The shortcut mind

In the past we have had enlightening discussions on about the nature of free will. I think that contributors will agree that it has been a most difficult subject to understand. I have certainly found it so. But this week I am happy to eschew the profundity of the philosophical approach, and look at some of the plainer aspects of human judgment.

Let me start with a little experiment. Take three bowls: one of cold water, one of hot water, one of lukewarm water. Soak your left and right hands in the hot and cold water respectively, then plunge them both into the lukewarm. To the left hand it feels cold, to the right hand it feels hot.

When I carried out that simple scientific experiment as a youngster I found it interesting but not momentous. I certainly did not appreciate that I was encountering one of the most basic and important phenomena of the human brain: that we exercise our judgment not absolutely but through change, contrasts and comparisons.

The brain faces a big problem: how to cope with too much information. The stimuli which present themselves to our senses are vast in number and variety. There are countless smells available to the nose, countless lights and colours in front of our eyes, countless different noises presented to our ears. Yet we have to respond appropriately to this immense environment – often at great speed, sometimes instantaneously. The fastest and largest computer in the world could only deal with a tiny fraction of the task, but we have to do it with a brain weighing less than 1.5 kg.

In order to cope with this task the brain uses short-cuts which reduce the processing work, and therefore the processing time, by a very large factor. And the central strategy employed is to compare new information with what is already present. In this way, the brain needs only to focus its full attention on the differences; it does not need to waste its processing power on analysing the full situation from scratch. The senses assist this strategy by responding quickly to stimuli which the brain recognises as an important change, while ignoring other stimuli which are unlikely to be significant for it.

Because of the brain’s limited capacity these short-cuts are essential. Without them, we could make little sense of the world. But there is a price to pay: if judgments are made by comparison with previous experience then their accuracy will depend on the reliability of that previous experience, and whether the piece of experience chosen for the comparison is appropriate.

Those who seek to influence others must accept that rational judgment and objective assessment of the arguments ordinarily play a rather small part in decisions; much more important will be how new proposals and ideas compare with what is already in the mind.

Let’s put this to the test. Imagine that you received a memo from your employer today informing you that your salary will be increased by £1,000 a year. How do you feel about it? If you had suspected that, in these difficult times, your salary might be frozen or even reduced you will probably be pleased. But how pleased? That depends, doesn’t it? If you are currently earning £10,000 you may see it as generous. If you are currently earning £100,000, you may see it as mean. You judge its value by comparison with your existing state.

The process through which the brain evaluates the new experience in terms of existing experience is simple in principle, although complex in practice. If you show a chess expert a board with the positions which the pieces have reached halfway through a game he will be able to grasp the situation quickly by making use of the patterns he has stored. He can make an intelligent guess about what moves led up to that position, and perhaps forecast the outcome of the game. Ask the same question of someone who does not know the game – and therefore has no stored patterns – and he will be flummoxed. The expert only has to notice and analyse the similarities and differences from the patterns he knows; the non-player, without the patterns, would have no basis for judgment or understanding of what is happening.

Now, each of us reading this column has built up over the years a myriad of patterns of which we are largely unaware. Genes may have been responsible for our innate tendencies but innumerable experiences will have added to our stored patterns over the years. That means that our judgments or decisions will be assisted, or tainted, by comparisons over which we may have little control.

I look forward to returning from time to time to the different patterns which we use, but now I want to propose just two points. The first is that we should be prepared to be humble about our opinions. After all, if they are based on comparisons of which we are often unaware, we should be cautious.

The second is that, even if at the time of decision we are making an immediate comparison, we do have some control over how our patterns are built up. Among the many ways of approaching this I would suggest that the development of virtues which, the Fathers agree, are the habits which guide our actions in practice. They are in fact the key patterns through which Christians should filter all their experience. It may be that neither sin nor merit are gained at the time of conscious decision, and that the quality of our choices automatically follows from the sort of person we have allowed ourselves to become.

