On Tricking Yourself


EVERY ONCE IN A WHILE A whole lot of things will click together and I have to write them down lest I forget them. This is more of a ramble than anything else, but maybe it will point us towards some conversations.

This semester’s class on Church History is reading James Hitchcock’s History of the Catholic Church from the Apostolic Age to the Third Millennium. While the text is a survey rather than an in-depth examination, more like a dictionary than a textbook, many of the short articles highlight something important I’d missed previously. I’ve greatly enjoyed, for example, reading how the heresies of Arianism and Iconoclasm are not “one and done” moments but rather very extended arguments in the Church’s history.

The blurb on Aquinas (about three pages worth of text) really only cruised at a very high altitude over St Thomas’ thinking, but it highlighted the importance of the intellect.

It may seem very surface-y but something about the way all the words are strung together helped me to grasp some important elements in Aquinas which I’m happy to string together for you here. This will be equally surface-only. I’m still meditating on all of this.

  1. Evil does not exist. It is a deficiency of good. Just as cold is only a lack of heat, and darkness is only an absence of light, so also evil is only an absence of good.
  2. We misunderstand what is good. We do not have differing ideas of what is good but rather a failure of the intellect to grasp the Good and to understand what is the Highest Good.
  3. Notice that it is our intellect that fails first. We’re not thinking rightly, we don’t grasp all the points correctly so when the intellect passes the information on to the conscience, the latter is not properly informed. It makes the wrong call.
  4. No one loves evil for evil’s sake. Humans love what is good for the sake of good. Something is loved because it is perceived as good. The intellect has convinced us – using the wrong information – that something is good when, in fact, it is not or when it’s only not good enough. Even those who love what is clearly evil (from the outside) do so because they think it is the best thing for them or for others.
  5. Those who are loving something that’s not the best for them have made choices and – as St Paul says – their conscience has been seared. It’s sacrificed the freedom of future choice by making the same choice so many times. It’s no longer looking to make another decision and, if it wanted to, it would be incapable of doing so without Grace.
  6. Acting on Evil, then, becomes of failure of intellect, of conscience, and of love. But it is only a failure in that one does not go far enough: one stops short in “the race set before us” and does not “strain for the prize”. One gets distracted. On this last item, CS Lewis’ Screwtape Letters make the point very well. “But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one – the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

Having all of the above sort of hit me at once as a result of reading that one paragraph in Hitchcock’s History, I drew two conclusions:

This, firstly, is an argument for why we cannot judge someone: they are loving as best they can. We cannot judge love, in fact, to do so would be to damn the virtue we would hope to grow. Reading the books of the New Testament we see this in action: only “insiders” get the strong words. Jesus, Paul, and the other voices in the text, woo and flirt with folks outside of the covenant, outside of the Church, to draw them forward. Strong words of condemnation are reserved for those who ought to know better or those who claim to. Only after you have learned what love actually is can you be accused of failing to love properly.

Secondly, this is a description of how we fail in other areas as well, areas beyond questions of morality, as such. We see the Church as an institution, or as “my parish” or as a political force – each of which is true – and we love it. But we fail to see the Church as the Bride of Christ present in all eternity as Saints and souls in purgatory, the Body of Christ active as his hands and in the world, as the minister of mercy, and as the sacrament of salvation (and so much more). We love only a little and are satisfied – or angry – when that little bit lives up or fails to live up to our personal desires. We see the human person as only XYZ without realizing the whole icon of God present not only in each individual, but in all of humanity together, as one of the Fathers pointed out, many human persons, but one human nature. We trick ourselves into a sort of theological synecdochery where we not only confuse the part for the whole, but we accept the part as good enough and get satisfied – without ever digging deeper. We love not as best as we can but rather we fail to realize there’s so much more to love, so much more to the Church, so much more to the Holy Mysteries, so much more to the Human Person. We love the surface, but not the heart. Then, if someone else also loves “only a little part” but happens to love a “different little part”, we fight with them.

We trick ourselves into hell.