I’ve had some people come up to me and ask:
“What do you study in theology?
“Do you just study the Bible?”
Believe me, I had all these questions too before I embarked on any sort of theological study.
So allow me to clear the air. It’s not just about studying the Bible. It’s more than that. For sure, the Bible is a key source — for it is God’s Word revealed to us, it is His way of communicating to us mere mortals, to help us continually grow in love with God.
The (i) Holy Bible, in addition to (ii) Sacred Tradition, (iii) our reason, and (iv) our human experience (4 loci/sources of mediation between theologian and God) all function to help us in relating to God.
The job of a theologian is this: To articulate the true meaning of God as revealed to us through different eras, social milieu, contexts.
The revelation of God is not to be seen as a mere historical revelation, but one that is continuing today and very much alive in the presence of the Church.
For those of you desiring to embark on any sort of theological study, do not be afraid! If God brings you to it (He has, after all, planted some seed of desire in you!), He will bring you through it.
Often I get asked a few questions:
How do you know there’s a God?
How do you know that Christianity is the right religion?
Faith, of course. But never without reason.
As children, when we see something, we intuitively always inquire about its origins and inner workings.
Where did this table come from? Who made it? Where did the book come from? How is it made?
How come the telly can switch on with a flick of the button?
It seems reasonable that a child asks such questions. It is after all in our nature to be drawn towards the truth.
Imagine a parent now tells the child that the answer to the above questions is: “Chance”.
Stupid parent at best, lazy parent at worst.
Somehow… when it comes to the biggest questions of the world: “How did the world come to be?”… We seem to be content with the answer “it just happened by CHANCE.”
Quoting Pope St. John Paul II (General Audience of Wed, 10 July 1985) because he has expressed it so concisely:
“To speak of chance for a universe which presents such a complex organization in its elements, and such a marvelous finality in its life would be equivalent to giving up the search for an explanation of the world as it appears to us. In fact, this would be equivalent to admitting effects without a cause. It would be an abdication of human intelligence which would thus refuse to think, to seek a solution for its problems.”
Prayers today for people who find it hard to even conceive of a day where they might believe that there is a creator of this world.
“Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself, but which he must obey, its voice ever calling him to love and do what is good and to avoid evil… For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God… There he is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in his depths.”
— Article 1776, Catechism of the Catholic Church
We no longer live in an age where truth and reason guide our principles. The mood of the current age is one of emotionalism, where a person’s feelings now become the inviolable truth for that person, and God forbid if someone else should dare to question it. The objective truth has given way to the subjective truth, provided that someone feels strongly enough about it. Take a look at how love is considered these days. The concept of agape (the supernatural, and certainly superior, sacrificial form of love) has been overthrown in favor of eros, the natural and more receptive form of love.
Variations on catchy slogans such as “love is love” and “love wins” are thrown around to somehow suggest that we as a society have thrown off the shackles of discrimination, and that only by “following what’s inside our hearts” will we find inner fulfillment and freedom. Arguments in favor of the protection of the family unit and society are pitted against the supposed personal fulfillment of the individual. If someone “follows their heart”, then they cannot stray.
I accept that I am taking liberties by assuming that the objective truth is a given, mainly because whether truth is objective is not the focus of this. I will discuss objective truth and how it is tied to human dignity in a later article. For now I will focus only upon the actual nature of the conscience, something on which Cardinal John Henry Newman spoke at great length, and how it applies to our Catholic Faith and the spiritual journey.
Newman was 15 when he experienced his first conversion which brought him into the Protestant faith. It was not until much later that he converted to the Roman Catholic Church, which he describes in his Apologia as largely due to the acting of his conscience.
Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman saw the conscience as the connecting principle between the creature and his Creator. He went as far as to describe it as the aboriginal Vicar of Christ (Newman, 1885). In the secular world, a certain primacy is given to the conscience, almost as if it is some infallible judge. This is a far cry from the notions Newman had.
Our concept of conscience is misconstrued these days, whereby if our conscience dictates that we can act upon our whims even if they be contrary to Mother Church’s teachings, this would be permitted provided that we are at peace with it. Newman argued that this disparity between the internal conscience and the teachings of the Church did not give us free rein to reject the Church’s teaching. When the conscience no longer points towards the external (the Church’s teachings), but instead towards the internal, instead of directing us towards God and a life of virtue through obedience and discipline, it is turned towards the selfish and interior. Instead of God being our Lord and Master, it will be as Henley once poetically described in his famous poem Invictus:
“I am the master of my fate. I am the captain of my soul.” (Henley, 1875)
A lovely-sounding sentiment of the triumph of the human soul over suffering, but it encapsulates the current idea that the personal conscience is the final judge.
