The importance of religionDONALD DEMARCO
C. S. Lewis, the most widely read apologist for Christianity of the 20th Century, brought attention to its power of drawing people away from merely gossiping about God.
That acerbic critic of amorphous Christianity, Søren Kierkegaard, stated that, "The most dreadful sort of blasphemy is that of which 'Christendom' is guilty [is] transforming the God of Spirit into . . . ludicrous twaddle." "Twaddle" may be a more familiar term to people in Great Britain. It refers to idle chatter. And a "twaddler" is a chatterer who is proud and pretentious. Christian tradition, of course, has made it clear enough that: 1) pride is not only a Deadly Sin, but the one that is the deadliest; 2) pretentiousness is not only foolish but contrary to the humility that should be the mark of every follower of Christ.
These words of Lewis and Kierkegaard echo those of St. Paul: "For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths" (2 Tim. 4, 03).
A twaddler gossiping is a far cry from the life of a Christian. Gossip is attractive because it allows us to set truth aside and imagine that we are heroes and everyone else is a villain. It is a comforting illusion for many to think that they are better than others. Gossip is juicy and delicious, the final purchase lying in wait at every supermarket for those who pass through the checkout line. But are they checking out of reality?
Gossip's corrective is truth. And if truth is not "juicy" and "delicious", it is nevertheless nourishing. We cannot live with any degree of authenticity without truth. To the extent we withdraw from truth, we withdraw from reality. And there is no salvation in the outskirts of reality. Truth allows us to get beyond ourselves so that we can live and grow in the perspective of a larger horizon. Concerning truth, St. Thomas Aquinas had this to say in his Summa Theologica: "The human intellect is measured by things so that man's thought is not true on its own account but is called true in virtue of its conformity with things." The matter could not be stated more simply or more elegantly.
In the interest of injecting truth into the contemporary discussion about Christianity, Pope Benedict XVI is now utilizing YouTube. The Holy Father expressed his hope that this worldwide vehicle of communication will help people to become "involved in this great dialogue of truth". The site can be reached at "youtube.com/vaticanit". At the same time, the Pontiff warns that "obsessive" online networking can isolate people from real social interaction.
One of the great ironies of our age is the supposition that one is open-minded and humble if he does not claim to know truth, whereas the person who claims to know something about truth is proud and pretentious. The plain fact is that the opposite is the case. The former urges that his non-truth is better than truth. This is both proud and pretentious. Furthermore, it is hardly being open-minded to remain closed to truth. On the other hand, Christ, who proclaimed to be both "Truth" and "humble of heart," reminds us that because truth is not something we create, its possession should inspire a sense of humility and gratitude.
The Catholic Catechism bears no resemblance to tabloid journalism. Yet, the trend of reducing the former to the latter persists. The poet Robert Frost remarked: "Men stand round in a circle and suppose, while the secret sits in the middle and knows". Frost recognizes two things: 1) that there is a truth; 2) that people are prone to remain at a distance from it. Christianity invites us to seek, discover, and embrace the truth. Deciding between being an idle twaddler and a Christian disciple is not a matter that need overly tax the human intellect.
"Man is a rational animal," which is to say that he is a reasoning being. When he argues irrationally, he may come in for sharp criticism. But he may find himself the target of even sharper criticism when he argues rationally.
Being a bit irrational may be praised as creative, high-spirited, bold, and adventuresome. Remaining within the strict confines of reason is often viewed as dull, timid, unimaginative, and boring.
If I may be permitted to offer a personal confession, allow me to say that in all my years (I hesitate to say "decades") of teaching and writing, I have tried to defend the Church by defending the reasonableness of Her positions. Reasonable as this approach may seem, it is fraught with danger. I am all too often pilloried for being too narrow.
If I defend the Church's teaching on the reasonableness of marriage as indissoluble, I am cold-hearted for not affirming divorce. When I allude to Her reasonableness in rejecting certain forms of reproductive technologies because they compromise the integrity of the marriage act, I am accused of denying that the resulting child is a gift from God. In trying to set forth the Church's reasons for opposing intercourse prior to marriage, I am puritanical and unfeeling. If I oppose the sin, I am convicted of condemning the sinner. And I am surely lacking in compassion when I outline the Church's reasons for rejecting abortion.
In one sense, it is certainly true that the world of unreason is broader and more spacious than that of reason, just as the number of erroneous answers to a question far exceeds that of the single correct one. There is but one key that unlocks the door, while an infinity of other keys do not. If we are looking for possibilities, they are legion; if we are looking for truth, it is something singular.
It is at this point that I turn once again to the wisdom of G. K. Chesterton for support, consolation, and encouragement. Reason is a human activity that guides us in the direction of truth. Therefore, like thinking, as Chesterton reminds us, it is a "narrowing activity," like trying to find the right key among the hundred that are dangling from the key ring.
Concerning his entrance into the Catholic Church, Chesterton said that it was coming into the land of liberty and especially intellectual liberty. "Conversion," he averred, "calls on a man to stretch his mind, as a man awakening from sleep may stretch his arms and legs."
Here is the great paradox: it is through our willingness to accept less that our life becomes more bountiful. We do not need to proliferate the number of keys on our key ring. If we do nothing more than that, we remain on the wrong side of the door. We need to find the one key that allows us to gain access to the land of plenty. We should not be concerned with expanding reason so that it erases the border that once separated it from unreason. It is pointless to multiply without end the number of vehicles we need to make our journey. It is where we are going that counts. As Chesterton reminds us, "There are indeed a certain number of people who like to hang about at the gate and never get any further." Are they not interested, we may ask, in entering any of God's mansions?
