Secularism and Right of Conscience – 1

An earlier post generated a good deal of discussion on Facebook; that I was indisposed to join the discussion was a shame, but unavoidable.  Nevertheless, I’d like to continue the line of thought from that earlier post, with some reference to the FB conversation.

The driving point of that post was the following question, which was quoted by a commenter:

Let’s ask the question: Is it right to impose on an employer (or anyone), and require her to provide for a product or treatment to which she is morally opposed?

Is it really in line with the idea of secularism that we should require people to act in opposition to their worldviews, so that other people will receive what is considered “good” within their worldview?

The commenter answered with a “categorical yes.”  This, of course, is equivalent to saying “absolutely, always and everywhere, yes,” which would lead to some troubling implications.

Take for instance the example posed by another commenter, who worried that the Hobby Lobby decision would open the door to forced compliance in “animal sacrifice.”  Now, forget for a moment that this concern seems to have the actual issue upside-down and backward, and consider how it neatly answers our first commenter:  Is it right, then, that we should require people to be complicit in animal sacrifice, even if they are morally opposed?

Our first commenter says yes, categorically; our second commenter says no, implicitly.  Having thus answered the first, let us address the second.

Our second commenter has the issue upside-down because the employer, in this case, is not imposing upon the employee, but rather is being imposed upon from above.  If we are to take the his concern seriously, this is how it would look:  The employer is not demanding employee compliance in animal sacrifice.  Rather, the government is demanding the employer provide for animal sacrifice, because of the belief that it is good and basic to the employee’s welfare.

That some people persist in this confusion is odd and would be amusing if it weren’t so troubling.  In the animal sacrifice example, Hobby Lobby is simply demurring, asking not to be required to participate in animal sacrifice due to religious objection.  That some employees might like this because it makes it easier to sacrifice animals, and that our government wishes to mandate the coverage exactly for that reason, does not make it less objectionable.  Surely our second commenter could throw his weight behind this; in fact, he already has.

Now, if we were to take these objections and strengthen them, what would happen?

In the first instance, our commenter might have used another “c” word, and said, “Is it right to impose on one worldview in favor of another?  Conditionally, yes.”

And our second commenter could have added, “For example, what if an employer was opposed to using animal organs in transplants?  Could he refuse a life-saving operation for one of his employee’s children?”  Modest claims are often stronger, since they are easier to support.

There are two answers ready to mind, and I don’t suppose that either is categorically wrong or right, but that they are both defensible in a secular society.

First, one might say that the right of conscience is to be protected, categorically.  That is, no matter what a person’s belief system is, government should not impose upon them to violate it.

Let’s use a stock objection to demonstrate:  One wants to know if an employer who is a Jehovah’s witness may refuse to provide coverage for blood transfusions, since he is morally opposed based on his religious beliefs.  The answer here would be yes, he may.

Another, more imaginative scenario:  Say an employer held the religious belief that all life is divine, and fit for use only after a ritual un-deification.  In principle, then, we could continue to source our medicines from plants and molds and such, though only with the widespread adoption of these ritual practices.  But the religion has not caught on, and so there are precious few un-deified resources available.  To be safe, the employer wants to refuse to cover any kind of medicine, to avoid this grievous sin.

According to our first answer, we would have to say yes, that this employer also has the right to refuse coverage, if we are to fully protect the right to conscience.

Questions for conversation:  What are the pros and cons of this position?  What values underlie your assessment of this position?  Are you implicitly putting more emphasis on liberty (right to conscience) or on positive rights (these things must be provided because I think they are good and basic)?  And what are the consequences of that emphasis?  Are your answers conducive to the authentic expression of any given worldview?

The second answer would be more challenging to implement, yet seems to garner greater favor with the Zeitgeist:  There is, at bottom, a program of health care which is truly basic, and ought to be universally provided.  In this case, the right of conscience is restrained, and it is the extent of that restraint which is up for debate.  We’ll consider this next time.


One of the most debated topics of philosophy and perhaps one of the biggest barriers to faith is the problem of evil. Put simply, man has a hard time reconciling a kind, loving, and just God with the pain, suffering, and evil surrounding him.

Today’s Gospel cuts straight to the heart of this matter. Here we have good seed and weeds sown together in one field. Both are watered by the spring rain. Both soak up the summer sun. Both enjoy the cultivating done by the farmer. And both take nutrients from the same soil. But weeds and good seed don’t coexist peacefully. Weeds take the water and nutrients away from the good seed. Their overgrowth can blot out the sun, depriving the good seed of the nutrients it provides. So it was natural that the farmer’s servants asked if they could pull up the weeds before they had a chance to compete with the good crop. Yet the farmer instructs the servants to wait until the harvest when the good crop and the weeds will be harvested together, with the weeds being bundled and burned.

