First Meditation: God the Creator

Note: This is just a series of loose thoughts written out more or less as they come, presented in the hopes that someone will find something worthwhile within them. 

 

Most of the truths of our faith have become truisms through repetition, so that we fail to appreciate their meaning. To say that God created the Heavens and the Earth, and that through Christ all things were made seems to us, at the end of two millennia of Christian teaching, to be simply what a god does. We hardly even remember that the pagan gods, by and large, were not creators. At best, they were artisans making new things out of what already was. Zeus was not the creator. Odin the all-father himself had fathers. But God, the God of the Hebrews, is Creator of all, including of the devil himself, and He made them out of nothing, through His word alone.

It is an interesting point that: In the Beginning was the Word, through Whom all things were made. And God, in Genesis, creates by word, merely by commanding it to be. God speaks, and the world was made.

That raises a question: what is a word? Is a word not an idea made manifest? If I say ‘chair,’ well you and I have an idea of what a chair is. The word conveys the idea through sound or symbol, yet neither sound nor symbol contain within themselves the idea (as shown by the fact that other sounds and symbols can and are used to manifest the same idea: hence the variety of language).

A word is an idea made manifest. When God speaks His word, His ideas are made. It might almost be said that, as setting up sound waves are our method of speaking, so Creation is God’s.

That means that everything that is corresponds to an idea within the mind of God. These ideas may be said to correspond with what Plato called the Forms (if I read him correctly): the deeper reality that physical things are the reflection of.

All this world we live in came direct from the mind of God, yet is external to Him, as a spoke word is external to the speaker (the image in The Silmarillian of God and the angels singing creation into being is a very fitting one). Moreover, God called the world good, and we know that He loves the world, and especially mankind. If He loves it, then we are to love it as well.

But what of the unlovable parts of Creation? Sin and pain and suffering and the like?

Part of that I think may be that nature, in the sense of non-human physical nature, was never meant to quite correspond to rational values. Just what she is or what her purpose is, we do not know. Perhaps before the Fall we did, but not now. But she is separated from us in a way she is not from the other animals: the rules for lions and deer and insects are not those for us. Yet, as both come from the same mind, we must be able to find parallels and illustrations between them: they are not absolutely different.

More importantly, however, is the reality of sin: that is, the creature rebelling against the creator and refusing to correspond to the perfect idea in the mind of God, even though it is only in such correspondence that the creature can experience what is called happiness.

I don’t know whether nature herself can sin, but a rational being, one aware of itself and its creator, certainly can. This follows from God making all things good. The creature, contemplating itself, sees that itself is good. It is thus aware of two goods; itself and God. Whenever two or more goods are presented, it is possible to choose one or the other. Yet God cannot make anything that is not good, and as it is better to choose freely than by compulsion, His goodness would require Him to grant free will to His creatures, which being themselves good and reflections of Him, must tempt them to choose themselves apart from Him.

Sin, thus, is perhaps a necessary, not condition or even consequence, but possibility of the world God has made. The very goodness of goodness itself creates the possibility of evil.

This we see in our own experience: everything good can potentially be turned to evil. Anything good can be abused, and the better the thing is, the worse the abuse. Creation was good; perhaps the best thing there is apart from God (well, by definition it must be, as those are, broadly speaking, the only two categories in existence), thus it has the potential for evil.

Does God, who is all good, therefore have the potential for Evil? No, because evil means choosing the self or some other good besides God. Obviously, God Himself cannot do that.

Creation, therefore, by its very goodness creates the possibility of evil. It also spreads God’s own goodness and reflects it. Why did God create, if creation brings with it the possibility of Evil? It seems to be that He wished to share the goodness that He is; to give it to others. Creation is a pure gift of goodness; when we gaze on the night sky, or enjoy the taste of food, or spend time in nature, or listen to music, or make love with our wives, we are sharing in the goodness of God. We are experiencing, in a minor key, a taste of what He experiences eternally and offers to share with us.

