Let’s Draw a Line

James Larson, in the note currently at the beginning of his website, accuses Pope Francis of heresy:

Note (April 16, 2016): In order to add clarity as to the nature of the explicit heresy taught in Amoris Laetitia, I have added one paragraph approximately 2/3 of the way through the article below. It reads:

Herein resides the essence of this heresy. It lies specifically in teaching that there is a “gradualness” applicable to the possession of charity and sanctifying grace. It is Catholic dogma that possession of supernatural charity is an ontological state created by sanctifying grace added to the soul, that one cannot possess this charity unless living in this substantial state, and that it is this state of being which is absolutely necessary for receiving the Eucharist and other sacraments. It cannot be possessed by a person living in objective mortal sin, or by any person who is in some process of pastoral effort working towards the attainment of some “ideal”.

Larson is saying that sanctifying grace is a binary state, that it cannot be possessed by someone “living in objective mortal sin,” that these items are Catholic dogmas, and that Pope Francis contradicts them. The text in which he supposedly does this is paragraph 305 of Amoris Laetitia:

Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.

Larson is mistaken on almost every point. It is true that sanctifying grace would normally be considered a binary condition, where either you have it or you do not. But the Catholic Church does not typically create doctrines concerning deep matters of ontology. If someone were to assert that some people are in a vague condition where it is unclear whether or not they are in a state of grace, just as it is unclear whether some people are actually bald or just almost bald, this would not be a heresy. Nowhere does the Church condemn such a view.

But this is beside the point. It is entirely obvious that Pope Francis makes no such assertion in the text under consideration. Nor does he assert this, or anything like it, anywhere else in Amoris Laetitia.

“Living in objective mortal sin” refers to the “objective situation of sin” in the text of Pope Francis, and refers to the general idea of living a life where one regularly performs acts which the Church considers to be objectively grave sins. Larson asserts that the Church teaches that such a person cannot be in a state of grace.

This too is mistaken. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

1857 For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.”

1858 Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man: “Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and your mother.” The gravity of sins is more or less great: murder is graver than theft. One must also take into account who is wronged: violence against parents is in itself graver than violence against a stranger.

1859 Mortal sin requires full knowledge and complete consent. It presupposes knowledge of the sinful character of the act, of its opposition to God’s law. It also implies a consent sufficiently deliberate to be a personal choice. Feigned ignorance and hardness of heart do not diminish, but rather increase, the voluntary character of a sin.

1860 Unintentional ignorance can diminish or even remove the imputability of a grave offense. But no one is deemed to be ignorant of the principles of the moral law, which are written in the conscience of every man. The promptings of feelings and passions can also diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense, as can external pressures or pathological disorders. Sin committed through malice, by deliberate choice of evil, is the gravest.

The Catechism is clear that doing something objectively wrong is not enough for a sin to be mortal, or to exclude someone from the state of grace. In order for this to happen, there also needs to be “full knowledge” and “complete consent.”

The text does not explicitly address the kind of “objective situation of sin” that Pope Francis and James Larson discuss. Much less, therefore, does it assert that a person in such a situation cannot be in a state of grace. However, it is not difficult to see from the above text that a person could be in such a situation without mortal sin. One of the factors that can “diminish the voluntary and free character of the offense” is “external pressures.” The situations under discussion are precisely situations where there are external pressures. That is why they are considered “situations” as opposed to an arbitrarily repeated series of actions. Since the consent must be “complete” and since it can be diminished by these pressures, a person might very well fail to sin mortally in such a situation, even if the situation lasts for a long time.

We can see that Larson’s positions do not correspond very well with anything that the Church actually teaches. Why then does he make these assertions?

I suggest that we have here a case of highly motivated thinking. Larson wants to believe that sanctifying grace is a binary condition, he wants to believe that a divorced and remarried person could not be in that condition, he wants to believe that these are teachings of the Church, and he wants to believe that Pope Francis contradicts these things.

Why would someone have such desires? Larson says in article 25:

Since Pope Francis’ recent interviews and his letter to the editor of La Civilta Cattolica, I have received emails from traditional Catholics which speak of a new level of despair. It is as though they are desperately seeking some explanation of what is happening with the Papacy and the Church which will allow them to escape from coming to some dreadful conclusion.

