7 Reasons Why We Needed the Ascension

Eamonn Clark

Bertrand Russell, perhaps the most famously atheist man of the 20th century, was asked on his deathbed what he would say to God if he met Him when he died. Russell said, “Sir, why did you take such pains to hide yourself?” Among the many objections to the Christian Faith, and to revealed religion in general, is this: that God does not make Himself evident enough. It is an understandable difficulty – if God is so good and wants people to know Him, why does He not make Himself more openly available? Clearly, the Ascension invites this question, especially when combined with the limited appearances of the risen Christ… He appeared to the Apostles, some other close disciples, and a nondescript large group in Jerusalem. Why not to as many as possible? The Romans? The Greeks? The Native Americans? (Thus the attractiveness of the Mormon doctrine that Jesus visited the Americas.)

We can start to answer this question with another question: should Jesus have jumped off the parapet of the Temple, as the Devil had suggested? Assuredly not, simply because He did not. While Jesus responds by rejecting the proposition because it would “test” God, we ought to be struck by the fact that it was not part of God’s design that the Christ would do such open miracles as flying around for all to see. Instead, the miracles of Jesus are, for the most part, quite obscure and hidden. There is chaos in the multiplication of the loaves, there is darkness and rain in the storm when He walks on the sea, the healings and resuscitations are done “inside” the body, etc. That’s why a depiction of Jesus like this might seem a little bit “off”:

When Jesus does fly, it is in front of a small group of hand-picked men, it is not to prove His power, and it is only done for a moment before He disappears into the clouds. Why did He not do a flyover of all of Israel, or even beyond?

Most of all – why did He not just stick around? Surely, the sight of a 2,000-year-old Jesus would be a definitive sign of His power for any sane person. He could continue His public ministry, and we could have a world leader with a perfect vision of human flourishing. It would have been easier especially for the Jews, who were basically expecting this kind of “worldly” Messiah anyway.

Let’s start with Christ’s own explanation for His departure: so that the Holy Spirit can be sent. Why is the sending of the Spirit contingent on Christ’s departure? One answer that comes to mind is that it would have been confusing to have such a dynamic… Why the need for the Spirit when Christ is physically here among us? If He remained, it would have been tempting to ignore the action of the Holy Spirit which moves us towards the spiritual union with Christ, that union which is called charity… People would have insisted on seeing Christ “in person,” since He would not be omnipresent the way He is now thanks to the sending of the Spirit Who teaches us to pray, as Paul says.

This leads us to the second reason for the Ascension, which is given by St. John of the Cross – the disciples’ relationship with Jesus was too sense-based and needed to be spiritualized. “Stop holding on to me,” as He told the Magdalene, “for I have not yet ascended to My Father.” (John 20:17) The relationship with the risen Christ is going to be of a different kind: one in the Spirit. Prayer and the Sacraments make much less sense if the physical Christ remains among us – they would seem like cheap imitations of a physical encounter or a direct word to or from Christ in the flesh. The Eucharist would be especially confusing… How is it that Christ is here and is consumed, but also physically over there, where He can be directly seen? His continued physical presence would prove to be a great obstacle to the appreciation of this mystical union.

Third, the popular hope of a worldly Messiah is destroyed by the Ascension. No doubt, after the Resurrection, the Apostles were still wondering when they would start a war with Rome and bring peace to the land of Israel. Jesus had been demonstrating during His public life that this was not the plan, but the misguided hope yet lingered. For the idea of a worldly Messiah to go away, the Messiah had to go away. Christ shows us Who He is and what He is really about when He goes back to Heaven – the King of the Heavenly Jerusalem.

Another reason presents itself immediately, which Sheen offered, namely, that in order for a man to become truly great he must die. Only after the completion of one’s life can people make a judgment about how well that life was lived. As Qoheleth says, “There is no embalming like a good name left behind; man’s true birthday is the day of his death.” (Ecclesiastes 7:2) Of course, Christ does not die at the Ascension, but His public life “dies,” which suffices. Nobody is waiting for Him to make a mistake, like the Pharisees used to do.

Fifth, in the Ascension, Christ transfers responsibility onto the Apostles, and by extension, onto the whole Church, for the task of making disciples. He does this in word and in deed: in word by commanding the Apostles to preach and to baptize (the “Great Commission”), and in deed by removing His bodily presence so that nobody could defer responsibility to Christ directly in these matters. With this enormous duty comes an enormous privilege and joy: to participate in the life of God insofar as He governs, teaches, and sanctifies His people.

Next, given that Christ is “one step removed” from the normal exterior functioning of the Church, it takes a purer kind of assent to enter into the Church’s life. One must have a more resolute determination to trust in God if God is using secondary causes to do His work. In other words, the added difficulty of Christian faith presented by Christ’s physical absence – especially given the circumstances of the Resurrection appearances – redounds to our merit for believing. The low-bar is set higher, as it were, giving those who make the “leap” the winners of a greater prize than what it might have been otherwise, and those who don’t will be the recipients of milder punishments. (Why the bar is set specifically there and not at another height seems unanswerable except by an appeal to God’s wisdom.)

Finally, Christ’s Ascension points us towards our own final destiny – dwelling in the presence of the Godhead – and makes us hope for it. Unless He returns very soon, we too will die, rise, and hopefully appear before a Friend rather than a Judge, and then be brought into Heaven. Where Christ physically went, He brought our human nature with Him in His own, and so this is also a sign of our present status as ones who also currently dwell with God, albeit in a dimmer way. Furthermore, the thought of Christ’s return is particularly important in helping us to acknowledge that we are waiting for His help – resurrection and judgment are not mere promises of a King on Earth, they are promises of a Savior Who resides in the very place to which we aspire, where He is preparing a place for us with Him.

Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments below! Happy Ascension Thursday Sunday.

 

P.S. – This is CRM’s 100th post! Please, if you enjoyed this article, consider subscribing and sharing with friends and family.

 

Apolog-etc. #2

Eamonn Clark

I recently scanned a blog which regularly appears in my feed called “exCatholic4Christ” for the word “Orange.” This may sound quite strange – including to the author of that blog, who I am confident is reading – but I assure you, it is not.

I have had a few online exchanges with the author, a former Catholic turned rabid anti-institutional Christian, most of them to incredibly frustrating ends. He, like nearly all such men and women, beat, pound, stab, and ridicule a straw-man of the Catholic Church and Her teachings to a self-declared triumphant victory, often to the applause of a well-established echo-chamber which has an even worse understanding of the issues at hand. The lack of the relevant use of the word “Orange” anywhere in this man’s blog archive proves my point. Allow me to explain.

His favorite issue is “works.” His argument, which he reiterates ad nauseam (in literally almost every other post), is that salvation is not based on doing enough good works to earn (or “merit”) it. To the surprise of no regular readers of mine, I agree… Because this is the teaching of the Church. Remember, we baptize infants who do nothing other than breathe, eat, etc. – and yet the gates of Heaven are open wide… How less “worky” can you get than that? The child has done absolutely nothing but exist. (But I wonder if the blog author supports infant baptism… Hmm.) He and those like him want it both ways apparently – no works, and yet the need to do the work of an inward confession of faith – or even an outward confession of faith. Lest we forget, belief is an act of the will which moves the intellect to assent to a proposition whose referent is unseen… it is no less a work than prayer, or feeding the hungry, or healing the sick. Except we know that faith is an infused virtue, meaning, one that is given by God directly and not acquired by practice or natural effort. This virtue, however, can be resisted, which is sin, or it can be allowed to become active in one’s life by placing no obstacle before it, which is good. (The latter is what necessarily happens with infants who are baptized, as they can place no obstacle before an infused virtue or any grace. They have the virtues of faith, hope, and charity, but they just can’t really actively use them on account of their feeble minds.) And of course, any work which is actually meritorious, is a work which is powered by and completed through the working of interior grace. Meanwhile, unrepentant murderers, adulterers, thieves, etc. who happen to believe in the Resurrection (etc.), may indeed have the virtue of faith, but they will go to Hell because they do not love God with charity, the greatest virtue which “binds the rest together.”

But let’s hold on to that thought and return to the word “Orange.”

To comment on the Catholic Church’s teaching on grace and works, one must have read and understood the declarations of the Second Council of Orange (among other sources). Consider that Second Orange was called to deal with the teaching of later followers of Pelagius – the one who said that we can merit salvation without the help of grace… The doctrine had been refined to “semi-Pelagianism,” which still held that the first grace could be earned by our natural powers. This is an extremely attractive position. After all, if we don’t – or even worse, can’t – earn salvation through what we are born with, how else would God’s creative and salvific action be fair? How can we really be free if we are unable to choose the good on our own? Wouldn’t that mean that the Commandments are cruel taunts of an evil god who created some people just so that He could send them to Hell? What would human action even be for at all in such a paradigm? These are the questions at the center of the debate, and they are not easily answered, including from Scripture. (For instance – are we speaking here of Christ knocking on the door, or are we ourselves knocking on the door? See Matthew 7:7 vs. Revelation 3:20… The Pelagians and Semi-Pelagians certainly had strong Scriptural arguments at their disposal. Debates such as this help prove the inadequacy of “sola scriptura” – see my post on that topic here.) Anyway, shall we take a look at a few of the canons of Second Orange? The few readers interested enough can go compare these with his rather wild, tedious, and repetitive accusations that the Catholic Church is guilty of what amounts to a legalistic Pelagianism…

“If anyone says that God has mercy upon us when, apart from his grace, we believe, will, desire, strive, labor, pray, watch, study, seek, ask, or knock, but does not confess that it is by the infusion and inspiration of the Holy Spirit within us that we have the faith, the will, or the strength to do all these things as we ought; or if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, “What have you that you did not receive?” (1 Cor. 4:7), and, “But by the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10).”

“If anyone affirms that we can form any right opinion or make any right choice which relates to the salvation of eternal life, as is expedient for us, or that we can be saved, that is, assent to the preaching of the gospel through our natural powers without the illumination and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who makes all men gladly assent to and believe in the truth, he is led astray by a heretical spirit, and does not understand the voice of God who says in the Gospel, “For apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5), and the word of the Apostle, “Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God” (2 Cor. 3:5).”

“God loves us for what we shall be by his gift, and not by our own deserving.”

Does this sound Pelagian or legalistic to you?

Anyone wishing to study in detail this issue will find plenty of information (and further references) in the commentary on grace by my own university’s most prestigious professor emeritus, the late Fr. Reginal Garrigou-Lagrange: here. The topic is not at all simple, because the human soul is not simple to begin with, and sin has only complicated it. Add to this the transcendence and inscrutability of God’s inner judgments about how to dispense grace, and we are off to the races.

To simplify these things (and almost every other issue in theology and law), which heresy invariably does, is to ignore the reality of competing truths: human freedom (and the ability to choose what is truly good), and human corruption and weakness (due to the Fall from the original state of Adam in Eden). The many heresies on grace and works basically sacrifice one for the sake of the other. Protestants basically choose human corruption over human freedom. The call to “be free” is actually a call to resign to one’s inability to do good – which is to lead one to resist sufficient grace.