About Quentin

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41 Responses to The shortcut mind

  1. Pat says:

    When I read Quentin’s post here I immediately think of cats. My cat is dozy-eyed. But when she sees a little movement, however small, in front of her she grabs like a flash. I remember from school biology that the sensors in the eye work in such a way that movement is recognized. It is much more efficient in cats than in humans. I assume that this would be the kind of information which Quentin refers to.

    • Mendel says:

      Please forgive me, I am a newcomer here. I see lots of comments on a variety of subjects; then I look at this one, and there is only a couple. Surely this goes to the heart of conscience and is more important than the others?
      Rahner, I think that the humility here is the willingness to recognise that we may all be mistaken. Without this, pride may be the next fall. I hope your other name is not Hubris.

  2. Rahner says:

    Unfortunately, Quentin, appeals for people “to be humble” have also been used to oppress, dominate and pacify them and has led them to accept political and religious viewpoints in a wholly uncritical manner.

  3. mike Horsnall says:

    Tricky issue this Quentin but interesting. I like the general proposal that we are the sum of our previous choices-if we have allowed grace to annoint those choices then all to the better. Some issues with the infinite regress and that many instinctive patterns are set before we have the power to reshape them-its a bit like the parable of the sower I guess-sow virtues till you are blue in the face on the hard earth of self hatred …or into the cackling beaks of anxiety and doubt..But the patient steady non self criticising but applied practice of the virtues does change the base pattern I’m sure. The best negative example is the inexorable progress of the selfish habit if firmly unchecked.
    Don’t worry Rahner-you can be as humble as you like – I promise not to come over and steal your lawn mower.

  4. John Nolan says:

    Thanks, Quentin, for a very thought-provoking post. I have often wondered where we get our prejudices from, because they do influence the way we evaluate things, however objective we may wish to be. Where does my conservative frame of mind come from? My cradle-Catholic upbringing in the 1950s? Reading as a child about the excesses of the French Revolution? My reading of history or was I drawn to history because of an empathy with the past which is a conservative hallmark? Yet many with the same background turn out to be left-wing. Is it something in the genes that makes one man a Burke and another a Robespierre?

  5. Quentin says:

    Mike, I think I’d want to refine your “general proposal”by noticing a couple of things that seem important to me.

    The first is that, although we have a tendency to automatic judgment by comparing new experience with our existing experience, we are able to be aware that this is going on, and so, on appropriate occasion, we can pause and reflect. But we are unlikely to do this if we are not aware of (or do not accept) the existence of this tendency.

    The second is that we have a responsibility for developing a “virtuous” tendency. Since in the rush of life we are likely to make many judgments without such deeper reflection, we had better make sure that our tendencies are God-directed as far as possible.

    John Nolan, that’s an interesting question. I quote from a study summary released in April:
    “Individuals who call themselves liberal tend to have larger anterior cingulate cortexes, while those who call themselves conservative have larger amygdalas. Based on what is known about the functions of those two brain regions, the structural differences are consistent with reports showing a greater ability of liberals to cope with conflicting information and a greater ability of conservatives to recognize a threat, the researchers say.”

    So that sounds genetic to me — although, like taxi drivers, the brain may be altered by our habits. I suppose, as usual, it’s a combination of all the elements you mention. Perhaps the important thing here is that, in realising that we have a particular characteristic, we can allow for any bias in seeking the truth. Socrates’s “Know thyself” would apply here.

    if I were to start describing how my need for predictability has influenced major decisions in my life I could go on all night. When I tell you that I met the woman I was going to marry 59 years ago, and that the 40 last years of my full time career were with the same business you will see the results.

  6. Gerry says:

    Quentin has shepherded us onto a hugely important question.

