Well, would you?

In a village in Poland in 1942 you, as a member of a company of middle aged Germans soldiers, are raising your rifle at a crowd of women, children and the elderly. Your commander has given leave to any soldier not to take part in the massacre. Out of 500 soldiers only fifteen choose to opt out: three percent. Are you one of them?

Would I have been one of them? I can’t tell because I have not lived in German society between the Wars. And I am aware that, notwithstanding my freewill, I am a product of my personal history, and that must be strongly influenced by the culture in which I have lived. The best picture I have read of that culture is Sebastian Haffner’s memoirs: Defying Hitler (2000).His account takes us from his schooldays in WW1 to leaving Germany in 1933. Later he was to become a leading journalist. He returned to Germany in 1954 and died in 1999.

In trying to understand their criminal behaviour over three decades I first wondered whether the German nation had particular characteristics which drew them towards their acceptance of Nazi behaviour. Haffner reminds us that Bismarck described how German moral courage, never a strong characteristic, disappeared in front of authority: “insubordination (is) altogether impossible for the German military – whoever happens to be in power.” Elsewhere, Haffner refers to the German inability to recognise “the stink” of evil social activity. They might argue and debate the Nazi system but they were not capable of standing back and simply recognising the odour of evil.

In his later summary Haffner describes Germany, with all its historical fine qualities, as destroyed by nationalism. By nationalism he means an unrealistic attitude of conceit and admiration for anything German. This creates an unquestionable vanity which assumes that the state, whatever its condition happens to be, must be defended, promoted and obeyed. Those who stand back, reflect and question are disloyal and already slipping into treachery.

Against this background the day to day circumstances of Germany, following the first war, were extraordinary. The shock of losing the war destroyed, at least at that time, all the confidence built up over the centuries. The Treaty of Versailles was seen by many as a betrayal by civilian government of the courageous army. Ordered society was replaced by factions of the left and right, all was uncertainty and fear. Add to that gross hyperinflation of the currency and you have a society which needs a saviour. And Hitler was in the wings. His first, and popular, appearance was the “Beer Hall” putsch, followed by a period of prison. And in prison he started to write Mein Kampf.

This, and its second volume, set out his racist ideology which justified any actions which promoted Aryanism, including grabbing “living room”(Lebensraum) in countries to the east. It identified Jewry as an international plot to take over countries from within. It set out a program whereby the rights of the citizen were replaced by the aims of Nazism, leaving liberals in fear of critical comment even among their friends in case they were betrayed to the authorities.

And now I have to ask myself how I would have behaved as a German in the 1930s. Would I have stood up and publicly exposed the Nazi evils? I wouldn’t have been standing up for long. And I have family. Would I have gone along quietly trying to avoid any personal guilty actions? The German Catholic Church seems to have followed such a discretionary agenda, with some success. It was fortunate in that its numbers were so large that the Nazis did not dare to destroy it – although it was suspected that, once the war was won, it would have been outlawed.

I might have looked back through my life as a young German and seen my crippled, disordered country rescued by the Nazis, under an inspirational leader, and turned once again into a nation of consequence. While recognising the evil elements, might I have thought that this was a price that had to be paid: stability versus chaos? I think back to the 1930s and the Spanish Civil War, where many good people, including the then editor of the Catholic Herald, accepted that the bloody restoration of good order under Franco’s autocratic government was preferable to the uncontrolled chaos of a republican victory.

I hope I would have been a hero but I fear I might have failed the ultimate test. At the least I have come to understand how the ordinary, good, Germans of that generation would have shouted out Heil Hitler along with their comrades.

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Posted in Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | Tagged , | 39 Comments

What do you know about Noah?

This week I want some help please: I am planning eventually to write a full column in the Catholic Herald on the truth of the Bible. Let me give you an example. The story, starting in Genesis 5, of Noah and the Flood, is generally accepted as not being literally true (although many defend it to the last).There is no archeological evidence of the flood itself – nor any sign of the ark, and the story itself contains details which, through modern eyes, appear to be impossible.

