After studying a glimpse of Theology, I’ve come to realise that the most important prerequisite which one needs to seriously study the Faith is Christian Philosophy.
Why? Because Philosophy is the LANGUAGE in which God uses to communicate Revelation to us. One cannot do Bible Exegesis without at least a basic understanding of Aristotelian Metaphysics.
Just this afternoon, a friend in one of my group chats made a ‘theologically’ incorrect statement which was innocent by nature, but actually disastrous to the Christian Faith. He said, “Oh, back in 1980 I wasn’t on earth yet. My soul was still floating around in heaven.”
This is why Metaphysics is crucial. Such statements reflect the lack of understanding in even the most fundamental ideas of our Faith. I immediately corrected him and said that we do NOT have pre-existing souls. It is in fact, a heresy from the early 4th Century!
The notion of us having pre-existent souls would imply Reincarnation, or that God sent us to earth as if it were some sort of test. It is completely incompatible with Christianity.
“If anyone asserts the fabulous pre-existence of souls, and shall assert the monstrous restoration which follows from it: let him be anathema.” (Second Council of Constantinople)
If anything could prove the existence of a soul, it is the utter emptiness of a corpse. — Mary Doria Russell, Children of God
When I was little, I asked my father where our souls were in our bodies. He made a gesture in the general area of his liver while trying to explain that souls animate our entire bodies. For quite awhile afterward, I was convinced that the soul was an organ beside the liver.
One evening I was walking through a park with an atheist friend, who is a strong determinist—he doesn’t believe that we have free will, but that all our decisions are formed solely by our genes or environment. He asked, “Wouldn’t you make the same decision again with the same information at hand?”
He is also a complete materialist (in the metaphysical sense). I asked, “What’s the difference between a living person and a corpse?”
He responded: “It’s all neurons. I’m basically a robot.”
At that juncture, I was strongly tempted to hit him over the head or grab him by the shoulders to shake some sense into him.1
Scientists have found that there is actually increased brain activity after death.2 Numerous near-death and out-of-body experiences have been recorded, suggesting that a human maintains consciousness though he may be clinically dead.3
Many years ago, my maternal grandmother Maria died from an accidental poisoning, and my grandfather left her body lying on their bed for a few days because he was in too much grief to prepare it for burial.
After those days, she awoke, saying that she had found herself in a place of profound peace and overwhelming joy, which she never wanted to leave. But a bearded man approached and told her she had to return to earth, because she had children to look after.
I am rather glad she did come back to this life, because my mother wasn’t born yet!
These words by a scientist who converted from materialistic atheism have stayed with me:
“Lewontin and most scientists are true believers in materialism, possessing an absolute faith that matter and its workings will eventually explain everything in the universe. But such a faith has already failed at the most basic level; brain function alone cannot account for the simple experience of seeing, hearing, tasting, or smelling. All human beings, scientists and laypersons, live in the nonmaterial world of the smell of lavender, the deep resonance of a cello, the beauty of a sunset over an ocean, the wonder evoked by the night sky, the elegance of Euclid’s demonstration of the infinitude of prime numbers, the very world that materialism cannot explain. If only matter existed, then we would have no interior life; we would be mindless things like rocks and volcanoes.”4
The soul is the form of the body, as Aristotle teaches.5 “The body cannot be the principle that accounts for life, since a body, when deprived of life, is still a body, but not alive.”6 Just as a house becomes a house when materials are constructed according to a certain plan, so does a living thing come into existence when it is ensouled.7 Without the soul, the body crumbles away into dust.
Let us treasure our souls, and take good care of them, just as we care for our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:16). Our souls are made in the image and likeness of God, that is, in the image and likeness of Love.
Remember, Christian soul, that thou has this day a duty:
God to Glorify, Eternity to Prepare for,
Jesus to Imitate, The Angels and Saints to invoke;
“…there is a case against cannibalism; the aversion from the idea of my eating my next-door neighbour is not a prejudice. … It rests on a sacramental sentiment about the human body, by which the soul soaks the body like a strong savour, and does not merely inhabit it like a hat in a hat-box.” — G. K. Chesterton, “The Moral Collapse of Modern Germany” (February 17, 1917)
“You do not possess the Sacred Humanity as you do when you receive Communion; but the Divinity, that essence the Blessed adore in Heaven, is in your soul; there is a wholly adorable intimacy when you realize that; you are never alone again!” — Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity, around May 27, 1906 (After assuring her mother that her doctrine on the presence of God within us is not something she came up with, but rather what Scripture tells us.)9
“I have found heaven on earth, since heaven is God, and God is in my soul. My mission in heaven will be to draw souls, helping them to go out of themselves to cling to God, with a spontaneous, love-filled action, and to keep them in that great interior silence which enables God to make His mark on them, to transform them into Himself.” — Saint Elizabeth of the Trinity(Letter 122)10
What makes a book great? A great book touches people across cultures and nations; it is a tome that reflects the realities of humanity in its characters, as Aristotle recommended in his Poetics,1 and reinforces virtue while decrying vice, as Plato noted in The Republic;2 as well as a classic that draws readers to reread it over and over again, discovering anew its nuggets of wisdom and delighting in its celebration of the best traits and actions of people.
