Collect for Candlemas

Almighty and ever-living God, we humbly beseech thy majesty: that, as thine Only-Begotten Son was this day presented in the temple in the substance of our flesh; so we may be presented unto thee with pure and clean hearts, by the same thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Coal Miner's Faith

Several months ago, at a Bible study, a woman of my acquaintance was describing a conversation she had had with a skeptical friend. He was scoffing at the account of the parting of the Red Sea in the book of Exodus, declaring it impossible on scientific grounds. My friend replied that that was why faith was necessary.

Hopefully without being a jerk, I differ from this as forcefully as possible. I stop short of saying, with Luther, that the unconsidered and really irrational faith of the proverbial coal miner -- who, when asked what he believes, can only say "I believe what the Church believes," and when asked what the Church believes, can only say "The Church believes what I believe" -- I stop short of saying that that is not faith. God can work with anything or nothing, and far be it from me to say where the Holy Ghost is not operating. But I do emphatically affirm the old saying: gratia non tollit naturam sed perficit, "grace does not take away nature but perfects it"; and the relationship of faith to reason is not one of replacement or contradiction.

This is not to say that reason, unaided, can penetrate all of the mysteries of faith. If it could, it wouldn't be faith. But we must be careful not to take the false step, the false step that explains and in some measure justifies the sneering of skeptics that in being Christians we throw our minds in the garbage, of saying or implying that reason and faith are incompatible. Reason can show that the Christian mysteries are mysteries, rather than contradictions; what it cannot do is plumb the mind of God -- nothing and no one can do that. "No one hath seen God at any time: God the only-begotten, who is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him."

The reason I object so strongly to what my friend said to her scornful acquaintance is that it implied an acceptance of the claim that miracles (or that miracle in particular) are irrational. It doesn't have to be miracles, of course -- any mystery will do as a peg upon which to hang the discussion. But if once we accept that assertion, and try to defend faith in the face of it, we are trying to defend what is, in my view, indefensible -- at any rate, indefensible if we have a sense of intellectual honor. For that which is truly irrational, i.e. that which is internally contradictory, literally cannot be true. It is immoral and insulting to demand that someone assent to something that cannot be true. And the transcendental claims made by Christianity do precisely solicit belief; they do not present themselves as merely useful, but as the truth.

A proper reply would involve pointing out that irrationality is really not what attends miracles. As Chesterton, discussing what is (somewhat misleadingly) called liberal theology, put it, "If you really wish poor children to go to the seaside, you cannot think it illiberal that they should go there on flying dragons; you can only think it unlikely." There is nothing internally contradictory about the parting of the Red Sea or any other miracle; if a purported miracle does involve a logical self-contradiction, then what we are dealing with is not a mystery but a muddle -- not something from above nature interfering with it, but a piece of nonsense that does not acquire meaning by acquiring the prefix "God can."* Distinguishing logic from the scientific method, and both from common sense, is essential here: faith most certainly leaves common sense huddled in a corner, and deals with things in which science as such has no interest, but logic properly so-called is naturally allied to faith, not opposed.

This is a matter of no small import in an age that, whether or not it is a highly scientific age (whatever that means), regards itself preeminently in the light of scientific and technological accomplishment. I'm not saying that Divine revelation needs to acquit itself in the court of public opinion; but I do say, with some warmth, that it is a Christian obligation not to put stumbling blocks in the way of those outside the faith, and to suggest that there is anything irrational in Christianity -- a different thing from saying that it is full of mysteries -- is exactly such a stumbling block. It is a disservice to those who, rightly, regard honesty and consistency as essential qualities of any belief. When we hear the remarks of atheists and skeptics deriding the Christian faith and explaining why, the easy excuse that they just don't have faith will not do. It would be more accurate to say, to ourselves if necessary, "The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you."

Does that mean that those outside the Church are never guilty of simple stubbornness in unbelief? Well of course that happens, but it isn't often our business. And, aside from praying, there is not as a rule much we can do about it, either: our primary concern must be with doing our part, not theirs. The mind is like a nose, in that you are only allowed to clean your own.

*Yes, I shamelessly stole this from C. S. Lewis. Good for you for reading Miracles.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoy your writing and your thoughts immensely. You're a terrific writer, and I enjoy reading what you have to say.

    Somewhat related, but essentially tangential to this post, is this curiosity about the scientific plausibility of the Red Sea parting which has stuck with me since I first read the story a few years ago: