Thursday, November 27, 2014

Four Views on Suffering

The existence of suffering, or "problem" of suffering as it's known in philosophy, is a puzzling and unavoidable fact of reality. Nobody questions that we suffer, the question is, "Why do we suffer?" This question has weighed heavily on the minds of human beings since the dawn of our existence. The answer to this question is found in how we view reality, more specifically, in how we view human beings. This isn't to say that the answer is only relative to our personal beliefs, but that if suffering does have meaning, then its meaning must be bound up with the rest of reality. To help us understand suffering more clearly, let's use Jesus' parable about Lazarus and the rich man as a model, and consider how four different world views would understand the story. The question we need to keep in mind while examining these four different world views is:  What is a human being?
There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom. And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy upon me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue; for I am in anguish in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Son, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner evil things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.’ And he said, ‘No, father Abraham; but if some one goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead’ (Lk 16:19-31).

Let's begin with Buddhism. Siddhartha Gautama (who is considered the original Buddha) founded an entire philosophy-religion (neither term describes Buddhism exactly) on the idea of suffering (dukkha), so surely he can provide us with some insights. Buddha believed that all suffering is the result of ignorance and attachment. This ignorance is of the fact that there is no human "self," and this attachment is a craving for the permanence of the self and the material world. Buddha then discerned a way by which one could eliminate all suffering – by eliminating all desire. In an effort to eliminate the effect, suffering, he had to eliminate the cause, desire. That's an awfully high price to pay, considering how deeply our desires are engrained into our human nature. Buddha believed that ignorance resulted from "grasping at what you can't have" and "avoiding what you cannot avoid," and yet the whole purpose of the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism is an attempt to grasp at what one cannot have–a life free of all suffering–and to avoid what one cannot avoid–suffering–even if achieving this means viewing all of physical reality as an illusion. When trying to understand reality, we naturally seek to have a clear picture of everything, to come up with an explanation that takes into account all of the data. The problem with Buddhism then is that it does not account for all of the data. A good Buddhist would try to relieve Lazarus' suffering by helping him realize that his body is an illusion. This seems to be an extreme case of "throwing the baby out with the bathwater." Most people, especially those educated in Western countries, simply can't accept the idea that the world around them, which they experience constantly and directly through their senses, is an illusion. It is no coincidence that the physical sciences failed to take root for so long in Eastern countries; the total skepticism towards any knowledge derived from observation, which consists of sensory data, is directly opposed to the scientific method (for more on this topic, see my post, "How to Suck at Your Critique of Religion").


Next, let's consider how a Hindu would see Lazarus in the parable. Lazarus would be considered one of the Dalits, or "outcastes." In the traditional Hindu caste system, people are understood to suffer more or less based on which caste they're in, which is determined by the amount of "karma" they have accumulated in their past lives. In order to achieve moksha (liberation) from the Samsara (reincarnation) cycle, a person must "burn off" all of their karma through suffering, which might take literally thousands of lifetimes. With this understanding, any attempt to relieve the suffering of another person would be seen as an interference, since doing so would only prevent them from burning off their karma, and so ultimately prolong their suffering. The Dalits are so low in the Hindu view of human beings that they are not even part of a caste, hence the term,"out-castes." For centuries, approximately 25% of the Indian population were considered to be Dalits, until about 60 years ago when the Indian government abolished the caste system. Unfortunately, there is evidence that the caste mindset is still very much present in India today. From the standpoint of history, we know that every widespread violation of basic human dignity and rights has been made possible by the redefining of a group, class, or race of people as "subhuman" or even "non-human." The fact that this redefinition is even necessary testifies to the universal truth of morality that is written on the heart of every person. Knowing this, along with our human tendency to justify our behavior whenever possible, it's easy to see how the Hindu caste mentality can be a tempting ideology (if suffering is what liberates people, then I'm not obligated to help relieve their suffering). However, if the way we view human beings clashes with our natural inclinations to ensure justice and relieve suffering, then we should reevaluate our world view – not disregard our inclinations. The best Hindu advice on how to treat Lazarus would be, "Ignore him, he needs to burn off his karma." Somehow, this just sounds like a cop out, because instead of motivating us to help the suffering people who we encounter, it simply lets us off the hook and enables us to be selfish. The Hindu solution to the problem of suffering is a very human one.


Now, let's have a word for our non-believing friends, the atheists. First, let's answer our guiding question, "What is a human being?" from an atheist standpoint. Who better to speak for atheism than Bertrand Russell? Russell was a British mathematician, logician, philosopher, author, and one of the most influential atheists of the twentieth century. He wrote the following about what a human being is:
Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labors of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the débris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built (Free Man's Worship).
" philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand." Since the dawn of the twentieth century when Russell wrote this, the number of people who attend church services regularly in modern countries has indeed decreased, along with the number of people who identify with a particular religious tradition or denomination. However, Russell probably would have been shocked (and disappointed) if he were still alive today, because the number of people who claim to be atheists has barely increased in modern countries, and hasn't increased at all on a global scale. Theistic philosophies still dominate the world, and they don't appear to be going anywhere anytime soon. However, the question still remains to be answered – was Russell right? Are we nothing more than collections of matter resulting from blind and random purely physical processes? Without getting into a lenthy philosophical discussion about materialism and naturalism, let's limit ourselves for the time being to the implications of holding such a world view. 

