Getting Over a Cold

  • This morning over a breakfast of wheat porridge (my first meal since Friday, before the chills turned to fever) I was reading the local Diocesan Catholic newspaper, and sipping a glass of whole milk between unproductive coughs. In a front page spread on the recent Pew survey on religiosity—and we've discussed that elsewhere—one of the interviewed priests mentions that 69 percent of Catholics surveyed report that they do not believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

    Like the priest, I found that figure really quite astonishing! And it led me down three divergent trains of thought.

    First, it served as a reminder to check up on a claim in Greenblatt's book that I hadn't gotten around to. The claim surrounds an anonymous document, found in the Vatican Archives in 1983, that seems to suggest an alternative charge against Galileo; it suggests that he was being charged with atomism, a doctrine which in principle contradicts the transubstantiation of the Eucharist. This makes for interesting browsing but I couldn't find a very good link. The scholar's name was Pietro Redondi.

    Second, it led me to reread David Hume's excellent essay Of Miracles. He begins his work by mentioning a contemporary refutation of the True Presence.

    And third—since we're speaking now of both porridge and Scotsmen—an anecdote.

    In Dr. Samuel Johnson's early lexicon he gave a curious definition for oats; "A grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people."

    Replied his Scottish companion and biographer, James Boswell; "Aye, and that’s why England has such fine horses, and Scotland such fine people."

    Finishing my porridge and milk, I closed the paper on the muffled intonations of the Bishop (a page-3 staple) and retired to the couch. I suppose my spirits are still recovering, after all.

  • Sorry to hear you have been sick but good to see your mind has still been working!

  • That's really fascinating! The opinions of laity really differ from the opinions of learned clergy, like Catholic priests, Protestant ministers, and even Evangelic preachers. A lot of Christians have absolutely no interest in exploring the history of the tradition to which they claim obsessive allegiance, and it shows when they not only lack knowledge of other religious traditions, but utterly misinterpret their own theology. For example, recently, I learned that the idea of an "immortal soul" isn't compatible with classical Christian theology – that's a misinterpretation of contemporary Christians who view their tradition through the lens of pop culture, filtered further by Greek and Latin renderings of Hebrew and Aramaic literature.

    To flesh out that statement, the word "soul", as used throughout the Bible (especially the Old Testament), is never connected with the concept of a life force disconnected from the human body. That idea seems to come from Plato's concept of the intellect, and perhaps, shaped by Gnostic literature from the first few centuries which utterly rejected the reality of material forms. Within the literature, the "soul" called Adam did not exist until God injected part of his Spirit into dust, and formed the first human. While "immortality" is used extensively with regards to the Christian afterlife, it indicates a resurrection of the human form, including the personality, and physical traits the individual developed throughout life, not just a glowing ball of spirit that floats out of the body for judgement after the body dies.

    Another fun tidbit I came across has to do with the popular interpretation of the character called Lucifer. He doesn't exist – I mean, not just to people like us, but within the context of the Bible, itself. "Lucifer" was only ever employed to refer to planet Venus. Church Fathers who wrote several hundred years after the Biblical canon, began to poetically connect the concept of Satan (represented as an adversarial dragon, thrown from Heaven) with the unique movements of Venus during morning hours. Even so, the notion of Lucifer as an angel thrown from Heaven for disobeying God is simply not an idea theologians believed. It was a medieval metaphor that took on a life of its own in contemporary pop culture.

    ... but walk into any Church and ask any random person "who is Lucifer?" and "what is the soul?", and they'll provide explanations and definitions that are completely incompatible with the theology to which most Christian clergymen subscribe. Their conception of Lucifer is most likely informed by popular media they've seen; their conception of the Soul comes also categorically from Plato's conception of the Intellect, a conception that Catholic priests (specifically) reject, because of the Church's need to distance itself from the impurities of the "pagan" philosophies of ancient Greece.

    We also see this in the "miracle" of the resurrection – what is significant about this event is that Jesus' physical form was supposed to have been literally raised from the dead, not just a disembodied soul that is separate from the body. Furthermore, one of the classical ideas of early theology supposed that Hell is not the negative to Heaven's positive, in which Satan rules as King, versus God's Kingship over Heaven. Rather, Hell is the historical default state of not-having-an-afterlife (like a kind of nothingness), not a place of torture and punishment as depicted in contemporary media; but if you ask most Christian laity, they believe Hell is like the unbearably hot inside of a volcano, full of meddlesome demons (where'd they even come from?), which would suggest a negative afterlife, and not simply no-afterlife.

    All that being said, there are hundreds of Christian denominations, billions of Christians, and thousands of clergymen, so opinions differ. Nonetheless, the aforementioned descriptions are closer to classical Christian theology, whereas the opinions of most contemporary Christian laypeople is closer to something you'd see in The Exorcist, the Passion of the Christ, and the Supernatural series on TV (which my wife and I have been watching).

  • Excellent points, Nate! I've always thought the Problem of Hell was a greater challenge to theology than the Problem of Evil. If, on the other hand, Christians retained Annhilationism (which I think you correctly identify as the original Hebrew position), I would happily explain to them that I would prefer eventual annhilation to any monotonous conscious eternity. Especially if that eternity were to take place in a celestial totalitarian police state, where the Dear Leader can read my mind.

    I would rather, in the appropriate end, send my dispersing atoms on a long cosmic walk off a short earthly pier. (Ok...not my best analogy)