Truth and God

"What is truth? Truth is something so noble that if God could turn aside from it, I could keep to the truth and let God go."

-- Meister Eckhart1

"God," as God is typically understood, poses something of an obstacle for a lot of people. The most enlightened saints and doctors of the church have emphasised the ineffability of God, but that hasn't stopped people from saying a great deal about God. The result is a notion that many of us can't subscribe to. Still, we can't avoid having an idea, even if we understand that any idea will be inadequate.

I find it helpful to equate God with "Truth." If it is difficult to know precisely what "fidelity to God" entails, the same cannot be said of "fidelity to the truth." We all know what it means to be "truthful," and we know what it means to be "untruthful," and if we are honest -- truthful -- with ourselves, we know when we are being one and when we're being the other.

Truth and Religion

I imagine that most people would say that they would rather believe the truth than their current religious beliefs, if their beliefs happened to be mistaken. At the same time, it seems to me that a lot of people act as if the opposite was true. They shield themselves from other viewpoints, presumably fearful that they will "lose their faith," that they will come to believe something other than what they believe now.

But it seems to me that if one approaches alternative viewpoints with fidelity to the transcendental precepts -- be attentive; be intelligent; be reasonable; be responsible -- one cannot fall into error. It is possible that one will discover that the grounds for one's beliefs are not as strong as one had thought. But isn't it better to know that you don't know something, than to think that you do, when you don't? That would be more truthful!

In any case, one cannot follow the transcendental precepts and fall away from truth into error.

Perhaps people who fear alternative perspectives do not trust their ability to be attentive, or intelligent, or reasonable, or responsible. And, indeed, there are people who are inattentive, or unintelligent, or unreasonable, or irresponsible, or any combination of these. But if they are aware of this, why do they trust their own judgment that what they believe currently is correct?2

Or, perhaps people are afraid that if they question their beliefs, they will discover that their beliefs are not true. There is something profoundly irrational about this -- after all, if one discovers that one's beliefs are mistaken, one is moving closer to truth -- but I suspect this is a common fear. People have been told that their salvation depends on holding these beliefs. Of course, if those beliefs are untrue, can it be the case that salvation depends on believing them? What kind of God would require that people hold false beliefs?3


It seems to me that it is rather unwise to be protective about what you believe. If what you believe is untrue, not thinking about it means remaining in error. If what you believe is true, it can withstand intellectual scrutiny. There's nothing fragile about the truth.


[1] O'Neal, Meister Eckhart, 3.

[2] I suppose they would argue that they are not trusting their own judgment, they are trusting the judgment of, say, the leaders of the church, or some other authority. But to choose to trust someone else's judgment is itself to make a judgment. They're is no getting around that.

[3] One might question what kind of God requires people to hold any beliefs that are as incredible as many Christians believe, but this is a separate issue.


Who did he think he was talking to?

I wonder if William Donohue had ever actually seen The Colbert Report before. Or maybe he did, but somehow failed to pick up on the satirical nature of Colbert's right-wing TV persona.

Colbert succeeds in getting a lot of prominent right-wingers on his show as guests. I can't make sense of this. Do they know we're laughing at them?

This is worth watching just for the clip near the beginning of Donohue's spectacular misrepresentation of Darwinism.


I'm not crazy about blog memes, but I love books, so I couldn't resist. Links open in a new window.

1. One book that changed your life:

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. The first book that comes to mind when people ask me what my favourite book is.

2. One book that you’ve read more than once:

The Brothers Karamazov. The greatest novel ever? I have no doubt. The Pevear/Volokhonsky translation is the best.

3. One book you’d want on a desert island:

The Complete Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson. Technically three books.

4. One book that made you laugh:

Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. Also the best novel I've read in a couple of years.

5. One book that made you cry:

I don't recall ever crying because of a book. What can I say, I'm not much of a cryer.

6. One book that you wish had been written:

I wish Jesus had written the Gospel himself. Along with a lengthy and detailed explanation of what he had in mind for his little "movement."

7. One book that you wish had never been written:

The Book of Revelation. It just wasn't worth the trouble.

8. One book you’re currently reading:

Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution by Ken Wilber. Almost done.

9. One book you’ve been meaning to read:

Ulysses by James Joyce. I'll get around to it someday.

10. Now tag five people:

You, you, you, you, and...you.


