Korrektiv Thought Experiment n°2

Uncle P is an engineer employed at a large airplane company in the Northwest, or as he enjoys saying, “one more tool in the most important company of the largest military-industrial complex the world has ever known, and probably will ever know.” He served for two years in the Navy after he graduated from the University of Washington. Despite his vocation, he actively enjoys calling himself a liberal and needling conservatives whenever he gets the chance. He has been happily married to his first and only wife for 25 years, and has four children to whom he is devoted. When asked by family or friends whether he believes in God, he always has the same answer, which is another question: “When you have car trouble, do you call on Henry Ford?” When it is pointed out that Henry Ford really did exist, and therefore might then be taken as analogous to God, he will sometimes say, “Well, if it makes you feel better.” Most of the time he just smiles, perhaps a tad condescendingly. He is very handy about the house.

Uncle Q is a not entirely successful academic in the field of comparative literature; “ABD,” he says at every major holiday, “All But Dead.” This has quite frankly become a little creepy, as he continues to smoke and drink, heavily during those major holidays and who knows how much during the rest of the year. He lost his last position at a community college for buying marijuana from one of his students. He has been married and divorced twice, and has one adult child living in North Carolina with whom he has no contact. He is now supposedly seeing “a lady friend” whom he never brings to family functions and refers to as little as possible. Weirdly, he carries a rosary and goes to mass almost daily, as he has since college, even though he doesn’t like to talk about God any more than his brother-in-law, Uncle P. No; actually, even less than Uncle P. He is very fond of his nephews and nieces, who have been instructed to keep a safe distance.

Question n°1: Is the question of belief in God relevant to Uncle P? If your answer is Yes, how would you convince him of this? If your answer is No, why do his family and friends, a typical mix of believers and non-believers, seem to care?

Question n°2: If Uncle Q believes in God, as he apparently does, why does he behave the way he does? If he asked you where he could buy some pot, what would tell him?

Question n°3: Given the choice, which of the following is most likely? (a) That God exists for both Uncle P and Uncle Q; (b) that God does not exists, for either Uncle P or Uncle Q; (c) that God does not exist for Uncle P but does for Uncle Q; (d) that God exists for Uncle P, but not for Uncle Q.


  1. Isn’t the point of Catholicism that you can be as ‘sinful’ as you like so long as you repent in the end?

    Conversely, however blameless your life you’ll be labelled a sinner at your funeral.

  2. Quin Finnegan says


    Looks like one Thought Experiment attached to another.

    I didn’t mention sin, but why did you put the word ‘sinful’ in single-quote marks?

    You mentioned “the end” and “funeral” … are you concerned about death?

  3. Matthew Lickona says

    This is as good as anything in Lost in the Cosmos. Korrektiv on fire. I’ll be sure to link. Not that anyone reads my blog.

  4. Quin Finnegan says

    Thanks for reading, Matthew. Now if I could we can only sustain it for the equivalent of a few hundred pages…

    And we’d do anything for your volume of readers!

  5. I’m going to a Richard Rohr conference in Portland this weekend– I’ll pose these questions to him. Any guesses as to what he would say?
    The Silverback

  6. I put sinful in quotation marks because it is not a word I would usually use.

    I was trying to convey a point about Catholicism, which I believe labels everyone sinners, regardless of what they do. I am not a Catholic but was shocked to hear a friend’s father being called a sinner at his funeral – difficult to find a euphemism for the word that wouldn’t find me preoccupied with death. Similar for ‘end’.

  7. Quin Finnegan says


    Well, that makes sense.

    It’s a fair point about Catholicism – everyone being labelled sinners. To put it bluntly, it’s because everyone is a sinner. If that sounds both harsh and archaic (and it does to me, as I think it does to most people alive today, Catholic or Christian or not, which is probably why I didn’t use it in the thought experiment above), it might be worth considering how well our contemporary vocabulary serves us when it comes to negotiating all the various ways of screwing up, many of which have been with us since the world began.

    I remember listening to a priest’s commentary during the funeral of John Paul II and being struck by his request for prayers “because the pope was a sinner, like everybody else”.

    I’d stop short at saying “regardless what they do,” because I think that’s the beginning of an unhelpful way of looking it. An extreme example: as if a nurse drawing blood for a test is morally equivalent to a murderer drawing blood with a knife.

    There are degrees of sin, as there are degrees of criminal acts in the legal system, but the point at issue, I think, is an understanding of the human predicament and what to do about it.

    The “so long as you repent in the end” method often seems like the way to go, I have to admit. Leaving aside the problem of a cynically calculated repentance, one difficulty lies in never knowing when that “in the end” actually happens.

    And then there’s the question of what it means to live a good life, what the nature of a good life really is, how much religious practice can or can’t help, and whether God exists and what that existence (or non-existence) might mean for a couple of uncles.

