Wednesday, July 30, 2003

Commentary on the Burbling Church

It's my belief that men are in a fallen condition and that, even after baptism, the effects of their prior state remain in the form of disordered passions, faulty reasoning, and a general disinclination toward sanctity. Therefore, a Catholic pastorage which tailors its witness to a lowest common-denominator faithfulness will see that common-denominator sink lower, and lower, and ever lower, until all Catholic life becomes utterly two-dimensional, a notional dot on a hypothetical plane, incapable of being seen by one's neighbors or even one's self. Just about every week, my Diocesan newspaper does its best to confirm my opinion by printing something that tries to talk down the high truths of the Church to the level of an Everyman who is, apparently, conceived of as a kind of illiterate Unitarian whose spiritual aspirations are limited to being attentive all the way through the opening prayer at a Kiwanis lunch. The result is the presentation of Catholicism as a pallid, nonsensical thing, an ecclesiastical Marienbad of Silliness where people can languish in tepid baths of utter bafflement, breathe deep the maudlin airs of bourgeois self-conceit, and nourish a febrile sentimentality with whole-grain nothingness. It bothers me. It bothers me because I dislike mediocrity with a special vehemence, since it's a fault to which I am particularly prone. It bothers me since I know people who have left the Church because, frankly, they've come to the incorrect opinion that banality is all the Church can offer a man who seeks his God and Lord. It bothers me that great saints and churchmen are likely being stifled in their cribs, so to speak, by a smothering blanket of burbling thrown over their eyes and ears through the well-intentioned arrogance of an elite that thinks its arcani disciplina can't be shared with the common herd of communicants. Ignorance is strength, you know, so long as it makes everyone else weak. Rather than continue speaking to the newsprint, disturbing my wife and my dog by shouting paragraph numbers from Lamentabili Sane, I'm going to run written commentary on these painfully-obtuse items, a commentary on the Burbling Church.

The first installment is a response to an article by Sister Genevieve Glen, OSB, entitled "Pilate's Question: What is Truth?" It was distributed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops / Catholic News Service and was run in my newspaper and, so far as I can tell from a brief internet search, published in the Texas Catholic ("The Oldest Catholic Newspaper in Texas"), the The Catholic Review and by the Archdiocese of Seattle and the Diocese of Albany. Sister Glen has written several books about Catholicism, and while I wouldn't doubt they're very learned and edifying, this particular column fit right in with the general trend I've noted above. Sister Glen's opinions are in blue. My commentary is in black. The entire text of Sister's article can be found here.

Most of us probably would begin by saying something like, "Well, a truth is something that states a fact." . . . This kind of truth describes a statement that matches objective reality. It can often, though not always, be tested and proven . . . Religious truths expand this category. They describe the match between a statement and a reality in which we believe but which we cannot necessarily test or prove by some observable measure.

Well, I'd be more comfortable if we were definitely describing religious truths as facts. Now, I realize that religious truths may be facts which aren't susceptible to scientific proof, or that they might not be as susceptible to scientific proof as we might wish, but still I think we're OK describing them as being facts which are as real as the ones we have proven with a lot of scientific evidence. Science itself has a lot of room for facts like that. There was a time when scientists were positive that there had to be black holes, but couldn't prove it by pointing to an actual black hole. And sometimes scientists knew only part of a fact, like the ones who thought water ran downhill because it was "seeking its natural place" in the order of the created universe.

We shouldn't forget that sometimes our religious knowledge is as certain as any kind of secular knowledge you want to name. Take the life of Jesus Christ, for example. He lived. He really, actually did. We know it because the Gospels record His life. Can't believe the Evangelists? Say they had a bias that caused them to invent the Christ of the Gospels so they could get themselves killed witnessing to Him? That's OK too, since non-Christian writers of Jesus' day also confirm His life. We have as much reason to believe Jesus lived on earth during the first century A.D. as we do to believe that Hannibal crossed the Alps and fought the Romans. People who don't believe a man named Jesus lived in the first century A.D. and became the focus of a religious movement we call "Christianity" are as reasonable as people who won't believe in Alexander the Great because they've never met him and the histories of his life are all part of a conspiracy by Alexander the Great fans.

