Thursday, January 20, 2011

I'm having a difficult conversation

with someone I know who is having a very hard time with the faith.

This is someone who is very very clever, but has had quite a rough ride of things for a very long time and things in general are not, objectively, getting much better. To say this has shaken his/her faith is a bit like saying the 1905 San Francisco earthquake shook the town a bit. There's very little faith left to shake, in fact and this person is becoming seriously depressed. This person is also a pro-life activist and has been in the biz for as long as I have.

I'm not sure I can really help, but I wrote this today and thought I'd share.

Can I just ask one thing? Do you believe in fighting evil?

Do you think that you would fight evil even if you didn’t believe in God?

I think I would keep fighting evil even if there were no God to tell me I should.

I know there are all sorts of clever arguments to tell me that the only way to know evil and good is because God hath ‘stablished them, and those arguments are probably right.

But how much actual difference would it make to you if you did just stop believing in a good, personal God? I think I would keep doing what I am doing.

You have described your growing flabby indifference and sometimes outright hostility to religion, and it has made me think about whether I would still be doing the work I do if I really did entirely stop believing. The answer was easy: even if you don’t believe in God, you still can’t kill people to solve your problems.

Pro-lifers like to piously maintain that the pro-life position can be held without any religious backing, and I suppose it can. Even from a strictly atheistic Darwinian viewpoint, it is easy to see that abortion is counter productive. You can’t advance the interests of your species (which I guess is what Darwinian atheism is about) while systematically killing off your own offspring.

You say you have been building up to this for a long time, that a string of disasters in your life has created this situation and that you came to Rome to try to do something about it but it isn't working for various reasons. Something Else happened instead and it turned out very badly indeed. And Something Else has mightily contributed to the accelleration of your loss of It. Now, It seems to be nearly entirely gone, to the point where even the desire for It has vanished and that you are at best now a Deist.

You've acknowledged that it is simply silly to say there is no God. That someone has to have set all this up. This makes sense of course. All my life, I’ve been observing first hand things not popping spontaneously into existence of their own accord. They just don’t do it. So, of course, we agree that the whole Prime Mover, Uncaused Cause, Non-contingent being against which all contingency is ... err... contingent, I guess...

But the kind of God the saints talk about just seems to be completely incredible to you. I think I can understand this. Even saving for later the whole Incarnation/Eucharist thing (I know, that one really just freaks everyone out who gives it five second's thought...) even the idea of a God who knows and cares about our existence just seems incredible. We don't care about the individual grains of sand on the beach, so it just seems amazing that God, the creator of everything out of nothing, can possibly even be aware of us. It just seems like the most outrageous arrogance.

I can see it. I really can. And I can really see this difficulty putting a damper on the post-Mass luncheon get-together. It's a bit of a downer and I can see its being hard to be perky. And I can't answer your Big Problem, which is, simply, the oldest one in the book, "Why is there so much bad if God is so good." Sorry, I realise it makes it sound as if I'm trivialising your difficulties, but I'm really not. Bad is still just bad.

Nevertheless, I might be able to offer something from the Fighting Evil point of view.

We fight evil for a living and know it well. I admit that I often don’t know what good is, but I know beyond a doubt what evil is. I’ve been studying it quite closely for a significant portion of my life now. I know that you can’t compromise with it, you can’t appease it, you can’t “find common ground” with it. You have to fight it and fight to win. That is, fight to destroy it. It is a thing utterly at odds with goodness and incompatible with it.

Now, even if you think that God doesn’t care about us, you still know good and evil. Maybe the big clockmaker in the sky doesn't think any more of us than I do about the individual grains of sand on the beach. But I think it is possible to believe in a good God (though maybe not the Christian God) because I am capable of knowing and really hating evil and having a desire to fight it.

I’m sure you can guess what I’m about to say. It’s obvious. If there is such a thing as an absolute, impassable divide between good and evil, and evil is … well, bad and can’t be anything but bad, then there has to be such a thing as good. I can’t be fighting evil without knowing that there is good and that good has to replace evil.

