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Object Permanence: Purgatory, Spiritual Realities Denial

April 12, 2013 by  
Filed under Apologetics, Paul McCusker, Purgatory

Life, As I Find It

I remember reading about a condition, long thought to exist in babies, where an item only existed if it was within sight. The moment it went out of sight, it no longer existed. The phenomenon was called “Object Permanence” and many psychologists have subscribed to the notion, especially for children under six months of age.

The idea of “Object Permanence” came to mind recently when I was discussing Purgatory with a Protestant relative. I put the concept into the simplest terms:

Imagine that a part of my backyard has become soaked from a summer rain. It’s muddy and almost swamp-like. It even stinks. But the sun has broken through and my two children want to play out back. I agree, but give them strict orders to stay away from the swamp-like muddy part. In the course of playing, they wind up in the mud, slopping around in it, having a blast. Eventually, they have to stop and come back inside. They’re covered with mud from head to toe. They stink. And there I am, arms folded, foot tapping.

Two realities are upon us. One is how they’ve disobeyed me. That’s an issue I must deal with as their father. They sincerely apologize for their misbehavior. It’s a full repentance. So I readily forgive them for their disobedience. But we have another problem: they’re covered in mud and they stink. I tell them that they must bathe. And not only must they bathe, but they’ll need a hard scrubbing. It’s going to hurt a bit to get them clean again. And so it goes.

“That’s the idea of Purgatory,” I said.

To back up what I’d said, I even invoked that great Protestant saint CS Lewis, who described Purgatory in a similar vein: though he positioned it as a man in rags preparing to meet the King.

I waited for her response. She shrugged and said, “I can’t believe in that.” And, with her declaration, Purgatory was no more.

Her answer didn’t challenge the truth of what I’d said, only that she couldn’t believe in it.

In my mind, I went back to my journey towards Catholicism and how I’d reacted to Purgatory in much the same way. In fact, I went further. I began to think that if I didn’t consent to believing in it, then it couldn’t exist. Out of sight, out of mind. Object Permanence.

I then realized how ridiculous I was being. The Statue of Liberty exists whether I want to believe in it or not. The slums of India, however unpleasant, exist whether I believe in them or not. Likewise, Truth is Truth, whether I believe in it or not.

I’m afraid we live in a generation – where so many false spiritualities are in place – where it’s easy to think that I can believe in one thing, which makes it true for me, while you can believe in another thing, and its equally true. Or, worse, I can subscribe to a form of “Object Permanence” and simply put the thing out of my mind so that it won’t exist anymore.

This is, at best, a terrible mistake and, at worst, a terrible lie. Wishful thinking doesn’t make for good theology. Neither does denial. Allowing our gazes to be turned away from the Truth doesn’t make it disappear.

And so I think about the task we have as we try to spread the Love and Truth of Christ to this generation – to suggest that God’s Truth, as represented by His Holy Catholic Church, is as true as the force of Gravity or the need for Air. It’s not an option. It doesn’t go away if we choose not to believe in it.

But how? What more can we do except show them our witness for Christ and pray for their response. Perhaps they’ll respond as Agrippa did with Paul in Acts 26. Almost convinced, but not quite, and walk out. Or as Thomas did, with his exclamation of “My Lord and My God!” Jesus replied with, “Blessed are those who have not seen, but still believe.

Clearly, no one had taught Jesus about “Object Permanence.”

And such is life as I find it.


Art for this post on Purgatory: An Angel Frees the Souls of Purgatory, Ludovico Carracci, circa 1610, PD-US, Wikimedia Commons.

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About Paul McCusker

Paul McCusker is an author. He converted from Evangelical Protestantism to Catholicism in 2007. He still works for an Evangelical organization. Paul has over 40 published works, including novels, plays, scripts, and lyrics.

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  • RobinJeanne

    Welcome Paul and I like your writing. I’ve been explaining Purgatory in a simular way but it may be time for a fresh example, thank you.

  • LizEst

    Thank you for the primer on “Object Permanence.” I had not heard of this but absolutely understand the principle: out of sight, out of mind; it is so if I say so, it is not so if I don’t say so…another example of making oneself God. One of the most shocking examples of this is what occurred with the Holocaust. There are still folks who say it didn’t happen because they refuse to believe the evidence to the contrary. The same thing is happening with abortion, euthanasia, etc, ad nauseum.

    The Catholic Church does not teach these things because it feels like it. It is part of our deposit of faith…and completely in keeping with the mercy of God, a mercy we cannot even begin to fathom. God bless you, Paul…and thank you again.

  • $1650412

    I find this response from people to be a very challenging one; and if I am honest, it makes me crazy at the same time, because it seems to me to be so inflated with pride.
    Two things I know, the Truth remains, by definition, whether I embrace and live by it or not, and whether I do a good job living it out. It is objectively so, outside of or apart from me. But I also know that if I want to help someone else embrace the Truth in Christ I have to make an effort to be authentic and integrated in living by what I profess with constancy. We can’t make someone receive the gift of faith- but we can pray and God who is infinitely wise and creative can communicate in such a way to a soul that the teachings of our faith become clearer to them. And when we pray with great love for others to open their minds and hearts, God moves in mighty ways.
    And, I think it is a worthy thing to call someone out on this ‘Object Permanence’ point of view and make it a topic of discussion. Each one of us does retain autonomy over what we take hold of in faith, what we let into our lives to conform us to Christ, but for someone who inadvertently makes him or herself the sole arbiter of Truth in their own minds, I don’t think it is off the mark to point out the short-sightedness of relying completely on one’s own ‘understanding’ for matters of faith. Such a mindset is contrary to Scripture: Proverbs 3:5-6; and most Protestants acting as their own pope and magisterium feel the burden of being reasonably consistent in living by the Word.

  • I totally missed this post initially. So glad to have found it today. Welcome, Paul, and thank you for your excellent article. Object Permanence – what a concept – a new one to me, but well worth thinking about with all its applications. This is the method used by lapsed Catholics, irregular Catholics and Protestants. It’s so prevalent in today’s society, and you have given an excellent example. It’s denial that there is absolute Truth, and is applied to any subject a person disagrees with.

    Your explanation of Object permanence, opened my mind and gives me clearer thinking. Thank you

    • LizEst

      Isn’t the new format for this blog great? It’s much easier find posts we have previously missed.

  • LRooney

    Great post! Thanks for joining the RCSD team! Having concentrated more on trying to explicate Catholic doctrine, with little success because people really do believe that they create their own reality, I too have realized the task is much more fundamental. We need to focus on the existence of an absolute Truth as that which conforms to reality – whether we like it or believe it or not. Your example of “object permanence” is a keeper to use in this project. Thanks!

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