Sunday, January 26, 2014

A Living Experience

Our knowledge of Jesus is in need above all of a living experience: another person's testimony is certainly important, as in general the whole of our Christian life begins with the proclamation that comes to us from one or several witnesses. But we ourselves must be personally involved in an intimate and profound relationship with Jesus.”- Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

The Mass readings from today (http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/012614.cfm) mesh well with the gist of Papa Benny's words, I think. I am going to divide them up into two sections, and deal with the bolded section in this post and the rest in another that will follow soon.

In the first reading, from Isaiah, we hear of the lands of Zebulun and Naphtali which are described in a way that sounds like a land left to lay fallow, or the aftermath of some sort of destruction. Obviously, we know what this is- the effects of sin. "The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light..." What does this mean? "You have brought them abundant joy... the yoke that burdened them, the pole on their shoulder, and the rod of their taskmaster you have smashed." It is not a greater understanding of man's psychology that frees us, it is a person with whom we may relate that is the answer to our longings. What's more, as is clear from the opening quote, "our knowledge of Jesus" cannot remain as a simple knowledge of the intellect. It must make its way to the heart. When the Good News, the encounter with Christ, does not permeate our lives and give substance to our knowledge of theological truths, the result is similar to that which is described by Paul in the second reading: "It has been reported to me about you, my brothers and sisters, by Chloe’s people, that there are rivalries among you." Ultimately, if the Gospel remains simply a testimony which resides in my intellect, that is, which does not become a personal encounter with the One who is the Good News, then the cross of Christ is emptied of its meaning. 

This is the significance that is drawn from Christ's first words of His public ministry being directly preceded by the prophecy of Isaiah- that the encounter with Christ and His message, when sustained by "an intimate and profound relationship with Jesus," leads us out of the darkness into the light of a world of new possibilities. We become fishers of men, and the course of our lives are drastically altered in light of this encounter. 

So, as I attempt to keep this in mind and to continue in seeking a personal encounter with the Lord, I encourage you to seek for opportunities for that as well! Seek him out in prayer, in Scripture, and in your everyday life. 

A Sheep 

Friday, January 10, 2014

Rational Christianity, Part I

As of late, I've been looking into lots of books by contemporary and not-so-contemporary philosophers and theologians (looking at you, Aquinas, Cappadocian Fathers, and Gilson). While surfing through some of the reviews in order to gain perspective on the content of certain works, especially in books which treat of reconciling religious faith and rationality (not a problem, as we'll see), I've been disappointed, though not surprised, to see the common thread of 'Religion is irrational.' popping up. For example, one individual (not a professional philosopher or scientist, I surmise) was convinced that:

'Until the latter half of the 19th century one could claim to be a Christian and claim to be rational at the same time. However, along came critical Biblical studies undermining the accepted view of Biblical authorship and historicity, and then came the onslaught of geology which established the fact that no Biblical flood occurred, dinosaurs predated humans by eons and evolution was a fact (even if the path and mechanisms are still in dispute.) This thoroughly discredited the veracity and credibility of the Bible... [In the face of such evidence], what's a believer to do? The only option left is retreating to commitment. Theology went from a scholarly science to an ideology. The potential to establish the truth of Christianity has been forever closed off to Christian apologists. Instead, the author wants to establish that belief in God is rational and that a certain kind of Christian theism is not incompatible with science. The purpose is to immunize the Christian faith from rational and scientific criticism and falsification.'

This is the gist of the man's point, though he goes on to disprove (successfully?) the rationality of belief in God, sources of knowledge aside from the empirical science, and asserts that 'naturalism and evolution are consistent with reliable knowledge.' We will delve into these in more depth in different articles. First, I want to talk about this selection.

A lot of stock is put in the fact that, since the historical claims of the Bible are supposedly invalidated by archaeology and the natural sciences, it follows that Christianity is closed off from validation as true and restricted only to tailoring itself to fit compatibly with science. The religion that results from this 'will doubtless be unsatisfying to most people.' I agree, though, I think, for a different reason. Initially, it is unclear that the examples provided do constitute a legitimate conflict between valid scientific discovery and true Biblical teaching. It is certainly the case that the Bible would clash with science on a few key issues if we were to stake our claim on a completely literalist interpretation of Scripture, but that is not the case in Catholic doctrine and tradition.

A Christian belief cut off from the realm of reason, withdrawing from engaging the various sources of objective knowledge outside of the Church, is, if not unbiblical, at least deeply unsatisfying and misses the beauty and good of the Christian exploring the incredible wonders of Creation. Christians cannot settle for a retreat from the fields of natural science, nor from more abstract disciplines, the arts, or social sciences, precisely because these studies, inasmuch as they pursue the Truth about the world and the human being, are completely able to be harmonized with the traditional and Biblical truth about God and the world. It is possible, and, indeed, well-attested to, that Christians can engage in great contributions to any field of knowledge. (If you want to learn about Christian contributions to Western civilization, check out How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization by Thomas E. Woods.)

