Christians were a persecuted minority for three centuries. They did not overcome the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, Cicero and Seneca, by force, but by argument, and not from outside but from within. As a competing horizon, way of life, and intellectual articulation, Christianity better explained many more realities and paradoxes of human life than any preceding civilization. It conquered the world both by argument and by personal example.
Mac Donald is right to demand as much.
Either the Catholic Church (to stick to what I know best) is true, or it isn’t. That’s where the Church makes its stand. (As Lenny Bruce used to joke, “It is the only one true church.”) It can do no other, for the name it accepts for God is that God is “Spirit and Truth.” The very first commandment, handed on to the church by Judaism, is “thou shalt not have false gods before me.” Between false gods and the true God the decisive point is truth.
If Jesus is not one with the Father as he said he was, the Father living in him and he in the Father, he was a megalomaniac, and unworthy of the love and striving that Catholics invest in him. In his name, the Catholic people have so toiled and so tried to inspire civilizations, that even despite all their colossal sins and errors, the Christian faith has been carried to all nations. In essentials, the Catholic Church of today, it says in the Creed, is one with the church of the beginning: one, holy, catholic and apostolic.
If it is not those things, then –just as Heather says — it ought to be rejected. Thou shalt not have false gods before me.
So I am entirely sympathetic with the way Heather puts her questions. The question of religion is one of truth, and of empirical truth even more than of logic. The Christian faith is intended to be tested by experience. Try living it, and see.
Some try, and do not see. That is what respect for human freedom and conscience would lead one to expect. The New Testament certainly does. No one can be forced to see — cannot be. For faith can only be a personal, serious commitment, from the depths of the person.
Often in history Catholics have violated that respect for liberty and conscience. So has every other vision of life ever known to humans. The Enlightenment, too, has its record of bloodshed and oppression, not least in the French Revolution, and in many wholly secular movements since.
Still, there is no stronger proponent of the freedom and dignity of the human person in the world today, in many varied environments and on a planetary scale, than the Catholic Church. Yet the most important point is the rock-bottom principle on which it holds that personal dignity and liberty are founded. It is this.
The God of Judaism and Christianity did not choose to have the false friendship of the coerced and the slavish, but the real, genuine friendship of free women and men standing upright and true. Each individual is judged on his own actions and inner choices. These choices are inalienable, and cannot be shoved off onto one’s mother, father, brother, sister, society, or state. In God’s piercing judgment, the individual stands alone.
Mac Donald concludes from her experience of life that “I just don’t believe that Christianity was divinely dictated. Religion is the product of our moral sense, not vice versa.” Since no one among us sees God, with either the eyes of our bodies or of our minds, it is possible that she is correct. If so, that makes the Catholic Church, and Christianity more generally, pretty much of a lie.
And she goes on: “But I will treat the truth claims of Christianity just as I would any other proposition about the world. The claim that we are overseen by an omniscient, omnipotent God who also loves every human being and treats every human being with justice does not square with the slaughter of the innocents that I see every day. I do not understand why religion should get a pass from the empirical and logical demands that we make towards other factual propositions.” She is perfectly correct to do this.
The problem of evil is a very serious problem for Christians and for Jews — see the story of Job. But also of the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ. Also the “slaughter of the innocents” by Herod, right at the time of Christ’s birth. Yet these events are laid before us, so Jews and Christians say, by the inspired word of God. God tells us that life is not just a morality play, good guys and bad guys. In fact, in both religions, the good guys, emphatically, do not always win. That is the way reality is: suffering, the cross, God’s ways not being our ways.
What is difficult to believe is that any one of us — you, me, or Heather — knows more than God does about His love for every individual. He called each other out from nothingness, having known each of us by name, “from before Time was.” We are not God’s judge. He is ours. If you do not grasp his sovereignty over all things, it is not the true God and Creator of all things that you are thinking of.
Heather is correct, though. The evils and bitter sufferings we see are a huge obstacle to accepting God. Ivan Karamazov quite passionately denounced God for the suffering even of one little child crying out in the night.
Then there is another question : “Do Catholics, for example, believe that the angel Moroni gave Joseph Smith a pair of magic spectacles with which to read the mysterious golden tablets from God?”
I have been very touched by the admirable lives of Mormons I know, and I believe I have felt in their presence the grace that is clearly within them. But, no, I do not believe that Mormonism is the true faith. I respect it and the people it produces, and I am eager to gain insight in the Final Judgment as to its mysterious role in the history of the world.
I think the truth claims of the Catholic Church are stronger, deeper, longer-lasting, and in fact universal. Of course, it is obvious that not more than one out of every six people in the world agrees with me, the one billion-plus that form the Catholic people of our time.
If we did not think the Catholic faith to be true, why be a Catholic (or anything else)? It is truth, not feeling good about our choice, that is the only reliable guide.
My favorite story of how to choose a religion for oneself comes from C. S. Lewis. I may misremember the details, and am away from my Lewis books, but one day, after many months of reflection kept bringing him up empty, Lewis became aware that he actually did believe in God. He sought out a church in which to sit in silence. And pondered, unsatisfied. Over time, he was pretty convinced that any true religion could not be merely private; it must be shared with many others. In fact, it would have to at least aim at being universal, belonging to all humans. Otherwise, it would be like a tribe, and seem to have a local, ethnic god.
Thinking about it, Lewis saw only two contenders for that condition, Christianity and Islam. The God of Judaism, he thought, may be the Creator of all things, and the Judge of all at the end of time, but Judaism to his mind was not a missionary religion, and does not aim for the allegiance of all people.
The point of my bringing in Lewis here is that he did seek out criteria by which to separate the true religion from others. A true religion had to be universal, and it had to be deep enough to withstand a lifetime of probing reflection. Behind both of these criteria is an ideal of truth — one universal truth, although arrived at by individual pilgrims in freedom and at their own pace; not two truths. One truth, not my truth or your truth — that is to say, not relativism nor mere feelings nor personal “happiness.” Truth cuts more like a sword, and one does not always like where it leads. Lewis did not particularly like the people he actually had (by his own principles) to associate with.
Moreover, Heather Mac Donald is right about something else, too. Of course the Golden Rule is to be found outside of revelation. It is, as Lewis learned from his studies, a proposition of the universal Tao. It is discovered in almost all cultures, in many variants, but always conveys one essential point: the crucial importance of sympathy for the other, and regard for the other as other.
We Catholics have in our long tradition an expression for this relationship. Revelation does not take away reason, but adds light to it. Gratia non tollit sed perficit naturam. Revelation gives us hints of truths about the inner life of God, human nature, and destiny that we could not have learned in any other way. These truths, though coming from beyond our own poor powers, can be verified in daily experience. The opposite of merely subjective feelings, they also inform hundreds of millions of other individual, cantankerous, angular persons, in all eras and cultures, and shed on their lives a very helpful light. For this light, great gratitude is due.
One last point: If Philip Jenkins is right, Christianity — and the Catholic people in particular — is the fastest growing religion on earth. Its adherents currently number over two billion, and climbing, particularly in Asia and Africa. Islam is also growing, for entirely different reasons.
Christianity is growing, I submit, because it has been better able to adapt to modernity, than modernity to it. The Catholic Church is more comfortable with democracy, for instance, than democracies (in Europe, say) find it possible to be with Christianity, unless in public the latter keeps very, very quiet. And it answers something deep in the human spirit, which secularism does not, and cannot.
As always, Heather Mac Donald’s realistic and empirical mind forces us to rethink even old things, and all the more so, the new.
— Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Novak’s own website is www.michaelnovak.net.