God and Mystery


In a previous post I briefly explained Bernard Lonergan's "transcendental method," the basic pattern of operations through which we come to know. Briefly, these are (1) experiencing data of sense or consciousness, (2) understanding that which we experience, and (3) judging whether or not that which we have understood is real or true. [1]

What drives this process is a desire to know. When we experience attentively, we seek to understand. When our understanding culminates in the formulation of a concept, we want to know if that which we've conceived is true. We ask questions, and we seek answers. We can't even attempt avoid this without sacrificing our authenticity as human beings.

God as Mystery

We inevitably ask more questions than we can answer, our reach always exceeds our grasp. We can conceive of an unrestricted intelligibility, that which we are ultimately driven to know. So the question of God lies within our horizon.

This is the restlessness in our hearts that St. Augustine spoke of at the beginning of his Confessions, which persists until we find rest in God (1.1.1).

This question creates in us a tension that we often find uncomfortable. Many religious people relieve the tension by telling themselves that they already have the answer. The atheist denies the question by insisting that there is no answer to be found. The agnostic effectively denies the question by denying that the answer ever could be found. When you think about it, these are all essentially the same thing. [2]

Religious institutions often offer rest by claiming to have the answer. There is no need to seek, they say, the answer is right here, clearly expressed in our sacred texts and "authoritative" teachings. But this is a false comfort. It doesn't eliminate the question, it merely puts it aside. On some level people know this, which is why they become so hysterical when the answer they've accepted is challenged by others. They don't want to think about the truthfulness of the answer, because doing so would risk finding it inadequate, and therefore bringing back the tension from which they thought they had found relief.

The problem is that people confuse that which they "believe" with that which they "know." I've written about this in another previous post, which ended with an acknowledgement that I needed "to return to this topic with a fuller treatment in the future." Which I'm sort of going to do next week, when I explore the concept of "reason."


[1] There is a fourth operation, by which we make a more-or-less responsible decision, but I haven't really explained this yet, and have sort of conflated it with the third operation, since it is also an act of judging. The third operation is a judgment of fact, the fourth is a judgment of value.

[2] The comment about "atheists" and "agnostics" pertains not to the self-understanding of those who define themselves by those terms, but reflects a part of my own definition of those terms. Some of those who define themselves at "atheists" might do so because they deny a particular conception of "God" which in fact ought to be rejected.

"Bloginality": a dumb name, but an interesting site

My Bloginality is ENFP!!!

Just found this site about bloggers' personalities, based on the Myers-Briggs personality thing. I did that test when I was in high school (and other similar ones since then), so I looked at what this site had to say about my personality type:
As a weblogger, you may not be consistant [sic] in posts.
Yeah, no kidding.

Actually, my home computer isn't working for some reason, which is why I was unable to post last weekend. I actually lost the post I had written. I'm going to try to rewrite it today.


Understanding and Believing

“I can’t believe that!” said Alice.
“Can’t you?” the Queen said in a pitying tone. “Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.”
Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.”
“I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” -- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass (251)

Is it true that “one can’t believe impossible things”? Actually, it’s quite possible, and I imagine a lot of people do it all the time. If it’s not possible, then my own belief that it is possible would prove it wrong. Or something like that.

But the insight in this passage is not that impossible things are unbelievable, but that if I believe that something is impossible, I cannot at the same time believe that it is possible. That would be a contradiction.

One might argue that people sometimes do believe contradictory things, but I would argue that “believe” is probably too strong a word to describe what they are doing. One can assent to two contradictory things at once, but only if one is unaware of the contradiction. There has to be an absence of understanding about one or both things to which one has given one's assent. A contradiction is by its very nature unintelligible. All one can understand is that there is nothing to be understood.

Assent is Not Belief

I don’t think mere “assent” should really be considered “belief.” One can assent without understanding, and can therefore assent to something that is unintelligible. One can assent to the notion of a “square circle,” for example. But one cannot believe that such a thing exists, if one understands the words “square” and “circle” to mean what they are commonly understood to mean.

Actually, that brings up a different problem: the relationship between language and meaning.

Language and Meaning

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’” Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t – till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”
“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’” Alice objected.
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” -- Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass (268-269)

This passage highlights two important facts about language. The first is the arbitrary relationship between a word and that which the word refers to. To answer Alice's question, yes, you can make a word mean whatever you want it to mean. But you won't be understood by anyone who doesn't understand it in the same way. Which is the second important fact: verbal communication requires mutual understanding. Alice did not understand what Humpty Dumpty meant by the word “glory,” and so failed to catch his meaning – until he told her, that is.

