Tuesday, May 30, 2017

The Real Obstacle to Faith



Do you ever wonder why so many people fall away from the Christian faith they were raised with? Does it bother you that young people leave the Church––not just the Catholic Church, but all denominations––in large numbers once they reach college? Does it disturb your own faith to know that many people, including many intelligent people, don't believe the central claims of Christianity, or even in the existence of God? The number of people, especially young people, who do not affiliate with any religious faith is indeed steadily increasing in most western countries. However, if we understand the real reason why most people abandon religious faith and religious practice, we will not be shaken or discouraged in our own faith, but rather motivated to reach out to those who have fallen away from faith in God and the Church.
         There are a few most common reasons that people who have left the Church cite for abandoning religious faith and practice. Those reasons are (not necessarily in order of prevalence):
1. Suffering, or at least the amount of suffering in the world, is irreconcilable with a God Who is all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful. 
2. Faith in God is unreasonable in light of modern science.
3. Religion is oppressive and prevents people from being their true selves and living the lifestyles they prefer.

Suffering and the God of Love

As Christians, we approach the reality of suffering with utmost seriousness and concern. This has been true from the earliest days of Christianity, during which the Catholic Church founded the first hospitals, orphanages, and other ministries dedicated to the suffering, destitute, and dying. As Christians, we have a profound and highly developed theology (and philosophy) of suffering:  its meaning, its purpose, and what we can and should do about it as human beings who are faced with inevitable suffering during this life. Often times, people find the existence of suffering to be incompatible with a loving God because they have a confused understanding of love. In fact, some people think love and suffering are utterly incompatible realities. However, the central claim of Christianity is that love and suffering are not only compatible, but that the greatest act of love in history, the passion and death of Jesus Christ, was necessary to redeem the world from sin, death, and eternal separation from God.
          Whatever one may believe about suffering, one cannot claim that Christians are naive about the reality of it. From the very beginning, following the example of Christ, her Founder and Head, the Catholic Church spread primarily through the witness of Christian men and women who were willing to endure horrible suffering, torture, and death rather than deny Christ. In our 2000 year history, we Christians have experienced, reflected upon, and written extensively about the meaning and purpose of suffering in our life of faith. It is arrogant and unjust to dismiss this 2000-year testimony as unreasonable without making any real effort to understand it. For help in understanding the meaning of suffering as it relates to Christian faith, I highly recommend Problem of Pain by C.S. Lewis and The Light Shines on in the Darkness by Fr. Robert Spitzer (a brand new book). The only alternative to meaningful suffering in faith is meaningless suffering. Let’s not spend our entire lives misunderstanding and resenting an inevitable fact of life––suffering––by stubbornly refusing to consider the idea that maybe, just maybe, there really is a reason for it, and that the reason could be surprisingly beautiful. Victor Frankl, the Viennese psychologist who survived the Auschwitz concentration camp, wrote the following about suffering and the meaning of life:
…my concern was different from that of most of my comrades. Their question was,"Will we survive the camp? For, if not, all this suffering has no meaning." The question which beset me was, "Has all this suffering, this dying around us, a meaning? For, if not, then ultimately there is no meaning to survival; for a life whose meaning depends upon such a happenstance––as whether one escapes or not ––ultimately would not be worth living at all (Man’s Search for Meaning, p. 71).
As Frankl observed, it cannot be the case the life is meaningful but suffering is meaningless, for life and suffering are inseparable.