The cruelest particular error which the Protestant heresy brings to the world is that the Commandments are impossible to follow, and thus they are not required for salvation. Apparently, the New Testament is speaking in vain with practically every other line – or God has set up a wicked game where we are forced to do evil which we will be punished for unless we just happen to believe (which is itself something that we do, lest we forget) that Jesus rose from the dead (and other items which, in this case, derive from no symbol or creed in particular – and all of which the demons also believe and tremble at and thereby profit nothing). If we don’t actually have to love our enemy, if we don’t actually have to refrain from anger, if we don’t actually have to forgive others, if we don’t actually have to give thanks to God, if we don’t actually have to… well, you get the idea. Half of the sense of the New Testament is precisely that we do indeed have the grace available to us to follow the Commandments, and thus if we should fail and not earnestly seek God’s forgiveness after failure, we condemn ourselves by choosing that sin over the love of God. We can, however, do much more than simply avoid grievously offending our greatest Friend – we can live the Beatitudes. We can live a common life of poverty. We can enter into a radical relationship of obedience, destroying our own will so as to serve God better. We can forego marriage so that we are freer for the love of God and His work. These things were preached by the Savior and the Apostles, and they are also practiced to great effect in our own day. One ought especially see the Lord’s interaction with the Rich Young Man (a story present in all the synoptic Gospels)… “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The answer is, of course, to follow the Commandments, the most basic rules of charity and justice (a theme which is reiterated in the Epistolary tradition which follows, especially in the Johannine corpus). But, if objective perfection is sought, and in the case of the Rich Young Man it was possible (or else Christ would not have offered the special invitation to “follow,”) then greater freedom from the world is necessary… Perhaps the Rich Young Man made it to Heaven. But how much greater would his harvest have been, how much more fruit would he have borne, how much heavier would have been his glory, if he had sold his property and joined up with the Twelve? Apparently, none, according to the ethic I am here critiquing, even though this is confirmed in Christ’s assurance to the Twelve that those who have left social and material wealth will receive a hundred times more than those who have not, as He does in Matthew 19. The Rich Young Man was just “saved” or “not saved,” depending on his subsequent faith in the Resurrection and – I guess his belief in the supreme authority of the Bible, a book which would not exist for quite a while. The prescription to follow the Commandments was unnecessary, and the invitation to follow more closely in a life of poverty, chastity, and obedience was even more unnecessary. The words of the Lord, then, were quite in vain. How asinine a position. If the 10 Commandments were impossible to follow, they would be the 10 Suggestions. In truth, the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience are “Suggestions.”

For some verses which stress the importance of “works” (as in not committing grievous sins which reject God’s love in such a way that we destroy our friendship – our charity – with Him, depriving ourselves of a “trajectory” toward Heaven, which is the consummation of that friendship), one might begin with: Gal 5:6, 6:6-10; Phil 2:12; 1 Cor 6: 9-10, 13:2 (ESPECIALLY THIS ONE!); 2 Cor 5:10; Rom 2:6-10, 13, 3:31; Mt 25:32-46; Rev 20:12; 1 Jn 2:3-4; 1 Jn 3:24; 1 Jn 5:3… But pretty much, turn to any page of the New Testament, and you will see God telling us: “You need to LOVE as I have instructed, or you will lose your soul to Hell!” Love is the greatest commandment… Love God, love neighbor. The thought that what the law and the prophets are built upon, and which Christ gives as a “new commandment” (“love one another as I have loved you” Jn 13:34), is just icing on the proverbial cake, is quite blasphemous. It makes God into a vain talker at best, and a liar at worst.

Salvation is not about doing enough good works to earn it… but it is about loving God, which is His own life operating within us. When we act contrary to the letter or spirit of the Commandments, we remove that life, even though we might retain faith.

But does faith just mean loving God? Doesn’t a believer do good works just because they are good to do on account of how we have been loved by God? Perhaps some people operate this way. (Atheists often say something similar, and they will claim moral superiority by it… Strange, huh?) Faith, as it is strictly understood, is not the same as doing everything such belief would urge one toward doing. In a broad sense, the sense of total fidelity, faith does imply action based on the love of God. But if we insist on the latter meaning, then we end up with an absurdity: anyone who sins can’t possibly have faith. After all, if one really believes that it is best to follow the Commandments and love God with one’s whole heart, mind, and soul, how could that person ever do something wicked? It’s simple: we allow ourselves to be blinded to the truth from moment to moment through spiritual distraction. (It is this reality of blindness which differentiates our actions from those of the angels, who are confirmed in glory or damnation immediately upon their first action, good or bad – we can come to see that we made a wrong decision, while an angel chooses with complete knowledge with the meaning of the choice in itself and also of the consequences.)

Canon law is another perpetual target on the blog. One of the most recent posts details the supposed “dilemma” with which Catholics are faced by the overlapping of Ash Wednesday with Valentine’s Day – which I told the author would be a hilarious, bizarre, and irrelevant critique to any Catholic who heard it. What on Earth is complicated about this? We have a memorial of a saint which people in the West usually associate with romance, and we also have the beginning of Lent which requires fasting and abstinence for certain people, which are categories that can easily be checked.

But the problem with positive ecclesiastical law goes much deeper, I think. Why all the “extra” laws and rules? “Nobody could ever follow all of these rules! And so many just ignore them anyway!” That is just about the whole argument… Shall we unpack it?

