Comment Of The Day: “Ethics Headline Of The Month: ‘Vatican: The Body of Christ Is Not Gluten Free”‘

The original Ethics Alarms post, one of two this month implicitly critical of the Catholic Church, has spawned several remarkable and thoughtful discussions, as well as so many candidates for Comment of The Day that any choice among them is somewhat arbitrary. In the case of Ryan Harkins, I’m not even certain this is the best of his comments on the post, so many excellent ones did I have to choose from. Thus I urge readers to read the entire array, which, I regret to say, is impressive and educational even though it does not include my old friend Patrice, Catholic, theologian, and Church employee who has commented here frequently in the past.

I decided to pair two of Ryan’s comments, the first an overview providing context for my original post’s topic, the Church’s insistence that that the bread and wafers used in Communion include gluten. The second, a response to a series of queries from another commenter, delves into an eternal ethics debate topic, the nexus between God and ethics.

Here is Ryan Harkins’ Dual Comment of the Day on the post, Ethics Headline Of The Month: “Vatican: The Body of Christ Is Not Gluten Free”


Where to begin? The challenge of trying to explain some of the odder details of the Catholic faith is that many of those details don’t make sense without the context of the faith as a whole. So please forgive me if I seem to natter on about tangential matters.

So, let’s begin with a few definitions to make discussion a little easier. A Sacrament is a visible sign, established by Jesus himself, through which God conveys grace upon mankind. A Sacrament is composed of two parts, one spiritual and one material. The reason it possess both qualities is because Sacraments are designed for us, and a human person is a body/spirit composite. We are not purely material beings, nor are we ghosts in a shell. We are not a complete person without our bodies. Now, to have a sign that is purely spiritual would neglect the physical aspect of our existence. To have a sign that is purely physical would neglect the spiritual dimension of our existence.

The Eucharist is one of the Seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church. Catholics really, truly believe Jesus was serious when he said repeatedly, “Amen, amen, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you will not have eternal life.” When at the Last Supper, he blesses bread and wine and says, “Take this and eat. This is my body, given for you” and “This is the cup of my blood, which will be shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins”, Catholics believe that yes, Jesus truly held himself in his hands and gave himself to his apostles to consume. So the Eucharist is the Real Presence of Jesus, the fullness of his body, blood, soul, and divinity. When a priest says Mass and confects the Eucharist, Catholics believe that the bread and wine on the altar are transsubstantiated into Jesus. The accidents of bread and wine remain (so yes, consuming Jesus is problematic for anyone who has issues with the accidents of bread and wine), but the substance is entirely Jesus. The smallest drop from the chalice and the tiniest crumb of the loaf contains the fullness of Jesus.

Okay, so a Sacrament has a spiritual and a physical dimension, and the Eucharist obviously uses bread and wine for the physical dimension. Why bread and wine? In just reference to food and drink, we understand the Eucharist as a meal, and historically the greatest communal activity is the sharing together of a meal. In earliest Christianity, the Eucharistic celebration was in the context of the agape feasts, which eventually St. Paul instructed to tone down because people would become drunk and riotous at these feasts. The point, though, is that eating together is sign of communion (which is in part why the Eucharist is also called Communion). Jesus had prayed that “they may all be one, Father, as I am in you and you are in me,” and the Eucharist is the Sacrament Jesus instituted to make that possible. By consuming Jesus himself, we bring him into ourselves and are in turn incorporated into him. (You are what you eat, right?)

Now we turn to matter. Catholics believe that matter matters. Our bodies matter, because our bodies integral to who we are individually. The whole material world has a teleological value, and the matter used for the Sacraments is deliberately chosen. It is not a valid baptism if one does not use water. Why? Water is both necessary for life and it is pretty ubiquitously used for cleansing. So water is required for baptism, which restores us to life spiritually and cleans us from our sins. The water itself points to what the Sacrament is about. If you tried to baptize with Pepsi, or beer, you really lose the physical meaning of the Sacrament, because neither of those are typically seen as cleansing agents. (Ever see someone try use Newcastle Brown to mop a floor?)

What about bread and wine? Catholics do take Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist as guidance. Jesus used bread and wine, and said “Do this in remembrance of me.” But the importance of bread and wine run through the entirety of the Bible. Melchizedek offered bread and wine for Abraham, and Jesus is a priest forever of the line of Melchizedek. At the first Passover, the Israelites consumed unleavened bread with the sacrificial lamb. In the desert, the Israelites ate manna, the Bread from Heaven. When the Law was promulgated, among the sacrifices listed were not only animal sacrifices, but also sacrifices that included bread and wine. Also included in the Law was the making of the showbread, the Bread of the Presence, which was held in the tabernacle.

The Eucharist, in addition to being a meal and being Jesus and being the means of bringing people into communion, is a sacrifice. In fact, it is the same sacrifice of Calvary, made present to all people in all places in all times. The sacrifice of Calvary is what wrought salvation for all of mankind. Thus the matter of the Eucharist should be matter that points to the sacrifice at Calvary, and more fundamentally, to Calvary as the summation of salvation history. The theme of bread and wine continually crops up throughout salvation history, so bread and wine are especially fitting.

