What can my grandmother know about Mary
November 22, 2014 — 20:42

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Concept of God Religion and Life Religious Belief  Tags: , , , ,   Comments: 40

In What can she know Lorraine Code argues for a feminist epistemology, in which our situation, community, position in society, matter to what we can know. Knowledge mainly available to men is implicitly regarded as gender-neutral; meanwhile knowledge traditionally associated with women is regarded as not knowledge at all. Consider the practices of some Catholic Latina women in the United States, who fend off the evil eye (especially of infants) with eggs, bury statues of saints like Mary and Joseph in their front yard when the saints refuse to grant requests, and dig them up again once the request is granted. As Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado details, this sounds rather irreverent, but the practice just illustrates how intimate the relationship is between the Latino community and the saints they revere. Home altars with pictures of Mary and the Saints are the territory of Latina Catholic women. Do these practices contribute to religious epistemology? If so, how?


The council of Trent wanted to eradicate these practices of saint reverence and fending off the evil eye, in which women prominently figured as practitioners and experts. However, it did not destroy these practices in Latina women. Neither did it destroy them entirely in European women, such as my grandmother. My grandmother was a devout Catholic woman who taught me the first things about religion such as the significance of the host, the meaning of infant baptism, how to pray. She had a wooden black statue of Mary (there is a tradition of revering Black Mary in Medieval Europe, and my grandmother’s home town had a tradition that still kept this alive), to whom she talked and prayed. When Mary refused to grant her requests, she would be unceremoniously turned facing the wall until Mary changed her mind.

By the time I was 12, I dismissed her practices as superstitious folk beliefs of an old woman who had not moved with the times, and as just plain silly. Her beliefs, I thought, were wrong also within her own epistemological framework of Christianity, given that statues aren’t actually the figures they represent (but in Latina culture, and my grandmother’s practice, they were), and Mary cannot autonomously grant requests but is assumed to intercede with God on our behalf (but for my grandmother, she clearly could do all sorts of things on her own). However, I am now wondering if it is true that my grandmothers religious beliefs (aka superstitions) were really inconsistent with the epistemology she held. After all, her epistemology was not the official teaching of the Catholic church, but something that was informed by her own practices.

Very few philosophers of religion discuss how specific religious practices can foster a religious knowledge that more cerebral thinking about God cannot. Sarah Coakley has some work liturgy as a form of doxastic practice (a tantalizing term she borrows from Alston, who did not do much with the concept, but fortunately, Sarah has and I hope to elaborate it in work further on in a talk I’ll be giving at Texas A&M). Coakley argues that the physical, multi-sensory experience of worship can mediate spiritual experience.  Howard Wettstein argues along similar lines about Jewish practices like blessings. He argues these practices provide access to a religious way of life even if there is no doxastic commitment to metaphysical claims about God. Do religious practices provide us with religious knowledge? Even practices that seem contrary to claims generally accepted in philosophy of religion?

I would claim that if we assume that perfect being theology in western philosophy of religion is correct, and if the main theological claims are correct, my grandmother and the members of the Latino community Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado studied can have knowledge. It is hard to say if any theological claims are true, and of course, if naturalism is true, my grandmother’s views, and those of theologians are not knowledge; I am just here assuming the traditional theological views because practices like my grandmother’s are in this framework dismissed as superstitions without any epistemological value.

If my grandmother has knowledge of Mary, it is knowledge by acquaintance, afforded by intimate second-person interactions (manipulating the statue of Black Mary, speaking to her). This sort of knowledge isn’t available to people who do not engage in practices like this. In When God talks back, Tanya Luhrmann explains how this works for Evangelical Christians, but Gonzalez Maldonado offers another perspective (Yet another one is offered by Eleonore Stump on how reading scripture can give us second-person insight). I would like to think more about how embodied practices in religion, so often downplayed by mainstream churches as an embarrassment and relic of the past, can contribute to epistemological questions in philosophy of religion.

[this blogpost is inspired by a talk by Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado at the Annual Academy of Religion; in the talk Gonzales Maldonado discussed Latino religious practices in relationship to Luhrmann’s work on Evangelical spirituality]

  • This is an excellent post, Helen, and it raises crucial questions, and it points into territory which philosophy of religion does not yet know. Protestantism, of course, is a highly verbal religion, in which prayer is the main practice. Other religions are much richer in practice, and often much less concerned with belief. But practice may not have much to do with knowledge. It may instead be done in order to arouse a way of feeling and living, though perhaps that is practical wisdom of some kind, a kind of know-how. There is so much more to be done here. Looking at practice allows PoR to open up entirely new ways of thinking about religion.