An atheist cannot describe suffering as being objectively "worse" than happiness, because in his view,"suffering" and "happiness" are just labels that human beings created to describe reality. In the case of happiness, this set of neurons is firing in the brain, in the case of suffering, a different set of neurons is firing. Once you begin to describe one scenario as "better" than the other, you have stepped into the realm of value and meaning, which cannot be real and objective in a purely material universe. Atoms are not good or evil, true or false, so neither is a collection of them, however intricate and complicated their arrangement may be. If atheism is true, then Lazarus, while we might label him as a "human being" who has "dignity" and the "right to life," is really nothing more than a collection of matter, a group of chemical reactions that happen to be existing together in the same location. Therefore, for a consistent atheist, the most humane thing to do with Lazarus would be to either ignore him or to put him out of his misery, since he otherwise might become a burden to other "collections of matter." We do this with our pets all the time, and it's usually considered loving and merciful – why not with human beings? What makes killing them so wrong? Dostoyevsky famously summarized this in his epic novel, The Brothers Karamazov:
If God does not exist, all things are permissible.
If reading this makes you recoil, that's good – it means that you haven't lost your sense of humanity. The reason that our conscience has the authority to command us to sympathize with, assist, and love our fellow human beings, even when doing so does not provide us with any perceivable advantage in terms of survival, is because our conscience is not simply a biological faculty. The realm of morality is so evident and immediately experienced by us that only very intelligent people are usually clever enough to fool themselves into believing it doesn't exist. By asserting that human beings are nothing more than matter, the atheist inadvertently denies the existence of human personhood. If suffering, along with all human efforts to explain and understand it, is nothing more than a material phenomenon, then the answer to the question of why we suffer is, "There is no answer, suffering is as meaningless as the rest of reality."


Now that we've examined the problem of suffering from the standpoint of three other world views, let's answer the question, "How would a Christian see Lazarus?" One of the luxuries of the Christian world view is that, when determining how a Christian should see something, one need only answer, "How would Christ see this?" Jesus Christ did not claim simply to know a way to happiness, or the truth, or what constitutes authentic human living. He claimed to be "the way, the truth, and the life" (Jn 14:6). If Jesus is the truth, what is his answer to the problem of suffering? His answer comes not in word, but in action:
Christ Jesus...though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Php 2:5-7). 
When Jesus' friend Lazarus (not the same guy from the above parable) died, even though Jesus had the power to raise him from the dead, and even though he must have ultimately known the meaning and value of suffering, his reaction was described in just two words: "Jesus wept" (Jn 11:35). Those two words tell us a tremendous amount about what God thinks about human suffering. It is difficult. Being optimistic, knowing the temporary nature of the suffering, and even knowing its cause does not make enduring it easy. This is why even Christ prayed that he wouldn't have to suffer his passion and death: "Father, if thou art willing, remove this cup from me; nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done" (Lk 22:42). One of the unfortunate effects of limiting your view of reality to only material or natural explanations is that it closes your mind off to one of the most powerful and uniquely human capacities – the ability to recognize symbols. A symbol is something that points beyond itself, that has its meaning outside of itself. You can see a simple yet profound and beautiful example of this right now as you read this sentence – language. Like the words of a love poem, a captivating novel, or the lyrics of a beautiful hymn, everything in the physical world, suffering included, points to something beyond itself. All of reality is like a story, and that suffering, an ever present and undeniable part of that reality, should have meaning simply fits the narrative better. Other world views try to downplay or even deny suffering, Christianity transforms it. Christ did not come to rescue us from the suffering of this life, as if suffering were something to be avoided at all costs, but to plunge us deeper into the mystery of it, since entering fully into that mystery is the key to unlocking the meaning of life. If God exists, and he is all-knowing, all-good, and all-powerful, then the reason we suffer must be because we need to. However, God does not leave us to fend for ourselves, even in this life. By the Incarnation of God in the person of Jesus Christ, and by his death and resurrection, we can have the sure hope that our suffering has meaning, and that God is capable of bringing good out of even the worst sufferings in our lives. Saint Paul, who suffered terrible persecution and was eventually beheaded for his faith in Christ, had the following to say about suffering:
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us (Rm 8:18).
Not worth comparing. How could Saint Paul say that? Did he live a sheltered life or something? Was he just delusional? No. He could say it because he had come into contact with infinite love, with Love itself – Jesus Christ. In the face of infinite love, finite suffering is literally "not worth comparing." At the end of his novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey, Thornton Wilder spelled out the two possible explanations of the problem of suffering in the following way:
Some say that we shall never know, and that to the gods we are like flies that boys kill on a summer day, and others say that the very sparrows do not lose a feather that has not been brushed away by the finger of God.
Both cannot be true. How do we live our lives? Do we trust that God is ultimately in control and that Saint Paul was correct in saying that "in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose?" (Rm 8:28). Let's ask God to give us the grace to trust him with everything, even with the suffering in our life, which too often confuses us and makes us doubt his infinite love for us.

