Monday, February 18, 2008

Drawing the Line in Catholic Belief

When asserting the conformity of one’s ideas to reality there is always a judgment call. Although the human mind is capable of unlimited ideas, nothing necessitates that these ideas accurately represent reality. Furthermore, ideas in themselves are not very satisfying. Our desire to know is not just to know our own ideas as if reality is merely something that exists in the mind, but we want to know reality as it exists in itself. This has been the cause of much philosophical turmoil and theories. Yet, because of this primordial desire to know, there is always an inseparable question of judgment and truth -- “is it really so?” This question is not always explicit but underlines every philosophical, scientific, and everyday practical attempt to know.

The evidence available via experience always limits the content of understanding. When it comes down to knowing, there are very few things in life of which we can be certain. Rather we exist and operate most in the domain of faith. As G.K. Chesterton states, “It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all.” A person is not born with innate knowledge of the inner workings of the cosmos or even the faintest idea about the self. Every person is born into a relationship to a community, and all knowledge is mediated through these relationships. However, despite our limitations, our quest for knowledge is very dynamic. People want to know and believe in what is true. Humans naturally seek the Truth, and even those who would claim otherwise usually construct elaborate systems of argumentation to prove why their theory is true.

Even in the most concrete experience of a historical record, there are many limitations to knowing. Science books provide data, experiments, and theories that most people have not the first hand experience to verify but take it for granted that what is taught is true. History books give an account of past events that many readers must accept on good will that these events actually occurred. Rightfully when contradictory views of science and history occur, people question the validity of sources. This is not an exact science but a humble attempt of trying to piece together an understanding of reality. These examples do not imply that we should distrust these types of sources altogether but be aware that most of our academic instruction on matters of history and science comes through secondary sources. If nothing else, this should teach us this one thing—humility is the beginning of knowledge. All of our historical knowledge is based off witnesses whose testimony we choose to believe or not. Likewise, this same dependence on historical witnesses exists in Christianity.

A certain historic record accompanies Christian belief. As Christians, we must put our faith in God, His revealed scriptures, and the oral tradition passed on through the Church and Her saints. Without the family, without the testimony of witnesses, there would be no Church. God’s relationship to his chosen people centers on a historical genealogy, because God has a history with his people. No single person exists apart from the context of the community and that context is always constituted by the history of humanity--to understand the self is to understand it in relationship to the community. We were not physically there in Bethlehem when the Christ Child was born or Calvary when he was crucified. However, our universal experience of sin and suffering make us present spiritually to this cosmic family event that transcends time and space so that we may physically live out this event historically in our own conversion. For we all have a past that predates our physical birth. We are our parents’ children and just as we are constituted by them genetically and socially, how much more should we be constituted by our Mother Church spiritually. Undoubtedly, historical references to early Christianity exist, but in the end, we must trust that the deposit of faith passes from generation to generation preserved by the constant testimony of the Church.

All this brings me to the essential question I want to ask: where does one decide to stop in their assent to seemingly amazing claims such as those proclaimed by Christianity? The prospect of God becoming man is undoubtedly a scandal to the intellect. God who existed before all things enters creation in the form of dust and limits himself to a physical nature becoming like humans in all things but sin. God dies and suffers the consequences of all the inequities ever committed-- past, presence, and future. Although this story of salvation has its own history, inner logic and beauty, Christianity still requires faith that this knowledge is known not by natural reason alone but divine revelation. To be a part of Christianity requires not only the implicit humility of participating in a system of education but also an explicit act of humility formulated in an act of faith. For Christianity proposes more than a philosophical argument that flows from premises to conclusion, but a cosmic narrative that holds all history together in a battle of love conquering death and God redeeming man. We do not get to customize truths because we are dealing with something larger than we are. For this very same reason, neither are we entitled to understand completely the truths that are revealed because of the great mystery at work. We are a part of the narrative, not its author.

Many people claim Christianity as their religion—slightly more than one-third of the world’s population. I am amazed that this remains to be the case even though skepticism seems to permeate and dominate many academic institutions and the very educational process of most people. Many modern processes of education that will always implicitly require trust from the student has theoretically replaced this trust with skepticism and doubt. The Augustinian formula, “I believe to understand and I understand to believe,” has been replaced with doubt, and this doubt has entered the private domain of people’s religious understanding.

The other day in conversation with friends, the issue of Mary’s perpetual virginity arose. Everyone present in the conversation professed to be Catholic. However, two of these individuals expressed non-belief in Mary’s perpetual virginity. I reminded them that they profess this truth in the Creed every Sunday. They accused me of being close-minded and that I shouldn’t accept everything the Church tells me. I was bewildered at the implication because the truth in question was not an issue of Church teaching but of Church dogma. Even though I have labored over many theological questions, my faith in Christ and His Church has not always come easily and my intellectual and spiritual conversion have a long history that is still in the making. But I learned years ago that my faith in Christ and His Church was all or nothing. For this is what Christ requires out of us, faith. It is true that Mary either is or isn’t a perpetual virgin, this is a matter of historical record that either occurred or didn’t. Arguing over it as theory will not change the history and we cannot go back 2000 years and ask Mary. Rather we must trust the deposit of faith entrusted by God to the Church. My issue is why do many assume the Church is lying or ignorant about things like this especially when it is a matter of historical record? I am not promoting absolute unquestioning obedience but practical reason—“I wasn’t there. It either happened, or it didn’t happen. No amount of theory will change that historical record one way or the other. The Church who transmits the deposit of faith says it happened a certain way. Who am I based off of nothing more than a whim of my fancy to deny this?”

Furthermore, given all the other off the wall things Christianity requires you to believe such as the incarnation and transubstantiation, why question something as sane as the possibility of a celibate woman? They exist, believe it or not, today. People can in fact survive without having sex. This really is not a scandal to the intellect like so many other things Christianity professes. I address this because this really seems epidemic among many Catholics. They have no problem believing all the seemingly hard matters of faith but gawk at the things that I would think should be easier to believe. “God became a man, of course, but a human person remaining a virgin? Outrageous!” Why draw the line here? Why not abandon all the things the Church claims to be true? If she is lying about Mary’s Virginity, in my mind it only makes sense that she may not be reliable about other things. If she is not faithful in small things, how can we expect her to be faithful on larger matters of faith?

Surely the limitations of the mind open it up to something greater than itself that it cannot merely reason to as some lower principle. Humility is a proper response. Reality is much too mysterious to understand definitively. We cannot be at all places at all times testing the historical validity of everything we are told. Either Christ rose from the dead or he did not. We can believe he rose, but we cannot go back and watch. As easy as it is to become lost in one’s own abstract speculations about the ultimate principal of all that is, there is something infinitely comforting to know that a truth exists that is not merely a figment or creation of one’s own imagination, although it may be known with the imagination. There is an exclusivity of belief because there is an exclusivity of the will. You cannot truly believe what you don’t live, and you can’t live what you don’t believe, at least in a total sense. You may try but the heart will struggle to follow. A person may claim to believe a certain action is wrong and still perform that action. The problem is somewhere deep down inside the wrong that person does is perceived as a good. This is not merely a problem of the intellect but of the will. What we really believe reveals itself in the way we live. Christianity is an act of the will more than an act of the intellect, but the two are not separated. The process of conforming our mind to the mind of Christ must be willful. In love, knowing and doing meet in perfect union.

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