It is true that sometimes our religious knowledge is like those black holes which "must" exist and just haven't been identified or explained to a skeptic's satisfaction. As Fulton Sheen once observed, it's a queer mind that thinks the existence of natural laws proves there's no such thing as a natural lawmaker. "The same Holy mother Church holds and teaches that God, the source and end of all things, can be known with certainty from the consideration of created things, by the natural power of human reason : ever since the creation of the world, his invisible nature has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made." Vatican Council I, Dogmatic Constitution on the Catholic Faith Chapter 2, Section 1. If you're not comfortable thinking in terms of the Magisterium, try Psalm 34:8: "O taste and see that the LORD is good," or Romans 1:20 "For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse." Are those verses just be "statements" about what St. Paul and King David believed but couldn't prove? St. Paul and King David didn't think so. Were they crazy? Or just dumb?

It's also true that sometimes our religious knowledge is partial, like the idea about water that coincides with (but doesn't relate) the whole story in all its detail. People once read Genesis quite literally to require 144 hours for the creation of the universe. (They had forgotten that the early Church fathers didn't require that at all). Now we know that God probably didn't take 144 hours to create the universe, but the truth of Genesis that God did, in fact, create it still remains a challenge for your ordinary God-denying scientist -- "So, Professor, isn't it odd that Genesis records God saying "let there be light," and by the way what caused the Big Bang?" And other times our knowledge is a special gift that goes way beyond what reason can show us or science prove to us. The Trinity is like that, a divine "family secret" that's given only for love's sake. But all of these things are still real, actual, hard facts.

I hope Sister realizes that there aren't any faithful people in Heaven. At least, not any people who still need their faith, however faithfulness was essential to their getting to Heaven. In Heaven, we will see God directly and actually as He is, and have as much proof of His existence as we could possibly ever need or want. The Second Coming is going to be the most wonderful thing in human history, but since "now we see through a glass, darkly" (1 Cor. 13:12) I can say that with respect to doubts, questions and disbelief the parousia's going to resemble the scene in Annie Hall where Alvy and a self-appointed expert end up arguing about Marshall McLuhan's theories while waiting in a theater lobby:
MAN IN LINE: Wait a minute, why can't I give my opinion? It's a free country!

ALVY: . . . I mean, aren't you ashamed to pontificate like that? And-and the funny part of it is . . . you don't know anything about Marshall McLuhan's work!

MAN IN LINE: Wait a minute! Really? Really? I happen to teach a class at Columbia called "TV Media and Culture"! So I think that my insights into Mr. McLuhan-well, have a great deal of validity.

ALVY: Oh, do ya?


ALVY: Well, that's funny, because I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here. So ... so, here, just let me-I mean, all right. Come over here ... a second.
[Alvy gestures, and Marshall McLuhan suddenly comes out from behind some plastic ferns and a stand-up movie poster].


ALVY (To McLuhan) Tell him.

MCLUHAN (To the man in line) I heard what you were saying. You know nothing of my work, and how you ever got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing.

ALVY: (To the camera) Boy, if life were only like this!

Of course, life is like that, just like it -- only it's going to take awhile before the Ultimate Author steps out and explains to all the skeptics, doubters, and unbelievers that they know nothing and that their tenures and publications were merely tributes to human folly. We are really, truly, honest-to-golly going to know everything it's possible for us to know because God will always be right there with us, in person, face-to-face, showing us reality, forever and ever. St. Paul says right after his comments about seeing now darkly, but "then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known." (1 Cor. 13).

Given all that, I don't know what to make of Sister's claim that religious truths are statements that "match" what "we believe" about reality but can't "prove." I think that if it means anything, it means that religious truths aren't really true. "Jesus is God" is a religious statement. If we go around saying that it matches a reality that "we believe," but which we can't prove by anything we learn, observe, or experience, our statement's really more of a suggestion. If we think about our faith that way, the Gospel testimonies of the Resurrection and the Ascension, like the Old Testament prophecies of Jesus, can't add anything to our faith. If, when we say "Jesus is God" we mean that we believe it but can't prove it, then everyone who says "Jesus is God" is saying the same thing -- including the prophets and the evangelists, whose testimonies are just more statements that matched what they believed but couldn't prove.

St. Thomas the Apostle might have a problem with that, since Jesus stood before him and invited Thomas to put his fingers right straight into Jesus' sacred wounds. (John 20:17) At least five hundred other Christians would have the same problem, since they personally saw Jesus after his Resurrection. (1 Cor. 15:6) Insulated from their experiences by two millennia, we might be tempted to call these accounts "statements" that "match" what we believe but can't prove, but should we give in to that temptation? It can't be "turtles all the way down" --- somewhere, sometime, someone's either got to be describing real facts or imagining things. The antiquity of accounts about Jesus isn't any reason to discount them; no one claims the statement, "Teddy Roosevelt charged up San Juan Hill," can't be proved just because none of the Rough Riders are alive to tell us so. We can observe the truth of that statement by looking at the credible historical records which record the Rough Riders' charge and the name of their commanding officer So why shouldn't we give the Gospels the same weight? Why should we think that the Gospels are just "statements" that match we "believe" but can't prove?

