Sunday, December 29, 2013

Investing Your Credulity Part 2: Christian Faith

Inevitably, when the subject of the previous essay arises, so will questions about why anyone should accept the claims of any of the various "classical" faiths: Judaism, Islam, or Christianity. After all, the postulated events critical to each of those faiths occurred a long time ago, are frequently dismissed as implausible, and involve records that many regard as unreliable. All of them make claims about what comes after the death of the body. Each of them advances a moral-ethical code that is supposedly the key to attaining a joyous afterlife. And of course, each of them is neither verifiable nor falsifiable; it must be taken on faith.

And I, as a believing Catholic Christian who writes for a general audience, am charged with the duty of telling you, Gentle Reader, why my faith is, at minimum, not unreasonable -- preferably, why accepting its mythos and conforming to its ethos is a very good idea.

Sheesh. I really should have joined the Navy.

First, let's clear away some underbrush: Faith is always a personal matter. It requires the free acceptance of certain premises, and of the veracity of certain events said to have occurred in the distant past. It cannot be any other way; propositions that are beyond Man's capacity to prove or disprove cannot be forced upon you. Your heritage doesn't come into it. Whatever degree or kind of religious indoctrination you've suffered is equally irrelevant. The approval or disapproval of others, while it might matter to you to some degree, is far less important than your personal and intellectual integrity.

Viewed in that light, we must ask: Why accept faith -- i.e., the account of the seminal events and, therefore, the theology that springs from them?

Phrased that way, the only imaginable answer is Because you choose to do so. Given the premise that there is a Supreme Being to whose will the laws of nature are subordinate, none of the events of Christ's birth, His ministry, His Passion, and His Resurrection reported in the Gospels are flatly impossible. You may choose to reject that premise. That would allow you to dismiss the Gospel accounts as "implausible," since they contrast so dramatically with our more pedestrian acquaintance with temporal reality. That's how it must be when the subject is admittedly disputable events that can no longer be objectively verified.

Atop that, even if Christian teaching is absolutely correct about the nature of the afterlife, a just God would not hold theological skepticism against you. Some of us simply haven't got the gift of faith and can't accept the claims required to become believers. In that respect, the ethos is more important than the mythos to your prospects in the next world -- and the Christian ethos is far simpler and much less demanding than many non-Christians might think:

The truth is, of course, that the curtness of the Commandments is an evidence, not of the gloom and narrowness of a religion, but, on the contrary, of its liberality and humanity. It is shorter to state the things forbidden than the things permitted; precisely because most things are permitted, and only a few things are forbidden. [G. K. Chesterton]

Indeed, one of the things that set the Sanhedrin's hair on fire was Christ's insistence that "all the law and the prophets depend" on two fundamental principles:

"You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, and your whole soul, and your whole mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets." [Matthew 22:37-40]

Clearly, the dietary laws, the prohibition against any form of exertion on the Sabbath, and many of the other prescriptions and proscriptions of Mosaic law have nothing to do with either of the Two Great Commandments, and so may be dismissed. Indeed, the Two Great Commandments, to which Paul of Tarsus explicitly referred in what might be the most famous of all his writings:

Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, "Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not covet," (and if there is any other commandment) are summed up in this, "Love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no wrong to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. [Epistle to the Romans 13:8-10]

...are all a man must observe to be accorded the title of just. Nothing more is required for eternal life in the nearness of God.

Yes, the Gospel According to John does say:

Jesus said to him, "I am the way, the truth, and the life. No man comes unto the Father but through me." [John 14:6]

...but where is He not? Where is it written that a skeptic who lives a just life shall not receive His assistance at the Particular Judgment?

As with all matters of faith, the premise of a Supreme Being is indispensable. Without it, the representations of Christianity are insupportable, even if the Gospels are conceded to be factually accurate. But let's imagine that Smith, an American of no particular faith, says he's willing to allow the premise for the sake of argument, and follows that up by asking:

"Even so, what good is this creed?"

Smith is clearly interested in the consequences of adopting the Christian faith. There are several angles from which this can be approached, but for my money the two that matter most are:

  • What benefits would a convert derive from conversion?
  • What benefits would society derive from the wholesale adoption of Christianity?

Those questions have been debated endlessly. The history of the Christian West speaks variably about the effects of the creed...though be it plainly said, most of the derogatory episodes pertain to large-scale defections from the Christian ethos. The creed can hardly be blamed for the actions of those who give it lip service but violate it when they think they can get away with it.

Even so, here is the core question for the "practical" man: Would good come of this? Inasmuch as each of us has his own notions about good-better-best / bad-worse-worst, when you're asked that question it would be best to answer it with another question -- "What would you like to come of it?" -- and take off from there.

