Why I am not a practising Catholic. Part 1: A special creation?

As a nerdy teenager, I used to haunt the aisles of our local library and borrow books on all kinds of weird and wonderful topics, many of them related to my youthful search for meaning. The titles of most of them have long since faded from my memory, but I recall one that I spent many hours pondering over – a portent of things to come. It was called Objections to Roman Catholicism, and on reflection it was probably my first intellectual encounter with the Catholic faith (I had a number of Catholic friends as a child, but as the son of fervent Methodists, I managed to divorce my feelings of friendship from a firm conviction that their religious beliefs were just plain wrong).

The book was a prime example of a product not ‘doing what it says on the tin’, as the saying goes. For a start, all of the authors of this edited volume were (I think) convinced Catholics. Rather than being a systematic de-construction of the Faith, as I’d expected, the book faced up honestly to a number of common criticisms of Catholicism, and attemped to respond to them openly and thoughtfully. I remember being surprised and impressed to discover that a rational defence of Catholic Christianity was possible, and I’m sure it contributed to my eventual conversion, after many twists and turns in the road, some ten years or so later.

Now, finding myself once again searching for spiritual meaning and simultaneously drawn back to and deeply uncertain about faith, I want to attempt something similar, if much more modest. In an earlier post, I said that I wanted to use this blog to deal systematically with my own ‘objections’ to Catholicism: again, not in a destructive spirit, but as a way of working through them to some kind of clarity and resolution. I dearly want to believe again, but I also want any rebirth of faith to be well-founded and lasting – so it’s really important to me not to gloss over my very real doubts.

So, in this and forthcoming posts, I propose to enumerate the reasons why I am not, despite my profound and recurring attraction to Catholicism, a practising Catholic. At times, what I write may sound like the rantings of a convinced atheist. If so, please bear with me. It’s important to state the case for the opposition as clearly and convincingly as possible. Unlike the Objections book I mentioned above, I don’t propose to offer answers to my own questions: I’m hoping that somewhere out there are thoughtful believers who can help me, or fellow seekers who are struggling with similar issues and who will journey with me towards eventual enlightenment.

In this post, I want to set out the first of my personal ‘objections’ to Catholicism – and indeed, to Christianity generally. As will become clear, most of my doubts are of a philosophical, political or historical nature, and I’ve thought for some time that the biggest challenges to contemporary faith come from the social sciences and humanities rather than from the ‘hard’ sciences.  Moreover, I don’t have a problem reconciling the notion of a Creator God with the findings of modern science, including the theory of evolution. Indeed, one of the factors in my return to an interest in faith, if not to faith itself, has been a growing conviction that a belief in a ‘First Cause’ is not only rational, but probably the most plausible explanation for there being ‘something rather than nothing’.

However, if one wants to go beyond this basic theism to a belief in the God of religion – any religion – then you have to accept something that seems to fly in the face of scientific knowledge. You have to believe that certain evolved creatures – human beings – have the capacity to enter into relationship with the invisible, transcendent Being that brought them into existence. And, in order to be a Christian, you have to believe that those same creatures are able to transcend their physical existence and live eternally in union with that same Creator. In other words, you have to believe in the notion of the human soul and that human beings are in some way a special creation.

Now, I suppose if you believe in a God who created the complexity of the universe ab nihilo, then believing that He can also implant an eternal soul into every human being isn’t such a huge stretch. But to those of us who haven’t yet made that leap of faith, it’s not so easy. If we accept the premise of Darwinian evolution, that human beings evolved over millenia from ‘lesser’ creatures, who presumably were not so fortunate as to have this capacity for relationship with God, or the prospect of eternal life, then at what point exactly did the ‘soul’ enter in?

Modern science has demonstrated that what we recognise as human life emerged gradually, and probably in a number of different locations. If that’s the case, at what precise point did the transformation from finite, soulless mammal to ‘ensouled’ and potentially eternal human being take place? Was there a generation of nearly-human creatures that had no capacity to know God and didn’t get a shot at eternal life – but their offspring did? That seems patently absurd.

The attempts to defend the theory of ‘special creation’ that I’ve come across are difficult to reconcile, not only with evolutionary theory, but with the belief that God ‘set the ball rolling’ and then did not intervene to set the direction of evolution. Is the notion of a deux ex machina stepping in at a certain point in history (and perhaps in different places at different times) to implant souls into particular evolved mammals really plausible?

Isn’t the scientific understanding of how ‘humanness’ emerged far more convincing, given the evidence we have – that consciousness, the capacity to think, reflect, plan, wonder, all those things that we gather together under the heading of ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’, developed gradually, as human beings evolved and interacted with each other and with their environment? Moreover, isn’t it clear that these capacities are dependent on and coterminous with our physical existence – with the growth of a physical brain in a living body – and therefore come to an end when that brain and that body die? And isn’t this confirmed by the experience of dementia, when everything that we recognise as individual and ‘human’ about a person starts to die as the brain deterioriates?

As I say, it’s not that the religious explanation is impossible, but to the average questioning modern mind, it just seems so unlikely – and alternative accounts much more convincing. If anyone can point me towards an intelligent, plausible and scientifically-literate Christian defence of the doctrine of ‘special creation’, I’d be only to glad to hear from them.

