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Saturday, July 23, 2016

Is Game of Thrones more Christian than Lord of the Rings?

In a recent Facebook discussion, Rebecca Bratten Weiss (of the excellent "Suspended in Her Jar" blog on Patheos) suggested that the treatment of violence in the "Song of Ice and Fire" books by George R. R. Martin is, in a sense, more truly Christian than Tolkien's treatment of the same subjects. In Tolkien a conquering, messianic emperor brings peace through righteous violence. In Martin, on the other hand, violence is portrayed in its full horror.

Furthermore, in the fourth book, Feast of Crows, Martin presents characters (clerics in the dominant religion of Westeros, the "Faith of the Seven") who provide a moral critique, implicitly pacifist, of the war that has torn the country apart and the ethos of honor and glory that has fueled it. As one of these characters, Septon Meribald, wanders with Brienne of Tarth across the devastated landscape of Westeros, he speaks of the horror of war and the way it eventually "breaks" those caught up in it. "In times like these," he concludes, "the traveler must beware of broken men, and fear them. . . . but he should pity them as well." (Another character, the "Elder Brother" of a monastic community on the "Quiet Isle," has similar things to say.) That Brienne, of all the knights and warriors in the books, is the one to hear these denunciations of war is significant. She's one of the purest-hearted characters in the series--someone who actually takes the code of chivalry seriously, not least because, as a woman, she's not supposed to participate in knighthood at all.

I agree with Rebecca that Martin provides a powerful critique of war in the Song of Ice and Fire and an ethos of compassion toward its victims, and that the books are far from nihilistic or amoral. However, I disagree with her suggestion that the books are more in line with an appropriate Christian ethic than Lord of the Rings, no doubt in part because of our disagreements about what that ethic is.

Rebecca is a pacifist. She believes that war is never justified, and thus that a Christian approach to war needs to be one of total rejection. In particular, she has expressed concerns (in this post, for instance) about "play-acting militarism" that "obscures the reality of war." When we read Tolkien, or Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, we imagine ourselves as heroes fighting nobly against terrible odds. This could make us more likely to approve of real wars, because we see them through the mythical haze provided by these heroic fantasy narratives. LOTR culminates in the coronation of a heroic warrior king who brings peace and justice to the world. It could quite conceivably lead us to expect such a messianic hero in our own place and time.

And these concerns have plenty of warrant. Right after 9/11, I remember reading an article that used LOTR as a template for the geopolitical situation, comparing the French, if I remember rightly, to Saruman. More than once I've heard neo-conservative supporters of an aggressive foreign policy use (or, in my opinion, misuse) Faramir's wonderful speech about "not loving the bright sword for its sharpness, etc.. . . but the things that these defend" as a justification for their position. The fact that Peter Jackson's first LOTR adaptation premiered a few months after 9/11 made this sort of interpretation of Tolkien's work all the more appealing, not least because the movies emphasized the warlike elements in the books and played down the ironic complexity of Tolkien's vision.

In spite of this, I don't agree that Martin's books are to be preferred (as a whole) to Tolkien's as a guide for Christians in questions of war and peace. This is partly because I'm not quite a pacifist--I believe that just wars are in principle possible, although very rare, a position some people call "practical pacifism." And one of the reasons I take this position is indeed because of my love of Tolkien and Lewis. They have provided me with an idealistic picture of what just war might look like. But I don't find that this makes me particularly likely to justify real wars in the real world. On the contrary, precisely because I have an ideal picture of what just war would have to look like, I have a moral standard by which I can judge the wars that take place in the world around me and find them morally lacking.

In my experience, this position actually infuriates pro-war people more than pacifism does. In a debate I engaged in on Patheos a couple of years ago with David French and Keith Pavlischek, for instance, Pavlischek snapped that I wasn't a "practical pacifist"--I was just an outright pacifist. It's important for many defenders of war to put all their opponents in a bag called "pacifist" and then declare them all irrelevant to questions of whether it's right to wage a particular war. People who say that in principle a war might be justified, but are almost impossible to persuade of the justice of any particular war, mess up that strategy badly.

One of Pavlischek's major arguments against pacifism, drawn from Elizabeth Anscombe, is that it makes all violence equally bad. (See his essay critiquing Reinhold Niebuhr's Christian realism, which argues that Niebuhr and the pacifists share the same basic mistake about the immorality of all war.) In Anscombe argues that pacifism leads to the "loss of the conception of murder." If what is bad is violence or killing of any kind, then people lose the ability to understand why killing the innocent is always wrong. People come to think of pacifism as the "absolute ideal," while assuming that if one is not a pacifist there's no use bringing moral considerations into the business of warfare at all.