So is it simply a piece of fiction or does it have another purpose? Might some people refer to it as legend or fable or myth? How would you describe it? Elsewhere in Scripture we are familiar with parables – but these are described as such, and take a recognisable shape. But the Noah story takes pains to be complex, literal and precise. It is presented as a literarily true account.

So I would be much helped by you identifying other stories in the Bible which are clearly not true in a literal sense but we must presume were there for a purpose. And we understand them to be inspired. Immediately, we might think of the six days of creation, the account of Adam and Eve or the sacrifice of Isaac at the hands of his father (Genesis 22). Are there similar patterns in the New Testament? And how about the Book of Revelation?

This is not just idle curiosity. If we accept the Bible as inspired revelation and the fundamental introduction to Judaeo-Christian belief we need to know how we should regard its truths.

Posted in Scripture | 42 Comments

Materialist morals

We have recently been discussing deep philosophical matters, such as the ‘uncaused cause’. Not surprisingly we do not arrive at satisfactory answers. Such questions have been explored over two thousand years, and I do not doubt they will still be unanswered in 2000 years time.

But today I want to explore moral decisions. The answer is important because our understanding may have eternal consequences. There are two potential approaches. One approach starts from the assumption that the universe only contains matter. This belief necessarily excludes the spiritual, not just in its religious sense but in all of its meanings. We may not know how characteristics such as consciousness develop from matter but some would say that that may simply be because we do not know enough about matter itself. But this of course leads to the exclusion of freewill. That conclusion has a major difficulty because it is at odds with morality: if our decisions and our sense of right and wrong are caused by matter alone we cannot condemn or praise any moral decision. At a pinch the best we can do is to apply greater punishment to the offender since the threat of this changes the balance between desirability and undesirability of our decision.

In fact we know from experience that moral decisions involve two elements. We are, or should be aware, that many such decisions may be affected by our internal tendencies. For instance the way we were individually brought up will affect our values. We will be influenced by recent happenings and longer term experiences. We will also be influenced by the social groups to which we belong (people like us). And a myriad more. We need to be fully aware of such tendencies because they may interfere and confuse our moral decisions which should always be guided by reason.

I notice that distinguished atheists such as Russell or Dawkins appear to have strong opinions on the morality of others often religious people or religious organisations. Somehow they forget that their targets are not responsible for their views since they are not free to make decisions. I am waiting to listen to the trial of some foul gangster. His defence might be to quote several philosophers over the last two millennia who would claim that the prisoner was not guilty because he was not free to do otherwise.

In fact everyone who has reached the age of reason accepts free will in practice, while agreeing that moral choices may be contaminated by other factors which need to be taken into account. Contingent to this is the ability to distinguish between the good action which ought to be followed and the evil action which ought to be avoided. The word ‘ought’ has no moral meaning for the material atheist. Believers of course may well argue that the obligation to behave morally can only be explained by a superior, spiritual, being who created us.

Posted in Church and Society, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | Tagged , | 56 Comments

How odd of God

Now here’s an interesting statistic. Currently the proportion of Christians in the world today is about a third, that is 2.4 billions. So what is going to happen to the other 5 billions, given that the New Testament assures us that baptism into Christ is a sine qua non of salvation? I hesitate to criticise the Almighty which is a dangerous step. But what we see here is a God who created a vast number of human beings with the intention that they should live in blessed eternity with him. But in fact two thirds of them won’t make it: they will live out infinity either in some limbo or in the punishment of hell. Most of them will not have encountered Christianity, let alone had a realistic opportunity to consider it. And of course we need to count in the whole lineage of homo sapiens who have preceded us – over perhaps 200,000 years.

If all that is true we are talking about a very odd God. He seems to have got his sums wrong. I cannot avoid the thought that he must be an unjust God – or that his creation idea was basically a failure.

