2018/08/17

Finding God

Creation of Adam

A commenter on yesterday's post writes:
I've lately felt something of a pull towards Christianity, Catholicism, in particular. (I've generally believed in the existence of a God but haven't gotten serious about it, in part due to my religious upbringing).
However, seeing things like this, as well as the general convergence of churches, while not making me hesitant to become Christian, DOES make me wonder how I can go about learning and finding my way to God and finding like-minded people.
A blog post about this, assuming you don't already have one, would be much appreciated.
Helping others clear away intellectual obstacles to faith in God and His Church is every theologian's solemn obligation. You have asked me to perform this spiritual work of mercy, and charity demand that I answer.

Defining God

The first obstacle that must be surmounted is the generally debased state of contemporary philosophy and language itself. Let's start by defining the key term God, as far as is possible for limited beings.

When Christians--and some theist philosophers like Aristotle--say God, we don't mean an old man on a mountaintop composing a global naughty/nice list when he's not conjuring boulders he can't lift. Such a being would fall into the category of a creature, albeit a powerful creature, existing within the material, temporal order.

What we mean by God is the uncreated, all-powerful, and absolute Being who transcends the created order.

Proving God's Existence

Anyone who says God's existence can't be proven is either ignorant or lying. The deception usually lies in moving the goalposts regarding what constitutes evidence. Materialists are fond of demanding physical proof of God while they themselves required no physical proof for materialism.

The claim that God's existence can't be proven contains another subtle a priori bias. It assumes that God exists in the same way that a hydrogen atom, a pencil, or an aardvark exists; that is, contingently within the order of creation. God does not have existence per se. It's more accurate to say that God is Being. The Bible sees eye to eye with Aristotle here. "I Am that I Am."

In truth, absolute, uncaused, necessary Being is self-explanatory. The physical universe is more in need of an explanation--both from its origins and at every moment--than the eternal, transcendent God.

Christians are sometimes accused of begging the question by positing a self-necessary Being from the start and declaring God's existence a fait accompli. That accusation gets the process backwards. Theologians and philosophers start from evidence gathered through observation, experience, and reason and conclude to absolute Being.

The most elegant and time-tested arguments for absolute Being are the cosmological arguments refined by St. Thomas Aquinas. Moderns and Postmoderns will glibly scoff that these arguments have long been discredited. But each attempt to refute the classical arguments from cosmology, such as David Hume's, is revealed as a straw man under scrutiny.

Here's a common cosmological argument. An apple ripens on a tree branch. That means the apple had the potential to move from unripeness to ripeness, and that potential was put into act. We can rightly ask where the impetus to actualize that potential came from. Apples aren't self-sufficient. They need water, sunlight, and a host of other conditions to grow. You can try locating the source of the apple's actualization in any or all of these contingencies, but that just kicks the can a little farther down the road since water, the sun, etc. all contain potentialities requiring external contingencies to actualize.

Positing that it's contingent beings all the way down doesn't do any good. That just gets you an infinite train of boxcars with no locomotive. Such a train would be incapable of motion. Similarly, an infinite chain of contingent causality could never move the apple from unripeness to ripeness.

We do see apples that ripen and myriad other examples of actualized potential, yet an infinite chain of contingent beings would be absurd. The only logical conclusion is that a being which is pure act with no unrealized potential is the ultimate source of all being. Since existing potentially instead of in actuality is a limitation on being, that which is pure act must be unlimited being and is therefore Being itself. And that is what Christians call God.

Finding God

Men of intellectual honesty and sound mind can conclude to God's existence through reason alone. But because God is transcendent, entering into a personal relationship with Him requires that He take the initiative. The means by which God has initiated relations with mankind is called divine revelation. There are three major revealed religions, but you expressed an attraction to Christianity, so I'll restrict myself to that subject.

Christians believe that God revealed Himself in stages, starting with His revelations to the Hebrew people and culminating in His Incarnation in the Lord Jesus Christ. No serious scholar denies that Jesus lived, and it is a matter of historical record that He founded a Church. St. Irenaeus, a student of St. Polycarp, who himself learned at the feet of the Apostle John, wrote in ca. AD 180:
Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority.
Irenaeus wrote those words within eighty years of the last Apostle's death. The same span of time separates us from Chamberlain's meeting with Hitler and Orson Wells' notorious War of the Worlds broadcast. In the life of the Church, eighty years isn't a day. It was five minutes ago.

Jesus founded a Church and clearly expressed His desire that men come to know God through its ministry. St. Irenaeus, writing too recently to have gotten confused, affirmed the succession of apostolic authority through the Church's bishops. Furthermore, he upheld the bishop of Rome's preeminent authority in the strongest terms.

In summation, God fully revealed Himself in Jesus Christ. Jesus founded a Church to bring people into personal relationship with Him. Scripture and history testify that the Church Jesus founded can be recognized by an episcopate with valid apostolic succession headed by the bishop of Rome.

Only one church existing today meets these criteria: the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. To reject her is to Reject Christ, and to reject Christ is to reject the One who sent Him.