Why wheat bread? Why grape wine? I don’t have the clearest of answers to this. They are the substance Jesus used, and that sets a precedent. But is a doctrinal or disciplinary precedent? For example, we are fairly sure that Jesus used unleavened bread at the Last Supper, but the Catholic Church only holds the use of unleavened bread as disciplinary. The Latin Rite (what most people call the Roman Catholic Church) as a discipline uses unleavened bread, but the Eastern Rites use leavened bread. Yet the Catholic Church insists on wheat bread in all its Rites. One of the most telling passages in the Bible about this is that at the time of the plagues in Egypt, we’re told that the other grains were destroyed, but the wheat was left unspoiled. Thus wheat more than any other grain seems to point best across salvation history.
Two thoughts that I do have regarding the Catholic intransigence about wheat are private thoughts, not ones that I’ve learned from any other resource. First, we’re upset about wheat because of the various forms of gluten intolerance that cropping up around the world. But we neglect that there are allergies pretty much to any type of food out there, so what substance is chosen, there will be people who feel excluded because of that substance. It may also be that in the future, gluten intolerance becomes less prominent than some other form of grain. To go about changing the matter of the Sacrament willy-nilly because someone might be excluded really seems irrational, especially given the deep appreciation Catholics have to the matter involved in the Sacraments.

Second, offering the Eucharist under a variety of options to accommodate those who can’t eat gluten really breaks the communal breaking of bread that the Eucharist symbolizes. Instead of breaking bread together, I have my meal, you have your meal, and while we’re sitting close to each other, we’re not sharing a meal. So in the attempt to bring everyone together by making this exception, we essentially start down the path of everyone going their own way doing their own thing. I don’t know about anyone else, but it is really hard for a family to prepare two meals (or three, in the case of some friends I know). To me at least, it seems more uniting if we are all eating the same thing.

Last thought, and then I’ll finish this post and reap whirlwind that is bound to follow. The Catholic Church holds that under normal circumstances, the letter of the law needs to be obeyed. But we are not held accountable in abnormal circumstances. Someone who desires to be baptized but doesn’t have the opportunity, through his desire receives the effects of baptism. Someone who cannot take communion because they can neither drink wine nor eat gluten is not barred from the graces of the Sacrament, because that is an extraordinary circumstance.


“Why do people assert that the character of this supposed deity is perfectly good, while simultaneously asserting that its true nature is beyond human comprehension?”

You make a lot of good points as you expound on the problems you have with this particular question. You’re absolutely right that in one sense this is contradictory. I would phrase it this way. We postulate an entity E with a set of properties P such for all properties p in P, p is unknowable to a finite mind. But the assertion that all properties p of E are unknowable to is itself a property p0 of E. If p0 is in P, then it is unknowable that the properties of E are unknowable, but we know that the properties of E are unknowable, a contradiction. If p0 is not in P, we right away contradiction the notion that the properties of E are unknowable.

However, there is another sense in which we can talk about the nature of God being beyond human comprehension, and I’ll use prime numbers since you used the brain-cramping example of the illogical question “is infinity a prime number?”.

The entirety of prime numbers, I will assert, is beyond human comprehension, because we can only maintain a finite amount of knowledge and there are an infinite number of primes. There are certain patterns in primes that we can observe (such as Mersenne primes and twin primes, the relative distribution of primes, etc) and there are certain conjectures we can make and questions we can ask (are there only finitely many Mersenne primes, are there an infinite number of twin primes?) As we study and write theorems and other patterns emerge, we get to know more and more about prime numbers. We can find incredibly large prime numbers by using Mersenne numbers, or other techniques that are a far cry better than the Sieve of Erastothenes. We even learn more about solutions to other mathematical problems through what we discover through the study of prime numbers. But we will never exhaust what we can find out about prime numbers, and so the entirety of the nature of primes is beyond our comprehension.

As a side note, one of the things that really influenced my return to faith was Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem which states essentially for any sufficiently complex formal system of axioms, there are true statements in that system that cannot be proven true. What I gleaned from it is that we humans are fundamentally incapable of proving true everything that is true. Some truths, of course, are not well-contained in any formal, axiomatic system, and some truths can be argued informally, but there do exist truths that we cannot prove true. That, to me, was stunning.

Back to the problem. I would say that the true way to understand that idea that God is unknowable is that there is too much about God for a finite understanding, and there are things about God that we could never reason to ourselves. However, that does not mean we cannot reason about God, learn quite a bit about God and his attributes (the Greeks did so thousands of years ago), or receive from God knowledge about him that we would not otherwise acquire from ourselves.

You write,

Perhaps the most bizarre aspect is when people assert reason a) above and say that the deity needed to make a bad thing needed to happen in order for a good thing to happen later. We’re dealing with a supposed deity that, by some people’s definition, has no limitations other than those self-imposed, and that includes logic. It can eat its cake and have it, too. It doesn’t need to do anything to make anything else happen.”

I will agree that there are difficulties in addressing this issue (more broadly the problem of evil or the problem of suffering). Part of it is admittedly our limitations as finite beings. We do not see and comprehend the entirety of history. We cannot see the sum flow of events from the present forward to entirely determine all the outcomes of a particular action. This limitation on our part means we will, unfortunately, always have to aver to not knowing fully, or not being able to explain fully why God would allow this particular suffering. This is frustrating. I think it has to be doubly frustrating when an atheist argues with a theist, and the theist continually dodges an uncomfortable situation by referring solely to the ineffable knowledge of God. I’m sure you’ve been through lengthy discussions on various topics, like why God permitted the Fall of man, and each question leads to answers that lead to more questions, and the answers start to become more speculative and ad hoc. I’m not going to chase that question here, but I would submit that first, it is dishonest of the theist to pose as though he has all the answers, and second, it should be okay for the theist to admit, “I don’t have the answer to that.”

