John C. Wright (johncwright) wrote,
John C. Wright

Faith as Check on the Habit of Arrogant Error

It has always struck me as unjust in the Christian dogma that virtuous pagans are consigned to hellfire. Nothing could be more obviously an affront to reason than to condemn a man for eternity to punishment when the means of salvation were not and could not be known to him, and to call it just.

I discovered just today that this is not the Christian dogma at all.

M Francis writes and tells me this:

"…the Church always recognized something called "Baptism by Desire." The neo-Platonists like Augustine were much taken by the life and death of Socrates and saw in it a pagan parallel to the life of Christ - both unjustly executed by authorities for preaching virtue. Hence: the "naturally Christian man," Homo christianis naturalis, iirc. They supposed that, not having known Christ, the "virtuous pagans" would not receive the beatific vision complete but, being virtuous, a "limb" of heaven was reserved for them: a place of perfect natural happiness. This became "limbo" in common speech.

The Roman Catholic position can be summed up in Art. 1260 of the Catechism:"Since Christ died for all, and since all men are in fact called to one and the same destiny, which is divine, we must hold that the Holy Spirit offers to all the possibility of being made partakers, in a way known to God, of the Paschal mystery."

I also came across this quote by Billy Graham (actually, I came across John Derbyshire quoting David Aikman's biography of the great preacher):

“I used to think that pagans in far-off countries were lost — were going to hell — if they did not have the gospel of Jesus Christ preached to them. I no longer believe that. I believe there are other ways of recognizing the existence of God — through nature for instance — and plenty of other opportunities, therefore, of saying yes to God.”

Now, keep in mind, I knew that Dante placed both Trajan and Ripheus in heaven, pagans who did not or could not have known Christ; but I had assumed the poet merely to be indulging in a flight of fancy, wishful thinking, but that this was actually heretical to the doctrines his Church taught. I am amazed and pleased to find out that Dante was being strictly orthodox and correct. It was my uninformed opinion about Christian teachings that was wrong.

Ever since my conversion, I found the same thing over and over again: that the illogical or unfair parts of the Christian Dogma I was being asked to accept on faith, upon closer inspection, turn out to say, not what the world told me the Church said, but something more like what natural reason and supernatural love would be likely to say. If the Roman Catholics and the Southern Baptist Billy Graham agree on a point, it is safe to say it is a mainstream Christian teaching.

For those of you who think faith is some sort of willful blindness or deliberate affection for absurdity, please consider instead the cases like this: imagine that, more that once, you found your unaided opinion, the act of resting only on what you know yourself turned out, upon inspection, to be nothing more than finding a popular prejudice lodged in your mouth, something "everyone knows" but no one, not even you, actually checked.

Everyone knows the Church is the enemy of science, right? Look at the trial of Galileo! But then you read a history book or two, and it turns out that the Galileo affair was not about geocentrism, it was about Galileo insulting the Pope.

Everyone knows the Church is the enemy of law and justice! Look at the Spanish Inquisition! But it turns out the Inquisition was smaller than reported, handled with more legal safeguards, and was the actions of a national church operating independently, and sometimes in opposition to, the ecumenical episcopate. Suppose you study law, and all the concepts that do not appear in Oriental law-codes, the Sharia of the Mohammedans, the legalism of the Confucians, all the concepts you adore for their beauty and fairness, were either Greek learning preserved by the Church and adopting into her by Aquinas, or Jewish concepts refined and civilized by Roman respect for law and family, or by English respect for individual rights. You find your so-called modern notions of justice are Christian, and found nowhere outside Christendom, and which, to be frank make little sense outside of a Christian world view.

In Robert Heinlein's oh-so-manly universe where all races struggle to survive, why should the strong protect the weak? Why should a Starship Trooper spare the life of a Bug from Klendathu? In Ayn Rand's oh-so-rational universe, why should anyone contribute to charity? Why should the rich help the unproductive, the widow, the orphan, the stranger? (Excuse me for using science fiction stories as example, but I am a science fiction fellow first and foremost. You can find parallel examples in your own field.)

Socrates mentions a paradox, where a man has a choice between, on the one hand, doing an injustice while appearing just, and being rewarded for it, or, on the other hand, doing the just thing while appearing unjust, and being punished for it; and there is no third option. Since Socrates himself died in prison because he did the just thing (pursuing the truth) that the world saw as unjust (corrupting the youth), the Socratic paradox has more than a merely academic interest.  If we are all products of unintentional evolution, merely matter in motion, why should I avoid the situation Socrates mentions? You cannot answer in terms of incentive or long-term rational self-interest or utilitarianism: the Socratic paradox is one where you get all the reward and applause of being a just man for being unjust. Suppose you found out that the figures you thought had all the answers could not offer a fair and clear answer to that one, but that the primitive superstitions of your hated enemies, the Christians, could do?

But let us say you answer this question to your own satisfaction; and then you discover, reading history, that it is only by the grace of what the Church preserved from her Greek and Jewish roots, and taught, and kept alive (despite ferocious opposition) in European culture that you learned the ideas and concepts you used to make your answer. Suppose you cannot explain to your own satisfaction how an institution, a way of thinking, that seems to you to be little better than a psychological defect is the source, and the only source, the values you value. In the periods of history where other values, openly pagan or outrageously progressive but in any case notable only for their opposition to the Christian world view, where embraced by societies like Germany or Russia, unimaginable cruelty, tyranny and bloodshed erupted, poisoning the whole world. Suppose further that being an ungrateful ignoramus is not appealing to you.

Everyone knows the Christians are bigots and know-nothings! But even Southern Baptist preachers quote the original Latin, Greek and Aramaic in their sermons; the Pope is the only public figure talking about the role of Reason in modern philosophy; and in contrast the Brights who mock them say boneheaded things like that no one supports religion who was not brainwashed to it in his youth, or they say religion is evolved as a "meme" merely a mental version of a computer virus. Who is the scholar and who is the obscurantist then?

Suppose you read more history, and discover the central role of Christianity in everything you admire and support in Western literature, law, ethics, and civilization.

Suppose everything worldly and pagan, slavery and polygamy and vaunting pride, the strong oppressing the weak, the state oppressing the individual, the abuse of women, the passive indifference to worldly ills, the sheer inequality between high and low, appears or reappears everywhere Christianity is not, and loses power everywhere Christianity is practiced. Every nation, including Christian nations, have kings; but only Christian kings are said not to be above the law. No nation, except for Christian nations, and nations conquered by Christians, have parliaments, democracies, or limited governments. Every nation keeps slaves; only Christian nations abolished slavery, and that for specifically Christian reasons, acting against their worldly and economic interests. Only Christian nations abolished polygamy, or the practice of making eunuchs. Only Christianity keeps alive the respect the ancient Romans had for family and household, without submerging the individual into caste or clan or ancestor-worship, and without atomizing the individual into disconnected and disinherited autochthons, those mythical men who arise from the Earth without mothers.

Suppose you find that only Christianity has the moral atmosphere you can tolerate.  Suppose everywhere else was chlorine and ammonia to you.

Suppose all this. What "everybody knows" turns out to be false, merely echoes in an echo chamber, things said because your neighbor said it, your neighbor said it because you said it, and you both heard it on TV.

Suppose after all this you find out that your Mother, who told you over and over what the truth of it was, turns out to be right once again.

Now imagine, instead of your Mother, it is the Mother Church.

Now imagine that the Mother Church turns out to be right, and you to have been wrong, not just in little things, but in great things, topics you spent your whole life investigating. Suppose you found out you were wrong about the sexual revolution, or about the origin of the universe, the mind-body relationship, or about the possibility of miracles, and suppose your Mother was right.

After a while, you begin to feel like Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard. Sherlock Holmes is always right. You would begin to have faith in him. You would begin to assume he knows what he is talking about: when he claims the miraculous ability to know the composition of the mud of every street in every part of London, or the ability to detect which tobacco shop blended the pipe-ash found in the grate, after a while you'd believe him.

So you would start to have faith in the Church for the simple reason, no more no less, that any man has faith in leaders in any field shown by experience to lead correctly; it is the same faith you have in a busdriver when you board a bus, or in your wife when you marry her and forswear all others.

I have faith in the Gospels for the same reason, O ye men of little faith, that I have faith in the Constitution, or, for that matter, in the Boyscout's Handbook. I have read the documents, and found that, where applied, they function as advertised. You can actually set up camp according to the instructions in the Boy Scout's handbook, or set up a functioning government according to the rules in the Constitution. More importantly, I have found that where they are ignored or abridged, the evil outcomes those books were written specifically to avoid come indeed to pass.

The alternative philosophies to Christianity seem to me to be either dependent upon it without acknowledging that dependency (as most modern Progressivism), or an independent yet incomplete attempt at a similar thing (as the Oriental religions), or something nakedly vile and insane (as Marxism, Nihilism), or something noble in its root but leading inevitably to a vile fruition (as Objectivism, or Neopaganism). The philosophies that satisfy the reason leave the human condition in a hopeless state, innately without worth in an indifferent cosmos: men doomed to die, members of a race doomed to extinction, trapped in a universe-sized mausoleum, doomed to be extinguished by entropy. The philosophies that promise something more mystical and wonderful turn out not to satisfy the needs of daily life, or give proper instruction as to human conduct; as my witch friends seem to have a minor interest in moderation, patience, justice, fortitude, but none at all in chastity, decency, hope, charity. Their absurdly self-indulgent and obviously self-created little gods, taken from no living tradition, inspire neither terror nor awe, nor loyalty, nor does their vague belief that perhaps reincarnation is possible leave the reason satisfied as to the theodicy of the supernatural. One is reminded of "The Force" in Star Wars the mystic life-force indifferent alike to human suffering and human salvation, merely a tool for warlocks. This is an idea remarkably without depth or ramifications. Only Christianity seems to fulfill both the needs of the spiritual and of the rational nature. 

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