Where Does One Start?

In my own experience – the only experience I have – it is not easy to explain Catholic beliefs. The condition is progressive: it becomes more difficult every year.

My experience does not extend to that of the earliest Christians, evangelizing the old pagan world, though I’ve read about them, and stumbled through the Church Fathers. One might almost say they had the easier task. The Greek and Roman world was, to a remarkable degree, capable of reason, and of being reasonable. It had many attitudes incompatible with those the Christians were expounding; but it had also the habit of listening to an argument.

The whole notion of Christ put their heads spinning. Here I am not referring to Christ Himself, only to the “idea” of Him. The idea of a divine messenger did not faze them, let alone the idea of the divine. The educated classes were instinctively monotheist, as we often read in passing remarks. Could God, in principle, send a human messenger?

Not impossible. They might be willing to entertain the idea.

But in that case, why send this “Christus” to some obscure provincial place? Why not send him directly to Rome, on the “take me to your leader” principle? That is where you go with serious business.

Instead, He sent a messenger to rive them with paradox; who did not seem concerned with politics at all; who spoke in parables; who hung out with low-life; who might even utter threats of damnation without visible means to carry them out. The response was often, “Surely you are joking.”

For He came without angelic armies. Surely no “Son of God” lands in lice-infested Bethlehem as a naked baby. That is more the profile of a public nuisance.

He was presented to them as an avatar or incarnation of the highest Deity; and maybe he performed some small miracles, and maybe not. He was dead, and the cultists say, resurrected. But the Sun was still rising in the East.

Very well, an educated Roman might think. I’ve heard things like that before. But you will have to queue for my attention. If God wanted the whole world converted to this new, rather weird, religious cult, why would He be so subtle?

A Capriccio of Roman Ruins by Marco Ricci, c 1720 [National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC]
A Capriccio of Roman Ruins by Marco Ricci, c. 1720 [National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC]

And if so subtle, what could be the Christians’ objection to the way in which their common world was ordered, by customs and rituals sanctioned by the State? They could practice their religion in private, so long as they paid their taxes, and bowed to the correct statues. Why were they making trouble for themselves?

Homosexuality, abortion and infanticide, recreational sex, no-fault divorce; gladiators, priestesses; mass public entertainment; public works and conscription of all kinds – the old pagan world had many parallels to our modern, neo-pagan one. The early Christians were recognizably “counter-cultural,” or “pro-life.” But to a Roman citizen, of some sophistication, what business had Christians with the way people live? They were otherworldly, it shouldn’t concern them.

And if they were so pro-life, why so eager to get themselves martyred? Just asking for it, often as not, when their humane prosecutors were trying to give them an out. Clearly these were fanatics, crazy people. Leave them to their foibles and their cult will soon fade.

Why, verily, since they seemed to be saying that this God/Man was some kind of Jew, did the Jews not accept Him? There were, after all, a lot more Jews in the world than Christians (then), and they could be trouble enough. Shouldn’t Jews settle their squabbles among themselves, and deal with their “home grown” fanatics?

Yet that world had been conditioned to think in universals – by Plato and Aristotle; by Lucretius, by Cicero, by Virgil; by Athens, Alexandria, and Rome. It was receptive to the “big idea.” It was already animated by a “universal spirit” – the sense that one thing leads to another, and the totality of things must cohere. That world had acknowledged an “unmoved mover,” and without yet knowing, it would embrace Christ.

The way I acknowledged Him, I’ll make bold to say: by increments, then suddenly as a whole. The “message” that seems irrational at first, and too full of paradox to consider, begins to resolve. By degrees it becomes irrefutable. If this, then that; if that, then this; and finally, in Cardinal Sarah’s beautiful phrase: “God or Nothing.”

It was another story, east of Greece and Rome, where Christianity made inroads to great distances, but was often deflected or swamped. There, Christianity landed in environments one might almost say “not ready” for it. The leaps were often more spectacular, but the grounding in reason was terribly infirm. In so many places it landed, then sank, leaving only traces floating.

Ethiopia, for instance, was a huge raft. Cut off from the rest of Christendom by the Arabs, the religion flourished on Abyssinia’s high, inaccessible plateaus. Seventeen centuries later they were found, still practicing a Christian sacramental life, with altars and saints and liturgies; with poetry, art, and music of extraordinary Christian power.

Armenians and Georgians, too, managed to tread water; and Copts and Assyrians in harsh circumstances, surrounded; and traces extend to India and China from the first centuries. These were heroic accomplishments that survive immortally in God’s sight. However, on the whole, the final paradox of the emergent Church was that she flourished more in the West, than in the “mystical” East.

But is this a real paradox? For it is easier to lay foundations, and build upon, hard ground. Christianity advanced the cause of reason; but reason also advanced the cause of Christianity.

The world we face today is not like Greece and Rome. It is much more like the ancient East: a swamp in which reason finds little purchase. In order to evangelize, we must forego leaps. We must not assume premisses shared by all men of reason and good will. We must start with the very premisses.

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.