Tuesday, August 4, 2009

What is the Catholic Religion?

Now, how believable is that? Honestly, is it even remotely likely this logical listener will jump on the bandwagon? I'm guessing no, unless he was told from birth that it is all true and has no doubt that everything is true. Doesn't it sound a bit like a fairy tale? I mean, zero, physical evidence is provided for all of these claims. What reason would you have to believe that?”

The above statement was posed regarding the legitimacy of the Catholic religion. Of course, one must wonder what these questions and conclusions are based on; how does one define the thing being critiqued? The writer offers the following description:

Now suppose you meet someone who says that indeed, there is an invisible man who lives in the sky, created you, the Earth, and everything. In order then for you to live morally, you must have a Church to guide you and tell you things. You are incapable of doing it on your own, as you are from a fallen race of beings. There is this book too, which has been passed down from the Stone Ages from this invisible man himself, and you must read it, follow it, and worship this invisible man. Oh, and this invisible man left no trace of his existence, because he is not observable in any way.

Also, this invisible man created another invisible being, called Satan, who he is at war with for eternity. When you die, you go to an eternal heaven to live with this invisible man in the sky. This is because you have an eternal, unchanging soul - a soul you had from before you were born - that leaves your unworthy body to go to this Heaven.

However, if you disobey this invisible man with the freedom that he gave you, he will send you to a Hell where you will burn forever in pain for all eternity, away from your creator. This will be the most painful, worst suffering imaginable. This is what your heavenly father does to his children who don't follow him. You burn. But he loves you...

It is a very interesting and thought provoking description; however it is not a description of the Catholic religion. While most textbooks lump together Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as “Peoples of the Book” I would argue in a simple form that we might describe the Catholic religion in two ways: 1) as a people of the Word, and 2) as an incarnational people.

1) People of the Word: Though Protestants might describe themselves as a People of the Book, Catholics understand that the Word of God is not simply a book but a Person. It is to this Person, this Word, that the entire religion hinges and the entire human race depends. Unfortunately this Person was not mentioned once in the above description of the Catholic religion. To understand the Word, we must understand a dogma. “Dogma,” however, is a term that somehow inspires thoughts of boredom and closed-mindedness. Thus before I proceed, I’ll let Chesterton speak of dogmas as the first principle of Catholicism and really its most intellectually interesting part:

“If [one] would condescend to ask what the dogmas are, he would find out that it is precisely the dogmas that are living, that are inspiring, that are intellectually interesting. Zeal and charity… are admirable as flowers and fruit; but if you are really interested in the living principle you must be interested in the root or the seed. In other words, you must be intelligently interested in the statement with which the whole thing started; even if it is only to deny it. Even if the critic cannot come to agree with the Catholic, he can come to see that it is certain ideas about the Cosmos that make him a Catholic… He will never get anywhere near it by sentimentalizing against Catholic sentiment or pontificating against Catholic pontiffs. [One] must get hold of the ideas as ideas; and he will find that the most interesting of all the ideas are those which the newspapers dismiss as dogmas.”

Now the dogma alluded to earlier which must be understood is the dogma of the Trinity. I admit I can nowhere come close to explaining, much less defending, this dogma here but I will make a one-paragraph attempt. Now if one allows for the existence of a personal transcendent deity we could put forth the argument that this deity, as a subject, has an understanding or conception of himself – but this self-thought or self-idea would not be limited by time or space and would thus contain all that God is. This Thought (“logos” in Greek translates as “thought,” “idea,” and “word”) is distinct from the Thinker yet “one-in-being” with the Thinker. What’s more, we understand the Logos, or “Word/Thought,” as more importantly a Son. Now instead of the Son having a self-Thought of his own, he turns back to the Father (the Thinker) and from their union proceeds the outpouring love which we call God the Holy Spirit. The three united by one Nature yet distinct in Person.

