A Philosophical Muddle

The political extremities are always strange places to visit. The far-right of Catholicism (or perhaps better described as the Catholic part of the far-right) in particular has some strange features. Recruiting as it does from the same mélange of social panics and prejudices, the outcomes it preaches fall in the same spectrum as the rest of the far-right: anti-immigrant rhetoric, nationalism, rhetoric against transgender people, rhetoric against LGBTQI people in general and the same confused appeals for free speech for those who wish to restrict free speech.

On top of that toxic soup is a layer of Platonic philosophy: abstractions are things and are real things in a way that actual real things aren’t. Here’s Dragon ‘Award winning author and freelance editor’ Brian Niemeier on the nature of God:

“When Christians–and some theist philosophers like Aristotle–say God, we don’t mean an old man on a mountaintop composing a global naughty/nice list when he’s not conjuring boulders he can’t lift. Such a being would fall into the category of a creature, albeit a powerful creature, existing within the material, temporal order.

What we mean by God is the uncreated, all-powerful, and absolute Being who transcends the created order.” http://www.brianniemeier.com/2018/08/finding-god.html

From there he segues into some classic arguments for the existence of god that follow the basic structure of abstract thing can be observed in reality, therefore, the abstract thing must exist as a thing in itself, therefore, some ultimate abstraction of the thing must be a god.

As regular readers will know, I think such arguments are flawed but it is worth acknowledging they are powerful arguments in their own way despite their head-scratching elements. What interests me most about them, is that by their nature they define and limit what kind of thing ‘god’ must be. In Brian Niemeier’s argument, his god is the essence of pure being – it is the thing that is what it is ultimately to ‘be’. Fair enough, imagine such a thing exists — I can take that as a credible belief. Where that becomes laughably absurd is when somebody asserts such a belief AND asserts that the core principle of being that transcends the universe spends its days worrying about whether people are wearing the wrong clothes, kissing the wrong people or not bing prayed at in Latin (obviously far-right Catholicism really needs mass to be said in Latin).

I’m stuck trying to imagine what is more rational. If a person has to believe their religion must validate their petty prejudices about other people would it not be more rational to believe in a petty & temperamental god. Apologies to any lingering Zeus worshipers but I can see how Zeus, as a character, might have strong opinions on such things. Niemeier notes that his god is not “composing a global naughty/nice list” but also believes that without a specific magic ritual, said in the right language, you can’t access the abstract principle of being qua being.

Think about it this way. The abstract number 7 has as much claim to existence transcending mere physical existences as “being” or any other abstraction — perhaps more so as there is the practical and powerful discipline of arithmetic that deals with things like 7 whose conclusions have real world implications. If you wish to take the Platonic* stance on the existence of 7 then I can’t regard your position as irrational. However, if you tell me that the number 7 has strong views on immigration policy** or that you can’t really relate to the number 7 unless you do arithmetic in Sanskrit then I think I’m entitled to look at your beliefs somewhat askance.

‘But that’s just an argument from incredulity’ well, yes it is an appeal to how absurd the idea is but to put it in more concrete terms, if a thing is the pure abstraction of X then its only quality can be X or qualities of which X is a member. Imagine the quality of ‘colour’ as a thing in itself (if that was possible) and call that X. In such a case X can’t be red and it can’t be blue, by being abstraction of colour it can’t be a particular colour. Going closer to the point, consider the abstraction of ‘opinion’. The abstraction of opinion cannot be a particular opinion as it is, by definition, the abstraction of the common qualities held by all opinions.

The above is not an argument for the non-existence of god, its not even an argument against the existence of an ultimately transcendent god (although I don’t believe in either). What it is that you can rationally have some ultimate transcendent principle of principles in a Platonic hierarchy or you can have a god that thinks about things and cares about what is going on but those two things can’t be the same without promoting absurdities.

*[Platonic here refereing to ‘Platonism’ in the mathematical philosophy sense that is derived from Plato but which doesn’t neccesarily reflect what Plato said.]

