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Hold on to your faith

Greg Yatarola | Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Though I graduated just eight years ago, I often feel very old compared to today’s undergrads. It seems things were much different when I was in school. For example, “Saturday Night Live” was very funny.

One skit I remember was something like “Civil War History as told by high-school dropouts.” I think it was Chris Farley who described how the South won one battle with neo-Nazis and ninjas.

That skit’s probably a fitting metaphor for what I say or write – going in way over my head trying to look smart. But this time I’m really out of my depth. I’ll go ahead anyway, though, and if I’m totally wrong, maybe I’ll at least be ridiculous.

There’s been a spate of new books recently attacking religion. “The God Delusion” and “God is NOT Great” come to mind immediately, but there’s more. I won’t pretend I’ve read any, but I’ve seen a few interviews of Christopher Hitchens, who wrote one of them.

A favorite pose of his, and one I’ve come across often, is that inasmuch as faith is a crutch, a pacifier, “opiate of the masses” as Marx claimed, he and his kind are brave for their willingness to forgo such infantile supports as religion provides.

Not so. Sure, there are plenty of people for whom faith is nothing but a useful illusion. They pick their beliefs to suit themselves, discarding whatever they find unsettling, and turn belief into a kind of emotional experience. But this is not the Catholic faith.

Put simply, faith is arduous. It’s not just an easy assent to simple propositions. The doctrines our Church proposes for belief surpass – but don’t contradict – our limited reason. We can never fully understand them. That’s why we can’t just rest our minds peacefully in them as we can, say, in theorems of geometry – which, once demonstrated, cause no unrest. Faith does cause mental restlessness, though, as the mind tries to wrap itself around truths which, by their nature, cannot be wrapped around by created intellects. So belief entails not an easy acceptance of the mysteries of our faith, but a tenacious clinging to them.

A main component of this tenacious clinging is prayer. Being an imperfect form of knowledge, faith requires that we regularly call to mind and make present to ourselves those realities which we can’t see or logically deduce, but which we profess nonetheless. This is one of the functions of prayer – for example, saying the Angelus. And as anyone who’s tried knows, prayer is work. Usually, I’d rather spend 10 minutes pedaling a stupid exercise bike than kneeling silently in the dark by my bed. The latter takes much more effort.

I’ve mentioned prayer because in some ways it’s equivalent to faith. Pray and you’ll believe, said Mother Teresa. But neither what she said nor what I’ve written should be taken to mean that we cause our own faith. Prayer isn’t self-brainwashing. Faith is a theological virtue, beyond man’s natural capacity, and is the result of God’s activity in our souls. As Catholics, we simply realize that we must correspond to God’s free gift of grace and not reject it.

When atheists accuse us of childishness, though, it’s not so much about the act of belief as about the contents. Now, it’d be beyond wicked of me to deny that there are profoundly consoling elements of our faith. God loves us so much that, after asking to be born of an innocent young virgin, He died on a cross for us. And God wants us to be happy for all eternity – made us for that very purpose.

Though all are created for beatitude, not all make it. And maybe that’s not altogether so dreadful. St. Thomas Aquinas speculated that one of the joys of the righteous will be knowing of the torments of the justly damned. I bet most of us can think of at least a few people we wouldn’t mind seeing in Dante’s rings. Ex-boyfriends/girlfriends, Stalin, Hitler, etc. I know I can. But then I remember – there’s no guarantee I won’t join them. Worse still, chances are I will. For the gospels seem to suggest (and so Sts. Augustine and Thomas Aquinas understood them) that not only are some people damned, but most are.

So the perdition of individual souls is eternal, but just probable. The ruin of this world, however, while not eternal, is certain. Our faith doesn’t tell us exactly how the world will look at the end, but we’re told we wouldn’t want to be around for it. As the great Catholic writer J.R.R. Tolkien put it, human history is one long, slow defeat. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work for good in this world. But we mustn’t kid ourselves – until Christ returns, the shadows will only lengthen. This truth, like the truth about our souls’ terrible peril, is one it takes more than a weak-souled coward to accept.

Atheists have their own tough row to hoe. It must be terrible facing the prospect of absolute annihilation, both of oneself and of one’s loved ones. I personally suspect many atheists would rather look forward to nothingness than to face judgment, but that’s my opinion. In any case, they have no right to accuse us of weakness for holding fast to our faith. Let’s not give them reason to.

Greg is a ’99 alumnus. He suggests the Victory March be replaced with Nirvana’s gender-neutral acoustic classic, ‘Jesus don’t want me for a sunbeam.’ You can reach him at gregpy@hotmail.com, but please don’t.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.