Category Archives: Christianity

Christopher Hitchens misrepresents Dante

From God Is Not Great, pp. 167-68:

[O]ne of the great difficulties of revealed religion . . . is the problem of what to do about those who were born before the exclusive “revelation,” or who died without ever having the opportunity to share in its wonders. Christians used to resolve this problem by saying that Jesus descended into hell after his crucifixion, where it is thought that he saved or converted the dead. There is indeed a fine passage in Dante’s Inferno where he comes to rescue the spirits of great men like Aristotle, who had presumably been boiling away for centuries until he got around to them.

This is wrong on two counts.

First, despite Dante’s obvious admiration for the person he refers to as “the Philosopher” and “the master of those who know,” Aristotle is never saved. Neither is Virgil, nor any of the other virtuous pagans of pre-Christian times. Dante meets them in hell. He writes that he “still glories in having witnessed” such “great souls” — but nevertheless insists that they are damned. When Jesus descends to hell after his crucifixion, he saves only those who explicitly worshiped Yahweh while they were alive — i.e., the Hebrews of Old Testament times, plus one Trojan warrior who (according to Dante) had received a private revelation and become a secret Yahwist. Everyone else is permanently damned — unless, like the Roman emperor Trajan, they have the good fortune to be miraculously raised from the dead and converted on earth; in hell, conversion is to no avail.

Second, Aristotle and the others are not and never were “boiling away.” They are consigned to Limbo — which, while technically a part of hell, involves no torture, fiery or otherwise. Aristotle and company live, for all intents and purposes, in the very Elysian Fields for which they had perhaps hoped. Their only “punishment” is that they long for paradise but have no hope of ever attaining it. As for the virtuous Hebrews saved in Christ’s “harrowing of hell” (as his post-crucifixion visit is called), they did have a hope of eventually reaching paradise, and so for them Limbo involved no punishment whatsoever. They were never in “hell” at all in any meaningful sense.

So Dante’s God is both more and less merciful than Hitchens portrays him to be. More merciful, because he doesn’t actually torture or “boil” anyone for the “sin” of having been born at the wrong time; less merciful, because he does bar such people from paradise permanently.

For more details, see my post “The fates of non-Christians in Dante’s Comedy.”


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The fates of non-Christians in Dante’s Comedy

Pagans who were wicked by pagan standards are punished in the circle of Hell appropriate to their particular crimes. For example, Paris is punished in the second circle for crimes of lust, while Brutus is consigned to the jaws of Satan himself for treachery against his lord and benefactor. Pagans guilty of such sins as suicide and sodomy — sinful by Christian standards but not necessarily by pagan ones — are not specifically punished for them.

Pagans who lived lives of virtue (reckoning, again, by their own pagan standards), but who never had the opportunity to receive Christianity and baptism, are consigned to Limbo — which, though it is technically the first circle of Hell, is not a place of punishment. In fact, it seems to be pretty much what virtuous pagans expected after death. Their only punishment is that they now know that there is something higher — the true Paradise — but have no hope of ever attaining it.

Virtuous Hebrews who lived before Christ could be considered Christians avant la lettre (because they worshiped Jehovah, who is Christ), but they lacked explicitly Christian faith, hope, and baptism. They were consigned to Limbo with the pagans until after the Crucifixion, when Christ came to hell and liberated them. They are now in Paradise.

Note, then, that prior to the Crucifixion everyone (barring perhaps a few exceptions like Enoch and Elijah) went to Hell — either to Hades (Limbo) or Tartarus (the lower circles). This is consistent with most pre-Christian beliefs about the afterlife; certainly no Greek expected to ascend to Olympus after death.

Muslims are considered Christian heretics (a view which is not historically unreasonable), and Muhammad himself is punished as such in the sixth circle of Hell. Other Muslims, though, seem more often to be judged as if they were pagans. Averroes, Avicenna, and Saladin are found in Limbo with the pagan worthies. This despite the fact that, like all Muslims, they lived during the Christian era and could in theory have become Christians had they wished. (Saladin, in particular, had certainly been exposed to Christianity and rejected it; he spent his career fighting against the Crusaders.) I am not aware of any post-biblical Jews who appear in the Comedy, but Dante would perhaps have treated them similarly.

Virgil’s permanent home is in Limbo with the other virtuous pagans, but he is allowed to visit Purgatory in his capacity as Dante’s guide. Paradise, however, is closed to him.

