Theology Corner!

Since I have forsworn commenting on politics under after Advent, I thought I would share a letter I wrote in reply to some questions from a reader on a theological matter:

Once we are convinced that men have free will, and that the supernatural must exist if the natural order exists, this leaves us with three impending questions:

  1. What is a god?
  2. Is there only one?
  3. Is Christ God?

To answer the first question first is simple for anyone familiar with pagan writings: The God is not a god.

I am someone who has read myths and believes of ancient or primitive peoples all my life, so to me, even back when I was an atheist, the answer is quite painfully obvious.

The God, the one God of monotheism, claims to be the eternal, all knowing, benevolent and all powerful sovereign creator of the universe as well as being the source legislating and the legitimate authority enforcing the universal moral law. He is, in short, the Supreme Being.

A being is called Supreme when there is none equal to him in age, power, wisdom, benevolence nor authority, and none above him.

Zeus, Odin, Osiris, Vishnu and any other pagan god one might name from the ancient world, the Far East, or the American Indians, make no claim to be the Supreme Being.

None claim to be the creator of heaven and earth, and of all things seen and unseen, spiritual and material.

None claim to be the lawgiver of the moral law.

None claim to be eternal.

We have not yet reached the question of whether the stories told about them are true or untrue. For now, we are only looking at what those stories claim. What is alleged?

Jupiter is not alleged to be eternal because he was born, fathered by Saturn whom he slew; Odin is not alleged to be eternal because he is mortal, doomed to die under fangs of Fenrir the wolf at the Twilight of the Gods.

Brahma of the Hindu perhaps is a supreme god, but, again, cannot be said to be a creator of the universe, for in the Hindu conception, the universe has no beginning.

Indeed, if I understand the claim (and perhaps I do not) Brahma is said to be at one with the universe, to be the universe, so that all the universe and everything in it is equally divine. Both the child, and the serpent that bites and kills the child, are equally divine.

This conception is called pantheism. In this conception, there is no good and no evil because all things are part of one divine being, and only the limitation of human thought prevents us from seeing that were are merely part of an underlying universal unity, not real beings at all.

Hence, Brahma is not the lawgiver of the moral law, because there is no moral law. The appearance of good and evil is an illusion created by limited and benighted human thinking.

So, whatever the nature of the gods might be, the God of Abraham does not share it. He is not like them.

Without making any comment on whether the claims are true, it is clear enough that what is being claimed is nowhere near the same thing. The various pagan gods are superhuman beings, but none of them are supernatural, above nature. None of them stand outside of time. None of them are beyond fate. None claim to be the author of all things.

So: the universe is either unintentional thing, that came about without any deliberate purpose, or a made thing, a deliberate handicraft. If it were not deliberate, nothing inside it would have a purpose. Wings would not be designed to let birds fly, they would just have happened to come about for no reason in such a way that birds do fly, but not on purpose. Eyes would not be designed to let organisms see light, they just would have happened to come about about for no reason in such a way that creatures do see, but not on purpose. Teeth are not for chewing, we just so happen to use them that way. Sexual organs are not for reproduction, we just so happen to use them that way. Brains are not for thinking, we just so happen to use them that way.

None of these things were designed to be used this way, unless there is a designer.

Now, if we found a pocketwatch in the middle of the wilderness, it clearly is a designed thing, a tool, meant by some watchmaker to mark the time and count the hours.

People often misunderstand this argument, and say that it is the complexity of the watch, or the fact that all the parts ft together so nicely, that proves it must have been made by a watchmaker. Not so. That is incidental to the argument.

The point of the argument is that a watch is for something. It serves a purpose. It is meant to do something.

Well, when one comes across a tree in the wasteland, and sees the mechanisms of the roots and leaves, the capillary action to draw and preserve moisture, the mechanism to tilt the blossoms to catch the sunlight, the mechanics of the photosynthetic chemicals inside the green leaves, and so on, it is not the intricate nature of the organism which argues that these things were designed. Nature can no doubt have very complex and intricate events occur even when done blindly. It is the fact that the things obvious serve a purpose, and it is not  a purpose intended by the tree, which, after all, has no brain and can form no intentions.

