Monday, September 1, 2014

What Is the Objective Measure of Faith?

Me as Socrates contemplating Jesus.

My long time friend and Upstage Productions actor, Erik Pratt, who was raised Mormon, comments on my post Worshiping the Lie: Catholics, Mormons and Muslims ...

I'm not quite sure what the argument is here. If it is that good faith followers of bad faith religions are doomed, I can follow that though I am certainly not a theologian. [My Note: actually the Catholic Church teaches precisely that good faith followers of bad religions are not thereby doomed.]
That does raise the point of how do we know what a good faith and a bad faith religion are? Is it merely intent (like the cited example of Mohammed), in which case I assume there are eleventy billion religions which are all bad faith to each other. Or, is there some object measure of such a thing?

This is an excellent question, and it has a simple but rather stunning answer.

The objective measure of the value of a religion is, "Is it true"?


Now we are so used to our pluralistic society and to the fact that the virtue of tolerance demands that we understand and accommodate others that we lose track of the simple thing that religion is supposed to be about, and that all religions claim to be about: seeing and wondering at the Truth.

We have come to think that all religions are merely subjective, and therefore aren't really making truth claims.  We think that the variety of religions are similar to the variety of tastes.  Religious claims, we think, say more about the person who holds them than about the nature of reality the claims claim to describe.

Hilaire Belloc put this in a historical context, explaining that the view of religion as being entirely subjective saw its origin at the end of the 17th century, after the European Wars of Religion ...

By the year 1700, it became apparent that Europe was permanently divided into two camps, Catholic and anti-Catholic.  In the only department that counts, in the mind of man, the effect of the religious wars and their ending in a drawn battle was that religion as a whole was weakened. More and more, men began to think in their hearts, "Since all this tremendous fight has had no result, the causes which led to the conflict were probably exaggerated.  It seems, then, that one cannot arrive at the truth in these matters, but we do know what worldly prosperity is and what poverty is, and what political power and political weakness are.  Religious doctrine belongs to an unseen world which we do not know as thoroughly or in the same way."

And so we have, for several hundred years in the West, grown accustomed to thinking that belief and truth are two opposite things and that one has nothing to do with the other.

So to begin with, all religions claim to be true - objectively true.  But some go further than that.

Christian Faith claims not only to deal with ultimate truth (questions of God, man and the meaning of life), but also with Revealed Truth - with design and meaning revealed by God, things that are not able to be discovered by reason alone.  I deal with this a bit in my play Socrates Meets Jesus, based on the book by Peter Kreeft.  In this scene, Socrates is discussing the question of subjective taste vs. objective and revealed truth with two college students (Tom and Molly) and with their teacher (Prof. Nuance) ...

MOLLY:   I tried to explain to Socrates that religion is not necessarily about truth but about feelings.  It’s kind of like art.  It’s silly to argue about which form of art is “true” or which one is “best”.
TOM:  Or like politics.  Different political systems worked for different peoples and cultures.  One is not necessarily better than another, except communistic socialism, which is the ideal.  Democracy worked for the Greeks, but it only works for us when Republicans lose elections.  
SOCRATES:  (after a pause)  How long have you been at this college?
TOM:  Eight years, $320,000 and counting.
NUANCE:  I think the point both of our young friends are trying to make is that all religions are equal in that they are all faltering human attempts at the divine.  Thus they are all relative.
SOCRATES:  I see.  But is religion a human thing?
NUANCE:  What?
SOCRATES:  Is it a human thing, like art or politics?
TOM:  Of course it’s a human thing.
MOLLY:  But it’s the most important human thing.  It’s at the heart of human life. 
SOCRATES:  Its dwelling place is human, certainly.  But its origin – is that human, or is it divine?  Was it divine?
NUANCE:  “The Baptism of John.  Was it from heaven or of men?”  This is the question Jesus put to the Pharisees.  They wiggled out of it. I’m beginning to like your method, Socrates.  Let’s see if you can do better than the Pharisees and answer it.  Class?  What is the origin of religion?  Human or divine?
TOM:  It’s human.
MOLLY:  All religions are equally true, equally beautiful, and equally human.
SOCRATES:  Then what do you make of the three religions that claim to have been invented by God?  Islam, Judaism and Christianity all claim to be invented by God.
TOM:  Hey, he not only went to the Comparative Religion lecture – he read the textbook!  Watch it, Toga-boy, you’re giving the rest of us a bad name!

So the Christian Faith claims to be objectively true and revealed by God.  But then how, as Erik asks, do we examine the truth claims of Christianity, or of any of these religions?

My answer in part is - the same way you examine the truth claims of everything else.  You look at the evidence.

Any look at historical or textual evidence reveals, for example, that Mormonism was made up whole cloth by Joseph Smith in the same way that the modern holiday of Kwanza was.  But the textual and historical evidence of the Catholic Faith is something entirely different.  G. K. Chesterton deals with that question head-on in a brilliant manner in his seminal work The Everlasting Man.  