Cato the Younger works as the gatekeeper and guardian of Purgatory. It is not evident what his ultimate fate will be, but it seems reasonable to assume that his situation is similar to that of Virgil: He is visiting Purgatory “on business,” as it were, but in the end — when Purgatory is done away with — will have to return to Limbo. (Note that he is not condemned for his famous suicide — a sin normally punished in the seventh circle of Hell — because it was not forbidden by the Stoic morality under which he lived.)

Trajan, the Roman emperor, is in Paradise, though originally he had been consigned to Limbo like any other righteous pagan. Legend has it that Pope Gregory the Great, saddened at the damnation of so great a man, prayed for his soul and was granted this miracle: Trajan, after all those centuries, was raised from the dead. Back in his body, he was once again free to choose Christianity and baptism, and he did so. When he died for the second time, he went to Paradise as a Christian.

Ripheus is hardly a household name, but he makes a brief (two-line) appearance in the Aeneid, where he is described as “first among the Teucrians for justice and observing right.” Virgil, ever the pessimist, dryly adds that “the gods thought otherwise” — apparently unimpressed by his outstanding virtue, they allow him to be cut down like any common soldier in the sack of Troy. But according to Dante (who apparently invented the story himself), one particular God was impressed with Ripheus’s virtue and chose to reward it by granting him, centuries before the birth of Christ, a private revelation of the Christian gospel. Thus, unknown to his contemporaries, Ripheus died in the true Faith. He lived before baptism was available, but faith, hope, and charity took the place of that sacrament for him. In this he is similar to the pre-Christian Hebrews, who are also saved without baptism — and we may presume that, like them, he went first to Limbo and only later, after Christ’s harrowing of Hell, to Purgatory and Paradise.

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For Dante, hope is the one thing needful.

On the lowest terrace of Ante-Purgatory — that is, the lowest possible level for a soul whose ultimate destiny is salvation — Dante and Virgil meet Manfred of Sicily. According to the (perhaps unjust) accounts by which the poet Dante knew him, Manfred had been a moral monster, excommunicated by the Church and denied Christian burial. Among other enormities, he had allegedly murdered his own father, brother, and two nephews, and attempted the murder of a third nephew. In other words, he would ordinarily have been condemned to the very lowest Circle of Hell, to the realm of Caïna, as one guilty of treachery against his own kin.

Manfred, however, repented at the moment of death — or perhaps it was not even repentance in the usual sense of confession and contrition. He says simply “I gave myself back” (io mi rendei) to God.

After my body had been shattered by
two fatal blows, in tears, I then consigned
myself to Him who willingly forgives.

My sins were ghastly, but the Infinite
Goodness has arms so wide that It accepts
who ever would return, imploring It.

. . .

Despite the Church’s curse, there is no one
so lost that the eternal love cannot
return — as long as hope shows something green.

— Purgatorio iii. 118-23, 133-35 (Mandelbaum trans.)

The choice of words is highly significant: not “as long as he repents” or “as long as he dies with the name of Jesus on his lips” or anything like that, but “as long as hope shows something green” (mentre che la speranza ha fior del verde)Manfred died in the hope of salvation, and it was that — rather than repentance per se — which saved him.

(Contrast Dante’s Manfred with Byron’s character of the same name. The abbot implores the dying Manfred to “Give thy prayers to heaven —  / Pray — albeit in thought, — but die not thus,” but Manfred, having spurned the fiends, spurns God as well. His last words, as the abbot begs him again to make “but yet one prayer,” are “Old man! ’tis not so difficult to die.”)

Manfred, the lowest of the saved, makes an interesting contrast with Virgil and the other virtuous pagans, the highest of the damned. The latter are “punished just with this: we have no hope and yet we live in longing” — and, as discussed in my previous post, one possible interpretation is that the “sin” for which the virtuous pagans are punished is also a lack of hope. Lacking the Christian revelation, they hoped for nothing higher than the Elysian Fields, and so that is all they receive. “I am Virgil,” the poet says later, in purgatory, “and I am deprived of Heaven for no fault other than my lack of faith.” Dante certainly seems to be portraying hope as the one deciding factor in the soul’s destiny. With it, even Manfred is salvable; without it, even Virgil is damned. That hope is the key distinction between purgatory and hell — between the suffering which saves and the suffering which does not — is reinforced by the inscription over the gates of hell, ending in the famous line “All hope abandon, ye who enter here.”

