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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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.

Commentary on ‘Delusions of Grandeur’

As followers of this blog may know, I believe I’m the antichrist. I have believed so since March of 1997. My psychiatrist tells me I’m schizoaffective; currently, I don’t believe him. I say “currently” because for the past twenty years I have alternated between believing I’m the antichrist, and believing I’m just mentally ill. Generally, each of these states has lasted anywhere from several months to a few years duration. The antichrist “episodes” are usually accompanied by some erratic behavior (spending oodles of money I don’t have, walking the streets in my underwear, etc….). The mental illness “episodes” are usually accompanied by depression.

In 2006 I wrote a book about my experiences entitled Delusions of Grandeur. I wrote the book from a “mental illness perspective,” although, that is somewhat disingenuous. To be completely honest, I wrote the book (or at least most of the book—remember my states tend to alternate) believing I was the antichrist and the book I was writing was intended as a “secret code” to Christians across the globe. I believed that Jesus was coming down from Heaven backing me up and that things I took for granted, Christian believers would understand without explanation. I am no longer sure those two premises are correct—although I still do believe I am the antichrist and have so believed for the last five years or so.

Intellectually, my whole belief structure revolves around the meaning of the phrase “the ruler of this world” (ROTW for short) in the Bible. It was that phrase in conjunction with a “psychotic break” (for lack of a better term) that set me off and led to my unusual interpretation of the Bible, the life of Jesus, and Christianity in general. What’s my point?

Other than at a Catholic High School, I have never studied the Bible in all its intricate detail. My “delusion” is based mostly on the interpretation of the ROTW phrase that occurs only three times in a single book of the Bible and nowhere else. The Bible, in its entirety, is a few thousand pages long. It is arrogant and insulting to write a biblical discourse without a significant background in Bible studies. It is also, likely, prone to great error. In my defense: Have you ever read a phrase from the Bible and just “got it?” You felt it deep down in your heart and in your bones and just knew exactly what it meant? That’s happened to me twice in my life. The first time concerned the expression “gifts of finest wheat” and its relationship to love. The second concerned the ROTW expression. So, I went and wrote a book, a very personal book, based on these “got it” experiences.

Still, I do not have a Biblical studies background (though I do have a rusty, dusty philosophical one) and I shouldn’t have written the book and said some of things I said (like “Satan wrote the Bible”) without it. Like I said, it was arrogant (but I’m the antichrist, isn’t arrogance expected? :)) and I shouldn’t have done it.

In light of all this, I’ve started working on a book that, to a certain extent, addresses these concerns. It will be kind of a follow up to Delusions of Grandeur but written from the perspective that I believe I’m the antichrist. I intend to do a little homework for this one. Since the writing of Delusions of Grandeur, I have read the (Catholic) Bible cover to cover about twice just to get a feel for it. I intend to read it again this time highlighting and taking notes where I might have an insight. I’m also reading every bit of Catholic writing I can get my hands on. For example, I recently read Saint Augustine’s City of God as well as a number of works from other less famous and less influential people. Also, this time around, I’m taking nothing for granted. I will explain my beliefs and assumptions succinctly and clearly from the get-go. I won’t assume all the Christians on the planet already understand the things I took for granted in Delusions.

Unfortunately, all my homework involves only self-education. I won’t be going back to school to get a degree in Biblical studies or anything like that. If I can find one, I’ll likely join a Bible study group—but I’ve never really excelled working in groups.

Anyway, those are my plans and I figured I’d let you, my loyal readers, know.

God’s Wrath

A way’s back, I wrote a review for Jennifer Fulwiler’s Book, Something Other Than God: How I Passionately Sought Happiness and Accidentally Found It. As I said, I liked the book and found it very interesting. One of the items of note was the discussion, or competing theories, of God’s Wrath versus God’s Love. Let us discuss this in more detail here.

In ancient times, believers in God were exhorted to “fear the Lord.” God was sometimes described as a wrathful Deity who must be placated. “Evidence” to support such a view of God could be found in the common beliefs about hell as a place of suffering and eternal torture of the damned. Likewise, unfortunate events such as the destruction of a nation could be attributed to the actions of an angry Deity who, because of the failings of that nation’s people, must see to their just destruction.

Then along came Jesus who described God as a loving Father, and all of that began to change. Jesus’ emphasis on love and forgiveness has deeply impacted religious thought all over the world. Now, it seems, many people have abandoned the notion that God stands in judgment of sinners, meting out punishment as he sees fit. Discussions of hell, purgatory, and even sin seem passe.

Is this view warranted?

In my view: to a certain degree, yes; to a certain degree, no.

Jesus described God as the Father; in other words, He is a parent. We are His children. A parent has the right and the obligation to punish a child when that child does wrong. In my view, we can gain some insight from this notion. Although a loving father must sometimes punish, he will never destroy, nor will he torture, nor will he murder his own offspring for a wrong that child commits. Such is excessive punishment and completely anathema to love. As a result of that, I find ancient notions of hell and purgatory to be dubious. God is responsible for our discipline, not our torture. He takes no pleasure in reprimanding us, but it is something He must do. Such discipline may come in life, or it may come in the after-life. If it comes in life, all the better; we can discuss it properly. If it comes in the after-life, its nature or even its existence is hidden from us. Regardless, hell, in particular, seems to be such an aberration from the concept of a loving, merciful God, I find it impossible to accept; as a result, I think the concept should be removed from doctrine; and purgatory is hardly any better.