I don’t know whether non-rational creation experiences anything like this; certainly there is some measure of happiness found in animal life, such as dogs or horses, and perhaps there is something akin to happiness in nature herself. Wordsworth described every flower rejoicing in the air it breathes, but I wonder whether what is actually happening is not more like the entirety of nature herself has some form of spirit, which experiences something like happiness. Or perhaps God’s idea of each species and each type of plant and stone and ocean has its proper spirit or angel to partake in its share of the goodness of God. Or perhaps these things exist for the sake of the rational creation, and experience happiness only through man. The example of domestic animals might seem to indicate this: a dog achieves its full state of happiness, if that is the correct word, only through the love and training of a kind master.

But this is speculation. What we do know is that God created all things through His Word, which is Christ, the second person of the Trinity. All things, therefore, are good to the extent that God made them.

And what of the evil things of creation? Cancers and diseases and the like? I think we can say these things were not made that way by God, but twisted by the Devil. For instance, the little bacteria that causes Bubonic Plague was created innocent by God. It was Satan that took it and twisted it to be the vector of disease. Viruses, those little un-living bundles of protein, may have been created direct by the Devil as a mockery of life. Cancer too is not a creature itself but a misprogramming of the body. Such things are not the work of God, but corruptions or distortions. Disease is the Devil’s creation, as seen by Christ casting it out wherever He goes, together with the demons who are the Devil’s minions.

But we are not like that. We were made direct by God and in His image and likeness. He made each of us individually, and knew us before He formed us in our mothers’ wombs. Each human being corresponds to a particular idea in the mind of God: each man has his own proper Form.

These ideas are what God means for each of us, the pattern that He intended us to be. He does not create to no purpose, and He expects something specific from each one of us (see the parable of the Talents). None of us, save Our Lord, Our Lady, and perhaps St. John the Baptist, has ever fully matched the Idea God had of us in His head. Those of us who make creative work will recognize that the ideas we have never seem to measure up to the reality: perhaps this is God’s way of conveying His frustration to us.

And why do we not fit the pattern when we have a perfect creator? Because, in a staggering condescention, God does not act as sole creator. He permits us to have a hand in our own creation. He provides the baseline: our time, our appearance, our sex, and so on, and guides our hand through the rest, but we are the ones He wishes to create according to His pattern: to build upon what He provides us.

It is since the initial fall and the onset of original sin – like the familial tremors that make it so hard for me to write neatly – that this co-creation has become impossible. We can’t help missing the line or twitching the pen out of position, and that’s when we are trying to follow the pattern. When we decide to freestyle on the idea we can make something better than God, we end up with a complete mess. We make ourselves into things that are no longer even akin to what God intended, fitting outselves for nothing but the rubbish heap.

For never forget: we are made in God’s image. These selves we are creating are little portraits of our Divine Creator. An image of God that conveys a lie, or a slander, or a caricature of Him is unacceptable, even in the interest of the ruined man himself. To be eternally proclaiming a lie is no happiness and does no good to anyone. Thus enters Hell: the repository for lies and broken images. To be made in the image of God contains within itself the requirement of Hell: for if an image turns false to its subject, it ceases to be an image at all.

God created the world, but He allows us to help create ourselves. Our lives are the creation process: in fact, we do not know what it is like to be in a finished creation, only in an ongoing one. That state of completion, of having it said of us “It is good,” is what we call ‘Heaven.’

Thus, properly speaking, our lives are a single, continuous creation, like the lines in a picture make up a single image. The revelation of Our Faith is in the Life of Christ, and before that the Life of Israel the nation: not in any one formula or set of statements (though these are used to clarify and understand revelation). God speaks through creation, and the life of a man is a single element of Creation. Thus, the Life of Christ is, in its totality, God’s statement to mankind.

 

Why I Am a Catholic:

compassion

The Reasons:

I am tempted to answer as Walker Percy did: what else is there? The alternatives all seem to me grossly inadequate. This is true speaking both philosophically and historically: that is, both the competing worldviews and the alternative explanations for the figure of Christ.

Philosophically, I have never heard any good atheist answers to the argument from contingency (everything in our experience derives its being from another source and cannot sustain itself, but if that were true of everything, nothing would exist, so a self-contained, eternal, uncreated being must exist), or a good explanation for human morality (why we have the experience of “I ought” and “I ought not”), or for the experience of beauty (why do such disparate things as music, a woman’s face, a mountain, an ocean, a bird, a poem, and the night sky affect us in much the same way), or for the universality of religious belief among the cultures of mankind. In short, any purely materialistic belief system must be false because it runs contrary to the experience of mankind.