I don't think that this is a fair criticism of Christian pacifism. But I do think it's a very fair criticism of the kind of "pacifism" found in the Song of Ice and Fire, and indeed of any pacifism that is primarily founded on the horror of war rather than on the love of one's enemies and the message of the Cross.

For one thing, I'm not convinced that the Song of Ice and Fire is pacifist. Of course there are problems with even asking whether a series of books is or is not pacifist. But I don't find that reading the books makes me more inclined to pacifism. It's hard to see how pacifism would be an appropriate response to Ramsay Bolton or Gregor Clegane or Vargo Hoat, and I see nothing in the books indicating that Martin thinks it would be. Rather, my visceral response to them is "do whatever you have to do to take these monsters down."

Martin's dark vision of the horror of war certainly implies that we should not wage war unless we have to. But it also implies, I think, that if we are forced to fight we should do whatever we need to do in order to win. Martin's books embody precisely the polarity of realism and pacifism that Anscombe and Pavlischek criticize. Because any possible vision of just and honorable warfare is deconstructed so ruthlessly, we are left with two options: a pacifist withdrawal from the "game of thrones" altogether, which is compassionate and admirable but cannot in itself bring justice and order, or a grim determination to do what must be done even if it violates traditional codes of honor and chivalry. This is not nihilism, but it is, I think, relativism and consequentialism. (Here's one concrete example--Jaime's monstrous threat to murder Edmure's child appears, within Martin's narrative world, to be the moral choice, because it results in a bloodless resolution to the siege of Riverrun.)

So which fantasy narrative, Tolkien's or Martin's, would be more likely to give us pause when considering the use of violence in the contemporary world? If my ethical responses were shaped primarily by Martin's view of the world, I would look at ISIS and say, "we must do whatever we need to do to take out these monsters." I would be less likely to worry about the traditional rules of just war, as long as the ultimate goal was to bring peace to the Middle East.

I oppose bombing campaigns and other morally questionable responses to evil precisely because I am formed primarily by Tolkien, not by Martin. I start with an ideal of what a righteous response to evil looks like, not with the horror of the evil I wish to oppose. And I think that's by far the healthier place to start.

I've been quoting G. K. Chesterton a lot lately, because so often he seems to have diagnosed the maladies of our culture a hundred years in advance. In his book Heretics, in the chapter "On the Negative Spirit," Chesterton mentions early 20th-century writers such as Ibsen, Maupassant, and Zola, who were controversial for their (by 19th-century standards) often explicit subject matter. Chesterton dismisses this charge and says that the real problem with these authors is that they have a very clear vision of evil but a misty vision of the good. I don't think that applies to Martin exactly--compassion and empathy come across very clearly in his works as unequivocal goods. But I think it's true of Martin as of the more conventionally "high-brow" figures of modern literature that his moral vision is expressed largely in negative terms.

Chesterton cites an author named G. W. Foote (not someone I've heard of elsewhere) to the effect that pictures of a drunkard's liver would do more to discourage drunkenness "than any prayer or praise," and he takes this as symbolic of the "negative spirit" he sees pervading modern ethics. "In that temple the lights are low, the crowds kneel, the solemn anthems are uplifted. But that upon the altar to which all men kneel is no longer the perfect flesh, the body and substance of the perfect man; it is still flesh, but it is diseased. It is the drunkard's liver of the New Testament that is marred for us, which which we take in remembrance of him." Earlier in the same essay, Chesterton remarks, "A young man may keep himself from vice by continually thinking of disease. He may keep himself from it also by continually thinking of the Virgin Mary. There may be question about which method is the more reasonable, or even about which is the more efficient. But surely there can be no question about which is the more wholesome."

Martin's books are perhaps the best fantasy literature since Tolkien. In spite of some exploitative elements, their dark vision is, on the whole, a deeply moral one. They're well worth reading (for adults with strong stomachs), and I agree that they offer a needed counterpoint to Tolkien's more idealistic vision. In particular, they can help correct the ways many people misuse Tolkien as a sanction for nationalism and militarism. But in the end, if I have to choose, I'm still going to go with Tolkien as my primary fantasy author. Martin, for all his merits, has too much drunkard's liver and not enough Virgin Mary.

22 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Martin's dark vision of the horror of war certainly implies that we should not wage war unless we have to."

It's not about the horrors of war.
It's about the horrors of daily life.

Often, when people talk about war and peace, they operate from the dichotomy peace times vs. war times. But this is a false dichotomy, it's a misleading dichotomy.

That which is usually called "peace times" is on the same spectrum as "war times." There is no categorical difference between the two.
War is going on at all times, just in different modes.


"So which fantasy narrative, Tolkien's or Martin's, would be more likely to give us pause when considering the use of violence in the contemporary world?"