There are two topics lately that have fallen out of favor to be preached on from the pulpit – hell and the devil. Yet these are unavoidable topics in this parable. As with all of Jesus’ parables the actors are always bigger than those he presents in His story. Jesus makes clear that the devil, the enemy of God the farmer, is the one who sows the seeds that grow into weeds. The seed is such an interesting choice of imagery as well. We know from Jesus’ other teachings that both good and evil spring forth from the heart of men – and what a better way to describe the heart of man than the seed – the very essence of life from which all else grows. When evil is in the heart of man the fruit is thorny, disruptive, harmful to the good crop, and ultimately utterly useless. Evil, left to grow, grows wildly like a weed looking to feed on and overgrow everything in its path. When the life of an evil man comes to its end – the harvest – Jesus makes it crystal clear that what awaits him is fire – the symbol of hell. And unlike a weed, which would simply burn up in the fire, the fire of hell is eternal.

At this point you might be asking, how is this fair? A seed is to grow into what is made of. A grain of wheat becomes wheat, a seed of a weed because a weed. How is the weed destined to be anything but a weed, and therefore destined for the fire?

Yet Jesus’ words once again ring true – what is impossible for man is possible for God! Only God has the power to change the heart of a man. Only God has the power to transform a weed into wheat Jesus’ life shows us time and time again that he has the power to change man’s circumstances and even their very heart. Today we will be reminded of God’s power to transform when we come to the Eucharistic table and we partake of bread and wine transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. God can do this. God has done this. And God will continue to do this.

And so, God being the creator of all things, brings the rain and the sun to both the good seed and the weeds. God, through His Holy Spirit, cultivates the soil and makes it ready for harvest. And this great Farmer is patient because He knows this is more than just wheat and weeds. This field is filled with the souls of his greatest creation. And so His patience with these weeds is not at the expense of the good crop, but as 2 Peter tells us ”he is patient with you, not wishing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance.”

Let us also then be reminded that the harvest is great, but the workers are few. We live, work, and play in a field filled with good crop and weeds. Tomorrow, after we get our food for the journey today, we need to run among these fields not sidestepping the painful thorns of the weeds, but watering them with the Grace that flows from this table of plenty. Because, unlike the harvest whose time is clearly marked, the end of our days can come at any time. We need to recognize this so that we not only continue to mature into the good crop, but to realize that the weeds around us may be pulled at any time where the fire awaits them.

Social Justice

Sit back, now – I aim to cover the entire subject of Social Justice in just one blog post.

Social justice (may I borrow the apt abbreviation of “SJ”?) is a worthy, even noble pursuit – as long as one realizes it is impossible to attain.  It can only obtain in Paradise, and even then it is hard for us to imagine just how this could be.

If I may take the liberty to define it, SJ is the idea that the world should be a fundamentally fair place, that our laws and institutions should be geared toward justice for all.  (The metaphor here is meant quite vividly – the mechanisms of government, of business, and so on, should be constructed in such a way that “justice” is the outcome).

A well-known example of the practice of SJ is fair trade coffee.  The aim behind fair trade is that everyone involved in the transaction is treated with dignity:  We will not pay the farmer a pittance just because he’ll take it, because he has no other choice.  No, his pay should genuinely reward his efforts, and give him the means to provide for himself and his family.

This particular application of SJ has caught on, at least in my experience:  I sit now at Starbucks, beside a picture of beans the size of my nose, luxuriating in their oily glory.  Starbucks promotes fair trade coffee, as does my church, which sells fair trade coffee after Mass every couple of weeks.  Most coffee shops and many churches I’ve visited have similar practices.

And this is grand, it really is.  It’s a great success of the pursuit of SJ.

Any noble pursuit, though, is at risk of distortion, even abuse.  Citations of abuse I leave out, because they are sourced from among the deluded, and there can be no constructive discourse there.  An example, though, would be the shrewd, systematic silencing which calls itself “checking your privilege.”  It is hard to imagine anything more egregiously ironic than promoting diversity of thought by actively silencing whole categories of people, but truth is stranger than fiction.*

We are, at any rate, more concerned with those who are sincere about SJ, and not the brood of vipers.

There is a tension at play in SJ, and it seems to be between Justice and Power.

Power is much-maligned, but fundamental and necessary to our existence.  We need power – ability, capacity – to work, to acquire the basics (and more) for living.  Even if we start there, it is clear that some have little power, and some have a great deal more.

SJ does not entail – or does not necessarily entail – that power be distributed equally.  Nature does not distribute talents and opportunities equally.  People of similar talents and opportunity do not implement them equally.  In the course of our lives, power may be given, and power may be taken away.

