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(From a 2012 Lent and Easter series of sermons on the Catholic Virtues.)
Lent began with the preaching of Jesus: “Repent and believe in the gospel”. Repentance means turning away from evil, which means doing the good, which means practicing virtues like Prudence, Justice, Temperance and Fortitude. Those are the cardinal moral virtues, called moral because they have to do with how we live. They are discoverable by human reason, and we get better at them through our own efforts.
Now we come to the three theological virtues – Faith, Hope and Love. They are called theological virtues because God gives them, and God is their object. We believe God, trust Him, and love Him.
It’s kind of interesting, then, that the Easter season should begin with doubt. Far from being a bunch of gullible, pre-scientific naives who saw what they wanted to see when they saw the risen Lord, the characters we read about in the Gospels needed to be convinced.
The women brought spices to the tomb to finish the job of burial. Clearly they were not expecting Him to rise as He had said. And instead of mistaking someone else for Jesus, as someone driven by their own subjective desires might do, Mary Magdalene mistook Jesus for someone else, the gardener, and thought he had taken the body.
Peter and John didn’t believe her, that she had seen the risen Lord, so they ran to the tomb to see for themselves. Him they did not see, but John did notice something about the burial cloths that apparently indicated the grave had not been robbed.
The two on the road to Emmaus later that morning were disappointed because they had been hoping that Jesus was the one to set Israel free, but He’d been killed instead. So much for that! And they too, instead of mistaking a fellow traveler for the Jesus they were longing to see, mistook Jesus for a fellow traveler. Then Jesus appeared to the eleven back in Jerusalem and they thought they were seeing a ghost, so He showed them His wounded hands and even asked for and ate a piece of fish in front of them to prove that it was He.
And, of course, there was Doubting Thomas. But was he any worse than the others? He wasn’t there, he didn’t see it, so he wasn’t buying it. In other words, he was just like the rest of them. They may have been pre-modern, but they were thoroughly modern in their skeptical demand for evidence.
Notice that Jesus kept supplying them with evidence! Yes, He did upbraid them for their stubbornness, but He also kept giving them reason to believe. God does not demand blind, unquestioning faith, but respects the power of inquiry and thought He Himself placed in His human creatures. We reach out to God my means of reason and faith, reason and faith supporting each other, and God responds.
When discussing Prudence, Justice, Temperance and Fortitude, I quoted the Catechism definition of virtue: a firm and habitual disposition to do the good; firm because habitual; habitual because it is something we do repeatedly. We would not call “virtuous” someone who had prudent thoughts but habitually rushed rashly into all kinds of foolishness. And so if faith is a virtue, it must be something we do. But what is there for us to do if faith is a gift of God?
Some who don’t believe say, “Your God must not have given me that gift”, ergo they are excused. Well, faith, like any gift of God, is offered, not forced upon us. It will find no home in us if we slam shut the door, or put it in the back of the closet. As someone once said, “Feed your faith, and your doubts will starve to death”. The non-believer will think this is dishonest, as if a Christian is someone who has decided, for whatever personal reason, to focus intently and try, try, try until they begin to believe the unbelievable. No. That is not what Christian faith is made of. That would be blind, unthinking and self-induced gullibility.
What the Gospel resurrection accounts show is faithful people struggling with doubt, and God helping them to reason through it by providing evidence and explanation. Reasoning our way through intellectual difficulties or emotional obstacles is the honest, enlightened, respectable way of making use of the gift of faith offered by God.
I am repeatedly struck by the way that atheists who claim to be enlightened and scientific stop asking questions so soon. – Look at the universe; This was caused by that. Okay, but what causes that? Oh, that’s just the way it is. Or, to avoid the strengthening conclusion that the universe does not explain itself, and that there must be one, eternal, intelligent source for it, they will throw up alternate explanations for which there is no evidence, like multiple parallel universes from one of which ours emerged. Well, there is more evidence for the existence of God than for multiple universes since there is absolutely no evidence for multiple universes. That is an entirely made-up supposition to justify slamming the door of reason against the guest whom reason wants to welcome. That is not virtuous.
Bypassing any explanation gravity, Stephen Hawking postulated that gravity itself caused the universe to bring itself into existence. By contrast, consider how Doubting Thomas dealt with his difficulties. It’s hard to say what intellectual difficulties he may have been having, perhaps the expectation that the Messiah would be glorious and triumphant, not suffering and defeated. More clearly he had emotional obstacles – hopes crushed, deep disappointment, embarrassment about his earlier faith and fear about being taken in again. Many of today’s atheists have these same kind of obstacles. As children they were force-fed a childish God who demanded blind obedience, and when they outgrow this childish God they are so afraid of being taken in again that they won’t even consider a more rational sophisticated understanding.
Alternate explanations for existence with no evidence – parallel universes; the gravity conundrum; gravity bringing everything into existence – defy any reasoned, rational, sophisticated understanding.
Thomas’ difficulties were entirely understandable. Now, consider how he dealt with them. He seems to have kept his distance for about a week, but then decided, “Well, I’d be a fool not to consider the evidence. If I can probe the nail wounds with my finger, and stick my hand into his side …
Being open to the evidence, and willing to reason through intellectual difficulties and emotional obstacles – that is what we can do when offered the gift of faith. And that is very much a virtue.
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