Return of the Prodigal Son by Pompeo Batoni - 1773

Evolution for the Catholic Student

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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

To Whom Shall We Go?

To Whom Shall We Go?

          One of the most important writings of St. John Paul II’s long reign as pope is the encyclical, Fides et Ratio, “Faith and Reason.”  In this masterpiece, the pope investigates the deep relationship between faith and reason, and shows that the two support and enlighten one another.  This, of course, only makes sense since our reason, our intellect, comes from God and its highest purpose is to know God.

          However, since the French Revolution, and its “goddess Reason,” there have been those who make the ridiculous case that faith is actually the enemy of reason.  Most prominent today are the so-called “new atheists.”  However, any thorough examination of the discourse shows that reason is clearly on the side of the Christian.  I have said many times that I don’t have nearly enough blind faith to be an atheist.

          However, as much as we love to show that our Faith is incredibly reasonable, and we base so many of our arguments in favor of the Faith on reason, we must be careful not to go so far as subjecting everything about the Faith to the judgment of our reason. 

What I mean is this: we can fall into the trap of saying that we will not accept the truths of the Faith until we scrutinize them and unless they pass the test of our personal judgment.  This, of course, is a heresy, and one that has led to great division - tens of thousands of Protestant denominations.  As Catholics, who know that the Church has received the fullness of the Truth, and the authority to teach that Truth, we must not set ourselves up as the final judges of Truth, regardless of the power that reason has to deepen our faith.  It must be remembered that although our Faith is not hostile to human reason, there are aspects of it that are above human reason.

The Gospel readings of the last few Sundays have brought this consideration to mind.  They have been the Bread of Life discourse in the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to St. John.  The past few weeks Jesus has been telling the crowds that He is the Bread of Life, and that whoever eats His Flesh and drinks His Blood will have eternal life.  This is not the place for it, but a study of the text shows without question that He is speaking very literally.  His Jewish disciples understood that as well, because in this week’s Gospel, we heard that many of them left Him forever, and He let them go.  He refused to back down from this teaching; it is essential to the Faith.

Imagine if you had been one of those hearing Jesus say these words for the first time.  You knew that, as a Jew, the consuming of blood at all was forbidden, and cannibalism would have been unthinkable.  Yet here is a man telling a massive crowd that unless they fed on his flesh and drank his blood, they would not have life.  Your first instinct would probably have been disgust and, like many of those who left probably felt, you might have wondered if this man was crazy. 

With hindsight, we can understand that Jesus was talking about the Eucharist, which truly is His Body and Blood, but which is not being fed to us as his disciples in John 6 would have imagined.  This doctrine is above human reason, even for those who believe and understand it (as much as a person can this side of Heaven), but it is not opposed to reason.  Of course, the people hearing Jesus say these words had no understanding of the Eucharist and certainly would never have been able to grasp it if He had laid out the whole thing to them at the time.

We can understand, as reasonable Jews, why they would have left Him, shaking their heads as they went.  Why, then, did the Apostles stay?  Did they understand better what Jesus was trying to say?  I doubt it.  But they did understand better who Jesus is.

They had heard His teachings, they had seen His miracles, they had been among the 5,000 that He had just fed with five loaves and two fish.  They had come to believe, as Peter said, that He had the words of everlasting life.  These particular words they did not understand yet, but they trusted the One who spoke them, so they stayed with Him, and their faith was rewarded when, the following year, at the Last Supper, the meaning of those words was made clear.

Many of the disciples had seen and heard the same things as the Twelve, though, and yet they went away.  What was lacking?  I wonder if, perhaps, it was love.  Jesus had said just prior that they were seeking Him not because they had seen signs, but because they had eaten of the loaves.  At the multiplication of the loaves and fish, their bellies were filled, but their hearts and minds were not.  Faith was not allowed to illuminate their reason.  They wanted more of what Jesus might give them, but not more of Him.  So when they did not think they wanted what He was offering anymore, they left.

The Apostles, on the other hand, (with the possible exception of Judas) had come to know and love Jesus.  Faith and reason told them that this was One sent from God, and God was to be trusted.  So, when understanding was lacking, Peter responds to Jesus’s question about their leaving: “To whom shall we go?”

They did not wait to understand everything before they would believe Jesus.  Yes, their reason worked with faith (and God’s grace) to convince them of who Jesus is, and perhaps most importantly, they had a deep personal relationship with Him.

This can be a tricky subject.  Many cult leaders have manipulated people into accepting and doing anything they say.  That is why it is so important that our Faith is not merely a blind faith, but one which continues to receive life from God Himself, with an authority received from Jesus and that has stood the test of time, so we do not run off after any charismatic preacher with his own ideas and agendas, but stay safe in the house of God, built on a rock, which will carry us surely through the travails of this life to the shores of eternity.