I nominate the Harry Potter series by Joanne Kathleen Rowling as recent great books. The series is not as impressive as The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which has a more mystical and cerebral air; but it is more accessible and appealing to the average reader and has had a substantial impact on an entire generation, having been translated into 67 languages, with more than 450 million copies sold.3 In fact, I avoided reading the series for five years because I disdained its popularity, which I took as a sign that it was just another cheap product of mass culture. However, when I finally picked up the first book in the series, I quickly devoured as many sequels as there were available, recording lines that spoke to my heart.
For instance, Harry’s godfather Sirius Black says: “If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.”4 Rowling is an astute observer and recorder of human nature, character, and interaction. Through her novels, she champions the underdog, exalts the lowly, and casts the mighty from their thrones. She writes of prejudice against wizards from non-wizarding families (“mudbloods” like the brilliant student Hermione Granger), cruelty to enslaved house-elves (Dobby and Winky),5 and discrimination against werewolves (the learned Professor Lupin), giants (or half-giants like the gentle, generous Hagrid),6 and other races. In this way, she addresses very real human concerns in the guise of fantasy. In fact, researchers have observed that readers of Harry Potter tend to become more empathetic towards the disadvantaged, such as refugees.7
In addition, Rowling explores sinister modernist ideas. The evil antagonist Voldemort, an orphan born of a loveless union, declares, “There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it.”8 This is an allusion to Friedrich Nietzsche,9 who wrote, “This world is the will to power—and nothing besides.”10 Voldemort seeks to purge the world of everyone besides those of pure wizarding stock, a eugenic exercise reminiscent of the Holocaust. The orphaned Harry, who grew up with incredibly abusive relatives, does not succumb to hatred or cowardice but repeatedly triumphs over Voldemort, protected by his parents’ self-sacrificial love and aided by the knowledge and bravery of his devoted friends and mentors. Thus, he and his allies demonstrate selfless goodness overcoming selfish evil. Voldemort tempts Harry to join him,11 and Harry even questions his own sanity at one stage because he can feel Voldemort’s emotions through the cursed scar that links them,12 but Harry does not give in, although at times he really resents having been born into this stressful role of battling with Voldemort. These matters of morality reflect the life of the Christian, born into a fallen world and constantly battling with the devil, yet triumphing through the exercise of reason, virtue,and free will, supported by a community of love. As the headmaster, Dumbledore, tells Harry, reassuring him that he was not meant to be in Voldemort’s house of Slytherin: “It is our choices that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”13 Again and again, Harry chooses to do good, ultimately sacrificing himself but rising again from the dead.14 He is a Christ-like figure, an ordinary-looking human born into the position of saving the world from annihilation. Voldemort seeks to kill him from his birth, warned by a prophecy,15 but is himself destroyed by his own actions every time he attempts to destroy Harry. Rowling adheres to Aristotle’s plot guidelines, with peripeteia or reversal of circumstances, as well as anagnorisis or recognition.16
In spite of these serious themes, Rowling ensures that the books are enjoyable reads because of her magnificent sense of humor. She is a master of irony, sarcasm, and wit, creating immensely likable characters with unique voices.17 Some fans even feel as if the characters are like family.18 Furthermore, Rowling cleverly weaves in classical imagery and language, employing various mythical creatures such as the manticore, the sphinx, and Cerberus; using the names Minerva and Argus for the wisest female professor and the ever-watchful caretaker;19 and liberally sprinkling Latin phrases throughout the books. Moreover, borrowing from medieval times,20 she employs Christian imagery21 and the idea of the philosopher’s stone and even correctly dates the age of the alchemist Nicholas Flamel, a real-life Frenchman.22 Thus, Rowling builds on Western culture and tradition, reinterpreting and transmitting ancient stories to modern generations, as Aristotle recommends.23
Authoress Elizabeth Drew said, “The test of literature is, I suppose, whether we ourselves live more intensely for the reading of it.” I last reread Harry Potter over the summer, and found parallels between his life and mine, particularly in his preference to be at Hogwarts rather than home for the summer break. (I am thoroughly enjoying my studies at Campion College and do not really look forward to holidays.) Harry Potter inspires me, like so many others,24 to be considerate to everyone regardless of their background; to place others before myself, even to the ultimate cost; to love and appreciate those around me in this brief time on earth; and to find the joy and humor in this world though things may seem bleak (as things must have appeared to Rowling, who wrote the first book while dealing with divorce, depression, joblessness, and single parenthood). One fan reported that reading the books motivated her to seek help for depression.25 Rowling’s style and impact has even been likened to Dickens’ and Twain’s.26Harry Potter, I believe, has passed the test, and belongs among the great books of all time.
