End Notes: Seeing and Believing

January puts one in mind of Saint Januarius, the liquefaction of whose blood is a marvel difficult for the skeptic to dismiss, though dismiss it of course he will. The alternative is too horrible to contemplate.

Popular devotions often bring out incredulity even in the faithful. How often has one heard the jocular remark that if all the pieces of the true cross were assembled, the result would dwarf a California redwood? In his novel Helena — based on the life of the mother of Constantine to whom we owe the rescue of so many of the things connected with Our Lord’s passion — Evelyn Waugh addressed such skepticism. It turns out that a French scholar had already done the necessary calculations. Put all those pieces of the true cross together and you would get only a fraction of the presumed size of the cross itself.

Scripture scholars tell us that archeological investigations and literary studies, notably those on the Dead Sea Scrolls, go a long way toward establishing the historicity of many biblical events.

There is comfort in such things, no doubt about it. Our Lord’s miracles were powerful attention-getters, establishing his authority for those with eyes to see.

It was once the mark of what is called the modern mind to treat Christianity as if it were a scientific hypothesis, to be verified or falsified by empirical testing. Is that what Christ’s miracles were, proof positive? Is that the function of the wonders forming the object of popular devotion?

The truth of Christianity is not something that can be established by the scientific method (assuming that is some one thing). It is not a conclusion derived from empirical premises. Faith, we are told, is a glimpse through tinted glass, an enigmatic knowledge, holding truths on trust. It is possible to lose one’s faith, but it is not possible in this life to transmute it into knowledge, scientific knowledge.

Nowadays religious belief is more likely to be accepted as no odder than most other personal convictions. It is almost a tenet of the emerging American creed that religion, in the privacy of your own home or heart, is tolerable, but bringing it into Richard John Neuhaus’s public square is a major political faux pas.

Ironically, the demand that Christianity be proved was in search of a public impersonal result. If the thing could be done, the matter would be settled once and for all. By contrast, today’s “tolerance” of religious belief seeks to privatize it and void it of any claim to have truth as its object.

If the latter notion is Americanism, it was anticipated by Modernism, which Pius X called the summation of all heresies. This saintly pope inveighed against theologians who sought to divorce the faith from facts, Christianity from history. Did he mean that history or any other sort of facts could establish the truth of Christianity?

The fundamental truth of Christianity is that the Second Person of the Trinity took on human nature in Jesus Christ, that Christ died for our sins and has risen from the dead. We are accustomed to thinking of these events as the hinge of history, so much so that we date other events as either before or after the Incarnation.

Christianity is historical but its truth cannot be proved by the historical method. Biblical archeology can assure us of the historicity of events, the Shroud of Turin might count as evidence of the crucifixion, the Scala Santa that Saint Helena brought back to Rome may be the stairs up which Christ went to be judged by Pontius Pilate. Such historical truths would not provide premises for an argument whose conclusion would be that Jesus Christ is both human and divine.

Is what specifies faith a patina spread over neutral facts? Is the essence of the faith separable from history?

The answer is no. To see this we must notice the asymmetrical relation between faith and history. Historical knowledge does not entail the truths of faith, but faith entails certain historical truths. That is why the results of scholarship mentioned above can be such a consolation to the believer. But we should not expect them automatically to turn nonbelievers into believers.

Thomas the Apostle is the patron saint of the modern mind. Until he saw he did not believe. Is seeing believing? Believing is a kind of seeing made possible by grace, but ordinary seeing does not necessitate faith.

January thoughts, beginning of the year thoughts, thoughts suggested by Saint Januarius. Is it possible that his dried blood liquefies? Generations of witnesses assure us it is so. If it is so, what other marvels might also be true?

The danger is that we regard Christianity as entertainment for the jaded mind. But popular devotions can serve to restore the wonder and awe we should feel at the saving truths that have been made known to us.

  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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