By Lea Z. Singh |
This year, our Easter was not about egg hunts and fun times. Easter hit us hard this year, right over our heads, with its real message about life and death. It's a message that we are supposed to remember each year at Easter, but we are never quite ready for the full reality of it.
With Easter on our side, we can laugh at death. All that death can do is kill our earthly body, just as Jesus was crucified on the cross. Who cares about a perishable body, when we now have the prospect of eternal life in a glorified body? And so, St. Paul writes: "Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?" (1 Cor. 15:54-55).
What's more, Christianity reserves that escape for humans only. We see our pets die, and we are told that it is really over for them. Indeed, all other animals and other living things on this earth are just plain dead when they die. But human beings, we are told, will mysteriously shuffle into glorified bodies and hang out in heaven (or, less delightfully, roast with their forever bodies in an eternal hell).
Yes, even the first Christians were well aware of this central problem of credibility. It's not an easy sell to preach that a condemned and executed 33-year-old carpenter's son from a backwater village in occupied Judea actually came back to life after lying dead in his tomb for two days, and that this action unlocked the heavenly gates for all of us.
You are not expected to swallow this story whole without question. It is natural to weigh the evidence, though a leap of faith is still required at the end:
1. The historical account: One or two crazy people are fairly common, but group hallucinations? Not so much. According to the gospels, hundreds of people witnessed the crucified Christ, confirmed dead, to have risen from the dead. He walked around with his resurrected body, which bore the scars of his crucifixion, for about 40 days. He appeared to his disciples and also other followers. He even let his shocked disciple Thomas feel right inside the wound in his side. He performed more miracles. And he taught that we, too, could share in that eternal life.
3. The fruits: Christianity has been a major shaping force in the world, and is largely responsible for the rise and success of Western civilization. Could a faith founded on fiction have had the same effect? And then there are the smaller fruits, including the many hospitals and homes for orphans, the aged, the sick, the poor and the dying, all run by Catholic religious orders.
4. Search within your heart, you know it to be true! Many people find their own hearts to be the most convincing reason for accepting Christianity. The Christian teachings about right and wrong, about justice and mercy and love, jibe very well with the feelings and convictions most people naturally hold within their hearts. Christianity seems to "fit" the truth, even if it is not always what we would like to hear. When people turn inward, they can also often feel God's love and almost hear his voice. They begin to experience a direct connection with Jesus and recognize signs of God working in their lives and changing them from within.
A leap into the....light
The resurrection has never been proven to be a historical fact. There is some independent historical evidence (outside the Bible) that Jesus really existed, and that he was crucified. But even if we can prove that he existed, there is no scientific proof that he rose from the dead. It is a matter of faith, but that faith is not blind. It is based on all the evidence above. Still, in considering the evidence, the final step is still essential: a leap of faith.
What is a leap of faith? It is the point at which you admit that the resurrection will never be demonstrated in a Scientific American article, but you choose to believe it anyway.
Can we choose to believe something that we aren't absolutely sure about?
Well, judges and juries do it all the time. They have to make decisions and hand out sentences, even though in most cases it is impossible to establish the truth with absolute certainty. So, courts use a scale of probabilities to determine the outcome of the case.
Courts usually use one of three legal standards for this purpose: preponderance of the evidence, clear and convincing evidence, or beyond reasonable doubt. Preponderance of the evidence is the easiest standard to meet, as one side just has to demonstrate that it is more than 50% likely to be true. Clear and convincing evidence is harder to meet, since one side has to show that it is substantially more likely than not to be true. And beyond reasonable doubt is the hardest proof to meet, as one side has to show that there is no good reason to doubt their story.
Each of us is the judge and jury of our own case concerning Jesus. What burden of proof does Christianity have to meet for each of us to rule in its favor? I suspect that our burdens of proof vary, and some people believe more easily than others.
Beyond reasonable doubt?
Many wafflers and so-called "agnostics" have probably set for themselves a burden of proof that is hard for Christianity to meet, such as beyond reasonable doubt, and then they hang out at faith's door waiting for some definitive evidence to take them across the threshold. This game can last forever, as some weighty reasons exist for doubting the truths of Christianity, including:
1. All the seemingly senseless and cruel suffering in the world: this is surely the most commonly invoked, and perhaps the most serious, argument against Christianity. It is hard to believe in a Christian god of love, mercy and justice when babies die and innocent people suffer every day. Many people watch helplessly as their loved ones are struck down by accidents and diseases.
But Christianity offers a complex and comprehensive answer of the problem of pain. That explanation gives a deep meaning to suffering, makes sense of the senselessness and continues to be convincing to many.
2. The argument against anthropocentrism: why would God choose us, of all the creatures that are found on this earth and that also likely exist throughout this entire giant universe? Why would we little nothings be so worthy of his attention that he would even become one of us?
There are all kinds of possible answers to this question, but perhaps the most significant is found in the Bible itself in the parable of the lost sheep. Jesus portrays himself as the shepherd who goes out to find and save even one lost sheep. So to God, even one faulty human species on little old earth seems to be worth the trouble.
3. The blind watchmaker of our world, evolution: there seems to be no "need" for God anymore. Except it's not clear that evolution really was blind. The Intelligent Design movement has gained a lot of traction, and has shed light on many holes in the theory of blind evolution. There are also some fascinating books out there talking about how finely tuned our universe is for life, and these too argue against a randomly ordered world.
For a different angle on this question, I look back even further to the very start of things. How about the "evolution" of the universe as a whole? Could that have happened without any sort of intervention by an intelligent power outside of our world? Could something really have come from nothing? That does not seem reasonable to me (though admittedly, that is not the same as showing it was the Christian God).