The situation reminds me of a passage from Robert Bolt’s A Man For All Seasons. In the face of all the forces of evil moving in to ensnare and destroy him, Sir Thomas More offers the following impassioned words to his beloved daughter:

“Listen, Meg, God made the angels to show Him splendor, as He made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man He made to serve Him wittily, in the tangle of his mind. If He suffers us to come to such a case that there is no escaping, then we may stand to our tackle as best we can, and, yes, Meg, then we can clamor like champions, if we have the spittle for it. But it’s God’s part, not our own, to bring ourselves to such a pass. Our natural business lies in escaping. If I can take the oath, I will.”

It seems evident that the “tangle of the mind” from which traditional Catholics are now desperately trying to escape is the apparent overwhelming evidence that their Church is being destroyed from within. They dread that they are being irresistibly backed into a corner where they will be forced to conclude that the Church, in what they always considered to be her inviolable nature (if she is to be considered real at all) has contradicted this nature, and has therefore been proved to be a human invention, and not the work of God. In other words, they fear the loss of their faith.

I think this is a correct description of how many people feel. I think it is also a correct description of the way Larson himself feels, and I think it can explain why he desires to hold the above opinions concerning Pope Francis and Amoris Laetitia. This might seem a bit paradoxical. He accuses Pope Francis of heresy. Would not this be a very good example of the kind of thing he should be hoping to avoid?

Yes, in one way, but in another way it is an advantage to him if Pope Francis explicitly falls into heresy. This is important to him. In the first quoted passage, he mentions the “nature of the explicit heresy” taught by Pope Francis. It is not only heresy, but “explicit heresy.”

When people change their minds, they often do so gradually, and by degrees, and in such a way that sometimes they do not even notice that they have changed their minds. It follows that if someone does not want to change their mind, they have a reason to be cautious about gradual changes of opinion. Such changes not only could lead to what they do not want, namely changing their mind, but they could lead to this without the person even noticing it has happened.

Another point should be made about this. I pointed out here that despite the fact that it would be unreasonable to say that getting one year older makes you pass from “not being old” to “being old”, this does not prevent you from growing up. In the same way, if someone changes his mind gradually, at each point he may be able to say, “this change is too small to constitute a passage from not having changed my mind to having changed my mind.” He may be quite right. But this will not prevent it from being true at the end that he has changed his mind in comparison with his original position.

And just as individual human beings change their minds, so the Church changes its mind, gradually and by degrees, and sometimes without saying that a change has occurred. So just as someone who wishes to avoid changing his mind should be cautious about gradual changes, so someone who does not want the Church to change its mind will wish it to be cautious about gradual changes. This is what is happening here with Larson’s argument. It is an advantage to him if Amoris Laetita is explicitly heretical, because in that case it can be completely rejected, preventing the process of gradual change. If the document is not heretical (and it is not) it will be bound to cause gradual changes of various kinds, and there is no way to predict the end results in advance.

In a certain way, traditionalist Catholics are often more reasonable in this regard than others who would be considered “conservative” rather than traditionalist. Thus for example Jimmy Akin says:

11. Does the document foresee any possibility for sacramentally absolving and giving Communion to people who are civilly remarried if they are not living as brother and sister?

It does. In the main text of the document, it begins by noting certain principles to be taken into account, stating:

For an adequate understanding of the possibility and need of special discernment in certain “irregular” situations, one thing must always be taken into account, lest anyone think that the demands of the gospel are in any way being compromised.

The Church possesses a solid body of reflection concerning mitigating factors and situations.

Hence it can no longer simply be said that all those in any “irregular” situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace.

More is involved here than mere ignorance of the rule. A subject may know full well the rule, yet have great difficulty in understanding “its inherent values,” or be in a concrete situation which does not allow him or her to act differently and decide otherwise without further sin. . . .

The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly mentions these factors: “imputability and responsibility for an action can be diminished or even nullified by ignorance, inadvertence, duress, fear, habit, inordinate attachments, and other psychological or social factors” (CCC 1735).

In another paragraph, the Catechism refers once again to circumstances which mitigate moral responsibility, and mentions at length “affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen or even extenuate moral culpability” (CCC 2352).

For this reason, a negative judgment about an objective situation does not imply a judgment about the imputability or culpability of the person involved. (AL 301-302).