Under the Mercy,
Chris Trummer


Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britain). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition. New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, 1994. Print.

Russell, Bertrand. Free Man's Worship. 1903.

Wilder, Thornton. The Bridge of San Luis Rey. 1927.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

How to Suck at Your Critique of Religion

This post is a response to “How to Suck at Your Religion,” an anti-religious comic strip from the website "The Oatmeal," created and ran by Matthew Inman. I read it recently after noticing a link to it on Facebook. After explaining a couple of my objections to the friend who posted it, I decided that it would be worthwhile to give the comic a more thorough treatment. This is not a rant or an emotional lashing out, but a calm and calculated response intended to set the record straight on some misinformation and misunderstandings.  I will list all the questions posed in the comic and give a short response to each.  To see the comic for yourself and get a better sense of Mr. Inman's approach, you can click here.*

* Please note that the comic contains some offensive and vulgar language.

"Does your religion make you judge people?"
"Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get" (Mt 7:1-2).
Since Jesus clearly taught us not to judge other people throughout the gospels, the answer is no, my religion does not "make me judge people"–it forbids me to do so. The fact that there are many hypocritical Christians who are judgmental, especially in modern countries like the U.S., is an unfortunate reality that tells us about those people, but not about Christianity itself. Saint Paul also warned the early Christians in Rome against judging others:
Therefore you have no excuse, O man, whoever you are, when you judge another; for in passing judgment upon him you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things (Rm 2:1).
"Does your religion hinder the advancement of science, technology, or medicine?"

Christianity provided the conceptual framework necessary for the use of scientific methodology, evidenced by the way science flourished in the Christian West as opposed to the non-Christian East, where the dominating philosophies typically saw physical reality as less predictable and intelligible. C.S. Lewis summarized this framework well:
Men became scientific because they expected Law in Nature, and they expected Law in Nature because they believed in a Legislator (Miracles).
The Catholic Church founded the college system, the Laws of Evidence in science, and the first hospitals. Also, numerous Catholics throughout the centuries have been at the forefront of scientific progress. This is a list (but by no means an exhaustive one) of some of the most noteworthy Catholic men and women scientists:

Mariano Artigas (1938–2006) – Spanish physicist, philosopher and theologian who received the Templeton Foundation Prize in 1995.
André-Marie Ampère (1775–1836) – One of the main discoverers of electromagnetism
Stephen Barr (1953–present) – Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Delaware and a member of its Bartol Research Institue
Henri Becquerel (1852–1908) – Awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for his co-discovery of radioactivity
Giovanni Alfonso Borelli (1608–1679) – Father of modern biomechanics
Louis Braille (1809–1852) – Inventor of the Braille reading and writing system
Gerty Cori (1896–1957) – Biochemist who was the first American woman win a Nobel Prize in science (1947)
Gaspard-Gustave Coriolis (1792–1843) – Formulated laws regarding rotating systems, which later became known as the Coriolis effect
Charles-Augustin de Coulomb (1736–1806) – Physicist who developed Coulomb's law
Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) – Catholic cleric and first person to formulate a comprehensive heliocentric cosmology
René Descartes (1596–1650) – Father of modern philosophy and analytic geometry
Alberto Dou (1915-2009) – Spanish Jesuit priest who was president of the Royal Society of Mathematics, member of the Royal Academy of Natural, Physical, and Exact Sciences, and one of the foremost mathematicians of his country.
Enrico Fermi (1901–1954) – Awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for his work in induced radioactivity
Georges Lemaître (1894–1966) – Priest and Father of the Big Bang theory
Gregor Mendel (1822–1884) – Priest and Father of genetics
Johannes Peter Müller (1801–1858) – Founder of modern physiology
Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) – French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer and philosopher
Anthony Rizzi (?–present) – Physicist who solved the problem of angular momentum in Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity (1997), and founder and president of the Institute for Advanced Physics
Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) – Anatomist, scientist, mathematician, and painter
Alessandro Volta (1745–1827) – Physicist known for the invention of the battery

