Thursday, December 24, 2009

Why I Believe. A Christmas Reflection.

 The Ecstasy of Saint Therese

Marian and I have an elderly friend in Philadelphia who speaks freely about his dislike for religion and the religious. He is a lover of the arts: music, opera, the visual arts, and he knows them, from the good to the bad, and the lives of the painters, singers and actors who have played the roles. We enjoy his company very much. One evening at our usual coffee shop meeting place, my wife asked him the obvious, but heretofore unasked question:

"When were you first bitten with the opera bug?"

"At one particular opera," he said, "I was about 20 years old . . . and the only way to describe it . . .  it was like the Bernini sculpture, in Rome, of Santa Therese in Ecstasy, I felt like I was pricked by Cupid's arrow. It was then, I fell in love with the music."

Given my friend's view on religion and God, and the overtly religious imagery of that particular sculpture, the statement surprised me. But it shouldn't have. Regardless of one's religious inclination, the beauty of the music that captivated him is attractive in itself. That is, Beauty exists, and our friend recognizes it.

This may may be an odd introduction to answer the question, "Why I Believe," but it is the discussion that started me thinking or rethinking the question. In other words, I not only enjoy the same works of art but I believe the Story from which they derive their inspiration. Why?

The reason in its most reduced form is that I believe the testimony of a few men and of one woman who lived and followed this Man Jesus, that is, I trust the writers of the biography of our Lord, or the Gospels, and of Mary, of Peter, and Paul. I am in some way a follower of the followers, those first friends of Christ. If they are misguided, so am I.

Historians and archaeologists have tried to disprove the authenticity of these biographers of Christ for hundreds of years, but to no avail. The Gospels make spectacular claims, but there seems to be no ulterior motive by the followers of Christ, no reason that it is being said but the obvious one. They believe it. No one was getting rich off this movement, no empires were being built. In fact, most of the men closely related to the Story died the painful death of the martyr. All the evidence points to death by stoning, or crucifixion and worse. The only one of the original twelve that died a natural death was John the Beloved, and he lived the life of a hermit; which does not in itself make them right, but this kind of sacrifice from so many people with such different backgrounds makes one pause to consider.

Another reason that keeps me believing is the distinctive quality of the human soul. The declaration that man was made, In imageo Dei, fits us. Nothing else seems to at least to me. The philosopher, the theologian, the scientist, and the social activist all attempt to answer this most fundamental of questions: "What or Who is man?" That he is made for this world seems apparent to me. But that he is "blinded and bent," as St. Bonaventure said, seems just as apparent. The possibility that he is both made in God's image and separated from Him seems more than a plausible explanation. 

But even given this blindedness, and maybe because of it, something else is observable to me, and it is man's capacity to enjoy beauty, if I may return to the interests of our coffee shop friend. Beauty is everywhere, in the splendor of the world around us, and in the worlds we create. In the work of Mozart, Van Gogh, Dante, Homer -- and Garrison Keillor, and Mark Twain. Somehow a man or a woman sees something and relates it in such a way that we see what they see and enter into a mutual enjoyment of it.  All this points me to realities not contra-rational or trans-rational -- but simply a truth I can know and appreciate just by an observation, a sound, a touch, or a smell. A kind of instant insight into something real and permanent. The reality of the non-material as well as material universes. No matter who proclaims it. The attractiveness of Being exists.

Of the great cosmological questions, the research into the origins of the universe and of man himself, I can speak with little knowledge. I will say only this. Something must exist on its own, that is, without prior cause. And that from nothing comes nothing, ex nihilo nihil fit. The idea of nothing -- and not the nothing of our imagination, the nothing of outer space, but absolutely nothing; no gravity, no light waves, no dimensions, no time, nothing -- can spontaneously generate something, by its very definition, is an idea that will always be undiscoverable. Something or Someone must be the Uncaused Cause.

I believe that Someone exists eternally. So I must at least profess a Christian faith imperfect as everyone who knows me knows that it is. John, the beloved friend of Jesus, Peter, and Mary, His Mother, went to the burial tomb and said that it was empty. That the God-Man had risen. And I believe them.

It is a simple answer, but it is the one that I have settled on.  May God be gracious to us and shine His mercy upon us during this most wonderful of seasons.

Merry Christmas. And thanks for reading. I enjoy all of your comments.


Steven said...

I have always enjoyed reading your blog and continue to do so because of your gentleness and ability to combine beauty and simplicity. Thanks for sharing. Faith is not easy to express, but you have articulated it well.

Merry Christmas, my friend.

Doohickie said...

Well written. Thanks.

Merry Christmas to you.

RJG said...

Well put. As Steven says, it's not easy to articulate why you believe something. Merry Christmas to you and your family.

Becca said...

My husband reminded me of this the other day and it works though not as well; Pascal says a person should wager as though God exists, because in living life as if God exist a person has everything to gain, and nothing to lose. What is there to gain in living as if He doesnt exist? This is not nearly as good an argument as you have just given us, but it works for those who feel they need the reasonable argument. There is no downside for being a Theist.