The document thus envisions the case of a person who may be living in an objectively sinful situation but who is not mortally culpable because of a variety of factors of a cognitive or psychological nature.

Nothing in this is new. The Church has long recognized that people living in objectively grave sin may not be in a state of mortal sin.

Akin is right that “the Church has long recognized that people living in objectively grave sin may not be in a state of mortal sin.” This was discussed above. But “nothing in this is new” is simply not true, if it is understood in relation to the question about communion for the divorced and remarried. The Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts stated in 2000:

Any interpretation of can. 915 that would set itself against the canon’s substantial content, as declared uninterruptedly by the Magisterium and by the discipline of the Church throughout the centuries, is clearly misleading. One cannot confuse respect for the wording of the law (cfr. can. 17) with the improper use of the very same wording as an instrument for relativizing the precepts or emptying them of their substance.

The phrase “and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin” is clear and must be understood in a manner that does not distort its sense so as to render the norm inapplicable. The three required conditions are:

a) grave sin, understood objectively, being that the minister of Communion would not be able to judge from subjective imputability;

b) obstinate persistence, which means the existence of an objective situation of sin that endures in time and which the will of the individual member of the faithful does not bring to an end, no other requirements (attitude of defiance, prior warning, etc.) being necessary to establish the fundamental gravity of the situation in the Church.

c) the manifest character of the situation of grave habitual sin.

The text is clear: people in the situation under discussion are not to be given communion, whether or not they are in the state of grace. It is true that they do not assert that such people are necessarily in a state of sin, as James Larson does, but the prohibition does not depend on their subjective condition. And thus when asked whether he intended to change anything, Pope Francis said that he did intend such a change:

Rocca: Thank you Holy Father. I see that the questions on immigration I had thought of have already been asked, and you have responded very well. So, if you will permit me to ask a question on another event of the last few days, which was your Apostolic Exhortation.

As you know well, there was much discussion on one of many points – I know we have concentrated a lot on it – but there has been much discussion after the publication…Some maintain that nothing has changed with respect to the discipline that governs the access to the Sacraments for the divorced and remarried, and that the law and the pastoral practice and obviously the doctrine remains the same; others maintain instead that much has changed and that there are many new openings and possibilities.

And the question for a person, a Catholic, that wants to know: Are there new concrete possibilities that did not exist before the publication of the Exhortation or not?

Pope Francis: I can say yes. Period. But that would be too small an answer.

Akin’s way of thinking goes, “This does not contradict the Church’s current teaching. So it’s nothing new.” Larson, far more reasonably, recognizes in practice (although probably not in principle) that “this does not contradict the Church’s current teaching” can be true at every point in time, without this preventing the Church from changing its teaching in the end. By asserting that Amoris Laetitia is heretical, he hopes to draw a line, in order to remove the possibility of gradual change ultimately resulting in substantial change.

James Chastek, talking about disagreement on philosophical topics, says:

We care too much about philosophical topics ever to agree about them, and we achieve widespread successful consensus on scientific matters because we care very little which theory turns out to be true. The beauty and utility of math and science are there for anyone to see, but it’s not as if any one would kill, die, be celibate, or riot over them. Math and science of themselves, cut off from any reference to the mytho-philosophical (like the praise or the defiance of the gods) are not the sort of thing that one would think to praise in epic poetry, polyphonic splendor à la a Gounod Mass, or even a pop song.

We have discussed much the same issue here, although we pointed out that caring too much is only one part of the cause of such disagreement. Something else can be seen in the case of Larson’s disagreement with Amoris Laetita. It is not merely that he cares about the position he holds. He cares about agreement and disagreement, directly. For the reasons stated, he wants to disagree with Pope Francis. Thus in order to be sure that he does, he needs to describe the Pope’s position in various ways.

This is not uncommon. People frequently care not only about their positions, but also about the fact that they agree with certain people, and that they disagree with others. People often draw lines exactly for this reason, namely in order to disagree with someone else.

 

I Respond

If we consider the last two posts, we can see that they resemble a disputed question. However, unlike St. Thomas’s Summa Theologiae, and instead in the technical manner of a disputed question, there are arguments on both sides. Additionally, I did not include the typical “response of the master,” nor did I include responses to the arguments. I will explain these omissions shortly.

