of our first encounter with Gods holy book, the Bible, which was opened for us at this spot. It at once brought us out of our small child’s world, captivated us with its poetry, and gave us a feeling for the immeasurability of creation and its Creator.

Yet these words give rise to a certain conflict. They are beautiful and familiar, but are they also true? Everything seems to speak against it, for science has long since disposed of the concepts that we have just now heard of – the idea of a world that is completely comprehensible in terms of space and time, and the idea that creation was built up piece by piece over the course of seven days. Instead of this we now face measurements that transcend all comprehension. Today we hear of the Big Bang, which happened billions of years ago and with which the universe began its expansion – an expansion that continues to occur without interruption. And it was not in neat succession that the stars were hung and the green of the fields created; it was rather in complex ways and over vast periods of time that the earth and the universe were constructed as we now know them.

Do these words, then, count for anything? In fact a theologian said not long ago that creation has become an unreal concept. If one is to be intellectually honest one ought to speak no longer of creation but rather of mutation and selection. Are these words true? Or have they perhaps, along with the entire Word of God and the whole biblical tradition, come out of the reveries of the infant age of human history, for which we occasionally experience homesickness but to which we can nevertheless not return, inasmuch as we cannot live on nostalgia? Is there an answer to this that we can claim for ourselves in this day and age?

He is discussing the specific issue of the truth of Genesis, and thus his response is tailored to this:

One answer was already worked out some time ago, as the scientific view of the world was gradually crystallizing; many of you probably came across it in your religious instruction. It says that the Bible is not a natural science textbook, nor does it intend to be such. It is a religious book, and consequently one cannot obtain information about the natural sciences from it. One cannot get from it a scientific explanation of how the world arose; one can only glean religious experience from it. Anything else is an image and a way of describing things whose aim is to make profound realities graspable to human beings. One must distinguish between the form of portrayal and the content that is portrayed. The form would have been chosen from what was understandable at the time – from the images which surrounded the people who lived then, which they used in speaking and thinking, and thanks to which they were able to understand the greater realities. And only the reality that shines through these images would be what was intended and what was truly enduring. Thus Scripture would not wish to inform us about how the different species of plant life gradually appeared or how the sun and the moon and the stars were established. Its purpose ultimately would be to say one thing: God created the world. The world is not, as people used to think then, a chaos of mutually opposed forces; nor is it the dwelling of demonic powers from which human beings must protect themselves. The sun and the moon are not deities that rule over them, and the sky that stretches over their heads is not full of mysterious and adversary divinities. Rather, all of this comes from one power, from God’s eternal Reason, which became – in the Word – the power of creation. All of this comes from the same Word of God that we meet in the act of faith. Thus, insofar as human beings realized that the world came from the Word, they ceased to care about the gods and demons. In addition, the world was freed so that reason might lift itself up to God and so that human beings might approach this God fearlessly. In this Word they experienced the true enlightenment that does away with the gods and the mysterious powers and that reveals to them that there is only one power everywhere and that we are in his hands. This is the living God, and this same power (which created the earth and the stars and which bears the whole universe) is the very one whom we meet in the Word of Holy Scripture. In this Word we come into contact with the real primordial force of the world and with the power that is above all powers.

After this description of a response to the problem, he says that there is still a problem:

I believe that this view is correct, but it is not enough. For when we are told that we have to distinguish between the images themselves and what those images mean, then we can ask in turn: Why wasn’t that said earlier? Evidently it must have been taught differently at one time or else Galileo would never have been put on trial. And so the suspicion grows that ultimately perhaps this way of viewing things is only a trick of the church and of theologians who have run out of solutions but do not want to admit it, and now they are looking for something to hide behind. And on the whole the impression is given that the history of Christianity in the last four hundred years has been a constant rearguard action as the assertions of the faith and of theology have been dismantled piece by piece. People have, it is true, always found tricks as a way of getting out of difficulties. But there is an almost ineluctable fear that we will gradually end up in emptiness and that the time will come when there will be nothing left to defend and hide behind, that the whole landscape of Scripture and of the faith will be overrun by a kind of “reason” that will no longer be able to take any of this seriously.

