Why They Don’t Return

As a framework for continuing the present discussion, we can consider a person’s religious opinions as though they had a numerical probability. Of course, as was said earlier, probability is a formalization of degrees of belief, and as a formalization, it can only be an approximate representation of people’s real behavior. Evidently people are not in fact typically assigning such numbers. Nonetheless, the very “rigidity” of such numerical assignments can help us to understand the present issue.

In some cases, then, a child will effectively take the probability of his religious opinions to be 100%. As said in the linked post, the meaning of this is that, to the degree that 100% is the correct approximation, it is approximately impossible for him to change his mind, or even to become less sure of himself. P. Edmund Waldstein might be understood as claiming to be such a person, although in practice this may be more a matter of a mistaken epistemology which is corrigible, and consequently the approximation fails to this extent.

In the previous post, one of my conditions on the process was “given that he is capable of looking at the world honestly.” This condition basically does not apply to the person assigning the probability of 100%. In effect, he is unable to see any evidence against his position.

But suppose our approximate probability is very high, but not 100%, as for example 99.99%. This is not a balanced assessment of the real probability of any set of religious claims, but is likely a good approximation of the assessment made by a child raised very devoutly in a religion. So if the person correctly assesses the evidence that arrives throughout his life, that probability must diminish, as described in the previous post. There will of course be individual cases where a person does not have the 100% assignment, but cannot or will not correctly assess the evidence that arrives, and will either continually increase his assignment, or leave it unchanged throughout his life. The constant increase is more likely in the case of converts, as in the linked post, but this also implies that one did not start with such a high assignment. The person who permanently leaves it unchanged might be more correctly described as not paying attention or not being interested in the evidence one way or another, rather than as assessing that evidence.

But let us consider persons in whom that probability diminishes, as in the cases of Shulem Deen and of St. Therese discussed in the previous post. Of course, since evidence is not one sided, the probability will not only diminish, but also occasionally increase. But as long as the person has an unbalanced assessment of the evidence, or at least as long as it seems to them unbalanced compared to the evidence that they see, the general tendency will be in one direction. It can be argued that this should never happen with any opinion; thus Robin Hanson says here, “Rational learning of any expected value via a stream of info should produce a random walk in those expectations, not a steady trend.” But the idea here is that if you have a probability assignment of 99% and it is starting to decrease, then you should jump to an assignment of 50% or so, or even lower, guessing where the trend will end. And from that point you might well have to go back up, rather than down. But for obvious reasons people’s religious opinions do not in fact change in this way, at least most of the time, regardless of whether it would be reasonable or not, and consequently there are in fact steady trends.

So where does this end? The process causing the assessment to diminish can come to an end in one way if a person simply comes to the assessment that seems to him a balanced assessment of the evidence. At this point, there may be minor fluctuations in both directions, but the person’s assessment will henceforth stay relatively constant. And this actually happens in the case of some people.

In other persons, the process ends for reasons that have nothing to do with assessing evidence. St. Therese is certainly an example of this, insofar as she died at the age of 24. But this does not necessarily mean that her assessment would have continued to diminish if she had continued to live, for two reasons. First, the isolated character of her life, meant that she would receive less relevant evidence in the first place. So it might well be that by the time of her death she had already learned everything she could on the matter. In that sense she would be an example of the above situation where a person’s assessment simply arrives at some balance, and then stays there.

Second, a person can prevent this process from continuing, more or less simply by choosing to do so, and it is likely enough that St. Therese would have done this. Fr. Joseph Bolin seems to advocate this approach here, although perhaps not without reservation. In practice, this means that one who previously was attending to the relevant evidence, chooses to cease paying attention, or at least to cease evaluating the evidence, much like in our description of people whose assessment never changes in the first place.

Finally, there are persons in whom the process continues apparently without any limit. In this case, there are two possibilities. Either the person comes to the conclusion that their religious opinions were not true, as in my own case and as in the case of Shulem Deen, or the person decides that evidence is irrelevant, as in the case of Kurt Wise. The latter choice is effectively to give up on the love of truth, and to seek other things in the place of truth.

As an aside, the fact that this process seems almost inevitably to end either in abandoning religious claims, or in choosing to cease evaluating evidence, and only very rarely in apparently arriving at a balance, is an argument that religious claims are not actually true, although not a conclusive one. We earlier quoted Newman as saying:

I have no intention at all of denying, that truth is the real object of our reason, and that, if it does not attain to truth, either the premiss or the process is in fault; but I am not speaking here of right reason, but of reason as it acts in fact and concretely in fallen man. I know that even the unaided reason, when correctly exercised, leads to a belief in God, in the immortality of the soul, and in a future retribution; but I am considering the faculty of reason actually and historically; and in this point of view, I do not think I am wrong in saying that its tendency is towards a simple unbelief in matters of religion. No truth, however sacred, can stand against it, in the long run; and hence it is that in the pagan world, when our Lord came, the last traces of the religious knowledge of former times were all but disappearing from those portions of the world in which the intellect had been active and had had a career.

Newman explains this fact by original sin. But a more plausible explanation is that religious claims are simply not true. This is especially the case if one considers this fact in relation to the normal mode of progress in truth in individuals and in societies.

But getting back to the main point, this explains why they “do not return,” as Shulem Deen says. Such a return would not simply require reversing a particular decision or a particular argument. It would require either abandoning the love of truth, like Kurt Wise, or reversing the entire process of considering evidence that went on throughout the whole of one’s life. Suppose we saw off a branch, and then at the last moment break off the last little string of wood. How do we unbreak it? It was just a little piece of wood that broke… but it is not enough to fix that little piece, with glue or whatever. We would have to undo all of the sawing, and that cannot be done.

While there is much in this post and in the last which is interesting in itself, and thus entirely useless, all of this evidently has some bearing on my own case, and I had a personal motive in writing it, namely to explain to various people what expectations they should or should not have.

However, there is another issue that will be raised by all of this in the minds of many people, which is that of moral assessment. Regardless of who found the truth about the world, who did the right thing? Shulem Deen or St. Therese?


Contradicting You and Contradicting Myself

Perhaps the most blatant form of confusing the mode of knowing and the mode of being  is to argue, “I think that X is true. Therefore X is actually true.” It would be rare, of course, that anyone would argue this way so explicitly. However, it is not unheard of for someone to argue more or less in this way:

  1. I believe that X is true. You believe that it is not.
  2. If you were right, X would be false.
  3. But X is true.
  4. Therefore X would be both true and false, which is impossible.
  5. Therefore you are not right, and X is true.

This comes to the same thing as the original argument, since “but X is true” is simply being taken from “I believe that X is true.” Evidently, if X were false, X would not be true, despite the fact that the arguer believes that it is true.

On his website, The War Against Being, James Larson frequently makes arguments which amount to such attempted arguments by reductio. In a sense he puts this argument into the very title of his website: who is fighting a war against being and what does this mean? The beginning of his first article gives some indications:

It is conventional, contemporary wisdom that there is probably nothing more detached from reality, and nothing more inconsequential to the real events of this world, than is the study or promotion of the discipline of philosophy – and especially that highest branch of philosophy which is called ontology, the science of being. All that follows is meant to be a refutation of this “wisdom.” The road which I shall take will not, for the most part, be the technical world of the professional philosopher – this of necessity, simply because I am not one. There is an even greater necessity which hopefully will justify my presumption as a layman in treating of the metaphysical reality of being, and the war which has been and is being waged against it, and which now seems virtually universally victorious.

It might seem that there is a reasonable explanation for his title here. His opponents (“conventional, contemporary wisdom”) are against philosophy. But philosophy is about being. Therefore his opponents are against being.

This argument is not technically valid even given the premises, because even if philosophy is about being, someone who is against the use of philosophy is not necessarily opposed to being. And in any case, one of his premises is that “philosophy is about being,” and the position of his opponents, as he describes it himself, is that philosophy is “detached from reality,” and consequently, according to them, it is not about being. So “war against being” is a polemical description of his opponent’s position, and involves the assumption that his own position is actually true. In the end it comes to little more than this: “Some people disagree with me. But I am right, and my position truly describes being as it is. So those people are opposed to being as it is.”

At various points, Larson accuses his opponents of contradicting themselves. For example, in article 12 he says:

Our analysis of the writings of Joseph Ratzinger, up to this point, has revealed that he has subjected his theological and philosophical thinking to the influence of reductive analytical physics, and that this surrender has necessitated the denial of traditional Catholic teaching in three main areas: the denial of substance; the denial of the law of self-contradiction; and the denial of the nature of dogma as objective, unchanging truth.

The last-mentioned denial – the denial that truth is immutable and non-evolving – is a direct consequence of the belief enshrined in the quote from Father Ratzinger which I offered earlier: “Revelation now appeared no longer simply as a communication of truths to the intellect but as a historical action of God in which truth becomes gradually unveiled.” This is in direct contradiction to the teaching of Vatican Council I:

“For the doctrine of faith which God has revealed has not been proposed, like a philosophical invention, to be perfected by human ingenuity; but has been delivered as a divine deposit to the Spouse of Christ, to be faithfully kept and infallibly declared. Hence also, that meaning of the sacred dogmas is perpetually to be retained which our holy Mother the Church has once declared; nor is that meaning ever to be departed from, under the pretext of a deeper comprehension of them.