Having noticed this, I now find an emphasis on hope jumping out at me from many different parts of the Comedy. It is mentioned again and again in the first canto of the Inferno, when Dante confronts the three beasts. The leopard “gave me good cause for hopefulness,” but “hope was hardly able to prevent the fear I felt when I beheld a lion.” Then, when the she-wolf appears, “I abandoned hope of ever climbing up that mountain slope.” And of course every cantica ends in the word “stars” — a traditional symbol of hope.


I am not yet ready to comment on Dante’s ideas regarding hope — I want to go through the whole Comedy again and spend some time digesting it — but I just wanted to point out an aspect of Dante that I had never noticed before.


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Dorothy L. Sayers on the first few Circles of Hell

I’ve been making my way through Dante’s Comedy for my third time — this time in Dorothy L. Sayers’s version. The translation, which pulls off the incredible feat of reproducing the original terza rima rhyme scheme in English, certainly has its charms, but in many places it strikes me more as an interpretation of Dante than a faithful rendering, and I would recommend it only to those who have already read a more literal version. However, Sayers’s introduction to each cantica and brief commentary at the end of each canto are often very insightful.

The following is from Sayers’s commentary on Canto IV of the Inferno, which deals with the First Circle of Hell, or Limbo, to which Virgil and the other virtuous pagans are consigned.

After those who refused choice [described in Canto III] come those without opportunity of choice. They could not, that is, choose Christ; they could, and did, choose human virtue, and for that they have their reward. . . . Here again, the souls “have what they chose”; they enjoy that kind of after-life which they themselves imagined for the virtuous dead; their failure lay in not imagining better. They are lost . . . because they “had not faith” — primarily the Christian Faith, but also, more generally, faith in the nature of things.

The First Circle is uniquely troubling because its inmates seem to be there through no fault of their own. It is true that they are not actively tortured as those in the lower circles are — their only punishment is that “we have no hope and yet we live in longing” — but they seem not to have deserved even that. Virgil’s explanation in Canto IV is that these souls are damned for no other “fault” than that, living before Christ, they lacked baptism and did not profess the Christian religion. To damn them for failing to do what they could not possibly have done seems manifestly unjust.

However, that is not the whole story. Even in Canto IV we learn of how Christ descended to Limbo and rescued the unbaptized souls of Adam, Abraham, David, and other pre-Christian biblical figures. And once one has read the entire Comedy and found Cato in purgatory and Trajan in paradise, the situation appears even more complicated. It is not true that all non-Christians are summarily damned. It is not even true that all non-Hebrew non-Christians are summarily damned. Therefore, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, and the other denizens of the First Circle must be there for some actual moral failing — a comparatively minor failing, but still one which precludes all possibility of salvation — a failing which, without the benefit of the Christian revelation, is almost (but not quite) inevitable. Sayers’s interpretation of that failing seems a plausible one.

“Dream other dreams, and better!” — the admonition of the angel at the end of Mark Twain’s Mysterious Stranger. This, in Sayers’s interpretation, is what Virgil and the others failed to do. It is characteristic of Dante’s logic that each punishment in hell simply is the sin being punished, seen for what it truly is. If Virgil’s only punishment is that he has no hope, it stands to reason that that was also his only sin. (As a great admirer of Virgil and a somewhat obsessive re-reader of the Aeneid, I would have to say I agree with that assessment.) Where there is no vision, the people perish. By way of contrast, consider Goethe’s Faust — whose only virtue is that he lacks Virgil’s only vice. And Faust is saved.


In her commentary on Canto VII of the Inferno, Sayers comments on Dante’s passage through the first few Circles of Hell. Dante blacks out at the gate of Hell and enters the First Circle (Limbo) unconsciously. The passage from the First to the Second (where lust is punished) is made consciously but is not described in any detail. Dante then again loses consciousness and awakes in the Third Circle (where the gluttons are). The passage to the Fourth Circle (misers and spendthrifts) is described in a little more detail, and thereafter the passage from each Circle to the next is very clearly described. Sayers writes:

From Limbo to the Second Circle — from the lack of imagination that inhibits the will to the false imagination that saps it — the passage is easy and, as it were, unnoticed. From the Second Circle to the Third — from mutuality to separateness — the soul is carried as though in a dream. From the Third to the Fourth  Circle the way is a little plainer — for as one continues in sin one becomes uneasily aware of inner antagonisms and resentments, though without any clear notion how they arise. But as antagonism turns to hatred, the steps of the downward path begin to be fearfully apparent. From this point on the descent is mapped out with inexorable clarity.

