Wednesday, June 16, 2010

This is where it leads . . .

This is what civil war looks like in its larval stage, and responsibility for it lies with those sentimentalists who willfully subordinated anthropological and cultural reality to rhapsodies about multiculturalism and the Western self loathing that sustained it.

The London Daily Mail reported: "Screaming hate and brandishing vile placards, Muslim extremists and far-Right groups clashed yesterday in ugly scenes that marred a parade by soldiers."


matt tavares said...

What a mess. If it weren't for the modern clothes and the video cameras, I would think we were watching something from hundreds of years ago.

One thing I'm starting to become uneasy with is what I'll fumble to call match ups. In this case its the secular vs Islam. In other arenas its Christianity vs Islam, and in others Judaism vs Christianity. And as of late with guys like Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris, it's a match up of secularism vs every religion conceivable. Looking backward in time the Hebrew scriptures hint that the battle of the Jews vs pagan religions was one worth fighting. Today with all these different battles brewing, it's becoming a bit blinding for me, and by my perception enough of a discomfort for many to call the idea of religion too much of a mess to consider.

As I stated earlier, I really fumbled through that all. I would appreciate any cleaning up or insight anyone else may add. It seems as if it would be hasty to ignore Islam, but sifting through all the noise seems like quite the daunting task.

the other Gil said...

A few years ago I heard a Lutheran minister use the term "oppositional self-imaging", and that sent me on a journey. It implies establishing an identity based on who you oppose. When I came out the other side of that journey, I understood that I should never oppose anyone, only ideas.

So it is that the number one requirement is to reside in love, which is possible only if one resides in truth. And oftentimes when you express a truth that someone opposes, the person will take it personally, as if you are attacking him. This is why Paul (who was assaulted on many occasions for speaking the truth) instructs us to reside in love, the only place where we find real rest from the agony of conflict, or, as you write, the hell of match ups. And martyrdom in speaking the truth is not possible if you speak a legitimate truth but do not reside in love.

matt tavares said...

When you can't get Gil, there is nothing like the other Gil :)

Thank you, that was loaded with help. I appreciate how you got to the inevitable perceived personal attack. It is a good reminder for me to load myself up with a loving perspective before delivering the bad news, so to speak.

"Oppositional self-image" is beautifully concise term. I know I've been that way myself at times, and I know I've experienced in others. It seems that behavior creates terrible interpersonal barriers. I can see how that idea would send you on quite the journey.

ignatius said...

Hello Matt!
Your questions actually require a long book to answer. I can’t offer anything as sublime as what the other Gil said, -that gets to the core of it,- but I could add this. Religion is a part of our humanity. It is built into us, and when the new atheists try to destroy it, they try to lead people to a Weltanschauung which is alien to human nature. Atheism and secularism are unsustainable. They merely create a vacuum which will be filled by something else: in the case of Europe this might be Islam. As evidence for this, I could cite Austrian statistics: though 2.1 children per mother is the flat replacement rate to keep the population stable, Austrians without a religious affiliation have a fertility rate of well under 1.0 (according to Mark Steyn, 0.86 children per woman). The population would implode with such a rate, it would be suicidal for a society and for humanity as a whole.

Second point: Given that religious worship is part of our nature, why choose Christianity? My brief answer would be as follows: Yes, Christians have committed horrible crimes, but Christianity has also been a great light to the world. It took the lead in establishing hospitals, building universities, improving European agriculture, developing music, promoting art, encouraging chastity, and after major setbacks, eliminating slavery and providing the intellectual environment for forming more benign governments. I honestly think that a Christian culture is the only one in which such a large variety of geniuses like Michelangelo, da Vinci, Shakespeare, Mozart, Louis Pasteur (who reputedly died with a crucifix in his hand) and numerous others could thrive and be a blessing to others.

This boon to humanity can be seen in the fact that millions of people from elsewhere would gladly move to the USA or Europe, both of which are still good places to live largely because of their Christian heritage. Alas, Europe at least is now living on borrowed time. Few people here are committed Christians. Secularists are indeed tolerating Islamic excesses while attacking Christianity, not realizing that they’re working for their own demise.

Anonymous said...

thank you other gil - that was really helpful - i think it's difficult though - or maybe i'm too spiritually immature.

your remark kind of reminded me of Vonnegut's "wrang wrang" in Bokononism:"a person who steers people away from a line of speculation by reducing that line, with the example of the wrang-wrang's own life, to an absurdity."

the other Gil said...

Yes, dagorama, not just difficult but impossible. But with Christ, all things are possible.

When Christ announced to the thousands who witnessed the miracle of the loaves and fishes that if they, as they intended, wanted to pick him up and carry him into Jerusalem and declare him King (do doubt facing possible annihilation by the Roman soldiers, and they were prepared to die in this way in their awestruckness), they would first have to accept eating his flesh and drinking his blood. And in horror, they all left.

Then Jesus asked his disciples if they were going to leave, too. None of them said they accepted Jesus' apparently grotesque requirement; they simply said, "We have nowhere else to go." Meaning, they had come to know there is no worldly way of bringing about salvation, no matter how sincere one is, even in religiosity.

That is our situation: we can do nothing to end the conflicts that have afflicted us throughout history, nor can we escape the limitations of a fallen, dialectical world. Yet we are required to live in the world in truth, to evangelize to the ends of the earth. All we can do is abide in Christ, not just spiritually, but physically as well. We truly have nowhere else to go. We fail at this daily, but we must persist in Eucharistically letting go (ultimately, Eucharist is the gift of letting go). And in letting go, we no longer concern ourselves with willing anything: we just move in the life of Christ who always does his father’s will.

matt tavares said...

ignatius, it's interesting because I heard on NPR and from a Rabbi in California that the Jewish population in America is under the same risk. They're projecting they will be no more in the US in 50 years or so. However, something tells me, given their track record of improbable survival, I wouldn't be surprised if this doesn't pan out.

As for your other points, I know in my heart that Christianity is the best single entity provider of truth. However, I think the idea of proving its validity, or convincing others of its beauty results in alienation. I've seen how much of a turn-off it is to my friends, who are in their 20s, and to the high school confirmation candidates I teach. My new mantra and self reminder is "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another". Sometimes I'm so proud of Catholicism that I forget human side of it.

However, I will admit that the difficulty comes when we have to come off as hard nosed when defending our values, which gets back to the original discussion of stepping out against other religions.

ignatius said...

Hi Matt!

Could you tell me more about this long-term threat to the Jews in the US? Is it due to their assimilating to the secular culture, or to an increasing anti-Semitism? If the latter, what would be the source of it?

Thanks for your insights. I know Austrians also don't like to hear such things, and especially the younger ones are ignorant of their history around here and don't seem to care, anyhow.

matt tavares said...

The projections of US Jewish population decline are due to assimilation factors. "Intermarriage rates have risen from roughly 6% in 1950 to approximately 40–50% in the year 2000. Only about 33% of intermarried couples raise their children with a Jewish religious upbringing. This, in combination with the comparatively low birthrate in the Jewish community, has led to a 5% decline in the Jewish population of the United States in the 1990s."


Also see:

As an aside, I noticed the percentage of Jews at major American Universities on that same Wikipedia page a while back. Granted they're in Jewish areas, but it's amazing to think that a group that makes up only 2% of the US population can make up as much as 25% of a student body.

As for engaging the younger generations, it seems to me that it's important to meet them on their terms. Fr. Richard Rohr does a great job of explaining the idea that we should be more open to listen to the inquiring mind rather than be overly zealous to dump Catholic theology on them. Fr. Rohr has some great youtube clips getting at this issue.

And now I have traveled far from the original post :). This has been some good conversation though.

Bentang said...

Religion is part of our humanity. It is built into us, and when the new atheists try to destroy it, they try to lead people to a Weltanshauung which is alien to human nature. (from Ignatius’s first comment in this thread)

Whether or not the new atheists are trying to destroy religion (perhaps an unrealistic goal), they are certainly trying to expose its follies and its dangers. I think the four major new atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Stenger) would agree that one can be “good without God,” and they see no high ethical purpose in religious beliefs that cannot be equally well served by a secular humanist world view. As for life after death, secularists don’t offer heaven, but neither do they threaten you with hell. (And they don’t offer rewards in heaven for death in battle against the infidel.)

