Latin

Et hoc evanuerit.

Sometimes God speaks to me through Latin.  I don’t mean he speaks to me in Latin, although that would certainly be cool.  I mean that sometimes I translate things into Latin and then understand what God is trying to tell me.

Don’t think I’m saying that God speaks exclusively Latin, or that he even prefers Latin to other languages.  Rather, he knows I like Latin, and so I think he lets me find him in something that I like.  That sort of mercy is his joy.

By which I don’t mean that God would be unhappy if people didn’t need mercy.  He would of course be joyful even if there were no people at all.  But as there are people, his joy is expressed through mercy.  Or perhaps mercy is what his joy seems like to us, in our current state.

I could quibble all night long.

Also, I know that I’m in the middle of a few conversations.  A few topics.  A few other things too.  This is a bit of an aside, and I appreciate your patience.  Particularly let me thank William, if he happens to read this, for being as patient as he has been.

Back to the Latin thing.

Not long ago I wrote a sonnet about…  Well, about feeling old and lost and directionless.  (It’s possible that the meaning did not come through.  It is, at least for me, difficult to write a sonnet in thirty minutes without deleting anything.  Also, it is difficult to write a sonnet in more time with more liberty.  That’s one of the reasons I like sonnets, but more on that another time.)

At around the same time as I wrote it, I finally found the right translation of the idiom, “other things being equal.”  (Idioms are difficult.  My Latin is somewhere beyond rusty.  It’s dust.)  Ceteris paribus.  That became the title.

I originally meant it to say something akin to, “Unless something changes, this sonnet is my life.”

Alas, the Latin came to be something entirely different for me.  Suddenly, seeing it in Latin, I understood something about the expression “other things being equal.”  There is always one Other that is inestimably unequal.  He is unchanging (so in that sense he satisfies the basic meaning of the expression), but he changes everything (so it’s very difficult to use the expression at all).

I’m not really explaining this well.  At least it doesn’t seem to me that I am.  Perhaps I should not have tried to type this while also trying to show my daughter “The Sound of Music” for the first time.  As usually happens in such situations, she’s not interested, but I can’t look away.

Also I’m out of time again.

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For The Record I’m Not Fishing For Compliments (Although It May Seem Like It, Even Because Of This Denial)

There’s a certain spiritual discipline which I’ll call “comfort with ignorance.”  It has other names obviously, but that’s the one I’ll use for now.

I’ve talked about how Christianity is a rational belief system.  It isn’t something that we believe without evidence.  It isn’t something we believe in spite of evidence.  It’s something that we believe and think about and wrestle with, and which happens also to be true and compelling.

But there are parts of it which we submit to by faith, not because they’re irrational, but because they’re simply mysterious.  (“Simply Mysterious.”  I just said that?)  So it isn’t that we believe triangles are also squares even though that doesn’t make any sense.  It’s more like believing that triangles can never change shape, even if we can’t understand how that’s possible.

(You can try this for yourself; take three straight things, like sticks or straws, and make a triangle out of them.  Now try to make any other shape out of them, without of course fetching more sticks or straws.  You can’t.  You’ll always get that first triangle.  I know this.  I can prove it.  It still amazes me.  This is why they put triangles in buildings:  other shapes can collapse or skew, like a square into a diamond or an octogon into a plus sign; triangles can’t.)

How about I dive into the specific example I’m thinking about, rather than trying to explain something in the abstract.

I have no idea how someone like me, with the gifts I have and the weaknesses I have, is supposed to serve God.  I’ve read enough to feel quite insignificant, and mostly silly.  I hear the way people talk about me when I’m around; I can’t imagine that they save the nice stuff until after I leave.  I am, in a phrase I coined accidentally by slurring other meaningful things, a “waistless lump of goo.”

In a way that might be telling–one can never quite tell how the Spirit will work–I mistyped that “wasteless lump of good.”

(Shrug.)

I don’t see it.  And therein lies the discipline:  I will believe it though I can’t understand it.

In one of his essays, C. S. Lewis talked about how it isn’t necessarily given us to understand the use or importance of our tasks.  They may be for someone long after us, whom we will neither see nor know.  Or, to be all Biblical about it, we might die before seeing the fulfillment of the promise.

Because our creation is a promise.  Or, to make it personal again, my creation is a promise.  God does not waste time.  If he made me, he made me because he judged that a person like me would be a good idea.  A person like me would be a good.  Now, it isn’t necessarily the case that a person like me will understand the good I am, any more than I can always understand the good of anything else.  But I can trust God about this.