    I’ve never understood why Catholics, and Christians generally, have been convinced that they ought to persecute Jews down the centuries, and why none of our great, good, Catholic saints and thinkers have resisted this with any particular success. I have my views as to how it came about, but I’d be very pleased to know what others think. Here is the problem:

    Jesus was a Jew, all his family were Jews, and so were most of his friends, and so were those he called to serve him. Almost everything he read and trusted and quoted was written by Jews. He gave most of those who knew him best the impression that his mission was only, or primarily, for the Jews. And he asked forgiveness for those Jews who brought about his death. We know from the Prophets that God has a special love for the Jews. And Jesus loved them too.

    But, 300 years, later we get this from Father of the Church St John Chrysostom, 347-407, ‘God hates the Jews, and on Judgment Day will say to those who sympathize with them: “Depart from Me, for you have had intercourse with My murderers!” Flee, then, from their assemblies, fly from their houses, and hold their synagogue in hatred and aversion.”’(See internet)

    No wonder we persecuted the Jews for 1,600 years or more. It would have taken something to praise Jews after St John Chrysostom. I wonder if fear and the need to keep our head down may be a factor in forming our beliefs.

    (We have repercussions from our persecution of the Jews to this day. They made a mistake almost 2000 years ago by taking on the Roman Empire at a time when the Roman Empire could not be beaten. Now they have taken on Islam at a time when Islam cannot be beaten. They need good, wise advice. But they won’t take it from us, because of the way we have treated them over the last 1,600 years of more.)

    The question is: Is fear a major factor in forming our beliefs?

    • John Nolan says:

      Gerry, what about the protection given by the ecclesiastical authorities to the Jews when they were threatened with mob violence in medieval Germany? At the time of the Second Crusade (1145-8) St Bernard himself intervened: “Lay not your hand upon the Jews, for they are the apple of God’s eye.”

      British public opinion was very pro-Israel in 1967, apart from the extreme left who toed the Soviet line. This would not have been the case in the 1940s with Zionist atrocities in Palestine. Ukrainian anti-semitism is at least understandable in view of recent history (read up on Stalin’s genocide). The 20th century was the century of mass-murder on an industrial scale, starting with the Armenian massacres during the First World War and progressing via Stalin and Hitler to Mao and Pol Pot. Yet I get the distinct impression that the only genocide that matters is the Holocaust.

      For the record, I am pro-Israel and was brought up to believe that anti-semitism is un-Catholic and illogical. How can Christianity despise Judaism when much of its liturgy is taken from the Old Testament? However it is a fact that since the diaspora the Jews have been disliked (although made use of) in any community in which they have chosen to settle. It can’t be everybody else’s fault.

      • mike Horsnall says:

        I’m very pro- Israel too but there are several reasons why the anti jewish sentiment persists. Structurally speaking the prejudice against a people both reinforces and is reinforced by the stereotype. Thus when the pakistani influx came to the North west of England a similar thing happened. Prejudice against that people for example meant they were forced to depend on one another for financial support and thus developed an internal network of lending which allowed them to make rapid advances in accquisition of low cost industries such as textiles.
        Family customs allowed low wage high volume underage working which enabled rapid momopolisation of the clothing industry in places such as Keighley and Bradford in the 70’s Thus the community,in looking after its own became the target of the ‘taking our jobs prejudice’ which is the anti ethnic cry. The Pakistani community quickly became known as ‘The new Jewry’ and quickly became the target of right wing groupings.

        The same thing happened to Jewish communities settling in other lands and
        a similar force was at work of in biblical Egypt if we are to take the record of Exodus chapter 1 as historical. I worked in Israel shortly after the 6 day war for a few months on an archeological dig in the Negev and was struck by the sheer strength and vigor of the Israeli forces then and their blatant forceful arrogance which they easily justified on the basis of the pogroms carried out against them and what amounted to the then fatwah against the nation. I don’t personally partake of antisemitism at all but it doesnt surprise me a bit, a strong, resouceful proud and numerous people in exile are bound to run up against a few problems along the way I should think and Israel the nation gets ruthless in what it percieves as its own defence.