The Oath Against Modernism contained the following affirmation:

“Fourthly, I sincerely hold that the doctrine of faith was handed down to us from the apostles through the orthodox Fathers in exactly the same meaning and always in the same purport. Therefore, I entirely reject the heretical misrepresentation that dogmas evolve and change from one meaning to another different from the one which the Church held previously. I also condemn every error according to which, in place of the divine deposit which has been given to the spouse of Christ to be carefully guarded by her, there is put a philosophical figment or product of a human conscience that has gradually been developed by human effort and will continue to develop indefinitely.

We can know with certainty that Joseph Ratzinger took this oath. We can know with equal certainty that he has violated it in its deepest meaning.

While one of his three denials is “the denial of the law of self-contradiction” (meaning non-contradiction), the third is “the denial of the nature of dogma as objective, unchanging truth.” In the following sentence, he equates this with “the denial that truth is immutable and non-evolving.” Notice that these are not the same: one can deny that dogma is objective, unchanging truth, without saying that truth is mutable or evolving. Larson’s equating the two does not seem to be accidental. Rather, the argument is that dogma is actually objective and unchanging truth: therefore saying that dogma can change, means that truth itself can change. This argument has almost the precise form of the original reductio we considered.

Later in the same article, Larson comments on Ratzinger’s position on science and faith, and on original sin:

Science, according to Joseph Ratzinger and the historical-critical method of exegesis, has shown us clearly the degree to which scripture is largely composed of human fabrications expressive of the theological-fictive or magical mindset of those persons who composed the scriptures. Because of the primitive intellectual state of these peoples, we are therefore required – in order to distinguish between what is truly from God and what is of human invention – to distinguish between form and content in any particular passage of scripture. Content can simply be defined to be the “spiritual” message which God wishes to pass on to us, while form is constituted by all the rest which is conditioned by particular historical circumstances, literary genres, etc.

Thus, in Faith and the Future, Cardinal Ratzinger applies this historical-critical method to the first 3 chapters of the Book of Genesis:

“The difficulty begins with the very first page of the Bible. The concept presented there of how the world came to be, is in direct contradiction of all that we know today about the origins of the universe….And the problem continues, almost page by page….in the very next chapter new problems emerge with the story of the Fall. How can one bring this into harmony with the knowledge that – on the evidence of natural science – man starts not from above, but from below, does not fall, but slowly rises, even now having only just accomplished the metamorphosis from animal to human being? And what of paradise? Long before man existed, pain and death were in the world. Thistles and thorns grew long before any man had set eyes on them. And another thing: the first man was scarcely self-conscious, knew only privation and the wearisome struggle to survive. He was far from possessing the full endowment of reason, which the old doctrine of paradise attributes to him. But once the picture of paradise and the Fall has been broken in pieces, the notion of original sin goes with it, to be followed logically, it would seem, by the notion of redemption as well.”(page 5-7)

It is certainly no wonder, therefore, that Cardinal Ratzinger, in his book In the Beginning…A Catholic Understanding of the Story of Creation and the Fall, labeled the term original sin as a “certainly imprecise and misleading term”, and then proceeded to describe it as something which is contracted after birth through our relationships with others, and therefore through imitation, rather than it being something inherited at the moment of conception through generation (see my article Point of Departure in Christian Order, March 2004).

While Larson should not be trusted in anything he says about Ratzinger, or about anything really, his description of Ratzinger’s position on original sin is especially inaccurate. Ratzinger actually says this:

Finding an answer to this requires nothing less than trying to understand the human person better. It must once again be stressed that no human being is closed in upon himself or herself and that no one can live of or for himself or herself alone. We receive our life not only at the moment of birth but every day from without —from others who are not ourselves but who nonetheless somehow pertain to us. Human beings have their selves not only in themselves but also outside of themselves: they live in those whom they love and in those who love them and to whom they are “present.” Human beings are relational, and they possess their lives—themselves—only by way of relationship. I alone am not myself, but only in and with you am I myself. To be truly a human being means to be related in love, to be of and for. But sin means the damaging or the destruction of relationality. Sin is a rejection of relationality because it wants to make the human being a god. Sin is loss of relationship, disturbance of relationship, and therefore it is not restricted to the individual. When I destroy a relationship, then this event—sin —touches the other person involved in the relationship. Consequently sin is always an offense that touches others, that alters the world and damages it. To the extent that this is true, when the network of human relationships is damaged from the very beginning, then every human being enters into a world that is marked by relational damage. At the very moment that a person begins human existence, which is a good, he or she is confronted by a sin-damaged world. Each of us enters into a situation in which relationality has been hurt. Consequently each person is, from the very start, damaged in relationships and does not engage in them as he or she ought. Sin pursues the human being, and he or she capitulates to it.

“Every human being enters into a world that is marked by relational damage,” does not speak about something that happens after birth, but something that happens at the beginning of one’s existence. Larson seems to seem speak of the end of the passage, but it is easy to see that Ratzinger is speaking there of personal sin, not original sin. It is simply wrong to say that he describes original sin as something acquired after birth.

It is not unreasonable to ask whether this understanding of original sin is consistent with the traditional doctrine. Larson, however, rather than questioning, simply believes that it is manifestly inconsistent with that doctrine. He goes on to say:

The third stage in the evolution of human thought, the one which we are in right now, and which has made necessary the “essentialization” of the other two historical periods of human spirituality and thought, is the “positivistic,” or scientific, stage. This is the stage which, according to Fr. Ratzinger, is the defining mentality of our age:

“It seems incontrovertible that today the mentality described by Comte is that of a very large section of human society. The question about God no longer finds any place in human thought. To take up a well-known saying of Laplace, the context of the world is self-contained and the hypothesis of God is no longer necessary for its comprehension. Even the faithful, like travelers on a sinking ship, are becoming widely affected by an uneasy feeling: they are asking if the Christian faith has any future, or if it is not, in fact, more and more obviously being made obsolete by intellectual evolution. Behind such notions is the sense that a great gulf is developing between the world of faith and the world of science – a gulf that cannot be bridged, so that faith is made very largely impracticable.” (Ibid, p. 4-5)

Because of this “gulf” which exists between the traditional faith and the world of science, Father Ratzinger informs us that the “plethora of definitions” which the Church has “accumulated in the course of history” has become a “burden.” The irreconcilable nature of such dogmas with the modern positivistic and scientific intellectual consciousness makes the traditional content of the faith “oppressive” to the modern believer. Thus we are faced with the supposed necessity of either setting aside these doctrines as historically provisional, or of engaging in a task of “essentialization” which seeks to determine what constitutes the “content” behind the “form” of such definitions, and therefore altering the traditional understanding of the terms used in these definitions. This, of course, is precisely what Cardinal Ratzinger did in regard to the terms “original sin” and “transubstantiation.”

I think we must pause at this moment to understand the broader implications of these teachings. Any truly “sensitive” Catholic, if he accepts the truth of Joseph Ratzinger’s analysis and conclusions, should feel betrayed not only by the Church but also by God. This betrayal is multi-leveled. The Bible, which for two thousand years was considered to be inspired and a totally reliable source of truths on all levels of man’s existence is now shredded of virtually all meaning except the symbolical and the allegorical. Catholic dogma which was the absolute sure foundation of faith, and especially catechetical instruction of the young, is now to be essentialized, even to the point of self-contradiction. But even more importantly, the entire traditional understanding of the epistemological structure of the human intellect has now been negated.

Larson believes that Ratzinger has “altered the traditional understanding” of transubstantiation and original sin. And he describes this as “Catholic dogma which was the absolute sure foundation of faith, and especially catechetical instruction of the young, is now to be essentialized, even to the point of self-contradiction.” Note the point about self-contradiction. In reality, there is nothing contradictory in Ratzinger’s account of original sin, whether or not it is consistent with the traditional doctrine. If the traditional account contains mistaken elements, and Ratzinger’s account corrects those elements, this is not a contradiction unless you assume that those elements are also true. And this is the attempted reductio, “If you were right, X would be false. But X is true, so X would be both true and false. Therefore you are not right.”

Larson is arguing in a similar style when he says that the “structure of the human intellect has now been negated.” He continues:

At the core of all traditional Catholic understanding of both Who God is and also the nature of man, lies the fundamental Biblical idea that man is created in the image of God with an intellect and will that truly reflect, through the analogy of being, God’s intellect and will.

St. Thomas is very specific in this regard. He writes:

“We must needs say that the human soul knows all things in the eternal types, since by participation of these types we know all things. For the intellectual light itself which is in us, is nothing else than a participated likeness of the uncreated light, in which are created the eternal types,”(Pt. I, Q. 84, A.5).

