Ah, Summer! Vacations and lots of driving. My wife has a keen fascination with license plates and bumper stickers, which would otherwise generally escape my notice. A big-hitter on the bumper sticker list is “God said it; I believe it; that settles it!”
Without intending to cast aspersions on the intent of those who place one of these on their vehicle, I am more than a bit bothered by the blatant fideism of the statement (fideism is the theory that faith is independent of reason, or that reason and faith are hostile to each other). Concerning the “God said it” sentiment, is it not equally applicable to any religious persuasion? Allah said it; I believe it; that settles it! Buddha said it, etc.? If I were to paraphrase what the sticker says to me, it would go, “I believe the things I have read in a very old and very popular book because, um, shut up!”
If bumper-sticker theology is what we expect to revitalize the Faith, I say good luck with that. The Faith dies a little with each desperate reductionism—with each attempt to convince rationalists that reason can comfortably be abandoned in favor of faith because, well, shut up!
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Throughout its entire history, the Church has aggressively pursued a catholicity—a universality—in its approach to the Faith. Faith and reason are not at odds with each other, they are complementary elements of truth. The cure for bumper-sticker theology starts with a return to that same “very old and very popular book.”
Is there one phrase in the Bible which is so pivotal, so foundational, that the other nearly 800,000 words hang in the balance? And if so, has most of our culture abandoned its premise? And does it in some way make Judeo-Christianity vastly different from every other religion?
Catholic theology is, it seems to many, an odd mix of mythology, folklore, prophecy, science, philosophy, and revelations both individual and corporate. Of course, it seems that way because at least some elements of truth are embodied in all of those traditions; that is, it is the best in all of those things, purified in the fire of The Word Incarnate’s life, death, and resurrection and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Church is clearly not just “a people of the book.” Pentecost—the birthday of the Church—is not a celebration of the publishing date for a book that was not yet fully written.
And, about that book, it is important to note that, in terms of content, the Bible is equally as diverse as Catholic theology. It is a collection of history, poetry, prophecy, theology, philosophy, stories, letters, sermons, and just about every other form of literature imaginable.
Because of the diversity of its biblical heritage, the Church has, from the very beginning, seen all truth as pertinent. Scripture tells us that Christ is the totality of truth—the Word Incarnate; therefore, all truth comes from God, regardless of the channel by which it arrives to us. And within that seeming potpourri of truth, there is a divine synergy, a unity in diversity.
The revelation of that all-important, unifying principle came to Moses from the burning bush. When asked his name, God replied simply, “I am who am”—and the science of metaphysics was born. Unfortunately, most Christians’ eyes glass over when they hear that word.
But metaphysics is simply a fifty-dollar word for a common-sense science that attempts to answer the most basic question of all: What is the nature of existence? What we learn from the burning bush is that God does not simply have existence, he is existence. In the quiver of the Faith, Christian tradition’s answer to the question of existence is a very straight and sharp arrow.
For many of the intelligentsia, the abandonment of metaphysics, like the abandonment of many common-sensical things, will seem, on the surface, to be the very cusp of enlightenment. However, common sense—orthodoxy—has actually gotten to be quite uncommon, making the pursuit of it a very striking thing to behold.
So, why is the burning bush passage so important? What happens to the rest of Sacred Scripture if God is not existence itself? Without it, the Faith simply never takes root. Without the burning-bush “I am who am,” Christ’s own words, “Before Abraham was, I am,” would cause us to pause and ask, “I am what?” Without the old covenant, the new withers. Without his story addressing that most basic human need to understand who and what we are, Abram would not have become Abraham; that is, he would not have become the spiritual father of a multitude.
Without the metaphysical, Scripture is just another helping of natural law bolstered by the story of a great man—a good thing in itself, and yet devoid of that singular element that elevates it to the divine. It is this biblical tradition, and the promptings of the Holy Spirit, that empowers the Gospel of St. John to proclaim, “In him we live and move and have our being.” He wills us to be; therefore, we are.
When the Church was born, among the converts to the Faith were many pagans. Though they had been polytheistic, many had a rich natural law tradition and strong family structure. They demonstrated, by their pagan faith, their recognition of beings outside of and greater than themselves. But two things were lacking in their religiosity: a plausible explanation of existence and any personal experience with the things they worshipped. Their gods, like the rest of existence, were simply without explanation. Sure, there were myths about how they affected this and that—myths with no logical substratum.
Nearly a millennium after God had revealed his nature to Moses, the genius of Aristotle’s logic in his work Metaphysics would define the necessity of a prime mover who would bring power to the cosmos. Aristotle’s prime mover, was, however, not so much a creator as he was the force that started all motion and, in turn, all life; for Aristotle believed in an eternal universe and the immutability of matter, a theory that would set that detail of his philosophy against the Abrahamic tradition. Aristotle’s position would hold sway in secular circles until the “big bang theory” came to being in the 1930s.