    • Mr. John Falloon says:

      Yes, I believe you are correct. Many Christians to-day never think about the fact that Jesus was a JEW. He lived, thought ,acted, spoke, as a Jew. How could the Christian community throughout the centuries condemn jews is beyond my comprhension. I refer anyone reading this to E.P. Sanders – The Historical Figure of Jesus – Penguin Books.

  7. mike Horsnall says:

    “Know thyself”

    There are a couple of things which are pertinent here. The data on the differential size of cell body/structural groupings in the cortex for liberals and conservatives is interesting….perhaps evangelicals might have enlarged speech centres??!!

    Research into pain recently noticed that babies exposed early to painful surgical experiences in hospitals are liable to have an increase in pain sensitivity simply because the early extra stimulus forces growth of the neurones of that particular centre. So the person becomes more reactive to lower pain levels that another who ,lacking these unpleasant stimuli as a neonate, seems more impervious. This tends to indicate we are formed and adapt to our environmental stimulus organically.

    Recent attempts to define the processes of free will has caused research experiments to focus around choice. One kind is to give a volunteer a brain scan whilst they are in the simple process of deciding to push button A or B on twin, hand held, buzzers. The results showed consistently that a persons brain becomes active at choosing several seconds before the subject of the experiment consciously made the decision concerning which button to press. This implies that the process of choice is made at subconscious levels permeating later into our awareness, a kind of ‘tip of the iceberg ‘ approach to thinking. which can be short circuited- as Quentin states by faster pattens which shade off into pure reflex
    The above examples are fairly random accounts of things I’ve read recently going on in the world of research. But to me they point some way towards underpinning my own conclusion on these matters that our conscious thoughts and intentions grow out of a tangled welter of reflex which at one extreme is almost material (biochemical structure) in the mid range most input is unconscious consisting of cultural and personal experience.At the other end of the spectrum is the almost completely non material aspect of ourselves-freely intentioning will which marks our place as higher than animals.
    The result is the many patterned things we are, capable of being observed analysed and predicted. I had the uncomfortable experience recently of going for a three day psychological testing programme as part of the diaconate sifting out process….when the report arrived I found my self in there -laid bare as if flensed with sharp and accurate knives; terribly embarrassing- but fortunately my many neuroses were of the acceptable kind and so I was.

    So yes certainly our ‘beliefs’ rest on a reflex bed of instincts fear being one among them. Then there is the more local cultural and the individual predilection such as the ice cream I just couldn’t resist-but in all of it we have the opportunity to build a ‘reflex’ inclination to the good and the virtuous-and we must practice that inclination continuously. When I worked in China there was a road that ran down from Urumqi to Kashgar-an important trade route passing through desert and temperature shifts of 40 degrees . The territory was so implacably hostile that the road had to be relaid every spring and autumn. Our virtue is of the same ilk but must be re-established every morning and evening- in principle – then walked out minute by minute in practice..this kind of self knowing was spoken of by Paul the apostle in Romans chapter 8 which must be a classic discourse on the nature of free will and the place of the Spirit within it..

  8. John says:

    Accepting that our judgements are, and often have to be quick – an instant ‘Is this person approaching me up a dark street safe to meet, or should I flee?’ – and so based on previous perceptions, the question then arises; ‘To what extent am I responsible for my evaluations?’
    If our reactions and judgements are almost automatic can they be sinful, or are they, like temptation, not something that we have willed, and so guilt-free?
    Can we ever meet without quick assessment? Can my will over-ride my perceptions, even if I want it to?
    One of the most difficult aspects of meeting together as Christian community is our tendency when we meet someone (or is it only me??) to ‘judge’ the person we meet even whilst warmly greeting or even praying for them….. What does a firm purpose of amendment look like when reflecting on this behaviour of our brains? Is it a waste of time, because we will make the same quick judgement next time we meet? Does moral behaviour alter the pattern of our brains, or rather dissasociate ourselves from what we can’t change, and try to ensure that at least what comes out of our mouths is Christian/ loving?