    November 23, 2014 — 9:49
    • Hi Eric: Thanks for your comments! I think one of the questions one can ask connects to the question of how we should conceive of the epistemology of skills and practices. Does know-how, for instance, always translate into knowing-that? I’m not terribly persuaded by Jason Stanley’s work on this score (the intellectualist tradition), but suppose it is true that in this case know-how is translatable into know-that, what would it mean in practice? Perhaps it means (assuming a standard picture of theism is true) that my grandmother knows something about Mary’s personality. Assuming that know-how is not always reducible to know-that (a view I hold, of which I think Ellen Fridland has done excellent work). I think even if my grandmother’s propositional beliefs about theism turn out to be false, she could still have knowledge in this sense. For instance, her practices gave her very good coping mechanisms for challenging events in life (of which she had many). I miss her very much, especially how she would burn a candle on my behalf in front of the Black Madonna whenever I was faced with a difficult situation, such as exams or finding my first job. Although I never believed those candles actually worked, it felt reassuring to know they were burning for me – I think with hindsight I ought to have been more concerned about the danger of fire – that was a wooden statue after all, and she would let it burn even while leaving the house.

      November 23, 2014 — 12:24
      • Helen, I’m agnostic about whether know-how reduces to know-that. Whether it does or not, I think the practical knowledge embodied in religious practice is significant. It maintains ways of living (including ways of coping, as you say). Burning the black candles worked to reassure you; it created a social bond. Did it act as a magical technology? Of course not – but I think that very question is a distraction. Magic (whether Christian or pagan or otherwise) doesn’t produce action at a distance. Many of these practices deserve an analysis in terms of the aesthetic-emotional effects (and thus social effects) they produce in the participants. They can produce illusions (e.g. the illusion of control), but they can also produce valuable links between ideals and motivations. There’s work to be done here. – Eric

        November 23, 2014 — 17:02
  • Kevin Corbett

    I think devotion to the saints is one of the best features of Catholicism, but with Mary, some people can indeed take it beyond hyperdulia.

    That said, maybe one of the reasons I believe in spite of immense doubt is that I have read, for example, an article by one Avelino de Almeida satirizing and mocking the Famita apparitions (he was working for an anticlerical paper at the time), followed by an article where he said he had seen the Miracle of the Sun and it had really happened. I know people who use the tone used in those original articles and I can’t imagine someone like that doing anything but snickering to themselves if the people around them were having a mass hallucination.

    But maybe this makes me superstitious too, or engaged in wishful thinking. I wonder why Mary always has to appear to children and the poor and disabled and not to a philosopher of religion or some other desperate intellectual like me trying to not lose faith in an environment that seems hellbent of making you lose it.

    November 23, 2014 — 19:24
  • Alexander R. Pruss

    If the beliefs associated with the practices were true, it would be quite unsurprising to me that they constituted knowledge. It would be very easy to give an externalist story. For instance, maybe practices that produce the prayed-for results are more likely to survive in the community, or maybe the Holy Spirit inspires people with such or

    November 24, 2014 — 0:24
  • Alexander Pruss

    … (continuing) with such practices, either individually or at the level of the community. And it’s not hard to give an internalist story, too.
    All in all, it seems to me that the main question is of truth. Do such practices give rise to good relationships between the practitioner and the saint? Are these practices in fact of such a sort that God wants them to take place? Etc.

    November 24, 2014 — 0:30
    • I’ve been wondering about this too. On the one hand, the practices create a sort of intimacy with the saint that would otherwise not happen, and that has value. As Eric Steinhart says, such practices might even be valuable (of course not constituting knowledge) if they are based on false beliefs. But assuming there is such a person as Mary, revered in the Catholic tradition, who has the attributes associated with her (mother of Jesus, virgin birth, ascension to heaven, free from original sin), what then? The practices do seem to be a bit irreverent at times (such as turning the statue to the wall, as my grandmother muttered “You know, I’m really disappointed. This was a reasonable request. I think you’d want to reconsider interceding for me…” Just imagine if we were to do something analogous to a real person! So, difficult questions.

      November 24, 2014 — 8:13
      • There is also a Jewish tradition, exhibited in the Bible and outside the Bible, of arguing with God: https://scholarsbank.uoregon.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/1794/5298/Arguing-with-God.pdf

        I remember Jim Conant telling me of a “Jewish” approach to the problem of evil, where the approach is to yell at God, but do so in the way that one yells at a family member–i.e., do so within the context of a relationship which provides for deep presuppositions that make the remarks not be actually as hurtful as they might seem.

        The truth question, then, will be twofold:
        1. Does Mary exist, and does she have the attributes relevant to the interaction?
        2. Given 1, is it in fact the case that the interaction is of the right sort given who Mary is and your grandmother’s relationship with her?

        I think that 2 may be rather hard to answer. If the answer to 1 is positive, the facts needed to answer 2 are apt to be buried in intimacies of the relationship between your grandmother and Mary, intimacies to which nobody else on earth–except perhaps your grandmother’s confessor–is privy.

        Intimacy in an interpersonal relationship can affect how overtly respectful one needs to be. For instance, there are (true) remarks I can make about myself such that if I make them, I am just being “sweetly self-deprecating”, but if a stranger made them, they would be a deadly insult. Some, but probably not all, of these remarks are ones that people with whom I have a close relationship could make without any breach of charity, but a third party would be very unlikely to know that this is the case.