Along with this there is another disquieting consideration. For one can ask: If theologians or even the church can shift the boundaries here between image and intention, between what lies buried in the past and what is of enduring value, why can they not do so elsewhere – as, for instance, with respect to Jesus’ miracles? And if there, why not also with respect to what is absolutely central – the cross and the resurrection of the Lord? This would be an operation whose aim would be, supposedly, to defend the faith, inasmuch as it would say: Behind what is there, which we can no longer defend, there is something more real. Such an operation often ends up by putting the faith itself in doubt, by raising the question of the honesty of those who are interpreting it and of whether anything at all there is enduring. As far as theological views of this sort are concerned, finally, quite a number of people have the abiding impression that the church’s faith is like a jellyfish: no one can get a grip on it and it has no firm center. It is on the many halfhearted interpretations of the biblical Word that can be found everywhere that a sickly Christianity takes its stand – a Christianity that is no longer true to itself and that consequently cannot radiate encouragement and enthusiasm. It gives, instead, the impression of being an organization that keeps on talking although it has nothing else to say, because twisted words are not convincing and are only concerned to hide their emptiness.

This concern is much like that of Ross Douthat in his comments regarding communion for divorced and remarried couples.

I will give Ratzinger’s response to these issues, and offer some comments on it, in the next post, or possibly later.

Josephus on the Fall

While discussing the the account of the fall in Genesis, I said among other things that the most reasonable way to read the account implies that all the animals could talk. I received a personal comment to the effect that this idea is ridiculous, with the implication that I invented it. I agree that it is a ridiculous idea, if we are to suppose that the account is a historical one; but I have given reasons for believing that it is not such an account, and the fact that the text seems to imply something that we would not suspect of being the case historically, is simply additional support for this.

As for whether I invented the idea, I gave reasons at the time for reading the text in this way, and I won’t repeat them here. However, I am certainly not the first to read the text of Genesis in this way. Josephus states in his Antiquities of the Jews, 

God therefore commanded that Adam and his wife should eat of all the rest of the plants, but to abstain from the tree of knowledge; and foretold to them, that if they touched it, it would prove their destruction. But while all the living creatures had one language, at that time the serpent, which then lived together with Adam and his wife, shewed an envious disposition, at his supposal of their living happily, and in obedience to the commands of God; and imagining, that when they disobeyed them, they would fall into calamities, he persuaded the woman, out of a malicious intention, to taste of the tree of knowledge, telling them, that in that tree was the knowledge of good and evil; which knowledge, when they should obtain, they would lead a happy life; nay, a life not inferior to that of a god: by which means he overcame the woman, and persuaded her to despise the command of God. Now when she had tasted of that tree, and was pleased with its fruit, she persuaded Adam to make use of it also. Upon this they perceived that they were become naked to one another; and being ashamed thus to appear abroad, they invented somewhat to cover them; for the tree sharpened their understanding; and they covered themselves with fig-leaves; and tying these before them, out of modesty, they thought they were happier than they were before, as they had discovered what they were in want of. But when God came into the garden, Adam, who was wont before to come and converse with him, being conscious of his wicked behavior, went out of the way. This behavior surprised God; and he asked what was the cause of this his procedure; and why he, that before delighted in that conversation, did now fly from it, and avoid it. When he made no reply, as conscious to himself that he had transgressed the command of God, God said, “I had before determined about you both, how you might lead a happy life, without any affliction, and care, and vexation of soul; and that all things which might contribute to your enjoyment and pleasure should grow up by my providence, of their own accord, without your own labor and pains-taking; which state of labor and pains-taking would soon bring on old age, and death would not be at any remote distance: but now thou hast abused this my good-will, and hast disobeyed my commands; for thy silence is not the sign of thy virtue, but of thy evil conscience.” However, Adam excused his sin, and entreated God not to be angry at him, and laid the blame of what was done upon his wife; and said that he was deceived by her, and thence became an offender; while she again accused the serpent. But God allotted him punishment, because he weakly submitted to the counsel of his wife; and said the ground should not henceforth yield its fruits of its own accord, but that when it should be harassed by their labor, it should bring forth some of its fruits, and refuse to bring forth others. He also made Eve liable to the inconveniency of breeding, and the sharp pains of bringing forth children; and this because she persuaded Adam with the same arguments wherewith the serpent had persuaded her, and had thereby brought him into a calamitous condition. He also deprived the serpent of speech, out of indignation at his malicious disposition towards Adam. Besides this, he inserted poison under his tongue, and made him an enemy to men; and suggested to them, that they should direct their strokes against his head, that being the place wherein lay his mischievous designs towards men, and it being easiest to take vengeance on him, that way. And when he had deprived him of the use of his feet, he made him to go rolling all along, and dragging himself upon the ground. And when God had appointed these penalties for them, he removed Adam and Eve out of the garden into another place.