Belief in God and the Catholic Church results from human reason firing on all cylinders -- which means, I might add, with the aid of grace and revelation. We weren't given reason so that we could puzzle our way into Heaven like scientists trying to find out about dinosaurs. But that doesn't mean our reason has no role to play in bringing us to faith or keeping us there. "Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy strength, and with all thy mind. Luke 10:27 (KJV). Why would God give us reason, and order us to use it, if by it we couldn't know anything real about Him or His world? Faith and reason aren't things that operate like booster stages on rockets, with reason burning "just so long" and then dropping away as faith fires up to take us to our destination. Reason and faith are like two blast nozzles on the same stage of the rocket, each contributing its unique load of thrust as the whole hurtles along the course. We'll stop having faith in Heaven, but we'll keep on burning an exhaustible load of reason, observation, and revelation.

For example, if I say "God exists," I can back my words up with a certain amount of logic, and I can appeal to the authority of Scripture, but I can't actually produce evidence to convince a determined atheist.

Yes indeed -- that's the difference between thinking of the Catholic faith as a description of reality and thinking of it as a mutual truth-commitment to a set of statements we believe but can't really prove. If the Catholic faith actually describes reality, then whether our determined atheist is so blinded by his passions that he won't accept the teleological and causal arguments for God's existence has nothing to do with whether those arguments (which depend on scientifically-demonstrable facts, by the way) are true. It just means our atheist is, to use St. Paul's phrase "without excuse," no matter how much he keeps insisting that he actually has an excuse. But if the statement "God exists" is a communal truth-commitment that may correspond to a reality we can't prove, then we really do need our atheist to agree in order for the statement to be a meaningful connection between him and us. If we admit that our statements about what we believe can't have a meaningful connection with people who reject them, isn't that the same thing as admitting our faith can't be true until everyone approves of it?

What we call "the truths of our faith," then, are statements about reality as we believe it to be, on the authority of the community and tradition to which we have given our allegiance.

I think that when you locate all religious certainty in the authority of a community, what you call "truths of our faith" becomes the heresy of Traditionalism: According to traditionalism, human reason is of itself radically unable to know with certainty any truth or, at least, the fundamental truths of the metaphysical, moral, and religious order. Hence our first act of knowledge must be an act of faith, based on the authority of revelation. This revelation is transmitted to us through society, and its truth is guaranteed by tradition. . . See, e.g., Catholic Encyclopedia, Traditionalism, available here. The problem with Traditionalism, as the Catholic Encyclopedia points out, is that in order for an authority to actually be an authority, it has to be competent, legitimate, and valid. Otherwise it's no more of an "authority" than my puppy, Auggie. I don't believe Auggie when he insists on a divine right to two sausage treats if he comes when called. Why? Because he's not a competent, legitimate, and valid source of information about what his rights are. (If he were, then I'd also be sitting on the floor while he watched TV on the couch). If, as you're say, authority and tradition are our only source of truth, then how can we know that the Church is a valid, competent and legitimate authority about what tradition is or should be? Unless we say that the Church's identity can be known by observation and reason, as well as grace, and that the knowledge conferred thereby is true knowledge of reality, we have only two possible answers.

The first answer is that the Church is a competent, valid, and legitimate religious authority because she says so. But John Ankerberg and Bob Jones also exercise religious authority and they also say that the Catholic Church's claim to authority is a fraud. So the first answer is not really much of an answer at all: The only way to identify John Paul II, and not Bob Jones, as a valid religious authority is to use some sort of "supra-authority" that can judge between them, and the same problems would still attend the task of identifying that "supra authority" as well. (This gives an apparent edge to people like John Ankerberg and Bob Jones, who claim that they have no authority, they're just telling you what God says in the Bible. That's an unintended sleight-of-hand on their part, since they really do believe that their teaching comes straight from Scripture without any human involvement. But McLuhan was right -- the medium is the message -- and so no one notices that Protestant confessions contradict each other on all kinds of vital matters because no one tries to join eight Protestant churches simultaneously).