**[Although if 7 did have strong views on immigration policy then I’m sure they would be very compassionate and progressive views]

 


24 thoughts on “A Philosophical Muddle

  1. “In Brian Niemeier’s argument, his god is the essence of pure being – it is the thing that is what it is ultimately to ‘be’.”

    I may be misunderstanding this, but on the face of it, it looks remarkably Spinozist — not a theological bedfellow whom traditionalist Catholics have been historically keen to embrace!

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  2. On the other hand, your absurdity also encompasses the paradox of belief quite well – it’s that sheer illogicality of God that, in some ways, is what I am happy to believe in. Trying to constrain God within some philosophical or scientific system devised by humans is, perhaps, exactly the problem… 🙂
    The difficulty for me arises with the discussion about rationality. For me, it seems like a silly argument (see above) but I can understand that someone who wants to hold everything to a rational standard might consider this absurdity to be note-worthy. Then again, I also find Niemeier’s stance to be unconvincing too. Which is probably why I’m not a Catholic!

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  3. I’m…not entirely sure this is a Catholic argument per se. He’s arguing more like Francis Schaeffer, who is most explicitly NOT Catholic, at least until he reaches the point where he proclaims the Catholic Church as the only true church and…um, the way he cites it is a violation of the very same Catechism he is quoting (which holds other revelations to be lesser but does not condemn as starkly as he does). Furthermore, his roots are in the charismatic movement which is hardly mainstream Catholicism and could be considered to be shading toward heresy. His theological training is from a very conservative Catholic university that, again, was struggling until it embraced the charismatic movement (ie, speaking in tongues, etc). I have to wonder if he is another Catholic convert trending more conservative than the mainstream of American Catholicism (what I’ve read of his “theological” blatherings certainly did NOT match what I learned as a convert in mainstream Catholicism). His insistence on the Latin Mass as the true Mass reveals that he at least leans toward if is not a part of the St. Pius X splinter group.

    Even though I’m currently not active in the Catholic Church I really have to protest people like Niemeier and John C. Wright being held up as the mainstream of Catholicism, especially American Catholicism, because…they aren’t.

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      1. You did refer to it as “the far right of Catholicism”, so, if anything you understated its prevalence.

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    1. In my experience, insisting on the Latin mass is a surefire predictor that someone is a problematic far right Catholic. I’m not entirely sure why this is so, since there’s nothing objectionable about the Latin language itself (I had four years of Latin at school myself and know plenty of Latin teachers who happen to be Catholic), but it’s a massive red flag.

      And don’t worry, most of us know (I hope) that the John C. Wrights and Brian Niemeiers of this world are no more representative of Catholicism than the Westboro Baptist Church is representative of Protestantism.

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      1. I think that’s because the switch from Latin to the vernacular was symbolic of the whole Vatican II effort by the Catholic Church under John XXIII to at least (very) partially engage with/accomodate to modernity, and the so-called Ultramontane Catholics were having none of that.

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      2. See Sedevacantism:

        Sedevacantism is the position, held by some traditionalist Catholics, that the present occupier of the Holy See is not truly pope due to the mainstream church’s espousal of the heresy of modernism and that, for lack of a valid pope, the See has been vacant since the death of Pope Pius XII in 1958.

        So yes, there are people who literally believe they are more Catholic than the Pope. John Paul II sent those sorts into a tizzy because he had the temerity to actually apologize for some of the Church’s past actions, and to try building inter-faith bridges. Benedict might have been good, but he stepped down. (Benedict was basically an Inquisitor back when he was still cardinal Ratzinger; he was the bad cop to John Paul II’s good cop.) And the current pope is a Jesuit, those sorts think far too much to be trusted.

        The far right Catholics have been stubbornly dissociating from the main church for longer than I’ve been alive, while simultaneously insisting that everybody else are the heretics for attempting to remain relevant in the modern world. Unlike Luther and other founders of Protestant sects, their insistence that they are the ‘true’ Catholics prevents them from actually splitting away.

        At the same time, the PopeCardinals feedback loop makes it difficult to change the direction of the church in anything less than a century or so. Despite the ones who long for the days when the Catholic Church could approve or disapprove of kings, for the foreseeable future they’ll be living with both the more open church of John Paul II and Francis and the distrust of the rest of the world over the abuse scandals.

