Sunday, 6 January 2013

Theology And Sanity: How To Swallow Contradiction - Catholic Style

Official trailer is here.
Here's part three of my ongoing review of Frank Sheed's Theology And Sanity, which I'm beginning to believe leads to insanity.  No Nonsense Catholic Stacy Transancos over at her blog Accepting Abundance recommended I read part of chapter two so I might be better able to understand a statement she made on one of her blog posts about Atheism.  It's a long story.  I still am not getting it.  Must be a Catholic Thing.

Part I and Part II may help explain things a little better.

The first part of chapter two went into the various problems imagination poses to a True Catholic Understanding of Reality™.  The imagination is unable to picture spiritual things and so it tends to discard them before they can reach the intellect for a proper inspection.  I have two words of advice: Use Science.

The second part of this chapter goes into a very interesting discussion of mystery.  I'm sure you've heard this sort of thing before:

Ever ask a Catholic how you can have a God that's both one and three at the same time?

Ever ask how Jesus can be God and Man at the same time?

How about the problem of Evil?

They'll inevitably whip out the mystery card.  The wonderful thing about this chapter is it talks quite frankly about the difficulties mystery presents to the intellect and in turn to those who may value Reason over Faith.  Well, not everyone thinks the way you do.

One who follows the scientific method and who values an evidence-based approach to understanding reality would, of course, cope with mystery by admitting that they simply do not know.  It's so simple, honest, brave... But things are a little more complicated for Catholics, who need to believe all that doctrine stuff.   Mr Sheed really tells it like it is.

Mystery and how the intellect may cope with it.

The book explains that mystery in religion comes from a finite mind attempting to understand the infinite.  Sheed admits that at first thought this might seem a reason for abandoning the whole venture:  if Reality is so utterly beyond us, why not leave it alone and make the best terms we can with our ineluctable darkness?

Of course, one need not throw out all hope of understanding the true nature of the universe.  There is a middle path between believing everything without evidence and simply giving up on the whole enterprise.  It's called the Scientific Method.

Anyway, Sheed defines mystery for us.
Mystery, in short, is an invitation to the mind.  For it means that there is an inexhaustible well of Truth from which the mind may drink and drink again in the certainty that the well will never run dry, that there will always be water for the mind's thirst.
I get the sentiment and I think that many scientists would kind of get where he's coming from.  Of course, there is no way for Sheed to be sure that the well is inexhaustible.

This part has many anomalous capitalizations. These are often a signal to the reader that we're not just talking about a mere thing but rather a super-spiritual-absolute-floaty-sentient-Thing-thing.

For example:
As we examine the Mysteries of religion, we discover that the practical result of this effort of the finite to know the Infinite -- which is also a determination of the Infinite to be know by the finite...
He's not really talking about the infinite as in the number of digits in the number π, he's talking about the Infinite as in the spooky-all-knowing-immaterial-infinite-floating-brain-thing-Infinite.  Also note the spooky Truth above and ghoulish Mysteries.

But let's get on to the mystery here.  It begins at the end of the above quote.
... any given Mystery resolves itself (for our minds of course, not in its own reality) into two truths which we cannot see how to reconcile.
This is where the real fun begins for an ex-Catholic turned Atheist reader like me.  Let's keep reading this goodness.
Sometimes by the revelation of God, sometimes by the hard effort of man's own mind, we see that each of two things must be so, yet we cannot see why one does not exclude the other.  Thus in the Mystery of the Blessed Trinity, we cannot see how God can be Three if He is infinitely One; in the Doctrine of the Incarnation, we cannot see how Christ can be wholly God and at the same time wholly man; in the mystery of our own will, we do not see how its freedom can be reconciled with God's omniscience; and so with all the other mysteries of religion.  Left to ourselves, we should almost certainly say that there is a conflict, and therefore that both cannot be true...
Yes! Right!  There is a real problem here!  You can see it!  You admit it!  So what are you going to do with it?  Do you have a logical explanation for these?

These would be the very sorts of logical problems that an Atheist may consider deal breakers.  You know, logical contradictions what would normally lead any rational person to conclude there is something wrong with the argument being presented.

