Oct 26, 2023·edited Oct 26, 2023Liked by Steve Skojec

The title reminded me of a story. Eight years ago, I made a commitment to improve my understanding of philosophy (apologies if I annoy you by bringing that up all the time). I started old school. I went to the local library, with real books, and asked the librarian where to look. She led me to a few rows with dusty books that appeared untouched for decades (hyperbole). The first book I selected was Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil. I began reading when I got home, and in the first paragraph of the first chapter, I read, "Granted that we want the truth: why not rather untruth?" It stopped me cold. I put the book down and did not return to it until a year later (I did take that copy back to the library on time). I had no idea what to make of a statement like that. I did not know anyone who even thought to ask a question like that. I was unprepared for it and could not go back. I went to other writers and came back to Nietzsche more prepared. He was way too smart for me, to say the least.

The reason I bring that up, besides the title of your post and its familiarity to me, is that I love your questions. You ask really big questions - the ones we can only answer with a sense of superficiality in a comment box, no matter how deep we try to be. My experience has been that the value of these questions you ask is not the answer we suppose we have - because our answer is always inadequate to the task - but the search it inspires in us.

That's a long way of saying, eight years later, I still can't answer your questions. But your big questions help move me along on the journey. I love them. And I'm recovering from Nietzsche-shock.

By the way, if you want to nail Catholics, and I'm one of them, Nietzsche is your sledgehammer.

Expand full comment

"I did take that copy back to the library on time"

That had me laughing!

"I love your questions. You ask really big questions - the ones we can only answer with a sense of superficiality in a comment box, no matter how deep we try to be"

You know, the funny thing is, I usually feel like an idiot when I post this stuff. Like people are going to tell me it's remedial and adolescent and so on.

But I saw this great piece of advice from this writing coach guy the other day (I often find him obnoxious, but this was perfect). He said, "If you’re okay looking like a moron in your writing, you'll become wildly sharable."

And I kinda feel like I have that nailed, so that's good.

"if you want to nail Catholics, and I'm one of them, Nietzsche is your sledgehammer."

Wow, you really know how to sell a guy. ;)

Expand full comment

That's funny. I started writing my philosophical reflections, feeling the same way. I felt inadequate writing about things that everyone else surely already knew. It took some nerve but ended up being very rewarding (and humbling).

You have a knack for writing interesting and provocative posts. I don't answer the ones about the complete collapse of the Church. I just hide on those and act like I didn't see them. I have enjoyed your journey. Not enough people are asking these questions, as is apparent in the state of the Church and the world.

Expand full comment
Oct 27, 2023Liked by Steve Skojec

As one of those Thomists, albeit a flexible one with Scotist and Palamite enrichment, I actually agree that the mere privation view of evil is insufficient and reductive. But that would take the conversation in a philosophical direction nobody else is probably interested in. All I will say here is that the Thomist weakness is analogous to the conceptual insufficiency of a mathematician who knew and understood the utility of the number zero, but not that of the negative numbers.

However, what I don't understand about this post is the apparent assumption that traditional Christianity would lead us to expect good naturally triumphing against evil overall and an ongoing movement in this direction historically. The NT is premised on contrary assumptions eschatologically. That is, evil rules the world (e.g., Eph. 6.12), only supernatural intervention can make good triumph (whether within individual humans by grace or at the cosmic level by the Parousia and consequent "cosmic reboot") and human history leads inexorably before the end (and new beginning) towards increasing outward domination of the righteous by the wicked (e.g., Rev. 13.7-10) with great tribulation.

Of course, there are simultaneously signs of the progress of light at a broader level in certain ways (Mat. 28.18-20, Luke 13.20-21). Certainly, modern views of equality of human dignity and rights and the need to protect the needy and oppressed would have had little purchase in our psyche were it not for the revolution in ancient thinking brought on by the Gospel. Nietzsche saw this and was annoyed by the triumph of the "slave morality". And Christianity has spread and still spreads, often making the biggest difference and causing most joy and refreshment (and miracles) amongst the newest converts or most persecuted.

And the tension between seeing the Last Days as present and as future is also common in the NT. For example, 2 Tim. 3.1-8 slides from future to present tense in discussing the protagonists of the last days. In other words, we expect there to be great tribulations before the final Great Tribulation. None of this is terribly optimistic in the ordinary sense, but neither is it anything but the common view of Scripture and the Fathers.