What is "violence"? Whose idea of "violence"?

People have vastly different ideas on what "violence" is. Just as they have very different ideas on what, for example, "compassion" is.

There are not just a few people who believe it is sometimes compassionate to kill. Not just to those who aren't killed, but especially to those who are killed.

And violence? Not rarely, that which is called "culture" is simply a way to present violence as something palatable, even desirable.

Anonymous said...

"I don't think that this is a fair criticism of Christian pacifism. But I do think it's a very fair criticism of the kind of "pacifism" found in the Song of Ice and Fire, and indeed of any pacifism that is primarily founded on the horror of war rather than on the love of one's enemies and the message of the Cross."

You will most likely ignore this post, as usual ...

What is the "message of the Cross"?
People who call themselves "Christians" have very different ideas about what exactly "the message of the Cross" is; or what "Christianity" is.
For someone like me, observing from the outside, as a non-member, "Christianity" is simply a mess, a confusion, a number of competing voices.

Which religion is the right one?
You probably won't even begin to answer this, or you'll just praise your own religion.
And the people of other religions will advocate theirs.
What all of you have in common is that you place the whole responsibility on the person.
In the end, none of you cares.

Contarini said...

These comments sound like "Sophia Montgomery" but they're posted as "anonymous." I've not been deliberately ignoring your comments (if this is Sophia), but I tend not to check my blog often enough, and some of your comments are just hard to respond to, though they make me think. I don't have good answers--sometimes I have trouble understanding where you are coming from. But I always appreciate your input.

As you note, there is no answer to your question about "the right one," because if I argue for a particular perspective you'll just dismiss it. (And note that the Catholic perspective, for which I generally argue, isn't really "my own religion"--it's certainly not the tradition I was brought up in and I have still not formally joined it. I really don't think it's that hard to see that Catholicism is the central tradition of Christianity and the obvious place to start, although of course Catholicism has a cacophony of discordant voices with in it as well.) I can see all kinds of reasons why one might have problems with Catholicism, and you've shared with me some of the specific problems you have. But I don't think the problem is that there's no possible way to judge some traditions within Christianity to be more central or more compelling than others. The mere fact of disagreement shouldn't be an insuperable obstacle.

On the specific point here--there's a strong tradition both within Catholicism and within other Christian traditions of seeing the Cross of Jesus as something to be imitated--as an act of self-giving love that both reveals who God is and breaks the power of evil over us, and at the same time as an example that we are to follow in how we deal with evil. You may find this unconvincing (though I suspect, given your love of the Imitation and your general perspective, that your problem is rather that Christians don't follow it). But that should be because you find some other perspective more convincing, not simply because other perspectives exist.

I'm sorry that I don't have any answers for you. I'm always glad to read your thoughtful and challenging comments, and when I think I have something to say worth saying I will say it.

Anonymous said...

"These comments sound like "Sophia Montgomery" but they're posted as "anonymous." I've not been deliberately ignoring your comments (if this is Sophia), but I tend not to check my blog often enough, and some of your comments are just hard to respond to, though they make me think. I don't have good answers--sometimes I have trouble understanding where you are coming from. But I always appreciate your input."

You have previously invited me to become a Christian. Should I shrug off that invitation the way I would if it were made by a crazy street preacher?

I have deliberately taken this opportunity to take your offer seriously, although just as an experiment. I know all too well that people from various religions summon others to join, but at the same time, aren't actually willing to invest anything in their conversion.


"As you note, there is no answer to your question about "the right one," because if I argue for a particular perspective you'll just dismiss it."

How can there be no answer??
A religion can easily boost their credibility by seizing worldly power, for example.
If a religion is the state religion, and it punishes people who live in said state but aren't of said religion, said religion gains credibility (even if in a frightful way).
If a religion gives people tangible perks for joining (such as a well-paying job), that, too, improves said religions' credibility.

It's not that I simply dismiss a particular perspective that a religious person offers.
What I long to see is proof of their authority. As things stand, religious people just verbally declare their authority and try to psychologically blackmail me into submitting myself to it, but beyond that, they are paper tigers.

If a religious person really knows the truth about God and really has God on their side -- then surely they have something to show for that, something other than words words words.

Anonymous said...

"(And note that the Catholic perspective, for which I generally argue, isn't really "my own religion"--it's certainly not the tradition I was brought up in and I have still not formally joined it."

It's easy to argue for a religion one isn't actually a member of ...


"I really don't think it's that hard to see that Catholicism is the central tradition of Christianity and the obvious place to start, although of course Catholicism has a cacophony of discordant voices with in it as well."

It may be the obvious place to start, but given its requirements, it's also the place to stay at, forever, given that in order to experience the efficacy of Catholicism, one has to die as a Catholic too.


