A Tragic Tale of Irreconcilable Perceptions

Posted by the chieftain of seir on Mar 11th, 2006


A Tragic Tale of Irreconcilable Perceptions


“Most of the mistakes in thinking are inadequacies of perception rather than mistakes of logic”– Edward de Bono


It is a commonly known fact that the root of many people’s disagreements is the result of a difference in perception. Even if people have the same facts, the same amount of education, and the same intelligence level, they can still have a fierce argument over a point that seems obvious to both sides. A close inspection will reveal that the way they perceive the facts in question is all that separates them, and yet that is often an unbridgeable gap.

There are very few people who do not understand the difference that perception makes on one’s view of the world. But understanding the impact of differing perception is like understanding that we are all going to die eventually. We all know that we are going to die, but most of the time it is simply some kind of vague idea that we all pay lip service to. That changes, of course, as there are many events that happen to us that makes the fact that we are going to die very real.

I think that our comprehension of how important perception is to our understanding works in the same way. We will readily confess that people can look at the same thing and come up with different results. Yet when we run across someone who disagrees with us, we rarely stop to consider that they might not perceive things the way we do. We assume that our opponent is not aware of all the facts, or simply needs help understanding in order to come around to our view. If careful explanation, or the presentation of all possibly relevant facts, does not do the trick, we tend to dredge up other explanations for their failure to see things our way.

We might say that they do not have enough exposure to how other people think. If we lack charity, we tend to say that they are stupid. Paranoia might lead us to say that they are deliberately trying to mislead people. All of these explanations can be correct. Scholars have been caught fabricating data; some people are undeniably less bright than others; and exposure to other points of view has lead people to change their mind. But I think that we know, in the back of our minds, that these things are rarely the real cause. Even though we know this, we do not want to face the fact that there can be a truly unbridgeable gap between people.

We do not want to face this for similar reasons to our reluctance to face the fact that we are going to die. A difference in perception separates people and among our human fears, the fear of being isolated or separated from our fellow humans is one of the strongest. Call this unbridgeable separation of perception a “mini-death” that brings up similar anxieties as real mortality. Further, a difference in perception also brings on a feeling of helplessness. No matter how smart we are, and how many facts we know, we cannot change how other people perceive things. This inability to change the way that people see things often means that we feel powerless to affect them, or to join in their life. Again this feeling of helplessness is also akin to what death can make us feel.

Most of the time, we can ignore the unbridgeable gulfs that are opened up by a difference in perception, just as we can ignore our own mortality. In part, we can ignore the unbridgeable gulfs because they are often not that important. I may like how one kind of food tastes, and you may hate it. The gap may be unbridgeable, but it is hardly important. However, some perceptions are important since it is our perceptions that determine what is important to us. It is those differences in perception that are important to us that bring out the strong feelings and the truly bitter arguments.

Thus we often learn from an early age to avoid exposing ourselves to differences in perception in matters that are truly important to us. The preferred strategy is to only mix with people who see the world as we do, but this is not always feasible. When the business of living prevents us from seeking out only those who share our perceptions, we very carefully avoid any talk that will reveal those differing perceptions. We create taboos that all socially aware adults know and follow to prevent conversations about subjects that might be important to people.

Sometimes the reality that people have different perceptions that cannot be bridged is impossible to ignore. When we are forced to face up to this reality, it is often painful. Most of the time we react by blaming the one who made it impossible to ignore the difference in perceptions. We devote our energy to figuring out the flaw in the other person that leads them to see things differently. But if we can get past the pain and the anger there are benefits to facing up to gulfs that exist between us just as facing up to our own mortality has benefits. In both cases, it can lead us to test our foundations and our values. More often than not, though, we can not find the clarity of mind to do this, because every time we clear our minds the only thing we can see is how we can not make the problem go away.

It is the common problem with finding clarity of thought when facing our own limitations that is the moral justification for all of those sob stories about brushes with death. If you read of others’ experiences, perhaps you can get the benefits of those experiences without the problems that tend to cloud the mind. It seems to me that if that can be true about stories that deal with our mortality, surely it should also be true about stories that force us to face the gulfs that come between us while we are still living. Yet I cannot think of any true story that is devoted to forcing us to face that issue.