James Chastek, in the passage quoted here, asserted that it is difficult to make your opponent’s arguments without relating to them as something to be refuted. As we have seen from these examples, there is actually no big difficulty here, and historically this was done with the disputed question. In principle people could even write books this way, and they probably have, on occasion. One could write an entire book on the actual infinite with the structure, “Part I: An Actual Infinite is Possible,” and “Part 2: An Actual Infinite is Impossible.”

There are a lot of reasons why people don’t do this in general, and why for example I would not write blog posts like this in general. One factor is the practical issue that it is twice as much work. Another is the concrete goal of a book or a blog post.

Why did I not include the response of the master? In the medieval schools, the arguments on each side were formulated by the students, followed by the master’s response and his answers to the arguments. Thus, since the master did not compose the original arguments, he could make a new argument for his conclusion, outside of the original arguments. But since I was the one composing the arguments on each side, if I thought there was a very strong argument for one conclusion, I could simply include it there. Consequently a special response would simply repeat something contained in the series of arguments.

But there is more to it than this. A special response would also give away my personal opinion, which I preferred to avoid. If I could simply state the strong arguments in the series, nothing would be added by restating it as the “response of the master” except the bare fact that I agree with the one side rather than the other.

Consider how students will react to such a thing in real life. In terms of the argument, nothing is added to their understanding of reality by this response. Nonetheless, they receive additional evidence in favor of one conclusion, namely that the teacher agrees with one side. So they will have an additional reason to agree with that side, a real reason, but not one that adds to their understanding of the issues. Thus, to the degree that they believe that this response has contributed to their understanding, they are simply mistaken, and consequently believe that they understand things better than they do.

The issue of the responses to the arguments in somewhat different. If someone wrote the above book on the Actual Infinite, presumably Part I would also include responses to the main arguments in Part II, and Part II would include responses to the main arguments in Part I. This is in fact very important for understanding. Although arguments are never one-sided, they are frequently mostly one-sided, where most of the best arguments and evidence are indeed on one side. And in such cases, this usually becomes most clear when one considers the responses to the opposing arguments, and, consequently, where one begins to actually understand the matter at hand, and to recognize the truth of the matter.

So I did not include such responses because most likely they would reveal more clearly which side had the stronger argument, and which side I agreed with. But note that in principle these two things would be the same: the reasons which would show that I agreed with one side, would show that this was the better and more likely side. In practice of course there might be other ways that someone could guess my opinion, as for example from the style of the arguments and so on. (For the record, my opinion cannot be determined by which side went first; that was determined by the flip of a coin.)

Someone once posted on Twitter (I can no longer find the particular post) something along the lines of, “How can you be unbiased if I can tell which side you are on?” We can see here that in fact there is a valid answer to this: if I simply present all of the best arguments for both sides, together with their responses, then you can tell which side I am on by determining which side is probably right, and the fact that you can determine my side in that way does not suggest that I am biased. On the other hand, if you note that I have missed strong and important arguments on the side of the part that seems weaker in my presentation, that might be a reason for thinking that I am biased.

That said, the responses to the arguments in the previous posts, and consequently the “response of the master,” is left here as an exercise for the reader.

Making Your Point vs. Understanding Reality

Generally speaking, people who write something know in advance what they are going to say, and not surprisingly, they agree with it. Along these lines, Hal Finney says in this comment:

Michael Ruse is quoted above as saying, “The God Delusion makes me embarrassed to be an atheist, and the McGraths show why.” That’s very much to his credit, that although he agrees with the conclusion of Dawkins’ book, he disagrees with the arguments. You don’t often get people willing to make these kinds of public statements that undercut arguments in favor of their beliefs.

Sounds like McGrath himself is a theist, unfortunately, so his book is arguing for a conclusion he believes in, as did Dawkins. And of course, as is true for virtually 100% of books every published. Can you imagine a book arguing page after page for the existence of God, written by someone who doesn’t believe in God? Or vice versa? Is it a sign of bias, that we never see that?

This isn’t so much a sign of bias, as an effect of a person’s goals. If someone thinks that something is true, he may want others to know that it is true. Normally he would not want others to think that it is false, which would be the expected effect of arguing that it is false.

Nonetheless, the fact that the writer knows where he is going can have bad effects. We saw that in the case of Spinoza’s ethics. But this can happen with anyone: if I am trying to make a point which is in fact false, then I will be likely to make fallacious arguments. Likewise, even if my point is true, but in reality I do not have very good reasons to think it is true, I will be likely to try to make my arguments look stronger than they actually are.