Science: Time to find another theory - this one is broken.  
Catholicism: The theory is always right - time to undermine logic.
Normally the mind would reject any doctrine proposed for its belief with this unbridgeable gulf in it.  But when such doctrines are revealed by God, the Christian will not reject them; yet he still has to decide what to do about them in his own mind.

How can someone keep such profound logical contradictions in their mind without having the whole system unravel?  How can a structure that contains such obvious logical flaws keep its integrity when similar constructions proffered by other religious systems are often blown to bits immediately by the same mind?

Here are some coping mechanisms Sheed suggests in this chapter for Catholics who are having difficulties dealing with doctrines which self contradict.  Remember, with plenty of training any crazy dogma can be ingested into an otherwise sane and consistent mind.  The trick is to build enough barriers between contradicting facts that these ideas do not get rejected.

Hey, Don't Worry About It!

One possibility for him is to make a large act of faith, accept them, and think no more about them.  Thus he is not troubled by any apparent contradiction, nor illumined by the doctrine's truth.  It simply lies in the mind, and he is no worse for it and no better for it.  He has a shadowy feeling that if he looked at the doctrine very closely, it might be something of a trial to his faith.  But he does not look at it very closely.  He does not really look at it at all.
But what if you're the kind of person who must think - at least a little bit?

It's simple: Compartmentalization.

Sheed goes on to explain, in detail, how one must forcefully build independent and isolated logical silos in the brain.

Catholic Approach Number One: Prioritize One And Don't Think Too Hard About The Other.

The first way is to select one of the component truths, make that the vital one, and simply accept the other half but without adverting to it very much.  Thus for example, in the doctrine of the Trinity, one might devote the whole force of the mind to the Three Persons, and leave the question of how Three Persons can be one God in the back of the mind; or one might concentrate upon the oneness of God and leave the threefold personality largely as a form of words whose meaning we shall discover in the next life. 
Sheed discusses some drawbacks to approach number one, but he admits that it is far superior to approach number two.

Catholic Approach Number Two:  Attempt to "Shade" Both Together As One More-Believable Fuzzy Whole That No Longer Properly Reflects Either.

Yet even at that, this first way is immeasurably better than the second -- which consists in accepting both elements, but shading them down to look like each other, thus getting no light from either. As applied to the Incarnation, this tactic involves accepting both the divinity and the humanity of our Lord, but making the divinity too human and the humanity too divine. 

Catholic Approach Number Three: Accept Both Separately Full-Throttle And Ignore Any Contradiction The Best You Can.

The third way is to accept both elements, and accept them both a white head without bothering too much about whether one can see the reconciliation.  
Unbelievably, Sheed sees this last approach as the best because the mind loses no integrity swallowing two contradictory statements at full force while knowingly ignoring their logical irreconciliable natures!
The mind loses no integrity thereby, since it is already certain on other grounds of the truth of each element separately. Therefore in accepting and devoting itself with all its power to each, it is acting rightly.  And the result justifies the method.

He goes on to say that although one cannot actually see the reconciliation...
We begin, as I have said, with a steady concentration upon each of the two elements, and a moment comes when we recognize that we are living mentally in the presence not of two truths but of one.  We still could not say how both can be true at once, yet we truly experience them so.
I believe brainwashing works the same way.  It sounds like a kind of deliberate self-induced delusion.  The chapter reads like an amazing self-help guide to deliberately undermine normal rational thought with sloppy thinking.  What's sad here is that it's not indoctrination but self-indoctrination.

Sheed goes on to try to justify this somehow by saying we are all beings who contain many contradictions within ourselves.  It's all rather Ying Yang like.  I'm not sure how this actually demonstrates anything at all.  I invite you to read it yourself if you buy the book - it's not very convincing.

Honestly, this section left me a little depressed and sad.  How can one argue with someone who is hellbent on warping and contorting logic to serve his own dogma, which gets a completely free pass because it was revealed by God?

Anyway, my next post will deal with the rest of chapter two.  Until then I will leave you with this sound and cheerful advice from one of my least favourite apostates (from paganism) - Augustine.
Pray as if everything depended on God; work as if everything depended on you.
Sheed says that this is a wholehearted acceptance of two opposites which somehow fuses into one continuing act of successful living.  But if one simply admits there is no God then what follows is clear and rational simplicity - the Catholic mystery disappears completely.  Stop praying and work as if everything depends on you.  It does.

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