Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.
Just wondering if you could give your thoughts on how to best respond to an online skeptic who takes offense at Christians who quote Romans 1:20. I’m not sure what to say other than “Don’t shoot the messenger.” His post is below.
I used to be a Christian. The Romans 1:20 argument is a serious insult to those of us who struggled in our loss of faith. I’ve tried to force myself to just believe that Christianity was true. It doesn’t work. I cannot honestly believe in it. That is the whole truth. You can stand by Romans 1:20 if you want, but your convictions will not make it true. It’s very easy to claim that you are right and anyone who disagrees is just in denial.
My reader is using a sort of shorthand. What he is referring to is Paul’s argument in Romans 1:18-23 that pagans are without excuse when they fail to recognize the existence of the true God and replace him with the worship of various creatures. His argument is here (and verse 20 is the core verse, summarizing what St. Thomas will later on say in arguing for the existence of God in his Summa):
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20* Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse; 21* for although they knew God they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking and their senseless minds were darkened. 22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools, 23* and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles.
Note that this passage isn’t about believing in Christ. It’s about the arguments from natural revelation for the existence of God, which are sound. In other words, it’s not about some failure of mystical insight. It’s about the right use of reason. If my reader’s friend dislikes that, that tells us nothing about the merits of Paul’s argument (or St. Thomas’) but only about the subjective emotional state of my reader’s friend. A feeling of offense on his part does not constitute a devastating refutation of St. Thomas.
The real issue is then, what are the merits of the arguments from natural revelation? And the short answer is, “The arguments are very strong” which is why brilliant minds (like Thomas’) have found them compelling for 2000 years. If my reader’s friend has trouble with those arguments, the solution is not to complain about one’s feelings, but to refute the argument.
Beyond that, it might be good to address the question, “Why can’t you believe in Christ?” It is telling, I think that my reader’s friend makes the mistake of assuming that Romans 1:20 is an argument for Christianity (which requires grace and supernatural revelation to believe) when in fact it is merely an argument for the existence of God (which requires only human reason to accept and which, in proof of Paul’s point, pagan philosophers have in fact arrived at by the light of natural reason). This suggests that his issues with Christianity are, indeed, not rooted in reason, but in something else. What that something might be, I haven’t the foggiest since he does not discuss his reasons for disbelief, so it’s hard to know how to answer him.
The causes of disbelief in Christ may be all over the map and do not necessarily imply bad faith. Paul’s remark in Romans 1:20 presupposes concupiscence: the darkened intellect (as well as the weakened will and disordered appetites) that spring from original sin. The fact that my reader’s friend says he struggled with his loss of faith indicates that he would like to be a Christian if he could, but that some factor (hard to say what) makes faith seem contrary to reason. The solution, if that is the case, is to find out what the difficulties to his reason are. Alternatively, if the loss of faith is due to some other, non-rational cause (and this is quite possible since we are, after all, human and subject to irrational influences) the question is, again, what is the issue. The Church does say that natural reason, untrammeled by the impeding power of original sin, can arrive at the knowledge that God exists. But it does not necessarily follow that the influence of original sin implies personal sin on the part of the doubter. So, for instance, if somebody finds it hard to believe in God because his devout father beat him or a priest abused him, that would not necessarily be due to sin on the part of the victim, but to the sin of the victimizer. The sins of Christians can and do damage other people and blind them to God. So without knowing why my reader’s friend finds faith so difficult, I would not presume to say that his difficulties with belief are due to his bad faith. I would, however, say that something is affecting his ability to apprehend the light of reason or he would be able to conclude that the existence of God is in accord with reason. That’s not a personal insult or a presumption of ill will, any more than an eye exam that yields a diagnosis of 20/200 vision is a slur.