The Church, as Christ’s Mystical Body, participates in His triple office of priest, prophet, and king. The first regards the authority to sanctify the people of God through the dispensation of grace through the sacraments. The second regards the authority to teach in God’s own Name and with His own authority, namely, infallibly. The third regards the authority to bind the people of God for the good of the order of the Church and the health of Her members. This third one is the source of ecclesiastical law. (“Ecclesiastical law” is a narrower term than “canon law,” as canon law also includes some Divine law. For example, it is canon law that baptism cannot be repeated – but this is a law directly from God, not a law from the Church’s own initiative.) Law is essentially about leading human beings to virtue, and canon law is no different. It also provides rules for what would otherwise be left to a chaotic soup of choices – just like we are told, “Drive on the right side of the road.”

The Church legislates positive and negative laws (“do this” and “don’t do that”) which do not exist in Scripture (or elsewhere in revelation) but which She does see as good for the whole or for the part. Fasting and abstinence laws, for example, are constructed to impose a minimal exercise of self-denial. Self-denial is a basic part of Christian life, and therefore, it is only fitting that the Church, as a caring Mother, would require at least a little bit from her members. Because of the serious and clear character of the obligation, it is a serious offense to dispense oneself for no good reason. Just as a natural parent can bind natural children, so too can the Church, a supernatural parent, bind Her supernatural children. And even though some kids don’t want to eat vegetables, or refuse to do their chores, or throw temper tantrums because they can’t play with their toys all the time, a good parent will make rules nonetheless which directly address these problems.

Ecclesiastical laws, however, and especially positive laws, certainly do not bind under every circumstance. (Not even Divine positive law always binds – thus was the Sabbath made for man, and not the other way around!) There are plenty of exceptions, and sufficient ignorance of ecclesiastical law can also excuse from guilt for breaking it.

I can hear the protesting now… “Silly human laws! Ha! So complicated! It’s impossible to figure out all those Catholic laws!” To which I respond – okay…? Any time there is a command and someone who seeks to follow that command, the command must necessarily be interpreted. As the issues which require the guiding hand of law grow more numerous, and the circumstances also increase in variety, the difficulty of interpretation will also rise. Look at civil laws… We certainly need those, right? And civil laws are always clear, yes? No. And that’s why the settling of certain difficult cases can “make law,” so to speak. But the fact is that Christ did not seek to establish an earthly kingdom, and so He left us to determine most temporal (and usually prudential) laws ourselves, both within the Church and in the civil sphere. (Where does the Bible tell us which side of the road to drive on? How long robbers deserve to be in prison? What a fair tax rate is? These kinds of questions exist within the Church’s governance and administration as well, like how to appoint someone as a pastor of a parish, for example…) The Apostles clearly thought that it was their responsibility to govern… To “bind and loose,” as it were. See Acts especially, but also the Pauline corpus. Why is there no complaint about Paul adding up laws on top of what Christ commanded?

“It’s Scripture,” goes the objection. But this does not change the fact that the Apostles actually gave laws which were temporal and prudential. We do not require women to cover their heads in churches today… Why? It’s commanded of the women in Corinth, after all, and it’s in the Bible, so why do we tolerate anything else if this is the only source of law? This is why the authority of the pope to “bind and loose,” and the Church’s extraordinary (and universal ordinary) magisterium to interpret Scripture infallibly, are so important, along with the authority of local bishops to govern the territory given to their care. If all we had was a big book written in ancient languages which we knew was free of error, we would have a much, much larger task on our hands than someone who has everything prepackaged in a codified law.

Furthermore, the vast majority of canon law is either intuitive (i.e. that clerics are the ordinary ministers of baptism), is easy to learn in a basic and practical way (i.e. consanguinity and affinity restrictions on marriage), or is pretty much irrelevant to the average layman at any given time (i.e. how to run a seminary).

The author also seems fascinated with Pope Francis, specifically, with the in-fighting surrounding Amoris. Close followers of this blog need no reminder of my position regarding the legal and moral aspects of the debate… I recounted my opinions in a series here, and there is really no meaningful update, other than to say that the appearance of the Buenos Aires document in the Acta does not meaningfully change the objective situation at all, though it certainly might have changed the prudential situation “on the ground.” I will not even bother to go further than that – those interested in the topic can comment on the series I wrote on the apologia of the document. Suffice it to say that his treatment is – no surprise – lacking in the necessary subtleties to be at all useful and therefore is not even worth critiquing. (I may, however, do a post eventually on my own take on the possibility of heresy in the Petrine office, looking at Bellarmine’s position and others’, careful to be sure to make the material-formal distinction, which is of course nowhere to be found in the author’s investigation of the subject.)

Okay. I could go on (and on and on and on!), but that is enough, as so much of his content is the same tune played on different strings, time and time again. I invite him, his fans, or other Protestants to tell me where I’m wrong and start an open and respectful discussion.

Apolog-etc. – Episode #1

Eamonn Clark

I often come across articles on WordPress (the platform this site uses) which don’t quite seem to get “the Catholic thing.” Usually, they fight strawmen (caricatures or weakened versions of a position), and many times the authors are former Catholics, which is very sad. Quite recently, I ran across a post, which I commented on, and which prompted a whole post of its own on the author’s part. With that, I’ve decided to start an ongoing series of posts on apologetics (etc.) – thus the strange title. I will dissect such articles (at least in part) and try shed some light on the matter.

The link to the article in question. From here on, comments in red.