I guess most of us would agree that human nature is a complex mix of good and bad tendencies, so a world view that is alien to the “bad” aspects of human nature is obviously to be desired. Too many of these “bad” aspects show up in religions themselves, as we saw on 9/11 and we’re now witnessing in Uganda and Nigeria, where there are ongoing religion-based persecutions of homosexuals and witches. In this country, the problems associated with religion are too numerous to list, but the fundamental problem seems to be a severe disconnect from reality, as evidenced by unscientific claims about everything from the age of the earth to the possibility of miraculous events—not just in Biblical narratives but in everyday life. These beliefs are not always benign, and often they have deadly outcomes, as when children die because they have been denied medical interventions by parents who believe in the power of prayer.

The new atheists are certainly presenting some robust challenges to Christianity and other faith systems. I think we are in the midst of a healthy and long-overdue conversation that will benefit everyone.

the other Gil said...

Bentang – You seem to believe the fundamental issue in believing or not believing in God rests with what best engenders the good. But I’m convinced the real issue exists beyond good and evil, and that issue is freedom. And Sartre made the best case for an atheist freedom that far outweighs anything Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Stenger have reflected on. And here’s Pope Benedict XVI’s apt summation of Sartre’s argument:

“…I would like to glance briefly at perhaps the most radical philosophy of freedom in our century, that of J.P. Sartre…Sartre regards man as condemned to freedom. In contrast to the animal, man has no ‘nature.’ The animal lives out its existence according to laws it is simply born with…But man’s essence is undetermined…I must decide myself what I understand by ‘humanity,’ what I want to do with it, and how I want to fashion it. Man has no nature, but is sheer freedom. His life must take some direction or another, but in the end it comes to nothing. This absurd freedom is man’s hell. What’s unsettling about this approach is that it is a way through the separation of freedom from truth to its most radical conclusion: there is no truth at all…The isolation of a radical concept of freedom, which for Sartre was a lived experience, shows with all desirable clarity that liberation from the truth does not produce pure freedom but abolishes it. Anarchic freedom, taken radically [the only way to attain to ultimate freedom in atheism], does not redeem but makes man a miscarried creature, a pointless being.” – The Essential Pope Benedict XVI, p 345

In the first 35 pages of Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground we encounter an amusing reflection on freedom v. ethics/morality, a critique of Kant’s ethics/morality absent God, noting that Kant and his inspired followers, including atheists, always leave out of their discussion one human advantage, the advantage of doing whatever the hell I want when I want regardless of what is reasonably good.

There is only one fundamental step in being fully human, and that is to be absolutely free, and this is possible only by participating in the life of God, who is freedom absolute.

the other Gil said...

Bentang - Also, if you're interested, the book that incontrovertibly refutes the old and the new atheism is Henri De Lubac's "The Drama of Atheist Humanism".

Gil Bailie said...

As always, I agree with the other Gil, and most certainly with his acknowledgment of de Lubac's "Drama of Atheistic Humanism," but I would add that David Bentley Hart has done a masterful job on the sophomoric atheists who are now in fashion, in his "Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies." Hart is a great polemicist as well as a superb theologian.
Greetings to all.

Bentang said...

To the other Gil,

You’ve written,

You seem to believe the fundamental issue in believing or not believing in God rests with what best engenders the good. But I’m convinced the real issue exists beyond good and evil...

...Kant and his inspired followers, including atheists, always leave out of their discussions...the advantage of doing whatever the hell I want when I want regardless of what is reasonably good.

Actually, no, I do not believe that the fundamental issue is what best engenders the good, but I anticipated that you probably would (as in the second quote), and so I wanted to lay that objection to rest right away. (I didn’t succeed.)

I do not claim that there is any correlation between goodness and religious faith (or lack of it). Christians and atheists alike are capable of evil actions, and neither is more predisposed to it than the other. Pogroms and witch-hunts are carried out in the name of God, and gulags in the name of the Proletariat. Many of humanity’s greatest benefactors have been Christians, while others have been atheists. On the level of everyday life, Christians and atheists alike lead healthy and productive lives, are faithful to their spouses, successfully raise children, hold jobs, pay taxes, and so forth. The ones who just “do whatever the hell they want” are not very numerous in either camp.

The “fundamental issue” pivots on two related questions: (1) Which of these two worldviews (religious faith or atheism) has a better grip on reality? (Which one is less delusional?) and (2) Does either worldview offer advantages that would override a concern with its truth-value? In other words, does it matter?

The new atheists are saying that the God hypothesis and all the (claimed) supernatural interventions that accompany it are unsupported by evidence. And they are saying that we can and should outgrow those beliefs because (1) they are unnecessary for human flourishing, and (2) they often cause harm.

This does not mean that we discard the Bible or any of the great ethical and moral achievements of religion. It only means that we uncouple them from the supernatural and view them through a different lens, one supplied by evolutionary psychology, anthropology, cognitive neuroscience, and the other sciences of human nature.

J.-P. Sartre was wrong about almost everything. On that we can agree. I would no more defend his position than you would defend that of Oral Roberts.

Maybe we can talk about free will vs. determinism another time.

the other Gil said...

Bentang - I wasn’t in any way referencing free will v. determinism, but freedom v. ethics/morality. Right about the time that Nietzsche was encouraging us to move beyond good and evil (what he viewed as Judaic-Christian ethics that empower the weak in battling the strong), Kierkegaard announced, “I looked out over Christendom and saw no Christianity.” When you reference Christians, as individuals or as groups, who use Christianity for personal empowerment as opposed to living in Christ, which have been legion down through the ages, you are not talking about the Christianity I and others know that involves striving to live in Christ.

It seems to me your fundamental concern is “Which of these two worldviews (religious faith or atheism) has a better grip on reality?” For the Christian it is neither. His concern is with living in Christ, and when a worldview having its origin in religious faith or atheism in any way obstructs the path to the Father in Christ, that worldview will be tossed away as an impediment.

You write of theists and atheists: “The ones who just ‘do whatever the hell they want’ are not very numerous in either camp.” Why? A deeply rooted cowardliness?, as in contradistinction to the heroism of Peter Singer who proudly claims that killing a 3-month old baby is the same as aborting a fetus? Or are they imprisoned in some legal matrix? After all, in Christianity it has been revealed that the law doesn’t liberate, doesn’t set you free, but imprisons you in a perception of what is right or wrong, and how miserably WE ALL fail to abide in the goodness required of us legalistically to bring about peace on earth. This can only lead to frustration, and, as history reveals, in our frustration and anger at not being able to construct a truly ethical world with the law, we take matters into our own hands and do whatever the hell we want in our utopian passions, which is atheistic freedom (the big story on violence in the 20th century), even when practiced by those who call themselves Christians, who are in fact anonymous atheists dressed as Christians to impose THEIR vision of the good life, not God’s.

Man fell when he decided to establish the good on his own terms absent the moral gestalt of God’s guidance in grace. This is the fundamental flaw in atheism, its good intentions notwithstanding. And it is misleading to compare Sartre with Oral Roberts. A more likely comparison would be Sartre and Hans Urs von Balthasar. For if there is a 20th century intellectual saint of the new atheism, surely it is Sartre. If you are willing to chop his head off, what other saintly atheist should fear your wrath in not towing the party line, whatever that is today? You obviously are making the argument that atheism is not the same as yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Bentang said...


I may not be able to read the books by Henri de Lubac and Bentley Hart anytime soon, but I'd be interested in a summary of their arguments, if you care to provide...

the other Gil said...

Bentang - It looks like de Lubac's entire book is online: you can select from what chapter you want at:

Bentang said...

The Other Gil,

(You write) If you are willing to chop [Sartre’s] head off, what other saintly atheist should fear your wrath in not towing the party line, whatever that is today? You obviously are making the argument that atheism is not the same as yesterday, today and tomorrow.

First, I am not a French revolutionary or a Communist or an anarcho-nihilist or whatever else you imagine me to be. Do we always have to be stuck in some other century, and aren’t these caricatures a bit overdramatic? Modern-day atheists don’t have to agree with Sartre any more than modern-day gay men have to identify with Harry Hays. And we don’t carry party membership cards.

Sartre and Nietzsche didn’t know what we now know about human nature, and neither of them is a “saint of the new atheism,” as you put it. Indeed, neither of them appears among the 47 writers excerpted in Christopher Hitchens’s Portable Atheist, though you will find plenty of others there to scandalize you (e.g., Albert Einstein, Percy Bysshe Shelley, H. L. Mencken, George Orwell, George Eliot, Charles Darwin, Thomas Hardy, Mark Twain, Emma Goldman, and Karl Marx). If atheism were “the same, yesterday, today, and tomorrow,” then we would not need an anthology of atheist writings since Lucretius.