The world of St. Thomas (and therefore the world of traditional Catholicism) is a trustworthy world, because it is a world in which man – his senses, mind and heart – are intimately connected to and reflective of Who God is, and also basically reliable in their knowledge of His creation. It is under such conditions of reliability and correspondence to an objective order of Truth, that trust truly takes root, and hope flourishes.

The world of Joseph Ratzinger, on the other hand, is one in which the disconnect between the human intellect and objective reality and truth is a fundamentally proven fact of historical evolution. It is one in which there is little harmony between human perception and objective reality. The obvious logical conclusion of postulating such a world is that God created man with an intellect oriented towards delusion – towards the perception of shadows that mask reality.

We were led by God and His Church for 2,000 years to believe in creation ex nihilo, in the unique creation of man with a spiritual soul, in an original Paradise free from death and sin, in original sin, in Noah and his ark, in the divine inspiration present in every word of scripture, in sanctifying grace, and in transubstantiation. We are now told these are the “forms” of particular stages in the evolution of human consciousness which must be abandoned or essentialized because they were only provisional expressions of truths which always go beyond the ability of the human intellect to grasp. And it is in the midst of this world of delusions that Fr. Ratzinger asks us now to forget about God and reality as being knowable, and informs us that our new form of faith is not to be founded in knowledge, but rather in trust (we shall examine this point in a moment). One is left with the inevitable question: Why should a man or woman trust such a God?

It is hard to see what Ratzinger has said, even according to Larson’s polemical understanding, which can be taken to imply that “God created man with an intellect oriented towards delusion.” And here we perhaps implicitly have what I characterized as the most blatant form of confusing thought and reality, “I think that X is true. Therefore X is actually true.” Larson’s true argument, it seems, is something like this: “If Ratzinger is right, then I am mistaken about many things. And that means that God must have created me with an intellect oriented to delusion.” When he says, “The world of St. Thomas (and therefore the world of traditional Catholicism) is a trustworthy world, because it is a world in which man – his senses, mind and heart – are intimately connected to and reflective of Who God is, and also basically reliable in their knowledge of His creation,” Larson really means to say that he himself is basically reliable in his knowledge of God and the world. Since God created him with an intellect oriented to truth, it follows that “I believe X. Therefore X is true,” is a good and reasonable argument. And if it turns out that he was wrong about X, it follows that God did not create him with an intellect oriented to truth.

Let us be clear, then. Saying that you are mistaken does not mean that I am contradicting myself, if I do not accept your position in the first place. I contradict you, not myself. Likewise, opposing your positions and policies does not mean that I am waging a “war against being,” if I do not think that your positions correspond to being or reality in the first place.


The First Mistake

At the end of the last post, I mentioned two opposed errors. The first was to say that the Christian thesis that God is hidden is a mere excuse, one given because someone realizes that his position is basically unsupported. This is not true, because as I indicated even in the last post, the thesis is a basic principle of Christian theology, and always has been, much as Pope Benedict XVI pointed out that the principles of development, and of interpretation relative to Christ, have always been at work within the Church.

More generally, the idea that God is hidden is a basic principle of any and every religion or theology. In a previous discussion I showed how motivations other than truth affect our beliefs more in matters more remote from the senses, and I included religious beliefs in this area. And this is in fact how the world is. But it is easy enough to imagine a world where religion is not remote from the senses, and where substantial disagreement about religion would not exist. The Garden of Eden as described would be one such world, but it is easy to imagine this in other ways as well. The point is that such a world is evidently not the actual world, and real religions do not posit such a world.

Blaise Pascal discusses this situation:

194. … Let them at least learn what is the religion they attack, before attacking it. If this religion boasted of having a clear view of God, and of possessing it open and unveiled, it would be attacking it to say that we see nothing in the world which shows it with this clearness. But since, on the contrary, it says that men are in darkness and estranged from God, that He has hidden Himself from their knowledge, that this is in fact the name which He gives Himself in the Scriptures, Deus absconditus; and finally, if it endeavours equally to establish these two things: that God has set up in the Church visible signs to make Himself known to those who should seek Him sincerely, and that He has nevertheless so disguised them that He will only be perceived by those who seek Him with all their heart; what advantage can they obtain, when, in the negligence with which they make profession of being in search of the truth, they cry out that nothing reveals it to them; and since that darkness in which they are, and with which they upbraid the Church, establishes only one of the things which she affirms, without touching the other, and, very far from destroying, proves her doctrine?

In order to attack it, they should have protested that they had made every effort to seek Him everywhere, and even in that which the Church proposes for their instruction, but without satisfaction. If they talked in this manner, they would in truth be attacking one of her pretensions. But I hope here to show that no reasonable person can speak thus, and I venture even to say that no one has ever done so. We know well enough how those who are of this mind behave. They believe they have made great efforts for their instruction when they have spent a few hours in reading some book of Scripture and have questioned some priests on the truths of the faith. After that, they boast of having made vain search in books and among men. But, verily, I will tell them what I have often said, that this negligence is insufferable. We are not here concerned with the trifling interests of some stranger, that we should treat it in this fashion; the matter concerns ourselves and our all.

The immortality of the soul is a matter which is of so great consequence to us and which touches us so profoundly that we must have lost all feeling to be indifferent as to knowing what it is. All our actions and thoughts must take such different courses, according as there are or are not eternal joys to hope for, that it is impossible to take one step with sense and judgment unless we regulate our course by our view of this point which ought to be our ultimate end.

Thus our first interest and our first duty is to enlighten ourselves on this subject, whereon depends all our conduct. Therefore among those who do not believe, I make a vast difference between those who strive with all their power to inform themselves and those who live without troubling or thinking about it.

I can have only compassion for those who sincerely bewail their doubt, who regard it as the greatest of misfortunes, and who, sparing no effort to escape it, make of this inquiry their principal and most serious occupation.

But as for those who pass their life without thinking of this ultimate end of life, and who, for this sole reason that they do not find within themselves the lights which convince them of it, neglect to seek them elsewhere, and to examine thoroughly whether this opinion is one of those which people receive with credulous simplicity, or one of those which, although obscure in themselves, have nevertheless a solid and immovable foundation, I look upon them in a manner quite different.

This carelessness in a matter which concerns themselves, their eternity, their all, moves me more to anger than pity; it astonishes and shocks me; it is to me monstrous. I do not say this out of the pious zeal of a spiritual devotion. I expect, on the contrary, that we ought to have this feeling from principles of human interest and self-love; for this we need only see what the least enlightened persons see.

We do not require great education of the mind to understand that here is no real and lasting satisfaction; that our pleasures are only vanity; that our evils are infinite; and, lastly, that death, which threatens us every moment, must infallibly place us within a few years under the dreadful necessity of being for ever either annihilated or unhappy.

There is nothing more real than this, nothing more terrible. Be we as heroic as we like, that is the end which awaits the world. Let us reflect on this and then say whether it is not beyond doubt that there is no good in this life but in the hope of another; that we are happy only in proportion as we draw near it; and that, as there are no more woes for those who have complete assurance of eternity, so there is no more happiness for those who have no insight into it.

Surely then it is a great evil thus to be in doubt, but it is at least an indispensable duty to seek when we are in such doubt; and thus the doubter who does not seek is altogether completely unhappy and completely wrong. And if besides this he is easy and content, professes to be so, and indeed boasts of it; if it is this state itself which is the subject of his joy and vanity, I have no words to describe so silly a creature.

How can people hold these opinions? What joy can we find in the expectation of nothing but hopeless misery? What reason for boasting that we are in impenetrable darkness? And how can it happen that the following argument occurs to a reasonable man?

“I know not who put me into the world, nor what the world is, nor what I myself am. I am in terrible ignorance of everything. I know not what my body is, nor my senses, nor my soul, not even that part of me which thinks what I say, which reflects on all and on itself, and knows itself no more than the rest. I see those frightful spaces of the universe which surround me, and I find myself tied to one corner of this vast expanse, without knowing why I am put in this place rather than in another, nor why the short time which is given me to live is assigned to me at this point rather than at another of the whole eternity which was before me or which shall come after me. I see nothing but infinites on all sides, which surround me as an atom and as a shadow which endures only for an instant and returns no more. All I know is that I must soon die, but what I know least is this very death which I cannot escape.

“As I know not whence I come, so I know not whither I go. I know only that, in leaving this world, I fall for ever either into annihilation or into the hands of an angry God, without knowing to which of these two states I shall be for ever assigned. Such is my state, full of weakness and uncertainty. And from all this I conclude that I ought to spend all the days of my life without caring to inquire into what must happen to me. Perhaps I might find some solution to my doubts, but I will not take the trouble, nor take a step to seek it; and after treating with scorn those who are concerned with this care, I will go without foresight and without fear to try the great event, and let myself be led carelessly to death, uncertain of the eternity of my future state.”

Who would desire to have for a friend a man who talks in this fashion? Who would choose him out from others to tell him of his affairs? Who would have recourse to him in affliction? And indeed to what use in life could one put him?