Complex things can indeed arise blindly from blind nature, and then we clever humans can find a use for them: a stone or stick shaped just right for some purpose of our own. But things that are meant for a purpose before clever humans come along, things like eyes and wings that are meant for specific functions and are clearly tools meant for those functions. A tool logically implies a toolmaker.

Let this distinction be very clear: when a clever human uses the thighbone of an antelope as a bludgeon, he is not discovering in innate design in the thighbone. He is merely using something that happens to have properties he can use. The purpose comes from him, not from nature. But when nature designs an eye or a wing, these are not things that originally served another purpose, or served no purpose at all, until a clever organism came along and used one to fly and the other to see. Flight and sight are innate to the design of a wing, yes, even to the design of an ostrich wing. You can tell it is “innate” because you cannot describe the wing, what a wing is, without also describing what it is for. The ostrich wing is designed for flying even though the ostrich cannot use it to fly!

An examination of the human body shows quickly that all parts serve some purpose (even the appendix, whose purpose was long not known) and, more astonishingly, we find faculties of the mind, such as reason, or artistic sense, or the moral conscience, which also clearly have purposes, but not purposes we humans adopted, invented, or installed in ourselves.

The conscience in particular has the purpose to guide us toward right actions and to convict us when we surrender to the sweet and hypnotic allure toward wrong actions. Now, this is a strange purpose indeed. It is not meant merely to maximize our survival chances, because sometimes it calls on us to sacrifice ourselves. It is neither to maximize our bloodline survival chances, because sometimes the conscience convicts us for preferring family to honor, or for putting our race above other races.

If the conscience were merely an expression of a genetic desire for Darwinian self reproduction, it would operate always to maximize the statistical chance of passing along our selfish genes: we humans would never put our brother before ourself, our cousin before our brother, or a stranger before our kin. We would all be ruthless polygamists desperate to kill the children of other races as quickly as possible, and our conscience would universally, without exception, confirm this as right and just.

Not only does that NOT happen, but every writing exploring the moral code of man denies that selfishness and the murder of innocents Is permitted. All condemn what Darwin commands.

Whatever one makes of this, whatever else it means, it means clearly that the conscience is not the voice of Darwinian selfish genes trying to reproduce themselves, using us as a mechanism. For one thing, the monogamous and the abstinent see no moral imperative requiring us to obey what genes want. Genes are merely twists of longchain molecules and cannot literally want anything; and if there is no God, and no moral law aside from manmade law, why should anyone listen to selfish genes?

This logic leads to the conclusion that the conscience is both a designed thing, a thing designed for a purpose, and that the purpose is something else than selfish self-survival, or reproduction of the race. Something more. More than natural.

Now, again, if all the universe, including man, includes clear evidence of the hand of a designer, that designer must be more than the universe, or outside it, or beyond it, which means, beyond nature, which means, supernatural.

From the mere fact that the universe is designed, we can make some logical deductions about the designer.

If this designer has parts, organs, faculties, then, by the same logic, they too are designed, which implies a further designer; and that further designer must have one above him; and he another above him; and so on forever. But an infinite regress is impossible. Therefore the designer has no parts.

If he has no parts, he is simple, uncompounded, uncomplicated, and unmoving. This also implies him to be eternal: a thing with no parts cannot decay, because decay means that its parts disintegrate. The only way a creature being can be unmoving and yet be the cause of all motion is if he creates all things and sets them in motion simultaneously at all points in time. Hence he is not only the creator but the sustainer of all things; he is the same in the past, at present, and in the future, eternal and unchanging.

A mind only as wise as a human mind cannot design the human mind, ergo the Creator must be superhuman. He has sufficient power to design and create the universe, which means, to create all out of nothing. What we call creative acts, when a poet puts words together or a mechanic puts gears and wiring together, are acts which rearrange a previous and existing arrangement. The creation of the universe, if the word universe means all nature, cannot be a mere rearrangement, it is the creation of something from nothing, indeed, of everything from nothing. We use the word “omnipotence” to describe power of that magnitude.

A human poet or mechanic, who rearranges existing things to a new arrangement, often makes something with uses and implications whose ramifications he cannot foresee. Two parts of a complex machine or two elements in a complex poem bring out something else the maker did not deliberately make, and did not know. But the creator of all things, if all things spring from nothing, must have made all parts deliberately, down to the last detail. This means all parts of the universe are deliberate, and known to the creator. We use the word “omniscient’ to describe this level of knowledge.