[BEGIN QUOTE]

In response to one of my posts here, I received a comment which says:

I’m interested to know where exactly you think the “Bible” comes from? How do we know “these” books are in it, and others are not? Who and what is responsible for determining that? Why and how can there be disagreements about this?

The question is actually four questions, and the second and third ones can be answered together in a single response.  The question is “How do we know ‘these’ books are in [the Bible] and others are not, and who and what is responsible for determining that?

The books included or excluded from the ‘finished’ Bible as we know it were compiled, curated, or determined – generally – by a group of individuals who ‘authorized’ that particular version of the Bible.

They then go on to describe the history of several versions of Bibles – the KJV, Tyndale, Coverdale, Vulgate, etc., most of which was just ripped straight from Wikipedia… And this, of course, does not answer the question at all – who cares where this version comes from – where did the right version come from, and how, and why? Then we have this gem:

Tyndale’s Bible was an affront to the Roman Catholic Church because it challenged many of the Church’s established doctrines and – by giving access to God’s word to everyone – would have negated the Church’s position that only the Church (and its priests/bishops) could properly ‘interpret’ God’s word and act as intercessory agents between mankind and God.

Nevermind the translation issues with the Tyndale Bible – as the Italians say, “traduttore, traditore,” there is no perfect translation, though Tyndale did try to target buzzwords of Catholic doctrine – but there is a very persistent Protestant myth that the Catholic Church used to keep Bibles away from laymen for “intellectual safety” or something like that. Given the fact that trying to interpret Scripture without a good education is often extremely dangerous, this is plausible. This did happen once in southern France in the 13th century, because Albigensians were handing out Bibles with a little “extra” stuff thrown in there to make converts for their sect, but by and large it was simply too expensive to buy a Bible (which would have been handwritten), and literacy was not that widespread anyway.

Who is responsible for determining what books are chosen for each different version of the Bible?  A question I did not ask. The group, agency, organization, entity, or individual responsible for publishing the version is the ‘who’ that selected what books to include.

How do we know that these versions, book selections, and translations are official or authoritative or correct? Another question I did not ask. Unless we can read and have access to the original texts, we don’t know. We make a leap of faith and let our belief in the word be guided by the Holy Spirit. Interesting – so there is some trust put in the operation of God through human beings who preserved the text down to our own time? Did God really give mere human beings His own authority in this way? Curious… This sounds very Catholic. But the questions remain – which version and why?

Where do I think the Bible comes from?

If you ask 100 different people this question, you will likely get at least a dozen different answers.

According to scholars, which ones? why should we listen to them? isn’t the devil a Scripture scholar too? the authors of the individual books of the Bible were from all walks of life – kings, tax collectors, poets, farmers, priests, and others – and that the texts created by these people were divinely inspired by God.  In other words, they were writing about ‘religious’ subjects while under the influence of God through the Holy Spirit.  This point of view (the scholars’ presumption) is the belief I hold regarding ‘where’ the Bible comes from. Ok… Still no answers.

Why and how can there be disagreements about all this?

That’s the easiest question of all to answer. We’ll see… No matter what the subject is, there can always be a disagreement if two or more people are present and discussing it.  People can even argue about the color of the sky (sky blue, cerulean, robin’s egg blue, bright blue, milky blue, etc.) or which direction the sun rises from (east, slightly northeast, a bit more southerly than easterly, etc.). … Okay, so we disagree about which particular shade of blue the sky is, and also the categories of written content of the definitive revelation of Almighty God which is supposedly the only means of accessing the truth which can save us from everlasting torment – got it. But there seems to be a confusion about the question… Obviously, people disagree, but how can that be so? Are there no means of determining the matter? How strange that God would leave us to our own devices on such an important matter… What if I don’t like the Gospel of John, especially chapter 6? What if I disagree with the 10 Commandments, can I take out the books which talk about them? What if it’s too hard to believe some things in the Book of Acts – I can just say it’s not from God, right? Luther pulled exactly this kind of stunt… His theology was at odds with some books (especially James), so he discarded them.

Unless God himself personally appears and declares that he ‘instructed’ the writing of the Bible via the Holy Spirit, which He has, through the visible Catholic Church… there WILL be disagreements about it. And perhaps there would still be even if he did appear and unequivocally inform us of where the Bible comes from. Which there is, among non-Catholics…

As always, seek your own understanding, meaning, and interpretation of the intention behind God’s word by reading it for yourself.  Don’t believe others, because we are all only human, and none of us is more qualified to discern a revelation from God’s word meant for you other than you yourself. So now, not only do we have no idea how to know what is really inspired by God, but even if we did, we should just try to figure its meaning out all by ourselves… Because each individual is less fallible than the next, or something like that? If only there was some kind of teaching authority which God gave the Church which could help with all of this…..

[END QUOTE]

OKAY: So, there was no satisfying answer to my questions – and there can’t be any from a Protestant or non-denom. The conclusion is inescapable… Either God gave an authority to the Church to define what is contained in Scripture, and therefore the Church “as such” has, in some way, authority to teach in God’s Name (viz. infallibly), or we are essentially left as orphans with a bunch of ancient texts with no way to know for sure what God has inspired or to interpret what we think He has inspired. See my post on sola scriptura here.

