Sunday, February 24, 2013

Ten Thousand Difficulties (Minus Nine Hundred and Ninety Seven)

Some time ago, I contributed this account of how I came to accept the Catholic faith on the website Why I'm Catholic. I felt rather bashful putting myself forward like that (especially since most of the people whose stories feature on the site are people of some repute), so I was pleased that a few sites linked to it and an Australian magazine reprinted it.

The webmaster of the site intended to have a follow-up section to each of the accounts, called "Struggles", which would list the difficulties and stumbling-blocks each contributor faced in accepting the truth of the Catholic creed.

It was about a year ago that he asked for this supplementary piece, and nothing had appeared, so I wrote to him asking if that plan had been abandoned and whether I could use my own contribution on my blog. He wrote back to say that the plan had not been abandoned, but rather it had been delayed, and that I was welcome to use my piece on the blog.

"Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt", said Newman. The Catholic faith fully satisfies me-- intellectually, aesthetically, existentially, historically, and in a hundred other ways. But what view of the world, no matter how whole-heartedly assented to, leaves no room at all for reservations? I hope the reader will understand that this is an exercise in intellectual honesty, and that I put it forward in the hope that a profession of faith which admits such hesitations will ultimately be more useful and convincing than mere cheer-leading.

So here it is.


I’ve read many Catholic conversion stories that contain some passage along these lines: Never in a thousand years would I have imagined entering the pews of a Catholic church. Everything about Catholicism was nails down a blackboard to me. Some religions seemed fairly inoffensive, even laudable— as delusions go. But Catholicism stood for all that was reactionary, outmoded, anti-progressive. All that kneeling and bell-ringing seemed kitsch and just plain embarrassing to me.

Me? I never felt like that. In fact, even as an atheist/agnostic, I liked everything about the Catholic Church, both its doctrine and its discipline And I especially liked the parts that the modern world world found difficult, or that non-Catholics had struggled with through history—- the Real Presence in the Eucharist, the authority of the Pope, the uncompromising sexual teaching, prayer to saints, and so forth.

No, my own problem was with something more fundamental—- belief in God Himself, especially in a theistic God that revealed Himself to mankind, answered prayers, and performed miracles.

One thing that held me back from believing in the Christian God was the sheer size of our universe.

This is an interesting topic, since the vastness of the universe seems to provoke quite opposite reactions when it comes to religious belief. Some people look at the starry sky, or at an image from the Hubble telescope, and are moved to religious awe by the sight. In fact, many renowned astronomers have been Jesuits—so many that some 35 of the moon crater’s are named after them. Evidently, their faith was not challenged by the mind-boggling proportions of the heavens, and our planet’s puny size in comparison.

But the size of the universe is often put forward as an argument against theism, and I am sure I am not the only Christian believer to be challenged by it. And there is no shirking that challenge. Our faith tells us that God became incarnate here on Earth. On that account, this unimaginably tiny planet is indeed special. Christ died for us once for all, as St. Peter tells us. When I was younger I imagined the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection happening on planet after planet throughout the universe; now I understand that the events of the first Good Friday and Easter Sunday were unique.

Of course, this reaction to the size of the universe is an emotional reaction. There is no logically compelling reason why one tiny planet in an obscure star system should not play host to a drama of such cosmic proportions. But, since emotion and intuition (along with reason) play such a large part in faith, I felt it was something of a double-standard not to admit their relevance here.

Many of the arguments Christians have used to counter this reaction seem poor to me.”It is quite futile to argue that man is small compared to the cosmos”, wrote GK Chesterton; “for man was always small compared to the nearest tree.” But the ratio of man to tree cannot even be compared to the ratio of our Earth to the cosmos. Nothing can; it is unique. Even granting that God likes to do things on a grand scale, this largesse of galaxy clusters seemed excessive. “I should be suffocated in a universe I could see to the end of”, wrote CS Lewis. So would I. But hundreds of billions of galaxies? The night sky could have been majestic with a hundred galaxies. Or twenty.

Eventually, it was a scientific argument that pacified me. I read a lot of books about science and faith prior to my conversion, so I can’t remember in exactly which one I encountered this argument. (In any case, it can be found on the website Quodlibeta, in a three-part post entitled Size Doesn’t Matter.) As far as I could comprehend it, the thesis is that the cosmos had to be as big as it is, and as ancient as it is (the two things are related since it has been expanding since the Big Bang) to give rise to life. Astounding as it seems, all those billions of galaxies were needed for us to be here at all.

