The Advantages of Catholic Guilt

Well, I’ve got nothing else to talk about today so I’m going to ramble on about Catholic guilt for a bit. I was raised Catholic, so I am quite familiar with this notion. The Catholic Church has a whole laundry list of sins, both serious and trivial, or, as the church calls them: mortal and venial sins. I’m not a priest or a theologian (despite the fact that I think I’m the antichrist), but here’s kind of how it works as I understand it. The church endorses a rule, like don’t commit adultery; you ignore the rule and commit adultery and you’ve committed a sin. Upon reflection you realize that and start to regret it; you feel shame and guilt at your failure. Metaphysically, the sin is like a stain on your soul that needs to be cleansed. It can only be cleansed through the sacramental rite of Confession in the church.

There is something of a problem, though, with this. The list of sins recognized by the Catholic Church is quite extensive. Adherents to the Faith are sometimes accused of obsessing over such sins so that they are constantly dragging around a great burden of guilt. I’m not a psychologist either, but I’m kind of under the impression that modern psychology treats guilt as bad, an unnecessary psychology burden. But is it?

In this modern world of ours that emphasizes acceptance and non-judgment the question arises: Is there a place for Catholic guilt? Or, rather, does Catholic guilt have an advantage that can validate it in psychological circles. My answer is yes, it does. However, I doubt I can treat the subject with the depth it deserves in the space of a single blog post and, since I am neither a psychologist nor a priest, I won’t be taken seriously anyway.

Nevertheless, here we go:

I guess the crux of the matter comes down to whether or not we wish to encourage “sin” or not. I realize that “sin” is not a psychological term, but religious, but I think it still has value. Too many people today associate morality almost exclusively with sex. Since the Sexual Revolution sexual morals have loosened significantly. Years ago, pre-marital sex was considered immoral—a sin—not so, anymore. I really don’t want to get in a discussion on sex here, I just want to point out that there is more to morality than sex: theft, murder, lying, and maybe even impiety. If we ignore the sex, do we wish to encourage thieves and murderers? No, I think not. Such would be a recipe for moral disaster.

Anyway, to return to the original question, Catholic guilt can be a useful mechanism to improve an individual’s soul. Murderers, through regret and guilt, may put down the gun and learn to live peacefully with their neighbors. Thieves may stop thieving; liars, lying. And what is dark and putrid within, in time, may be replaced with light and kindness. This kind of improvement is only possible through a desire for positive change. And what can stimulate such a desire but a recognition of a shortcoming in one’s own character? Catholic guilt provides this. It can be a powerful tool for spiritual improvement.

At least, that’s what I think.

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Book Review: Who Am I To Judge by Edward Sri (4 *’s)

The book Who Am I To Judge by Edward Sri can be summed up by its subtitle: Responding to Relativism with Logic and Love. It is written with purposes that coincide with my own: the utter destruction of the philosophy of moral relativism. To that end, Edward Sri produces a powerful work to aid the modern anti-relativist and, more specifically, the modern Catholic, in that effort.

The book doesn’t consist of a series of inescapable arguments against relativism. There are a few such arguments in the book, but the author’s purpose is more to give the reader a framework and a means to engage the relativist. Indeed, he admits in the beginning of the book, something that took me a considerably long time to learn—that logical arguments, like pointing out that “It is true that there is no truth,” is a blatant logical contradiction has limited usefulness. Between the state of the current culture and the lack of critical reflection in many people, “winning” a logical debate just doesn’t carry that much weight.

As a philosophy major back in the day, a lot of what he wrote was familiar to me. His basic strategy was to compare the classic approach to ethics and living based on Catholic teaching and the best of the ancient philosophers, with that of relativism. It is a powerful technique. He gives a brief overview of things like telos and virtue and similar such concepts.

Ultimately, he boils things down and gives the non-relativist seven different “keys” with which to engage the relativist all based on the real-life consequences of relativism, the advantages of the classical approach, and similar such considerations. Again, a powerful approach.

I enjoyed the book and found it a worthwhile read. I recommend it to anyone struggling with the relativism issue. The writing was good; the reasoning was sound. It was a great refresher for my old philosophy days and even taught me a few new things. Anyway, I gave it four stars out of five.

