Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Why the biggest questions people ask to challenge Catholics don't make sense unless you already believe that Catholicism is true.

Wisdom-  Let us be attentive!

That's what they chant in Ukrainian Catholic Churches before a reading.  I'm always tempted to chant that at the beginning of one of my talks, but I've never done it yet.  Probably I will some day.

I think that when people think of wisdom, they think of someone like Master Oogway from Kung Fu Panda saying "Yesterday is history, Tomorrow is mystery, today is a gift- that is why it is called the present."  They want a succinct poetic and slightly mystical sounding sentence- a proverb I suppose- about some profound subject. But I always suspect that true wisdom is applied knowledge through the lense of experience with a natural ability to recognize truth.  Here's the problem with that.  I suspect that if someone is truly wise, than the wise things they say will not be understood by people who are not wise unless they have a minimum of the same knowledge.  So when a fool (ie: someone lacking wisdom) asks a hard question about Catholicism and the answer is a wise answer, the fool fails to understand the answer and they assume that their failure to understand the answer implies that the answer is either incorrect or incomprehensible, when actually the logical thing to assume is that your own ability to grasp the truth is limited, and that's why you don't get it.

For example-  I don't get quantum mechanics.  Or the theory of relativity.  Or string theory. I've tried to understand these things, but truth be told my understanding of basic physics is so limited that I can't really begin to grasp these applied physics.  And there are elements in these theories that defy logic in my mind-  but I am prepared to admit that the limitation is in my mind, rather than in the logic.  So rather than assume that these theories are false because I don't get them, I assume that my understanding is limited.

But I think that people should approach theology with at least the same level of humility.  Like the student in my office today who stated that Jesus work could have been just magic or the work of aliens, based on a really superficial understanding of the gospel story.  Or the Jehovah's witness who dismissed the trinity because if he went door to door he would get any number of contradictory explanations of the trinity and it is hard to grasp. Or people who reject the faith because they can't figure out how God could allow suffering or evil to exist, or why stories in the Old Testament make God look like an evil being, or why Catholics don't allow condoms in Africa or bless homosexual marriages.  People will dismiss Catholicism on any one of these grounds, and will ask a question as a challenge, and take the fact that Catholics are named able to answer the question in a succinct one liner that they will understand and be persuaded by as evidence that the Catholic Church does not have a good answer.

But-  the Church does have good answers to each of these objections.  I happen to know the answer to each of them- or at least I know a part of them. Each questions has an answer that you cannot plumb the depths of... but again, this is precisely what wisdom is.

St Augustine said "Theology is faith seeking understanding".  What this means is that before you can understand the Churches teachings on something deep and theological, you first have to have faith.  Many people would rather have it the other way.  They would rather already know have the answer to the questions before they will even acknowledge that there is such a thing as a God, or that Jesus was God, or so on. And the fact that they have not heard a satisfying answer to their pet objection will to them suggest that the whole framework is false. But the truth is that the answer depends on a sufficient understanding of the framework.

This realization came to me clearly when I gave a talk the other day about redemptive suffering.  "Why does God allow bad things to happen?"  is one of those questions that I think takes wisdom to answer-  a foundation of Catholic teaching accompanied by the experience both of grace and of suffering, and the ability to recognize truth.  I suspect that the answer to that question is so profound that no one can properly summarize it, but you have to be immersed in it.

But I do think, despite my own lack of wisdom, that I have some insights based on Church teachings and a solid grasp of scripture.  My intention is to write a series of blog entries which explore these deep questions based on that foundation, and outlines the foundation in a way that anyone can understand.  This may take time.

Meanwhile, let me conclude by saying that when you ask a question and the answer to the question is unsatisfying, do no assume that the framework of Catholicism must therefore be faulty. Rather consider the evidence for Catholicism, and use it as the foundation to begin exploring the truly deep questions.

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