Reasons For Believing

Editorial FAITH Magazine May-June 2002

Intellectual persecution

Since September 11th last year a curiously one-sided debate has been taking place in the British media and in British politics. It is said that the root cause of the events in New York was the kind of fanaticism that inevitably arises from religion. Religion is being portrayed as the greatest cause of division and strife in society and the world. This point of view has, for example, been translated into a vigorous assault on the very idea of confessional religious education and faith based schools. They are seen as forming a key obstacle to achieving an undivided society. Protagonists of this position furthermore bitterly oppose any possibility that education should be influenced by what they believe is an irrational faith in God. Real education should be resolutely secular and not bebased on a belief system that is opposed to reasoned argument and divorced from empirical reality: only in a purely religion-free system can reason live and thrive unfettered by the restrictions of dogma and faith. The world of make-believe that religion involves should make no intrusion in the world of real knowledge.Sadly hardly a voice has been raised to counteract this militant secularism. With the exception of the courageous Archbishop of Birmingham, the only arguments offered so far have been that a true pluralism should be promoted in our country and that religious schools make a special cultural contribution, the loss of which would make the country poorer, also that parents should have a right to choose the kind of schools they feel would be best for their children. No realattempt has been made to assert the absolutely positive contribution that religion as such has made and continues to make to society and the development of cultures. No challenge is issued, either, to what is really the core of the whole issue: that religion is a world of irrational make-believe, a threat to reason, a danger to humanity and a mischief-making obstacle to the true progress of mankind.

The need for a clear answer

Such assumptions really do need to be addressed and challenged. However little is being done. A markedly nervous muteness has descended on many Christian bodies in the face of such strident secularism. Even in the Catholic Church there seems to be little energy to put forward an alternative view - that religion has a key role to play in our culture and so in our schools precisely because religion is true. Why is there such a lack of confidence in the Church? One reason for this, perhaps, is that many theologians have become convinced that it is not really possible to attempt a real synthesis of faith and reason. The realm of theology has its own proper methods and laws, its own scope of enquiry and object of discourse, and so it may not trespass into other branches of knowledge. Theologymust content itself with being a reflection on revealed data - or on the religious content of human experience, which is the view that motivates so much of what passes for religious education and catechesis in our schools and parishes.Furthermore it is assumed that the world of science is the modern master of human reason. It holds all the cards and through its many discoveries has unravelled many beliefs of Christianity and is progressively excluding any possibility of the presence and activity of the supernatural in this universe. The message that is being sent is that science deals in the real world: religion does not.

Theology needs to get real

To concede this fundamental point would cause grave problems for the Church. By retreating into a kind of methodological Disneyworld, theology threatens to cripple seriously the ability of the Church to take an active and meaningful role in the modern world. The Church can have no positive contribution to make to education, for example, if it cannot show how every aspect of humanity's life, of its history, and of the whole universe only finds its completion in Christ, so that education without Christ is missing the essential key to making sense of life and the whole of creation. Also the Church is inhibited in its missionary work of persuading people to join their whole lives to God through the Church. After all, if science deals with reality, and theology becomes progressively justan exponent of some vague religious experience located ultimately only in the mind, then it is hard to see why anyone need convert to something that is an irrelevance to real life.There is an urgent need therefore to reconnect theology and the faith of the Church with reality, and so questions about the existence of God, the existence of the human soul, the actual intervention of God in history and the historical veracity of the life and identity of Christ and of His mission and work (including His miracles and Resurrection) have to be addressed once again.This was the traditional work of apologetics and it is a work that cannot be left undone. Any true renewal of the Church and evangelisation of the world must include some form of apologetics. However two things perhaps need to be said.Firstly, apologetics need not be an aggressive and confrontational activity. There is a perception on the part of many that the apologetics of the past was at times imbued with a mentality that saw the world or other Christians or science as an enemy to be confounded by robust argumentation. True apologetics need not involve this today.To give a reasoned explanation of what we believe will involve a readiness to accept the truth wherever it is found, even in what the critics of the Church believe is the off-limits world of science. It is not that the Church wants to confound its critics. She wants to persuade them and convince them that the whole arena of knowledge finds its true freedom and completion in Christ. This will require more than just robust argument. It will involve the readyuse and introduction of other forms of convincing testimony.

