Many Christians never face a moment when they must decide: “Can I accept this set of propositions called Christianity as credible…plausible…true, and worth committing my life to them?” In part, that’s because many of us who were “raised in the Faith” never get an opportunity to question its soundness. In equal part, it’s because many people don’t like the feeling that comes with questioning their beliefs and practices, even if those beliefs and practices were inculcated in them by a process of indoctrination when they were too young to resist. No doubt there are other reasons for remaining unquestioning.
Those of us who have fallen away face a different set of incentives and disincentives. For many, the worst is pride: the reluctance ever to admit that one might have made a mistake. For others, the main barrier is an ersatz rationalism that rejects the supernatural with prejudice. And for others still, the key hindrance is one’s anticipation of what others – often the very persons who induced us to leave the Faith in the first place – will say about our “backsliding.”
I shan’t demean any of those obstacles. We are weak and fallible creatures, and never weaker than when we confront our own fallibility. My own, however, was different: I had to satisfy myself that nothing the Faith demanded of me was contrary to the dictates of reason. To reach that conclusion, I had to learn the Faith all over again, from the very beginning.
I had no help during that process. I was still “away,” and felt that I had to remain away until I’d made up my mind. The C.S.O., though a good woman in every sense, is an agnostic, and could not be any part of my explorations. I had to go it alone, working entirely from the Scriptures and my own deductions about what God wants for us and from us.
And of course – forgive me for jumping to the end of the tale – I made it. I concluded that Christianity is entirely reasonable.
My conclusion that Christianity is entirely reasonable decomposes into two components:
- The theology, a.k.a. the “supernatural backstory” about the birth, ministry, Passion, and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, is both believable on the available evidence and consistent with what we can infer about God;
- The moral-ethical doctrine expressed by Jesus is entirely wholesome, life-affirming, and consistent with Man’s nature as a “project pursuer:” i.e., a seeker of prosperity, security, community, and peace.
Of course, it was necessary to accept a postulate: that there exists a Supreme Being responsible for all of Creation, whom we call God. But all logical explorations require one or more postulates. The opposite premise – that there is no God, and therefore that the universe either has always existed or “just happened” one day – is no more plausible and in many ways less so.
That exploration transitioned into a sort of “post-doctoral” phase. Indeed, it’s still going on. In it I strive continuously to separate the teachings of Christ, whose authority was established incontrovertibly by His Resurrection, from those of fallible men, whose authority is almost always self-proclaimed. During the Advent and Lenten seasons, those studies become more intense than usual, in part because of the elevated chatter from persons – Christian and non-Christian – with axes to grind.
When I sift among the pronouncements of men for nuggets of insight and test them for validity, I use two Gospel passages as my filter:
First, Jesus proclaimed the overarching importance of two Great Commandments:
But when the Pharisees had heard that he had put the Sadducees to silence, they were gathered together. Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law?
Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. [Matthew 22:34-40]
Second, He, being God, would not withhold from anyone what that person needs for the sake of his soul:
And behold one came and said to him: Good master, what good shall I do that I may have life everlasting? Who said to him: Why asketh thou me concerning good? One is good, God. But if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. He said to him: Which? And Jesus said: Thou shalt do no murder, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness. Honour thy father and thy mother: and, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. [Matthew 19:16-19]
If a man, be he lay or cleric, exhorts me to accept that some proposition is “God’s will,” I test it against those passages. Unless it’s consistent with both, it fails…as does the “authority” of its proposer.
The above progression, from a simple postulate through study and analysis that has already taken years and will probably continue to the end of my life, is what makes it possible for me to be a believing Christian.
Once more I shall say it: Atheism is an intellectually defensible position. Its essence consists of the rejection of the postulate of a Supreme Being. Some very smart people have been atheists. (Yes, some not-so-smart people, too.) But the recognition that makes atheism defensible is one that most atheists will resist to the death: i.e., that to maintain that “There is no God” is itself a statement of faith. It’s as unverifiable and unfalsifiable, given human limitations, as my belief that there is a God.
(There’s some entertainment to be had from the dogmatic certainty of the militant atheist. It proceeds from a species of self-unawareness, which in other contexts gives rise to all sorts of humor. But one mustn’t laugh at him. As the saying goes, every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future. Yes, you too.)
The great crimes against the mind and soul are those statements and deeds that attempt to foreclose the path to faith. The raucous, supercilious derision of the unbeliever. The lies and distortions of the pseudo-authority. The forcible attempts by parents, spouses, and others to impede the journey to faith. These are violations of the integrity of the mind: its freedom to inquire, to sift the evidence, and to reach its own conclusions. The good atheist or agnostic avoids those…but not all such persons are good.
