Monday, September 17, 2007

Beyond Naïve Belief

I read with some fascination Beyond Naïve Belief: The Bible and Adult Catholic Faith, by Paul E. Dinter, a former Catholic priest. What first got my attention about this book was a quotation from it in an Orthodox publication:

A literal understanding of the virgin birth that requires believers to accept the physical virginity of Mary in conceiving Jesus (hence, that there were no male chromosomes coming from Joseph) violates both the principle of instrumental causality as well as the laws of embryonic science. (p. 288)

Violates? Violates “instrumental causality”? Does God have to bow to Aristotle? Or to the current state of embryonic science? For that matter, did the “impossibility” of a virgin birth appear only in modern times, or did not the ancients, even with their embryonic science, already realize it as surely as we? Yet, are not all things possible with God?

That somebody may not believe literally in the virgin birth I can well understand, and I can respect his opinion, too – but not on those grounds! Surely, I said to myself, this author will make better sense, or at least some sense, in context.

Puzzled, therefore, and vexed, I bought the book and guess what? The context did not exonerate the author at all! At least the intellectual context didn’t. But two pages later, we find out the other, the true context:

What is at stake today in the literal understanding of the virgin birth as a biological miracle is…the entire complex of sexual and anthropological views that the Catholic hierarchy associates with the natural law and positive divine law. These are understood in absolutist fashion, impervious to any evolutionary development, supposedly written on the heart so that, if people follow sexual inclinations or sexual mores other than those defined as normative, they are guilty if not of sin then of deformations of an order that God is said to have declared must never be broken.

Ah. So it isn’t really about Aristotelian mental constructs after all, or embryonic science, either. It’s the indulgence of sexual passion in any form without guilt. Finally, at the end of the book, Dr. Dinter drops the masquerade. The pope and God, inadequately distinguished, are both alike unwelcome in his sex life. He tries to chase them both away by tinkering with doctrine – an undertaking unlikely to influence either of them.

Interestingly, despite the book’s subtitle, the other three doctrines the author mainly attacks are extra-biblical: papal infallibility, the Immaculate Conception and the Catholic version of the Assumption. All these Roman doctrines, of course, also have implications for his sexual agenda.
Now it all clicks.

And that is quite a relief for me, because now I think I understand several other pieces of scholarly nonsense that used to puzzle me sorely. Whenever a smart person writes something stupid, implausible, or manifestly false, there is actually a reason for it, and a very strong one at that. The reason, however, will have nothing to do with an honest search for truth; it’s rather the opposite of dispassionate scholarship. Why did I never catch on to this before? Well, well! Quite a revelation to me, speaking of Naïve Belief!