Saturday, September 5, 2009

Because of the Evidence

Anyone arriving at the base of Mt. St. Helens in the weeks following the 1980 eruption would have known something huge had happened. They would have needed no photographic images of the eruption itself, like the one shown here. They would have needed no eyewitness accounts. All they would have needed to see was the thousands of bare tree trunks aligned in one direction after the primary shock hit. Something happened here, they would have been forced to conclude. Something huge happened.

This is another reason I am so confident being Catholic. When I was a child in Minnesota, I distinctly remember two things: being afraid of death and thinking, if Jesus Christ really really existed, as the Bible says, then I have nothing to worry about. Today, I no longer worry so much about death. Whoever created this world is infinitely good, and whatever awaits me after death is therefore good, too. But sadly neither do I have such childlike faith in the Bible accounts of Christ's life.

Doubts crept in along the way, doubts encouraged by our culture: What if the whole New Testament story was just a massive conspiracy among a few power-grabbing Apostles, who concocted the story of the Resurrection and used it to control minds for two thousand years? What if the search for the historical Jesus finally turns up another Piltdown Man, a fabulous hoax that has hornswoggled humanity for two millennia? What if scholarly criticism eventually pokes so many holes in the Gospels and other contemporary accounts that even the existence of a man (forget about God) named Jesus of Nazareth is thrown into doubt? In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis convincingly held that Jesus must have been one of three things: liar, lunatic, or Lord. But what if he was a liar or lunatic and all the rest of them—Peter, the other eleven, Paul, the early bishops of Rome—all of them built the lies or lunacy into an organization that controlled human thought from the year 35 forward?

These are doubts which others no doubt have shared, cast in a thousand shapes and colors.

But I have faith today, and this faith is not "merely" the faith of a child (though I hope someday to rise again to that level). My faith is multifaceted, but in the end it is based on evidence. Consider what happened after Christ's death.

How to account for all these trees lying in perfect alignment? How to account for the speed with which the Gospel spread throughout the Mediterranean basin and beyond—without the sword of Islam or the naval might of the British empire in its heyday? How to account for the uncountable numbers who martyred themselves in Christianity's first three centuries, for what? lies? lunacy? How to account for the rich and internally consistent development of teaching by the Church Fathers in the years leading up to the remarkable St. Augustine? How to explain the burgeoning of the monastic movement following St. Benedict in the fifth century? How to explain the tenacity with which Catholicism, and particularly its monastic communities, preserved Western culture for another 1000 years, until the Protestant rebellion tried to destroy its very foundations?

I was reminded of these questions on August 24, when the Church celebrated the Feast of St. Bartholomew, Apostle. The office of readings for the day offers a homily by St. John Chrysostom, in which he considers the evidence. How, he asks, could twelve uneducated men have so changed the known world?

How could men who perhaps had never been in a city or a public square think of setting out to do battle with the whole world? That they were fearful, timid men, the evangelist makes clear; he did not reject the fact or try to hide their weaknesses. Indeed he turned these into a proof of the truth. What did he say of them? That when Christ was arrested, the others fled, despite all the miracles they had seen, while he who was leader of the others denied him!

How then to account for the fact that these men, who in Christ's lifetime did not stand up to the attacks by the Jews, set forth to do battle with the whole world once Christ was dead—if, as you claim, Christ did not rise and speak to them and rouse their courage? Did they perhaps say to themselves: "What is this? He could not save himself but he will protect us? He did not help himself when he was alive, but now that he is dead he will extend a helping hand to us? In his lifetime he brought no nation under his banner, but by uttering his name we will win over the whole world?" Would it not be wholly irrational even to think such thoughts, much less to act upon them?

It is evident, then, that if they had not seen him risen and had not had proof of his power, they would not have risked so much.

But why Catholicism, Webster, as my friend Dave asked? Why the Catholic Church and not one of the thousand splinters that were once the Lutheran rebellion? That's pretty obvious, isn't it? These utterly convincing events of the first Christian centuries are the very foundation of the Catholic Church, and while there are indeed many odd towers and buttresses and even gargoyles built on that foundation, if I want to get back as close to Jesus as I can, as close as possible to the volcano, there's really only one place to worship.