God Answers

March 9, 2010

Chris and I have lately been enjoying the show Joan of Arcadia. It’s about a sixteen year old girl who is sent on missions from God when He appears to her in the form of different people. I love Joan’s childlike petulance and lack of understanding and her sincere desire to help. Although I’d want to be holy and respectful if God Himself came down from heaven to talk to me, I know I’d be more like Joan–without a clue and just pestering Him with questions like “Why??” Most of the time, He just ignores Joan’s questions, because she just doesn’t get it.

If I had God in front of me, I would ask Him why all this suffering. Is it really necessary? A boy in our parish has leukemia. Is that necessary? I’m desperately trying to understand how any of this redeems the world, but I can’t. I’m trying to be the kind of person who doesn’t let life grind her down, but I’m not. So why disasters like tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornadoes? Why evil in the world like genocide, abortion, murder, rape, torture, and neglect? Why daily frustrations that I can’t even handle?

There was a time when God was asked this question and He answered. Not a very satisfying answer of course, but as always, the best answer. Christ was asked about the suffering of those whose blood was mingled with sacrifices. Jesus answered that the greatest suffering is not dealt out to the greatest sinner. Then He says, if we don’t repent of our sins, we too will perish through terrible suffering. (Luke 13:1-9) He redirects the issue, because our physical sufferings are nothing compared to our eternal end. And there’s the key. We keep from being overwhelmed by this painful life by having an eternal perspective. Easier said than done.

More and more I see myself as a child of God – a petulant child of God. I see my children screech and holler for “their way” without restraint or thought. They want cookies without regard for the stomach ache they’ll get when they haven’t had a meal yet. They want to run into the street without caring that a car is coming and could crash into them. They want to roll around in the mud without caring that messes have to be cleaned up. They want to push each other out of the way and grab the coveted green lightsaber without realizing their push could hurt the other person. I’ve heard the phrase “I want” so often I’ve banned it. And what I want from my children is goodness. I want them to care about each other, to share, to love, to help, to be good and so be happy. Because all the “I wants” they get will not make them happy. Their happiness depends on their disposition and ability to let these things go.

And here I am. God’s child. I don’t want to worry about a budget or not having a second car. I want to eat chocolate cake every night and not gain weight. I want a maid to get the mold out of the corner of my showers. I want people to listen when I think I’m saying something important. I want to be able to control my children’s outbursts and bad behavior. I want, but God knows that all the “I wants” I get will not make me happy. He wants me to be good. Not a goody-two-shoes kind of good. He wants me to be really truly good, loving Him and others and just letting go of everything else.

I’m so very not there yet. I’m probably further from where God wants me to be than my three year old is from where I want her to be. I can no easier be good than Isabel can drive a car and budget for groceries. I guess I have to start with God where I would have Isabel start with me. Stop fighting Him. Listen to Him. Trust that He knows better than I do. And maybe, hopefully, God will be glad that He gave me just one more year to bear fruit.

Looking over the Edge

October 23, 2009

I blog more about my positive experiences than any negative ones. That’s what I like to focus on, or I’ll indulge my own tendencies to whine in self pity too much. But in the interest of honesty, I ought to include some more struggles into this narrative as well. After all, we all have them.

In my search for the truth, I’ve relied heavily on intellectual evidence, which is not to say that I don’t use my intuition as well. Intuition plays a vital role in answering the unanswerable questions that pop up in life. But I’ve spent a lot of my time this past year reading and debating books on faith, apologetics, logic, and philosophy. The danger that I’ve encountered in this type of thinking is that I get lost in the path of my own reasoning, and come to wonder how I got where I am. That’s another reason for my blogging–to retrace my own steps.

When I do lose my step, I have moments like the following. I was praying the rosary and focusing on the glorious mysteries with Chris, and we came down to the fifth mystery. The coronation of Mary as Queen of Heaven and Earth. This is a lot harder for me to connect to than the other mysteries, since not only is there no Scripture reading to go with it, but I don’t really understand what is going on. Then I have a five second panic attack wondering, “Can this really be true? How does the Church know that Mary was crowned queen? What if they’re wrong? There’s no going back to the lost in the woods faith of Protestantism for me anymore, I know that. If the Catholic Church is wrong about this, then the whole of Christianity is blown. Which means that my entire worldview is wrong, and all the actions of my life are based on lies.