These things cannot be held in perfect equilibrium – this is why SJ is a pursuit, and not an achievable goal.  It is an ideal to strive for, not a standard which can be imposed.

What is the modus operandi of those who strive for SJ?  There are two, and they are at odds.

The first, and more common – leading to distortion and abuse – is, “Give us power, and we will set things right.”

The second, and more perfect, is, “You who have power – come, let us seek Justice.”

The first is just thinly veiled arrogance.  But let me phrase it more sympathetically.

Since the 8th grade, and probably earlier still, I have wanted to help the poor.  I have prayed, throughout the intervening years, for God to give me chances, opportunities – positions of influence, wealth, confidence – so that I could try to set things right.

I have to say that God has not answered this prayer to the satisfaction of my younger self, but it has been answered to my current (hopefully wiser) satisfaction.  Why am I satisfied now?

On a practical level, I did not know – and hardly do now – the first thing about really helping the poor.  In fact, solutions to this issue are hotly debated.  If I had the power, how do I know I’d use it wisely?

On a spiritual level – and more critically – I am not perfectly obedient to God, who is Justice.  I am not sure that I’m even halfway obedient to God.  How, then, could I possibly be serving justice if I am not truly obedient to Justice?

It has been my observation that those who distort or abuse SJ regard obedience as useless and degrading.  They have not heard that the Lord came to serve, not to be served, and they have the whole principle upside down and backward.  They make an idol of social justice.

What about the second mode, then?

Here, the proponent of social justice does not impose his ideas either on the rich or the poor.  Rather, he takes a stance of obedience to a transcendental: Justice.

Come what may – even dismal failure – he will obey Justice.  His is an invitation, not an imposition:  Come, let us seek Justice.

Even if he is rejected, he does not despair.  He does not apostatize.  He does not demean the rich, nor belittle the poor, but calls on them both to recognize Justice.^  He understands that he will not cure all ills, that more worldly power will not make him more successful, much less stripping such power from others (and here is an opening for the teaching on nonviolence).  But obedience compels him to be weak, so that God might make him strong.

Blessed are the poor in spirit – this is the basis of true social justice.


*I’ve had a good chat with a friend who accepts the principles of this system of privilege, and believes everyone ought to be checking their various forms of privilege.  Aside from taking tedium to a stupefying level, I pointed out that the intention here is not wrong.  It is good to bear in mind that you may have had certain advantages in life and that you should be mindful of the disadvantages of others.  But to contort this principle – I’d call it “thoughtful consideration” – into a pecking order for public discourse is, frankly, backwards and petty.

^Simone Weil’s thoughts on gratitude as the proper disposition of those receiving charity are pertinent here.

Hobby Lobby and Secularism

The controversy over the Supreme Court decision on Burwell v. Hobby Lobby has been…well, hysterical, when you think about it. There are, for instance, otherwise intelligent people shuddering for the United States. It is unbecoming for a scientist to be reading tea leaves – principally because they aren’t any good at it – since it causes them to declare that a “theocracy” is afoot.

Of course the word “theocracy” only enters the conversation because it’s scary, like communism, and not because anything like a theocracy is imminently threatening.

Rather than dig into the case as one more bloviating layperson, I’d like to comment on an issue which plays into the discussion, which has plenty of application over and above SCOTUS.

Namely, there is a peculiar fear of religion, and a distinction of religion from…well, I guess the “normal” or “ordinary” way of looking at things. There is also the widespread illusion that science and religion are so different from each other that they are actually opposed.

Here I would like to introduce the notion of worldview. This is simply the way a person believes the world to be.

Is the world knowable, or not?  If so, how can we know it, and what can we know about it? Is there a God, or not? Am I the only one who exists, or do all these other people exist in the same way that I do?

If these questions sound philosophical, that’s because they are. One’s worldview might also be likened to one’s personal philosophy. What do you perceive to be the purpose of life, if anything? What is all of this for? What duties and obligations do you have, if any?

How one answers questions like these, then, determines (or is indicative of) his worldview.

It should be obvious, I think, that while there may be trends in the way people answer these questions (the ancient Chinese might answer differently than the medieval Muslims, who again answer differently than modern Latin Americans), there is not necessarily any neat, “standard” response.

In other words, there is not a neat, “normal” response from which we could say that religion departs. If anything, religion would have to be part of that normal response, given its ubiquity across space and time.

Now, let us usher in an interesting idea: Secularism. This, of course, is a lack of commitment to any particular religion, and a positive commitment toward the common understanding of the common good. This is such an alluring idea, in fact, that it is taken to be the “standard” worldview, from which other worldviews (especially religious worldviews) depart.