To be sure, there are many stories devoted to proving how evil, stupid, or otherwise deficient people are who have different perceptions than us. And I will admit that those types of screeds have their place. But these screeds tend to obscure the problem of the gulf that comes between people instead of facing it. We need a story devoted to facing that gulf instead of trying to prove that someone was deficient. Such is the excuse for my tale anyway……

Because my upbringing included regular lectures on the importance of perception, I tend to think that I am more sensitive than many to its importance. In reality, the illusion that I am prepared for differences only causes my shock to be all the greater when I do run into a perception that is vastly different than mine. Such a shock happened to me when I was first introduced to St. Jerome’s pamphlet Against Helvidius.

It would help you to understand the rest of my sad tale if you would take the time to read this document, before my comments color your views. I wish I could find the author who first pointed me to Against Helvidius, because he had politeness towards his opponents that is so often missing in tract writers. That was really the only thing that was noteworthy about him. He was just giving the standard defense of a particular doctrine, though it was new to me at the time. Unfortunately, other writers who advance the same argument have peculiarities that may turn people off. Nonetheless, it would also help if you read one of the many variants of their argument. Doing this should highlight how radically different our perceptions of Against Helvidius are. In fact, if you read the links throughout this post it should bring out in even starker relief how big that gulf is between our perceptions. The ironic thing is that our statement of what the facts are should be pretty much the same. After all, I use them as my sources.

I forget exactly what I was doing at the time I first read Against Helvidius . I was either trying to educate myself as to various Catholic beliefs and how they came about or trying to educate myself as to the early church’s struggle to maintain accurate copies of what would become the Old and New Testament. At any rate, I was reading various Catholic writers whose beliefs were different than mine, but whose scholarly methods were something I was comfortable with. The comfort I had with their scholarly methods softened me up for the shock. (Or, at least, that is my excuse.)

During this period of reading, I came across this modern day orthodox Catholic apologist on the web who had written a track defending his belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary. Now, I wish to stress that I in no way found the Catholic belief in perpetual virginity of Mary shocking. Nor do I intend to write a post exclaiming over an obscure Catholic doctrine. It was this writer’s use of a particular historical document that threw me for a loop. The part that caught my attention was at the end.

Here the tract author argued that the Protestants who did not accept the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity were innovators influenced by the enlightenment. He said that the entire early church had held the view that Mary stayed a virgin for her entire life. Being the good fellow that he was, our forgotten author provided a link to an original source document that he said proved his point. The document in question was Jerome’s pamphlet Against Helvidius.

As most orthodox catholic apologists advertise, I was indeed shocked the first time I read the pamphlet. But what shocked me was that it seemed to me to prove the exact opposite of what he said it would prove. I had been prepared to be under whelmed by the promised proof, but I had thought that I would at least be able to see how it might support the view of the Catholics. But try as I might, I could only see how the pamphlet proved that many people in the early church did not believe in the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. How educated and intelligent people could argue otherwise was beyond my perception, yet the catholic apologists don’t even argue for it. They just assume that it proves their point to everyone who bothers to read it.

I do not want you to take from my expression of shock the idea that I read Jerome’s pamphlet once, and then gave up all hope of there being any reconciliation between my perception of Against Helvidius and the Catholic perception. In fact, I put in a fair amount of work to see if I could at least understand how the Catholics arrived at the idea that Against Helvidius proved that the early church uniformly held to that particular belief. This work was profitable in some ways, but it did not help me to understand what the Catholics see in Against Helvidius that I miss. To understand why, we must first look at my initial reaction to Against Helvidius.