Josephus clearly believes that the account is a literal one, and while presenting my own argument, I noted that this was in fact the common reading throughout history. But he also indicates his belief in certain details: as that God “deprived the serpent of speech,” which means that the serpent had the power to speak in general, and that it was not simply a question of a demonic temptation. He also begins with “while all the living creatures had one language,” which implies that all the animals could use language, and the serpent was merely an example of this.

Even if it is not absolutely necessary, the implication that all the animals could talk is a fairly natural reading of the text of Genesis. The main reason that someone might not notice this reading is the presupposition that in fact they could not talk, and that Genesis must be an account of the actual facts.

Gehringer vs. Zimmerman on Original Immortality

Earlier we looked at a brief passage from a review by Joseph Gehringer of Zimmerman’s book on original sin:

Surprisingly, however, evolution continues to attract sympathetic attention in many orthodox Catholic publications. Even publications which are considered ‘conservative’ have been giving circulation to the erroneous claim that the Catholic Church has “never had a problem with evolution.” A recent editorial suggested that evolution was so probable – for philosophical reasons – that Catholics are almost obliged to accept it. Apparently the constant attacks on creationism in the secular media during the 1980’s have had their effect: Humani Generis has been forgotten and theistic evolution has become part of the new orthodoxy.

One of the clearest signs of this evolutionary trend is the appearance of a new book by Father Anthony Zimmerman, S.V.D., who is well-known for his work in Japan combating the twin evils of contraception and abortion. Fr. Zimmerman’s uncompromising position on these moral issues stands in strange contrast to his treatment of Scripture, Tradition, and dogma on matters related to human origins. On moral questions he relies upon the Magisterium as an infallible guide; on the question of Adam and Eve, he relies upon scientific theories as the most reliable guide.

Gehringer is criticizing Zimmerman’s apparent inconsistency, namely his appearing willing to follow the Magisterium on moral issues while appearing unwilling to follow the Magisterium on “the question of Adam and Eve.” Gehringer does not seem to notice, however, that this suggests that Zimmerman may have especially strong reasons for his opinions regarding the latter question, since he obviously prefers in principle to be faithful to the Magisterium. I would add the personal note that I have met Fr. Zimmerman in real life and I can testify that by any ordinary standard he is a devout, orthodox Catholic.

Gehringer criticizes Zimmerman’s treatment of tradition:

Tradition is divided into two types (page 208). Those teachings which Fr. Zimmerman accepts are called “Magisterial Tradition”; those he rejects are labeled “folklore tradition.”

As for dogma, under “Preternatural Gifts” in the Pocket Catholic Dictionary (by Rev. John Hardon, S.J.) we read: “They include three great privileges to which human beings have no title – infused knowledge, absence of concupiscence, and bodily immortality. Adam and Eve possessed these gifts before the Fall.” Because they do not fit into his scenario of a gradual, natural evolution, Fr. Zimmerman rejects the idea that Adam and Eve possessed these gifts. Although Vatican II refers to “bodily death from which man would have been immune had he not sinned,” Fr. Zimmerman suggests this is a “doctrinal mistake,” adding: “I look forward to the day when the teaching Church will come to grips with tradition about … the supposed lack of physical death in the original Paradise. Is that a folklore tradition?” (page 208). Over and over, both the great theologians and the actual teachings of the Church are challenged and questioned. For example, “The pre-sin Adam of Augustine, then, is not a functional Adam at all” (page 149). And, “The Church has not made its own this belabored reasoning of Thomas” (page 146). On the other hand, Fr. Zimmerman gives us extensive excerpts (“delightful and informative”) from Lucy, the Beginnings of Humankind, by Johanson and Edey (pages 64-65).

Since the gift of bodily immortality to Adam is considered to be a “de fide” teaching of the Church, Fr. Zimmerman employs a variety of devices to try to convince the reader that this ancient dogma is actually a misinterpretation of Genesis. He claims the Church has erred on a related issue; he explains that the statements of the Councils do not mean what they have always been understood to say; he ignores relevant Scriptural and Magisterial statements; and he caricatures traditional interpretations, subjecting some to outright ridicule.