So, in the end, the Church loses (in terms of earthly power), then Jesus wins, fully vindicating the righteous and innocent sufferer at the beginning of eternity, so to speak. In the meantime, any victories of light will be localised or interior until the divine "reset". I have to be honest and say that, God forgive me, I find these facts to be naturally disappointing (just like the Jews in Christ's time found his style of Messiah-ship disappointing!), but I can hardly complain that I wasn't warned, so to speak. Indeed, what I see around me seems self-evidently in complete conformity to what was predicted.

Expand full comment

So, a lot of what I'm doing is re-evaluating the Christian mythology to see if it makes sense. To me, it doesn't. I don't like this kicking the can down the road thing, where the triumph of good only comes in the hereafter/end of the world. It's not reassuring. The power of God is not manifest or apparent. It all circles back, for me anyway, to serious doubt that the story was ever true at all.

If you were a human being constructing a religion, you'd lean heavily on all the big important stuff being somehow spiritual and unverifiable. You would keep people coming back with promises of how being part of the religion would save you from all the bad stuff, and that you could rest assured in final victory. "We know how this story ends ahead of time."

But it seems to me that a God who wants us to love him, believe in him, and seek to be with him, would demonstrate that power in this world to a sufficient degree that people would be persuaded that it's probably the smart thing to do to join his side. It does not make any sense at all to allow a rebellious, cruel, hubristic, rapacious enemy who has already been defeated and supposedly chained up forever have total dominion over the world where you're going to send your naive, ignorant-of-the-spiritual-realm-because-they-only-have-corporeal-senses human creations, because they're gonna get the wrong idea. They're certainly not going to look to you as an actual father unless they've well and truly drunk the kool-aid. A human father who treats his kids the way the God of the Scriptures does would go to prison.

So I find it all very perplexing, when it comes to that big question of: "Is the story believable, or is it full of plot holes?"

Expand full comment

Some of what you're saying would have more weight for me as contrary evidence if I did not reject the factual premise: that God has purportedly made "all the big important stuff ... unverifiable" and not chosen to "demonstrate that power in this world to a sufficient degree". My judgement on the evidence is that both the Resurrection and modern miracles, for example, are sufficiently verifiable for moral certainty in an objective sense. And I have had enough uncanny things happen in my life to support that as well. I agree that they are NOT sufficient automatically and subjectively for the one who suffers and does not personally experience a miraculous deliverance when he really wants it. But the problem here is not strictly rational, in that case.

As an analogy, if I never saw a certain secretive individual, nor saw him perform outlandish and powerful acts of charity, because he only did them occasionally and unpredictably, but multiple people I had reason to trust did observe or experience his intervention, I would be justified in believing it. And that would remain true no matter how much I wanted him to do it in a particular circumstance or to just do it more often, and he didn’t. At most I could question the individual's consistency or character, but it would not be rational to question his existence or power.

So, the real question seems to me to be a moral one. Is it right for God to bring his children to Himself via the way of the Cross normally, instead of via giving victory normally by clear-cut acts of power and so acting as a literal "deus ex machina" to save the day, every day? The scandalous and irritating Christian claim is that our salvation is either better accomplished in the former way or even not really possible in the latter way, as our need is not primarily for outward deliverance but death to self and trans-valuation of our priorities. The Gospel says that if the righteous are oppressed and defeated even to the point of martyrdom, but are inwardly transformed into beautiful souls and beacons of light, the victory is theirs and the victory is His. To me, this metanarrative makes much more spiritual sense than the God-as-Superhero alternative that would better tick the boxes you identify. But my natural self is not enamoured of that truth. My natural desire is often for God to vindicate his people and his law by overwhelming force, crushing the "bad guys" openly and immediately.

I would also push back against the claim the rapacious enemy has "total dominion" over the world, or that this is the Christian position. Dominion of a selective sort, yes, but partly because of voluntary submission to his evil, and only in part, as the battle rages, and souls continue to be saved even now. However, as I noted before, it is true that that dominion becomes more outwardly dominant in those "great tribulation" times and places.

Expand full comment
Oct 27, 2023Liked by Steve Skojec

Even well after my atheist phase, I used to wrestle with the dilemma of: “Why doesn’t God just blossom us straight into Heaven? Why make us endure these earthly burdens?” Sure, love must be freely chosen, but are we not still free in Heaven?

Perhaps it’s my passion for heroic tales, but I’ve come to see this world, at least in part, as a sort of cosmic hero factory. Supposing that we have glorified bodies in Heaven and see all things by divine light, we could no longer be mortally threatened nor deceived. Thus heroism, which requires risk, would be possible to a unique degree in this life—both physical and intellectual heroism.