  9. mike Horsnall says:

    Hmmm, here we have a familiar quandary. I suspect this is where confession comes into its own!
    Also the notion of ‘going in the opposite spirit’ and the various other phrases we use when trying to amend our patterns of behaviour.

    Its not a waste of time even though we may well repeat the same mistake a dozen or even twenty dozen times we still need to amend our way and ask for grace to continue on that amended way.

    We must -and probably in varying degree doin fact believe that we are capable of incremental iotas of change-that is the basic thrust of all christian moral teaching that I have encountered and sought to emulate: Ignatius, de Salle, Kempis, John of the Cross and all more contemporary versions all emphasise the value of right action both for its own sake and for the sake of personal ascent.

    On the note of interpretation I less and less value the initial critical thought and try to use it as the spur towards correction rather than needing to repudiate it as a sin. The apostle Paul warned against an excess of self judgement because both our hearts and our consciences seek to condemn us at every opportunity. It seems to me that there is the initial reflexive critical aspect which is almost involuntary and only merits the label of temptation. If the fiery dart is unextinguished and fanned into flame however- we have tipped over into willed sin. Anybody else have thoughts on this?

  10. Mendel says:

    I have been very happy to read the discussion points made on this topic. I think the distinction between temptation and giving way to temptation is valuable. I presume that the temptations of Christ in the desert were genuine attractions to what the Devil offered but were rejected by Christ exercising free will.
    I don’t suppose that we can ever be sure of how free our own choices may be. But I seem to remember Pope John Paul II saying that the more we act rightly the more we would be inclined to act rightly in the future.

  11. John says:

    Could the issue be even broader than temptation, sin and confession? Is it about who/ what we are?
    Shine a light on a mirror and it reflects back. Bring two people together – see a face, meet a person – and our brains react immediately with learned responses. Can we delay this reaction? (I think not.) Can we train our brains and alter the judgements. (I’m not sure.) Can we control and take responsibility for our subsequent behaviour – Yes (at times with a struggle!)

    • mike Horsnall says:


      Yes I think the bottom line of this discussion is who we are:

      “What is man that you are mindful of him?
      The son of man that you care for him?” Psalm 8.4

      But the answer is optimistic is it not?

      It is clear from our collected thoughts that we find not that much to hope for in our dull mechanical flesh…and yet we will not relinquish our dreams of freedom and we push ourselves towards the good. The materialist view must take the above few thoughts and derive from them an atheistic biological determinsim. The Christian however recognises another force at work and the Catholic I think tries to see this force at work in all humankind to some degree-hence culpability and the consideration of it in the Catechism. Despite the strident note of aggressive atheism it seems to me that modern thinking seems increasingly to validate the religious world view. This presents one or two problems of its own of course but I find it quite cheering.

  12. Quentin says:

    Gerry, some few contributions back you mentioned the attitude of the Church towards the Jews. I have just remembered that I wrote a piece on this in early 2008. I have posted it under “Extra Content”. (see page header) It won’t be there for long so, if anyone wants to keep a copy, copy and paste is recommended.

    • mike Horsnall says:

      “…Of course the general Catholic population followed the official line with all the enthusiasm of a mob given licence to behave cruelly while feeling virtuous about it. There were outbreaks of violence, pogroms, expulsions and general abhorrence of anything Jewish. And these continued throughout history..”

      Good article that Quentin.
      There is one thing that baffles me about all this. It is perfectly obvious from the New Testament as a whole that anyone who joins a mob view and comes against another is wrong. I can see that ethnicity underlies religion in many cases and is a stronger force but it really is very clear that we should not take part in pogroms or abhorrence. This tends to question the term ‘catholic’ rather-in other words to what degree does ‘catholic’ persecution of Jews show a lack of personal conversion within the catholic church? The same could be said of Rwanda of course.

