Back from the Rectory

Thank you all for your thoughtful comments, and, of course, my greatest thanks are reserved for Deacon Michael who generously spent two hours chatting with me yesterday.  I really appreciated both his candor and his enthusiasm.  It’s always so encouraging to see people who are energized by disagreement and conversation, rather than frightened of it.

I’m not going to do a beat by beat recap of our discussion for a variety of reasons.  The primary one is that I have a policy of only attributing ideas to specific people on this blog if that person has published them.  Thus ideas expressed in books, blogs, articles, or comments will be attributed, but I only refer to concepts I hear in conversation as ideas I heard about from ‘a friend’ or ‘a priest’ etc.  I don’t want people to need to censor themselves in conversation with me, and, even if they don’t mind, I prefer that my interpretation of what they said become gospel according to Google.

That said, I quite enjoyed the conversation and have a number of ideas I’d like to hash out here.  I think, ideally, after this week, I’ll take a break from the normal, themed post schedule here and do a series of longer, linked posts on one of the following topics.  Are there strong preferences as to which would come first?

Objective Morality and Mathematics
–How to live with imperfect access to transcendental concepts
–Morality, Beauty, and culturally contingent topics

Original Sin and the Fall
–What I mean when I say Sin
–Being Fallen without having fallen from

Reverse Engineering God
–Is the Christian theory of God coherent?
–What kind of God is implied to exist by his presumed instructions to us?

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as a statistician for a school in Washington D.C. by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at www.patheos.com/blogs/unequallyyoked. She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12963476276106907984 Sabio Lantz

    Best wishes with your project. I like your new sub-title. Have you thought about what to call it when/if you two break up? (oooooops, I promised myself I would not ask that. Darn!)

  • Sarah

    I'd be really interested to hear your thoughts on either of the sin topics, as it's a concept that I've never gotten my mind entirely around as a more-or-less practicing Christian, and wish I could.(I commented as bluesilkensky a while back, but lj isn't cooperating right now.)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12103905129399107125 Mark P. Shea

    Very quickly, I think the Christian doctrine of the Fall is an answer to a question, rather than a premise to an argument. Human history is haunted by the experience of what the pagans call "the tears of things". It's vastly more than "my animal nature resents not getting three squares a day and lots of sex, so I will sublimate that into some sort of emotional thing and call it sin". It's something more like the sense of loss, of regret, of life out of balance. The doctrine of fall doesn't cause the sense (present in all the greatest poetry of the world). It merely takes the sense of loss and connects it to the reality of our damaged selves and our unconquerable intuition that "it's not how it's supposed to be." It is, properly speaking, part of revelation and is, therefore, impossible to prove from observing nature, though all objections to it can be answered by reason. (That is, as St. Thomas points out, one of the hallmarks of supernatural revelation as distinct from natural revelation: you can't prove it but you can answer all objecftions to it from reason. Weird, I know.)Gotta run!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/16496144988509668275 Leah

    I think Mark is largely right. Christianity has usually taken the Fall as a given (indeed, Chesterton says in Orthodoxy "Certain new theologians dispute original sin, which is the only part of Christian theology which can really be proved." The major question is whether the sense that we are somehow fractured necessarily implies we once were whole or could be made so again. I’ll be doing a post on that question once I get up to doing that special series on Sin, but I’m taking next week to do Math and Morality, since I think that topic provides needed background on my epistemology and beliefs. I promise I’ll come back to this question soon, Sarah!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11174257204278139704 Charles

    Mark is entirely correct on this I think. He puts it very briefly but it certainly holds that the fallen state is a given to the human condition. Its really a matter of how you deal with that isn't it? Do you believe that it can be overcome (as in most major religious systems) or as Leah asks does our propensity towards immorality (how ever you choose to define morality) even imply a state that can be 'fixed' ? Part of the fundamental problems with discussing the 'sin' topic in a mixed crowd (non-religious / religious / various faiths) is that since the issue is fundamental to being human everyone comes at it with a different baseline but uses the same words.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12103905129399107125 Mark P. Shea