Postscript: June 2015

Apologies. I never did continue with this series, but I’m leaving this post in place: this is an intellectual conundrum that still trips me up from time to time.

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6 thoughts on “Why I am not a practising Catholic. Part 1: A special creation?

  1. I wish I could share your benign view of a First Cause; my problem, over the past year or so, has been squaring what we know about Human Evolution and Geological time and extinction with the idea of a First Cause who cares for us. That there might have been a First Cause I will grant; that this Unmoved Mover is loving is another question. I have found Christians who blithely say they find no contradiction between their faith and their belief in Evolution rather puzzling and more than a bit frustrating; it’s as though they mean something very different by ‘evolution’ than do most biologists. University of Chicago professor Jerry Coyne’s book, Why Evolution Is True, paints an up-to-date picture of what evolution means to scientific practitioners and it is decidedly difficult to square this view of human and animal origins with any kind of Theism that doesn’t verge into cosmic cynicism.

    As for Christians trying to make sense of this mess…there seems precious little in the way of serious engagement and a whole lot of skirting the issue. Conor Cunningham recently published a book about Darwinism, Darwin’s Pious Idea, and the ever-prolific Alister McGrath has also recently published a book about science, Surprised by Meaning. The most interesting work being done might be from Anglican theologian Sarah Coakley, who has been working with Harvard biologist and mathematician Martin Nowak on the emergence of cooperation and altruistic behavior that they say will turn common understandings of Darwinism and natural selection on their heads. Coakley is by far one of the most interesting theologians writing today. Here are some relevant links:

    http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~etc/research/proposalExcerpt.pdf

    http://www.hds.harvard.edu/news/bulletin_mag/articles/35-23_coakley.html

    Best,
    CD

    • Thanks for the links – I’ll certainly follow these up. I completely agree about Christians who fail to face up to the challenge of evolutionary theory. However, if you accept the Thomist argument that the existence of a First Cause is not only plausible but the best explanation for there being ‘something rather than nothing’, then maybe it’s not a huge leap to the notion of a good and loving God. If that First Cause is the root of all goodness and order, then it’s inconceivable that he/she/it could create a universe then leave it to its fate. The notion of divine goodness – love, even – surely entails a plan for what has been created? I find this idea quite convincing…it means that theism necessarily implies some kind of revelation. Of course, on the other side, it could be that the existence of order, physical laws, beauty, the aspiration to goodness etc is just accidental, or subjective perception by humans…? As you can see, I’m able to argue both sides!

      • “If that First Cause is the root of all goodness and order, then it’s inconceivable that he/she/it could create a universe then leave it to its fate.”

        If not for the fact that, seen from the view of Darwinian biology, that is precisely how the universe looks. It doesn’t seem to follow, for me, that if there is a First Cause (a possibility), then there is goodness (because the evidence can be arrayed in such a way to seriously damage this statement).

        Again, the evidence of natural selection seems to favor the explanation of the atheists and it’s not clear that appealing to Aristotelian metaphysics in their Thomistic form is enough to challenge the evidence. That a Thomistic metaphysics can lead us to a First Cause is fine; that it can account for the long, bloody slog of natural selection or the problem of evil is less apparent.

      • I’m no scientist or mathematician, but isn’t there an argument based on the existence of orderly, physical laws built into the structure of the universe? My statement was based on the premise that there IS a First Cause – it seems illogical that such a ‘Cause’ could exist, and create an orderly universe, and then abandon it. If the very nature of that ‘Cause’ is purposiveness, orderliness, ‘goodness’, it would be a contradiction…But I’m probably tying myself in philosophical knots here!

  2. The mystery, the grace, of something versus nothing. An accident of a chaotic universe without plan or rhyme and maybe not even reason? But yet here it is; here we are. And we aren’t just here, we are asking questions about why we are here. Is it possible that sentient, self-aware life evolved for no reason? If one doesn’t believe in God one has to say, yes. And that seems just as unbelievable, implausible as the First, Uncaused, Cause idea.

    I think I am in a similar place as you, for probably very different reasons. I have found the writings of John Haught, “God After Darwin,” etc. to be very provocative. And I am re-reading Robinson’s, “Honest to God,” a return to the theology of my youth.

    Concerning the truth of Christianity and its future, I have read Bishop Spong’s, “Why Christianity Must Change or Die.” And Bart Ehrman, “Jesus Interrupted” is a good introduction to issues of biblical contradictions.

    I wish you well on your journey. And will check back in soon.

    • Thank you so much for taking the time to comment on my blog, and for you helpful suggestions – I shall certainly follow up these links. I’ve now had a look at your blogs, and am moved by your honest and thoughtful reflections on your painful experiences.

      I was also a fan of ‘Honest to God’ in my youth – I remember reading Robinson and Tillich one summer, between my falling out with evangelicalism, and my discovery of Catholicism. It’s not so much Robinson’s ‘liberalism’ I liked , as his ability to re-imagine theology in terms that made sense to the modern imagination.

      Your opening paragraph goes to the heart of the problem, doesn’t it? Is human consciousness, self-awareness, desire for transcendence, etc, not to mention the order and beauty we see in the universe, simply accidental – or evidence of a Creator? I can argue it both ways, and swing back and forth between the two positions.

      The search goes on – and I’m glad to have you as a companion along the way.

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