In truth, it is the glory of religion to have for enemies men so unreasonable; and their opposition to it is so little dangerous that it serves, on the contrary, to establish its truths. For the Christian faith goes mainly to establish these two facts: the corruption of nature, and redemption by Jesus Christ. Now I contend that, if these men do not serve to prove the truth of the redemption by the holiness of their behaviour, they at least serve admirably to show the corruption of nature by sentiments so unnatural.

Nothing is so important to man as his own state, nothing is so formidable to him as eternity; and thus it is not natural that there should be men indifferent to the loss of their existence, and to the perils of everlasting suffering. They are quite different with regard to all other things. They are afraid of mere trifles; they foresee them; they feel them. And this same man who spends so many days and nights in rage and despair for the loss of office, or for some imaginary insult to his honour, is the very one who knows without anxiety and without emotion that he will lose all by death. It is a monstrous thing to see in the same heart and at the same time this sensibility to trifles and this strange insensibility to the greatest objects. It is an incomprehensible enchantment, and a supernatural slumber, which indicates as its cause an all-powerful force.

There must be a strange confusion in the nature of man, that he should boast of being in that state in which it seems incredible that a single individual should be. However, experience has shown me so great a number of such persons that the fact would be surprising, if we did not know that the greater part of those who trouble themselves about the matter are disingenuous and not, in fact, what they say. They are people who have heard it said that it is the fashion to be thus daring. It is what they call “shaking off the yoke,” and they try to imitate this. But it would not be difficult to make them understand how greatly they deceive themselves in thus seeking esteem. This is not the way to gain it, even I say among those men of the world who take a healthy view of things and who know that the only way to succeed in this life is to make ourselves appear honourable, faithful, judicious, and capable of useful service to a friend; because naturally men love only what may be useful to them. Now, what do we gain by hearing it said of a man that he has now thrown off the yoke, that he does not believe there is a God who watches our actions, that he considers himself the sole master of his conduct, and that he thinks he is accountable for it only to himself.? Does he think that he has thus brought us to have henceforth complete confidence in him and to look to him for consolation, advice, and help in every need of life? Do they profess to have delighted us by telling us that they hold our soul to be only a little wind and smoke, especially by telling us this in a haughty and self-satisfied tone of voice? Is this a thing to say gaily? Is it not, on the contrary, a thing to say sadly, as the saddest thing in the world?

If they thought of it seriously, they would see that this is so bad a mistake, so contrary to good sense, so opposed to decency, and so removed in every respect from that good breeding which they seek, that they would be more likely to correct than to pervert those who had an inclination to follow them. And, indeed, make them give an account of their opinions, and of the reasons which they have for doubting religion, and they will say to you things so feeble and so petty, that they persuade you of the contrary. The following is what a person one day said to such a one very appositely: “If you continue to talk in this manner, you will really make me religious.” And he was right, for who would not have a horror of holding opinions in which he would have such contemptible persons as companions!

Thus those who only feign these opinions would be very unhappy, if they restrained their natural feelings in order to make themselves the most conceited of men. If, at the bottom of their heart, they are troubled at not having more light, let them not disguise the fact; this avowal will not be shameful. The only shame is to have none. Nothing reveals more an extreme weakness of mind than not to know the misery of a godless man. Nothing is more indicative of a bad disposition of heart than not to desire the truth of eternal promises. Nothing is more dastardly than to act with bravado before God. Let them then leave these impieties to those who are sufficiently ill-bred to be really capable of them. Let them at least be honest men, if they cannot be Christians. Finally, let them recognise that there are two kinds of people one can call reasonable; those who serve God with all their heart because they know Him, and those who seek Him with all their heart because they do not know Him.

But as for those who live without knowing Him and without seeking Him, they judge themselves so little worthy of their own care, that they are not worthy of the care of others; and it needs all the charity of the religion which they despise, not to despise them even to the point of leaving them to their folly. But because this religion obliges us always to regard them, so long as they are in this life, as capable of the grace which can enlighten them, and to believe that they may, in a little time, be more replenished with faith than we are, and that, on the other hand, we may fall into the blindness wherein they are, we must do for them what we would they should do for us if we were in their place, and call upon them to have pity upon themselves, and to take at least some steps in the endeavour to find light. Let them give to reading this some of the hours which they otherwise employ so uselessly; whatever aversion they may bring to the task, they will perhaps gain something, and at least will not lose much. But as for those who bring to the task perfect sincerity and a real desire to meet with truth, those I hope will be satisfied and convinced of the proofs of a religion so divine, which I have here collected, and in which I have followed somewhat after this order…

195. Before entering into the proofs of the Christian religion, I find it necessary to point out the sinfulness of those men who live in indifference to the search for truth in a matter which is so important to them, and which touches them so nearly.

Of all their errors, this doubtless is the one which most convicts them of foolishness and blindness, and in which it is easiest to confound them by the first glimmerings of common sense and by natural feelings.

For it is not to be doubted that the duration of this life is but a moment; that the state of death is eternal, whatever may be its nature; and that thus all our actions and thoughts must take such different directions, according to the state of that eternity, that it is impossible to take one step with sense and judgement, unless we regulate our course by the truth of that point which ought to be our ultimate end.

There is nothing clearer than this; and thus, according to the principles of reason, the conduct of men is wholly unreasonable, if they do not take another course.

On this point, therefore, we condemn those who live without thought of the ultimate end of life, who let themselves be guided by their own inclinations and their own pleasures without reflection and without concern, and, as if they could annihilate eternity by turning away their thought from it, think only of making themselves happy for the moment.

Yet this eternity exists, and death, which must open into it and threatens them every hour, must in a little time infallibly put them under the dreadful necessity of being either annihilated or unhappy for ever, without knowing which of these eternities is for ever prepared for them.

This is a doubt of terrible consequence. They are in peril of eternal woe and thereupon, as if the matter were not worth the trouble, they neglect to inquire whether this is one of those opinions which people receive with too credulous a facility, or one of those which, obscure in themselves, have a very firm, though hidden, foundation. Thus they know not whether there be truth or falsity in the matter, nor whether there be strength or weakness in the proofs. They have them before their eyes; they refuse to look at them; and in that ignorance they choose all that is necessary to fall into this misfortune if it exists, to await death to make trial of it, yet to be very content in this state, to make profession of it, and indeed to boast of it. Can we think seriously of the importance of this subject without being horrified at conduct so extravagant?

This resting in ignorance is a monstrous thing, and they who pass their life in it must be made to feel its extravagance and stupidity, by having it shown to them, so that they may be confounded by the sight of their folly. For this is how men reason, when they choose to live in such ignorance of what they are and without seeking enlightenment. “I know not,” they say…

Pascal is surely right about the importance of religious truth. He is also right to say that the idea that this truth is somewhat hidden from men is not foreign to religion, but an essential part of every real religion. The argument that “if religion is true, it should be obvious to everyone,” is evidently invalid, because religions not only do not claim this, but explicitly deny it. If a religion were obviously true to everyone, it would be a very different religion from any that exists, and a very different world.

Rather than attacking such a non-existent religion, he says,

In order to attack it, they should have protested that they had made every effort to seek Him everywhere, and even in that which the Church proposes for their instruction, but without satisfaction. If they talked in this manner, they would in truth be attacking one of her pretensions. But I hope here to show that no reasonable person can speak thus, and I venture even to say that no one has ever done so.

But here he is almost certainly going too far. It may be that “they would in truth be attacking one of her pretensions,” but only to the degree that they believe that ultimately it is more reasonable to think that religious beliefs are untrue. They would not be attacking the Church’s claims, or at least any claim truly important to the Church, simply by saying that some individual may do his best to seek the truth, and may come to the conclusion that religious truth is not present in the Church.

I touched on this earlier when discussing the suggestion of Leo XIII that it is easy to see that Catholicism is true. If this is taken to apply to the real world in any concrete way, he is mistaken, and this in fact would be the claim that Pascal says is obviously wrong and obviously not the Church’s claim. On a very similar topic, Newman says:

Starting then with the being of a God, (which, as I have said, is as certain to me as the certainty of my own existence, though when I try to put the grounds of that certainty into logical shape I find a difficulty in doing so in mood and figure to my satisfaction,) I look out of myself into the world of men, and there I see a sight which fills me with unspeakable distress. The world seems simply to give the lie to that great truth, of which my whole being is so full; and the effect upon me is, in consequence, as a matter of necessity, as confusing as if it denied that I am in existence myself. If I looked into a mirror, and did not see my face, I should have the sort of feeling which actually comes upon me, when I look into this living busy world, and see no reflexion of its Creator. This is, to me, one of those great difficulties of this absolute primary truth, to which I referred just now. Were it not for this voice, speaking so clearly in my conscience and my heart, I should be an atheist, or a pantheist, or a polytheist when I looked into the world. I am speaking for myself only; and I am far from denying the real force of the arguments in proof of a God, drawn from the general facts of human society and the course of history, but these do not warm me or enlighten me; they do not take away the winter of my desolation, or make the buds unfold and the leaves grow within me, and my moral being rejoice. The sight of the world is nothing else than the prophet’s scroll, full of “lamentations, and mourning, and woe.”