For the first three quarters of its length, Against Helvidius seems to prove nothing one way or another. It is merely a record of Jerome’s argument. I began to wonder when the proof was going to come on. Finally, I got to point where Jerome says, “Pray tell me, who, before you appeared, was acquainted with this blasphemy? who thought the theory worth a tuppence? You have gained your desire, and are become notorious by crime.” Here, I thought, is my promised proof. Here is their evidence. As I said, I had been prepared to unimpressed, but I could see how that sentence could be taken as proof that Helvidius was an innovator. However, barely three paragraphs later, I read this: “Feeling himself to be a smatterer, he there produces Tertullian as a witness and quotes the words of Victorinus bishop of Petavium. Of Tertullian I say no more than that he did not belong to the Church. But a
s regards Victorinus, I assert what has already been proved from the Gospel — that he spoke of the brethren of the Lord not as being sons of Mary, but brethren in the sense I have explained, that is to say, brethren in point of kinship not by nature.”

Now, perhaps this had a greater impact on me than it should have. But at the time I first read Against Helvidius, Tertullian was one of the few early Christian writers that I recognized. I had seen him quoted by a number of modern Catholic writers as proving what doctrine in the early church was like. Jerome’s casual dismissal of Tertullian could not erase that fact from my mind. As much as this bothered me, I might not have given it any more thought if Jerome had not gone on to sayMight I not array against you the whole series of ancient writers? Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and many other apostolic and eloquent men, who against Ebion, Theodotus of Byzantium, and Valentinus, held these same views, and wrote volumes replete with wisdom.

It seemed clear to me that Jerome was painting the picture of a long contest between his idea and Helvidius’s idea. This contest, he seemed to be saying, stretched right back to the earliest Christian writers. I could no longer take Jerome’s comment about Helvidius’s singularity as serious. How could Jerome mean it seriously, when he himself testifies to a number of people throughout the breadth of early Christian history, whom he says shares Helvidius’s views? And how could the Catholic apologist, who first introduced me to that letter, feel so confident that it would prove that all early Christians had held to the same view as Jerome–when Jerome himself seemed to indicate otherwise?

If I had thought that orthodox Catholics had some kind of doctrinal necessity to believe that it had always been the predominate view of the early church, I would not have been so puzzled. But Catholics are quite frank that the early Christian era was a time of much controversy. They freely admit that, in some cases, what is now the orthodox view on many subjects was in the minority. So why should they hold so firmly to belief that the doctrine of the perpetual virginity was universal throughout much of Christian history? I could only think that it was because they honestly believed that Against Helvidius supported that view. But for the life of me, I could not understand how they were getting that out of Against Helvidius.

Since I was well aware that I did not know much about Jerome, Tertullian, or the early Christian era in general, I thought that maybe I was missing something obvious–something that all the Catholic apologists who kept referring to Against Helvidius to prove their point assumed was common knowledge. I thought that perhaps there was something about Jerome, that made people think that he was an especially good representative of the early Christian church. Or perhaps there was something that I did not know about Tertullian, something that made people think that his views on Mary were not as representative of the early church as his other writings were. Given the fact that I did not recognize any of the names that Jerome mentioned as predecessors of Helvidius, I thought that perhaps there was something about them that made Catholics dismiss them. But the more I read on any of these subjects, the more it highlighted the unbridgeable difference in perception between me and orthodox Catholics.

Take Jerome, for instance. Of course, all orthodox Catholics think very highly of Jerome, overall. It is almost required for an orthodox Catholic to think highly of Jerome, seeing as he was sainted and made a doctor of the church after he had died. But orthodox Catholics, even today, are not quite comfortable with how Jerome handled his arguments. To quote the Catholic encyclopedia “However that may be, Jerome may be accused of imprudence of language and blamed for a too hasty method of work. With a temperament such as his, and confident of his undoubted orthodoxy in the matter of Origenism, he must naturally have been tempted to justify anything.” The American Catholic puts a nicer gloss on it saying “It is true that he had a very bad temper and could use a vitriolic pen, but his love for God and his Son Jesus Christ was extraordinarily intense; anyone who taught error was an enemy of God and truth, and St. Jerome went after him or her with his mighty and sometimes sarcastic pen.” Whatever modern orthodox Catholics think of Jerome’sperfect hate,” many of his contemporaries were none too pleased by it. He was compelled to leave Rome because he had become such a divisive figure.