        I have never been comfortable myself yelling at God, but that may be a sign of insufficient intimacy.

        November 24, 2014 — 10:29
  • I want to stress that beliefs may not play important roles in any of these behaviors. The behaviors themselves may express meaningful and valuable ways of living. But this gets into some strange territory, which has not been philosophically explored. I just hope the whole issue doesn’t devolve into a discussion of beliefs.

    November 24, 2014 — 9:27
    • I think Howard Wettstein’s work has made a very good start with looking at the practices qua practices (as a way of approaching life meaningfully). This morning, I was talking to a Jewish scholar, Claire Katz, about this topic and she thinks that Judaism has some unique features in this respect, as a religion founded on practices rather than beliefs (as long as you uphold the mitzvahs it doesn’t matter what you actually believe). I am wondering if we can say something general about the role of practices in religions, or if indeed these are specific (for instance, Catholicism seems to be unique among Christian traditions in having a significant role of interaction with material culture).

      November 24, 2014 — 10:14
      • (Also, don’t forget Eastern Orthodoxy, and probably also non-Orthodox Eastern Churches. But even within evangelical Christianity, there are practices–worship, small group fellowship, etc.–that have relevant similarities.)

        This practice question is very intriguing.

        I vaguely remember talking with a distinguished Catholic philosopher of religion about the argument from religious experience, and I think he thought that using individual religious experience to argue for God was barking up the wrong tree. The right tree to bark up is to talk about participation in the liturgy, and the experiential dimensions thereof. I wish I remembered the exact remarks, but it was over a decade ago, I think.

        Here’s a thought. If I successfully rely on an assumption enough in my practical life, I find myself believing it more firmly. This is often not a conscious process. The more often one, say, uses a tool for a particular task, and succeeds, the more one believes that the tool is particularly good for that task. This just happens. But it’s not innately irrational. By successfully relying on an assumption in practice, one really is gaining inductive data in favor of the assumption. (Yes, this yields a fairly standard argument for scientific realism. 🙂 )

        The more one relies on religious practices and does so successfully, the more evidence one gains for the assumptions underlying these practices. Of course, when one is praying for a miracle and a miracle occurs, that’s success, but psychological coping may also count as success. After all:
        P(practice is psychologically beneficial | assumptions are true) is at least slightly greater than P(practice is psychologically beneficial | assumptions are not all true).

        I suspect that in general (but maybe not in the case at hand?) this is the sort of data that people tend to put too much weight on in their own case.

        It’s also the sort of data that I suspect people tend to put too little weight on in the case of others’ successful practices. And it’s good that you and Wettstein and others are drawing attention to it.

        November 24, 2014 — 10:46
        • Kevin Corbett

          I know that Flannery O’Connor, for one, said that we should not expect some sort of psychological uplift from receiving Communion, and that even if we do, we should be wary of confusing such a feeling as coming from the supernatural grace the sacrament imparts. But I have seen many traditionalists speak of the sacraments as though they bestowed a decreased inclination toward sin and seemingly other psychological and sociological benefits, and this is part of the reason why they say that something like invincible ignorance cannot possibly save those outside the visible Church, as without the grace of the sacraments they cannot possibly be truly good.

          November 24, 2014 — 20:46
          • Alexander R. Pruss


            Indeed, it is a standard part of Catholic doctrine that the sacraments (when rightly received) sanctify–that they cause one to be more holy, more virtuous. This sanctification is distinct from a psychological uplift. (They might on occasion even sanctify one by producing the opposite of a psychological uplift.)

            But it’s a mistake to take for granted that those who do not have the sacraments thereby lack the increase in holiness. For while the sacraments are a divinely-promised means to sanctification, God is free to sanctify people outside of the reception of the sacraments, too.

            November 25, 2014 — 15:33
          • Kevin Corbett

            That is interesting. It somewhat raises the question as to when one can suppose that the sacraments can produce positive psychosocial effects as opposed to such an effect having a natural mechanism. For example, suppose there is a person who stopped taking their anti-depression medication for several years and became very depressed and also lost their faith in God. Then, after a period of many years, they on a whim one day go to confession, wherein their confessor tells them they should take their meds again. So the person decides both to start going to Mass again and taking their meds, and after awhile they begin to undergo a real transformation that both improves their psychological well-being and makes them a more empathetic person. But is this due to the sacraments or the medication (or maybe both) and how do we know?

            November 25, 2014 — 22:18
    • Alexander R. Pruss

      While beliefs aren’t always that relevant, there will typically be presuppositions of the practice, such that if they aren’t true, the practice doesn’t have the kind of importance that the agent accords it (with the importance, say, measured by the kinds of sacrifices the agent is committed to making for the sake of the practice).

      November 24, 2014 — 12:24
  • Alex, you wrote “The more one relies on religious practices and does so successfully, the more evidence one gains for the assumptions underlying these practices.”

