Sunday, 20 January 2013

Theology And Sanity: Splendor of Mystery

Hubble photograph of the Cat's Eye Nebula.
I've been reading this book, Theology and Sanity, by Frank Sheed.  The backstory about why the heck an Atheist like me would be reading this book can be found in my series of responses to a post Stacy Transancos made comparing the rationality of Christianity and Atheist world views.

You can read the first three parts of the review here, here and here.  Although they make little logical sense, they gave me an excellent view into the mind of a thinking believer.

Along the way, we've learned that the doctrines of the Church are to a mind as a transplanted organ to a body.  There is much that needs to be done to prevent the brain's natural defences from rejecting it.

What has surprised me is how conscious Sheed is of this.  He systematically lays out how each level of an intellectual firewall can be undermined in order to allow the religious meme to be take root against all logic - often through an act of sheer will - into the mind of one who desperately wishes to believe.  Or at least that's how I see it.

Circumventing The Brain's Natural Defences 

I. Trust the Catholic Church

First, in order to properly understand the Church's teachings, we must see the world as the Church sees it (eg. use the church-tinted glasses).   This amounts to believing that the Catholic Church has right answers before we even bother investigating them.  God is everywhere and in everything and only the Church sees the totality of everything - so we better listen to them.

II. Don't Worry If It's Unimaginable - Just Trust the Catholic Church

Second, don't let a lack of imagination shut down the intellectual evaluation of the truth of religious propositions.  Namely, imagination can hinder the intellectual process.

Simply because something can not be pictured (imagined) doesn't mean it may not be true.  I believe one could charge many Christians for having a lack of imagination when they make the bold statement that when Science doesn't account for something IT MUST BE GOD.  But hey, that's just me.

Many things defy our imaginations but have been demonstrated as true.  The Theory of Relativity and Quantum Physics are two examples.  But we need testable claims!

III. Don't Worry If It's Logically Contradictory - Disregard the Inconsistency - Just Trust the Catholic Church

Third, and most damning, of all are the techniques provided to circumvent your own intellect into believing doctrines that appear to contradict.

This involves:

  • ignoring the doctrines involved in the contradiction the best you can; 
  • or ignoring one side of the contradiction the best you can; 
  • or distorting both sides somewhat to lessen the severity of the overall contradiction; 
  • or believing both sides ardently while trying to play the mystery card best you can by explaining the contradiction away as a couple of opposites that live in the whole.

The Splendor of Mystery

This brings us now to the Splendor of Mystery, the last part of chapter two.  Here's what Sheed has to say about that.
That there should be Mystery in our knowledge of God, and that this should show itself to us as truths about God, each of which we know to be true while yet we cannot see how to reconcile them, is plain common sense. And indeed most people would admit as much if they happen to believe in God at all. 
Is Catholic doctrine wildly implausible and logically contradictory? Of course it is! One would expect something that is beyond our understanding to grasp to make no logical sense - oh thee of puny minds! (Just trust the Church!)

One would also expect things that simply to not exist to simultaneously exhibit logically inconsistent traits.  That's the whole mechanism of reductio ad adsurdum arguments and the scientific method!

Look, physicists have had a hell of a time reconciling the Theory of Relativity for macro objects with Quantum Theory for micro objects.  Each theory breaks down in the domain of the other.  But both are testable scientifically within their own - unlike even the components of this god.  An over arching theory is being searched for and until it is provable, they just don't know.  It's possible one or both will require modification when an overarching theory is found - like what Relativity did to Newton's equations.

Sheed points out the pesky habit people have of questioning and even ceasing to believe a statement if it is shown to contain assertions that are logically contradictory.
But here we come upon a curious phenomenon. Many Christians who are theoretically aware of all this are yet completely shattered in their faith the first time their attention is drawn to one of these apparent contradictions.  ... ... He knows that there are truths about God that he cannot reconcile; he knows that if he could totally comprehend God, then God would have to be no larger than his own mind, and so not large at all. 
Many times, I've found that Carl Sagan expresses my sentiments about our intellectual place in this big old Cosmos better than I ever could.  So I bring him in now.

Maybe these doubter Christians are tuning into their own intellects and realizing there is something fishy going on.  Like the Relativity/Quantum Theory problem, something is not adding up.  Quick! It's an opportunity to do some science!  Oh, nevermind...

Anyway, given such a realization of a contradiction, it is quite logical and advisable to suspect that one or both of the apparently contradictory statements must be either completely wrong or require some modification.  What's the problem with this?  In fact, at times when the whole picture is shattered by contradictory data, it would be prudent to fall back on what is at least demonstrable, scientifically.

This is where, in the above example about the theories of the micro and macro, one can at least fall back on the demonstrability of each theory.  We don't know how they fit together, (String Theory maybe?), but at least in their domains they are more or less proven to be true.  This is not the case with God.  There is nothing provable in any of the parts, as the whole structure is ultimately as vaporous as a cloud.  The whole house of cards shatters into a pile of doubt as soon as any weakness is shown.  There is nothing to break the fall.
He knows that the very fact that there is a God requires that there should be elements we cannot reconcile; yet the moment he meets two such elements he is driven to wonder whether there can be a God after all. 
And where is this very fact there is a God? There's the rub.  It is no fact at all.  There is nothing proving it at all.
But, this logical monstrosity apart, there is something marvelously inviting to the mind in an infinite being of whom we can know something, but whom we cannot wholly know; in the knowledge of whom we can grow, yet the truth of whose being we can never exhaust; we shall never have to throw God away like a solved crossword puzzle. And all this is contained in the concept of Mystery.
Cue Carl.
Carl Sagan does such a wonderful job of summing up a non-religious scientific view of mystery in his Cosmos series (quoted above).  But really, if there is one thing that unites the atheist and people like Sheed is our wonderment at the great mysteries of the universe.  Except the theist starts out with the answer and then crams it into his own head using all means of self delusion.  They have the true piece to the puzzle and go after all the rest with a pair of scissors.


Thus a Mystery is not to be thought of as simply darkness: it is a tiny circle of light surrounded by darkness. It is for us so to use our own powers and God’s grace that the light will grow. It means using the mind upon what reality may be made to tell us about God, and upon what God, through His Church, has told us about Himself; it means praying for more knowledge, and using the knowledge one gains to enrich one’s prayer. 
This is poetic and upon this point even I would agree.  If only Sheed would see that it is us alone as a species made of matter floating on a speck of dust in space who can discover the cosmos and all the wonder within. Oh, and he also mentions... just trust the Catholic church.

Sheed goes on to say that the more we learn as finite humans of God (the infinite) the more we come to be in awe at this immensity.  If we substitute Cosmos for God, we more or less have agreement.  Lest I be accused of being a pantheist, I am not saying the universe is God - the universe is all there is - material, matter and energy.

To Sheed it is much better to wonder at the light of Mystery and search out truth than to obsess over the darkness of mystery - what is unknown.  I think many scientists, including Sagan, would agree with this and feel this deeply.  This is what draws them to science and perhaps this is what draws Sheed to theology.  It's a shame that a mind as inquisitive as his could work so hard to make the delusions of Church doctrine more palatable to healthy minds rather than searching out the truths of reality in reality through Science.

Sheed ends the chapter with some encouraging words about how this task of building up the muscles of an atrophied mind - one that has been weakened by the crutch of imagination.  Truly images are a form of idolatry and the Bible compares idolatry with fornication.  So it's with fornication we leave chapter two and shall enter the second part of this book in the next segment.

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