"I can see all kinds of reasons why one might have problems with Catholicism, and you've shared with me some of the specific problems you have. But I don't think the problem is that there's no possible way to judge some traditions within Christianity to be more central or more compelling than others. The mere fact of disagreement shouldn't be an insuperable obstacle."

It's not disagreement between Christian traditions that is an obstacle.

It's that as an outsider, approaching religion for the first time as an adult, one can never develop the sort of epistemic surety that someone born and raised in a religion usually has.

A person born and raised into a religion has their cognitive system primed from the beginning on in favor of said religion (it doesn't really matter whether it's a Christian religion, or Hindusim, or Buddhism or whichever).
A person who doesn't have such background cannot recreate that surety, not even with a Kierkegaardian leap to faith.

All the religions that I know of are tailored for being born and raised into them. But they do not offer a meaningful way of conversion for adults.

Obviously, it's possible to convert under durress, for social or economic reasons, or when in a state of psychological crisis. But I'm talking about a _meaningful_ way of conversion for adults.

For adult outsiders to religions, this is an insurmountable problem; for those born and raised into a religion, it is an invincible advantage.


"On the specific point here--there's a strong tradition both within Catholicism and within other Christian traditions of seeing the Cross of Jesus as something to be imitated--as an act of self-giving love that both reveals who God is and breaks the power of evil over us, and at the same time as an example that we are to follow in how we deal with evil. You may find this unconvincing (though I suspect, given your love of the Imitation and your general perspective, that your problem is rather that Christians don't follow it). But that should be because you find some other perspective more convincing, not simply because other perspectives exist."

My problem isn't that Christians don't follow it; my problem is that I can't figure out the method to why they don't follow it, and that I can't figure out what their not following it says about the nature of God and existence.

If actual Christians are any measure or resemblance of God, then Social Darwinism is the doctrine to pursue in life.


"I'm sorry that I don't have any answers for you. I'm always glad to read your thoughtful and challenging comments, and when I think I have something to say worth saying I will say it."

Thanks then.

Anonymous said...

People born and raised into a religion have many advantages that outsiders don't; and people born and raised into a religion can take for granted a number of things that outsiders can't.

People born and raised into a religion never had to actually figure out which religion is the right one and thus which one to join; for them, it is a given that they believe theirs is the right one. Outsiders actually need to figure out these things, with full awareness of the risks if they fail to choose the right one.

People born and raised into a religion do not have to earn their place in the religious community, because this place has been a given for them ever since they were born. Outsiders need to earn their place in the religious community, having to overcome obstacles that those born and raised in the religion never had to.

People born and raised into a religion were never considered optional and expendable by their religious community; outsiders are considered optional and expendable by default by the religious communities they aspire to join.


And yet, on top of all that, people born and raised into a religion tend to evaluate outsiders as lazy, immoral, faithless, offensive, crude, selfish, vain, blaming them for everything.

Is this really how it needs to be, is this really what we outsiders must believe to be a wise and just arrangement by God, if we are to do right by God?

Anonymous said...

One more thing:

"But I don't think the problem is that there's no possible way to judge some traditions within Christianity to be more central or more compelling than others."

As someone with Protestant background, it's no wonder you think this way.
But if we start from the premise that what is central, is that the religious doctrine is a revelation from God, then everything one might have learned in Western secular education as "criticial thinking" necessarily must be abandoned.
If the notion of revelation is central, then human reason must capitulate, every human reason of every human. Then there can be no judging, no evaluating, no seeing for yourself.

One important difference between Catholicism and Protestantism is this: In Protestantism (broadly speaking), a person is still believed (despite all their flaws) to have the potential to recognize what is God's word and what isn't, and on pronciple every person is deemed to have that potential. But in Catholicism, only a select few can hope to have that status, while ordinary people must unquestioningly submit to those select few. Even though Catholicism has a certain regard for human reason, it does not have regard for the human reason of every human.

Until you're able to dismiss yourself like that, you won't be able to become a Catholic. Of course, they are probably going to tell you that you wouldn't be dismissing yourself, just your ego or your pride, which is something you should dismiss anyway.

Anonymous said...

With that said, after more than 20 years of involvement with Christianity, and yet not making any progress, I quit. Have it your way. It's your religion.

Contarini said...

Sorry for not responding sooner. As usual, I've been thinking over the best way to respond.

It's hard to respond because so many of the things you say are shaped by experiences that I don't share and only know about from the little you tell me. So when you talk about "outsiders" being regarded as "lazy, immoral," etc., I can only say, "Yes, I know there are Christians who talk that way, and it's wrong." But apparently you have been treated that way so persistently that you are convinced that this is just endemic to what it means to belong to a religion. And there's nothing much I can do about that, except to say that I don't think it is, and that I know plenty of Christians who don't think that way about "outsiders" at all.

