Monday, 25 March 2013

Defending the lion

Aslan roar

True to form, yesterday’s “Faith and Reason” column1 of the “Our Faith on Sunday” newsletter again hatcheted its way through another important question, i.e., of how the universe relates to God. It did its best both to obfuscate and to end up in absolute incompatibility with a Christian understanding of the topic. While I am still incredulous about the absurdity of the column’s content, at least the element of surprise is now taken out of the equation and I am in a position to read it and forget about it as opposed to being consumed with indignation :). Nonetheless, its confusion serves as an excuse to talk about how it is that the Church understands the various topics that it butchers.

Let me start this time with quoting the column’s full text and doing so in two parts - the first an attack on “the rationalist” and the second on “the pantheist”:
“The Rationalist’s answer to the origin of the universe can only sound absurd in the Christian’s ears. If matter were eternal and necessary, it would be divine; if divine, it would be the sufficient reason for its own existence. For matter to exist in the first place, it requires there to be a cause other than itself.”
The first thing that strikes me about the above is that it is an attack against a position that I personally have not seen held by anyone I know or even written about by anyone in the last 100 years. To give it column inches in a parish newsletter in 2013 is therefore utterly pointless to my mind. The position attacked here is one of claiming matter to have existed eternally, to have existed necessarily and to be “sufficient reason for its own existence.” This supposed position is then dealt a deadly blow by pointing out that matter requires a “cause other than itself.” At best the argument here is a re-heated Ancient Greek or Mediæval one, which starts from the position of everything requiring a reason for being and of that reason being a causal chain, which necessarily cannot be infinite. As such, it is also a regurgitated earlier “Faith and Reason” column, which I have already dealt with and which I will therefore say no more about here.
“The Pantheists would have us believe that the universe is an emanation from the substance of God. To believe this we need to hold that the infinite and the finite, that the necessary and contingent, are substantially the same; that the table I am writing on is just as divine as the supreme being that holds all things in existence. This is absurd, because, if the infinite became finite, it would no longer be infinite.”
The attack on what is referred to here as pantheism is more relevant, at least in that it is a position that some hold today, albeit in a variety of more or less strict and/or conscious ways. While the column’s author makes pantheism mean that “the universe is an emanation from the substance of God,” its meaning instead is that the universe is God (i.e., that there is an identity between the totality of nature and God). What the column’s author refers to as pantheism would more accurately be called emanationism, which in turn is sometimes linked to pantheism, but which is more about the origin of the universe than about its being.

Following this initial confusion between pantheism and emanationism, the column’s author goes on to assert that it implies that “we need to hold that the infinite and the finite […] are substantially the same.” I don’t see why that would be the case. If God is believed to be identical to nature (or even if nature “emanates” from God), there is no logical necessity to believe that there is a mismatch between the cardinality of the two, whether both be finite or infinite. The most absurd (to use the column author’s own language) part of the entire text though is the conclusion of its last sentence: “if the infinite became finite, it would no longer be infinite.” This final flourish is, I believe, a shot in the foot par excellence for a Christian “thinker” to make, since it is a direct denial of the incarnation. What else is God becoming Man in the person of Jesus, if not the infinite becoming finite, while retaining its infinity?! What the unidentified author of the “Faith and Reason” column has achieved is to first attack an irrelevant position, then mislabel and misanalyse a potentially interesting one and finally declare the heart of the Christian mystery absurd. Bravo!

Before attempting an alternative text in place of the above travesty, let me share with you my theory on the misguided fumblings of the column’s author. I believe it is motivated by the erroneous conviction that for the Christian faith to have rational credibility, all other views and beliefs have to be demonstrated as irrational, illogical and absurd, for fear of their discrediting Christianity. This is not only an insult to the freedom which is at the heart of God’s plan for us (i.e., his not forcing us to believe in him), but also an affront to the rationality and strength of the truth. Here, I believe the following quotes present the true Christian position much more lucidly and consistently than I ever could:
“The truth is like a lion. You don’t have to defend it. Let it loose. It will defend itself.” (St. Augustine)

“As far as preserving identity is concerned, it would be too little for the Christian, so to speak, to assert his identity in a such a way that he effectively blocks the path to truth. Then his Christianity would appear as something arbitrary, merely propositional. He would seem not to reckon with the possibility that religion has to do with truth. On the contrary, I would say that the Christian can afford to be supremely confident, yes, fundamentally certain that he can venture freely into the open sea of the truth, without having to fear for his Christian identity.” (Benedict XVI, Christmas Greetings to the Roman Curia, 2012)
To conclude, the following then is my alternative text for yesterday’s “Faith and Reason” column, using only one word more that the original:2, 3
“The question about the origins of the universe has been the object of many scientific studies which have enriched our knowledge of its age and dimensions, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers.

To counteract erroneous theories about the universe’s origins, such as claims of its eternal existence (rationalist materialism) or of its identity with God (pantheism), faith leads reason to the understanding of this truth: “By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear.””

1 Previous ones having protested against the allegedly separate “orders of knowledge” of science and religion, the abuse of “cf.,” the perversion of philosophy and a plagiaristic ignorance of infinity.
2 For a more detailed look at the topic, see a previous post.
3 Cf. § 283, 285 and 286 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which is the verbatim source of ~90% of my alternative text.