For Sayers, what distinguishes the sins of the Second, Third, and Fourth Circles is not so much their differing objects (sex, food, and money, respectively) as the differing attitudes towards other people which they represent. Lust involves love and mutuality and is “not wholly selfish”; gluttony, in contrast represents “solitary self-indulgence,” indifferent to others. In the Fourth Circle, “indifference becomes mutual antagonism, imaged here by the antagonism of hoarding and squandering.”

This is not the most obvious interpretation of these three categories of sin, but I think it is a promising one. (If the sins are taken at face value, it is rather difficult to see how indulgence in food could be considered more serious than sexual sin!) Here, then, is Sayers’s interpretation of the first four Circles, with the succeeding five Circles noted as well:

  1. Virtuous living, limited only by a lack of hope or imagination
  2. Mutual and quasi-“loving” pursuit of pleasure together with other people (typified by sexual lust)
  3. The solitary pursuit of pleasure without regard to other people (typified by gluttony)
  4. Antagonism towards others because their chosen pleasures are incompatible with one’s own (typified by the antagonism between misers and spendthrifts)
  5. Wrath
  6. Heresy
  7. Violence
  8. Fraud
  9. Treachery

If this is indeed the primary significance of the first four Circles, Sayers is right that the passage from each to the next is smooth and natural and many be made almost unconsciously.  Certainly the transition from “imagine there’s no heaven” to “imagine all the people living for today” is an easy one — though not, as shown by the virtuous pagans, an inevitable one. And once mere pleasure has been accepted as a goal, the transition to selfishness — first indifferent and then resentful — is equally natural.

A passage from Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, showing a very similar progression, comes to mind:

The inevitable corollary of such sexual interest is rebellion against the parental authority that represses it. Selfishness [Circles 2-3: lust and gluttony] thus becomes indignation [Circles 4-5: avarice and wrath] and then transforms itself into morality [Circle 6: heresy]. The sexual revolution must overthrow all the forces of domination, the enemies of nature and happiness [Circle 7: violence]. From love comes hate, masquerading as social reform. A worldview is balanced on the sexual fulcrum. What were once unconscious or half-conscious childish resentments become the new Scripture.

This is, for me, a new way of looking at the Circles of Hell. Instead of seeing each succeeding Circle as simply another sin, “worse” than the ones that preceded it, it can be quite fruitful to try to interpret it as the next logical step in the soul’s downward journey.

I am about to begin Sayers’s translation of the Purgatorio, which is explicitly about the soul’s step-by-step progress from sin to absolution — though, oddly, I have never really kept that sufficiently in mind in past readings. Finding pride near the bottom of the mountain and lust near the top, I have been content with the explanation that pride is “worse” than lust — when in fact the explicit message of the Purgatorio is that one must overcome pride first, then envy, and so on, and lust last of all. (This contrasts strongly with my own feeble efforts at self-improvement, which have always focused first on “obvious” sins of lust and gluttony rather than abstractions like envy and pride.) This time through Purgatory, I intend to focus on the sequential, step-by-step aspect of it and see what kinds of insights reveal themselves.


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The Incarnation as the author appearing in his work

If you conceive of God in the orthodox way — as a non-spatial, non-temporal thing (or, rather, non-thing) without body, parts, or passions, and with essentially no traits in common with human beings — then it’s very hard to understand what is meant by the Incarnation of God as Jesus Christ. The idea that a man could be God seems about as coherent as the  idea that a zebra could be time. (More anthropomorphic conceptions of God do not run into this difficulty. The Incarnation makes perfect sense to a Mormon.)

Recognizing this problem, Kreeft and Tacelli try in their Handbook of Christian Apologetics to make sense of the Incarnation by way of an analogy.

There is analogy in art to the possibility of the Incarnation; an answer to the objection that it is impossible and self-contradictory. Suppose an author inserted himself into his own novel or play as one of his own characters. This character would have a double nature, and would have “come down from heaven,” so to speak — the heaven of the author’s mind — yet he would be a completely human character interacting with the other characters in the story. Alfred Hitchcock frequently did this, inserting himself into his own movies as a character for a fleeting moment. If he can do it, why can’t God?