I would then argue: Secularism is not meant to be a worldview. It is meant to be a mutual agreement not to impose any particular worldview. In the same way, a recipe is not an ingredient – it is a description of the way the ingredients are meant to come together.

The fascinating thing – to this bloviator, anyway – is that in its refusal to impose a particular religious worldview, secularism has thus seemed very attractive to those who reject all religious worldviews – I mean, atheists.

In fact, many atheists have often been only too happy to wear the mantle of secularism, and many Christians have been too dense to understand the distinction: Atheism is a worldview, but secularism is not. (I do think, lest I hang too many of my brethren in Christ, that plenty of atheists are so fanatical as to miss the distinction, too).

The truth is, both Christians and atheists (and Muslims, and Hindus, and…) should be happy to wear the mantle of secularism – unless they have a better strategy for governing in a pluralistic society.

Or, I suppose, unless they intend to install a theocracy.

Now, critical to secularism, it seems to me, is the free exercise of religion; but let’s amend it, and call it the free exercise of worldview.* We should not leave the atheists out, after all, or they might claim the whole damned system for themselves and install an anti-theist-ocracy. (Don’t laugh…it’s been done).

Let’s ask the question: Is it right to impose on an employer (or anyone), and require her to provide for a product or treatment to which she is morally opposed?

Is it really in line with the idea of secularism that we should require people to act in opposition to their worldviews, so that other people will receive what is considered “good” within their worldview?

Forget for a moment that this was an issue raised mainly by Christians. Think of yourself, and your sincerely held worldview. Think of one particular action which you find morally offensive.

The argument is, can a society really be justified in forcing you to commit (or be complicit in) that action, no matter how “good” other members of that society perceive it to be?

Don’t be hasty. Don’t assume you’re cool with whatever. That is not the meaning of secularism.

The meaning of secularism is to provide a real opportunity for people of multi-various worldviews to live authentically within their own worldviews, while living in common with each other.

Government impositions on sincerely held beliefs are a sin in secularism. They cripple secularism.

And they necessarily favor one worldview over others.


*Whether this bears the spirit of the Framers is a fair and interesting question, but I aim to talk about secularism principally as a concept, and not within any particular historical context.

Yes, permaculture.

Last time I introduced the concept of permaculture (assuming some might not already know) and offered a sampling of Catholic teaching which fits neatly – some would say plainly – with the practice of permaculture.  Then I said some hopelessly optimistic things about living with Mother Nature.

This time, a start at implementation.

Most of the resources I’ve encountered seem to agree on the principles of permaculture, which are summarized here.

As the Permaculture Association has it, the first principle is “Observe and Interact.”  Other permaculture resources say likewise, and some recommend an observation period of at least a year, if not longer.

Ain’t nobody got time for that!  No, but seriously, I’m a 21st century American – who thinks I’m going to wait around after I’ve just publicly committed to starting into permaculture?  I’ll observe, alright – then immediately act!  What, am I supposed to be patient, and restrain my desires?

Almost took up an inverted soapbox there.

Fortunately, I have been observing, and for longer than a year.  Every time I’ve mowed the lawn, I thought how I would like to incorporate more garden beds, and how to arrange them.  Once we started a garden in the backyard, I noticed how the sun moved across it, how the wind blew, and where things would have room to grow or climb or drain.

According to my foray into permaculture, it was observation by accident; but according to purposes I already had in mind, it was sustained observation.

For example:  One technique suggested for implementing permaculture is an herb spiral.  There are even videos guiding the curious to herbal glory.

We Pluchars like herbs at the ready, and so I thought of two locations, and Marcy picked one – the more reasonable one, of course.  This is just outside our back door:


Foundation for our herb-phitheater.

Now, as to observation:  This particular location is on the south side of our property.  That white vinyl fence is on the south side of the frame.  That particular area – next to the heat pump, with a short concrete sidewalk and two pebbled areas – has always seemed hot to me.  This struck me immediately, from before we bought the house, and has been verified repeatedly.

I believe this is because our house and the neighbor’s (relatively close by – maybe 40′, with a fence in the middle) act as a wind block, the heat pump generates heat in the summer, and the sidewalk and pebbles absorb heat on top of that.  Even when the “weather” is breezy and tolerable elsewhere on our property, it is stifling in this area.

Furthermore, I believe we will modify the herb spiral, in favor of an herb amphitheater…or and herb-phitheater, if you please.

Weep at my raw talent.

Weep at my raw talent.

The reason for this is that any herbs on the north side of a spiral would have precious few hours of sunlight – given the house sandwich.  Another drawing?

Site Map - Herb garden

Therefore – I presume, at any rate – an amphitheater design will be more advantageous.

