The Coherence of Faith

Friends of TCT: On Tuesday of this week, senior editor Brad Miner and contributor George Marlin will appear at the Basilica of Old St. Patrick’s Cathedral to discuss their new book, SONS OF ST. PATRICK. Click here for more details.

There is a healthy tension between how we view the basic facts of life and what we would like life to be. Reconciling the two with honesty and coherence is an essential task for all of us, or at least for those who endeavor to live an examined life.

Perhaps the most popular contemporary view of life is the belief in “inevitable progress.” The strength of the evidence for this view is mostly technological. Once we were cavemen, then we built houses of marble and granite, now we have smartphones and Internet access to government-subsidized health care – not to mention bunker-busting bombs and nuclear missiles.

Life can be (and has been) improved and prolonged with technology – and to a large extent, that’s a good thing. But beyond technological innovations, “progress” usually means celebrating the prevailing cultural winds, despite inherent inner contradictions and ironies.

Fast food technologies have their place, of course. But a family “fast food ideology” easily crowds out family meals, damaging the family as the school of genuine human love. And when parents allow the sewer of the Internet as a babysitter, why do we wonder why love-starved, bored, and restless young turn to casual sex, drugs, and crime.

Indeed, beyond technological advances, there is precious little evidence that supports the “inevitable progress” of human existence. If we think seriously about the circumstances of modern life – from life in the inner city to life under Sharia law – we must admit we always remain on the precipice of barbarity. And despite the best technological efforts, immortality remains outside our grasp.

The pendulum swings quickly from the advocates of “inevitable progress” to the hardscrabble “facts-of-life realists.” Their view is much closer to the simple truths of our existence: We are born; we live; we die. Those who hold to this basic “cycle of life” usually have reasonable life expectations: good health and good fortune, peace and security, family, good cheer, and a few friends – maybe even tax cuts to spur the economy.

But these self-evidently reasonable aspirations conceal a much deeper inner restlessness. So the realist without faith is compelled to control his imagination. As time goes on, death looms, completing the cycle, or bringing the cycle to a futile end. For the thoughtful realist, all things and all aspirations come to nothing. Or as an ancient phrase describes it, “vanity of vanities, all is vanity.”

Vanity: Still life with a Skull and a Writing Quill by Pieter Claesz, 1628 [The Met, NYC]
This existential despair of realists is wonderfully considered in the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes. American novelist Thomas Wolfe, the brilliantly realistic observer of culture, is perhaps disproportionate in his praise of Ecclesiastes: “[O]f all I have ever seen or learned, that book seems to me the noblest, the wisest, and the most powerful expression of man’s life upon this earth – and also the highest flower of poetry, eloquence, and truth. . . .Ecclesiastes is the greatest single piece of writing I have ever known, and the wisdom expressed in it the most lasting and profound.” But Ecclesiastes knew not the Gospel.

The realist easily rejects the sentimentality of those who have faith in man’s “inevitable progress.” But he’s often limited by empirical facts and similarly refuses to gaze towards the infinite. He is, therefore, unable to grasp the meaning of his existence without the evidence that is offered by faith. The realist without faith, like the sentimentalist, is trapped; his view of life is too narrow and therefore somewhat un-realistic.

In one of the most intriguing sentences in the Old Testament, Isaiah prophesizes “so shall my [God’s] word be that goes forth from my mouth; my word shall not return to me void but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it.” (Is. 55:11)  It’s a key passage in the Old Testament that knits together all of divine revelation.

If the Word of God, Who issued forth from the mouth of the Father, truly rose from the dead in history, then everything fits together in the light of the Resurrection. Abraham’s test of faith foreshadows the Crucifixion. The Promised Land of the Israelites is replaced by the “new and heavenly Jerusalem.” All of history has changed course with the prospect of eternal life and becomes intelligible. Ecclesiastes’ tortured philosophical questions are resolved. All is not vanity.

All is also coherent. The fact of the Resurrection allows us to recalibrate and assemble the entirety of God’s Revelation within the simple framework of the Apostles’ Creed. The Word of God has returned to the Father and beckons us to follow Him. God “sends forth His Spirit and renews the face of the earth” with the Sacraments. Even human suffering takes on a new and redemptive meaning in Christ – because of the fact of the Empty Tomb.

God’s triumph is not man’s obliteration or subordination. With His Resurrection as reported by the evangelists and as witnessed by the martyrs of the early Church, Jesus, the Word made flesh, definitively accomplishes what God intends: Our liberation from sin and death.  God’s Revelation as recorded in the Bible becomes the comprehensive history of the power of God’s word.  And His encounter with man not only reconciles us to God. In Christ, our life is given new meaning and is forever reconciled to the promise of the life to come.

Easter is only one week behind us, but it’s worth proclaiming once again: He is risen!

Father Jerry J. Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington. He is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Great Falls, Virginia.