(You write) When you reference Christians...who use Christianity for personal empowerment, are not talking about the Christianity I and others know that involves striving to live in Christ.

I don’t know what you mean by this, and you didn’t explain. You seem to be referring to a rarefied, “uber-Christianity” of the select few. Are these the select few who will enter heaven? What does “striving to live in Christ” mean, and can you point to any examples of Christians who do this? Would the Pope be a good example?

I think Gil’s video of the Ramachandran talk on mirror neurons answers your concern that people will just “do whatever the hell they want” if they lack belief in a God. There is a biological basis for moral behavior. Indeed, there must be, as no supernatural basis for it has been found.

I think you may have misrepresented Peter Singer. I heard him talk about euthanasia or withdrawal of life support for infants who have severe brain abnormalities. Both of these procedures are practiced in the Netherlands, and only the second one in the U.S. I don’t think Singer is advocating that parents should be allowed to kill their babies just because they changed their minds about parenting. When such severe and debilitating abnormalities occur, these procedures would seem to be the only humane course of action, and there is no evidence that they have been misapplied in the case of healthy infants.

the other Gil said...

Yes, Pope Benedict XVI, John Paul II, Mother Teresa, St. Francis, John of the Cross, Theresa of Lisieux, Teresa of Avila and many others are models of Christianity, and why John Paul II encouraged all Christians to look to the lives of the saints in being Christians (regardless how much atheistic propaganda would vilify these holy persons). The Imitation of Christ is what keeps the Christian centered, as the saints have done, because unlike any atheist, Jesus is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. And because you insist there will never be a model to sustain a moral vision with continuity in atheism, every model from the past (Sartre) and today (Peter singer) will necessarily fall away in time.

Yes, indeed, we live in a moral universe, God being immanent, and because God's Creation is good. But short of skinning human beings and keeping them alive to have the 20% of mirror neurons determine total empathy and subsequent moral behavior, the will to power, to be god in opposition to God, will always be a temptation (the only consummation of atheistic freedom). And if from the start you are in defiance of God, the inevitability is what it has always been.

Not a single person on your list (except Einstein: “You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist whose fervor is mostly due to a painful act of liberation from the fetters of religious indoctrination received in youth.”) has impressed me with a comprehensive moral vision anywhere near that of John Paul II’s; in fact, far from it. Every one of them has a bag of truths, but not the Truth. Not one of them could have significantly assisted in tearing down the Berlin Wall, or stopped an impending bloody revolution (Poland) or begin a process of restoring the dignity of man and woman in relationship (“Theology of the Body”). And John Paul II is just one of many Christian saints.”

You have named and defended a modern saint of atheism, Peter Singer, and already he needs rehabilitation, but why not let him speak for himself if there is no consistent ethic?: “Human babies are not born self-aware, or capable of grasping that they exist over time. They are not persons”; therefore, “the life of a newborn is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee.” - Peter Singer, Practical Ethics, 1st ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 122–23.

Bentang said...

Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Nice slogan. I certainly cannot say that about Charles Darwin. It reminds me of Philip Reiff’s definition of the sacred as “that which is uniquely unalterable.” Of course, in reality, nothing is inalterable, and nothing is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Jesus was born, lived for a short span of time, and died. He has been dead for nearly 2000 years.

Your slogan illustrates the “severe disconnect from reality” that I referred to earlier. People of faith routinely and un-self-consciously make such claims about the real world—claims that must necessarily be based entirely on faith because there is neither any evidence for them nor the slightest probability that they might be true. I think this might be why a lot of people these days find Christianity—or your particular brand of it, perhaps—to be more than a little frightening. The word “delusional” certainly comes to mind: the new atheists are warning us of the dangers of such widespread delusional thinking in a world bristling with nuclear arms and threatened by ecological collapse. Mankind may have reached a point where the effects of these delusions will become amplified to the point of catastrophe. Belief in bodily resurrections is only part of a much larger selective repudiation of reality that we can ill afford in an era like the present one.

I didn’t take your slogan to be metaphorical, because I thought there was little likelihood you were using it that way. If you believe that Jesus was resurrected from the dead, then you probably believe in a whole host of other miraculous events such as transubstantiation, the virgin birth, bleeding statues, the Last Judgment, and perhaps even the creation of the cosmos 6013 years ago. Indeed, why would you reject the last of these? Is the evidence too overwhelming? Faith not strong enough? At what point do the “metaphorical” readings kick in to replace the literal ones?

(More to follow...)

Bentang said...

And if you are a good Catholic and you follow the Pope’s example, I imagine you also believe that a literal inferno awaits people like me after we die. In 2007, Pope Benedict declared, “Hell really exists and is eternal, even if nobody talks about it much anymore.” And he went on to describe it as “eternal damnation—the Inferno.”

Try reading that metaphorically. “Inferno” and “eternal” have very specific meanings.

Nothing Peter Singer could ever say about newborns could ever hold a candle to that. We’re talking about eternal hellfire for literally billions of people. Please don’t think of eternity iconically, as it might appear in a Renaissance painting. Try this: Think of a year as a grain of sand on the beach. Then imagine how many grains of sand there are on our planet. Then multiply those by the estimated number of planets in the universe (in excess of a billion), and then keep multiplying by more billions and trillions until you die of exhaustion, and you’re nowhere close to the end of the number of years in eternity, or ever would be. All that time to be spent roasting in an inferno? What could any human individual ever conceivably do to deserve such punishment, and why would you worship a God who could inflict it?

When I read the Pope’s words about hell, I can understand the anger of a Hitchens or a Dawkins. They are saying that people who truly believe such things are capable of anything. That realization came home to us on 9/11 like a powerful blow across the head.

I’m saying we need to get real. We need to stop living in fantasy worlds full of ghosts and miraculous events. If Christians want to contribute to the betterment of humankind, they can do so without flagellating themselves and threatening others with hellfire. And they can be much more effective and credible if they will jettison these preposterous supernaturalist beliefs and tune into reality. Many Christian beliefs have tremendous value and usefulness for our world, but they are unfortunately contaminated by supernaturalist mumbo-jumbo.

(Thanks to Norma Bruns for her meditation on eternal damnation.

Gordon said...


As to your Sunday Times article about Benedict and Hell, Good rule of thumb: don’t read the newspaper for theology.

Benedict, like most Christians, believes that you can choose Hell over Heaven. Saying Hell is real and not symbolic does not make Hell a torture chamber, it just makes it real. It might be nothing more than turning away from loving and caring for others to a final non serviam. Much like choosing to live in Beverly Hills, those who chose Hell might assume for all eternity that living in narcissistic absorption is heaven, that the the “other side” is jealous of a lifestyle of caring about nothing and no one but oneself.

To say that Hell is a real possibility — one which Benedict, like JPII before him, insisted we must hope no one chooses — is to say that God will allow us ultimately to say no to Him and our brothers (the two are inseparable).

Are you suggesting it’s better if we don’t have a choice about who and what we are?

the other Gil said...

Bentang – Yes, it is impossible to accept with a purely scientific and utilitarian mind that Jesus can be the same yesterday, today and tomorrow, indeed that he abides with us physically and spiritually until the end of time. And it’s sad that you can utter with conviction, “Of course, in reality, nothing is inalterable, and nothing is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.” That obviously includes an abiding ethic, and that is the absence of hope.

It is only a matter of time that you will have to dismiss all discoveries of faith, and this will be a dark day for you. For example, Lincoln’s dedication to “the proposition that all men are created equal,” a proposition founded solely in faith, a “severe disconnect from reality”. As Peter Singer points out, there just isn’t any evidence that a newborn with a disability is in any way equal to a newborn who is unimpaired, or an elderly person who has through dementia lost most of his cognitive skills is equal to an intellectually gifted person in full possession of his cognitive skills. For the atheist, all notions of equality must eventually be dismissed.

Yes, I believe in a whole host of miraculous events. I witness them every day.

I am a Catholic, but a “good Catholic”? My pride doesn’t take me that far. And I do believe there is a hell. And there have been many visions of it. Mine is this:

In the Bible fire is often a symbol of purification. So, for example, the fires of purgatory are flames of enlightenment, cleansing us of our sullied vision until we see clearly the God we call Love. I suspect that there is much joy in this cleansing. Certainly if I pass from death to purgatory I will jump for joy with alleluias that won't stop until I’m in heaven.

I envision the fire of hell as an eternal purification that is eternally rejected, a living out of a tension that refuses enlightenment. And, as Gordon suggested, it might very well take place in a region not unlike Beverly Hills with all its available pleasures.