It seems to me that both the arbitrariness of language and the necessity of mutual understanding have serious implications for Christianity, so I'm going to explore those concepts a little more.

When I say language is arbitrary, I simply mean that words and sentences have no necessary connection to that which they refer. Thus, the words "horse," "cheval," "cavallo," "Pferd," and "equus" can all refer to the same animal. But they only refer to that animal to the people who understand that that is what they refer to.

Maybe that sounds obvious, but it seems to me that language is sometimes thought to have properties that contradict this. For example, there are dogmas that are, apparently, incomprehensible to the human mind. And yet, they are nevertheless expressed in statements that, even though they can't be understood, are nevertheless asserted to have meaning.

The Incarnation

Many Christians insist that Jesus is both fully "human" and fully "divine." Or they will say that he has both a "divine nature" and a "human nature." But I don't know too many people who are willing to explain precisely what they mean by either or both of those terms. It is usually shrugged off as a "mystery," but I think this is just evading the issue.

If the doctrine of the Incarnation is true, then there can be no conflict between a human and a divine nature existing in one person. But I think it is fair to say that there is a conflict, at least as most people understand the terms "human" and "divine." Personally, I can not think of a way to reconcile the two without radically redefining at least one of them. And if a word has to be redefined in such a drastic way, wouldn’t it make sense to just create a new word? Why insist on using a word in such a manner that is so contrary to the way it is commonly understood? All it does it create confusion. [1]

It seems to me that the whole notion of an incomprehensible mystery being expressed in language relies on a rather naïve "correspondence theory of truth." What I mean by that is the theory that a proposition is true if it corresponds to reality.

It seems to be implied that dogmatic propositions correspond to facts, whether they are understood or not. But the fact is not contained within the proposition. It is communicated by the proposition, and only to those who understand it. If you don’t understand a proposition, communication has not taken place, and that which it affirms (or denies) is no closer to you than if you had never heard the proposition at all.


[1] The traditional solution of predicating every characteristic of divinity to one nature, and every characteristic of humanity to another nature, and then asserting that these two natures are united in one “person,” raises the problem of how to define “person.” For example, what does it mean to say that one “person” can have “two wills”? (Actually, it doesn’t mean anything, because a “will” is not a thing that one “has,” as was supposed by the “faculty psychology” of an earlier age. What is attributed to the will is simply the operations of a conscious-intentional subject, specifically on what Bernard Lonergan calls the fourth level of conscious-intentionality, i.e., the level of responsibility. In a previous post I described the operations of the first three levels, i.e., the empirical (experiencing), intellectual (understanding), and rational (reflecting and judging, etc.). I didn’t really talk much about the fourth level, so I’ll do that sometime in the near future.)

At any rate, even if we accept the concept of a reified “will,” I fail to see how a “person” could have more than one. I don’t think there is an intelligible concept there.

Works Cited



From "TheoBlogical Discussion"

Here is a thoughtful reflection on the problem of natural evil, specifically Hurricane Katrina.


The Burden of Belief

“Somewhere, and I can’t find where, I read about an Eskimo hunter who asked the local missionary priest, ‘If I did not know about God and sin, would I go to hell?’ ‘No,’ said the priest, ‘not if you did not know.’ ‘Then why,’ asked the Eskimo earnestly, ‘did you tell me?’” – Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (p.123)
Catholics are asked to believe in a series of dogmas, and are told that failing to do so is an offense against God. I’ve never understood that. If you never hear about the virginal conception of Christ, that’s fine. If you do hear about it and don’t believe it, you’re in trouble. So why ask anyone to believe it? I don’t think my life would have been any less fulfilling if I had never heard about the “Immaculate Conception,” or the “Assumption of the Virgin Mary,” and I doubt I’m a better person for having heard about them. So what’s the point? It’s an entirely needless burden. I’ve been told I’m not “Catholic” because I think those dogmas are rather silly, but I’ve never been given a satisfying answer to question of why anyone should believe them at all.

The Immaculate Conception is an interesting case. A lot of the greatest theologians of the Middle Ages denied it: St. Bernard of Clairvaux, St. Peter Damian, Peter the Lombard, Alexander of Hales, St. Bonaventure, St. Albert the Great, and St. Thomas Aquinas, to name a few. If they were allowed to deny it, why should Catholics be required to believe it today?

The answer, of course, is that at the time it had not been proclaimed as an “infallible” dogma. It’s not about believing the truth, obviously, because it was no less true in the Middle Ages than it is today. It’s about obedience to authority, pure and simple.