“Side note: What do Catholics say about how the Original Sin propagated throughout all of humanity? Were all human souls present at the time of the Original Sin, and thus they became tainted when it was committed? Or do new souls get created at the time of each human’s conception, and become tainted then? Heads up: neither option implies good things about the supreme being.”

Catholics believe that the human soul is created immediately at the time of conception. The soul, according to Catholic teaching, is the unifying and vivifying principle of a material being, so even plants and animals have souls. Humans have a spiritual soul, which is what endows us with intellect and will, and which survives the separation of soul and body (whereas the material souls of plants and animals cease to exist when they die). But the soul doesn’t make sense without the body (which is why the Resurrection is also a pretty important part of Catholic theology), so a human spirit pre-existing its incarnate life likewise doesn’t make sense from the Catholic viewpoint. So no, it was not that the case that all human souls were present at the Fall.

To be clear on Original Sin, we can either be talking about the actual first sin which brought about the Fall, or we can be talking about the fallen condition inherited from our ultimate parents. The first is an actual act, the second is a state of being. Catholic teaching on Original Sin is that God created Man in a state of perfect innocence and perfect harmony as a grace. At the Fall, Man forfeited that grace. He lost his original innocence, and his perfect harmony was lost to himself and to his progeny. The analogy used to describe how Original Sin is transmitted is that of a millionaire who squandered his riches. If he had been wise, he would have had wealth to pass on to his children. But since he squandered it all, he had nothing to pass on to them, and so his children are born into a state of penury. So yes, all human beings, at the time of conception (unless saved at that time by a special grace) inherit the fallen state known as Original Sin.

I know you say that doesn’t imply good things about God, but that will have to be a topic for some other time.

“Other side note: As I understand it, Mormons believe that humans are ultimately supposed to ascend to the level of Jesus and God, which makes sense to me as an extension of the idea that humans are children of God. Children have to grow up, after all. If we’re just sheep, I’d expect to get eaten at some point.”

“What do you think?”

The LDS theology posits an eternal progression in which God was once a human being who lived an exemplary life in his mortal existence, following the commands of his God (who had also been a human being who lived an exemplary life…) and being rewarded by being exalted and given a universe to rule over. He then begat a host of spirit children, the first of which was Jesus, and through the plan of salvation that Jesus proposed, the spirit children go through the process of incarnation. In the mortal life, they can choose to live according to God’s laws, and if they are exemplary, they can likewise reach exaltation, and the process continues. So there is a very organic connection between God and man in the LDS view, and there is a very appealing sense to it.

I think it fails on several accounts. First, the eternal progression requires an infinite chain of contingencies, and I personally accept the logic that says there cannot be an infinite chain of contingencies. There has to be a first cause, a necessary being, else nothing could exist. The arguments about necessity, and the properties of the necessary being, can be quite lengthy, so I won’t delve into them here. But simply put, the fact that there is an infinite gulf between a necessary being and contingent being means that humans being children of God comes either from analogy or adoption. (Jews understood God as Father by analogy; Christians understand God as Father by adoption, which was made possible through the Incarnation of Jesus.)

As for your statement about getting eaten at some point, and to tie this back into the original thread, note that Jesus is called the Lamb of God, and in the Eucharist, we do eat his body and drink his blood. But the reference to humans as sheep is supposed to allude to care-taking attitude of the shepherd to his flock, not to every aspect of a sheep. For example, we don’t grow wool, and we’re not sheared on a regular basis to produce clothing from our hair.


Filed under Comment of the Day, Ethics Alarms Award Nominee, Religion and Philosophy

66 responses to “Comment Of The Day: “Ethics Headline Of The Month: ‘Vatican: The Body of Christ Is Not Gluten Free”‘

  1. wyogranny

    I have a comment about this statement:
    “First, the eternal progression requires an infinite chain of contingencies, and I personally accept the logic that says there cannot be an infinite chain of contingencies. There has to be a first cause, a necessary being, else nothing could exist.”

    Eternal, to me is a statement that contains within it the truth that there is no beginning and no end. Infinite. No beginning and no end. The way I see it we in our mortal life have no way to fully understand infinite because, for us there was a beginning and there will be an end.
    Somewhere I heard the following: Truths that are true but not provable and certain rites require specific and non-optional substances are like children who are told by their mother that they need to wash their hands and use soap. The child doesn’t know why either of these actions are necessary but complies. The mother knows the reasons and insists on the action because of her knowledge which is beyond the child’s knowledge. Someday the child will also know and it will make perfect sense, but until then the child is obedient because he trusts his mother.

    • Chris

      wyogranny, that quote also jumped out at me.

      You’re right about the limits of our knowledge. I see no reason why the “first cause” theory makes more sense or is any more “logical” than the “infinite chain of consequences” theory. Neither of them make any sense from a logical perspective. Either something came from nothing, or something has always been there for infinity stretching backwards–our human brains cannot fully understand either possibility, so both possibilities are equally likely, in that they are both seemingly impossible.

  2. Sue Dunim

    Minor quibble about Goedel. Systems that allow the proof of all truths ie are complete, are permitted, but only if they are inconsistent. Meaning they will also prove falsities.

    Regarding pneumatics, ensoulment, and conception – do monozygotic twins, where the second person is created after conception, share a soul? Is a second soul created at the time of splitting? Do Chimerae, whose bodies result from zygotic fusion, have two souls? If not, what happens to the supernumary one?

    I keep on being reminded of all the theological dogma both justifying and justified by Ptolemaic astronomy. I see the same handwaving. My perceptions may be flawed of course.