Fortunately that is not like God at all. The truth is that every human being has been redeemed by Christ – backwards to the first human, forward to the last. And with that gift comes another one: he has left us free to choose. The choice is straightforward: either we choose to love or we choose to reject love. Christ himself explains this (Matthew 25) when he speaks of how the blessed loved the hungry and the sick and those in need. And when they said they had never met him he replied that what they had given to the least person had been given to him. And that test of love applies equally from the most important person in the world to the beggar on the street corner. You and me.

Is Christ’s grace like a kind of whitewash covering up our sinfulness? No, the love we choose is our love and it is Christ’s love. We become truly holy through his love. Paul tells us: “I live, now not I, Christ lives in me.” A mystery indeed, but a wonderful one.

And that love includes loving ourselves. Search for the truth, search for the good. And Christ is there. As he was with Socrates and Aristotle as they began to unravel the nature of the good life. Benedict XVI, before he became pope, described Socrates as a kind of prophet of Christ.

Many of you will be parents, so you know what extremes you went through to help the children to find their way to maturity. And how, if they wobbled on the rails, you would find any excuse to get them back on track. God is the father after whom all fatherhood is named. Do you think he does any less for each of his children?

Posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries, Spirituality | 36 Comments

The virtue of virtue

I, and perhaps many of you, came from a generation which was taught morals mainly as a series of rules – most of which were deduced from Scripture, and developed to cover almost every activity available to human beings. These were divided into two classes: mortal sins – whose potential punishment was Hell for all eternity, and venial sins which were not. This was summed up by a leading Jesuit moral theologian: “(The Church) indoctrinates its children during many years, until resistance to evil becomes an almost second nature… It says to the child: you must be good in the way
I teach you to be good, so that afterwards you may know how to be good.”

We might discuss the values and the dangers of such an approach but, over time, the emphases have moved in the direction of pursuing the virtues rather than focussing on lists of sins. The argument here is that it is better to work at becoming a good person rather than being fixated on avoiding this sin or that.

Ironically the ‘cardinal virtues’, as we call them, come originally from Aristotle. They lead us towards the good, and thus towards God. Not surprisingly they seem to have a slightly musty air about them attributable to their long history. This does not make them irrelevant since human nature has not changed since Aristotle; but the terminology lacks appeal.

So we get as a listing of the cardinal virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude and Temperance. They are called ‘cardinal’ because they are the “hinges” on which the multiplicity of other possible virtues turn.

But Prudence has a specific meaning – that of practical wisdom in our choices or, as St Augustine put it “..the knowledge of what to seek and what to avoid.”. It does not carry the common overtone of prudence in the sense of being cautious. Justice carries the feel of the courtroom; it is too large a word for our petty experiences. Fortitude is not a word in ordinary usage and does not readily suggest the determination to stick with the right thing despite opposition from within and without – in both large and small matters. And temperance sounds like avoiding hangovers; it has largely lost its original sense of finding the judicious mean between two possible extremes: courage, for instance, is the mean between foolhardiness and timidity.

These old fashioned terms, while understandable in their true context, do not readily convey their intended meaning. Perhaps we need some new names. I propose, merely as a first shot, Practical Wisdom, Fairness, Determination, and Balance. Others will perhaps have better ideas. Of course, even under new names, each virtue needs explanation and extension, but it is important that they set us off at least in the right direction, and are qualities which are recognizable to all as desirable.

Posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries, virtue ethics | 23 Comments

Hawking and the Afterlife

Stephen Hawking’s last book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions has recently been published (John Murray). We are not surprised to hear his “profound realisation” that there was no afterlife or supreme being. It caught my eye because Fr Rolheiser (issue 12 October) was in the same neck of the wood. It would appear that Hawking arrives at his negative conclusion primarily because of the lack of empirical evidence rather than negative argument. In this he reflects” Hume’s Fork” (David Hume 1730s): “If we take in our hand any volume; of divinity or school metaphysics for instance; let us ask: Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames: for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.”

This approach, which holds that truth can only be based on empirical evidence or solid logic, has had a long history in the philosophical world; its most recent heyday was much of the 20th century, and known as Logical Positivism. Unfortunately it waned once it was realised that, by its own principles, it could not itself be verified. The biter was bit. It is ironic that Hawking, one of our great minds, was somewhat behind the times. But it remains a challenge for us.