Despite such possibilities, however, the fact that I have a position and that I wish to persuade others gives me some reason to argue for that position rather than arguing for the opposite. Nonetheless, this results from my goal of persuading others. If my goal is to understand the truth myself, arguing one side rather than the other is not helpful: in such a case I should indeed argue both sides, as was done with disputed questions. In other words, the goal of making a point is different from the goal of understanding, and these goals require different means in order to accomplish them.

James Chastek comments on a similar issue:

All the pleas for dialogue I have heard came from the Left, and all of them beggar belief. However sincere the Leftist might be – and I’m not a mind-reader in any position to decide the question – I can’t get beyond the fact that the Leftist himself never follows his own advice by just giving the reasons of his opponents. Why give a speech that “calls for dialogue” when you could give a speech that presents, without comment or judgment, both your own reasons and those of your opponents? Why are calls for dialectic so reliably non-dialectical?

So you want dialogue? Great. You first. Explain the arguments of the other side without continually relating to them as things to be refuted. I can’t do this, even after many years of criticizing my own thoughts and trying to find real insights in opponents (each of whom are sure believe, with some justification, that my thoughts are far more narrow than they seem to me.)

The goal of making your point only requires that you be able to make arguments for your position, but the goal of understanding requires that you be able to make the opposing arguments as well. So if you can’t do this, there is likely a great deal lacking to your understanding of reality.

In the following posts, for illustration, I will argue both sides of various positions.

The Hope Function and the Second Coming

Ruma Falk writes:

Imagine searching for a paragraph that you read some time ago. You have a visual memory of that paragraph on a right-hand page of a book, toward the top. Though you think you remember the particular book, you are not absolutely certain. Systematically, you begin leafing through the book’s 10 chapters. The paragraph does not turn up in the first chapter, or in the second, third… As you proceed without success through the chapters, does your hope of finding the paragraph in the next chapter increase or decrease? And what of your hope of finding it in the book at all? Imagining yourself in this familiar situation, you may feel that before you reached the end of the book, despair would set it (“this must be the wrong book”). On the other hand, the longer you search the more reluctant you may be to quit, not only because of the efforts invested up to now, but because of a persistent intuition that the chances of finding the paragraph in the next chapter increase after each successive disappointment.

Describing a similar example from fiction, Falk says,

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s story, The Six Napoleons, the great detective Sherlock Holmes deduces that one of six plaster busts of Napoleon conceals a priceless pearl. As the story unfolds, the busts are smashed one by one, until Sherlock finds and dramatically smashes the last one, recovering the pearl. As usual, the detective reveals his reasoning, noting that the numerical chances of finding the pearl in the next bust increased as their number dwindled, until with the last bust it reached certainty. Jones (1966) points out that the scientific viewpoint would doubt Sherlock’s initial certainty, and would start with, say, only a 50% chance that Sherlock’s theory is right: “As successive busts are smashed and no pearl is found, the rising chance of finding it in the next is balanced by the evidence of this growing succession of failures that Sherlock is wrong, and that there isn’t any pearl at all.”

We could think of any number of similar examples from real life. The chance that a single person will get married sometime during the next year will increase as she grows older, at the same time that the total chance that she will get married at all is going down. Of course, at some point there will be a turning point where even the chance of getting married in the next year begins to decrease.

A similar process happens with the idea of the Second Coming. Speaking of the end of the world, James Chastek says,

The end of the world must either be an interruption in human life or an event that occurs after the race has passed away. There are suggestions of the first in Scripture (Mt. 24:40) and in the creed (“judge the living and the dead”), but these ultimately turn out to be ambiguous (“living and dead” seem better understood as speaking of the saved and damned, for example, which is what judgment is about.)

The second interpretation is the better choice. The two judgments have distinct objects and so are not muddled together, and so just as God gives a private judgment to those who have run the course of their life and meet their end either by nature or man, the general judgment happens in the same way. Death is the price to be paid by human life in all its forms, not just by individuals but by the merely human collectives that they form.

The judgment is therefore not coming to save us. It won’t interrupt social evils or break in upon them before they run their course, or leap in front of nature before it finds the keys to making human life just the food source for some other sort of life (like bacteria). We’re in this to its bitter end.