  13. Gerry says:

    Quentin, Thanks. Wonderful. As far as describing what happened, that’s about as good as it could be put. I hope every Secondsighter will read it. It’s a superb review of 2000 years treatment of the Jews in a few paragraphs.
    However, I still wonder why it happened, why it wasn’t obvious to these incredibly brainy and good Christian saints and leaders that God loved the Jews, and that Jesus loved his fellow Jews. I’m afraid, in an amateurish way, I put it down to the legalistic approach to religion that seems to have dominated our Church from early days and still dominates it today. Once the legal people get hold of a religion and take charge, things go wrong. Until someone thinks of a better explanation I’ll stick to that!

    John Nolan, Many, many thanks for that heart warming quote from my confirmation namesake St Bernard. It’s lovely, it says it all: Lay not your hands upon the Jews, for they are the apple of God’s eye.

  14. Quentin says:

    Just some thoughts for Mike and Gerry.

    I share what I take to be your concern about the characteristics of the Church. For example, foul though sexual abuse may be it does not test my faith as much as the institutional cover ups which protected clergy at the expense of the victims. AntiSemitism and the acceptance of slavery come into the same category.

    But as I have said before, St Peter was chosen with a few endorsements on his licence and the Chosen People were flagrantly and often unfaithful to the Covenant without being spurned. The Gospels note the presence of a “just” man, e.g Joseph of Arimathea or the Centurion. I suppose we have to ask ourselves whether Jesus would recognise us as such!

    In any event, I have to say with Luther (though pointing in a different direction) Hier stehe Ich. Ich kann nicht anders. Gott helfe mir.

  15. mike Horsnall says:

    I have a few endorsements too so its not the fact of human weakness and sin that bothers me but rather the reach of personal metanoia. One of the great differences in teaching-as far as I can see-in the Catholic church as opposed to the free churches is this notion of change of direction, of being ‘born again’ Rather as if instead of trying to drive a little better along the current highway a completely road different map is required- a change in temperament as opposed to a little surface self control.
    I’m not too sure about the ‘being born again’ bit either but at least it carries with it the notion of radical conversion. I’m unclear about the catholic view on this is but sense a difference which seems to emphahsise individual change less at the general laity level. Perhaps it might be expected that to run along the tramlines of the church with regard to outer behaviour and to partake of the sacraments will of itself produce radical change in a persons psyche – conformation to Christ-leading itself to a spirit unlikely to smash Jewish shop windows (even in Manchester or Croydon) but more likely to love his/her neighbour as him/herself.

    Anyone attempting to follow Christ after being converted as an adult will quickly come to the conclusion that deep metanoia is required and that this process is for life so best get down to it in all aspects and be prepared to face plenty of humiliating reversals-its hard to reconcile this choice of the rocky road that marks true discipleship as I understand it- with wilful persecution in any shape or form- so there must be something else at work. I’m not having a general moan about the church here, just expressing puzzlement.

  16. Quentin says:

    Mike, how closely analogous is the metanoia of the Church to the metanoia of the individual? The Church, as the Mystical Body, can never be separated from Christ – though we may well be. But whatever you call it, a deep change springing from an acknowledgement of guilt is called for. A good deal of the necessary ground was covered by Vatican II – and we have all seen how hard it is to make it stick.

  17. Momangelica says:

    All a bit far beyond me I think – not sure; are we talking about relativism?

    • mike Horsnall says:


      Sorry if we have tripped over into the esoteric! This little bit of the thread, these last two-three posts, are thoughts about what makes a christian different from any one else and is that ‘something’ to do with a process of change -initiated and operated by the spirit of God along with our willing cooperation -a reality in the individual heart or not. Metanoia means a deep inner change of heart.
      Quentin you say “we may well be” and that is the point I think. Only if we actively cooperate with the Spirit of God in following Christ, so to become more like him, are we part of the Church??? Does that sound right to you?… to me it doesn’t quite fit somehow …why does the church need this deep metanoia in the first place?

