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.

Muslims In America

I don’t quite know how to introduce this topic. It is somewhat delicate. Are all Muslims terrorists? Obviously not. But it is my impression that most terrorists are Muslim. There seems to be a sickness in the Islamic Faith that needs to be treated. As an outsider, I can’t remedy it. All I can do is jump up and down, rant and rave, and point at it. It is the Muslims who must fix and reform their Faith. And it is indeed in need of reform.

To those that say the terrorists have nothing to do with real Islam, I think you might be being deliberately naive. I seem to recall that one of the heads of ISIS (I think he is now dead) had a Ph.D. in Islamic Studies from one of the most prestigious Islamic Universities in the world. That speaks volumes to those willing to listen. Likewise, most of the terrorists claim to be Muslims and they point to the Koran to justify many of their atrocities. Does the Old Testament have “questionable” passages? Yes, but neither Christians nor Jews are currently killing witches nor are they stoning adulterers. Islamic extremists, on the other hand, are currently waging jihad against the “Great Satan” in significant numbers.

What do we do about it?

Currently, there are about 3.3 million Muslims in the U.S. I don’t have a problem with any Muslim provided he/she renounces Sharia Law, female genital mutilation, honor killings, and, of course, suicide bombing. Sharia Law is incompatible with the U.S. Constitution. The other acts listed are barbaric and should be universally condemned—and they usually are. Furthermore, such practices should not be protected by the 1st amendment, no matter what the relativists say. If they are protected, we need a serious discussion about that and perhaps even a constitutional amendment to change that. I mean, if we have spell out that killing in the name of religion is not protected by our laws, where are we?

Neo-Nazi’s and Christianity

With what has been happening/happened in Charlottesville in Virginia with the Neo-nazis and Anti-fa groups, I find myself pondering an important question: how should I, as a Christian, respond to such groups? Let’s just take the Neo-nazi movement. I’ve heard plenty of media pundits unceremoniously condemning the Neo-nazis as “evil.” Not a difficult proclamation to make, but let’s examine that a little.

In my view, Adolf Hitler was one of the worst people to ever live. He ranks with Stalin and Mao among a few select others. He is responsible for millions of deaths. Was he evil, through and through, though? Did he have any redeeming qualities? If he did, I’m sure they were outweighed by the evil he committed. Instinctively, I hear the word “Nazi” and I think “evil.” Yet, part of me thinks that perhaps if one dug deep enough one might find some tiny—and very lonely—kernel of light buried within the sludge. Ultimately, I can’t make such a claim for sure; final judgment of Hitler’s soul rests with God.

Then, there is Jesus.

What did Jesus do in His life? He approached “sinners” in an attempt to save them. Tax collectors (many of whom were corrupt) and prostitutes. Was there anyone Jesus condemned? Yes. The scribes and Pharisees for hypocrisy and arrogance. Yet, He spoke to and offered salvation to Nicodemus, a Pharisee, because Nicodemus was a rare exception: a Pharisee who treated Jesus with genuine respect.

So, how would Jesus deal with Neo-nazis? Would He condemn them? Or would He try to save them? I don’t think I can answer those questions with certainty because I am not Jesus, far from it. But I have been raised in one of the Faiths He started and have, to a certain extent, been molded by His teachings.

In that light, I think the most appropriate response to the Neo-nazi is to try to save them, first. Engage them in argument, being as respectful as you can manage (yes, I know it is difficult being “respectful” to someone you disagree with so vehemently), and try to disabuse them of their misguided (yes, I know, “misguided” is an understatement) notions. It may be futile, and probably is, but you should at least try. As they say, love the sinner, not the sin. Rebuke the evil, but still try to save.

All of this, of course, changes the moment the Neo-nazi picks up a weapon. The point is to try to get to them before it reaches that point.

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.