And that’s the comfort with ignorance.  I strive to be comfortable with ignorance about how someone like me could be a good idea, how any of my fumbling and failing could serve God.  It may not be given to me to know.  But if I am trying to serve God, am trying to be obedient to God, am trying to be the person he created me to be, then I can trust that the good is true regardless of whether I see it.  The same God who knew me and designed me, knows how to use me.

As a pressing example, I’m ignorant of how this rambling mess could ever be helpful to anyone.  But I’m supposed to post it.  (Right now actually, since I’m out of time.)

Maybe Not a Stone

My television now includes an explicitly pagan channel.  I suppose that’s fair, I’ve had a few explicitly Christian channels for a while.  I’m only startled that I see advertisements for it everywhere.  Again, not because it shouldn’t advertise, but because it seems to have gone from no presence to ubiquitous presence in about a week.

Maybe I just didn’t notice it before.  I am not the most observant of people.  Or at least, I can only be relied upon to observe a certain class of things.

In any event, if you want to be pagan, there’s now a channel for you in my area.  It will probably be encouraging and attractive.  It will likely lure people into pagan practices that they don’t realize are pagan practices.  None of this is surprising.

I feel this way about heresy, too.  All heresies are attractive in some way–although sometimes that attraction is baffling for those aware of the truth–and they lure people into heretical belief and practice that they may not realize is heretical.  None of this is surprising either.

Nor is it surprising that they’re numerous.  Nor that they’re successful.  Nor that everywhere Christians seem to abandon the Truth in favor of them.

It’s not surprising because it’s been happening since the beginning.  The surprising thing is that in spite of the constant assault, the constant temptation, the constant misunderstandings, the Church has managed to survive for two thousand years and has pretty much believed the same thing for that entire time.

In one of his books, Chesterton talks about how every generation or two it seems like the Church is dying.  It seems like the dreams of our opponents are going to be realized, and that this ponderous and objectionable thing might finally fade from the earth.  But it never does; it is sustained from without.

That last is the sort of thing I’m inclined to forget.  I get passionate about few things more than the refutation of error.  I’m not particularly good at it, but I’m passionate about it.  Mostly though I’m passionate because I’m afraid.  I’m afraid that people will be led away from the Truth and that the Truth will pass away.

Now, there’s an obvious verse to quote here, so I’ll avoid it because it’s obvious.  Instead let me quote another:  “But Jesus answered, ‘I tell you, if these become silent, the stones will cry out'” (Luke 19:40).

If it were to happen that the entire Church were to embrace error, or to abandon Christ in favor of some other lesser (and imagined) god, “the stones [would] cry out,” and possibly begin by scolding us.  Christ will have his Church.

Now as it happens, he has graciously decided to include us in it, rather than stones.  And it seems that he is able to sustain us in spite of every challenge, so that passing away becomes less likely with each passing century rather than more likely.

It is of course therefore not my responsibility to guarantee that the good news of Christ is faithfully delivered to the future.  It might be my responsibility to deliver it to one area.  It might be my responsibility to say whether the news delivered to that area is in fact the Good News.  But the guarantor of the whole (and the future) is Christ; I am at best his clumsy servant.

Or, to put it another and likely less misleading way, it isn’t my job to worry about the war, only to fight to the best of my abilities in the battle I’m given.  It is not my job to guard the entire building, merely to watch the door which is my station.  It does no good for me to worry about the rest anyway, but more importantly I should remember that the rest has been faithfully handled for thousands of years, and that the state of the rest depends (thankfully) on someone better than me.

Maybe in fact I should be surprised that the better someone has entrusted me even with a door or a single battle.  I can’t say it speaks highly of his judgment, but maybe his judgment about me is better than mine, in the similar way that his judgment about everything else is.  Or of course he has chosen the fool and the weak, and all the better for him.

In any event, I’m out of time again.  Here I will take a small liberty.  You have read my writing, and my writing is in me.  As such you have come into my house, which it is in my authority to govern.  I use that authority in this way:

The LORD bless you and keep you.
The LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you.
The LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

Being Reasonable

It’s pretty common (and eminently unjustifiable) for atheists to argue that religion is somehow opposed to reason.  One book actually argues that atheists are trying to defend reason from an assault by religion.  Since being reasonable is good, which I suspect most people believe, they want us to be atheists.  Atheism, in their considered opinion, is the only reasonable option.