    • Sue,

      Systems that allow the proof of all truths ie are complete, are permitted, but only if they are inconsistent. Meaning they will also prove falsities.

      I’m not sure I understand this quibble. Once you can prove a falsity, you can prove anything. The whole point of an axiomatic system is to distinguish between true and false statements. If you can prove true a false statement, you’ve lose the whole purpose of such a system.

      Do monozygotic twins, where the second person is created after conception, share a soul?

      No. When regarding human nature, a soul and a person are a one-to-one relationship. One person has one soul, and one soul defines one person. In the case of monozygotic twins, there will be two souls created. I do not, however, have the answer to when that occurs. My assumption, though, is that both souls are created at the moment of conception. This is because I believe that there is some mechanism which determines whether a zygote will split into two beings, and that this mechanism exists at the moment of conception. But this is just an assumption.

      Do Chimerae, whose bodies result from zygotic fusion, have two souls? If not, what happens to the supernumary one?

      My understanding is that one of the two inadvertently kills the other when the fusion occurs. But this is far beyond my area of expertise, and so again, I can only offer assumptions. When there is a single person remaining, then there is a single soul present. And we’ll caveat all this by saying, “According to Catholic theology.”

      • Sue Dunim

        Ryan,thanks for your courteous and reasonable reply. One easy to understand too, well written.

        This is because I believe that there is some mechanism which determines whether a zygote will split into two beings, and that this mechanism exists at the moment of conception. But this is just an assumption.”

        Such a mechanism would have to be supernatural, as there isn’t a natural one that we know of. Such cases happen as the result of later events. So unless one goes into doctrines of predestination…

        Then there’s the matter of foetus in foetu. And hydatiform moles, where conception results in a malignant and aggressive tumour. Pneumatics, which seemed less than easy a century ago, has been made much harder by factual investigation.

        And we’ll caveat all this by saying, “According to Catholic theology.”

        Understood and agreed. We might even extend that to “according to my current and well informed understanding of Catholic theology”, meaning that we both acknowledge that you definitely know what you’re talking about, but infallibility is not claimed nor expected.

        As regards Goedel – that’s why it was a quibble. Contrary to what you wrote, Complete systems are allowed. But only inconsistent ones, which can prove anything at all and so are “completely” useless, if you’ll pardon the pun. While you were literally incorrect, in practice you’re right, so a quibble was all it was. Complete consistent systems are logically impossible.

        • To ensure we’re using proper terminology, God’s intervention into the Natural order of things is better termed a “Miracle” (of a sort). “Predestination”, if the object is to use a Christian doctrinal term, is the doctrine that God elects some individuals to salvation from before their existence, and, unless there’s some esoteric denomination out there that holds otherwise, does not have to do with God enacting the manner in which any particular person dies.

          • (And to clarify, belief in the Doctrine of Predestination is not universally held through all branches of Christianity. Or to even less clearly state it: Every branch has some sort of Doctrine of Predestination, but the guts of those doctrines vary significantly across Christianity, where is generally assumed that when someone specifically discusses the Doctrine of Predestination, they probably ARE discussing the one peculiar to Calvinists.)

      • Sue Dunim

        If I may make a short digression on “substance”… With 3 examples.

        Grandfather’s Axe. Or the one used to execute Anne Boleyn for a concrete example. It’s had 5 new handles over the centuries, and 2 new heads. Yet it is substantially the same Axe.

        The Resolute desk in the White House.
        ” It was a gift from Queen Victoria to President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1880 and was built from the English oak timbers of the British Arctic exploration ship Resolute. ”

        The desk is accidental, the substance is of the exploration ship.

        The 13th Doctor.
        Lest you think this is trivial, it’s hurting some people.

        Re: Doctor Who get a LopItOffMe
        Postby (redacted)» Mon Jul 17, 2017 8:48 am
        I must say this is very disturbing to me. I do feel physically ill over it. Why? Because the Doctor has always been my male role model in life. Even as an adult it is someone I want to emulate. I just can’t do that now. It has gutted a part of me by doing this. Maybe I am far to vested in one character like that but that is how I feel. I guess you could say I wanted to be the Doctor. Now I can’t.

        One reaction to this would be mockery. But… That misses the point. He’s a fellow human being. He’s in distress. Over something I think is extremely silly, but so what? What does that matter? Any Whovian worth their salt would recognise that the substance is unchanged, only the accidents are mutable. And they’d try to be Kind.

        “Winning? Is that what you think this is about? I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone, or because I hate someone, or because I want to blame someone! Not because it’s fun. God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works because it hardly ever does. I do what I do because it’s right! Because it’s decent! And above all, it’s kind! It’s just that! Just kind.”

        One could do far worse than to emulate that.

        • On #1: Is it? Would you say that the Tim Man is substantially the same man as his non-Tin version? The axe is a similar axe, but since nothing of the original remains, it’s not substantially the same axe. Unless the idea is “an axe is an axe”, which would mean that any axe is “substantially the same axe.”

          • It’s a super simplified Theseus’ ship paradox: a boat lasted 100 years, but during maintenance it would always have a few planks or hull pieces or beams replaced for new ones, until at some point there were no original components remaining, is it the same boat?

            I think it muddies the water further if you make it a human organization, since human community is able to carry on the “spirit” of a thing:

            Take an army unit of 100 men, call it D Company and every week an old soldier is reassigned to a different unit and a new replacement arrives. After 2 years no one from the first day is still there. Is it still D Company?