I might sound more like a Viking than a Catholic in declaring “Heaven is a place for heroes,” but should I be so blessed as to make it, I strongly doubt that I’ll meet many cowards there. And if God desires to forge souls that don’t just love, but love heroically, then a world ever verging on darkness might just be perfectly suited to that end.

Expand full comment

I appreciate the romanticism of this vision, but we know how rare heroes are.

What happens to everyone else?

Expand full comment

"To whom much is given, much is expected," thankfully carries the corollary “To whom less is given, less is expected.” The degree to which each is called to exercise heroic virtue surely varies.

That said, this view certainly doesn’t jive with universalism. My original dilemma of “Why doesn’t God just spawn us straight into paradise?” would be even more vexing if everyone were Heaven-bound. Maybe you’ve discovered a sufficient answer?

Expand full comment
Oct 26, 2023·edited Oct 26, 2023Liked by Steve Skojec

"My experience has been that these questions you ask is not the answer we suppose we have...but the search it inspires in us." These words of Walter echo my sentiments exactly. Thanks for the inner workout.

Expand full comment
Oct 27, 2023Liked by Steve Skojec

You know, judging by the daily headlines I see in the Drudge Report, I would say that "incomprehensible hunger" sums up a lot of things quite well.

Expand full comment
Oct 27, 2023Liked by Steve Skojec

Catholic triumphalism (a still incomprehensibly large tribe) seems especially ridiculous in the current environment. Perhaps if we tilt our head and squint we can feel some tenuous harmony with the past and it's moral teachings. But that's really the honest best case.

It's more likely that the Church is just as malevolent as the world it seeks to redeem.

Expand full comment

I can't disagree. I think with Rupnik, a lot of triumphalists, at least in the mainstream, are being made to eat their hats.

It's only emboldening the SSPX types, who can't see that their Oxbow lake will eventually die up because it is completely cut off from the life of the Church they believe Christ established.

Expand full comment

Thanks for the article Steve, two thoughts come to mind:

First, I think issues like this are what make a fundamentalist a fundamentalist. It comes down to what someone's final court of appeal is when they decide what they think is true. I believe many fundamentalists are dishonest rationalists. The reason they can’t follow the evidence where it leads is because their final court of appeal is reason. Deep down they realize that if they admitted the evidence doesn’t support Christianity, they would have to give up their faith, which they are unwilling to do. I think that's why they engage so dishonestly in scientific and philosophical debates. It's not about what is true, it's about what needs to be true for them to be right.

For me personally, I value science and reason, but they’re the icing, not the cake. They don’t, and cannot give us the final word on what is true. At best, they can show us what belief is best supported by the currently available evidence. But time and time again, the currently available evidence turns out to be incomplete and/or wrongly interpreted. That’s why the history of science is a history of radical paradigm shifts away from the consensus. It doesn’t make sense to me to assume ‘this time we pretty much have everything figured out.’ I’ve linked two articles below by Adam Mastroianni (not a Christian) which I think make this point decisively.

For the fundamentalist and the rationalist, “the currently available evidence supports X” = "X is true.” Religious or not, I think we all need to give ourselves more wiggle room than that. Because I accept that reality is mysterious, I don’t have to try to cram everything I come across into my conceptual framework. I don’t have to live in constant worry that the next Scientific American headline is going to topple my faith. When it comes to whether or not the currently available evidence supports my belief that good triumphs over evil, I’m happy to follow the evidence wherever it leads, because I have independent overriding reasons for my belief.

Secondly, I think an important question to ask for any belief would be ‘what would we expect to see if X were true.” I think the problem of evil is very strong against generic monotheism where the idea of God is stripped down to a nuts and bolts list of properties. But when you fill in the gaps with all the context and specific properties of the Christian God, I don’t think it’s obvious at all that we would expect to see clear evidence that good will triumph over evil if Christianity were true.

On the contrary, the Christian God’s MO seems to be to allow things to appear hopeless before performing a sudden miraculous reversal (Gideon winning with 300 men, Joseph being sold into slavery but going on to save Israel from famine, the Red Sea parting when the Israelites were trapped against the sea, Israel totally conquered, corrupted, and exiled but then finally restored, Jesus dying on the cross only to rise again etc.).