And finally, the present-day holocaust, the seemingly unstoppable slaughter of the innocent: abortion. It takes something other than a scientific mind in this age of fetal surgery not to acknowledge the fetus as human life. But a mind absent faith can easily convince itself that those babies aren’t equal to us fully cognizant folk.

Bentang said...

Don’t read the newspaper for theology.

Hello? Do we have some cognitive dissonance here? Are you saying that Pope Benedict’s quoted words about hell (confirming it to be an eternal inferno) do not represent Catholic theology? Then how’s this:

“Then he will say also to them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matthew 25:41)

“And whosoever was not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire.” (Rev. 20:15)

“Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.” (Mark 9:44)

“The Son of man (Jesus) shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; and shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt. 13:41-42)

“But the unbelieving...shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death.” (Rev. 21:8)

You write,

It might be nothing more than turning away from loving and caring for others to a final non serviam. Much like choosing to live in Beverly Hills...

Loving and caring for others? I hope you see the grotesque irony in your words. You worship a deity who casts billions of humans into eternal hellfire, and you believe he represents loving and caring? I think you will believe anything.

Living in Beverly Hills? I see that you have left not only the Pope but the Bible itself far behind in your new theology.

Are you suggesting it’s better if we don’t have a choice about who and what we are?

You call that a choice? You have a gun to your head and you call that a choice?

The answer to your question is emphatically “Yes.” I’ll take being a rock any day.

One only needs to scratch the surface of Christian worldviews, as I have done with you, to discover beliefs that will make one’s hair stand on end. This is what the new atheists are alarmed about, and their alarm is looking more and more justified as the conversation with believers progresses. This theology of Hell, which you are obviously uncomfortable with but cannot disavow, is a blight and a disgrace and really raises the question of why Christianity should be favorably compared to Islam. No individual living in the modern world should believe such things. Belief in eternal hellfire is not only delusional but psychologically harmful, especially to impressionable children. Richard Dawkins said that implanting such ideas in children’s heads should be viewed as a form of child abuse, and I would fully agree.

the other Gil said...

Bentang - Us Catholics have not only the world, but an afterlife as well, and at the end of time, when heaven and earth pass away (what I consider a transfiguration of heaven and earth where they will become one in God’s glory)an ecstatic joy will grip us and take us beyond eternity.

When Beloved John criticizes the "world" he is not, as some believe, talking about God's creation. He's talking about the world you want us to embrace, a world without faith. And in that world there will be lots of truths to embrace, but, as Bob Dylan sings, "All the truths of the world add up to one big lie."

Gordon said...


“You call that a choice? You have a gun to your head and you call that a choice?”

What are you talking about? I suggested that the choice involved getting exactly what you want. If you want to deal with the ongoing risk and difficulty of love and self-donation, you can have it. If you want the security of a life absolutely under your control, a heaven to self-absorbtion, you get that as well. Where’s the gun?

Gordon said...


"One only needs to scratch the surface of Christian worldviews, as I have done with you, to discover beliefs that will make one’s hair stand on end."

Be more specific.

Bentang said...

In the Bible fire is often a symbol of purification. So, for example, the fires of purgatory are flames of enlightenment...

Gordon and Gil, you are both rather vague about Hell and you are sounding more and more like Episcopalians, which is fine with me.

The Pope, the Catechism, and the Bible are all quite clear that Hell is a place of eternal suffering. The Catechism states that “immediately after death the souls of those who die in a state of mortal sin descend into Hell.” See also my quoted New Testament Bible verses, above, and the Pope’s pronouncement.

It should be extremely hard for Catholic who claims “inalterability” of the faith to maintain that Hell is symbolic, metaphorical, or figurative. When you do so, you demonstrate what atheists have long suspected about you: that you fashion your faith as you go, and that there is nothing “inalterable” about it.

I hear both of you speculating about what Hell is: “It might be...,” “I suspect that...,” “I envision the fire of hell as...,” “it might very well take place in...,” “what I consider...,” etc. And I noticed how often you (Gordon) speculated—or perhaps claimed—to know what God wants, completely without basis in scripture (as if the scriptors themselves had any idea...) You’re confabulating before my very eyes, and I’m watching theology happen. Living theology.

Your slogan, “the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow” is a wish, not a reality. If you imagine God to be the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow, take a look at Jack Miles’ “God: A Biography.”

Or consider the seven “new” deadly sins that the Vatican added to the original seven in 2008. The new ones include polluting, genetic engineering, being obscenely rich, drug dealing, abortion, pedophilia, and causing social injustice. Since relatively few of us are guilty of these sins but most of us have experienced the old ones (lust, greed, etc.), I suppose we can conclude that we are only about half as sinful as we used to be. Voila!

There can be little doubt that ethical and moral values change over time. As recently as 1978, many people shuddered at the thought of in vitro fertilization, but now it is morally unexceptional. Attitudes are constantly shifting about matters as diverse as homosexuality, marriage, and eternal punishment. As we’ve seen, many moral absolutes of Biblical times must now be viewed “metaphorically” because they have become too unpalatable for us. I am speaking, of course, about verses commanding us to stone adulteresses and disobedient children, or verses describing hell fire or the proper way to treat our slaves.

What I have said about the Bible could equally well be said about papal pronouncements or theological systems over the centuries.

But not to worry. The earth is not spinning out of its orbit. We still have a human nature that has evolved biologically, and it is relatively stable though not always pointed in the right direction. Gil’s post about “mirror neurons” gives us plenty of reason for believing that our morality is entirely naturalistic and that, with all its twists and turns, it offers a small measure of hope for the future.

Gordon said...


Regarding your “hell fire” quotations.
In the simplest terms I can muster, the “judgment quotes” you laid out from the gospels are of a kind with Israel’s expectations of the “End of the Age.” Israel looked for a messiah who would bring judgment to their oppressors, this was the End of Time and was to be followed by the Resurrection of the dead. All of this language happens before the Cross and Resurrection. What no one in Israel expected was a Messiah coming to take the judgment on himself (cross and descent into hell), and to inaugurate the Resurrection life in the middle of time. If you don’t realize how the climax of the gospels shifts and expands and transforms the meaning of what preceded it, you don’t know how to read the text.

As to your quote from Revelation 21:8. Read the prior chapter when (2O:14) where “death and hell” are cast into that “Lake of Fire.” That would mean the Lake of Fire isn’t Hell. Hmm, put your exegetical skills to that and get back to me.

Bentang said...

Regarding the seven “new” deadly sins, a couple of questions are in order:

If Catholicism is not authoritarian, as you claim, Gordon, then where do these new deadly sins come from? Did the Pope have a conversation with God? If not, how can he be sure that they are “mortal” sins, deserving of eternal punishment in Hell? What, exactly, is any Catholic’s basis for accepting the Pope’s word that causing social injustice has become a mortal sin? Isn’t this acceptance just an unqualified faith in the authority of the Pope? I assume your stance toward scripture must be similar to your stance toward the Pope, because in particular instances where I would say, “It’s wrong, unfactual, and misguided,” you would say, “We have to read it figuratively.” In other words, I never hear “The pope is wrong,” “the Catechism is wrong,” “St. Paul was wrong,” etc. This, to me, looks very much like abject submission to the authority of scripture, the magisterium, tradition, etc. Do you in fact ever seriously and boldly question any of these foundations of your faith? If not, then I think my claim about authoritarianism is justified.

The second question is about God’s timing in letting Benedict know about the status of these sins. I can understand why he might have waited until the beginning of the Industrial Revolution to declare that environmental pollution is a mortal sin, but why would he have waited any longer than that? Think of the pollution he could have forestalled. And consider social injustice, which has been around for as long as humans have been social. Why didn’t we hear about this before?

Are those who caused social injustice before 2008 off the hook? Or are they to be punished by eternal hellfire for something they were never told was a mortal sin?

Yes, Gil, it is impossible to accept any of this with a purely scientific and utilitarian mind. Or even with a rational one.

the other Gil said...

Bentang - probably the most common confusion for those reading the Bible, Christians and non-Christians alike, is the inability to distinguish between what is literal, allegorical, moral and anagogical. Mark Shea, in his book "Making Senses out of Scripture", has done a great job in helping to liberate us from this.

Every Christian can put forth his particular representation of what hell is, and it is not a question of a right or wrong representation. What Jesus and Pope Benedict XVI want to stress is what is in store for those who choose to reject God at the end of their lives. They both use a representation common during Jesus’ time, but the point being made is that there isn’t anything as terrible as being distant from God, and they use harsh imagery to stress the severity of this self-imposed affliction.