            Take an assembled item more complex than a boat, like a car-

            Can the removal of any component occur and you still can consider it a car? And what components, when taken away, actually remove the “carness” from the car. That is, take away the tail lights and we can still call it a car. Take away the trunk, it’s still a car. But remove the wheels and suspensions, it’s not really a car any more.

            • I think the by far more relevant question regarding humans is this. If the Boston Red Sox, over a period of years, one by one, change out their players and their management, so that in say, 10 years, not a single original person remains in the organization, is it still the Red Sox?

              • not a single original person remains in the organization, is it still the Red Sox?

                … and in the course of those losses, how likely is it that the team does not improve? Given that is the motivation of much of the turnover.

                Kind of like my Rangers

          • Sue Dunim

            Please read Goedel Escher Bach and The Mind’s I by Hoffstadter.

            Senescent cells are constantly being replenished by stem cells.
            Our brains physically change as new memories are laid down.

            When we wake up, none of us are physically the same person we were when we went to sleep.

            Jack, are you the same person now as you were at age 25? At age 15? At age 5?

            For that matter, in the field of thespianism, are two consecutive performances by the same company of the Scottish play the same? What about performances by different companies – are they still the same play?

            • 1) Read Goedel Escher Bach when it first was published.
              2) A rather technical but irrelevant argument, don’t you think? Yes, people aren’t axes. They are growing organisms. Comparisons to organizations (no, a baseball team in 2017 is substantially a different team than that team in 1967, but happens to have the same name and infrastructure.

  3. A lot of theology devolves, on a practical level, to much hand waving and dithering of limited use. Classic question: how many angels can sit on the head of a pin?

    Being an engineer and raised Southern Baptist, my answer is pretty concise.

    Measure area of pin head (A). Measure angels posteriors (B). Divide A by B.

    You cannot get an angel to sit still for you to measure? Not my problem.

  4. “Ever see someone try use Newcastle Brown to mop a floor?”

    Never been in the Army have you?

    • Tex,

      First, no, I have not. Second, say it ain’t so!

      • No, I’ve never seen it either. But it was a wild round about way of saying I’ve seen all manner of weird things soldiers do. And I’ve seen all manner of liquids being mopped off of floors in the military.

        It doesn’t undermine the point you were making about symbols needing to be as closely paralleled as possible to that which they symbolize.

      • By the by, in the original thread I recommended to you two publications you may be interested in. Not sure if they got lost in the long dialogue between you and EC.

        • I apologize for not responding to that. I did see the links and started to check them out. I confess that it was cursory, but I do thank you for those links, and I’ll be looking deeper into them, probably after I finish my write-up on Necessary Beings and morality.

          I do want to say I really appreciate everyone here who calls my attention to resources and ideas I was not aware of previously.

          The more you know!

  5. “We postulate an entity E with a set of properties P such for all properties p in P, p is unknowable to a finite mind. But the assertion that all properties p of E are unknowable to is itself a property p0 of E. If p0 is in P, then it is unknowable that the properties of E are unknowable, but we know that the properties of E are unknowable, a contradiction. If p0 is not in P, we right away contradiction the notion that the properties of E are unknowable.”

    Is a very fancy way of saying that the answer to:

    ““Why do people assert that the character of this supposed deity is perfectly good, while simultaneously asserting that its true nature is beyond human comprehension?””

    Is that the assertion that “God is a perfectly good” is for some unstated reason a separate property from the set of properties that are unknowable. That while seeming to be a property of something we are told we cannot know the properties of, that it has somehow been removed from the set of properties that are unknowable, and is in fact knowable.

    I don’t see a reason to accept that logic, it seems to boil down to “because I say so”.

    • “God is a perfectly good”

      No, we stumble on the definition for ‘good,’ which is limited by our intellect and experiences. This word is too subjective to the human experience.

      ‘God is Holy’ is a better way to express this, and being Holy requires His creation to meet those standards just to be in his presence (or be destroyed as a natural consequence.) A poor analogy is a person’s ability to survive in a radioactive environment: 1000 rad per hours will kill you quick, but if you have acceptable shielding (the Bible calls the Blood of Christ a ‘covering’) you can live.

      The Bible, then, is the story of God helping His fallen creation become able to stand in His presence, if you will.

      • We’re hung up on “Good”, and want to replace it with “Holy”? I don’t see how that solves the problem. How do you know that God is Holy, if you cannot comprehend what it is that God is? And even if we took for granted that God was, in fact, Holy,Holiness must also escapes understanding, because it would be used to describe an indescribbable being, and at that point…. Why would you describe holiness to be a positive thing, if you cannot describe what it is?

        • Notice I did not describe Holiness to be a positive thing. It just exists, like gravity. Describe for me how gravity works, being rigorous like you would like to be with God.

          Not possible, is it? We observe the effects it has, and we listen to what others tell us about it. Holiness is something you feel when you encounter it, and the Bible tells us about it. Human pride wants to define (and thus ‘control’) that which is greater than themselves. Even when those things are beyond our abilities to understand, just like gravity.

          Some things exist and we cannot grasp the how or why. But you have faith in gravity, don’t you? You use the knowledge of how it works every day without questioning the fundamental bedrock it is based on.

          • I just dropped my pen. It fell to the floor. It will do the same thing, at the same rate (all other things being equal) every time I drop it, because that’s how gravity effects us. Now you describe a test that you feel proves God. Something that can be observed, measured, replicated and is falsifiable if the test fails.