Jerome’s method of writing had more flaws than simply angering his contemporaries. He could also be sloppy with the facts and with doctrines that were important to the Catholic Church. Nobody is perfect, of course, not even a saint. But two of the flaws in Jerome’s writing that were pointed out to me by orthodox Catholics increased my puzzlement at their reading of Against Helvidius. The first is Jerome’s evident sloppiness with history. As the Catholic encyclopedia says, “For the first three centuries Jerome depends to a great extent on Eusebius, whose statements he borrows, often distorting them, owing to the rapidity with which he worked.” Now, Eusebius is know to have relied on some forgeries in his histories, so these facts seemed to cast some question on Jerome’s view of the early Christian church.

The second area is the problems that Jerome got himself into when arguing against Helvidius and his friends. Again quoting the Catholic encyclopedia, “The relative dignity of virginity and marriage, discussed in the book against Helvidius, was taken up again in the book “Adversus Jovinianum” written about ten years later. Jerome recognizes the legitimacy of marriage, but he uses concerning it certain disparaging expressions which were criticized by contemporaries and for which he has given no satisfactory explanation.” Most orthodox Catholics do not believe that Jerome was as anti-marriage as his writings seem to indicate. To maintain that position, however, they seemed to confess that Jerome could get very sloppy in his use of language when he was arguing against Helvidius and his allies.

Needless to say, none of this helped me understand the orthodox Catholics‘ view of Against Helvidius. I had thought that perhaps Jerome was such a popular figure in the early church that people would assume that his views were broadly representative, or perhaps that he had a good reputation as a historian. Not that it would have changed the fact that Jerome himself seemed to indicate that the controversy over the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity was long standing, but at least it would have helped me be able to understand why Catholics assume that Against Helvidius represents early Christian views. Yet Catholics themselves acknowledge that Jerome was neither a unifying figure, nor an accurate presenter of facts/doctrine during the heat of an argument. This made it hard for me to think that there is anything about Jerome himself that causes them to put such faith in Against Helvidius as a representative of early Christian thought.

Since nothing about their views on Jerome caused me to understand the orthodox Catholic perception of Against Helvidus, I thought I would examine their view of Tertullian. I wanted to know why they labeled Helvidius with the title of innovator, even though it is clear to orthodox Catholics that Tertullian did not believe in perpetual virginity of Mary anymore than Helvidius did. This would not be so odd if Tertullian had been a contemporary of Helvidius, but Tertullian wrote over a hundred years before Helvidius.

I did not think that Catholics could explain this away by saying that he left the Church like Jerome tried to do. Catholics put too much faith in Tertullian to prove what the early church believed on any number of doctrines, ranging from the Trinity to the authority of the Church to use that argument. But I thought that there might be some indication in Tertullian’s writings that he was aware of the doctrine of perpetual virginity. I thought that maybe there was some sign that he knew he was putting forth a controversial doctrine. After all, how could Tertullian, a man widely considered to be well educated, not be aware that he was promulgating a doctrine that was supposedly different from the vast majority of his contemporaries?

Unfortunately, my researches of Tertullian cleared nothing up for me as to why they call Helvidius an innovator. Tertullian’s assertion that Mary had other children after Jesus can be found it the same writings that Catholics refer to in order to prove what other early Catholic doctrines were. Nothing I read, either in translations of Tertullian’s own writing or in the writings of orthodox Catholic writers who commented on Tertullian’s writings, indicated that Tertullian was even aware of the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. Seeing that Tertullian was well plugged-in to the church politics of his day, and that he based much of his own work on earlier Greek writers (particularly Irenaeus), this seems hard to explain. Further confusing me was the fact that Jerome says that Tertullian was very influential long after his death. Given Tertullian‘s influence it seems odd to me to think that Helvidius was the first to come along who shared Tertullian’s views.