Many years ago when I had a choice between an acceptance of a rule or three days torture, I chose the torture. In spite of my suffering, I had experienced great satisfaction in my rebellion. I also was in a state of rebellion against God for 27 years, and I know well the exaltation that engenders. But we will never know the extent of our freedom of choice embedded in rebellion against God in this life: we simply play with it. We will know the extent of it at the end of time, and many saints believed that in the end everyone will choose God, and that hell will be empty of human beings. But there is no way of knowing this with certainty simply because we can’t in this life know the extent of our freedom, which does entail the freedom to reject God’s all-encompassing love.

Finally, I know with certainty that the will to power is always accompanied by a will to ignorance because our desire for redemption is in the marrow of our bones: we unknowingly seek forgiveness at all times, although we have the freedom to ignore this desire. This is why Jesus said on the Cross, “Forgive them, they know not what they do.” And I trust that God will find a way, even if we wait until the second of our departure, to grant our desire for forgiveness, and hell just might remain empty of human souls for all eternity.

the other Gil said...

Bentang – I would be leery of any book titled “God: A Biography,” even if written by a Catholic who is seen as saintly. In the end I’m sure I would not read it.

A “small measure of hope” just won’t cut it, and never has.

The consequences of the transvaluation of true-for-all-time ethical and moral values that now embrace abortion, in vitro fertilization, homosexuality, the destruction of the nuclear-family sustained in a traditional view of marriage and other enlightened, every-shifting values of a non-religious world will all come out in the wash. And yes, God will forgive it all, for, as Gordon wrote, the price for this waywardness, this attempt to expropriate God’s authority that results in the destruction of so many lives in obvious and subtle ways, has already been paid by Christ.

Gordon said...

Well said, Other Gil.


You're throwing around a lot of references to "authority" and "authoritarianism." Here are two unremarkable and analogous propositions to clarify what is meant by authority:

(1) The managing directors IPCC has the authority to state the position of the IPCC.

(2) The Magisterium (all of scripture and tradition), Bishops, and Pope have the authority collectively to state the position of the Catholic Church.

You are free to a accept of deny the truth of what the IPCC or Catholic Church proposes. Neither the IPCC nor the Catholic Church has the authority to define reality. That is, you’re free to reject what the Catholic Church believes. I’m free to maintain skepticism toward the IPCC. It would be “authoritarian” to impose their position; “authority” is something altogether different.

The Catholic Church’s official “position” affirms the reality of Hell. Nothing I’ve said suggests its “symbolic, metaphorical, or figurative.” Comparing it to Beverly Hills is analogical reasoning, the preference for Hell is of a similar moral order. It is not meant to soften the image of hell (I’d rather spend a night in Dante’s Inferno than hang out on Beverly Drive), but to highlight its voluntary nature, and its potential and manifest attractiveness. You seem to operate with the idea that what Catholics mean by Hell is a consequence of choosing the wrong side, choosing Coke instead of Pepsi, or being born with the wrong religion. Simply put, the former is compatible with Catholic teaching, and the latter is not. If I have “speculated… without basis in scripture” I’d love to know how.

As to the to the “new deadly sins” I have no idea what you’re talking about. That’s a splashy newspaper article shocked that the Pope is applying traditional Catholic moral teaching to new situations. As if that wasn’t his job description to start with.

Bentang said...

It is not a question of a right or wrong representation [of Hell]. ...Jesus and Pope Benedict XVI use harsh imagery to stress the severity of this self-imposed affliction.

Imagery? Gil, if Jesus and the Pope were REALLY trying to tell us in no uncertain terms that hell is not just a metaphor but a literal lake of fire that burneth for eternity, how exactly would they do that? Would they say what they are on record as having said, followed by something like, “I REALLY REALLY mean that literally and don’t try to water down my words!?” I mean, how much clearer can you get than the Pope and Jesus about this?

Again, Jesus says it is “everlasting fire,” not “a really bad place to be,” or “a place of terrible misery.” I think you don’t give Jesus enough credit for his language skills. He knew the difference between a metaphor and a literal description.

And notice the word “really” in Benedict’s words: “Hell really exists and is eternal.” REALLY exists! (I think he is trying to stress that it is real.) And then he makes it clear that hell is an inferno. We do know what an inferno is, don’t we? If he had meant “like an inferno,” I imagine he would have said so.

What this says to me is that you and Gordon are trying to have it both ways. You don’t want to challenge the Pope’s authority, or that of Jesus, of course, but you find the concept of a literal eternal hell to be unpalatable, as any decent person should. So you are trying very hard to frame these two utterances as mere “imagery,” “particular representations” in a post-modernist world where any representation is as good as another.

This is the way that Bible verses and papal pronouncements get shuffled around from the “literal” box to the “anagogical” box and back again. And it is why any attempt to figure out exactly what any theologian is talking about is like trying to nail jello to a tree. And yet we are told that it’s all the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Sorry, guys, but that does not correspond to what I’m looking at here.

So, there isn’t anything as bad as being distant from God. (Golly, here I am 66 years old and I had never noticed...) But “we will know the extent of it [our rebellion] at the end of time.” By “end of time,” I guess you mean Judgment Day? And you believe this because... (let me guess) the Bible tells you so? Is this the same Bible that tells you the unbeliever goes to everlasting fire after death? But the everlasting fire is metaphorical, so why isn’t Judgment Day (or the end of time)? How convenient that you have decided one of these is figurative and the other is literal!

Yes, it is difficult to reconcile “Forgive them, for they know not what they do” with “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire.” Is this the Jesus who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow?

”A small measure of hope” just won’t cut it, and never has.

Jesus: “If you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, all things will be possible to you.”

If you’re a Christian because of the hope that it gives you, then you have probably made a good choice, though I would imagine that any religion would do about as well. Providing hope is what religions do best.

I like having hope as well, but I would want it to be calibrated with reality, not based on delusions. Realistic hopes increase our chances for survival much better than unrealistic ones, for they allow us to take a more accurate measure of what is before us. I don’t wish to place any hopes in fantasies of an afterlife. In my view, accepting death as a terminus makes life much richer.

Bentang said...

...other enlightened, ever-shifting values of a non-religious world.

Gil, I hope you are not suggesting that religious values don’t change? Before I spend time refuting you, would you like to revise that statement?

Did you know that the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela was built in the 12th century by Muslim slaves?

The list of ever-changing values in Judeo-Christianity is very, very long, and it’s getting longer every day. Your views of hell are an excellent case in point. Views of homosexuality have also changed and are continuing to do so. Christianity is in constant flux, and the lubricant between the grinding plates is called “figurative interpretations.”

Gordon said...


“So, there isn’t anything as bad as being distant from God. (Golly, here I am 66 years old and I had never noticed... ).”

Yet you are compelled to hang around here and constantly remind us that you are liberated and happy and rational, while we are servile, irrational, full of hate. Even with that, we still welcome you as a friend and brother, we try to answer questions that seem sincere. Then it’s like Groundhog Day: you begin the same loop of accusations and gross misrepresentations of what we believe. And the more we refuse to accept your fundamentalist version of Christianity the angrier you seem to become. Why? It’s not that you’re not capable of absorbing complex ideas. So what is it? What makes it impossible to even acknowledge the true shape of the gospel you reject?

If God isn’t haunting you why are you here?

Bentang said...

As to the “new deadly sins” I have no idea what you’re talking about. That’s a splashy newspaper article shocked that the Pope is applying traditional Catholic moral teaching to new situations. As if that wasn’t his job description to start with.

Splashy newspaper? The new list was published in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s own newspaper. The story that I read appeared in the The Times.

New situations? Social justice is new? Obscene wealth is new? Pedophilia? Polluting the earth?

Why are we just now getting this change of status for such sins? Why in fact didn’t St. Paul just come right out and say that slavery was a social injustice worthy of eternal punishment instead of admonishing slaves to obey their masters? (Timothy 6:1-5) Could it be because slavery was considered acceptable by the early Christians?

Why, indeed, couldn’t Thomas Aquinas have declared slave-holding to be a mortal sin? Why, instead, did he write, “Slavery among men is natural, for some are naturally slaves...”? (Etym. v, 4)

And St. Augustine of Hippo: “The prime cause ... of slavery is sin, which brings man under the dominion of his fellow—that which does not happen save by the judgment of God, with whom is no unrighteousness, and who knows how to award fit punishments to every variety of offence.” (City of God, Book XIX, Chapter 15)

Can you imagine Benedict writing something like, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling!”? Obviously, he couldn’t. Times have changed. The church’s own teachings about slavery have changed.