Agnosticism, the belief that man cannot possibly know the truth about God, seems to me irrational. If man came from God, then there must be, however faint, a likeness or kinship between God and man, meaning that God can, to an extent, be known by man. If not, then the agnostic has to come up with a workable explanation both why not and why all the millions of people who claimed to know God throughout history, including many of its best and brightest, were mistaken, but the agnostic is not. To say that man cannot possibly know God or know the truth (which is more or less the same thing) seems to me to be an attempt at evasion rather than a real cogent position. Besides, there’s no reason to believe we can’t know something until it has been definitively proven that we don’t.

First, I believe in God. It seems to me that our experience both of the world and of human nature can’t possibly be explained absent the divine. Such difficulties as arise of positing that God exists and is good (i.e. the problem of evil) seem to me to be only problems of perspective; when dealing with something infinitely far above us, it will of course seem as if there are contradictions, but having good reason to believe in God’s existence and goodness on other grounds we can trust that these are illusory. The problem of evil, therefore, can be accepted as a problem that is accounted for by the premise, much as the lack of stellar parallaxes was accepted as a problem that was accounted for once Newton’s laws provided a workable context for Kepler’s model of the solar system. We admit the problem exists, but say that it is due to a lack of knowledge rather than being a serious contradiction.

I believe that Jesus Christ was and is the second person of the Trinity, the only begotten Son of God, true God and true Man, come to Earth to bring the forgiveness of sins to mankind. Like with God, I don’t see a cogent explanation for the figure of Christ that does not accept His claim to be God. The event of the Resurrection is the insurmountable obstacle; either it happened, or it didn’t. If it did, Christ is who He says He is. If it didn’t, then an explanation is needed for how and why the event was faked in a manner convincing enough to successfully bring about the conversion of the Roman Empire.

Moreover, the witness of the Saints and the Church seem to me conclusive: if Christ was a fake or fable, He’s the most successful and effective fake in human history. Lives are noticeably improved by following Him. His followers do great good for the people around them and humanity in general. The saints are striking examples of human excellence in all its forms and are admired even by atheists.

People sometimes talk as if it were easy to explain away Jesus as a simple preacher who was divinized by his ignorant and/or conniving followers. Such explanations are pathetically inadequate (not to mention transparently false to facts) to explain the Christian phenomenon. As far as I can see, the only explanation that covers all the facts is the one that Christianity itself proposes: that Jesus was the Son of God and that He founded the Church to be His instrument on Earth and to bring His Word to all nations. This explanation accounts not only for all the good the Church has done, but also all the evil, as the Church is explicitly an institution made up of fallen human beings in need of God’s mercy and nothing in the Christian religion claims that those who follow Christ will never sin, make mistakes, or act out of ignorance. The Christian view accounts for the whole of the observed facts, while the non-Christian view only accounts for part of them.

This brings me to the fact that, as a Catholic, I find I can account for pretty much everything that comes my way. Not that I can explain everything, but I can see how it could be explained without resorting to either flat denial or contradiction. From social conditions to historical events to scientific discoveries to ghost stories, I can more-or-less see how everything has its place in the Catholic worldview. Yes, science too: no matter how far down physics explores, below the electron and into the deep sub-atomic, it can never touch religious faith. No matter how minutely you examine the wall of a house, no matter how deep into the architecture and structure of the beams and nails that make it up, you are never going to seriously affect the question of the architect’s identity. Exploring the structure of God’s creation strikes me as a very wonderful thing to do, but I find the idea that, in so doing, you can somehow disprove God’s existence to be ridiculous.

As a side note, when it comes to evolution I reject the natural selection model as laughably inadequate (though it may account for some things: no one ever said there had to be only a single engine), but I think whatever does drive evolution will prove to be as ‘scientific’ as anything else (i.e. there will be a clear trail of physical events leading one to another). The question doesn’t affect my faith one way or another.