Christian Fellowship

In all honesty, demonstrating God's existence and the doctrine of petrine primacy is easy compared to giving advice on Christian fellowship. The Church on earth is populated with human beings, and people are inevitably influenced by their environment. In the Postmodern world, our environment pressures us to be atomized, consumerist, individualists.

The Church has been affected by these destructive social trends, but she also offers the antidote. Mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote about how people need communal ritual to apply the power of myth to their daily lives. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, Christianity is a myth that happens to be true.

Many have suggested that the changes to the Mass after Vatican II have impaired the power of Catholic ritual to build and maintain the relationship between God and man and the individual and the faith community.

In my experience, seeking out parishes that offer the traditional Latin Mass is a reliable first step toward finding communities of younger Catholics who are serious about their faith. Find a Latin Mass near you here.

Don't discount the importance of online communities, either. As you've seen, this blog is frequented by a smart group of based Catholics and similarly on-the-ball separated brethren. You are welcome here. And don't forget to check out Catholic Twitter*.

*Before it's purged.

25 comments:

  1. Thank you for this post. I've read through a couple times and I shall study it more closely once I make it home.

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    1. You are welcome. Please don't hesitate to ask me any follow up questions.

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  2. This is a good post to show others who have questions about Christianity and Catholicism.

    Thanks so much!

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    1. Give the glory to God. I am but an unprofitable servant who has done less than his duty.

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  3. Brian,

    Excellent exposition of the faith. Very charitable towards the critics.
    Nautof Earth:
    In case you missed it I recommend 2 links Catholic Answers radio pod casts and The Counsel of Trent podcasts. Trent is a full time debater who covers many topics that you might have questions about.

    I hope you find them helpful and will keep you in prayer for your journey.

    xavier

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    1. Thank you. I have them bookmarked and will listen to them.

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    2. Naut of earth.

      You're welcome. The Open forums are a good way to ease into exploring the Faith
      Another links are Ignatius press and Sophia institute press. One of things I love about Ignatius press isn't just the orthodox books but the absolutely beautiful book covers.

      xavier

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  4. "St. Irenaeus, writing too recently to have gotten confused, affirmed the succession of apostolic authority through the Church's bishops."
    Revelations, as given by the apostle John, shows that churches even in the same timeframe of a living apostle seem to get confused. I'm always more careful puting more faith in post biblical thought than the Bible itself.

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    1. "I'm always more careful puting more faith in post biblical thought than the Bible itself."

      I'm glad you hold the Catholic Church's liturgy manual in such high regard.

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  5. We agree on almost everything else addressed here. Perhaps too terse a response on my behalf for such a weighty and sensitive topic. I am curious if there are better arguments within the Bible for apostolic succession? I don't claim to be a scholar beyond my own curiosity of history and reading of the scriptures. Apostolic succession isn't anything I've sought to prove or disprove, but there are many times in the Bible it states to be wary of false doctrines. So I do enter the territory with initial skepticism. And I remain open to any idea with precedent and origin in the Bible as I am continually expanding my scope of understanding of its contents. This post came out of request for a deeper understanding of God and Catholicism. And I appreciate your grace in being as open as you have. Consider my initial response the raised hand of a student with a somewhat tactless version of a genuine question.

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    1. Todd
      I believe Catholic answers sells some books on the subject. I'd also pop over to Ignatius press The sacred page website might have a post or video on the subject

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    2. Thank you for your patience and understanding. Rest assured I take no offense, because if your reply could be considered terse, mine must be denounced as flippant. Please excuse my rash speech.

      On to your excellent question.

      Not only does the Bible contain arguments for apostolic succession, it documents the first instance of a new apostle being chosen to succeed another.
      Acts 1:12-26

      Relevant points:
      -Peter calls on the congregation to elect Judas' successor. This is a twofer that chronicles one of the faithful being raised to the apostleship and provides evidence for petrine primacy.
      -Peter quotes "Let another take his office" from the Psalms.
      -The congregation prays that God choose a man "...to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside..."
      -The lot falls to Matthias, who is immediately recognized as a full apostle equal to the others.

      In short, we have the apostolic college being quite literally led by Peter to choose Judas' successor. Only Jesus has chosen apostles until this point, when the fledgling Church is shown expressly conferring apostleship after Christ's Ascension. Matthias is unambiguously depicted as equal in apostolic dignity to the other eleven, so Scripture affirms that the Church is exercising divine authority to elect new apostles on Christ's behalf. This power was conferred on the Church as part of the New Covenant, which Christ declared to be everlasting. Therefore, the Church retains the power to consecrate successors to the apostles to this day.

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    3. Thanks for unpacking that scene. When I re-read it in Bible study, we were in a crowd of cradle Catholic Boomers, so no defense or explication of apostolic succession was given based on it, though the study leader talked about the matter a couple of times in passing when Paul came on the scene.

      Apostolic succession has always seemed obvious to me, based on the Bible. I find objections to it difficult to grasp, which made explaining it to my then-Protestant wife quite difficult. I ultimately had to accept that she was likely to stay a Protestant, or that it was in God's hands, because I could not marshal the arguments necessary (I was suffering from undiagnosed illnesses, which made it still more difficult.) Then her parents sent us some Presbyterian preacher's attack on the Church, and to answer her questions as we watched it I turned to newadvent.org (the Catholic Encyclopedia part.) It just all fell into place after that for her.