There can’t be any lingering doubt that the church’s moral teachings have changed over the centuries, and they will continue to do so. Sins that were once not deemed serious enough to warrant eternal punishment became “deadly” with the stroke of a Pope’s pen in 2008.

As for social justice, those who believe that discrimination against gays and lesbians is socially just had better make sure they’ve examined the issue from all angles. The stakes have just gotten a lot higher.

Bentang said...

Gordon, the reason I “hang around here,” as you put it, is hardly that “God is haunting me.” I sometimes joke with a friend of mine that I blog because I like to fight and I like to write (and it keeps my brain active). But it goes far deeper than that. I was originally drawn to this site several years ago because of my interest in mimetic theory. Though there wasn’t much here to sustain that interest, I decided to hang around anyway because many of the discussions here are about issues that concern me. My own perspective happens to be radically different from that of many of the bloggers like yourself and T.O.G., but that’s okay. I believe there is sometimes huge value in conversations between people who disagree.

Anyone who is not distressed about the state of the world is “just not paying attention,” as Gil likes to say. There is a lot of hurt in the world, and we are in the early stages of an ecological collapse that will in all likelihood end in catastrophe well before the end of this century. One of the problems, in my view, is that many people’s worldviews do not map in any significant way to the actual condition of the world or of reality in general. Around 29% of Americans believe the Sun orbits the Earth, and a much larger number believe God created the heavens and the earth in seven days. Few have any understanding of evolutionary theory or of other major scientific concepts that run counter to our native intuitions about reality. There is an ever-widening gap between modern science and the public’s understanding of it—and I am speaking not just of astronomy and biology but of all the human sciences, particularly cognitive psychology and neuroscience.

I fully realize that you are not a fundamentalist Christian and that your beliefs are nowhere near as primitive as those I’ve just described. But you and the fundamentalists have one very important thing in common, and that is your approach to understanding the world—an approach that is pre-scientific in many significant ways.

(More to follow)

Bentang said...

We had this discussion earlier this month in another thread. There is an inverse correlation between (1) faith, and (2) either probability or evidence. We all have faith that the sun will rise tomorrow morning, but it doesn’t take much faith to believe that—almost none, in fact. This is because of the extremely high probability that the event will occur. And most of us believe that, e.g., the computer monitor we’re looking at it receives input from our computer. This is an evidence-based belief, and very little faith is required for it. When we get to anthropogenic AGW and the IPCC, a little more faith is required, but still there is an extremely high probability that AGW is a reality, considering all the available data.

But as we go higher on the faith scale, the levels of probability and evidence sink correspondingly lower. Belief in supernatural interventions such as transubstantiation requires a very large amount of faith because there is simply no evidence for them—and abundant evidence to refute them, in fact. Belief in the resurrection of Jesus requires huge faith because there is virtually no probability that it could have happened, given the laws of nature.

It is very hard for me to determine what either of you believes about supernatural interventions because you spend so much time hedging and equivocating. I can’t tell whether you line up with scripture and the Church’s magisterium or not. Perhaps you are afraid of sounding ridiculous if you profess a belief in the virgin birth, but you also seem afraid of wandering outside the fold of Catholic orthodoxy. It’s as though someone were standing behind you, noting down your every word.

And this in itself concerns me. What is so difficult about simply taking a position, e.g., that the Pope is simply wrong when he says that hell is a real place of eternal suffering in an inferno? Why not say, “St. Paul was wrong about slavery, and so was St. Thomas Aquinas.”

Has it become so important to preserve the unity of the Church that you cannot simply say what you believe to be true? Is that what faith is about—not questioning authority?

Gordon said...


Go back and read everyone's posts again. No one here has equivocated about anything: virgin birth, Magisterium, Hell, Resurrection, etc..

Perhaps you've lost the ability to listen.

the other Gil said...

Bentang – Dr. Ludgwig Ott writes in “The Fundamentals of Catholic dogma” that “The fire of Hell was conceived by individual Fathers such as Origen and St. Gregory of Nyssa…in a metaphorical sense as a symbol for purely spiritual pains, especially of the torments of the gnawing of conscience. This opinion has not been formally condemned.” But most saints and theologians hold to your view of material fire. So I am in a minority.

The Church also has not condemned speculation that it is possible that no human will end up in Hell, a real place, whether the fire is material or metaphorical.

My speculation on the possibility that all might be saved begins with Jesus’ description of our Father’s love for us in the parable of the prodigal sons (one indulging to no end pious anger and the other a depraved indulgence of the flesh); continues with Jesus’ words on the Cross, “Forgive them Father…they know not what they do”; and concludes with Jesus’ descent into the much-speculated-upon dimensions of Hell where Jesus remains in solidarity with those of us who suspect inwardly, or subconsciously, that Hell is our destination. In other words, Jesus, in his abiding love for us, took possession of Hell to remain one with all of us at all levels, even those of us hell bound.

I am convinced that in the second before death it would be extremely difficult for anyone, especially those who have known little love in life, to say “no” to Christ’s love, although in our incomprehensible gift of freedom it is possible.

It’s strange. There’s a film that many critics have described as torture porn, a film by Pascal Laugier titled “Martyrs”. Martyr for a Christian means a witness to God’s love, and this film by a non-religious person explores the mystery of martyrdom, intentionally or not, in a profound way.

Perhaps the most important meditation in all of this is that God desires the salvation of all. Jesus’ Cross reveals the depth of that desire, but our limited knowledge could never plumb its depth.

For me, every meditation on good and evil, indeed on our very existence, must begin and end in the phenomenon of conscience. In fact, the battle that rages endlessly in our minds, consciously or subconsciously, depriving us of real rest, is our battle with conscience. And the two films that best explore it are by the atheist Ingmar Bergman in “Autumn Sonata” and the Christian Andrei Tarkovsky in “Solaris”.

My brother at age 12 was becoming a consummate thief as well as the toughest kid in town. I was age 11, a pious child who loved everyone. When a nun slammed my brother’s head into a wall, he hit her hard, knocking her out. The next day a nun told me that if I continued to associate with my brother, I would burn in Hell. It took a lot of reflection, vividly picturing my brother and I walking through the fires of Hell for all eternity. I finally chose to abide in my love for my brother, and began my criminal life. Nine years later, at age 20, I was a drug addict, thief, sexual pervert and murderer. And it would take another 18 years for me in faith to accept God’s love, mercy and forgiveness, and it was there that I discovered that God was still patiently waiting on the road for my brother’s return.

Peace be with you, Bentang.

Gordon said...

Other Gil,

Thank you for that. I hope we'll have another thread to explore the issue of conscience. Solaris and Autumn Sonata aside, I suspect that our culture's refusal of the very idea of conscience is a central reason why most films no longer move us.

Bentang said...

Gil (T.O.G.),

Your view of hell is certainly an improvement on the one held by the majority of saints and theologians, and, apparently, by the Pope himself. For one thing, it repositions us in the real world where people do suffer psychological (spiritual) pain because of mistakes they have made in life. In addition, it is more consistent with the message of forgiveness that Jesus may have taught.

Jesus’ message itself, however, is not very consistent, as some of the verses that I quoted earlier demonstrate. The Gospels were, after all, written long after Jesus’ death and contain variant accounts of the events of his life and his teachings. This is why I wrote “may have taught” in the preceding paragraph. We will never know for sure what Jesus actually said. I would prefer the Jesus who uttered “Forgive them...” on the cross and told the hardened criminal hanging next to him that he would meet him in Paradise, but many Christians favor the sterner and more retributive message that we find in verses like Matthew 25:41 or 13:41-42.

Inconsistencies aside, I find the story of the Passion is very inspiring, and I would agree with Girard that it has huge anthropological significance. The fact that I read it from a materialistic perspective doesn’t lessen its impact for me. To paraphrase Shylock,

I am a materialist. Hath not a materialist eyes? Hath not a materialist hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal'd by the same means, warm'd and cool'd by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, do we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that.


Bentang said...


I was never a Catholic, and so certain things that you take for granted seem very alien to me, as you have probably noticed. In the first two paragraphs of your comment, you refer to two opinions about Hell that the Church has not “condemned.” I found that word very spooky. For me, it evokes medieval heresy trials. The Catholic church still actually “condemns” certain opinions?

