Catholic in Yanchep

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Christ the King, Year C | Who is king of your universe?

Hans_Memling_-_Christ_Surrounded_by_Musician_Angels_-Christ the King

Christ surrounded by Musician Angels, Hans Memling (c.1480), Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, Belgium.

I have a friend, Will, who, as an agnostic, is a great gift to me.  At this stage of his life Will is not one iota interested in God; however, talking to him provides me with an opportunity to understand how atheists and agnostics think.  So last weekend, I asked him about his current view of reality:  to what extent did it include the possibility of God existing?

He answered that as it was impossible to prove God exists, my question was meaningless.

Setting aside whether his assertion is correct (I think it isn’t – but will explain that in another post, or you can read this book), I asked him if he had ever tried the experiential approach and bothered to get his answer straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, and ask God if He exists.

No, Will replied.  For if he asks God whether He exists, he is introducing observer bias into the equation, since the question assumes that there is a God to ask whether he exists.  What Will is referring to is a form of confirmation bias, which Wikipedia describes as a “tendency to search for, interpret, favour, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s pre-existing beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities.”

That’s not really the case, I replied.  You see, the question of whether God exists is too important not to address.  It’s about ultimate truth, and what we believe about ultimate truth becomes the frame of reference for everything else in our lives.  Take, for example, an atheist like Friedrich Nietzsche who said this: ‘All superior men who were irresistibly drawn to throw off the yoke of any kind of morality and to frame new laws had, if they were not actually mad, no alternative but to make themselves or pretend to be mad’.  The last eleven years of his life were a descent into madness.  (What a surprise.)  Contrast this with someone like St Thérèse of Lisieux: ‘Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest right and doing it all for love.’  Which one of these people do you think had the better understanding of the truth?

So, I said to Will, regarding the question of whether God exists, we have these possibilities:

  1. God does not exist and eo ipso does not want to establish a relationship with us.
  2. God exists and does not want to establish a relationship with us.
  3. God exists and wants to establish a relationship with us.

But what you are saying, Will, is that there are only two options regarding these possibilities:

  1. God does not exist and I can ask him if he exists until I am blue in the face, but because he doesn’t exist he won’t answer me.
  2. God may exist, but I can’t ask him whether he exists, because asking the question a priori introduces confirmation bias (according to Will, anyway).

This seems an extraordinarily poor strategy in the game of life.  Because if God exists, I have left myself no apparent way of discovering Him! In fact, the way Will has designed his schema is itself the most perfect example of a confirmation bias for the negative proposition!  Hypocrisy, anyone?  Accusing others of confirmation bias while exemplifying it oneself?

Anyway, I disagree that asking a question of a hypothetical God introduces confirmation bias.  There are various ways we can ask a question to introduce confirmation bias or otherwise.

For example, one could have negative confirmation bias if one worded the question this way:

“Hypothetical God, to determine if you exist (and I am reasonably sure you don’t), I will throw this ten dollar note into the air, and if you sweep it up into the air like Elijah’s chariot, I will believe you exist, but if it falls back to earth, then I will continue to believe you are non-existent.”

… or one could have positive confirmation bias if one phrased one’s question using a scenario which has every likelihood of being fulfilled:

“Hypothetical God, to determine if you exist (and it would be nice if you did), please give me a sign of your presence.   If you are truly present, perhaps, er, perhaps you could give me this sign: let me have a day of great blessing tomorrow.”

You can’t use as your dependent (responding) variable something which is reasonably likely to occur anyway.

So how could one word a question without introducing confirmation bias?

This is Peter Kreeft’s version:

“[Hypothetical] God, I don’t know whether you exist or not. Maybe I’m praying to nobody, but maybe I’m praying to you. So if you are really there, please let me know somehow, because I do want to know. I want only the Truth, whatever it is. If you are the Truth, here I am, ready and willing to follow you wherever you lead.”

Now Will would probably say this version has too much confirmation bias in it, because it already uses words like ‘praying’ – which has religious overtones.  Not only that, but it contains no variable which is measurable or falsifiable.  Also it adds on certain consequences – he says he will follow wherever God leads.  That’s enough to prevent an atheist from approaching the question at all.  For an atheist would say, “Hang on a minute, I only said I was prepared to find out if God exists, I didn’t say I would follow him if he does!”

Perhaps this could be a more scientifically neutral version:

“Hypothetical God (HG), I need to phrase this question as if I am not talking to you, because by appearing to be talking to you, I am introducing confirmation bias.  Therefore, let HG be a possibility.  If HG exists, and HG wants me to know HG exists, HG will presumably let me know in no uncertain terms.  I reserve the right to refuse to respond to HG, should HG’s presence become apparent.”

Something we haven’t discussed yet is what [hypothetical] God might have to say about the Scientific Method as a way of approaching Him.  Would God even bother to answer someone who has the audacity to approach Him in a way that objectifies Him?   Where is the love?  As an analogy, imagine an adopted son who wanted to find out who his birth mother was, but only wanted to know if she was alive and had no intention of meeting and getting to know her.  If the birth mother came to find out that her son was asking questions with this attitude and not with a genuine desire to get to know her, would there be any point in responding?  Would she not be hurt?  In the same vein, isn’t treating God like a science experiment just plain rude?  Well, this is where it might get interesting.  God is a God of surprises, and he doesn’t avoid painful situations (witness the crucifixion).  What’s more, he knows the inmost working of our hearts.  He always responds in the way that is most appropriate for the particular soul.  If He sees that the soul in question would make progress if He responds, then respond He will.  But if he sees that the soul who is half-heartedly seeking him needs more character formation before his heart is in the right place to receive an answer, then he will no doubt first give him some character-building experiences in his life.