Judgment, Part II

The Virtually Unconditioned

Bernard Lonergan explains, "To grasp evidence as sufficient for a prospective judgment is to grasp the prospective judgment as virtually unconditioned" (Insight 305). This term might be slightly intimidating, but it's an important idea, and not a difficult one to understand.

The "conditioned" is the element to which the question for reflection is put: is it, or is it not so? "By the mere fact that a question for reflection has been put, the prospective judgment is a conditioned: it stands in need of evidence sufficient for reasonable pronouncement" (Insight 305).

So if one can say, "A is so if x, y, and z," then 'A' is a conditioned, and 'x,' 'y,' and 'z' represent the conditions. If the conditions are fulfilled, the conditioned is affirmed. It is, then, "virtually unconditioned." It is not that it does not have conditions -- in which case it would be "formally unconditioned" -- it is simply that the conditions happen to be fulfilled.

To determine if the conditions are fulfilled, we ask questions. When there are no further questions, we know we have identified the conditions, and, provided the questions we have can be answered, we will have sufficient grounds for a judgment.

Rashness and Indecisiveness

There are two opposing tendencies that sometimes hinder the process.

We say that a person is being rash when they conclude that the conditions for a particular judgment have been fulfilled without actually having apprehended that this is so. Or, they might suppose that the fulfillment of one or more conditions is sufficient, while ignoring any others that must also be fulfilled. As Lonergan explains,

it is not enough to say that the conditions are fulfilled when no further questions occur to me. The mere absence of further questions in my mind can have other causes. My intellectual curiosity may be stifled by other interests. My eagerness to satisfy other drives may refuse the further questions a chance to emerge. (Insight 309)1

For example, someone who affirms the inerrancy of the Bible on the grounds that "God would not deceive," has made the judgment based on a single condition: the Bible is inerrant if God would not deceive. Of course, there are further relevant questions: is God responsible for the content of the Bible? Often that particular condition is ignored (or is presupposed as fulfilled, in a prior oversight), and a rash judgment is the result.

"As there is rash judgment, so also there is mere indecision" (Insight 310). This is when one postpones making a judgment, even when there is sufficient evidence to do so. Terry Tekippe, in his helpful book What Is Lonergan Up to in Insight?, summarises the difference between rashness and indeciveness as follows: "The one person rides rough-shod over any further relevant questions; the other is never satisfied that there might not be one further relevant question still to be discovered" (80).

So, between these two extremes, we find the characteristics of a correct judgment: all of the conditions are known; they are known to be sufficient; they are known to be fulfilled.

There is, as Lonergan points out, no simple formula for striking "a happy balance" between these two extremes, or for knowing when it has been reached. But he does attempt "an analysis of the main factors in the problem and an outline of the general nature of their solution":

In the first place, then, one has to give the further questions a chance to arise. The seed of intellectual curiosity has to grow into a rugged tree to hold its own against desires and fears, conations and appetites, drives and interests that inhabit the heart of man. (Insight 310)

In other words, there has to be a commitment to truth that can overcome any of the desires and fears, etc., that might drive someone to accept something other than truth.

Moreover, every insight has its retinue of presuppositions, implications, and applications. One has to take the steps needed for that retinue to come to light. (Insight 310)

So, as in the example cited earlier about the inerrancy of the Bible, allowing the presupposition that God was responsible for the content of the Bible to come to light might have prevented a rash judgment.


One might object that, in making judgments in everyday life, one does not go through such a rigorous thought process. Lonergan acknowledges that this is the case:

I do not mean, of course, that concrete living is to pursue this logical and operational expansion in the explicit, deliberate, and elaborate manner of the scientific investigator. But I do mean that something equivalent is to be sought by intellectual alertness, by taking one's time, by talking things over, by putting viewpoints to the test of action. (Insight 310)

And, of course, one's desire to know the truth has to supercede one's desire to maintain any particular belief, should that belief be mistaken.


[1] This "eagerness to satisfy other drives" would include, as I discussed briefly in the previous post, a desire to believe that something is or is not true, prior to evaluating whether or not it actually is.

Works Cited



Judgment, Part I

I had wanted to write about the subject of "doubt," but found it difficult to say what I wanted to say without first saying something about the subject of "judgment." Specifically, I want to discuss the stage in the cognitional process in which we make judgments of fact, when we decide whether a proposition is or is not so. As usual, I will be drawing heavily on the thought of Bernard Lonergan. (If you are unfamiliar with Lonergan's Transcendental Method, this ridiculously brief explanation [by me] might be worth reading. And, for the more philosophically-inclined, this somewhat lengthier explanation [by someone other than me] will definitely be worth reading.)