Given the large number of groundbreaking scientists who believed in the teachings of the Catholic Church and worked under her patronage, it's safe to say that the Church does not hinder the process of science, technology, or medicine. Here is the Church's view of science and its practice:
Methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are (Catechism of the Catholic Church 159).
Following this question, Inman digs up the dead horse of the Galileo controversy for beating. While there were certainly bishops and other people in the Church who opposed Galileo, their primary disagreement was on the grounds that he had not successfully proven his theory, which was true, since the observational technique he was using at the time, stellar parallax, could not definitively prove whether the Earth revolved around the Sun or vice-versa. Also, contrary to what the comic suggests, Galileo did not "spend the rest of his life in a dungeon." He was actually put on house arrest, and was treated quite well. This sentence was given to him because his work was being funded by the Church, and he disobeyed the pope's request that he wait until he had conclusive evidence to support his theory before claiming it to be fact. Galileo not only prematurely claimed his theory to be true, but openly mocked the pope with a cartoon character named "Simplicio," which is Italian for "simple-minded" or "idiot." Non-Catholic historian of science, Gary Ferngren, concluded the following about how the Galileo affair has been historically understood:
The traditional picture of Galileo as a martyr for intellectual freedom and as a victim of the Church’s opposition to science has been demonstrated to be little more than a caricature (Ferngren).
"Did you choose your religion, or did someone else choose it for you?"

From the time I was a young child until my later teen years, I was Catholic more or less because my parents were Catholic. As we mature, we have to decide whether or not we really believe what we've been taught by our parents, whether we will claim the faith of our parents as our own or abandon it. To claim that a belief is false because of how that belief originated is known as the "genetic fallacy," a mistake commonly made by atheists when criticizing religious belief. The reason the genetic fallacy is so common is that it allows the person making it to think they have invalidated a person's beliefs, and so think they are justified in not listening to that person's actual reasons for believing. In addition to this point, there have been multitudes of highly educated people throughout history, as well as in modern times, who were not raised as Christians or even theists but came to believe later in life.

In this section of the comic, Inman also uses one of the most cliché and misunderstood images for God––an "invisible bearded flying man." This is such a mediocre oversimplification of what any serious monotheist means by the word "God" that it really doesn't even merit a response. However, there is at least one unintended but positive consequence of an atheist's use of images like this for God (and similar ones, e.g. the cosmic Santa Claus, sky fairy, flying spaghetti monster, etc.). The use of such images prevents the waste of precious time in argument, since the person who uses them immediately reveals that they know very little to nothing about theism or the classical arguments for the existence of God.

"Does your religion give you weird anxieties about your sexuality?"

The only anxieties I've had about my sexuality were present during my high school and early college years, when I had bought into the secular culture's idea of what the purpose of human sexuality is, namely, to provide pleasure and the immediate gratification of any and all sexual desires, regardless of whether or not they conform to the design or purpose inherent in the human body. The Church's teachings about human sexuality, especially as articulated by Saint John Paul II in his Theology of the Body, provide a clear, consistent, and complete understanding of the purpose and meaning of intimacy, marriage, and sexual unity between men and women. Without a basic understanding the Church's overall view of human nature, which is the foundation for her moral teaching as regards sexuality, it's difficult for non-believers to have productive dialogue with Catholics. It is no use to extract one specific teaching of the Church, say, the immorality of using contraception, and complain that it doesn't make any sense. To do this is to take out of context one piece that was meant to be understood as part of a whole, like examining a human kidney on a table and wondering, "What the heck is this thing for?" Observe it inside of a body and you'll find out.

"Do you validate your beliefs by constantly trying to convince other people to believe the same thing?"
Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you...” (Mt 28:18-20).
While it may not always be prudent or effective to go door-to-door like the followers of some religious traditions, as Inman pokes fun at, Jesus commanded (not suggested) that his disciples go forth and spread the Good News, the Gospel. Also, while it is uncharitable to "force your religion" on other people, it's a mistake to equate all efforts at evangelization to forcing or imposing. The role of the Church is to propose, not impose, Christ's message of Salvation to the world, and her mission is nothing other than the salvation of souls. This of course is only possible if Catholics are willing to take the time and effort to reach out to other people.

"Do you mock other religions for believing crazy things?"

I sincerely try not to mock other religions, although I have to admit that I am guilty of this at times. Again, far from being a feature of Christianity, the mockery of other religions by Christians constitutes a failure to love on their part. Also, it's hypocritical that Inman is condemning mockery here when he harshly mocks religion and religious people throughout this comic. The Catholic Church has a high respect for other religious traditions and their followers, as indicated in the following quote from the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions:
Other religions found everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing "ways," comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites. The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ 'the way, the truth, and the life' (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself (Nostra Aetate, p. 2)
"Do you vote based solely on your religious beliefs?"