But where to find the building materials?


WTF is one of the TCG posting on permaculture?  ROFL!  IMHO, this is BQYE!

Yep, made the last one up.

Welcome to a new category, an informal series, meandering as it will through my family’s adventures in permaculture.

But seriously, permaculture?  On a Catholic blog?  Let me learn you something.

This comes as little surprise to those who know me, or who have any real understanding of the Catholic faith.  For a start, observe the confluence of these two:  Bethlehem Farm.  I spent a year on the farm, and another three nearby, helping people build and repair their houses and helping establish (what is now) a very impressive garden.

Bethlehem Farm is an explicitly Catholic community, and sustainability is actually one of their philosophical cornerstones.  They encourage organic farming, living in harmony with the seasons and one’s local climate and resources, and making every effort to live in a way which promotes giving (to others, to the Earth) over and above taking.

It is in giving, after all, that we receive.

And Bethlehem Farm is not an anomaly, but right in line with Catholic teaching.  The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, for instance, tells us that “caring for and cultivating the world involves…joyful appreciation for the God-given beauty and wonder of nature…” and “…protection and preservation of the environment, which would be the stewardship of ecological concern.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has it, “[m]an’s dominion over inanimate and other living beings granted by the Creator is not absolute; it is limited by concern for the quality of life of his neighbor, including generations to come; it requires a religious respect for the integrity of creation.”

Of course, you did not see the term “permaculture” used in either of those passages, nor is it immediately visible (if at all) on the Bethlehem Farm website.  Neither will you see the term “The Trinity” in Scripture, but it follows from what is written.

Permaculture, of course, is not the only …I beg your pardon.  Perhaps you are as unfamiliar as I was with permaculture, only a few sunrises ago!  Here you go!

As I was saying, permaculture is not the only way to carry out God’s command to “take dominion” over the Earth, but it seems to be at least one possible means.  Moreover, it seems to be a challenge given a suburban setting, which only motivates this writer.

And, it seems…romantic, to me.

In college, I was introduced to the idea that a good garden is the way man “perfects” nature.  Nature by itself, this view held, is wild and chaotic, and not particularly conducive to human needs.  In order to make the greatest use of the Earth, humans would need to cultivate it.

But traditional gardens – even suburban lawns! – seem almost comical to me.  I remember spending five weeks in the woods as a camp counselor, then returning to my suburban home, and laughing – heartily, without effort – for a minute or so when I first laid eyes on the clean and well-defined borders given to plant life.

There’s no doubt gardens can be beautiful – I simply find most of them amusing, like a dog wearing a sweater.

But to cultivate nature within one’s humble lot, to welcome her genius and offer a home to her lovely and untamed essence, and to barter with her evenly, as much as possible – now that awakens the soul, doesn’t it?


This is a cheap trick of the charlatan, but it is used because it works:  Forget everything you think you know about “mysticism.”  Let’s refresh our understanding.

A mystic is a person – you or I could be a mystic.  You might also call someone a winner, or a loser.  You might call them blessed or cursed.  You might call them a mystic, or a muggle.

Now, these pairs have been chosen because they relate to experiences a person has had.  No one is a “winner” until he wins; no one is a “loser” until he fails.  A person must experience blessings before we call her blessed, and must endure afflictions before we call her cursed.

One might now object:  “Muggle” sounds more like an innate property of a person, rather than an experience that person has had.  This would miss the point!

Alas, one may not speak anymore without a preponderance of intellectual speed bumps and stumbling blocks!  Say this about modernity – it is awfully tedious.

No, muggle, I was only being colorful.  I will now be technical:  You have your mystic, and you have your naturalist.

What, then, is the experience which the mystic has had, which the naturalist (at least according to his philosophy) has not?

For the Christian, it is really quite simple:  It is an encounter with the living God, directly or indirectly.

In the details, the curious naturalist can get confused, skeptical, even dismissive.  Rightly so, given his intellectual commitments.  But it really isn’t so confusing, and while skepticism is often a virtue, it is careless to be completely dismissive of mystical experiences.

On at least one front, I tend to line up with the naturalist.  I do not buy as mystical any kind of experience which is reliably induced, which fits neatly into a preconceived system of belief, or else which is described by terms meant to be profound, which have no clear meaning (e.g. “thoughts of light”).

Behold – my earlier complete dismissal of contemporary Christian music!

Now let the speed bump appear:  Ah, but it was not good to be completely dismissive.  Very well – I have learned.

While I do not necessarily endorse every song or effort from such bands, I have come to appreciate Jars of Clay.  I would commend to you certain songs from Third Day and Hillsong United.  And I would commend David Crowder Band.