Making a distinction between “folklore tradition” and “Magisterial tradition” is indeed a bit strange. However, despite Gehringer’s implication, the Church has no list of “de fide” teachings. When Gehringer says that Adam’s bodily immortality is considered to be a matter of faith, he refers to the opinion of some theologians. And just as some theologians say that it is a matter of faith, other theologians, like Zimmerman, may say the opposite.

Gehringer goes on to criticize Zimmerman’s discussion of the various magisterial statements regarding the issue:

The Decrees of the Councils fare no better at Fr. Zimmerman’s hands. Canon 1 of the Council of Carthage, approved by Pope St. Zozimus, is quoted on page 188, but it is described as a “sentence” written by 200 bishops. By page 207, Fr. Zimmerman admits it was a Canon, but he argues that it was not “a positive doctrinal assertion,” only an “ad hominem argument about physical death directed against the heretics.” The old Catholic Encyclopedia, in the article on “Pelagius,” tells us that “these clearly worded canons (… death did not come to Adam from a physical necessity, but through sin …) came to be articles of faith binding the universal Church.” Yet Fr. Zimmerman dismisses it as an “ad hominem argument.”

In its Decree on Original Sin, the Council of Trent promulgated five canons. The first canon declares: “If anyone does not profess that Adam, the first man, … drew upon himself … death with which God had threatened him, and together with death captivity in the power of … the devil … anathema sit.” Fr. Zimmerman ignores what the canon clearly states, arguing that “Missing … is the explicit statement that Adam would not have died a physical death had he not sinned, which had been in an earlier version” (page 10).

Note Fr. Zimmerman’s use of the “Heads I win, tails you lose” type of argument. The Council of Carthage adopted a canon which stated explicitly that Adam was immune from physical death before he sinned; Fr. Zimmerman rejects this as an “ad hominem argument.” The Council of Orange adopted a canon which refers specifically to “bodily death which is the punishment of sin”; Fr. Zimmerman does not quote it, but dismisses it as “something commonly accepted.” The Council of Trent reaffirmed these earlier teachings in different words (“Adam … by his sin … drew upon himself the … death with which God had threatened him”); Fr. Zimmerman rejects this as not being an explicit declaration. Clearly, Fr. Zimmerman shows himself unwilling to accept this Catholic dogma, no matter how it is expressed.

Trent’s Canon 2 declares: “If anyone asserts that Adam’s sin … transmitted to all mankind only death and the suffering of the body but not sin as well which is the death of the soul, anathema sit. For he contradicts the words of the Apostle: ‘Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men as all sinned in him'” (Rom. 5:12 Vulg; see Council of Orange II, Canon 2). Fr. Zimmerman begins by placing quotation marks around the word “death,” even though none appear in his source, Neuner and Dupuis No. 509. Denzinger-Deferrari also has no quotation marks around the word. Next he asserts that Trent explicitly accepted “death of the soul” but did not explicitly accept a lack of physical death, an obvious misinterpretation of the words of the Canon. In an effort to support his misinterpretation, Fr. Zimmerman omits the quotation from Holy Scripture and the reference to the Council of Orange, both of which make it quite apparent that the Council was speaking about physical death.

Father Zimmerman’s disregard for the rulings of the Magisterium is apparent from his handling of other solemn statements as well. On page 207 he quotes from Vatican Council II, “that bodily death, from which man would have been immune had he not sinned.” After first claiming that “this English translation misses precisions of the Latin,” he proposes his interpretation. “The living Adam would go directly from his living body to heaven, and then the body would die…. Adam wouldn’t die, but his body would die. In this way all the bases are covered….” In the Foreword, this book is hailed as a “unique piece of theological exposition.” Unique indeed! Who else would propose as a new Catholic dogma that “Adam wouldn’t die, but his body would die” in order to ‘cover all the bases’?

Gehringer’s discussion here is a bit unfair to Zimmerman, and in reality the interpretation of magisterial statements can be quite complex and not nearly as straightforward as Gehringer supposes. However, at least regarding the last point, it is clear enough that “Adam wouldn’t die, but his body would die” is a contradiction in itself, and that here at least Zimmerman’s position is entirely unreasonable.

I would make a number of points about this disagreement.