            • wyogranny

              There is no measurable proof. And, you know it. And, we who believe know it. That is the eternal problem with faith. I can’t prove He exists, yet, inexplicably I can absolutely and unprovably know Him for myself. It’s an insurmountable obstacle for many. I get that. I think it makes sense. I respect it. But, I have had a different experience.

              • I think there’s some grace in that position, it’s one that I don’t hold, but I can give respect to people who are at least honest about the nature of faith, and don’t try to draw false equivalencies to science.

                • They are not false, and you did not answer my questions. You dodge the issue. HOW does gravity work? You only described that it works. Give me your rational definitive explanation, HT.

                  If you cannot, quit harping on God until you can.

                  • Look… I could walk you through the theory, it has to do with the relative mass of large objects… The Earth, being large, attracts objects to it at the rate of about 9.8m per second, per second. Can I prove this to you? Perhaps not. But I can demonstrate it! You can drop your pen too!

                    I give credit to the theory of gravity because I can demonstrate it reliably, I can predict it, I can replicate it, and it’s falsifiable, if gravity did not act as a constant, sometimes my pen would not fall.

                    Because I can demonstrate gravity, I feel that there’s more proof of gravity, than there is God, which I do not believe you would be able to demonstrate.

  6. I also find the language around math and infinity interesting, but I don’t see a reason why it would cause an enkindlement of faith. The premise seems to be that because there are things that are beyond, and will always be beyond the capability of humans to describe, that gives proof to God. Or if not proof, started you on a path which brought you to God.

    I don’t see why that should be the case. If one finds God in the gaps of human knowledge or understanding, one should experience a crisis of faith every time a new breakthrough happens, and those gaps close. The exact number of primes in unknowable? That’s not true. The number of primes is infinite, because numbers are infinite.

    Imagine you’ve come up to a hotel with an infinite number of rooms. You desperately want a room, you’re about to pass out from exhaustion, but the concierge tells you that all of the rooms are full. Taking a page from Rocket Raccoon, you say, “But what if I really want one?” The concierge thinks for a while, and then tells you he can accommodate you.

    He tells you to go to room number 1, and tell the guest there to move to room number 2, with instructions to tell the guest in room number 2 to move to room number 3, and so on, for infinity, or at least until the night ends.

    You don’t need to know how many room there are, you just need to be able to interact with the ones you encounter.

    • Yes! Hilbert’s hotel! I love that example. I love pushing the hotel example beyond just one person showing up and needing a room, when every one of the infinite number of rooms is occupied. For example, what happens if an infinite number of people show up? Easy! Just have everyone in room x move to room 2x, and now all the odd rooms are open. It gets crazier than that, because we could then look at what happens when an infinite number of people check out. Suppose we have a situation in which everyone in an even room checks out. We have an infinite number of people leave, but there are infinite number of people remaining. Now suppose we have everyone in room y > x check out, where x is whichever number you’d like. An infinite number of people leave, but only a finite number of people remain. Infinity is a crazy concept.

      As a note, I never said the exact number of primes is unknowable. I said we could never know all primes because there’s an infinite number of them. That is a very important distinction.

      But why was Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem instrumental in my return to faith? There’s a great deal of backstory here, but I’ll try to limit it to this. When I was in college, I was obsessed with constructing proof about everything I believed in. It is sort of a hyper-rational mode of thought. If I were to believe in God, I needed to prove God’s existence (and with mathematical rigor). If I were not to believe in God, I needed to prove God’s non-existence with the same level of rigor. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t find anyone who could do it. But then I learned of the Incompleteness Theorem, and it opened my mind to the reality that there are things we can never prove.

      That in turn led me to go and look at axioms in general. When we look at the three main axioms of logic, for example — identity, non-contradiction, and excluded middle — we just accept these without rigorous proof. Why? Because any rigorous proof would pretty much require reference to those axioms to function. But that would circular reasoning. So instead, we defend our acceptance of those axioms because we recognize that if any of them were not true, we could never really know or prove anything. That’s not a mathematically rigorous proof. It is argument based on desire. I want to be able to prove things, and I think I should be able to prove things, so I’ll accept axioms that allow me to prove things.

      Now, if I’m willing to accept axioms without rigorous proof, that forms a kind of faith. I’m going to build my foundation on those axioms trusting that they will not fail me, and I will then see what I can discover using those axioms.

      There’s much more to the story, but that’s essentially how Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem played into my return to faith.

      • if I’m willing to accept axioms without rigorous proof, that forms a kind of faith.

        This is where I came in on this ride. Everything you accept is based on faith of one sort or another. You have faith that a dollar will be accepted to purchase a bottle of water, say. But this is not a physical certainty. There are situations where someone might not sell you that water bottle for that, or any amount, of dollars.

        Faith in the value of currency is a game we civilized cultures play, because it makes our civilization run better than other modes of commerce. Set pricing is beneficial, as is a set value for what are in reality numbers in a computer somewhere (currency is now created without simply printing money, which act as economic ‘markers.’ Once we eliminated the Gold and Silver standard, all we have left is fiat currency) And we play the game, trading some of those ‘markers’ for groceries, a car, or a home. This is fine while it works. But as recent disasters have shown both domestically (Katrina, Sandy) and abroad (Venezuela) those markers can betray you.

        We have faith in Science. Science is nothing more than observed data with a theory to account for that data. The observation or the theory can be wrong, but we carry out decision making processes based as if they were universal law. And many times that is fine, and will yield results. But the fact that we do not know everything means that there is a risk involved, and we therefore have faith, even if that is based on statistics.

