Sunday, February 18, 2018

Articles Of Faith: A Slightly Skewed Sunday Rumination

     Well, here we are in the season of Lent: the time of anticipation and preparation for the commemoration of the Passion of Our Lord and the celebration of His Resurrection and Ascension. It’s the most portentous of all the portions of the liturgical calendar, and it receives concomitant seriousness from Christians worldwide. The Church counsels us to pray, to fast, to do penance, and to perform works of charity as steps toward a greater, purer love of God and our fellow men. Some Christians actually do all that. The rest go through the motions.

     I’ve begun to wonder about some of my fellow Catholics, though. They don’t appear to have gotten the point. Some of them seem more devoted to a secular faith than to the Gospels of Jesus Christ. Moreover, that secular credo has some pretty ugly tenets.

     I must repeat a point I’ve made before about the partition of human knowledge, convictions, and beliefs. That partition is vital to discriminating among propositions, to assessing them for reliability, and to deciding which ones will command your allegiance.

  • Propositions that can be proved or disproved: Mathematics.
  • Propositions that can be disproved but not proved: Science.
  • Propositions that can neither be proved nor disproved: Faith.

     Science, the most important of the categories above in the secular context, deals solely in propositions that can be disproved by the results of adequately designed, honestly performed experiments. It doesn’t matter whether a proposition – Let’s call it X, to save a few keystrokes – is about natural or supernatural things. To qualify as a scientific thesis, it must be possible:

  1. To use X to predict some result arising from a relevant, well defined context;
  2. To design an experiment that will test that prediction;
  3. If the result does not arise from the experimental context, X must be rejected as disproved.

     Most scientific theses can be tested many ways, with many different experimental designs. All such experiments can and should be performed...until one of them fails to deliver the predicted result. At that point, X must be rejected as disproved.

     Mind you, endless experiments that deliver the predicted results do not “prove” X. There’s always the possibility that more sophisticated experiments, possibly founded on improved measurement technologies, would fail to produce the predicted result. Thus, a scientific proposition like X can never be proved, though we may gain confidence in it over time. However, if X cannot be disproved, it is not science.

     To pledge oneself to a proposition that can neither be proved nor disproved is to acquire an article of faith.

     I’ve had a few unpleasant encounters with persons whose articles of faith include some very contentious propositions:

  • That Donald J. Trump is an evil man;
  • That he stole the presidency from Hillary Clinton;
  • That his policies are intended to harm America and Americans;
  • That he’s secretly an agent of a foreign power, specifically Putin’s Russia;

     In no case has any of those persons been able to produce evidence for his contentions. They have opinions, nothing more. To put it gently, none of them are interested in using their faith to predict what President Trump will do or what effects his policy preferences, if enacted by Congress, will have. Their beliefs are absolute; dare to disagree with them and they become contemptuous to the extent of condemning the dissident.

     As I have little interest in attacking anyone’s religion, I normally refrain from engaging them when they start to spout off. But I admit I’ve been tempted to ask, gently and most mellifluously, “When did you cease to be a Christian and embrace this new faith?”

     Our faith tells us to leave such judgments to God. Christ said so Himself:

     Judge not, that you may not be judged, For with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged: and with what measure you mete, it shall be measured to you again. And why seest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye; and seest not the beam that is in thy own eye? Or how sayest thou to thy brother: Let me cast the mote out of thy eye; and behold a beam is in thy own eye? Thou hypocrite, cast out first the beam in thy own eye, and then shalt thou see to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye. [Matthew 7:1-5]

     But let’s grant the holder of this new faith some provisional respect. Let’s imagine that he can predict Trump’s behavior and the consequences that would flow from it, and that his prediction proves to be correct. It wouldn’t “prove” that President Trump is evil, an electoral thief, or a secret Russian agent. After all, he could have meant well, done the best he knew, and merely been wrong. It wouldn’t be the first time a president has erred.

     One of the absolute requirements of anyone who claims to deal in knowledge is humility: humility before the data, to be sure, but also and always humility about one’s own fallibility. There’s always more than one possible explanation for a given event. Newton and Einstein made mistakes, too.

     I could cite many articles of faith people have embraced for reasons that have nothing to do with the available evidence. I’ve written about many of them here. I doubt it’s necessary to enumerate the occasions. But I keep coming back to the willingness, shared by so many Americans, to believe something for which there’s no evidence, simply because they want to believe it...and perhaps because it makes them feel superior to someone else.

     I get a huge giggle out of persons who style themselves “rationalists” but attack me for my Christian faith and Catholic allegiance. Can they produce evidence that the Gospels are fictional – that the events in them did not take place? They cannot. All they can do is sneer at them as “implausible.” Neither can they point to any statement by the Redeemer to which they could take exception on moral or ethical grounds. But it’s plain that feeling superior to me and other Christian believers is an important element of their self-images, so I refrain from embarrassing them.

     I’ve begun to wonder if the emotional demands of those who condemn without knowledge are of the same kind. I’ve also wondered, in the case of the imperiously judgmental Christians I’ve encountered, if they give any thought to Christ’s exhortation to forgiveness: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

     Our Lenten preparations might be well augmented by making time to think about forgiveness: of those who have harmed us, certainly, but also of those we have judged, whether on the weight of evidence or out of personal pique. Christ Himself forgave His executioners as He suffered on the cross. Ought we not to allow the same to those we disapprove from a distance?

     May God bless and keep you all.

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