All this was making it harder and harder for me to think that I might ever understand how the orthodox Catholics came to their understanding of Against Helvidius. But I was given a little hope when I looked into those that Jerome seems to indicate supported Helvidius outside of Tertullian; namely “Ebion, Theodotus of Byzantium, and Valentinus.” Upon inspection, these people had nothing in common with Tertullian or Helvidius. All of these men either denied the deity of Jesus or denied that he was born of a human. None of their beliefs seem to be similar in anyway to Helvidius. In fact, the writing of Tertullian that Helvidius was probably quoting from was an argument against the beliefs of Valentinus and his followers. Jerome himself says that Helvidius did not deny the deity of Christ or the virgin birth itself. So what I had at first thought was Jerome acknowledging a long line of people who had the same belief as Helvidius now seemed to me to be an attempt to slander Helvidius.

Slander or not, I could at least see why Catholics did not see Jerome’s mention of those men as being proof that there was an argument about doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity stretching back to the early Christian times. But the flip side of that is there is no good evidence that the men that Jerome quoted supported his view point. It seems that “Ignatius, Polycarp, Irenaeus, Justin Martyr, and many other apostolic and eloquent men” that Jerome mentions were primarily concerned with demonstrating the deity of the Jesus and the fact that he was born of a virgin. There is no indication that any of them taught the doctrine of perpetual virginity of Mary in any of the writings that are known to be theirs.

In fact, if you read the translations made by Catholics of the writings of Irenaeus and Justin Martyr, you would think that they did not believe in doctrine of perpetual virginity. Of course, Jerome would most likely argue the same thing that he did about Helvidius’s use of Victorinus. Or maybe he would say that I have a bad translation. But when Irenaeus saysAnd as the protoplast himself Adam, had his substance from untilled and as yet virgin soil (“for God had not yet sent rain, and man had not tilled the ground” ), and was formed by the hand of God, that is, by the Word of God, for “all things were made by Him,” and the Lord took dust from the earth and formed man; so did He who is the Word, recapitulating Adam in Himself, rightly receive a birth, enabling Him to gather up Adam [into Himself], from Mary, who was as yet a virgin.” It is hard for me to ignore the parallel structure and believe that “as yet” means a different thing in regards to the soil than it does Mary.

At this point I began to wonder if there was any evidence outside Against Helvidius that anyone in the early church believed in the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary. Most of the Catholic apologists that I was reading would only refer to Against Helvidius, or else someone later than Jerome, as proof of their doctrines. After much reading, it became apparent that Jerome was the first one on record to come up with the theory that the people who are called brothers in the gospels were really cousins. To quote Catholic AnswersPrior to the time of Jerome, the standard theory was that they were Jesus’ “brothers” who were sons of Joseph though not of Mary.”

I must say that I think that Catholic Answers is on shaky ground when it calls it a “standard theory“. There are only two pieces of evidence that I could find that Catholic scholars are confident are genuine showing any kind of belief in the perpetual virginity of Mary before the 300’s. One of these was the document called the Protoevangelium and the other is the writings of Origen. But it is not often that Catholic apologists will bring up The Protoevangelium or the works of Origen in their defense the Doctrine of Perpetual Virginity. For one thing, the Protoevangelium has been called heretical by a Pope. And though Origen called those who did not believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary “stupid” or “not of sound mind,” he also disparaged many beliefs that orthodox Catholics held. In fact, Jerome himself spent much of his time denouncing many of Origen’s teachings.

But it does not matter if you do not restrict yourself to sources that Catholic Scholars are confident are authentic for the purpose of this tale. For I am merely trying to show how big a difference there is between my perception of what documents prove and the Catholic perception of what documents prove. For I have read some of the apocryphal accounts that purport to show that various early Christians believed in the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. And I can say that even if all of them were pr
oved genuine, they would merely prove that the doctrine was a matter of dispute since the very beginning. For they often
make frequent mention of those who thought otherwise in much the same way that Origen does. And even I do not doubt that Origen believed the doctrine. In short, most of the documents that Catholic apologist pulls up to prove that the early church believed in perpetual virginity of Mary also prove that many in the early church did not believe in that doctrine.

