A Thing Not a Theory

Christmas is the feast that reminds us that the Faith is not an abstract idea, but a historical reality. A baby is born at a certain time in order to save the world. It’s as if a powerful man has seen a bunch of people fall through thin ice on a winter pond and goes out and rescues them, even though it’s clear he will have to die in the effort. All the thinking that follows – where did he come from, why did he do it, how did those people come to be in jeopardy, which steps should we take to warn others about the dangers of thin ice? – depends on the prior act of rescue.

A certain kind of Catholic sometimes seems annoyed that the Bible and the larger Revelation of which it is a part are not more like a philosophical treatise or pure moral code. The world at Christ’s birth already had plenty of both, some quite helpful and true, but they were not nearly enough to meet the need – which was to save us. You need someone, a person, for that. You don’t throw a book to someone who’s drowning.

It’s become harder to see this, partly because of our very rich tradition of Christian thought. Protestants, for example, have rightly emphasized the importance of the New Testament text. As critical-historical studies got into high gear over the past two centuries, however, it became clear that lots of material about Jesus had been in circulation before the Gospels were written down. If the scholars are right, the earliest NT text, Galatians, was written by St. Paul at least twenty years after Christ died.

Think about that for a second like a Christian, not like an intellectual. Imagine that some life-altering event happened to a group of people in 1990. And now here we are in 2010 and have obviously repeated and chewed over the original story many times. Even allowing for divine inspiration in the Gospels that come to be written – and selected as part of the official canon of Scripture from several others – the Church, the concrete community of believers, has played a big role in shaping, preserving, and authorizing the resulting texts. And in reminding everyone that something has happened that cannot be forgotten because it has altered human being forever.

There are only two basic reactions we can have to this realization. If you are a certain kind of fundamentalist, you may be shocked that there has been a kind of Catholic tampering with the received texts prior to their being written down. Some very sophisticated scholars have talked themselves into virtual skepticism because of the layering and selection of the material in the Gospels on the grounds that they do not represent some kind of pristine, immaculate, and absolute textual foundation.

Another large group of people – feminists, gay Christians, the whole modern pantheon – have used these scholarly speculations to argue that Christianity, as it was until recently, is simply an official selection and repression of the various “Christianities” that followed the life of Christ. Though there’s no evidence, even among the non-canonical texts, of anything resembling the kind of Christianity modern activists seek, for a certain kind of person, if the Church – which is to say, the Catholic Church – had a hand in producing the NT texts themselves, then they’re compromised and something else has to take their place, usually some contemporary fad.

“Ecce Homo” by Correggio 

Of course, there’s a second possible reaction, which is to acknowledge the inescapable – and essential – role that the Church, as the community to which Christ gave birth, plays in preserving his memory and making sure that, even in the midst of developments in thought, the reality of what he did does not become distorted. Many people may think of this as a kind of dull and bureaucratic orthodoxy, but let’s pause to think carefully about this too: the New Testament shows us a figure who could not have been created even by a literary genius, let along by a few fishermen and humble followers.

A friend of mine, a brilliant writer who died earlier this year, used to talk about how difficult it is to say something memorable. Yet the Gospels show a figure who tosses off many memorable words without particularly trying to impress anyone with them on his way to the death that redeemed us. And if there were not some authoritative understanding of the Good News we’ve received, we’d essentially be back in the old position of humanity: shifting for ourselves in a world that gives us no way to make sense of it. A Church that continually reminds us of the extraordinary nature of what has been handed down may do a clumsy job, but it almost can’t help also conveying that this all-too-familiar material is like weapons-grade plutonium and produces spiritual explosions wherever it is perceived afresh.

Here at The Catholic Thing we are quite aware that our work depends on something we have all been given without our deserving it. We put ourselves in the long tradition of those who have not seen, and yet have believed, and are clear that mere words (believe it from people who largely make their living producing words and arguments) can only point to something – no Someone – who has done the one thing really needed in the world. But without someone else to point the way, who will look or understand?

The end of another year is approaching. As I tell you only a few times each year, we depend on your support for what we do and are grateful for the numbers of you who respond generously each time we seek your support. We recently announced that our columns are now appearing in several foreign languages in Latin America and Europe. But we have other plans for expanding the ways that we can spread the Good News in the year to come.

For that we need your help. From now until the end of the year, we will be trying to raise the support we need to take us to another level on several fronts. Can you contribute $25, $50, $100, or more towards our work? I will not go over the many reasons why you value this site. You already know them. It’s quite clear that in 2011, the Church is going to need, perhaps more than ever, people who can explain the concrete reality of the Catholic thing in a world that increasingly can’t even understand its need to be saved. Please, join us in that effort. Send your contribution in support of TCT, today.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.