Propositions and Questions

In his book Insight, Lonergan first discusses the notion of judgment in relation to propositions. A proposition is not simply a statement that affirms or denies something, but the meaning of the statement. Thus I could have two (or more) distinct statements that affirm the same proposition. Regarding the recent World Cup, I could say, "Italy beat France," or "France lost to Italy," which are separate and distinct statements, but the proposition they communicate is the same, as both indicate nothing more and nothing less than the winner and loser of that particular event.
Now with regard to propositions there are two distinct mental attitudes: one may merely consider them, or one may agree or disagree with them. Thus, what I write I also affirm; but what you are reading you may neither affirm nor deny but merely consider. (Insight 296)
So a proposition might simply be an object of thought, but it can also be the content of an act of judging, that is, "the content of an affirming or denying, an agreeing or disagreeing, an assenting or dissenting" (Insight 297).

Lonergan next relates the notion of judgment to questions, of which he identifies two classes: questions for intelligence, and questions for reflection. To the data of experience -- that is, the scraps of information that we encounter through our senses and in our consciousness -- we put the question, "what is it?" This is the question for intelligence (or understanding). It culminates in a concept. But this is not yet "knowledge," because our concept could be mistaken. So to our concept we put the question for reflection: "is it so?" And this is where judgment comes in.

To the question of reflection there are two possible answers ("yes" or "no"), but one might decide that one cannot answer at all.


Why would one not answer? The most obvious reason is that one might decide that one does not have sufficient evidence to ground a judgment. And this may in fact be the case. Other times, however, there is more than sufficient evidence to ground a judgment, but we avoid making the appropriate judgment because, for example, it may conflict with what we want to believe.

That which we want to believe exercises a strong influence on our judgments if we are not careful. Not only does it sometimes prevent us from making judgments where there is clearly sufficient evidence to do so, it can also lead us to make an irrational judgment, such as when the evidence indicates "yes" and we answer "no" (or vice-versa). Think of the certainty with which people insisted that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, even prior to the U.S. invasion, and one can see how people who really want to believe something will magically "find" evidence to support their judgment, even when such evidence does not, in fact, exist.

Criminal trials, particularly when they involve celebrities, are another example. Many people have no problem deciding for themselves if the defendant is innocent or guilty, even before a trial begins, and it is clear that something other than evidence is ruling their judgment. I would be surprised, for example, if the people who were most certain that Michael Jackson was innocent of the charges brought against him were not also huge Michael Jackson fans.

Read Judgment, Part II

Works Cited



Some Thoughts On the Polarisation In the Church

In the past year I have attended exactly three different churches. The priests in these churches have ranged from fairly conservative to moderately progressive, and I imagine many people would fail to notice any significant differences between them. That is to say, among the clergy in these three parishes, there is not a great deal of obvious diversity.

Given that priests (and sometimes deacons) are the only ones who get to share their own thoughts during the liturgy, a disinterested observer might get the feeling that most Catholics are more or less on the same page, theologically speaking, if they were judging simply from what is said in church. I sometimes feel that way myself, but then I start reading stuff on the internet, and something entirely different becomes quickly apparent: there is a massive divide in the church, and I don't think it is exaggerating to call it a de facto schism. Hell, I'd go so far as to say that many Catholics are practising a different religion than I am. This doesn't stop us from warmly greeting each other in church, but I wonder what would happen if the opportunity to share our own perspectives presented itself.

Actually, I sort of wonder why I so rarely meet in real life the kind of ultra-conservatives I encounter on the internet. I've had a couple of very conservative colleagues, and one very conservative principal, but I haven't had any really conservative students, and I've never had a problem with conservative parents. And I don't think they're all home-schooling, although I've heard grumblings to the effect that the Catholic school system here is too liberal.

The tension in the church is obvious, and one is tempted to think that sometime, maybe soon, something is going to give, and the conflict will be resolved. I'm not so sure. Obviously a lot of people thought Ratzinger's ascension to the papacy would mean a decisive victory for the conservative side, but -- just as obviously -- that hasn't happened.

I have some thoughts on where things are going to go. Eventually I'll get around to posting them.
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