I can only hint at what Chesterton describes by alluding to what a friend of C. S. Lewis once said in passing, after having examined skeptically the literary and historical evidence for Christ.  "Dash it all!' the friend said (or something like that), "Much as it pains me to say it, I'm beginning to think this Christianity thing is true.  The man actually lived and appears to have died and come back to life as his followers said he did.  This all actually seems to have happened."

But my second answer to the question, "How do we know these claims are true?" is the internal consistency of the Faith and how it comports with what we learn about life and about ourselves every day.  The full Catholic Faith (not the truncated Puritan, Evangelical or liberal versions of it) resonates in a thousand different ways for me every day.  It's the only Faith that even begins to explain love and the suffering love entails and how that is the center of who we are and what we do.  The Catholic Faith says more about love and sex and suffering and pain than any single person would have been able to invent on his own - and what it says, though at certain times in our lives or in certain moods strikes us as confining and narrow - actually reveals itself to be profoundly liberating and wholistic, encompassing mysteries of the human heart that not even the best dramatist or novelist can explore.  In addition, for three or four centuries after the crucifixion, the Church stood firm against christological heresies, definitions of Christ that were anything but the shocking and paradoxical definition the Church insisted upon - that Christ was both fully God and fully man.  There was no earthly reason for the Church to insist upon that (conceding to the much more reasonable "heretical" definitions would have been far easier), and there is no earthly reason today for the scoundrels and perverts who happen to be wearing bishops' miters to teach the same thing the Church has always taught, even though the witness of their lives contradicts what they seem to be teaching in spite of themselves.

These are two answers to the question, "What is the Objective Measure of the Faith?"

My friend Dale Ahqluist goes further ...

... it is not that one thing proves it, it is that everything proves it.
And when we have our days of doubt, when we are confused by the incessant attacks and the personal disappointments, it is a good exercise to sit down and make a list of all the things that prove that the Catholic faith is true.

  • The Church is the only consistent defender of morality and virtue. It defends marriage and the family. It defends children and babies and the unborn. It defends the poor. It defends peace and human dignity. It defends order and it also defends freedom. It defends the body and the mind and the soul.

  • The Church is the only institution in history that has continually survived its own defeats. Chesterton even maintains that it has survived its own death. Several times in history the Church seemed to be done and destroyed. But it is still here. It has survived its own death, says Chesterton, "because it had a God who knew his way out of the grave."

  • The history of Christianity is the history of the Catholic Church. The Church has not only carried the faith through history, it has carried the whole culture. The monasteries preserved the texts of the ancient world, keeping open our only windows to the past. When iconoclasts were smashing statues, Catholics preserved the art of sculpture. Catholic artists even brought sculpture inside paintings, giving them depth and dimension. They wrote music that we can still sing. The castles built in the medieval times are now museums or ruins. The Cathedrals built at the same time are still being used for their original purpose.

  • All other Christian sects are a reaction against or a splitting off from the Catholic Church. They are always something less than the Catholic Church, never anything more. They lack something, whether it be a pope or a priest or a pronouncement. Whatever partial truth they cling to is something that they have received from the Catholic Church, whether it be the Bible or baptism or "bringing in the sheaves."

  • Even the sins of the Catholic Church are evidence of its truth. Its failures only point to the great value of its precepts.
    History's greatest people, the saints, are Catholic. We too often forget how great they are. They have worked miracles, they have defied unbelievable odds, they have written monumental testimonies of truth, they have had exquisite visions, they have suffered unimaginable hardship with unexplainable joy, they have selflessly served their fellow human beings, caring for the sick and the dying and the outcast with astonishing charity. They have willingly died for their faith rather live without it. There may be outstanding individuals in history who did one thing well or lived notable and worthy lives: Buddha, Confucius, Spinoza, Gandhi, Martin Luther King and so on. But whoever you want to name, not one of them, not one of them, compares with the smallest saint, with St. Maria Goretti, with the Little Flower, with Don Bosco, with St. Francis de Sales, with Blessed Miriam Baouardy, with Mother Teresa. One saint is enough to prove the truth of the Church. But we have hundreds and hundreds, every one of them with an exemplary life worth contemplating and imitating.

  • Even the sins of the Catholic Church are evidence of its truth. Its failures only point to the great value of its precepts. The world cannot abide the Church failing because the world unconsciously knows that the truth it proclaims must be upheld. Chesterton says that the sins of Christianity are one of the doctrines of Christianity. In other words, our sins point to one of our sacraments: confession. He says, "The Church is not justified when her children do not sin, but when they do."

The list goes on. We can always add to it. There is always another reason to believe the Church's teachings, always more evidence to support its truth. As Chesterton says, the Church "has endured for two thousand years; and the world within the Church has been more lucid, more levelheaded, more reasonable in its hopes, more healthy in its instincts, more humorous and cheerful in the face of fate and death, than all the world outside."

Everything proves it.

1 comment:

Benjamin. said...

This seems to discount the role of Love. It seems too cold to say that it is simply a list of documents that serve as evidence. Surely there are more ways to see Christianity than that.

When we hear about someone committing a horrible sin, one rarely first thinks "Well he seems to have miscalculated the evidence." It is the love which we wish he had shown. Why was he so cruel to his neighbor? Surely it is more than historical inaccuracy.