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Excerpts from The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Catechism, by John Zmirak

Q: Okay, so we’ve worked our way through the uncounted millennia between the emergence of man and the first glimmers of revelation, then the six-thousand-something years it took God to gradually tease out what he had in mind for mankind. On the face of it, the whole thing seems suspicious. Why go through all these fits and starts? Why feed us a series of tantalizing hints, to spice up a steady diet of red herrings and dead ends? Why—if God is so simple, perfect, and benevolent—did he reveal himself to mankind through a series of clues it would take Sherlock Holmes to figure out? Or, if it pleases you, Father Brown.

A: Elementary, my dear godson. What we’ve derived so far from considering revelation is (a) that God is in Himself a perfect unity, but also (b) that His essence is in some sense refracted, as if one ray of light were passing through three distinct lenses, each of which is a Person. That tells us that the primitive rational insight into God’s unity was true but incomplete. Likewise the original revelation of the One God to the Israelites. Within the very essence of God is a nexus of relationships, which He revealed is one of love between a Father, a Son, and a Spirit Who “proceeds” from their interaction. Already, then, there’s something embedded in the very essence of things that tests our brains till they bleed. Add in the intellectual jiu-jitsu required to account for Christ’s divine and human natures—a doctrine that’ll tackle us later—and it almost seems as if God’s purpose all along in revealing Himself to man was to provoke complex heresies, interminable Church councils, and impenetrable tomes in Greek and Latin devoted to explaining the inexplicable.

No wonder so many different sects emerged over the centuries, each devoted to seizing one piece of each of these mysteries and making sure it wasn’t forgotten—at the cost of denying something else of equal importance. Remember the joke about the blind men describing the elephant? One grabs the trunk and declares it a snake, the next the leg and calls it a tree, et cetera? That joke was first told at the Council of Chalcedon by Bishop Pachasinus of Lilybaeum to Anatolius, patriarch of Constantinople.

Q: Really?

A: Strictly speaking, no. That story probably goes back to ancient India. But it was applied to specifically Christian religious disputes by the poet John Godfrey Saxe, who wrote:

So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen!

Q: So you’re admitting that the Church has spent centuries tussling over a tangle of logical contradictions in search of a plausible story?

A: If only it had. Then maybe we’d have one. My life would be a lot easier, and this book would need only be a pamphlet. Like modern physicists who wrangle with the equally persuasive but mutually irreconcilable claims of relativity and quantum mechanics, the Church was presented with evidence that was devilishly difficult to understand all at once, much less to reconcile. Our theologians used the best tool at hand, Greek philosophy, to tease out the real-world implications of what God had told us about Himself, to figure out how we should pray and to whom. If what we had been trying to craft was a cogent fable, we certainly would have lopped off one manageable piece of that enormous, intractable elephant and held it up as the whole: “Behold the trunk of God!” Heresies have always been simpler and more persuasive than nuanced orthodox answers. Orthodoxy, like reality, is tediously complex when you try to account for all the details. Like math, it’s hard. Like surgery, it’s work, and lazy, clever people who breezed through high school and aced the SATs are tempted to turn instead to magic. Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus grew weary of ancient inconclusive books and tedious experiments, so he sold his soul to gain technological power on the cheap. Heresy, magic, and pragmatism alike skim over reality lightly and read the Spark Notes instead.

Aside from plastic tanning beds and the self-reproducing nanorobots that someday (some hope) will smother the earth in “grey goo,” there’s nothing new under the sun. The heretical temptation goes all the way back to Adam, nibbling at Satan’s sour apple in search of easy answers. When Alexander the Great faced the impossibly complex Gordian Knot—whose legend foretold that the man who untied it would rule over all Asia—the king forgot his Aristotelian training, pulled out his sword, and cut through the knot. With a single stroke, he became the first great heretic in the West. He did conquer Asia, most of which his feuding heirs—devoid of any rationale for why they should rule—would promptly lose. Now, all of us who watched Indiana Jones take the pith out of a showoff Saracen swordsman with a single shot will sympathize with Alexander. There’s a reason for that: You and I are moderns and grew up with a gut admiration for crudely pragmatic answers. Since Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes, like General Sherman and P. T. Barnum, we believe that what’s true is “what works.” Anything else seems un-American.Heresy works. It gets things done, damn the consequences. (Dam the river, and damn the fish.) It’s easier to rally a band of Visigoth, Arabs, or Ivy Leaguers with a streamlined creed that fits neatly on a banner. In politics as well, coherent political philosophy frequently loses out in the short run to ideology—that is, to a half-baked idea holding a fully loaded pistol. Marxism, fascism, and anarchism are each better suited to pamphlets than are the worldviews of Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, or G. K. Chesterton. Orthodoxy, by contrast, can seem pedantic and plodding. It always amounts to statements like “Wholly (a) but also wholly (b), without confusion or distinction.”