    One more quickie. Part of the difficulty encountered in, for instance, Hendy's grappling with the doctrine of the Fall is precisely that moderns are unique in that the sense of sin as a "given" in human affairs is no longer there. That's not to say we don't have a sense of sin. But we no longer have a Logos or Tao or Nature in which to root it. We *feel* the wrongness of, say, the word "nigger" or Holocaust denier or wife beater. We have taboos aplenty in our culture that must be observed or face stark ostracizing punishment (as Mel Gibson, pedophile priests and Lindsay Lohan helpfully illustrate). And these taboos always point directly to that fact that *something* is still regarded as sacred, or else they would not be taboos. But the problem is that we no longer are certain these sacred things are (and sometimes we are quite certain they are not) something rooted in the essential truth about man as a creature in the image and likeness of a transcendant God. When this conviction (based purely on a mystical doctrine) goes, you don't get nothing. You get anything. But the anything you get is always some attempt to derive moral Oughts from some physical Is. So we get all the rubbish about morality as some sort of DNA encoding for species preservation, etc. What remains unexplained is "Why should I listen to my DNA?" After all, we don't listen to it on numerous other ocassions, ranging from fight or flight responses to the act of artificial contraception. So what's so special about "You shall not kill?" As John C. Wright puts it, "Logically, there are only two possibilities: law are manmade, like poems, or laws are discovered, like geometry proofs."He is speaking, of course, of "natural law": what we "can't not know", not of the postal code or laws governing which side of the road to drive on. But these manmade regulations likewise participate in something we did not and cannot invent or alter. You regulate driving because people should not be slaughtered in car accidents, because human life is precious, because…. why? A Jew or a Christian has an answer for that. A materialist has a sort of question-begging piece of recursive knowledge that says our DNA programs us to preserve the species and we are morally bound to obey our DNA programming (but not morally bound to obey it when it says to maximize our breeding capacity by foregoing all contraception and all reference to the Judeo-Christian concepts of keeping all sex within marriage to one spouse). The identification of moral duty with obedience to some sort of general primate social behavior is…. wanting in actuality. Sure primate and other higher mammals exhibit social behavior. I'd be surprised if they didn't given that God made them too. But social behavior and "rationality" are not the same thing.Okay. Gotta dash. And yeah, I know this is inadequate.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03615608336736450543 Hendy

    Interesting comments.I don't particularly doubt or deny imperfection (what others are calling "fallenness"); I just doubt what that sense arises from, like Leah. Is it an animalistic sense or some spiritual signal that I used to be perfect and must get back to that special place.I will admit that morality is emphatically not my strong point right now, but it has puzzled me how theists immediately suspect that if god is out of the picture, morality goes out the window. From a pragmatic standpoint, secular countries fare far better than the US in all kinds of measures of societal health (LINK).Excerpt: "In general, higher rates of belief in and worship of a creator correlate with higher rates of homicide, juvenile and early adult mortality, STD infection rates, teen pregnancy, and abortion in the prosperous democracies (Figures 1-9)… The United States is almost always the most dysfunctional of the developed democracies, sometimes spectacularly so, and almost always scores poorly."Further more, follow the chain of divine command theories:- why be good?- because god said so- how do we know that god is good?- because god is good- how do we know what the good is?- it's what god saysOne is left with the Euthyphro dilemma.Another way would be to ask what one would do if god ordered a modern day crusade. It happened in the OT, so it's not out of the question after all. Would you be obligated to obey?Even another way to go about it would be to ask what you would do if heaven entailed being with god but being miserable forever and hell entailed being separated from god but in eternal bliss. Toward which end should you act?My suspicion is that we would both 1) choose the intuitive good despite god's commands and 2) choose hell over heaven if hell was eternal bliss.Feel free to disagree.If this is so, however, we have something other than god serving as the standard for "the good" and reveal that we actually seek happiness (eternal or temporal) as the source of morality whether we realize it or not. Christianity is conveniently defined so that the current reward of doing what god wants is heaven which happens to be thought of as eternally bliss but this cannot be proven.Again, I don't have the positive case for a de facto moral system put together. My point is, however, that as communal animals we wish to avoid pain and suffering and realize that creating societies in which this is reduced is beneficial for all. I have a suspicion that it's the police that keep the peace, not fear of annihilation by lightning smite ((LINK).This doesn't get to the fact that admitting the potential relativity of morality if god doesn't exist doesn't mean he exists simply because objectivity is what you think is better! We're after what is, not arguments that say, "Hey, do you realize that if x then y (where y is undesirable/shock-value-saturated)… therefore x!"