        Statistics are a form of faith, in how they are used. In poker, if I hold three aces, I know that there are hands out there that can beat me. The odds are in my favor, though, that in this particular hand they do not exist, and so I bet accordingly. I had faith in the stats.

        People like to be in control, in a world where we actually have very little. Faith seems like a loss of control, and thus is rejected as a concept by many. This is a misunderstanding upon their part of how the world works, and sometimes it catches up with them.

        • But very few things that we deal with in the sciences, that we accept to more or less be factual, are also unfalsifiable. Take your water bottle example, you believe that the person will sell you the bottle of water for a dollar, but you’re saying you don’t KNOW that…. Ok. Well… Try to buy the bottle of water, and find out. Not only can you not do something similar with God, but it’s been my experience that the devout see the testing of God as deeply offensive.

          If there was some kind of apocalypse, and every single bit of human knowledge was lost, I believe that barring a mutation of the hand, humanity would redevelop a system of numbers based on a factor of 10, and very quickly reason out that 2+2=4. That given enough time, we would rediscover phenomenon, and redefine certain theories, because these are ideas and theories wrought from trial and error, from being able to tell not only what is, but what is not. I hold no such faith that humanity would discover God. Maybe they would develop a God figure, maybe a version of faith, but the idea that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, and whomsoever believes in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life?” Much less likely. All of the above plus “No gluten free wafers”?

          I don’t know why anyone believes that. I’m sorry.

          • But for your PAW to work, there would be no God. Start with ‘there is intelligent design in the world,’ and this problem is solved.

            • To demonstrate my ignorance, what does PAW stand for?

              • I’m guessing, from the 38 entries on the acronym finder website, and the context of Humble Talent’s comment, that PAW either stands for “post-apocalyptic world” or “prodigious accumulators of wealth.” I unfortunately had to reject “Petroleum Association of Wyoming”, even though Wyoming is disproportionately represented in the Ethics Alarms comments…

              • I apologize profusely for introducing an acronym without a definition: Post Apocalyptic World is PAW

        • Faith can help you stick to courses of action that you have decided are good or useful, even when they are emotionally difficult, and that’s very important. Faith can’t tell you what’s right or what’s true, though.

          It’s not good to put the cart before the horse. If you use faith to help you stick with courses of action even when they are ethically wrong, or based on empirically wrong or self-contradictory premises, that’s bad.

          What you say about faith in science, science being the idea that there is an underlying order to the world that we can learn about using empirical methods, is correct. I object to the use of faith to describe currency or the poker game, though.

          You don’t have faith that the statistics are true; the way the game is defined, you can have perfect knowledge of the probability of an event–knowledge that you couldn’t have about real-world events because those aren’t bounded by rules (this is called the ludic fallacy in Nassim Taleb’s book The Black Swan). When you take the calculated risk, you express faith by committing to your decision with all subsequent actions.

          Currency operates on confidence, which is different from faith as defined in a religious sense. Confidence explicitly requires evidence to be maintained. If sufficient evidence indicates that the promises represented by currency will not be honored, then confidence in the currency drops.

          Does that make sense?

      • wyogranny

        I know less than nothing about proofs and the math that goes with it, but your story seems to me to be a C S Lewis type of story. A rigorous application of intelligence to the question of faith and the nature of God. I think he comes remarkable close to the truth as I see it using personal faith and trust in what God reveals to prophets.

        I can’t prove what I believe about God, but I believe that living within the bounds of that faith will bring me great happiness and personal and family success.

        Thank you for showing me again that there are many ways to get there, and that the journey is well worth it.

      • I’m going to math geek for a moment.

        My favorite of Xenu’s paradoxes is Achilles and the Tortoise.

        In a situation where Achilles and a tortoise are in a contest, the tortoise walks forward, and is given a head start, and then Achilles is allowed to try to catch the tortoise. Achilles is exactly twice as fast as the tortoise, and so it should be an easy catch, except there’s a handicap: Achilles is only allowed to go as far as the last position the tortoise was when he arrived at HIS last destination. So if the tortoise walked a meter, Achilles has to sprint that meter, but in the time that Achilles made that meter, the tortoise made a half meter, by the time Achilles made that half meter, the tortoise moved a quarter meter, and so on.

        Does Achilles ever catch the tortoise?

        The obvious answer is no, because the tortoise will always make some kind of infinitesimal headway in the time it takes Achilles to move to his last point. But infinity and math gives us a slightly different answer:

        If you write the function of the movement of the contestants, and assume the distance the tortoise waled before Achilles started was exactly 1 meter, you get this:

        Tortoise X/2 = 1,1/2, 1/4, 1/8, 1/16, oo (oo is a crude infinity symbol)
        Achilles X=1/2,1/4,1/8,1/16 oo

        And if you reconcile those functions, You’re left with X = 2, so not only does Achilles catch the tortoise, but Achilles catches the tortoise exactly at the 2 meter mark.

        I like to think that it shows that given enough time, even the seemingly impossible becomes possible.

        • How is that a paradox?

          It’s a word game that ignores the fact that Achilles is still going a constant velocity double the also-constant velocity of the Tortoise, that no matter how infinitesimally small the increment being evaluated is, Achilles is still closing with the Tortoise at twice the speed of the tortoise.

          The handicap doesn’t actually stop Achilles’ forward progress in relation to the tortoise. Because as soon as Achilles’ hits his “stopping” point, the Tortoise has reached another point that triggers Achilles’ forward motion again.

          So, really the reconciliation of the formula isn’t the adding together of an infinite string of fractions, each being reduced by half, it’s merely the formula Y = 2X, solve for Y, where X = 1.