Given how foundational religious beliefs are to a person's understanding of reality, is it really any surprise to the skeptic that religious people would vote primarily on the basis of those beliefs? A person's religious beliefs include their understanding of what human beings are, what our purpose is, what constitutes authentic human flourishing, and what our natural rights are based on these factors. That being said, what ideas could be more fundamental that a religious person should vote based on those instead? I can think of none. For example, if my beliefs tell me that all human beings have the right to life, even unborn children, then I can only conclude that abortion is a gross violation of basic human rights and dignity. Therefore, while there are certainly other important issues in need of consideration, none of them can take political precedence over an issue as paramount as abortion.
"Are you so dangerously extremist that even a silly web cartoonist can't draw a picture of your prophet without fearing for his life?"

This is clearly a shot at Islam, and at Islamic extremists in particular, so I don't feel that it's necessary for me to offer a response on behalf of Christianity. In fact, this is one of the few questions that I actually found to be a fair one, and any Muslim who is that extreme and violent should certainly reexamine himself or herself, because such conduct is by no means a necessary or even mainstream interpretation of the Quran.

"Would you die for your religion?"
Martyrdom is the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith: it means bearing witness even unto death. The martyr bears witness to Christ who died and rose, to whom he is united by charity. He bears witness to the truth of the faith and of Christian doctrine. He endures death through an act of fortitude (Catechism of the Catholic Church 2473).
If by "Would you die for your religion?" the question means, "Would you die before renouncing your religious beliefs?" then I would like to think that, if faced with either rejecting my faith in Christ and living, or remaining faithful to Him and dying, I would choose the latter and be counted among the countless martyrs who have witnessed to Christianity over the last 2000 years. However, since I can't begin to imagine being in such a terrifying situation, I can't say definitively that I would die for my religion––I might be too much of a coward. Dying for what you believe is by no means unique to Christianity, and a willingness to die for your beliefs does not in itself prove that your beliefs are true. However, it does prove that you are sincere in your belief (liars make terrible martyrs) and so the person who objects to your beliefs must do so on grounds of reason and historical evidence, instead of attacking your motives for believing.

"Would you kill for your religion? [Or] hurt, hinder, or condemn in the name of God?"
“You have heard that it was said to the men of old, ‘You shall not kill; and whoever kills shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that every one who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother shall be liable to the council, and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be liable to the hell of fire" (Mt 5:21-22).
It is necessary here to distinguish between killing as a means of conquest, terror, or oppression, versus killing as a means of self-defense or defense of innocent life. The former is clearly inconsistent with the teachings of Christ, while the latter can be justifiable, according to Catholic moral teaching, provided certain conditions are met. These conditions are outlined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (p. 2309), and they include:
  1. The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;
  2. All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;
  3. There must be serious prospects of success;
  4. The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition
To answer the question then, if I perceived a threat to my life or the lives of other innocent people, and the above conditions were met (as well as I could determine given the amount of time I had to respond), then yes, I would take another person's life. It is because of this understanding that I have no reservations about being a member of the Illinois National Guard, in an infantry unit that has deployed for combat operations to both Iraq and Afghanistan (before I was there).

"Does your religion inspire you to help people?"
"If any one has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth" (1 Jn 3:17-18).
Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others (Php 2:4).
"Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me" (Mt 25:40).
It's ironic (but not surprising) how this question presupposes that helping people is good and something that we should all do. When Christians fail to help others whom they are fully capable of helping, they are failing to love as their Savior commanded them, and therefore living in a manner that is inconsistent with their worldview. On the other hand, atheists who fail to help others whom they are fully capable of helping are living in a manner consistent with their worldview, since their view maintains that human beings are randomly evolved collections of matter that have no real purpose or destination. Regardless of what a person believes about God, everyone believes that you should always obey your own conscience. This uniquely human faculty puts us in touch with objective moral values and duties that are real and binding, regardless of time, place, or culture. This is why, despite the efforts people make to avail themselves of it, they find the moral law inescapable. Saint Paul had this insight:
When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law.  They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus (Rm 2:14-16).
"Does it make you happier?"

Having spent several years chasing happiness using all of the world's methods, including popularity, money, possessions, drinking, partying, shallow relationships, with a pervading sense of selfishness throughout, I can say with confidence that my religion makes me happier. The happiness does not come from delusion, like the popular delusion of spending all of your time worrying about your looks, your car, the number of "likes" on your Facebook post, or your favorite sports team, none of which offer any real or lasting meaning. Rather, the happiness that my faith gives me is in the hope that comes from placing my trust in God, admitting to Him my brokenness, experiencing His love and forgiveness, and striving to love him more each day. As Saint Faustina wrote in her diary:
I want to love You as no human soul has ever loved You before; and although I am utterly miserable and small, I have nevertheless cast the anchor of my trust deep down into the abyss of Your mercy (Diary, 283).
"Does it help you cope with the fact that you are a bag of meat sitting on a rock in outer space, and that someday you will DIE, and you are completely powerless, helpless, and insignificant in the wake of this beautiful cosmic [crap]storm we call existence?  If it helps you with that, carry on with your religion – just keep it to yourself."