Please note, I do not hereby commend the videos or comments to you.  Probably best just to listen.  Nor do I commend them as musically exceptional.  They are not, as far as I can tell, especially innovative or challenging.

What I see in them I recently noticed while listening to “How He Loves” from David Crowder Band (linked above).  I said to myself, “He’s had a mystical experience.”

What one notices in “How He Loves” is a concerted, desperate effort – like a man trying to paint a picture of his deceased wife – to express and thus, to share, his encounter with God.

The true naturalist can hardly guess at this.  It may seem to him that, because the mystic uses words which are intelligible to him, such an experience must not be so extraordinary.  Indeed, consider:

He is jealous for me

Loves like a hurricaneI am a tree

Bending beneath the weight of His wind and mercy

When all of the sudden

I am unaware of these afflictions eclipsed by glory

And I see just how beautiful You are

And how great Your affections are for me

To the naturalist – let us presume a humble naturalist – this is perhaps a little strange, as it suggests a powerful encounter with a non-existent entity.  The lyrics themselves, from the mouth of David Crowder, seem to be authentic and are perhaps charming in their style, though not what we might expect from a master of the English language.  The humble naturalist might back up my claim – contemporary Christian music is not all terrible.

Such a review is (quite precisely) condescending, but who can fault the reviewer?  Such a person imagines himself above the song because he can’t imagine himself in it.  After all, he has not had a mystical experience.

A fellow mystic, however, might find herself weeping at these humble lyrics.  For her, they are not merely charming, but evocative.  They call out, from the fogginess of memory and doubt, her own encounter with the Everlasting, with Love Himself.

She is not especially caught up in the literary value of the words.  She knows their authenticity is better gauged by their insufficiency, though they strive for all of the beauty and grandeur they can convey.  She knows that words will never be enough; one evokes the oceans because there is nothing else which is so vast and yet so immanent.  The sky is likewise vast, but out of reach; the ocean can touch every inch of her body, and swallow her whole.  (Says David Crowder:  “If His grace is an ocean, we’re all sinking“).

The mystic understands how God is like an ocean.  More importantly, she understands how God surpasses the ocean, and this is why she weeps.


Allow me one more note:  What about the one who is not a naturalist, nor a mystic?  Let’s take an “ordinary” believer, who simply thinks Christianity is true, but has not experienced the presence of God in any direct or astonishing way.  (This could be extended, in a way, to people of other faiths, but there is not space for that here).

Though I have asked the question, I reject the premise – there are only mystics.  It is the true naturalist who is illusory, established on a false view of reality.  No one is really a pure naturalist.

Perhaps not, you might say, but they would deny any encounter with God.

True enough, and now we venture close to that deeply troubled position of reading others’ minds.  I have no interest in that.

Rather, with respect to their minds, I invite them to consider these things.  Only consider the parts of your experience which defy physical explanation:  Why do you think anything is good?  (Is love good?)  Why is truth so valuable that you respect people who will sacrifice for it?  Why do you trust logic to sort out truth from falsehood?  (Does it matter whether a thing is true or not?)

Why do you wish to pour yourself out into the water when you gaze out over the ocean at night?  Why do you wish you could walk on water, or run without growing tired, or live forever?  Why is it that you can imagine sharing something better than sex with a person, but you can’t say what it is?

Loosen your restraint – follow for a moment, and see where the questions lead.

The longing is sincere, and ubiquitous.  A direct encounter with God is not required, only an answer:  Is there anything which satisfies these longings, or not?

The mystics answer in the affirmative; some have even tasted and seen.

This is not how you conquer the world…

“I gave my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who plucked my beard;
my face I did not shield
from buffets and spitting.”

“My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
They divide my garments among them,
and for my vesture they cast lots.
But you, O LORD, be not far from me;
O my help, hasten to aid me.”

“…though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness…”

“One of the Twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot,
went to the chief priests and said,
“What are you willing to give me
if I hand him over to you?”
They paid him thirty pieces of silver,
and from that time on he looked for an opportunity
to hand him over…

“Then he said to them,
‘My soul is sorrowful even to death.
Remain here and keep watch with me.’
He advanced a little and fell prostrate in prayer, saying,
‘My Father, if it is possible,
let this cup pass from me;
yet, not as I will, but as you will.’

“Then the high priest tore his robes and said,
‘He has blasphemed!
What further need have we of witnesses?
You have now heard the blasphemy;
what is your opinion?’
They said in reply,
‘He deserves to die!’
Then they spat in his face and struck him,
while some slapped him, saying,
‘Prophesy for us, [messiah]: who is it that struck you?’