Does this make the “vast cosmos” argument against God an argument for God? Writing this, it occurs to me that it does. And yet the size of the universe still intimidates me, although less than it used to.

Another point that has since occured to me is that it is only our bodies that are dwarfed by the cosmos. Our thoughts, being without size or physical dimension, are no less grand than the Crab Nebula or the Milky Way. My concept of the physical universe does indeed “take in” all those billions of galaxies, even though I cannot imagine their size (which is something quite different). Man is made in the image of his Maker, and it is not just poetry to say that there is something in humanity that transcends mere physical size. It is the sober, literal truth.

Another difficulty I had in embracing Christianity, and especially Catholicism, was its stubborn insistence on God’s intervention in his creation. This consideration actually worked both ways. I wouldn’t have given Catholicism the time of day if it was not such a thoroughly supernatural religion. I found miracles, petitionary prayer and the Virgin Birth difficult to swallow. But a watered-down liberal Christianity, in which Jesus was a Great Moral Teacher and God was an absentee landlord, seemed beneath contempt to me. I was impressed by the Catholic Church’s confidence in declaring certain modern-day Marian apparitions and miracles worthy of belief, but at the same time, I wondered why I should accept them.

What I really wanted to know was this—- why was God so bashful? Why did miracles never seem to happen when the TV cameras were rolling, or under laboratory conditions? Why couldn’t I see somebody rising from the dead, or levitating, on Youtube? How could theists answer skeptics such as James Randi, who has for a long time offered a prize of a million dollars to anyone who can give hard proof of the paranormal? How come every apparent proof of the supernatural, from spiritualism to ESP, ultimately turned out to be a fraud?

“If they hear not Moses and the prophets”, says Abraham, in our Saviour’s story of Lazarus and Dives, “neither will they believe, if one rise again from the dead”. That seemed all too convenient to me. Was it really true that, if the stars in heaven were to form themselves into the words Jesus Christ is your Lord and Saviour, all the Skeptics’ Societies would still stick to their guns? Didn’t spiritualists and fraudulent mediums con their victims by insisting the spirits needed a friendly atmosphere— which usually meant gullible people and darkened rooms?

But think about it. What if the stars did form themselves into the words Jesus Christ is your Lord and Saviour? Maybe all the skeptics and atheists would flock to confession before their next meal. But would that be faith? Would it not be a kind of coercion on God’s part, and mere enlightened self-interest on the skeptic’s part? Christ isn’t going to force anyone to believe in him. We have to be free to reject him, because we have to be free to accept him. God leaves the door open to both.

I am aware that many people-- sincere seekers as well as belligerent atheists-- will find this answer unsatisfactory. “Blind faith again”, they will say, either with a satisfied chuckle or a disappointed groan. But it is not a question of blind faith. God will not coerce our intellects. Neither will He perform under laboratory conditions. He won’t answer prayers like a slot machine dispensing chocolate. But He has indeed given us good reason to believe in His miracles, even if He hasn’t put them beyond dispute.

It is very difficult—- I find it impossible—to make sense of Christian history without accepting its central miracle, the Resurrection. What on earth impelled Christ’s apostles, their early converts, and most of the early Popes to face persecution and grisly martyrdom, without an unshakeable conviction that Christ had indeed risen from the dead? What were they getting out of it? Why would they persist with the imposture, knowing it was an imposture? “If we have only hoped in Christ in this life”, said St. Paul, “we are of all men most pitiable.” No kidding.

One could safely claim that all Christian miracles derive their validation from that one miracle. But many of the miracles and visions that the Church declares worthy of belief stand on their own merits. The miracle of the sun at Fatima, the image on the Turin Shroud (though we should note that the Vatican has not made any authoritative declaration on this one), the stigmata of Padre Pio, the various Eucharistic miracles accepted by the Church—- none of these can simply be explained away. We are left, as always, with the freedom to reject or accept them.
But there is even more to the case for miracles than that.

C.S. Lewis says somewhere that, when he first heard that photographs had been taken of fairies (eventually, of course, these were shown to be a fraud), he felt a pang of anxiety; he did not want fairies to become just another documented fact. I like the idea of miracles, and I’m happy to live in a world where the word “miracle” means something. And what would it mean if miracles were simply another natural occurence? Where would we derive the same thrill, the same sense of awe and mystery, if walking on water and speaking in tongues were about as common as, say, people who lived past a hundred and ten years? Why do we naturally reach for the word “magical” to describe something wondrous, even if it’s a perfectly ordinary thing like a sunrise or a poem?