Newman argues that conscience advocates for the truth, and that the conscience is much cruder and almost ruthless. The conscience is the compass for non-believers by which God re-directs us towards Him. The voice of conscience has nothing gentle, nothing to do with mercy in its tone. It is severe and stern. It does not speak of forgiveness, but of punishment” (Newman). This is why the redemption by Our Lord Jesus Christ is The Good News. It provides the relief for the condemnation offered by the accusing conscience. The conscience is to direct us towards where there is a particular deficiency or uncertainty in our judgement and spiritual life, and the conscience is the starting point for a particular conversion in our life.
The conscience is the call for conversion and a sign of humility. This is counter-cultural to the secular understanding of conscience as a sign of personal freedom, especially the freedom to reject the objective truth when it makes one uncomfortable (Pell, 2005). As a result of free will, man can choose to reject the prickles of their conscience, but the conscience is the beginning of the exploration and conversion through prayer and discernment, it is not some infallible judge. In Veritatis Splendour, Pope St. John Paul II describes the formation of the Catholic Conscience as a dignifying and liberating experience (Pp. St. JPII, 1993), which is why as Catholics we have a moral responsibility to develop an informed conscience (CCC 1780).
By divorcing the Catholic Faith from reason, reason becomes effectively neutered because we fail to see the impact of moral predispositions in reasoning. Simply put, the conscience can easily be fooled by our own inclinations and desires whether subconscious or otherwise, and can lead us down the path of lining up our reasoning in view of a desired result (Armstrong, 2015). This is the danger of reducing the conscience to a mere moral sense. Natural religion is based upon the sense of sin; it recognizes the disease, but cannot find the remedy (Armstrong, 2015). To emphasize the earlier point, this is where the call to conversion is required, and through this we can start to appreciate the necessity of Christ’s redemptive act.
The conscience points towards the need for constant discernment, prayer, and the turning of the heart towards the objective authority of Christ through His Church. To follow one’s conscience is not to do as one pleases, but to earnestly seek what is true and good, and to hold fast to this, as repulsive as it may appear. Only then can we truly and honestly say to our Lord: Speak Lord, your servant is listening (1 Sam 3:10).
“Abuse (and the trauma that results from it) causes not only the anxiety of meaninglessness and the anxiety of guilt, but also the anxiety of non-being.
…mind-control is the perfect metaphor for emotional abuse. Maybe it’s because the human will is so core to what it means to be, that if you take it away—whether through physical, emotional, spiritual, mental, social or financial coercion—you violate a person’s humanity on an elemental level. You take away that person’s ability to say I am.” —Maylin Tu, “Jessica Jones, Abuse, and ‘The Courage to Be’”, Christ & Pop Culture
“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” —1 John 4:18
Abuse makes the victim feel as if she is dirt, worse than dirt – just something to be used, abused and discarded. It violates her sense of self and her identity as a person made in the image of Love.
In my experience, abusive people have grown up with over-controlling parents, or absent parents. When they have not received love from the people who brought them into being, children are in danger of growing up thinking that there is something fundamentally wrong with them. They internalise the idea that they were not worthy of being loved unconditionally. If they do not heal, they are prone to inflicting pain on others in a misdirected search for justice and reparation. We are meant to be loved.
Patterns of Sin
“Give your children these two things: roots and wings.”
Over-controlling people are dominated by fear – fear of the world, fear of the unknown. When they demand that their children conform completely to their narrow vision, it pinions the growing wings of the child, suffocating him and sending him the message that he’s not good enough as he is, but has to become something else in order to appease his parents and be loved. Fearful parents are in danger of bringing up children malformed by fear, unable to strike out on their own paths and swinging from one end of the pendulum to the other – fearfully appeasing people when they ought to say no, or controlling other people whom they deem weaker than themselves.
Absent parents deny their children an identity rooted in nourishing love. How often do you hear friends gushing over a baby to a parent, “She’s just like you!” We are stamped with the features and mannerisms of our parents; “we are of our parents before we are of ourselves.”1 I have watched people with absent parents look for love and attention in all the wrong places,2 hungering for the nourishment denied them in their earliest years. They become desperate for a resolution, something which can fill the aching void in the core of their being.