So, Christians cannot retreat from any genuine effort to contribute to the growth of knowledge for mankind. Further, and contrary to the assumptions of many, we cannot retreat from the effort to rationally harmonize our holy Faith with the knowledge provided by secular pursuits. The Christian faith is not simply a castle to defend from external attacks, but is a proposal which must be offered to all men- whether they will listen is a different matter entirely- it is an encounter, in the vein of Communion and Liberation and the Holy Father. But what bridges the gap between faith and reason? Contra the supposition that "The potential to establish the truth of Christianity has been forever closed off to Christian apologists.", we must engage in our vocations to the best of our abilities and live excellently in a manner that forces nonbelievers to come to terms with their presuppositions. The sanctification of our work is of great importance. On the positive side, we can engage in natural theology to positively prove the existence of God, in addition to positively contributing to the advance of knowledge in our given fields and professions to provide fuel for the proper understanding of the truth. For theology and philosophy, as well as other studies, are the proper subjects of human reason. Theology proceeds from the principles of revelation, a higher science (the science of God and, to a degree, the saints and blessed), just as the musician proceeds from the principles of mathematics. Philosophy is properly rational, indeed supremely so when done correctly, and even natural theology (a specific pursuit within philosophy) is the study of God without revelation, only working at what can be known through unaided human reason. On the negative side, we can use the truths of the Faith and Tradition, in conjunction with natural reason, to tear down arguments and defeat objections against the Truth.

One of the greatest champions of the harmony of faith and reason.

The point of apologetics is not to immunize the Faith against objections- the Christian Faith is in complete congruence with natural reason, even if we are presently unable to see how. If there is a contradiction, it is because of our inability to reconcile the propositions in question, not because God's Revelation supersedes or invalidates the natural truths we find. The point of apologetics is to ensure that both aspects involved in a supposed disproof of the Faith are properly understood, that the Truth is found, and to provide a reason for the Christian proposal. As it says in 1 Peter 3:15, "Always be prepared to make a defense to any one who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence."

(At my good friend Joe's reminding) In part II, I'll talk more about the "gentleness and reverence" required of a truly effective Christian proposition. The truth of the Faith is only effective if preceded by and filled with the experience of grace, and a grace-filled Christian. That'll be the subject of deeper discussion in our next "installment". Until then, God bless you! 

Nick

"Science can purify religion from error and superstition. Religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes." Bl. Pope John Paul II 


Saturday, January 4, 2014

First Things First

I've always been particularly struck by a quote of St. Thomas Aquinas', which reads as follows: "The end of my labors has come. All that I have written appears to be as so much straw after the things that have been revealed to me." He said this to a friend shortly before his death, after having an experience while saying Mass. After this, he ceased writing, leaving the third part of his Summa Theologiae unfinished. Now, apparently God revealed something to him so marvelous that he, one of the greatest theologians in the history of the Church, the Angelic Doctor, was only able to see his writings and teachings as "so much straw"... Why is this? Because Thomas' writing, teaching, and life were first rooted in the search for God, where he found the illumination and grace to pursue his vocation for the glory of God. 

Thomas put first things first. He recognized the necessity that God comes before all, and enables us to do all good. When Thomas would run into particularly intractable problems, he would not cut down on his time of prayer to study more but, rather, would spend more time in prayer before the Lord. Pope Pius XI wrote of him, saying: "The more readily to obtain these illuminations from above, he would often abstain from food, spend whole nights in prayerful vigil, and, surrendering to a holy impulse, would repeatedly lean his head against the tabernacle and would constantly turn his eyes with sorrow and love toward the image of Jesus crucified. To his friend St. Bonaventure he confided that whatever he knew he had for the most part learned from the book of the crucifix." Indeed, even though he was an intellectual giant to be reckoned with through the ages, he acknowledged that the man who works solely for knowledge, not charity, is the man who built his house on the sand. 


This speaks strongly to me, as I'm studying for a bachelor's degree both in philosophy and Theology and hope to go on to study Theology at the graduate level (God willing). The more I delve into learning about the theologians and Saints that I admire so much, the more I am astounded, though not surprised, by the depth of their encounter with the Lord. As we are vessels, He fills us. They recognized this supreme Truth: 'If I am to fill others, I cannot remove myself from the Source of my being and fullness.' The one who attempts to fill up his jar from the Lord, then removes it to fill that of his brother surely is well-intentioned, but runs out of water rapidly. But if this man stays rooted in the Lord who grants the water of eternal life, he becomes, by God's grace, a well for others to draw from as he himself draws deeply from the Lord. So too, for you and I... we must, I must, remember to put first things first. Whatever state of life we are in, whatever vocation we are called to, the subjects we study and the people we meet: we will always need to be rooted in holiness for our efforts elsewhere to be effective and for our lives to be fulfilling. 


Here's to the New Year, and may it be rooted in the Lord!


"Put off your old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and put on the new nature, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness." Ephesians 4: 22-24