Forget the Hitchcock reference, which is misleading. Every character in a movie is played by an actor and thus has a “double nature,” and the characters Hitchcock played in his cameos were “himself” only in the superficial sense that he was the actor who played them. As characters, within the world of the story, they are not Hitchcock himself in any sense. Read the screenplay for Easy Virtue, and you would never guess that the fellow who walks past the tennis court is “really” Hitchcock. The actor is not the character. Mel Gibson once played Hamlet, but it would be nonsense to say that Hamlet, as a character, has a double nature as Hamlet/Gibson, or that Shakespeare inserted Mel Gibson into his play. Likewise, if Shakespeare himself once played the ghost of Hamlet’s father, that by itself does not mean that the ghost character is Shakespeare or that Shakespeare wrote himself into the play.


Setting aside plays and movies, then, where the apparent “double nature” of the characters is misleading, let us concentrate on written narratives in which the author appears as a character — for example, the narrators of Three Men in a Boat, Operation Shylock, or The Divine Comedy.

It’s hard to see how such characters have in any special sense “come down from the heaven of the author’s mind.” Obviously, every character in a novel comes from the author’s mind, and this would seem to be more true for characters whom the author invents from whole cloth, without basing them on himself or on any other one person in the real world.

In what sense can we say that the character of J. in Three Men in a Boat “is” Jerome K. Jerome? Well, he is called J.; he lives in England; he has a friend named George who works in a bank; he presumably has a personality similar to that of the author; and so on. The so-called “identity” of the character with the author boils down to a list of similarities or correspondences — and of course there are differences as well. The real Jerome had neither a dog nor a friend named William Samuel Harris (though Harris is based on his real friend Carl Hentschel), and presumably he didn’t really do or experience many of things the novel depicts him as doing and experiencing.

To say that a particular character “is” the author is only to say there are certain similarities or morphisms between the two — and similarity is a scalar quality, not an absolute one. The narrator of a straight-up autobiography like Rousseau’s Confessions “is” the author in a much stronger sense than is true of the narrator of Three Men in a Boat. The title characters in Don Juan and Manfred and pretty much everything else Lord Byron wrote “are” Byron to a lesser but still important degree. That is, there are striking similarities and correspondences but equally striking differences. Perhaps all characters in all fiction “are” the author to some non-zero extent, though some correspond more closely than others.

The same is true of paintings which include the painter. The head of Holofernes in Michelangelo’s painting has a “double nature” only because it represents Holofernes but physically resembles Michelangelo. Michelangelo could have made that head a little more or less “himself” by increasing or decreasing the degree of resemblance.


Applying this logic to the Incarnation is obviously problematic. Jesus would not really “be” God in any absolute sense but would merely be highly similar to God, perhaps (as in the cases of Manfred and Holofernes) intentionally so. All you could say of Christ would be that he was more similar to God than anyone else had ever been — not that he in actual fact was God.

And how “similar” can anyone really be to God, anyway? An artist can only write himself into his novel or paint himself into his picture as a human being — or as something very close to a human being. Orwell wrote real people (not himself, but the principle is the same) into Animal Farm as animals — but as anthropomorphized animals, human in all but name. Can you imagine writing a story about animals — real animals, thinking and doing only such things as real animals can think and do — and making one of the pigs recognizable as Leon Trotsky? I didn’t think so.

But the “novel” God is writing is not about Gods but about creatures which are so fundamentally different from their Author as to have virtually nothing in common with him. What could it possibly mean if E. O. Wilson were to say that he had written himself into his novel Anthill — as one of the ants? How could a fictional ant “be” Dr. Wilson in any remotely meaningful sense? How much could they possibly have in common? And the difference between God and a man is far vaster than the difference between a man and an ant.


But of course all characters in books are fundamentally, metaphysically different from their authors. Rousseau was a man, but the character “Rousseau” in Les Confessions is a pattern of French words, instantiated perhaps as marks on paper or pixels on a screen — or even as corresponding words in English or some other language. What could that abstract pattern of data possibly have in common with a man? How can it be meaningful to say that certain parts of a book bear a striking resemblance to a certain man who lived in 18th-century Geneva? Yet of course there is a meaningful sense in which Rousseau himself appears in his book. The principle is not similarity in the strict sense, but correspondence (which is why I hedged with “similarities or morphisms” some paragraphs ago) — and correspondence, unlike similarity, is possible in principle even between entities which are metaphysically unlike — possible, perhaps, even between man and God.


Douglas Hofstadter writes in Le ton beau de Marot about trying to “translate” chess to a hexagonally tiled board. What would be the hex-chess equivalent of a bishop? What would “move diagonally” mean on a board where “diagonal” has no meaning? (He comes up with a pretty good solution to that particular problem — though of course not a perfect one, since it is not in the nature of translations to be perfect.) The Incarnation would mean something much more challenging: “translating” the idea of God to the human world. What would “eternal and uncreated” mean in a world in which everything is time-bound and created? Since all humans have bodies, parts, and passions, what would be the human equivalent of not having them?