If the designer has no parts, he can suffer no loss nor lack, since loss is caused (in a complex being) by missing a part. Therefore this designer must be entirely all sufficient and self-sufficient. He needs nothing and wants nothing. He is not lonely and cannot get bored. Why, then, did he create the universe? Logically, the act of creation must be deliberate yet unnecessary: the only word we have for this concept is ‘gift’. A gift is what you give when you do not have to.

Selfish and indifferent creatures do not give gifts. Gift-giving is an act of love. Hence, we can deduce that this Creator, in addition to being superhuman, supernatural, omnipotent and omniscient, must also be benevolent.

And there can only be one such being because there is no such thing as two or more all-powerful and all-knowing creators of all things. The word “all” precludes that possibility.

Now then, if there is one God, and he stands outside of time yet created and knows every aspect of the universe, including every last thought in your head, two other things must logically be true of him: first, he is transcendent, that is, not merely a powerful but non-eternal superbeing like Odin or Jupiter. Second, he is immanent, that is, he is not the remote and indifferent supreme being imagined by the Deists or the Buddhists, who has no love for man and no concern for human suffering.

So much logic can deduce and no further. The only way mortal men with our limited minds could understand more about the Creator would be if he revealed himself to us and told us about him.

As it so happens, history is filled with fortune tellers, witches, sibyls, oracles and prophets who claim to speak for the various gods or to divine the shape of the future. However, an examination of the claims of the pagan gods shows one thing very clearly: none of them believe in free will. If the pagan gods are real, free will is an illusion, and man is a puppet controlled by fate and necessity.

Only one set of prophets in the history of mankind has ever claimed to speak for the one and sole creator who fits the description which our chain of reasoning given above proves must be the Supreme Being: and these are the Jewish prophets.

At this point, we switch from a purely abstract deductive process to historical reasoning. We must take in evidence and examine it for authenticity.

If the prophets are what they say they are, then God reveals himself through them. It is only by close examination of this historical record if we can determine whether or not they are who they said they are.

This cannot be done without examining each prophet one at a time and then looking over the whole body to see if their messages cohere. For if one divine mind is indeed speaking to many men of many eras over long spans of time, their words should reflect not only their personal and local matters and habits of speech, but also form one unified message striking one unified tone.

The prophets in the Old Testament tell of a coming messiah and warn of false prophets. The last prophet properly so called was John the Baptist. Since that time, no prophets have arisen among the Jews. John the Baptist prophesied Jesus to be the Messiah. Jesus himself was, by all accounts, even his enemies, a great spiritual teacher. He also claimed to be divine, a god and the Son of God. Another man, seven centuries later, claiming also to be a prophet of the God of Abraham, Mohammed, contradicted this claim, and said Jesus was not the Messiah, not the Son of God, not God, but was merely one more in a long line of prophets. And the modern day Jews, those who have no converted, reject the claim of Jesus.

So one of these prophets is a false prophet. Which one? If John the Baptist truly was from God, his prophecies should come true. If Jesus was who he said he was, he should be able to do such signs and wonders as to convince any honest skeptic, even performing a fantastic and impossible feat such as raising the dead to life, or coming back to life himself. If Mohammed were a true prophet of God, he likewise would have a long list of miracles performed in public before many witnesses, and, like the other prophets of God, show that same uniformity of tone and message which is otherwise impossible to explain.

A cursory reading of the Koran and the New Testament will tell any reader which of the two coheres with the Old Testament prophets and was prophesied by them. The simple historical record, whether one believes it or not, is that Jesus is alleged to have performed many public miracles, healed the sick, restored sight to the blind, and returned from the dead himself; whereas Mohammed is alleged to have done none of these things. Stories of miracles wrought by other figures in legend and lore, or of heroes or demigods returning from the grave lack two particular characteristics: first, none of them were for any purpose or point. When Hercules or Orpheus or Aeneas travels to the underworld and returns, mankind is not helped. Second, these events take place in no particular time or place. They are myths. The accounts in the Gospel are written as if by Plutarch, using the approach of any other ancient biographer.

So the next question is: what did Christ claim to be?

Is he what he claims?

Following this is a last question: is the Catholic Church what she claims to be?