First, it is not impossible for someone to hold Zimmerman’s position, even without abandoning or modifying the Church’s teachings on its authority and infallibility. Earlier we noted most of the relevant magisterial statements. The canons of Carthage and Orange are decrees of local councils, and so would not be infallible in themselves. The council of Trent modified an original formulation of its canons that made bodily death as such a result of sin, and given this modification it seems impossible to prove that they intended to define this claim about bodily death absolutely. Gaudium et Spes is not intended to be an infallible document, and the statement about bodily death is made in the context of other statements like, “All the endeavors of technology, though useful in the extreme, cannot calm his anxiety,” where surely no one would complain that the Church was wrong in general, if it turned out that the endeavors of technology calmed someone’s anxiety. And regarding the Catechism, Cardinal Ratzinger stated in Introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

The individual doctrines which the Catechism presents receive no other weight than that which they already possess. The weight of the Catechism itself lies in the whole. Since it transmits what the Church teaches, whoever rejects it as a whole separates himself beyond question from the faith and teaching of the Church.

This implies that unless the doctrine of original immortality is already understood to be infallible, the Catechism does not try to make it infallible. Of course someone like Gehringer could argue against all of this in many ways, as for example by the common consent of the Church and of theologians throughout history. But that would be an argument, and might or might not be right. Thus it is possible in principle for someone to hold Zimmerman’s position, even without changing any idea regarding the Church’s authority. But such a position would have consequences, and Gehringer has some justification for fearing those consequences. I will say more about this shortly.

Second, Zimmerman says a number of strange things about tradition and about the magisterial statements. Gehringer notes some of these things, such as the concept of “folklore tradition,” and the statement that “Adam wouldn’t die, but his body would die.” I noted above that generally speaking, Zimmerman is an orthodox Catholic. This is the best way to understand the various oddities of Zimmerman’s position. He does not like saying that “the Church was wrong”, and so he says various strange things in order to avoid this. As I said in the first point, in principle someone can hold Zimmerman’s position without rejecting the authority of the Church as such. However, it is not reasonable to hold this position without saying that the Church has proposed a false teaching a number of times, even if non-infallibly. So Zimmerman’s position appears unreasonable because he attempts to hold his position on original immortality while trying to avoid saying that the Church was mistaken, even in cases where in fact it would have been mistaken, under Zimmerman’s hypothesis.

Third, the real basis of the disagreement is the evidence against original immortality, discussed here and here. Zimmerman finds this evidence convincing, and consequently holds that it is necessary to adjust the teaching of the Church to correspond to this evidence. Gehringer instead wishes to say that the theory of evolution is false, and hopes that this will imply that there is no longer any evidence against original immortality.

There are several problems with Gehringer’s manner of response. In the first place, even if the theory of evolution was false, and even if there were no substantial evidence for it, there would still be evidence against original immortality, even if it would be somewhat weaker. Second, evidence is objective and does not change sides. So whether you accept or reject original immortality, or evolution, or anything else, is not the point. The evidence for and against these things will remain just as it is no matter what your position is.

Fourth, however, the consequences of that evidence will vary somewhat depending on how you react to it. There is evidence against original immortality, but there is also evidence (as for example those magisterial statements) in favor of it. Those evidences will remain just as they are no matter what someone’s position is. But there will be different ultimate consequences in terms of how people react. I said above that Gehringer has some justification for fearing the consequences of Zimmerman’s position. One of those consequences is that someone who holds Zimmerman’s position will almost certainly conclude that the authority of the Magisterium is weaker than many Catholics suppose, if he is honest enough to admit that his position implies that each of those magisterial statements was mistaken. Note that there is an objective aspect here as well: even if someone does not conclude that this position is ultimately true, the evidence against original immortality is also evidence that the Church’s authority is weaker in this way. But whether you believe that it is actually weaker in this way or not, may depend on whether you are convinced by the evidence regarding immortality.

But there is yet more for Gehringer to fear. Genesis assigns death as a result of the fall, but also other things, such as a woman’s pain in childbirth. But death seems the most important of these things. If death is not the result of the fall, then it is likely that the pain of childbirth and so on are not results of it. Thus it would be unclear that the fall had any results at all, which would suggest that it did not happen. This seems to suggest that the Bible as a whole would be false, given that considered as a whole it seems to be an account of the origin of death and how it is to be overcome. This, of course, is not a conclusion that Zimmerman draws or wishes to draw. But there is an objective aspect here as well: the evidence against original immortality is indirect evidence that the Bible as a whole is false, whether or not anyone draws that conclusion.