I don't think it's true that there's no meaningful way for outsiders to convert to a religion. But I'm not sure what your standards are for a "meaningful" conversion. Clearly there are people who start outside a tradition, find it compelling, and decide to join it. But perhaps in some way you find their decision less than "meaningful." Perhaps you think that all such people are motivated by a personal crisis or "social duress" or whatever.

I note that in an earlier post you said that I would just argue for my own religion, and then when I pointed out that I argue for Catholicism, which isn't my own tradition, you say that it's easy to argue for a tradition one is _not_ part of. To be sure, I find Catholicism compelling because I already have a "cognitive bias" in favor of Christianity, and I find Catholicism the most compelling expression of Christianity given the basic premises of traditional Christianity (the Trinity, the canon of Scripture, etc.).

Your description of Catholicism in your last post (well, actually your next to last now) is certainly recognizable to me as the way Catholicism has functioned in some cultures and some historical contexts, and the way some Catholics talk. But it does not match official Catholic teaching or the best Catholic theology I've read, or the way many devout, thoughtful Catholics of my acquaintance think and live.

On the contrary, my own experience of authoritarian, anti-rational Christianity is mostly in Protestantism. Catholicism seems to me to put a pretty high value on human reason and conscience and thus on the human ability to "tell what is God's word and what isn't." Catholicism does present itself as a "package deal," whereas Protestantism is more "a la carte," at least in principle. But in practice figuring out just what parts of Catholic tradition are actually binding Church teaching is far more complex than many Catholic apologists would have us believe. And precisely because Protestantism doesn't have a very good way of explaining why one should buy the "whole package" of a particular church, many conservative Protestant groups resort to fear and intimidation to get people to accept the whole package as the obvious teaching of the Word of God without actually thinking about it.

You say that Catholicism has a certain regard for reason but not for the reason of every human. But again, this goes against Catholic teaching that all people are in God's image and possessed of reason and conscience, and that all the baptized have the gift of the Holy Spirit available to them. The universal priesthood of the baptized has indeed often been given short shrift in Catholicism in favor of the ministerial priesthood of the ordained, and this is one of the great problems with Catholicism historically.

Contarini said...

I suppose the reason I view all of this very differently than you do is that I am an idealist and I tend to start with what I think a religious tradition can be at its best, assuming that most of the time it's going to fall short pretty badly. At the same time, I can't just ignore the messy reality--that's one of the reasons I've dithered for so many years about becoming Catholic. Every time the ideal has almost pulled me in, I run into some aspect of the empirical mess that puts me off (or that I use as an excuse).

Your experiences are very different from mine, and seem more wholly negative. So I'm not claiming that you oughtn't to be as put off by the empirical reality of Christianity/Catholicism as you are. But you sometimes speak as if there really is no way even to tell what the ideal is, and I think that's not true.

So, for instance, you say that if one goes by the behavior of most Christians, then Social Darwinism would be the ultimate truth. That may be true (my own experience is somewhat more positive, but as you keep pointing out, I grew up Christian and that no doubt makes a difference to my experience, and I've certainly seen plenty of things that _would_ make one think that Christians were social Darwinists!). But we can still say pretty clearly that Christians profess a very different ideal. Hypocrisy is sometimes an eloquent witness to the ideal. Of course, it's possible that Christian ideals are flawed and that this is one reason why Christians mess up so badly. And I get that there are different versions of the Christian ideal. But I don't think it's impossible for an "outsider" to see an ideal that appeals to them and choose to embrace it in spite of the flaws of its alleged adherents.

One other point: you have spoken several times of "doing right by God." That would never occur to me. I don't think God needs to be "done right by." I don't think God expects me to come up with the "right" answer.

I do think that among the many stimuli I receive from my environment, some appear to move me in the direction of the good, the true, and the beautiful, and some not so much. And I think that responding to the former with faith and love and hope and gratitude is pretty important--not so much for God as for myself and for the rest of creation.

Anonymous said...

"I don't think God expects me to come up with the "right" answer."

If you don't come up with the right answer, you will burn in hell for all eternity, and it will be all your fault.

Contarini said...

I don't believe anything of the sort. Do you? If so, why? Who has told you this? It isn't the teaching of the Catholic Church.

Anonymous said...

Oh dear. It is the basic teaching of all Christianity!!

Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus.

Except that almost every Christian denomination (and certainly Catholicism) and individual Christians have their own version of which church is the right one. Apart from some wishy-washy modernists, all Christians, regardless of denomination, threaten with eternal damnation.

Contarini said...