The above is on my mind for several reasons, one of which is a bit of fiction I’ve been laboring over. In it, a Catholic priest is puzzling over how to introduce Christianity to a young, intelligent woman who knows literally nothing about it. Indeed, she was only recently acquainted with its existence, owing to her being the ward of a devout man. Here’s the key snippet:
It was unusually mild for an Onteora summer day, so once Ray had removed his vestments, tidied up after the noon Mass, and had eaten some lunch, he took his cell phone, his folio, and a ballpoint pen out to the bench in the rectory’s side yard, and sat to enjoy the gentle breeze. He opened his folio on his lap, uncapped his pen, and stopped to think.
Where to begin?
Young children’s instruction usually begins with Genesis, the creation story and the story of Adam and Eve. I’m not sure that’s the way to go with Fountain. The story has a lot of instructional value, but it also promotes questions I’m not sure I could answer. Or that anyone else could, really.
Even so, “how did things begin?” is the usual starting point for all religious instruction. If I don’t start there, then where?
He found himself at a break point, a resting place in his thoughts that posed a demand for introspection. His own faith, as passionate as any he had encountered in any other Catholic, had begun not with Genesis but with Thomas Aquinas and the concept of natural law. Immediately upon being introduced to the concept, he’d felt an imperative need to grasp the nature of those laws and why they were so well suited to Mankind. More urgently still, he’d needed to know how they’d come about.
In a tangent that at first baffled him, his thoughts swerved to Fountain’s extraordinary cooking, her comments about the voices of foods, and her astonished, joyous first encounter with wine.
Food speaks to her, she said. What does it say? What can it say?
The question answered itself.
She senses the natures of the foods she works with, so intimately and sensitively that she can evoke culinary wonders from the most fundamental stuffs. And Larry said it’s a regular occurrence. The dish she served His Holiness wasn’t a one-time thing.
To sense the natures of things is to sense the laws designed into them.
It was an epiphany to rival Ray’s first true communion with God: the day, more than twenty years before, when he first sensed the will of the Father, heard the voice of the Son, and felt the Holy Spirit move within him. The day that he knew, without the smallest trace of doubt, that despite the adverse counsels of his parents, the discouragements from his friends, and the innumerable attractions of a worldly, secular life, the priesthood was where he belonged.
Laws don’t just hang in the void waiting for something to come along and conform to them. They’re inherent in the making, the designer’s mind as he conceives of them and his hands as he forms them from the ingredients he chooses.
Whatever he intends to make, the human maker must conform to the laws inherent in his chosen ingredients. He cannot escape them or set them at naught. But the ultimate Maker, who created all the ingredients men work with from nothing but His will, conceived of His creation-to-be with the laws already embedded in it. The laws He chose ab initio.
Aquinas’s discourse on the metaphysical necessity of an uncreated Creator, an Initiator without whom existence would pose a problem of infinite regress, came at once to mind. It completed Ray’s epiphany, gave form and solidity to his intentions, and added an exclamation point of the purest and most exultant joy.
That’s how to do it. That’s how it should be done.
He bent over his folio and started writing furiously.
Father Ray’s faith is passionate for the same reason as mine: because he found his way to it through the exercise of his intelligence, as noted above. That made it his preferred way to introduce it to a catechumen completely new to it. He’s aware that Aquinas’s argument for an uncreated Creator is in the nature of a postulate, and that his student (Fountain) might not accept it, but it doesn’t trouble him, for he is concerned with education rather than indoctrination.
I could wish that all education in Christianity and its tenets were of that sort.
Today is Passion Sunday, the last Sunday before Palm Sunday, Holy Week, and the concluding triduum of the Easter miracle. It’s a good time for Christians to review what they believe and why. Sadly, most don’t bother with such reviews, owing to the considerations I enumerated in the opening segment, among others.
Just as Christmas has been secularized for the enjoyment of the non-religious, so also has Easter, with its colored eggs and chocolate bunnies. Yet we who have made the decision to believe cannot help but be aware of the awesome significance of the Resurrection miracle. Without that miracle, Christianity would not exist. The recent movie The Case for Christ depicts what the acceptance of that event does to one unbeliever: Lee Strobel, the author of the book from which the movie was made.
For Christians, Easter joy is about more than chocolate. Oh, bring the chocolate, too; we like it as much as anyone else. But for one who has come to the Faith as an adult, determined to test it against the dictates of logic and evidence, it has an impact to which dyed eggs and chocolate bunnies cannot compare. It confirms all the promises of the Redeemer in the most dramatic way. Among those promises was this one: that at the end of life we will follow Him to where He now resides.
May God bless and keep you all.