“Then the soldiers of the governor took [him] inside the praetorium
and gathered the whole cohort around him.
They stripped off his clothes
and threw a scarlet military cloak about him.
Weaving a crown out of thorns, they placed it on his head,
and a reed in his right hand.
And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying,
‘Hail, King of the Jews!’
They spat upon him and took the reed
and kept striking him on the head.
And when they had mocked him,
they stripped him of the cloak,
dressed him in his own clothes,
and led him off to crucify him.”

“And about three o’clock [he] cried out in a loud voice,
Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’
which means, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
Some of the bystanders who heard it said,
‘This one is calling for Elijah.’
Immediately one of them ran to get a sponge;
he soaked it in wine, and putting it on a reed,
gave it to him to drink.
But the rest said,
‘Wait, let us see if Elijah comes to save him.’
But [he] cried out again in a loud voice,
and gave up his spirit.”


Or is it?

“And behold, the veil of the sanctuary
was torn in two from top to bottom.
The earth quaked, rocks were split, tombs were opened,
and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised.
And coming forth from their tombs after his resurrection,
they entered the holy city and appeared to many.
The centurion and the men with him who were keeping watch over [him]
feared greatly when they saw the earthquake
and all that was happening, and they said,
‘Truly, this was the Son of God!’”

This is not merely the shaking of the earth, although that is impressive.  It is the shaking of hearts – the rocks that were split included hearts of stone – and this man dying between criminals convinces his executioners that he is the Foundation of the world, he is the very One sustaining them in existence, even as he dies; they see that he could have – as the shaking earth attests – laid all of the Roman Empire to waste with a single command (perhaps “Requiescant in Pacem”).  And he submits to death instead.

That you know his name, in spite of all of this , suggests that the conquest was of another kind.  Indeed, it is in your midst.

Existence of God – 43

So what can the analogy offer us?

In defense

There is, and long has been, a field of study and engagement called “apologetics.”  In the course of this series I’ve taken some of the arguments used in this field and applied the analogy to them, as a way of understanding them.  Now we apply the analogy to the field itself, albeit briefly.

Indeed, only to say one thing:  Apologetics, properly, is a defense of faith in God (or of any idea one might wish to defend). But it is not a defense of God.

Consider a story our author is writing, and one of her characters – call him Tom – becomes aware of the author’s existence. This would make for a curious story, one with potential and pitfalls; never mind the literature.  Now that Tom is aware of the author’s existence, and her unbelievable power, and her extraordinary good will toward her characters, he is compelled to share the good news with others.

It should not surprise us to find, however, that some of these others are not convinced, and in fact they offer thoughtful reasons why they do not believe there is an author (or if there is, why it does not matter).  Among these reasons, they even doubt whether the author could possibly be good, given some of the terrible things that have happened in the story.

Whether or not there is a God, clearly, in our illustration, there IS an author.  That being the case, what should Tom’s objective be?  Must he prove the author exists?

This, of course, is quite a curious thought.  Let’s answer:  Of course not.  The truth – THE truth – is that there is an author.  Of course the author exists; the failure of an argument to produce complete certainty does not challenge the existence of an author.

Considering that, consider this:  What argument could Tom offer to the skeptics?  Wouldn’t there always be some way to doubt his arguments?  If they were radical skeptics – as many new atheists are – could the author do *anything* which would convince them of her existence?  I daresay, no.  But this is the foolishness of cynicism.

Moreover, to those who would say the author is not good, what ought Tom to say?  There is no need to prove that the author is good.  The author must be good; if she is not, then nothing is good, and the objection makes no sense.

So what defense is needed?  It is to defend the belief that the author is good.  It is to show the belief to be preferable to competing beliefs, to rebut criticisms and objections.

And what if Tom cannot convince a single other person?  Is he, then, the illogical one?

Of course not.  It would seem to be a flaw in the thinking of these others that they cannot believe like Tom does, since we know he is telling the truth.

Now, apart from appeals to a non-believer, what can a believer profit from this point?

We see, first of all, that there is a kind of special light by which we come to know God.  That is, to know that God exists (to know an author exists) does not require special knowledge – it can be arrived at by reason.  To know Who God is, to know what He is like, requires something for which reason is only a servant – that is, faith.

How else would we come to know God, enter into a relationship with Him, and love Him?  Indeed, how else to know the ways, and the height, depth, and breadth of His love?

For the cynic, in a sense, is correct – there is no scientific way to prove that my prayers for safety, or courage, or understanding, have been answered.  Science, though, is not in any position to offer this confirmation.  Its silence is not a damning one – it’s a dumb one.*

The rebuttal is simple, because it exposes the emptiness of cynicism:  How do you know anyone loves you?  If you are married, how do you know your spouse loves you?

Of course, one could cast doubt on any answer you might give.  So she has made a lifelong commitment?  Big deal – that is probably to her advantage in some way, she will get to satisfy her goals; besides, you can’t prove it will be lifelong.  So he sends you flowers?  Again, this is no sure sign of love (the cynic wants to say) – after all, doesn’t he want something in return?  If not, isn’t it at least to his benefit, to the sense of peace he has in his life, to keep you happy?  And how do you know he’s not just keeping your attention off this other thing he’s doing, which he knows you would disapprove of…

Here, even a liberal and a conservative can get together in defiance of the cynic – we do, in fact, know love when we see it.  Science is not the proper love-detecting tool.  A person is.

In a like way, this is how we can know God loves us.  Prayers are answered.  We can see it.  Let the cynic cast his doubts; you don’t have to bite.

Faith is what permits a person to see what God is up to.  It is the thing that has opened Tom’s mind – for, why was he looking for an author in the first place?  How could he arise from his story consciousness, and become conscious of a greater reality?  It is a leap past what we can completely understand, but it is not unintelligible.

The beauty of faith is that, so long as it is sincere, it takes very little to see what God is up to.  The cynic will never see it – by his own volition.  (How good is God that He lets the cynic have what he wants?)  But let the cynic quit his miserly insistence on pure materialism and the impoverished deliverances of mere scientism, and all the world opens up to him.  Thus do the meek inherit the earth.

*I know at least one cynic who wants to say that science/reason would positively rule this out, but this cannot be done without begging the question, or ill-defining the terms, or – as I say – using a tool not fitted to the task.

Existence of God – 42

The usual charge, against which we want to consider the existence of God, is that if the arguments for God’s existence were, at any point, all shown to fail, then belief in the existence of God would (should) also fail.

This charge requires a lot from the believer, because it is meant to suppose that if logic should cease to be logic, then we should be logical (who knows under which definition) and cease our belief in God.  Let me put the charge in an overly simplistic way.

If it can be shown that 4 + 5 = 10, and not 9, then we should all change our answers to that question from now on.  And not only to that question, but to every question which depends on that answer, and again, to every question which operates by the same mechanics.

In a word, we must question all calculations pursuant to the previously believed 4+5 = 9, and addition itself (how did we make that mistake before?  Have we been making it in more than one place?), and subtraction (is 9-5 no longer equal to 4?), division, multiplication..all of mathematics…and perhaps some logical assumptions besides.

But of course, 4 + 5 will never equal 10.  No amount of special pleading, or question-begging, or emotional appeal could ever change the answer, even if you wanted to sue me for it.

Now, the objection will be that the conclusion “God exists” is never as obvious as “9″ is for the arithmetic above.  And that’s the start of another conversation.

As for this conversation, for the believer, it is about that obvious.  My contention in the last post is that logic is not central to one’s belief in God; that logic, in its academic forms, is not necessary for faith.*  Rather, the logical arguments for God are a kind of refuge or platform in a certain context, or an exercise in the breadth and depth of one’s mind, or even a devotional activity of those inclined to love Him with all their minds.

On the other hand, I have never bothered about the logical structure of my experiences with God in any academic sense.  I have tried to understand them, yes, and that with a gasping desperation.  In that case, however, I am more an adventurer than a thinker, more a disciple than a student.**

Those experiences seem to supersede human rationality.  For example, to feel you are in the presence of God is not something arrived at deductively, and so we are not afforded logical certainty.  It is, instead, something received, not arrived at.  If someone brings you a gift, you do not trouble with the logical certainty that the gift exists, nor with the existence of the gift-giver.  You simply receive it, and perhaps try to understand inasmuch as it helps you to appreciate the gift.

Indeed, it is tempting to have these rationalizations, to understand completely.  For skeptical minds, this gives us something to sink our teeth into.  Yet, it is important that the experience retains this flavor of being ultimately indescribable, or else, we are limited to what we can understand.  (This, really, is the downfall of skepticism, and to persist is to be a cynic).

It is better if we take the logic and the poetry together, a balanced meal of spiritual sustenance comforting to the soul.  We want the chicken with the breading, the salt with the asparagus.  This is what the analogy has offered me – it brings together a full meal, one I am still preparing, and often eating.  It seems like elven bread to me, the least nibble filling my stomach, nourishing me for days; better, it is like a multiplication of loaves and fishes.

I don’t promise it will do the same for everyone; this is not a sales pitch.  But if you are heavy on heart, and hungry for the meat of logic, you might find your protein here.  If your mind is weighed down with the complexities of argument, the leaven of a fanciful notion can lighten your spirits.


*Don’t forget the posts on Plantinga for a detailed reflection on this.

**This, of course, is not an unreasoning position, but simply an organic one, a less technical way of reasoning.