I'll close this piece by recounting a snippet from a dear friend, which first appeared at Eternity Road:

Yesterday I visited with a new friend who's rapidly becoming a very close friend: Matt, the gun store manager I met on my "armament shopping trip" a few weeks ago. He's a little younger than I am -- he'll be 26 just about as I turn 34 -- but he has a hard sense about him that a lot of older people could stand to learn from. Maybe that comes from working around "deadly weapons" and the people who love them. I couldn't say. But I really enjoy the spin he puts on some of the stuff we talk about. (I also love that he has no fear about driving into New York City on the spur of the moment.)

Matt has no religion. I, of course, told him that I'm a practicing Catholic...just yesterday evening, for the first time. In the process of getting to know someone who might become really important to you, you can't just blurt out the most important stuff about you; you have to choose the right time and setting. You also have to work up enough nerve, for some things at least. Religion is one of them.

Matt was curious. He wanted to know more. Not in a prosecuting-attorney sort of way, either. He really, truly wanted my reasons. He wasn't about to let me get away with a synopsis, either; he wanted the whole story. So I did my best to give it to him.

I had no problem explaining the core of Christian doctrine -- hey, we sum the whole thing up in one prayer -- and no problem with the basic rituals of Roman Catholicism and why we practice them. But how do you explain conversion? It's an internal process. It involves things no one else can see, hear, or feel -- what Fran calls private knowledge. Talking about it can make you sound like some kind of nut.

I tried to avoid it, but Matt wouldn't let me. I became curious about the intensity of his interest, but I kept all my questions to myself and just did what I could.

He took it seriously. That surprised me more than anything else. He didn't pull a face. He didn't act as if I was someone who had to be handled very carefully. He accepted what I said as a truthful narration of what I'd experienced.

After a while, he said, "Do you think that happens to everyone? Because it hasn't happened to me."

I tried flippancy. "Well, you're not dead yet."

He scowled. "Look, if this is a good thing, then it ought to be available to everyone. Catholics don't believe in predestination like the Calvinists, do they?"

That set me back. "No, of course not."

"Then I want to know why you and not me," he said.

Oh boy, I thought, now I have to play theologian.

"Look," I said, "I'm not a missionary, I'm just a believer. I wouldn't dream of trying to convert you."

"Why not?"

I was punch-drunk by then. "Well, most people consider it impolite to press their religion on other people."

And this twenty-five-year-old man who sells steel, lead, and gunpowder for a living, who's surrounded six days a week by people whose every third word is obscene, who described the household he grew up in as "a demilitarized zone," said to me, "That's their problem. If this is good stuff, I want in. And if you believe it's good stuff, you should be out there trying to share it with others. Especially as it costs you nothing."

Therein lies one of the greatest of all challenges -- not for the believer but for the interested skeptic: Faith is often the consequence of an entirely private, inherently personal event. He who hasn't had such an event is fully justified in asking why not? And he who has had one can only shrug and say "I have no idea."

No one's private illumination constitutes evidence another person must accept.

Perhaps I haven't given this subject the best possible treatment. I addressed it this morning for the usual reason: It was on my mind. I may return to it. But for the moment, I'm empty of words.

May God bless and keep you all.


CGHill said...

This calls to mind a dream once reported by the late Isaac Asimov.

I dreamed I had died and gone to Heaven. I looked about and knew where I was — green fields, fleecy clouds, perfumed air, and the distant, ravishing sound of the heavenly choir. And there was the recording angel smiling broadly in greeting.

I said, in wonder, "Is this Heaven?"

The recording angel said, "It is."

I said [and on waking and remembering, I was proud of my integrity], "But there must be some mistake. I don't belong here. I'm an atheist."

"No mistake," said the recording angel.

"But as an atheist how can I qualify?"

The recording angel said sternly, "We decide who qualifies. Not you."

I think this qualiifies as an inherently personal event.

KG said...

And may God bless you for that post, Fran.
It clears up the question I've been asking myself for a long time now.

Anonymous said...

I respectfully comment......

You had me until this:

"...but where is He not? Where is it written that a skeptic who lives a just life shall not receive His assistance at the Particular Judgment?"

This statement is true, but the Bible is clear that (paraphrase) there is no one who is righteous, no not one. None of us have lived a just life. That is why Jesus HAD to die, "substitutionarily" for me and for you. Back to your phrase, there is no "assistance" at all--either HE died for all of us or HE died for no reason and for no effect. I choose to believe the former.

We might be on the same page (just semantics, sometimes) but just my 2 cents. Again, humbly submitted......