To consider the world in its length and breadth, its various history, the many races of man, their starts, their fortunes, their mutual alienation, their conflicts; and then their ways, habits, governments, forms of worship; their enterprises, their aimless courses, their random achievements and acquirements, the impotent conclusion of long-standing facts, the tokens so faint and broken of a superintending design, the blind evolution of what turn out to be great powers or truths, the progress of things, as if from unreasoning elements, not towards final causes, the greatness and littleness of man, his far-reaching aims, his short duration, the curtain hung over his futurity, the disappointments of life, the defeat of good, the success of evil, physical pain, mental anguish, the prevalence and intensity of sin, the pervading idolatries, the corruptions, the dreary hopeless irreligion, that condition of the whole race, so fearfully yet exactly described in the Apostle’s words, “having no hope and without God in the world,”—all this is a vision to dizzy and appall; and inflicts upon the mind the sense of a profound mystery, which is absolutely beyond human solution.

What shall be said to this heart-piercing, reason-bewildering fact? I can only answer, that either there is no Creator, or this living society of men is in a true sense discarded from His presence. Did I see a boy of good make and mind, with the tokens on him of a refined nature, cast upon the world without provision, unable to say whence he came, his birthplace or his family connexions, I should conclude that there was some mystery connected with his history, and that he was one, of whom, from one cause or other, his parents were ashamed. Thus only should I be able to account for the contrast between the promise and the condition of his being. And so I argue about the world;—if there be a God, since there is a God, the human race is implicated in some terrible aboriginal calamity. It is out of joint with the purposes of its Creator. This is a fact, a fact as true as the fact of its existence; and thus the doctrine of what is theologically called original sin becomes to me almost as certain as that the world exists, and as the existence of God.

And now, supposing it were the blessed and loving will of the Creator to interfere in this anarchical condition of things, what are we to suppose would be the methods which might be necessarily or naturally involved in His purpose of mercy? Since the world is in so abnormal a state, surely it would be no surprise to me, if the interposition were of necessity equally extraordinary—or what is called miraculous. But that subject does not directly come into the scope of my present remarks. Miracles as evidence, involve a process of reason, or an argument; and of course I am thinking of some mode of interference which does not immediately run into argument. I am rather asking what must be the face-to-face antagonist, by which to withstand and baffle the fierce energy of passion and the all-corroding, all-dissolving scepticism of the intellect in religious inquiries? I have no intention at all of denying, that truth is the real object of our reason, and that, if it does not attain to truth, either the premiss or the process is in fault; but I am not speaking here of right reason, but of reason as it acts in fact and concretely in fallen man. I know that even the unaided reason, when correctly exercised, leads to a belief in God, in the immortality of the soul, and in a future retribution; but I am considering the faculty of reason actually and historically; and in this point of view, I do not think I am wrong in saying that its tendency is towards a simple unbelief in matters of religion. No truth, however sacred, can stand against it, in the long run; and hence it is that in the pagan world, when our Lord came, the last traces of the religious knowledge of former times were all but disappearing from those portions of the world in which the intellect had been active and had had a career.

Newman takes the existing situation to be a strong argument for the doctrine of original sin. This is not as strong an argument as it seems to him; the existing situation is a likely result of the order of the world. In any case, his point is that one way or another, in the real world, it is not easy to come to the conclusion that a religion is true. In fact, he says that the natural tendency is to come to the opposite conclusion.

It is possible and reasonable to say in a sense that human beings in general are dishonest and unreasonable, and that this is the main explanation for why they disagree substantially in such important matters.

But it is quite unreasonable to say, “Human beings are divided into two kinds: the honest and reasonable ones, and the dishonest and unreasonable ones. The honest and reasonable ones are those who agree with me, and the dishonest and unreasonable ones are those who disagree with me.” And this is basically what Pascal asserts when he claims that no one can say that he has made every effort to discover the truth about religion, and has concluded that it is not present in the Church. He says even more: “I hope here to show that no reasonable person can speak thus, and I venture even to say that no one has ever done so.” Here he says that “no one has ever done so,” that is, no one has even claimed to make such an investigation. He is mistaken in both respects: in whatever sense there exist reasonable people, there are reasonable non-Catholics. And surely some of them have investigated Catholicism, come to the conclusion that it was not true, and said that they have done so.

Gwern Branwen explains the history of his religious opinions:

For I count being refuted a greater good, insofar as it is a greater good to be rid of the greatest evil from oneself than to rid someone else of it. I don’t suppose that any evil for a man is as great as false belief about the things we’re discussing right now…

I think religion was the first subject in my life that I took seriously. As best as I can recall at this point, I have no “deconversion story” or tale to tell, since I don’t remember ever seriously believing – the stories in the Bible or at my Catholic church were interesting, but they were obviously fiction to some degree. I wasn’t going to reject religion out of hand because some of the stories were made-up (any more than I believed George Washington didn’t exist because the story of him chopping down an apple tree was made-up), but the big claims didn’t seem to be panning out either:

  1. My prayers received no answers of any kind, not even a voice in my head
  2. I didn’t see any miracles or intercessions like I expected from a omnipotent loving god

There is a basic flaw in Gwern’s thinking here, and it is basically a naive concept of God, much like that of Richard Dawkins. The result is that he is falling into the error that Pascal condemns. The Church does not expect such things, at least on a regular basis, and if you think that it follows from the concept of an omnipotent loving God, then your concept of that being is not a Christian concept. In this sense, his whole mistake is that he fails to understand the idea that God is hidden. Nonetheless, it is wrong to say that the reason for Gwern’s mistake is that he was dishonest and unreasonable, and it is especially wrong to say that it was because he did not care about religious truth:

So I never believed (although it was obvious enough that there was no point in discussing this since it might just lead to me going to church more and sitting on the hard wooden pews), but there was still the troubling matter of Heaven & Hell: those infinities meant I couldn’t simply dismiss religion and continue reading about dinosaurs or Alcatraz. If I got religion wrong, I would have gotten literally the most important possible thing wrong! Nothing else was as important – if you’re wrong about a round earth, at worst you will never be a good geographer or astronomer; if you’re wrong about believing in astrology, at worst you waste time and money; if you’re wrong about evolution and biology, at worst you endanger your life; and so on. But if you’re wrong about religion, wasting your life is about the least of the consequences. And everyone accepts a religion or at least the legitimacy of religious claims, so it would be unspeakably arrogant of a kid to dismiss religion entirely – that sort of evidence is simply not there. (Oddly enough, atheists – who are not immediately shown to be mistaken or fools- are even rarer in books and cartoons than they are in real life.)

Kids actually are kind of skeptical if they have reason to be skeptical, and likewise will believe all sorts of strange things if the source was previously trustworthy. This is as it should be! Kids cannot come prewired with 100% correct beliefs, and must be able to learn all sorts of strange (but true) things from reliable authorities; these strategies are exactly what one would advise. It is not their fault that some of the most reliable authorities in their lives (their parents) are mistaken about one major set of beliefs. They simply have bad epistemic luck.

So I read the Bible, which veered from boring to incoherent to disgusting. (I became a fan of the Wisdom literature, however, and still periodically read the Book of Job, Ecclesiastes, and Proverbs.) That didn’t help much. Well, maybe Christianity was not the right religion? My elementary school library had a rather strange selection of books which included various Eastern texts or anthologies (I remember in particular one anthology on meditation, which was a hodge-podge of religious instruction manuals, essays, and scientific studies on meditation – that took me a long time to read, and it was only in high school and college that I really became comfortable reading psychology papers). I continued reading in this vein for years, in between all my more normal readings. The Koran was interesting and in general much better than the Bible. Shinto texts were worthless mythologizing. Taoism had some very good early texts (the Chuang-tzu in particular) but then bizarrely degenerated into alchemy. Buddhism was strange: I rather liked the general philosophical approach, but there were many populist elements in Mahayana texts that bothered me. Hinduism had a strange beauty, but my reaction was similar to that of the early translators, who condemned it for sloth and lassitude. I also considered the Occult seriously and began reading the Skeptical literature on that and related topics (see the later section).

It is clear from this that he did in fact care about getting the truth about religion, much for the reasons that Pascal says it is important to care about it.

More generally, in the real world there are honest and reasonable people, in the sense in which there are such people at all, belonging to every religion, and some belonging to none. And if we think about it carefully, this is a necessary effect of the thesis of the hidden God. Perhaps, as Pascal says, “God has set up in the Church visible signs to make Himself known to those who should seek Him sincerely, and that He has nevertheless so disguised them that He will only be perceived by those who seek Him with all their heart.” The purpose might be to distinguish between people who care and those who don’t. And this may succeed to some extent, but the net will inevitably catch some of the wrong people and miss some of the right people: some people who do not care, will believe anyway, and some people who do, will end up not believing.