These are insoluble questions. Equivalency requires context, and God has — can have — no context.


But suppose it could be done. Suppose there could be a human being which, while necessarily dissimilar to God in virtually every way, somehow corresponded to God, had qualities which could be mapped non-arbitrarily to the qualities of God. Would this be, for Christians, an adequate way of conceptualizing the Incarnation.

I think not. Actual similarity is indispensable. Jesus would have to actually have the attributes of God in a way that Rousseau-the-character does not and cannot have the attributes of Rousseau-the-man. Rousseau was (say) six feet tall; no part of his book is six feet tall. Rousseau composed music; no part of his book can compose music. If I saw Rousseau drowning in a lake, I would have a moral duty to save him; if I saw his book in a lake I would have no such duty. In contrast, people assume that if God is good and wise and powerful, Christ must also have been good and wise and powerful; if we have a moral duty to obey God, we also have a moral duty to obey Christ; and so on. The Incarnation cannot be reduced to Christ’s being a mere allegory of God, to his being Truth only in the rather feeble sense that Una in The Faerie Queene is truth.


And yet mere similarity is not good enough, either. If Christ has some of the attributes of God (such as wisdom and power) and lacks others (such as timelessness and non-physicality), that’s not enough to make him God in any real sense.

The Incarnation has to mean more than similarity, more than correspondence. Christ has to actually be both God and a man — which makes no sense. And the analogy of an author putting himself into his book does nothing at all to clear it up. This line of thinking takes us nowhere.


Theology is a mug’s game, and one of these days I’ll finally decide I’ve had enough of it. So a lot of smart people in the past believed something incoherent, just as smart people have always done and always will do. Get over it, and move on. There’s no need to keep giving their ideas another chance, and another, and another. But somehow I keep doing just that.


Filed under Christianity, God, Philosophy

How crazy do you have to be to think you’re God?

C. S. Lewis once wrote that if Christ was a mere man who believed he was God, he would be “on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg” — that is, a complete lunatic who could not possibly be considered a great moral teacher or anything of that nature. In this essay, Peter Kreeft takes Lewis’s point a step further and claims that mistakenly believing oneself to be God is even crazier than believing oneself to be a poached egg — that Christ, if wrong, was literally as crazy as it is possible for a human being to be.

A measure of your insanity is the size of the gap between what you think you are and what you really are. If I think I am the greatest philosopher in America, I am only an arrogant fool; if I think I am Napoleon, I am probably over the edge; if I think I am a butterfly, I am fully embarked from the sunny shores of sanity. But if I think I am God, I am even more insane because the gap between anything finite and the infinite God is even greater than the gap between any two finite things, even a man and a butterfly.

Is that really a fair measure of insanity, though? The gap between your beliefs (about yourself or anything else) and reality is a measure of how wrong you are, but being very wrong isn’t the same as being insane. To be insane, you have to be obviously wrong; your beliefs have to be inconsistent with, or at least completely unsupported by, the data directly available to you. Ontologically speaking, a man may have far less in common with God than with a butterfly or even a poached egg — but the fact that he is not a butterfly is still far more immediately obvious than the fact that he is not God.

Consider the following three (hypothetical) people and their beliefs about themselves.

  1. Anthony believes that he is entirely composed of matter operating according to deterministic laws of physics, and that his “soul” (if that word is even appropriate) is “made of lots of tiny robots.” (The phrase is from Daniel Dennett’s translation of an Italian newspaper headline about his philosophy.)
  2. Brian believes that he is an immortal, non-physical spirit temporarily inhabiting a physical body, and that his spiritual part is supernatural and not subject to the laws of physics.
  3. Christopher is completely normal physically. However, he is firmly convinced that he has no hands and that his arms terminate in horse’s hooves. He believes this even when he is using his hands, which he can do just as well as anyone else. When other people insist that he does not have hooves and that his hands are perfectly normal, he thinks they are just trying to avoid hurting his feelings.

Whatever the truth may be about the soul and its relation to the body, it’s clear that either Anthony or Brian (or, most likely, both of them) must be deeply and fundamentally wrong about his own most basic nature, whereas Christopher’s error concerns only some relatively trivial anatomical details. Nevertheless, we probably all know people who hold views like Anthony’s and Brian’s and consider them perfectly sane — or at any rate far saner than Christopher, who is clearly barking mad.