    But I’m not sure assumptions are all that relevant – they’re beliefs! The point Helen made about Judaism is a very deep one – it’s the practice, no matter what you believe. The same often holds in Neopagan groups, such as Druidism and Wicca. You do the sabbat rituals – your interpretations of them are up to you. The rituals seem (to me) to be designed to produce certain shared emotional states, rather than to reinforce beliefs.

    It may be that “belief” is primarily a Christian issue (and among Christians, primarily a Protestant issue). It might be possible to have religions in which belief plays a very minor role. (I read a recent book by a Neopagan in which the author said basically “We don’t talk about our beliefs because we don’t have any.”)

    So the importance of the practice is due to its ability to produce shared emotions, rather than on any assumption which underwrites it (or which it underwrites).

    – Eric

    November 24, 2014 — 20:45
    • Kevin Corbett

      I think, however, there are plenty of Jewish scholars who would disagree with Claire Katz, and would in fact posit that Judaism is unique for wanting belief where paganism requires ritual practices. According to Mamonides, for example, belief in the existence of God is the first principle of 13 of the Jewish faith.

      November 25, 2014 — 14:12
    • Alexander R. Pruss


      First, the assumptions need not be actual beliefs. They are, rather, propositions without which the practices do not make sense. The individual may not know what these propositions are. For instance, an assumption behind the practice of refraining from eating pork is that God forbade the eating of pork. If this assumption were false, it would not make sense, and indeed would likely be morally wrong given duties of reverence for life, to refrain from pork when a persecutor commands one to eat pork on pain of death. (While rabbinical Judaism allows kashrut to be violated when violation is necessary for the preservation of life, this allowance does not apply in times of persecution, presumably because of the need to witness to God’s commands.)

      Second, Judaism cares a lot more about the heart and motives than the criticism of it in parts of the Protestant tradition as a “religion of works” gives it credit for. But there are attitudes of the heart and motives that are rationally impossible to have without certain doxastic commitments.

      After all, it is a commandment to love God with all one’s affect and intellect (“levav”, which is often translated as “heart”, but includes both the affective and the intellectual). It is hard to do that without believing that God exists.

      Moreover, Maimonedes holds that it is important that one obey the mitzvot not for philosophical reasons, but because they have been commanded by God. Again, hard to do that without believing that the mitzvot have been commanded by God.

      There is a midrash expressing the appropriate attitude towards mitzvot: Before the commandments were given, the Israelites in the desert were sad, for they wanted to love God, but did not have any commandments by obeying which they could express love for God. The implication surely is that now that the mitzvot have been given, one should rejoice that one can express love for God by obeying them. That is, surely, a central point of the feast of Simkhat Torah and that is much of the reason why it is best to fulfill a mitzvah b’simkhah, with joy. But how can one rationally rejoice that one can express love for God by obeying without believing the commandments to come from God?

      Finally, and perhaps most importantly, central to Jewish praxis is study of Talmud. But why study Talmud? There are many answers. But without the assumption that one somehow comes closer to God through study of Talmud, say by seeing through the eyes of the sages how God has classified creation, the enormous emphasis on Talmud study in rabbinical Judaism makes little sense.

      A religion whose practices had no such assumptions would be a religion of works, deserving of the criticism that parts of the Protestant tradition heaped on Judaism. But such a religion is not Judaism (or at least not rabbinical Judaism).

      November 25, 2014 — 15:28
      • Alex,

        Judaism is of course an extremely old and rich religion, with many divergent streams. I’ll only note that there are plenty of humanistic or atheistic Jews, and, indeed, some of the deepest and richest atheistic communities are Jewish.

        But you’re working within your own theistic framework when you talk about the requirement of theistic belief for participation in Jewish ritual life. I’ve been to atheistic seders. And if there is power which underwrites the mitzvot, it may be interpreted in ways other than theistic.

        It’s been my own study of and participation in pagan rituals (tho I’m not a pagan) which has been most illuminating. Belief just isn’t relevant. You do the rituals, doing the rituals produces certain very intense affective states; those states produce an aesthetic and ethical relation to the world. The degree to which belief is kept out of it is most remarkable. Or, perhaps better, practice comes first and belief comes second, if at all.

        I think there can be religion in which practice comes first and belief comes second, if at all. It will still be philosophically interesting. And I think it is almost impossible for theists to see this possibility.

        – Eric

        November 26, 2014 — 8:25
        • Alexander R. Pruss


          Certainly, some–maybe even many–traditional Jewish practices can make sense even if God doesn’t exist. However, only some. There are mitzvot like loving God with all one’s being that do not make sense if God doesn’t exist. And there are practices like the willingness to die (and, I assume, allow one’s family to die as well) rather than succumb to persecutors’ demands that one violate kashrut that make little moral sense apart from theological assumptions.

          My own thinking about atheistic Judaism is that it likely either leaves out or greatly attenuates the heart of Judaism–consecrating every aspect of one’s life lovingly to God by having every aspect of one’s life be lovingly lived in the light of God’s torah, none of which is insignificant given that God has legislated them–or else it transfers the central focus from God to the community, thereby being idolatrous.

