Saturday, April 19, 2014

Faith And The Vigil

One of the things a thoroughly scientific outlook is good for -- and please don't assume that it's good for much else; take it from one who knows it from the inside -- is separating fact from implication, conjecture, opinion, desire, and everything else that is not fact.

A fact is something anyone with the requisite senses can perceive for himself. Some facts are easier to perceive than others; some pertain to events difficult or impossible to reproduce; and some are passionately wished away by those to whose agendas such facts are unfriendly. Those things cannot turn a fact into a non-fact. Of a fact, we can always say one of two things:

  1. It exists.
  2. It happened.

Of that last, it is important to note that the reportage of an event does not confer upon the event unassailable factual status. Reporters have been wrong many times. Some reporters are malicious. Perhaps worst of all, some will lie --ever heard the phrase "noble lies?" -- for a Cause to which they're committed. That last phenomenon has inflicted untold suffering on persons beyond counting.

Ultimately, unless you observe it yourself, its status as a fact is provisional. Even then you can be mistaken; we often see what we want to see, rather than what's really before us.

There are persons who've seized upon the fallibility of our senses to assert that we have no business talking about facts -- that "all is theory" and must forever remain so. I'm sure you can see where that leads. Be wary of it. Solipsism is a nasty malady. The cure is not pleasant.

The human mind cannot operate without the assumption that there is an underlying reality to what we perceive, however limited our perceptions may be. Human society cannot endure without the assumption that, over time at least, accurate reportage of those things we cannot perceive directly will overcome inaccurate or willfully deceitful reportage. Human happiness cannot be attained without the conviction that one possesses or can acquire all the facts relevant to the maintenance of one's values...whether that conviction is true or false.

Many centuries ago, four men, separated from one another by some years, composed four separate accounts of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Scholars of classical history agree that only one of those men could possibly have witnessed any of Jesus's deeds or travails. Some scholars contend that there are other accounts that could and should be added to the "canonical Gospels," but they quarrel among themselves (and with the Church) about which ones, and why.

The Gospels are reportage. They are not facts per se; their coverage of the Ministry, Passion, and Resurrection of Jesus may or may not be accurate. They agree on all the most salient details, but consensus does not confirm accuracy, though it can amplify confidence.

Similarly, the reportage of the deeds of the Apostles, of their several deaths, and of the other saints who lived and died before us does not qualify what it narrates as facts. One may have great confidence in the honor and accuracy of the reporters, but unless one has directly perceived an event, confidence is all he can have. Certainty is denied him.

That's the nature of faith -- in anything.

Far too many persons of the present day confuse skepticism -- a valuable attribute, if properly disciplined -- with a scientific outlook. A common skeptical rejoinder to a claim of fact is "So you saw it with your own eyes?" That's a worthy thrust. We see very few of the things we believe with our own eyes, yet our confidence in them often shades into a certainty we should not allow ourselves. Thus it is with faith -- and the skeptic must be as aware of it as the believer.

Whenever anyone asks me about my Christianity "How can you believe such an obvious fantasy?" I must restrain myself from replying "Were you there? Can you assure me from your own witness that it's not true?" That tends to rock the skeptical objector. He must confront his own assumptions if he wants to continue. Few persons are willing to do that; it involves a variety of humility that's become uncommon. But the exception who's willing to do so will sometimes continue with "Well, why do you believe it?"

That's one of the most important questions ever asked about any faith. Tragically, many Christians don't know how to answer it properly.

I believe it because:

  • It cannot be disproved;
  • It is incomparably beautiful;
  • It is perfectly compatible with human nature and the requirements for a flourishing society.

And that's all anyone needs to know about a Christian's faith.

Today is Holy Saturday, the day of Vigil for Christians worldwide. Jesus told His Apostles that He would "lie three days in the earth" before returning to them. Over those three days they could do nothing but wait and watch. It was a dread-filled vigil, for the mob that the Sanhedrin had aroused against Jesus was still active. Had it found them, they might not have survived the encounter. So they confined themselves to the "upper room" in which Jesus had held the Last Supper. Some did not leave that room until the resurrected Savior came to them.

The Apostles did not know that Jesus would be resurrected; they merely believed it. They knew that prior claimants to the title of Messiah had made similar claims that were not fulfilled. So they waited.

We who believe that Jesus was resurrected, irrefutably confirming His status as the Son of God, do not know it for a fact. We have the reportage of the event. We have the reportage of subsequent events consistent with the Resurrection. We have the reportage of the subsequent lives of the Apostles, in particular the executions of those who preferred to die horribly rather than recant their faith. We have the reportage of many other saints, throughout the centuries, through whom miracles were performed and who gladly surrendered their lives rather than renounce Christ.

We have confidence in those things. But we have not certainty. Certainty for living men is forever confined to those few who saw the resurrected Christ before His Ascension. We who come after them must wait.

And that is a blessing we seldom appreciate, for it makes our faith possible:

    Well met yet again, Father Altomare.
    —Nag? What news of the Realm?
    All is well. If you were wondering, Tiran is not among us. It appears that you banished him to some other plane.
    —But you don’t know where or how?
    We know quite well how, Father. As do you.
    —Nag, you might have a hard time understanding this, but when...whatever happened, I wasn’t really myself.
    It is quite comprehensible, Father. You were temporarily possessed by a greatly superior power. You are not the first to experience such a possession. You are unlikely to be the last.
    —You sensed it, then?
    Of course.
    —But what was it?
    We do not know. It bore a striking resemblance to an event far back in your history, when a comparable power illuminated the group that had witnessed the Ascension.
    —The Pentecost. The investiture of the Apostles with the gift of tongues, in service to Christ’s Great Commission.
    —Then it’s all true!
    We do not know.
    —WHAT? But you said—
    We are limited beings, Father. Our limits are not yours, but they bind us just as tightly. No more than any human are we capable of verifying a claim to omnipotence or omniscience. Surely we are neither of those things.
    For eons, we believed that our Brother Evoy, who dreams greatly, had created your world. The events of the past two millennia have left us unsure. Evoy himself has concluded that, while he may have contributed to the specific laws of your universe, he was not the true cause of its coming to be.
    We observed the life, ministry, Passion and Resurrection of Christ just as we observed your own, more recent adventure. It was plain that he was of an order superior both to Mankind and to the Brothers of the Realm. His passing rewrote laws of Creation so fundamental that we had never previously suspected their existence. We believe that it was his power that you invoked to expel Tiran from Creation. It was a match for the forces he commanded in every observable way. We cannot prove it...but we believe it.

    —That’s faith, isn’t it?
    Indeed. Be grateful.
    —Hm? How so?
    Your psyches are built to require it. An emotionally healthy man with no faith is the rarest of creatures.
    Do you begin to see, Father Altomare?
    —I see that all my life, all my passion for my faith, and all my thought and study and efforts at explaining it to myself and others, has been but a beginning. A beginning that will last until God calls me back to him.
    Your philosophers have said that the journey is what matters, have they not?
    —Indeed they have, and it is so. Nag...Areth, Brother of the Realm of Essences, we are at last truly well met.
    How so, Father?
    —As brothers in faith.
    A most appropriate brotherhood for two such as we. Be well, Father Raymond Altomare, vicar of Christ. May the Son of God and Redeemer of Mankind hold you close, guide your heart and hand, and guard you from every harm.
    —And you, Areth.
    It is to be hoped.

[From Shadow Of A Sword]

May God bless and keep you all. I'll see you again on Monday.

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