Expand full comment

This was a really interesting comment: "I believe many fundamentalists are dishonest rationalists. The reason they can’t follow the evidence where it leads is because their final court of appeal is reason. Deep down they realize that if they admitted the evidence doesn’t support Christianity, they would have to give up their faith, which they are unwilling to do."

So how does the fact that the evidence DOESN'T support Christianity work with, "I accept that reality is mysterious, I don’t have to try to cram everything I come across into my conceptual framework. I don’t have to live in constant worry that the next Scientific American headline is going to topple my faith"? How do you sustain faith when reason says, "Come on, bro, really?"

Expand full comment

And just to be clear, whether or not it's reasonable to ignore the fire alarm depends on your evidence that there's actually a fire. Based on the evidence you have and your experience, you might understandably think I'm crazy for ignoring the fire alarm. We aren't playing with the same deck of cards epistemically

Expand full comment

Hi Steve, I hope you're doing well - your reply got buried and I drifted away from reading/engaging with substack as much as I had been. But the question was good so I hope you don't mind this really late reply.

I think here reason is similar to conscience. Both are like smoke detectors. When a smoke detector goes off, we should pay attention, but a ringing smoke detector doesn't always mean there's a fire. Sometimes it just means we left bread in the toaster for too long. We are alarmed by the smoke detector, but we have overriding reasons to trust that there isn't a fire.

Similarly, something can feel wrong, but sometimes that just means my conscience is too sensitive or hasn't been formed properly e.g. saying no to my friend feels wrong, but in reality I'm just being codependent.

So when it comes to how the fact that the evidence doesn't support Christianity works with what I'm saying - it depends on what you mean by 'the evidence' i.e. the evidence as a whole without overriding reasons, or the evidence on a particular topic? I'm in a position where I'm confident enough that there are overriding reasons and/or that I'll eventually find an answer that makes sense that I can shrug my shoulders at a great deal of things that I don't have an immediate answer for.

If I didn't have such confidence in those overriding reasons it would be a different story. Both myself and the fundamentalists are choosing to ignore the fire alarm. I'm saying 'don't worry about the fire alarm because I'm pretty sure there isn't actually a fire.' I feel like some fundamentalists say 'don't worry about the fire because the fire alarm isn't actually ringing.'

Expand full comment

Thomas Jay Oord is a Nazarene philosopher and theologian who offers an "open and relational" or process understanding of the divine. His two most recent books are God Can't and The Death of Omnipotence and the Birth of Amipotence. What if God needs creation because God chooses to broaden God's experience by making creatures with free will, giving them stewardship of creation, and decides not to control the events of history but entrust them to the creatures not intervening in causal terms but luring, loving, and hoping? As a loving parent might do?

This will not compute as orthodox Catholic doctrine. And it is a theory which may be developed criticized, contradicted, falsified, rejected. It brings no closure. But do we need certainty and closure except to exercise control by force?

Jesus tells us to call God Abba. Jesus tells us the truth will set us free. Jesus tells us that he is the way, the truth, the life.

Faith is not holding the correct doctrinal propositions. Jesus never hesitated to use hyperbolic language to speak his truth. We don't see many one-eyed, one-handed Christians running around. He asks us to listen, to follow. He asks us to trust him and follow.

This week the merry pranksters at Richard Rohr's cac.org have been reflecting on Mechtild of Magdeburg, a Begins who had a different kind of relationship with God than we're used to, adopting a way of life no longer available in present-day culture. Here is the quote from her today at cac.org:

Those who wish to know but have little love

Remain forever at the beginning of a good life….

Those who simply love and know very little

Are opened to great things.

Holy simplicity is the physician of all wisdom.

It causes the wise [person] to see [themself] for the foolish person [they are].

When simplicity of heart dwells in the wisdom of the mind,

Much holiness results in a person’s soul.

Even the great Thomas Aquinas would judge his life's work to be so much straw after encountering the divine. I know you don't think much of Jesuits, but Karl Rahner, SJ predicted that the Christian of the future would have to be a mystic or be nothing at all.

There are ways to understand God that are not intellectual knowing. I am so very sorry for the abuse you were dealt in the name of formation. I have found great riches in the Benedictine and Franciscan traditions (and the Jesuits could do with some cross a pollination from them, no doubt.) And I am convinced that Truth is a person, and that God has to be as good as Jesus. Perhaps the hunger is for truth in the sense of a hunger for wholeness. I think we will only get glimpses in this valley of tears. Oh, but what glimpses! And I'm holding onto the promises. And looking for the lures along the path. Here I stand, for now, but better to be on the path, following the lures, even if I need to twist or turn or stand on my head. Your mileage may vary, and I respect that and wish you well.