Faith and Science

While there are many intelligent people who object to the idea of faith on the basis of science, few of them actually have a concrete idea of how exactly God or Christianity are incompatible with the discoveries of modern science. To test this, one need only ask such a person the question:  "Which discovery of which scientific discipline disproved which doctrine of Christianity?" Typically the response will be some vague reference to evolutionary biology, or perhaps the fact that virgins can't give birth (Shocking, I know). The problem is, when you respond to, say, the supposed objection of evolution, saying, "Oh sure, I believe in some process of evolution too; that's not incompatible with Christianity at all," the person usually remains completely unaffected by this. I could tell them, "Did you know that Francis Collins, an evolutionary biologist and the leader of the Human Genome Project (the group that first fully mapped out human DNA), is a devout Christian?" but this will typically not impress them at all. When I encounter this kind of response, I'm usually thinking, "Ummm, hello? My counter-example just completely undermined your objection!” Here's a story that will help illustrate this glaring inconsistency. Several months ago, I was having a conversation about the reality of demonic possession and exorcisms with a man about my age. He said, “Oh yeah, I definitely believe that some of those cases are real.” Then, near the end of our discussion, he said, “Well, I’m an atheist, so I haven’t been to church in a long time.” When he said this, I gently called him out, saying, “So, don’t you think it’s a little inconsistent for you to be an atheist and not believe in God, while simultaneously believing in demons and demonic possession?” In response, he just laughed and said, “Yeah, I guess that is pretty inconsistent! I don't know..." While this is perhaps a more obvious example, such inconsistencies are quite common in non-religious people.
          It is also common for scientifically minded people to accuse religious believers of advocating a "god-of-the-gaps". The "god-of-the-gaps" is the fallacy committed when one posits God as the explanation for whatever cannot currently be explained by science. The idea is, according to non-believers, that all of the gaps will eventually be closed and that we will no longer need God to explain how the universe works, because science will have explained everything sufficiently (In fact, some people erroneously assert this to be already true). Aside from the philosophical brick walls that science can never get through (e.g., How did the universe come into existence out of nothing without a cause?), I have found that people who put forth this objection are themselves almost always guilty of a "science-of-the-gaps" reasoning. The idea of this is the same as the "god-of-the-gaps" except that, instead of God, science is treated as the Absolute that will eventually answer all questions. Of course, it is just as unreasonable to say "Science will explain this eventually" as it is to say, "If science can't explain this then God must be the explanation." Both statements are appeals to ignorance.
          The fact of the matter is, there is a superabundance of scientific evidence for the reasonableness of God and Christianity. There is philosophical and scientific evidence that points to an intelligent and transcendent creator of all physical reality. In fact, the man who pioneered the Big Bang Theory, Fr. George Lemaitre, was himself a Catholic priest and colleague of Albert Einstein. There is evidence for a transphysical (immaterial) soul from medical studies of near-death experiences published in peer-reviewed medical journals. There is evidence for numerous miracles of healing done in the name of Jesus and His mother Mary, including, for example, over 60 miraculous healings approved by the Lourdes Medical Commission in Lourdes, France (there have been thousands of healings, but only the approved ones could be determined miraculous by the Commission's strict criteria). There is a huge amount of recent evidence for the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin––not only that it really is the burial cloth of Jesus of Nazareth, but also that the image on it was produced miraculously, indicating a supernatural event (Resurrection, anyone?). There are numerous, well-attested Eucharistic miracles in which the Host (bread) physically became human heart tissue (several of these miraculous hosts can still be seen today, including the 1996 Eucharistic miracle approved by Pope Francis while he was Cardinal in Buenos Aires).
          Now, if faith and modern science are incompatible, then why do they intersect and harmoniously support each other in virtually every area of human life, pointing to the existence of God, the truth of Christianity, and our transcendent destiny as human beings? Moreover, if they are incompatible, then why are many scientists, even successful and award-winning scientists, devout Christians? If the Church is "anti-science", why does the Vatican have the Pontifical Academy of Sciences? Clearly, Christian faith and science are not incompatible at all. Why then don't more people know about this scientific evidence and take it seriously? Frankly, I suspect it is because most of them do not want to know about it. They would rather live in the comfort zone of their own ideas about reality, in which everything is more or less predictable and the mystery is absent. This gives them a sense of control, power, and independence. They find the idea of a transcendent authority to Whom they are responsible and owe thanks and praise to be repulsive. Surprisingly, a few atheists and agnostics are willing to admit that they object to religious faith in this way. In a moment of impressive honesty, the agnostic philosopher of science, Thomas Nagel, wrote:
I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that. My guess is that this cosmic authority problem is not a rare condition and that it is responsible for much of the scientism and reductionism in our time (Feser, The Last Superstition, p. 34).
Fr. Robert Spitzer (whose book on suffering I mentioned earlier) said the following about people's failure or refusal to take serious the evidence for Christianity, specifically in regards to their denying the existence of the human soul:
"What’s going on with this denial of the soul and this physicalism? The problem is not a lack of evidence. The evidence is out there for anyone who is at least remotely open and willing to look at what’s going on in these areas that I’ve been talking about. That’s not the problem. The problem is: 'I don’t want to believe in transcendence, because transcendence implies a God Who I might be responsible to,' or, 'I don’t want to believe in transcendence because I only want to believe in what I can see.' That of course is like giving yourself a frontal lobotomy just for the heck of it, just as a matter of opinion. I mean, why would you do it? People do what they do. My point is, this is not rationally motivated, and it’s not based on good evidence––the evidence favors the soul" ( Eternal Word Television Network, Fr. Spitzer’s Universe, “What is the Evidence for the Soul? Part 1”, November 16, 2016).
Become Who You Are: How God Liberates You from a Meaningless Existence