I enjoyed a friendly exchange with this author, and I gave them a heads up that I would also take a look at some of their claims in the original post which sparked my questions. (I often come across tragic and sometimes downright weird misconceptions about Catholicism, many times from former Catholics – including this individual. It is very unfortunate.) However, I usually talk about the authority of Scripture, because inevitably the discussion will turn to: “Where is that in the Bible?” Now, I can play that game quite well (and I will play it here in this post a bit), but it is, at bottom, a game… I do not have the authority to explain definitively what Paul means about grace and law, nor does the interlocutor – all there can be is suggestion. It is a cat-and-mouse “gotcha” paradigm which can and does lead to pitting one part of Scripture against another. This shows the need for an authority, visible and living, to intervene and settle the matter. Anyway, my friend found some “list of infallible dogmas” (which I think is probably some blogger’s summary of Denzinger or Ott), and here are the sorts of things that they were on about, all the while claiming (rather arrogantly) that the Catholic Church needs to read the Bible… Yikes. I will just look at some of it.

A link to the article.

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#106 states that ‘after the birth of Jesus, Mary remained a virgin.’  There is no foundation whatsoever for this in the Bible, and the Bible actually goes on to refer to the brothers of Jesus (which some people say is a general ‘mankind’ reference).  In a day and age when large families were common and Jesus’ Earthly family was a ‘common’ one, why wouldn’t Mary and Joseph have had other children after the birth of Jesus?

That’s the whole argument. Forget that we should not expect such a statement in Scripture, for various reasons. Forget the perennial tradition among the early Church about Mary’s virginity. Forget the puzzling question of Mary at the Annunciation about how she will conceive (if she is getting married like a normal person, she would not have been wondering how she will become pregnant). Forget the widespread use of the word “brother” to refer to non-biological family (perhaps cousins). Forget the internal problems with such an interpretation, which I believe Sheen so masterfully described in his book on Mary. Rather, we should just think that Mary did all the same things that other women did, because, after all, she is only the mother of the Incarnate Son of God… not like that would require anything special of her. 

Moving on, item #133 says that ‘grace can be increased by good works.’  No, no, no.  You cannot ‘work’ your way into heaven, you cannot ‘work’ your way into a higher state of grace, you cannot ‘work’ your way into becoming more saved or more blessed or more beloved of God.  God has NO respect of persons (Acts 10:34, Romans 2:11, Ephesians 6:9, 1 Peter 1:17), which means we are all saved, blessed, loved, and granted grace on equal footing with each other.  Sure, good works make you feel better – but they won’t make God love you more, give you more grace, or bestow upon you a higher ‘status’ than anyone else.  Items #135 and #136 on this list also deal with how ‘good works’ can improve your status with God.  The Catholic Church really needs to READ the Bible, instead of trying to create it for themselves.

This is one of the big ones. The myth is: Catholics are Pelagians (viz. they think that trying really hard to be good, by our own efforts alone, earns us grace). On the contrary, the Catholic Church teaches, with Paul, that even the mere desire to do something good (for a right reason) is preceded by the movement of grace in the soul. Grace which is sufficient for following the Commandments is given to all, (at least to all the baptized,) and resisting that grace results in sin, which, if serious enough, destroys friendship with God (charity), reordering the soul away from Heaven, though possibly with the person remaining a believer who hopes for salvation (thus continuing to enjoy a kind of justification). When a good work is done, whether to follow the Commandments or even to go beyond them (see the dialogue with the Rich Young Man – we can do better than simply not sin!), then God has given even more grace than was there originally, called efficient grace. This is how some enter the Kingdom ahead of others, this is why there are many mansions in the Father’s house, this is why the better servant who humbles himself more will be called the greatest, this is how the division of talents among the stewards translates to the spiritual life, etc., etc., etc. Perhaps my friend ought to READ the Bible, instead of Googling anti-Catholic apologetics. It all fits together… Both grace AND works. (By the way –  some of the “works” that Paul talks about are the works of the Mosaic law, perhaps including the established rabbinic interpretation among his own Jewish sect, the Pharisees… It is certainly true that doing your dishes a certain way will not save you. Nor will even circumcision save you. You must follow the Commandments, which, as John says, is how we first love God. Read the letters.)

Item #153 says ‘the Church founded by Christ is unique and one.’  That is true, but Jesus did not create the Catholic Church.  He didn’t create a church of any denomination.  We are one body in Christ with many members, which means we are non-denominational, and any division into denominations is a violation of Biblical edict.

Here is the “non-denominationalist error.” By choosing to be one who rejects doctrinal clarity in various ways, and by choosing a certain kind of ecclesiology (an understanding of what “the Church” is), one separates himself from other Christians who disagree. In short, to be “non-denominational” is to be in a denomination. The word “denomination” literally means “what you are named.” Because there is division within Christianity, one simply must make choices about “sides” once one is faced with the options. Division in the Church is the result of doctrinal, liturgical, and sometimes political disputes – finding the “authentic Church” is not done by simply ignoring these entrenchments, nor is it done by denouncing them all as “divisions.” The former is like an awkward family reunion where everyone pretends that the serious problems which exist between various members don’t exist, for the sake of having a good time – it is superficial and unsustainable in the long-run. The latter is like sawing off the branch which one is sitting on, as was already explained. This topic deserves its own post at a later date, but this will suffice for now.

Items #205 through #209 discuss the Catholic Church’s power to remit (forgive) sin, whether it was committed before or after baptism.  Once again – wrong!  The only ‘power’ that exists to remit or forgive sin is the power of Jesus’ blood shed on the cross at his crucifixion.  Jesus did not bestow upon anyone or anything the power to forgive sins.