    I’ll leave the catechesis there, as I’ve (very skillfully!) brought us back to the Thought Experiment.

  8. Cubeland Mystic says

    Professor Finnegan,
    Please find my answers below. When will you post grades?

    Question 1

    Uncle P is a muggle, and is incapable of grasping the mystery. He has replaced faith with reason. One word comes to mind–hubris. He is not humble, hence he is dangerous. Even though he claims to be a liberal and holds views counter to conservatives, he sees no problem working in “military-industrial complex” or serving in the Navy. Principles and values are not quantifiable and like faith are irrelevant or only means to an end. He is capable of arrogantly mocking that which sustains him and his family. Uncle P is satanic.

    The question of belief in God is relevant for Uncle P, like everyone else. Whether he is capable of seeing it is a different question. One way to “convince” Uncle P is to explain that the most advanced science and mathematics seem to point to other dimensions outside our own. There are mysteries far greater than we can perceive, and beyond our own experiential mechanisms may exist our creator. Our limited senses cannot grasp these possibilities, but our minds can. The fact that the most intangible part of us can grasp these concepts, and even go there via mathematics, should give us pause, even for a second, that we may be God’s creations. Unfortunately the blockage is more due to arrogant pride than a lack of evidence so Uncle P is unlikely to be convincible. Only humility will open his mind.

    Question 2

    Uncle Q is far more interesting. Uncle Q gets God. He gets it better than nearly everyone. He fails, or failed in the past, to understand how to cope with the gift of faith. Like everyone he lives in the imposed reality, however when he leaves daily Mass it is with a the tangible grace of having communed with the internal. He steps out into the street and sees the imposed reality in contrast with the grace that he now has. He has few mechanisms to cope with the contrasts. He wants to be at peace in the day to day world-the world of sense. His constant awareness of God makes him feel isolated. He tries to fit in by marrying and having a child. But he cannot quite reconcile the two worlds. He cannot cope living with two realities. The insubstantial one being the most real to him. He divorces and remarries. He becomes cynical. He self-medicates. He works as professor because the arts put him in closer proximity to God. Perhaps in middle age he considers his career the replacement for a missed vocation. He is fond of his nieces and nephews because they are still capable of embracing the mystery. This ability has not yet been pounded out of them by external forces. His fondness is a projection of the need to protect them from the pounding they are experiencing as they grow.

    Uncle Q is not bad, he is confused. His failures are more from lack of guidance and understanding, than evil. He probably could not see that in his youth, and now his judgement is blocked by alcohol and drugs. I would not enable him at all. I would help free him from substances and cynicism, and try to help him cultivate a sense of hope. He should read John of the Cross.

    Question 3

    C, God DNE for uncle P, but does for Uncle Q.

  9. Quin Finnegan says


    Wow. Hadn’t planned on issuing grades, but thanks for commenting. I’m awe-struck.

    I hate to give the game away, but … yeah. To all that. Thank you.

    I was just over at Godsbody and aked via the comments how to get on the blog, or if you still keep one. I seem to remember seeing an address somewhere a while back; I’m at quinfinn(at)gmail.com, if that’s what it takes.

    Funny that you should mention mathematics, by the way. But I’ll leave that for later.

  10. Quin Finnegan says


    Thanks for writing. I have but an introductory level knowledge of the Enneagram and less than that for Rohr – although from the Wikipedia entry I just looked at, I’m intrigued.

    Looking forward to hearing what you make of Portland.

  11. notrelatedtoted says

    Every time I come over here, I realize I need to come here more often.

    Thanks to CM for ruining the suspense.

  12. Q1. No, faith is not relevant to Uncle P. His friends and family care because of a vague guilt that the question should be addressed, but none of the serious believers or unbelievers have a reason for their belief.

    Q2. see Deus Caritas Est, 1. If asked where to buy some pot, I would would answer: “I give up: where can you buy pot?”

    Q3. (a) and (b) are likely in light of the details provided; (c) is absurd.

  13. Rufus McCain says

    I agree with Matthew. This is Lost in the Cosmos worthy. My favorite post since this. I think we should rename the blog: “Korrektiv on Fire”!

  14. Rufus McCain says

    “Every time I come over here, I realize I need to come here more often.”

    That needs to go on the sidebar!

  15. Here is the dumb answer:

    Of course God exists for both of them even if they don’t believe in God.

    whether God is relevent to either of them is immaterial.

    I haven’t got the slightest Idea where one can purchase pot but I am sure that I am related to at least three people who would be able to supply the uncle with what he needs.

    I think Uncle Q is sort of betting Pascal’s percentage and thinking that just in case he had better try a little.

    I think Uncle P just doesn’t care. But that doesn’t mean that God has given up on him.

    While he was a long way off The father . . .

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