Josephus on the Fall

While discussing the the account of the fall in Genesis, I said among other things that the most reasonable way to read the account implies that all the animals could talk. I received a personal comment to the effect that this idea is ridiculous, with the implication that I invented it. I agree that it is a ridiculous idea, if we are to suppose that the account is a historical one; but I have given reasons for believing that it is not such an account, and the fact that the text seems to imply something that we would not suspect of being the case historically, is simply additional support for this.

As for whether I invented the idea, I gave reasons at the time for reading the text in this way, and I won’t repeat them here. However, I am certainly not the first to read the text of Genesis in this way. Josephus states in his Antiquities of the Jews, 

God therefore commanded that Adam and his wife should eat of all the rest of the plants, but to abstain from the tree of knowledge; and foretold to them, that if they touched it, it would prove their destruction. But while all the living creatures had one language, at that time the serpent, which then lived together with Adam and his wife, shewed an envious disposition, at his supposal of their living happily, and in obedience to the commands of God; and imagining, that when they disobeyed them, they would fall into calamities, he persuaded the woman, out of a malicious intention, to taste of the tree of knowledge, telling them, that in that tree was the knowledge of good and evil; which knowledge, when they should obtain, they would lead a happy life; nay, a life not inferior to that of a god: by which means he overcame the woman, and persuaded her to despise the command of God. Now when she had tasted of that tree, and was pleased with its fruit, she persuaded Adam to make use of it also. Upon this they perceived that they were become naked to one another; and being ashamed thus to appear abroad, they invented somewhat to cover them; for the tree sharpened their understanding; and they covered themselves with fig-leaves; and tying these before them, out of modesty, they thought they were happier than they were before, as they had discovered what they were in want of. But when God came into the garden, Adam, who was wont before to come and converse with him, being conscious of his wicked behavior, went out of the way. This behavior surprised God; and he asked what was the cause of this his procedure; and why he, that before delighted in that conversation, did now fly from it, and avoid it. When he made no reply, as conscious to himself that he had transgressed the command of God, God said, “I had before determined about you both, how you might lead a happy life, without any affliction, and care, and vexation of soul; and that all things which might contribute to your enjoyment and pleasure should grow up by my providence, of their own accord, without your own labor and pains-taking; which state of labor and pains-taking would soon bring on old age, and death would not be at any remote distance: but now thou hast abused this my good-will, and hast disobeyed my commands; for thy silence is not the sign of thy virtue, but of thy evil conscience.” However, Adam excused his sin, and entreated God not to be angry at him, and laid the blame of what was done upon his wife; and said that he was deceived by her, and thence became an offender; while she again accused the serpent. But God allotted him punishment, because he weakly submitted to the counsel of his wife; and said the ground should not henceforth yield its fruits of its own accord, but that when it should be harassed by their labor, it should bring forth some of its fruits, and refuse to bring forth others. He also made Eve liable to the inconveniency of breeding, and the sharp pains of bringing forth children; and this because she persuaded Adam with the same arguments wherewith the serpent had persuaded her, and had thereby brought him into a calamitous condition. He also deprived the serpent of speech, out of indignation at his malicious disposition towards Adam. Besides this, he inserted poison under his tongue, and made him an enemy to men; and suggested to them, that they should direct their strokes against his head, that being the place wherein lay his mischievous designs towards men, and it being easiest to take vengeance on him, that way. And when he had deprived him of the use of his feet, he made him to go rolling all along, and dragging himself upon the ground. And when God had appointed these penalties for them, he removed Adam and Eve out of the garden into another place.

Josephus clearly believes that the account is a literal one, and while presenting my own argument, I noted that this was in fact the common reading throughout history. But he also indicates his belief in certain details: as that God “deprived the serpent of speech,” which means that the serpent had the power to speak in general, and that it was not simply a question of a demonic temptation. He also begins with “while all the living creatures had one language,” which implies that all the animals could use language, and the serpent was merely an example of this.

Even if it is not absolutely necessary, the implication that all the animals could talk is a fairly natural reading of the text of Genesis. The main reason that someone might not notice this reading is the presupposition that in fact they could not talk, and that Genesis must be an account of the actual facts.

Zimmerman’s Response to the Catechism

As I suggested previously, it is possible that the statement on original immortality in the Catechism was directed against Zimmerman’s opinion. Whether or not the authors of the Catechism intended this explicitly, Zimmerman surely noted the conflict with his own views. Wishing to remain an orthodox Catholic, he substantially toned down his opinion in a subsequent work. He discusses the text of the Catechism in chapter 7 of his book Evolution and the Sin in Eden: A New Christian Synthesis:

Today the Church goes ones step further than Trent by the teaching in CCC 1008 and again in 1018 that physical death was brought about by original sin: “As a consequence of original sin, man must suffer ‘bodily death, from which man would have been immune had he not sinned'” (CCC 1018, cf. GS #18).

The CCC is “a sure norm for teaching the faith and thus a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion… This catechism is given to (the Church’s pastors and the Christian faithful) that it may be a sure and authentic reference text for teaching doctrine and particularly for preparing local catechisms” (Apostolic Constitution on the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, John Paul II, October 11, 1992).

Despite the refusal of the Council of Trent to define the doctrine that Adam would have been immune from physical death if he had not sinned, the Church today proclaims it as part of its catechesis. Actually, Trent did not oppose the common belief, and only refused to make it binding once and for all.

The CCC’s inclusion of the doctrine is of great teaching value to dramatically emphasize the evil of sin, of disobedience to God. Death follows sin, so beware! Genesis certainly does the same by pairing death with sin. This is an excellent teaching aid, already begun in Genesis, now continued in our Catechism.

There may be theological reasons of great depth in the teaching that bodily death is a consequence of original sin, aspects of a truth which remains to be mined and discovered. Sin is moral corruption of the sinner’s soul, and corruption of the body through death may be mystically associated with sin in the eyes of God as well as of man.

While apparently accepting the teaching of the Catechism here, Zimmerman may be implicitly questioning it in the last paragraph, suggesting, “Perhaps the teaching is there not because it is true, but because of another truth that we haven’t yet made explicit.” In any case, he continues to recognize that there is some evidence against the claim, and consequently remains dissatisfied with the teaching of the Catechism:

Are we puzzled by the fact that our present cosmos is not designed for human life which is immune from physical death? One response to the puzzle can be that God already foresaw that Adam would commit original sin, hence there was no need for God to design the cosmos for a condition which would never become real. I confess that this solution, although proposed by some people, does not please me.

Other considerations remain to be solved. We note that the CCC does not state that Adam was already immune from physical death before he sinned. Nor does it teach that he enjoyed perpetual youth and freedom from various natural hardships during his life before sin. Many things remain unsaid and unresolved, if man’s natural condition of dying a biological death began only after original sin.

A number of reasons converge to indicate that man’s immunity from bodily death, as taught in GS 18 and the CCC, has the fuller meaning of eternal death of body and soul. The context of GS 18 is about man’s yearning for eternal life, not for mere biological continuity on earth. Furthermore, footnotes 14 and 15 of GS 18 refer to biblical texts that pertain to spiritual death invoked by evil deeds; they do not treat about biological death. Finally, the Council of Trent yolked together death from original sin and captivity under the power of the devil. But saints who die a bodily death in holiness are not captives of the devil. GS 18 and CCC 1008 therefore point more plausibly to eternal death than to temporal biological death. If that is correct, then neither Genesis, nor the rest of the Bible, nor Trent, nor Vatican II, nor the Catechism of the Catholic Church indicates with certainty that man was ever immune from natural biological death before original sin. However, I remain open for correction on this point.

Of course, his opinion here is not plausible at all, if he means to suggest that this might have been the actual intention of the authors of the Catechism. That intention was obviously to refer to biological death. However, the opinion is not necessarily completely unreasonable from the point of view of development of doctrine.

In any case, Zimmerman remains dissatisfied with the teaching. The teaching of the Church may prevent him from asserting as a positive opinion that man would have died even without sin; but it cannot prevent him from noticing that there is evidence in favor of this.

Gehringer vs. Zimmerman on Original Immortality

Earlier we looked at a brief passage from a review by Joseph Gehringer of Zimmerman’s book on original sin:

Surprisingly, however, evolution continues to attract sympathetic attention in many orthodox Catholic publications. Even publications which are considered ‘conservative’ have been giving circulation to the erroneous claim that the Catholic Church has “never had a problem with evolution.” A recent editorial suggested that evolution was so probable – for philosophical reasons – that Catholics are almost obliged to accept it. Apparently the constant attacks on creationism in the secular media during the 1980’s have had their effect: Humani Generis has been forgotten and theistic evolution has become part of the new orthodoxy.

One of the clearest signs of this evolutionary trend is the appearance of a new book by Father Anthony Zimmerman, S.V.D., who is well-known for his work in Japan combating the twin evils of contraception and abortion. Fr. Zimmerman’s uncompromising position on these moral issues stands in strange contrast to his treatment of Scripture, Tradition, and dogma on matters related to human origins. On moral questions he relies upon the Magisterium as an infallible guide; on the question of Adam and Eve, he relies upon scientific theories as the most reliable guide.

