National Catholic Register


Interesting Conversation

BY Mark Shea

| Posted 7/30/10 at 3:00 AM


I’ve been having an interesting chat with somebody who is dubious about matters of faith.  I thought it might be interesting to take a look at the discussion.

S/he writes:

Can one choose belief?

Yes. But it’s a particular kind of choosing. Not shutting your eyes and willing to yourself to believe what your intellect knows to be self-contradictory nonsense (that’s insane). But choosing to believe the possibility that the God who transcends (not contradicts) reason has spoken in Christ Jesus. It is, at the very least, worth checking out the possibility.

- Re. choosing. I don’t comprehend much of a difference… choosing to believe vs. choosing to believe in the possibility sound very similar. “Man cannot worship… a probable god”, right (Newman)?

Yes.  Man cannot worship a probable god in the sense that one cannot make a commitment to “Love the Guess your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.”  But the other end of the paradox (it’s pretty much always paradox in the Catholic world) is that God, while hard to satisfy, is easy to please.  So when somebody comes to Jesus and says, “I believe.  Help my unbelief!” Jesus says, “Good enough” and responds.  He’s content with the widow’s mite and the mustard seed.  But he means to make those grow too.  We are *responsible*, even if we only have a widow’s mite.  Hence, the guy with the one talent who *could* have invested it but instead hid it in the ground is judged, not for robbing the King of the measly talent (which he does not need) but for frittering away even the little bit he was responsible for.  It may not be possible to do much more than choose to believe just a little bit.  Well then, choose that much.  God will supply what is lacking.

Anyway, how would you differentiate what you wrote from me suggesting that you can choose to believe that Mohammad was god’s chosen prophet and provided the true revelation of himself in the Koran.

By looking at the merits of the evidence for Islam vs. the merits of the evidence for Christ.  Both are historical claims.  Christianity is not Mormonism.  It is not a thing composed of warm feeling in the heart and burnings in the breast.  One should not become a Christian because one has willed oneself to believe something irrational and contrary to reason.  That’s mere self-delusion.  Interrogate the Faith, not to prove it false (if it is, it will prove itself false by asking you to buy something that is contrary to reason), but to find out if it is true.  Do the same with Islam.  For what it’s worth, here’s my own take on the relationship between Islam and Catholic faith, based on Nostra Aetate: Monotheism 101 and Monotheism 102.  The basic approach the Church is free to take, with any religion, was outlined by C.S. Lewis some time ago.  Namely, an atheist is bound by his own principles to declare that the overwhelming majority of the human race is absolutely and totally wrong about the thing that matters to them most.  This is one of the reasons that atheists of the evangelical variety like Ditchkins tend to make such wooly mistakes as declaring, bumper sticker style, “Science works.  Religion doesn’t.”  The habit of rolling all religion together and tossing it in the waste basket is inveterate among the enthusiasts for Dawkins, Myers, et al.  What they are commonly saying is, “All religions are the same, especially Christianity, which is worse.”  It doesn’t make for sensible conversation.  And so you get absurdities like Dawkins saying “I just disbelieve in one more god than Christians do.”

A Christian is, in fact, free to suppose that even the oddest religion is partly right, and that there is a rather complex hierarchy of truth which can grant to other religious and philosophical traditions all sorts of real perceptions of truth (rather like the insightful Hindu tale of the blind men and the elephant).  Christianity, for instance, made extensive use of Plato in trying to articulate the Faith to the Greco-Roman world, just as it honored the oracles of Judaism in making its appeal to Jews.  You can see this happening already in the book of Acts.  It also, of course, draws sharp distinctions between itself and other religious traditions.  But the point is that the Church never has to pretend “We alone are solely right and everybody else is completely wrong.”  Atheism paints itself into this corner with alarming frequency, which is why it tends to emit the constant rhetoric about how its adherents are, to use Sagan’s charming self-flattery, a “candle in the dark”.  Only the One True Church of Rationalistic Science can save us all.  Religion is completely worthless.  Not all atheists are like this, of course.  I’ve known some very pleasant and non-abrasive atheists and agnostics.  But an awful lot of the “Brights” as they fatuously call themselves are far more persuaded of their intellectual superiority to the herd than they have any right to be.  The irony of all this is that it works out to be a sort of weird imitation of the ugliest tendencies of the Abrahamic tradition to produce Pharisees and Inquisitors who declare “I thank you, O God, that I am not like other men.”  One of the first impulses of Christ’s teaching is to remind his disciples, “You are a *lot* like other men.”  And because Jesus is fully human, our faith has always insisted that it shares much in common with other religious traditions.  So, in the case of Islam, the Church can and does affirm various commonalities.  Atheism is forced to simply denounce Islam toute courte as it denounces all religion.

More next week…