Secularists pride themselves these days in "erasing boundaries" and providing entertainment "without borders". They fancy that such latitude makes them liberal. But they are merely spinning their wheels and remain at the gateway. The Church, however, is infinitely wiser than this. Reason may seem small and limited, but it can lead to treasures that are unmeasurable.
The Church will continue to stand by reason. Aquinas spoke of reason as providing the "preambles" to faith. The word "pre-amble" refers to "walking" (or "ambulating"). Reason's great glory is where it takes us, not in its own solitary activity.
The Catholic Church also stands by reason because it rejects "rationalism". Reason prepares the way to faith, joy, and a more complete life. Rationalism is sterile because it teaches that reason is everything. So, I will continues to use reason to defend Church teaching, fully expecting to be misunderstood (and perhaps, upon occasion, actually understood) and even regarded as professing that inhuman philosophy of rationalism.
A number of surveys, both in North America as well as abroad, have indicated that Catholic students attending Catholic Universities are more likely to lose their faith rather than retain or enrich it. The Cardinal Newman Society turned its attention to this matter in 2004 and issued a 56-page response. Entitled, The Culture of Death on Catholic Campuses, the response documented the inroads advocates of abortion, physician-assisted suicide, and other forms of human destruction have made on Catholic campuses since 1999. Catholic faith is not incompatible with reason, but it is incompatible with the Culture of Death.
This disappointing development brings into focus once again the issue of the relationship between faith and reason. A careful reading of two important Vatican encyclicals, however, Ex Corde Ecclesiae and Fides et Ratio, should make it clear that a Catholic university student has no objective grounds on which to justify separating his faith from reason. His effort to reconcile the two, nonetheless, is further compounded by the relativism and rationalism that dominant the current intellectual landscape.
John Paul II begins Ex Corde Ecclesiae (1990) by reminding us that the Catholic University was, both historically and academically, "Born from the heart of the Church" (as the English translation reads). The concepts of birth, heart, and Church are all richly suggestive of the maternal that symbolizes the natural integration of knowledge and faith, as well as life and love. Early in this encyclical, John Paul shares happy personal memories of his own beneficial experiences of university life. He recalls the ardent search for truth on the part of faculty members, and their unselfish transmission of it to young students in the interest of helping them "to act rightly and to serve humanity better."
A Catholic University's privileged task, John Paul writes, is "to unite existentially by intellectual effort two orders of reality that too frequently tend to be placed in opposition as though they were antithetical: the search for truth and the certainty of already knowing the fount of truth." The meaning here is of utmost importance. Catholic Universities should have no fear in encouraging the search for truth in all its aspects because the "fount" of truth – its ultimate origin – is God in Whom everything is perfectly unified.
If a Catholic University is doing what it should be doing, in conformity with its original and historical identity, students should have little difficulty in uniting knowledge with faith. The deeper question, however, pertains to university administrations and faculty members. Eight years after Ex Corde Ecclesiae, in Fides et Ratio ("Faith and Reason") John Paul lamented that, "In the years after the Second Vatican Council, many Catholic faculties were in some ways impoverished not just by a diminished sense of the importance of the study not just of Scholastic philosophy but more generally of the study of philosophy itself."
All too often, philosophy, even on Catholic campuses, has become preoccupied with problems that are purely formal, that is, those that have nothing to do with real life. On the other hand, philosophy has served a largely negative function, such as in the case of deconstruction and the repudiation of even the possibility of the mind knowing objective truth. "Rather than make use of the capacity to know the truth," John Paul writes, "modern philosophy has preferred to accentuate the ways in which this capacity is limited and conditioned."
To undermine philosophy, and with it, the reliability of reason, inevitably leads to weakening the basis for faith. John Paul captures the essence of Fides et Ratio very beautifully in his Prologue when he states:
The essential intimacy between faith and reason is underscored by St. Augustine, whom John Paul quotes: "To believe is nothing other than to think with assent . . . Believers are also thinkers: in believing, they think and in thinking, they believe . . . If faith does not think, it is nothing."
If students lose their faith at a particular Catholic school, the problem is not with Catholic education itself, in its authentic form, but more than likely because that particular institution is not being faithful to its mission. A Catholic institution is not necessarily fully in accord with the Church. Owing to its freedom, it either conveys Church teaching or contradicts it.
If Catholic schools would better align themselves with genuine Catholic teaching, we should expect students to find little difficulty in harmonizing learning with living, and reason with faith. There is much talk about academic freedom. But far too frequently such freedom is severed from a dedication to truth. Academia accepts the maxim De gustibus non disputandum est (Concerning taste, there is no dispute), but often ignores the far more important maxim, De veritate disputandum est (Concerning truth, there must be discussion). St. Augustine once remarked, "I have met many who wanted to deceive others, but none who wanted to be deceived." If students do not want to be deceived, they should look for teachers who, by harmonizing their freedom with truth, and their teaching with their faith, will not deceive them.
Donald DeMarco. "The importance of religion." from chapter 4 of The Value of Life in a Culture of Death (Kitchener, ON: Mission House Publications, 2010): 53-61.
This article is reprinted with permission from Donald DeMarco.
Copyright © 2011 Donald DeMarco
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