Gehringer is criticizing Zimmerman’s apparent inconsistency, namely his appearing willing to follow the Magisterium on moral issues while appearing unwilling to follow the Magisterium on “the question of Adam and Eve.” Gehringer does not seem to notice, however, that this suggests that Zimmerman may have especially strong reasons for his opinions regarding the latter question, since he obviously prefers in principle to be faithful to the Magisterium. I would add the personal note that I have met Fr. Zimmerman in real life and I can testify that by any ordinary standard he is a devout, orthodox Catholic.

Gehringer criticizes Zimmerman’s treatment of tradition:

Tradition is divided into two types (page 208). Those teachings which Fr. Zimmerman accepts are called “Magisterial Tradition”; those he rejects are labeled “folklore tradition.”

As for dogma, under “Preternatural Gifts” in the Pocket Catholic Dictionary (by Rev. John Hardon, S.J.) we read: “They include three great privileges to which human beings have no title – infused knowledge, absence of concupiscence, and bodily immortality. Adam and Eve possessed these gifts before the Fall.” Because they do not fit into his scenario of a gradual, natural evolution, Fr. Zimmerman rejects the idea that Adam and Eve possessed these gifts. Although Vatican II refers to “bodily death from which man would have been immune had he not sinned,” Fr. Zimmerman suggests this is a “doctrinal mistake,” adding: “I look forward to the day when the teaching Church will come to grips with tradition about … the supposed lack of physical death in the original Paradise. Is that a folklore tradition?” (page 208). Over and over, both the great theologians and the actual teachings of the Church are challenged and questioned. For example, “The pre-sin Adam of Augustine, then, is not a functional Adam at all” (page 149). And, “The Church has not made its own this belabored reasoning of Thomas” (page 146). On the other hand, Fr. Zimmerman gives us extensive excerpts (“delightful and informative”) from Lucy, the Beginnings of Humankind, by Johanson and Edey (pages 64-65).

Since the gift of bodily immortality to Adam is considered to be a “de fide” teaching of the Church, Fr. Zimmerman employs a variety of devices to try to convince the reader that this ancient dogma is actually a misinterpretation of Genesis. He claims the Church has erred on a related issue; he explains that the statements of the Councils do not mean what they have always been understood to say; he ignores relevant Scriptural and Magisterial statements; and he caricatures traditional interpretations, subjecting some to outright ridicule.

Making a distinction between “folklore tradition” and “Magisterial tradition” is indeed a bit strange. However, despite Gehringer’s implication, the Church has no list of “de fide” teachings. When Gehringer says that Adam’s bodily immortality is considered to be a matter of faith, he refers to the opinion of some theologians. And just as some theologians say that it is a matter of faith, other theologians, like Zimmerman, may say the opposite.

Gehringer goes on to criticize Zimmerman’s discussion of the various magisterial statements regarding the issue:

The Decrees of the Councils fare no better at Fr. Zimmerman’s hands. Canon 1 of the Council of Carthage, approved by Pope St. Zozimus, is quoted on page 188, but it is described as a “sentence” written by 200 bishops. By page 207, Fr. Zimmerman admits it was a Canon, but he argues that it was not “a positive doctrinal assertion,” only an “ad hominem argument about physical death directed against the heretics.” The old Catholic Encyclopedia, in the article on “Pelagius,” tells us that “these clearly worded canons (… death did not come to Adam from a physical necessity, but through sin …) came to be articles of faith binding the universal Church.” Yet Fr. Zimmerman dismisses it as an “ad hominem argument.”

In its Decree on Original Sin, the Council of Trent promulgated five canons. The first canon declares: “If anyone does not profess that Adam, the first man, … drew upon himself … death with which God had threatened him, and together with death captivity in the power of … the devil … anathema sit.” Fr. Zimmerman ignores what the canon clearly states, arguing that “Missing … is the explicit statement that Adam would not have died a physical death had he not sinned, which had been in an earlier version” (page 10).

Note Fr. Zimmerman’s use of the “Heads I win, tails you lose” type of argument. The Council of Carthage adopted a canon which stated explicitly that Adam was immune from physical death before he sinned; Fr. Zimmerman rejects this as an “ad hominem argument.” The Council of Orange adopted a canon which refers specifically to “bodily death which is the punishment of sin”; Fr. Zimmerman does not quote it, but dismisses it as “something commonly accepted.” The Council of Trent reaffirmed these earlier teachings in different words (“Adam … by his sin … drew upon himself the … death with which God had threatened him”); Fr. Zimmerman rejects this as not being an explicit declaration. Clearly, Fr. Zimmerman shows himself unwilling to accept this Catholic dogma, no matter how it is expressed.

Trent’s Canon 2 declares: “If anyone asserts that Adam’s sin … transmitted to all mankind only death and the suffering of the body but not sin as well which is the death of the soul, anathema sit. For he contradicts the words of the Apostle: ‘Sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men as all sinned in him'” (Rom. 5:12 Vulg; see Council of Orange II, Canon 2). Fr. Zimmerman begins by placing quotation marks around the word “death,” even though none appear in his source, Neuner and Dupuis No. 509. Denzinger-Deferrari also has no quotation marks around the word. Next he asserts that Trent explicitly accepted “death of the soul” but did not explicitly accept a lack of physical death, an obvious misinterpretation of the words of the Canon. In an effort to support his misinterpretation, Fr. Zimmerman omits the quotation from Holy Scripture and the reference to the Council of Orange, both of which make it quite apparent that the Council was speaking about physical death.

Father Zimmerman’s disregard for the rulings of the Magisterium is apparent from his handling of other solemn statements as well. On page 207 he quotes from Vatican Council II, “that bodily death, from which man would have been immune had he not sinned.” After first claiming that “this English translation misses precisions of the Latin,” he proposes his interpretation. “The living Adam would go directly from his living body to heaven, and then the body would die…. Adam wouldn’t die, but his body would die. In this way all the bases are covered….” In the Foreword, this book is hailed as a “unique piece of theological exposition.” Unique indeed! Who else would propose as a new Catholic dogma that “Adam wouldn’t die, but his body would die” in order to ‘cover all the bases’?

Gehringer’s discussion here is a bit unfair to Zimmerman, and in reality the interpretation of magisterial statements can be quite complex and not nearly as straightforward as Gehringer supposes. However, at least regarding the last point, it is clear enough that “Adam wouldn’t die, but his body would die” is a contradiction in itself, and that here at least Zimmerman’s position is entirely unreasonable.

I would make a number of points about this disagreement.

First, it is not impossible for someone to hold Zimmerman’s position, even without abandoning or modifying the Church’s teachings on its authority and infallibility. Earlier we noted most of the relevant magisterial statements. The canons of Carthage and Orange are decrees of local councils, and so would not be infallible in themselves. The council of Trent modified an original formulation of its canons that made bodily death as such a result of sin, and given this modification it seems impossible to prove that they intended to define this claim about bodily death absolutely. Gaudium et Spes is not intended to be an infallible document, and the statement about bodily death is made in the context of other statements like, “All the endeavors of technology, though useful in the extreme, cannot calm his anxiety,” where surely no one would complain that the Church was wrong in general, if it turned out that the endeavors of technology calmed someone’s anxiety. And regarding the Catechism, Cardinal Ratzinger stated in Introduction to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

The individual doctrines which the Catechism presents receive no other weight than that which they already possess. The weight of the Catechism itself lies in the whole. Since it transmits what the Church teaches, whoever rejects it as a whole separates himself beyond question from the faith and teaching of the Church.

This implies that unless the doctrine of original immortality is already understood to be infallible, the Catechism does not try to make it infallible. Of course someone like Gehringer could argue against all of this in many ways, as for example by the common consent of the Church and of theologians throughout history. But that would be an argument, and might or might not be right. Thus it is possible in principle for someone to hold Zimmerman’s position, even without changing any idea regarding the Church’s authority. But such a position would have consequences, and Gehringer has some justification for fearing those consequences. I will say more about this shortly.

Second, Zimmerman says a number of strange things about tradition and about the magisterial statements. Gehringer notes some of these things, such as the concept of “folklore tradition,” and the statement that “Adam wouldn’t die, but his body would die.” I noted above that generally speaking, Zimmerman is an orthodox Catholic. This is the best way to understand the various oddities of Zimmerman’s position. He does not like saying that “the Church was wrong”, and so he says various strange things in order to avoid this. As I said in the first point, in principle someone can hold Zimmerman’s position without rejecting the authority of the Church as such. However, it is not reasonable to hold this position without saying that the Church has proposed a false teaching a number of times, even if non-infallibly. So Zimmerman’s position appears unreasonable because he attempts to hold his position on original immortality while trying to avoid saying that the Church was mistaken, even in cases where in fact it would have been mistaken, under Zimmerman’s hypothesis.