Now some people may believe — or think they believe — that Anthony’s denial of his own metaphysical free will (which, in their view, he uses every day) is every bit as insane as Christopher’s insistence that he has no hands. It is therefore important to keep in mind that the question under consideration is not whether a particular belief is a “crazy” one, but whether a person holding that belief can be assumed to be so severely mentally ill that none of his teachings on any subject could be of any value to us. If Anthony or Brian (whichever one seems crazier to you) had written a book about, say, biology or economics or parenting — or even about moral philosophy or religion — would you feel justified in dismissing it as the ravings of a lunatic? (The question is supposed to be a rhetorical one, and I hope you got the right answer.)


Let us take it as axiomatic that Christians are not (as such) literally insane. Even if we assume for the sake of argument that the Christian creed is false, it is obvious that such people as Newton, Dante, and St. Thomas have much of great value to teach us. (See my essay about that here.)

Christians believe that Christ is the Eternal and Omnipotent God. They believe that in spite of the fact that he started his career as a baby, increased gradually in wisdom and stature, and needed to eat and drink like ordinary mortals — in spite of the fact that he died like an ordinary mortal, his last words being “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” — in spite of the fact that, after promising to return within the lifetime of his first-century disciples, he disappeared for 2,000 years and counting. Many Christians believe even “crazier” things about Christ — for example, that he and his Father are both one and not one, or that bread and wine can literally be his body and blood.

Christians believe all this, and yet, even if we assume it all to be false, they are still sane and perfectly capable of being great moral teachers. Is it really so different is someone falsely believes such things about himself? It seems different — it seems that any sane person would know the truth about himself in a way that he could not know it about another person — but I’m not so sure that it is.

At first glance, the Catholic’s belief that, despite his lying eyes, the bread and wine in front of him are actually the body and blood of Christ, seems to be on the same level as Christopher’s insistence that his hands are actually horse’s hooves. It’s not, though, because the Catholic’s belief is qualified in a way that makes it consistent with what he experiences: the bread is supposed to be flesh only in essence, while its “accidents” remain that of ordinary bread. Christopher’s belief about his hands has no such asterisk, which is what makes it more truly mad.

Similarly, no sane person is ever going to believe that he is simply God, but only God in human form. If Christ believed that he was God, but a God who had condescended to live and die as mortal, would it really be so obvious that he was wrong? So obvious that the belief would mark him as a raving lunatic and disqualify him as a great moral teacher? What aspects of his experience would be inconsistent with that belief? It would be an unusual belief, to be sure, an eccentric belief, but nowhere near the poached-egg level of madness. And if we assume that Christ was in fact a rather extraordinary mortal with seemingly “supernatural” abilities, and that he had been told by his mother that he had no biological father — well, then his belief that he was God hardly even seems all that eccentric anymore.


Actually, this whole discussion is less hypothetical than I have been making it sound. The fact is that I am personally acquainted with a man who believes himself to be Jehovah incarnate, and he’s a very intelligent, creative, and insightful person with a keen if somewhat unconventional moral sense. (In fact, in his moral discourse I often find the same combination of astute insight, earnest benevolence, and biting sarcasm that is so characteristic of Christ himself.) I wouldn’t call him a great moral teacher, but it’s quite easy for me to believe that someone like that could be such a teacher. I haven’t bothered myself too much over the question of whether he should be considered “insane,” but in a way it doesn’t really matter. I’m forced to conclude, either that you can believe you’re God without being insane, or that you can be insane and still be an insightful moralist. Either way, the “Lord, liar, or lunatic” trilemma crumbles.


Filed under Christianity, God, Psychology

Mormons and the cross

There are a couple of Mormons running for the presidency in the U.S., which means that the rather tiresome question of whether or not Mormons should be considered Christians is being discussed yet again. (Short answer: Do Mormons worship Jesus Christ? Yes, of course. Do they profess basically the same religion as Catholics and Protestants? No, of course not.)

I’m interested in a different but related question: Given that they believe in Christ and the crucifixion just as much as any other Christians, why don’t Mormons use the cross as a symbol?


I was surprised at how hard it was to find the historical answer to that question. As far as I know, Mormons have never, even in the earliest days of the movement, worn the cross or used it as a decorative motif in churches, on Bible covers, etc. — but when I tried to find some statement by an early Mormon leader to the effect that the cross ought not to be thus used, I got nothing. It appears that the non-use of the cross among Mormons just sort of happened, without anyone ever making an official decision on the matter. (In a similar way, Mormon missionaries don’t tell converts from other denominations to stop wearing the cross; people just figure it out.)


