Monday, November 7, 2011

Ask Dr. Massey

My good friend and fellow drinker, art director, blogmaster and spiritual advisor, Dr. Keith A. Massey, runs a number of blogs of his own: 

and perhaps others that I am not cleared for.   (He apparently has a spooky past working for some Agency whose name escapes me:  lightly fictionalized in his Dr. Valquist novels.)

From time to time I’ll ask him some theological question, and he typically replies within minutes  with a polished essay  worthy of publication.   It would be a shame to let these lie idle in my Inbox;  Dr. Massey has graciously consented to let me share some of them with you.

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I’ve begun reading a book by Hilaire Belloc -- Chesterton’s best friend -- How the Reformation Happened (1928).  It’s a feisty book.  I can’t really recommend it -- not for its feistiness, which is fine by me, but because of a disappointing paucity of historical insight.  Moreover, while his humorous verse is quite witty, the prose is mostly merely serviceable.
Anyhow, I happened upon this, early on in the book, and it whetted my semantic appetite:

"The dogma of the Church was the same as it is today:  the merits of the saints may be applied to ourselves -- not to the remission of sin but of its punishment -- on our performing some salutary act."

and: "an indulgence as a remission of sin:  an absolution".

And so I put the question to my learned friend, Dr. Massey:

In the spirit of a semantician, could you distinguish among: remission, forgiveness, absolution -- and for that matter indulgence, since it must have had a general theological one  before it acquired the particular historical application it eventually did.

Also -- are indulgences now offered in  RCC/Orthodoxy ?

He replied by return post:

The Church, East and West, is a wimp compared to how strict she once was on sin. In the late Classical period, if a Christian committed a serious sin, she would make the individual undergo months or even years of public penance (meaning, stand outside the Church every Sunday but not allowed to enter). And if you didn't come every Sunday and stand outside, then you weren't going to have any way back in! If the individual faithfully fulfilled their public penance, they could then be given absolution and readmitted to Communion.

Forgiveness, remission, and Absolution are synonyms for this topic. They have etymological differences but those are not really operative in a real sense. Indulgence is the interesting topic.

The Church believes that the Martyrs' sacrifice added to the infinite store of merit earned by the death of Christ. Now, you may ask what it even means that something is added to an infinite store. But the fact that it does is a message about the value the Church places in the perfect union a martyr's death has with that of Christ.

And the Church believes that the Bishops, who were given the power of loosening and binding sin, have the authority to apply the merits of the Saints to the sins of the faithful, based on practices they mandate for these purposes.

And in the West, in the Middle Ages, they used the language of the earlier system of public penance to describe this. So when they decreed, for instance, that saying a certain prayer was the equivalent of "100 days", it meant that this was decreed as the same merit as what someone used to do when undergoing 100 days of public penance.

On a popular level, people quickly misunderstood this as referring to the number of days one was getting cancelled in Purgatory.

Now, the East never formalized this system the way they did in the West. But the underlying doctrines are certainly held. In the East, I frequently hear instead the statement that one must "lay up a store of good deeds before you stand before the dread judgemet seat of God."

And all of the above is utterly abhorrent to the Protestant system.

So, on Belloc, the merits of the Saints can, as it were, absolve the punishment due to me as a result of my sin. But I still do need to be repentant of that sin in order to be forgiven. Once I have received absolution, however, my soul still bears some punishment. And unless I make restitution for that sin, through prayer or good works, my soul will need to undergo purification before it can stand in the presence of God. So there is indeed some relation between the punishment due to me because of my sin and the length of my purgation. But the days of penance weren't originally talking about purgatory.

One item deserves comment:   “The Church believes that the Martyrs' sacrifice added to the infinite store of merit earned by the death of Christ. Now, you may ask what it even means that something is added to an infinite store.”   This is a humble statement, and full of faith:  Willing to believe a thing, though it be in the teeth of the testimony of mathematics.
Fortunately, in this as in several similar instances, I can with full confidence rush to the defense of the Church.  I cannot positively prove any of her doctrines -- it were an impudence even to pretend to -- but I may lawfully deflect sciency-sounding but logically deficient challenges.

We struggle when we first try to wrap our brains around a concept of infinity.  That it is larger than any finite quantity you might name, is relatively easy to take in -- though we take it in too easily, not realizing the abundance of seemingly paradoxical consequences that must rush in with it.  Harder to swallow -- though swallow it we eventually do -- is the idea that, if you add some finite quantity to an infinite quantity, that addition somehow itself gets swallowed up, in no wise increasing its quantity.  This notion is useful in theology, for understanding, more concretely than anyone could pre-Cantor, how the Deity may be neither increased nor diminished by our own earthly actions.

But there is much more to infinity than this.   The discussion above refers to infinite cardinality.  But there are also infinite ordinal numbers, which have more structure, namely a linear order, and not just a size.  And it is this sort of infinity which is relevant to human endeavor, since we live within that ordering principle, Time.

So.  Consider the smallest and simplest infinite ordinal:  the procession of the Natural Numbers.  1, 2, 3, … (keep going).   Let us now add three elements to this procession, call them Moe, Larry, and Curly, thus:

   Moe, Larry, Curley, 1, 2, 3 …

There are (as we were taught in school) just as many elements as before; but in addition, the ordinal structure is the same:  Larry is the successor of Moe, 1 is the successor of Curley…  The same obtains no matter where we stick this trio into the sequence.

But now!  Let us rather append these worthy Stooges, after the sequence of numbers.  The sequence now reads:
   1, 2, 3… (go on forever) … , Moe, Larry, Curly.

There are just as many elements as before (aleph-nought of them, as we say in the trade), but now the structure is very different.  Now there exist two elements, 1 and Moe, that have no immediate predecessor, and one element, Curly, that has no successor.  Moreover, the new structure is in an obvious sense larger (not in terms of cardinality, but as a sequence) than the Natural Numbers, which form a proper subset.

Upshot:  From the standpoint of set theory, there is no need to be apologetic about that doctrine of the Church.

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This example is one among several that illustrate a principle contention of these essays:  namely, that advances in math and science make it easier to grapple with theological problems,  and in themselves nowise refuse theism.  Theism -- and a fortiori Christianity -- remain rife with paradox, and are vulnerable to momentous objections:   but these have been with us ever since leprosy existed, or newborns died.  Science has not materially added to the thundering indictments that men of good faith and character  have hurled, and will ever hurl, against our Maker.

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