“I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.” (Thomas Nagel, The Last Word)
Some weeks I’m really not into writing long introductions to my pieces, so let’s get to it shall we: if God does not exist, then what follows is not that Hell does not exist, but rather that we already live there. Sure, we may not be shivering away in the ninth circle of Hell–though I suppose if we were, somebody would find a way to pin it on climate change–while having the endure the torment of Lucifer gnawing the flesh off of Judas and sucking the blood from Brutus . Nevertheless, the idea of merely being in the first circle of Hell is not exactly my idea of warmth and comfort.
Usually people don’t necessarily associate the lack of God as being “Hell” at any level, other than to note in passing that suffering does exist here as it must surely exist in Hell (albeit perhaps to a lesser degree). However, the first and greatest torment of Hell is precisely this loss of the beatific vision, this absence of God. Here is Dante’s own description of the first circle of Hell–the “limbo” in which we find ourselves if there is no God:
“In truth I found myself upon the brink
of an abyss, the melancholy valley
containing thundering, unending wailings….
Here, for as much as hearing could discover,
there was no outcry louder than the sighs
that caused the everlasting air to tremble.
The sighs arose from sorrow without torments,
out of the crowds–the many multitudes–
of infants and of women and of men.
The kindly master said: ‘Do you not ask
who are these spirits whom you see before you?
I’d have you know, before you go ahead,
they did not sin; and yet, though they have merits,
that’s not enough, because they lacked baptism,
the portal of the faith you embrace.
And if they lived before Christianity,
they did not worship God in fitting ways;
and of such spirits I myself am one.
For these defects, and for no other evil,
we now are lost and punished with just this:
we have no hope and yet we live in longing’ ”
(Inferno, Canto IV, 7-9, 25-42; transl. Allen Mandelbaum).
Sorrow without torment, living for ever with longing but no hope of satisfaction–this is the punishment of the damned in the first circle of Hell, which Dante equates to Limbo. For those in this circle, there is no further punishment than deprivation of God. The must live forever in longing for Him, and never have that longing satisfied–and they know that this longing will never be satisfied, so they cannot embrace even the hope that it will be. This is precisely where we find ourselves if there is no God, particularly if we know this to be true.
Could we be happy without God? The atheist often answers this with a yes. Try telling him that we all have a hole in our hearts which can only be filled with God, and he will more often than not scoff and laugh. There are plenty of other things which can make us happy, are there not? ‘Pursue pleasure or health and wealth or honor or even virtue instead,’ he might advise. Indeed, these things are all goods–they are each good to have and bad to lose (involuntarily), are they not?–so they can contribute to a life of satisfaction and contentment, at the very least. After all, happiness means obtaining or procuring what is good, does it not? I’m not aware of anyone who would deny this point; rather, most disagreements concern what is good, and how good it is. Thus, for example, if virtue is a greater good than pleasure, then it follows that we can gain greater happiness from being virtuous than from pursuing pleasure–and we will suffer a greater sorrow (or lack or loss of happiness) if we are not virtuous than if we fail to get much pleasure from life. But what is the highest good that a man can pursue?
Knowledge, love, virtue, health, pleasure, wealth, honor–these are all amongst the answers which are given to this question. Certainly, it could be argued in an Aristotelian manner that the highest goods of men is to know and to love , because these are the two things which we are uniquely capable of doing as men. Thus, the highest human (or natural) happiness comes from knowing and loving. There is, however, a greater good than either knowing or loving: God. Whatever its merits may be as an apologetic argument, Saint Anselm’s ontological proof reminds us of an important fact: God Is, by definition, that than which greater cannot be thought. Exist or not, God Is the greatest Being or thing which can exist even in principle.