My parents, though devout, churchgoing Catholics, did not raise me to have a dogmatic faith, or to be preoccupied with “believing the right things.” Even though I only ever went to Catholic elementary and secondary schools, I didn’t know what the Immaculate Conception actually was until I started studying religion in a secular university. I hadn’t even heard about the Assumption until around the same time. When I look back at some of the things I used to think about, I can see that I didn't believe a lot of things that I was "supposed" to. So I can’t say that I was ever really burdened by belief. But now, as a teacher, I sometimes have students who find believing to be a massive burden. And I would love to tell them that it doesn’t actually matter, because it doesn’t. I can’t do that, of course, but I can show them a living faith has nothing to do with believing some particular event to have taken place two thousand years ago.

For a lot of people, though, religion is about two things: beliefs and morals. It's an impoverished notion of religion to be sure, but it persists. A lot of people can't question it because they've internalised the idea that questioning it is a sin. Sad.

Next week: Exploring the question of whether or not it is necessary to understand something in order to believe it. It's going to be pretty deep.


New Schedule

With the new school year beginning next week I'm preparing to go back to work, and I've decided that producing three posts per week is more than I can probably handle. Actually, two posts is probably more than I can handle, but we'll see how it goes. At any rate, I'll be updating both blogs only on Saturdays, starting this weekend.

Questions About Authority

In my last post I sort of discussed the theoretical possibility of determining if a person is englightened or not. The problem is different, of course, depending on whether or not we are enlightened ourselves.

There was a passage from Anthony de Mello’s book Awareness that I wanted to quote, but couldn’t at the time because my copy was on loan to a friend. But I got it back and found the passage, and realised that what I wrote last week was really quite irrelevant.

Here is the passage:

Somebody came up to me with a question… He asked me, “Are you enlightened?” What do you think my answer was? What does it matter!

You want a better answer? My answer would be: “How would I know? How would you know? What does it matter?” (34)

If I were enlightened and you listened to me because I was enlightened, then you’re in big trouble. Are you ready to be brainwashed by someone who’s enlightened? You can be brainwashed by anybody, you know. What does it matter whether someone’s enlightened or not? But see, we want to lean on someone, don’t we? We want to lean on anybody we think has arrived. (35)
We’re used to relying on authorities in our day to life. It’s unavoidable. I lack the competence to diagnose my own illnesses, so I rely on a doctor. When I need legal advice, I go to a lawyer. Etc. But these people can be held accountable. Religious authorities, not so much.

Some people are quite content to confer authority on someone for no reason other than the fact that they hold a particular office – i.e., the pope, bishops, etc.[1]

We find very different models of authority in the New Testament, however. John P. Meier writes,
One aspect of Jesus’ family background was so obvious to his Jewish contemporaries that, as far as we know, neither he nor they ever commented on it during his lifetime. Yet this aspect has been so overlooked or misunderstood by later Christians that it needs to be emphasized. It is the simple fact that Jesus was born a Jewish layman, conducted his ministry as a Jewish layman, and died a Jewish layman. (Marginal 1.345)
Jesus had no “official” authority. And yet in the Gospel of Mark, we find a story about Jesus teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum. The people were “astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1.22). The scribes did have “official” authority, in a sense, since they were professional religious teachers.

With Paul we find the same thing. He strongly insists that his authority does not come from the "official" leaders of the church.

Br. David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, wrote this in a fascinating article about Jesus entitled “A Revolution of Authority”:

Jesus Christ brought a complete revolution of the understanding of authority. This is, I think, the Christian tradition’s most central insight and potentially its greatest contribution to spirituality in the world. It occurred in two ways. First, Jesus placed the authority of God, which was always seen as external, in the very hearts of his hearers. The core teaching of Jesus is not, “I am going to tell you all,” or anything like that. No, he presupposes you know it all. “Don't you know it? I'll remind you of it. You know it all.” This is his typical voice. This question opens many of the parables, “Who of you doesn't know this already?” It's not sufficiently emphasized nowadays in Christian teaching, but the moment you are alerted to it you see it. (online)

Jesus had authority precisely because he was persuasive. He understood that the ultimate norm by which we make judgments is always and unavoidably our self. Authentic authority does that.

As a religion teacher, I know that I have a lot more credibility with my students – and therefore greater authority – if I let them voice their doubts and challenge what I have to say, instead of insisting that they simply take my word for it. I also have more credibility if I admit when I’m wrong, or that I don’t know something (which I’ve had to do). And it seems to me to be self-evident that this is true for religious authority as well. So why does the Vatican act in exactly the opposite way, and why do so many people play along?


[1] I discussed the inevitably circular arguments used to support this model of authority in a previous post.

Works Cited

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