There’s a whole lot more to be said on exactly how we hear God and how God speaks to us, but I’ll have to save that for another post.

Readings for Christ the King

Word format: year-c-christ-the-king-2016

Pdf format: year-c-christ-the-king-2016

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Christ the King |… and the threat to Western Civilisation

Hans_Memling_-_Christ_Surrounded_by_Musician_Angels_-Christ the King

Christ surrounded by Musician Angels, Hans Memling (c.1480), Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp, Belgium.

Let’s not be surprised that God has allowed the recent murderous atrocities in Paris, Lebanon and Mali to occur just before the Solemnity of Christ the King.  In an article in The Australian called Western Civilisation is under threat, but not just from terrorism, Greg Sheridan writes with great insight.

The interaction of the terror threat with traditional geo-strategic issues makes both much more difficult for the West to ­manage. At the same time, the West is undergoing a genuine civilisational crisis of belief and of governance. This is the first generation in Western history that, substantially, is not sustained by any transcendent beliefs. The death of God is also in the West the death of purpose and, for many, the death of meaning.

Can a civilisation really sustain itself on the basis of an ideology of self-realisation and entitlement liberalism? If so, it will be the first time in history. Not only that, even if the model was internally sustainable, can it really produce a society vigorous enough to defend itself against these multiplying ­security challenges.

George Orwell once remarked that the English sleep easy in their beds at night because rough men stand ready to do rough things on their behalf. Every soldier, every police officer, is ultimately prepared to sacrifice their life for an idea, a set of principles, a set of values, that they believe transcends their own experience and even their own mortality.

Western society is moving ever further away from the idea that anything beyond the individual can demand such sacrifice. The internal liberalism has never been more oppressive, while the ability to stand seriously against enemies is very much in question.

Straws in the wind even in Australia demonstrate grotesque elements to our civilisation. The Catholic Archbishop of Hobart is to be hauled before a thought police tribunal for the crime of propounding traditional Catholic sexual morality. Meanwhile, we rejoice in televised cage fights between women, which even our parents, much less our grandparents, would have regarded as the essence of barbarism.

At the same time demonstrators can march through the streets calling death to Israel, or even denouncing the evil of the Jews, without attracting legal penalty.

If a society has lost strong beliefs, can it really excite the transcendent loyalty of its own citizens, or of people who join it through migration?

At the same time there is well-documented crisis of governance across the Western world. No Western nation can balance its expenditures with its revenues. All are caught up in an entitlements ­crisis. Health and welfare spending are ballooning, so are unsustainable deficits. The prestige of democracy is under severe attack. For most of the Cold War, millions of people in the Third World, and in communist societies, yearned to live in nations governed as well as those of the West. It is a hard argument to make to a young banker or IT worker in Shanghai now that they would be better off if their government had the resolve and technical skill of Greece or Spain.

Put this all together and it’s not quite yet a full-blown crisis of a civilisation. But there’s a great deal of trouble ahead.

Though Australia is not technically in the West, we have inherited the values of Western Civilisation, which have largely been formed by Christian institutions and ethics.  (If you want to read more on that, go here.)  But what happens when the formerly Christian west turns away from God and towards atheism, agnosticism and the ideology of self-realisation and self-indulgence?  Well, God is a loving Father, and what loving Father fails to correct his child when his child is headed on a self-destructive path?  We see this constantly in the narratives of the Old Testament, where God allows the Israelites to be captured by the Babylonians and the Assyrians in order that they might eventually repent and return to Him.

But they became disobedient and rebelled against You, and cast Your law behind their backs and killed Your prophets who had admonished them so that they might return to You, and they committed great blasphemies.”  Therefore You delivered them into the hand of their oppressors who oppressed them.  (Nehemiah 9:26-27)

The West has a choice in front of it at the moment and the choice is this. Do you want to continue in your unfaithfulness to God, or do you want to turn back to Christ and acknowledge him as the King of the Universe?  And what a beautiful king he is!  If only our worldly leaders were like this!

How can we describe the Kingship of Jesus?

  • He is Love itself: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” (John 3:16-17)
  • He is Humility “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Phillipians 2:6-7)
  • He is Justice: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.” (2 Corinthians 5:10).

I could go on, but if you want to know him better, read the Gospels.

It’s not even as if following Jesus is too hard to do.  Is praying for a few minutes a day and worshipping God in community with the Church for an hour a week too hard?  Let us pray with love and compassion for our brothers and sisters all over the world who have turned away from Christ, that they may realise before it’s too late whom they are rejecting, and turn back to the true King of the Universe.

Today’s readings:

Word format: Christ the King Year B

Pdf format: Christ the King Year B

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Solemnity of Christ the King | Jesus as the Ruler of the Universe

Christ Pantokrator, mosaic, (1145-60), Cathedral of Cefalu, Sicily.

Christ Pantokrator, mosaic, (1145-60), Cathedral of Cefalu, Sicily.

I’m writing this from the beautiful Avalon Homestead in Toodyay, where we’re having a women’s retreat all weekend.  We’re going to be prayerfully silent until Sunday lunch – what a challenge for the ladies!

Here are the readings for this Sunday, the Solemnity of Christ the King:

Word format:  Christ the King

Pdf format: Christ the King

John Bergsma at The Sacred Page does a great scripture study of this Sunday’s readings here …

… and you can listen to Fr Barron’s homily here.

Obviously I won’t be in Two Rocks to print out the newsletter for Mass, so if anyone can help Fr Augustine with that, please let him know.