This is a textbook example of "begging the question," which is a type of circular reasoning in which the conclusion is assumed to be true. The person asking the question hasn't established the truth of part of their question or argument. An example of this would be the question, "Have you stopped beating your wife?" One of the funny things about this comic is that, with all of the questions it asks about "your religion," it never bothers to ask about the truth of any religion. Is it true? The only reason anyone in the world should ever believe anything at all is because it's true, not because it suits your personality, makes you feel better, or because it is useful to yourself or to society. The comment at the end, "If it helps you with that, carry on with your religion," is not a gesture of good will but a patronizing insult, a pat on the head as if to say "Aww, isn't he just adorable with his cute little religious beliefs!"

The Problem With Skepticism

Instead of an honest search for the truth and an openness to the possibility that what some religion teaches might actually be true, or at least have some elements of truth in it, skeptics like the author of this comic presume from the outset of discussion that all religion is unreasonable and ridiculous. Typically, such people maintain that they will only believe something if it can be shown to be true by the scientific method. This view, known as "scientism," is self-destructive, since it is itself not a scientific claim but a philosophical one, and therefore not provable by the scientific method. This philosophy is a convenient one to hold, and is often the mark of an intellectually lazy or prideful person. Instead of promoting a fruitful dialogue, the skeptic merely affords himself the luxury of sitting back and criticizing the beliefs of everyone else, spending all of his time on the offense, since he has no positive content of his own to defend. When your world view exists only as a negation or rejection of another world view, you're inevitably going to find yourself becoming increasingly close-minded, negative, and incapable of relating well to others.

Mr. Inman did well to add the words "someday you will DIE" in this last question. Indeed, some day we will all die. I can only hope and pray that he, along with his audience members who criticize and mock religion and religious people with such pride and confidence, approach their own deaths with much greater humility and openness. This comic is nothing more than a collection of myths, clichés, and misunderstandings. However, it may be useful for at least one thing––as an exercise for students in an Intro to Logic class to help them recognize logical fallacies. Hopefully, through continued efforts in education, especially in the areas of history and philosophy, websites such as The Oatmeal will eventually have no audience through which to spread such gross distortions about religion and religious people. That is one of the downsides of the internet, that it makes it possible for people with little to no credibility on a subject to spread misinformation about it like a cancer. Fortunately, even a cancer can be treated and put into remission.

Thank you for reading, and God bless you!

Under the Mercy,
Chris Trummer


Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britain). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition. New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, 1994. Print.

Catholic Church. Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd Ed. Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000. Print.

Catholic Church. Nostra Aetate. Vatican II Documents. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011. Print.

C.S. Lewis. Miracles. London & Glasgow: Collins/Fontana, 1947. 2002 Edition. Print.

Maria Faustina Kowalska: Divine Mercy In My Soul. Marian Press, 2003. Print.

Ferngren, Gary, ed. Science and Religion: A Historical Introduction. JHU Press, 2002. Print.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

This is a Hard Saying, Who Can Listen to It?

"I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh...he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day." ...Many of his disciples, when they heard it, said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?”

The Catholic Church not only "listens to" this saying of Jesus, but unapologetically and joyfully proclaims it. The Eucharist is without a doubt one of the biggest, if not the biggest stumbling block for people who would otherwise be open to the Catholic Faith. And yet, it is described by the Church as, "...the source and summit of the Christian life" (LG 11). Indeed, far from being some side issue, "small potatoes," or simply another part of the "package deal" of being Catholic, the Eucharist is (or if not, should be!) at the very core of our theology, liturgy, prayer, and worship. Sadly, despite the centrality of the Eucharist in Catholic worship and teaching, several recent surveys have revealed that an increasing number of Catholics don't believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and in fact, many aren't even aware that the Church teaches it! As someone who has had his faith revitalized, largely due to accepting and embracing the reality of the Eucharist, I find this disheartening. Fortunately, the Church is very much aware of this decline in belief of one of her most central doctrines, and countless Catholics today, both clergy and laity, are doing outstanding work to restore the Eucharist to its rightful place as "source and summit" in the lives of Catholics around the world.  

This Saying is Hard

If you're Catholic, and you claim that you have no difficulty whatsoever in believing the doctrine of the Real Presence, then there's a good chance you haven't yet deeply reflected on what you're saying "Amen" to at the front of the Communion line at Mass. When the priest presents the Host to you and says, "The Body of Christ," and you respond, "Amen," you are literally saying you believe that the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Eternal Word by whom the entire universe was created out of nothing, is being placed on your tongue and sliding down your throat into your stomach. If you take a moment to step back and consider how insane that sounds, you can better sympathize with Protestants and other non-Catholics who reject what the Church teaches about the Eucharist. I can think of only three possible explanations for a person having no doubts or difficulties accepting the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist: 1) an ignorance of what the Church actually teaches about the Eucharist, namely, that the bread and wine are substantially changed into the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ, 2) a false sense of piety that is really laziness, and allows one to blindly accept what one is told without any attempt to personally understand it, or 3) a special grace from God, most likely granted in response to much humble prayer and contemplation.