The Problem with Miracles

Once upon a time, I was at a religious retreat. I’m not sure where exactly; I think it was Camp Guggenheim, wherever that may be. My whole class went there (I attended Catholic schools). I don’t remember all the events, and classes, and workshops that went on. One of them, though, I do remember.

I remember they divided our group of students into two groups. One of the groups was supposed to come up with reasons in support of the Bible and Jesus and why you should believe in them. The other was supposed to come up with reasons AGAINST believing in the Bible or Jesus. The point of the exercise was to prove that reason can’t decide such an issue; you have to rely on faith. I’ve never been big on faith, but that was the lesson.

I don’t remember all the reasons that were given back and forth, I just remember I was in the group that was supposed to give reasons against. I came up with one. I said, “All miracles can be explained by science.” The other group said something like, “How can you explain multiplying loaves of bread or walking on water?” And thus they claimed their victory for that point.

But not really. If I were in the same situation now, I would ask, more precisely, “How can you be sure that there is no scientific explanation for absolutely every miracle?” Once upon a time, rainbows were believed to be miraculous. Now, we have a scientific explanation for them. Walking on water? Doesn’t that defy the laws of gravity and physics? Well, the thing about science is that it is continuously evolving and changing and improving. What was regarded as impossible one day is regarded as real and explained the next. Eclipses were terrifying miracles of great significance in ancient times. Now we know that they are just the interposition of the sun and moon in alignment with Earth. So, if science keeps explaining more and more wonders, who is to say that it won’t eventually explain the multiplication of loaves or the walking on water? If you view science as total and complete (which it most emphatically is NOT), you will view those miracles as inexplicable. But if the scope of science is always increasing, as is its explanatory power, explanations of such things may be just around the corner.

Maybe psi-phenomena are real. Maybe a sufficiently well-trained psychic could walk on water. After all, I have read reports (anecdotal only, of course) of levitations, so maybe it is possible and inherently explainable. We’ve explained a lot of other mysteries in this universe; why not miracles?

The point of all this? Don’t base your Faith on miracles alone. That can very likely lead to disillusionment and disaster. Find something stronger to base it one.

Reflections On Infinity

Yes, this has absolutely nothing to do with my usual topics of discussion … well, God is supposed to be infinite, so maybe there is a connection. Anyway, I’m interested in the concept of infinity. How well do we understand it? For myself, I know it gives me a headache every time I try to think about it. Sometimes I think it’s the coolest thing ever discovered. Other times I think it’s just a mental trick, a mathematical miscalculation.

One of the coolest things is the fact that there is more than one type of infinity. And I don’t just mean the distinction between the infinitely large and the infinitely small (infinitesimal). That’s a cool distinction to make. But even cooler is the fact that there is more than one infinite number. Without getting bogged down in the mathematics of it, there are more points on a line segment than there are integers. And the number of points on a line segment are not the largest infinite number. There are an infinite number of infinite numbers. There’s a whole field of mathematics devoted to things like this called “Transfinite Set Theory.” For myself, I lack the background to give a full discussion of Transfinite Set Theory; I only know a few bits and pieces—enough to recognize that it is a really cool subject.

But is it all based on a mental trick? We get our first inkling of infinity when we learn to add and realize there is no last number. Then you start finding paradoxes, like Xeno’s Paradoxes of Motion and a few other mathematical such things. Wherever infinity comes up, our understanding balks and fails.

Is the universe infinite? From what I gather from the scientists I’ve spoken to, the answer is no. But a good portion of them think math is a game, anyway. They might be right, and, if so, infinity may be the perfect example of such a contention.

What about God? If He exists, He is supposed to be infinite. In fact, He is supposed to be The Infinite. The final ultimate infinite number/being whatever. The Universal Set itself, or what have you. And, I guess, that adds to part of the mystery and our curiousity about the subject.

Can One Be Damned By One’s Theology?

Hindu, Muslim, Catholic, or Jew. Can someone be damned for what they believe? This question is well-pronounced in many Christian sects. How often have we heard that the only way to heaven is through Jesus Christ the Lord. Indeed, Jesus himself seemed to claim as much.