So… John 20:23? I guess we are ignoring that instance. The apostles understood it well enough, and so did their successors, and their successors, etc. In the meantime, the New Testament was being written. We can see, then, that Christianity is not based on Scripture – it is the other way around. The Word did not just become more words… He became a man and dwelt among us – and those with whom He dwelt bore Him witness, first by speech, and then later by writing. The authority rests in the lineage of the apostles, then, especially with Peter, who was privileged with preeminence by the Lord and by the other apostles in many ways. And these men understood themselves to have power, in the Lord’s Name, through His saving work which they were chosen to participate in by the Lord Himself, to forgive sins. Solus Christus has its own post coming too – it is an even bleaker doctrine than sola scriptura. We indeed are called to share in His own ministry and life in various ways, according to His own action within us. In this case, it is through priestly ordination. There are now many Joshuas whom God will obey, as He did when the sun stood still…

Item #212 claims that the confession of sins (to a priest) is necessary for salvation.  Wrong again.  The only thing necessary for salvation is faith in Jesus (2 Timothy 3:15).  The Bible also tells us that our transgressions should be confessed to God, not to another fallible human being (and does not specify that it is necessary for salvation!).

So……. James 5:16? But what authority does James have anyway… Luther threw out that book because it says: faith alone does not suffice for salvation (James 2:14-26). James is not talking about sacramental confession, of course, but it seems my friend is simply poorly read in Scripture (or is missing this book in their Bible – which goes back to the original question).

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That is enough of a look at these posts. Hopefully, this will suffice to show what kind of misunderstandings can be out there – and I hope my new friend does not mind a bit of my rhetoric, but rather embraces a little correction. There are so many more things to say, but perhaps a good perusal of the wonderful site of Catholic Answers would be better than me blabbing on. It is not hard to find good explanations of this stuff…

Have you encountered similar objections and misunderstandings? Share in the comments below – but be charitable!

Logical Positivism & the New Atheists

The 21st century has very few well-known intellectual movements to its name thus far. In fact, perhaps the only one that the average American (or Brit) would even be vaguely aware of is the “New Atheism.” Characterized by evangelical unbelief – that is, the spreading of anti-religious/theistic sentiments in an attempt to destroy all belief in God – and an unwavering belief in the monopoly of empirical science on knowledge, the New Atheism is not particularly friendly toward some of the most predominant thoughts arising out of Western philosophy, especially the existence of God. Despite its relative popularity, the New Atheism comes on the heels of the utterly failed school of logical positivism, and it is not to be mistaken for a serious philosophical movement.

Before examining the New Atheism (which is really not all that new), it will be helpful to reflect on the school of thought which helped give rise to it: logical positivism. Two of the largest figures in what is perhaps the only school of thought ever to become truly extinct in university departments of philosophy were Bertrand Russell and A. J. Ayer. After being exposed to the New Atheism for just a short while, one will quickly come to realize that Russell is something of a hero of the movement. However, since Ayer wrote the book on logical positivism that Russell said he had wished he’d written, it will be more helpful to look at Ayer’s seminal work published in 1936, Language, Truth, and Logic.

Logical positivism is fiercely anti-metaphysical, such that it makes Kant look like kind of a sissy. According to Ayer, there are really only two kinds of truth-apt statements: tautologies and propositions directly available to verification by the senses. “We say that a statement is factually significant to any given person, if, and only if, he knows how to verify the proposition which it purports to express – that is, if he knows what observations would lead him, under certain conditions, to accept the proposition as being true, or reject it as being false” (LTL, 35). Such an attitude places metaphysics and questions of value, according to Ayer, completely out of the realm of significance. In line with this, Ayer also espouses the emotivist vision of metaethics: “But in every case in which one would commonly be said to be making an ethical judgment, the function of the relevant ethical word is purely ‘emotive.’ It is used to express feeling about certain objects, but not to make any assertion about them” (LTL, 108).

It is just intuitively obvious that there are some kinds of truths that are not verifiable by the senses. As is so often repeated, “Man is a metaphysical animal.” An appeal to intuition is perhaps something of a cop-out, but to anyone who has thought about “the thing in itself” or a universal conception of some particular thing, it is clear that non-material things have existence and that on the heels of that existence closely rides significance. The problem is that one who is stuck in the materialism-positivism-scientism bent will have too narrow an idea of what “existence” is. (But of course, that one can have such an idea at all proves the point once again.)

There were other well-known criticisms of logical positivism. The most obvious is that the main ideas in the system are themselves unable to be true by the system itself. How is it that we verify by sense that there are no meaningful metaphysical statements? And is the thought that there are no meaningful metaphysical statements itself supposed to be taken for a meaningful metaphysical statement? W. V. Quine offered a sharp criticism of the analytic/synthetic distinction in his earth-shattering paper, Two Dogmas of Empiricism, and soon enough, the school of logical positivism was completely dead. Or was it?

If there are any New Atheists involved in the serious practice of academic philosophy such as one would find at a university, they are few and far between and do not seem to make much noise. However, this does not mean that it is irrational to conclude that there has not been any influence of the logical positivists on the New Atheists, however difficult it may be to trace the course of the influence in its entirety. The sort of men involved in the work of logical positivism were heavily influential on 20th century philosophy of science, so the intellectual heritage might very well have cut through there and into the minds of philosophically-curious scientists like Richard Dawkins.

Whatever the case, there are clear similarities between the New Atheism and logical positivism. There is perhaps not an overt disdain for metaphysics like Ayer and Russell had, but there seems to be a level of distrust that prevents them from understanding it. For instance, there is a general incomprehension of major metaphysical ideas like the deduction of the existence of a simple God. There is little concern with value-reasoning (even though the leaders of the movement constantly find themselves dealing with questions of value, such as the worth of religion, or the moral goodness of eliminating religious belief), and there is really very little attempt to understand anything in terms of essences, formal causes, or anything indicative of or contingent upon teleology (the study of natural purposes).

