Monday, October 15, 2007

A Changing Environment

The last 10 to 15 years has seen an increase in the desire of the laity to know what we believe about our faith. In the past, Catholics really relied on the Priests to answer questions that involved anything other than the minimal understanding of the faith. It’s true that much of this still occurs, but a lot of progress has been made in this area. Stuff you all know I’m sure.

Items are in many ways “shaped” by the environment they exist in. Whether a tree, a duck, a rock, or an idea; outside conditions in some ways effect the characteristics which become more fully developed. A sapling that is planted next to a mature tree will not grow straight, but will bend in a direction away from the larger tree and toward the available sunlight. The tree will not invest as much energy in developing the side of it that sits in the shadow of the larger tree, but will put all the more energy into the side that is hit by the sun. Based on its environment, a part of itself has been given less attention while another has been given more.

In the last 500 years, the greatest environmental challenge the Catholic Church has faced has been from Protestants. We are now pretty familiar with their arguments and have a good idea of where to find most of the answers. Questions on items such as the Pope, Mary, the Eucharist, Purgatory, etc. which would have had us scrambling for cover are now much less frightening. But these questions are only “big” questions in a Christian environment. In an environment that assumes God exists, Jesus is his Son, and by his death salvation has been made possible. But is our environment changing?

As atheism, agnosticism, and Islam gain momentum in the world, the questions and challenges faced by the Church will change. Aspects of our faith we have taken for granted will now be challenged by a world that refuses to. Having answers to questions on matters where Catholicism and Protestantism is and will continue to be important, but so will be questions like how do we know God exists, how can three persons be one God, and how could Jesus be both fully man and fully God. A world where we cannot assume that Jesus is God, or even that God exists is a very different world than most of us are used to.

There’s a difference between knowing facts, like where a certain Catholic teaching can be found in the Bible, and understanding concepts behind those teachings. The Catholic Church has been blessed with a history full of intellectual and spiritual giants that many of us today are never exposed to. Let’s face it, for many reading page after page on the two natures of Jesus may not be appealing unless they feel the need to move beyond just belief. As the world around us changes, the need to move beyond belief does too.

So while the environment in which Christianity exists changes, it isn't uncharted territory. We can be encouraged that our faith in the first century was planted in a completely non-Christian environment and even against all odds thrived. And we can also be confident in the guidance of the Holy Spirit through the wisdom of our leaders. After all, the Pope's first encyclical and book were not aimed at issues that separate Protestant and Catholic (for example the nature of Baptism or man's justification), but at the very nature of God the Father (God is Love) and God the Son (Jesus of Nazareth).


Anonymous said...

Benedict XVI, writing Introduction the Christianity as Cardinal Ratzinger, touched on this. My slapshod version of his thinking is this.
Warning these statements are my understanding of the text. Please correct me if I am wrong.
The church has Dogma based on revelation (scripture and tradition) but also formed by theology and importantly philosophy. While it is understood that theology is speculative it must also be understood that dogma is not reality. It is a reflection, model or paradigm of reality. And as such subject to refinement. However, refinement of the model is not to mean that the reality has changed only our perspective or understanding of that reality. The church has always maintained that reality is to be found most fully in Christ and representing the reality of Christ to the world is the task of every believer from Pope to catechumen. Because the chief purpose of Christ is to redeem the world back to God the best way for us to represent that reality is to “be” redeemed back to God and to then model that redemption by sinning (not intentionally), repenting and being forgiven. The first 8 chapters of Romans is about this. In doing this we, not dogma, become the closest paradigm of reality.
Therefore, dogma and doctrine can not be applied mechanically because dogma and doctrine are not really the “thing”. Christ is and in Christ we are. This puts us in a scary place. I think the parable of the sheep and the goats is about this. Lord didn’t we correctly apply dogma in our living? Weren’t we careful to be orthodox in our thinking? Jesus response demonstrates that there must be something more than dogma. Yet, there is dogma because there is a reality that must be understood, but the philosophical assumptions of the age dictate how the model must change to best represent the reality to the world. Then Christians being formed in the image of Christ show the world the truth.
So, while I agree that we are not in theological or perhaps even philosophical uncharted territory, we are most certainly in uncharted “fullness or reality” territory. For you and for me this is uncharted territory. But you are right, we have the Spirit, the Church, our Blessed Mother, the saints, the fathers, each other, and the confidence to pray Our Father…

J. Thorp said...

Hmm. If reality is constant, but our perception can be refined, then we should never be too certain of how "right" we are, right? Such uncertainty and doubt doesn't negate faith, though -- in fact, without uncertainty, where's the need for faith?

There is a big difference between understanding a specific teaching of the church and understanding where it comes from, and I know that I should spend more time delving into the deeper thinking and scholarship behind the Church's various stances. But I also think there is an important link between this post and the "Bending (and Breaking)" post. It's true that we live in a changing world, full of worldviews that don't jive with our own. It is important that we continue to function as a Church in such a world -- and that we preserve a society that enables us to remain a Church. This requires (in my opinion, at least):

1) strict protection of free expression, religion, and individual rights -- how else do we ensure that we can continue our minstries?

2) collaboration with other groups (religious or otherwise) with which the Church doesn't agree on all issues without condoning wrong behavior or policy -- how else can we spread our message where it is needed?

3) extreme faith, such that we are not threatened in the face of falsehoods (or other versions of the same Truth) ...

As a Church, we're not in uncharted territory -- but I don't believe we've ever navigated this territory at our current velocity. We Catholics are justifiably proud of our history, philosophy and traditions -- but we cannot fall into the trap of becoming insular and caught in the past. For more than 2,000 years, the Church has evolved at a more deliberate pace than the rest of society, and rightly so. The problem today is that society is "progressing" steadily faster -- in a world with infinitely more information and knowledge and incredibly less wisdom and understanding, how do we maintain our deliberate pace and still catch up to those who most need what we have to offer?

(Yeah -- just re-read that ramble, and I'm not sure it makes any sense at all. But there you go.)