For myself, I can’t accept that teaching. In the Catholic Church, I am not required to as they have a doctrine called “Baptism by Desire.” Basically, if one leads a good life with respect to the principles of the Catholic Faith, even if you are not Catholic, it is assumed that you are saved. You are “baptized” by your desire to live a good life.

My position is slightly different. I believe that Christ spoke the truth when He said, “No one comes to the Father except through me.” That said, I see no reason why Jesus can’t stand in judgment of a Hindu, or Muslim, or Buddhist and basically say … “Yeah, he/she led a good life. He/she can come in.” I just believe Jesus has the final say regardless of the individual under consideration and their chosen Faith. So, my position is probably pretty much the same thing as the Catholic Doctrine of “Baptism by Desire.” Or, at least, very similar.

Additionally, I take issue with the Christian doctrine that one is saved by Faith and Faith alone. I’m sorry, but it makes no rational sense to me. Look at it this way: it is claiming that unless one believes in this arbitrary unprovable belief one will be damned. It makes as much rational sense as hinging salvation on the belief that there is an invisible dinosaur living on the dark side of the moon. Christ having the final say, I can buy; but not the doctrine of Faith alone. A just God wouldn’t be so arbitrary.

So, on first blush, it seems my answer is “No, I don’t think someone can be damned by their theology.” But that’s not my complete answer. If you believe the wrong things, you will take the wrong actions. One’s theology might lead one to practice human sacrifice. If you can be damned for a theological belief and practice, human sacrifice is one that will probably do it. Of course, as I said, God, or rather, Jesus, has the final say. In terms of level of evil, suicide bombing seems to be on par with human sacrifice. Again, Jesus has the final say, but if anything should lead to damnation, suicide bombing, I think, would.

But, then again, not.

Yes, not.

As readers of this blog know, I believe I’m the antichrist. I believe I’ve been to hell. The experience lasted for maybe thirty seconds and it has taken me twenty plus years to recover—and I’m still not fully there yet. Anyway, my point is that hell sucks. I would rather be burned alive than to go back to hell. I can’t imagine a Deity that would inflict such suffering on anyone for any reason. Not Stalin. Not Hitler. Not Judas. Nor King Herod. That doesn’t mean we are free from punishment, because love implies a necessity to discipline one’s children. I just don’t think hell is the punishment in store for us. Anything that would subject anyone to an eternal experience of Divine Fury is not worthy of being addressed as God. It can’t be Divine. Which is why I think hell is a fabrication of Satan’s. Basically, I think God has the power to annihilate a soul with Divine Fury. Being a loving God He will never use such power because it is just f’n cruel beyond imagination. Satan, on the other hand, can imitate God’s power but not completely. He can’t really annihilate a soul, but he can make that soul feel as if he is about to annihilate it. Regardless, the experience is terrible and I don’t want to ever experience it again.

Of course, I’m not God. But if God is going around damning his “children” to hell, He is a Tyrant like no other. And one we will never escape.

The Sacred, the Relative, and the Absolute

Long time readers of this blog will know that I have an interest, or perhaps even an obsession with relativism and absolute moral truth. I was ruminating the other day about the nature of the Sacred and how it relates to both the Relative and the Absolute. And I had an insight.

It revolves around the notion of the “greatest.” Or, in this case, the “highest” moral truth. Basically, if we say the Sacred designates that which is the highest moral truth, we seem to be compelled to claim that all is relative. Why? The sacred refers to holy things: holy days, holy objects, holy land, or holy places. Objectively, which holiday is more sacred: Christmas? Or Hannukah? I’m inclined to think that in such an example, that question is meaningless because when it comes to holy days, relativism applies. Christmas is sacred to Christians. Hannukah is sacred to Jews. Christmas is only sacred to Jews to the extent that it is polite to not “disrespect” it, whatever that entails. And the same for Hannukah and Christians.

Similarly, what is holier: the Dome of the Rock, The Holy Sepulcher, or the Wailing Wall? Again, it seems to be a meaningless question that can only really be addressed relativistically. So, if the Wailing Wall and Hannukah constitute the highest moral concerns in Judaism, then aren’t we ultimately compelled to relativism? Maybe.