Now, there are any number of obvious logical flaws with this position–in addition to obvious historical flaws–of the sort that they largely ignore because they’re less concerned with being reasonable than sounding reasonable.  (Sadly, Christians have been far too ready to sound unreasonable by contrast.)  I can’t discuss them all within my thirty minute window, but I thought I’d point out a couple.

The first is (perhaps genuine) confusion between proximal and distal causes.  Imagine that a mobster is found dead in the street.  The proximal cause of his death might be that he was shot.  The distal cause might be that some rival mobster “put out a hit” on him, I believe the language goes.  Now, it’s entirely nonsense to argue that those two causes are in competition.  Nevertheless, this is the position atheists are in when they argue for the non-existence of God based on something like evolution.

They might say something like this, “Since humanity evolved, and we have good evidence it did, then it was obviously not created by any God.”  The truth or falsity of evolution is entirely irrelevant to creation; one is a question of How, the other a question of Why.  The question of How humanity came about is confused for the question of Why humanity came about.

Imagine another situation: let’s say that we’re discussing Susan, a new university student in Paris.  A parallel to the atheist argument might be:  “Since Susan arrived in Paris by bus, and we have good evidence that she did, then she was obviously not in Paris to attend university.”  Again, the question of How Susan arrived in Paris is confused for the question of Why Susan arrived in Paris.  We all know this to be ridiculous.

The same sort of error persists in any argument about the laws of physics, psychology, et cetera.  Having a clear understanding of How, even if we grant that we do always have a clear understanding of How, is largely irrelevant to the question of Why.  In fact it prompts larger Why questions about the very substance of the How.

So if we grant evolution, rather than explaining humanity, we now have an additional question:  why does this elegant unrolling of complexity work?  The beautiful answer that atheists give, and this is provided by the venerable Dawkins, is that it happens slowly.  I think at that point, the most appropriate Christian response is pity.

But there’s an associated error, which is sometimes tied up with Ockham’s razor, or simplicity, or necessity.  For those who are unfamiliar, Ockham’s razor is a pragmatic preference for the hypothesis that requires the fewest assumptions, or at least a balance that pursues the greatest explanatory power with the fewest assumptions.

A bolder form, put forth by someone, is that a premise which is unnecessary is irrelevant.  Atheists argue that they can explain the world and everything in it without having to rely upon God, and therefore since the God premise is unnecessary, it’s irrelevant.

Now, it ought to be evident that Atheists can “explain everything” only if we’re willing to be confused, or to ignore all of the parts that are interesting, meaningful, or complicated.  In short, they can explain all of the simple things and are willing to ignore what they can’t explain.

I’m not talking about ignoring things that are currently not understandable (like the existence of consciousness), or even things which might be obviously skewed to their opponents (like miracles), I’m talking about ignoring things which they’re own method precludes (like choice, or the reliability of Reason).  And this is ignoring the rather significant topic of consequences: what would it mean to live in a world of only How and no Why?

Atheist scientists will sometimes argue that Christian’s worship a “God of the gaps,” relegating to God anything which science cannot explain.  They then point out that science explains more each year, and that the purview of such a God is decreasing.  It’s entirely untrue that Christianity has ever had a God of the gaps, except as espoused by those who were mistaken about God, but atheists themselves serve a truth of the boundaries.  They have set very narrow limits on what premises they’ll accept, and they only call true what can be build from those premises.

And there’s the crucial bit, because they don’t choose those premises based on either simplicity or explanatory power.  They don’t decide based on Ockham’s razor, but on a sort of pragmatic selfishness.  They accept only those premises which require nothing from them.

As it happens, theism is infinitely simpler than the increasingly cumbersome acrobatics that atheists must pursue in order to explain our universe.  The most elegant solution they have is that we’re lucky.  We’re the lucky ones who happen to live a recursion of the universe which supports life.  And we’re the lucky one’s who live on a planet that supports life.  And we’re the lucky ones who benefit from life surviving in spite of the odds, and in fact multiplying and diversifying.  We’re the lucky ones who benefit from life emerging, unbidden and arbitrarily, from unlife.

But Luck isn’t, in and of itself, a simpler premise than God  It isn’t even a premise with more explanatory power.  It’s only a premise that doesn’t demand anything from us.  It isn’t reason that leads people to accept it; it’s fear.  An arbitrary universe is easier to accept than a created one, because an arbitrary universe will never say that I have sinned.