The second possible answer is that the Catholic Church is a "religious authority" for some reason that doesn't involve observeable reality. In other words, we could just say that the Church is a religious authority because we've decided she should be. Sister suggests as much when she locates the Church's authority in our "allegiance" rather than in the structure of the universe. Locating the origin of authority (as distinct from the means of exercising authority) in popular allegiance is called positivism. The American legal establishment's fascination with positivism is what got us Roe v. Wade. No one wanted to obey the old laws which said we can't kill babies, and so no one thought those old laws had an enduring authority to which our personal "allegiance" was actually irrelevant. So Justice Brennan (a Catholic) and six of his Supreme Court brethren made some "statements about reality as we believe it to be" regarding unborn babies not being people, and ten thousand abortion clinics opened their doors "on the authority of the community and tradition to which we have given our allegiance." (Justice Byron White, an Episcopalian, and Justice William Rehnquist, a Lutheran, dissented in Roe). Positivism grounds authority on a democratic consensus ("Crucify him! Crucify him!") or the will of the stronger ("What is truth?"). Positivism is an outward lamb of legal process and civil order that inwardly rages with every dark and terrible lust known to man. Ground authority on "allegiance"? Not if my life depended on it, which actually it might since there's a family story that my great-great grandmother was a Jew.

It sounds like a paradox to modern people, but any authority worthy of the name depends on only one person's assent -- God's. Jesus was pretty direct when He spoke to Pilate about that: "Pilate therefore said to him, ‘You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?' Jesus answered him, ‘You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above . . .'" John 19:10-11 (RSV). For the Catholic Church, John Ankerberg, Bob Jones, or the Third Reich to have real authority, God would have had to confer it on them: "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God." Romans 13:1 (RSV). Is this a formula for dictatorship? Do we have to obey Hitler, revive prima nocte, or outlaw interracial dating? No, because God grants authority for His purposes, not ours, and we must always "obey God rather than men." Acts 5:29 (RSV). Yes, this opens up a whole can of worms about when to obey human authority and when to obey divine teaching. But it looks like our Lord wanted that can opened: "Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." Mark 12:17(RSV). That was a kindness, really -- it sure beats the alternative, which is mindlessly worshiping Caesar and ignoring God altogether. I'd rather have that can of worms than have to ground my salvation on the confused marriage of popular consensus and ipse dixit offered by Sister's definition of ecclesiastical authority.

I'm wondering if Sister's way of thinking has anything to do with the phenomenon of young Catholics who go through year upon tedious year of CCD and become Protestants the minute they start getting serious about religion. First off, it's hard to think of God's existence as just a mutual truth statement you accept from a community you like a lot while simultaneously believing He is strong, terrible, and wonderful enough to make immutable laws that dictate the terms of your own happiness. It would be much easier to think that He's an easygoing sort who's more eager for your approval of His marginalized and unverifiable set of "faith statements." It would therefore, be much easier to sink into worldly chaos and spiritual misery that is far more terrible, and far more real in experience, than all those "faith statements" which might or might not have been true in the first place. Imagine the grateful shock which such a mis-educated Catholic must experience when a Protestant enters his personal abyss of suffering and insists (a) that the Bible is really, actually true; (b) because it's really, actually, written by God Himself; and (c) there is a way to be really and truly happy which involves rejecting everything the Catholic Church teaches. It would be pretty hard for our imaginary Catholic not to accept that without reservation -- and, come to think of it, why shouldn't he accept it? It's not as though Sister's Catholicism is offering something more likely to bring him happiness, or bring him closer to the truth.

We human beings have an ingrained habit of putting our way of seeing reality into words, including religious words, that bind us together and that can be handed on from one generation to the next. As our perception of reality deepens with our experience of life, the words may take on a richer and more subtle reality, which we may express in additional statements.

This whopper, like the one right before it, shows us how Sister's confusing the process of belief with the truth of a belief results in an approach to religion that is entirely subjective, even solipsistic. Of course it's true that human beings often address themselves to observable facts which provide motives of credibility, good reasons for believing something which can finally be accepted by the supernatural grace of faith. So Aristotle looked at the universe and came to the true conclusion that God exists. But he didn't come to the conclusion that this God is a Triune God who became man and died for the salvation of mankind, because that takes (a) revelation, which he didn't have, and (b) supernatural faith, which he wasn't granted. That process of reasoning and response to grace and revelation is what all human beings go through in order to believe that Jesus as God, that the Catholic Church is His Church, that His mother was immaculately conceived, and so on. But collapsing a description about whether, or how, the Catholic faith is true into a description of the human process of knowing and believing the Catholic faith has the Church making up a plastic God who's not really worth knowing. If God is really who the Church says He is, then the reality He created can't become "richer and more subtle." God created the solar system, for example, just as He created it. His act of creation doesn't become "richer and more subtle" just because Bellarmine's happened to read Galileo's Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief Systems of the World. If God is who the Church says He is, then He doesn't develop, becoming richer and more subtle as the generations pass. What can and does develop is the richness and subtlety of our understanding of God and the reality He's actually created.