But aren’t rituals also in the realm of the Sacred? What then, of the Aztec ritual of human sacrifice versus the Catholic ritual of Confession? In the former of these, as far as we can tell, an innocent person is slain. In the latter, as far as we can tell, a conversation occurs between a priest and a sinner. The latter is at worst, harmless; the former, not so much. If there is an example of two sacred rituals which are NOT morally commensurate, this is it. What is the difference?

How one treats other human beings. In one, the human is used as an expendable resource to appease some higher power. In the other, the human is treated with compassion to repair the relationship between that human and the higher power.

In light of this (and largely from having a Christian upbringing), I am inclined to say that how one treats other humans trumps sacred concerns. Well, it’s a little complicated. God is more important than other humans, but He is honored by respectful treatment of other humans not Sacred extremism where the lives of people are sacrificed for a “holy concern.” So, as a Catholic, I would be insulted if someone broke into a church, dumped all the hosts on the ground, and then urinated on them, but I wouldn’t condone their execution for said “crime.” Others of other faiths should respect the host and other Catholic sacred concerns, just as the Catholics should respect theirs. That said, no one’s sacred concerns are immune from intellectual criticism if for no other reason than that some people used sacred concerns to ritually sacrifice others in the past. You might not like it, and you can ignore it if you wish, but your sacred concerns and beliefs are open to criticism, although generally not forced abandonment—except in the rarest of cases.

Anyway, that was my insight: how the notion of the “highest morality” relates to “sacred concerns” and the relativism/absolutism issue. Basically, if “sacred” denotes the “highest,” then all is relative. Otherwise, if treating humans well is more important, then absolutism wins the day. At least, those are my thoughts today. They may change tomorrow.

Safe Spaces

I’ve addressed this topic before, so I may be repeating myself. Oh well.

There has been much tadoo about safe spaces of late. Conservative speakers go to college campuses and are shut down by a student body that is afraid of being “triggered.” The students believe they are in a safe space and that justifies banning such speakers from speaking so as to keep the students from entertaining arguments that might be construed as “micro-aggressions” or something similar.

Is there something to this? Are college students entitled to safe spaces?

Yes and no.

Let’s start by first answering the question: What is a safe space? I believe the term has its origins in psychological circles. As I never studied psychology, my definition might be off a bit. Anyway, in my view, a safe space is a space where one can talk openly without judgement or condemnation. In such a space, one should feel secure from threatening tones, language, and criticism. These spaces exist in order to help its user unload uncomfortable or even painful emotional experiences.

Three examples of safe spaces are as follows: a therapy session with a trained psychologist, the Catholic Confessional (originally instituted 2000 years ago by Jesus Christ—yeah, Jesus beat the psychiatrists to the punch by twenty centuries), and even (to a limited degree) a consoling conversation with a caring friend. What is important to realize when noting these examples is the fact that each one involves a kind of slowing down or stepping out of the ‘river of life.’ You step out of life to take a look at life and try to derive some benefit from it. That is, it is not a type of ordinary living. A safe space is something extraordinary. You don’t get to live your entire life in a safe space. That is neither healthy nor wise.

The following are NOT safe spaces: a college campus (most decidedly not), one’s place of employment, and just life in general. Mistaking one of these for a safe space inevitably leads to problems. At a college campus, for example, the students are supposed to be challenged by new ideas and critical thoughts. They aren’t supposed to be pampered. A safe space allows one to recharge; it is not a lifestyle.

Still … I think increasing access to safe spaces may be therapeutic for most, if not all people. Although it is unfeasible to go to Confession twenty-four or even sixteen hours a day, and it is equally unfeasible to attend frequent day-long therapy sessions, I think being open to “safe-space-like” conversation with friends should be available as much as possible. But with friends, only. Friends are supposed to be used as supports; discussing problems with friends is what they are there for. At least, good friends, anyway. I think that kind of attitude and approach is an important part of Christianity. Having friends to talk to can be very beneficial.

Regardless, there comes a point where the conversation must stop and the trials of life must be faced. In the end, safe spaces are a bonus; they are not a given.