It shouldn’t surprise us that orthodoxy is complicated, in the same way that science is puzzling. We start off with a God Whose internal relationships are by their nature beyond anything our neurons are wired to savvy. Let’s imagine, to make it easier, that He exists in more than three dimensions. If we lived in Flatland, with only two dimensions, and encountered a sphere, we could never perceive the whole thing at once. We couldn’t even imagine it. As it passed through our plane, we’d see first a point, then a series of curves that expanded for a while, then contracted until they turned again into a point. Our theologians would tear out their hair and each other’s beards attempting to explain the thing, and the best they would come up with would be profoundly unsatisfying formulas—none of which did justice to the felt experience of those who had seen the mysterious passage of the sphere through Flatland. By which I mean, the apostles. To them it was a miracle that demanded to be announced throughout the world. They could hardly contain themselves and were literally on fire (see Pentecost) to share with others its power to transform their lives. But to offer an account that will make sense to other Flatlanders, they would need to do more than enthuse, safely handle poisonous snakes, or even speak in tongues. They would need to learn geometry.

That’s the best way to conceive of philosophy, as the two-dimensional science of space we use to account for the way things work in our world. Theology is the discipline that tries to account for the third dimension, despite the fact that all its practitioners still live solidly just in two. Before the Christian phase of revelation, there was no real need for theology; in the Greek and Roman world, the philosophers and the priests had nothing to talk about and would eye each other suspiciously in the street. Among the Jews, a few like Philo attempted to account for the God of Sinai in language drawn from Plato, more to help the Hellenized Jews in places like Alexandria avoid intellectual embarrassment than to convince more Hellenes to be circumcised (which anyway was, as St. Paul would point out, a very hard sell). Without the third dimension that blasted its way into the world with Jesus, philosophy must remain a fairly tepid enterprise: an attempt to show men how to live wisely within their limits, avoid self-destructive vice, and treat each other justly before their souls disappear like pet fish down the toilet. (My older sisters always dried my tears with the theory that, when they reached the ocean, those guppies would rise again, but I suspect that their hypothesis was somehow imbued with a Christian bias.) Without the stern discipline of philosophy, religious enthusiasms must end as they always had before: at best in the rigid rectitude of the Temple and the Law; more often in secret, Dionysian rites designed to “save” the few by whispering shibboleths whose meanings were long forgotten; in orgiastic frenzies, which like Woodstock are much less fun than they sound; or in the fanatical life-denying practices of gnostic cults, whose “sacraments” included suicide and abortion.

Now add in the fact that man is fallen, and our reason functions like a 1980s-vintage American car—in fits and starts. (If you doubt this fact, go sit sometime in a faculty lounge and listen to the academics speak past each other, cover their asses, run down each other’s research, and squabble over parking spots.) We’ve already agreed that man’s religious sense is every bit as prone to go astray as his erotic urges—even when he doesn’t somehow confuse the two and dirty up heaven with a string of myths that reflect his unexamined fantasies of incest and cannibalism.

These facts, the irreducible complexity of what God has to say for Himself, man’s limited rational faculty, and the power of our passions to cloud how we think, could account all by themselves for the fact that God’s revelation to man would most likely happen not all at once but instead through a series of stages mediated by human history. But there’s another reason that occurs to me.

Q: Feeling prophetic, are we? Is this a new stage of revelation I’m witnessing right now?

A: Prophets typically fast and pray. What I do is think, fast, and pray that what I write makes some kind of sense. That’s a critical difference. Besides, all public revelation ended with the death of St. John the Apostle. That’s when God stopped adding to the great ball of yarn and left it to the Church to untangle and knit into a sweater.

Q: How far along are you?

A: By my reckoning, we’ve just about finished one sleeve. I have friends who are wistful millenarians, who see in every Church crisis, ecological catastrophe, or innovative social perversion solid evidence that we’re in the “end of days,” when the final persecution of the Church will give way to the Second Coming. To which I say, “You wish.” I reckon that we have ahead of us thousands and thousands more years of mediocrity and muddling through. (Which is just as well—there are still so many old episodes of The Dog Whisperer left to watch.) You think things are bad today, that they couldn’t get much worse? Think again. Use your imagination, or better yet, drink a dozen cans of Red Bull mixed with vodka, then sit down to watch the director’s cut of Blade Runner.

Mr. Zmirak’s book and other books relating to the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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2 replies to this post
  1. Using a fine Scotticism, Adam Smith says "there's a deal of ruin in a nation."

    This enjoyable piece reminds me of two truths. First, and to a very small degree, sometimes excessive cleverness can be a mild deterrent. But the far greater point, that heresy works but to the exclusion of much truth, is worthy of GKC. And like Burke we may never see the value in orthodoxy or tradition that lies hidden away for a rainy day!

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