And this means that God is the greatest good which we can somehow enjoy–in this case, via the beatific vision, via eternal communion with Him in heaven. Thus, while our greatest human happiness lies in knowing and loving, our greatest possible happiness lies in God. Our greatest possible sorrow therefore lies in losing the greatest possible happiness–sorrow is, after all, the negation of happiness, is it not?–so that our greatest possible sorrow comes from not obtaining union with God and knowing that we will not obtain that union. The other torments of Hell–from the fires traditionally envisioned to the frigid frosts of Dante’s ninth circle–are just the icing next to this one . Whatever other goods we may find in this life, and whatever happiness those goods may bring us, are fleeting by comparison; they are feeble substitutions which we might have enjoyed all the more in God’s presence, but which become ultimately a hollow happiness in His absence.
God’s absence means Hell. If God does not exist, then He is essentially absent, which means that this life is already Hell. I suspect that the greatest difference between the Hell of this life without God, and the Hell of eternal life without God, is that on the one hand this life is not eternal, meaning that there can be no absolute certainty that God does not exist, and on the other that we can in this life attempt to put on a brave face by seeking happiness in other things. We may perhaps convince ourselves that we have succeeded in finding happiness: by burying ourselves in our work for the sake of money or honors or even simple knowledge; or by numbing the sorrow of despair with endless pleasures; or by attempting to love someone or something as best we are humanly able . Absent God, we are ultimately faced with the realization that our happiness in this life must come to an end: meaning, in other words, that we must experience some sorrow for even our best efforts.
Even if we find other goods to pursue, ultimate happiness will not be ours. We can long for it, but if God does not exist, then we cannot gain the greatest possible good, and hence the greatest possible happiness. We must therefore endure the greatest possible sorrow, which is the knowledge that ultimate happiness can never be ours. The best reason to believe something is because it’s true. Thus, the best reason to believe in God is because He really does exist; but I think that the second-best reason to believe in God is because if we don’t, then Hell begins with life and, if we’re right or lucky, ends with death . The second best reason to believe in God is for the sake of our own happiness and the happiness of the people we love; or at the very least, for the sake of not living in Hell.
 Artistic reasons aside, I often wonder if Dante did not mentally include as one of Hell’s tortures the psychological torture of having to watch the devil continually chewing on Judas, Brutus, and Cassius as the punishment for failed traitors to their lords. The constant thought, aside from “I thought it would be hot here” and “Does this mean that I’m not going to have a happy ending?,” would be “As soon as one of those mouths finishes, I could be next!” Not a pleasant thought to have for all of eternity.
 Which is not necessarily to discount these other torments as trivial, though they are all lesser torments by comparison. This sorrow is called “Poena Damni” (see the Catholic Encyclopedia’s entry for Hell). The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that “Hell’s principal punishment consists of eternal separation from God in whom alone man can have the life and happiness for which he was created and for which he longs.” (CCC 1057).
 Of course, as I have argued elsewhere, to love someone means to desire the greatest good for that person (a point which comes to me through Blessed Pope John Paul the Great). But the greatest possible good is God, so even the act of truly loving a person must mean desiring God for that person, even if He does not exist. A convinced atheist must, if he is consistent, desire that God exists even while being convinced that He doesn’t, and must desire this for the sake of His beloved. They seldom do, however.
 After which point, we cease to exist. On the other hand, if we’re wrong or unlucky, then Hell not only continues after death, but actually worsens because there will be an element of absolute certainty: God does exist, and we have rejected Him, and thus have forfeited the Ultimate Good forever.
A lot of people are misunderstanding this post. This is not an argument which seeks to prove that God exists. It is an argument which says that if we cannot absolutely prove either way that God exists, then we must turn to the question of how we should live. Alternatively, it turns to the question of what we ought to desire. Should we desire that that than which greater cannot be thought does exist? Yes. Does this prove that God exists? No, and I never claimed that it did. Rather, my point is that God’s existence is something which should be desired.
Here is another way of putting it. The best reason to believe in something is because it is true–which I stated in my post. Arguments which seek to demonstrate or prove that God exists are thus arguments about the truth of God’s existence. There is more than one such argument, whatever may be those arguments’ merits or demerits. These would all be classed under “my best reason to believe in God.” The next best reason to believe something is because it is good. This is more a reason to desire that a thing be true, and (in the absence of evidence either way) to order your life in the hope that it might be true. For what it’s worth, the third best reason to believe something is because it is beautiful. Note well that the second best reason is subordinate to the best, and the third best to the second best. This means that if God does not exist and we know that God does not exist without a shadow of doubt (a thing which even some atheists do not claim), then the fact that God is good does not make Him exist. I never claimed that it did, contra some commentators.
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