That's an important difference. It's the difference between God as a subject and God as an object, between a God we invent and a God we can marry. If men are looking for salvation, then they don't want give allegiance to truth-statements -- they want to find and know the truth Himself. They don't want communal fellowship -- they want saving admission into a heavenly company. They don't want ideas which match their opinions about reality -- they want the real indwelling of an actual divinity. Such men may very well get truth, salvation, and divine indwelling by means of their journeying, communities, and faith statements. But to tell such men that there's no difference between the means and the end is to cripple them, or incline them to leave the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church has nothing to offer men who seek a horizontal existence of progressive erudition and comfortable fellowship. She can only feed men who want God Himself. Suggesting otherwise either encourages men to become unworthy of themselves, or to believe that the Church is unworthy of their time.

For example, believers in the first Christian centuries grappled with ways to express their understanding of Jesus Christ because their biblically based beliefs were questioned by new believers whose way of thinking was set out in the categories of Greek philosophy rather than the categories of biblical story theology. One result of centuries of such grappling is the Nicene Creed . . .

Now I think this is very odd indeed. Sister started off with defining faith in a way that based virtually every truth -- from the color of the sky to the existence of God -- on the authority of a community. One would, therefore, anticipate Sister's view of these controversies as the early Christians' involvement with their community's authority when new believers began questioning the community's beliefs. But Sister doesn't say that. Instead, she veers off in another direction, telling us that the real struggle had to do with the early Christians' "biblically-based beliefs." How is it that our Catholic beliefs are based on the authority of a human community, but the early Christians' beliefs were based on something else, namely the Bible? Maybe the Protestants and the skeptics have their finger on the answer when they say the Catholic Church abandoned the Bible's simple perspicacity for the "traditions of men" which, as Sister's already told us, are just statements that the Catholic Church orders us to believe without any proof whatsoever. Have we stopped believing in the Bible, then? If we have, that's yet another reason to reject the Church in favor of something, um, more definite, like the breath of the Holy Spirit in Scripture.

It might come as a shock to Sister that what her readership would call "biblically-based beliefs" -- beliefs held in tandem with a number of writings bound together in a single book whose divine authorship isn't questioned -- were unknown to these "early Christians." They had lots of writings, of course. They had the Old Testament, the Gospel of Luke, St. Paul's letters to the Corinthians, the Shepherd of Hermas, the Didache, the Protovangelium of James . . . . . There were lots of holy books circulating around the Mediterranean world during the first three centuries of Christian history. Some of them, like the Shepherd of Hermas and the Protovangelium, were read in Church just like the Gospels. Others, like the two alleged Gospels of Thomas, the Death of Pilate, and the Dance of Jesus, weren't so popular, although they also had their proponents among "early Christians." The earliest list of "biblical" books is the Muratorian Canon which dates from about 170 A.D. It includes the Gospels, of course, but leaves out 1 & 2 Peter, the letter of James, and Paul's letter to the Hebrews. It also says there is an ongoing argument about whether the Apocalypse of St. John is Scripture. Eusebius, a bishop who lived about the time of Nicea, gives his own account of the "biblical" books which are, or are not, regarded as "biblical." He lists the Gospels and tells us that opinion is divided on whether the "so-called epistle of James and that of Jude, also the second epistle of Peter, and those that are called the second and third of John, whether they belong to the evangelist or to another person of the same name," are Scripture. He lists the Apocalypse of St. John as a disputed book, saying the list of Scriptural books should include "if it really seem[s] proper, the Apocalypse of John" but that "among the rejected writings must be reckoned . . . as I said, the Apocalypse of John, if it seem proper, which some, as I said, reject, but which others class with the accepted books." Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, Book III, Chapter 25.

