There are certain goods Catholics enjoy, which they can take for granted. This takes the form: they presume, usually on a false philosophy, that those goods are available to everyone, just as a basic fact, rather than solely as a consequence of the Sacrifice of Our Lord. And then they get all mixed up about the uniqueness of Christianity or extra ecclesiam nulla salus.
Such persons are practical heretics, although they may not know it, and don’t mean to be. It’s not that they deny a truth of the faith affirmed in the Creed. They don’t say for example that there is only one person in God (Unitarianism) or that Jesus is not divine (Arianism). Rather, they suppose something false, practically speaking, about the way of salvation. I suspect many Catholics are like this, because raised in the faith they do not know the faith. Converts are much less likely to go wrong by presumption.
Here’s an example. I believe that I have direct access to the Most High God any time, simply by turning to Him. I may have offended Him many times already during the day. I may currently be distracted by something foolish rather than doing what I should. But I presuppose this: if I simply turn to Him, maybe to ask for help, as if He is waiting only to converse with me, no matter my faults – He will assuredly hear my prayer.
If someone asked why I presume this, I would appeal to my divine sonship, my “Divine Filiation,” as spiritual writers call it. I would say: “Jesus as the only-begotten Son had this sort of relationship with the Father. By baptism I am made a son of God also and enjoy a similar relationship. Doesn’t the Our Father, said with a certain meaning by a Christian, express and confirm this fact?”
My life as a whole has a certain character because I live it in the awareness that conversing with God is as easy as turning to Him, which is within my power. If I stay free from mortal sin, I always live thus “in the presence of God,” then, and it’s up to me to seek to live this most fully, by familiar means taught us by the saints – the crucifix, images, short ejaculatory prayers, “offering it up,” regular times of mental prayer, seeking the sustenance of the Eucharist.
But my knowledge of philosophy, history, and other religions tells me two things. The first is that this is an extraordinary presumption, which has no rational basis in the nature of things, and which few outside of Christianity have supposed. I cannot even speak with President Biden when I wish, at my convenience. Certainly, a constant propensity to side with his opponents would make that prospect even more unlikely. I don’t have the billions of dollars necessary to get to the edge of space through my efforts – how ascend, then, through the levels of the Great Chain of Being to arrive at the Heavenly Court? I am a mortal, just dust. Why should the gods even know about me, and, if they do, why would they care?
“So, you can just turn to God – the true God, the Creator and Father of all, from all eternity – whenever you wish, and gain His ear and even His favor, just by wishing it? On what basis exactly? How did you acquire such powers?” A Christian has an answer, which is genuine, reliable, and true, but does anyone else? “But as many as received him, he gave them power to be made the sons of God, to them that believe in his name. Who are born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13)
This is the first thing I see from my studies, that the presumption is extraordinary and rare outside of Christianity, because it has no basis in our nature, viewed with sobriety.
The second thing is that, nonetheless, false philosophies have promised or implied something similar. Most obvious would be those who say that God is within each of us, or a fragment of God, or maybe even that, simply by being created, we are identical with God or united with him. Descartes for instance (to take one of the less egregious cases) seemed to have believed that the very essence of God was represented in the human soul and that we need do no more than peer within to see that, by necessity, He exists. For Descartes, this is what imago Dei meant. More recent philosophies of radical autonomy seem to suppose implicitly that we are gods.
In a Christian or post-Christian society, we might still say about these false approaches to familiarity with God what St. Thomas Aquinas said about the famous “Ontological Argument” of St. Anselm: “[such an] opinion arises from the custom by which from their earliest days people are brought up to hear and to call upon the name of God. Custom, and especially custom in a child, comes to have the force of nature. As a result, what the mind is steeped in from childhood it clings to very firmly, as something known naturally and self-evidently.”
Premises must be self-evident; cultural inheritance easily looks like an unquestioned premise. Yes, our culture is very much post-Christian. But trace back its popular presumptions about chumminess with God, and its philosophical assumptions of “autonomy” – trace them back really, causally and historically – and you will be pointed to Baptism and the condition articulated by John, “But as many as received him.” Extra ecclesia nulla salus.
But it’s not only direct access to God that we presume to exist without Christianity, but also: eternal life which is blessed and full; fellowship with all human beings which is familial; confidence and hope in some kind of progress in history; the enchantment of daily life; and the eternal significance beauty.
All these, viewed truthfully, are from the active power of Christianity – alone.
*Image: Christ Giving the Keys to St Peter by Giovanni Battista Castello, 1598 [Musée du Louvre, Paris]