  18. Gerry says:

    John Nolan, Help! I cannot find that splendid quotable quote from St Bernard: Lay not your hands upon the Jews, for they are the apple of God’s eye. Have you got a reference?

    • John Nolan says:

      As a first-year undergraduate some 40 years ago one of the topics we studied was ‘Christendom and Islam in the mid-twelfth century’ which involved the use of original sources (yes, an understanding of medieval Latin was required, unthinkable nowadays!)
      St Bernard preached the Second Crusade which turned out to be a monumental failure. One of the chroniclers (I think it was Odo of Deuil) tells of an itinerant monk, Rudolphus, who went round the towns and cities of the Rhineland inciting the people to attack the Jews, and many suffered in spite of the efforts of the ecclesiastical authorities to protect them.

      When news of this reached St Bernard he ordered Rudolphus back to his monastery and condemned Christian violence against Jews. I came across this quotation while reading up on this, although I can’t remember exactly where, and like you I have not been able to source it. Of course St Bernard would have been familiar with Deuteronomy 32: Pars autem Domini populus ejus … invenit eum in terra deserta … et custodivit quasi pupillam oculi.

  19. Gerry says:

    Thanks John N. I also read St Bernard’s efforts to get a crusade going. It was a bit like reading a 12th century Christian Osama bin Laden, but with a few “go steady on the Jews” phrases added. I’ll keep hunting for that quotation and report back in due course.

  20. st.joseph says:

    Having spent over a week in Co Wicklow Eire and listened to numerous comments on the riots in England and how much bigotry was thought of coming from the colour of ones skin-obviously, not so much from imigration only from a few, but neverthless opinions can be influential,I expect not the general opinion.As some mentioned the notices that where it said no jews,no dogs and no irish!
    The Church came into a lot of criticism, more from those who do not practice!
    I live very close to a healing centre for sick priests, who have left now for about 6 years. They came from all over Ireland and USA. It was not common knowledge why they were there for re-habilation,one very unfortunate priest committed suicide on the local railway line.
    When they were thought to be ready they would come to the local parish for around 6 months.
    So obviousley most had compassionate feelings for those who were troubled!They were not thought of as criminals! So when people speak about the Church, I have an open mind as to all the circumstances surrounding all the criticism, and dont like sweeping criticisms.Jesus said’there is no

    difference between greek,jew,or the colour of ones skinJudge not and you will not be judged’.!


  21. John Nolan says:

    Reading Quentin’s 2008 article on the Shoah, I take the point about Christian anti-semitism but there are a lot of questions which need to be addressed, and one should not be shy of asking them. Dreyfus was scapegoated by a French Republic which was openly hostile to the Catholic Church and in fact actively persecuted her to the extent that religious orders took refuge in (protestant) England. In Germany Jews were integrated into German culture by the 18th century (think Lessing and Moses Mendelssohn) and it was possibly the least anti-semitic country in Europe before the First World War, although there were worrying signs that anti-semitism was on the increase in Germany and Austria in the early 20th century.

    Hilaire Belloc, in politics a Liberal, always maintained that Dreyfus was guilty. But he also thought that the French Revolution was a good thing. Much as I admire HB I think he was wrong on both counts. Going back to Germany, the well-organized and publicized boycott of Jewish businesses in 1933 – ‘Kauf nie bei Juden!’ was a spectacular flop and despite all the efforts of a semi-totalitarian State I don’t think the Nazis succeeded in making the German people as anti-semitic as their French neighbours. English anti-semitism, like most English prejudices, was based on snobbery.