We see mitigated good all the time. When philanthropists give money to poor people, when Missionaries of Charity pick up dying old people off the Calcutta streets, when a young man stands up and gives an old lady a seat on the bus. It’s mitigated by all sorts of factors (maybe the philanthropist is Bill Gates and he’s giving money to population controllers ... maybe the Missionaries of Charity have got the worst liturgical sense in the world and can’t sing to save their lives ...maybe the young man is really just trying to impress the girl he’s with ...) but it is clearly a good impulse to try to do something right, however wrongheaded, with one’s wealth, and to pick up dying old people off the streets, and to let a tired old lady sit down.

Logically, if there is such a thing as a mitigated good, which seems to be all the good we are capable of doing, there must be a kind of Gold Standard of Good, a yardstick by which we measure the relative goodness of our own acts.

This yardstick, to be meaningful and real, has to be absolute. Well, I’ve never met absolute Good before, not in this world, but logically, the only possible way for me to know any good is for there to be an absolute standard by which to measure its worth.

Thinking about it, I can see that it is very difficult to imagine absolute Good. But I can see that it must be like the difference between light and darkness. I’ve been in a room which is absolutely black. Darkrooms, or the bathroom without a window. Wave your hand in front of your face and you can’t see it. But even a tiny amount of light, an LED display on your VCR or a bit of phosphorescent glow from a clock face, entirely defeats the absolute blackness.

It’s physics. There is no such thing as darkness or cold. When you think you are “seeing” darkness or feeling cold, that is really just a way of talking about it, and it’s a misleading way. Even the teeniest bit of light completely confounds dark because dark doesn’t really exist. There is no such thing as “absolute” dark, it doesn't have any physical reality, only absence. When even a tiny light of bit or heat enters the picture, all the darkness and all the cold are utterly defeated because they were never real to begin with. Once a bit of the real thing enters the room, all the unreal is gone, confounded, by definition.

This is why I think that although absolute good can exist, absolute evil can’t. Even the devil isn’t absolutely evil; he has existence, which Thomas said is a good right there ... and his evil works, if we believe what the Catholics say about it, are all in the end going to be turned around by the absolute goodness of God. All evil is mitigated in some way, if only by being limited to a particular time and place.

But not all good is mitigated, only the good we’re capable of. Our good is necessarily mitigated because we don’t live forever, aren’t all-powerful and can’t see all possible outcomes of every act. The good we do may be very pure good, but it is limited at least by our living in time and space.

So, going over it, evil is an absence. It’s an Unreality that is necessarily defeated instantly even by the existence of an absolute Reality.

So I believe that there is at least a reasonable argument to be made the the God who made everything out of nothing, can be a good God.

From there to lighting candles in front of statues, however, is, I realise, a long road.


Mrs McLean said...

Great post, Hilary.

Is this an appropriate place to make remarks about the pro-life biz and burnout?

It has long seemed to me that abortion is such a terrible evil that it blackens almost everyone near it with its sooty wings. Pro-lifers get angry, crabby, imprudent, clinically depressed. The ones who don't are walking miracles. How Joanne Dieleman managed for over 25 years, is beyond me. How Linda Gibbons does it--another mystery.

I lasted on the picketing frontlines for no more than 2 years. I ended up weeping in the confessional for not having done or said enough. I had to quit picketing or drop out of university. I was in rough shape.

So I really do admire those who can stick it out for decades, but I would be the first to say to someone who is at breaking point, "Change it up." Take a good long break from whatever pro-life thing you are doing. Move into another field of pro-life endeavour, whatever it might be.

Do something that involves the other life issues as well. You can't fight wounded; the wounded should be sent off the field to recuperate.

BillyHW said...

It sounds like someone needs a hug. It's too bad they don't sell those in the supermarket.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Joanne Dieleman is plenty crabby, believe me. But yes, the really real front lines are horrible and I couldn't take it for a week. I went into the Cabbage Town crisis pregnancy place once where lots of people I know do lots of good work, and was too sick to go to work for a day or so afterwards. I went into the office the next day and looked so deathly that Deny sent me home to sleep and watch the Muppet Show on DVD. I can't get within 50 yards of one of those places without freaking out. So, I write. I still go a little nuts once in a while, but I figure that's what Italy's abundance of cheap wine and sunshine are good for.

Anonymous said...

Thanks very much for this post Hilary. Will say a prayer for you and your friend.


Sean M. Brooks said...

Hi, Hilary Jane!

Excellent post. You've givne us a lot to think about.

Sincerely, Sean