THE NOW WORD ON MASS READINGS
for December 16th, 2013
Liturgical texts here
Christ in the Temple, by Heinrich Hoffman
WHAT would you think if I could tell you who the President of the United States will be five hundred years from now, including what signs will precede his birth, where he will be born, what his name will be, what family line he will descend from, how he will be betrayed by a member of his cabinet, for what price, how he will be tortured, the method of execution, what those around him will say, and even with whom he will be buried. The odds of getting every single one of these projections right are astronomical.
IN a recent letter exchange, an atheist said to me,
If sufficient evidence was shown to me, I would start witnessing for Jesus tomorrow. I don’t know what that evidence would be, but I’m sure an all-powerful, all-knowing deity such as Yahweh would know what it would take to get me to believe. So that means Yahweh must not want me to believe (at least at this time), otherwise Yahweh could show me the evidence.
Is it that God does not want this atheist to believe at this time, or is it that this atheist is not prepared to believe in God? That is, is he applying the principles of the “scientific method” to the Creator Himself?
SCIENCE VS. RELIGION?
Atheist, Richard Dawkins, wrote recently about “Science vs. Religion”. Those very words are, for the Christian, a contradiction. There is no conflict between science and religion, provided science humbly recognizes its limitations as well as ethical boundaries. Likewise, I might add, religion must also recognize that not all things in the Bible are to be taken literally, and that science continues to unfold for us a deeper understanding of Creation. Case in point: the Hubble telescope has revealed to us wonders that hundreds of generations before us never thought possible.
Consequently, methodical research in all the branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God. —Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 159
Science tells us about the world God created. But can science tell us about God Himself?
When a scientist measures temperature, he uses a thermal device; when he measures size, he may use a caliper, and so forth. But how does one “measure God” to satisfy the atheist’s need for concrete proof of His existence (since as I explained in The Painful Irony, the order of creation, miracles, prophecy, etc. mean nothing to him)? The scientist does not use a caliper to measure temperature no more than he uses a thermometer to measure size. The right tools have to be used to produce the right evidence. When it comes to God, who is spirit, the tools to produce divine evidence are not calipers or thermometers. How could they be?
Now, the atheist cannot simply say, “Well, that’s why there’s no God.” Take for example, then, love. When an atheist says he loves another, ask him to “prove it.” But love cannot be measured, weighed, poked, or prodded, so how can love exist? And yet, the atheist who loves says, “All I know is that I love her. I know this with all my heart.” He might claim as evidence of his love his acts of kindness, service, or passion. But these very outward signs exist among those who are devoted to God and live by the Gospel—signs which have transformed not only individuals but entire nations. However, the atheist excludes these as evidence of God. Therefore, an atheist cannot prove that his love exists either. There are simply no tools to measure it.
So too, there are other attributes of man that science fails to fully explain:
Evolution cannot explain the development of free will, morality, or conscience. There is no evidence for the gradual development of these human characteristics—there is no partial morality in chimpanzees. Humans are obviously greater than the sum of whatever evolutionary forces and raw materials are said to have combined to create them. —Bobby Jindal, Atheism’s Gods, Catholic.com
So when it comes to God, one must use the proper tools to “measure” Him.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT TOOLS
First of all, just as he does in science, the atheist has to understand the nature of the subject he is approaching to “study.” The Christian God is not the sun or a bull or a molten calf. He is the Creator Spiritus.The atheist must also account for the anthropological roots of men:
In many ways, throughout history down to the present day, men have given expression to their quest for God in their religious beliefs and behavior: in their prayers, sacrifices, rituals, meditations, and so forth. These forms of religious expression, despite the ambiguities they often bring with them, are so universal that one may well call man a religious being. —CCC, n. 28
Man is a religious being, but he is also an intelligent being capable of knowing God with certainty from the created world by the natural light of reason. This, because he is made “in the image of God.”
In the historical conditions in which he finds himself, however, man experiences many difficulties in coming to know God by the light of reason alone… there are many obstacles which prevent reason from the effective and fruitful use of this inborn faculty. For the truths that concern the relations between God and man wholly transcend the visible order of things, and, if they are translated into human action and influence it, they call for self-surrender and abnegation. The human mind, in its turn, is hampered in the attaining of such truths, not only by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also by disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin. So it happens that men in such matters easily persuade themselves that what they would not like to be true is false or at least doubtful. —CCC, n. 37
In this insightful passage from the Catechism, the tools for “measuring God” are revealed. Because we have a fallen nature prone to doubt and denial, the soul in search of God is called to “self-surrender and abnegation.” In a word, faith. Scripture puts it this way:
…without faith it is impossible to please him, for anyone who approaches God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. (Heb 11:6)
APPLYING THE TOOLS
Now, the atheist might say, “Wait a minute. I don’t believe God exists, so how can I approach Him in faith?”
The first thing is to understand how terrible the wound of sin is to human nature (and certainly the atheist will admit that man is capable of terrors). Original sin is not just an inconvenient blip on the human historical radar. Sin produced death in man to such a great degree that communion with God was severed. The first sin of Adam and Eve was not stealing a piece of fruit; it was an utter lack of trust in their Father. What I am saying is that even the Christian at times, despite his foundational faith in God, doubts as did Thomas. We doubt because we forget not only what God has done in our own lives, but we forget (or are ignorant of) the powerful interventions of God throughout human history. We doubt because we are weak. Indeed, if God were to appear in the flesh before mankind again, we would crucify Him all over again. Why? Because we are saved by grace through faith, not sight. Yes, fallen nature is that weak (see Why Faith?). The fact that even the Christian has to renew his faith at times is not proof of God’s absence but of sin and weakness’s presence. The only way to approach God, then, is in faith—trust.