          But I am not a Jew, and maybe a Jewish theologian will correct me. It’s always risky to talk about what’s at the heart of a religion one doesn’t participate in. 🙁

          November 27, 2014 — 10:01
          • Alex, it’s true that I don’t fully understand atheistic Judaism either. But I do know that some of the most active humanist groups are Jewish humanist congregations. – Eric

            November 27, 2014 — 16:34
  • I have two thoughts to share. The first is that your grandmother’s practice of turning the statue of Mary, is similar to putting the framed photo of a family member face down when that person is in the dog house. One aspect might be that your grandmother is not in the mood to look at Mary. The other is that if Mary were to behold the mantle, she would get the emotional message that she is yes, still in the dog house. Within the relationship between your grandmother and Mary, this would be a sign and reminder to both that something needs resolving. Within a family, sometimes these are just the things that do not get resolved. Sometimes lives become built around the avoidance of the family member. Having the portrait face down, or the statue turned around, and not removed or thrown away, is a sign and communication, even to all who enter the room, who might have a thought on the matter, that there is a powerful mutual love that should surmount whatever is between the two, keeping them from seeing eye to eye.

    Not being a Catholic, I have been fascinated by the spirituality that Mary seems to represent for believers. I love the song Mary by Patty Griffin (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WkJibRAdTqc), the way it expresses being human, especially what we signify as female, while God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, go about their holy business. Acknowledging such spiritual truths or beliefs, where does that leave us?

    November 24, 2014 — 23:02
    • Kevin Corbett

      It should be noted that even within Catholicism, Mary does not represent the same thing to everyone, and furthermore, the Church is fairly zealous in defining whether or no it is acceptable to hold certain beliefs about Mary. It is quite interesting, for example, to consider the implications of the Immaculate Conception – for example, Mary is held to be without Original Sin, so she is without the creaturely ignorance that comes from it, but is not omniscient.

      November 25, 2014 — 14:23
      • Rus Bowden

        Hi Kevin,

        It’s interesting to think of a church having so much authority that it can mandate and interpret as if whomever is mandating and interpreting has the final word. But on what are these interpretations based, but what also must be noted, the experiences of people, the saints in the Catholic church especially? Where does or did the knowledge come from that is being archived and disseminated, other than spiritual experiences?

        How is it that one Pope can have different rules than others? Whatever happened to no meat on Fridays? It is not that God’s rules have changed, but that after much soul-searching, as it were, the church has grown, at least evolved. (This is the same for the Jewish faith as well.)

        Where did Helen’s grandmother get her knowledge? I am sure lots came from church authorities. Closer to home, though, comes more than likely, a group of devout laypeople she befriended and family members, who shared the practices with her, integrating faith into living. The next step, though, even if no one else turned a statue of Mary, is that she herself, being devout, gets to a point that she can decide, and then must decide for herself, in order that her relationship with Mary can be personal. Everyone else in the neighborhood may not be laying pictures down on their frames, or turning statues of Mary, but any one of us can, and certainly Helen’s grandmother felt this way, for her own reasons – I need to say the latter, because I am sure I have crossed the line and used Helen’s grandmother as a prop for my own ideas.

        November 25, 2014 — 21:10
        • Kevin Corbett

          I think much it is held to come from the Councils, which are held to be infallible, though there are usually ways to alter certain pronouncements without supposedly doing against like letter of the law. For example, the doctrine that no one is saved outside the Church is interpreted to allow for invincible ignorable and other such things, so one can be in the Church without being in the visible Church. This is the living magisterium, though, which does depend on the spiritual insights of its members. For example, if the discipline of clerical celibacy in the Latin Rite is ever altered, one would suppose it would have to be based in some degree on the spiritual experience of the clergy in question coming to the conclusion that that is what God wants them to do. But nevertheless, the Church at least would not claim this is a matter of “growing” or changing, but just a slight revision. For example, the matter of meat on Fridays – it actually IS still required for Catholics to abstain from meat on all Fridays, but a special allowance has been made for U.S. Catholics to exchange this for some other sacrifice on Friday. In practice, it is just as you say – I never even knew that I was supposed to be giving something up every Friday in Sunday school or in the years I was at Catholic school, and I don’t think it was because my teachers didn’t want me learning this dark secret, just that they themselves didn’t know. But the Church can always say, Ah, such a thing is unfortunate, perhaps the U.S. Bishops Council should hold a meeting or an inquiry or something to look into it and a paragraph can be added to the CCD book.

          November 25, 2014 — 22:09
        • Alexander R. Pruss


          We distinguish between doctrine, moral law, divine law and canon law. The definitively proclaimed parts of the doctrine are unchanging (though we can grow in understanding of what they mean). Some of these parts of the doctrine concern morals and divine law as well (thus, it is a part of Catholic doctrine that marital contraception is wrong (a matter of morals) and that Christians should partake in the Eucharist (a matter of divine law)). The moral law does not change: it applies to all human beings always, though we do come to know more about the moral law as time progresses (mainly, I think, by realizing that there are more duties than we thought; for instance, in the last couple hundred years, we have come to clearly realize that there is a duty to refrain from enslaving others).