Third, the real basis of the disagreement is the evidence against original immortality, discussed here and here. Zimmerman finds this evidence convincing, and consequently holds that it is necessary to adjust the teaching of the Church to correspond to this evidence. Gehringer instead wishes to say that the theory of evolution is false, and hopes that this will imply that there is no longer any evidence against original immortality.

There are several problems with Gehringer’s manner of response. In the first place, even if the theory of evolution was false, and even if there were no substantial evidence for it, there would still be evidence against original immortality, even if it would be somewhat weaker. Second, evidence is objective and does not change sides. So whether you accept or reject original immortality, or evolution, or anything else, is not the point. The evidence for and against these things will remain just as it is no matter what your position is.

Fourth, however, the consequences of that evidence will vary somewhat depending on how you react to it. There is evidence against original immortality, but there is also evidence (as for example those magisterial statements) in favor of it. Those evidences will remain just as they are no matter what someone’s position is. But there will be different ultimate consequences in terms of how people react. I said above that Gehringer has some justification for fearing the consequences of Zimmerman’s position. One of those consequences is that someone who holds Zimmerman’s position will almost certainly conclude that the authority of the Magisterium is weaker than many Catholics suppose, if he is honest enough to admit that his position implies that each of those magisterial statements was mistaken. Note that there is an objective aspect here as well: even if someone does not conclude that this position is ultimately true, the evidence against original immortality is also evidence that the Church’s authority is weaker in this way. But whether you believe that it is actually weaker in this way or not, may depend on whether you are convinced by the evidence regarding immortality.

But there is yet more for Gehringer to fear. Genesis assigns death as a result of the fall, but also other things, such as a woman’s pain in childbirth. But death seems the most important of these things. If death is not the result of the fall, then it is likely that the pain of childbirth and so on are not results of it. Thus it would be unclear that the fall had any results at all, which would suggest that it did not happen. This seems to suggest that the Bible as a whole would be false, given that considered as a whole it seems to be an account of the origin of death and how it is to be overcome. This, of course, is not a conclusion that Zimmerman draws or wishes to draw. But there is an objective aspect here as well: the evidence against original immortality is indirect evidence that the Bible as a whole is false, whether or not anyone draws that conclusion.

Original Immortality and the Order of the World

Earlier we discussed an argument against the idea of the fall, taken from the nature of the order of the world. This will apply in a particular way to the idea that man was immortal before the fall, if only because this is one concrete way that the idea of the fall can be understood.

It is a common young earth creationist claim that before the fall, there was no animal death at all:

Death is a sad reality that is ever present in our world, leaving behind tremendous pain and suffering. Tragically, many people shake a fist at God when faced with the loss of a loved one and are left without adequate answers from the church as to death’s existence. Unfortunately, an assumption has crept into the church which sees death as a natural part of our existence and as something that we have to put up with as opposed to it being an enemy (1 Corinthians 15:26) that came into God’s very good creation. This paper will argue that the biblical understanding of death, whether animal or human, physical or spiritual, views it to be a consequence of man’s disobedience towards his Creator and an intrusion into His “very good” creation.

This is not a very reasonable view, and St. Thomas argues against it in principle:

In the opinion of some, those animals which now are fierce and kill others, would, in that state, have been tame, not only in regard to man, but also in regard to other animals. But this is quite unreasonable. For the nature of animals was not changed by man’s sin, as if those whose nature now it is to devour the flesh of others, would then have lived on herbs, as the lion and falcon. Nor does Bede’s gloss on Genesis 1:30, say that trees and herbs were given as food to all animals and birds, but to some. Thus there would have been a natural antipathy between some animals. They would not, however, on this account have been excepted from the mastership of man: as neither at present are they for that reason excepted from the mastership of God, Whose Providence has ordained all this. Of this Providence man would have been the executor, as appears even now in regard to domestic animals, since fowls are given by men as food to the trained falcon.

The creationists however have correctly perceived that the original mortality of other animals would be evidence for the original mortality of man. It would be more likely that other animals would have died, given that man was going to die as well, than given that he was not going to die, and this means that animal death is evidence for human death. The creationists are probably also correct to suppose that the story of the fall, considered as a story, implies the original absence of both animal and human death, although this is not explicitly stated. They are mistaken, however, to suppose that Genesis is intended literally.

The existence of animal death before the existence of humanity is confirmed by geology, and this does not change much with the acceptance of the theory of evolution. However, the issue at least becomes more noticeable. Given that the first humans had ancestors, this implies that whoever was first meant to be immortal, had parents and possibly siblings that were not immortal. And since evolution proceeds gradually, it is possible that the first man who was capable of moral action was not the first human (with a human soul) to exist. This would suggest that the death of human beings happened even before anyone was capable of choosing good or evil.

In any case, the particular argument considered in the previous post on the fall and the order of the world, was that an elevation of nature to a condition obtainable through secondary causes, without actually using such causes, is unlikely.

Absolute immortality does not seem to be a condition obtainable through secondary causes, or at least there is no clear evidence of such a possibility. Consequently the argument discussed there does not apply to an elevation to absolute immortality, although it would still apply to the fall from that state (namely, it would argue that this is contrary to the usual order of the world.)

However, being elevated to immortality also includes aspects that in fact can be produced by secondary causes. In principle it is not impossible for an animal to be free of biological aging, and there may be some species in nature that are very nearly so. In practice this was not possible for human beings because they descended from a species which already had death by aging. St. Thomas however notes that it is possible to produce freedom from death in this sense through secondary causes:

I answer that, The tree of life in a certain degree was the cause of immortality, but not absolutely. To understand this, we must observe that in the primitive state man possessed, for the preservation of life, two remedies, against two defects. One of these defects was the lost of humidity by the action of natural heat, which acts as the soul’s instrument: as a remedy against such loss man was provided with food, taken from the other trees of paradise, as now we are provided with the food, which we take for the same purpose. The second defect, as the Philosopher says (De Gener. i, 5), arises from the fact that the humor which is caused from extraneous sources, being added to the humor already existing, lessens the specific active power: as water added to wine takes at first the taste of wine, then, as more water is added, the strength of the wine is diminished, till the wine becomes watery. In like manner, we may observe that at first the active force of the species is so strong that it is able to transform so much of the food as is required to replace the lost tissue, as well as what suffices for growth; later on, however, the assimilated food does not suffice for growth, but only replaces what is lost. Last of all, in old age, it does not suffice even for this purpose; whereupon the body declines, and finally dies from natural causes. Against this defect man was provided with a remedy in the tree of life; for its effect was to strengthen the force of the species against the weakness resulting from the admixture of extraneous nutriment. Wherefore Augustine says (De Civ. Dei xiv, 26): “Man had food to appease his hunger, drink to slake his thirst; and the tree of life to banish the breaking up of old age”; and (QQ. Vet. et Nov. Test. qu. 19) “The tree of life, like a drug, warded off all bodily corruption.”

Yet it did not absolutely cause immortality; for neither was the soul’s intrinsic power of preserving the body due to the tree of life, nor was it of such efficiency as to give the body a disposition to immortality, whereby it might become indissoluble; which is clear from the fact that every bodily power is finite; so the power of the tree of life could not go so far as to give the body the prerogative of living for an infinite time, but only for a definite time. For it is manifest that the greater a force is, the more durable is its effect; therefore, since the power of the tree of life was finite, man’s life was to be preserved for a definite time by partaking of it once; and when that time had elapsed, man was to be either transferred to a spiritual life, or had need to eat once more of the tree of life.

From this the replies to the objections clearly appear. For the first proves that the tree of life did not absolutely cause immortality; while the others show that it caused incorruption by warding off corruption, according to the explanation above given.

Two problems with this considered as a direct response to the argument from the order of the world, however, are first that the tree of life in Genesis cannot be understood literally, and second that the tree of life itself does not have natural secondary causes. In practice the only realistic way to achieve freedom from death by aging through secondary causes would be through human medical technology, as is hoped for by Ray Kurzweil. But this implies that it is also the mode which is most fitting to the order of the world, which argues that human immortality should be in the future, not in the past.

Nor would the fact that absolute immortality cannot be produced by secondary causes negate this evidence, for absolute immortality could also be in the future, even given that it is to be obtained. And if there could have been rational animals without the capacity for moral choice who lived and died before man was offered immortality, then the proposal that absolute immortality be put off long enough to allow the obtaining of imperfect immortality through the action of secondary causes would be entirely reasonable.

In addition, positing a complete immortality at the beginning of the human race implies the addition of an indefinite number of miracles to the order of secondary causes, which necessarily makes this order less perfect. St. Thomas, noting that man’s body could be affected by other bodies, says that, “Man’s body in the state of innocence could be preserved from suffering injury from a hard body; partly by the use of his reason, whereby he could avoid what was harmful; and partly also by Divine Providence, so preserving him, that nothing of a harmful nature could come upon him unawares.” But such a use of divine providence effectively implies being miraculously preserved from the possibility of accidental death.