      The old 1910 (I think...) version of the Catholic Encyclopedia is really quite good, for all that I hear that it was already modernity-tainted on the subject of usury.

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    4. New Advent's encyclopedia is excellent. Thanks for sharing your story, and well done. Effective catechesis isn't so much about knowing all the answers offhand as it is knowing where to look for the answers.

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  6. You had me right up until "rejecting the Catholic Church *just is* rejecting Christ". Oh well.

    But, even from a Protestant perspective, I'm actually here to amplify and endorse looking to traditional, rather than modernist, Christianity. So if someone comes along and says to you "Ha! Not even Christians agree on that!" then point them to here, were an out-and-out Presbyterian (ie, of the actual intellectual lineage of Calvin) tells you: Aristotle for the win, Tomas Aquinas is great, and if you're going to look to Catholicism, look to the oldest and most authentic. Anything that has entered any branch of Christianity since roughly 1960 has been at best, fatally weak, and at worst, vile.

    Edward Feser does a great blog addressing all of these points in detail.

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    1. C.S. Lewis' "Mere Christianity" addresses the question of differences in Christian denominations by acknowledging that they exist, but there is little profit in the public discussions of these differences except among said Christians, and in private.

      Lewis points out that public denominational arguments and the associated acrimony can chase away the curious non-Christian.

      The gulf between the non-Christian and the Christian is substantially wider than the gulfs between Christians of differing denominations.

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    2. "You had me right up until 'rejecting the Catholic Church *just is* rejecting Christ'."

      Glad you brought that up, because you're right. That statement needs to be unpacked further.

      The Catholic Magisterium has consistently taught that outside the Church, there is no salvation. In doing so, they are following the consistent teaching of Our Lord, who commanded obedience to His Church again and again.

      Given that I am a Catholic theologian who submits to Christ's authority expressed through Sacred Scripture and the teachings of His apostles' successors, I am bound in conscience to affirm that he who rejects Christ's Church rejects Christ. But theology requires precision, and the Catholic theological tradition explicitly rejects binary thinking. In light of those conditions, how are we to interpret "rejecting" the Church?

      First, some relevant background: Two of my Sacred Scripture professors were ordained Calvinist ministers. One of my closest family members is a devout and knowledgeable Presbyterian who is highly active in his church. I myself have studied Calvin's writings. I am not wholly ignorant of or unsympathetic toward Calvinists, so you know I've got no axe to grind.

      Man of the Atom touched on the Catholic Church's both/and approach to "Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus." Rejection of the Church is not an either/or proposition. There are degrees of membership. I know self-described Catholics who disagree with more Catholic teachings than my Calvinist relative does.

      Who is in full communion with the Church? Jesus gives us the answer: the one who does His Father's will. But we are all broken and have all fallen short of God's perfection. Committing the least sin technically makes one a material heretic.

      Christ wills that we enter into communion with Him through His Church that we might have life and have it fully. In the Catholic interpretation, what this looks like is living in obedience to the Church, accepting her teachings, and participating in the life of the sacraments. Failing to live perfectly in accord with these standards doesn't necessarily constitute rejecting the Church. It does place one in a more or less deficient state of communion.

      Who then has rejected the Church? I don't claim to know other men's hearts. The Church does not canonize people in hell, so we will not know this side of glory.

      Specifically regarding our separated brethren, so many years have passed that no individual Protestant can be held guilty of the Reformers' initial rebellion. Although Luther's revolt took place only yesterday in the Church's reckoning, we must in charity account for the brief span of mortal man.

      In conclusion, Christ wills that all enter into relationship with Him through the Church He founded. Communion with the Church admits of degrees, and while Catholics profess that full acceptance of and participation in the Catholic Church's doctrine and sacramentality constitutes the fullness of the Christian life, the Church does not condemn as reprobate those who achieve 90% participation.

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    3. Thank you, sir. I do my best to be obedient to Christ as I understand his instructions. While it was my (untrained and unscholarly) notion that what you expressed above was a rough guide to clear thinking on the subject, I value input from those who have studied extensively.
      Considering myself devout, I have spent a relatively small amount of time on doctrine, and believe that on the whole, there is a larger commonality, particularly of the basics, between Protestant and Catholic, than many believe. In fact I think that even considering the rebellion in question, Protestantism shows very clearly its recent descent from the same traditions as the Roman Catholic Church.

      It's just something I'm mulling over as I try to connect to the fullness of my own traditions, attempting to be more obedient but also more attuned to the greater family - through space but also time - of the believers.

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  7. Ah, yes, link here:
    http://edwardfeser.blogspot.com/
    My second favourite of the Roman Church, after Mr Niemeier himself.

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    1. Thank you for such high praise. Know that I welcome and cherish my readers from among the separated brethren.

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  8. Excellent write up and replies in the comments Brian. One of the best informative summations I’ve read.

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    1. I'm delighted you've found the post and comments salutary. It's an honor to have such learned readers.

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  9. Good starting point for atheists like me who are looking to learn again. Thanks!

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