The renewal of apologetics

Secondly, apologetics need not mean what many who see the word for the first time believe it to mean: that is, an embarrassed explanation or "apology" for the faith. At times there is a squeamish fear in the Church of having anything robust and clear to say at all. As a result, there are many who are manifestly embarrassed by the truth claims of the Church and who are so open to the world that they can countenance no criticism of it at all.St Peter, from whom we derive the term "apologetics", had a very different view. He tells his readers to be ready to give to the pagans an account of the hope that is within them (1Peter 3:15). If we are to counteract the prevalence of secularism, the account we must give of the faith must be confident, well reasoned and inspiring. It should give in tono sense of embarrassment, but should firmly and humbly take the truth to its heart and courageously expound it.It is not a work that is impossible to do. Secularism actually rests on a host of uncertainties gathered round a fundamental agnosticism concerning truth and life. As a result it can offer no higher and more beautiful vision of human life, because ultimately humanity is here only because of an accident of evolution - and for some it was a very unhappy one at that. Secularism, despite its ascendancy, is in fact a failure: its fruits are obvious. Western society is fragmented, afflicted by a whole host of ills and problems, and at its very heart is strangely both neurotic and mediocre: it has no ultimate vitality and this lifelessness saps the human spirit of its own inner depthand beauty.

The failure of secularism

The disasters of purely secular and atheistic regimes in the twentieth century are proof enough that not only does secularism produce no lasting fruit of goodness and growth for humanity, but that it ultimately becomes deeply antagonistic to the human person, especially the vulnerable and the weak. This is shown at present by the almost missionary zeal with which many secularists campaign for abortion, euthanasia, and experimentation on human embryos. The more we lose sight of God, the more we lose sight of the dignity and value of the human person (cf.Gaudium et Spes 36).The work, then, of giving a solid account and explanation of our Faith, of showing that there are indeed reasons for believing is as urgent as ever. Actually there are plenty of grounds for hoping that such an endeavourcould be successful. The world of science is not as antagonistic to God as may at first appear. Over the last forty years, there has been an extraordinary growth of interest in cosmology, examining the origins of the universe. While it is strictly true that the question of God's existence is not part of the remit of science, yet because scientists are amazed by the sheer complexity, specificity and order of the universe many are being forced, simply as human beings, to ask questions about the final origins of the universe that have led them to conclude that some kind of Creator must indeed exist. Their own work as scientists is opening them to the horizons of religion.

Science reveals the starting point

This is an opportunity that the Church should not pass by. For here is the chance to begin relocating the faith of the Church within the order of the real. If a growing number of scientists are being led by their work to accept the existence of God, then we can begin to show our secularist society that questions about God are not make believe, but belong to the very essence of the universe. Any attempt to banish them from public discourse and life would be the real flight from reality. For if the universe does point of its very nature to God, then that must say something about us human beings.Not only are we then fundamentally related to God, but the very fact of asking these questions points to the truth that we are innately religious. This is a long way from the starting point of somuch of what passes for religious education which is merely a reflection on the innate religious experience shared by all human beings. The fundamental flaw of this approach is that such a religious experience cannot justify its existence because it appears to have no anchorage in the order of the real.The approach being rediscovered by many scientists is the true starting point. It shows that religious discourse is about the real. It is as fundamental to everyday life as is the atom or oxygen. Only by tackling the question of the existence of God and showing that there are valid paths that lead us to accept the existence of God, something the Church has in the past consistently taught, as have many of her greatest theologians and saints, will it be possible to vindicate the need thatevery human person has for God and ultimately for Christ. To start from religious experience alone is not enough.

The approach through beauty

Some theologians have used the consideration of beauty as their starting-point. This perhaps is more legitimate than the other starting point of religious experience, since it appears to involve more than a reflection on some unthematic experience and aims at an examination of something real. However the question of beauty and aesthetics is famously fraught with possibilities of subjectivism. Unless it is underpinned by an argument for the existence of God that begins from the world as assessed and opened up by modern science, (a cosmological argument), it too could end up being relegated to the world of the merely subjective and so unable to convince anyone that God is real too.Not only is the approach through wisdom and truth more secure, but theologians and catechists should not forgetwhat all the great scientific minds of modern times have known, that truth itself is beautiful. Science at its highest is a witness to the majesty and splendour of the Mind of God, for it reveals that everything that exists does so in a perfection of law, relationship and harmony. Starting from what science itself has discovered about the world actually completes and underpins more surely the search for God through beauty.What Pope John Paul II has called for in Fides et Ratio, as well as many other encyclicals and allocutions, is a new synthetic approach which harmonizes faith and reason in one convincing vision of God in Christ. We need to pay heed to his call. Unless we begin by showing the reality of God the whole edifice of Christian doctrine is left hanging in thin air. Theinsights of modern science actually make it easier rather than more difficult for us to do this

