Monday, September 10, 2012

Belief and understanding

Last week I read something fairly profound and challenging, and have been considering it ever since. 

Pope Benedict XVI delivered an address last Sunday in Rome, and in it proposed that Judas' biggest problem was ultimately falsehood.  He explained that Judas certainly could have walked away from Jesus as many of Jesus' followers did...but instead Judas stuck around, in spite of his unbelief, in order to betray Christ.

The Pope then went on to quote St. Augustine, who once wrote the following:

"He does not say we have understood and believed, but we believed and understood. We have believed in order to be able to understand".

Profound, yes? 

This idea that belief, or faith, comes before understanding seems counter-intuitive and upside-down.  But then, a lot of things about faith probably do.  And the truth is that faith is not always easy.  It's hard to believe in something we can't see, or fully understand.  It must be nurtured and protected.  It involves, on some level, choice.

And it is ultimately challenging, because it forces us to ask the difficult question of, Do I believe?  Do I believe in the creeds, the claims, the historical Jesus?  Do I believe not only in His humanity but in His divinity too? 

I reflected on this at Mass yesterday, during the recitation of the Nicene Creed.  And as I looked upon the large crucifix that hangs above the altar in my parish, and considered the words I was saying, I thought that it really is awfully hard to make sense of the Christian story without simple belief.  This is why many consider faith utter foolishness--it seems that way when you don't believe that Jesus is at once God's Son and also God Himself.  Of course when you do accept those propositions, it's much easier to accept the Church's teachings on original and actual sin, the dignity of all human life from conception until natural death, sexuality, and the like.  Because at the end of the day, belief in the historic Christian God--as revealed in the Bible and the creeds and ultimately apostolic teaching--compels us to follow and trust Him.  In order to do that, we must have some level of understanding, but the paradox is that we really can't understand if we don't believe.

Being in relationship with Jesus requires faith, which is a virtue that must be cultivated and nurtured, protected and bolstered.  It is precious and must not be sacrificed on the altar of doubt or worldly success.  A good reminder for me, I think, to spend my time reading, watching, and thinking on things that promote faith.  A good reminder for me to rest in my faith in God when there are things I don't understand.

If you watched the DNC last week, you may have seen Caroline Kennedy saying it is her Catholic faith that compels her to defend reproductive rights.  Which of course got people talking because, well, the Catholic Church has always considered abortion and contraception to be grave evils.  Later I watched a clip of a priest on a cable TV show discussing the situation.  (This is my own paraphrase because I could not find the actual transcript online.)"I'm sure she's a wonderful person, and loves her Church," he said, "but she is lacking intellectual honesty when she says she opposes state restrictions on abortions because she is Catholic.  She should have said she supports reproductive rights because she is a dissident."  And, he's right.  You can't favor abortion rights because you're Catholic--that defies logic.  You can favor them in spite of being Catholic, or you can say that you depart from what the Church believes on this point.

Caroline's viewpoint is not uncommon however--there are many people (both high-profile and otherwise) like Kennedy who identify as Catholic while openly promoting and embracing things the Church has always denounced.  On the one hand it seems to make little sense, especially for us converts who had to wrestle through countless theological issues ourselves in order to arrive at a place where we believed in the concept of Church authority, as held by the Magisterium, instituted by Jesus Himself.  Why associate yourself with a hierarchical institution that has never, ever, affirmed your beliefs, we wonder?

Of course on the other hand, I do understand having an affinity for culture and family tradition.  And it makes sense to me that it is hard to wholeheartedly embrace a set of teachings.  Traditional, historical Christianity is not always an easy pill to swallow.  It requires something of me.  It tells me I am not enough, on my own.  It defines personhood and life's purpose.  It flies in the face of the culture.  It says that there is a natural order to things, and tells me where I am in that order.  It brings freedom through self-control.

And so yes, sometimes Christianity is very hard to understand, especially without the transformation that humble belief ultimately brings.  And that is why intellectual honesty can be hard to come by, and why there are countless people remaining in hierarchical institutions who've long since (or perhaps always) jettisoned the core of what those institutions stand for.

So Pope Benedict's message was timely, and Augustine's words profound, and I think it is a challenge to us all to ask ourselves what do we believe--and are we truly living that way?


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