EENS is defined by the Catechism in paragraphs 846-47 as an affirmation that all salvation comes from Christ through the Church. As a negative statement, it applies only to those who know the truth (and this means being convinced in your own conscience of the truth) and refuse to act on it.

It does _not_ mean that people who make the "wrong" choice in good faith are going to hell.

Now if you want to say that Vatican II and the Catechism are examples of "wishy-washy modernism," then of course you can do that.

Among Protestants, another "wishy-washy modernist" would be C. S. Lewis, who taught something very similar. Many moderate evangelicals, and practically all "mainliners," hold to this "inclusivist" position (or, in the case of mainliners, to the more liberal "pluralist" position).

Anonymous said...

"As a negative statement, it applies only to those who know the truth (and this means being convinced in your own conscience of the truth) and refuse to act on it."

And the Christians believe that everyone who is currently not a member of the(ir) church, is not a member of said church because they refuse to act on the truth that they know in their own conscience.

It's a standard theistic argument: "Everyone knows the truth about God in their heart, even atheists, it's just that some refuse to acknowledge it."


"It does _not_ mean that people who make the "wrong" choice in good faith are going to hell."

This is precisely what it means. Because:
"A person acting in "good faith" cannot make the wrong choice.
If you are honest, you will see that church XY is the right one. If you don't see that, it only means you were not being honest."
This is the standard treatment one gets from Christians.


"Now if you want to say that Vatican II and the Catechism are examples of "wishy-washy modernism," then of course you can do that."

Catholics do not give people the sort of space and benefit of the doubt as you suggest. Nor do other Christians. Yes, some of them like to act as if they do, but in reality, they do not.

By "modernists", I was referring to those Christians who don't believe in eternal damnation.


"Among Protestants, another "wishy-washy modernist" would be C. S. Lewis, who taught something very similar. Many moderate evangelicals, and practically all "mainliners," hold to this "inclusivist" position (or, in the case of mainliners, to the more liberal "pluralist" position)."

CS Lewis, with his Divine Potter theory according to which God predestines some people to eternal damnation, and those worthless pots that God has thus cast away ought to be happy with their lot?

Contarini said...

Sorry for not responding sooner to your last comment.

Again, you keep making statements about what "the Christians" believe that just aren't accurate generalizations. I'm very sorry that you have been so unfortunate in your experience of Christians, because there are plenty of Christians who don't believe anything of the sort. And the Catholics who interpret Vatican II the way you describe are, I think, pretty desperate, trying to make it fit their ideas. Nothing about the texts of Vatican II implies that people acting in good faith will always become Catholic. Most Catholics I know do not think this. The recent Popes pretty clearly do not think this.

This is why dialogue with you is hard--because you're speaking out of experience that isn't mine, and yet you persistently assume that all Christians--or at least all serious Christians--believe these things. But that just isn't so.

I know lots of Christians either in person or through their writings--serious, intelligent Christians, including Catholics who are faithful to the teaching of the Church and in some cases, like Bishop Robert Barron, members of the hierarchy--who clearly believe what you say Christians don't believe. That is, they believe that non-Christians may well be acting in good faith and will be judged by God accordingly.

Why is it so hard for you to believe that I and the many other Christians who speak like this are sincere and know what we are talking about? Why are you so determined to accuse us of bad faith?

I have no idea where your statement about C. S. Lewis comes from. Lewis believed that God desires the salvation of all people and that only those who obstinately choose to reject God go to hell. He even suggested in _The Great Divorce_ that it's possible that everyone will eventually be saved (a position also held by many Catholics in good standing with the Church, including Hans Urs von Balthasar, who is Pope Benedict's favorite theologian, and the aforementioned Bishop Barron). The "Divine Potter" language is Biblical, although the interpretation of it you describe comes from Augustine and is most identified today with the Calvinist tradition within Protestantism.

Anonymous said...

"Again, you keep making statements about what "the Christians" believe that just aren't accurate generalizations."
They are accurate as to what a plebean outsider like myself has to be prepared for when faced with Christians, but especially with Christian doctrines.

"I'm very sorry that you have been so unfortunate in your experience of Christians, because there are plenty of Christians who don't believe anything of the sort."
All this really has nothing to do with the people, but with the doctrine. I'm talking about the "ideal Christian" -- someone who would consistently follow the doctrine.

If actual Christians don't wish to wash their feet in the blood of their enemies (like the psalmist whishes to), then this is to be understood that they are being lax about following their Christian doctrine, not that they are "progressive" or "humanist."

"Why is it so hard for you to believe that I and the many other Christians who speak like this are sincere and know what we are talking about? Why are you so determined to accuse us of bad faith?"
You hold the doctrine of eternal damnation. Holding such a doctrine is bad faith.