          But both divine law and canon law changes, since it needs to be responsive to changing circumstances. Thus, baptism was not required before Jesus’ coming, but now it is (a matter of divine law), since circumstances have changed. Likewise, canon law now requires candidates for the priesthood to study two years of philosophy and four years of theology. Presumably, the early Church did not have any such specific time periods required, but a larger Church, and growth in the general educational level of society, requires this. Divine law and canon law are akin to the laws of a state: it is fully changeable by the authority that institutes it (God and the Church, respectively).

          Such matters as meatless Fridays, the prohibition on the priestly ordination of married men in large parts of the Catholic Church (specifically, in the Latin and Maronite rites), the specifics of Lenten fasting, the length of priestly formation and the colors of clerical vestments in different times of year are all subject to change by the Church authorities that put the rules in place, and indeed can and often do have specific exceptions. On the other hand, we hold that the Church cannot change the moral law (which is simply unchanging) or the divine law (which changes, but only on God’s say-so).

          This all could end up being sophistry if there were no clarity on what falls in what category. But by and large, it’s actually pretty clear what is doctrine, what is moral law, what is canon law and what is divine law–by and large, we can tell these apart without much difficulty.

          November 27, 2014 — 9:40
          • Rus Bowden

            Hi Alexander,

            And therein lies a problem with the Catholic church, and most any religious organization, and most organizations, and most if not all political powers, countries and alliances They need to both perpetuate and be powerful while doing it. To do this, they need to convince those both within and without that they are right. China’s great for re-education, for instace, which is what they did when is was religion in power. The church et al will do this to a fault, and we who belong to them or are influenced by them have a duty to ourselves and each other to stand ready to challenge – such as what is being done in the area of gay marriage at the moment.

            However, with that said, the beauty of Helen’s grandmother, and the way her story is told, is that she becomes the holy one through which the scripture is interpreted, she is the authority, the authority of all Christian, Jewish, Moslem, Hindu, Buddhist, what-have-you scripture, even, to whatever degree, how the government of China is governing. She is “Highly” informed. To the degree that her practices and beliefs work in her life, and in the lives of those who observe her, she supersedes the church. This is the authority of the mystic, the one whom is in a spiritual relationship.

            However still, with that said, the mystic is far more apt to stay in the question, less apt to mandate, to meditate on religious experiences, to understand how they go beyond whatever is being taught or passed around, however it can adjust their lives, and, if a church organization has a practice in place, to follow those spiritual people who have come before, but no matter, to be true to the universal or higher power. However still, and with that said, being human, however so infinite, she is fallible.

            November 27, 2014 — 17:31
          • Kevin Corbett

            Rus, I don’t think your comparison is fair. The Church does compel its members to any particular belief. If you want to criticize the historical Church, you can, but not the contemporary Church. If the vision of the mystic is final (and I honestly don’t believe what Hellen is describing is mystic and more than the Church’s rituals are mystical – or if they are, the Church’s practices have the same origin as hers, someone deciding what to do based on an idea about God.)

            Personally, I think organizations get a bad rap. There are organizations that everyone acknowledges have a strong prerogative for enforcing a version of orthodoxy, like the FDA. I have, for example, heard of some people who believe very strongly and sincerely in the efficacy of alternative medicine that have shown to have no effect, and I think the FDA is quite right in to say to them, effectively, “No, you’re wrong.” They say that because the stakes are very high. I think the Church is the same. And even if they are in fact wrong, and Helen’s mother is right, if the Church believes it is right, it should say so.

            November 28, 2014 — 15:59
          • Kevin Corbett

            Oops, that should say “doesn’t compel”.

            November 28, 2014 — 16:00
          • Rus Bowden

            Hi Kevin, (ref 98922/23)

            I grew up as a Protestant in a Catholic neighborhood. Granted there may have been some, I did not know any Catholics who did not critique the Catholic church, and I think that is healthy. The church that came through my family “down” to me was mainly the Congregational, and I would say the same about that. We each and all, Catholics and no, ought to critique the Catholic church, no matter what they say, and especially if they are trying translate spiritual experiences and scripture as doctrine. New popes inevitably bring new ways and ideas, which in essence are critiques of how things were previously. I just passed by a Christ Church United (formerly Congregational) that has a rainbow out, to welcome gays et al.

            In the end, I would not want to abolish the Catholic church. It was through the church, after all, that Helen’s mother found her way of being spiritually. Through teachings and practices, they “raise” people like her. That’s a good thing.

            I am not anti-organization. I simply point out what we all learn, no matter our major, what is taught in social psychology everywhere, that organizations perpetuate themselves. Just as all humans are imperfect, so the same with all organizations.