I’ve always put my own beliefs under the microscope, and checked them over to make sure everything’s as it should be. I became a Catholic convert by checking my Protestant beliefs and finding holes. I think I do it a little too much though. Instead of just operating on decisions I’ve already made, I second guess them, and not just when new information presents itself. Chris doesn’t seem to have this problem. He’s been rather solid in his certainty of Catholicism since he first understood the Eucharist. It made sense out of life for him in the way nothing else ever could, and he hasn’t really looked back. But I have fought every inch for my understanding, and with all these baby steps it can be hard to find a definitive “aha” moment to look back on in certainty. At least I’m in good company:

“I think the trouble with me is lack of faith.  I have no rational ground for going back on the arguments that convinced me of God’s existence: but the irrational deadweight of my old skeptical habits, and the spirit of this age, and the cares of the day, steal away all my lively feeling of the truth, and often when I pray I wonder if I am not posting letters to a non-existent address.  Mind you I don’t think so–the whole of my reasonable mind is convinced: but I often feel so.”

– C.S. Lewis

Never fear. Although I have these mini-moments of existential crisis, I also have an antidote. When I creep up to the edge of reason and look down in a whirl of terrifying vertigo, I can pull myself back and I don’t jump. Here’s why. Other than the existence of my own mind, one of the only things I am absolutely certain of is the existence of good and evil. There are horrors in the news every day, tragedies and depravities that beg the definition of sin. There are also unimaginable heights in this world, the saints who spend their entire lives devoted to loving the poor or trade their own life for another, or even small sacrifices where your friend volunteers to watch the kids even though you know she has way too much to do. People are capable of good and evil in the most profound sense. The definition of good and evil must come from outside of us, and must come from the Christian God. In brief, Catholic truths are the only ones that make sense out of good and evil, love and hate. I plan on expanding on this in another post, but for now it’s sufficient to say this is what I think. This above all else makes me certain of my beliefs.

So while I may not be the poster-child for a steadfast faith, I’m hoping that I will get there someday. I’m hoping that in praying the rosary daily, focusing on God, and asking Him to always work through me, that I will become infused with faith so that all of my daily actions flow from faith and are done for God. Right now I struggle, and more often than not wish that I could just go off somewhere to write or choose not to make dinner instead of serving my family and patiently answering all the three year old questions that I’m perpetually peppered with. I’ve a ways to go. Until then, I’m not going to just chuck my new beliefs no matter how many moments of crisis I have.

Good and Evil – Protestant vs. Catholic Definitions

September 28, 2009

“It is not an uncommon experience for people to talk and argue a great deal about something without anybody bothering to define precisely what it is.” ~Ross J.S. Hoffman

When talking things over with Protestants, I often find that at the root of a disagreement is a difference of definition. Catholics and Protestants alike believe “saved by faith through grace”, yet we have different definitions not only of “faith” but also of “grace”. Turns out, these un-noticed and assumed definitions have a huge impact on the whole of theology, how we practice our religion, and what is acceptable to us. So the key to understanding, maybe even the key to agreement, depends on defining what we say. Yet, as Hillaire Belloc notes, “We must begin by a definition, although definition involves a mental effort and therefore repels.”

With respect to good and evil, Catholics define “good” as God, or nearly so. All good things have their source in God, because His essence is perfect goodness, the very definition of good comes from Him. Goodness then, in created things, is seen as an adherence to God’s good purpose for them. All created things have good in them, because as created by and sourced from God Himself, from which no evil can be found, we find a good purpose for all things. Evil is then a “privation of perfect goodness”. Evil is only found in creatures as a departure from God’s good purpose and rejection of His Will, existing as a result of corruption of free will, not sourced from God nor an alternative demi-god, nor does it have any substance itself. Much like darkness is a lack of light, evil is a lack of goodness.