If I say that I believe that God exists what precisely do I mean by “believe”? I am not simply suggesting that on the whole I think that God exists; I am claiming certainty. What is the source of this certainty? If I hold the source to be God, your philosopher friend will fall about laughing since you cannot assume your conclusion as part of your argument. If I change my statement to “I perceive” he continues to laugh. “I know that God exists” suffers the same fate. “I hold that God exists” sounds better, but your friend will show you that in fact you have said nothing at all. It is some consolation that Hawking’s conclusion that God does not exist trips on exactly the same stumbling block. So what precisely do you mean, reader, when you say “I believe in God”?

We might then investigate the traditional proofs of the existence of God. The best known ones (coming from the ancient Greeks) boil down to: everything is caused so there must be a first cause which is not itself caused. That is called God. From this we can infer the divine characteristics. Atheists, I note, poo-poo this approach, but they never explain why. The “ontological proof” (from St Anselm of Canterbury) is based on our capacity to conceive of the perfect being. Since to exist is more perfect that not to exist, God must exist. I find this unconvincing. But, interestingly, Bertrand Russell wrote that it was harder to demolish than it seems at first sight. I have never met anyone who was converted to the existence of God by any of these proofs. I find it more effective to present Pascal’s Wager (17th century). You can, he said, believe or disbelieve in an afterlife. But, if you choose to disbelieve and are right you will never know because you won’t exist. And, if you are wrong, disaster awaits you. So belief is always the better bet.

We return to Fr Rolheiser. He reminds us of the great philosopher René Descartes (17th century). He was determined to find a foundational concept which could not be falsified. It turned out to be “I think, therefore I am.” Fr Rolheiser goes on to describe a modern author who imitated Descartes in the same quest. In this case it turned out to be the universality of suffering and the wrongness involved in its gratuitous promotion. I recognised immediately that, not many months ago, I had gone through the same journey. As a widower I have had plenty of time to think about the nature of love and what it means over a long marriage. So the one thing I knew to be true was the goodness of love. So what? It’s there all over Scripture. But there is a difference between the theory and the realisation of a foundational truth whose existence can have, by its nature, no empirical cause. When we speak of God as having infinite love we have to remember that love is what God is.

And it leads us back to realise that every act of love, whether chosen by the butcher, the baker or the candlestick maker, the atheist or the saint, comes from Christ’s redemption; it is the only source. And now I must give the cats their tea. I’m late. Here I am, writing about love, and neglecting to love my daily companions.

Posted in Catholic Herald columns | Tagged | 28 Comments

Global WarNing

“And God saw all the things he had made, and they were very good…And the Lord God took man and put him into the paradise of pleasure, to dress it and to keep it.” These extracts from Genesis (Douai) remind us that attention to global warming is not merely a practical matter but a moral obligation required by God.

We have discussed the issue on this Blog at a time when global warming was almost an open question. We are left with Trump continuing to remain sceptical, taking the USA out of the Paris Agreement and reversing moves to cut greenhouse gas emissions from coal fire power stations. I was convinced of the threat of global warming when a highly qualified physicist friend, some years ago, took me through the detailed projections and the evidence behind these.

You will all have read at least summaries of the latest UN panel report. It is essential to limit the temperature rise to 1.5̊C to avoid massive and damaging changes across the world. To do this would require changes in our diet, and a large drop in the level of CO2. And that means substantial changes in our lifestyle. There will be huge movements of emigrants from hotter countries, and many would die from drought and coastal flooding. And so on and so forth. While we have already addressed potential changes in our lifestyles, most of them are at no more than an infant stage.

So perhaps we could consider what we must be prepared to do in order to fulfil God’s requirement “to dress it and to keep it.” And are our personal choices enough? Should we be in active crusade to persuade others?

Posted in Bio-ethics, Climate Change, Quentin queries | Tagged | 40 Comments