    In my experience, most Catholic Christians have no problem with accepting Judaism on its own terms, and respect its spirituality, ethics, rituals and historical continuity despite adversity. However, religiously observant Jews must regard Christianity as offensive per se, and the general consensus has to be that it was largely invented by St Paul to appeal to the hellenistic world. The fact that we interpret the Old Testament as prefiguring the New must rank as a perversion. Catholics are obliged to pray for the conversion of the Jews, and to believe this will happen in God’s good time. Benedict XVI’s new Good Friday prayer strikes the right note and should replace the present anodyne and patronizing one.

    The Jewish revolt and the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D.70 is fully explainable in historical terms. But as a Catholic I am bound to accept Matthew 22 vv1-14, while accepting that Our Lord was not referring to the Jews as a whole, but to the religious establishment of the time, and of course all of us as well. As a child I remember reading a little allegorical science-fiction story. Someone had invented a time machine and was determined to go back to first-century Palestine to witness the Crucifixion. As Jesus passed on his way to Golgotha, the crowd was silent. ‘This can’t be right, it’s not what I have read’ thought our time-traveller. So he shouted out: ‘Crucify him!’ and continued shouting until the rest of the crowd joined in.

  22. Iona says:

    John – I’ve read the same story, but can’t remember who wrote it. All the “Crucify him!” shouters were in fact time travellers and the Jews of the period were standing silent and sorrowful.

    I read somewhere recently – and I can’t remember where but it may well have been in Pope Benedict’s “Jesus of Nazareth” book, Vol. I – that one of the currents in Jewish thought is actually favourable to Christianity because Christianity spread monotheism amongst people who had previously been pagan and polytheistic.

  23. st.joseph says:

    When I hear of people walking on a bed of hot bricks or red hot burning coal I wonder what does it prove? I think if we had to do it to escape a burning building we all would do so.I think we can shut out pain when we are not frightened of the consequences. They do it and run fast-I think.
    Maybe animals would think twice about it,does that mean that their brain works different to humans? Just a thought.

  24. Iona says:

    I think, like us, they do it if the perceived threat / reward is great enough.

  25. John Nolan says:

    Interesting. We have the capability of weighing risks, which is the result of having a ‘rational soul’. St Thomas Aquinas credited the higher elements of brute ceation as having a ‘sensitive soul’ capable of a range of emotions including hope, but I’m not sure whether experts in animal behaviour would agree with him.

  26. st.joseph says:

    There is a big area of common land for miles around where I live mostly occupied by deers and cows,rabbits ,squirells all sorts of wild life,who haven’t learned yet the dangers of traffic.
    Don’t attempt to go near a calf, which its mother can see from a great distance,she will dash across and so help the person who is near it.It will attack.

  27. John Nolan says:

    st.joseph, how right you are! St Thomas defended the idea of animals having hope, observing that they will chase something they have no realistic prospect of catching. Alexander Pope (whose Catholicism is usually ignored) pitied the ‘poor Indian’ who believed that in the afterlife ‘his faithful dog will bear him company’ but was writing in the enlightened and rational 18th century. Animals have an innocence which can teach us a lot, and is it not beyond the bounds of possibility that there might be some sort of doggy heaven?

  28. Gerry says:

    At dog show: Owner, “Do you think there will be dogs in heaven?” Clergyman, “Would it be heaven?” Fom Today progamme BBC 4 about four years ago.

    • Quentin says:

      Gerry, let me take you back nearly 70 years when, at prep school, I overheard a classmate ask the headmaster whether his dog would be in Heaven when he got there.
      The reply he received was “If you would be unhappy without your dog, he will certainly be there. It wouldn’t be perfect happiness otherwise.”
      Needless to say, the headmaster was a Jesuit.

  29. st.joseph says:

    I have seen a dog waiting at a zebra crossing for traffic to stop.and one sit at the side of the road on its own and wait for traffic to pass.

  30. John Nolan says:

    The new translation of the Exsultet gives the bees their due, faithfully rendering the Latin ‘per minisrtrorum manus de operibus apum’ and ‘huius lampadis apis mater eduxit’.

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