No bishop arrived at Nicea carrying a King James Version or New American Bible under his arm. That's why the bishop's didn't claim the Church's authority rested on "the Bible." In the Creed they wrote for all Christians they said that the Church of Jesus Christ is "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic" -- "biblically-based" didn't even make the list. How could it, when parts of what we know as the Bible were rejected by some and accepted by others? The "early Christians," like today's Catholics, had something called Holy Tradition and Apostolic Succession:
In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them their own position of teaching authority. Indeed, the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time. This living transmission, accomplished in the Holy Spirit, is called Tradition, since it is distinct from Sacred Scripture, though closely connected to it. Through Tradition . . . Sacred Scripture is the speech of God as it is put down in writing under the breath of the Holy Spirit." "And [Holy] Tradition transmits in its entirety the Word of God which has been entrusted to the apostles by Christ the Lord and the Holy Spirit. It transmits it to the successors of the apostles so that, enlightened by the Spirit of truth, they may faithfully preserve, expound and spread it abroad by their preaching." As a result the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, "does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honoured with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence. Catechism of the Catholic Church, ¶¶ 78-81.

That's how the bishops at Nicea could teach authoritatively about the Holy Trinity and the divinity of Jesus Christ even though they didn't have what we today would call "biblically-based" Christianity. The dichotomy Sister's created between "bible believing" and "Church believing" doesn't actually exist. God gave us three things to guide our Christian walk -- apostolic succession, holy tradition, and sacred scripture. All three were given, and a faith community based solely on the Bible is only one-third of a church. If we are to think that the Church is a shifting and uncertain guide to the truth, while the private use of Scripture will always point us in the right direction, then let us think so only after the Protestant world has told us in one voice that abortion is actually a sin.

Another question that comes to mind is why Sister begins in first gear with faith being statements "about reality as we believe it to be," and then lead-foots it right past Tradition and Apostolic Succession to finally screech into the theological parking lot of sola scriptura's "biblically-based" theology? Perhaps sola scriptura and the idea of "reality as we believe it to be" might not be two opposed ideas, but only two points on the same line. Certainly they're congenial to the idea that ecclesiastical "authority" is an agreeable fellowship produced by our private judgment ("allegiance") about "reality as we believe it to be." Sacred Tradition and Apostolic Succession, on the other hand, make authority absolute and absolutely necessary. They make authority uncontrollable and undebatable in a way that just doesn't arise from a text's vulnerability to private interpretation and subjective judgment. Once you've heard Pius IX say, "I am Tradition," you'll be forever looking over your shoulder when you want to talk about the changing reality of God.

However, the creed's words condense subtle, sophisticated thought which the words might no longer communicate clearly to 21st-century believers — people no longer immersed in the Greek world.

Well, I'm sure the Orthodox will be surprised to know that they can't understand the Nicene Creed because most of them aren't Greek, and even the ones who are Greek aren't as "immersed" in the Greek world of Athanasius as Athanasius himself was. (Some Greeks even watch television, and hide over-the-counter allergy medicines under their chitons. It's true! I've seen it happen!). Contrary to Sister's suggestion, condensing subtle and sophisticated thoughts into words is rather the point of creeds. It's true that the condensation tends to reduce the fund of ineffability available to the heterodox, but some believe that price is worth paying in order to preserve the faith of the Apostles. And I'm not sure, anyway, about the tacit suggestion that the Nicene Creed ought to be traded in for a new Creed that's more relevant, more sensitive, to the needs of 21st-Century Christians who just can't relate to Aristotle, Plato, St. Athanasius, St. Gregory Nazianzen and St. John Chrysostom. The old "incomprehensible" Creed seems to be holding its own: "We believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of Heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen." Now I admit that the Nicene formula doesn't embrace Sister's subtle and sophisticated thoughts about how we're actually making a statement about ‘God, who is as we believe Him to be, creator of a reality which becomes richer and more subtle . . . .' But then I'm an awful ultramontanist, and so I don't find that to be a serious flaw in the creed for which Catholics have lived, bled, and died for seventeen centuries.

Therefore, resources such as the Catechism of the Catholic Church elaborate on the creed's words in ways that both introduce us to the riches of our tradition and connect with our contemporary understanding.

Are we sure about that? We've already seen that the Nicene Creed doesn't clearly communicate with men who don't live in the Greek world of Athanasius. I'm reliably informed that neither John Paul II nor Christoph Cardinal Schönborn are Greeks; that the Pope was raised in 20th--Century Poland and the Cardinal in 20th-Century Austria; and, that neither of them was seen at the Council at Nicea carrying an New American Bible. So how can we be sure that John Paul II and Cardinal Schönborn understand a single darn thing about the Nicene Creed? The more so, since God and His reality might have changed in the intervening seventeen centuries, becoming more subtle and rich than the God addressed at Nicea. How can we be sure their Catechism is worth reading? Maybe it's just a statement of reality as they believe it to be?

As maturing believers, we use tools like the catechism to expand our understanding of the truths of faith that we share.

I'll bet ten dollars there's a resume on file at ICEL.

In that sense, we both have the truths as we first received them and yet go on discovering facets of these truths all our lives. The popularity of adult religious study programs and publications shows how valuable we find this discovery process.

I can go with this, I suppose, except for all that other stuff about how our maturing faith is actually a manifestation of our ipse dixits about an ever-changing reality. If that's what goes on at religious study programs, then it seems to me the only text worth reading in them is "FRONT TOWARD ENEMY."

The true measure of its success, though, is how faithfully we live what we believe. What we receive as truth shapes how we see reality and therefore how we act.

And that's exactly why I'm writing this, to warn the others.

When Pilate questioned Jesus about truth, Jesus did not answer directly. Certainly the truth Pilate sought, if he was serious, was far too large for a couple of quick sentences uttered at a moment of crisis.

But Jesus had answered Pilate directly: "My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight, that I might not be handed over to the Jews; but my kingship is not from the world. . . . You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice." John 18:36-37 (RSV). That sounds pretty complete and direct to me. I suppose Jesus could have used no more breath, time, or energy to say: "Well, you can't tell it by looking at me, but I am a logos which right now matches reality as some believe it to be. But I can also change, becoming richer and subtler so long as you can immerse yourself in the Greek world of Aeschylus and Euripides." But I don't think that answer would have troubled Pilate as much as the one Jesus did give him. (See John 19:8).

As faith deepens, we too come to recognize that "truth" is somehow more than a matter of statements that match and define reality. Reality at its fullest escapes even the best of our words.

As the Godfather said, "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!" For just a minute there I thought Sister was going to peck at her shell of solipsistic traditionalism and linguistic skepticism until she broke through to the reality-which-is. Alas, her neck sore, she stops pecking and leaves reality-which-is to a realm of ineffable, uncommunicable mystery that lies just on the other side of the white wall.

Good poets and faithful theologians alike know that their words open doors into the reality we call God and into God's work in the world, but do not capture them.

Yes, but good heresiarchs know that too. Ever read Serguis' letters to Honorius? The imprecision and conventionality of language is an icy bridge, not a drivers' license.

The mystery in which we "live and move and have our being," as St. Paul called it, both shapes and escapes even the most brilliant of the concepts we use to describe truth.

The "mystery" St. Paul refers to is actually a God-Man who has a name. It's Emmanuel, which means "God with us," and not "the mystery which no one can understand at all." Likewise, the Triune God has a name. It is "I AM WHO AM," and not "I AM A STATEMENT THAT MATCHES REALITY AS YOU BELIEVE IT TO BE." When you swaddle religious truth up in literary deconstructionism, or literary constructionism, or whatever kind of structionism is popular in the faculty lounge this year, you inevitably reduce God from the aspect of a Person to the aspect of a Concept. A concept can be played with, hypothesized about, even obeyed and respected -- but only a Person can be lived for, loved, and died for. "No one, I say, will die for his own calculations; he dies for realities. This is why a literary religion is so little to be depended upon; it looks well in fair weather, but its doctrines are opinions, and, when called to suffer for them, it slips them between its folios, or burns them at its hearth." John Cardinal Newman, Secular Knowledge not a Principal of Action.

The path into the heart of mystery passes through the imagination, that all-important human faculty for putting the world together in a coherent whole; mind, heart and soul all have room to breathe in the facets of what we might call "imaginative truth."

"Room to breathe in facets" -- make that twenty dollars. The human ability to imagine is one of the greatest potential obstacles to true faith. Remember that antiquated doctrine called the Fall? I won't repeat Frank Sheed's discussion of imaginary obstacles to belief in his wonderful Theology and Sanity, but I'd urge anyone who hasn't read it to do so. "Imagination" and "truth" don't go hand in hand; imagination can serve truth, but equalizing the two and coming up with a special kind of truth ("imaginative truth") is like inventing a scanner-refrigerator-cuisinart -- it may do some things some of the time, but will do none of them very well.

"Imaginative" does not mean "imaginary."

How can you tell the difference? Maybe you're just imagining things as you believe them to be? Or perhaps you're just believing things as you imagine them to be? Maybe Harvey's actually ghost-writing your column?

It is that dimension of genuine truth to which we gain access not only by conceptual words but also by the biblical poetry of speech and silence, statement and song, bread and wine, oil and water, gestures of prayer and peace, postures of proclamation and adoration that make up our liturgical worship.

The only real problem I have with this is that it doesn't, well, mean anything. What is "genuine truth" for Sister except "statements about reality as we believe it to be," but which we "can't prove" and which can only be accepted "on the authority of the community and tradition" to which we have, for whatever reason, "given our allegiance."? Gestures, postures, talking, singing, oil, bread, wine, water, whatever. They're just statements of the same sort, and even the very "real reality" to which they might point (if, of course, we choose to accept their directive power on the authority of a community we like very much and pay no attention to the fact that we can't understand them because they were all part of the "Greek world" inhabited by Homer) is a mysterious nimbus of ineffability that escapes even "the most brilliant of the concepts we use to describe truth." If this is religion, then give me science, neo-fascism, Star Trek fandom -- anything that more closely resembles a world where truths are supposed to be true no matter what anyone happens to think about them.

Ultimately, Jesus did answer Pilate indirectly. Jesus, God's invincible love for all humanity — enfleshed among us — redefined all reality by his life, death and resurrection. He himself, he said, is the Truth — the truth of God and the truth of humanity undistorted by sin.

Well now, are we sure about that? "Jesus," "God," "death," "resurrection," "sin" and so forth are just unproveable statements about things "as we believe them to be," that we accept only as a result of our allegiance to a human community but which can change their meaning and become somehow richer and subtler in their ability show us that whatever we think we believe is in essence an unknowable, ineffable, inexplicable quiddity. You know, the interesting thing about mystics, the real ones like St. Catherine or Ann Catherine Emmerich, is how vivid their writings are. You don't read Sister Faustina saying "I had, well something to do with a sort-of intuition about someone who is, well, sort of wonderful" and you don't read Julian of Norwich saying "I saw a kind of imagining about an indescribable thing and it escaped me utterly. I'm so happy!" Contact with God is supposed to enlighten men, not introduce them into a permanent state of blessed sensory-deprivation that makes all talk about truth into nonsensical "allegiance-babble."

As we grow in our relationship with God in Christ through study, through sacraments and prayer, through a life patterned on the Gospel, we grow in our knowledge of this living Truth, who is a person.

Same point about saying that the "living Truth is a person." It's just a statement, you know, which can change and leave behind the antiquated paradigms of Greek philosophy . . . .

This Truth grounds all other expressions of the truth, whether conceptual or imaginative.

That Truth being the ineffable mystery of unknowable somethingness that can't be proved but which we make statements about on the authority of the church as we like it right now, and great will be the fall of it. See Matthew 7:27.

We will never fully possess this Truth, though.

Not so. "The life of the blessed [in Heaven] consists in the full and perfect possession of the fruits of the redemption accomplished by Christ." Catechism of the Catholic Church ¶ 1026. "Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; that they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me." John 17:20-23. "This perfect life with the Most Holy Trinity - this communion of life and love with the Trinity, with the Virgin Mary, the angels and all the blessed - is called "heaven." Heaven is the ultimate end and fulfillment of the deepest human longings, the state of supreme, definitive happiness. To live in heaven is "to be with Christ." The elect live "in Christ," but they retain, or rather find, their true identity, their own name. For life is to be with Christ; where Christ is, there is life, there is the kingdom." Catechism of the Catholic Church, ¶¶ 1024-25.

It would be fine and right for Sister to have said that we can't know all of God as He knows Himself, but that's not what she's saying, because "that they may be one, even as we are one," is just a statement that matches reality as we believe it to be on the authority of the community we like right now. For her, truth is an ineffable unknowable "somethingness" that escapes our understanding because we have this bad language habit and Heaven doesn't fully resemble either Mount Olympus or Mount Athos. Try feeding that into Pascal's Wager and see what looks like the more attractive decision.

On the contrary, our greatest hope is that this Truth will one day fully possess us.

But if we can't know the Truth, then how will we know we're possessed by it? Thank God I wasn't raised a Catholic. If I'd had this stuff spooned into me through thirteen years of parochial school and CCD classes, I'd either be thumping a Bible or tapping on a syringe. Pilate got the straight stuff from Jesus and still asked "What is truth." Is anyone who gets taught this pablum going to be less likely to ask the same question? Or have the same reaction as Pilate? I doubt it.