Deus Caritas Est


Dear Sam,

My apologies again for the late response to your last post. Work squats on my life. Let me tackle your first points first. I argued that because we may be programmed by evolution for faith, faith may be intrinsic to being human and therefore something we should engage rather than deny. You make the solid point that we are also programmed by evolution for rape. Does that make rape defensible? Of course not, even though, as you point out, rape is a very effective and very natural way to disseminate DNA. But my response would not be to say that the evolutionary impulse to inseminate should be resisted entirely. I'd argue that the sex rive should be channeled respectfully toward others, i.e. moderated. So rape cedes to consensual DNA dissemination. Similarly, the drive for faith needs to be channeled respectfully toward others, i.e. moderated. Fundamentalism cedes to toleration. Hence my insistence on maintaining the humility apropriate for such immense claims about the meaning of everything; and hence my support for a faith that is live-and-let-believe in its social manifestation. I think my project in this respect is far more feasible than yours. By attempting to abolish rather than moderate faith, I fear you deliver an intrinsic human impulse into the hands of those who most abuse it - the fundamentalists of all stripes.

You then ask why I should find it is so hard to imagine my non-existence? Your good points have made me realize more fully why I feel the way I do. The reason I find it so hard to imagine, I realize, is that I believe that God loves me - which is, helpfully, relevant to your subsequent argument. You posit the following options, and ask me to choose:

    (1) There is no God.

    (2) There is a God, but all of our religions have distorted Her reality. Jesus was just an ordinary prophet who happened to become the center of a myth-making cult. God loves everyone and has never been concerned about what a person believes. After death, all people, Christians and non-Christians, simply merge with the Deity in a loving embrace.

    (3) Christianity is the one true religion, and Catholics have the truest version of it.

You want me to say (3) and I will, but I hope to do so in a way that explains my faith a little better. There are, I think, many other options for human beings with respect to faith. Here's my version of the options:

(1) There is no God.

    (2) There are many gods.

    (3) There is a God and it is evil.

    (4) There is a God, but all of our religions have distorted Her reality. Jesus was just an ordinary prophet who happened to become the center of a myth-making cult. God loves everyone and has never been concerned about what a person believes. After death, all people, Christians and non-Christians, simply merge with the Deity in a loving embrace.

    (5) There is a God, but all of our religions have distorted Her reality. Jesus was a man more suffused with divinity than any other human being who has ever lived. God loves everyone and has never been concerned about what a person believes, except that a person know God and accept God's love freely and expresses that love toward everyone he or she encounters. Jesus uniquely showed us how to accept God's love and how to be worthy of it. After death, all people, Christians and non-Christians, simply merge with the Deity in a loving embrace. But Jesus was the proof that such love exists, and that it is divine and eternal, and that it cares for us.

    (6) None of us knows anything about these things.

I guess I've tipped my hand by endorsing (5) but acknowledging the wisdom of (6). The reason I cannot conceive of my non-existence is because I have accepted, freely and sanely, the love of Jesus, and I have felt it, heard it, known it. He would never let me go. And by never, I mean eternally. And so I could never not exist and neither could any of the people I have known and loved.

For me, the radical truth of my faith is therefore not that God exists, but that God is love (a far, far less likely proposition). On its face, this is a preposterous claim, and in my defense, I have never really argued in this dialogue that you should not find it preposterous. It can be reasoned about, but its truth itself is not reasonable or reachable through reason alone. But I believe it to be true - not as a fable or as a comfort or as a culture. As truth. And one reason I am grateful for this discussion is that you take this truth claim seriously on its own terms.

What did Jesus do? The first and immense thing is that he existed at all. Here's how I put it in my book:

"This, it seems to me, is the true mystery of the incarnation, the notion that in Jesus, God became man. I believe this in the only way I can: that one man represents, for all time, God's decision to truly be with us. The reason I call myself a Christian is not because I manage to subscribe, at any given moment, to all the truths that the hierarchy of my church insists I believe in, let alone because I am a good person or a "good Catholic." I call myself a Christian because I believe that, in a way I cannot fully understand, the force behind everything decided to prove itself benign by becoming us, and being with us. And as soon as people grasped what had happened, what was happening, the world changed forever. The Gospels - all of them, including some that were rejected by the early Church - are mere sketches of a life actually lived, and an experience that can never be reduced to words or texts or doctrines...