Can and will God discipline us as appropriate? I’m sure He will. I just … I just can’t respect a Deity that claims to be a loving power and yet would be willing to punish one of His children with eternal internment in hell.

Of course, I’m also the antichrist (yes, I lost another reader), and I’m quite familiar with being punished in life for twenty years or so, but what I did was excessively stupid. Also, since I’m the antichrist, you probably shouldn’t believe me; make up your own mind.

Alien Leaders Are Schmucks Too!

One of my favorite programs on TV is Ancient Aliens. For those who aren’t familiar with the program, it explores the hypothesis that extra-terrestrials have been visiting Earth and interfering in the affairs of humanity for thousands of years. They go through the evidence, examine the theories, and generally turn alien intrigue into entertainment.

Anyway, the other night I watched several episodes. According to the program, sometime in the 1950’s, an alien being named “Valiant Thor” landed on planet Earth and had a meeting with the President of the United States. Basically, the alien wanted to convey extra-terrestrial concern over the development of and use of nuclear weapons. Watching the program was the first I’ve ever heard of “Valiant Thor.”

Surprised?

One of the more common theories concerning aliens is that the U.S. government knows far more about aliens than they are letting on. Theories abound—and the occasional rebel official validates—about how the government has numerous contacts with multiple alien species. But they are keeping it secret from us. Because, well, they’re a bunch of jerks. Complete and utter schmucks.

If aliens are out there, and they’re visiting Earth, and our government knows about it; we, the population of the United States, have a right to know. We’re big boys and girls. We can handle it. There is no good reason for the government to keep such information from us.

Now what about the aliens?

Can’t they settle this mystery and just land a spaceship on the White House Lawn in broad daylight? I mean, all things considered, our tech is getting pretty advanced. We’re almost at the point of the commercial exploration of space. Well, maybe our super advanced fighter jets scare the alien spaceships away … but I’m not buying that, as their tech probably blows ours away in spades. Regardless, at the very least, don’t you think that the aliens could hijack a TV signal or something similar and announce their presence to our population? Why wouldn’t they?

The only reason I can think of is that the aliens, too, want their existence and identity to remain hidden from us. In which case, I am forced to conclude that the alien leaders, too, are schmucks.

I Have A Mathematical Mind

I have a mathematical mind. It is the curse of being a philosopher, or rather, having a philosophical bent. I studied mathematics and philosophy in college. Then, I went back and studied computer science. I’ve had more logic than I know what to do with. And sometimes that is a severe disadvantage. Because a mathematical mind is often an inflexible mind.

In my case, I look at things as either true or false. In mathematics, for example, most problems have definitive answers. If you do the work and follow it, you can establish the truthfulness or falsity of an assertion with certainty. When the answer to a mathematical question is found, it is established and irrefutable. Math is the only science like that; math is the only science in which the term “proof” has its truest meaning. Unfortunately, it is an open question whether or not the field of mathematics actually applies to the world. Back when I was studying philosophy, there were basically three (or was it five?) theories on what mathematics actual is. There was Plato’s view of mathematics; that is, it is about the eternal relationships between real properties (Plato’s Theory of Forms). There was Kant’s view of mathematics; that is, it is really the result of the structure of the human mind. And there were three other theories, I think, although I remember only one: that mathematics is just a game. In my view, the solution is either Kant or Plato. Either two plus two equals four because the property of twoness always leads to four when it is doubled (Plato), or because we can’t see the relationship any other way, because our minds are structured that way and limited. As far as math being a game … that never satisfied me. I’ve gone off on a tangent here; let me try to get back. The original point was: How does math apply to the world? If Plato is right, it is a part of the world. If Kant is right, it’s a part of our minds. If the game theory is right, it is an invention of our own making.

Once I was in a stock room trying to put together a shelf. The shelves didn’t quite fit right. I could tell by looking at the shelf that the angle was off slightly, and that geometrically, the shelves would never fit. Hence, it was no use trying to make them fit and I gave up the cause as hopeless. Whereupon, my boss and another individual promptly forced the shelf into place through brute force and completed the shelf. As rigid as metal is, it does bend; it is not as rigid as a perfect geometrical line. Metal can be distorted. Errors can be forced. So what was the geometry of the situation? It could describe the shelf effectively, but in a manner that led one to believe the problem had no solution. In such a situation, it doesn’t seem that the mathematics was “real.” Brute force could conquer it. The real world could resolve the problem where math indicated there was no solution. Upon reflection it appears that geometry, my Euclidean understanding of it, anyway, was derived from the real world; that pure math exists only in the  human mind. That said, if pushed, I can give you a few examples from Number Theory where the opposite is true; situations that absolutely can’t be forced, where a mathematical determination of “the solution is impossible” guarantees that the solution is, in fact, impossible. So, what is mathematics? I don’t know. All I know is that I tend to think along mathematical lines.

It’s great to have an analytical mathematical mind, but it also stinks like a rotten egg; I have the common sense of a stone. I’ve spent most of my life proving that last and it’s something I don’t think I can change.