St. Paul reminded the Romans: “For you have not received the spirit of bondage again in fear; but you have received the spirit of adoption of sons, whereby we cry: Abba (Father).” (Romans 8:15). When you have an identity rooted firmly in Christ, confident in the loving providence of God and His steadfast abiding presence no matter where you go in life, you are able to break free of any crippling chains handed down from your imperfect parents. It is true, you may have to struggle with the vestiges of generational sin throughout your life – but Christ is there with you in the struggle, purifying you and using your weaknesses as openings for grace.
Love is the Rule that Gives Freedom
“Your family and your love must be cultivated like a garden. Time, effort, and imagination must be summoned constantly to keep any relationship flourishing and growing.” —Jim Rohn
True love respects the free will of the person. The gardener may prune the plant now and then, but he allows it to develop naturally in its own time, fertilising it and watering it with dedication while it transforms energy from the sun into its own food, glucose. Likewise, God the most loving of parents may permit us afflictions to prune us of unhealthy attachments or attitudes – He may allow us to go through a trial, even a trial that seems to wrest us from Him, only in the end to bring us back safely, after which we realise that half the suffering could have been avoided if we had just trusted more in Him.
Like a gardener practising companion planting,3 God sends us good friends who help us flourish. He fertilises our souls with the nourishment of the scriptures at every Mass, and He waters them with showers of blessings – it is a blessing to even be alive and breathing! But like a gardener, God allows us to develop according to our nature, through which He too is quietly working. What is our nature? It is to produce the sweet food, the life-sustaining glucose, of Love.
“Whoever wants to eliminate love is preparing to eliminate man as such.” –Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est
“Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is senseless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate in it intimately.” –Pope John Paul II
“To the extent that we fail to grasp what love really is, it is impossible for us to give adequate philosophical consideration to what man is. Love alone brings a human being into full awareness of personal existence. For it is in love alone that man finds room enough to be what he is.” –Dietrich von Hildebrand
“You asked for a loving God: you have one… not a senile benevolence that drowsily wishes you to be happy in your own way, not the cold philanthropy of a conscientious magistrate, but the consuming fire Himself, the Love that made the worlds, persistent as the artist’s love for his work, provident and venerable as a father’s love for a child, jealous, inexorable, exacting as love between the sexes.
When we fall in love with a woman, do we cease to care whether she is clean or dirty, fair or foul? Do we not rather then first begin to care? Does any woman regard it as a sign of love in a man that he neither knows nor cares how she is looking? Love may, indeed, love the beloved when her beauty is lost: but not because it is lost. Love may forgive all infirmities and love still in spite of them: but Love cannot cease to will their removal. Love is more sensitive than hatred itself to every blemish in the beloved. Of all powers he forgives most, but he condones least: he is pleased with little, but demands all.” —C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain
Sin Leads to Non-being
“Me miserable! Which way shall I fly Infinite wrath and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep,
Still threat’ning to devour me, opens wide, To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven.” ― John Milton, Paradise Lost
Sin “wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as ‘an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law.’” (CCC #1849) Evil warps or destroys what is good. As pests consume crops and blight a garden, sin corrupts a person’s soul, dividing it from God, the source of all life and love.
Fr. Chris Ryan MGL writes:
“God’s unfailing offer to all human beings is the gift of Himself, which is the gift of His unconditional and unfathomable love. However, God utterly respects our freedom, which means that we can reject this love. This rejection can continue in and through further actions that deny or reject love to the point that such a choice, such a rejection, becomes fixed, irrevocable. Hell is thus not a punishment imposed upon the human person but is rather, the definitive outworking of the human person’s decision to define themselves in isolation from God and others. Hell is self-exclusion from Heaven.
Hell, moreover, is not a place. Rather, it is non-relationship. Hell is “where” the possibility of all relationship is ended… Heaven is other people – people living in a rich and vibrant communion with each other and with God. Hell is actually definitive loneliness.”4
When I was fourteen, my father brought home a pamphlet from church about abortion. I had already watched a video on abortion when I was eleven, in school (my non-Catholic schoolmates are against abortion to this day). But suddenly, the horrendous enormity of not existing struck me full in the gut, and I began to weep inconsolably in front of my parents, sobbing, “What if I had never been born?”
Sin divides us within ourselves and sunders us from God and neighbor. It destroys both harmony within the soul and harmony between persons. In the end, it can kill us – forever.