The Divine Potter is mentioned either in The Problem of Pain or in Surprised by Joy. I was surprised to see CS Lewis' make such a Calvinist point.

Contarini said...

Doctrines don't exist apart from people who hold doctrines. You apparently find the more moderate versions of Christianity (and by this I'm including the ideas of someone like C. S. Lewis or N. T. Wright within Protestantism, plus pretty much all the official representatives of the Catholic Church since Vatican II at least) unconvincing or wishy-washy or whatever. But you also obviously find the more ferocious versions repellent.

You talk about how Christians reject you and look down on you because you are an "outsider" I don't do that. But you choose to be an "outsider." It is not something forced on you. You choose to reject _all_ the variants of Christianity. And by choosing that, you _choose_ a position from which you can't reasonably say that one version of Christianity is "authentic" or "real." That's language that only makes sense if you think that in fact one version of Christianity is really true--if you really accept that version and commit yourself to it.

So it makes no sense for you to say that there are these "doctrines" of Christianity that are somehow separate from the people who hold them and which are just objectively and obviously the only possible true doctrines of Christianity.

If you believe that traditionalist Catholicism is true, then God bless you. Join it and live it out as best you can.
If you believe that no version of Christianity is true, then again, God bless you. Follow your conscience wherever it leads.
But if you are unhappy with both of those options--and you seem to be--then why not consider the possibility that more moderate versions of Christianity, such as post-Vatican-II Catholicism or C.S.Lewis-style "mere Christianity," have some value? Why dismiss them out of hand?

You are seriously trying to tell me that nearly all Christians since the time of the early Church are "lax" because they interpret the Old Testament in the light of Christ and thus don't literally wish to wash their feet in the blood of their enemies? You seriously think that Augustine was a lax Christian? Because he says in his exegesis of the Psalms that "destroying the wicked" means converting them (and thus destroying their wickedness).

And why is believing that some people may choose to reject God a sign of "bad faith"?

To be honest, the bad faith I see in this discussion is your attempt to tell believers what they ought to believe while refusing to believe yourself. Either believe or don't believe. If you believe, then argue for the version you believe in over others. If you don't believe, then let us all wallow in our various errors and don't try to tell us that one set of errors is somehow more consistent or authentic or whatever than another.

I know you've been hurt by Christians. I know I'm speaking harshly. But I've been round and round with you in these discussions, and we always go in circles, because you have certain presuppositions you never seem to question. I'm trying to get you to question those presuppositions.

And finally, using "Potter" language does not imply belief in Calvinist-style "double predestination." It is, as I said, Biblical language, so it's unsurprising that Lewis uses it. That doesn't mean that he interprets it in a Calvinist sense.

Anonymous said...

"So it makes no sense for you to say that there are these "doctrines" of Christianity that are somehow separate from the people who hold them and which are just objectively and obviously the only possible true doctrines of Christianity."

Are those doctrines divine revelation or are they not?

I don't know. But if they are, then human ability is helpless in the face of them. To err on the side of caution, I assume they indeed are divine revelation. If we posit that they are not divine revelation, then the whole matter of theistic religion is moot.



"If you believe that traditionalist Catholicism is true, then God bless you. Join it and live it out as best you can.
If you believe that no version of Christianity is true, then again, God bless you. Follow your conscience wherever it leads."

None of this applies to me.


You seem to think I am criticizing Christians or Christian doctrines. Not even remotely. I have never said any of them were wrong or bad.

What I take issue with is this fairly common theistic idea that a person can choose what to believe about God.

To me, this idea is entirely absurd. Since I have no personal knowledge about God, I cannot make any rational decisions about God.



"But if you are unhappy with both of those options--and you seem to be--then why not consider the possibility that more moderate versions of Christianity, such as post-Vatican-II Catholicism or C.S.Lewis-style "mere Christianity," have some value? Why dismiss them out of hand?"

For crying out loud! Eternal damnation is at stake, and you talk about "considering possibilites"??!



"You are seriously trying to tell me that nearly all Christians since the time of the early Church are "lax" because they interpret the Old Testament in the light of Christ and thus don't literally wish to wash their feet in the blood of their enemies? You seriously think that Augustine was a lax Christian? Because he says in his exegesis of the Psalms that "destroying the wicked" means converting them (and thus destroying their wickedness). "

Christ brought the sword, not peace. If Christians don't use the sword, then they are, apparently, lax.




"And why is believing that some people may choose to reject God a sign of "bad faith"?"

To begin with, they are probably not choosing to reject God to begin with.



"To be honest, the bad faith I see in this discussion is your attempt to tell believers what they ought to believe while refusing to believe yourself."

That's a strange interpretation of my intentions.



"Either believe or don't believe."

