The Journal of Applied Impossibility
The internet ate my blogpost. It was better. There was an attempt...
Today, I ask:
Are the saints alive?
I maintain that the asking and offering of prayers from and for others is a sensible activity. But is it true all the time?
One of the best reasons I can think to avoid idolatry is that it is beneath human dignity. It is, in fact a punishment, and in Deuteronomy 4: 23-28, it seems to be regarded as its own punishment (the punishment for idolatry is that you are an idolater:)
There you will worship man-made gods of wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or eat or smell.*
There is something ridiculous about bending one's knee to a rock or a tree.
Here is my current thinking:
It is ridiculous to attempt to reason with a thing that is not reasonable. Stones and logs are not alive. A tree may live, but its soul is not rational.⁑ Talking to trees is at best metaphorical, and expecting them to respond may be delusional.
One of the things which has given me pause about veneration of and prayers to the saints is that I want to avoid being an idolater. Of course, no one within the tradition would mistake invoking the saints with worshiping them.† That is, by asking the saints to pray for us, we are not worshiping them, and if asked, no one knowledgeable about the process would say otherwise.
But even if it is not idolatry, perhaps it is nevertheless ridiculous. Talking to a bust of Caesar is not the same as burning incense before it in worship. But when I imagine the figure of Machiavelli arranging the decorative busts into a faux lecture, I pause for a moment to wonder whether it is pitiable.‡
Consider the following:
1.) Talking to a corpse is ridiculous. Talking to the dead who are not present is even more so.
2.) It makes as much sense to ask for prayers from others as it does to offer one’s own. (This is true regardless of your stance on the sense behind prayer. The question is merely: ‘how much sense is that in the first place?’)
3.) If the saints are dead, and are not able to intervene with their prayers, it is ridiculous to speak to them, and we ought to be at least mildly embarrassed.
There is an argument to be made here. Whether we perform modus ponens or modus tollens remains to be seen.
* Deuteronomy 4:28. One notices that the description of the false gods establishes a contrast. Presumably the true, living God would do all of these things. As I am listening to the Bible during Lent this year, I am struck particularly by the point about eating. One wonders at this, and might pay attention to future points, expecting to notice where we see God eating.
⁑Among the useful pieces of knowledge we have from Aristotle that are largely ignored in the present day are the other three causes in addition to the efficient, an understanding of ‘substance’ that is not merely redundant for ‘matter,’ and the idea of different kinds of souls. Trees have a vegetative soul, though not an animal soul. Animals have an animal soul though not a rational one. This is why talking to our pets is a cute behavior, but we rightly roll our eyes at people who call themselves, “pet parents” and the pet food commercials that enable them.
† Eventually, I will publish my story about how a professor with a PhD from Oxford performed one of the most atrocious fallacies I’ve ever witnessed live in front of the entire class. It was about this very subject
‡ See his letter from December 1513 to ambassador Francesco Vettori.
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