            On to the FDA parallel. I am one who needs to pursue alternative medicine, because my disability is no one’s specialty around here. There’s one in Philadelphia, and one in Rochester Minn, one in upstate New York. Within their specialty, I am one who has received the malady through injury, which is the rarer way. Also, my life partner has a one-in-a-million disability. The medical profession is not set up to treat us well, never mind cure us. The FDA, it turns out, from their purview, may not be enough either. In other words, the drugs we take only lessen the problems. They are godsends to be sure, but only dents in the problems, that make life a little better. My doctor (GP), who is considered by many to be the best on town, has brought up that for me, I may want to pursue medical marijuana. There is pain that I deal with and other symptoms too, that marijuana apparently is good for.

            Consider the position I am in, by taking opiates to relieve pain, I could get addicted, no matter how responsible I am–and no matter how repelled I am at the idea of even having them in the house. In the opiate addiction, pain is created through lack of use; the addict then, unwittingly addicted, takes another pain-killer–what we have them for in the first place. Well, I don’t want the addiction, nor do I want the pain, nor do I want to be a card-carrying marijuana user. My decision will get hairier still, as I weigh which bad road I will go down, as marijuana is not regulated by the FDA. It is the first drug to be approved by vote, in spite of what the FDA is prepared to decide.

            Instead of shooting down your analogy of the Catholic church being an organization like the FDA, I will agree. What I will say, though, is that the FDA has nothing to say about my disorder other than what does not work, or work as it should. Often we have to go outside the limits of the organizations for our personal purposes. I do not reject the FDA, nor the Catholic church, and certainly Helen’s grandmother did not.

            I’ll need to tell my marijuana story some later time. If I decide to go for it, I hope I can find a way to find the right supplier, who can supply the right way for me to take it, a supplier that can make the dosage as consistent as if I went to the pharmacy to pick up a bottle of aspirin. Is this the best road for me in my life? It is of I can find a way for it to work, without the FDA. If I can’t or won’t, I can’t.

            The FDA has very little to say on medical marijuana, and so should say very little. When they find out more, they should say more, and most likely will. Just as with the medical profession, the FDA is limited (not to mention corruptible). So is any organization, so the Catholic church, whatever it’s vast benefits to humankind. If I take the medical marijuana road, just as I am happy to share my mystic experiences with people and good organizations, such as the Catholic church, I will be happy to share my marijuana experiences with the FDA.

            November 28, 2014 — 18:09
          • Kevin Corbett

            I will grant a lot of what you are saying Rus – I suppose, with the FDA comparison, I was thinking more along the lines of things like acupuncture and Acai berries. They should point out “There’s no reason to believe these things will give you anything but a placebo effect.” I think the issue of marijuana is certainly one where politics have trumped science, at least in the case of medical marijuana – but this is, I think, a case of that organization failing to be orthodox enough, not the other way around. If they had followed orthodox science, they would moved forward.

            Now, the thing about criticism – I think it is right, certainly, to criticize the Catholic Church in terms of what the Church does, but not what it is. What’s more criticism goes both ways. Some of the most strident critics of the Church are radical traditionalists who pay lip-service to the Church but basically believe nothing the current Pope says is binding on them because they know better. So it cuts both ways – just as there may be rainbows on the UCC church, there may be (there are, actually are, in fact) where traditionalist priests (or SSPX priests at least) are making bold to teach others that Novus Ordo is inherently irreverent, many of these churches are filled with the nodding heads of Catholics raised on the NO. These are both cases of congregations who used hold certain views going against the mainline of their denomination. If one think the UCC is an instance where criticism has borne good fruit, its because ones evaluation of the outcome is “This is a good thing” not that the act of questioning itself was a good thing.

            November 28, 2014 — 21:18
          • Rus Bowden

            I agree with pretty much all you just wrote. A personal note, is that an acupuncturist and a chiropractor may be in my future. To switch fallible organizations, my health insurance will cover it. It gets to a point where you say to yourself, hey, maybe something will have a placebo effect on me.

            Here’s where it looks like we may differ, you say, “If one think the UCC is an instance where criticism has borne good fruit, its because ones evaluation of the outcome is ‘This is a good thing’ not that the act of questioning itself was a good thing.”

            Not necessarily. There are people looking at scripture, finding that there may be allowance for gay marriage, that the most common interpretations of what’s in the Bible, may have been wrong all these years.

            But I want now, with that in mind, to shift back to the idea of the individual believer, the one with a spiritual relationship. This is where the questioning must take place. You cannot have a relationship otherwise. And this is far more than what we know as being mad at God, or in Helen’s grandmother’s case of turning the statue. It’s the questioning of the whatever church and all the spirituality it stands for in relation to us . . . in order to live.

            Let me refer to a blog post at Books, Inq. by Julie Chovanes, called Ch-Ch-Changes, and with which she being with the quote, Let this cup pass Lord: http://booksinq.blogspot.com/2014/02/ch-ch-changes.html. In that post from February, it is her that is changing, her transexuality that she is dealing with in relation to the church. We don’t see that she is necessarily questioning the church. However, we find that her meditations have led her to interpretations of religious poetry, such as how she reads a poem by St. John of the Cross: http://booksinq.blogspot.com/2014/02/ch-ch-changes.html.