While Chastek does give an argument for his position in principle, one concrete thing that makes his position more likely is the fact that nothing in particular has happened so far. As the scoffers said, “Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since our ancestors died, all things continue as they were from the beginning of creation!”

The supplement to St. Thomas’s Summa remarks, “these signs that are mentioned in the gospels, such as wars, fears, and so forth, have been from the beginning of the human race.” This also in a certain way favors Chastek’s account: these things are indeed signs of the end of the world, in the sense that they are signs that the world is a historical reality, and historical realities begin and end.

Chastek on Morality in the Old Testament

James Chastek discusses the morality in the Old Testament:

If our objection to the divine origin of Scripture is to call it a book of crude bronze-age genocidal goat herding patriarchal peasants, then do we expect something with a truly a divine origin be the finest fruit of a perfectly enlightened age, composed by leisured aristocrats, and reflecting the noblest, purest moral ideals and actions? Even if all these traits were compatible (non-patriarchal aristocracy?) an honest look at history tells us that such age would be marred by its love of its own atrocious actions and beliefs.  Our rhetorical jabs would just shift from whatever monstrous moral practices happen at the hands of goat-herders to the the ones that happen at the hands of enlightened, leisured aristocrats and college professors.

Is this missing the point, though? Sure, maybe out mocking of goat-herders is a little xenophobic and elitist, and maybe any culture God chose to reveal himself though would have its own vices and faults. But isn’t the heart of the objection that since God is “morally perfect” his revelation should be morally perfect? Isn’t this practically a tautology?

Of course any culture that God chose to reveal himself through would have its own vices and faults. And even if a revelation was morally perfect, there is enough disagreement about morals that people would criticize the revelation in moral terms anyway. But even the latter fact does not answer the objection, as Chastek acknowledges here, because the fact that people would criticize it anyway, does not mean that it in fact is morally perfect.

He continues:

Not necessarily. Instead of trying to justify the apparent moral degradation of Scripture we might investigate the hypothesis that some moral degradation is integral to its own account of revelation. Since it is complete in Christ, revelation is not just God’s speaking to human beings but speaking with a human voice. Given that God wanted to save human beings, and not just start again after the fall with a non-fallen creation (which would make both salvation and revelation unnecessary) he was committed to speaking with a fallen voice until such time when he would speak though his new creation in Christ. Demanding moral perfection of the revelation before this new creation would destroy the way in which Christ fulfills the Scripture as not just a revelation to humanity but through humanity.

Ultimately one would have to flesh out this thesis in order to give it a full consideration. What does it mean in particular for the Old Testament? Does it mean that parts of it are false? If not, what is the alternative?

And what does it mean for the New Testament? If revelation is complete in Christ, does it mean that the New Testament is in fact morally perfect, even though the Old Testament is not? As implied by Chastek’s first paragraph, people can and do criticize the morality found in the New Testament as well. For example, although Christ proposes an improved morality, he does not specifically distinguish what he is saying from pacifism, and consequently some early Christians were pacifists. Pacifism is not a perfect morality, and even if Christ might have personally understood this, he failed to make the distinction publicly, or at least failed to have it recorded. Likewise, many people have criticized St. Paul’s attitude to slavery, or the details of his view on the relationship of men and women.

As I said above, people would criticize even a morally perfect revelation. Consequently one possible response to such issues in the New Testament is to defend it in every respect, saying that in fact it is morally perfect. But this is possible much in the way that it is possible to defend the Old Testament in every respect, as for example saying that since God is the author of all, he has the right to command genocide, and that if it is commanded, people should carry it out. This answer is not impossible in itself. But if we do not wish to accept it because it is not a very reasonable position, I would suggest that the same thing is probably true about the New Testament, but with a difference of degree. The difference between the morality in the Old Testament and the morality in the New is not the difference between an imperfect morality and a perfect morality; it is the difference between a more imperfect morality and a less imperfect morality.

Whether one agrees that even the morality of the New Testament is imperfect, or asserts that it is perfect in contrast to the Old Testament, the resulting position will be consistent with holding the truth of the Christian religion. However, either response will have a price, basically because either response is a response to a legitimate objection. As for the exact nature of the price, I may revisit this issue in the future.