The most classic example of their collective metaphysical inanity is perhaps the most fundamental to the entire project of the New Atheism in terms of a philosophical critique. Just as nearly all of St. Thomas’ work flows out of his “Five Ways,” almost the entirety of the philosophical dimension of New Atheists’ project rests on objections to the traditional proofs of God’s existence. The foremost instance is probably the cosmological argument.

Misunderstanding the cosmological argument is easy enough to do for the layman; it requires a critical mind that can grasp abstract ideas like “act” and “potency” and “simplicity.” It should not, however, be too difficult for the full-time philosopher to understand. Nor should it be dismissed so easily by the skeptic: there are possibly serious objections to the cosmological argument, but it does not appear that any such objections are on the radar of the New Atheists. Rather, they just plain misunderstand it. For example:

“If the universe’s existence requires an explanation in terms of an intelligent designer, then why doesn’t God, with all of his supreme and complex attributes, beg for an explanation in terms of yet another intelligent designer, ad infinitum? Indeed, who designed the designer? Alternatively, if God can simply exist without requiring an explanation, then why can’t the universe simply exist unexplained as well, thereby removing the need to posit a designer in the first place?”

philmeme1

The idea that this argument poses a serious threat to the cosmological argument is laughable, and indeed, it is almost embarrassing. Clearly, the God proposed in the cosmological argument does not possess “complex attributes,” or any “attributes” at all that are distinct from Himself. On the contrary, the universe is complex, thus necessarily implying a cause. Since there cannot be an infinite regression of causes (or else there would be no explanation for why there are any causes/effects at all), there must be some First Cause.

In his absolutely wonderful blog, Edward Feser notes that “most people who comment on the cosmological argument demonstrably do not know what they are talking about. This includes all the New Atheist writers.” The question is, why? Why is it that they do not understand it? Feser goes on: “[W]hile the basic structure of the main versions of the argument is fairly simple, the background metaphysics necessary for a proper understanding of the key terms and inferences is not.” Such “background metaphysics” might include a belief in or recognition of “actuality” being distinct from “potency.” This sort of language would be dismissed by Ayer as meaningless. Could a kind of hidden assumption of this thought account for the New Atheists having such trouble beginning to approach the cosmological argument? It is certainly a possibility.

God is not “a being” in the way that objects of empirical study are, although it appears that this is the current running through the entirety of the popular atheism generally fueled by the leaders of the movement. How else could the difficulties with the cosmological argument arise? This tendency to try to make something completely “beyond” the everyday kind of object to be very observable and even testable is indicative of distrust or even contempt for metaphysics. If the things of the immaterial world were really taken seriously by figures like Dawkins, they would not have such difficulties with the cosmological argument. Since the refutation of this argument is so critical, however, it is shameful that they do not even give a reasonably fair representation of it in their criticism.

Further evidence of this anti-metaphysical (and sharply anti-mystery) worldview is given in the widespread attempt to make “God” the object of scientific testing. After constructing a Bayes’ Theorem for God’s existence, Fishman concludes, “The fact that no devout Christian amputees have ever had their limbs grow back following prayers to the Christian God requesting limb re-growth is strong evidence that the Christian God does not exist.” Never mind that this is untrue – the deeper issue is that it is inconceivable to the New Atheists that perhaps God is wise to tests and chooses to abstain from participating in them, or that prayer is an altogether mysterious activity that will always escape science in some way. Instead, God is “a being” that can be measured, tested, and controlled just like any other being. This kind of God is not only rejected by the Bible, it is also rejected by Aristotle! It crams pre-conceived and wildly incorrect notions of benevolence, mercy, and intercession into the Christian (and Western) worldview.

Not only in the assessment of proofs for God’s existence is there a trace of logical positivism in the ideas of the New Atheism, but in the examination of value-claims as well. Dawkins writes:

“The question, ‘What is right and what is wrong?’ is a genuinely difficult question that science certainly cannot answer. Given a moral premise or a priori moral belief, the important and rigorous discipline of secular moral philosophy can pursue scientific or logical modes of reasoning to point up hidden implications of such beliefs, and hidden inconsistencies between them. But the absolute moral premises themselves must come from elsewhere, presumably from unargued conviction. Or, it might be hoped, from religion – meaning some combination of authority, revelation, tradition, and scripture.”

What is this “unargued conviction” he references? He does not say, but it is altogether likely that he means something very or indeed altogether subjective and/or arbitrary. He goes on to note that “some kind of liberal consensus of decency and natural justice that changes over historical time, frequently under the influence of secular reformists” provides us with most of our moral convictions rather than religion.

It might be shocking that Dawkins does not think that science can tell us about moral truth. It is maybe not that shocking that he does not appear to realize that he makes himself to be emotivist by this admission, if the foregoing explanation of “unargued conviction” is correct. If moral convictions are arbitrary or always subjective, and science can shed no light on the matter of moral principles, then we are left with an emotivist constructivism, since it does not seem that Dawkins would want to say that there can be “many moral truths” along the popular relativist line.

In the final analysis, both logical positivism and the New Atheism rest on turf highly unsympathetic to metaphysics and all things related. Being such, they both draw out the skeleton in the philosopher’s closet: science-envy. There are obvious remnants of Ayer and Russell in the work of the New Atheists, so regardless of how the influence came about it is clear that there exists one at least to some degree.

 

Main image: “atheos” from Ephesians 2:12