Science points to Mind

It is science itself which shows that the whole evolution of the universe is not a random collection of events. The cosmos is not the result of chance but is the product of precise fundamental laws, which all add up to a unity. All scientists acknowledge that there is "control" in the universe - laws of matter which imply meaning and mutual interdependence of every material thing; after all, without such a notion science and its formulation of laws would be impossible. The very unity of the laws, the fact that they make up one cosmos, one whole universe, manifests a unity of meaning: this in turn points to a single transcendent Mind behind the process who inspires and holds the whole reality in existence.The classical atheistic argument that there is no origin or purpose to the universe,that it is just "there", a happy accident, make no sense any more. There is an increasing recognition of a real direction in the universe. The precision of the origins of the universe, in that "primal singularity" often dubbed "the Big Bang", reveals that the merest variation in the original expansion of energy would have resulted in a universe very different from what it is now. It would be a universe incapable of producing life or even of sustaining its own momentum of existence.This means that the origins of the universe and its subsequent development seem to be so finely nuanced as to be directed towards bringing about life - and not just any life, but ultimately the human brain itself. Physicists and biologists call this the "anthropic principle" and it points to only one conclusion:that purpose and direction are inscribed into the very fabric of matter itself.

The mind’s ascent to God the Real

These two aspects of "control" and "direction" can be shown to be twin dimensions of an overall Law within which the whole Universe is framed. This also points to the reality of God, as the Mind who has framed this Law and who is the one responsible for the harmony and beauty, the meaning and purpose that the universe cannot help but manifest in all its aspects.This Unity Law will ultimately lead the beauty and dynamism of matter to its living crown: the creation of man. Man like all other things seeks a meaning and purpose beyond him. Material things find their control and direction from the environment that sustains them. For man, because of his spiritual nature, his meaning and purpose will only be found in God, who alone can be the beauty, goodness, truth and joy that satisfiesthe deepest yearnings of his heart and mind.

The fuller vision of Man in Christ

In all this, then, we can show not only that the very matter of the universe points to God but also that humanity is incomplete without him. A society without God is fundamentally unnatural. Religion brings the human person into contact with the God who completes and perfects his identity. Without religion, society becomes unstable, unfocussed and self-destructive precisely because it has no roots in what is the ultimately Real - God Himself.The next step is to show how religion itself is part of this overall plan of God that reaches to a point of final fulfillment when God makes the most perfect contact with humanity in order to give them the life, wisdom and love they need, which He does by becoming a man in Jesus Christ.Thus it is possible to show how the coming of Christ is alsoessential to God's plan for the universe and that Christ is the Bread of life that every person must meet and be nourished by if their life is to achieve any fulfillment at all. Religion - the fullness of religion that Catholicism brings - is therefore not an impediment to humanity but is what crowns and perfects the human person. Without Christ the human person is incomplete; with Him and in Him we achieve the destiny for which we and the whole universe were made.

Reason to believe

Such an approach reveals how secularism is the real deviation that impedes man's true progress and defaces his innate beauty - which is to be made in the image and likeness of God. It also gives reasons for believing, grounds for conviction, so that people sense how deeply they need Jesus Christ.Faith is not irrational, but the completion of all reason. It is not bigoted but it embraces within itself all truth and is a more faithful servant of truth that the rudderless agnosticism of our times. It frees the mind from the narrowness of vision which decides that only God-free "truth" is acceptable - and this is very much the intolerant dogmatism of secularism. It has far more to offer than the shallowness of our agnostic culture.

In an age of growing uncertainties it is essential for the Church to give an account of the hope that is within her. Apologetics - renewed and updated - should be welcomed home once again.

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