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12103905129399107125 Mark P. Shea

    some off the cuff stuff:I don't particularly doubt or deny imperfection (what others are calling "fallenness"); I just doubt what that sense arises from, like Leah. Is it an animalistic sense or some spiritual signal that I used to be perfect and must get back to that special place.Imperfection =/= fallenness. The Catholic tradition tends to reflect the notion of ongoing development of creation even before the fall. There is "imperfection" present in creation from the start in the sense that creation's full potential is still being reached and is "not there" yet. Hence, man is appointed to rule creation and tend the Garden *toward some end that has not yet been reached*. Imperfection is not not *sin*, though sin is, of course, a refusal of perfection. What fallen man experiences is not not mere imperfection but *loss*. It is this sense of primal loss that the doctrine of the fall is addressing. It is, as I say, a sense the doctrine does not create, but rather aims to address. From a pragmatic standpoint, secular countries fare far better than the US in all kinds of measures of societal health.Bully for them. But completely beside the point here.Further more, follow the chain of divine command theories:- why be good?- because god said so- how do we know that god is good?- because god is good- how do we know what the good is?- it's what god saysOne is left with the Euthyphro dilemma.If one is a Greek or a rationalist. I'm basically content with the fact that humans apprehend the fact that good, like existence, exist. Theists say God *is* the good. God is existence. We apprehend goods and things that exist. They are all contingent. No contingent thing explains itself or causes itself. So there's gotta be some Good that is not contingent, just as contingent beings must all trace back to Being or Existence that is non-contingent.I don't believe that an atheist is perforce immoral. Indeed, typically, I think atheism is often a form of inflamed morality. It is often *hyper*-moralistic. The problem moralistic atheism seems to me to face is not immorality, but explaining it own basis. It seems to me to constantly be assuming a transcendental status for its own cherished moral imperatives, as though it was self-evidently obvious that, for instance, all human beings are equal, or children should not be used as sexual playthings by powerful perverts, or a booming slave trade is not justified by good economic results for the many. None of this has been obvious in various other cultures of the past (and in some places today). Yet the post-Christian moralist insists on it anyway–and rightly so.I think the reason is that the post-Christian moralist is mistaking his accidental culture privileges as an heir to revelation for being That Kind of Chap. I think, sooner or later, he has to either grant that he is really and truly recognizing that some aspects of natural law come from God, or he has to completely abandon the idea that his his moral ideas are of any more significance than his preference for rocky road over strawberry ice cream. Of course, that also means that he will need to completely abandon every single critique of the Christian tradition which begins, "When I look at the heinous evils that have been done in the name of Jesus…." As Lewis points out in The Abolition of Men, the Tao can be criticized only from within. When you step out of it, you don't put your feet on the firm rock of Objectivity. You step into the Void.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12103905129399107125 Mark P. Shea