I was raised in a Protestant denomination, which I left when I went off to college. I spent most of my career in universities, and even in semi-retirement, I still have a toehold in one and spend about 10-15 hours a week on the campus. I realize that universities sometimes have their own heresy trials where factions of both Left and Right attempt to expel dissenters. But the authoritarian types who attempt these maneuvers must have a guilty conscience, because you rarely if ever hear them claiming the authority to “condemn” an opinion. They have to at least be more covert about what they are up to. “Condemning” an opinion or a speculation is not kosher in academia, which should be an open marketplace of ideas. Opinions that have little or no merit simply sink to the bottom of the pool, while the more robust ones rise to the top. In the end, the petty tyrants to attempt to rule University departments may be challenged; nothing about the system ensures their dominance in quite the same way that Church tradition ensures that of the Pope and the magisterium.

This is why I continue to maintain that the magisterium of the Catholic Church is openly (if not always successfully) authoritarian and makes no bones about it. It has evolved out of a highly authoritarian tradition in which heresy and blasphemy trials were common and the faithful lived in terror of the Church’s power to “bind and to loose...” The threat of hellfire was the great enforcer, and even now, Pope Benedict invokes that threat in an attempt to tighten the bonds of church unity and power.

I think you and I could definitely find common ground on the subject of conscience, but, once again, I would approach it from a secularist perspective. Christians aren’t the only ones who struggle with their consciences. Only people with brain dysfunctions lack one. Conscience can be described entirely in naturalistic terms and analyzed using the tools of science, though literary and religious metaphors are immensely helpful in the task. Sometimes critical insights come to us when the analytical faculties of our brains are resting, as during sleep or meditation, and our intuitions—spiritual or otherwise—shouldn’t be discounted without good reason. But I think it would be a mistake to assert that, without Christ, we are without conscience.

Thank you for sharing your personal story, as Gordon did in an earlier thread. As always, I am interested in understanding why people hold certain beliefs, and such stories often hold the key—a key opening the last remaining door separating us from the inner sanctum of our experience. My own life has certainly not been without pain and regret, and I have come to regard that as a blessing of sorts. Who would want to go through life without any inkling of the pain that others experience? Such experiences create bonds of empathy that transcend ideological differences, and that is the value in sharing them.

Bentang said...


Your opening into a discussion about conscience points in a direction that has also interested me for many years. It leads to the question of guilt—guilt that is sometimes so crippling that one doesn’t know if one can go on living, much less functioning in jobs and marriages. What does one do with such guilt, and how does one unburden oneself of it?

We incur guilt in a social context, and if we are to divest ourselves of it, we must also do so in a social context. Feelings of guilt result from transgressing certain social rules and behaving selfishly, hurting others in the process. To relieve those feelings, we must make reparations and seek forgiveness. Institutional religion provides ritualized means of accomplishing these goals, and that has traditionally been the source of its enormous power over us.

Some of our guilt is what psychologists call “existential guilt.” It is free-floating, uncaused by any particular actions, and it just comes with being human, because we are social animals. Religion can also help us with this kind of guilt by acting as a broker between us and the Almighty, who knows our every thought.

One of the problems in a world that no longer believes in God is what to do with all that guilt. It starts piling up, like a mountain of trash, and no one is hauling it away. Secular totalitarian systems provide one solution. Guilt was the fuel driving the engines of Soviet and Chinese Communism.

But Catholicism and Communism are not the only options available. There are others, and I hope that is something we can explore.

In the meanwhile, I would like to point out that some guilt can be shed by removing ourselves from a particular social group that is causing us to feel it. We can feel justified in doing this if we determine that that group’s moral standards are arbitrary and unjust. I felt a great deal of guilt and shame about my homosexuality until I realized that the stigma attached to it was unjustified. I then distanced myself from social groups that tried to induce further guilt in me, and I sought out groups that held what I considered to be a more enlightened point of view. Many years later, I see that as having been the correct decision, though it certainly wasn’t pain-free for everyone involved.

I am suggesting that there are ways of dealing with guilt, and the first and most important of these is to understand exactly what it is. I am not suggesting that we “rationalize” it away, but only that we refuse to allow others to impose guilt on us unnecessarily. Guilt is a tool of power whether it is used legitimately or illegitimately, but we should not put it into just anyone’s hands. And we should also claim our right to use it to influence others. This is why you are seeing the guilt being turned the other way in the great debate about homosexuality.

Guilt about an act that virtually everyone, in every society, considers wrong (such as murder), is an entirely different matter. It cannot be so easily dispelled. The load is much greater, and forgiveness must be sought. I don’t have any easy answers about that one, but if Jesus’ message of forgiveness helps, then I would certainly meditate on it constantly. Even a non-believer like myself can do this. Belief in supernatural agency is unnecessary. It’s the real-world relation between society and the transgressor that is (potentially) changed by Christ’s example of unconditional salvation and forgiveness. People do forgive each other for the most horrific crimes, as we saw not long ago in the case of the Amish community who were victims of a mass shooter.

This, to me, is part of the enduring value of the Passion story, and it is a treasure of our civilization. However, the story and its implications are available to anyone, believers and non-believers alike.

the other Gil said...

Gordon - the reason I think the best cinematic exploration of conscience is Tarkovsky's "Solaris" is that in it the problem of living with oneself and others finds no resolution, that conscience is the ground where we have an ongoing, never-ending honest conversation with ourselves and others, where it is impossible to get locked into any ideology (the closure of self-reflection in adopting a party-line): it is the ground that is key to becoming who we really are in terms of self-identity and our relationship to others. I think this is key to the widespread interest in Socrates in all almost all cultures.

the other Gil said...

Bentang – The argument we’ve been having is actually bringing me around to possibly embracing the material reality of hellfire, although it would be a fire that we cannot know in this life; we can only know a descriptive approximation. For example, at the end of time when we are eternally physical, we wouldn’t be burned to a crisp while walking through the flames of Hell. I am now trying to imagine what the “Wrath of God” would look like in an afterlife for those actually committed to holocausts and other forms of torture, murder and annihilation without regret, any need for forgiveness, even after enlightenment. And I also believe we are incapable of discerning the depths of our complicity in many of these events in terms of how so many of us support it at levels we are not aware of, like abortion (we would be forgiven for knowing not what we have done, unless, after knowing it, still abiding in it). This is one meaning of Christ’s Cross: God so loved the world he gave his only begotten son to pay the price for us. It only deepens my sense of how much God loves us and sustains my belief in the possibility that Hell will be empty of human beings in eternity, or beyond eternity. But I am wholeheartedly with you on the correct approach to understanding Jesus is an ongoing meditation on a love so grand we would never be able to discern its ultimate depths.

I also agree with you on the Church’s history of aligning itself with political movements, and using hellfire as a threat to keep people in line (it didn’t work with me when I was told my brother was going to hell). Again, our argument has led me to a deeper understanding of the meaning of God’s wrath, which is wrapped up in the incomprehensible gift of freedom that he gave us. This is why I never tire of recommending Jean Luc Marion’s book, “God Without Being”, where he emphasizes that in these postmodern times we need to explore more deeply God’s second name, Love, whereas too much of Catholic history concerned itself almost exclusively with God’s first name, “I am who am”, which is an ontological name that references being, and Marion argues (if I got him right: he is difficult) that God is greater than being, and that greatness is called Love.

The Church has to use its authority to condemn, as in the Aryan heresy and many others that followed because they threatened to move the faithful irrevocably away from Christ, most who simply did not have the wherewithal to distinguish entrenched theological concepts. Jesus is not only human and he is not only God. Jesus and the apostles have condemned heresies from the beginning. But mistakes have been made, as in the silencing of Henri de Lubac (not condemnation, but an order to wait until the Church discerns the new take on doctrine). Then there are mystics like Teilhard de Chardin whom I disagreed with doctrinally on a couple of issues, as I believe the magisterium did, too. But he is a true son of the Church who inspired the faithful. So, too, is Origin, one of the Church’s great fathers, who simply got it wrong on a couple of items, like concluding that there is no such place as Hell! And there are many others. I have had an ongoing gripe with the Inquisition condemning the works of Meister Eckhart, the founder of the Rhineland mystics in the Dominican Order. But what I have learned is that in thinking with the mind of the Church, abiding in the magisterium, I have stayed the course to the Godhead, and I honestly don’t see any other way to do it. The magisterium, as Gordon pointed out, is the gift of apostolic succession. And it’s interesting that the saintly theologians who abide in their being silenced (as de Lubac did) eventually emerge and further the development of the Church’s understanding of itself. No other process in the word like this exists.

the other Gil said...

