On the Problem of False Dichotomies Advanced by Those who Oppose the Faith

MSGR. CHARLES POPE

One of the more common issues faced today in proclaiming the faith is the problem that many, who reject some truth of the faith, set up false dichotomies.

A false dichotomy is when one argues that there are only two possible and mutually exclusive alternatives, when in fact there are other alternatives, or the categories are not in fact mutually exclusive.

What makes false dichotomies particularly problematic when it comes to faith is that orthodoxy often requires careful balance and distinction.  Since we are dealing with mysteries that often go beyond merely worldly categories, we must be careful in insisting that everything fit into worldly categories and boxes.  Orthodoxy quite often says "both" whereas heresy chooses one apparently exclusive truth over and against the the other in order to resolve the tension between them.  Orthodoxy also makes distinctions which false dichotomies fail to respect and holds the tension that is often required in two balancing truths.

A few examples of common false dichotomies that are directed against the biblical orthodox faith are:

  1. The false dichotomy between Law and Love.  In this mode of thinking, somehow law, or rules, or boundaries of any sort are a kind of anti-type to love.

    Thus when the Church proposes any sort of limits to behaviors, teaches that certain acts or attitudes are sins, and so forth, the answer is often forthcoming that "God is Love" and that this somehow means that He doesn't really care that I am doing what you, with all your rules, say is wrong.

    A mitigated form of this, is to admit that perhaps a certain behavior is clearly described as wrong in Scripture but that since "God is Love" he therefore "understands" and won't really care all that much.

    But of course to oppose law and love is a false dichotomy.  In fact all God's commandments can be understood to flow quite beautifully from his love for us.  The truth sets us free.  In commanding us God seeks to preserve us from harmful behaviors that may harm or even destroy us and/or others.  Because God loves, he commands.



  2. The False dichotomy between Law and Freedom.  In this mode of thinking somehow law exists only to limit my freedom.  And therefore God, commandments and law belief are an assault on human freedom and exist only to limit and enslave human beings.

    In commanding us God seeks to preserve us from harmful behaviors that may harm or even destroy us and/or others.

    But of course law does not only limit freedom, it also enhances it.  Since we humans are contingent and limited beings freedom can neither be absolute nor can it be a mere abstraction.  Freedom must exist in a context wherein certain freedoms are limited to enhance others.

    For example, I am free to write and you to read this post only if we both couch these words and letters within the limits of the rules of grammar and spelling.  If you try to insist that you are free to read this post as a German language post, you are not going to really be free to read it.  Without the limiting context of rules, the capacity to act stalls, and freedom breaks down.  You and I are not free to drive, unless we also accept the limits that traffic law insists upon.

    Hence Law and Freedom go together to a significant degree and are not directly opposed.  They are not per se a false dichotomy.  God gives us his law, not to destroy our freedom but to enhance and enable it.  His laws are not prison walls, they are defending walls.  The Catechism teaches: The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes.  There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just.  The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to "the slavery of sin" (# 1733)



  3. The false dichotomy between Love and punishment.  In this mode of thinking, that God might punish us is wholly dismissed as inconsistent with the fact that he loves us.  Hence any mention by the Church that punishment might be due for sin, or any move by the Church to apply punitive measures is is called unloving and something Jesus would never do.

    But here too is a false dichotomy since love and punishment are not utterly opposed.  Any parent who truly loves a child will punish the child when necessary.  Surely love will ameliorate unnecessary severity, but to fail to punish or discipline at all is the opposite of love.  Punishment exists to help an offender experience in a lesser way the consequences of sin so that they do not experience something worse.  To fail to apply proper punishment when necessary is unloving.

    Scripture says,

    My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.  Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his sons.  For what children are not disciplined by their father?  If you are not disciplined — and everyone undergoes discipline — then you are not legitimate children, but bastards.  Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it.  How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live!  They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness.  No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful.  Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. (Heb 12:5-11)



  4. The False dichotomy between Love and Hell.  In this mode of thinking the cry goes up, "How can an all loving and merciful God send anyone to Hell? — He would not!"

    But here too is a false dichotomy between love and Hell.  For in fact love requires Hell since love first requires freedom.  Without freedom there can be no love.  And if somehow God could force a solution and require our presence in his heavenly kingdom no matter our final disposition to his kingship and sovereignty, then God is not a lover, He is a slave owner.

    Hell is ultimately God's respect of our freedom and of his loving refusal to force his will or law upon us.

    Hell is ultimately God's respect of our freedom and of his loving refusal to force his will or law upon us.

    That Hell is eternal is mysterious, but seems rooted in the fact that our decision for or against God and his Kingdom's values (such as mercy, love of enemies, chastity, forgiveness, etc) at some point becomes final and forever fixed.

    That Hell is unpleasant is certainly taught.  But to refuse the end for which we were intended leads to unpleasant results.  Yet that unpleasantness seems self inflicted, rather than merely a punitive measure of God who respectfully permits (I would suppose with reluctance — for He does wish to save us) those who reject him to live apart from Him.

    And, while Scripture does speak allegorically of the suffering in Hell, we ought not claim to know precisely the nature and degree of that unhappiness which remains mysterious to us to a large degree, despite the glimpses Scripture gives us.

For now allow these examples to begin a discussion on the false dichotomies that we often face in the world today as we seek to teach the faith.  Men and women in the modern and Western world are often poorly trained not only in the faith, but also in philosophy and logic.  It will also be noted that many of these dichotomies are rooted in the ego-centrism of our times that somehow eschews any notion that God would in anyway inconvenience, punish, or demand any sort of accounting from us.

I am interested in having some of you list some of the false dichotomies you encounter as well.  There are many of them.  I have only listed a few generic ones here.  See others here.

 

 



ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Monsignor Charles Pope. "On the Problem of False Dichotomies Advanced by those who oppose the Faith." Archdiocese of Washington (April 9, 2013).

Reprinted with permission from Monsignor Charles Pope.

THE AUTHOR

Monsignor Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian, a vibrant parish community in Washington, DC. A native of Chicago with a bachelor degree in computer science, his interest in the priesthood stemmed from his experience as a church musician.  He attended Mount Saint Mary's Seminary and was ordained in 1989.  A pastor since 2000, he also has led Bible studies in the U.S. Congress and at the White House in past years.

Copyright © 2013 Monsignor Charles Pope




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