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      3. So yes, there are people who literally believe they are more Catholic than the Pope. John Paul II sent those sorts into a tizzy because he had the temerity to actually apologize for some of the Church’s past actions, and to try building inter-faith bridges. Benedict might have been good, but he stepped down. (Benedict was basically an Inquisitor back when he was still cardinal Ratzinger; he was the bad cop to John Paul II’s good cop.) And the current pope is a Jesuit, those sorts think far too much to be trusted.

        Yes. This, exactly. Conservative converts to Catholicism tend to lean toward this branch–if not explicitly, then pretty darn close to it because they are looking for a more authoritarian faith than post-Vatican II Catholicism.

        John Paul II was not the one in favor of a more open church, however…he worked closely with Ratzinger and if I remember correctly, was the author of the anti-birth control proclamation Humana Vitae. One of the hidden pieces of Vatican II was that the majority report favored birth control and faithful American Catholic couples were some of the prominent voices supporting birth control. It’s been years since I’ve done the reading which would allow me to go into the details of how a minority report by a Polish cardinal overcame the majority V2 sentiment…but there was definitely some slight of hand going on. Even in my conservative first parish there were a lot of quiet objectors to the anti birth control policy, and only a few families with more than 3-4 children.

        The objections to Mass in the vernacular go beyond language to the priest facing the congregation instead of the altar placed against the back wall, the congregation receiving Communion in the hand instead of on the tongue, the congregation being able to drink from the cup, and women performing as altar servers, lectors, and Eucharistic Ministers. It’s not just the Latin Mass these folks want (there is an approved V2 Latin Mass which they strongly dislike), they want the pre-Vatican II Latin Mass, which was much more focused on priestly authority and less inclusiveness. Anti-modernism, in other words. These folks would be appalled by the fact that in my former conservative parish, I was an altar server along with my son (the first mother-son altar server combination there) and that I was both a lector and an Eucharistic Minister.

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      4. @Joyce:
        Oh, I know: John Paul II was very active about bridge-building between churches and historical issues. He was well-spoken and very good with outward-facing PR; just look at the ‘World Youth Day’ and such things he helped set up. But he was also definitely a voice for keeping things more dogmatic within the Catholic Church itself. I mentioned him and Ratzinger as good cop/bad cop for a reason: in many ways John Paul II wasn’t so much ‘better’ as ‘able to put a better face on it while letting his hand-picked people do the dirty work’.

        Heh. I was brought up Anglican (or, as a friend of mine put it, Catholicism lite: all the ritual, half the guilt!) My sister actually ended up being Crucifer at our local church (for those not familiar with the term, this is the person who leads the procession into the church carrying a cross-topped staff), One family dinner, there was a question about what our great-grandfather, an Anglican priest, would have thought about this. We eventually concluded that likely there would have been horror that a woman had been allowed to do it.

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      5. @Jenora: I first heard the “Catholicism lite” remark in Robin Williams’ standup — he was raised Episcopalian.

        A LOT of the people in my mom’s Episcopal parish were Catholics who’d gotten divorced and remarried, used birth control, or maybe even kissed the “wrong” people. One of the priests was divorced and bi; one of them was raised Jewish and said no when it was bar mitzvah time (he’s a bishop now), one of them was a lesbian… and this was an old-school Republican group on the whole (decent people, not like MAGA, but not out front on the civil rights either).

        Charismatic Catholics need to admit it and just call themselves some sort of Protestant. Baptist, Pentecostal, something like that (our local con used to share function space with them; they were scared the first year but then they realized we came in peace, knew how to behave in restaurants, and we even let them into the dealer’s room and art show free if they wanted).

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      6. @Lurkertype:
        Hunh, maybe that’s where my friend got it from, then. What’s called ‘Episcopalian’ in the U.S. is what’s called ‘Anglican’ in most of the rest of the world, basically the associated churches to the Church of England.