Bentang – you write, “I think it would be a mistake to assert that, without Christ, we are without conscience.” I agree. Everyone has a conscience, and from a religious perspective, I believe it is aligned with the gift of the Holy Spirit that everyone has, and that Jesus redeemed the world, with no exceptions. Being a film lover, I have witnessed the truth of this. To name three: Bergman, Antonioni and Kubrick. I have been obsessing on their films for many years in the search for truth, and they have gifted me much.

There is no question in my mind that there are atheists and homosexuals out there who are more prepared to go to heaven than me. In fact, because my mind has been opened fairly wide in viewing so much of how I have sinned and continue to do so (I know what I do!) I can’t think of a single person who is more sinful than me.

Because you have reflected as deeply as you have on the nature of guilt, I think you would really enjoy Tarkovsky’s “Solaris”. It is not a religious film, although religious persons can draw religious significance from it. Stanislaw Lem, author of the book the film is based on, a celebrated atheist his whole artistic life, had differences with Tarkovsky’s interpretation, but it had nothing to do with religious elements, but psychological ones and Tarkovsky’s fixation in the story on earth as opposed to outer-space.

I can’t remember where in Rene Girard’s book “Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World” he discusses homosexuality, but he makes clear that he really doesn’t like to use that term in what he is exploring, that it is misleading, that the existential dilemmas wrapped up in mimetic desire and triangular desire are common to both homosexuals and heterosexuals. This is why scapegoating is a big issue with him. It always involves people pointing their finger at someone else to avoid looking at their identical dilemmas, and to also find ways of cathartic release from shame by persecuting the other. I continue to see homosexual practices as impediments to finding the peace and love that Christ offers, but I see those same impediments in most of the sexual practices and commitments of heterosexuals today. For me, in the end, it is always a matter of finding the Crucified One in how I relate to others, and I fail at it too often for my comfort.

In any case, it is clear that I walk a path called Christ in the guidance of the magisterium. I know of Catholics who, when seeing a doctrinal or dogmatic light in the darkness of this world, will fearfully cling to it, the same as the man who fearfully buried the coins he was given to invest (a legalistic life in contradistinction to a life of faith in Christ). They miss the point that we just continue in the dark after the light we have found is interiorized in its mystery, not its legalism, and these guiding lights will eventually take us to the Light where guiding lights will no longer be necessary. And I am not in any way presuming that I will get to that Light before you. The only thing required of us is to search for the truth, for only the truth can set us free.

[My hour and a half at the library is up: gotta go. Peace!]

Bentang said...


Sounds like you are still trying to decide about Hell. It’s hard to hold so many opposites in one’s mind, isn’t it? It’s enough to drive anybody crazy. We know that God is wrathful, and we also know that He is infinitely loving. The Jesus who forgave those who crucified him will mete out stern punishments on Judgment Day. And the Bible is no help in any of this. It is so unclear sometimes! What is one to do?

More theology may be the answer. Yes, the book you’ve recommended (by Marion) certainly points to some changes that may be on the horizon—from emphasizing God’s retribution to emphasizing His love. That seems like a positive and promising new direction for Catholic theologians to take. The Unitarians tried it several centuries ago and it worked for them.

As you say, the Church throughout history had to condemn all those heresies because they would have caused people to stray from the true path. And people weren’t really capable of knowing what was best for them. It’s unfortunate that a few “mistakes were made” along the way. The magisterium may have been a little overzealous, but their hearts were in the right place, after all. From the Arians and Origin to Meister Eckhart and de Lubac, many Catholics simply “got it wrong.” It’s a good thing there was an Inquisition to straighten them out and protect others from following in their footsteps.

You have chosen to “stay the course to the Godhead,” to “think with the mind of the church,” and to “abide in the magisterium.” There’s no other way, as you say. After all, the magisterium does represent the apostolic succession, so we know that they will always do the right thing. There’s no other process quite like this. It is indeed a thing of beauty.

Thank you for your film recommendations and for your kinder, gentler words about homosexuality.

Here’s a book you might enjoy reading sometime: “Escape from Freedom,” by Erich Fromm.

Gordon said...


Let me add a book to that question of Hell, one by the favorite theologian of the last two popes: “Dare We Hope ‘That All Men Be Saved,’” by Hans Urs von Balthasar. It’s very readable, available in any decent academic library. From the beginning there has been a tension between the standard “hellfire verses” you cited and those scriptures stating God’s desire that everyone be saved. I’m sure you know that Origen, the first great theologian of Christianity, and many others in the early church assumed God’s salvific will was irresistible, hence universal. Balthasar argues, and I agree, that Origen’s conflict with the church was only over the inevitability of universal salvation, making it an impersonal process in which we lack freedom. But he adds that the logic of Christian faith and hope makes it impossible for us to wish for anything less than, in the end, no one being lost. The idea of anyone created to be our brother for eternity being separated from us and God’s love should be far more horrifying than the fear of Hell for ourselves (rather: we might be begin terrified for ourselves, but growing in love and the mind of Christ shifts our gaze away from ourselves and toward others. Paul’s wish in Romans that he should be cut off if it meant the salvation of Israel is an example of this).

There’s not a better book on the subject.

Gordon said...

Other Gil,

I watched Solaris last night. Wonderful. I had already decided to add another character to tease out and dramatize the conscience of my central character in a script I’m rewriting. But your comments and Tarkovsky’s movie helped enormously — especially your brief words. I woke up in the middle of the night with some solutions to problems I’ve had with story since my pre-Catholic days (when the script was almost made). So I’m afraid I need to get some sleep pretty soon. Thanks again.

the other Gil said...

Thanks, Bentang – The search for the truth of my life, a veritable hell, actually did drive me crazy back in 1973, and when I came out of THAT hell, the first book I read that helped me more than anything to understand my singular obsession, heroin addiction, was an Erich Fromm book, The Art of Loving. I went on to read all his works, including “Escape from Freedom”. A beautiful man with a beautiful mind.

I have been close to many homosexual men. One put his job on the line to save mine, something no one had ever done for me. He loved to say to me with his great smile, "Gil...You're so gay!" Another homosexual friend granted me the honor to be one of only two persons outside his family to accompany him in his final days of dying of AIDS, and I honored his request to not talk politics or religion. I just loved him. It was during that process that I came to understand the singular tragedy of AIDS: persons dying before the fullness of their lives have been complete. I have since come to believe that their lives are completed in God's mind, that death truly has been defeated in God’s love, which makes their lives as full as anyone else’s.

I am certain that the two homosexual men I loved and who died are in heaven. I knew their loving hearts so well.

I'm a New Yorker. Can't help but argue. And thanks, Bentang, for indulging me. It's hard to come by here in Seattle!

ignatius said...

Bentang, in reference to your challenge of a quotation of mine, about new atheists trying to destroy religion, I must say some of them are. I don't think it'sx an exaggeration. Here's a link to the Freedom from Religion Foundation, which tries to bully people into acting secular by means of lawsuits:

Dawkins and Hitchens are honorary members of the board.

the other Gil said...

Gordon – My favorite film of all time is “Solaris”, and still for me the best meditation on conscience. Every time I watch it the end shifts in meaning (Tarkovsky intended these ambiguities for meditation). Where I’m at now is that Kelvin does go back to earth, but his “double” is formed by Solaris, interconnected with Kelvin on earth, where in transcendent harmony his conscience continues the reflections of conscience, with never ending “guests”, beginning with his father. This for me is a theological assumption that God’s memory contains all our memories, so that when we honestly access our memories, we access God.

I just thought of the title of a Nabokov book: “Speak Memory!”

I won’t be back to the internet for a month or more, but I looked through my library and found what I believe is the best definition of conscience, in Pope Benedict XVI’s book “Jesus of Nazareth”, pp 147-148: a participation in God’s knowing:

“…the essence of ‘heaven’ is that it is where God’s will is unswervingly done…Earth becomes ‘heaven’ when and insofar as God’s will is done there….But what is ‘God’s will’? The Holy Scriptures work on the premise that man has knowledge of God’s will in his inmost heart, that anchored deeply within us there is a participation in God’s knowing, which we call conscience (cf., for example, Rom 2:15). But Scriptures also know that this participation in the Creator’s knowledge…‘according to his likeness,’ became buried in the course of history. It can never be completely extinguished, but it has been covered over in many ways, like a barely flickering lame, all too often at risk of being smothered under the ash of all the prejudices that have piled up within us.” ‘

“Solaris” for me is the story of the removal of the ashes.

The search for truth is the search for self, and that motive is always at the heart of all good writing. This is why the homosexual Proust wrote one of the greatest novels of all time, “Remembrance of Things Past”.