Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Holy Eucharist and ‘the Argument from Ignorance’

(Twentieth Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on August 16, 2009 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read John 6: 51-58.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twentieth Sunday 2009]

If I don’t understand it, it can’t be true.
That’s a variation of what is sometimes called “the argument from ignorance”—and it’s a very bad way to try to make a point or win a debate with someone, because it’s logically fallacious.

Let me illustrate this with a few examples.

Imagine someone making the following statements:

“I don’t fully understand the theory of relativity, so the theory of relativity can’t be true.”

“I don’t fully understand the formulas of calculus, so the formulas of calculus can’t be true.”

“I don’t understand how a rocket could carry enough fuel to take 3 men all the way to the moon and back, so Apollo 11 and all the other so-called 'moon missions' were hoaxes. They didn’t happen; it was impossible.”

Thankfully most people, even if they’ve never taken a course in Logic, know this is a faulty way to come to a conclusion.

Just because I don’t understand something, doesn’t mean that it isn’t true.

I may not understand Einstein’s theory of relativity, but my inability to understand it does not make it false.

The same is true of the formulas of calculus. I may not understand them (although I once did, when I took calculus in high school); but my inability to remember what they signify does not mean they’re false.

And so it is with the other example I gave, and with the many others we could all think of.

So what’s your point, Fr. Ray?

My point is this: In almost every area of life, the argument from ignorance is not considered acceptable, and if someone tries to use it—by making statements like the ones I just quoted to you—that person is immediately challenged and the mistake is pointed out.

Notice I said “in almost every area of life.” I said that because in our modern American culture the argument from ignorance is used all the time with public approval in at least one very important area of life: in matters of faith.

“I don’t understand how one God could exist in three divine persons, so the dogma of the Blessed Trinity can’t be true.”

“I don’t understand how God could become man and be born of a virgin, so the Incarnation can’t be true.”

“I don’t understand how a man could walk on water, so the story of Jesus walking on water in the Bible can’t be true.”

“I don’t understand how miracles could happen, so obviously all the miracles that are written about in the Sacred Scriptures never occurred.”

People—even highly educated people—say these kinds of things all the time. And they’re regularly praised in the media and in other places for being highly intelligent and insightful!

When, in truth, they are simply people who are using very bad logic.

The argument from ignorance is used quite often by non-believers with respect to the Trinity and the Incarnation and miracles and a lot of the Church’s moral teachings. But, to some extent, this is to be expected, since these non-believers lack the gift of faith.

The real tragedy is that, when it comes to the Holy Eucharist—the sacrament of the Lord’s own Body and Blood—this argument from ignorance is sometimes used by baptized and confirmed Catholics who do not accept the Church’s teaching on the Blessed Sacrament!

They say, “I don’t understand how ordinary bread and ordinary wine can change and become the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Jesus Christ, so the Church’s teaching on the Holy Eucharist cannot be true.”

Of course, as sad as this is, it really shouldn’t surprise us, because when Jesus Christ taught the crowds about the Eucharist 2,000 years ago, some of the Jews who heard him responded in the very same way—by using the argument from ignorance!

That’s clear from today’s gospel reading.

Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven; whoever eats this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

And how did many of his listeners respond? The answer is found in the next line of the passage. It reads as follows: “The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’”

That’s the argument from ignorance, is it not? Because what were they actually saying to our Lord? They were saying, “We don’t understand, Jesus, how you can give us your flesh to eat and your blood to drink, so your teaching can’t possibly be true!”

If I don’t understand it, it can’t be true.

The thing is, my brothers and sisters, when it comes to the Eucharist—as with many other aspects of our faith—we will never have a complete understanding on this side of the grave. We can understand some aspects of it—that’s true—but to a great extent it will always remain a mystery.

For example, the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, describes the change that takes place at the consecration of the Mass as “transubstantiation”—in other words, the “substance” (or “inner reality”) of the bread changes and the substance of the wine changes, and they become the Body and Blood of Christ; however, the “accidents” (or “physical properties”) of both remain the same.

But even though this description helps us to understand how the Eucharist can still look like ordinary bread and wine after the consecration and yet be something else, it does not remove the mystery entirely.

I share all this with you today in my homily for two reasons. Number one, to warn you about the argument from ignorance, so that it doesn’t undermine your faith in the Eucharist, or the Trinity, or some other essential teaching of your Catholicism.

And secondly, I share it so that you can be aware of this fallacy in your conversations with people you meet who would like to discredit or undermine your Catholic beliefs.
If they try to use it, you can challenge them and point out their mistake.
When it comes to the Eucharist, incidentally, there has been at least one notable unbeliever in history who never made the mistake of embracing the argument from ignorance.

His name was Albert Einstein.

I’ve read in a number of places that Einstein was fascinated by the Catholic Church’s teaching on the Blessed Sacrament. Many people are not aware of this. He was intrigued by the idea of a substance that you can’t see; a substance that has no shape or size or color. He once even asked a priest—a Fr. Charles McTague—to send him any books in German that McTague could find for him on the Holy Eucharist, because he wanted to learn more about it.
Einstein was not a Catholic, he was not a Christian, and he did not understand the Church’s teaching on the Holy Eucharist (at least not initially).

But he never said, “I don’t understand it, so it can’t be true.” He was too smart to buy into that fallacy. His attitude was, “No, I don’t understand it, but it just might be true—so I’d better learn more about it.”

My prayer today is that our attitude as Catholics will always be, “No, I don’t fully understand it either (and I never will here on this earth); but Jesus Christ said it—he said that the Eucharist was his Body and Blood—and so I believe it, with all my heart.”