          • I mean, what was the other paradox, where the dude can never get to his destination, because he first has to get halfway there? and before he can get to the halfway point, he has to get halfway to the halfway point…? So he can never ever get there, because in each *incremental* step, he has to reach some halfway point?

            They are word games that force the “philosopher” to think in individual components of the motion as though those individual components of motion were of an equal duration of time. But they aren’t. Just as the distance is being halved, the time it takes to reach that distance is also being halved. The formula being resolved at 0 (regardless of whether or not the calculator returns an error when you divide 0 by 0).

            Now of COURSE, if you maintain every increment of the movement at an equal amount of time, you will NEVER achieve the result, because now the formula is set up where the individual in motion is perpetually decreasing in speed until at the last possible infinitesimally small distance, they are no longer moving.

          • As with so many things, I work from memory, (I spelled “Zeno” wrong), and I thought that perhaps I had done a bad job in explaining the idea… I don’t think I did… But if it helps, here’s another source:


            I think the problem is that you’re not following the rules the situation describes. If your counter is that it’s not realistic to separate each infinitesimal movement… Well, how likely was the hero of The Iliyad to be in a footrace with a turtle? The point is to try to describe a situation to explain the math.

            What if, instead of a turtle, you had a machine with two arms? One arm (a) moves at twice the speed of the other arm(b), but arm (b) got a head start, and every time arm (a) reaches the last point that arm (b) occupied when arm (a) started to move, the machine took a one second break…. Do the arms ever touch?

            Exact same math. They shouldn’t… In theory, the fraction of the original distance moved should just get smaller into infinity, but it doesn’t… Given an infinite amount of time, the arms touch.

            • It isn’t the same math. The word game introduces the concept of “speed” (which has a time component buried in its definition) and then compels the thinker to disregard the time component when resolving the math by forcing the the thinker to consider increasingly smaller components of distance as though they occupy the same duration of time.

              But they don’t occupy the same duration of time, at least not without simultaneously SLOWING down the runner. As it throws out an entire component of the math to lead the thinker into “a paradox”, it isn’t math at all. It’s a word game.

              It’s a useful word game. But math, it is not.

              I will modify that, however. It takes the incomprehensible infinitesimally small distances and exchanges that for the incomprehensible infinitely long duration.

              • I think it’s a useful word game in that it DOES lead one towards an understand of Calculus or least an introduction into the usefulness of calculus..

              • The two word games throw out time so the thinker is unconsciously battling between wondering what is larger=

                X divided by 0

                OR ∞ divided by X

                OR MORE LIKELY the battle is wondering what is smaller:

                0 divided by X


                X divided by ∞

              • (And to be clear, the Achilles v Tortoise AND the machine with two arms problem do the same thing to throw out the concept of Time in the original consideration. IN the machine with the two arms, in addition to the increasingly shorter amount of time the arms require to move their increasingly shorter distances, there is an artificial pause added of 1 second, that when expanded to an infinite number of interations, then OF course would take FOREVER. But ONLY because of the artificial addition of the 1 second pause between iterations. Remove that artificial addition of an infinite amount of time, and the cumulative time the arms take to reach the same end point is STILL 2X (if the 2nd arm moves at twice the speed of the first)

                • Tex is right in his analysis of Zeno’s paradoxes. It doesn’t take infinite amount of time to cross those infinite steps. It takes a finite amount of time, based upon the velocity of the participants. But by introducing a one-second delay in the example of the machine with two arms, the two will never reach the same point. The problem is that you cannot reach an actual infinity by starting at a finite point and proceeding in discrete steps. You cannot traverse an infinite amount of time. Infinite means unbounded, endless. You cannot reach the end of endless. It is a contradiction in terms. The reason why the infinite steps in Zeno’s paradox can, in theory, be traversed is because motion behaves as a continuum, not as a discrete set. If you pick any point in a continuum, you cannot find the “next” point, because in between any two points in a continuum is an uncountably infinite number of points.

                • But I do love Zeno’s paradoxes. Any reasoning about infinite series tends to make me giddy…

                  • The real one that I’m still struggling to wrap my head around regarding Zeno’s paradoxes is that speed is completely lost at an infinitesimal scale.

                    The runner is running at 2 miles per hour. The tortoise at 1 mile per hour.

                    No matter how small you look, the distance covered by the runner is twice that of the tortoise.

                    If the runner went 2 inches in whatever time frame, the tortoise only went 1. (Approximately .06 sec)

                    If the runner went .2 inches, the tortoise went .1 inch (approximately .006 sec).

                    But….at infinitely small distance of 0, it takes both the runner and tortoise the same time to traverse that distance. Yet, adding even an infinitesimal amount of time to the measurement, our runner has gone twice the distance of the tortoise)

                    • There were a whole lot of comments between mine and this, but it seems like this is as good a place to nest as any. It’s funny how things that you believe for years can be wrong. I see my error, you’re right, and it’s funny, I don’t even mind being wrong… Knowing that it doesn’t take an infinite amount of time to do something that seems logically impossible is somehow reassuring. I think I like the paradox more now.

                    • It bothered me for a very long time. In fact I don’t think I recognized they were cheating the definitions and changing up the rules on us halfway through the problem until last year.

  7. Thanks, Ryan, for putting the Eucharist into context. Seeing that it’s based on dualism (spirit and matter), I can better appreciate it at face value. I hadn’t understood how much reasoning went into the concept before I read your well-written comment. Great work!

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