So then, what if Catholics are wrong? What if the Eucharist was intended by Christ to be only a symbol of his body and blood? What if it was his body and blood, but it was only a one-time deal, and The Last Supper really was The Last Supper? Hasn't modern science disproved an idea as anti-scientific as the Eucharist?  

The Eucharist is NOT Merely a Symbol

One starting piece of evidence for understanding the literal nature of the Eucharist comes from The Last Supper. If Jesus was only speaking symbolically when he said that his body would be bread given up for us, then why did he pick up an actual piece of bread and say, "This is my body" (Mt: 26:26)? At this point in the discussion, many Protestants will point out that, elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus tells people that he is "the gate," "the vine," "the light of the world," and "the shepherd." There is an important distinction to make between these claims of Christ and the claim he made about the Eucharist.  Jesus didn't hold up a gate or a vine and say, "This is my body." Obviously, Jesus wasn't literally (i.e. physically) any of those things – they are symbols he used to teach us about his relationship with us. Couldn't the Eucharist be like these then, another symbol used to remind us that Christ nourishes us and is always present among us?  Indeed it can be, and it is, but it's a mistake to think that it is only that. To put it plainly, if Jesus intended the Eucharist to serve as just a symbol of his body and blood, then nobody got the message. This is evident in the reactions of the people in the story, which ranged from confusion and disgust to trusting acceptance. The Jews were clearly scandalized and said, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" (Jn 6:52), many of his disciples said, "This is a hard saying, who can listen to it?" (v. 60) and they no longer followed Jesus (v. 66).  Question:  Is it a hard saying if Jesus is speaking symbolically? Not really. It surely wouldn't have been hard enough that the same people who were willing to leave behind their families, friends, homes, and jobs just to follow Jesus would walk away when they heard it. After all, many of these people were probably present when Jesus said he was "the gate" and "the vine," and they handled that pretty well, because they knew he wasn't speaking literally.  

If Jesus wanted to reassure everyone that he was only speaking symbolically, or at least tone down his language a bit, then he had plenty of opportunities to do so. Instead of doing this, or letting his apostles know what he "really" meant, like he did in the past when he explained parables to them, he gives them an ultimatum, putting them on the spot in front of everybody: “Do you also wish to go away?” (v. 68). Peter, speaking on behalf of all the apostles, responded, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life; and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (v. 68-69). Here Peter was effectively saying, "Well, we don't understand exactly how this is possible, but we know you Jesus, and so we know that we can trust what you say." Had Jesus not waited until near the end of ministry to teach his apostles about the Eucharist, until after they had developed a relationship with him, they probably would have walked away with the others. Later, Jesus would say to Peter, "Feed my sheep" (Mt 21:17).  Feed them what, Jesus? "The bread which I shall give for the life of the world," my flesh, which is "food indeed," and my blood, which is "drink indeed" (Jn 6:55).

Were the apostles just an anomaly though, the only ones who both took Jesus literally and believed him, perhaps out of some sense of fanatical discipleship? Not hardly. If Jesus wasn't speaking literally about the Eucharist, then Saint Paul, a convert who had severely persecuted Christians, was also very confused. When writing to the Corinthians about the Eucharist, he begins by asserting that what he is teaching is not his own invention, but was given to him directly by Christ: "For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you (1 Cor 11:23). He goes on to make a series of bold statements:
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord (11:27).
Guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Wow, don't you think that language is a bit strong, Paul? What did he mean by this? Consider this analogy: If I were to take a gun and shoot a picture of your grandmother, that would be disrespectful, right? Right, but I wouldn't be guilty of homicide, because the picture is merely a representation or symbol of your grandmother––it's not her actually body. The same logic applies to the Eucharist. If the bread and wine are only symbols of Christ's body and blood, then while it would certainly be inappropriate to disrespect them, you couldn't be considered guilty of Christ's actual body and blood. Furthermore, why does one need to be "worthy" to receive a symbol or representation? Saint Paul speaks more about this as he continues:
Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died (11:28-30).
          More strong language here: Discern the body, or you will eat and drink judgement upon yourself, get sick, and possibly even die (yikes!). The word "discern" means "to perceive or recognize something by the senses or by the intellect." Given the physical appearances and properties of bread and wine, which remain after Consecration, we cannot perceive the Real Presence with our human senses. However, this fact alone does not justify skepticism towards the Eucharist, because you couldn't physically see or sense Christ's divinity when he was on Earth either! Therefore, the skepticism that rejects the Eucharist is the same breed of skepticism that rejects the Incarnation. Both the Incarnation and the Eucharist are unexpected and even seem counterintuitive, or at least too good to be true. That is why they must be spiritually discerned to be believed, which is probably what Jesus meant when he followed up his teaching on the Eucharist by saying, "It is the spirit that gives life, the flesh is of no avail; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life" (Jn 6:63). You cannot ascent to the Truth of the Real Presence by worldly reasoning.  Saint Paul explained this concept to the Corinthians:
The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned (1 Cor 2:14).
When reading any story in the Bible, it is useful to imagine where we fit into the story. For example, in the parable of the Prodigal or Lost Son, I identify most with the lost son, who rejected his father but later returned and received unconditional love, forgiveness, and mercy. In this account of Jesus' teaching about the Eucharist, ask yourself this: "Where am I in the story? Am I with Peter and the other apostles? Or am I with those who walked away from Jesus, who 'drew back and no longer went about with him?'" (Jn 6:66). To whom will you go?