Professor Eric Johnston writes:
“We live in a world of cheap grace. In a way, the amoralism of our culture is a kind of deformed Christianity. On some level, our culture believes that all sin is forgiven, that God is merciful. But our culture’s understanding of this forgiveness is impersonal. Our culture’s understanding of God’s forgiveness is just that God doesn’t care about what we do, so we needn’t even ask forgiveness. God is a very distant father.
To the contrary, to ask forgiveness is a personal encounter. Pope Francis talks about the caress of God’s mercy on our sin. We are meant, not to ignore God and our sin, since our sin doesn’t matter, but to bring God into contact with our sin, by asking forgiveness.”5
Marc Barnes wrote: “If [God] is outside of time, if He is suffering right now, then, and this is really the crux, our sins directly increase His suffering that day on Calvary, His constant suffering.”6
God the eternal Logos, Who is Reason itself, has created an intelligible universe with rules of physics, mathematics – and morals. These rules, like traffic rules, allow us the freedom to travel along the paths of life. But when we stuff up, we are bound by the consequences. Also, the repercussions of our sins emit shockwaves throughout the world, into the lives of others, even those we may never meet. Broken relationships leave wounds that are passed down through generations. Just look at Romeo and Juliet.
How do we repair this damage? God has granted us the insurance of His mercy. By participating in the Sacrament of Confession, we receive the sacramental grace not to sin again. By performing penance, we offer God our puny loaves and fish to be multiplied by His grace into nourishing food for thousands – the food which is eternal redemption, that is, God Himself, the source of Life. When we stuff up, we do what we can to make amends, to right our wrongs, and trust in God to bring healing and reconciliation in His time.
“In a game of chess you can make certain arbitrary concessions to your opponent, which stand to the ordinary rules of the game as miracles stand to the laws of nature. You can deprive yourself of a castle, or allow the other man sometimes to take back a move made inadvertently. But if you conceded everything that at any moment happened to suit him — if all his moves were revocable and if all your pieces disappeared whenever their position on the board was not to his liking — then you could not have a game at all. So it is with the life of souls in a world: fixed laws, consequences unfolding by causal necessity, the whole natural order, are at once limits within which their common life is confined and also the sole condition under which any such life is possible. Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.” —C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain7
The Good News: We are Not Our Sin
Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Brisbane said in his keynote address at the 2016 Spirit in the City conference: “The pagan world is just, but merciless, with retribution. You are no more than your crime or your sin. The woman caught in adultery must be destroyed.
“Mercy is the more, seeing with the eye of God. The pagan eye always sees less.”
God became sin for us so that we may become justified in Him (2 Corinthians 5:21). Christ took on the sinful, unlovable identity of mankind so that we could take on His Divine image, the image shattered by Adam and Eve when they turned away from God, mistrusting His loving providence. Through Christ, we may enter into the life of the Holy Trinity, becoming fully alive, transformed by Love into beings who can give pure love to all the world.
The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. —John 10:10
Gloria Dei est vivens homo; vita hominis visio Dei: The glory of God is man fully alive; the life of man is the vision of God. —St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Adversus Haereses, Book 4 Ch. 20.
There are way more things to know in this Universe than you have the brain cells to record, and any one field of human study has probably by this point generated more data than a human mind, with a lifetime of study, could internalize.
We should feel small standing up against the ocean of numbers, names, dates, vocabulary words, genealogies, and scientific observations that human minds have recorded and passed down from the beginning of history. And that is just the bare facts. We should feel even smaller standing before the Frankensteinian behemoth of secondary sources, of analyses, theses, syntheses, hypotheses, of theories and theora, of postulates and conjectures, the half-living, half-dead piecemeal that makes up all of our sciences. Enter the meta-philosophers, the cross-disciplinary geniuses, the historiographers, and the historians of ideas, and we have an even more imposing edifice before which the deflated individual mind may shrink.
But all of the above comprises merely those facts that humans have been able to accumulate over our few thousand years of history and our rational response to them. More than by all of this knowledge, we are dwarfed by our ignorance, by all of the facts that are still beyond our reach, and by all of the theories that would be necessary for us to make sense of them.
If we were supposed to come to know and understand all of reality in our 80 years, if knowledge as such was the purpose for which we were born, we would be utterly doomed to failure. The scientist, the philosopher, the mathematician, the literary critic, the historian, for all of their efforts, can only ever end their inquiries with yet more questions.
It is right, then, to suppose that the man who thinks himself bright has little to offer. There won’t be an intelligentsia in heaven, but the dimmest light in the Kingdom will know more than all the snobs of this age put together. Stephen Hawking knows very little in comparison to the knowledge a baptized, drooling, screaming infant would receive at the moment of death.