            We all have our spiritual journeys, at least believers do. The act of questioning the church and its teaching along the way is not only a good thing, but may be imperative in order to become as devout as Helen’s grandmother, which may, and I would suggest, often does lead to a relationship with the church where one’s own wisdom necessarily supersedes the way the clerics of the religion are interpreting scripture. After all, it’s the relationship with God and in Helen’s grandmother’s case, Mary, that is most important. The church is just there to guide and show the way.

            November 28, 2014 — 23:23
          • Rus Bowden

            Oops. wrong second link to Julie’s writings. She calls the St. John of the Cross one,The Spiritual Canticle and Awe : http://booksinq.blogspot.com/2014/11/the-spiritual-canticle-and-awe.html

            November 28, 2014 — 23:25
          • Rus Bowden

            The “oops” message refers to a post awaiting approval. I believe it did not post because I refer to the T in LGBTQ

            November 29, 2014 — 3:56
    • Hi Rus: Thanks – that strikes me as a plausible way to interpret the turning away of the statue (it’s tempting to see it as something crass like “punishing” Mary, but that interpretation does not quite conform to how she interacted with the statue at other times.
      Thanks for the link to the beautiful song!

      November 25, 2014 — 16:06
      • Kevin Corbett

        I know that on more than one occasion, I put a crucifix in another room when I was about to commit a sin. Now, of course I knew rationally, even if I put this away somewhere else, God can still see me. But I did it anyway, knowing it wasn’t rational. But I don’t know if this experience is more than tangentially related as I don’t think your grandmother was planning to do something like writing an email to ask a professor for an extension on a paper because she was sick when she wasn’t (my sin, if I recall rightly).

        November 25, 2014 — 22:25
  • Heath White

    I think this line of inquiry has a lot of promise. A great deal of religious wisdom (I guess that’s the word) is bound up in practices, in probably every religion. For example, in the evangelical circles I run in, many of these practices involve reading texts (some do not) but there is a continuum from academic study to something more like lectio divina (nobody calls it that), and it would be a mistake to think that reading texts is always a wholly intellectual practice.

    I will raise the obvious point that it can’t be both that (1) beliefs, presuppositions, assumptions, etc. are irrelevant to a practice, and (2) the practice confers knowledge.

    This suggests that practices where background beliefs really are irrelevant, because they are really about achieving emotional states or firming up social solidarity or expressing political allegiance, are not practices that can confer knowledge. They are much more likely to confer emotional states or social solidarity or political messages, which is the point after all.

    However, not every background assumption needs to be true in order for a practice to be knowledge-involving. For example, Polynesian navigators think of the earth as the center of a dome of stars, which is not true, but it is a useful fiction when doing celestial navigation. Conceivably, some religious practices make use of similar useful fictions.

    November 25, 2014 — 15:55
    • Hi Heath and Alexander: I am currently reading a paper by Sosis and Kiper that might be relevant for the question of how belief and practice interact.
      Basically, they argue that the notion of belief has been overemphasized in the study of religion. But nonetheless, beliefs are an important element of religious practices. Practices help ground beliefs because they are less volatile than beliefs (your belief in God could waver from day to day, but if you observe practices like prayer 3 or 5 times a day, they are relatively unaffected by these fluctuations). In this way, practices help to stabilize beliefs. Interestingly, doubt seems to be a feature of religious beliefs crossculturally, and is not restricted to Christianity in the western world. The practices nourish the beliefs.

      November 26, 2014 — 3:09
    • Kevin Corbett

      I think the issue with this is that a religion like Christianity has many elements that are considered, as I remember reading on I think the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy that are considered so implausible that their mention is just “unhelpful” – in this case, Augustinian theodicy’s position that humans are responsible for natural evil through the Fall – but these positions can’t be considered convenient fictions or metaphors. I’m aware that some have tried to claim that Original Sin is not foundational for Christianity, that it can be a metaphor and still be valid, but I’ve failed to be convinced by any such argument. Of course, you can always work around certain facts – for example, one can posit that before Adam and Eve were ensouled, there were already homo sapiens, but not behaviorally modern ones, and that the descendents of Adam mated with preexisting unsouled humans (hence genetic diversity) – its all quite convoluted of course, but you have to posit it because the whole thing falls apart otherwise.

      But other things can be convenient fictions without a problem – the Flood can be regarded as an extrapolation of Sumerian legend, Job can be a literary allegory, etc. and nothing is lost because those stories aren’t foundational for what they say about the history of God’s relationship with man. But I think this applies to the Polynesians as well – I’m sure they have foundational stories that can’t be disbelieved without the foundation of their belief system collapsing as well.

      November 26, 2014 — 3:10
  • Alexander R. Pruss


    “After all, it’s the relationship with God and in Helen’s grandmother’s case, Mary, that is most important. The church is just there to guide and show the way.”

    The value of a community is not merely instrumental. And if the community is also the body of Christ…

    December 3, 2014 — 10:37
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