The Eucharist is an Ongoing Reality
"I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (Jn 6:51). 
In this passage, notice how Jesus uses both past and future tense verbs: "I am the living bread which came down [past tense] from heaven..." and, "...the bread which I shall give [future tense] for the life of the world is my flesh." As Christians, we believe that Jesus has always been God, but that he came into Creation by the Incarnation at a specific time in history, making it a past event (not his being Incarnate, but the actual moment he was conceived). So, what about the future tense here? What did Jesus mean when he said, "...the bread which I shall give..."? Some will say that perhaps Jesus was using an analogy here, referring to how he would give his body (the bread) to us by his dying on the cross for our sake. This is certainly true in one sense, but is that all that he meant by it? It can't be, because at the Last Supper he commanded his apostles, "Do this in memory of me" (1 Cor 11:24) meaning that what he was giving them was to be repeated in the future, which is exactly what a Catholic priest does every time he celebrates the Mass.

Don't Try to Fit the Eucharist in Your Box

Some Catholics, who I'm naturally inclined to agree with, think that we should point skeptics to the countless, well-documented Eucharistic miracles as proof of the Real Presence. While some people, if they are especially open-minded, may be swayed by the evidence of historical and ongoing Eucharistic miracles, and a select few even convinced by it, this strategy usually isn't very effective. Why not? It certainly seems like it should work: "Don't believe in the Real Presence? Well, take a look at this picture of heart tissue that has been sitting in a ciborium in Lanciano, Italy since the 8th century and hasn't decayed without any preserving agents!"  See photo.

The miraculous pieces of flesh, in
a ciborium at St. Francis Church
in Lanciano, Italy.
Often times the response is a disinterested shrug, "Meh," or, "How do you know that story is even true?  It's probably just a hoax." The real cause for their enduring skepticism and refusal to investigate further is an unwavering commitment to their worldview. The substantial Presence of Christ in the Eucharist simply won't fit in a box marked "materialism" or "naturalism." An atheist biologist, Richard Lewontin, wrote about this commitment that he and his fellow non-believing colleagues have:
...we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism...we are forced by our a priori [not based on experience] adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, not matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a divine foot in the door.
In other words, "We need solid evidence before we will believe anything, but we're pretty sure we already know what reality should be like, so we've taken the liberty to define 'evidence' in such a way that we won't have to be bothered by any supernatural funny-business." Sounds pretty open-minded, right? At least he's honest, I suppose, because that's where you always have to begin in any search for the truth. If you find it hard to accept the Eucharist on scientific grounds, realize that the Church's claim about the Real Presence is not a scientific claim––it's a metaphysical (beyond physical) claim. The apostles didn't accept what Jesus said because they were ignorant and believed that bread and wine changing into flesh and blood didn't violate the laws of nature. Rather, they accepted it because they believed that the one making the claims was the Son of God, the God who created the natural world and wrote its laws.
At the risk of taking up even more of your time, I'll conclude my thoughts here. If you're not Catholic, I hope you've learned a little more about what we believe regarding the Eucharist. If you are Catholic, I hope your understanding of the Eucharist has been illumined, your belief in it fortified, and your ability to articulate and defend that belief strengthened. I appreciate you taking time out of your day to read this longer-than-usual post, and I hope you enjoyed it! I'll leave you with this quote about the Eucharist from Saint Justin Martyr, who was one of the early Fathers of the Church, and a great defender of the Faith:
We call this food Eucharist, and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true and who has been washed in the washing that is for the remission of sins and for regeneration (i.e., has received baptism) and is thereby living as Chris enjoined.  For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food that has been made into the Eucharist by the eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the flesh and blood of that incarnated Jesus [First Apology 66 (c. A.D. 151)].
May God Bless you!

Under the Mercy,
Chris Trummer


Catholic Biblical Association (Great Britain). The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition. New York: National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, 1994. Print.

Catholic Church. Lumen Gentium. Vatican II Documents. Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2011. Print.

Akin, Jimmy. The Fathers Know Best. Catholic Answers: San Diego, 2010. Print.