2) Incarnational People: None of the above could be discovered using the scientific method, but that is not to say that God left us with zero evidence. Catholics believe that God the Father sent us His Son, the self-Thought and mind of God, to capture our hearts and elevate us to a shared participation in the Trinitarian family which is God. This sending happened in a real place at a real time. It can be verified by history and witnessed to in the lives of Catholic saints and martyrs. Look at the lives of the Apostles who were all, save one, brutally tortured to death for proclaiming that Jesus Christ, who died and rose from the dead, is God the Son. Why would they each allow themselves to be tortured to death for a lie? I mean, maybe a couple might if they were crazy, but not all of them. What’s more, there are many who say Jesus was a wise teacher but not God. These people miss out on the fact that Jesus claimed to be God! Now if my neighbor approached me and said he was God, I’d think twice before considering him a “wise” man. He’s either one of three things: a liar, a lunatic, or Lord God.

But one may still be wondering what the concept of an “incarnational people” really means. First of all it means that we consent to another dogma: the dogma of the Incarnation. The Incarnation means that God the Son joined to his divine nature to a human nature and that from his conception and on into the vastness of eternity, God the Son is perfectly God and perfectly human. Forever. In effect, the Incarnation meant that God humanized his divinity and divinized our humanity (with neither the humanity nor divinity overwhelming the other). And not simply that, he allowed himself to be tortured and murdered by humanity in the process, and then used this most evil of acts (deicide) to produce man’s greatest good: our redemption. That is love. True, we “are from a fallen race of beings” as the writer indicates, but this primordial Fall became the seed of God’s rescue plan. St. Athanasius pointed out the entire crux of Christianity when he said: “The Son of God became the Son of Man so that the sons of men could become the sons of God.” In other words, God shared in our human nature so that we could share in his divine nature (the theological term “grace,” by the way, refers to a created sharing in God’s nature).

Thus it’s not about going to hell for not following the rules or needing some Church in order to be moral, as the above writer thought, but rather about sharing in divine life and being supernaturally adopted into the divine family. Or as C.S. Lewis wrote in the essay God or Rabbit?: “The people who keep on asking if they can’t lead a decent life without [Jesus], don’t know what life is about; if they did they would know that ‘a decent life’ is mere machinery compared with the thing we men are really made for. Morality is indispensable: but the Divine Life, which gives itself to us and which calls us to be gods [in a loose, not formal sense], intends for us something in which morality will be swallowed up. We are to be re-made. All the rabbit in us is to disappear—the worried, conscientious, ethical rabbit as well as the cowardly and sensual rabbit. We shall bleed and squeal as the handfuls of fur come out; and then, surprisingly, we shall find underneath it all a thing we have never yet imagined: a real Man, an ageless god, a son of God, strong, radiant, wise, beautiful, and drenched in joy.”

Secondly, the term “incarnational people” refers to the way in which Catholics (a) believe, (b) act, and (c) worship. According to (a), there is no such thing as an “unworthy body” for God the Son had and still has a human body in heaven. This in turn leads to (b) in that we recognize the worth of our bodies in parallel with the fact that God has joined a human body to himself for all eternity. Finally (3), matter is of great importance to the Catholic because God has forever united himself to matter through a human body. It is the Protestant who misses this point and distrusts matter. They deny any real power behind water baptism (by which we enter into the divine family) because “God can’t work through matter” – yet they agree that Jesus is God come in the flesh (and if human flesh isn’t material then what is it?) and thus redeems us through matter!

Furthermore, the Incarnation recognized that we are both matter and spirit and that we must interact with God in both matter and spirit. To this end, Jesus instituted a Church that has a physical and spiritual dimension. He gave this Church “sacraments” which are physical signs that point to, and actualize, spiritual realities. In short, the Catholic Church, instituted by God, treats man as he is: material and spiritual. This dual nature of man becomes a problem for the materialist (who believes everything is only matter) and the Buddhist (who believes everything is only spirit). Both the materialist and the Buddhist, however, make their metaphysical claims but then fail to act accordingly. The materialist gives answers in purely material terms and then throws out his material principles as soon he enters the real world – for if all that exists is matter and matter is competitive then there is no reason to be moral; yet the materialist acts as if there was a real right and wrong. The same is true of the Buddhist who claims not to believe in a material world at all yet looks both ways before crossing the road. Here we have two philosophies at both ends of a spectrum but neither position “works” in the real world. Everyone has a philosophy that cannot be proven by the scientific method (but neither can the scientific method be proven by the scientific method), thus we should judge a philosophy not solely by whether we can prove it’s ‘truthiness’ (as Stephen Colbert would say) but rather by how its views stand up in the lives of real people. The Catholic religion, like other religions and philosophies, gives answers to questions. Though these answers cannot be verified by the scientific method, the glove-like answers of the Catholic religion fit our human, hand-shaped nature perfectly. This is why for two-thousand years the Catholic religion has been providing the world with joy-filled saints who have done more for the world and the human race than all the materialists and Buddhists in human history.