    Another way would be to ask what one would do if god ordered a modern day crusade. It happened in the OT, so it's not out of the question after all. Would you be obligated to obey?This sort of mental masturbation is of the same class as "What if God and Superman got in a fight?" It's not really dealing with God as he has, in fact, revealed himself in the Catholic tradition. It's merely treating of an unreal hypothesis. What if God called good evil and evil good? It's a sort of Calvinist thought experiment. All a Catholic can do to respond is say, "God is not going to call good evil and evil good, so there's not a lot of point in worrying about it." At which point we cue the long and rambling discussions of the book of Judges (and how to interpret it) and the Crusades (and how to interpret them). Short answer: If you are going to deny yesterday that the Exodus and the conquest of the Holy Land ever occurred, there's not much point in sweating about them today. If you are going to do both, then I may be forgiven for suggesting that you are asking questions in order to keep from finding things out." Likewise, for the Crusades, fighting what was seens as a defensive war against an encroaching enemy hardly seems like calling good evil and evil good. Etc.Even another way to go about it would be to ask what you would do if heaven entailed being with god but being miserable forever and hell entailed being separated from god but in eternal bliss. Toward which end should you act?Again, since such hypotheticals are ordered toward answering questions that can have no actual referent in reality, like "What if blue weighed twelve pounds but yellow only smelled like chocolate, what would you *do*?" I see no point in grappling with such unrealities. Heaven is union with God and his saint and eternal bliss. Hell is the loss of these goods (among others). Playing language games ordered toward unreality is, in my view, one of the activities engaged in at the Episcopal Ghost's Theological Society in The Great Divorce.My suspicion is that we would both 1) choose the intuitive good despite god's commands and 2) choose hell over heaven if hell was eternal bliss.No. I would choose not to play mind games about what an unreal god of caprious power and irrationality might or might not do based on private meanings given to words like "heaven", "hell" "bliss" and "torment".If this is so, however, we have something other than god serving as the standard for "the good" and reveal that we actually seek happiness (eternal or temporal) as the source of morality whether we realize it or not. Christianity is conveniently defined so that the current reward of doing what god wants is heaven which happens to be thought of as eternally bliss but this cannot be proven."Conveniently?" I have no idea what you are talking about. *Of course*, human beings seek happiness. We can't *not* seek it. And lots of contingent things give us happiness–of an impermanent and contingent sort. They are good, and they receive their goodness from a good Creator. Genesis 1 and all that. But precisely because they are contingent they point beyond themselves to God the non-contingent Good, just as beautiful things point to the Beautiful. If there is no such thing as Beauty or Goodness, then there are no beautiful or good things. And that, says St. Thomas, is God, the source of the Beautiful and the Good. When we desire happiness, we are ultimately desiring that. The only thing we can do is attempt to gain that end in wrongly ordered ways. We can't not desire it.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/12103905129399107125 Mark P. Shea

    Again, I don't have the positive case for a de facto moral system put together.Of course not. It's not possible to construct one without smuggling in a bunch of assumptions that give (sotto voce) a transcendant supernatural status to certain aspects of the law. Any moral system that begins, "Of course I'm just making this shit up, but still, YOU MUST RESPECT PROPERTY!" has all the chances of commanding serious respect as the Great and Terrible Oz.My point is, however, that as communal animals we wish to avoid pain and suffering and realize that creating societies in which this is reduced is beneficial for all. I have a suspicion that it's the police that keep the peace, not fear of annihilation by lightning smite ((LINK).Why should we behave like communal animals? Lots of people don't. All you seem to really lay the groundwork for here is a police state ruled by consumer pleaure and fear. Communal animals are herded (usually for slaughter). Free people living in a society ordered toward the commond good and the flourishing of person are treated like free people.This doesn't get to the fact that admitting the potential relativity of morality if god doesn't exist doesn't mean he exists simply because objectivity is what you think is better! We're after what is, not arguments that say, "Hey, do you realize that if x then y (where y is undesirable/shock-value-saturated)… therefore x!" I think, mostly, what we're after at present is the question, "Does God exist?" If you think he does, then further question arise. But given the tendency you have of decapitalizing his Name, it appears that much of the discussion is still focusing on that elementary question. That's why I mentioned the "Padding the Case for the New Atheism" piece yesterday. There are only two respectable arguments against the existence of God: 1) Life sucks; 2) Stuff seems to work fine without God. All *real* argument which attempt to reduce God to "god" proceed from there. Stuff about "What if God commanded tomorrow that all Christians should saw the heads off babies?" or "Suppose you went to hell and their were jacuzzis, moon pies and RC Colas?" are not arguments. They are fantasies. Interesting in their own way, but not germane. Similarly, "I read somewhere the Padre Pio's stigmata were self-inflicted" is not an argument for or againt the existence of God. Neither, in the end, is the whole question of whether a profoundly *interior* event like the fall is reconcilable with the molehill of actual data that can be derived from looking at the few scraps of bone and stone we have from pre-historic antiquity. All of this is not and cannot be germane to the question "Does God exist?" I'm mostly trying to suggest that this largely and rather shapeless discussion needs a little good old fashioned medieval obsession with order.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03615608336736450543 Hendy