This is absurd! Absolutely absurd!

One cannot choose to believe in God, or to disbelieve in God -- unless, perhaps , one has personal knowledge of God. I have no such knowledge.



"If you believe, then argue for the version you believe in over others. If you don't believe, then let us all wallow in our various errors and don't try to tell us that one set of errors is somehow more consistent or authentic or whatever than another."

Eternal damnation may be at stake. But I see no way to believe -- or, as far as I'm concerned, disbelieve.

Anonymous said...

"I know you've been hurt by Christians. "

No, that is not the issue. If anything, I'd say those Christians were simply being good Christians.



"I know I'm speaking harshly. But I've been round and round with you in these discussions, and we always go in circles, because you have certain presuppositions you never seem to question. I'm trying to get you to question those presuppositions."

I've been trying to understand how anyone can think that belief in God is a choice.

Having choice in matters of belief in God is like having choice as to who one's parents are. This is impossible!

One cannot unilaterally make choices about persons or things which precede one or contextualize one!

Can you choose who your parents are? No. Can you choose what your parents think about you? No.

Can you choose which Universe to be born into? No. Can you choose whether there is going to be a tornado where you live? No.

God, given the usual definitions (First Being, First Cause, Creator, Maintainer, Controller, Source of All Riches) is similar to parents, but much more powerful. How could one possibly make any choices about God, when God is defined as that one being that makes one's thoughts possible to begin with??

Add to this that a person like myself has no personal knowledge about God -- then what?

I think you will continue to have conversations that go in circles when people point out the problems with the idea that belief in God is a choice -- until you somehow clarify how one can in fact choose to believe in God or choose to reject God while all along having no personal knowledge of God.

Perhaps with some limitations, one might be able to choose to believe in a demigod, but certainly not in God.

Anonymous said...

It appears that the first part is missing:
"Doctrines don't exist apart from people who hold doctrines."

Are doctrines divine revelation or are they not? If they are, then they can exist apart from people.



"But you also obviously find the more ferocious versions repellent. "

Not at all. I never said about any Christian or any Christian doctrine that they were bad or wrong.



"You talk about how Christians reject you and look down on you because you are an "outsider" I don't do that."

It appears we have very different ideas about what that contempt means. I'm not offended by it.



"But you choose to be an "outsider.""

See, this is what really gets to me.

I do not choose to be an outsider. To me, the idea that one can choose a religion is absurd, on several levels. I think I've addressed this before, and will do so below.



"It is not something forced on you. You choose to reject _all_ the variants of Christianity. And by choosing that, you _choose_ a position from which you can't reasonably say that one version of Christianity is "authentic" or "real." That's language that only makes sense if you think that in fact one version of Christianity is really true--if you really accept that version and commit yourself to it."

It is entirely your projection (and a typical Christian one at that) that I am choosing to reject all variants of Christianity.

To me, the matter is entirely beyond my choice.

I have no personal knowledge of God. All I have ever heard on the topic of "God," I have heard from people. God never spoke to me. As far as God is concerned, I am left entirely to the mercy of people who claim to know God.

It is only if I had personal knowledge of God that I could make rational choices about the matter (and even then with some limitations). But I have no such personal knowledge.

Apparently, you, along with so many Christians, see no problem in that. But I do.

To me, the "choice" that Christians (and also many other theists) set before me might as well be stated in Chinese, of which I don't understand a word, and so cannot make any rational decisions about it.

Contarini said...

Again, sorry for not responding sooner.

You speak of "doctrines" being divine revelation or not. In the form in which you seem to understand them, they clearly aren't. You don't seem to recognize that all doctrines can be interpreted in many different ways.

You say that one can't "choose to believe or disbelieve." But clearly one can. People do it. I know you have trouble believing that they are acting with integrity, because you find the idea of making a choice impossible. I'm not sure why you do. You don't need 100% certainty. Indeed, making a choice is (in a "libertarian" sense) only possible when you don't have 100% certainty. It's precisely because the evidence is ambiguous that you can and indeed must choose. Not to choose is choosing.

We come back to your apparent belief that it's quite possible that you could be damned for making the wrong choice in good faith. You believe this, apparently on the authority of some Christians of your acquaintance, even though it's _not_ mainstream opinion in Catholicism. In many forms of evangelical Protestantism, I agree, it is, but not in all, and certainly not in mainstream Protestantism. And more to the point, doesn't your own reason and conscience tell you that it's wrong?

Somewhere along the way you seem to have abandoned all confidence in your own reason and intuition. And you seem to think (mistakenly, in my opinion) that Catholicism encourages this lack of confidence.

Where does your heart lead you? If God is real, then the deepest desires of your heart are likely to come from God and lead you back to Him. So why not start there?