It would seem to me that the Protestant fundamentalist and the materialist atheist suffer from one similar problem. While the Protestant fundamentalist looks to the Bible alone for truth and treats it as if it can interpret itself, the materialist atheist looks to matter alone for truth and treats it as if it can interpret itself. The Protestant somehow thinks the Bible just fell out of the sky as if it were always there and the materialist is by his position forced to believe that matter either popped into existence (“fell out of the sky” so to speak) or was simply always there. The Catholic religion alone provides a place for which the origins of both can be legitimately explained in relation to human nature and sanity. As C.S. Lewis said: "I felt in my bones that this universe does not explain itself." I would argue that the same is true of the Bible.

Furthermore, neither the Protestant fundamentalist nor the materialist atheist has any reason to believe in founding their authoritative truths on the Bible or on matter. For the materialist, I ask him to prove to me that matter is even “there” to begin with. There have been philosophers and philosophies (from the Berkeley to Buddhism) that claim that matter does not exist, and the materialist must then somehow prove, without using something the materialist might call matter, that matter is real. As to the Protestant fundamentalist, G.K. Chesterton muses about the historically proven connection of the Bible to the Catholic religion when he speaks of the Reformation: “To an impartial pagan or skeptical observer, it must always seem the strangest story in the world; that men [i.e. Protestants] rushing in to wreck a temple, overturning the altar and driving out the priest, found there certain sacred volumes inscribed "Psalms" or "Gospels"; and (instead of throwing them on the fire with the rest) began to use them as infallible oracles rebuking all the other arrangements. If the sacred high altar was all wrong, why were the secondary sacred documents necessarily all right? If the priest had faked his Sacraments, why could he not have faked his Scriptures?”

What is my reason for believing in the Bible? Well in short (and perhaps much too short), once I accept the existence of God, the Trinity, and the divinity of Christ, I can simply look at first-second century Christian history and see that a mission was given to men who appointed bishops as their successors. Once given the Holy Spirit, these men (though sinful and fallible by their own measure) were somehow promised by Jesus (God incarnate) infallibility when united and in speaking in matters of faith and morals. These men and their successors compiled the Bible and (most importantly) determined which books belonged in the Bible and which did not. Thus the grounding chain of infallibility goes: Jesus Christ-Church-Bible. In other words, I believe in the Bible because I believe in the Catholic Church and I believe in the Catholic Church because I believe in Jesus Christ. This logical chain of authority, while having to be accepted by faith, is what has kept and is what continues to keep me ever untied to the Catholic religion.

When he was asked what keeps him Catholic, St. Augustine in 397 AD gave the following reasons: "The unanimity of peoples and nations keeps me here. Her authority, inaugurated in miracles, nourished by hope, augmented by love, and confirmed by her age, keeps me here. The succession of priests, from the very see of the Apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after his resurrection, gave the charge of feeding his sheep [John 21:15-17], up to the present episcopate, keeps me here. And last, the very name Catholic, which, not without reason, belongs to this Church alone, in the face of so many heretics, so much so that, although all heretics want to be called 'Catholic,' when a stranger inquires where the Catholic Church meets, none of the heretics would dare to point out his own basilica or house."

Of course, there are many, many more reasons why I am a Catholic, but I leave it to G.K. Chesterton who summed it up nicely when he said: “The difficulty of explaining ‘why I am a Catholic’ is that there are ten thousand reasons all amounting to one reason: that Catholicism is true.”

No comments: