Last week I introduced the notion of “theological deal-killers,” hypothetical events which, if they happened in the real world, would cause one to question his faith. While a few readers thought it impious that I was willing even to entertain the idea, most chimed in helpfully with their own list of teachings so central, traditions so sacrosanct, that if some imaginary “reformist” pope or council did away with them, they would consider the Church’s claim to infallibility contradicted. Most of those offered by readers echoed my own, so I have little to add here on that score.
It’s important to think such questions through, since while our Church is, in eternity, the Mystical Bride of Christ, it also has one foot sunk in the squishy earth. It’s a real institution — the oldest one on the planet, after the fall of the Chinese monarchy in 1905 — taking part in the messy business of history, making intransigent claims to doing something almost impossibly difficult: proclaiming a single, consistent message about the nature of God, creation, sin, redemption, and the proper ordering of human society, through every culture on earth and every century that passes.
It’s a miracle — a literal one, eclipsing all the cast-off crutches at Lourdes and the dancing sun at Fatima — that the Church has stayed “on message” and fought off the heresies that surged in every age, corrupting or quashing every merely human institution. To the Pharisees, she preached the Incarnation; to the pagans, the one true God; to the Gnostics, the goodness of Creation; to the Stoics, the sacraments; to the neo-Platonists, God’s freedom and transcendence; to the Muslims, the Trinity; to the Albigensians, the holiness of matter and of marriage; to the Latin Averroists, the unity of Truth; to the Nominalists, the crucial “analogy” between God’s goodness and our own; to the Humanists, the role of Christ in raising man above the animals; to the Protestants, the incoherence of scripture without Tradition; to the Philosophes, the toxic futility of reason stripped of faith; to the Socialists, the evil of compelling the Corporal Works of Mercy; to the eugenicists, the sanctity of every flawed and helpless human life; to the racists, the unity of the human race; to the feminists, the supremacy of the family over the individual.
I could go on — and history will go on, firing flaming bags of dog waste at the Faith like shots from a tennis-ball machine possessed by a poltergeist. It is only with mysterious aid from the Holy Spirit that our popes will continue to whack them away, standing unstained in their white mantle of simplicity and truth. Their success is a witness to the truthfulness of the Faith second only to the Resurrection itself. Fail either of these, and we are the greatest of fools.
This staggering, incalculable consistency is the central miracle that makes the Church worth believing in, and the only one that you and I can test out for ourselves — by studying history. We can’t go back and meet the risen Christ. As my high school religion teacher sneered, biochemists can’t verify transubstantiation. (Since modern science only looks at accidents, not substance, the correct response to this was, “Duh!”) But we can look at the stunning fact of a single, once-simple gospel exfoliating through history like a many-foiled flower, rising to the Sun of truth and growing from the seed Christ planted 20 centuries ago. Through hailstorms, herbicides, and against all the forces of hell, it still grows straight and true.
This, for me, is the reason to believe. If I could not even imagine the plant mutated or dead, I could not be stunned with gratitude at its holiness and health. St. Paul allowed himself to wonder what it would mean if Christ had not been raised from the dead; we likewise must ponder what we would make of a faith that trimmed its creed with every diktat from the zeitgeist. To save time, of course, we could simply consult the history of the Anglicans, a church that has pursued with admirable consistency its founding mission: to kneel before the world.
Few other faiths even make claims that can be confirmed or refuted by events. Imagine, if you will, an empirical test for the truth of Buddhism. Is there anything that could happen, any argument one could offer, to dissuade someone who believed the entire universe a morbid illusion? How about Hinduism? Do Hindus even believe, in the same sense we do in Christ, in the divinity of elephant god Ganesh? Or is their paganism of the sort that G. K. Chesterton depicted in his timeless The Everlasting Man: a flight of fancy that toys with, more than it stakes, metaphysical claims? The Scientologists, for their part, do assert that we humans once lived on the planet Teegeeack and were kidnapped from our home by the evil overlord Xenu . . . so it’s theoretically possible that a space probe could find the truth — if only the Scientologists would give us the coordinates for Teegeeack. And the Mormons . . . well, bless their hearts! I’ll leave their assertions about Israelites in North America to the tender mercies of anthropologists.
There are three, and only three, historical faiths that make claims worth taking seriously, and it would need a wiser, more learned man with the time to write thousands of pages to lay out the competing arguments of these faiths.
Put briefly and brutally: Jews claim that they are chosen, blessed and burdened as the sole witnesses of the one true God, granted a certain protection, and waiting for the Messiah. The consistency of their witness stands as starkly impressive as our own and points to the fact that the Jewish people still serve as a mystical “sign” of God’s operation in history. As Walker Percy famously asked, “Where are the Hittites?” Why did so many larger, more powerful peoples simply vanish with all their gods, while a tiny tribe of sinful and persecuted nebbishes still clings to its ancient faith?
The Nazis, Percy said, saw the Jews as a divine fingerprint they wished to wipe away, the better to divinize Man. Christian anti-Judaists argued that, by rejecting Christ, the Jews had forfeited all their claims, becoming in essence Samaritans — while the “saving remnant” of truly faithful Jews accepted Christ and disappeared into the Church. There’s a logic there, but how do we explain the still-miraculous survival of those who insist that they are the saving remnant — except by saying they have a role to play, however mysterious, in the drama of salvation?
Few Jews will ever convert, but those who do add a leaven to us poor gentiles for which we should be grateful. And even the vast majority who cling to their single Testament deserve our thanks; without these people, we Celts and Slavs would still be worshipping trees. Whenever I see an identifiably pious Jew, I feel a surge of affection and mutter a simple prayer for his well-being in this world and the next. We prodigal sons will tussle with our older brothers over the meaning of the Old Testament until the consummation of the world — when the Messiah comes (or comes again) to prove which of us was right. You don’t get much more historical, or empirical, than that.
Islam is a subject too large for me to handle here, though it does display a consistency similar to our own. It has no central authority, and it makes no claim to infallible authority on the part of a single institution, so the only way that history could disconfirm its central claim would be for the religion to disappear. It is true that Islam promises to dominate the world, so the era of its decline and subjugation to European powers provoked for many a crisis of faith. Its current resurgence, fueled solely by fertility and petroleum, will not outlast the rise of alternative fuels and the decline of Islamic birthrates. One hopes.
The potential deal-killer for Islam comes not in some prospective heresy but in the central claim it makes: that Mohammed, as the prophet of God, is the perfect human being — the model for all human behavior in every culture and country to come. Studying his life, and meditating on how plausible is that claim, is something every thinking Westerner ought to undertake nowadays. Islam asserts that an angel came to Mohammed and guided him throughout his prophetic career. Let’s take him at his word, and wonder: Which angel was it?
Our faith alone, and only in its fullest, Catholic form, has taken upon itself the awful challenge of institutional continuity and perfect intellectual consistency. From a purely human point of view, it’s a high-wire act performed with no net above the abyss. Yet the beautiful lady still dances on the wire, almost 20 centuries later.