In this nonfundamentalist understanding of faith, practice is more important then theory, love more important than law, and mystery is seen as an insight into truth rather than an obstacle. It is the great lie of our time that all religious faith has to be fundamentalist to be valid. There is another way. For Christians, that other way is about a man, Jesus, whose individuality and humanity cannot be abstracted. And it is about a commemoration of that man, as he asked us to commemorate him - in a meal, a breaking of bread, a Seder-made-new, the mass, as Catholics have come to understand it. This is my faith, if I were forced to describe it."

This is what Jesus told people: to treat God as an intimate father, to pray simply, to believe against so much evidence that good does indeed prevail against evil, to know that God is not indifferent to us, and to re-enact his last meal for ever as a way to remind ourselves of his love and experience his real presence. And this is what Jesus lived: a life full of love and friendship and self-giving, even to the point of non-violent submission to violence, as proof of God's love. I do not need the proof of miracles to believe this. The universe itself is a miracle to me. If there are aspects of it that science has not yet grasped but that believers have somehow glimpsed, then I am content to allow for the possibility of miracles. But I have not witnessed any but the normal ones: the miracle of the blossoms out of my widow at this time of year or the miracle that someone else actually loves me unconditionally, or the miracle of a newborn child. This is miracle enough for me. Or in the saying attributed to John Donne:

"There is nothing that God has established in a constant course of nature, and which therefore is done every day, but would seem a miracle, and exercise our admiration, if it were done but once."

The resurrection? Yes. But I see it as no more and no less remarkable than the incarnation - and it is, in many ways, the only possible consequence of the incarnation. The Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles provide contradictory accounts of what the resurrection actually was. Jesus appeared in the guise of others, as a vision, as a fully physical entity, and in other ways that defy science and logic. I don't know how to understand it except as a mystery. But I do believe in the empty tomb as much as I believe in the cramped manger. They go together - marks of an appearance in human history as mysterious as the divine must always be to human minds.

To your specific challenges, I think I addressed the moderation vs fundamentalism argument at the beginning of this missive.

Is the Bible uniquely the word of God? Yes - but it was also first spoken and then written by human beings. I don't believe in its inerrancy or its literal truth. But I believe in the deepest truths of the Gospels, and the truth of the life and death of the man they describe. Has God spoken to us in other ways? Of course. But for me, the words of Jesus speak of God's love more truly than anything else I have ever come across. I'm still looking.

Contingency? An eternal truth has to enter human discourse at one time or another. It will become necessarily contingent as soon as it touches the human and becomes part of history. There is no other way. So faith's contingency is neither an argument for or against it.

Other religions. I'm curious. And I find in many of them many of the themes of Jesus: the unimportance of wordliness, the oneness of God, the equal dignity of human beings, the impulse to charity. But I do find Christ's witness the final truth, which must mean that others fall short. But I do not see this as a reason to hate or condemn or even deny the alternatives, where they also see this deeper truth. Everything is true as long as it isn't taken to be anything more than it is. And I am in no position to judge the sincere choices of others in matters inherently beyond our knowledge.

Cultural success? I agree that such success doesn't actually prove anything about a faith. But it is a sign that a truth has endured the test of time and is more than a sudden spasm of fashion. That the life of Jesus has altered human history in ways rarely equaled is indisputable. That's not dispositive, but it is something.

Perhaps, then, Sam, we have talked as much as we fruitfully can. I have to say I am deeply grateful for the opportunity. Those of us who say we have faith are not often challenged as forcefully as you have done for me in your book and in this dialogue. It may frustrate you to know that I have actually found this exchange to be supportive of my own belief. Being forced to defend my faith in public, when usually it lies in the inarticulate folds of private experience, has been a difficult but useful exercize. I'm afraid I haven't persuaded anyone - or maybe led a few to your side of the equation. But in these matters of ultimate meaning, being persuasive is not as important as being right, is it? Thanks for helping me get closer to that ideal. But my doubt, which is a part of my faith, still gets in the way,