This objection to Christianity, and to Catholicism in particular, is probably the most common among young people. It is the objection that religion is oppressive and prevents people from being their “true” selves, and it excludes “legitimate” lifestyles in the name of natural morality or God’s law. Even though few would probably be honest enough to admit it, the truth is that many people simply fall away from religion because it places moral demands on them that prevent them from living a life of pleasure-seeking and ego-gratification. Most of these people would probably cite some more sophisticated or noble-sounding reason for why they gave up religion, such as the problem of evil and suffering or a science-based objection, when the reality is that they simply choose themselves and their own desires over conforming their lives to the objective truth. It is certainly far easier and more immediately satisfying to choose sensual pleasures and the attention and praise of others.
          However, as anyone who lives their life merely for pleasure and ego-gratification (i.e., being “better” than others in some way) will eventually discover, such a pursuit leads to dissatisfaction, emptiness, loneliness, and, ultimately, despair. The author of Ecclesiastes knew this well:
I became great and surpassed all who were before me in Jerusalem; also my wisdom remained with me. And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them; I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had spent in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun (Ec 2:9–11).
I recently saw a poster that read, "Life isn't about finding yourself––it’s about creating yourself". My response is, "Good luck with that!" The people I know who insist on "creating themselves" are some of the most arrogant and self-centered individuals, and, because they lack empathy and an awareness of their dependence on others, they tend to be incapable of authentic, loving relationships (since these relationships require vulnerability, which is completely antithetical to a strong ego). From my personal past experience, a way of life devoted to pleasure-seeking and ego-building is anything but liberating; it is depressing, boring, and meaningless. What seems like it would be a rewarding and fulfilling enterprise––deciding your own meaning in life and being independent of other people––turns out to be an existential nightmare. If the meaning of life is only what each person decides for himself, then it carries no real weight or moral force. I cannot submit myself to “the truth” if it is only “my truth” (i.e., one among other, equally valid truths). Likewise, I cannot hold myself accountable (in any meaningful sense) to moral values that are reducible to my personal tastes or preferences. If the true, the good, and the beautiful are not greater than me and ultimately outside of me, then it is meaningless to say that I have "lived up" to them, exemplified them, or personified them. Thus, while the dominant culture may in some ways attempt to encourage young people to become "great" or "excellent", they have stripped away the only objective standards that could have made such goals meaningful or even achievable. They tell you to "be yourself" after they've destroyed everything that gives each individual person dignity, namely, their unique reflection of human nature as created by God, and their transcendent dimension (i.e., their soul). As a result, “being yourself” means trying, hopelessly, to be satisfied with your brokenness and sinfulness by an act of sheer willpower. The alternative to the world's advice of following your every selfish desire is the invitation of Christ, who said, "Follow me" (Mt 4:19). In response to the hopeless idea of "creating yourself", we have the advice of Saint John Paul II, who said, "Become who you are". We do not need to try to create ourselves––we have already been created in the image and likeness of God and need only response to His loving invitation, which is to live as His sons and daughters.


Clearing Away the Obstacles: Choosing God

“For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?” (Mt 16:26)

For the vast majority of people who abandon religious faith or choose to remain away from it, their reason for doing so is quite simple and unoriginal. It is that tendency in human nature towards selfishness, domination, and disobedience. In the Christian tradition, we call this tendency "Original Sin". No, it doesn't consist in a couple of people "way back when" literally eating a piece of fruit from a tree arbitrarily labelled “off limits”. That story (i.e., the Genesis account of Creation) is simply a beautiful and poetic way of telling what is the literally true story of human history, namely, that we were once in harmony with God but rebelled against Him by choosing our own will over His, and we are now at war within ourselves, with each other, and with God. We failed to trust in God, and as a result, we suffered the inevitable consequences of our hopeless endeavor, which was trying to find happiness in something other than God. In order to win back our trust and our hearts so that we can be reunited with Him forever, He sent His Son Jesus Christ to redeem us and reveal to us the complete truth about who we are and Who God is. Therefore, the only way to clear the obstacles to faith is to be honest with ourselves and start asking the most important questions, such as:  Am I happy? As in, really happy? If not, do I have any reason to think that I will ever be truly happy by continuing to live the way I’ve been living? What is the meaning and purpose of my life? What do I desire more than anything, beyond mere sensual pleasures and ego-gratifications? Is it reasonable for me to think that these desires will be fulfilled by anything or anyone in this world? If not, am I open to the possibility that my deepest desires are leading me to God, since He alone can even conceivably be the fulfillment of a desire for something beyond this world?
          The way we answer these types of questions will shape the direction of our entire lives, and as a result, our eternity. Furthermore, we have a limited amount of time to respond. Therefore, what will we choose? None of the apparent obstacles to God need hold us back. There are answers, and God says, "You will seek me and find me; when you seek me with all your heart" (Jer 29:13), and Jesus says that "every one who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened" (Mt 7:8).


Under the Mercy,

Chris Trummer