Although Saint Thomas Aquinas defined and explained these concepts in detail, he can hardly be said to have merely invented them philosophically. Anyone who reads his works will find them absolutely saturated with references mainly of Bible verses, but also of the Early Church Fathers. Drawing from his photographic memory, he doesn’t just juxtapose sound bites and create a meandering and flawed proof from them. He instead clarifies non-negotiable main concepts (such as “God is good”), using that to better understand more obscure passages, and brings it all together in a coherent philosophical system. This system is not of his own invention, nor does it depart from Biblical or Church teaching, but uses reason to better understand the necessary consequences of truths of the Faith. Because of this use of reason, Luther banned Aquinas, saying he imposed human understanding on divine revelation. This rejection of the philosophy that underlies Catholicism is where the faiths begin their divergence and is what must be overcome in most cases for Protestants and Catholics to understand each other.

When asked what evil is, Protestants may answer similarly to Catholics, that it is going against God’s will. However, here is a critical point, Protestants believe that evil has substance. When pressed as to where evil comes from, however, you may not get a coherent answer. Protestants who believe that Divine Providence acts directly in everything (not merely permissively) might say that God uses evil to achieve a good end, but that He is not the source of evil in order to adhere to the Biblical concept that God is perfectly good. Consequently, if God is not the source of evil, yet evil has substance, then it must come from an alternative source. Considering a created thing from a source other than God, out of necessity we have introduced another creator. This cannot be true, since Christians do not believe in multiple gods. If however, evil has its origins in our one true God, then He would be lacking in perfect goodness, a thing we already know He cannot do. The only rational conclusion is that evil is a lack of goodness, without substance. But those who reject rationalism may just accept this quandary of the nature of evil as a mystery of the faith, albeit one that has not been divinely revealed, but conjured up as a rejection of Catholic reasoning.

As a result of believing that evil has substance, many Protestants believe that some things are inherently evil and others inherently good, as opposed to the Catholic belief that everything is inherently good, but may become evil if abused or misused. This misconception as to the nature of things invariably leads to wrong attitudes and actions regarding them. For example, although the Bible clearly encourages a time for feasting throughout and holds as holy the union between a man and a woman, puritanical sects believe that our flesh is strictly sinful by nature and so they destroy the good pleasures that God has given us. Often Catholics are criticized for this Biblical delight in material pleasures, as if it is less holy to take joy in God’s creation than to make yourself miserable with self-righteousness. Ironically, monks and nuns are also criticized for their acetic life set apart for worship and work offered to the Lord, but that’s a different story. In her novel, Villette, Charlotte Bronte writes in criticism of Catholic enjoyment of life:

Each mind was being reared in slavery; but, to prevent reflection from dwelling on this fact, every pretext for physical recreation was seized and made the most of. There, as elsewhere, the CHURCH strove to bring up her children robust in body, feeble in soul, fat, ruddy, hale, joyous, ignorant, unthinking, unquestioning. ‘Eat, drink and live!’ she says. ‘Look after your bodies; leave your souls to me. I hold their cure – guide their course: I guarantee their final fate.’ A bargain, in which every true Catholic deems himself a gainer. Lucifer just offers the same terms; ‘All this power will I give thee, and the glory of it; for that is delivered unto me, and to whomsoever I will, I give it. If thou, therefore, wilt worship me, all shall be thine!'”

Charlotte Bronte’s character, Lucy Snowe, bases this criticism on a common false conception of what it means to be holy as well as an assumed disconnect between the physical and spiritual world, believing that the only thing of value is spiritual good, all pivoting on the definition that evil is a thing in itself and things in this world are either good or evil. You can see then, how different definitions leads to different understanding, different understanding to different actions, and different actions to deep divides. Even if we disagree in these essentials, it is imperitive to be aware of them, to define the real difference between Catholics and Protestants, in order to understand what these faiths are really about and therefore what we are really about.