    I don't see much of the point. I'm conceding that god might exist and then examining the most likely formulation of him based on my background, Catholicism. So… assume god exists and then look at what is required for Christianity to be true. If Christianity's case can't be made sufficiently with evidence… it fails. Sorry bud.Your caricatures of my illustrative examples only make you to mock the Euthyphro dilemma so just propose your solution to it and be done with it. I doubt you can cast off Plato that haughtily. In any case, if there is an external referenced standard for good apart from god (such that god's commands are good in comparison), then objective morality stems from that and not god. If god exists or not does not affect this external source. Here's where you chime in on concurrent creation of moral laws with creation or synonymity between goodness and god's characters…A third class of arguments you have not considered are in the deductive class such as:(1) god is changeless by definition(2) creation and intervention require change(3) god created and intervenes(4) but god cannot change(5) therefore, god does not existRe. morality… geez. I conceded that I am just getting into this. I don't have the answers. That's as honest as I can get. Suggesting that morality loses it's objective base without god, however, does not prove he exists.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02327655974517447377 Crowhill

    It has always seemed to me that the Euthyphro problem is the peculiar dilemma of a theology in which god is not the creator (e.g., the Greek theology of Plato's day), and that the dilemma is misapplied to theologies where he is. I have known some very smart people who think it does apply to Christian theology, but I've never been convinced.

  • A Philosopher

    From Mark: "Human life is precious, because…. why? A Jew or a Christian has an answer for that."Except: not really. Or at least, not in any sense in which a materialist doesn't also have an answer.Consider a first-draft Christian answer (I don't mean to suggest that this is the best, or most precise, answer available): human life is precious because it is created in the image of God. Now, why does this make life precious?There are, roughly, three types of answers available to this question:Type 1 (Foundationalism): Refuse to give an answer. Foundationalism takes it that citing certain facts is just sufficient to establish that human life is precious. Here, being created imago dei is taken to be such a fact. But, the materialist can play the Foundationalist game, too – just with different foundational facts.Type 2 (Reductionist): Cite some more non-normative facts. So, being created imago dei makes human life precious because that creation is a representation of God's love for us (for example). But now the original question just re-arises: why should *this* fact make human life precious? As long as you're just citing non-normative facts, there's going to be at least a logical gap between the facts and the explanandum. Maybe that logical gap isn't ultimately a problem (I think it isn't, if we're doing metaphysics). But if it isn't, it isn't for anyone.Type 3 (Non-Reductionist): Plug the gap with a normative/moral fact. For example, add in that we ought to value that which is in the image of God (or that which is valued by God). But again, this move is available to the materialist (unless you think that moral facts aren't available to the materialist – but this looks question-begging, in context).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02327655974517447377 Crowhill

    @Philosopher, "not in any sense in which a materialist doesn't also have an answer" I don't agree. A materialist can say that human life is precious for various reasons. For example, he could say that humans are self-aware, intelligent beings with feelings, and this makes them precious. (Of course this leaves open the possibility that a human in a vegetative state is not precious, but that's another matter.) However, a materialist cannot say something like this — human life is precious because the moral fabric of the universe is designed that way. So your claim "not in any sense in which a materialist doesn't also have an answer" doesn't seem right. A believer has recourse to "senses" that a materialist does not have recourse to.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11174257204278139704 Charles

    Mark, you are making a fundamental flaw in your premise that is the obverse of a common flaw non-theists make. What you insist over and over that it is impossible to develop an internally consistent moral system without god it is akin to an atheist assuming Christians would go about raping and murdering were it not for the threat of damnation.Perhaps one can't develop a moral system that makes the choice not to rape more important than the choice for rocky road that perfectly matches your morality without god, but volumes of philosophy completely prove otherwise. I refer you to the work of Peter Singer for one example of a philosopher with a complete, intact, and God-free system of ethics. Now you may reject his utilitarianism (because he values different things than you) but I am sure he would reject many aspects of catholic moral teaching (primarily because it is decidedly un-utilitarian. But I contend that your, or the churches, rejection of a system of ethics does not mean it isn't a system of ethics.


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