If such knowledge is to be ours, then why the search for mere facts here and now? Why the itching, burning desire to discover more and more? It’s a reasonable question for a Christian to ask.
There is, after all, a kind of gnawing doubt that is characteristic of this age, a prurient interest in all things contrary to our position, an addiction to polemic, the never-ending need for the rush of dialectical victory, the sweet sensation of a belief successfully defended, of re-affirmation. Do we claw after knowledge so as to cling to a faith whose substance is constant doubt deferred?
Do we learn merely so as to be of use, to learn new ways to suppress the vices and encourage the virtues, more effective ways to practice charity?
Rather, reality is of a piece, and everything is interesting. Everything we learn, at a minimum, gives us new ways to glorify God in the here and now, more opportunities to respond to His grace with thanksgiving, and so to remain on the path that will take us to full knowledge of and with Him in heaven. As long as we retain the hunger to learn, the yearning to know–and in large part we retain this by continuing to learn–we retain the hunger for the fullness of knowledge, for the Beatific Vision, and this hunger helps bend our recalcitrant wills heavenward.
Beyond this, knowledge is a good in itself, something whose full value we cannot appreciate until we possess it, and perhaps not even for some time after we have come into possession of it. Someday we, like Stargate’s Daniel Jackson, may find such arcane and apparently useless knowledge as fluency in Egyptian hieroglyphics critical to a matter of life and death, of national security. Or, indeed, in our case, critical to the salvation of souls.
You know the symbol: the ancient Christian fish that’s sprouted legs and bears the name Darwin. There’s a car down the street from me that has one and every time I see it, it makes me sad. Not angry, but sad. There is this perceived opposition between the two worlds of science and religion that is keeping people, especially scientists, from knowing the fullness of the Truth. It’s time to debunk the myth that science and Christianity are opposed.
I’m married to a scientist and when people first find that out, they’re puzzled. How can a devout Catholic be married to a “devout” scientist? To many, it’s a more incompatible match than a staunch “Tea-Partier” and a radical Liberal. We tell them: actually, we find no opposition between his career and my faith.
To understand this it’s helpful to begin with the relationship between faith and reason, as it’s obvious to most that religion is rooted in faith and science is rooted in reason. But reason has something to do with religion too. While we know God by faith, we can also know him by reason. In other words, belief in God is a reasonable position. It’s so reasonable, in fact, that great thinkers, such as St. Anselm and St. Thomas Aquinas, have outlined very convincing “proofs” for God’s existence. (I put “proofs” in quotes because they are proofs in the philosophical and not scientific sense). If faith is reasonable then, faith and reason cannot be opposed. The Church takes it even a step further. Not only are faith and reason not opposed, they are meant to work in harmony. Pope John Paul II puts it ever so eloquently when he states at the beginning of his Encyclical Letter, Fides et Ratio: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth – in a word, to know himself – so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves.”
As far as the relationship between religion and science go, the way I see it is pretty simple. God created the world. Science studies that world. Whatever science discovers does not threaten my faith, because it studies what God created. The Church agrees, and (no surprise here) puts it a lot more eloquently. Gaudium et Spesfrom the Second Vatican Council states,“… methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things of faith derive from the same God. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are” (GS 36 § 1).
My husband does not align himself with a particular religion, but the way he understands the relationship between science and religion is also quite simple. There are two realms in the universe: the physical and the spiritual. Science studies the physical, but it isn’t equipped to study the spiritual. While the two realms certainly overlap and do so most poignantly in the case of the human person, science can’t make any claims about the spiritual realm. Therefore, for him, the argument his colleagues often make that science disproves the existence of God holds no water. Furthermore, religion isn’t equipped to make scientific claims. The Church can shed light upon the ultimate origins of the material order, the meaning of life, the relationship between body and soul, etc., but when it comes to studying how exactly the physical world works, she is no expert, nor does she claim to be.
Hopefully this gives you something to think about when considering the relationship between religion and science, whether you come from the religion side, the science side, or both. However, we can’t stop the discussion here. Probably the most contentious perceived conflict between science and religion is, you guessed it, the theory of evolution. In the interest of treating this subject adequately, please stay tuned for the next part in this series, where I’ll discuss how important this concept is to science and how it does not threaten our faith as Catholic Christians, and can even be a source of wonder at the ingenuity of our loving Creator.
The Social Network of the New Evangelization Generations