The Sun and The Bat

Aristotle begins Book II of the Metaphysics in this way:

The investigation of the truth is in one way hard, in another easy. An indication of this is found in the fact that no one is able to attain the truth adequately, while, on the other hand, we do not collectively fail, but every one says something true about the nature of things, and while individually we contribute little or nothing to the truth, by the union of all a considerable amount is amassed. Therefore, since the truth seems to be like the proverbial door, which no one can fail to hit, in this respect it must be easy, but the fact that we can have a whole truth and not the particular part we aim at shows the difficulty of it.

Perhaps, too, as difficulties are of two kinds, the cause of the present difficulty is not in the facts but in us. For as the eyes of bats are to the blaze of day, so is the reason in our soul to the things which are by nature most evident of all.

I have a slight feeling of uncertainty about the argument I made yesterday. I do not see any flaw in the argument, and it seems to me that it works. But the uncertain feeling remains. This suggests that “the cause of the present difficulty is not in the facts but in us,” and that the reason for the feeling is that “as the eyes of bats are to the blaze of day, so is the reason in our soul to the things which are by nature most evident of all.”

Should I dismiss this feeling? One could argue that such feelings result from the imagination or from custom, so that if we do not see any flaw in the argument, we should just try to get over such feelings.

I think this would be a mistake, if the meaning is that one should try to get over it without making some other kind of progress first. In Plato’s Meno, Socrates talks about the fact that someone just learning something does not yet possess it in an entirely clear way:

Soc. And that is the line which the learned call the diagonal. And if this is the proper name, then you, Meno’s slave, are prepared to affirm that the double space is the square of the diagonal?

Boy. Certainly, Socrates.

Soc. What do you say of him, Meno? Were not all these answers given out of his own head?

Men. Yes, they were all his own.

Soc. And yet, as we were just now saying, he did not know?

Men. True.

Soc. But still he had in him those notions of his-had he not?

Men. Yes.

Soc. Then he who does not know may still have true notions of that which he does not know?

Men. He has.

Soc. And at present these notions have just been stirred up in him, as in a dream; but if he were frequently asked the same questions, in different forms, he would know as well as any one at last?

Men. I dare say.

The boy at first possesses the idea that the double square is the square on the diagonal as something which has “just been stirred up in him, as in a dream,” rather than in a clear way. And this is appropriate, because as we seen earlier, people can make mistakes even in mathematics. One reason that the boy needs to be “frequently asked the same questions, in different forms,” is that by doing this he will become much more sure that he has not been misled by the argument.

There is at least one objective sign that there may be a flaw in my argument from yesterday, namely the fact that it does not appear to be an argument that anyone has made previously, at least as far as I know. It may be implicit both in the theology of St. Thomas and in that of Hans Urs von Balthasar, in the discussion of the distinction between the persons of the Trinity as a source for the distinction of creation from Creator, but it does not appear to have been made explicitly. In general I think it is a mistake to ignore such a feeling of uncertainty, just as it would be a mistake for the boy to ignore the dreamlike character of his knowledge. That feeling means something. It may not mean anything about the facts, as Aristotle says, but it means that there is something lacking in my understanding. And if I manage to banish the feeling, to “just get over it,” that does not necessarily mean that I have actually cured that lack in my understanding. It may be present just as much as before.

This is similar to the situation where someone observes some evidence against what he currently believes to be true. His “gut feeling” will tell him that it is something that stands against what he believes, but he may attempt to remove that feeling by fitting it into the context of his belief. However, even if his explanation is correct, even if his estimate of the prior probability is mistaken, his original feeling was not meaningless. In almost every case, it really was evidence against his position.

When we have a conclusion and we want to make an argument for it, whether that is because we suspect that the conclusion is true and want to settle the matter, or because we simply want the conclusion to be true, there is a danger of claiming to know for sure that an argument works without really understanding it. And this danger seems to be especially serious when one is speaking about God or the first principles of things, because they are like the blaze of day compared to the eyes of bats. For example, I commented on a recent post by James Chastek because it appears to me that he is trying to take a shortcut, that he is trying to avoid the hard work of actually understanding. I have not yet continued that discussion because I suspect that neither he nor I actually understand the argument that he is making, and I would prefer to understand it better before continuing the discussion.

Do not ignore such vague feelings. Do not dismiss them as “just the imagination,” do not try to “just get over it.” They are telling you something, and often something important.