Expand full comment

Thanks for your kind and gentle words. That's a great Jefferson quote - American Nietzsche without the baggage.

First temptation is to quote Augustine right back, the famous restless heart insight. But that really doesn't join issue, at least not right away. The only answers I have are tentative. Here I stand but on the basis of further information, I'm likely to pick up and move to a better vantage point that makes more sense. There is no settled science, not if you're seeking truth disinterestedly. If, on the other hand you're really just seeking control, well then settled science is your best friend. And then your next best friend is Edward Bernays, the "father of public relations," who will be indispensable in convincing people that Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia.

Tentative thesis: truth is not closure. You can't grab and hold a fistful of truth. Certain knowledge is the idol of the Enlightenment. Postmodernism is best understood as performance art in the face of modern claims and should be read and understood ironically.

It would be a distraction to try to unpack that all here and now. So I will jump to the unsupported bald assertion that in search of control, the Church (and here I include varieties of fundamentalism and evangelicalism) seeks some warrant for doctrinal propositions that will allow for application as first principles in practical syllogism that will distill the needed practical policies and rules and laws for keeping everything in good order and make the trains run on time. And so, you need a ruling class that can wield logic and argument swiftly and efficiently, so of course they need to be philosophy majors of the STL/STD variants (safe to lead, safe to direct?) This works well if you can define truth as a function of propositions, derived from the deposit of faith, as if it's all about extracting ores, abstracting essences to provide perpetual truths regarding human nature, creation, even God. Think Anselm.

Can I get a "I call bullshit?"

Expand full comment

Yeah, totally. I'm a believer (most days) but I agree that looking around it really seems that evil is often the winning force. So what?

Expand full comment

Not sure what you're looking for here.

Expand full comment

The poor you will have with you always. In the psalms we hear that God lifts up the poor from their misery. Yet Haiti still exists, a whole society still locked in deprivation because the land and its people were raped and pillaged and left abandoned and hollowed out by the takers who eventually went home with the material wealth, thinking nothing of what they had wrought.

Today's Gospel reading from Luke has Jesus taking us to task for not being able to interpret the signs of the times after noting how we can looking and the direction of the wind and reliably predicting the weather. Most of the time, anyway. Then there's Acapulco. And many meteorological scientists with eggy faces.

Looking more like it's the questions we will have with us always. Cue Qoholeth.

Walter brought Nietzsche to the table. How about we make room for Soren Kierkegaard, too.

That generation demanded signs. We demand answers. Some answers don't seem to be soon in coming, and this is anathema to the spirit of an age that wants to remake reality to better suit our plans and projects and passions and preferably today or tomorrow. We expect answers to our questions, fixes for our problems, salves for our deepest longings. Happily ever afters.

Jesus left ambiguity in his remarks and praise God we still have the traces of it today in the word and they haven't been edited out (see Elizabeth Schraeder on the Magdalen.)

So if no answers are available to the children of this age, what are we to do then?

How about live justly, love mercy and kindness, and walk humbly. Or, be a hero in the words of Don, if I may presume to hitch my wagon to his train.

That might not get us to Mars. But it may help grow a garden around us if we learn to see as a gardener sees. Brian McLaren has a great podcast on learning to see at cac.org. Pax et bonum.

Expand full comment

Until I googled it, I thought maybe Qoholeth was a Lovecraftian Eldrich god. :D

"We demand answers. Some answers don't seem to be soon in coming, and this is anathema to the spirit of an age that wants to remake reality to better suit our plans and projects and passions and preferably today or tomorrow. We expect answers to our questions, fixes for our problems, salves for our deepest longings. Happily ever afters."

Why, if we are created beings, is this in our nature? You know, I get this thing from interlocutors a lot where they basically say, "How dare you question the god you just said you're not sure you even believe in?!?" My answer is always some version of, "Someone who was made, if your belief is correct, by a God who put the desire in me to find answers, not just accept assertions baldly made."

I've said before I love Jefferson's riff that we should "Question with boldness even the existence of God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blind-folded fear." To me, THAT is a God who makes sense. Not one whose ambassadors hide behind the idea that his ways are so far above our ways that we shouldn't even try to understand.

I wonder what being made in God's image and likeness means to people. One would assume this is why our appetite for knowledge about how things work is so insatiable. God is alleged to know all those things, but we, made to be like him, are never satisfied with NOT knowing.

Expand full comment