The earliest clear statement on the cross that I could find was in the fourth volume of Answers to Gospel Questions by Joseph Fielding Smith — not Mormonism’s founding prophet, but his great-nephew, who presided over the church in the early 1970s. Smith writes:

While we have never questioned the sincerity of Catholics and Protestants for wearing the cross, or felt that they were doing something which was wrong, it is a custom that has never appealed to members of the [LDS] Church.  The motive for such a custom by those who are of other churches, we must conclude, is a most sincere and sacred gesture.  To them the cross does not represent an emblem of torture but evidently carried the impression of sacrifice and suffering endured by the Son of God.  However, to bow down before a cross or to look upon it as an emblem to be revered because of the fact that our Savior died upon a cross is repugnant to members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. [source]

In 2005, Gordon B. Hinckley gave a similar explanation.

I do not wish to give offense to any of my Christian colleagues who use the cross on the steeples of their cathedrals and at the altars of their chapels, who wear it on their vestments, and imprint it on their books and other literature. But for us, the cross is the symbol of the dying Christ, while our message is a declaration of the Living Christ. [source]

This reaction to the cross is certainly understandable and has often been expressed (Shaw stipulated that his tombstone not “take the form of a cross or any other instrument of torture or symbol of blood sacrifice”) — but always by people who did not consider themselves Christian. It is odd that none of the countless other Christian movements and denominations has ever interpreted the cross that way. (Jehovah’s Witnesses do not use the cross either, but that’s because their ultra-literal reading of the Bible has led them to the conclusion that the σταυρός Christ was nailed to was a single upright stake.)


The problem with Smith and Hinckley’s explanation is that there are many symbols of the dying Christ, not just the cross, and Mormons have no problem with most of the others.

Mormons administer a version of the Eucharist, though water is used in the place of wine. The sacramental prayers identify the bread and water as symbols of Christ’s broken body and spilt blood but make no mention of the resurrection. The sacrament is generally preceded by a hymn which emphasizes the torture and death of Christ, such as “Upon the Cross of Calvary” or “Behold the Great Redeemer Die.”

Two of Mormonism’s most sacred symbols — used only by the initiated within the walls of the temple — represent the nails that the were driven through Christ’s palms and wrists to fix him to the cross.

When I was a missionary, we often showed people a short film called The Lamb of God, which was basically a much less graphic version of The Passion of the Christ. (It was created before Mr. Gibson’s film was; I don’t mean to imply that the Mormons copied his idea.) The majority of the film deals with Christ being flogged and abused and crucified, with a few minutes at the end for the resurrection.

Though you’ll never find a simple cross or crucifix on the walls of a Mormon church, you may well find a painting of the crucifixion. The cross appears to be acceptable so long as it is used in a portrayal of the historical crucifixion rather than as an iconic symbol of the Christian religion.

(One exception: Mormons do sing the hymn “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war / With the cross of Jesus going on before.”)

All this leads me to the conclusion that Mormons have no problem with using symbols of the dying Christ, and that there must be some other reason for not using the cross.


Another religious symbol which Mormons do not use is the ichthys or “Jesus fish.” This symbol makes no reference to the suffering or death of Christ. It represents an acronym of “Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ” — “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior” — a formula to which Mormons have no theological objections. It also alludes to Christ’s statement “I will make you fishers of men,” which should make it especially appealing to a missionary-oriented denomination like the Mormons. But they don’t use it. Nor have they ever used the Chi-Rho, which simply represents the word “Christ.”

Why not? Because, over and above their “literal” meaning, these symbols represent the institution of mainstream Christendom — and Mormons, while certainly “Christian” in the primary sense of that word, are not part of that institution.

Why is it that Britain’s Labour Party never uses that classic, instantly recognizable symbol of labor, the hammer and sickle? If that question were put to the party’s leaders, I’m sure they would be able to come up with some ad hoc reason — something about how, with the decline of agriculture and the rapid growth of the service sector, those implements no longer adequately symbolized the blah blah blah — but the honest answer would be that that symbol already “belongs” to other movements, movements which, while they have a great deal in common with Labour ideologically, are sufficiently different that Labour would not wish to imply they are the same by borrowing their symbols. And that, I think, is also the honest answer to the question of why Mormons do not use the cross.

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Filed under Christianity, Mormonism