        (My understanding is that ‘Anglican’ in the U.S. is now mostly used by the Anglican Realignment, people who think that the actual Church of England has become too liberal by allowing gay people and women to serve as ministers, or allowing gay marriage services. The Anglican Communion is undergoing its own internal schisms, and in some places the Catholics have been actively poaching off the more hard-line right-leaning Anglicans.)

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  4. I’m surprised that US Catholics oppose immigration so strongly, particularly since many of the Hispanic people that come from Mexico and Latin America are in fact catholic themselves.
    Love thy neighbour, unless he happens to be browm, seems to be the understanding for them.

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  5. Although if 7 did have strong views on immigration policy then I’m sure they would be very compassionate and progressive views.
    That is so true. 5, on the other hand, is a total d-bag.

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  6. I think maybe their argument is more of a, the existence of this principle-based God implies other principle-based rules and eventually when you work out what those rules are they just happened to coincide with the writers prejudices but that’s not his prejudices he says it’s just the rules of the universe happened to be exactly that. Like how the existence of 7 and 2 imply the existence of nine and the existence of 14 and the existence of zero and the commutative rule and so on. Except they would never admit that there were some undecidable aspects because God is more powerful than math?

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  7. “When Christians–and some theist philosophers like Aristotle–say God, we don’t mean an old man on a mountaintop composing a global naughty/nice list when he’s not conjuring boulders he can’t lift. Such a being would fall into the category of a creature, albeit a powerful creature, existing within the material, temporal order.”

    The problem is, this is what we call a ‘lie’. This popular conception of God derives directly from Christianity.

    An old man (God is described as the Ancient of Days, a white-haired bearded figure on a blazing throne, Daniel 7:9) on a mountaintop (the Lord of Hosts dwells on Mount Sion, Isaiah 8:12) composing a global naughty/nice list (will divide the nations into good and bad, Matt 35:32-33) when he’s not conjuring boulders he can’t lift (God can perform logically impossible things, Luke 1:37).

    The deity we read of in the Scripture is one very much in line with other deities of other peoples. The Hebrew God sits on a throne, sometimes on a mountain, sometimes somewhere in the sky, sometimes on the chair carried by the Hebrew tribes as they moved from place to place (Exodus 25:22). He has feet, hands, eyes, a beard. He meets Moses in an inn and tries to kill him (Genesis 4:24). He wrestles with Jacob at Peniel (Genesis 32:30). This does not seem like the epistemologically transcendent deity Niemeier believes in, and extrapolating all this from the name YHWH (which may indeed have once meant ‘I Am That Am’, or something similar) is an incredible stretch.

    Ah, but Niemeier has an answer: it doesn’t matter, because the Scripture doesn’t matter. Because Jesus Christ (in his view) founded the modern Catholic Church, even if the Church teaches against what is revealed in Scripture, it must be correct, and if you try to follow what you believe to be God’s teachings, you will go to hell:
    “In summation, God fully revealed Himself in Jesus Christ. Jesus founded a Church to bring people into personal relationship with Him. Scripture and history testify that the Church Jesus founded can be recognized by an episcopate with valid apostolic succession headed by the bishop of Rome.

    Only one church existing today meets these criteria: the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. To reject her is to Reject Christ, and to reject Christ is to reject the One who sent Him.”

    So the Catholic Church can declare God a completely transcendent entity, if that is what is philosophically trendy, and it’s true forever, or at least until they change their mind (cf. the Church’s recent proclamations on the death penalty), whereupon if you try to follow what was true before, you go to hell. Does this seem like the only root and ground of the truth? Is this the only system that makes the universe make sense? Or is it a squalid power racket that thrives upon illiteracy and ignorance of what its deity was actually supposed to have said and done?

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  8. Coming from an extremist fundamentalist Christian background, any glaring logical conundrums (AKA pretty much any logical questions that challenge even basic tenets of faith) were to be “wrapped in a bundle of faith” and set aside without further ado. They don’t make sense but don’t even try to figure them out. This sounds no different. And if you dared to ask follow up questions you were labelled a problem and dealt with accordingly. I swear, I could write a book about this shit.

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