Can reason alone lead us to faith?
According to the Catholic Church, the answer is both yes and no:
"Our holy mother, the Church, holds and teaches that God, the first principle and last end of all things, can be known with certainty from the created world by the natural light of human reason."11 Without this capacity, man would not be able to welcome God's revelation. Man has this capacity because he is created "in the image of God".
In the historical conditions in which he finds himself, however, man experiences many difficulties in coming to know God by the light of reason alone:
"Though human reason is, strictly speaking, truly capable by its own natural power and light of attaining to a true and certain knowledge of the one personal God, who watches over and controls the world by his providence, and of the natural law written in our hearts by the Creator; yet there are many obstacles which prevent reason from the effective and fruitful use of this inborn faculty. For the truths that concern the relations between God and man wholly transcend the visible order of things, and, if they are translated into human action and influence it, they call for self-surrender and abnegation. The human mind, in its turn, is hampered in the attaining of such truths, not only by the impact of the senses and the imagination, but also by disordered appetites which are the consequences of original sin. So it happens that men in such matters easily persuade themselves that what they would not like to be true is false or at least doubtful."
This is why man stands in need of being enlightened by God's revelation, not only about those things that exceed his understanding, but also "about those religious and moral truths which of themselves are not beyond the grasp of human reason, so that even in the present condition of the human race, they can be known by all men with ease, with firm certainty and with no admixture of error".
Part of the problem is that reason has been wounded by the Fall and dimmed by the effects of sin. Reason is, to some degree or another, distorted, limited, and hindered; it is often pulled off the road by our whims, emotions, and passions.As a result, we no longer have the ability to travel to Jesus Christ by reason alone. Reason can now bring us only part of the way:
[I]n different ways, man can come to know that there exists a reality which is the first cause and final end of all things, a reality "that everyone calls God".
Man's faculties make him capable of coming to a knowledge of the existence of a personal God. But for man to be able to enter into real intimacy with him, God willed both to reveal himself to man and to give him the grace of being able to welcome this revelation in faith. The proofs of God's existence, however, can predispose one to faith and help one to see that faith is not opposed to reason.Reason keeps our feet dragging on solid ground, but to finish the race we will need to let our feet jump into the air and soar on faith.
If one does not have faith, how does one get it? Is it an act of the will, or a gift from God himself? It seems that the mystery of faith is both very simple - a free gift from God to all mankind - and a complex dance - man learning to submit to a God that his natural reason cannot fully comprehend. Here is what the Catholic Church says about this:
Faith is a gift of God, a supernatural virtue infused by him. "Before this faith can be exercised, man must have the grace of God to move and assist him; he must have the interior helps of the Holy Spirit, who moves the heart and converts it to God, who opens the eyes of the mind and 'makes it easy for all to accept and believe the truth.'"25
...But it is no less true that believing is an authentically human act. Trusting in God and cleaving to the truths he has revealed is contrary neither to human freedom nor to human reason.
...In faith, the human intellect and will cooperate with divine grace: "Believing is an act of the intellect assenting to the divine truth by command of the will moved by God through grace."27
What moves us to believe is not the fact that revealed truths appear as true and intelligible in the light of our natural reason: we believe "because of the authority of God himself who reveals them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived".28 So "that the submission of our faith might nevertheless be in accordance with reason, God willed that external proofs of his Revelation should be joined to the internal helps of the Holy Spirit."29 Thus the miracles of Christ and the saints, prophecies, the Church's growth and holiness, and her fruitfulness and stability "are the most certain signs of divine Revelation, adapted to the intelligence of all"; they are "motives of credibility" (motiva credibilitatis), which show that the assent of faith is "by no means a blind impulse of the mind".30The Catholic Church interestingly aligns faith with obedience and submission to God:
By faith, man completely submits his intellect and his will to God.2 With his whole being man gives his assent to God the revealer. Sacred Scripture calls this human response to God, the author of revelation, "the obedience of faith".3
To obey (from the Latin ob-audire, to "hear or listen to") in faith is to submit freely to the word that has been heard, because its truth is guaranteed by God, who is Truth itself. Abraham is the model of such obedience offered us by Sacred Scripture. The Virgin Mary is its most perfect embodiment.
Is it getting harder to believe in God?
As our culture falls increasingly away from religious practice, the pattern seems to be feeding on itself - the more people fall away, the harder it may be for those who are still believers to continue to believe. Why? One reason is that people are social creatures who strive to live in harmony with those around them. We don't like to be different from our immediate community, instead, we like to blend into the larger group. Even the Church seems to recognize this aspect of faith:
Faith is a personal act - the free response of the human person to the initiative of God who reveals himself. But faith is not an isolated act. No one can believe alone, just as no one can live alone. You have not given yourself faith as you have not given yourself life.
The believer has received faith from others and should hand it on to others. Our love for Jesus and for our neighbor impels us to speak to others about our faith. Each believer is thus a link in the great chain of believers. I cannot believe without being carried by the faith of others, and by my faith I help support others in the faith
Easter still the only way
It may be a struggle to keep on believing in an age of unbelief, but the true meaning of Easter should not be thrown away lightly. It is the train that can take us past death and into new life in another world.
Other religions may promise similar things, but they are all clearly man-made. For all of us here on earth, Christianity is our best shot. In many ways, its claims are outrageous. But those claims manage to coalesce into a genius coherence that seems far beyond human capability.
And so the mysteries of the Christian faith are worth dwelling on and considering, they are worth studying and pondering.
As future dust of the earth, we should want them to be true. And that ardent hope will enable us to bear the trials and tribulations of this world with greater peace.