Fr Billy Swan
I listened recently to a religious and social commentator who contrasted the approaches of atheists and Catholics to winning over people to their persuasion and the success of each group. He concluded: ‘While Catholics today are trying to hug people into the Church, atheists are trying to argue people out of it. It is a battle the atheists are winning hands down’.
There is something about this observation that strikes me as dead right. For all believers, it raises the concern that in recent decades, the Irish Catholic Church in particular has emphasized the experiential, the welcoming and the feel-good factor to such an extent that it has under appreciated the art of making a firm and compelling argument to defend its doctrine and position. It has also wavered in her confidence to stridently meet the many objections and doubts that arise in people’s minds. Could it be that we have underestimated people’s intelligence regarding their understanding of the faith? Have we resorted to a ‘banners and balloons’ spirituality that is divorced from the content and substance of the faith? Have we arrived at a point where feelings trump truth as we back off tough questions, hoping to avoid conflict and to be nice to all? If this is true then the power of the Gospel is put on a leash, the cutting edge of the Word of God is blunted and the message we proclaim has lost its salt.
Bishop Robert Barron, founder of ‘Word on Fire Catholic Ministries’, constantly appeals to all in the Church to ‘STOP DUMBING DOWN THE FAITH!’. He criticizes what he calls a ‘beige Catholicism’ that was in vogue when he was coming of age after the Second Vatican Council. By this designation, he means a faith that had become culturally accommodating, hand-wringing, unsure of itself; a Church that had allowed its distinctive colors to be muted and its sharp edges to be dulled. This retreat into a weakened missionary impulse, forced upon us because of scandals, secularism and other forces at work, is not in keeping with the missionary impulse called for by Vatican II and repeated by successive Popes such as St John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and now with Pope Francis. Nor is it consistent with the great minds and thinkers of the Church’s great Tradition who did not hesitate to robustly engage with objections to the implications of faith. The approach of St Thomas Aquinas comes immediately to mind who, in his Summa Theologiae, anticipated the strongest objection to a faith premise and answered this himself in a thorough manner. Such a method displayed both a respect for the doubter and a confidence in the Gospel’s power to meet objections and answer doubts.
The Gospel this weekend urges the Church to return to this missionary boldness and suggests that we need to pay much more attention to people’s doubts and take them seriously. In that Gospel, we find the wonderful story of doubting Thomas’ encounter with the risen Christ. There is something about Thomas that all of us can identify with. He is the honest skeptic who doubts the witness of the other Apostles who claim to have seen the Lord. His doubts are understandable for they concern the rising of a man from the dead. Thomas knows how Jesus died and so he says: ‘Unless I see the holes that the nails made in his hands and can put my finger into the holes they made and unless I can put my hand into his side, I refuse to believe’.
Then, eight days later, Jesus appears again to the Apostles and this time Thomas is present (note the significance of the risen Lord encountering the Apostles on a Sunday and when they are gathered in community). Jesus approaches Thomas and allowed him to fulfill the conditions he outlined so that his doubts might be dispelled. He allows him to touch his wounds. Then follows the most profound confession of faith in Christ ever made when Thomas says: ‘My Lord and my God!’
This episode is highly significant for it shows how Jesus did not scold Thomas for his doubts. Nor did he ignore them. In fact, he respected them and lovingly moved to answer them. Could this be a model for how the Church should approach the doubters and skeptics today, even within the Church itself? If this is the case then, like Christ, the Church ought to proactively approach questions of doubt with much sympathy for the doubter whose questions we are called to understand and consider in the light of the Gospel. In this way, the Church doesn’t only hug people into the faith but argues, persuades, questions and engages people into the ranks of those who have doubts but who also believe.
Consider for example the doubt that is as old as faith in God himself: ‘If God is all good, all powerful and all knowing, why does he allow the innocent to suffer?’ We might remember the rant by Stephen Fry with Gay Byrne a few years ago on the programme ‘The Meaning of Life’. When Fry was asked what he would say to God if he met him after death, Mr Fry didn’t hold back with the problem of suffering and how any God could allow it.
But here again, the Gospel of Jesus’ encounter with Thomas helps us understand, more fully but not completely, how suffering can be reconciled with faith in a loving God. By showing him his wounds, Jesus made Thomas realise that enduring these wounds was necessary in order to get close to us and redeem us. Into our darkness, suffering, pain, weeping and wondering, Jesus entered and suffered with us and for us. Love is why he came and love is why he suffered. In the words of St Bernard of Clairvaux, when we look at a crucifix, Christ’s wounds appear to us as lips that speak the words ‘I love you’. Here is no sentimental love but one that is profound, deep and suffers for the one he loves. No matter how deep our darkness, into this descends Christ with his light. Suffering is not the context that explains the cross; rather the cross is the context that explains suffering. Christ did not come to take suffering away but to fill it with his presence. And because he did, human suffering is no longer external to God. This is why Thomas and the early Christians were moved to faith by the love that overwhelmed them, where the God who made the universe lowered himself to the depths of our human condition in order to offer hope and redemption. This was why Thomas was moved to cry out to Christ having touched his wounds: ‘My Lord and my God!’ So, when it comes to the problem of suffering, God is not off the hook but rather on the hook. God is not the opposite of suffering but allowed himself to become the victim of suffering through his Son. God himself has answered the objection of suffering not in words but in deeds. Jesus is the tears of God.
The problem of suffering is just one of the many objections being levelled at Christianity today. Armed with the Scriptures, the two thousand year wisdom of the Church, distilled through the Fathers, the saints, the martyrs, the doctors, the mystics and the prophets, we have the necessary resources to face these objections and doubts with the same spirit as Jesus approached Thomas lovingly and met his doubts head on. May this approach bear the same fruit in moving people to faith in Christ crucified and risen as we make St Thomas’ profession of faith our own: ‘My Lord and my God!’ May we dumb down the faith less and believe in it more.