What does this mean? Again, one must use the right tools. It means approaching Him in the way He has shown us to:
…unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven… he is found by those who do not test him, and manifests himself to those who do not disbelieve him. (Matt 18:3; Wis 1:2)
This is far from simplistic. To become “like children,” that is, to experience the evidence of God means several things. One is to accept who He says He is: “God is love.” In fact, the atheist often rejects Christianity because he has been given a distorted perception of the Father as a deity who watches with squinted eyes our every error, ready to punish our guilt. This is not the Christian God, but at best the Misunderstood God. When we understand that we are loved, unconditionally, this not only changes our perception of God, but reveals the shortcomings of those who are Christianity’s leaders (and thus their need for salvation too).
Second, becoming a child means following in the commandments of Our Lord. The atheist who thinks He can experience the evidence of God the Creator while living as an enemy against His created order (ie. natural moral law) through a life of sin, does not understand basic principles of logic. The supernatural “joy” and “peace” Christians testify to is a direct result of submitting to the Creator’s moral order, a process called “repentance.” As Jesus said:
Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit… If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love… I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. (John 15:5, 10-11)
So faith and obedience are necessary tools to experience and encounter God. A scientist will never measure the correct temperature of a liquid if he refuses to place the temperature probe in the fluid. So too, the atheist will not have a relationship with God if his thoughts and actions are in opposition to the character of God. Oil and water do not mix. On the other hand, through faith, he can experience the love and mercy of God no matter what his past has been. By trust in God’s mercy, humble obedience to His Word, the grace of the Sacraments, and in that conversation we call “prayer,” the soul can come to experience God. Christianity stands or falls on this reality, not on ornate cathedrals and golden vessels. The blood of the martyrs was shed, not for an ideology or empire, but a Friend.
It must be said that one can certainly experience the truth of God’s word through a life opposed to His moral order. As Scripture says, the “wages of sin is death.” Rom 6:23 We see the “dark proofs” of this maxim all around us in the sadness and disorder in lives lived outside God’s will. The action of God can therefore be evident by the restlessness in one’s soul. We are made by Him and for Him, thus, without Him, we are restless. God is not a distant deity, but one who pursues each of us relentlessly because He loves us endlessly. However, such a soul often has a difficult time recognizing God in these moments either because of pride, doubt, or hardness of heart.
FAITH AND REASON
The atheist who wants evidence of God, then, must apply the right tools. This involves the use of both faith and reason.
…human reason can certainly reach the affirmation of the existence of one God, but only faith, which receives the divine Revelation, is able to draw from the mystery of Love of the Triune God. —POPE BENEDICT XVI, General Audience, June 16th, 2010, L’Osservatore Romano, English Edition, June 23, 2010
Without reason, religion will make little sense; without faith, reason will stumble and fall short of seeing that which only the heart can know. As St. Augustine said, “I believe in order to understand; and I understand, the better to believe.”
But the atheist often thinks that this demand of faith means that, ultimately, he must shut down his mind and believe without the aid of reason, and that faith itself will produce nothing but a brain-washed allegiance to religion. This is a false notion of what it means to “have faith.” The experience of millennia of believers tells us that faith will provide evidence of God, but only if one approaches the mystery in the disposition proper to our fallen nature—as a little child.
By natural reason man can know God with certainty, on the basis of his works. But there is another order of knowledge, which man cannot possibly arrive at by his own powers: the order of divine Revelation… Faith is certain. It is more certain than all human knowledge because it is founded on the very word of God who cannot lie. To be sure, revealed truths can seem obscure to human reason and experience, but “the certainty that the divine light gives is greater than that which the light of natural reason gives.” “Ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt.” —CCC 50, 157
But this need for childlike faith, frankly, will be too much for a proud man. The atheist who stands on a rock and yells at the sky demanding that God show himself has to pause for a moment and think about this. For God to respond at every beck and whim of men would be contrary to His nature. The fact that God doesn’t appear in all glory at that moment is perhaps more proof that He is there than not. On the other hand, for God to remain somewhat silent, thus causing man to walk more and more by faith rather than sight (so that he can see God! “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God…“), is also proof. God gives us enough to seek Him. And if we seek Him, we will find Him, for He is not far. But if He is truly God, truly the Creator of the universe, shouldn’t we perhaps humbly seek Him, in the way in which He has shown that we will find Him? Is this not reasonable?
The atheist will only find God when He gets off his rock and kneels beside it. The scientist will find God when he sets aside his scopes and devices and uses the proper tools.
No, one cannot measure love through technology. And God is love!
It is tempting to think that today’s advanced technology can answer all our needs and save us from all the perils and dangers that beset us. But it is not so. At every moment of our lives we depend entirely on God, in whom we live and move and have our being. Only he can protect us from harm, only he can guide us through the storms of life, only he can bring us to a safe haven… More than any of the cargo we might carry with us—in terms of our human accomplishments, our possessions, our technology—it is our relationship with the Lord that provides the key to our happiness and our human fulfilment. —POPE BENEDICT XVI, Asian News.it, April 18th, 2010
For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Cor 1:22-25)
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I have spent several weeks dialoguing with an atheist. There’s perhaps no better exercise to build one’s faith. The reason being is that irrationality is a sign itself of the supernatural, for confusion and spiritual blindness are hallmarks of the prince of darkness. There are some mysteries the atheist cannot solve, questions he cannot answer, and some aspects of human life and the origins of the universe that cannot be explained by science alone. But this he will deny by either ignoring the subject, minimizing the question at hand, or ignoring scientists who refute his position and only quoting those who do. He leaves many painful ironies in the wake of his “reasoning.”