Thus far I have not found a single really concrete fact or truth which openly contradicts my faith. In addition, I find most modern objections to Christianity are moral rather than philosophical or historical (the only grounds I think Christianity can adequately be attacked). That is, people object to it on the grounds that Christian belief forbids certain practices that the modern world considers sacred rights (mostly related to sex). Even if I didn’t personally object to the practices being so guarded, there would still be the problem that to find a belief inconvenient to your lifestyle does not prove that it is false, only that if it is true, your lifestyle is an improper one. To reject a belief system for no other reason than because you want to violate it seems to me insane.

The fact that Catholicism demands that I often act contrary to my own desires and inclinations I hold to be one of the proofs of its validity. A belief system that doesn’t place any demands on me beyond what is already in my mind or which flatters my own desires looks very much like a mere justification on my part.

Now all this is a reason why I am Christian. Why am I a Roman Catholic?

Once one accepts Christianity as true, I don’t think there can be a really cogent reason for being Protestant. The Protestant system is too new, having emerged in the 1500s, largely on account of an intellectual lightweight named Martin Luther and a more rigorous, but equally irrational theologian named John Calvin. Its chief precepts have no basis in the writings of the early Church Fathers and its sola scriptura doctrine is itself ascriptural and illogical (if scripture alone is authoritative, by what authority was scripture defined?). Moreover, most Protestant churches lack the structural characteristics that the Church had even in Biblical times, indicating that they lack any kind of continuity with the Church of the Apostles.

Once Protestantism is rejected, there remain the Catholic, Orthodox, Coptic, and Anglican churches. Anglicanism is rejected at once both because of its shameful origins (a church that exists because a king wanted a divorce) and national character (by what possible reading of Scripture could a local monarch be given authority over the Church of Christ?). Perhaps it might have been possible to be Anglican when England ruled a quarter of the planet, lending a kind of universality to it, but even then it was obviously a national church. The Church of Christ must be a universal institution and can never be nationalized or subject to any human nation.

Of the three remaining, a similar problem emerges with the Copts and Orthodox; they are too localized and insular. Indeed, the Orthodox Church had its origins in a similar (though far less blatant) nationalist effort to the Anglican: the Emperor ruled from Constantinople, so Constantinople must be a great Holy See (though even so they remained in communion with Rome for many centuries, until some unfortunate incidents around the time of the Crusades). But in any case, neither the Orthodox nor the Copts have ever showed the kind of universality that the Romans have in sending missionaries to the far corners of the globe and exercising authority over Christians from innumerable different cultures. Though I would say that they both are branches of the true Church, just stubbornly independent ones.

Thus I think that, once one accepts the truth of God one must accept the truth of Christianity, and once one does that, one must be a Roman Catholic. I can conceive of one who is born into the faith remaining Orthodox or Coptic without contradiction, but other than that I can see no cogent reason for not being Catholic.

The Benefits

In addition to all of the above, the benefits of being Roman Catholic are, of course, excellent (as might be expected from the truth). The one I find most useful is that it shields you from the parochialism of modernity. In a field where one can profitably turn to advice written in the fifth, eighth, twelfth, or sixteenth century it is hard to conceive of the modern age as being the pinnacle of the human intellect it claims to be. The trap that so many contemporaries fall into of viewing our ancestors as either villains or children is eliminated for the faithful Catholic. The idea that, say, Richard Dawson is more intelligent than Augustine of Hippo or Thomas Aquinas simply because he happened to be born later is laughable.

The Catholic, assured that mankind is fallen and the world is a vale of tears, is typically defended against the lure of Utopia and the temptation to do anything and everything, however absurdly impractical, in an attempt to eliminate some great perennial evil. The idea of stealing from everyone to eliminate poverty, or of throwing away all weapons to eliminate war, is seen for the insanity it is. The answer to poverty is to give generously to the poor man and provide an opportunity for him to better himself. The answer to war is to win the one you’re fighting, show mercy to the conquered, and do your best to avert the next one. These things are not going to go away no matter what we do and attempts to eliminate them wholesale always have disastrous consequences (e.g. a concentrated effort by the world’s great powers to never have another war led directly to the most destructive war in human history).