When you think about it, the very concept of “something outside the order of nature” is an odd one. There are events we can imagine, events that are reputed to occur, events that have been convincingly attested to, but that are not considered possible—- or at least, they are considered never to be possible by the atheist, and possible only by divine intervention by the religious believer. I can easily imagine a world where nothing that was logically impossible was physically impossible, where burning bushes and water turned to wine elicited no more than a shrug or a raised eyebrow—a world with no concept of the uncanny, or the supernatural. But I would not like to live in such a world. I am glad that God made room for the marvellous.

Lastly on the subject of miracles, I find something miraculous in the fact that I can conceive of a miracle. My mind can hypothesize something that has never appeared in my experience. Where did this idea come from? How did my mind learn to improvize like this? In a deterministic universe, a universe of unalterable physical law, wouldn’t our thoughts be as “preset” as the commands of a computer program?

A third difficulty I encountered in my spiritual search was the indifference or hostility of so many scientists to religion. Here I cannot speak with any kind of authority. I know nothing about science and I care less—- the subject utterly bores me. But, being born in the late twentieth century, naturally I looked towards scientists as the sooth-sayers of our society. I absorbed the idea that everything boils down to science, that scientific enquiry is the privileged and definitive route to knowledge, and that every passing year brings science closer to a Complete Explanation of Absolutely Everything, which would be written in equations and incomprehensible notations.

And scientists, I noticed, didn’t care much for God. More than ninety per cent of fellows of the Royal Society are atheists, I read (I don’t vouch for the truth of this). And many scientists and scientifically-minded writers, like Carl Sagan and Isaac Asimov, were ardent unbelievers. The world was moving more and more towards science, and science was moving further and further away from God.

It was true that there were some famous scientists who were Christians, such as Francis Collins the geneticist, or John Polkinghorne, the physicist-turned-vicar. But the same few names were always trotted out to show that great scientists could be religious believers—- it was plain that they were very much the exception, the minority. And what if it was a shrinking minority? What if all of tomorrow’s scientists rejected God? What then?

I have to admit that this still bothers me. I wish there were more scientists who were Christians, or simply religious believers. I would like the proportion to grow. Whenever I read (as I sometimes do) that the younger generation of scientists are more open to religious belief, it cheers me. When I read a Catholic scientist like Stephen M. Barr presenting scientific support for God’s existence, it cheers me.

But the subject doesn’t seem nearly as important to me as it used to. The more that I thought and read on the subject, the less it seemed to me that scientists had any kind of privileged position when it came to Ultimate Truth.

After all, there were so many things that I knew existed, but that had no scientifically demonstrable reality. The past, for instance—- it certainly existed, but where was it? Then there was my self, my personal identity. I know that the person I am now is the same person as the baby that my mother gave birth to, even if most of my body’s cells have been completely replaced in the meantime. But where is the scientific basis for this statement?

By the same token, I knew that I possessed consciousness, that I experienced my own thoughts, and that my they were not some purely physical process. The memory of a childhood Christmas was different from the firing of neurons in my brain, even if one was caused by the other.

I knew that W.B. Yeats was a better poet than Dr. Seuss (no disrespect to Dr. Seuss), and that this wasn’t just a matter of taste, but how could that be proven scientifically? I knew that it was wrong to throw babies over cliffs, and that (again) this wasn’t just a personal preference, but how could that be demonstrated in a laboratory?

And even if science could reach its Complete Explanation of Absolutely Everything, how could it explain why things were like that in the first place? How could it explain itself? There seemed something rather odd and arbitrary about this universe of measurable laws and chemical elements. I could easily imagine it as being different than it was. What was the point of scientific explanation at all if you eventually hit the wall of “it’s like that, and that’s the way it is?”

Besides, it slowly dawned on me that science wasn’t really all that close to the Complete Explanation, after all. Why, They couldn’t even explain chemistry and biology in terms of pure physics yet. There seemed considerable doubt over whether They ever could.

In other words, philosophy had liberated me from scientific reductionism. As Francis Bacon put it, while he was inventing the scientific method, “A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.”

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