Monday, February 05, 2018

Catholic hypochondria

In my experience, the most common objection that Catholic apologists (or evangelical converts to Rome) lodge against the Protestant faith is Protestant pluralism. They consider sola scripture to be chaotic: "a blueprint for anarchy". 

Various things can be said in reply to this. I've responded in different ways. Here's one more observation: Some people are temperamentally risk-averse. They play it safe. They value stability and predictability. A stereotypical example is maternal protectiveness. 

Other people are temperamentally adventurous. Some become explorers. Some become inventors and researchers who pioneer new technology, make advances in science and medicine. Start new companies. 

That results in shipwrecks. False leads before a scientist hits on the right solution. 

The appeal of sports and games depends on an element of suspense, because the outcome is unpredictable. The risk of losing. The element of surprise. 

In epistemology, the risk-averse temperament is exemplified by Clifford's notorious maximum that it's "wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence."

But as William James pointed out, a risk-averse strategy is risky in a different way, because it carries its own tradeoffs:

One more point, small but important, and our preliminaries are done. There are two ways of looking at our duty in the matter of opinion,--ways entirely different, and yet ways about whose difference the theory of knowledge seems hitherto to have shown very little concern. We must know the truth; and we must avoid error,- -these are our first and great commandments as would-be knowers; but they are not two ways of stating an identical commandment, they are two separable laws. Although it may indeed happen that when we believe the truth A, we escape as an incidental consequence from believing the falsehood B, it hardly ever happens that by merely disbelieving B we necessarily believe A. We may in escaping B fall into believing other falsehoods, C or D, just as bad as B; or we may escape B by not believing anything at all, not even A. Believe truth! Shun error!-these, we see, are two materially different laws; and by choosing between them we may end by coloring differently our whole intellectual life. We may regard the chase for truth as paramount, and the avoidance of error as secondary; or we may, on the other hand, treat the avoidance of error as more imperative, and let truth take its chance. Clifford, in the instructive passage which I have quoted, exhorts us to the latter course. Believe nothing, he tells us, keep your mind in suspense forever, rather than by closing it on insufficient evidence incur the awful risk of believing lies. You, on the other hand, may think that the risk of being in error is a very small matter when compared with the blessings of real knowledge, and be ready to be duped many times in your investigation rather than postpone indefinitely the chance of guessing true. I myself find it impossible to go with Clifford.

You can be so fearful of error that that you miss out on the opportunity to correct old errors and discover new truths–or rediscover forgotten truths. There's a price to pay for risk-averse and risk-taker strategies alike. To play it safe has a hidden cost.

BTW, there's a certain parallel here with the cessationist/continuationist debate. The cessationist position is a risk-averse strategy. 

One value of theological controversy is that it forces Christians to reexamine their assumptions, reexamine Scripture more deeply. Take doctrinal debates over Calvinism/Molinism/Arminianism/open theism, premillennialism/amillennialism, paedobaptism/credobaptism, creation/evolution, cessationism/continuationism, hell/annihilationism/univeralism, complementarianism/egalitarianism, the New Perspective on Paul.

Take ethical debates over abortion, euthanasia, pacifism, homosexuality, capital punishment, immigration, gun rights. Take apologetic debates over atheism, Catholicism, Mormonism, Islam, Judaism.

Having to defend your position makes you deepen your understanding of your own position as well as the alternatives. In some cases that leads you question a position you thoughtlessly embraced, due to social conditioning, and adopt a better position. The possibility of error carries with it the possibility of correction. The freedom to be wrong includes the freedom to leave error behind, rather than to be stuck in a flawed theological paradigm. 

Catholic apologists and converts to Rome are hypochondriacs who don facemasks to screen out theological germs. But what if their risk-averse policy has locked them into a contaminated environment? They've quarantined themselves in the malarial swamp of Catholicism. The Protestant faith isn't risk-free, but fresh air is the best disinfectant.  


  1. They like stability, or maybe better stated assurance of correctness. I often point out to them that Stalinism is more stable and less messy (what they don't like about Protestantism), but that doesn't make it superior to democracy.

    They want to outsource having to figure everything out, because they don't want to be wrong. Being wrong in this area does have eternal consequences. Unfortunately if you outsource to the wrong authority, you'll have issues.

    1. In traditional Catholicism, many errors were damnable errors, but of course, post-Vatican II theology has drastically softened.

    2. While not sedevacantists, I don't think these type of Catholics or Catholic converts have fully come to terms with what Vatican 2 entails.

    3. Perhaps, but they seem to embrace the concept of doctrinal development as a way to excuse every magisterial innovation under the sun.

    4. The Magisterium's concept of doctrinal development can certainly be likened to a magician's hat---the stuff comes from nowhere, cannot be defined, cannot be verified, and is subject to change. It appears that anything goes when it comes to the office of pope.