Or at least that is my perception. It is obvious that Catholics have a different perspective. But even though I used only their writers and their sources I cannot see how they arrived at their view of history. Not that I accuse them of being ignorant; it is their writers that I draw my understanding of facts from. Not that I accuse them of not bothering to understand the other point of view; some of them have obviously tried to deal with the arguments of their opponents. Yet we seem to be on different worlds. So great is the gulf between us that I do not understand how we could converse on subjects of common interest.

Who is going to bridge this gap? Who is going to produce facts that will make either side see differently? I am game to be educated but I think I am pretty well read up on all the Catholic arguments. Nor do I think I have said anything that the better educated among them do not already know. After all, I used Catholic sources to make my point. You might say that how widespread the historical belief in a certain doctrine was is hardly important. But importance is itself a matter of perception. Some Catholics obviously feel that that this issue is important. What is important to me is that the great disparity in our perceptions calls into question whether we can come to a common understanding of anything.

To understand my feeling, imagine that you have been introduced to a very intelligent man and that you have had weeks of interesting and stimulating conversation. This man then comes to you and says that the sky is as green as the grass. When you express disbelief, he confidently invites you out to see for yourself. Wondering if some weird natural phenomena has happened, you go outside with this man only see that the sky is still blue as best as you can tell. As you turn to your friend, he smiles and says, “I told you the sky was green.”

What points of logic can you use to prove that the sky is blue? You either see it that way or you don’t. In a sense, whether you see the sky as being blue or being green does not make that much difference. On the other had, such a great difference in perception is going to show up in other areas that are important. Yet debating them will have no more effect that getting in a shouting match over whether the sky is green or blue.

I suspect that the differing interpretations that I have of the historical documents that the Catholics use suffers from same problem. We cannot profitably debate this issue without degenerating into a shouting match over whose eyes are better. Our only hope for civil discourse is to politely acknowledge that we operate in separate worlds and to go our own way; conscious that we are unable to explore the world that we are in together.

And that to me is a tragedy.

2 Responses

  1. Lorenzo Ricci Says:

    You spend a lot of time looking at various documents preserved by the Catholic Church in an effort to find support for your own view. But while you are spending all this time exclaiming that you can find no support for idea that perpetual virginity was universally held belief among early Christians, you have failed to consider what the church considers a Christian to be. Using your methodology, you could just as well argue that there was no widespread agreement among early Christians that Christ came in the flesh. To apply your methodology to the present time; How many fundamentalist Christians do you think would support a view of their faith that was garnered by a poll of all Americans who claimed to be Christians? Not very many I will wager….

    Catholics do not call all those who claimed to be inspired by Jesus early Christians. They reserve that title for those who submitted themselves to the teaching of the Apostles and their successor bishops. Submission to the teaching of the church is necessary part of being called a member of the church. The teachings of the church are not determined by laymen like Tertullian or Helvidus but by the bishops. So it is to the Bishops that modern Catholics turn to when the wish to understand the beliefs of the early church. Yet you would use the very process of the Bishops teaching their flock to be proof that there was dissention in the early church.

    You say that “For I have read some of the apocryphal accounts that purport to show that various early Christians believed in the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. And I can say that even if all of them were proved genuine, they would merely prove that the doctrine was a matter of dispute since the very beginning.”. If you only criteria for proof of the fact that Christians had doubts about a particular doctrine is that Christians had to defend that doctrines, than I guess you could prove that Christians had doubts about all their doctrines. But as I have said, Catholics have a narrower definition of what a Christian is.

    If you want to argue that there were people throughout the history of the church who rebelled against her teachings, I will not argue against you. If you want to call those people Christians, nobody can stop you. But you should be up front about the fact that you are using a different definition of the word Christian than the Catholics do. You should also cease you exclamations of surprise at the supposed differences in perception between you and the Catholics.

    Lorenzo Ricci

  2. Ape Man » Blog Archive » The Futility of Debate…. Says:

    […] The things that divide people can run deep. They can be so deep that the divides cannot be bridged by mere humans. These divisions have real consequences that cannot be wished away and cannot be resolved by reason. […]

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