But we live in an age when groundless dispersion is cast upon classical logic, metaphysics is dismissed as a pseudo-science, and natural law is seen as one class imposing their morality on others. Positivism—a sort of unbridled materialism—is the order of the day; that is, the notion that only what can be sensed or measured is real.
Positivism, of course, is scientifically untenable. Rejecting anything vaguely resembling the supernatural, it rests firmly upon the infinite universe hypothesis, which rests upon nothing at all and fails to rise to the level of a theory. A simple scientific reality is that all physical systems, left undirected, return to chaos. An infinity of return to chaos ends in infinite chaos, leaving no explanation whatsoever for order in the universe.
It has been suggested that there is an intelligence in nature itself, but this is simply the first step down the road of reinventing deism; that is, belief in an impersonal god of controlling force—a metaphysically untenable source of being because it fails to explain human consciousness and personhood.
To believe only in what can “be sensed or measured” is to bypass the central issue—the existence of those doing the sensing and measuring—inviting us to consider that perhaps all that exists is perception; perception by whom, who can say? In short, a host of other philosophical tomfooleries present themselves as ultimately untenable solutions when we abandon basic metaphysics.
The implications of metaphysical thinking go far beyond answering immediate questions about the physical existence of the universe. One is quickly led to the ultimate why—why are we humans so different from everything around us? Why are we so bad—and so good? And answering those questions brings us to a number of answers that have traditionally come to be known simply as “first things.”
In answering the questions about our own odd fit in the universe, metaphysical thinking inevitably leads to a system of ethics, a discussion of good and evil. For Aristotle, existence was good, nonexistence evil. Sitting (as ancient Greece did) at the crossroads of Western and Eastern Civilization, he was well aware of the dualistic philosophies of the East, wherein the spiritual world was said to be created by a good being and the physical by ultimate evil. Aristotle dismissed the notion that ultimate evil could create, or even exist; Existence is a natural good, and ultimate evil, to fulfill its destiny, would destroy its own existence.
This logic leads to an obvious conclusion: we live in a universe that is good. The recognition that we humans have choices—and that our confusion drives a craving for knowledge and the wisdom to apply it—became Aristotle’s next frontier. Existence is good; nonexistence bad. Things that promote existence are good; things that promote death—that is, nonexistence, and, by association, evils against one’s neighbor—are bad.
From these humble but genius philosophical beginnings, we derive “first things.” The golden rule—do unto others as you would have them do unto you—derives from an even simpler first principle: do good and avoid evil, an idea built on the simple but firm foundation that existence is good and nonexistence bad.
Aristotle’s prime mover was an exogenous force; a power beyond the physical. None of the gods of ancient Greece possessed qualities that made sense in a metaphysical world—their supposed qualities of existence filled no metaphysical need, making Christianity a logical next step. So, it became that civilization, built as it was by ardent pagans, came to be refined in the crucible of Christianity, a crucible that also redefines the ancient concepts of eternal reward and eternal death.
But this long-fought-for foundation is crumbling in the hands of a world of scoffers. The humor is gone; the drama waning. To the scoffers, there is nothing now but molecules colliding, powered by unexplained forces, in the unexplained vacuum of space. The hope of the future is better understanding of the molecules, the collisions, the forces, and the space—Ah! So much romance!
Modern philosophy arrogantly dismisses what has gone before and replaces it with nothing. In the end, there are only two types of people: seekers and non-seekers, finders and scoffers, the childlike and the childish.
So, where do the God-said-it, bumper-sticker-theology folks fit in?
As mentioned earlier—setting aside the likelihood of their good intentions and recognizing a sense of their frustration in expressing themselves as they do, and based only on the bumper sticker’s own merits—they could be adherents to most any cause. They have made it clear that they are done searching (that settles it!) and are not interested in intellectual engagement.
The we-know-something-you-don’t-know Left will not engage because, well, shut up! And the we-have-faith-so-we-win-and-you-lose Right will not engage because, yeah, shut up! They are fighting fire with fire: fideists fighting fideists; religious scoffers scoffing at secular scoffers and vice versa. I have an acquaintance who is offensively politically progressive while being a smug religious fideist. The same character flaw can be applied toward different ends or to satisfy different social venues.
It’s for this reason that there’s precious little difference between the far Right and the far Left. Fideism is a tool of autocracy, perfect for worldviews advanced at gun-point, religious or otherwise. As with all other reductionist philosophies, it is dehumanizing and does not work as a tool of evangelization unless sold as a package deal—gun included.