Christianity is an incredibly open and varied religion. Barring sin, just about everything mankind can do can be turned to the glory of God. A Catholic can be a miner, a musician, a politician, a farmer, a soldier, a priest, a police officer, a writer, an artist, a businessman, a housewife, a beggar, an aristocrat, a scientist, a scholar, or a sailor without any kind of impediment to his faith. Every field of human endeavor is open to the Catholic as a means to give glory to God, and just about every one has done so. Every kind of personality can be turned to Christ, even very prickly and unpleasant ones (rudeness isn’t a sin). A Catholic can be irritable, blunt, and rude like, Hillare Belloc, or open, friendly, and charming like G.K. Chesterton. The Church accepts all kinds.

Because Christianity gives life a real end goal and some fairly straightforward criteria for meeting it: believe in Christ, receive the sacraments, confess your sins, forgive others, do your duty. Everything else is a matter of style. He who keeps the commandments can dispense with convention. As a Catholic I am far more free to be myself than I am as a millennial.

As a Catholic, I am free to apply the normal rules of skepticism, evidence, and belief to everything. For instance, I don’t have to accept the word of scientists as of gods because I know scientists are fallen men and that science itself is not the final word on reality. I can thumb my nose at the zeitgeist and declare that diversity is absurd, tolerance only a limited virtue, and that expecting someone not to have sex if they can’t handle the consequences is not a human rights violation. Once I have my faith in place, I am free to question everything, including the most cherished assumptions of the current age. That’s how I came to conclude that Imperialism was a legitimate form of foreign policy, that there is no fundamental difference between ‘homosexuality’ and any other form of temptation, and that the notion of equality is effectively meaningless when applied to human beings. These ideas run directly contrary to the surrounding culture, but because I know, through my faith, how limited that is I’m able to look beyond it and examine questions more (I hope) objectively.

So, the canard that religious dogma limits thought is almost the exact opposite of the truth: once religious dogma is in place, the mind has a scope to explore beyond the current climate of opinion and entertain ideas that would otherwise be unthinkable. Mere ‘open-mindedness’ only leads to conforming to ideas are in the air at the moment. Of all people the self-styled free-thinker is most a child of his own age.

A popular idea is that, freed from Christianity, one is freed from guilt. That’s not true. Freedom from Christianity allows a man to more effectively deaden his conscience to a particular beloved sin, but not to all. And if he does commit what he still regards as a sin, or if someone else does, then he finds that what he’s really been freed from is not guilt but forgiveness. The agonistic or the atheist has no mechanism to forgive the really sinful. He can excuse, but he can’t forgive. Hence the fanatical hatred of secularists, hedonists, communists, and so on for those they regard as evil. Their only recourse is to declare a sin not to be sinful, but that only takes you so far. As a Christian, I may count more things as being sinful than the average man, but I have a remedy for it. I can be unsparing in my assessment of myself because I know that anything I account as evil is not incurable or beyond forgiveness. In other words, a secularist can’t admit to being a bad person, because in his worldview there is no remedy for that. I can because I know Christ came to call sinners to repentance. Every time I go to Confession I wonder how non-Catholics can stand to live without it; I certainly couldn’t.

This, I think, is one of the things secularists really fail to understand; lacking a mechanism for forgiveness themselves, they assume that when a Christian says that something is sinful, they mean that a person who does this should be shunned and punished and destroyed (because that’s what the secularist thinks should happen). But the Christian thinks that a person who has sinned should repent and be forgiven, and that they will be much happier if they do. If I say homosexuality is sinful, I don’t mean that I hate and shun anyone who has committed that sin, only that I think they ought, for their own sakes, to repent and be forgiven for it. Christians don’t dismiss people as being unworthy of life or irredeemably evil: secularists do.

Catholicism is a wonderfully human religion. Surrounding the core, unchangeable dogmas is a whole wonderful palace of devotions, sacramentals, pious legends, history, folk practices, books, art, and so on. It gives you something to grab onto (literally), something to look at and enjoy while you praise God. It’s a religion that has weathered real life for two millennia and has the scuffs and scars of something that’s been used hard and endured. This isn’t something made up in a college classroom by ivory tower academics; it’s something that’s been out in the real world living, suffering, rejoicing, and fighting with real people for thousands of years. Its roots go all the way back to the beginning of recorded history with Abraham. It’s been tried and tested as thoroughly as any human institution or philosophy can be and has endured. In short, it works.

So, that’s the summary version of why I am Catholic. To summarize the summary, the reason I’m Catholic is because it’s true.